The Nightowls, a local ten-piece soul band, are on fire. They just released their second CD, recorded a third, have been playing big events around town and are now gearing up to play ACL for the first time.
I had the pleasure to sit down with bandleader Ryan Harkrider and vocalist Tara Williamson for lunch at Kerbey Lane to chat about their accomplishments over the past year.
You just performed at Tribeza’s fashion show, earlier this year you did the Austin Under 40 awards and Blues on the Green, and you just had your CD release party. You’ve been busy! Now you’re about to perform at ACL. How did that come about?
Tara: ACL is really a huge, huge high point. It’s been something that was going to be slated for the next couple of years trajectory, and it’s two years early. We contacted Stubb’s – we were just aiming for an after party this year – and they [C3] just said why don’t you play the festival. So that was kind of big.
Ryan: When you sell out Stubb’s, people take notice. And the album was doing well and selling well. So between all those things, C3 noticed and asked us to play the festival.
Going from smaller venues to a bigger venue like ACL, are you worried about everything transferring from one kind of stage to another?
Ryan: The Nightowls is a big band to begin with, so I think we have that working for us. Because most of the time we’re going into smaller venues blowing the roof off the place. We played Blues on the Green this past summer and that felt perfect. We felt home on the big stage in front of a lot of people….
We’re playing anywhere from 50 to 8,000 people, so we’re always trying to speak globally, but at the same time make very personal, intimate connections with people….
We play so much that there’s really not a whole lot of nerves or anything. We know what we’re going to do, we know how we’re going to do it and I think that when we get to the stage, people see that. It’s a very fluid transaction between us and the audience.
Tara: Yeah, I think the band is built for a big stage. We really take to it well. It’s exciting.
So how often do you all practice together?
Ryan: Like rehearse? Really, never.
Ryan: We play every Sunday, every Monday and we travel on Fridays – we’re in San Antonio tonight – and Saturdays. We’re playing essentially at least four times a week. So we never rehearse unless we have something big coming up.
Tara: If we have a new song, we’ll get together. But most of the time we’re pretty tight because we’re playing all the time.
Ryan: That’s the beauty of it at this point. Everybody is so talented we can say, “Okay, here’s the song we’re playing, here’s how it goes” and everybody shows up prepared and we just do it. Don’t tell anybody, but that’s kind of what we use Monday’s for at The Highball. We try new stuff, we play new songs, we adjust the set, we take risks and it’s been a great place to do that.
Tell me more about your weekly appearances at The Highball.
Ryan: Well, Motown Monday, as it is called, was started four years ago. It started with the Matchmaker Band at the old Highball….Then Highball closed and Matchmaker Band moved Motown Monday to One-2-One Bar and at that point added The Nightowls to the brand.
Tara: Yeah, so for the last, little over a year and a half, we played every Monday after Matchmaker Band. And the plan was that after Highball reopened to follow Matchmaker back over there.
Ryan: The new brand was both bands. Essentially Matchmaker Band and then the Late Show [with The Nightowls].
What do you think of the new diggs at The Highball?
Ryan: It’s great. They did a great job of keeping all the things that were great about The Highball. You know, all the red leather couches are back. The bowling alley is not back, but the old lanes are now the dance floor. Which is great for dancing and all the dance people love that….But for us it’s the vibe in there. It’s really suited to what we’re doing. The Motown, the soul, the kind of vintage classic retro thing that we got going. So I think it’s a good fit.
Are you going to try a new set for ACL and test it out at The Highball beforehand? Give your fans a little sneak peak?
Ryan: That is definitely the training ground, so…
What is something that our readers might not know about The Nightowls?
Ryan: Some of our songs like “Break My Heart Tonight” started out with me strumming on an acoustic guitar six years ago and are all country songs. I’ve taken them over the last three years and put them with a soul band. Rearranged and completely thrown out the old model.
That’s really impressive that you can take songs that you wrote 6 years ago and then add all the different levels.
Tara: You’d be amazed. The first time I heard one of those songs I had no idea that’s how it started. I thought they were all written for this soul/Motown type of sound. Then to hear it this one time on an acoustic guitar…I was like, “That’s how that song started?” It was awesome to begin with and now it’s something great.
Do you have songs where everybody collaborates together?
Ryan: Yeah, in fact that happened with one of the newest songs that we tracked….I came with this song and thought, it’s going to be great. Brought it to the group and they said that song’s not going to work. We essentially threw it out the window, but we kept the key the song was in as the only remnant of the old song, and then wrote one of the best songs on the album as a group [“The Highline”].
With another song, we were going to Alabama and we had all this time in the van, 14 hrs there and back. So the song ended up being written in the van as we’re driving all the way out there [Untitled, but will be on the upcoming album].
Tara: It’s hard to find people who work as well together as The Nightowls do….It’s just hard to find a group that will commit and be excited about a project, and all be able to work so well together and have a great time on stage, as well as just making a family together. That makes for a lot more longevity than just any old band.
It sounds like the whole family aspect is the key to keeping the essence of The Nightowls alive.
Ryan: Exactly. There is something very special about, not just the music and performing and the shows, but 10 people that work together. We spend more time together than we do as husbands and wives and kids, but somehow we all get along.
Somehow when we all get together, we have a hysterical time. It’s stupid. We act like idiots. It’s always fun. That is something that comes through the music, and comes through when we collaborate and perform. And that is something that we, as a band, really try to extend to our fans.
We don’t have fans, we have Nightowls family….We say “Thank you, Nightowls family” because we feel something special when we’re all together and we want other people to experience that as well. Obviously to have a good time and enjoy the music, but to make personal, intimate connections with people like I said earlier.
So now that you’re about to reach your ACL goal two years early, what are your new goals?
Ryan: We’re going to release this new album, that is definitely part of it. We just shot a documentary film while we were recording, so SXSW is a big goal for us, making a big impact here in Austin.
The next piece of the puzzle for us is to get in front of as many people as possible. I think that anybody that sees the band, anybody that comes to the show, they’re going to love it. And so that’s really the goal for us…But putting together a more proper tour or finding a band to open for would be a goal. And then after that, a specific goal would be to just make our network TV debut. We wanna play The Late Show.
Tara: I think that’s realistic. I didn’t think that a year ago, but it’s definitely a reality of possibilities.
Is there any last thing you want your fans to know?
Tara: See us on Sundays [Icenhauer’s on Rainey St.], Mondays [Motown Monday at The Highball] and ACL [2nd weekend, Saturday at noon].
How often do you get out to see The Nightowls?