As Liz Downing plucks her banjo and Rupert Wondolowski strums his guitar and their voices reach into each other's with a close harmony, they may, for a moment, seem like any other folk duo. But the Mole Suit Choir, which recently released its first album, Campfire Spacesuit on Ehse Records, has been percolating at the fringes Baltimore's avant-garde scene for more than 25 years.
Wondolowski, the co-owner of Normal's Books and Records, first became aware of Downing's work when she was in Lambs Eat Ivy, a visionary old-time band of the 1980s and '90s who were freak folk back when the only thing Devendra Banhart was creating was dirty diapers.
Downing had also been aware of Wondolowski's music. "It was like we were dancing around each other for decades," she says, sitting in the living room of the house Wondolowski shares with his wife, Everly Brown, and their dog Max. But they finally came together when Downing was reading one of Wondolowski's most recent book of poems, The Origin of Paranoia as a Heated Mole Suit.
"I was reading Rupert's poems, and there were many phrases which I ended up singing as I was going along," she says. "I would get caught up singing and sing the line a couple times and then move on, but the words would get into my head and I would start singing them in a loop and I thought, I've got to show Rupert this. I bet he doesn't know his poems need to be songs."
"It blew me away," Wondolowski says. "I've been in bands a long time, and I write songs but I've never mixed my poetry and my songwriting-I always saw them as separate-and when we first got together, I was terrified because I've been a huge fan of Liz since like the '80s, when I first heard her, and I literally was terrified, I'm not just bullshitting."
"You didn't seem it at all," Downing says, the Southern drawl lingering in her speaking voice, pushing it close to song.
Brown nods. "He was," she says.
"I was frightened because I hold her voice in the highest esteem," he says. "And I didn't realize the work she had already put into my poems, and like the first thing we worked on was 'Moonclue' and I was like, 'You're kidding me, I can't picture that as a song.' To me, my poems were like on the page."
It was partly the tactile quality on the page that drew Downing to Wondolowski's poems. "This is what I've done to his books," she says, pointing down to a page riddled with thick black lines zigging and zagging across the page, scrawled letters, and big homemade splotches of redaction. "I've just really taken them and wrecked them, and he doesn't seem to mind. I just take out big hunks and change words. I don't know how I'd feel if someone did that to mine."
"The first time I saw it, I flinched a little bit," Wondolowski confesses. "But since then, it's a point of honor. The more writing there is, the more I like it, because it represents so much work and thought. I can't tell you how good it feels as a poet to see my words given such beautiful treatment by Liz's voice-especially 'Strawberry Xanax' is like 'Oh my God!' It just gets right to the pain at the heart but also the humor of it. I couldn't ask for more as a poet."
Though "Strawberry Xanax" is one of the songs on the album, they are reworking it on this appropriately drowsy Sunday afternoon over a couple bottles of beer. The original poem is much longer, and Downing's initial arrangement only accounted for a few of the verses, considerably rearranged. "Shuffling dance/ and the hot air balloon/ Dancing squares/ Squares in a crop circle/ wishing for the/ return of jive/ discussing Brubeck," she sings.
"It was pretty cool because Liz actually put that part to music right when we were in the middle of recording the album," Wondolowski says. "And one recording sessions she says 'I'll play it for you so you can hear it and tell me what you think about it.'" The recording, done in Wondolowski's living room, where they also rehearse, was so successful that they included it on the album, but the song is growing as Wondolowski is now adding vocals.
The power of the Mole Suit Choir definitely comes from Wondolowski's offbeat lyrics-"have your scrunchie call me in the morning" is one of the more inscrutable lines-mixed with Downing's gorgeous, ancient-sounding voice, which was initially honed in Alabama, where she grew up in a motel called the Heart of Dixie, which she still often returns to in order to record old sounds. In addition to the seminal Lambs Eat Ivy, she has honed that voice with Old Songs, which takes ancient Greek poems and turns them into folk songs, and Lurch and Holler. She also creates sound art with recorded wildlife sounds.
As it turned out, this sensibility and the high warbly voice that comes along with it were the perfect complement to Wondolowski's poems. But his vocals are also essential to the band's sound.
"I'd been looking for someone to harmonize this tight with," Downing says. "I assumed it would be a woman, but this just works."
And it works in a strange way that is at once ancient and futuristic, avant-garde and deeply traditional. It is a sound that in many ways embodies the best of the city's music scene today, while also remaining timeless.
Mole Suit Choir plays a release party for Campfire Spacesuit Nov. 3 at Metro Gallery.