By Richard Skanse
Rachel Laven will be playing things a bit rogue during her first-ever trip to the Americana Music Festival & Conference next week in Nashville. Or at least, just a little off schedule.
“I have a show, but it’s not at one of the official venues,” explains the San Antonio singer-songwriter, who secured herself a Thursday night gig at Nashville’s Commodore Grille that’s falls smack in the middle of the Sept. 20-25 AmericanaFest but that’s not, strictly speaking, “part” of it. “I got in a little late for applying for an official (showcase),” she admits, “so I’m just gonna scope it out this year and apply next.”
All things considered, it’s not that big of a deal; but on the off chance anyone should misread the above as evidence of Laven being the kind of young artist who can’t get her act together, let’s review what she did accomplish this summer. On May 24, a couple weeks after her 24th birthday, she self-released her second solo album, Love & Luccheses. Five days later, she was called onto the main stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival as one of the six winners of this year’s Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition — an esteemed honor whose past recipients include such notables as Tom Russell, Tish Hinojosa, Eric Taylor, Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, and Slaid Cleaves. Six weeks later, she hopped a plane for Europe for a month-long tour/vacation with her family band, the Lavens. Then within days of her return to San Antonio in August, she hit the road with her other band, Sweet ’Shine and Honey, for a quick tour out west complete with a studio stop in New Mexico to record yet another new record, due out early next year. Throw in a whole mess of “regular” hometown, Austin, and surrounding Texas Hill Country gigs on top of all that, and it’s clear that this young self-motivator does not run in idle. To swap a line by another industrious songster from San Antone, Doug Sahm, she’s very much “about a mover.”
Granted, Laven may have only been 7 years old when the great Sir Doug passed back in 1999, but it probably wasn’t too long before she was a lot hipper to the Texas Tornado than most Millennials even are today. Sahm, after all, was sort of the patron saint of Casbeer’s, the San Antonio cafe and roots-music venue where Laven pretty much got her start as a precocious whippersnapper and diligent, note-taking student of song. “Casbeer’s was like my incubator, and a big part of my early writing,” she says. “I’d go see Slaid Cleaves and Terri Hendrix and Susan Gibson, sitting down front and figuring out chords and writing lyrics on napkins and things like that.”
She didn’t spend all her time just sitting in the audience, though. It was at Casbeer’s — and another favorite local haunt, the Cove — that Rachel got her stage wings with her parents, Andreas and Jana, and her older, guitar-slinging brother, Niko. Andreas and Jana, both Montessori school teachers, played in a handful of different bands long before their kids came along, but it was with Rachel and Niko in the spotlight that the Lavens really started to make waves on the local music scene.
“We started forming a family band as soon as Niko picked up a guitar and I picked up a guitar, because my dad would play bass and my mom would sing with us,” recalls Rachel, who had already been singing (in one of her parents’ cover bands) and playing piano for five years by the time she picked up that guitar at age 10. Her brother, seven years older, actually started out playing drums but switched to Telecaster once his kid sister started strumming — and writing — on acoustic. From the get-go, the emotional maturity of the songs she wrote — much like the voice she sang them in — belied her youth.
“I remember being a teenager, or 12 and 13, and people coming up to me and being like, ‘Man, I thought it was this old woman onstage, and then I came inside and saw this little tiny girl, and I was just astounded that big voice came out of that little body,’” she says. “I used to get that a lot as a kid. When I listen back to the recordings we have of me at 13, I always think I sound like a baby, but other people apparently didn’t think the same.”
Those Lavens recordings of Rachel singing at 13 include Sibling Rivalry and Sibling Rivalry: Rematch, a pair of live albums released in tandem in 2006 showcasing her own sweetly earnest (but strikingly mature) contemporary folk songs alongside her then-19-year-old brother’s gritty urban blues and heartland roots rock. The following year’s Live at the Cove added a few inspired covers and a couple of songs giving Mom and Dad a turn at the mic, offering a perfect snapshot of the kind of shows that the Lavens (tagline: “We’re no Partridge Family!”) have been performing at the funky but family-friendly San Antonio venue on a weekly basis for the last 13 years.
“It’s a really relaxed, easy gig,” Rachel admits. “Everybody knows us and we know everybody in the audience, not counting the new people that come in every week. It’s kind of like our home court.”
Easy or no, though, logging hundreds of gigs with a family band — a dynamic which, for the record, she insists can be fraught with a lot more ego clashes than some might expect — all through one’s teens could arguably be enough to scare even the most gifted musical prodigy straight into law or business school, preferably out of state. But instead, Rachel came to find out that having just one steady musical outlet wasn’t enough for her. So in addition to keeping up with the rest of the Lavens throughout college (majoring in theater at Trinity University), she also polished off a solo record — 2012’s Unwind, recorded with local Grammy-winning producer and musician’s musician Joe Reyes (Freddy Fender, Buttercup, Lara & Reyes) — and hooked up with high school friends Addison Freeman, Steven Sellers and Sam Snavely to form the newgrass band Sweet ‘Shine & Honey. And as evidenced by her Summer 2016 report card, Solo Laven, Lavens Laven, and Sweet ’Shine Laven are all still co-existing just fine four years down the line.
“There’s a lot of crossover, song-wise, because all three rely mainly on me as a songwriter,” she says. “But you can take a song and really change it up completely with the different bands because the lead instrumentation is so different.” Thus a song like Unwind’s “On Your Own” might sound singer-songwriter folky played solo acoustic, but with the Lavens, it takes on a dark, almost hard-rock feel, heavily informed by her brother Niko’s guitar work, while Sweet ’Shine deftly translates it into bluegrass. But as freely as she may share her songs between bands, Laven makes a concerted effort to keep the different identities separated when it comes to recording.
“Steven, the banjo and mandolin player in Sweet ’Shine, is as much a part of that band’s sound as my songs and vocals, so if he were to play on a ‘Rachel Laven’ record, it would sound just like Sweet ’Shine,” she explains. “And the same goes for Niko; you can instantly recognize his guitar playing, so if he were to play on my album, it would be like, ‘Well, how is this different from the Lavens?’”
That’s why, apart from her mother’s co-writing credit on one song (“The Moon”), Rachel is the only Laven — or Sweet ’Shiner, for that matter — featured at all on the new Love & Luccheses. Reyes, whose production on Unkind was pretty much a one-man-band affair, is also absent. This time around, she worked with producer and multi-instrumentalist Sean Sankey, who she met a couple years ago during her very short stint playing rhythm guitar with the house band for Cowboys Dancehall.
“Sean was the drummer and band leader when I worked at Cowboys, and he invited me over to lay down some demos at the recording studio he was setting up in his house,” says Laven. “And then we thought, ‘Why don’t we do an album?’ He was right in the vein of music that I wanted to get into; he wasn’t trying to morph me or change me into anything mainstream, but he was able to kind of add a mainstream sound to the kind of folk music that I’ve been playing for so long.”
The rest of the players on the album were all past or present members of the Cowboys Dancehall house band, too, which accounts for why Love & Luccheses is far and away the most country sounding record Laven has made to date. It’s a style that fits her as comfortably as the beloved hand-me-down boots (originally her paternal grandmother’s) that inspired the album’s remarkable title track.
“That was the last song written for the record,” she says. “In fact, I came up with the title for the record before I came up with the song, which happened with Unwind as well. I remember finishing it about two days before I went into the studio. And it was one that I was really a little unsure about, because it was so personal — I just didn’t think that anybody else would be able to connect with it. But I’ve actually had amazing responses with that song; I’ve had a lot of people come up and tell me about their families that immigrated, just like my dad’s mom, or about loved ones that gave them tokens of their lives like rings and boots and jewelry. So it’s had an incredible response that I wasn’t anticipating.”
She’s had pretty good luck so far with the album’s “Only Thing Familiar,” too. Just like the band that she used on the album, the song came directly out of her Cowboys Dancehall days. “I only lasted there about a month before they let me go for what they said was financial reasons, but I think it was really because I wouldn’t wear enough makeup,” Laven explains. “But I would still come home every night really glammed up with a lot of makeup on, and I was taking it off one night when my boyfriend came up to me and said, ‘You know, I like you better in sweatpants than in all that makeup.’ And that led to what the song ended up being about.”
“Only Thing Familiar” was one of the two songs Laven submitted for New Folk — the other being “Wildfires,” which will be featured on next year’s Sweet ’Shine & Honey release. This was her first year entering the prestigious competition, and she readily admits to being uncharacteristically nervous as hell when it came time to perform her songs in front of the judges.
“I’d been going to the Kerrville Folk Festival since I was 12, so the New Folk competition was something that I’d always put on a pedestal,” she says. “So just to be