This Valentine’s Day, Sings Like Hell is bringing the love to the Lobero Theatre with wine, flowers, and indie singer/songwriter couple Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. With family ties to author John Steinbeck as well as singer/songwriters Woody and Arlo Guthrie, it comes as no surprise that artistic genius runs in the family. In their decade and a half of performing together, the husband-and-wife duo have composed a wide variety of songs ranging from folk to rock to blues — even producing a children’s album composed by several generations of the family. I recently met up with Irion in the studio to talk romance, recording, and the Polaroid approach.
What are you working on right now? This is a rock record for our music project, U.S. Elevator. Tim Bluhm from The Mother Hips is going to be here the whole time kinda reigning us in. We’re trying to record as much we can while I’m in Santa Barbara. My aunt lives over in Montecito — my wife and I and our kids almost moved here last year since this is where we ended our tour.
When I get back home to Massachusetts, we’ll get Sarah Lee on a couple tracks. Sarah Lee and I have been married for 15 years, and we’ve toured together for most of that time — we have kids together, we work together, and we’re best friends; it’s really a miracle.
Which one of you is the romantic? We both are. We tend to go through phases of who is more romantic at different times — I think that’s what helps us sustain our balance.
And now you’re performing together on Valentine’s Day. The Lobero show is gonna be really fun. It’s a Sings Like Hell show — I love that series; they always have great under-the-radar Americana singers. There’s a great community over here. This is our fourth time playing at the Lobero and our first Valentine’s show, but I don’t think too much will change. I love spending Valentine’s Day here in Santa Barbara — not to mention it’s 20 degrees below in Massachusetts. My wife had to hair-dry the door handle to get it open the other day.
Massachusetts to Santa Barbara is a pretty big jump. Do you find you write different music based on your location? You can definitely find a different vibe on the record I’m working on right now — our last album was written in Massachusetts in February, so it was very cold and there is a lot in it looking forward to spring. Here, there’s something about being near the water, feeling the ebb and flow of it on a subconscious level. It really helps my writing. And the Lobero is letting us use this old Steinway piano — I think it’s almost 80 years old. We’re really excited to deliver a Santa Barbara pop-rock record.
How are you making this record? What we’ve set up here is like a Polaroid — it goes straight to tape. We turn the machine on, and whatever we are gonna do, that’s what it’s gonna look like when the Polaroid is developed. It’s real. There isn’t a lot of going into the computer and editing. We’re really into Neil Young’s album Zuma, which was recorded in a house, with a tape machine, with just a bunch of guys having fun. I feel like we’re chasing the ghost of David Briggs. I did some writing in L.A. with some pop stars and saw how they’re writing down there — it’s just people sitting in front of computers, adding in drums and guitars digitally. Having four guys in a room sweating and having fun is different. It’s someone’s soul, someone’s blood, someone’s heartbeat. With a machine, it’s just numbers. We’re taking a Polaroid approach, and hopefully we get some good ones.
Do you and your wife have any Valentine’s Day plans? After the show, we’ll head straight to the vineyard. Her birthday is the 17th, and I’m going to have something really spectacular planned.
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion play Saturday, February 14, at 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for more information.