MIDDLEBURY — Every good album has a story behind it. For Addison County native Jer Coons and music partner Caroline Rose, the story of their debut album, “America Religious” — which will be released on June 11 — began with a costly mistake.
“I accidentally bought a car,” Rose explained during a recent interview in her soon-to-be adopted hometown, Middlebury.
“Caroline’s life is defined by impulsive behavior,” offered Coons.
The 1975 MGB convertible made its way into Rose’s life following an impulse bid on the online auction site eBay. Rose bid low and promptly forgot about her offer, assuming that even if she weren’t outbid, the seller wouldn’t let the car go for so low a price. Months later, she got an email asking how she’d like to pick up her new vehicle.
Rose, who was raised in eastern Long Island, drove the car south after graduating from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 2011, visiting family in the South and writing songs about her experiences. She recently moved to Vermont to collaborate with Coons, whom she has known and worked with for several years, on “America Religious,” with songs inspired by her travels in that convertible, which she named Tom Collins, after her favorite drink.
The 12-track album, which the pair describes as “a collection of stories and poetry set against a gritty landscape of roots-inspired rock, Americana, folk, gospel, and rhythm and blues,” has been raking in positive buzz months before its release.
Rose and Coons recently returned to Vermont from South By Southwest — the music, film and interactive media festival held annually in Austin, Texas — where they performed at the All Together Now Showcase. On the road trip they played several house concerts and made a stop in Jackson, Miss., to record a segment for the local public radio station and film a segment of a television show, “Mississippi Sessions,” for the Public Broadcast Service affiliate.
The album’s single release is slated for April 23, and the duo will play a concert at New York’s storied Rockwood Music Hall on that day. The following day, April 24, they will perform at Merchants Hall in Rutland.
Coons, who grew up in Middlebury, pursued a career as a solo musician for several years before “getting into the production end of things” and opening a studio in Burlington, which he’s operated for the past several years.
The duo met when Rose opened a show for Coons almost five years ago.
“I was told I had a student opener, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s fine. That shouldn’t be any pressure at all,’” Coons remembered with a laugh. “And from like, the first two seconds of her first song, I was pacing the room with my head in my hands going, ‘How am I going to follow this? It’s so good.’”
Rose and Coons didn’t team up that night. In fact, they didn’t even speak. But Rose, just as impressed with Coons’ music as he had been with hers, reached out by email a few weeks later with her compliments. The two kept up an email correspondence and exchanged demos. Eventually, Coons put out an open invitation — if Rose ever came to Vermont, he would record her for free.
The next day, Rose responded. She had signed up for a summer class at UVM, she claimed, and would be in Vermont all summer.
“I kind of thrive off of spontaneity, it makes me feel alive,” Rose explained. “But I don’t know if he meant for that to actually happen.”
“I hoped,” Coons said. “I didn’t think it actually would, I didn’t think you were as spontaneous as you actually were.”
But she didn’t last long at UVM — her real goal was to record with Coons.
“I was in that class for like two days,” Rose recalled with a laugh. “I think I didn’t want it to seem that scary, like I was just coming up to work with him, so I signed up for that class. But I just came up to make music so that didn’t last too long. It was like, a calculus class.”
The pair immediately felt that their working styles complemented each other.
“That was a memorable summer. That was the first time I had ever been to Vermont and I’d just never — it was like magic,” Rose said. “We drove around just everywhere that summer, and we would record, we would bring the rig in the back of Jer’s car.
“I was always coming to Jer with these grandiose ideas, and he was always on board,” she added.
“She was like, ‘Let’s make it sound like this,’” Coons recalled. “And I’d be like, ‘That is technically impossible, but I will try my hardest.’”
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
The duo made their first album in those months, the summer of 2009. They recorded a second album on the day that Hurricane Irene hit in 2011. But they never released those discs, and they consider “America Religious” their debut.
“I ended up just kind of sitting on the first two albums because I wasn’t happy with them,” Rose said. “So (“America Religious”) is a big deal. It’s a big deal to feel momentum when you’re making something, and knowing that it’s as good as you want it to be.”
“Caroline doesn’t like anything,” Coons said. “So that was a really good sign, when we were making it and she was excited about how things were sounding.”
Rose and Coons call “America Religious” an “all grassroots” album. Rose wrote the songs, Coons produced, and the duo played all the instruments themselves, with the exception of a fiddle and a double bass recording that a couple of friends contributed. A successful campaign on the fundraising website Kickstarter sustained them financially — they exceeded their $8,000 target by several thousand dollars.
“We slept on the floor of the studio for months finishing this record. I put all my money into it. I left New York and came to Vermont to do this. So it’s a huge, huge part of our lives at this point,” Rose said.
This summer, they plan to hit the road and play house concerts and venues all the way to San Francisco. And in the meantime, their excitement leading up to the album’s release is still building.
“Knowing how it’s getting attention already and it’s not even out yet — I have the feeling it’s going to be a bigger and bigger part of our lives. It sounds kind of cheesy, but you can kind of feel it in the air. There’s this momentum,” Rose said.
“Anyone who is a creator, who has ever created anything, has an idea of what they want,” she added. “And it’s a big deal when something turns out to be totally different from your expectations. It’s really disappointing. And with the first two records, I kind of felt that. It wasn’t right.”
“Caroline’s a true artist, with a capital ‘A,’ in the best sense of the word,” Coons said. (“And the worst sense of the word,” Rose interjected.) “She comes from this old-soul mentality that knocked me over when I first started working with her, because there was just so much passion.”
“Now he can’t get rid of me,” Rose said.
“Oh well,” Coons replied. “Could be worse.”