A couple of years ago, Allison Olassa returned from a trip to the grocery store and told Cain Robberson, "I met a tuba player while shopping for frozen fruit."
This turned out to be fortunate news. Olassa and Robberson, late of the Lawrence group Tiny Tuxedo, had found a new bandmate.
"At the time," Tyler Bachert says, "the tuba was the last thing I wanted to play." He had focused on the big brass instrument in college but more recently had become interested in the upright bass. (He also knows a thing or two about the drums.) Olassa made a convincing case in the frozen aisle, though. The result is the three-person outfit that shares her name — Olassa — and is about to release its debut EP.
Bachert is telling me about his role in the Americana trio's origin at Frank's North Star Tavern in Lawrence. It's karaoke night here, and a loud Pink Floyd rendition threatens to drown him out. Over drinks and the sometimes deafening sounds of people trying to sing the catalogs of Lady Gaga and Kanye West, he and Robberson and Olassa tell me how they came to make I Love You, Come Back to Me.
The group pulls from two distinct energies: Allison's and Robberson's. Her style is highly focused but mellow, and his is frenetic. He's a jump-on-the-amps-and-play-it-hard musician. Bridged by Bachert, who says his way falls somewhere in the middle, they're making some very appealing music. And they've become a captivating live act, thanks in part to the way that Allison's and Robberson's voices work together.
"Allison's big on people singing with their own voice," Robberson says as the karaoke buzzes around us. Someone is boldly and somewhat effectively belting Radiohead's "Creep." Robberson finishes his thought: "And this is her voice."
It is her voice that you notice first when you hear the band. Her vibrato is distinct, just a little waver that she might deploy once or twice per phrase. "I call it a quiver," Bachert says.
"It would just come out when I sang softly," Allison says. "And then I learned to use it when I was singing louder." It accentuates Olassa's rootsy sensibility, blending easily with a sound that finds room for guitars, accordion, tuba, bass and drums.
Allison arrived in KC from Wichita about five years ago and started making a name for herself playing solo shows and in the Old Country Death Band. She had met Robberson at the Walnut Valley bluegrass festival in Winfield by then, and their time in Tiny Tuxedo taught them to love each other's styles. So when that band split up because of another member's move, Robberson and Olassa kept at it. As Robberson tells it, their sound began to "come down to a more beautiful, controlled place" from Tiny Tuxedo's less restrained approach.
Together, the three band members share 30 years of collective Winfield experience, and that easy association means that the group ends up on bluegrass bills. "We can definitely connect with that bluegrass crowd, but I feel like musically we belong more with the folk or indie crowd," Robberson says. And while it's true that the band has appeared here and there with a banjo player or with someone at the washboard at this or that bluegrass festival, the band's music lacks most of the usual bluegrass elements.
The members of Olassa hope that I Love You, Come Back to Me, recorded earlier this year at Robberson and Olassa's house, clears up any confusion and cements the group's identity. All three musicians shared production duties, with Bachert engineering. (He produced albums for his other band, Lawrence's Ample Branches.) "We cut our teeth making this record," Robberson says. "We learned how to record. Before [in Robberson and Allison's previous bands], the sound wasn't ready yet."
"There's just never enough time, never enough money to record in a studio," Allison says.
They're proud of this first, appropriately homespun effort — and the feeling is warranted. I've spent some time with the EP since the getting-to-know-you night at karaoke, and it's a strong showing. With six songs totaling 22 minutes, it accurately reflects the band's personality. Allison takes three of the songwriting credits here, and Robberson the other three, a split that effectively echoes the duality of the band's live performances. Yet it's also a cohesive blend of these two personalities and styles, with Bachert's inventive, playful percussion and instrumentation holding it all together. It's a lovely album, with enough metaphor-heavy lyrics — encompassing death, friendship, lost connections and relationships — to keep lyric parsers busy, and just enough accordion, too.
The band plans to release it before the end of the year, and they hope to herald its arrival with a release show in Lawrence (as well as future Kansas City appearances). It has been a slow thaw for a band born in a frozen-foods section, but I Love You, Come Back to Me deserves a warm welcome.