Community Spotlight: Canary in the Coalmine

Community Spotlight: Canary in the Coalmine

Canary in the Coalmine:

Taking Dark Matter and Making it Pretty

by Jonathan Balcar

Imagine a bright yellow bird attempting to escape the clutches of impending death. This is the “eerily hopeful” message Canary in the Coalmine conveys with their music.

The music is a blend of folk, bluegrass, and country backed by a vast array of string instruments. The lyrics involve deep personal stories mixed with dark religious imagery. What’s left on the table is a pleasant sounding blend of intense, dark subject matter with hauntingly pretty melodies.

The distinct and ever-evolving Americana folk band is fronted by singers Jessica Pounds and Sandy Wicker. These two girls front the band with their dynamic and powerful voices and songwriting. Fate had them meet on the streets of Asheville, North Carolina, where they first recognized the spark that their voices generated. There was an instant connection, and they discovered that their harmonies complimented each other. Jessica convinced Sandy to pack her bags and move from Tennessee to Jacksonville where they began writing songs together.

The songs are written from dark places and set to pleasant and almost euphoric tunes. The first song the girls ever wrote together was called Black Hole. There is a powerful lyric in the song that says, “That black hole you worship’s gonna pull you under long before your time has come.” A few days after writing Sandy’s father passed away of a drug addiction that he struggled with for years. “On the album the songs travel through this journey from pain, anger, judgement, resentment,” says Jessica. Although many of their songs have different stories and themes, hope in the midst of struggle is the ongoing sentiment.

photo by John Shippee

The diversity of the musical backgrounds and skill sets in this band is evident. The mixture includes Arvid Smith, a seasoned folk musician who plays the dobro, melobar, electric, and 12 string guitars; Philip Pan, a classical concertmaster and violinist; and Peter Mosely, former Yellowcard bassist as well as songwriter and guitarist for the Jacksonville band, Inspection 12.

“I think it just makes us a little bit more unique than any traditional folk band,” says Jessica about the varied backgrounds of the artists. Violinist Philip Pan says, “Everyone just brings what they are from experience, from life, from training, just listening, to the table.” Every piece of the band is different and builds to form a unified sound. With the variety of backgrounds and styles, they are able to develop a sound that is true to folk music and yet new, fresh, and constantly evolving.

The band is currently working toward releasing their first full length album in the Spring 2014. Four of the songs can be listened to on their current EP. They can be found touring local venues in Jacksonville and Florida festivals. They will be performing at the Magnolia Fest in Live Oak at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park on October 18th. Be sure to check out the band’s live show, and keep an eye on their promising future.

Meeting the band:

On the vocal dynamic between Jessica and Sandy

Jessica- [Our voices] complimented each other really well, and that’s a really rare connection to have with someone when you very first meet them. For all intents and purposes she was a complete stranger at the time and we just had this weird connection. It was one of those times that you take this huge leap. It was a huge leap for Sandy… a 400 mile leap. But it paid off.

Sandy- It’s very organic. It just kind of comes naturally. We write together, and we write separately some. Our voices blend really well but their very different.Can you take me through the process of your songwriting?

Sandy- I’ve always said, and it’s a little bit strange but I won’t realize what I’m going through until after I write that song, and then come back and listen to it and ‘Ah, that totally sums up what I was feeling.’ But I couldn’t just say it, you know? Or really understand it until I had it in a melody. Then all of a sudden it just made sense. It’s definitely therapeutic for anybody who writes songs. It’s also a way of understanding myself a little bit better.

Jessica- I guess we do have similar approaches to it really when it comes down to it. I think Sandy writes through characters a lot. It gives a really cool aspect that’s very true to the folk tradition. I struggled a lot with simplifying the verse, lyrics, making something that’s accessible, that is true to the emotion or experience that you are trying to convey, and sometimes that means saying much less than you would want to say and just finding the right words and the right melody that just supports everything, and allows that songs to flourish.

What about the lyric in the song Black Hole, “That black hole you worship’s gonna pull you under long before your time has come”?

Sandy- That was the first song we ever wrote. The more that I think about it the more it will always be our song. That’s most definitely our song. My dad passed away of a drug addiction for years so the song, I don’t know, you can replay it now and it’s such an emotional attachment to it for all those reasons. It’s really hard to put that stuff into a song, to be so bold about it I guess. And then to have to redo it and play it all the time but like I said its super therapeutic. How else do you get over something like that? You know, face it.

On the religious imagery in the songs

Jessica- I learned to sing in church, southern gospel. There’s tons of religious imagery in the songs. And it’s not ever necessarily referring to actual religion, but it’s our way of relating what we know and how we were raised to real life experiences.

The Front-ladies of Canary in the Coalmine

Sandy- Neither of us are super, or not really religious, but I think if you grow up that way, you can’t shake it. It’s hard to get rid of that hell fire and brimstone fear that’s inside of you.

Jessica- There can be beautiful imagery. I like using it when it strikes people differently, especially in Jacksonville, where there’s a Baptist church around every corner, so it’s nice to hear that with a different message. You leave with a different sense of what that may mean. I think that the sort of religious imagery that’s thrown into the songs is powerful. It grabs you, and you kind of have to wrestle with it. And that’s how I feel when I write it. It’s kind of this push and pull, making sense of it all, you know? This life.

Philip, What are some of the differences in folk music from classical?

Philip- I think the main difference is playing by ear. We’re not trained to do that as classical musicians. That’s very foreign to most classical musicians. We have the basics in understanding theory and harmony, but to actually put it to use and to actually do it, that just takes doing it. So you need not only the skills to do that but you need, in your ear, styles and basic sound.

Peter, what’s the difference in your projects with Yellowcard and Inspection 12. What brought you into folk music? What about this project is intriguing to you?

Peter- That’s a little bit of a loaded question for me. When I quit touring with Yellowcard, I probably didn’t play music for about 5 years. I did the annual Inspection 12 shows, and I was doing class, school and that was about it. I went from full time music to really nothing. During that time I’ve kinda been inquired a lot to play with somebody or joined this group and nothing really turned me on at all. And I think I was a little jaded from my experience.

But through a mutual friend I got hooked up with these guys, and I went and checked them out live one night and they gave me a rough mix of what they had been working on in the studio. It had nothing to do with the idea of getting into folk music or bluegrass or anything like that. It’s just that what I heard on the CD with what they had been working on was such a breath of fresh air from all of the other local acts that are around town. The second I heard it I was like, “Yes. Absolutely, I’m in.”

And it’s really grown on me, the folk aspect of it. It’s definitely the kind of band I never saw myself playing in before. But I think that there is so many different parts of the music. It’s not just straightforward folk music for me. There’s a lot of different flavors in there. It’s definitely based in this Americana feel but I always say it’s got this modern twist to it, or this alternative twist that doesn’t make it as straightforward or obvious as to what it is. It’s really that. It’s the quality of the songwriting coming from these guys that was the immediate turn on.Your music is modern, but it’s very true to folk music, so what’s the balance to staying true to folk music and modernizing the music with the popularity of the genre?

Arvid- I think it’s part of the folk process. It’s hard to get people to admit this sometimes, particularly hardcore folk people. The folk process is an ongoing, evolving thing. There was a thing about 15 years ago, they call it psyche folk. They took traditional things, things from 700 years ago, and they were coloring them up with loops and synthesizers and all this kind of stuff, and staying true to the thing of what they can do but speaking with the tools of this time. That’s why I think it’s always an evolving kind of thing. Look at Dylan going electric thing. In the time. I mean, today we can’t even imagine anyone having any kind of objection to that, but at the time it was like “woah, this is not being true to the thing,” but they didn’t realize that it was an organic process that’s growing.

With new instruments you can play Appalachian music with the Turkish string saz like David Lilly does. It just works every time. That’s part of the evolving process, that you’re allowed to do that sort of thing. It’s a test of your musical skills, but it’s also a testament to the timelessness of the music.

What’s your favorite venue? The big festivals or the local spots?

Sandy-I would say the festivals.

Jessica-I mean, we love the festivals. Each one’s a totally different experience. They’re all awesome but we do have a special place in our hearts for the festivals. Cause it’s just fun! You perform and then you become part of the whole festival experience. You get to hear a lot of friends play and get to make a lot of connections.

Arvid- And you have the campfire singing afterwards. Just go from campfire to campfire.

Peter-Yeah, we like to camp.

Arvid- You never can tell who you’ll run into, It’s amazing, especially in Suwannee ‘cause even the headliners do it.

– end of interview

With all the exciting activities and future announcements, CITC are keeping themselves incredibly busy. Catch the band at Magnolia Fest on Friday the 18th and visit their website,, to find out more about the band.

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About the Author

Jonathan Balcar is a native of Jacksonville Florida with a passion for writing.

Armed with an advertising degree at the University of North Florida he’s tackled jobs such as restaurant managing, railroad data entry,and bar backing, but writing remains as the pinnacle of his focus.

You can find more of his writing, including blogs and short stories, on his website,

The post Community Spotlight: Canary in the Coalmine appeared first on The Elbow.

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