From Antique to Electricity
The evolution of Victor & Penny
At the end of 2013, after 18 months on the road, Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane sat in a low-rent motel, shocked to learn that their forthcoming music project had suddenly imploded. Physically exhausted, practically homeless and emotionally invested in a venture now derailed, things couldn’t have looked worse. It was an abrupt ending to what had been an extraordinary coast-to-coast creative odyssey. “Once again we were asking ourselves, ‘What do we want to do with our lives?’” McGrane says.
Like many artists, the performing duo now known as Victor & Penny evolved slow and steady over the years, an organic product of a mutual love of music. Originally part of Kansas City’s music and performance scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — McGrane with Blue Museum and Freling with The Mongol Beach Party — their paths had occasionally crossed. They lost touch for more than a decade after Freling moved to Chicago in 1994, each pursuing separate careers in the arts. It was Facebook that reconnected them in 2008 when McGrane contacted Freling trying to find an old friend who used to be his roommate. Freling was playing guitar with the Blue Man Group and invited her to a show. “Who could say no to that?” she says.
“We knew we wanted to do something musical together, just for fun,” Freling recalls. “Erin said she always wanted to go busking in the Chicago subways, and we learned some Beatles songs and Fleetwood Mac, but that didn’t really work out. So we started writing songs together, long distance.” McGrane would frequently send Freling lyrics, and he would send tunes, but they never performed or recorded them together. “We both had really full and rich lives,” McGrane says. “His multiple bands, my acting and work with Alacartoona [a popular cabaret-style group] and then personal life changes. The music was a way we stayed connected living in different cities.”
Their chance to finally work together came with The Oil Boiler, an immersive, experimental musical. During its run, McGrane asked Freling to accompany her on guitar when she was invited to perform at a party. It was during their performance of one particular song, “Take a Chance,” that they felt a spark of something wonderful. “It had a decidedly ‘30s vibe, and something clicked,” McGrane says. “It was the best song of the night. Something totally worked.”
“So then I got a ukulele,” McGrane says. “My dad sent me his, one he’d had since the ‘50s, and one night Jeff and I sat down and we learned 11 songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s.” In 2012 the duo played at The Love Hangover in New York, an annual multi-city event that brings musicians together to mend broken hearts and celebrate flourishing ones through music. That performance was their first as Victor & Penny.
But it was their trip to California to visit McGrane’s dad that put them on the map. “I figured since we were taking this road trip, why not try and get some gigs along the way,” Freling says. “We booked about a dozen shows in three weeks, and we booked them on the strength of these YouTube videos we had made in the car.” Those videos are infectious and fun, reflecting the upbeat chemistry beteween McGrane and Freling. “They were essentially practice videos made on the road, but they caught on. This was our promo. We didn’t have bios or press kits. We didn’t even have a picture. But these videos kind of carried us along. “
Inspired by the mini tour, McGrane remembers a moment of serious decision. “Everything we’ve spent building over the last 20 years was behind us, and we just asked ourselves, ‘What do we want to do with our lives?’ We had both always wanted to do a real musical tour. What were we waiting for? Who’s going to give us permission to do this at this stage in our life?” Freling moved to Kansas City, and they were on the road within 30 days. Everything they owned went into storage along with any notions of “day jobs.” They were all in, full-time.
Their first record, Antique Pop, comprises primarily ‘20s and ‘30s covers with a couple of original songs, blending vintage pop, jazz and gypsy styles. Inspired by the jazz master Django Reinhardt, Freling found opportunities for endless guitar improvisation in the numbers, and McGrane’s fondness for vocalists like The Boswell Sisters cemented the appeal for them both. “We became sonic archaeologists,” McGrane says, who connected deeply with the music and vocals of the time.
Midway through their 18-month tour, they began a project involving a collection of largely unknown midcentury songs that would consume a year of exploration, writing and arranging. But unexpected rights issues brought the project to a screeching halt. Though it inspired some original songs in the process, its abrupt disintegration, coinciding with the end of their tour, was heartbreaking. It was then that they found themselves in a low-rent motel, facing a creative crossroads.
“I think it’s only inevitable that we returned to writing original music,” McGrane says. “Because neither Jeff nor I had been in bands where we didn’t write our own songs. It seemed a novel, fun thing to do other people’s music, but we never really considered ourselves to be a cover band.” Freling agrees. “We’ve taken what we’ve learned from music of that period and are applying it in a modern way. There are certainly still elements from that Prohibition-era style, but there are also very modern elements.”
They had a decision to make. “We’re either going to quit or we’re going to find a new path,” McGrane says. “We rented a place in Kansas City and sort of licked our wounds. We knew we had to drastically change course.” Not long after returning, the duo met Kari Estrin through the Folk Alliance. Half-jokingly referring to her as their “band therapist,” Estrin helped them put a plan into action; record a live album; and begin work on original songs that would make up their new album, Electricity. Recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, Electricity features bass, brass and woodwinds courtesy of the Loose Change Orchestra (James Isaac, Rick Willoughby and Kyle Dahlquist) and offers an exhilarating and eclectic collection of songs. Debuting at No. 12 on the Folk DJ Charts, its lone cover, a gypsy reimagining of Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” made it to No. 3. The title not only suggests something more modern than Antique Pop but also speaks to their current musical state. “Electricity isn’t a thing; it is an event, something that happens in the moment,” McGrane says. That electrical event is clearly evident when the duo performs and is even more exciting with the full band. And their fan base continues to grow, as evidenced by a full summer of shows and festivals from coast to coast.
“This is the natural evolution of where we are going,” McGrane says. “And we are incredibly grateful to all our friends and family and the community that is Kansas City. It’s truly unique here. Artists support each other, and for the most part, aren’t competitive. I think we all understand we’re trying to raise the bar together. We feel grateful and responsible to do our very best. I don’t know how we would be doing this if we didn’t live in this city.”
Victor & Penny will be playing Kansas City's Big Picnic on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on July 17. They will also play at The Dubliner's weekly local musician showcase on July 23. For tour details, albums and videos, visit victorandpenny.com.