Tim Harrington and Paul Wright do everything together. Childhood friends who used to carpool to high school in their hometown of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, the indie-folk duo Tall Heights recorded their sophomore release, Neptune, live in the same room, with both Harrington and Wright singing simultaneously.
“If you looked at the Pro Tools sessions that we were recording the songs on, it’s just a block of performance,” guitarist Tim Harrington explains over Skype when I ask about the role of human error in their music. “It’s not chopped-up different takes. We didn’t get too precious about that. Of course we didn’t just do a take and say “oh we fucked that up, let’s keep it.” We would go back and do it again, but we’d go back and do it again together. If one person messed up a part, we’d go back and do the song again.”
Togetherness, too, is what has led to Tall Heights’ recent uptick in popularity. Beginning as a Boston-based busking duo with only an acoustic guitar and cello, the follow-up to 2013’s Man of Stone has expanded their sound, morphing their melancholy folk into multi-layered, musically complex landscapes. But through all of the newly added processed drumbeats and electric guitar effects, Harrington and Wright’s harmonies remain front and center, always working in tandem to create a singular narrative.
Though every one of the 12 tracks on Neptune features first-person lyrics, the band makes a point to dispel any notion of awkwardness from singing the other person’s lyrics. “I think having written together for a long time, once I understand a song that Tim has written, it’s not a huge leap for me to take on that voice and for it to become a singular voice,” cellist Paul Wright says. “I don’t distinguish between songs I brought to the table versus first person lyrics Tim penned.”
“If a song’s first-person narrative is too specific to an individual, it’s probably a good idea to pull it out a little bit,” Harrington quickly adds. “I think having two people delivering a singular ‘I’ is helpful at every stage of the process. We do really dig some of the stuff that the other one writes—that’s what brought us together in the first place. Once the song is finished, regardless of who wrote it, it’s passed through both of our minds and both of our voices. It’s not hard for me to emotionally occupy something I didn’t write.”
More than anything, the biggest takeaway from my almost hour-long Skype interview with Harrington and Wright is how much they truly love writing songs. Sure, they love touring and have played at least one show almost every month since the beginning of 2013. The two both have loads of stories about touring, about performing on Conan and their dog Copper, but nothing gets them talking quite like the songwriting process.
That process begins and ends in a small upstairs room in their house in the town of Beverly, about twenty miles north. Dubbed the BAM—which stands for Business and Music—that small, relatively plain room with little on the walls is the center of the Tall Heights universe.
“Why I do this has everything to do with the quiet room upstairs where I write songs,” Harrington says. “I don’t care about singing and I care more about playing guitar, but in the grand scheme of things, playing guitar is not that important to me. What’s important to me is songwriting. I feel like people think that because you’re a touring musician, you probably are obsessed with singing or playing guitar. When I have a night off, I don’t go to an open mic night, I go upstairs and write a song.”
When on tour or outside of that room, the band relies on iPhone voice memos, routinely recording quick song ideas and riffs from soundcheck or elsewhere. Those memos became the crux of Neptune, which in many ways was simply a combination of those half-written recordings, toyed around with until they became full songs. Some of the album’s tracks go all the way back to 2013, but have transformed into something completely different.
But as their music becomes much more multifaceted, they haven’t lost their ear for beautiful melodies and emotional harmonies. Back when the two first started collaborating together over Harrington’s first band’s material, an old man who owned the recording studio they were rehearsing at began to weep. “When Paul stepped in with his cello to play on our track, this old man started weeping buckets once he heard the cello play,” Harrington remembers. “He couldn’t stop crying.”
represents a big step forward for the band, growing into something much more than the strictly guitar-and-cello duo from Man of Stone that performed for free outside of Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Now with millions of listens on Spotify and headline shows across America, Tall Heights’ delicate soundscapes are finally reaching more people than ever—those emotions felt by the old man at their first jam session are being shared across the world. They’ve got their sights abroad as well; the band is currently on their first ever European tour.
When asked about their early days as a band, Harrington explains, “We were just idiots. I think it was really helpful in those days because we were so dumb. If one of us was clued into how much we needed to work or how much we needed to improve or how much the other one sucked at doing what they did, one of us would have quit on the other one. I think the fact that we were equally clueless helped us stay together as we learned to grow and make better music and record it better and approach the music industry with a shred of sense.”
They may not have known what they were doing then, but since both Harrington and Wright’s journeys have been so intertwined, they have become a forced to be reckoned with. Tall Heights is much more than simply the sum of their parts; they are successful because of the original friendship of Harrington and Wright and their songwriting and recording strategy only works because of their teamwork.