Milk Carton Kids sip at fame

Simon Collins
Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale left solo careers behind to work together as the Milk Carton Kids.

The quietly intricate folk songs of Los Angeles duo the Milk Carton Kids is the antithesis of the foot-stomping hoedowns re-popularised by Mumford and Sons.

“We share a preference for nuance and subtlety,” says Joey Ryan, who eschewed a faltering solo career to try his luck with fellow LA singer- songwriter Kenneth Pattengale five years ago.

“I have gathered from the past five years that it’s not as commercially viable as the antithesis you’re referring to,” he adds with typically bone-dry wit. “But that’s OK.” Ryan is being as low-key as their close-harmony acoustic offerings, which have drawn glowing comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel, as well as the brothers Everly and Louvin.

Jack White, Emmylou Harris and Marcus Mumford are unabashed fans while Billy Bragg named The Ash and Clay as his favourite album of 2013 — the same year their second long- player earned a Grammy nomination for best folk album. Ryan jokes the Grammy nod made for a “cool three hours” but producer T Bone Burnett has told him to welcome the acclaim.

In 2011, the Milk Carton Kids released debut Prologue, plus a live album under their own names.

The 33-year-olds, who released 14 solo albums between them before joining forces, are more comfortable on stage than in the studio, according to Ryan. This partly explains why they recorded third album, Monterey, on stage at venues they were due to play each night on a recent US tour.

Ryan and Pattengale worked alone, setting up four microphones and recording equipment on stage each day to capture their restrained yet gorgeous harmonies and flatpicking.

“There was nobody there,” Ryan says. “There was nobody running the computer — no assistants, no engineer, no producer — just two of us in some beautiful rooms.” The songs were shaped by the history and charm of the venues, as well as their acoustic qualities.

One memorable makeshift studios was the Lyric Theatre, which was being renovated when the Milk Carton Kids rolled into Birmingham, Alabama.

“It was a construction site,” he says. “The stage was intact but they’d torn up the floorboards and seats. In the highest balcony they found tickets from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, which said ‘Coloureds Only’, it was a segregated theatre. There was a haunting vibe.”

Monterey is released May 15.