Tangled Upin Blue

Hattie's Hat in Seattle is your typical urban haunt, an intimate, unassuming, and somewhat charming gathering place for close chums, perpetual barflies, and worker bees looking to grab a quick cocktail on their dash back to the suburbs after a maddening day at the office. It was there one night in 1998 when singer/songwriter Jesse Sykes, who was hanging with a girlfriend, met a man who found his way into both her heart and her art.

A new guy in town, he approached the two women, offering to buy them a drink. "I said no and she said yes," Sykes recalls. "Long story short, I had really wanted to leave about an hour before he came in. In fact, I recall I didn't really want to be out at all that night! He said he had been fishing that day and had just moved here from North Carolina ... wanted to be near the rivers and the mountains. That appealed to me. Later, we came to find out we had more than rivers and mountains in common. Sweet, huh?"

It turned out to be sweet thereafter for The Sweet Hereafter. That stranger was Phil Wandscher, a former member of the hugely influential Americana outfit Whiskeytown, the same ensemble that sprung roots-rock rebel Ryan Adams. "I can't remember whether I left the band or I was fired," chimes in Wandscher, who is being interviewed alongside Sykes. "I do remember feeling this great, unbearable weight being lifted off of my shoulders as I moved on. To what or where, I had no idea at the time, as long as it was as far away from Ryan's chaotic circus as possible."

Not long after that first drink, Sykes and Wandscher paired up, romantically and musically. They eventually recruited a trio of veteran Seattle musicians, including violin and cello player Anne Marie Ruljancich, bassist Bill Herzog, and drummer Kevin Warner, and wistfully dubbed their band Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter.

The moniker offers more than a hint of the ethereal sound that permeates the band's two initial offerings, 2002's Reckless Burning and last year's Oh, My Girl, their lonely, alluring melodies capturing the dreamlike imagery and serenity of their Northwest environs (not surprising considering Sykes is a former photographer). Gentle, pastoral, and brimming with sensuality and suggestion, Sykes's eye for detail and ability to glean beauty from her melancholy muse is reflected in evocative titles such as "The Dreaming Dead," "Birds Over Water," and "Winter Hunter." Their cerebral sound conjures a midnight rendezvous under a moonless sky, a convergence of Lush, Sarah McLachlan, Cowboy Junkies, and Cocteau Twins.

"I think our music is perceived as dark and lonely because of the space that's left in it," says Sykes. "So much is stripped away that might serve as a distraction, and if you look at anything in life after it has been broken down to the bare essentials, it often seems startling or unnerving. I'm always listening to the sounds going on around me, whether it's cars passing by on the wet streets, or my neighbor's voice at night through the wall, an airplane flying overhead. There's a rhythm and flow to these sounds that we hear all the time, but tune out. If you sit and quietly listen, it's beautiful, familiar ... like memories, but without the baggage."

These days, the band members spend the majority of their time on the road, mostly in Europe where The Sweet Hereafter received its earliest accolades. They're also discovering a growing stateside following, the result of critical kudos accorded Oh, My Girl from the likes of Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and have secured a prominent spot on Bright Eyes' current tour, thanks to the two groups' publishing company, Sony Music.

Fortunately, meshing work and romance has yet to take its toll on Sykes and Wandscher. "We're a couple and yes, it can be extremely hard, but then I look at people who have children and it couldn't be any harder than that," Sykes suggests. "I suppose in the end, though, we really trust each other's instincts and we always work through the stressful moments. It just happens."

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Lee Zimmerman