The Greensboro duo Magpie Thief had some hard-to-ignore, real-life events shaping the music they made last year. Singer, songwriter and banjo player Emily Stewart had a cat that was killed by a neighbor’s unrestrained, aggressive dog. This was the second cat Stewart had lost to the dog. She was pissed. It was seeping into her music. Meanwhile, her collaborator, Matty Sheets, grappled with a hard-to-pin-down medical ailment. Magpie Thief play two area shows this weekend, one at Test Pattern in Winston-Salem on June 24, and at On Pop of the World Studios in Greensboro on June 26.
Stewart, who practices reiki and other naturalistic forms of healing in Winston-Salem, isn’t normally a confrontational person prone to violent anger. But the loss of her cat and indifference of her neighbor stirred her up. The rage fueled some music-making.
“I got a little irate with the neighbor. The cops showed up,” Stewart said. “We walked back into the house and my mother-in-law goes ‘Wow, you really went Alabama on his ass.’”
Stewart, 33, was raised in Alabama. Evidently, the decibel level on her voice bumped up a few notches when she was expressing herself to her neighbor.
Not long after that incident, Stewart and Sheets were set to practice. Stewart had fleshed out some lyrics that included a line about “going Alabama” on someone’s ass. Sheets had a riff that Stewart liked. They fused the two and came up with the core of “Alabama Loud,” the first tune on the latest Magpie Thief E.P., Say What You Mean, which came out at the end of 2016. The newest recording has more layers, with drumming and the drive of a rhythm section in places, and a hint more muscle, though the music is still essentially mellow and easy-rolling.
The idea of using music — the weight of the lyrics, the physicality of singing — as a way of channeling emotion and getting in touch with one’s body, these are things that Stewart had been thinking about for years. Allowing music to serve as an escape hatch for what you might call dark energy is probably healthier than just letting bad feelings fester and stew.
“Alabama Loud” ended up functioning as a way to explore the welling up of anger in the body. Stewart had long thought of singing her songs as related to chanting a mantra, a way of getting one’s breath in sync with one’s mind. You can almost hear her savouring in her mouth each slow-drawl syllable and melodic slide or swoop when she sings.
Magpie Thief is an acoustic duo and they play blues-tinged Americana, a little old timey, a little folky. They’re not a punk outfit, but Sheets and Stewart consider the venting of emotion to be central to what they do. They want to radiate a kind of sonic candor. The pair came together in 2014 after each had backed the other in different projects. So they knew each other’s songs and they knew they both wanted to make music and take it out on the road. That’s what they’d been busy doing up until the fall of 2016.
Sheets, 41, had his own weighty truths to excavate and process. A prolific multi-instrumentalist and active musical collaborator in the Greensboro music scene for decades, Sheets learned that he had multiple sclerosis last year. It took a while to figure out what was wrong.
“It started in my legs,” Sheet said. “I was feeling this weak numbness in my legs. Eventually I started feeling it in my hands, and my legs never got better.”
The real indicator that something was seriously wrong came when Sheets was playing a gig with Stewart and he found himself unable to get his hand to quickly shape a chord on the guitar, something he’d done probably tens of thousands of times over the past 20 years.
That led to an urgent-care visit and a recommendation to see a neurologist, and a second opinion. In the end, the diagnosis was a kind of relief for Sheets, who had started worrying that he had a brain tumor or some kind of cancer.
Health concerns upended Sheets’ life over the last six months. He’s cut out cigarettes and alcohol. He’s trying to get the right kinds of exercise. He got a lighter guitar that’s easier to carry and hold. He’s stopped playing standing up for the time being. The two and three-hour shows that used to be the bread and butter for Sheets have had to be nixed, because fatigue makes them impossible. Playing outdoor shows in the summer sun is something he’s had to avoid, too, because of the heat.
Working to cut stress out of his life, Sheets says he’s basically avoided looking at the news since November, which happens to have coincided with what many view as the most alarming stretch of current events in recent memory.
It’s a complicated equation. Sheets and Stewart started Magpie Thief because they were eager to be busy playing out. But the stress of touring and playing long shows is something Sheets has to avoid now. At the same time though, playing music is one of things that makes him feel best.
“Playing music is always great,” he said. “That three or four minutes when you’re playing music with somebody, that’s my favorite time. That’s my favorite part of life.”
Sheets says he’s working on some material that might turn into a punk album, with songs about the frustrations of life, particularly in dealing with the expenses, uncertainty and anxiety of health care, insurance and hospitals. Stewart and Sheets generally split songwriting and singing duties with the band. Sheets’s songs tend to have a slightly more off-the-cuff feel, but with sections that often shift the metric feel, adding a surprise change of pace to the tunes. He seems to have embraced a kind of sleepy optimism.
“I’m not dead yet, and neither are you,” goes one line on “Body Woods,” one of his tunes on the recent release.
Sheets and Stewart say they might dip a little more into the country blues — music of Charley Patton and Skip James — that they both love so much as an inspirational beacon for their next batch of songs. Sheets also points to the unfettered sense of truth-telling and pure emotion in early punk and early hip-hop as aesthetic models for all kinds of music-making in the 21st century.
“What I really like, especially in this day and age, is just expressing feelings,” he said. “I just think that’s beautiful.”
See Magpie Thief on Saturday, June 24 at Test Pattern, 701 N. Trade St., Winston-Salem, and Monday, June 26, at On Pop of the World Studios in Greensboro.