Guy Russo writes somber songs, unabashedly in the style of James Taylor, but he says that makes him the rebel of his family — the one who broke free of its more scrupulous musical traditions.
A Forest Hills native, Russo, 24, is the son of a high-school choir director and professional choral singer, and the brother of an opera singer. That upbringing taught him how to tune pianos and direct the musical accompaniment of church and synagogue services, skills he uses to pay the rent. But Russo's true passion is Broken Fences, the harmony-heavy folk duo he formed with Morgan Erina. The band is, for the most part, a quiet ride, which the two say comes naturally.
"I don't think it's very conscious on our part," says Russo, who studied musical composition at Carnegie Mellon. "That's the character of the band. Our songs work best slow and acoustic. We are both shy people."
"Shy and socially awkward," the diminutive Erina, also 24, adds.
After a little more than a year as a band, the two have produced a self-titled album. The pace is slow, the emotions earnest and the production subdued, if not minimalist. It all combines to make every syllable, especially those coming from Erina's miniature lungs, sound convincingly pained.
Erina avoids getting specific about what inspires her songwriting. "It could be anything," she says, "but once I get a song in me, I have to get it out. It's like an itch I have to scratch." (She and Russo get itches often: Between the two of them, they came up with 70 possible songs from throughout their creative lives to put on the album.)
Raised in Upper Manhattan, Erina met Justin Sane of Anti-Flag through friends and frequently visited Pittsburgh to hang out and indulge in its punk scene. After dropping out of the film program at the School of Visual Arts, she relocated here in 2010 to launch a musical career. "People confronted me with the fact I wasn't doing much in New York," she says. "Pittsburgh is easier. You have everything you need in a city, plus there are places to escape to, like Frick Park."
Erina and Russo met through the scene that gathers around Club Café's open-mic night. Russo, whose choral background made him seek out a bandmate whose voice would meld with his, tested Erina by teaming up on a cover of James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes."
"I had tried collaborating with other people and it felt like I had to spoon-feed them their parts," he says. "We played that song one time and I thought, ‘This is what I have been looking for my entire life.'"
Broken Fences tackled a daunting challenge early on when Russo was contacted by the National Campaign for Flight 93 to write a song for the 10th anniversary of the hijacked plane's crash on 9/11. Russo thought the event seemed too huge, but Erina had memories of being in New York City on that day. Her parents collected her from her eighth-grade classroom, and as they were driving home, they saw office workers covered in sooty ash running from the towers. She first started writing songs as a way to process it, so it was familiar creative territory for her.
The resultant song, simply titled "93," is one of the few Russo and Erina wrote together. However, the band's downbeat, impressionistic approach was not what the organizers had in mind. "They wanted us to specifically state in the song that everyone on the flight was a hero," he says. Of course, he is not putting up an argument, but Russo says that kind of directness is not in the style of the band. The pair changed the song slightly to suit the event organizers; the original version is available online, but didn't make it onto the Broken Fences album.
When the two set out to record the 12 songs that did make the cut, they raised $6,300 on KickStarter.com for time at Tree Lady Studios, in Wilkins. Russo says he did a lot of "pre-recording," figuring out mechanics of the drum parts and such on Pro Tools before they stepped into the studio. They shelled out for a string section on two songs, but for the most part the instrumentation is basic.
But what they lack in sonic extravagance, the pair make up for in clarity. The two seemed to want every pillow-soft syllable and stream-gentle strum of an acoustic guitar to sound like it was coming from a performance happening right in the listener's living room; fortunately, the professional sound of a proper recording studio allowed for that. Taking inspiration from Fleet Foxes, they try to leave open a sonic valley in which their voices can echo off each other.
The two plan to tour behind the album this summer. In their early 20s and willing to go at this full throttle, they say they aren't daunted by the harrowing odds of success in the music industry, especially after "Wait," a pre-album single, was licensed for use in a Canadian-TV cop drama.
"I figure, so far, 100 percent of what we have released has been licensed for something," says Russo.