Girlyman – perfectly in harmony, even when they're making it up as they go along
Girlyman go by a name they know will make some people uncomfortable, they came together in the aftermath of the darkest day in US history and some of their most popular songs are made up on the spot. Yet what really defines them is extraordinarily beautiful three-part harmonies brought together on songs that are mostly about their own lives.
The Atlanta-based band are currently on their first UK tour, but they’ve been together for a long time. Doris Muramatsu and Ty Greenstein have been friends since they were eight and were performing as a duo called The Garden Verge when they met Nate Borofsky, a solo singer-songwriter, at college. After sharing a few shows they started singing some songs together.
“We kind of realised there’s so much more energy in that than the two of us separately,” says Murumatsu.
They scheduled the first rehearsal of the new band, in New York on September 11, 2001. The rehearsal didn’t happen of course, but the experiences of that day helped to bring them together.
“It was certainly a time that we needed to find things that made us feel happy,” says Borofsky. “There was this very palpable sense that any day could be the absolute last day of our existence.”
It also helped them settle on the name Girlyman.
“We had a lot of worries, we were worried about what other people would think about it, and after we did come together after the Twin Towers we didn’t care,” says Borofsky. “We just wanted to do what we wanted to do. The name Girlyman was perfect for that. It’s a little weird, but who cares? It’s easy to spell.”
Greenstein says the name “just seemed to say something about who we were. It was playful, but also something that probably people were going to be a little uncomfortable with. It didn’t feel safe to us, but it was the direction that we wanted to go in.”
Nine years on, they are still happy with the name, and happy to be considered a little different. “People are sceptical about our name, but when they actually listen our music they fall in love with it, and get to know us as people. That feels really great,” says Murumatsu.
Borofsky, who wears makeup on stage, tells the story of how he was approached by a man at a bluegrass festival they played recently in New Mexico.
“He said: ‘I’m a real cowboy, and I was put off by your appearance at first, but you won me over’,” says Borofsky, laughing.
The situation in the United States at the time that Girlyman was formed certainly affected their work, though they do not see their material as overtly political.
“There’s a song on our first album that’s a September 11 song,” says Greenstein. “In a more abstract way it just kind of grew us up a little bit, as a country and as a band. I think in terms of what influences our writing now, it’s just whatever happens in our lives. I think we do have political content to our songs, but it’s often married to the personal. We don’t write issue songs.”
A couple of things have changed for Girlyman recently. They moved from New York to Atlanta, and this year drummer JJ Jones – last seen in the UK playing drums with the Canadian group Po’ Girl – joined the band, after many years of lobbying on her part.
“We’re so happy about JJ,” says Borofsky. “She brings energy. In every sense, visually and musically. There are some songs where we can push it and it can go farther than it ever could before. There are others where just her being there allows the rest of us to relax a little bit.”
Greenstein adds: “It really grounds the songs, gives us a solid base on which to stand. And she’s such a fun person. She’s excited about everything and that really comes through in her playing. It’s just a perfect fit, it really is.”
The band have a strong and loyal following in parts of the US. For their most recent album, Everything’s Easy, the band appealed to their fans for help to buy a $10,000 microphone – and the fans came up with the whole sum.
They insist that the microphone is worth every penny.
“What we do is so vocally-oriented, it’s really the most important part of what we do,” says Greenstein. “It made a really big difference. We didn’t know if we’d be able to do it, but we thought ‘This is how we want this album to sound, we don’t have a record label, we’re doing this ourselves, but we do have a really large and loyal fan base. Let’s see if it matters to them that this album sounds a particular way.’”
To raise money for the UK tour, the band made use of another aspect of their live performance that has become a big hit with their fans. They recorded and released an album of “tuning songs” – improvised songs started by Borofsky while the other two are changing the tuning on their guitars.
“The two of them spend a lot of time tuning,” he says. “I just started making up songs, kind of just to pass the time, partly because I was just nervous about dead space, too much silence. And people loved it.”
“Nate will just start singing about whatever’s happening that night, and then Doris and I will sing along in three-part harmony and it’s just totally spontaneous,” adds Greenstein.
Fans now wait in anticipation of the tuning songs, and the CD has songs with titles like “What Key is this Song in?”, “Parumpapumpum” and “This is JJ”.
“Something that I never quite got while I was making them up and singing them is that it’s really cool that we can all sing in harmony with each other spontaneously, and not be singing the same notes but be singing pretty much the right notes without any practice at all,” says Borofsky.
“I think that’s testament to how long we’ve been doing this.”
Girlyman are on tour in the UK until October 10. Details in the gig guide.