I came across von Grey as I was bopping around SXSW last month.
I immediately had to stop and find out: A. who their manager was, B. who their publicist was, and C., how I could talk to one of these extremely talented young ladies. Because, yes, they blew me away.
Consisting of four sisters (say that 10 times fast!) with the last name von Grey, the band is an Americana masterpiece. Not gimmicky, not cutesy, just pure talent that has been honed and worked on and molded into something special.
Hailing from Atlanta, the quartet consists of Kathryn, Annika, Fiona and Petra von Grey. Their self-titled EP melds folk, bluegrass and country and features mature songwriting and some extremely deft string-infused delights. It was recorded with Grammy award-winning producer/engineer Nick DiDia (Bruce Springsteen, Train, The Gaslight Anthem).
These young ladies have performed upwards of 200 shows in the past two years, from recurring residency tours at intimate venues throughout the southeastern US to supporting gigs with such artists as Sarah McLachlan. In 2012, they played a sold-out west coast tour with Lindsey Stirling, followed by an additional tour with Company of Thieves.
I had the pleasure of speaking to guitarist Fiona von Grey.
GUITAR WORLD: I understand you started playing piano and are classically trained. Did you learn privately or in school?
Actually, when we started, I was already home-schooled. My younger sister and I started at home, but I started on the classical piano and violin and they were both through private lessons. I went to school one year and I played with an orchestra. But other than that, all of my training and experience was through private lessons.
Are your parents musicians?
They’re actually not. They love music, and they got us started in classical music when we were all about 5 years old for the sole purpose of getting us into music early. You know, classical is so good for brain development when you’re younger. So, those were the two main reasons why they got us started. I think they enjoy our music now, but they didn’t teach us or anything like that.
I find it unusual that all of you are so accomplished as musicians, but your parents are not musicians. That’s very cool that they saw that value.
I think some people say we’re gifted with musical talent, and I believe we do have kind of a sense of music and of rhythm. But I think the main reason we can play together and learn stuff is just because we spend a lot of time with it and worked really hard and we used to practice a lot. Not as much now, since we’re touring, which is practice in itself, but we did practice so much when we were younger. It was about commitment and our parents making us.
What made you pick up the guitar in addition to those instruments?
It was actually my sister playing bluegrass music with a bluegrass instructor. They played banjo and mandolin, and they wanted to jam. There kind of had to be an acoustic guitar going with them. So I was like, “Well, I might as well just pick it up…” And when I did, I fell in love with it, and I converted all of my studies and time to guitar and learning that.
How long have you been playing guitar then?
Four and a half years.
What kind of guitar do you play? Do you have a specific instrument you like?
I play a Takamine, but when we were in the studio, I played an old vintage Martin, which was awesome. And then we did some of tracks a couple of weeks ago, and I played a vintage Gibson, which was also really sweet. So both of those guitars, at some point, I’d like to purchase.
I find sometimes when you do have the chance to play an instrument that has amazing action and a really nice setup, it influences how you play.
Oh, yeah, totally. And when you’re into it and you have an awesome guitar, you just feel so influenced to be more experimental with it.
Have you gone to your local guitar shop and played a million guitars?
Yeah. We live in Atlanta so we went to the big Guitar Center there, and I sat down and played a bunch of acoustics, and that was cool. I haven’t really made up my mind of what my dream guitar would be or anything. I still want to educate myself on how acoustic guitars are made, so I can speak the language when I’m trying to find what I really want. But yeah, I did that once and I’m still looking to do it a bunch more times until I get a feel for all the different guitars.
Do you feel like you still pull classical elements from your training into what you’re doing now?
I think for myself, not really as much, just because I wasn’t trained classically on a guitar, I actually started on electric. And my biggest influences were like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Really? So you can shred, too?
A little bit. I haven’t practiced that as much, but I like to do it in my free time. Anyhow, I know Annika and Kathryn, the two older ones, they play violin and cello, they definitely pull a lot from their classical training for parts, but also just using the technique from that. I think all of us, if we hadn’t learned classical, picking up new instruments would not be there, we wouldn’t be able to do it, because we wouldn’t have the technical abilities, you know?
Do you contribute to the writing process as well?
Yes. Annika and I do all the songwriting. We both write the music together. And then Annika goes and writes all the lyrics. I write all of the guitar. She writes on the piano. Once we have the song format and at least a melody, we bring it to the other two and they put in their parts, which is just as big a part of the song than everything else.
So with this EP, is this the first time you’ve gone into the studio to record?
It’s the first time we were in a major studio with a major engineer/producer. We had done some projects beforehand, but nothing to the scale of what we did last time.
What was your favorite part of doing that?
It was an awesome studio so you felt really inspired to really listen to sounds and you just had this atmosphere around you, which was really nice. And then we worked with Nick DiDia, who is such an amazing engineer and he has so many ideas and so many different sounds he had us try out. It was our first time really hearing extensive amps and sounds and all these sort of microphones and creative drumming and stuff like that. So it was really the first time we got into really experimenting with a lot of sounds. It was really a cool experience.
What’s up next for you?
We will be booking some time in the studio, because we have a bunch of songs we want to record, and we want to get out possibly another EP at some point so we’ll be focusing on writing a lot. I know in the summer we’ll look for a bunch of opportunities to play at least a couple of festivals or some mini-leg tours, that kind of thing.
Is there a particular song you really enjoy playing live?
There’s a song we play called “At Night,” toward the end of the set. It’s a more high-energy song and really fun. When you get the crowd to have some kind of energy, instead of playing ballads all the time, it’s really a cool experience to play that with an energetic crowd.
You guys are so young. Has it been challenging to get people to take you seriously, or has that not really been an issue?
At the beginning of sets you find that people kind of just look at you, and they don’t really get into the music that much even if they’re enjoying it. ‘Cause they kind of just look to see what it’s all about. So, it’s a little weird for us, But we try to make it all about the music. We hope to erase our age from everybody else’s mind by the end of the set.
Do you feel like you have to prove yourself as performer and guitarist?
When we go into venues, it’s so male-dominated. So at first it was weird, because we’re so short, and we’re little girls fitting in with these 35-year old men. But nowadays, I think, we’re just so used to it, we don’t even really think about it. So when someone else questions it, it doesn’t really matter to us because we usually come to venues with everything ready. We’re not very discombobulated or anything like that, so we have all of our stuff together, which I think, helps everybody take us seriously. We’re not coming in like, “Oh, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do now!”
Do you guys have some goals that you guys are hoping to accomplish in your music career?
I think our main goal is to try to reach as many people as we can, and to hopefully influence people to get into music or whatever they want to do and not feel pressured to do the traditional route of anything. We also would like to continue to tour and see different places that we would not be able to see otherwise. One of the things we kind of joke around with, but sort of are serious about: we love to play with different instruments, and we’ve been limited with the amount channels we have at venues.
Really, oh, that’s funny. You want to play at bigger venues with bigger boards.
Right. But I think the main goal is to have a lot of channels to mess around with stuff live and to get into whatever we want. That’s kind of a goal.
What kind of instruments would you want to add into the mix then?
We’ve been interested in technology and adding that influence to the sound that we have. There’s so many… it’s basically unlimited with all the sounds you get and loops and whatever you want. Plus, there’s an instrument called a didgeridoo that I would love to get and mess around with.
Yeah, we actually saw an artist whose name is Xavier Rudd. He plays the drums while he plays the didgeridoo. He’s from Australia and he has some really cool instruments. I think there are a lot of other instruments, too, but that was a random one that popped into my head!
Find out more about what’s next for these talented young ladies at vongreymusic.com.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.