High-strung: Super Saturated Sugar Strings debut new album

Chris Bieri

Forgive the Super Saturated Sugar Strings. They do not mean to offend, annoy or bewilder.

But fans of the Anchorage quintet may be in for a surprise when they listen to the group's forthcoming album "Heart-Shaped Leaves."

Forgoing the livelier, folky feel of the band's earlier work, the release is decidedly darker and more theatrical, blending jazz and classical elements over the 10-song offering.

"It's going to be a little bit jarring for some, honestly," said singer/pianist Kat Moore. "I feel like even recently some of the shows we've played with our new music ... People think of us from the old album as the bouncy bluegrass band, the happy-go-lucky Sugar Strings. Some of the stuff on the new album is really dark."

Listeners will have a chance to get their hands on the album Saturday at the Sugar Strings CD release party at the Tap Root Public House. The band is performing twice -- a listening show from 7-9 p.m. and a dance party show starting at 10 p.m.

The change isn't as much a diversion as a transformation.

"We didn't change our sound because we were looking to do that," Moore said. "We're developing our sound and growing into this new beast. I hope a lot of people will like it."

While followers of the band may be surprised, they won't likely be disappointed.

The album weaves a rich and brooding tapestry, occasionally rolling up enough to let in a few flickers of light. "We have a lot of happy-go-lucky, fun, upbeat songs too, and maybe our next album will have more of that," said guitarist Carlyle Watt. "We just didn't want to have such a schizophrenic album."

The group formed when Carlyle and Theresa Watt, who were both in the Grass-Fed String Band, met Moore and Miriah Phelps at a bluegrass jam at the Tap Root.

Phelps approached the Watts (who weren't yet married) about getting involved in a musical project and the trio later recruited Moore. Trumpet player Logan Bean was brought in as a "hired gun" on the latest album, but has recently joined the band full-time.

Carlyle Watt handled all of the songwriting duties for group's debut album, "Harmonic Toast," a role in which Moore flourished during the preparations for "Heart-Shaped Leaves."

Moore says she writes songs on a daily basis, and the ebbs and flows of her last year contributed to the tone of the album.

"The way Kat writes songs, it's a day-to-day thing, so it's been kind of a reflection of Kat's year," Phelps said. Once the songs are brought to the group, the other members add layers onto the existing structure.

Phelps, a fiddle player, and cellist Theresa Watt both also add their talents to the group's strong vocal dynamic.

"The music is just the result of everyone's background and what they like," Watt said. "Kat or I will bring a song to the table and everyone will put their two cents on it and put their flavor on it. Hearing a song when you first listen to it and what it becomes, it's a night-and-day experience. It's really cool."

Phleps said Alaska has been a great place for the fledgling band to develop its sound.

"There's so much opportunity up here," she said. "There aren't that many bands and everybody wants music. It's cool to have the opportunities to perform."

The band made a name for itself playing across the state, at bars, smaller private shows and other functions.

"Even though we haven't got out of Alaska the last couple years, we've traveled to Seldovia to Cordova to Fairbanks, Chicken," Theresa Watt said. "We've seen a huge part of the state and there's still so much we haven't seen yet."

The band proudly states the album is all-Alaskan, from recording with Evan Phillips at Fairbanks' Roundhouse studio to the cover art by Seward's Bethany Waggoner.

Still, "Heart-Shaped Leaves" was produced with the intention of gaining listeners outside the state's borders.

"It is hard with reaching fans," Moore said. "Alaska's population is only so big. In an ideal world, you convince every Alaskan you love your music. You're still only exposing that music to that group of people."

The band is planning a tour, and has already dealt with some of the highlights and hazards of performing Outside after touring in support of "Harmonic Toast."

"We did a three-month tour two summers ago; we drove down and did some shows in Canada (and the Lower 48)," Carlyle Watt said. "We were real-deal musicians for three months. That's what fed us and got us gas money to get to the next town. It was awesome."

The tour was a success by indie standards -- the band broke even after some initial fundraising from a Kickstarter campaign and got its name and music out to a larger audience.

But an upcoming tour, with a larger band and more instrumentation, could prove to be logistically challenging.

"It takes a lot of planning being an Alaska band," Phelps said. "Do you take your instruments down?"

"You'd have to save a few grand just to get there and back," Theresa Watt said. "Hopefully, you'd do well enough on your tour to be able to have a little money in your pocket and pay some bills while you're away."

It's a scrimp-and-save lifestyle that the band is prepared to undertake.

"We're trying to get our lives to a point where we can be poor musicians for a while, financially and in every other way," Carlyle Watt said. "This is what we want our lives to be."

That choice may continue to inspire the evolution of the Strings' sound.

"We want to play music that we love and have that drive it," Theresa Watt said.

• Reach Chris Bieri at cbieri@adn.com



By Chris Bieri