There's no shortage of bands composing ditties about love and loss in bustling alternative music sweet spots such as London and Brooklyn. Even so, if an indie group is capable of producing gorgeous modern ballads while residing in sleepy strip-mall South Florida, you can bet the players are tapping into some good vibrations.
"Here you get so stuck in your routine that you forget the beauty that we have," says the Postmarks' boyishly named chanteuse, Tim Yehezkely. "It's a mindset; you have to find beauty and feel inspired no matter where you are."
There's no doubt the Postmarks—a trio made up of Yehezkely, guitarist Christopher Moll and drummer Jonathan Wilkins—are aiming for beauty. Their eponymous debut is full of wistful lyrics set atop lush, cinematic arrangements reminiscent of legendary pop composers Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson.
The Postmarks perform Wednesday, May 9, at Club Dada.
After two years of careful tinkering, the popsters find themselves riding a perfectly unexpected wave of popular acclaim. The group's self-titled debut album, released last January, has garnered raves from Spin and Rolling Stone, both of which recently tabbed the band as star up-and-comers. The revered music Web site Pitchforkmedia.com has named the record as an early contender for album of the year. The first single, an impossibly catchy ditty called "Goodbye," is one of the top-requested songs in college radio. Urban Outfitters recently added The Postmarks to its trend-setting in-store playlist.
These are impressive feats for any band, but they seem even more astonishing when you take into account the Postmarks' old-fashioned path to success. Instead of playing endless live shows in the hopes of creating a buzz, the threesome focused its energies on writing and recording.
With a finished set of tracks, the band sent its demos to renowned New York City-based musician/producer and label owner Andy Chase, who immediately offered to mix and release its album on his imprint Unfiltered Records. "I heard a fairly crude, rough version of 'Goodbye' and totally, completely fell in love with the Postmarks," Chase says. "No band—especially not in this country—is making music like this."
Chase would know. As the producer of bands such as Ivy and Tahiti 80, he's one of the leading proponents of so-called "neuvo-pop," music that melds the sophisticated instrumentation of French pop with a melancholy lyricism. Chase tags the Postmarks as an antidote to what he calls "junk-pop." "Their sound," he says, "and Tim's voice just hooked me from the very first moment."
He was hardly alone. After the group offered "Goodbye" as a free download on MySpace, its popularity exploded. If it seems odd that the band would give away its hit single, having just signed a record deal, well, welcome to the brave new world of digital promotion. "It's a strategy that worked for us," Moll says.
At 36 years old, Moll still has a youthful look about him as he scans a mostly empty Miami Beach cafe for a place to sit. It's an unusually overcast Saturday morning in March; the spring break throngs are still sleeping off the booze at their hotels. For now, at least, South Beach seems like a calm place to be.
Moll, dressed in a gray shirt and spectacles, chooses a table and turns to help his bandmate, Yehezkely, who is on crutches, thanks to a spill she took while dancing. Was this your standard rock-and-roll mosh pit accident? Not quite, she says. In fact the dark-haired beauty broke her right ankle while dancing at Disney's Pleasure Island, of all places. She attributes her fall to the bizarre mechanized moving floors at one of the nightclubs there.
Moll sips his coffee and ponders the harsh realities facing South Florida's indie acts. "So many people still have that picture of the '70s, with Hall & Oates smiling and signing a contract," he says. "But those days are gone. The labels don't have as much money as they used to; they want something fully realized. It's not like in Los Angeles or New York City, where an A&R man is going to come in and discover you. Here we have so very few venues. A better use of your time and energy is to have a finished product; at the end of the day, that's what you're going to be judged on."
As a veteran of the South Florida music scene, Moll knows whereof he speaks. For years he played with the Britpop-style act 23 Twenty-Three, then joined the dreamy, bossa nova-meets-experimental rock of See Venus. Along the way Moll earned a rep as one of the area's most inventive composers.
After See Venus came to an end in 2005, he decided to join forces with another multi-instrumentalist, 37-year-old Jonathan Wilkins. The pair met playing in a side project and quickly discovered a shared passion for intricate musical arrangements. They both admired the orchestral French pop of the late Serge Gainsbourg, as well as the so-called Brill Building composers. Turning away from the heavily synthesized sound of See Venus, Moll also longed to record songs with vintage instruments.
But attempting to emulate the intricate melodic structures of pop masters such as Bacharach proved a time-consuming venture for both men, who are graphic designers by day. They spent late nights toiling at the home studio in Moll's apartment. Fortunately Moll is not only a superb composer, but a veteran producer, renowned for his impeccable board work on albums such as See Venus' Hard Time for Dreamers.
What the pair lacked was someone to supply inspired vocals. That missing element came courtesy of the willowy Yehezkely, whom Wilkins discovered singing at an open mike night. He was enthralled by her delicate voice, which he knew would serve as the perfect complement to Moll's luscious instrumentals.
Yehezkely herself was a little less certain. As a 22-year-old chemistry major at Florida Atlantic University, the thought of ditching her studies to join forces with a couple of 30-something musicians struck her as far-fetched. Still, she was aware that both Moll and Wilkins were acclaimed musicians and was flattered by the duo's sincere interest in her singing. What finally won her over, she says, was listening to some samples of Moll's multilayered production.
But before she agreed to start recording, Yehezkely had one caveat: "I couldn't sing someone else's words; it had to come from me," she says.
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From the beginning all three players agreed that they wanted the record they created to sustain an atmosphere of longing. After experimenting with several tracks, the trio hit a breakthrough of sorts with the song "Leaves," a paean to vanished love. "Breathe in your smile behind a tree blended with petals and dreams," Yehezkely whispers. "But you won't notice until the fall, when you come to see the girl left behind leaves." The melody is sustained by Moll's tender piano work, recalling a long-lost theme from a vintage music box. "Leaves" is Yehezkely's favorite song, one of several that focuses on the changing of the seasons as a metaphor for the birth and death of relationships.
Moll says he wrote the song lines with a cinematic feel in mind. As a graphic designer, he says, "I'm always aware of the colors the songs represent; a lot of thought goes into them."
Although work has already begun on a second album, for now the bandmates are focused on translating their studio magic to a live setting. They are well into their ambitious national tour, one that Moll is hoping will help the band reach a level of success that will allow him, at long last, to quit his day job.
For Yehezkely, who someday would like to finish her college degree—she only has four classes left—the world is full of possibilities. "It has already succeeded beyond any expectations I had," she says. "I just hope it keeps on growing where it needs to grow. I'm trusting whatever happens.