In the realm of artistic expression and freedom, one might expect one band’s version of another person’s song to sound at least vaguely similar. This, however, is often not the case with Warren-based band Company Townes, which is on the verge of releasing its second original album which consists of reimagined songs by country western musician Towne Van Zandt.
According to Sara Aiello, a Titusville native who plays harmonica and does vocals for the five person band, the songs, apart from the lyrics, have all been rewritten in terms of melodies, riffs and added drum and bass lines.
The album, set to release on April 20, is titled “Van Zandt,” and consists of 11 tracks that the group has made their own after years of practicing and playing them live. Aiello said they had been performing the songs for so long that they figured it was time to put them together on album. Fellow bandmate Eric Morelli, who plays guitar, does vocals and singlehandedly recorded the whole album, said the group found their common ground with Van Zandt.
After initially starting as a three person group with Aiello and Morelli working alongside vocalist and guitarist Jody Aiello took the lyrics and worked the rest out for themselves. The later addition of drummer and percussionist Nate Blick and bassist Andrew King meant new parts had to be added to the already familiar repertoire.
“The first songs we ever played together were Towne Van Zandt songs. It was sort of our common ground,” Morelli said. “We were coming from two different groups that played original music, so some members were from one band and some from another. We had to find middle ground without taking from the old songs.”
This commonality came in the form of Van Zandt’s songs, which Morelli called poetic. The group, as a whole, felt that his lyrics told a story that keeps the listener engaged while simultaneously aligning with the group’s desired sound.
“What we loved is it was just him and a guitar, so it was a pretty blank canvas when we came to the song and added drums and guitar,” Morelli said.
As a whole, the band has been playing together for four years, and Sara Aiello said all of the songs on the album are ones that have been played live many times. However, despite this, she said the songs are ever changing.
“We’re always kind of reaching a bit further, so we’ll discover something in a song after playing it for three years, and we’ll probably keep changing them,” Sara Aiello said. “We already play them a bit different live than what you’ll hear on the album just from natural growth, I guess, but at this point, the changes are pretty subtle.”
In contrast with the country western band’s first album, “Canyon,” where each member recorded their parts separately and put them together to create the final piece, “Van Zandt” was recorded live. Morelli likened the recording experience of their first album to a game of telephone, with each member hearing what had been produced by the other before building off of it. While the three initial members had worked out their contributions early on, the drummer and bassist, according to Morelli, went in blind because even the original tracks had no percussion or rhythm sections to guide them.
As for this album, there were still a few tracks that had never been played by King and Blick, so they had to learn them rather quickly. Despite the hurdle, the band, alongside John Baldwin, who mastered the album and has worked with acts like Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones, managed to create an album that they are proud of.
“It’s easier to be proud of an album if you can sit down and know that you did it together,” Morelli said.
While many musicians tend to steer away from recording live, Sara Aiello said playing live is what the band is most comfortable with. Rather than focusing on finding perfect pitch, the group welcomed small mistakes on the track to keep it more organic.
“We welcome mistakes because it’s live and that’s how we sound, so people tend to appreciate that,” she said. “It forces more humanity into the song.”
In terms of the recording process, Sara Aiello said the bandmates really feed off of each other, and while Sara Aiello stressed that the group is not a cover band and the musical scores written and produced by the group to pair with Van Zandt’s lyrics are not his, they are undoubtedly inspired by him.
“When I’m playing the harmonica, I’m not playing his harmonica part, but I am inspired by it,” she said. “We’ll change the vocal melodies, too, and change the key.”
In fact, when listening to the original version of the song that inspired the opening track of their album, entitled “White Freight Liner,” followed by the version done by the band, unless the listener is keeping an ear out for the familiar lyrics, it’s easy to assume they are two completely different songs. Morelli said this was one of his favorite tracks off the upcoming album.
“It’s a really fun song, and we actually went back through after the fact, and we all had a set of headphones on and we were just hooting and hollering over the track to give it a more live feel,” he said.
The track is currently available on Spotify.
While Sara Aiello said it can be rather difficult for musicians playing original music to get their name out there in a small town, she said playing a plethora of local shows and building up a local fanbase has helped. Additionally, because the bandmates have maintained a friendship throughout the years of playing together, they have held steady and persevered.
“It’s hard in a small town to make it as local, original musicians because a lot of times, when you play music, people want to hear cover music,” Sara Aiello said. “They want to hear ‘Freebird,’ and we’re just not that. It’s hard sometimes to market yourself in a small town area, but our hope is to expand a bit and get our names out in local communities. Let people know that there is local talent and there are people working really hard within these small towns, not just in places like Pittsburgh and New York. It’s happening here.”
From billboards over U.S. Route 6, to banners on streets, to coasters in local bars and area news coverage, Morelli said the group has done its best to lead a grassroots movement for promoting their new album. The album’s release date will commence with a show at Warren Struther’s Library Theatre, at 8 p.m., and the doors open at 7. There is a fee for tickets, with a discounted rate if purchased before the day of the event, and children age 5 and under get in free. The show is sponsored by Straub Brewery.
The show is open to all ages, and will feature country western musician Zach Schmidt as an opening act. While Schmidt is currently located in Nashville, he is originally from Pittsburgh. Morelli said the group had been fans of his and thought it might be worth going out on a limb to ask if he would open for them, and he agreed.
To pre-order the upcoming album, purchase their first album, “Canyon” or any merchandise related to the first album or pre-order tickets, go to cotownes.com.
The album, which can be purchased on CD, album or vinyl, will be available on Spotify, Apple Music and Bandcamp. At present, the group has a little more than 200 pre-orders. Additionally, the band can be found on Instagram and Facebook.
Dodd can be reached, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org