Abby Huston made their Egghunt Records debut on Friday with AH HA, a dynamic LP merging R&B and indie pop. In advance of the album’s release, Davy Jones spoke to them about the recording process, collaborating with musicians they admire, and more.
Released in August, the performance video for Abby Huston’s song “Apartment” features the Richmond-based singer-songwriter sitting cross-legged on a porch roof outside the second-story room in which their three bandmates play, safely ensconced. In footage captured inside that room, Huston is simultaneously distant and center stage, the window serving as both a divider and a frame-within-a-frame. In the footage shot outside, Huston might as well be levitating; you never quite see the roof they’re sitting on, so there’s a palpable sense of danger as they strum and sing the lead single from their album, AH HA, out October 22 on Egghunt Records.
The decision to perform on either side of a window frame was primarily a sonic one; Huston’s vocal mic was picking up bleed from drummer Alec Gary’s cymbals. But the visual signifiers speak volumes about this moment in Huston’s musical life.
As an Egghunt artist — the label’s first in-town signee since Ali Thibodeau of Deau Eyes — Huston is on both the inside and outside: They’re the focus of a full-blown album rollout, yet they’re still marveling at the uncanny reality of being the subject of that heightened attention. And as a self-described “hesitant performer,” Huston exemplifies how softly sung vocals can suspend moments in midair, resulting in acts of real daring.
Huston grew up in Northern Virginia and moved to Richmond in 2015 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, where they studied sculpture and began connecting with musical luminaries-in-the-making like saxophonist Nathaniel Clark and AH HA producer Cameron Smith (also known as Not Kevin), with whom Huston collaborated on their 2018 debut album, Rich.
“I haven’t found a music community like this anywhere else,” Huston says. “I’m kind of a quiet singer, and it’s nice to know that actual people have made space for that. I don’t have to be someone else to make music and participate.”
With three other singles out in the world, one vinyl variant of AH HA already sold out, and the full album’s release nearly at hand, that space is set to expand. Huston and I spoke over the phone recently about the greater visibility that comes with label support, their pathway toward playing and singing publicly, and the musical relationships they’ve formed en route to making this standout album of R&B-leaning indie pop.
What’s it been like seeing reactions to the songs that were released as singles?
It feels very strange. This is the most I’ve ever promoted my music, so I’m getting a lot of support from people I did not know supported me. I guess it’s just strange. I was raised in a way a lot of people are, to deflect compliments and praise, so I’m just trying to get better at being more gracious. Thankful, too, because I get a lot of comments from other musicians, like “Doing great!” And I’m like, “Is this networking, or are we serious?” [laughs]
How did you cross paths with Egghunt Records?
Cameron [Smith], the producer, is definitely a very ambitious, driven music guy. Before he moved to Richmond for college, he grew up in Virginia Beach and was selling out shows at the sister to the National, the Norva, just as a high schooler, because he was so [good at] marketing and pushing his music…
When I met him when I got to college, he gave me a whole list of labels, and [said], “We can do this. We can make this happen.” That was the last album, my first one. He had a million ambitions for it. And Egghunt attracted me because I was going to school just a year after Lucy Dacus had dropped out to pursue music, so she was kind of a legend of “Wow, she actually did it.” That was why Egghunt interested me.
Did you find a creative community in Richmond right away, or did it take time?
About two years. I wasn’t really putting myself out there trying to get gigs or anything until I played a benefit show for some friends at Food Not Bombs, and they were making a record of a song from each set that performed at the benefit show. So I had to record for the first time, and that’s why I got into [thinking], “Okay, I can have music recorded.” I was really just playing before. About two years of being here, it was like, “Wait, I can do this too.”
Was there a lot of music in your household growing up?
My mom and dad worked at a radio station in D.C., and my dad has been really invested in the scene there… My dad has been taking me to shows since I was little. Actually, he took me to a house show [and] introduced me to Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail before she was even famous because he had a radar on her Bandcamp. It’s just crazy that a man in his 50s can be that in on the D.C. scene.
I read that the title of AH HA came from your initials being painted on drumsticks. When did you start to learn drums?
Oh yeah, in middle school.
Was that through school or on your own?
It started on my own. My grandpa found a drum on the side of the road that he gave me. It was a snare drum, red and sparkly. And then my friend’s older brother painted the drum sticks with my initials, so then I took them to school. I was the worst in band. They had a code word for when I was messing up so that it wouldn’t embarrass me, but that I would stop. The code word was “wombat.” [laughs] So that did not last long. I think I spent the whole time in band wishing I played saxophone.
Do you still play drums?
No, I switched to making beats on my phone. That’s a little more fun, because then I can play guitar, too.
When did guitar come into the picture?
I got my first guitar in third grade, and only knew how to play “Do-Re-Mi” until maybe eighth grade.
I’ve been pretty intimidated by the guitar. Even now, I find it difficult to make sounds out of an instrument in general. I guess I’m just a very hesitant performer. So growing to be comfortable with the guitar has been really rewarding, but a long journey… I think it helps to do both at the same time, just so I’m not thinking too hard about either one.
Does it feel like reluctance around performing is something you’re working your way through, or is it more of a constant?
I definitely started performing so I would grow out of that. I think something that I’ve learned about myself is that I can grow out of that, and then on a different day, just be feeling kind of quiet again. And I can accept that part of myself. I don’t have to become this showy, confident person. I can do my best, and sometimes, the more genuine doing-my-best will be soft.
What was the timeline for making AH HA?
It started in June or May  with “Promise” and “Can’t Be Sweet,” and then continued through December, I think is when we were really done.
It was mainly recorded at home, correct?
Everyone who recorded was recording from home.
Do you enjoy self-recording?
Definitely not. I am the type of person to try to get it all in one take, and restart a million times, and never be satisfied with the take, so it’s nice to work with someone who will be like, “That was awesome. Don’t delete that.”
How has working with Cameron Smith changed between your previous album and this one?
The last album, we had a different musician from all of my favorite bands track a different instrument on each song, so that whole process was about collaborating, and meeting people, and seeing their style. The drummers really changed how that album felt based on what they were bringing to it. I wrote the chords to all the songs, but the sound was so flexible.
This one, we worked a lot more digitally. When it’s on vinyl, the front side will be all live drums, and the back side is all digital. On the digital side, I felt more room to input specifically, like, “Ooh, yeah — that beat,” [and] shape the song more fully.
“Higher” had an especially interesting path. Can you describe how that collaboration with Benét took shape?
I have a lot of existential issues with gender, just in the way I feel I’ve learned to be. And I had just moved into a house with three people who identify as men, and I was like, “Oh geez. I am really nervous I’m going to revert back into this old way of trying to be a people pleaser all the time.”
I was talking to Benét about that, and they are probably the one of the most empowering people I could know. They really don’t take shit from anyone… Sometimes people see insecurity, and they move away from it. They are kind of put off by it. So it really means something to me when someone is there for you to grow past that, and they really did that for me, both with the content of what we were talking about, but then with the performance of it. Because we were going to take my voice off that song and replace it with someone else. We were ready for it. “We’ll find someone who’s really cool and popular and that’ll help Benét’s career.” But Benét [said], “Wait, Abby said this. Abby’s feeling this.” And I definitely was advocating for myself at that point too, like, “I’m kind of into this song.”
Have you been doing a lot of writing for other singers?
It just started within the past year. I really like getting into it more. That’s definitely a place I feel more comfortable… Singing can take some time for me to warm up to, but as a writer, I feel like there are so many singers with incredible voices that don’t have any songs out, and if that’s the issue — just having a song — I could have that.
Do you remember what got you interested in songwriting?
It was just a dream as a kid. My dad played guitar, so I saw the power of holding an instrument, and for me that was always linked to singing and songwriting. Just making music in general. I couldn’t see myself as just an instrumentalist.
Nathaniel Clark is credited with sax on “L Train,” and was also in your band for the “Apartment” performance video. How did the two of you start playing together?
He’s one of my favorite people. That’s actually one of my favorite stories. Cameron was a freshman at VCU when I met him as a sophomore, and he was studying saxophone. Nate was a senior at the time, and the best saxophone player at VCU — one of the most notable in the city to us. We were such big fans, so we were so nervous.
[Clark] recorded on my first album, [as] one of the musicians we reached out to, but he’s definitely the biggest musician to us, especially to Cameron as a saxophone player. He was like, “Abby, you don’t understand. This guy’s insane.” And [Clark] definitely showed up. He was on two songs of the first album.
Through the years we’ve just gotten closer. He wasn’t a part of my band until I needed a drummer. The drummer I have now, Alec Gary — they grew up together, so they’ve known each other since elementary school. So that happened really naturally. I felt very lucky to be getting closer to Nate.
Are there any yet-to-be-released songs from AH HA that you’re especially looking forward to seeing out in the world?
I guess “Younger” — I’ve had that one forever, and it’s a song about trying to find peace in your mind. It’s also really special because it starts and ends with the scratch demo we kept in, so being able to hear a moment where, at the very start of recording, I was able to find peace of mind… A challenge in recording for me is getting out of my head, and getting out of my insecurities, and being so present in actually singing or playing. So that one I’m excited about…
“Younger” and “L Train” were written in 2019. Those two snuck on [AH HA]. There are a few more from 2019 that I think will be on the next album. I’m pretty excited. For all of 2021, the album’s been done. I’ve just been writing the next one, and I finally have all the songs done — not recorded, but fully written. It’s crazy to have one in the bank.
Top Photo by Ryan Gary