News Column

KC musical duo Victor & Penny finally has a home but will soon return to the road

October 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 17--Life on the road and inside the music business is unpredictable, filled with successes, surprises and disappointments. Few people understand this more than Erin McGrane and Jeff Freling, who, for the past two years have been touring relentlessly as Victor & Penny.

"The past month has been a really strange balance of good and bad," McGrane said.

The good: The duo has been enlisted to open for crooner Johnny Boyd, formerly of Indigo Swing, on a seven-show tour of the Northwest and Canada in December. That gig came after McGrane and Freling were hired to fly to Chicago in September and perform on a project Boyd created that's something akin to "Playboy After Dark."

"He is working on a pilot for a web series," McGrane said. "It's based on Hugh Hefner, sitting around in a swanky apartment, lots of swingers and crooners, the music is fantastic, everyone is beautiful, the cocktails are flowing. He invited us to play. We played two songs live, one take. It was fantastic."

The tour with Boyd, which will include a performance at a private party at a film director's house in Hollywood, will be part of a busy end of the year for Victor & Penny, the ukelele/guitar duo that calls its music antique pop, the kind popular in the early 20th century.

They have also been hired to perform at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art on Dec. 13 for the celebration of its "Dressed Up" exhibit. And they will be the emcees of and among the performers at the first New Year's Eve celebration at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

On top of that, Thursday night the two will perform at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, opening for Pokey LaFarge, who also plays music that sounds like another era.

"We really admire his music," McGrane said. "He's not resurrecting dead music. He's not imitating a kind of music, he's animating it, giving it his own point of view."

Amid all that excitement, however, they've had to deal with the unexpected resignation of their booking agent and then some bitter disappointment regarding the recording of their next album.

"We can't get the licensing rights for these songs we've been chasing for a year," McGrane said. "The guy who wrote them just doesn't want to license them to us. He recorded them 60 years ago. He's 94 now. He produced it himself and cut his own vinyl but never distributed it. We thought he'd be delighted about what we planned to do. He wasn't."

Those songs were the centerpiece of their Escape to Create Artist Residency, a four-week artistic retreat McGrane and Freling took in Florida in February. They came across a recording of the songs via Kansas City filmmaker Tony Ladesich, who has made these songs and the songwriter the focus of a documentary. McGrane and Freling had planned to record versions for their next album.

"Some of the songs are really brilliant," Freling said. "And one of them really matters. We've been performing them live and we made the mistake of saying they'd be on the next record. We talked a lot about it. Now we have to say, 'Sorry. Those songs aren't going to be on the record.'"

"It felt like we got sucker punched, artistically clotheslined," McGrane said. "If there's any good news it's that we didn't book studio time. We were supposed to start recording in New York this month."

Instead, they have made other big plans. They have signed a lease on an downtown apartment, where they'll hunker down for the winter. It'll be the first permanent residence in 18 months for the two, who have been living as guests of friends and relatives when they're off the road.

By the time this year ends, McGrane said, the two will have been on the road for nearly a full year over the past two years: 160 days in 2012 and more than 200 days this year.

The two have made Victor & Penny their small business. It's one that started with modest ambitions in late 2010. That's when McGrane picked up her father's old ukelele and started learning to play it.

Then she and Freling started writing songs together, posting on YouTube videos of themselves performing those songs while on the road. A brief tour of the West Coast went well, prompting the two to take a big leap of faith in early 2011.

"We sold our personal cars and bought a company car, we moved out of our apartments, and we quit our jobs," McGrane said.

Freling left his gig as a guitarist with the Blue Man Group in Chicago, and McGrane left hers as an actress in commercials and films.

"We decided if we really wanted to do this, we had to go full time," she said. "You can't just tour on the weekends if you want to pay the bills."

The road life, they both say, is as grueling as it is rewarding and requires an inordinate amount of discipline, organization, commitment, fortitude and faith.

"It has been a fantastic and satisfying experience," McGrane said. "But it's less romantic than people think and super-challenging in every way. We have learned so much. We're better business people and better musicians, but there's a physical toll that's taken when you're doing that many shows with no help at all."

"The first thing that takes a hit is practice time and working on your art," Freling said. "There are so many nuts and bolts to take care of."

And relationships are sacrificed, too. McGrane said while they were out on the road, they missed the funeral of a friend and the wedding of another.

"Marriage and death: It was painful," she said. "It can get demoralizing. Which is why you better be traveling with someone you like."

There's also the matter of sustaining energy from one show to the next, no matter the circumstances.

"In July we did a show that was part of the Whitaker Music Festival in St. Louis," McGrane said. "The crowd was great -- they said there were 3,500 people there. We were treated great. They put us up in a fantastic hotel. We were lucky we had two friends there who helped us after the show because we were selling CDs so fast, we couldn't keep up.

"The next night, we were in Davenport, Iowa, playing a coffeehouse show for $50 and two free smoothies. Ten people showed up and not all at the same time. But you have to stay dedicated and take the job seriously every night. Those 10 people who paid $5 came to see you, and you have to give them the same show."

They have about 30 performances booked between now and year's end, including the seven-show tour with Boyd -- house shows, club shows, private parties and workshops. Then McGrane and Freling will spend much of the winter working on Plan B for the new album.

"We have a lot of our own tunes we haven't worked on because we're so busy," she said. "So the record will be half original tunes and half the songs we do have the rights to. It's a surprise ending but it's really a positive thing."

After that it'll be back on the road in the spring, working diligently to nourish and improve the business and try to keep the good far ahead of the bad.

"It has been gratifying," Freling said. "We've been going hard for two years and we don't feel like stopping or slowing down. We just want to make it better."

Thursday

Victor & Penny perform at 10 p.m. at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, opening for Pokey LaFarge. Tickets to the 18-and-older show are $14.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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