Corrina Repp and Joe Haege knew that the recording of their new album was going well when the police showed up at their house.
"I was playing this really loud guitar part," Repp tells me, her voice ratcheting up a notch as she tells the story. "We had these partying neighbors, and someone called the cops thinking it was them making the noise and not us. So the cops come to the door and are like, 'We don't hear anything now so we're going to go.' I was excited that I played something that was so intense that we got a noise complaint."
For anyone familiar with Repp's sparse solo work, the idea of a ripping guitar solo is the last thing you'd expect to grace one of her songs. But ever since she teamed up with 31Knots frontman Haege in 2007 to form the antique chamber-rock outfit Tu Fawning, everything she knew about making music—from the recording process to how to package the finished product—has changed. On Tu Fawning's debut full-length, Hearts on Hold, Repp's haunting vocals share space with Haege's tamed carnival-barker wail and a whirling wall of sound, leading to a dark record led by clanging percussion as much as Repp's quiet songwriting charms.
In fact, the drums are the first thing you notice on Hearts on Hold. The record is driven by rhythm, from the frantic toms that open standout single "The Felt Sense" to the repeated mantra of "I Know You Now," which Repp jokes is as hip-hop as the band will ever get. Haege—who had tracked vocals and guitars for 31Knots, but never drums—handled most of the production on the disc, though the pair credit friend Chris Funk of the Decemberists ("He lent us some bad-ass mics and some really nice equipment for a couple of months," Repp says) for the final push.
The left-of-center Hearts on Hold is the product of a longstanding mutual admiration. Before starting Tu Fawning, Repp and Haege had worked together (he contributed to her last solo record, 2006's The Absent and the Distant, and Repp sang on 31Knots' The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere) but never before have their disparate voices blended together so well. The pair released the five-song Succession EP in 2008, which was right about the time when they realized that their new band wasn't quite a finished product. While on tour in Europe, they grew tired of multitasking onstage and emailed friends Liza Rietz and Toussaint Perrault to see if they would round out the lineup. Both said yes almost immediately.
"Setting up as a two-piece is a nightmare," Haege says, looking back on the experience. "We would get lost in a never-ending sea of wires."
After solidifying the lineup, Tu Fawning began recording Hearts on Hold last spring. Haege would bring in a drum loop or vocal idea for the group to flesh out with instrumentation not typically found on a rock record: Perrault's trombone; Rietz's ballroom piano and violin; and plenty of old-fashioned, parlor-style vocal harmonies. There are moments of startling beauty (the organ pulse and clipped drums of "Mouths of Young") and times when the band sounds alarmingly like Radiohead ("Just Too Much" shares chords and a similar sense of desperation with Kid A's lone guitar workout "Optimistic"). And after releasing its first EP on indie label Polyvinyl, the band decided to take the DIY approach and create a new imprint for its music, Provenance Records, so Hearts on Hold could be out in time for a fall tour opening for Menomena.
"We've been doing this too long to give a shit about money," Repp says. "But at least we have our hearts and minds intact about our decision. I feel good about it in a spiritual way."
Tu Fawning plays Friday, Oct. 29, at Doug Fir, with Aan and Billygoat. 9 pm. $10. 21+.