CALICO the band is a California band in the deepest, most natural sense of the term. Specifically, the moniker (all caps, please) is shorthand for California country—as if that weren’t vividly apparent from the first moments of Under Blue Skies, the group’s resonant, accomplished sophomore album, with its musical intricacy, lyrical eloquence and timeless immediacy. The thought-provoking, tightly harmonized songs of founder/leaders Manda Mosher and Kirsten Proffit exist in a continuum with the seminal form Gram Parsons famously dubbed Cosmic American Music.
The sound of Under Blue Skies is informed by the duo’s shared love of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, the Everly Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and, of course, the Beatles. Their songwriting touchstones include Joni Mitchell (whose “Ladies of the Canyon” they cover on the album), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, The Band and Tom Petty. Mosher and Proffit feel so connected to this classic music that they’re able to bring it into the present tense and make it their own.
“We’re passionate about carrying on the tradition by incorporating our influences, but through a new lens,” says Proffit. “The reason our music comes across as honest is because we’re not trying to be anything but ourselves—this is who we are and what we do. We’ve been lucky enough to have that California sound permeate who we are since our childhoods.”
The partners are California natives with back stories so perfectly complementary they could’ve been scripted, the screenwriter inevitably rendering their predestined intersection as “second-generation hippie meets showbiz kid.” Proffit’s parents were nomadic hippies who roamed from Santa Cruz to Majorca, Spain, and back again with their little girl in tow. Mosher’s family on her mother’s side has been in California since the wagon-train era, while her grandfather was writer and creator of classic sitcoms including Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters. One key ingredient the two sets of parents had in common was their record collections, which shaped the two youngsters’ sensibilities in a profound and lasting way.
“I also listened to the radio when I was a kid—Depeche Mode and all the electronic stuff,” Manda points out. “I liked that too, but in my mind it didn’t compare in quality to my parents’ music. So when I started making music myself, it came down to the organic basics of songwriting, guitars, harmonies and storytelling.”
The memory that’s embedded in Kirsten’s consciousness takes place around the family pool, fittingly enough. “It’s summertime, my dad is grinding up meat, and ‘Teach Your Children’ is playing on the stereo,” she says. “I’ve just gotten out of the pool, and I’m lying on the carpet, soaking wet, filled with this feeling of calm and happiness. Whenever I think of that moment, my eyes fill with tears. In moments like that, the music you’re hearing becomes part of who you are.”
When the two met in 2012, they were traveling parallel paths as L.A.-based singer/songwriters plotting their next moves. Kirsten was booking a tour for an album she’d just finished recording, and Manda was playing local shows, one of which Kirsten attended. As members of the city’s roots community, they were aware of each other and followed each other on social media. A prescient promoter thought they’d make a great double bill at the House of Blues, an offer neither could refuse, despite the promoter’s insistence on dubbing the show “Goddesses of Americana,” as they laughingly recall. Kirsten and Manda decided to do a song together, agreeing on Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks”; they met for the first time at rehearsal and instantly felt a spark. As they observed each other, Manda had a realization. “You’re kind of a lone ranger, like me,” she said to Kirsten, and in that moment, the spark became a flame of inspiration, yielding their first collaboration, “Lone Ranger.” At that point, says Kristen, “There was no denying that there was something special happening musically between us. We didn’t even have a plan in terms of what we wanted to sound like. I remember asking Manda, ‘What is our sound?’ We just started playing, and that’s what it sounded like.”
Rancho California, CALICO’s first album, took more than a year to make—“because we were touring like crazy,” says Manda. “We found we were getting bookings far more easily than either of us had been able to do on our own, and we took advantage of it; we played over 200 shows, writing and recording the whole time. We started a label, California Country Records, self-funded our first record and released it ourselves in the fall of 2014. We’d made solo records and had publishing deals, so we’d been through enough to know how to piece together a good support team for radio, press and film-and-TV licensing. The momentum started building from there: We got on the Americana chart, played theaters and festivals including Stagecoach and Americana Fest, and got syncs on songs from the record right out of the gate; the first one was for the ABC series Nashville, and the latest is for The Ranch, Ashton Kutcher’s show on Netflix. It became a groundswell, and we had a lot of cheerleaders. While all this was happening, we started working on the next record.”
“We dug in deeper on this record from a songwriting standpoint,” Manda continues. “Because we’ve spent so much time together, we feel more comfortable expressing vulnerability in the lyrics; there are definitely more love songs. There’s certainly meaning to Rancho California, but it’s more broad strokes; on Under Blue Skies, we were able to dig in and get more personal.”
Case in point: “405,” Proffit’s lone solely penned song on the new album, on which romance blossoms against a backdrop acutely familiar to L.A. residents. “I was living in in Burbank, and I met someone—this guitar player, a really sweet guy who was living in Venice,” Kirsten says of the situation that inspired the song. “I’d drive to his place when he was done with work, and the traffic was a nightmare. It was a new relationship, and everything about it was perfect—except for that damn freeway! The chorus goes, ‘We’ve got life behind us, open skies above and the walls of the canyon on either side/In front of us now is a great divide, and there’s nothing between us but the 405.’”
The story has a happy ending: “I live in Venice now,” says Kirsten with a smile. On the other hand, the 405 is now between Kirsten and Manda. “But I moved from Burbank to Lake Balboa,” Manda says. “Now I’m right next to the 405.”
In other songs, the luminous textures of blended voices over stringed instruments counterbalance heavy themes. “Fine Line” considers the delusional state that befall so many aspirants who come to L.A. in hopes of realizing their dreams. “Roll Away The Stone” considers the struggle of overcoming addiction from the point of view of someone who cares enough to share the burden with the strung-out individual. And “Cold Cold Love” is a murder ballad in modern dress about the dark consequences of obsessive love. The linchpin songs also include a pair that ponder separation: “Free Man,” a tonal change of pace on which co-writer Jason Charles Miller trades vocal lines with Kirsten, and “The Leaving Kind,” on which Kirsten sounds uncannily like Linda Ronstadt fronting the Stone Poneys.
Under Blue Skies, like its predecessor, finds Proffit and Mosher surrounded by simpatico and similarly skillful members of their musical family. “We’re at a time in music that’s reminiscent of the late ’60s in California,” Kirsten offers. “In the same spirit as Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles or Gram and Emmylou, we carry on the tradition of making music with people we respect and love. We’re part of a close network of musicians, and the synergy is always firing when you have great songs and fantastic players like our go-to guy, Ted Russell Kamp, coming up with ideas. It’s like creating a painting with everyone holding a brush.”
The new album is further enriched by the mix, conducted with signature artistry and insightfulness by the renowned Jim Scott (Petty, Wilco) through his vintage Neve console. “It’s as old-school as it gets,” Kirsten marvels. Adds Manda, “The second record took a year to record too, for the same reason, and it was great to have a new set of ears at a crucial point. We love Jim and the work he’s done on the record.”
The partners are also manifesting this sense of community with projects on their label. “We released a record for another artist, Alice Wallace, who’s doing great,” says Kirsten. “We plan on releasing Ted Kamp’s record after Under Blue Skies, and we’d love to do a California Country compilation album, with songs from artists we love on the West Coast.”
Mosher and Proffit are the indigenous inheritors—and perpetuators—of a rich legacy, and their vision of California unfolds with widescreen Technicolor splendor on Under Blue Skies. “This state has been romanticized,” says Kirsten, “but there’s truth behind the mythology—the ease and diversity of the people, the weather, the natural beauty, the entertainment business and the liberal culture make it unique. As artists, we feel free to do whatever we want. And the music that has come out of California is the soundtrack to our lives.”
“For us,” says Manda, “it always comes down to a great song and a guitar—nothing’s better than the records we grew up with.”
With Under Blue Skies, CALICO has made an album that slides seamlessly into my alphabetized record collection just after Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley, the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. Right where it belongs.