Devon Elizabeth took a plunge when she got together with Bradley Blankenmeyer to form their new band, Half Strangers. Elizabeth, a University of South Carolina grad who moved to Charleston in April of this year, had performed in a few bands but mainly as a solo singer-songwriter since graduating in 2009, even releasing a solo EP called The Loneliest Dream last year. And while she’s had a strong run as a solo artist, there were things she missed about making music with a group. “I missed that creative process of a band,” she says. “Having four or five people putting their souls into a song makes it a lot more dimensional.”
So when she ended up in the same town with Blankenmeyer, a bassist whom she’d known in high school, the two decided that it was time to put a group together. “We’d been talking forever about doing a more Americana, country-type band, and when I moved down we said, ‘Let’s do this.'” Together, they found their three other bandmates — Michael Parks, Clifton McCallum, and Josh Beavers — through friends, friends-of-friends, and going to music shows. It’s been a real bit of musical serendipity. “Brad came up with the name Half Strangers, and we didn’t really think about it at the time, but it’s kind of true, the way we know each other,” Elizabeth says. “But everyone gets along really well, and they’re all such nice, nice guys. I’m very lucky to be able to play with them, because not only are they nice, but they’re very talented.”
A lot of other people seem to feel that way too, as the fledgling group’s very first gig was at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville this past June, which drew more than 80,000 fans. It’s a far cry from the typical play-for-free evenings that many bands start out with. Half Strangers had only practiced together a few times before driving up to Tennessee to take the stage. “It was a good bonding experience but also good to kind of be shoved off the edge,” says Elizabeth. “Things didn’t go as smoothly as we’d have liked, but I think it’s good to have that jarring, rip-the-Band-Aid-off first experience rather than play a bunch of local shows that no one comes to first. For us, at least, it was good.”
After that, Half Strangers was able to come together and focus more strongly on recording a few songs and defining their sound, which is part Americana-country, part soul (that’s Elizabeth’s husky, feminine vocals), and part West Coast groove. Each of the bandmates comes from a varied musical background, giving Half Strangers a rich collection of traditions to draw from. Elizabeth sings and plays guitar. McCallum, the drummer, played indie rock and jazz, while Blankenmeyer is a skilled jazz and funk performer. Then there’s Parks, who plays the violin, and the latest addition to the group, Beavers, who’s now on lead guitar and might have the most varied background of all. “The first time I saw him [Beavers] play, he was in a three-piece thrash metal band. The second time I saw him, it was a solo show, and he was doing jazz standards finger-picking style — I was like, he can play anything!” Elizabeth says. “So he’s definitely adding a lot to our arrangements.”
As for Elizabeth, even though she’s certainly a country music girl, she’s got a thing for the funkier rhythms, too. “I always find my way back to a lot of Latin and soul from the ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “Marvin Gaye, and there are a couple Brazilian guitarists that I look to. We’re ready for some new stuff and looking forward to that Latin vibe coming out.”
Half Strangers has so far released three songs, all of which are available to stream on their website. Of those three, all of which do a great job of showcasing the band’s considerable talent, “White Dress” is the standout. It’s hauntingly quiet and melodic, with a tender violin line and a simple, understated guitar presence. Elizabeth’s vocals are passionate yet restrained, dipping from time to time almost into a whisper.
The group is working on recording a few more songs, and hope to have their first EP released some time in March. Other than that, they’re planning on playing more shows locally and setting up a tour for next summer. “We’re all really focused, and things have come together pretty quickly, and I think things will keep going pretty fast,” Elizabeth says. “We’ll hopefully start playing festivals and doing more once we get the EP out.”