"This is a place that Dan Auerbach used to talk about all the time, but I discovered it first," says Shivering Timbers' singer and bassist Sarah Benn as she and her husband, Timbers guitarist Jayson Benn, sit at a table at La Taqueria Rancheros, a hole-in-the-wall Akron eatery that's known for its authentic Mexican food. Not that Benn is dissing the Black Keys' frontman. After all, he did produce the Timbers' 2010 debut, We All Started in the Same Place, and helped them find a producer for their new album, Sing Sing, a moody alt-country/indie-folk record that recalls alt-country crooner queen Neko Case.
The Benns first met six years ago after a show at the Lime Spider, the defunct Akron indie-rock club that's since been transformed into a restaurant and bar. Sarah knew Jayson played in a band, but he didn't know she had any musical talent until he visited her at her house one day and saw that she was reading the score for Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool. "I was playing the trumpet at the time, and my favorite thing to play was the song 'Deception,'" recalls Sarah. "That's the only thing I ever play. I get out the horn and play that song a few times, and then put the horn away for eight months."
It was then that they discovered that they had played in a number of Akron and Kent punk and indie bands that had crossed paths over the years. But the couple didn't begin collaborating until their daughter was born five years ago. "We spent all of our time entertaining this little baby and singing songs to her," says Sarah. "So we tried to write songs that she would like."
They played those songs at Auerbach's 30th birthday party, and he loved them so much that he decided to produce their debut album. "The Black Keys were in the process of mixing their Blakroc album, and Kanye West called Dan while we were in the studio with him," recalls Sarah. "I could hear Kanye's voice over the phone. I was like, 'Oh my God, that's Kanye.'"
It was at this point that the couple began to take their music more seriously. They started performing live more often and recruited drummer Brad Thorla to play drums on a full-time basis. (The record's assorted instruments — banjo, castanets, glockenspiel, toy piano — reflect the group's eclectic nature.) On a trip to Nashville to meet Auerbach, the Benns hooked up with Brian Olive, who was mixing a solo album at Auerbach's studio.
"He had these women singing harmony on one of the songs, and they were having a tough time," says Sarah. "I can do harmonies like that. It's one of my true gifts as a singer, which is a shame because I don't have anyone in this group I can harmonize with. I was like, 'Throw me in there. I can do it.' I was just joking, but I went in there and did it."
The Benns made such a strong connection with Olive, a former member of the heralded garage-rock bands the Greenhornes and the Soledad Brothers, that he ended up producing Sing Sing. The recording process was much different this time around at Olive's Cincinnati studio. "At Dan's studio, everything is set up so you can just play and have fun," says Sarah. "At Brian's place, you have to set everything up and get things put in place. We had some sound issues, because on the other side of the wall there was a mini-mart, and there were certain times of the day when we couldn't record anything in a certain room. I know there's one spot on the album where I can hear a door squeaking."
The record begins with the title track, a twangy number that shows off Sarah's powerful voice. But it's the album's second song, a cover of Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" that comes as a real surprise. The band adds some much-needed grit to the Diamond classic. A couple of the songs also feature lyrics written by Auerbach's dad, Charles, who gave them a whole stack of material to sift through. "I went through all of them, and a lot of them were cheating songs and drinking songs," says Sarah. "But we really liked 'Annalee' because it was so dark."
The rest of Sing Sing – which will be released at this weekend's CD-release show at Musica – mines musical territory that's much more intense than most of the songs found on the Timbers' debut. The group's growing fan base sure seems to like them. "Our music and lyrics have already appeared on websites, and the album isn't even out yet," says Sarah. "This is completely different from when we released our first album. Nobody knew who we were — we were just people from Akron who had Dan Auerbach's name on their record. Now we kind of have our own thing."