Q and A with The Hello Strangers

MILHEIM – Sister duo, The Hello Strangers will bring their “original Pennsyltucky-fried sister-folk” to the Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks, 100 W. Main St., beginning at 8 p.m. April 19.

The Hello Strangers was created in 2006 by sisters Brechyn Chace and Larissa Chace Smith when they penned their first song together, “Pregnant in Jail.”

After deciding to re-root back to their hometown of Mercersburg, from Austin, Texas, The Hello Strangers have been working on an album, due out soon.

The Sun-Gazette recently caught up with Smith via email to chat about the move, the novelty and comfort of rural Pennsylvania and the story that inspired, “Pregnant in Jail.”

BETHANY WIEGAND: Being from rural Pennsylvania is definitely not something you fully understand until you’ve lived it. What do you tell people when they ask you about where you’re from and why you came back here?

LARISSA SMITH: Great question. I guess I would say that it’s easier to play and write roots music when you’re in touch with your roots. Living in rural Pennsylvania is the perfect picture of simple life. It gives us the space we need to breathe and make music, but thanks to the Internet we have the ability to run successful careers from here, even though we don’t live in an urban area.

The world is more accessible than ever to us, all from the comfort of our rural homes.

BW: What are some of the differences and similarities you see between the music scenes in Austin, Texas and Pennsylvania?

LS: The music scene in Austin is definitely more saturated, particularly with roots and country bands. We enjoy being more of a novelty up here in Pennsylvania and the Northeast in general. On the other hand, having so much centralized in one place as the scene is in Austin really allows you to experience more. Pennsylvania is a big state, and the scenes are more segmented to different cities and areas, it seems. But Pennsylvania is also unique in that it houses such a wide variety of bands and songwriters that are very dedicated to their craft. It feels good to say we’re a Pennsylvania band.

BW: When did you as sisters decided to perform together? Has music always been the focal point of your life and career? Do you find there’s a different dynamic during performances being sisters?

LS: Music has always been a part of our family life growing up. Our grandfathers were both professional musicians, and our paternal grandfather in particular played trombone with Les Brown’s Big Band and sang with Doris Day.

We actually recorded a version of “Que Sera Sera,” originally sung by Doris Day, as a tribute to him and the musical legacy he passed on to us. Growing up we always loved singing and performing for fun at home with our siblings, but it wasn’t until we lived in Austin together in 2006 that we started writing in the genre we do now (Americana, alt-country and roots) that we really honed in on what we wanted to do with our careers.

That was when we became The Hello Strangers. It was thanks to the music scene in Austin that we took the path that we did. Performing together as sisters is definitely a unique experience. Harmonizing with your sibling is one of the coolest feelings you can have as a singer. Our harmonies, mixed with our original songwriting arranged around those harmonies, are definitely the backbone to our sound.

BW: You recently won a contest, “Win An Americana Record Deal Contest.” How did you get that opportunity? What have you been doing to prepare for recording?

LS: We actually won the contest two years ago through a company called AirPlay Direct that sources music to radio stations around the world. They teamed up with Nashville producer, Steve Ivey, to sign an up-and-coming Americana act, and we won out of 300-plus applicants.

It was definitely hard to believe and a dream come true. For the past two years, we’ve been preparing for the record, working on the contract and finally, recording. We just put the final touches on the album this week in Nashville and it should be ready to release by the end of the month, we hope.

It’s been very exciting to work with an award-winning producer and have the connections through the contest we never would have had. For instance, we were able to have well-known Americana musician Jim Lauderdale sing with us on a song of his we recorded on the album. Having someone so well-known in the Americana community will hopefully open a lot of doors for us, not to mention it was just a lot of fun having him in the studio. The whole experience has been so amazing.

BW: Your bio said “Pregnant in Jail” was your first song penned together and also stems from a true story. Care to elaborate?

LS: Yes, “Pregnant in Jail” was a suggestion of our good friend whose cousin was actually pregnant in jail at the time. He said it would make a great country song, so we gave it a whirl, making sure to pay homage to her while writing it. She loves the song and is now out of jail and has a beautiful daughter.

BW: It also says you packed your dogs up and moved back to Pennsylvania. What kind of dogs do you have?

LS: Brechyn has a Labradoodle and I have a Shepherd mix. Since then, Brechyn has also acquired two beagles with her fiance, and our guitarist, Spencer. It’s quite a brood when they’re all together!

BW: The Americana genre is, at least to me, an undiscovered up-and-coming genre, bursting with talent, and it has so much character as well. What draws you to making music with deep roots and the ability to tell amazing stories?

LS: Being able to tell tales and write ballads is definitely at the foundation of Americana music. Some of our songs are autobiographical, but many of them are stories and murder ballads out of our imaginations that are just really fun to tell and sing about.

Drawing from the roots musical traditions of this country gives us a feeling of continuing on tradition in many ways, while also adding modern touches all our own. It makes you feel like you’re in touch with a simpler time and place, while also celebrating some of the perks of modern society.

BW: What can audiences at Elk Creek Cafe expect at your upcoming performance?

LS: Our music is hard to define or categorize, so we find that the demographic of our audiences is very broad. Our live performances are at once humorous, fun-loving, but also a bit dark thanks to the murder ballads we perform.

We’ll often throw in a fun cover song to lighten the mood, and we always have a great time on stage. Our supporting band is the best lineup we’ve ever had and we all love playing together.