As Susan O’Dea sat in her one-bedroom apartment in New York City 14 months ago after all of her music gigs were canceled, she started brainstorming ways to focus her creative energy and redirect her anxiety and frustrations. She reached out to Whitefish musician Nick Spear, and they started recording cover songs from more than 2,000 miles apart.
With a goal of recording one song a week, starting with “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls, Spear would lay down a track from his closet-converted studio in Whitefish and O’Dea would do her own track from her bathroom-converted studio in New York.
“It became a weekly thing that gave us structure as artists,” O’Dea said.
After receiving positive responses, they continued recording remotely for a few months before O’Dea headed west in June to work with Alpine Theatre Project (ATP) for the summer, where she and Spear met nine years ago.
The pandemic-born project soon became official and the duo evolved into Big Sky City Lights, playing off of their home bases with Spear in Big Sky country and O’Dea in the city. About a year after their bathroom and closet recordings, they now have a full original album, “Wake Me When We Get There,” dropping on June 4, with the help of grant funding from ATP.
“We decided we were going to make an album having never written together before,” O’Dea said. “So that was definitely a leap of faith for both of us, but the reason our partnership works so well as a band is because we’ve known each other for so long. We respect each other as musicians and that made it a lot easier to transition from singing and playing covers to writing together.”
O’Dea and Spear describe the album as harmonious folk Americana, with a similar style to duos like The Civil Wars and The Swell Season.
With a vocalist resume that includes Broadway gospel and performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, O’Dea says transitioning from music theater to folk was seamless, even if outside of her normal realm.
Spear has played music in the Flathead for several years, including collaborations with Erica von Kleist, working with ATP and front-manning The New Wave Time Trippers, and he says he hasn’t played in an original band in several years.
O’Dea and Spear say their duo is unique, and their trust in each other makes the band work so well.
“It takes trust, respect and understanding the way ego plays into any sort of collaboration and trusting each other to let that go,” O’Dea said.
Since starting the band from across the country, O’Dea and Spear have been consistently playing together in the same room since last summer, starting with their first performance on the Great Northern Bar patio.
They have since played almost weekly shows at Tupelo Grille and regular gigs at Gunsight Saloon, wineries, weddings and house concerts. Big Sky City Lights is on the lineup for the Red Lodge Songwriter Festival and Under The Big Sky in Whitefish this summer.
On June 4-5, the duo will hold their album release show, where they will perform the entire album of seven originals, one cover and an additional cover mash-up with a full band, including a cellist, bassist, keyboardist and Spear on the acoustic guitar, at ATP’s new headquarters at the former Mountain Cinema 4 in Whitefish.
“There’s something amazing about doing an album release for a band born out of the pandemic in a now defunct movie theater and not using a movie screen at all,” Spear said.
The venue will be a black box theater-style performance with cabaret seating in an intimate 60- to 70-person audience setting.
Despite the band’s pandemic origins, Spear and O’Dea say most of the songs are non-pandemic related and have a good balance of high tempo songs, aside from “Wake Me,” which won the Whitefish Winter Carnival’s songwriter’s challenge and also has a music video.
O’Dea and Spear have continued to write together since the album’s recording, but Big Sky City Light’s future is uncertain after the summer, when O’Dea returns to New York with her fiancé. The duo, however, says they will continue making music one way or another.
“I guess everything good for me that’s happened out of this year, and probably my whole life, has been the things that I don’t see coming,” O’Dea said. “I’m trying not to worry or panic when things change; I just think if something’s meant to be heard and continue then life finds a way.”
For tickets, visit www.atpwhitefish.org. “Wake Me When We Get There” can be streamed on Spotify and iTunes.
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