It is exceptionally rare that a keen musical ability is accompanied by a fervent work ethic and driving ambition. It is even rarer that it strikes four members of the same family. Sisters Kathryn, Fiona, Annika and Petra form the group von Grey, an ensemble steeped in the rich traditions of Americana and folk styles. Featuring heartfelt songs, voices cool, sweet, and aloof, harmonies lush with verdure, and a musicality which belies their young age, von Grey has already garnered critical praise through appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Conan,” as well as opening slots for veteran artists like Sarah McLachlan.
We had a chance to meet von Grey at Criminal Records in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta for National Record Store Day and subsequently chatted with sister Fiona to discuss the band, their background, influences, and future plans.
GGM: For such a young age, you all play a wide variety of instruments – cello, banjo, violin, mandolin, lap steel guitar, as well as acoustic guitar and piano. How did you select those instruments over the traditional guitar and drums that are so popular today?
Fiona: Well, we started in classical music when we were all at the age of 5. I started on violin, Annika was on violin, Kathryn was on cello, and Petra was on viola; so we had a little quartet. About four years ago, we wanted to branch out and the most natural instruments to go to were the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin, so it was just a very natural progression from our change over from classical. And then after that, it was just whatever instruments we felt were missing from the band or if we were writing a song and wanted to add an instrument we didn’t have, we would just try and learn it or we would try to get a synthetic sound. So everything we tried was either just because it was natural and the easiest to transition from classical, or just because we felt we wanted to try it.
GGM: Do you come from a musical family?
Fiona: Our parents don’t play any musical instruments but they’re very avid supporters of music and they got us started in music early because they wanted us to be knowledgeable and have an appreciation for music like they did.
GGM: In what way has your family supported you and your sisters in sustaining your interest in music and furthering your musical career?
Fiona: Our parents have been very, very supportive of us and we wouldn’t have stuck with it probably if they hadn’t had been so supportive of us. They made sure that we stuck with our classical instruments for probably three years until we started to get some return from playing music, because it takes a while to be able to play an instrument and not have it squeak and sound kind of ugly [laughs]. So they made sure that we stuck with it so we could enjoy playing instruments and they wouldn’t have to push us, and we all did end up really enjoying playing our instruments and then we decided to move from there and start a band. So they stuck with us and have been very supportive.
GGM: How and when was von Grey formed and how did you come up with the name?
Fiona: We started playing out about four years ago but we just did local gigs in Atlanta. We played at Eddie’s Attic- we did the open mic there a bunch of times. We’d go and play anywhere that was willing to have us play. But we did start locally and just built it from there. We eventually started playing a little bit outside of Atlanta and then going up to the Northeast, and then we went to the West Coast about six months ago. So it’s just been growing and we’ve been touring a lot.
We decided to have the name von Grey – well, we went through a couple of other names before then, but since we’re all sisters, it just made since to use our last name. So it just stuck.
GGM: When was it that the band decided to pursue a career in music?
Fiona: I think our goal was to have a band because we loved playing music and that’s what we did all the time. Our main goal is to have it be our career but for now we just want to grow from here and have our music reach as many people as possible.
GGM: You have all trained classically. I read on Conan’s website saying “Think of them like Mumford & Daughters.” Can you describe your sound for us?
Fiona: [Laughs] We call it alternative folk music. We get compared to people like Mumford & Sons a lot, but I think we also have a little more of an edge because we pull from a lot of different styles of music. Like Annika does a lot of Irish fiddling, so we have, I think, a little bit of an Irish influence in some of our songs. And then we also have a little more of a rock edge on some of our songs. So yeah even though we are considered alternative folk music because we have a lot of acoustic instruments which makes it kind of folky, but then we also have a synthetic sound– we have keyboards that add a little bit of an edge. We have other instruments also that make it a little bit less of traditional folk.
GGM: Where does the inspiration for your songs come from and are all of you instrumental in writing the lyrics and the music?
Fiona: Annika and I write all of the songs together. She does all the lyrics and then we both put the music together. Then we take the songs to Petra and Kathryn for their parts and then we go from there. We have so many different musical influences because you know starting with classical, we draw from that and then our father listened to a lot of different styles of music so we were introduced to a lot of bands like Jethro Tull and Genesis and bands like that. And then we also listen to a lot of current artists as well like we love Ben Harper and we really like to listen to Gavin DeGraw – I think he’s really great. So we listen to a lot of older music as well as new music to pull from to write our music.
GGM: Who were your musical influences that inspired you to transition from playing classical music to your current style?
Fiona: Well, we listen to, like I said, a lot of older music like Jethro Tull– they’re an amazing band because they have acoustic instruments as well, so we really listen to them a lot for inspiration. We just have so many different artists’ influences, it’s hard to list just a couple, but we just pull from so many different styles.
GGM: Any female role models in particular that have inspired you?
Fiona: We love Sheryl Crow– she’s an amazing female artist. Alanis Morissette – she’s very, very cool and we like her a lot. We like Florence and the Machine– she’s a very strong vocalist.
GGM: You recorded your self-titled EP with GRAMMY® award-winning producer/engineer Nick DiDia who has also engineered recordings for Bruce Springsteen, Train, and The Gaslight Anthem. How did you choose Nick and what was it like working with him?
Fiona: We were introduced to Nick through our management team and it was a very natural fit. It was our first alternative folk EP. The whole experience was very, very cool. We recorded it in a studio in Atlanta and the EP has a very cool, raw edge to it. While it’s not perfect, there’s a lot of emotion on the record, so we’re very excited with it.
GGM: von Grey has certainly had a great start in 2013 with appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Conan,” and NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian William’s Kate Snow at SXSW.” Can you share with us some of those experiences?
Fiona: We feel very, very lucky to have had the opportunities we’ve had to play on David Letterman and on Conan. They were both very exciting. And all of the opportunities we’ve had, we’re just so excited to have. We work very hard so to know that people appreciate our music is very cool.
GGM: You just recently played in LA for NARM’s Music Biz 2013 at their opening session and then will be doing several other shows over the next few months, as well as Bonnaroo. With your busy schedule, how do you juggle your music career with school/friends/family?
Fiona: Well, we’ve been doing online school for a while which helps a lot. It makes it flexible and easy to be on tour. It’s kind of hard to balance, too; but we don’t mind doing it as we love touring. It’s such a cool experience to be able to tour and see so many different cities, we feel very lucky to be able to do that. For Bonnaroo, we’re so excited to do that as well. Touring last year, we got to meet so many different artists, so to be part of Bonnaroo this year is going to be amazing. For NARM, we’re very big fans of vinyl, so to support that convention- it’s an honor..
GGM: What’s a day in the life of von Grey?
Fiona: When we’re on tour, we’re in the car like we have been for the past two days. We get in a couple of fights but we’re sisters so nothing too terrible. There’s a lot of bonding time and we’re close already. So when touring, it’s just a lot of time in the car, you do school work, then you play a show, and then also we do a lot of song writing and practicing.
GGM: How do you all manage the day-to-day decisions of the band and is there any one sister in particular that takes charge and keeps things on schedule?
Fiona: I think we all take turns in being responsible and not goofing off, or not doing what we’re supposed to be doing. It changes all the time. There are some days we don’t feel like doing anything! We all change and we all end up doing different roles at different times.
GGM: As far as instruments, can you tell us a little about your guitar?
Fiona: I love my Takamine – I’ve been playing it for about 4 years so I like it a lot. I’ve also been looking at a couple of other models that I’m very excited about
GGM: Do you see yourself as role models for young girls wanting to play guitar?
Fiona: I think one thing that we hope to do is inspire people to get a guitar and learn to play. Another thing that we have experienced so far is that we have been able to reach a lot of different people. Whether they’re young or old or middle aged, everyone seems to enjoy the music– music is a universal language, so it’s very cool that we can reach a lot of different ages.
GGM: What’s next for von Grey – besides your busy tour schedule, will be you be back in the studio recording any time soon?
We have been writing a couple of songs and have been recording a little bit. So hopefully we can get some material out there at some point. We’re always looking to do stuff during the summer like touring since we don’t have school to manage as well, so we’re looking to tour a lot and see what other opportunities come up and go from there.
A few fun questions
GGM: What are the top 3 songs on your musical playlist?
Fiona: Well, there’s a song called Sail by Awolnation which is a song that I love right now, Demons by Imagine Dragons– that’s another song I really like, and anything by Joe Satriani I like.
GGM: What other hobbies or interests do you have outside of music?
We used to play sports but not anymore. We’re definitely about music. As far as hobbies, we like to go shopping – we love shoes! And we love to take photos, so photography is another hobby. Kathryn loves to draw and she’s very artistic.
For more information on von Grey, visit their sites below.