Struggling artists often equate "settling down" with "surrender." Marriage and children — so the theory goes — will only distract from one's work and compromise ambitions. For Jayson and Sarah Benn, however, there was a considerable loophole in that logic. As married musicians with a young daughter in tow, this Akron, Ohio, duo started Shivering Timbers as more of a function of family life than anything else — reinterpreting traditional children's folk tunes and nursery rhymes in their own slightly spookier, lo-fi style. Eventually, fellow Akronite Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys caught wind of the project, and the Benns soon found that "settling down" could just as easily be a first step in "taking off."
"When we got married, the idea of having a band together was in the back of both of our minds," says Sarah Benn (vocals, upright bass). "But we weren't sure when that would happen and what it would sound like, because we were both busy with other groups at the time."
After the couple's daughter Suzi was born in the fall of 2007, the new band plan looked all the more hazy. But then something funny happened. With no intentions outside of entertaining their newborn and maintaining their own sanity (i.e., avoiding the musical stylings of Barney and The Wiggles), the Benns started developing new material — beginning with nursery standards like "The Noble Duke of York" and "Crooked Old Man." Much like a Lewis Carroll story or Jim Henson film, though, this kid's stuff had a darker edge to it — imagine a mellow P.J. Harvey fronting the Bad Seeds on a shadowy corner of Sesame Street.
"It came out that way very naturally," Sarah explains. "I tend to like dark and depressing music, and Jayson was playing in a metal-ish sort of band at the time. So I guess when you combine the darkness with the light, you meet somewhere in the middle — something that can appeal to any age."
"I think the key was just having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously," adds Jayson (guitar, banjo). "Having a child really brings that out in you. Every day you're coming home to this playland and you're singing silly songs all the time. So that's where it began. There wasn't really any strategy beyond that."
Nor was there a strategy in the summer of 2009, when the Benns were coaxed into playing one of their first gigs as Shivering Timbers at the 30th birthday party of their pal Dan Auerbach, who was so impressed with their Mother Goose murder ballads that he offered to bring the duo into his Akron studio and produce their debut album himself.
"We went in with the songs basically half written," Sarah says, "and Dan just welcomed us to play around with this room full of instruments and build the songs that way. There was a lot of spontaneity and a lot of first cuts, since it all happened in like three days."
After the sessions, Auerbach enthusiastically praised Shivering Timbers as his favorite "junkyard orchestra." But the Benns weren't thoroughly convinced of their own merits until their album, We All Started in the Same Place, finally came out late last year.
"That's when it really dawned on us that, hey, people actually like this stuff!" Sarah says.
In response to the positive feedback, the Benns (joined by drummer Brad Thorla) have turned Shivering Timbers into a full-scale live band: Expanding their sound into increasingly grownup-oriented — though no less playful — folk and gospel territory. They've also done something The Black Keys and Akron's other native son, LeBron James, didn't do this past year — stay in Akron.
"We like it here," says Jayson. "And there's something to be said for sticking around and doing it in your own community, rather than just going somewhere that's already well established."
Of course, plans can change. Right now, Shivering Timbers are an unsigned band — booking their own sporadic shows and the babysitters they necessitate. But some day, Sarah Benn envisions young Suzi hitting the road with mom and dad on a much bigger tour — room permitting.
"Who knows," she says, "I might have to trade my Jetta for a minivan."
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