Blind dates normally carry low expectations.
So the co-worker who set up Kenny Monroe and Jacqueline Kursel must be pleased. The strangers became a couple, the couple started a band, and the band put out an album.
That band, Pioneer, released their new full-length, Black Pasture, on April 2. Monroe wrote all the songs, which feature Kursel on cello. He sings with clear and easy confidence, and Kursel joins him in harmony.
The tunes, all marked by strong guitar melodies, have a nice assortment of musical influences nestled within their warm arrangements. "Summertime Pt. 2" leaves a distinct blues impression, "Baby" toys with the sounds of Motown pop, "All Time Is Slow & Lazy Rolling" rolls along like ambling Americana, and "I'm Your Man" channels some jittery jazz energy.
Pioneer songs are cozy, but they feel bigger the more you listen. They're much like the cramped coffeehouse where Monroe and Kursel are having breakfast. Though it's tiny, its many windows give it an open feel.
Midway through the meal, they swap crepes. They seem acutely aware of how precious this could seem in a newspaper article.
"To be fair, one is sweet and one is savory," says Kursel.
Though Pioneer sprang from Monroe and Kursel's relationship, it is not a two-person show, at least not anymore. The group also includes guitarist Tyler Ditter, drummer Shawn Pierce and multi-instrumentalist Julian Lynch. And Monroe and Kursel are quick to point out how much the other members add to the equation. They've been playing together for a while now, and they've reworked the group's older songs to fit their current dynamic.
The whole band recorded Black Pasture at Madison's Science of Sound studio last year, but that wasn't their first attempt at making a record. They tried recording at Blast House but struggled with that studio's approach of recording live performances and building on them.
"It became this awful monstrosity of layers," says Monroe. "Just a bunch of bad things we were trying to fix by adding more stuff."
The songs on Black Pasture are much more efficient, but no matter how much gets tossed in the mix, the cello usually occupies the lowest register. Kursel's varied style provides a lush base for the melodies to rest upon.
Though there are plenty of bands with cellos for Kursel to draw inspiration from, she admits only to being "obsessed" with Colette Alexander. Alexander has toured Europe with Jens Lekman and often plays with Matt Jones & the Reconstruction. And like Kursel, she is classically trained.
Kursel recalls a magic moment she had with Alexander after a show Pioneer played with Jones' band. They were all eating pizza and drinking, Kursel recalls.
"Colette gave me a pep talk, like, 'I know you can write your parts better than this,'" she says. "I think I did write better parts after that."
Monroe, meanwhile, thinks the world of Jones.
"He is someone who I completely, unabashedly rip off my entire guitar style from," said Monroe. "My first show ever was opening for him, so it all comes full circle."
Like Jones and his band, Pioneer is also, somewhat reductively, labeled as folk. Monroe feels that Pioneer has become more of a rock band as the lineup has grown.
"There's no semblance of folk left," he explains.
If Pioneer's songs still share anything with folk these days, it's Monroe's smart, evocative lyrics.
When he struggles to explain his process, Kursel jumps in to assist.
"I feel like your songs won't be about one thing, but they fit under a theme," she says.
"Yeah, that's more what I mean," he replies.