On a cold Tuesday afternoon I found myself sitting around a poker table with the three members of one of my favorite local bands, Palmyra. Although the table was not set for us to play, I was hosting a game later that evening, the image was still rather amusing to me in the moment. We had gathered because, somehow, RVA Magazine had yet to cover this fantastic up-and-coming folk trio, and to discuss a new series of videos that they have put together, with their song “Presence” premiering today, Friday December 2nd at noon on RVA Magazine TV.
First to arrive that afternoon was Palmyra’s mandolin player (and sometimes guitar player) Sasha. I offered them a cup of tea to fight off the bitterness creeping in from outside, and they accepted. We made small talk as I told them about my love for their performances as I performed the ritual of crafting a cup of loose leaf tea. I had just gotten it steeping as I heard a knock on the front door, and I opened it to find Palmyra’s guitar player (and sometimes banjo player) Teddy, along with their bass player Mãnoa walking back down the steps of my front porch (I had originally told them to come to the back door). They turned around and smiled walking back up the steps.
We entered my living room, the site of the poker table, and gathered around to begin our interview. Sasha immediately began fiddling with the chips already lined up, and at various points during our conversation I found all of them, at one time or another, rolling the chips around the table like non-spherical stress balls. Starting where I prefer to, Teddy, Sasha, Manoa, and I began talking about our backgrounds.
Teddy grew up in a small town on the outskirts of what many refer to as Northern Virginia (NoVA) called Lovettsville. He began playing guitar at the age of 11, although Teddy claims he was much more of a “sports kid”, and often getting distracted by more active endeavors, found himself playing the instrument less and less. This changed as a teenager though as he picked it back up in high school and started writing songs. It was around this time, specifically as a freshman in high school, that Teddy first was gifted a banjo for Christmas. Initially learning the basics of clawhammer style, he was uninterested in it at the time, but would return to it in a few years as Palmyra started getting serious in the summer of 2020. After high school Teddy went off to James Madison University to study film with a minor in music industry, and it was during this time that he met the other members of Palmyra.
Born in Texas, Mãnoa started playing the cello when he was three years old, getting a very early start on the orchestral strings that he has made his career. Around the age of 10 Manoa moved to Virginia and began learning the bass in his local public school orchestra program. After many years of keeping with it he eventually made his way to JMU for upright bass.
Spending their formative years in Roanoke, Virginia, Sasha started playing the guitar in middle school. Although originally playing bass in some early sessions with Palmyra, often switching off with Manoa, Sasha moved into being the regular Mandolin (and sometimes guitar player) despite not picking up the Mandolin until the early months of 2020. Sash also attended JMU where they went to study upright bass. Although originally switching off playing bass with Manoa, Sasha now switches between Mandolin and Guitar with Teddy who will often switch between the 6-string and banjo.
In their last year of JMU the three members of Palmyra all enrolled in the same song writing class. This is when the three of them began playing together and attempting to write tunes as a unit, although not operating under the name Palmyra at this point. Upon graduation Mãnoa wanted to follow a partner to Boston where they were moving at the time, wand wanting to make the newfound music venture work for them, Sasha and Teddy decided to follow.
To say that graduating college in the summer of 2020 was a difficult time to enter the workforce is an understatement – as I can personally attest – but with the assumption that the lockdowns would soon be over, the members of Palmyra made the move in the hopes that it would work. With nowhere to play, and nothing to do, the three musicians wrote songs in their basement; about 15 they claim. During this period livestreams became a regular feature for the band as they developed their sound and tried to make connections in a different scene. The relationship that brought them there didn’t last, and the group found the pull back to Virginia too great to ignore. Teddy and Sasha moved into a farmhouse in Floyd, Virginia, but Palmyra immediately began touring upon the move back. They spoke of not being able to plant any roots due to the constant travel, so life was a dichotomy of excitement on the road, and then a week off at home alone in the house that left no time to get on the scene to make friends and connections. This led to a move to Richmond where the band currently resides.
The biggest influence on Teddy (and all of them he claims) is the Avett brothers, and various bands of similar quality such as Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, The Band, and Jackson Browne. Their website claims Punch Brothers as an enormous influence, and it’s hard to deny the parallels, from the charismatic mandolin player/singer, to the set up that they both often employ on stage of a single condenser mic that the members stand around and rise and fall back from to do a sort of mix live on stage. Manoa often cited his classical training as the biggest influence on him, while Sasha claimed inspiration from what they called “proto-bluegrass”, pointing out that, while they may resemble a bluegrass band, none of them are necessarily traditional bluegrass players. Though the one thing that all of them could agree on was that the people that influenced them the most, and the music they consumed more often than anything, is the music of their peers. All three members said that when they’re traveling in the car, walking down the street, or doing just about anything, they’re listening to the music of someone that they’ve met on the road or in the Richmond music scene.
Before we got into our discussion of their upcoming release, I wanted to know about the name. They slightly guffawed at the question, and claimed that they didn’t have a particularly interesting answer, having taken the from the song “Palmyra” by the band Houndmouth. I personally am a huge fan of the group and recognized the tune immediately, but what was entertaining were the alternative names that they had in their back pocket including Geardog, the Ghost of Benjamin Lay, and Big Swamp (to which Sasha expressed sardonic regret that they hadn’t gone ahead and named themselves that).
We finally moved on to the reason I sat down to talk to Palmyra in the first place, and that was to discuss a series of videos that they had done in collaboration with Sill & Glade Cabin, a new recording studio in Mount Solon, Virginia, and filmed by Tyler Scheerschmidt. The video for the group’s song “Presence” premieres today, Friday December 2nd at noon on RVA Magazine TV, and is available to watch now. You can additionally watch their other video at Sill and Glade of their song “Medicine“. Go check that out, and then read further for my in depth interview where the members of Palmyra and I talk about the songwriting process, their relationship with the band Illiterate Light, and dealing with mental health during the pandemic.
About the music you already have out: Sasha mentioned your “EP” Shenandoah earlier, but Spotify recognizes it as an album – it’s seven songs, 28 minutes. I’ve known records that have fewer songs and run longer. I’ve also known things that have more songs and are shorter but are called albums. How do you all see it?
Mãnoa: Definitely an EP I’d say.
Teddy: Yeah. The way that we marketed it was we tried to like to call it a “tape” for a while. We just wanted a different term than EP and album because… we just wanted to put something out, and we didn’t want it to be an EP because there was nothing coming after that – there wasn’t a record coming after this or anything. So it is what it is. It’s seven songs, you know, it is whatever Spotify wants it to be [laughs].
How did you know that you had this ready to go, when did you realize you needed to lay something down, and then what was the process?
Mãnoa: We have always been, and very much are, a performance first band. So, it was kind of like we need some kind of recorded material to kind of back this momentum that was created by playing shows every day. The process for that was, “let’s just record it acoustically exactly how it sounds when we play it live.” The way that you hear the songs is the same way that you would hear them on the stage.
As opposed to, say, “Microwave Dinner” that has all these extra instruments and effects that you do not bring to the stage?
Teddy: We recorded “Shenandoah” in the little house that Sasha and I were living in in Floyd. I think it was in January, it was chilly in the winter, and we just set up a couple nights in a room and recorded live for the most part. We chose songs that reflected the environment we were in; we chose our quieter tunes. For the record that we’re going to put out in a couple months, not the Sil and Glade stuff, but another batch of 6 songs, is like kind of a more high-energy batch of songs. We’re just trying out different projects with different energies.
Sasha: We have tunes that were really proud of, and arrangements that were really really proud of, and everything that we have done is catered to how an audience is going to hear it, so I think the thing that made the most sense for us to record first was those like those intimate things where we were like anyone could listen to this anywhere. And also it was it was based on what we had available to us at the time which wasn’t much money for recording so yeah will you everything about it was was kind of rustic. Then, with this this thing we recorded in June in Harrisonburg, we made a budget, you know. We’re like we’re going to pay a fiddler, and a pedal steel player, and Jake Cochran from illiterate light played drums on it, and we got it professionally produced and engineered mixed and mastered. I think that’s a different way of honoring and giving justice to those tunes was like bringing it into a studio and having a whole team around it.
Mãnoa: That is all separate from what’s being released in December though.
Yeah, can you distinguish between the two?
Mãnoa: There’s a lot of different projects that we’re working. In December there’s going to be 3 songs being released that were recorded in Mount Solon Virginia at a cabin called the Sil and Glade Studio. Those three songs are all, I would say – most of them are certainly – our most singer-songwriter kind of introspective songs, and then the third is also incredibly introspective, but it’s maybe more arranged as opposed to the other two. So that’s going to be a three song kind of session situation, and what’s special about those is that they have videos connected to them. All three tracks have full length videos
Sasha: Done by Tyler Scheerschmidt.
Mãnoa: And then the six song EP that Sasha was just speaking about, we went in a very professional direction with. It doesn’t have a release date yet but will be out at some point in 2023
Tell me more about Sill and Glade, what it is, and what they do.
Sasha: It’s run by our friend. We didn’t actually meet him until we went there to film these videos for the first time, our friend Cj Metz. Cj moved there recently with his wife to start this recording studio, and at the time – I don’t know if they’re still doing this – they were doing this kind of like, “we want to get the word about this cabin out.” So they offered us some time, and in exchange for putting out the material and promoting it as something that we did at the cabin. So Cj recorded it, and we tracked it all live, Tyler filmed it, and Teddy mixed and mastered it. It’s a beautiful place overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, very rural, and it’s just really a beautiful spot. You can tell in the videos that the inside of the cabin itself is really magical, and that the outside is crazy too.
Mãnoa: The songs are – I said introspective earlier – they’re all songs that I would say are, though not pastoral lyrically, but just given their acoustic treatment and kind of like overall vibe I would say respond really well with the nature that they were recorded in. I’m really proud of them. There’s a lot of space inside all three of the songs that I think people are going to really connect with.
What’s the process like when it comes to writing a song?
Teddy: So we all write lyrics; we’ve been actually playing around with this process more lately. We had a couple days at a cabin outside Asheville last week that we spent kind of writing and arranging, but normally one of us will write the tune singer-songwriter style just with a guitar and then bring it to the group and we all arrange it together. Manoa’s classical influences kind of like work their way into our arrangement that make them more intricate, and at least for me, like my solo music growing up I would just chug along with the guitar, and then bring them to a group. We all have different ideas and ways to arrange these tunes that make them Palmyra. We kind of write individually and then bring them together once the lyrics are done. We’ve found it hard to collaborate lyrically, which is something that we’ve been working on.
Sasha: This project: it’s three tunes. One of them is called “Nothing Sticks” that Teddy wrote, and we arranged together. It’s “Nothing Sticks”, “Presence”, and “Medicine”, and presence is a tune that I wrote the first half of, and brought to the group and Teddy wrote the second half. We kind of got together and then finished that together. “Medicine” is a tune that I wrote and had a bunch of ideas for other verses for, but didn’t fully write out. When we were living in Boston we sat down and workshopped to all of the lyrics together for it. “Nothing Sticks” is definitely a tune that [Teddy] wrote all of, but “Presence” and “Medicine” are both team efforts that I started and then we finished as a group which, isn’t super typical of our of all of our tunes when it comes to the actual lyric writing.
Mãnoa: I think – speaking back to influences earlier – “Medicine” is a really interesting Palmyra tune in that it has a lot of different influences going on. There’s kind of the Punch Brothers influence that you were talking about earlier, which is maybe like a more classical thing, but there’s also a bridge that changes time signatures that’s kind of juxtaposed over a jazz contrafact; a tune called “The Sage of Harrison Crabfeathers.” That has probably four different genres going on inside of it, all in the aesthetic of kind of Bluegrass I would say
Mãnoa: Yeah. There’s like jazz, maybe Progressive instrumental metal you could say, definitely kind of a more country feel at times, just a two feel walking Bass. We’re excited about that tune just in that it kind of shows our range as a trio
Sasha: It starts with this kind of metal intro between mostly bass and mandolin, and then the guitar comes in and it goes into this sad verse that starts with, “I am starting to think that I might need medicine.” The whole song is about that and it’s pretty sad, but over happy country chords.
Well that first tape is very nice, but it is all one sound. Very self-actualized, but similar throughout the whole thing, so I’m interested to see you all move forward and expand beyond that.
Mãnoa: I would say we’re in a big explorative phase right now with recorded music probably. Honestly in all parts of the band, there’s a lot of change going on with our sound, and we were very self-aware during the recording of that “Shenandoah” tape that we we wanted document where it’s at now, and that it’s going to depart from this. So I would say there’s definitely a lot of departures happening right now from that Shenandoah sound.
Well speaking of exploring, you’ve been touring a lot with the band Illiterate Light? How did that collaboration come about, and what’s it like going on such an intense tour for such a young band?
Sasha: They’re our heroes. We really love them. Our music is definitely influenced by them, like how we were just talking about arrangements, or switching between instruments, we’re always trying to create more sound. We always want to sound like more than three people, or at least have the option to, and I think a lot of that is because we’ve seen Illiterate LIght who are able to create so much for just two people. We met them in Harrisonburg, and they actually had taken the song writing class that we were in years before, and they came to our class a few times to share things they were working on before their first record came out. We stayed in touch with them. We saw them right when things started to open back up in 2021. We saw them and we asked them a bunch of questions about touring, and they told us, “tour all the time, and put your posters everywhere so everybody knows that you’re touring all the time. Your growth will be inevitable, and you’ll get a lot better,” and we really took that advice and ran with it. Since then we have checked in with them really regularly to ask them for advice as we get to the next stage where, like, “what did you do when you were here?” They were really really kind to invite us out on the road with them in September. We toured from Atlanta up to Toronto with them.Jeff and Jake are really really wonderful, and we’re very, very grateful to them.
Teddy: We’ve done a lot of touring over the past year and a half, but every night has been so different. We do a lot of different venues; we’ll do a house show, then we’ll do a a brewery, a restaurant, whatever. We’ll play wherever we can, especially last year. So, having this opportunity to go on the road with a Illiterate Light was playing in the club every night for 10 days, which we are not used to. When you play in a brewery you can kind of be half on becuase you have to play for three hours, but we had to make sure we were on every night, because it was such a big opportunity for us. We learned a lot just playing clubs every night, and just giving it our all for 30-45 minutes every single night. It was amazing, we had a lot of fun, and we just love those guys a lot.
Sasha: They invited us up to Newport Folk Festival with them this Summer. They did a bike powered stage which was a first for Newport. They actually brought the bikes with them on this tour, and every night, even inside the clubs, they would set up their bike power generator and a PA speaker and do a couple songs with two bikers behind them which was really fun. But, they invited us up to Newport which is like the biggest thing for our genre, and was was such a cool moment. It’s where Bob Dylan went Electric! They’re so great. Jake played on the project we’re putting out in Spring. They’re really important to us, and we love them.
Mãnoa: You can’t understand Palmyra without seeing our relationship with them. The genesis of everything we do, at all levels, if it’s touring, if it’s writing, if it’s performing, it’s all directly influenced by them.
Teddy: There’s a little piece of Illiterate Light in every part of what we do.
It must be hard to be on the road that much with them. What’s it like surviving while constantly on the move?
Teddy: It’s been a big adjustment. I mean that’s what the tunes “Nothing Sticks” is about, that’s going to be on the Sil and Glade project. It’s about not being in the same place for more than a couple days, and getting use to navigating relationships while you’re on the road. Also like what we’re talking about in Floyd: when you come home and you don’t really have any friends to hang out with so like your week off is just alone. It’s been a hard year of adjustment, but I said this at at live shows whenever I introduce the song “Nothing Sticks” I feel like I personally I’m starting to get into a grove of being on the road. For our 2023 schedule we’ve been on the road so much this year, and we’ve learned so much that now we know the things we can do and can’t do. So, we’re doing less three week tours and more just weekenders. We’re learning a lot; how to be healthier, which is something we talked about a lot.
Mãnoa: Yeah definitely was – and this was an Illiterate Light influence – the metaphorical concept of jumping off the cliff, and it’s been such a process of learning what works.
Sasha: [In a gruff, affected voice] Trial by fire.
Mãnoa: I credit all our success at this point to that willingness of the three of us to just commit fully to it. There were a lot of things that didn’t work, but there were a ton of things that did work. We wouldn’t have found those things that work if we hadn’t made all the mistakes that we did.
Sasha: And if we didn’t have people that had already made mistakes looking out for us too. Jake and Jeff are really big ones, but so many people have given us advice over the last 2-3 years that has… whether it’s we’re to play in a city or just what the best sleeping pad is or whatever. There’s so many people that have given us advice that we’re so thankful for.
Mãnoa: I think a big adjustment to being a full-time touring musician has been – it’s a silly one – living out of a suitcase. We just have like backpacks or duffel bags, and just like how small your life can be. We’re traveling all over the country, and it feels like your world is so big, but it’s been kind of the opposite in some ways. The three of us have gotten to be such a family and we don’t need much, and our days –though we’re in new places every single day – they’re very similar. It’s actually kind of a simplistic way of life. It’s very routine, and we just kind of adjusted to that routine.
Sasha: I’m sure the two of them are sick of hearing me talk about it, but I found out in March this year that I’m bipolar, which was a really funky thing to learn while touring full-time and not being in one place at all. It’s been a weird time. I’ve been on six or seven different types of medication, trying to understand mania when not knowing what stasis is because we’re always moving. It’s been a really funky adjustment, and I mean a bunch of the tunes we’ve got – actually this tune “Medicine” is about not understanding what’s going on in your head. Which has made touring I think extra difficult for me. I’m super grateful to both [Teddy and Manoa] for being with me through that because that’s been really hard, really weird, and isn’t one of those things that we can get much advice about from other people, but has probably been the single thing this year that has been such a massive curveball.
When are you off again? When’s the next tour?
Mãnoa: We don’t have another tour until the new year.
A little bit of stasis finally.
Teddy: I’m so happy to be in Richmond too. This is the first place in a couple years that’s really felt like home, and we’re all here in the same place. It just feels good to have some time off, and be together. We’re in the same place, but we can kind of get some space, and meet up when we can, but, when you’re in the band, you can’t. You’re there.
Go check out Palmyra’s new video for their song “Presence” on RVA Magazine TV, and keep an eye out for their new music in the new year!
Top Phot provided by Sadie Lynn