“In a sense it’s country. Some of it’s blues,” says Brandy Zdan, one half of the independent Winnipeg Roots outfit Twilight Hotel. Hailing from the frigid city eight hours north of Minneapolis, Zdan and her boyfriend/bandmate Dave Quanbury have crafted an organic and earthy sound that lands somewhere between folk, country, blues, and rock. Good luck pinpointing exactly where those genres converge, however; each song on the duo’s upcoming album Highway Prayer seemingly highlights a different one of their many musical influences–while still clinging, of course, to a distinctly Twilight thread. “It’s our own thing, which I’m really proud,” Zdan says.
To what does the duo owe their creative prowess?
“We have a winter that’s insane. I mean it’s so cold. You just stay in and work on your craft, because there’s nothing else to do,” Zdan explains. “And there’s so much space between big cities [in Canada] that you end up feeling a little isolated. I think that’s why Winnipeg has such a vibrant [music] scene–there’s no external factors going into the music people are making, they’re just doing it. They’re creating something here and then just taking it elsewhere.”
And take it elsewhere Twilight Hotel has. Since recording their first, self-titled LP in 2003, Zdan and Quanbury have become one of the Roots Music scene’s most buzzworthy new artists, playing over 200 North American dates in 2007, and picking up an Independent Music Awards nomination in “Best Americana Album” for 2006′s Bethune.
And the duo, according to Zdan, is only beginning to hit its stride. Despite the widespread critical success of Bethune, “Dave and I both feel like Highway Prayer really is the first Twilight Hotel record,” she says. “We feel like this is actually who we are, and it took a while to evolve into what it was going to be.”
That evolution began back in 2002, when Dave and Brandy met at the Trout River Music Festival. If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was close. Both were there supporting other artists, and although they chatted during the festival, it wasn’t until a post-festival jam session, situated around a campfire under the stars, that they began really getting to know each other. “It was definitely a romantic meeting,” Zdan says.
They played cover songs for each other, and soon some of their own songs, and before long a new romantic and musical partnership was born.
Twilight Hotel’s union of romance and music has garnered comparisons to some of music’s most well-known couples, including Johnny and June Carter Cash and Ian and Sylvia Tyson. But Zdan is quick to point out that, “the reason why we’re being compared to them is because of the chemistry on stage. Our relationship helps our music, our music helps our relationship.”
And on days when things aren’t going quite so smoothly on the home front? “That’s a challenge we’ve had to work on,” she says. “Say we’ve had a fight, and then I have to do an interview and [the interviewer] will ask a question about our relationship, and I’ll think ‘oh, geez, I don’t want to talk about him.’”
“It’s constantly something we work on. But it is definitely a blessing to be able to tour with the person you love and have a great time with them. There’s nothing better than that.”
If Brandy and Dave’s romantic beginning seems a little nostalgic, maybe that’s fitting; both are old souls caught up in an iPod generation–a fact that shines through in their music, and especially on Highway Prayer, a record which they recorded in Nashville with Canadian blues artist and producer Colin Linden. He helped the duo build around their sound rather than reshaping it with the modern, paint-by-number production techniques.
While the duo didn’t necessarily set out to record a retro sounding record, Zdan says, they knew they wanted to capture a certain magic. “We wanted something that was based around what Dave and I do. We had worked really hard on setting up specific arrangements for songs, and we road tested them for a very long time, so we felt like we were in the middle and Colin put instruments around us to emphasize what we were doing. Not the kind of approach where you strip everything away and start again, which means that by the time you end up getting to your parts and your singing, you might have to end up changing what you’ve done to fit what everybody else has done [before you]. That’s what we did with our first album. This time, we wanted to focus on capturing those true, real sounds.”
And real sounds abound on Highway Prayer. From the classic country bend of “Impatient Love” to the heartbreaking “Sand in Your Eyes,” it is a record that sounds as genuine as it is distinct, and as distinctly genuine as few records can claim to be. And then there’s that certain intangible quality unique to two people in love singing together.
“I really do believe that when Dave and I sing together and play together there is something being created that you cannot really see,” Zdan says. “If a band has magic being created when they’re playing their songs, that will come through on the recording. We’re big fans of lots of old recordings. We love old jazz, old country. And all those guys were playing in a room together. Almost none of it was multi-tracked. People were just playing the song and creating that energy, and I think that can be captured on a recording. And you can hear when someone has a smile on their face when they’re singing or playing.”
Someone like the late Richard Bell; the famed Canadian musician who (among other career highlights) played piano for Janis Joplin. Bell’s last performances are captured on Highway Prayer.
“There’s a bonus track at the end of the album that Colin and Richard play on together. And that is something that’s very special. When we got the final mixes, Colin added that on and it was a total surprise. We were like, ‘oh, what’s track 13? Let’s listen to it.’ And we were just sitting there in awe, thinking, ‘wow.’ You can hear the communication between those two friends. It’s an amazing performance,” Zdan says.
As much ground as Highway Prayer covers sonically, it covers lyrically. While Twlight Hotel’s songs are inspired by the duo’s rural setting and, Zdan notes, Winnipeg’s extreme isolation, the duo isn’t afraid to tackle some distinctly American topics. The new album includes a song about I-35 (commonly called the “Road to Salvation” or the “Holy Highway”), which inspired the disc’s title, as well as an unexpected but startlingly poignant song about the plight of Mexican immigrants in the United States.
“I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t agree with that song,” Zdan says of the latter, titled “The Ballad of Salvador and Isabella,” which Dave wrote. “I think it’s a story that needs to be told. And I think that’s what songwriters do, really–even if you don’t have any direct connection to it…what we do is observe situations and express those observations and issues, and then the listener can interpret them how they want.”
But is there a place in the music world for a smart, politically savvy, and sometimes risky folk/country/etc duo?
“There’s always going to be music lovers. And even though some people might not say that our music is mainstream, I think it’s highly accessible to a lot of people. The mainstream music industry doesn’t give listeners enough credit these days. When we’re playing shows and we see what the audience has to say afterwards…it’s the person that I would have never expected to react to our music that just falls in love with it.”
And as for those “insane” Manitoba winters?
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to move from this town. We love it so much, it’s such a great place to come back to. Ten minutes from the city and I’m on my parent’s farm in the middle of nowhere and it feels fabulous.”
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.