Just about every day, a solitary guitarist plugs into her portable practice amp and begins rehearsing at one of several secret outdoor locations around Silver Lake Reservoir. Most of the passers-by, joggers and dog walkers circling the reservoir don’t pay any attention or have any idea who the performer is.
But Margaret Garrett, half of the garage-blues duo Mr. Airplane Man, is not a typical meek folkie strumming airy songs in the park. Collaborating with drummer-keyboardist Tara McManus, Garrett is best known for creating stomping, hard-driving original songs that combine elements of blues, punk, garage rock and psychedelic pop into an unusually compelling and distinctively haunting mixture.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Airplane Man were based in Boston and went on tour and worked with their mentors, Morphine, and played on bills with The White Stripes, The Blues Explosion, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Reigning Sound. Because of their stripped-down guitar-and-drums instrumentation, they often were compared to The White Stripes, but Mr. Airplane Man crafted a stubbornly non-retro, distinctly feminine version of the blues that felt more deeply personal and soulfully entrancing than the more mannered and self-conscious blues affectations of Jack White.
The duo were fairly popular on the East Coast and in Europe, and released a series of prized recordings on Sympathy for the Record Industry and other underground labels in the early 2000s before Mr. Airplane Man mysteriously disappeared for the better part of a decade. McManus and Garrett moved away from each other and began raising their kids, and the group was seemingly forgotten until December 2014, when The Lost Tapes, a collection of unreleased 1999 recordings, was released out of the blue.
“We’re both single moms. We had a lot to juggle,” Garrett says in an interview at a picnic table on a sunny, breezy day in the park at the south end of the reservoir. “We had different bands, but we both missed playing together. We re-met in Boston and played a couple shows, and it felt amazing.”
Newly reinvigorated, Garrett and McManus flew to Europe and began recording the songs that would end up being released in 2016 as Geneva Session by Swiss tastemaker Robin Girod. Mr. Airplane Man also started working again with a former producer, Reigning Sound/Oblivians mastermind Greg Cartwright, and recorded an EP that will be released sometime this year.
However, Garrett and McManus weren’t totally satisfied with these recordings. “I remember having a dream. There were mountains in the background, a lot of pollen — or maybe it was dream dust,” Garrett explains. “We had just recorded with some engineer whose face I couldn’t see.
“We were trying to find a label, but no one wanted to put it out,” she continues. “We raised the money on [crowd-funding site] Indiegogo to rent out Panoramic House,” a recording studio in Marin County, north of San Francisco. “It was a magical place on a cliff that overlooks the ocean at Stinson Beach. They had the best 2-inch tape, insane boards. … As we were driving through winding hills to the studio, it was just like my dream. The universe felt it had to be so that we should be there.”
McManus and Garrett rerecorded a few songs from the previous sessions, but they were so inspired by their surroundings that they wrote several new tunes that ended up on Jacaranda Blue, Mr. Airplane Man’s ninth album, which was released in March by Sympathy for the Record Industry, a seemingly dormant label whose recent revival echoes Mr. Airplane Man’s return.
Championed again by producer Girod, the two benefited from working with engineer James Finch. “Having just drums and guitar is a really great limitation,” Garrett says, but on Jacaranda Blue she and McManus found themselves “experimenting with making it sound fuller.”
Mr. Airplane Man’s stark early recordings occasionally had a bass guitar here or there, but on the new album multi-instrumentalist Girod fleshed out the duo’s songs with a lot more bass — as well as percussion, vibraphone, acoustic guitar and theremin. The new songs also have more of a psychedelic dimension, with Finch manipulating a space echo from under the control board to heighten Garrett’s vocals.
“James was down there with the echo flipping out while I was singing,” Garrett says. “We’ve always had a weirder side; we’ve never been a straight blues or straight garage band. … We like to get weird and psychedelic because it’s dreamy and cool. ‘I’m in Love’ has a John Lee Hooker feel, but when I sang it, I’d be thinking of Suicide’s Alan Vega, who had just died. Maybe he was visiting me.”
Discussing the new album’s title, Garrett says, “Colors reflect moods and can bring you into moods. Our practice space was on a street lined with jacaranda trees. We’d come out of practice and feel high looking at this amazing color. … It makes me feel so happy, that color — and there is more than one shade of jacaranda — and that tree. It’s so ecstatic and happy to be alive. Just being here physically [in California] is this amazing experience. Yes, you’re running out of money and there are these difficult things to deal with, but there’s also this explosion of colors and life.”
The plan was for the duo to relocate together to Los Angeles, but McManus, 48, remains in Rhode Island and flies out for occasional shows to join Garrett, who now lives in Silver Lake. When they were living in separate cities over the past decade, Garrett was a member of Jack Oblivion & the Tearjerkers, while McManus played with Turpentine Brothers and Far Corners and now performs with Heavy Connection.
“It’s like being inside of a pinball machine,” Garrett, who was born in Cambridge and raised in Massachusetts, marvels about life in L.A. “I feel like it’s amazing to get anything accomplished here.” But she also feels energized by her new home. “In L.A., you can set up and play outside year round. I really like looking at trees and sunlight. It kind of gets me into a trance state,” she adds, pointing to her favorite tree — a tall, looming pine tree that’s leaning toward the reservoir. “People can hear me. That bothers me more than it does the people — I don’t like to insert myself into other people’s eardrums.
“I’m a loner. I sort of go off on my own and do my own thing,” says Garrett, who is so inspired by living in Silver Lake that she’s begun work on a solo album with Finch. Her new songs are less bluesy, ranging from sun-dappled pop reveries to trance-like Gnawa-style incantations. “I have to please myself. That’s how I’m doing my solo album. I have to sell my car, and with that money I’m going to put it out — that’s my soul. … Just to mend my broken heart, I come to the park. I come out here to play songs, and I don’t have to worry about what people think. I’m pleasing myself — I’ll play one song for an hour.
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“The sun is working with me,” Garrett continues. “The birds are my audience; they totally land near me and make a lot of noise while I’m playing. You have to follow your bliss in each moment — somewhere, the universe meets you. … The solo album is going to be called ‘Something Silver Lake,’ like The Birds of Silver Lake or Sirens of Silver Lake or Sunbeams & Daydreams of Silver Lake.”
Garrett likely will preview some of her new solo songs as well as selections from Jacaranda Blue when she appears Friday night at Alex’s Bar as part of a benefit for beloved local scenester Sean Barger, who’s battling cancer. “Sean’s a friend through the music,” Garrett says. “I’m always asking Facebook friends for help — I’m one of those people — and Sean bonded with me and helped me when I moved out here. He’s like a kindred spirit; he’s from the heart. … Cancer is the ultimate thing you can’t control, and I’m a control freak.
“I really appreciate Sean’s spirit,” Garrett confides. “He’s been really brave. I’m inspired by him. His support has helped me through my own hard times.”
Margaret Garrett performs at the benefit for Sean Barger, along with punk mainstays Shattered Faith, His Eyes Have Fangs, The Mormons and Portions, at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Fri., June 1, 8 p.m.; $10. (562) 434-8292.