A lot of people first discovered New York trio Pearl and the Beard thanks to their "Will Smith Medley," which was recorded in six locations across the city and caught a wave on YouTube. Referencing eight of Smith's songs in just over three minutes, it was a perfect calling card. Not only did it reprise a popular slice of pop culture, but it showcased the bespectacled trio's wonderful interlaced vocals, skilled arranging, rich harmonies and quirky style.
Emily Hope Price, Jocelyn Mackenzie and Jeremy Styles all have beautiful voices, and their interplay, along with the propulsive energy of their music, naturally draws you in. Will Smith just bumped the process along a bit. Instrumentally, Price's cello is Pearl and the Beard's musical centerpiece, while Styles and Mackenzie switch between percussion and other instruments like guitar, glockenspiel and melodica.
Styles says the group was pleasantly surprised by how many people were turned on to the Smith homage. "It's kind of our Trojan horse," Mackenzie adds. "We had a great time with it, and feel grateful that it exposed our music to people who wouldn't have otherwise heard about it."
The trio met up playing New York's open mic scene as solo artists. "Even though New York is really saturated with musicians and people in general, when you see something special I think it stands out even more," Mackenzie offers. It wasn't long before the three musicians were, as they like to put it, "musically married."
Last May, Pearl and the Beard released their second album, Killing the Darlings, which was co-produced by Franz Nicolay (The Hold Steady, Against Me!) and Dan Brennan.
While the beautifully woven vocal harmonies are a constant, the trio continually searches for ways to bring new tones into their bustling indie-folk/pop sound.
"It's cool because whatever tools we have at our disposal that's kind of what we use," says Mackenzie. "Then if we don't have that tool at our disposal and we feel the song needs it, one of us will pick it up and learn how to do it."
The approach works well on Killing the Darlings. The jazzy stomp and hand clap gospel of "Douglas Douglass" is offset by the vibrant, Vampire Weekend-ish swell of "Sweetness," while "40K" employs finger-picked acoustic jangle and bright cooing vocals to disguise a dark undercurrent of romantic disaffection.
The group credits its eclecticism to having three songwriters with their own individual tastes. The downside is that writing can be a long slough since it has to pass two other discriminating minds.
"Each song we bring to the group in a songwriting session has to go through a gauntlet," explains Mackenzie. "As a result the songs are really strong. Weaker ones get thrown back."
Pearl and the Beard took a short break from that collaborative rigor on their latest release. The four-song Prodigal Daughter combines a Killing the Darlings song with one self-produced solo track from each member. The trio used a similar approach on 2010's Black Vessel EP.
Ultimately, figures Styles, it's all just a matter of finding the right balance. "We've been trying to make sure the song gets what it actually needs, and it doesn't always need three-part harmonies. Sometimes it comes down to one lone voice. Sometimes two. Sometimes it needs male vocals, sometimes it doesn't."