The past two years have prompted countless reckonings, reinventions, and resets—especially for musicians, whose best-laid plans have been repeatedly dashed on the rocks of a pandemic that refuses to recede.
Carter Hodge and Maddie Fisher need no reminders about such cruel twists of fate. Since forming intimate indie-folk band Dissimilar South in 2015, they’ve graduated from college, released a well-received EP (2019’s Treehouse), severed their own romantic relationship, and lost two longtime bandmates. Those obstacles have seemed to only strengthen their connection, though, and they made plans to record a new album with acclaimed Tar Heel producer Jason Richmond in summer 2020.
Then, of course, the world stopped because of COVID-19, leaving Hodge and Fisher adrift personally and professionally—which led to their strongest set of songs yet. After honing new material for a year, Dissimilar South finally entered Richmond’s studio in summer 2021 to record nine songs for Tricky Things. The band’s debut full-length drops May 6 on New Orleans–based label Cruisin’ Records; the same night, Hodge and Fisher and a new backing band will celebrate with a record release show at Cat’s Cradle.
“We’ve spent so much time trying to make this happen that it’s a little intimidating,” Fisher tells INDY Week, one recent breezy Wednesday morning. She and Hodge fluently finish each other’s sentences over coffee outside Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, communicating silently with sly smiles and raised eyebrows.
“It’s mostly a celebration—just elongated and intensified by the pandemic,” Hodge says. “We’re excited, but it’s also daunting to let this album go into the world. Releasing something new is your biggest moment as an artist.”
Tricky Things meets that moment by drastically expanding Dissimilar South’s sonic palette. Synthesizers shimmer on “Midnight,” slide guitar slithers on “Seven Lights,” and lusty bass riffs strut over syncopated beats on “Melodrama.” Even songs like “Mountain Girl” and “Baby Blues” that skew toward traditional Americana get gently chopped and screwed with distorted vocals and psychedelic percussion.
Hodge and Fisher credit those creative leaps to their work arranging and refining the material with Richmond and Triangle stalwarts Joe Westerlund, Joseph Terrell, Alex Bingham, and Joe MacPhail.
“‘Melodrama’ didn’t have that groove to it when I first wrote it,” Fisher says. “Joe and Alex constructed it in the studio, and I said, ‘Ooh, this is a little different! I’m a little scared of this.’ Thank God we tried it in a new, cool way.”
That experimental approach even led Hodge to rethink how they play their guitar.
“I’m a maximalist, and I like texture and fullness,” they said. “And Jason’s like, ‘Carter, just wait—just hold back.’ It was a good intellectual exercise in sparseness and seeing the space you can create just by having fun.”
Dissimilar South do hold the line when it comes to their defining feature: close vocal harmonies, which Fisher says are “a core part of our sound together.” First honed years ago when they played traditional bluegrass together, their voices became even more intimately intertwined during their time as a couple, with all the tension, resolution, and effortless conversation that entails.
Tricky Things also finds Hodge and Fisher growing as lyricists. Memorable one-liners fill the album: the sly come-on “I’ll be the driest thing in this climate / Well what about a sad boy? / You know I’ve tried it” on “Melodrama”; the subtle clapback “You want my apologies? / I really couldn’t be more sorry / For getting off on technicalities” on the brutally honest “Fear of Flying”; and the incisive observation “Young child with a steadfast cynicism / Cringed at the idea of lessons given” on “Grand Adventure.”
That latter song is surprisingly mature, with Hodge and Fisher embracing the humdrum here and now at the ripe old ages of 26 and 25, respectively.
“I have a tendency to only write when things are sad and intense,” Hodge laughs. “‘Grand Adventure’ is a meditation on satisfaction and being OK with what you’re doing today, instead of finding meaning and satisfaction in, like, going to Spain for six months.”
Fisher delivers a related take that telegraphs the band’s scrappy spirit: “We’re not on one super clear path. We’re not making any money. We have no career prospects. But we do see people immediately out of college with ambition and a good job … and I actually don’t think that they’re happy.”
That conflicted feeling is uncannily captured on “Letting Go,” which closes Tricky Things with tender uncertainty. Somehow, Fisher speaks for a generation while retaining her own piercing interiority on the yearning verse: “Maybe this time, maybe not / What we do will be enough / Our lease is ending / Now where to? / I’ll scrape off my knuckles before losing you.”
“People love that song,” Fisher chuckles, referencing the cathartic joy of singing along to the chorus (“Here’s to letting the fuck go”). But its meaning runs deeper, Hodge emphasizes: “Everyone’s got something that they’re trying to let go of. And letting go of what is not serving us leaves us open to what we want. We’re fighting to protect that openness.”
Dissimilar South hopes to achieve the usual hallmarks of success: broader recognition, bigger shows (“or, paradoxically, smaller, shittier shows farther away,” Hodge laughs), financial freedom. But they’re also chasing loftier goals—namely, better representation for other all-queer bands comprising women and nonbinary musicians. Fisher hopes she can eventually transcend being seen strictly as a superb vocalist, while Hodge hopes to dispel gendered roles about who can confidently claim space as a shredding lead guitarist.
Both also believe in a basic tenet: “Any time you do something and it resonates with someone, that’s valuable,” Hodge says. “You’re being an artist in that moment. That’s a radical form of acceptance, and we want to create space for that in our music. That’s what makes us happy. Our dreams for the band are big, and our desire to inhabit those dreams is big.”
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