The Nine Seas
Fiona McBain and Liz Tormes have been playing guitars and blending their exquisite voices in quite a few projects since they first connected in New York City 20 years ago. Originally performing under the name Fizz, they changed their name to The Nine Seas, a nod to 9C, the Lower East Side club on 9th and Ave. C where they first met.
Dream of Me co-producer Jim White was responsible for most of the spare orchestration on all but the last two tracks. The album contains deep country standards like “I Never Will Marry” and “Sea of Heartbreak,” an old murder ballad, “Down in the Willow Garden,” and early originals from both McBain and Tormes. “Am I Still Your Demon?” by Tormes describes an imagined conversation with an old lover, while “Go To Sleep” honors a very close family member who took her own life. McBain’s “Where He Rests” was written after 9/11 and is set through the eyes of a firefighter’s wife. “I Really Want You” was also inspired by a long-ago failed romance. Through some delightful alchemy, the pleasure of McBain and Tormes’ ethereal harmonies always lifts you above the sorrow they describe.
McBain grew up in a musical family from the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. As a teenager, she studied classical guitar, wrote folk and jazz-based songs and began performing in public with her first band right out of high school. She traveled to New York City with no plans to stay, but fell in love with the rich music scene. Tormes, by contrast, didn’t sing or play music at all before moving to New York City from Nashville. She followed a boyfriend whose band had a regular gig at 9C, then a hot downtown music club.
“He said, ‘You have really good rhythm’,” Tormes said. ‘You should just chop along on the mandolin and mute the strings and keep the rhythm behind me.’ That was embarrassing, so eventually I taught myself how to play guitar listening to old honky tonk records, just enough to write some songs.” While learning guitar, she also began singing and was soon asked to form a band with a couple fellow musicians from the 9C scene.
Tormes was singing murder ballads with The Misery Trio at 9C when she first met McBain, then singing jazz in other local clubs. She introduced her new friend to Roger Davis, the bartender at 9C, who offered a regular gig and eventually the two were singing together. At the time, McBain was unfamiliar with the early country music they would come to favor.
“Liz introduced me to a lot of music,” McBain said. “I didn’t know any Ola Belle Reed, for example. I knew Johnny Cash but I didn’t know the depth of his music. When I would go over to Liz’s place, she would play these songs to me on the guitar and sing them and so it left it wide open for us to harmonize without any reference points. It could sound however we wanted and that’s how Fizz came about, it was just the two of us singing these old songs and reinventing them without realizing it.”
Twenty years on, they are still singing those songs. The final two tracks of Dream of Me, “Midnight Blues” and the reprise of “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations,” are done in their usual performance style: two voices, two guitars.
The two did share a love of ‘80s pop, leading to another collaboration, The Big Bright. Along with keyboard wizard Glenn Patscha, they began working up lullaby arrangements of some power ballads from that decade. I Slept Through the 80s was a dreamy homage, while also serving a practical purpose for McBain and Patscha, who had recently become parents. Both McBain and Tormes participated in the genesis of the folk/gospel ensemble Ollabelle. McBain remained involved with that band (members Patscha and Tony Leone both contributed to Dream of Me) while Tormes released a well-received solo CD, Limelight, and toured in England and Ireland with Teddy Thompson. McBain also performs and has released music in a soprano/bass duo with Mike Visceglia, Then There Were Two.