Billy Brandt and Sarana VerLin know how to read musical minds.
“Billy and I have a ‘Vulcan mind meld’ on stage where we can follow each other effortlessly and know what direction to go in when we go off-piste and improvise instrumentally,” said VerLin, a U.K.-based singer-songwriter, violinist and multi-instrumentalist. “When we play and write together, we rub against and wear away each other’s rough edges to get a sound blend that neither of us gets on our own.”
The enchanting pair will share timeless tales from their latest release, “Are You Listening?” – a magical 10-track odyssey that includes Shakespearean characters, ghosts, emperors, dystopian worlds and whales. Magical acoustic guitars, violins and mandolins whisk listeners away to a stunning sonic world beautifully constructed in their minds.
“‘Are You Listening?’ took about two years to complete. When I was here in Detroit a few years ago, I said we should go in the studio to record. We had a few songs that had not been recorded yet so we started with those,” said VerLin, who originally hails from Trenton.
“Billy had written a song called ‘Sailing Away,’ and coincidentally and separately, I had written a song called ‘Sailing Away.’ A completely different feel but in a similar key, so we combined them into a two-part song.”
Released in 2018 via Drum Dancer Records, “Are You Listening?” also unearths another folk rock treasure, “I Wish I Knew,” which includes a splendid picking arrangement of a melody Brandt wrote and envisioned as part of a monotone vocal accompaniment.
Back in July 2011, VerLin wrote the lyrics during a trip to Chamberlain’s Ole Forest Inn in Curtis, but couldn’t pair it will the right melody. Six years later, Brandt’s guitar melody formed the perfect marriage for the song.
Along with VerLin, Brandt, a Detroit singer-songwriter, guitarist and mandolinist, recorded more than 30 tracks over two years for “Are You Listening?” and his latest Sugarees ‘70s country rock-inspired album, “Riverside,” which dropped in June. The two sent tracks back and forth across the Atlantic to record with Sugarees bandmates John Holkeboer, Chris Degnore and Todd Glass.
“Whenever I was in the studio, I started making this record, and when Sarana would come to town, we’d write a few tunes, and I’d try to get in the studio with the same rhythm section,” said Brandt, who toured the U.K. with VerLin earlier this fall. “Even if she wasn’t in town, I would lay down a song without her, so when she came to town, we could do all the overdubs.”
After a chance encounter on Myspace a decade ago, the duo started recording together in Brandt’s metro Detroit basement. Brandt and VerLin featured a series of tightknit live video recordings with The Sugarees called “Live from Billy’s Basement” on YouTube and compiled those live tracks for their first collaborative release in 2010.
Three years later, they assembled additional tracks from those “Basement” sessions and released a haunting follow-up album, “Goin’ Home.” By that time, VerLin had relocated to the U.K. with her husband and worked back and forth with Brandt to finalize the album’s 13 tracks.
“We ended up sending the tracks to England, and as soon as she got to England, she established herself in the folk music scene really quickly. We met an engineer-producer over there, and he ended up putting this together with us,” Brandt said.
“There are about five or six tracks that are left over from ‘Billy’s Basement’ and five or six that we wrote while I was over there. I went into the studio, and I played with just an acoustic guitar and a click track, and Sarana and Paul Bryant, the producer, made half this record with me just leaving my vocal and acoustic guitar behind. I said have at it, and they put it all together.”
One of “Goin’ Home’s” standout tracks includes “The Longest Winter,” a folky poetic tale with vibrant acoustic guitars and violins Brandt penned one snowy spring day in April. It reminded Brandt of the dreary unwelcome wintry weather Michigan continues to impose upon its displeased inhabitants.
“That’s live from ‘Billy’s Basement,’ but not when Sarana was here. That one was me, Drew Howard, John Holkeboer, Chris Degnore and Todd Glass, and then we sent Sarana the track,” Brandt said. “She put violins on it, it’s all violin-centered, and the whole ending on it is something they created on top of our live track.”
Along with percussionist Luti Erbeznik, Holkeboer and Degnore will translate Brandt’s and VerLin’s folk rock treasures to the live stage Thursday night. They will perform tracks from “Are You Listening?” and “Goin’ Home” as well as The Sugarees’ latest album and VerLin’s U.K.-based folk project, Iron & Oak.
“New to our show will be a couple of non-traditional Christmas songs. One is Mary Gauthier’s ‘Christmas in Paradise’ about a homeless man celebrating Christmas, and the other is a well-known Christmas song in the U.K. called ‘Walking on Air (The Snowman Song),’ which every child knows,” VerLin said. “Each of our songs resonates differently from person to person, and we think there’s something about every performance that speaks to the heart in many ways.”
8 p.m. Thursday
20 Front Street in Lake Orion