Local band Coyote Queen came together rather organically. Bandleader Mike Swanson and his wife Kate started out as friends, then became a musical duo and then they got married (as the legendary Bill Briggs once proclaimed on stage at the Hootenanny)
After a couple of previous projects, Mike Swanson was inspired by the style of late ’60s / early ’70s musicians like Gram Parsons, The Byrds, and Emmylou Harris. He aimed to start a local country-rock band with a little bit of folk and bluegrass thrown in for good measure.
Over a year in the making, Coyote Queen’s debut album, “It Takes A Steady Wind” acts as a capture of time, place, mental wrangling and peace for the band. Mike and Kate Swanson of the band Coyote Queen joined us recently in the KHOL Studios.
Listen above for more and check out a transcript of the interview below.
KnewJack: So tell us about those early days playing together at the hootenanny and how music played a part in progressing your relationship from good friends to life partners.
Mike Swanson: I think music was always our connection. You know, we met working together at the Grand Teton Music Festival, and we just got to see music constantly from, you know, some of the best players in the world there. And we went to concerts together. And music was always kind of the thing when we were friends and coworkers. And Kate told me she sang, and I convinced her to play at the hootenanny. And we started doing that weekly and kind of became our thing for a while. And yeah, things just kind of evolved from there. Part of our relationship has always been through music.
Kate Swanson: Yeah, it’s been cool to see to like the music I grew up with and the music he grew up with and where things overlapped. And there’s even times now where I’ll say like, “Oh, Tom T. Hall.” And I was like, “I showed you Tom T. Hall.” And Mike was like, “I already knew about Tom T. Hall.” So, it’s still a thing for sure. And we still like to listen to vinyl and play together. So, yeah, it’s great.
KnewJack: You’ve been working on this record for well over a year, and I read in the News&Guide article that the process changed dramatically once the COVID lockdown became a reality. Can you walk us through the concept and making of the album, “It Takes A Steady Wind?”
Mike Swanson: I had some lyrics kicking around, and I did go to Target Music Camp with Jim Lauderdale and that was just super fun and amazing. And really my biggest take away from that was just to write down everything that comes to your head when it does, because it comes whenever: in the middle of the night, out on the trail. You know, just jot notes in the phone. So that made me become more proactive about songwriting. So, yeah, I had about four or five songs before the pandemic, but I was like, OK. And my good friend Aaron Davis runs his studio down in Hoback. So he was always very encouraging, like, “I got to get you in. We got to at least do some scratch tracks. See if this comes together.”
Yeah, the pandemic hit and it was kind of like, “let’s mask up and do this.” And he was very encouraging and we got in there, I think in May of 2020, and put down the scratch tracks and then kind of sat on them for a while. And it was this four- or five-song EP later in the summer, [and I] added drums and bass with Rob Sidle and Ryan Ptasnik. These songs just really came to life and I was really excited about them and started reaching out.
One of the benefits of the pandemic, I think, was a lot of very, unfortunately, a lot of musicians that weren’t touring and looking for session work. So I just randomly threw out a note to Brett Lanier who plays pedal steel for the Barr Brothers, and he was super receptive and down and like lives next to my mom. Yeah, he lives close to where Kate grew up in Vermont. And he sent back his pedal steel tracks on top of everything. And it was like, “I think we have something here. These are really coming together.” So, you know, heading into that winter, it was still pre-vaccination. Still pretty rough around quarantine and things like that. And all these songs were kind of written before that time period. So I kind of felt there were some other things, feelings and things, that were bubbling up to the surface that were just coming through the music. [I] spent a lot of time in the studio with Aaron and some of those other tracks; “Only You,” “What’s In A Year,” “The Sound Will Return.” Those were all kind of written after this process that had gotten started and it kind of shifted this cosmic country focus that the band started in towards more stripped-down folk and bluegrass. Kind of getting back to what I was doing before and just kind of a mellower sound around this time because everything slowed down and the world slowed down. So there’s really no rush to put this thing together. So we just really took our time with it.
KnewJack: That is a good segue to my next question. You collaborated with a bunch of different local musicians on the record, including, like you mentioned, Rob Sidle, Mike Patton, Matt Heron, and of course, Aaron Davis, who recorded, co-produced, engineered and mixed the album at his Three Hearted Recording Studio in Hoback. How important is collaboration in your creative process?
Mike Swanson: Oh, it’s everything. That’s one of my favorite parts of music. And really, while I was coming from the improvisational style of kind of the college jam band times into bluegrass, it’s really that accessibility and, you know, the picking circles and that kind of community feel, you know, heading into this project. Yeah, I just found all my favorite people, found some new people through connections and otherwise that were down to play, you know. I wrote the music, wrote the lyrics, kind of structured the songs, but in a lot of ways kind of left things open for Brett and Matt and Brock and people that added these layers on top. Just kind of said, “Hey, this is a general loose idea of what I had, but I trust you.” These are all the best musicians in Jackson and beyond and [I’m] just really happy with what they came up with.
KnewJack: So your latest single off the record, “It Takes a Steady Wind,” is called “Only You” and includes the lyrics “And only you can show me how I slip right off the only path that leads to here and now.” Can you expand on those lyrics?
Mike Swanson: We’ve been here over 11 years now, and it’s such an amazing place to live. But anybody that has lived here year-round knows that it comes with its challenges. And a lot of people move here, I think, hoping to solve some things in their life and in some regards, getting outside and doing that. Really getting after it with everything that’s accessible here is so amazing. But, you know, I think it’s still a hard place year-round for staying level and keeping a good head on your shoulders and moving forward. And there’s a lot of that in this album. You know, I think it is for me expressing that sentiment and certain struggles here and there and things that have happened and high and low points that anybody goes through. And, you know, I think a lot of people find that getting into meditation or staying present or any of those things can be helpful. So I think that, you know, staying in the here and now is the tagline to that chorus that really just felt right.