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Dusty Heart capture the sound of the seasons on their debut album

Bill Phelps

Bill Phelps

Dusty Heart got off to a quick start.

When Molly Dean and Barbara Jean first crossed paths two years ago, they both had already made names for themselves as singer-songwriters, and had performed with other groups around town. But the moment they collaborated there was a definite creative spark.

Other musicians quickly took note of their special sound, and within a month of the duo’s first meeting, Dave Simonett and Dave Carroll of Trampled by Turtles asked Dusty Heart to open for them on their upcoming Colorado tour.

“We were like, ‘Wow, we need some songs. And a band name,’” says singer and viola/banjo player Barbara Jean with a laugh. “It happened so fast because the first connection was so strong. When we first sat down to sing and play together, the way our voices connected was immediate. A lot of times you have to work really hard to find that in another singer, you have to shift and shape to their voice. But the very first time we sang together it was like, whoa, there is something there that feels like we’re siblings, or connected in a way that doesn’t always sonically happen.”

That sense of connection, as well as the duo’s restless spirit, courses through Dusty Heart’s eponymous debut. It’s an album born out of their shared love of travel and the touring that helped fortify the band’s early sound. “Our big thing is we like to take time to leave the city, go somewhere and unplug from everything, and cultivate some sort of space that allows for exploration,” guitarist/vocalist Molly Dean says of their creative process. “Writing and playing with no strings attached, just being free and easy about it. And a lot of these songs come from those times we took to get away.”

“We love going to the woods and being in the wild, just subjecting ourselves to the quiet and the deafening silence that you find there. We love wild places, we seek them out,” adds Barbara Jean. “We love touring because we get to see so much of this country and this world. It’s amazing how gorgeous it is. We talk about that all the time when we’re on the road.”

There’s a lived-in, assured quality to the material that reflects the band’s patient approach to getting these songs precisely right, both on stage and in the studio. While Dusty Heart’s stirring live show has had fans waiting as patiently as they can for the group to finally release a record, the duo just laughs off any pressure of expectations.

“It’s funny, because it only feels like a long time because we immediately hit the ground running,” Barbara Jean explains. “We had our solo projects behind us, so we were already out playing shows. We’ve only really known each other for two years; it’s not that long to start a project and release a record.”

Listening to the eight songs on the album is like experiencing all four Minnesota seasons in a single day. You can feel the heat and humidity as a summer storm approaches on “Blue Wing” and the chill of impending winter in the wistful hush of “Timbre and Trail” and “Wild Whispers.” “Broke Down” suggests the boundless potential of spring, while “Bury Me” conveys the inevitable dark loss of autumn as our nights grow longer. All of these complex emotions are conjured by Dusty Heart’s spare arrangements—mainly banjo, acoustic guitar, and viola—and the duo’s soaring harmonies, which carry the songs skyward like a prayer for a better day.

The fixed but fragile core of the duo’s material remains intact even when they fill out their sound with the work of guest musicians. In addition to the album’s producer, Michael Lewis (the bassist and saxophonist best known for his work with Happy Apple and Bon Iver), and Tom Herbers, who recorded and mixed most of the album at Creation Audio studios, Dusty Heart enlisted an all-star team of Twin Cities musicians to support them, including Jeremy Hanson, JT Bates, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Erik Koskinen, and Eric Mayson, whose radiant piano strains help bring “In the Cool” to life.

“The best musicians are the ones who can play a million notes, but don’t. Those are the people we chose to work with on this record,” says Barbara Jean. “Folks that really understand how to support and lift these songs without drowning out or smothering something that is already there. Everyone that we worked with on this record is a true, beautiful, wonderful friend. In addition to being great musicians, they are all people we have connected with and really care about. These are people who have supported our work, and helped us, and inspired us—it was great having their spirit behind us.”

Even with those guest contributions, it’s the creative vision and unique voices of Molly Dean and Barbara Jean that ultimately shine through here. Dusty Heart sounds both timeless and contemporary, offering a quick virtual jaunt to the countryside when urban life starts closing in on you.

“I feel like there’s a lot of grace in this record. It’s vast and vivid. It’s a landscape,” says Molly Dean proudly. “There are records I love to listen to while I’m driving because it’s the perfect backdrop to being on the road and seeing new places, and this feels like that to me. It feels like it has opened the door to something new and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.”

Dusty Heart
With: Mike Lewis, JT Bates, and Jeremy Ylvisaker
Where: Southern Theater
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri. Mar. 16
Tickets: $18/$22; more info here