When you go through the wide range of harmonious duos popular in music today, most of them are couples, siblings or longtime friends. Not Dusty Heart.
Singer/songwriters Molly Dean and Barbara Jean had never even met when Jean heard her future bandmate singing on “A Prairie Home Companion” and thought, “She sounds like someone I could sing with.”
Sure enough, when Jean asked Dean to get up and sing with her at Hell’s Kitchen one night three years ago — they joined for a Townes Van Zandt tune and a Rhonda Vincent song, ones they both already knew — Jean recalled, “From the first moment, it worked.”
“You never know what to expect, because sometimes voices just don’t connect,” she said. “But ours did, in a way that really got both of us excited to work together. We really hit the ground running after that.”
After a couple more years of steady gigging, Dean and Jean are ready to release Dusty Heart’s eponymous debut, which they’re promoting Friday at the underused Southern Theater in Minneapolis (7:30 p.m., $18-$22, southerntheater.org).
The eight-song collection — which falls somewhere between a twangier Lucius and a sister act to local ambient-folk faves the Pines — was produced by local journeyman Michael Lewis, the Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesday saxophonist who has also played bass with Bon Iver and Andrew Bird.
“He really can do it all, which was good for us because we wanted to try a lot of different things,” said Jean.
Songs range from the dramatic and ornate epic “Archer” to the more serene and hushed folk gem “Traces,” featuring rich pedal-steel work from Eric Heywood (lately of the Pretenders). Other players in the album’s sessions included Lewis’ pals JT Bates and Jeremy Ylvisaker, who will also back them up at the Southern gig, plus Wisconsin Americana vet Jeffrey Foucault and Morphine drummer Billy Conway. The latter two had brought Dusty Heart on a short tour and laid down the warm rambling anthem “Timbre and Trail” with them on an off day.
“Timbre and Trail” was one of the first songs Jean and Dean wrote together and reflects another bond they share besides cohesive voices.
“We’re both really drawn to the woods and like to get alone time out there whenever we can,” Jean said, explaining the origins of many of the tunes.
“We went away to a cabin in Wisconsin with no running water, and didn’t bring much with us besides our instruments and some good wine. And we got to work.”
A pianist since her grandmother started teaching her prekindergarten and a banjo player since her older brother Robert bought her one for her birthday, Jean only just moved to Minneapolis from the woods around Grand Marais a few years ago. She lived along the North Shore for nearly a decade and made a name for herself in the Duluth music scene but wanted to go to the bigger city to further delve into music.
“Sometimes it’s hard just to find working internet up there,” she said, adding with a laugh, “And it’s not the best place to live if you’re a woman in your 20s and single.”
Meanwhile, Dean had been kicking around the Twin Cities music scene for over a decade and issued a few rootsy solo albums, including a 2016 effort produced by Trampled by Turtles’ Dave Simonett. She also made a modest splash working with Graham O’Brien as the electronic/synth-rock duo Moon & Pollution.
While they knew working as a duo might draw some new attention to their musical efforts — “For some reason, it just adds intrigue for some people who maybe wouldn’t pay as much attention to a singer/songwriter,” Jean said — they also think it’s a case of two working better than one.
“For both of us, this is the most exciting music we’ve made yet,” Jean happily (and justifiably) beamed.
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