Songwriters Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan were both at a musical crossroads when they met in 2011. Each was going nowhere fast in their hometown of Los Angeles, so they joined flat-picking forces and their harmonizing voices to form the Milk Carton Kids.
Four years later, they’ve got a Grammy nomination under their belts, and their fourth LP,
Monterey, is wowing Americana audiences across the country. The Milk Carton Kids play the Uptown Theater in Napa on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
“We did not want to make [Monterey] in the studio,” says Ryan. “We feel a little stifled in the studio—a heightened sense of pressure where you’re always critiquing and making judgments about your performance.”
For Ryan and Pattengale, the last five years of constant touring meant that their most natural state of creativity was on the stage, and they used that as inspiration for the new record.
“We wanted to make the album in the natural course of the day while we were on tour,” says Ryan. “We tried to have it feel more akin to our performances every night.”
The album was recorded during the Kids’ 2014 tour, on the very stages of the venues where they were performing, rolling tape during the day before the evening’s show.
Live, the pair perform an intense, but approachable set of songs, playing mere inches from each other with their acoustic guitars and often singing into a single mic. Monterey impeccably embodies this aesthetic with up-close-and-personal tales of “Asheville Skies” and “High Hopes” delivered seemingly right to your ear. No backing bands, no fancy productions, just two talented songsmiths picking strings and singing from their hearts.
Recording at venues that included a church in Edmonton, Alberta, a condemned theater in Birmingham, Ala., and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., Ryan says the experience was liberating.
“Knowing that there was always tomorrow, that each take didn’t have to be the one, we never put pressure on ourselves,” he says.
They also didn’t listen to a single recording for the entire length of the tour, which meant that returning to the sessions three months later allowed them to hear and appreciate the songs more objectively.
“It’s hard to be yourself when you’re constantly evaluating,” says Ryan. “This album is a little looser that way. There are imperfections, but it sounds right.”