Folk duo the Milk Carton Kids features dual acoustic guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. Comparisons to the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel are warranted.
The Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale grew up in Los Angeles. They met in 2010 when Ryan caught one of Pattengale’s L.A. gigs. At the time, both of them were unsuccessfully pursing careers as solo singer-songwriters.
“Somebody recommended that I go see Kenneth’s show,” Ryan said from L.A. during a break in the duo’s touring. “Kenneth sang this song that he’d written from the perspective of a dog that had just been hit by a truck.”
In the song, the dog writes his memoirs on a scrap of paper as he lay dying.
“It’s a really wonderful and charming and deep song,” Ryan said. “The approach was one that I hadn’t heard before. I was struck by it. So I introduced myself to Kenneth after the show.”
In turn, Pattengale went home from that night and listened to Ryan’s album.
“After we met, Kenneth insisted that we try singing together,” Ryan said. “So we got together on his front porch. Our two guitars seemed like they were meant for each other. Our voices brought out sides of our singing that we hadn’t known before.”
Ryan and Pattengale spent most of 2010 developing a budding musical partnership before formally announcing their Milk Carton Kids duo in 2011.
A common love for folk music, which wasn’t hip or popular until the recent rise of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and the Civil Wars, helped bring Ryan and Pattengale together.
“It’s just the music we’ve always listened to,” Ryan said. “Not exclusively, but it’s possibly the only music we’re qualified to play.” Ryan dismisses his own instrumental abilities.
“What I do is the product of the limits of my ability,” he said. “But once you find a voice that you’re comfortably with, a voice that makes you feel confident enough to say what it is you want to say, that’s really what it’s about, saying what you want to say in your songs.
“And I’m not a screamer. I’m not a belter. I sing the way I sing and I can only play the guitar well enough to barely accompany myself. That means folk music.”
On the other hand, Pattengale, a skilled picker of neo-bluegrass guitar leads, is the duo’s star instrumentalist.
“It takes a deep lyricist to make the three chords and the truth thing work,” Ryan added. “But because Kenneth is intensely focused on the musical side of things, that’s not something that Kenneth and I rely on.
“He pays attention to harmony, chord progressions, arrangements. We end up writing songs that are more complex than what is perhaps required of folk music. That’s largely to do with Kenneth’s influence.”
Even if folk music and its natural simplicity and unpretentiousness aren’t something the world at large associates with Ryan and Pattengale’s hometown of Los Angeles, a place thought to be glitzy and glamorous, the duo finds the general atmosphere in the show business capital encouraging.
“It’s a city where people are chasing dreams,” Ryan said. “It can be inspiring to be around so many people with big ambitions, some of whom are very talented.”
The Milk Carton Kids found an important supporter in producer and recording artist Joe Henry. His studio clients include Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Mary Gauthier, Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco.
Henry’s association with Anti- Records helped get the Milk Carton Kids signed to that important indie label. He brought Anti- boss Andy Kaulkin to a Milk Carton Kids show in L.A. The label released the duo’s second studio album, The Ash & Clay, in March.
“We pursued Anti- without them knowing it until they pursued us,” Ryan said. “It came from Joe Henry.”
Henry recently invited Ryan and Pattengale to record the classic ballad, “Aura Lee,” for an upcoming collection of Civil War songs that he’s producing.
“He’s a mentor at this point and a friend,” Ryan said.