Singer Alison Tomin and guitarist Joshua Alan Collins first met through a mutual friend back in 2014. When they wound up at the same open mic night at the Eastland Inn in Berea, they realized that it might be fun to jam together.
They haven't stopped jamming together.
“At the time, we were both looking for a writing partner,” says Tomin in a recent conference call with Collins. “It just kind of worked, and our writing style worked well together. We did our first show at one of [local singer-songwriter] Brent Kirby’s 10X3 showcases. It was ’80s night, so we did two originals and a cover of the Phil Collins song ‘In the Air Tonight.’”
“Our plan was to release Stay Steady in 2020, and when the world basically shut down, we decided to hold off on it,” says Tomin. “We were so happy with the quality of it. We didn’t want to waste it by releasing it and not tour with it.”
Collins says the band has refined its "local sound" into a "national sound" for Stay Steady.
“We wanted a full professional sound,” he says. “But it was really organic. Alison and I can sit and pluck around until we find something we like and then let it grow from there.”
The band cut the album in 2019 at Lava Room, which was located in Beachwood at the time (the studio has since moved).
“Mike Brown is the [Lava Room] owner and was our producer,” says Collins. “He has some of the best equipment. It’s a relaxed, fun environment. We would go in with a song, and I would lay my guitar down. He would go, ‘That’s great. Play it better.’ He gets these melodies and styles out of your playing that you didn’t know you were capable of.”
Brown says he loves the way the band mixes musical styles.
“What really drew me to the music of AJ & the Woods was the mixture of rock meets the organic culture of folk, Americana and blues,” he says in a press release about the new album. “You get a sound that is exciting yet incredibly unique, not just to Cleveland but to the music scene in general.”
Ultimately, Stay Steady features a perfect distillation of the band’s disparate influences.
“My mom got me into music when I was really young,” says Collins. “I got my first guitar when I was 6 or 7. It was always George Thorogood and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Rory Gallagher. I like those classic big guitar sounds. I put my guitar pretty much straight into my amp."
He says he avoids using "a lot of bells and whistles."
"I get the amp really hot," he says. "I understand the sound-scapers that put down a pedal board as long as a pool table and make the same note travel for days at a time. That’s not what I grew up listening to, and I could never really connect to that. My first CD I ever got was the Robert Johnson double disc. I remember in middle school, some girl wanted to listen to what I was listening to on my headphones. She heard it and said, ‘Eww. What the hell is that?” She was listening to N’Sync, so I was happy to stick with my music.”
Tomin says she’s started listening to more folk and Americana in the last few years.
“I like the Punch Brothers and that ‘newgrass’ style,” she says.
Because the band takes influence from so many different sources, it’s opened for acts as wide-ranging as country singer Chase Rice, alt-rockers Lit and psychedelic rockers Flaming Lips.
“We get thrown into cool festivals and shows where we don’t necessarily think we would fit," says Collins.
One album highlight, “Buckeye,” began with just electric guitars. Singer-songwriter Madeline Finn collaborated with the band and helped add vocal production and give the tune a gospel feel.
“The song is about change and how people deal with change,” says Tomin. “It’s kind of the title track because it has that line ‘stay steady the course with me.’ We weren’t sure if we wanted a title track because they are all our children and we couldn’t pick a favorite. Our drummer helped us name it. Over the course of the pandemic, it took on new meaning.”
With its dominant banjo riff, “Home” has more of a country/folk feel to it.
“We feel like it encompassed everything we had been working on,” says Tomin when asked about the song. “It has strong guitar and strong banjo and strong fiddle. We wrote that one in the studio. We had a different song we were working on. It wasn’t working out. We went back to the table. We sat down and refigured it out.”
For the upcoming release party at House of Blues, the band will bring in extra musicians for its performance. It's also recruited some of its musical friends to share the bill.
“Our friend Josh Hancock is going to be the master of ceremonies,” says Collins. “Brent Kirby will open as a solo act, and we’ll have Morning Bird, which is also our bass player Jeremy [Taylor]’s band. They’re a fantastic band. And my buddy Mikey [Silas]’s band Apostle Jones will play too. We’ll play the whole album as well as brand-new songs that no one has heard yet. We have a whole other record ready to go.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]