New Laura Cortese and Jefferson Hamer Biography

Laura Cortese and Jefferson Hamer first played music together in a Boston club during the winter of 2008, taking refuge backstage while a February snowstorm raged outside. Now two years into their collaboration, following successful tours of the USA, Scotland, and Denmark, this close-working duo has grown into an explosive big-stage act. They sing harmony vocals around a single large-diaphragm microphone, trading original songs and instrumental melodies on electric fiddle and electric guitar. This unorthodox, no drums approach puts the spotlight on their powerful voices and the subtleties of their close musical interplay. They work in tandem, strutting on and off mic, reacting instinctively to improvised cues, weaving complex rhythms from riffs and melodies. The music crescendos, releases, then builds again, creating a dynamic sound that belies their numbers; one west-coast promoter recently remarked, “it sounds like there’s four of you up there.”

Their new album, “Two Amps, One Microphone,” was recorded live in the studio without overdubs or production tricks. Gutsy and uncluttered, it features nine original songs, a Gram Parsons cover, and a stirring remake of the classic folk ballad “Barbara Ellen.” From the driving pulse and slashing chords of the opening track, to the sultry slow-burn of closer “Wade On In,” Laura and Jefferson assemble a unique groove for each song, one eighth-note at a time, in an orchestrated give-and-take of fiddle and guitar. Obliged to create an entire musical landscape with just two instruments, they depend on spontaneous interplay and coordinated shifts in volume as essential compositional tools. Electric amplifiers have a formidable dynamic range, and they play with the full sweep of this touch-sensitive capability to infuse depth and breadth into their arrangements. The quiet parts are really quiet, such as the fingerpicked intro to Jefferson’s ballad “This Ragged World We Spanned,” but when the guitar explodes into the post-chorus open E-minor chord, saturated with amp strain and long-bowed fiddle, it is easy to forget that only two people are making all the racket. It’s a studied mayhem, as the agile dance-fiddle outro to Laura’s catchy pop tune “Pine” attests, deep-rooted in traditional folk and rock traditions.

Both musicians are bonded by an equal affinity for traditional and more contemporary, popular styles of music. Jefferson’s first band Single Malt Band was a three-piece acoustic combo that put original songs, arrangements of Fairport Convention medleys, and Irish jigs alongside covers of artists with as little in common as David Bowie, Bill Monroe, Richard Thompson, and Professor Longhair. It was a fun, dance-friendly, and often scatterbrained proving ground, but the instrumental demands of such a diverse trio tightened up Jefferson’s guitar chops, and his musicianship took on depth and versatility. Ten years later with Laura Cortese, his electric hybrid-picked guitar weaves rhythm and lead parts around the vocals and fiddle, keeping the driving bass notes steady with a pick, while his fingers play chords and melodies on the treble strings.

Laura grew up studying with Scottish fiddle master Alastair Frasier, and for almost a decade she has been a fiddle and voice instructor at his legendary music camps in California: Valley of the Moon, and Sierra Fiddle Camp. She is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, and co-founded the Boston Celtic Music Festival in 2004. Over the course of three solo albums and several EP’s, her repertoire moved beyond traditional music into original pop, folk, and indie territory. Throughout this evolution, she has continued to perfect an assortment of rhythmic fiddle techniques best-suited to accompany her voice. In her song “Overcome”, she holds the fiddle sideways like a guitar and strums it percussively with her bare fingers. It propels the rhythm forward like a tuneful, melodic drum set, and the fiddle’s treble register sits in perfect compliment to Jefferson’s bottom-heavy, drop-tuned guitar textures. When she finally takes up the bow at the end of the song and plays a soulful, legato-rich solo, it’s not only exciting but somehow uncanny, as if we hadn’t already been hearing a fiddle all along, but some other indie-friendly trinket like a glockenspiel, omnichord, or hurdy gurdy.

Laura Cortese and Jefferson Hamer are accomplishing something unique within the broad environs of 21st century popular music. Performing as an electric string duo seems bold, particularly on a big stage, but it’s refreshing to hear the clarity of vocal harmonies and instrumental tones produced in a setting where every note matters, unobstructed by the P.A.-swallowing wash of a drum kit. In this regard, what they do makes for a better comparison to their folk ancestors than the voltage-enhanced sounds of their rock and pop contemporaries. The rhythm of traditional acoustic dance music informs their grooves, and a taste for the distilled poetry of real-life experience lives on in their original lyrics. A well-worn traditional ballad like “Barbara Ellen” ought to be a model of creative reinterpretation- grounded and respectful, yet subtly accomplishing something new. The fact that this track stands proudly, and integrates fluidly alongside the original songs on “Two Amps, One Microphone,” points to the British, Irish, Scottish, and American folk luminaries who inspired its rhymes and melodic colors. So charged, Laura Cortese and Jefferson Hamer write new songs worth remembering and put them in a familiar but subtly distinct frame, reshaping and realigning the congruence between acoustic and electric music, shining a bright light for the next generation of will-be folk rockers.

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