There are two things you might notice when you hear the folk duo Milk Carton Kids. The first is that they play a very quiet and restrained kind of folk, deliberate, precise, genteel, and even polite. The second thing you might notice, after you pay attention for a little while, is the depth of their creative partnership, reflected primarily in their sublime vocal harmonies, which have earned the Kids comparisons to both the Everly Brothers and the Jayhawks.
"I think there really is a fundamental effect that each of us has on the other, which makes everything about what we're doing impossible to do alone, from the writing to the performing," says Joey Ryan, who joined fellow guitarist and singer Kenneth Pattengale in the Milk Carton Kids in early 2011.
The duo came together almost immediately after Ryan saw Pattengale play a show in their shared hometown of Los Angeles. Both had long and largely unsuccessful careers as solo performers behind them, and each had reached a professional crossroads.
"We were both at a point where I think we were ready for something different, and we never really knew what it was until we met each other," he says. "There was a thing that happened pretty quickly where we influenced each other so greatly right off the bat—in the way we thought about songs and the way that we thought about harmony and melody, and the way that we thought about lyrics and the way that we thought about performing. The songs that we were previously doing as solo artists got stripped down to their most basic form, with the two guitars and the two vocals. I think that fundamental shift in both of our careers and lives is what brought us together."
Ryan describes his artistic relationship with Pattengale with the kind of passion and urgency usually reserved for romantic comedies. Each of the Kids, Ryan says, is an essential half of a greater whole.
"We're getting ready to record our next record, and we have a week apart right now," he says. "I recorded myself playing my parts of all of the songs on the new record, and it just doesn't work. My parts don't work without his parts. I actually perform my parts differently when he's not playing [with me], and it's the same the other way around. Neither of us feels like we can really execute anything to do with the heart of our songs unless the other one is there in the room performing at the same time. It is a profound partnership."
As for the Kids' noticeably reserved performances—both live and on record—part of that is a matter of the duo's guitar/voice format and part is a deliberate aesthetic consideration.
"Both of us play acoustic guitars and sing, and that's just how loud it comes out," Ryan says. "But even if we banged away at those things as hard as we could, we wouldn't make a loud noise. It's just two acoustic guitars and two people singing. The other thing that contributes to the quietness of our shows is that we don't plug the guitars in, we mic them. That is a specific artistic decision having to do with the way that the guitar sounds when it's mic'ed versus when it's plugged in, which is a lot more natural, I think."
Even before adopting the Milk Carton Kids' name, Ryan and Pattengale released a live album, Retrospect, featuring new arrangements of their respective solo songs. After writing together for a few months, they released Prologue, featuring all new songs, in the summer of 2011. (Both are available as free downloads at themilkcartonkids.com.) At the end of their current tour, they're planning to record their second official album, which Ryan says will have some basic similarity to Prologue but should also be a move forward.
"We're going to stick to the same format that we used for Prologue," he says. "We feel that we have at least one more record in us with that instrumentation. There's a lot more artistic space for us to explore within that context that we haven't explored yet. Beyond that, Prologue came out a year and a half ago and was written before that, so this is the first collection of songs we've written together after really having been on the road together for a long time and having some history behind us. I think there'll be something inherently different about the writing because of that, because of our relationship."