From Music Workshop To New York Stage, A Pop Duo Comes Of Age
Even in a cramped and steamy backstage dressing room, less than two hours before the New York City debut of their full-band show at Webster Hall, Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass still find time to be introspectively gracious and dig deeper into this mysterious but palpable fusion of musicality that allows uniquely divided talents from disparate backgrounds to achieve Boy.
Boy are a vocal-rich, musically versatile songwriting and performing duo that formed in 2005 and released their first collection of songs, Mutual Friends, in 2011. Disallowing for taste or category, Boy embody the strength and depth of the memorable tune, the visceral progression, the tasty bridge and a considerable cross-generational adoration for pop music.
“We don’t sit in a room and jam,” Glass chuckles. The 36-year-old German cellist/bass player is quite adamant when explaining the Boy process. “I write the songs in total, programming everything but lyrics and melody. Then I send those ideas to Valeska.”
The 27-year-old Swiss-born vocalist, whose eerie evocation of Suzanne Vega’s reservedly sensual tones, thrives in the duo’s give-and-take. “We are real perfectionists,” Steiner beams. “Our goal is to work for as long as it takes for us to like it. And it takes a while.”
Mutual Friends is a first record much like a first novel; it goes too far and chooses too many spaces to fill, yet manages quite nicely to make it sound as if the listener has found a comfortable place to land.
“Comforting” is how Glass describes the music, as Steiner is quite positive its themes, from love and loss to the joy of transition, are “optimistic.”
“This is the beginning…of anything you want,” Steiner sings in the album’s opening number, and you believe it, just as you believe the alternative in the pensive “Drive Darling” when she admits, “I’m smiling on the surface…I’m scared as hell below.” There is an enviable sincerity in these disparate emotions in which the music duly supports.
“I was glad we were able to make a record that many people come to us and say that it gives them hope somehow,” says Steiner. “I had just moved from Zurich to Hamburg, so it was like a fresh start. And it was this very enthusiastic and hopeful feeling of looking to see what was going to come, but there are also melancholy songs of missing what you left behind.”
The delicate but brave balance of Boy is found in these young women and what they have found in each other, a similar comfort to meet the challenge of creating the kind of music which reflects their collective outlook while not trying too hard to please. It’s as if the idea of a good, solid, positive song—whether treading folk or rock or soul—were inbred individually and realized jointly.
“I was looking for a band for many years and Valeska was the first one where I thought I really believed in us,” recounts Glass of their meeting in a six-week pop music symposium at Hochschule Für Musik Und Theater in Hamburg, Germany, her distinct accent forcing the words deliberately, so as to not miss the significance. “Something happened when we played together that had never happened before. I somehow knew that things would work out for us.”
Steiner recalls nearly 50 musicians and vocalists convened in the “workshop,” but it took merely an initial meeting for her and Glass to be sure that theirs would be a fruitful collaboration.
“We got into the rehearsal room the second day and we really liked each other’s qualities and somehow got the feeling that we had similar tastes and that we cared about similar things in music,” says Steiner, through a lilting Swiss accent, a sweet smile creasing her slender features. “We clicked pretty quickly.”
“There were many, many singers, but she stood out,” Glass says of Steiner. “Her voice is special and very unique and you just recognize it. She’s just…shining.”
Mutual Friends provides insights into the essence of the Steiner/Glass pairing, which becomes transparent upon meeting them; an adoring humility with an undercurrent of worldly ambition. Both women are arrestingly beautiful and soft-spoken, belying a tenacious will to produce the most memorable aural-scapes.
This intriguing duality was fully on display a few hours later as the band (a percussionist, drummer, guitarist, keyboardist and Glass on bass) took the stage on the second floor of Webster Hall before a hearty audience. Dynamics, spatial nuances and visceral lifts power an understated fury, whether a ballad, as in the haunting “July,” or a simple pop song, as in the spectacularly infectious, “Little Numbers.”
It is on stage that Steiner shines as a vocalist; culling tension against an impenetrable bedrock of defiance. Her voice demands attention with a feminine mystique as she moves about the spotlight like a sparrow sure of its space but comfortable in timidity. “We really didn’t make any compromises,” she declared back in the dressing room. “We really just wanted to make our record the way we wanted to make it and we feel so lucky that people seem to like it and we’ve gotten so far and traveled so much with these songs.”
The crowd on this night ate it up; singing along and cheering the many moments of demure honesty both women offered up about their utter giddiness at playing their songs as they were intended, with a full band, in a New York City milieu.
“We are extremely happy with the live band we have,” Steiner enthuses. “They are great musicians and great people, and we’re really happy to have this group that grew together from playing so many shows.”
Each member of the band, which has previously played with Boy in one capacity or another over the past two and a half years, contributed to different songs on Mutual Friends, as Steiner and Glass preferred to pick and choose the right musicians for a particular song. However, this lineup was not part of the equation when the girls first hit America in March.
“We knew we wanted to go on tour and play, but we couldn’t afford a whole band to come with us,” says Steiner. “We just knew we would have to find a way for just the two of us to play these songs in a stripped down version. So that was a challenge.”
This was especially true of Glass, who had taken it upon herself to provide nearly the entire musical accompaniment, protecting the integrity of the original arrangements.
“I have to say it took me some time to get used to playing acoustic guitar live,” says Glass. “I use it when I write, of course, but it was hard for me to play this instrument and feel comfortable.”
“We had to imitate the whole band and Sonja really had a tough job,” Steiner adds, her partner effusively nodding her head beside her. “She had to jump from the acoustic guitar to the cello and then to bass.”
“For two songs we had a loop on the laptop and I had to start it,” Glass laughs. “I was kind of the band machine.”
But now, on stage, with full accompaniment and an enthusiastic crowd of fans who have embraced Boy as it was meant to look and sound, Steiner and Glass appear in their element. The German girl plucks her bass and smirks at the groove as her Swiss pal leaps joyously, smacking a tambourine into an open hand as she bends her head back to reach another note.
The future is fast becoming the now for Boy; on tour in the States with a new acoustic EP out and looking forward to completing work on a second album. It is hard not to ask if this could ever have been dreamed up or if this is all stranger than fiction.
“I think both are true,” Steiner smiles, with Glass chiming in with a whispered yeah. “On the one hand it was always this dream of being a musician; to be able to tour and be on the road with your band and, honestly, going to the States and being on tour here was one of my biggest dreams; but it always seemed so far away. When we started writing that was never our main thought, it was just really believing in what happened between us when we write and liking what comes out of that in the first place—just doing it for ourselves or for our own pleasure, because it fulfilled us. And it still does, and it’s so nice to see which way the music goes…”
“….and how it develops,” Glass concludes.
The Boy process continues.
Boy’s latest release, Mutual Friends: Acoustic EP, is available now through Nettwerk Records. For more information, go to listentoboy.com.