BY ERIN LYNDAL MARTIN
Small Million's new single, "Bullets in the Bower," starts off as an a cappella folk ballad. Frontwoman Malachi Graham delivers the pastoral opening lyrics in her powerful twang: "There's bullets in the bower/Where you and I entwine/Like willow and the flower/We soon will leave behind." Then, the synths kick in. Produced by Ryan Linder, Small Million's other half, the electronic instrumentation builds from just a bassy rumble to a full-on dance anthem backed by drum machine and an EDM-indebted synth hook.
"Bullets in the Bower" is the lead single from Small Million's new EP, Young Fools, which the duo will self-release this week. Since they formed a few years ago, the Portland duo have been steadily building local hype for their effortless fusion of synth pop and roots music. But Small Million isn't a crossover gimmick. For Graham, Small Million is a way to defy the superficial expectations of genre. "Sometimes there are some tropes of a girl with the guitar and some limitations there," she says. "So to get to work with Ryan and really just blow the lid off is such a treat."
Four years after Sylvan Esso's breakout, the idea of merging Americana with synths doesn't seem entirely new. But unlike many of their folk-fusion peers, Small Million doesn't water down the rawness of their rootsy influences or the glossy euphoria of electronic music. Instead, they take the heightened emotions of both genres and use it to create something that's entirely their own.
"It's like [Linder] built me this beautiful cinematic universe and I just have to come in and figure out what it makes me feel," says Graham. "So sometimes it does feel like we're writing soundtracks to powerful, emotional movies that I haven't seen yet."
The pair met in 2013 on the dance floor of Holocene in Southeast. It was Disco Tuesday, and the dance floor was mostly empty. Linder had recently moved to Portland from L.A. and was hoping to meet collaborators, but the two had little in common musically. As a solo artist, Graham is a purveyor of dark folk. Linder is an electronic producer and, at the time, was going through a psychedelic-rock phase.
The chance meeting didn't feel particularly auspicious, until Linder went to see Graham perform the following week. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and singing moody Americana lyrics she'd penned, Graham was surprised to see Linder. She was even more surprised when he suggested they collaborate on electronic music. Nonetheless, Graham agreed. "I was in a phase where I was saying yes to life," she says. "So I said yes."
From the very beginning, Graham wanted to harmonize her folk past with her electronica present, which she says was an exciting challenge. "Country and Americana songwriting have a beautiful vulnerability and openness," says Graham. "I wanted to bring that into this project."
Linder had long looked for electronic albums with strong melodies and powerful lyrics. Graham turned out to be the missing element. "With any sort of collaboration, being able to let someone else shine where you know you can't makes for a good collaboration," he says. "Lyrically speaking, I don't know how she does it."
Young Fools is both more maximalist and more sparse than Small Million's 2016 debut EP, Before the Fall. On the bombastic opening tracks "Lone" and "Sirens," Graham's voice is layered over anthemic beats and hand claps. But songs like "Bullets in the Bower" and the EP's title track verge on minimal, giving Graham's lyrics the space to reverberate.
Linder, who studied filmmaking in school, directed and edited the music video for "Bullets in the Bower." In the video, the duo sit back to back, lit by a backdrop of amber lasers. Linder says he finds the visual aspects of music just as important as the aural ones.
"The aesthetic portion has been something that we've been putting a lot of time into," he says. "What does Small Million look like? Having a strong visual component really elevates the music and vice versa."
Graham's influences aren't limited to music, either. Along with her experience as a theater tech, she works for her father's microphone company, Ear Trumpet Labs. Both Linder and Graham say their diverse arts backgrounds contributed to their attention to detail and, at least partially, their ability to make Small Million a cohesive whole.
"In both fields, you have to know how to get shit done," says Graham. "We have to figure out the kind of world we want to create and then work with limited resources to make something bigger than the sum of its parts."
SEE IT: Small Million plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., mississippistudios.com, with Natasha Kmeto and Siren and the Sea, on Wednesday, Oct. 10. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.