The music of Victor and Penny is at once timeless, optimistic and infused with giddy energy, a sonic throwback to Prohibition-era swing that sounds startling fresh today. A duo since 2010, Jeff ("Victor") Freling and Erin ("Penny") McGrane tour relentlessly and are a highly regarded live act in Kansas City and abroad. If you're new to their music, you're in for a treat. Enjoy our interview and their book, music and movie recommendations.
Please introduce yourselves. Where do you live and work?
JEFF: We are Jeff Freling (a.k.a. Victor) and Erin McGrane (a.k.a. Penny). We live in a house in the Westside neighborhood of downtown Kansas City, MO. We love our diverse, eclectic community and we're close to Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and everything going on downtown.
ERIN: When we're not touring (about 120 days this year); we work primarily from our home. Our kitchen serves as our office space and command central to handle the mountain of emails and paperwork that accompany self-employed national touring artists.
JEFF: We have a music room upstairs that's the heart of our creative space. In it, we have our instruments, simple recording equipment, and sheet music and charts. We also have a little rehearsal space in our garage where we can meet with the band.
ERIN: We are currently carving out individual space for ourselves as well - a sewing and creative desk for me and a workbench for Jeff. My favorite thing about our house is our front porch, where I like to sit, read, think, talk to neighbors and just be calm. Our lives can be very rushed and hectic and having this home space helps us renew and recharge.
Your website describes your latest album Electricity as “the culmination of 160,000 miles, 5 years and nearly 1,000 performances.” What helps you stay creative while on the road?
JEFF: Listening to other people's music while we're driving stimulates my brain, inspires me, and gets my ideas flowing. Sometimes we voice record ideas like horn parts while we're driving (Erin runs the recorder - don't worry!). One of the best things about touring is meeting other artists, hearing their music, and playing together with them - that's very inspiring to us.
ERIN: We're developing a tight family of touring friends that we know and love. For example, we met a new musician friend at a recent ukulele fest we attended and within hours we'd found our sweet spot, dusted off an old tune and ended up performing it all together at our showcase. That kind of musical connection is magical.
In terms of how and when we write while on the road, I used to play ukulele in the car all the time - that's really how I learned to play when I was just beginning. We would also work out parts and rehearse harmonies using the ukulele in the car. Unfortunately, I developed tendonitis in my elbow from playing in the car, so I don't do that much anymore. Now I work more on lyrics.
JEFF: Occasionally we write or practice in hotel rooms, but we manage every aspect of our touring ourselves, and are often too tired after a long day of driving and playing a show. If we have a few days at a time in one place - we always take advantage of that to play and write. Those days can be a real gift. We're working on arranging our touring schedule to have more of those opportunities.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while recording Electricity? How did you overcome them?
ERIN: Logistically "Electricity" was challenging because we took our full band to Nashville to record the album for 3 weeks. That was difficult financially, and also hard to work with everyone's schedules. Kyle Dahlquist ended up flying across the US, catching a brutal red-eye and got to the studio just in time to record, even though he hadn't slept. Our band was committed and helped make this dream a reality by working with us to make it happen by being flexible and having great attitudes. We appreciated their enthusiasm and once we got into the studio, they all brought their best performances.
JEFF: "Electricity" was the first album on which we utilized a producer, an A&R person, and a radio promoter. Navigating the complexities of giving other people creative input was new for us and definitely a challenge. Each person (including us) had a slightly different agenda, or perhaps a different approach to achieving the same end goal. And keeping everyone engaged and satisfied was not easy. Erin and I had many conversations about what we ultimately wanted to make sure we kept ourselves on track.
ERIN: Even though we didn't always agree, the great part of working with talented, experienced Nashville people was hearing their ideas and using their knowledge to make the best-sounding album we've made so far. Their confidence and enthusiasm for our music were inspiring and encouraged us to push ourselves. But, pushing ourselves to our limits was also scary and brought out all those old self-doubts, resulting in late-night pep talks. Anyone who has recorded a full-length album will tell you that making art takes blood, sweat, and tears.
JEFF: ...and dollars. Raising the money for the record and managing those finances was stressful, but worth it.
What Kansas City artists are you currently raving about?
ERIN: We have so many friends and collaborators in Kansas City that it's hard to pick. Our vibrant artistic community is one of the reasons we choose to live here, and the KC music scene is rich and thick with talent. To name one to watch -- Calvin Arsenia is one of the great young voices of our city. His passion and spirit are genuine and his voice gives me shivers! I can't wait to hear what he does in the next few years. Rock bands like the Philistines are making a name for themselves regionally, and new groups like Emmaline Twist are emerging on the scene with a bang.
JEFF: Mikal Shapiro and Chad Brothers are producing great work right now and Mikal's terrific songwriting and lyrics are blooming. The jazz scene is giving us talented instrumentalists like Ken Lovern, Peter Schlamb, Brian Baggett and Hermon Mehari who are energizing the musical community and raising the bar.
ERIN: Because of my work with Artist INC, I have the opportunity to work closely with artists across all disciplines (visual, literary, photography, dance, film, sculpture, spoken word, etc.). Those conversations and the exposure to new art reshapes and expands the way I think about creativity and expression and moves me in new directions.
What makes Kansas City a great place for music?
JEFF: We're inspired by the diversity of our local music scene and the plentiful opportunities to work together. For example, we love the work Beau Bledsoe and Ensemble Iberica are doing and we're thrilled to be able to collaborate with them.
ERIN: We've seen the venue owners in KC commit themselves to growing the music scene. Frank Hicks from Knuckleheads is expanding his space to bring in national acts while also providing a stage for local and regional artists. We're thrilled that Steve Tulipana and Shawn Sherrill have reopened the Record Bar at a larger, better location in downtown KC. John Scott has made Green Lady Lounge an instant KC legend with excellent free live jazz seven nights a week at a place that's dripping with style, and Jody Hendricks has been tirelessly cultivating the roots music scene at the Westport Saloon.
JEFF: Two new record labels have arisen out of local venues: Little Class Records from Westport Saloon and Middle Class Records from the Record Bar. We have just signed with Middle Class Records and look forward to making our next record here in Kansas City.
ERIN: We're fortunate to live in Kansas City right now. The zeitgeist that's happening here is exciting. We need to travel and present our music in other markets, but we'll always want to make art and collaborate with our community right here in KC.
Erin and Jeff's book, movie and music recommendations:
Four Boys And A Guitar by The Mills Brothers
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks
The Musical by Mikal Shapiro
Birds Say by Darlingside
Annie Hall (1977)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Up In The Air (2009)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Off Beat: Collaborating with Kerouac by David Amram
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins
A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving