On a Thursday night in late July of 2011, I was at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival on the night before the festival was to begin. I was at a performance area called a€?The Loungea€? in the campground high above the midway.
Months later, in November, they would win a highly coveted formal showcase slot at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) Conference and also appear in Acoustic Livea€™s guerrilla showcase (and many others). We conducted a recent conference call with songwriters and group leaders Ethan and Jake that would reveal the source of the brains, talent and heart of Pesky J. In his sophomore year of high school, Ethan started running a€?coffeehousesa€? out of his parentsa€™ house (with their consent).
Ethan wrote a little of his own material, but focused more on learning as many Ellis Paul and Martin Sexton songs as he could, plus some acoustic versions of pop material. From seventh grade through high school, Jake was always in the school choruses and orchestra. Jakea€™s first attempt at solo songwriting occurred as he was riding a ski chairlift and was about a girl he was dating.
Jake had a checkered college career at Brandeis University, enrolling and dropping out, then re-enrolling and dropping out again. After leaving college, Jake spent time singing a€?semi-professionallya€? with the a cappella groups Altavoz for two years and Six Appeal (later renamed Playback), also for two years. In the spring of 1998 Jake had left Brandeis again but Spur of the Moment a€?quietlya€? kept him on until they could hold auditions. Emerging from the heart of Red Sox Nation, the band chose its name from three Red Sox icons.
Another member joined the group when Ethan decided that he, Dan and Jake should attend the a€?Americana Ensemblea€? music classes that Boston folk club Passim runs once each week. Two years ago, Pesky played its first show at Passim with the Wea€™re About 9 duo (Brian and Katie). After 2009, the year of the near-tornado touchdown at Falcon Ridge, artistic director Anne Saunders needed to shorten the festival from four days a€” Thursday through Sunday a€” to three days a€” Friday through Sunday.
Ethan credits Scott Jones as the a€?technical masterminda€? behind pulling off The Lounge stage. Scott had heard about the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival from Ethan and Jake and decided to attend with his wife and five children, setting up camp with the Pesky J.
Ethan hopes to become more involved in community action using what he calls a€?tribal mischief,a€? a formal and informal art of social engineering.
On a Thursday night in late July of 2011, I was atA  the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival on the night before the festival was to begin.
Jake had a checkered college career at Brandeis University, enrollingA  and dropping out, then re-enrolling and dropping out again. An ethereal blend of two voices, guided by fate to find each other, travels the wire from iTunes to earbuds and into my ear canal a€” so exquisite, ita€™s almost unbearable. Hannah and Maggiea€™s almost unearthly harmonies evoke descriptions like a€?Simon and Garfunkel crossed with the Indigo Girls.a€? Indeed, they have been included in a number of Simon and Garfunkel tributes.
When Hannah was around 10, there was an electric guitar sitting in the living room, a leftover from one of her fathera€™s stage roles. The drama club would host coffeehouses every first Friday and that was where Hannah first performed solo, singing her songs and accompanying herself on guitar.
Maggie was in chorus, but switched her energies to forming rock bands when she was still in middle school.
Although Hannah earned a degree in American Studies with a focus on Race and Ethnicity and Maggie in Comparative Literature with a focus on English and Spanish Literature, it would be music that defined their path going forward. The house to which Hannah was assigned was an old, Victorian-style residence (the oldest on campus) that, at 50 coeds, was smaller than most. At some point they harmonized on one anothera€™s songs and some friends suggested that they sing together. Hannah graduated in 2011 and moved to New York City, with Maggie still having one year left. In January of 2012, they recorded their second album, the aforementioned Muscle & Bone, and released it in May. Hea€™d come backstage to change costumes and she would witness the transformation of her father to an actor with a€?elaborate costumes and crazy makeup.a€? She absorbed the idea that investing onea€™s time into performance and the arts was a valuable thing. Maggiea€™s dad was happy that she was playing acoustic, and wasna€™t thrilled that her goal was to play rock. There was a broad range of types of performance, ranging from poetry and music (Hannah would sing and play guitar) to displays of visual art or even hair styling. In 2010, Hannaha€™s junior year, they sat down to play music together working on covers and originals. Hannah graduatedA  in 2011 and moved to New York City, with Maggie still having one year left. In January of 2012, they recorded their second album, the aforementioned Muscle & Bone, andA  released it in May. Onstage, performers ecstatically sang songs round-robin, as much for each other as for the 450 festival-goers in front of them. It was the second year it was being held, but I had no idea what Ia€™d find after picking my way up the hill in the dark. A song from that CD, a€?Breathe in Autumn,a€? was a haunting reverie, with layers of harmonies and soaring instrumentation that echoed in the mind far past its last notes. In his sophomore year of high school, he started his own a cappella group that he named a€?Swingtown.a€? That continued until he graduated in 1998.
His early experience with music included piano instruction when he was 5, with a a€?severe teachera€? not unlike Miss Havisham in Dickensa€™ Great Expectations.
He went over the verses and chorus in his head all day as he went up and down the mountain. His primary focus was singing with the universitya€™s a cappella group, Spur of the Moment. Not a student, he was technically not allowed to be a member of the group, but he was too valuable to let go, so they kept him on.
Nixon has been working with a non-profit called the SAMFund, a foundation that raises money for young adult cancer survivors to help them pay their post-treatment bills.
Seeking to meet other musicians, Anthony da Costa, Abbie Gardner and, coincidentally, Chris Oa€™Brien, whose CD Ethan had produced, came upon the Pesky campsite.


A former radio DJ with an engineering background, Scott was the startled next-door neighbor of Ethana€™s parents when Ethan brought the a cappella singers home (he was deathly afraid hea€™d moved next to a frat house).
Nixon album, named Red Ducks (a€?reduxa€?), is a collection of songs of the musicians that the band has performed with and been influenced by over the last four years, featuring songs by artists such as Anthony da Costa, Gillian Welch and Tom Waits.
Hannah Hickok and Maggie Kraus, a lesbian folk-pop duo, look at all the facets of living a€” loving, losing, friendship a€” as if peering through a microscope, taking the facets apart and reassembling them with delicate, faerie fingers. In a perfect world, I think their articulate expression of lives so sharply felt and lived could change a listenera€™s DNA. Her parents were actors but her mother quit the theater when Hannah was born in favor of another career path. In addition to the exposure to Broadway musical theater tunes, folk revival classics like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were played often. She was a member of the all-female and coed a capella groups and the chorus all four years of high school. After learning the basics, she and a small group of other campers performed for everyone in camp. Shea€™d coax boys into being members of her bands, selecting roles for them (a€?OK, Brian, youa€™re gonna play drumsa€¦a€?), regardless of their lack of experience. She hated the results and invested in an MBox, a portable computer recording interface (with mic and instrument ports) for computers. Hannah ran the coffeehouse events each month with few exceptions, and with even more regularity when she was house president in her junior and senior years. So Maggie visited Hannah regularly at Hannaha€™s campus residence and found the vibe relaxed and inviting, more so than her own residence. At the end of the summer they completed a two-week Northeast tour, their first extended travel on the road. After Maggie graduated they embarked on their first national tour, jumping from Portland, Maine to Nashville to Salt Lake City. We were thrilled to include them in our late-night guerrilla showcase at the 2013 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference and wea€™re eager to help them promote their new album. There was a€?nothing much to do except listen to music on the stereo.a€? He listened to Dylan, The Beatlesa€™ Sergeant Peppera€™s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Best of Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapina€™s Gold album. Also during that time, he heard a live folk act for the first time at the Me and Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead, Mass.
By the end of high school, there were 70 to 80 in attendance and performances went on from 5:30 until midnight. Hea€™d left the first time, worked odd jobs back home, then went back for a year and then dropped out again.
In the fall of a€™98, he didna€™t have a vote, but was asked to give his opinion during auditions. As Ethan described her, a€?She had a wry and sarcastic sense of humor and, at the same time, she was a fierce member of the songwriting community in western Massachusetts.a€? He continued, a€?I started volunteering as sound guy at the open mics and the two of us became close friends. The child of a bassist father and drummer mother, Dan studied bass and drums for almost 10 years before focusing his attention on percussion when he reached college.
Ethan talked Eric into joining them in the studio while recording Monkey Business & Mislaid Hopes, then got him to join the band. From that point forward, Pesky received a lot of airplay for Monkey Business from Bostona€™s premier folk radio station, WUMB-FM, raising its profile even higher.
The album is a stripped-down living room recording offering a more intimate sound than Monkey Business & Mislaid Hopes while maintaining the same energy and humor. There was a€?nothing much to do except listen to music on the stereo.a€? HeA  listened to Dylan, The Beatlesa€™ Sergeant Peppera€™s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Best of Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapina€™s Gold album. Because Hannah and Maggie plunge a rapier of emotional honesty into the psyche, the listener might become a better person, more empathetic.
She performed in musical plays a€” her first was when she was 5 a€” and was in chorus all through grade school and high school. He taught her how to play The Beatlesa€™ a€?Blackbird,a€? the first song she ever learned on guitar.
She always liked music and, like Hannah, she was exposed to folk revivalists James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.
There was supposed to be an a€?officiala€? staged performance at the end of the camp session, but it never happened. In 2001, Maggie was 11 going on 12 when, with her own allowance, she bought the Fender Stratocaster that she still occasionally plays.
In high school, tired of wrangling other students into supporting her, she returned to acoustic guitar and performed with two friends as an acoustic trio. Using her acoustic guitar, she began making her own digital recordings of songs using Pro Tools software. There was a large living room where everyone would gather together at teatime once a week on Fridays. Shea€™d roam the halls, listening for good voices singing, perhaps idly, that she might recruit for the a capella group.
Toward the end of Maggiea€™s freshman year, there was an event where graduating seniors were given a send-off banquet. Later, in December, they opened for Dar Williams, an inspirational figure and thus, for them, their most notable performance to date.
As I approached the end of a long line of cars and tents, high up on the ridge, my jaw dropped as I saw the floodlights and a stage equipped with microphones, amplified instruments and a soundboard, all run by a generator.
Pesky was scheduled to play the festivala€™s Emerging Artists Showcase the next day and Ia€™d invited them to Acoustic Livea€™s unplugged showcases at our booth on Saturday afternoon. As luck would have it, he was seeing Ellis Paul, a songwriter capable of a high level of sophistication and a€?telling a story within a story.a€? It made a huge impact on what Ethan would expect from his own abilities. Talking about his parents, he said, a€?God bless them, I have no idea why they allowed me to do these things.
He cana€™t quite recall, but thinks he mighta€™ve gotten rapped on the knuckles with a ruler if his hands werena€™t positioned correctly. He said he a€?wasna€™t mentally prepared for college.a€? Oddly, his chosen major was psychology. She was the kind of songwriter who would write two fantastic songs a week and she just intimidated the heck out of me, but at the same time she was remarkably warm and nurturing when it came to helping folks bring out the songwriters in themselves. At the University of Pennsylvania, he sang with the Jewish a cappella group Ra€™nanah and performed Gilbert and Sullivan musicals with theA Penn Singers.


Back home, they were playing one show every four to five months at small cafes, just for the sake of having a gig. As soon as he heard their a cappella-honed harmonies, he said, a€?Let me introduce you around.a€? He then took them to meet all the key personalities in the campground.
When they decided to create The Lounge stage, Ethan and Scott pooled their equipment, the bulk of it coming from Scott. A case in point is the stark beauty of a€?Curfewa€? from their second album, Muscle & Bone.
Initially, shea€™d crank the sound up on a little amp, playing a€?awful musica€? in her bedroom.
At some point in high school, the computer crashed, taking hundreds of hours of recordings with it. When Hannah had settled in, she wanted to replicate the coffeehouses shea€™d experienced in high school, so she offered to organize a coffeehouse event at teatime one Friday per month.
We recommend a visit to their website, where their blog will provide more insight into their gentle, quirky humor as well as photographic glimpses of their adventures on tour. Toward the rear, on the outskirts of the audience, performers swarmed everywhere either waiting to go on or socializing in respectful, hushed tones. It produced a small, insular group of people who were really interested in learning about this stuff.a€? Ethana€™s at-home a€?coffeehousesa€? foreshadowed the type of gatherings that Pesky J. He wanted to quit after six months, but his mom convinced him to try studying with another teacher who had just moved to town and whose reputation included the term a€?wonderful.a€? She must have been, since Jake studied with her for the next 10 years. Recently he found an old notebook in the bench of the familya€™s piano in which hea€™d written songs during his teen years. On the second day of his freshman year, Ethan auditioned for Spur of the Moment and easily made the group. She kind of battered me into playing the open mic and after a while I started sneaking originals in when I thought no one was paying attention, but she could always tell. In his first studio experience, he provided percussion on a project with pop singer John Legend. Hannah wrote the song and sings the lead vocal with a call-and-response from Maggie in a passage near the end.
Her first performance was in sixth grade in a school function called a€?The Extreme Concert,a€? a faculty showcase she was allowed to enter. Nevertheless, she continued writing and performing at a lot of fundraisers, open mics, showcases and other school events.
Hannah, visibly moved, thought, a€?Wow, this girl knows what shea€™s doing.a€? The song is on their first album and Hannah stated that it has been a fan favorite and has won two songwriting awards. They were upset but not discouraged and committed wholeheartedly to continue playing together. Hannah wrote the song andA  sings the lead vocal with a call-and-response from Maggie in a passage near the end. They also got to meet Brian Gundersdorf, Katie Graybeal and Pat Klink of Wea€™re About 9, who came over to their campsite the next night.
It might simply be an unrequited love song, but it could easily describe a heartbreaking failed connection between two people, one who is gay and one who is straight or who is latently gay but not ready to accept a same-sex relationship. She took lessons in her first year of high school and then learned more on her own by figuring out how to play covers. Maggie quickly seized the opportunity to organize her own a€?unpluggeda€? coffeehouse events. This past summer, I attended the 2013 CT Folk Festival and saw them perform and introduce new contestants for the songwriting competition. Ethana€™s major in college was English Literature and Music Composition but, as Ethan explains it, his parents told him that his major was actually a€?a cappella.a€? There were enormous chunks of time spent practicing and the groupa€™s performances were frequent (three to four practices a week for three hours each and 15 performances per semester). Our plaster monkey butler Newman, that is in most of our press shots and the monkey of Monkey Business & Mislaid Hopes, is something I inherited from her. Ironically, it was Wea€™re About 9 that Ethan had pointed out as a model for Pesky when it formed a€” a€?Therea€™s this trio that writes great songs and sings great harmony.a€? a€” Ethan recalled saying a€¦ and here they were, soon to become their cohorts in a burgeoning career.
Hours were spent learning chords for songs she wanted to sing by researching guitar tabs on the Internet, figuring out how to play them. This past year also saw them begin recording their third album, In the Company of Strangers, their first with Purebred. This past year also saw them begin recording their third album,A  In the Company of Strangers, their first with Purebred. I had just gotten a big, warm introduction to the technical and community organizing skills of the group known as Pesky J. The group had to organize and arrange their own music and put out one CD every year (all self-funded). The day after she passed away she was published in Glamour magazinea€™s annual non-fiction writing contest [a heart-wrenching story of her battle with cancer]. During the following year, Pesky shared gigs with Anthony and Wea€™re About 9, doing four to five shows. Ethan took charge here, moving all 20 singers in the group into his parentsa€™ house to record in his home studio. As a cornerstone founding member of the group, Dan runs counter to the stereotypical view of drummers. Having gotten acquainted with Hannah in the Smiffenpoofs, Maggie had watched YouTube videos of her playing acoustic guitar and singing, so she invited Hannah to perform at her coffeehouse.
Having gotten acquainted with Hannah in the Smiffenpoofs, Maggie had watched YouTube videos of her playing acoustic guitar and singing, so she invited HannahA  to perform at her coffeehouse. Hea€™s their most organized member, keeping track of important logistics for practice and gigs. Hannaha€™s performance at Maggiea€™s residence would be the first time either witnessed the other playing live. Like a smack addict, I play the track again and again, nodding off over and over in rushes of aching, sweet melancholy.



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