Los Angeles folk duo The Milk Carton Kids got a career boost after appearing in the music documentary Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis alongside Jack White and Joan Baez. They play the Calgary Folk Fest Mainstage on Saturday.
Joey Ryan was only one year into his solo career when he had the night that every musician dreads.
“I played a show where nobody came,” said Ryan, one-half of Los Angeles folk duo, The Milk Carton Kids.
“I had the big goose egg, where it was time to start playing and there was nobody in the room except me and the bartender and the sound guy. And the bartender and the sound guy were the same person.
“It was around that time I said, ‘Ah maybe I’ll go back to school and do a PhD in psychology, which had been my plan all along.”
Ryan, however, never made it to the first day of classes. Instead he found himself writing songs again after a friend asked him contribute music to independent film.
“He put one of my songs in the film and asked me to write another one,” Ryan said.
“And then I got a song in a TV show and all of a sudden I could pay rent for the next six months. I just got a little bit of a reaffirmation at the right time.”
Ryan continued to pursue a solo career and gained a small following in L.A.’s folk music scene. Kenneth Pattengale was forging a similar path and when the two met after one of Ryan’s shows five years ago the story of The Milk Carton Kids began.
The duo’s musical style and beautiful, close harmonies are most often compared to the Simon & Garfunkel, although with a rootsier, more contemporary flavour.
Ryan says when the group began, he and Pattengale committed themselves to writing and performing songs using just their guitars and voices.
While it might seem there is only so far a musician can go within that framework creatively, Ryan says The Milk Carton Kids have found the restrictions liberating.
“We start looking deeper within the framework and figuring out what more can be done with two guitars and voices,” he explained.
“We think about what more can we do within the context, instead of looking outside of ourselves.”
The bittersweet, melancholic nature of The Milk Carton Kids’ music is belied by Ryan and Pattengale’s hilarious onstage banter and bickering. The mix of both is one of the reasons the pair has gained a multi-generational fanbase.
“People will come up to me and say, ‘My kid’s in high school and they turned me onto your band and I think you’re just great. You remind me of Simon & Garfunkel in the old days,’” Ryan said.
“That happens just as much as some kid coming up and saying, ‘This is really embarrassing, but my dad likes your band and turned me on to you.’
“If a kid can take a band recommendation from their parents and it’s us, that’s amazing.”
– The Milk Carton Kids play the Folk Fest Mainstage on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. They return to Calgary on Oct. 10 with a show at Central United Church.
– The duo’s fourth and latest album, Monterey, was written and recorded entirely on the road when the band was on tour last year.