St. Paul, Minn. — If the key to pop music success is aggressive self-promotion and endless touring, The Owls might be destined to fail. Early on, The Owls preferred practicing by themselves in a living room then playing in front of a live audience, but they're getting over that.
Three of the group's four members share songwriting duties. Two of them, Allison LaBonne and Brian Tighe are married. Tighe is also leader of Minneapolis pop rockers The Hang Ups. He says it was several years into their relationship before LaBonne even shared her songs with him.
"She really really did not want me to hear her songs," Tighe says. "And finally she played me one and I loved it. And I really think that was maybe the official start of The Owls."
Owls' music is spare and quiet. The singing, always prominent in the mix, features ethereal and occasionally dissonant harmonies. The melodies are often deceptively bright, given the dark emotions the lyrics sometimes convey. Because of the occasionally sober tone of the songs, and the group's tentative stage presence, the Owls have been described as a band of librarians. For Allison Labonne, making music with The Owls is about stripping away any persona, and getting to the essence of things.
"There's enough kind of artificiality in entertainment and music and popular culture and to just bring something different to the form, I guess that is what I would want to do," she says.
Most of the members of The Owls have been friends far longer than bandmates. Songwriter and singer Maria May says there's a trust between them, and out of that trust an intimacy that feeds the group's creativity. Sometimes that intimacy pays off in strange ways.
"I remember reading an interview," May says. "The Mommas and the Poppas used to talk about this fifth member. I don't know if you've ever heard of this, but I read it and I thought "Oh, that's so the Owls!" because they knew when they got the song right in the studio because there would be this fifth kind of voice that was present. I don't know how much of that was chemical but I think for us I've experienced that. Like there's another part, a larger identity happening."
City Pages music writer Peter Scholtes delights in some of the Owls' lyrics.
"There is only air, where I used to care," he says, quoting the Owls song "Air." "I mean, that's the most devastating, complete, break-up line ever in a song," he says.
Scholtes is one of The Owls biggest advocates. He first saw them reluctantly perform in a Minneapolis basement and was enchanted, in part by their musical vulnerability. Scholtes says there is a sadness in many Owls songs.
"The sadness of feeling something and being alone with that, and not being able to share it," he says. "And they get that across really well."
After seeing the Owls live, Scholtes has become almost protective of the band.
"They just have this sort of fragile quality where when I first saw them I was so mesmerized and so blown away and so excited, I was actually worried that if they practiced too much, they'd ruin it somehow," he says.
The buzz about the Owls is starting to spread beyond the Twin Cities. Already, their songs are in heavy rotation on college radio stations around the country. They've also been played on the highly influential national public radio music program "Morning Becomes Eclectic." But that kind of success and the exposure it may bring makes Owls member Allison LaBonne uneasy.
"To quest after a career doing this, it makes me weary that it will kind of destroy what it is that I like, that is there," she says.
The Owls hope to perform in college towns before school gets out this spring. They will quietly and unassumingly climb the stages, and play songs from their new cd, "Our Hopes and Dreams.