Take one part former Grand Band Slam winner, one part classical and jazz trained tuba player, one part Warped Tour veteran, one part Berklee- educated cellist, and one part local rocker—throw everyone together, and what do you get? Well, if you live in Western Mass., the answer is the old-time swing of Turners Falls’ Tawdry.
“The group started with just Kevin [Smith (tuba)] and I playing local nursing homes and calling ourselves the Yankee Doodle Dandies,” says vocalist and guitarist Hilary Graves. “In July of 2011, we started performing as Tawdry locally with violinist Phoebe Camilletti. When she left for California, we actively started looking for others to play with. The group evolved accordingly—first with the addition of our drummer Josh [Bowling], then Nelson [Reticence] (guitar) and finally Dana [Osterling] (cello, vocals), who moved from Brooklyn, N.Y.”
The band turns out a modern interpretation of such “old-time” music genres as Americana, jazz and country, all propelled by electric guitar and a steady beat. Though a popular definition of the word tawdry is “cheap and gaudy,” Graves subscribes to a more classy interpretation of the name.
“I heard it said on an episode of Mad Men,” she says. “I liked the way it sounded old fashioned, like the way we play.”
And the references to the past don’t end there. Smith notes that the history of the word tawdry goes back even further than the Don Draper era ’60s. He says, “[Tawdry] was also an alteration of St. Audrey’s lace, which is a neck tie or ribbon. It commemorates St. Audrey, queen of Northumbria, who supposedly died of a throat tumor in 679, which she considered God’s punishment for her youthful fondness for showy necklaces.”
While a focus on sounds from the past permeates much of Tawdry’s work, improvisation also plays an integral part in the group’s performance, which has evolved from covering old standards to incorporating original material written by the band.
“Someone brings a raw form of a song to the group and then we all collectively throw our two cents in and let the song form itself,” says Bowling.
Adds Graves, “My words usually are inspired by a melody I’ve come up with. I luckily have great players that help me with the form, and things like tempo, stops, and pauses.”
To date, Tawdry has only a self-titled EP to its credit. Featuring the songs “Smilin’,” “My Mask,” and “Just One More Time,” the release is a fun taste of what listeners might expect to hear upon witnessing the group in concert. But the band is quick to point out that it’s already looking ahead to the future.
“We plan on hitting the studio this winter, just laying low, working on new material, and start gigging more in the spring,” says Bowling. “Don’t expect Lady Gaga. Although, who knows, we may do a bluegrass cover of one of her songs.”
Tawdry performs as part of a fundraiser for Relay for Life, Jan. 25, Burrito Rojo, 50 3rd Street, Turners Falls, Mass., (413) 863-3111, http://www.burritorojo.com.•