By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
On a courtyard stage at the FreshGrass festival in western Massachusetts, Quiles and Cloud gather around a single microphone. Maria Quiles (pronounced key-less) sways in her batik skirt, singing lead and playing fingerstyle rhythm on a cutaway Martin, while Rory Cloud, goateed with a long ponytail hanging over his sky-blue jacket, adds seamless vocal harmonies and silvery lead lines on a sunburst Guild. Across the stage, Oscar Westesson anchors the sound on upright bass, deepening the grooves with touches of string and wood percussion.
Quiles and Cloud are a long way from their home in San Francisco, but this early-fall festival in the Berkshire Mountains is where, in 2014, they took a big step onto the national scene by winning the FreshGrass duo contest. Part of their prize was the opportunity to make an album produced by banjo master and Compass Records co-founder Alison Brown, and the result of those sessions is hot off the press at FreshGrass 2015.
“[We were ready] to go balls-to-the-wall with music.”
Quiles and Cloud’s new Beyond the Rain is a mix of originals (“Black Sky Lightning,” “Mississippi River”) and traditional tunes (“Deep Ellum Blues,” “Faded Flowers”) and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” The album, along with many months of grassroots touring around the U.S., introduces the duo as a compelling new voice on the Americana scene. Though clearly on the path blazed by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings—and trod by fellow travelers such as the Milk Carton Kids, Mandolin Orange, and Pharis and Jason Romero—Quiles and Cloud’s sound is not particularly Appalachian or twangy. Their music leans more toward contemporary folk and blues, with a touch of soul.
After their FreshGrass set, Quiles, Cloud, and Westesson sit in the backstage artist lounge to talk about how they came together. Quiles and Cloud met in 2011 at an open mic in a San Francisco cathedral, finding not only immediate musical chemistry but a shared sense that the time was right, in Quiles’ words, “to go balls-to-the-wall with music.
“Rory was out in San Francisco playing all the time, sort of living out of his car, and I was living in my uncle’s basement,” she says. “So we found each other at a time when we were ready to commit.”
Both grew up surrounded by music and art. Cloud’s mother fronted the folk-rock band Cheryl Cloud and Common Ground, performing around southern California through the ’80s and up until she passed away from cancer in 1995. Initially, Rory played mostly electric guitar in various rock, jazz, and hip-hop projects, but he eventually came back to his folk roots—and now exclusively plays his mother’s old Guild dreadnought.
“I started getting back into writing songs, inspired by people like Nick Drake and songwriters that I got exposed to later,” he recalls, “and I started messing with alternate tunings on the acoustic guitar.”
Meanwhile, up in San Francisco, Quiles’ parents were ballroom dance teachers and painters. As a kid she played classical violin, but then, she says, “The acoustic guitar came into my life. I love playing violin and I still do it, but for me, guitar is a great tool for writing. I’ve dabbled in other roles in electric music, but I really resonate with an acoustic guitar.”
Quiles and Cloud made their first album, Long Time Coming, five months after they met, and soon afterward connected with Westesson, who joins them for California gigs and sometimes on tour elsewhere. At first the group’s repertoire mostly consisted of songs written individually, but the two quickly began developing their duo voice. “The sound that we have now has very much been developed through this project,” says Cloud. “We both sounded different when we got together and had different approaches to arranging.”
Most of the duo’s songs originate with a lyrical or musical idea from Quiles. “She’ll bring a framework to me,” says Cloud. “It might be half written and she needs a second opinion or ear on lyrics, or structural things with the tune, so I’m the person who comes in and tweaks the arrangement a little bit or adds something to the chord progression. Then there’s the whole harmony process that we go through, where we sit for a while and figure out what the nice notes are to add color to the arrangement.”
Quiles and Cloud tune into music beyond the folk world but feel most connected with artists such as Punch Brothers, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz. Cloud says he appreciates the open-ended way those musicians cross-pollinate genres with the directness and simplicity of acoustic folk.
“I spent a lot of time getting my tone from amps and pickups,” says Cloud. “It’s really refreshing to be in this scene and get all of your sound just from your fingertips and the wood resonating.”
WHAT THEY PLAY
- 1999 Martin DCME mahogany dreadnought
- Martin SP strings
- Paige regular capo and Shubb C7B three-string partial capo (to simulate DADGAD tuning onstage)
- Korg PitchHawk-G tuner
- 1976 sunburst Guild D-35 that belonged to his mother, Cheryl Cloud
- Martin Retro Tony Rice signature strings (MTR13 Monel)
- BlueChip picks
- Shubb capo
- Korg PitchHawk-G tuner
- Cloud uses a Walker strap from Flying Possum Leather that loops over the upper bout
- Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina mic