Memphis-based songstress Amy LaVere has shared the stage with many of the MidSouth’s most talented acts. However, a chance meeting with throwback singer/songwriter John Paul Keith at a Halloween party offered a chance for both performers to broaden their horizons through a collaboration known as Motel Mirrors.Motel Mirrors isn’t the typical country-rock duo, according to LaVere and Keith. While their work takes cues from classic country duets like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, this collaboration retains a healthy dose of modernism through LaVere’s sultry voice and Keith’s driving guitar. Released in August of this year through Archer Records, The Motel Mirrors’ EP is a laid-back collection of country sentiments with old rock accoutrements like shuffled 2/4 beats and rockabilly six-string licks. Keith and LaVere’s harmony naturally complements each other’s vocal qualities: Keith is loyal to a straightforward melody, while LaVere bounces around adjoining notes to create playful and confident harmonic pairings.Keith, a Memphis native, plays the role of guitarist, vocalist and frontman of John Paul Keith and the One, Four, Fives.
Over the past decade, he has extended his influence far beyond the MidSouth, releasing three full-length records and performing across the country in a bevy of national circuit tours. LaVere, a Louisiana transplant, tours and records under her own name behind a stand-up bass accompanied with her one-of-a-kind jazzy, seductive voice. LaVere’s career experienced sudden national acclaim with the release of 2006 album This World is not my Home. Since then, she’s had several more solo releases and collaborated with some of the MidSouth’s most active musicians.Either in process or context, there’s something irresistibly charming about two of the MidSouth’s most talked-about musicians getting together and forming a band. But initial intentions were hardly so grand, and their transition from familiar friends to collaborators didn’t happen until a chance encounter at Craig Brewer’s Halloween party in 2012. “I heard she was working on a record at the time, and I was trying to pitch myself as someone who would help her on the record-tracking or playing. But she didn’t need that because she was already working with Luther Dickinson [of The Black Crowes and North Mississippi Allstars],” Keith says. “So, she suggested a fun side project and that's how it started.”With Keith on guitar, LaVere playing the upright bass and both on vocals, the pair recruited the talents of drummer Shawn Zorn to round out the act. The three began playing shows consisting mostly of covers across the Bluff City, taking in a weekly gig at the mansion-turned-bar Mollie Fontaine’s. As a side gig, the project left both Keith and LaVere free to continue their respective solo careers while bringing in a little side cash without having to leave home. “
The project started as something of a cover band. And yes, we did actually sit with a pile of records and listen to possibilities,” LaVere says. “We researched songs we thought would be a good fit, learned a ton of material and played some weekly shows.”After Archer Records caught wind of the group, a representative approached Keith and LaVere with an EP deal before the band even had a name. The two then sat down and began crafting new, original material. “Suddenly, You” was built as a piece to showcase Keith’s crooning and LaVere’s upright bass skills by having them play off of each other in a give-and-take manner. “Meet Me on the Corner” followed as the act’s first proper duet. Soon, old songs from both artists’ catalogs began to see completion and flourish with a new sense of ease and comfort. Keith’s incomplete “Best Mistake I’d Ever Made” turned from a lonely solo tune into a harmonically rich song backed by LaVere. LaVere’s “Rebound” went from a messy work-in-progress to a fleshed out piece with verse-chorus structure through the aid of Keith’s writing.Though both songwriters show their talent in the collaboration, it’s neither artist’s first chance at a music career. Keith, a guitarist and singer/songwriter, made his first major outing in 2009 with Spills and Thrills, backed by his band the One, Four, Fives. The collection of music purveyed Keith’s love of throwback rock in both musical content and artistic vision. On stage, he can be seen in a leather jacket and thick-rimmed glasses, sporting a calm composition and down-to-earth persona that recalls what "cool" originally meant. His performance boasts a patient reserve of energy that mediates action between his singing and guitar slinging. Since his initial release, he’s let loose with two more full lengths albums: The Man That Time Forgot and Memphis Circa 3AM, the latter being an album produced by the recently deceased Sun Studio in-house guitarist, Roland Janes. The result of their collaboration is Keith’s most fleshed-out record to date, balancing Keith’s composition and witty lyricism with Janes’ educated ear and 40-plus years inside Sun Studios.LaVere’s upright bass and jazzy voice contrast Keith’s twangy onstage presence.
In front of a crowd, LaVere doles out a collection of charming off hand comments and presents a reserved confidence that speaks volumes behind the constant guide of her bass lines and delicate swoons of her raspy, yet gentle, voice. Her blue eyes shine over the curve of her bass with the occasional sway of curly hair from the momentum of her dance movement. Consequence of Sound and National Public Radio have both lauded the artist and credit LaVere’s dry lyricism and signature seductive vocal work as outstanding assets. In 2011, LaVere released her third full-length effort in Stranger Me. The album gained rave reviews from Spin Magazine, Q Magazine and The Daily Mirror. Since then, she’s been a part of The Wandering, an all-star group that also features Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally, Shardé Thomas and Valerie June.What began as a simple pursuit morphed into a new extension of Keith and LaVere’s respective bodies of work. When LaVere and Keith get together, the collaborative process takes pressure off the individual and puts emphasis on enjoying music. “Whereas with my solo project, I can get caught up and be a bit precious and fussy about the material, I let the Motel Mirrors be fun,” says LaVere. “It was really freeing to allow someone else to share the decision making and be collaborative.” And though playing familiar sounds is a large part of their audile aesthetic, Motel Mirrors shies away from a strict allegiance toward a “country duo” stereotype and mixes things up, avoiding cliché covers like Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” for a less predictable list of songs. Mickey & Sylvia’s “Dearest” shows off a bouncy, island holiday sound. Buck Owens’ “Your Tender Loving Care” was revved up a few BPM and capped off with LaVere’s wispy harmonies. Susan Raye and Red Foley’s “As Far as I’m Concerned” is a slow call-and-response that emphasizes the subtleties in LaVere’s voice and Keith’s earnest nature. The layering of rock ‘n’ roll with an off-beat indie vibe over a classic iteration of country showcases the Motel Mirrors’ music style as a careful balance of familiar and fresh sounds. Keith uses classic song structures and formats while LaVere’s soothing vocals croon atop of his soft country chords. "I'm not sure it's entirely conscious,” says LaVere. “I think we are naturally pulling from things from the past that we love while being ourselves.”Since the release of their self-titled EP in August, the duo has gained quick momentum with such praise from No Depression and MTV Soundtrack.
But for Keith and LaVere, it's much less about recognition and much more about authenticity. "We just try to do good music and things that aren’t cliché — that’s what you always gotta’ do with this kind of music, and it’s a really fine line,” says Keith. Although both Keith and LaVere have been on extended solo stints around the country, they have organized a big show at the Young Avenue Deli on the weekend after Christmas. Both artists will have solo sets in addition to a Motel Mirrors set.With the potential energy of a large rock on a tall hill, Motel Mirrors can be expected to return to recording together again. “When the time is right, I suppose. Keith is touring hard and I will be doing the same when my new record comes out after the first of next year,” LaVere says. “I imagine we will reconnect when things slow down for us. […] I’ll be looking forward to it!”
Music | December 2013
Motel Mirrors crafts a compelling blend of old-school country and modern rock flair
Story by Charles Gray