The Accidentals go from orchestra dorks to SXSW success story 


click to enlarge Growing up in public: 'They find out that we're under 21,' says singer and violinist Savannah Buist, 'and we literally get kicked out to the parking lot for like four hours.'
  • Growing up in public: 'They find out that we're under 21,' says singer and violinist Savannah Buist, 'and we literally get kicked out to the parking lot for like four hours.'

Savannah Buist's early arrival into this world did not go unnoticed. The future co-founder of indie folk-rock trio The Accidentals was born one month ahead of schedule, on July 4, 1995, an event that was announced from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry by Whisperin' Bill Anderson, in whose band her father often played piano.

From there, Savannah's decision to become a musician was pretty much inevitable. Her earliest memories — the ones that still find their way into her dreams — are of a wide-eyed 3-year-old getting to ride on tour buses.

"I remember seeing a lot of people playing instruments, and trying to figure out how they worked," she says. "I'd be trying to hit the guitars with my hands, and not really understanding why the same sound wouldn't come out of them."

Musicians prone to jealousy may want to skip ahead to the next column.

By the time she reached 11, Savannah was playing violin in her school orchestra and performing at folk festivals in her parents' band.

She would then go on to write three unpublished novels, form a duo with her high school band's cellist Katie Larson ("we were both orchestra dorks"), and enroll in Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy, where the two musicians honed their skills on more than a dozen stringed instruments.

Upon graduation, they composed and arranged a piece for the local 72-piece orchestra, released their second album as The Accidentals, and began opening for acts like Dar Williams and Andrew Bird, who described the band's fusion of indie-folk, classical, Celtic, Americana, blues, rock and God-knows-what-other genres as "frighteningly good."

By the time drummer Michael Dause came onboard, The Accidentals were touring constantly. In 2015 alone, they racked up more than 200 dates, and were named one of the Top 7 SXSW Breakout Acts by Billboard magazine.

All of this before reaching the age of 21.

"I feel like touring is a really bittersweet experience," says Buist, of the Michigan trio's heavy road schedule. "You're doing what you love full-time, which is great, and then I come home and find that my little brother now has a deep voice and is like five inches taller than me. But as a result, I don't think any of us take anything for granted anymore. Something as simple as being able to fall asleep in your own bed is like the most magical thing in the universe now. I really enjoy how that's changed me, for sure, because everything is kind of precious now."

The band's seven-song Parking Lot EP, released earlier this month, shows tremendous strides both musically and sonically, from the layered strings and trademark harmonies on "Michigan and Again" to the subtle electric instrumentation on "Turn the Wheel."

The collection also finds Buist upping her game lyrically. "Sixth Street," with its understated vocals, elegiac string arrangements, and poetic imagery, conveyes an undercurrent of emptiness — "the loudest silence ever heard"— amidst the revelry that overruns South By Southwest's main drag:

There's too much noise on Sixth Street

Like a brick in a washing machine

And the alleys looks like bedsheets

Wrinkled in the morning haze of gray routine.

But even in its most poignant moments, the band's songwriting never becomes overly precious, something that can't necessarily be said about their debut album, which includes the first five songs Buist ever wrote.

"I try to pretend that album doesn't exist," she laughs, "because it's totally a snapshot back to a time when I was 16 and trying to figure myself out. When I write songs, I tend to go off in a corner and I'll just dump all of my feelings onto a piece of paper. And oftentimes, I'll try to give every line its own story and importance. You have only three minutes to express how you really feel, so you don't want to slack off."

None of which is to suggest that The Accidentals are bereft of energy or a sense of humor, both found in abundance during live performances filled with joyous harmonies, Celtic instrumental breakdowns, and covers that can range from Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli's "Minor Swing" to The Beatles' "Taxman" and Rush's "Tom Sawyer."

Through it all is the sense of celebration and discovery that comes with talented musicians finding their own collaborative voice.

"That's really what Michigan music — and music overall — is about," figures Buist. "It's working together, learning from each other, and throwing all these cool elements together, that can get people excited and really happy to be where they are listening to music. And I think that transcends everything else that comes with being a human being; that's all there is."

Well, that and the touring. Something that should become easier when Buist and Larson finally turn 21.

"The problem with South By is that we have a really, really hard time getting into showcases to watch other bands, even though we're literally the straightest band you could ever meet in your life. The same thing happens at venues where we're headlining on tour. We get there, they find out that we're under 21, and we literally get kicked out to the parking lot for like four hours."

Of course, for musicians who spend much of their van-time reading and listening to podcasts, being left out of the party isn't especially problematic.

"We actually think it's kind of funny and it's not all that bad," says Buist of the oft-repeated predicament they reenact in their recent "Parking Lot" video. "We're playing Scrabble in the parking lot, eating tacos. It's a pretty good life!"


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