Though Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 is the debut EP from Toronto’s Bria, you could look at the six-song collection as a reintroduction of sorts. As its title suggests, the record finds guitarists Bria Salmena and Duncan Hay Jennings gracefully remodeling tracks from the likes of Lucinda Williams and Waylon Jennings.
While the past few years have seen the pair playing as part of masked country crooner Orville Peck’s live band, Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 puts Salmena back on the mic as a frontperson (she also handles vocals in her and Jennings’ post-punk unit, FRIGS). And, in terms of Bria’s recent run of North American dates supporting UK alt-rockers Wolf Alice, the sets have Salmena once again toting a treasured – if temperamental – 1963 Epiphone Casino for the live show.
“It was nice to reintroduce myself to this guitar for these shows. I hadn’t played it live in, I’d guess, three years,” Salmena tells Guitar World, adding that these days she’s generally playing a Fender Stratocaster for Peck's sets.
“It’s an old guitar [the Casino] – a hollowbody, single pickup. You get the thing amplified and it gets wacky. It can be difficult to control, especially since I was playing in an open tuning for the set."
All the same, the warm and booming Casino also came through big on Cuntry Covers Vol. 1, a go-to choice for the guitarist whether strumming through a roots-rustic take on blues-folk figure Karen Dalton’s Green Rocky Road, or more echo-blown, western shoegaze treatments like their arrangement of Williams’ Fruits of My Labour.
“The nice thing about the Casino is it actually sounds stunning even when it’s not amplified. It’s got such a rich tone,” adds Jennings, who engineered the Cuntry Covers sessions. “I would mic an amp, but then I would also mic the guitar acoustically. For Green Rocky Road, that’s a big part of the guitar sound.”
Salmena played folk music in her teens, while Jennings grew up with country sounds coursing out of his father’s stereo; naturally, the guitarists have entertained the yee-hawing masses through countless high-profile tours with Orville Peck, most recently opening up for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden. While the western-tinged song selection of Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 seems like a natural pivot for the pair, the road to recording the collection was more happenstance than you might think.
As the world slowed to a crawl during the early months of the pandemic, Jennings and his partner Jamie McCuaig (whom sings on the EP) moved from Toronto to his aunt’s hobby farm in Hockley Hills, Ontario – a bucolic scene roughly 50 miles north of Canada’s largest metropolis. Around this time, Salmena was falling for the heart-tugging shuffle of Mistress Mary’s 1969 number, I Don’t Wanna Love Ya Now.
After speaking with Jennings about pandemic life, Salmena moved up to the farm to find “comfort and rest during a very stressful time.” Reunited at the Outside Inn, they began jamming on some old favorites, eventually cataloging the first few covers for the EP. “We just ended up releasing a covers album by accident,” Jennings explains. “We didn’t have lofty plans for it.”
As chickens roamed the farm grounds near a barn, the musicians set up shop in The Outside Inn’s living room to cut covers. Fruits of My Labour pairs Salmena’s wide-open washes of guitar reverb with Jennings’ lithe, sigh-worthy slide work; on Green Rocky Road, he blows up the rate on an old Boss CE-5 to give his Tele-driven lead “a weird warble”.
Overall, there’s a laid-back confidence to Bria’s debut EP, one that speaks to the innate kinship of Salmena and Jennings’ decade-long musical relationship (keeping things close, fellow FRIGS/Orville Peck bandmate Kris Bowering also drums on the record). Easing into the project with a few off-the-cuff covers likewise contributed to the ‘lax atmosphere.
“When you’re recording your own material, you’re hyper-aware. Your brain just puts a magnifying glass on everything,” Salmena suggests. “Whereas, when you’re recording someone else’s [material], there’s less pressure. If at any point I could feel that magnifying glass descending onto a cover we were trying to do, it was like, ‘No, no, no!’”
While both musicians are back living in Toronto full time, The Outside Inn has become a new outpost for Jennings and Salmena’s creativity. Their wiry FRIGS project, for instance, convened in the living room to track a forthcoming full-length and companion EP.
A Cuntry Covers Vol. 2 is in the works, as well. Bria have even begun writing originals, but Salmena hints at those songs straying from the country-western purview of the covers EP.
“Duncan and I aren’t pursuing a career in country music, if you catch my drift. I don’t think Cuntry Covers is necessarily country music, either. We’re just existing in our own world. We don’t give a fuck about [genres].”
- Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 is available now.