“It feels like your wedding day,” says Justin Davis of new duo Striking Matches, in describing an artist’s anticipation of album release day. Davis and musical partner Sarah Zimmermann released their first full-length album, Nothing But The Silence (I.R.S. Records) on March 23. “You go so long and look forward to it as a thing of the future. Finally that day arrives, and you know it doesn’t end on that day, because there is so much more to come. You try to slow down just long enough to realize you’ve achieved this thing that you’ve wanted forever.”
They won’t have much time for slowing down. The project landed at No. 1 on the iTunes UK Country Albums chart, thanks in part to the duo’s recent performances overseas, including a return to the CMA Songwriters Series at C2C in London.
In the years leading up to album release day, Zimmermann and Davis have evolved from fledgling college musicians to a duo with numerous songs, including “When The Right One Comes Along” and “Hanging On A Lie,” featured on the ABC drama Nashville. Striking Matches’ versions of both songs are included on their debut.
Early on, the duo teamed with music executive John Grady, who later signed them as the first act on his Nashville-based label, I.R.S. Records. Grady was instrumental in pairing the duo with T Bone Burnett, producer for artists including Los Lobos, The Wallflowers, as well as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Grammy-winning album Raising Sand. Burnett also served as the executive music producer for television drama Nashville.
“T Bone was doing music for the first season of Nashville,” Grady recalls. “I sent him worktapes of Striking Matches and he said, ‘Grady, that’s the only band I’ve heard that I’ve liked since I’ve been here doing this.’ We kept sending him music, and one day I asked him what he thought about producing them. He does that a couple of times a year, where he’ll produce somebody completely unknown.”
Burnett signed on for the project. “His vision lined up with ours,” Davis says. “The mark of any great producer is making you as an artist feel like you can do anything you imagine. What I wasn’t anticipating is how nurturing he is to new artists in the studio.” Burnett kept the duo’s guitar prowess and irresistible harmonies center stage, augmented by only bass and drums. The setup allowed the duo to stake their claim as musicians from the first bluesy guitar vamp of “Trouble Is As Trouble Does.” Guitar solos shimmer throughout the project on tracks like “Make A Liar Out of Me.”
“It was an experience for them because it allows them to set a bar for the rest of their career for what they will accept or won’t accept, out of themselves or out of the recording experience,” Grady says.
Nothing But The Silence’s stripped down, harmony- and guitar-centric sound was refined through previous recordings; opening slots for Ashley Monroe, Train, Vince Gill; and international gigs in the UK. “We found that the more production and editing we did, it took away from what we were doing as a duo,” Zimmermann says. “It hid our guitar voice, in a sense. We both draw heavily on guitar playing, and that makes us different as a duo. It’s a big part of our songwriting as well.
“You’re not going to listen to our record, and then go to the live show and hear something completely different,” Zimmermann continues. “It’s important to us to make sure our voices and playing are center stage.”
Zimmermann and Davis first crossed paths as freshmen in a college music class, where the two guitar aficionados were randomly paired to improvise a piece of music. Zimmermann was the only female guitarist in the class. Davis’ initial response?
“I thought, ’Oh great, I’m the one who got the girl.’ None of us wanted to end up with the girl, because there were very few examples we could call upon of great female guitarists, except maybe Bonnie Raitt,” Davis recalls. “I asked if she knew any blues, and she pulled out her slide and proceeded to annihilate everybody. Musical chemistry is like social chemistry. Some people you just click with.”
Davis and Zimmermann continued to regularly jam and write songs together, though it took nearly two years before they decided to officially try their luck as a duo.
“Neither of us endeavored to be artists because that was kinda the ‘diva’ thing to do,” Davis explains. “At the same time, we are musicians, we love to write and sing, and love being in the studio. We started thinking, ‘Who gets to do all of that? Oh god, that’s the artist.’ Eventually, we realized we wanted to be artists all along. Songwriters usually only get to write songs; they don’t usually play. Many times, musicians play with other people, but the creative control is very limited. The one person who gets to do all of it is the artist.”
“We played writer’s rounds together, and people kept asking us what our band name was,” Zimmermann recalls of those early shows. “That’s when we decided to give it a shot.”
With more international tour dates, as well as a co-headlining U.S. tour with The Secret Sisters on the books, the duo is already thinking ahead to album number two.
“It would be fun to work with T Bone again, if he’s up for it and feels stimulated artistically,” Davis says. “It was a blast. We will experiment a little sonically, but we want to retain this identity. Maybe more epic guitar solos.”
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