‘Royal Sessions’ really marks the beginning of us figuring out exactly who we are as a band,” says Ryan Harkrider, frontman of Austin-based soul dynamos The Nightowls. “It’s us transitioning from the ‘retro’ label into defining our own distinctive sound, and this is the first release where we feel like we’ve totally locked into what our creative process is as a ten-piece ensemble.”
For The Nightowls, that process began with the release their debut album, ‘Good As Gold,’ which took Texas by storm in 2014. The Austin Chronicle hailed it as “suave, energetic, blue-eyed soul” and named it one of the Top 10 of the year at the annual Austin Chronicle Music Awards, Austin Monthly named them a Band To Watch, and Texas Music Magazine called the album “a smooth addictive blend of pop, R&B and funk that will delight the band’s dance-happy fans.” They spent the next year bringing their ecstatic live show to stages around the country, including a triumphant hometown gig at the Austin City Limits Festival, and followed it up in 2015 with ‘Fame Sessions,’ recorded at the titular, iconic Muscle Shoals studio. That album earned the band serious national attention and love everywhere from The Atlantic and Southern Living to Relix and Pollstar, and it saw their lineup solidify into its current, electrifying status.
“Our live shows continue to get more and more choreographed and exciting,” says vocalist Ellie Carroll of the band’s evolution during the last year on the road, which included a much-lauded return to the ACL Festival. “The whole front line is out there dancing and we’re always upping our game and our performances. The visual power of ten people doing the same thing at the same time is immense, and everybody in this band is an incredible dancer and performer.”
Whereas the songs on ‘Fame Sessions’ were peppered with special guest performances by members of the legendary Swampers rhythm section—including the likes of Spooner Oldham and David Hood—as well as vocal contributions from the Shoal Sisters, everything about the ‘Royal Sessions’ EP showcases The Nightowls coming into their own as a band.
“In the past, it was mainly me writing, arranging, and collaborating with a small handful of band members,” says Harkrider, “but this one was much more of a full band effort. I’d take a song idea to the rhythm section to flesh it out, and then take that to the horn section for their parts, and then from there we’d work out the final arrangement as a full band to make sure everything worked together and everybody got to express themselves and be creative and have their stamp on it.”
The result is an energetic blend of classic soul and modern pop, as the band transcends the “retro” tag that described their early releases in favor of a more unique sound reflective of all ten personalities, with influences running the gamut from James Brown to Michael Jackson. Bright, bold horns dance and leap over a funky rhythm section, while Harkrider’s soulful voice shimmers out alongside gorgeous female harmonies. The infectious vitality of the music is due in no small part to the fact that the band recorded the entire EP live over two days at the famed Royal Studios in Memphis, TN.
“We’re big Al Green fans,” guitarist Amos Traystman says of the decision to record at Royal, where Green laid down many of his biggest hits. “We had a string of Tennessee shows while on tour last fall, and we decided to check in with Boo Mitchell over at Royal Studios to see if we could record a few songs while we were in Memphis. We were writing stuff on the road and scrambling a bit to get the material together last minute, but the sessions were great. It’s always fun for us to be in a room with so much history.”
The EP kicks off with “Right Around The Corner,” which encompasses so many of the band’s strengths, from punchy horns to call-and-response vocals steeped in the kind of timeless soul music the band grew up on.
“I felt lyrically that we needed to have a song that was true to our experience as a band over the last six months,” says Harkrider,” so this one tells the story of us being on the road and working and missing our family and friends, but it’s also a reminder that even though we’re out there doing our thing, we’re always going to be close to home and there when they need us. There’s a gang vocal at the end that we all did as a band in the studio, and it was one of the most rewarding recording experiences ever because we were all in there together as a family.”
“Can’t Hold Me Down” is a frequent Nightowls show-opener that’s rooted in the kind of unshakable optimism and positivity that make the band’s live performances such feel-good, uplifting, and memorable events, while on “Clean It Up,” they offer a clear glimpse of their transformation and where they may be headed with the next full-length, as ‘Thriller’-era horns mesh with gritty soul vocals and spacey electric guitars. Elsewhere, “Gotta Keep Moving” calls to mind the brass-fueled hits of Chicago, and “Don’t Wanna Leave You Lonely” pays subtle homage to Green.
“That one is a little outside what we’d normally do progression and arrangement-wise, says bassist Rob Alton, “but it ends up working so well because it features everyone really brilliantly. There’s several guitar tracks that, without each other, wouldn’t work, but when you put them together, it creates a really cool texture that Al Green has on a lot of his records.”
“There’s a great horn interlude and background harmonies,” adds trumpeter Michael Rey, “but above all it’s that drum sound and groove that makes this work. It’s the simplest and hardest thing to do, just to play open and to play straight up and down, but our drummer, Ben Petree, does it fabulously.”
In the end, as much as for any musical evolution, the ‘Royal Sessions’ may one day be best remembered in The NIghtowls’ catalog as the recording that marked their transition from a band into something more, something far deeper. In that sense, they didn’t’ just find their sound while recording this EP, they also found themselves: soul brothers and sisters in a true royal family.