Into the Wild: Wild Child at Belly Up tonight
November 22, 2013
Everyone assumed Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins were in love, and who could fault that perception? When they appeared onstage together, as co-frontmen of the Austin, Texas, band Wild Child, Wilson and Beggins, both in their early 20s then, would ignore the crowd in front of them to gaze at each other, singing their songs of romance and sadness and longing for each other's ears.
"We stared at each other instead of looking at the audience. People thought we were in love," Wilson recalled. "But it was just nerves. It was terrifying at first."
Neither Wilson nor Beggins was frightened to be onstage, exactly. Both were veteran performing musicians by the time they hit their 20s. But both were content to be sidemen — in the background, adorning someone else's songs and voice with their instruments (for Wilson, the fiddle; for Beggins, guitar, ukulele, banjo, accordion). Neither one was a singer or a songwriter.
But Wilson and Beggins brought something new out of each other, even if it wasn't romance. The two met three years ago, when both were hired to tour with the Danish folk-rock band The Migrant. While neither thought about writing songs, they both had much to write about at the time; both were coming out of long-term relationships.
“We’re learning more and more why that’s our name. It gives us an opportunity to be as naturally bizarre as we can. We’re a bunch of goofy kids who like to do weird things.”
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"We were going through our first significant break-ups, in weird mental states," the 23-year-old Wilson said on her way from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.
Being in the company of The Migrant cut both ways: There was no need to write songs; the permanent members of The Migrant handled that. At the same time, there was songwriting going on around them.
"We were in a band with people who wrote songs all the time," she said.
And they had each other.
"Neither of us was confident to do it alone, but together we were able to break through some walls, be less nervous," Wilson said.
As it turns out, it was an ideal songwriting partnership. As a fiddler, Wilson was accustomed to thinking in terms of melody.
"I never played piano or guitar, where you could make chord progressions and song structures. And Alexander grew up playing guitar," she said. "It was a perfect match. Alexander would come up with a riff, and I'd come up with a melody."
The 15 songs that ended up on "Pillow Talk," the 2011 album that marked the debut of Wild Child, spilled out of the duo — usually when they were lying together on the floor of Wilson's room.
"We didn't realize we had something we needed to say," Wilson said. "But after the first album, it was obvious how much we needed to say. It happened so naturally — like pulling these songs out of the universe, out of nowhere. Like they were already there and we were just grabbing them at the right time.
"It was our therapy. When you're on the road, you miss home. We're not so good at expressing ourselves; singing it was a lot easier than saying it verbally. Within 10 weeks we had 10 song we were really happy with."
* * * *
Wilson grew up in Wimberley, a small town in central Texas. As a 5-year-old homeschooled kid, she began playing violin. Classical music was serious business, not pleasure.
"It was one of the few things I could do at home," Wilson said. "I was serious about it, but it wasn't fun. It was strict, straightforward."
Around the age of 12, Wilson discovered that there was another way of playing violin that didn't require playing exactly what someone had written on a sheet. The musical arena opened up wide.
"Until I found out about not reading music but playing by feel, I wasn't interested in it," she said, noting that she got into both bluegrass and jazz. "You just picked up fiddle and played whatever you wanted to. It didn't require hours and scales or technique."
Among her friends at the time was another Wimberley girl in her early teens, Sarah Jarosz, who has become a shining star in acoustic music. The two faced off against each other in bluegrass competitions and collaborated to make the music for high school plays and to play in the band the Wagon Wheels.
From high school, Wilson, who was also into theater and photography, went directly to the music capital of Austin, some 20 miles northeast of Wimberley.
"I knew that was the best place to find other musicians," she said. "I put an ad on Craigslist and took every gig that came along — bluegrass, country, punk, rockabilly."
One of the musicians she became friends with — Carey McGraw, now the drummer in Wild Child — set Wilson up to play in a tour with The Migrant. There she met Beggins, and her musical path took its unexpected turn.
"I never thought of having my own project. Same with Alex," she said. "It was really strange that it took this progression."
Some aspects of Wild Child are, of course, unlikely — that it is centered around two people who had been instrumentalists who had never wanted to sing or write and that one of the primary instruments is the baritone ukulele, played by Beggins. (Wilson says Beggins was raised in Houston with a father who had a big collection of instruments and that Beggins was playing in bands since his early teens.)
For an outsider, though, who is listening to the music of Wild Child, none of it seems unlikely. Solidly in the modern vein of folk music that is highly decorated with strings, horns and keyboards, the sound is beautiful, melodic and striking. Beggins' voice has a distinctive mix of folk and pop tones. Their songs are complex with vocal and string arrangements and unusual time signatures.
"The feedback we got from everyone, just from these ukulele sounds, was great," Wilson said of their early efforts at songwriting. "We played a few shows, just the two of us, and we had a fan base."
Six months after meeting, Wilson and Beggins put together a band of friends from the Austin scene, got a show at the city's massive South by Southwest festival and then began recording "Pillow Talk." The notoriety was instantaneous; in a city crammed with young indie-folk acts, Wild Child was tabbed as one to keep an eye on.
* * * *
In October, Wild Child — as a seven-piece band with ukulele, fiddle, banjo, cello, keyboards, drums and bass but no guitar — released its second album, "The Runaround." It is a major step forward in all aspects. "Pillow Talk" was made on rented instruments and recorded in closets. Wilson and Beggins would come up with all the parts of the song and then try to tell the musicians they'd rounded up exactly what to play.
"The Runaround," Wilson says, is "a different beast." They hired a producer — the noted Texas singer-songwriter Ben Kweller — and went into a proper studio in Austin. The website Pop Matters gave it an 8.
Wilson and Beggins are still growing into their new roles.
"We're getting there. We're more used to it," Wilson said, noting Wild Child has toured consistently for a year, mostly on the East Coast, and did its first West Coast tour this past summer. "When you're just playing on instruments in someone else's band, your only concern is your instrument, your sound. And the job is only onstage. You're just enjoying yourself. Now there's a lot more on the line. It's your diary, your thoughts and songs. And it's your job — you have to load in, keep a band happy."
Part of the reason for choosing the name Wild Child was because Wilson and Beggins spent some time in a group called Grandchild.
"We wanted to make Grandchild jealous," Wilson said. Also, there is a photo of Wilson and Beggins, standing in the woods and looking wild, that they both like.
But Wild Child also seems like a name they can grow into.
"We're learning more and more why that's our name," Wilson said. "It gives us an opportunity to be as naturally bizarre as we can. We're a bunch of goofy kids who like to do weird things."
If you go …
What: Wild Child with Gipsy Moon
When: Tonight at 9
Where: Belly Up