Sofia Von Trapp answers on the first ring.
She’s sitting outside the Von Trapp compound in Portland, Ore. snoozing in the sun on a surprisingly spring-like day in early March.
The Von Trapp family—Sofia (26), Melanie (24), Amanda (23) and August (20)—are the great-grandchildren of the Captain and Maria von Trapp famously portrayed in 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and 1965 movie The Sound of Music. Right now, they’re all living in the same house, but while rounding up all the siblings inside, Sofia says that they’re all getting their own places soon.
It’s not because they’re sick of each other, she says earnestly, with the intonation in her voice concurrent with the sentiment. “I think it’s because we’ve been with each other ever since we were little, working and doing projects together, that we all actually get along together. We do fight, but it lasts like two seconds that you can’t actually detect unless you’re really paying attention.”
By this point she’s found her two younger sisters and brother. They’ve congregated in one room in their house, listening on speakerphone and passing the iPhone around whenever someone wants to chime in. “They’re all looking at me now like, ‘Come on!’” she tells me, with all four of them laughing audibly.
That riotous, joyful laughter is a recurring element of the conversation, and utterly representative of who The Von Trapps are as people. They’re the kind of folks you want to be friends with, the kind who will invite you over for dinner and family traditions almost immediately. In fact, that’s just what they did to ask Israel Nebeker of Blind Pilot to produce their first EP.
“When we first moved to Portland, we ended up meeting Israel at a friend’s party. We had listened to Blind Pilot and had really enjoyed their music. There was sort of a wishful thinking that we could collaborate with them and with Israel,” says Amanda. “It was funny, we were coming to develop the idea of how we wanted the EP to be represented and the help we would want in someone to produce it to help us create a different sound with these songs … and Israel was willing to work with the four of us.”
August chimes in, explaining that he and his sisters used to have a Sunday night dinner tradition of making schnitzel. “We had him over for schnitzel night,” he begins timidly before the girls start giggling again. “It was a humorous sort of night. Paintings were falling … lots of little funny things happened.”
As the girls mumble something about the awkward silliness of the situation, August continues more boldly, “We didn’t have tongs to fry the schnitzel with, so we had to use chopsticks. There was oil flying everywhere! But it was really fun! It sparked off a sense of lighthearted eccentricity that I think kept going on through our work in the studio. We were always having fun! It was one of the hallmarks of this project.”
Dancing In Gold, due out April 14, is the first of three EPs of original music that The Von Trapps will release. With each album, they plan on working with a different producer to help bring out new sounds. Even though they’re still writing music for the subsequent EPs, they name-dropped Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, and Beach House as dream collaborators.
Considering their famous family’s legacy, or at least how they’re portrayed in The Sound Of Music, it’s not surprising that The Von Trapps eventually fell into professional musicianship. They all grew up singing traditional Austrian folk tunes taught to them by their grandfather Werner (portrayed as Kurt in the film). Bolstered by their extensive range of four-part harmonies, The Von Trapp Children (as they were formerly known) toured five continents singing these musical classics while growing up. August was just 7 years old when they started.
But even for their long-established musical lineage and nearly 15 years of performing together, these EPs are the first works of original music written by The Von Trapps. When Thomas Lauderdale invited them to Portland about two years ago to make the collaborative Dream A Little Dream album with Pink Martini (that was released last year), the siblings ended up staying in Portland. With the extra time and space and creativity around them, they wrote this collection of songs that blends their classical and traditional training with folk-pop sounds.
Dancing in Gold perfectly melds those influences. The four songs are bright and complex, somehow evoking both the lightheartedness of ‘60s pop tunes and the sophistication of a chamber ensemble. August’s ukulele playing gives structure to each of the four songs, while chimes, keys, horns, strings, and other jingling, swishing sounds swoop in and out of aural focus. The Von Trapp’s classical training is evidenced by an unintentional homage to Swan Lake in “Whisper” and the loving use of brass and strings in middle tracks “Next To Me” and “People Like Us.” In fact, Dave Jorgensen of Blind Pilot composed all the brass arrangements on the record, playing trumpet along with the trombonist and tuba player from the Oregon Symphony. And of course, the siblings’ harmonies shine throughout the EP, as one might expect.
As for lead single, opening track, and namesake of the EP, “’Dancing in Gold’ has a Beach Boys surf pop kind of feel to it, but the lyrics are darker, a little bit more intense,” describes Melanie. Having also co-directed its music video with Portlandia cinematographer Bryce Fortner, she continues, “In the video, we went in the more darker, intense department. It was so much fun to film, actually. We all got our introspective sides out.”
So for now, The Von Trapps are on tour, playing their new songs in clubs and small venues instead of the orchestra halls and cavernous performing arts centers of their former lives.
“It’s so cool because we’re able to reach a younger demographic, which is what we wanted to do—essentially just sing to our peers,” says Sofia.
Broadening their pop cultural cache and gaining new fans in cities along the way, it’s safe to say The Von Trapps’ plan is working.
“You hear that, guys?” Sofia asks playfully. “It’s working! They like us!” she exclaims before everyone cracks up all over again.