Mason Van Valin (vocals, guitar) / Elijah Edwards (vocals, guitar, mandolin, keyboards, Dobro, accordion) / Megan McAllister (vocals, guitar, dulcimer)
Los Angeles-based trio Fairground Saints create their warm and wistful sound by playing off the delicate contradictions at the heart of their music. With each member sharing songwriting duties, Mason Van Valin and Elijah Edwards impart a starkly literate, sometimes-gritty sense of introspection informed by artists like Bob Dylan and Jim Messina, while their fellow vocalist Megan McAllister lends a soulful vulnerability and gutsy intimacy inspired by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Rihanna. “We each bring in our own different elements, but what connects us is the level of honesty that we go for in our songs,” says McAllister. And in achieving that honesty, Fairground Saints infuse their music with intense emotional power. “All of us in the band believe in being as real as possible with our music, and not shying away from wherever a song is trying to take us,” Van Valin says.
Produced by Matthew Wilder (the songwriter/musician/producer/engineer known for his work with No Doubt, Christina Aguilera, and The Belle Brigade), Fairground Saints’ self-titled debut album is shot through with elegant melodies and lush three-part harmonies. Showing both an artful sophistication and a guileless passion born from what Van Valin describes as “almost a biological imperative to make music,” the album also captures Fairground Saints’ easy chemistry and a shared sensibility that feels beamed in from the golden era of singer-songwriters.
True to that era — yet entirely fresh in perspective — Fairground Saints keep each track candid and confessional in its lyricism. To kick off the album, the slow-building “Ain’t Much for Lyin’” takes an unblinking look at the experience of “getting into a new relationship when you’re still in love with somebody else,” according to Van Valin, and ultimately unfolds into a sweeping epic richly textured with Dobro and pedal-steel tones. On “Gossip Land” (a song about “being judged on the mistakes of your past instead of the potential of who you could become,” in McAllister’s words), driving rhythms and dulcimer-laced melodies heighten the track’s weary intensity (“Runnin’ down the road and mouths are movin’/Rattlin’ off my sins/It’s always where I’ve been not what I’m doin’”). One of the album’s most joyful moments, the horn-backed “Can’t Control the Weather” puts a carefree spin on riding out depression with the help of rippling guitar riffs, gospel-esque harmonies, and quirky-sweet lyrics (“Somehow it seems the bees have lost their buzz”). And in their vocal back-and-forth on the hushed, string-accented “Still,” Van Valin and McAllister play out doomed romance with all the ache and tension of a classic Buckingham/Nicks duet.
Although Fairground Saints set to work on their album just months after getting together, it reveals an instant camaraderie that’s got much to with the band members’ parallel backgrounds as lifelong music devotees: McAllister started writing songs and self-recording when she was six, Edwards began playing piano when he was four and eventually added about a half-dozen more instruments to his repertoire, and Van Valin grew up in an exceptionally musical family and learned to play his dad’s guitar when he was 12. The first stage of their collaboration took place several years ago, when Van Valin attempted to get a band together by posting an ad online and ended up connecting with Edwards (a fellow Santa Ynez Valley native, then 15). “He was so young that I didn’t really take him seriously, but we talked on the phone and I sent him a song I’d been working on, just me on an acoustic guitar,” says Van Valin. “A little while later he sent it back and he’d added drums, bass, mandolin, Dobro, all this crazy stuff. It sounded great, like he’d recorded it in a professional studio, so I was just like, ‘Well, cool, man — you got the job!’”
Soon after they started playing together, Van Valin and Edwards caught the attention of Matthew Wilder, who suggested they meet with McAllister (a Michigan native who’d moved to L.A. after touring the globe and leading songwriting workshops as a part of a music education nonprofit called The Young Americans). “We gelled quickly and started making music together right away,” says McAllister of her first meeting with Van Valin and Edwards. “It was almost like we were already family.” Working closely with Wilder, the trio began getting songs together for their debut album, and in summer 2014 landed their deal with The Verve Group/Universal Records.
In making Fairground Saints (which was recorded primarily at Wilder’s studio near Paradise Cove Beach in Malibu), the band took advantage of that togetherness by allowing themselves to shake off all inhibitions in their creativity. “Even though we’re very serious about our music, we’re actually kind of goofy — we’re just three weirdos coming together to make something awesome,” says McAllister. Some of the band’s most memorable moments in the songwriting process: Van Valin coming up with the hook for the dreamy, R&B-flavored “All for You” by attempting to play the chord progression to Aaron Neville’s 1966 ballad “Tell It Like It Is” in reverse; Edwards and Van Valin messing around with open-E tuning and stumbling into a “deep-Southern, nasty-sounding riff” that now serves as the intro to the heavy and haunting “Church.” “We were making scary ghost noises after that, because it felt like the sound just showed up from out of nowhere,” Van Valin recalls.
But no matter how playful their approach in writing and recording, Fairground Saints held true to their vision of creating what McAllister calls a “very love-driven album” that’s mainly shaped by heartache. “There’s no filter on the emotion coming through in our songs,” notes Edwards. “They’re all based in visceral feeling, and the lyrics are as real as a conversation you could be having with an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend.” And in bringing the album to life, Fairground Saints learned to embrace the pain that comes with that realness. “Music has made me realize I wasn’t alone more times than I can count, and I want to put that back into the world,” Van Valin says. “So if the upside of focusing in on something you don’t necessarily like about yourself is that other people might eventually benefit from it, then that’s all right with us.”