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Mt. Royal's effortless ride

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The flier may have read “record release show,” but Mt. Royal's concert last Saturday in Charles Village felt more like a celebratory gathering of close friends and family.

Minutes before taking the stage, Katrina Ford, the rock quintet's striking lead singer whose huge voice has seized ears for years in her other group, Celebration, mingled with her husband and others on the Ottobar's narrow balcony. Later, in between songs, Ford — dressed in all black with boots that went above her knees — smiled widely as she waved to familiar faces in the full crowd.

“There's lots of good friends here tonight. I wish I could say something for everybody,” Ford said from her knees after acknowledging that Allyn Harris, the artist behind the EP's cover art and the father of bassist Ed Harris, was watching from upstairs.

Saturday night marked the 364th day since the band's first official show as Mt. Royal, and the significant strides the act — which also includes keyboardist Matt Pierce, guitarist Woody Ranere and drummer Mike Lowry — has made since then were on full display, both in the band's workmanlike execution on stage and in the form of the physical copies of its self-titled EP, released last week on the highly regarded London label Bella Union, sitting on the merchandise table. 

And while other musicians might see this relatively fast success as a reason to fully stomp on the acceleration, the members of Mt. Royal refuse to concern themselves with expectations, grand or not.

“I know when we first started out, and we had two songs, I remembered thinking, ‘I'm not going to think about the music business side at all.' I just wanted to write good music,” Harris said, between bites of a turkey club sandwich at New Wyman Park Restaurant, a day before the Ottobar show. “I think that's why these songs turned out so great, because we weren't focused on what this could do for us career-wise.”

Ford, still deeply disappointed by Celebration's experience on the storied label 4AD years ago, is more succinct: “I've been in this business for a long time, and I don't speculate on anything, ever. I just have to stay in the moment.”

This measured approach has worked well to this point. To trace Mt. Royal's lineage, one must start at Lake Trout, the ambient rock quintet that featured Lowry, Pierce, Harris and Ranere. Post-Lake Trout, Harris and Co. focused on Big in Japan, a pre-existing instrumental project. When the collective realized it wanted to add vocals for a string of live shows, its members called Ford, an artist they knew from all being longtime fixtures of Baltimore's tightknit indie-rock scene.

The chemistry was immediate, members say, and it did not take long to realize they had all found something special. Ford says the logical conclusion was to give the band its own name, rather than the previously wonky title, “Big in Japan featuring Katrina Ford of Celebration.”

“It seemed kind of corny to keep the same name,” Ford, 41, said. “I just felt like I was in Vegas or something, you know?”

The EP's six songs have been written and tinkered with since 2009, when Ford first began jamming with Big in Japan. To this day, the group only writes together once “every couple months,” which underlines the fact Mt. Royal is not the sole music-related priority its players have.

“Mt. Royal is something we do in between of everything else, not to downplay it by any means,” Harris, 38, said.

Harris is a painter and also manages Celebration. Lowry is a touring member of Future Islands, Pierce plays keyboards for Arbouretum and Ranere is one-half of the experimental duo With Lions. Then there's Ford, who informed Mt. Royal's members that Celebration would and always will be her “No. 1 priority.”

“That's what I go home to,” Ford said of the psychedelic band she shares with her husband, Sean Antanaitis. “That's my biggest joy in life.”

All of these factors point to why Mt. Royal's members can dedicate only a sliver of their time to the group, regardless of the buzz it picks up along the way. (In recent months, the praise for Mt. Royal has spanned from the influential music blog Brooklyn Vegan to Britain's “The Sunday Times,” which singled out Mt. Royal as a “breaking act” last month.)

It also makes the potency of Mt. Royal's less-than-26-minute debut more impressive and difficult to explain. From the soulful groove and devastating low-end of “Missing Reward” to the surreal, Pink Floyd-esque outro of “Yes Your Majesty,” Mt. Royal packs its first release with moments that satisfy immediately, and get richer with repeated spins.

“It happens really quickly,” Ford said of Mt. Royal's writing process, which typically begins with Pierce, Harris and Lowry bringing a skeletal outline to the singer. After Ford crafts a vocal melody, Ranere adds “the frosting” at the very end, she said. “The writing process was very effortless. ... It's interesting how you can put so little of a breath into something, and it just goes and has life on its own,” Ford said.

The efficient songwriting is likely a result of musicians taking knowledge they've acquired from decades of experience, and subconsciously applying it to Mt. Royal. This is clearest midway through “Mockingbird,” the first song the band wrote together. Its muscular bridge appears swiftly from thin air, only to cleverly dissolve less than a minute and a half later.

“That was the first moment of hearing how this project could sound,” Pierce, 40, said of “Mockingbird,” over the phone on Monday. “I feel like that song is a little bit of a microcosm of what we do, in the feel and the softness of parts of it. And then there's an intensity [to it].”

The band's future is amorphous, which fits the group's take-it-as-it-comes attitude toward creating and creativity. There will be a handful of live shows to promote the EP, but Harris says there are no plans to extensively tour “because we've done all that” in previous acts. Later this year, Ford's attention will dramatically shift to Celebration's forthcoming album, tentatively due in August, also on Bella Union.

But the label is already excited about, and asking for, a full-length Mt. Royal record. Bella Union recognizes the talent and opportunity that could be brewing here, but it will solely be up to Mt. Royal whether or not they pursue the unknown. It's hard to blame them for the concern. Although the band's future is as bright as it wants to be, its members have played in too many groups and watched too many rising acts crash and burn in the Internet hype cycle to worry about Mt. Royal's potential.

“We've all been in the business long enough to not really hold our breath,” Pierce said with a laugh. “We would just be happy to keep putting out good music as long as we feel like we're making it.”

LISTEN: Mt. Royal's EP on Spotify

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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