The inner workings of Amelia’s Mechanics

by Ryan Snyder

The first time Molly McGinn met Jim Avett, he insulted a brand new Ibanez guitar she was playing. McGinn was playing with Thacker Dairy Road at the time, who were opening for the Avett Brothers during her encounter.

“He told me I needed to get a real guitar and that an old guitar would probably inspire me more than a new one,” McGinn said.

She ended up with a 1960 Takamine Red Rocket that took her in another direction musically, but Avett’s guidance would soon wind up doing the same for her. He suggested that she find strings and harmonies to play with and McGinn would eventually meet Molly Miller and Kasey Horton in February 2009 and it wasn’t long before they formed Amelia’s Mechanics around a mix of folk, Americana, jazz and classical. They were quickly on their way to writing new music, as each was at the end of their own tumultuous romantic relationship, a state that Miller says lent a diaphanously nuanced layer of feminine ire to the material within.

“We had a lot of rage and anger at the time,” said Miller half-jokingly. “It came down to starting a band or getting thrown in jail for murder and we all chose band.”

There’s no man- (or woman-) hating to be found on their forthcoming North, South, however. Instead, it celebrates the accomplishments of women who would go on to become icons of gender equality; female pioneers who assumed roles and challenges traditionally reserved for their male counterparts. McGinn said that the core of their songwriting style sprung from a black and white photo from 1934 of a woman being arrested that sparked discussion over potential offenses. Thus, the album took on an undeniably mischievous and self-assured swagger that seems almost therapeutic in its affectation. “Moonshine Girl” tells the stories of genteel young women who furtively craved the thrill of shooting pool all night and running illegal corn mash, shotguns in hand. Of course, the trio’s namesake is referenced in “Sweet Amelia,” a song that explores not only the tragedy of Amelia Earheart’s flight, but the conflict in denying her the opportunity alto gether, given the enormous risk.

It’s easy to picture the name Amelia’s Mechanics as describing a group of mucky tomboys in jumpsuits with oily rags hanging from their pockets; even McGinn hinted at such a notion when describing a three-button hat she owns that makes her feel as if she should be working on an airplane. But there’s a double entendre therein that suggests something much more profound and endearing, not that three striking women busting their knuckles on monkey wrenches doesn’t emanate the rarest of charm. It hints at the inner workings that drive those who attempt the impossible or unusual, a style that would inherently be laden with emotion on record. Therefore, the creation of such a record needed an experienced hand in such matters. They found that in Doug Williams of Electromagnetic Radiation Recorders.

Many have lauded the Avett Brothers for the electricity that runs through their albums and it’s often Williams’ democratic production philosophy that gets its due. He favors live recordings and single takes to provide an immediacy to songs that individual instrumental tracking and repetitive takes never could. McGinn also credits his progressive mic-ing techniques for the richness of the string sound on the album, but even more so, it was his personality that fostered success for the trio in the studio.

“He’s so patient. He’s a good mediator, because it’s an emotional process and it’s a sensitive one too,” McGinn said. “Everyone has their own ideas about how something should sound and every once in a while, Doug would press the button and say something and we’d all get back on the same page.”

With their album release party set for Feb. 12 at the Blind Tiger, Amelia’s Mechanics are now focusing on building their profile in the region. They hope that successful shows in Knoxville, Tenn., Nashville and Asheville will give them the momentum needed to put them on stage at some of the summer’s larger music festivals before recording yet another album in July. Ambitious, yes. But so was the namesake to whom they seek to pay tribute.

Amelia’s Mechanics (courtesy photo)