Editor's note: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vinegar Mother, a jazz-pop-soul quartet from southern Fairfield County, has a few things going for it.
There's Julia Zivic's voice — rich, pitch-perfect, chilly and expressive, capable of flitting between a gentle mid-range vibrato and red-lining a throaty growl.
There are the many talents of Itamar Gov-Ari, a multi-instrumentalist who acts as a sort of musical director and who plays stacks of extended chords through vintage keyboard patches, stringing them together into complex progressions.
You could point to the range of grooves explored by drummer Jason Zivic (Julia's older brother) and bassist Mike Roninson, which fall into deep, slow pockets, occasionally surprising with bursts of gut-punch rock.
The Zivics and Gov-Ari grew up in the tony Greenwich neighborhood of Cos Cob, not far from New York; Roninson hails from Albany, N.Y., and now lives in New York City. In high school, Gov-Ari and Jason played in rock bands. Five years ago, Julia's singing and writing talents started to blossom.
"She was still in high school," Gov-Ari says. "I would be over because Jason and I would be mixing something or just hanging out. She'd be in the kitchen. I'd pick up the guitar and start playing something, she'd start singing. I'd play a new chord progression, and she'd start singing over that. ... It was so easy and effortless."
Gov-Ari had spent a year at Ithaca College as a jazz studies major before enrolling in the studio composition program at SUNY Purchase.
"I kept playing and gigging the whole time I was in school," he says. "I was hiring all the guys in the jazz program, but I still got to play with them."
Early on, Gov-Ari started bringing Julia to gigs in Connecticut and New York. "He had me playing jazz gigs at hotels and clubs when I was 15," Julia says. "I started really enjoying it. We did standards, blues music and fun rock stuff, but jazz really brought me in. It felt right to sing it."
As Julia Zivic and the Brothers, the trio soon released an album of Americana-leaning originals.
"We did folky music, because it was the music I was writing in high school and middle school," Julia says. "It was the easiest music for me to write back then."
She also felt comfortable moving on. Changing the name to Vinegar Mother meant adopting a more democratic dynamic.
"I've written with a lot of people," Gov-Ari says, "people I've wanted to write with and people I've gotten paid to write with. With Julia, there was no discussion: I would play and she would sing over it. It was like, 'Oh, I guess that's a song.' It was supernatural and visceral and impulsive."
Last month Vinegar Mother released "The Sunny Seat," a five-song EP. Roninson, originally from Albany, N.Y., joined more recently (Zack Slaughter plays bass on the EP).
"Slow," built around a tritone and a slinky groove, swells with overdubbed background vocals and horns. Julia channels Susan Tedeschi on "Are You Ready?," to a relaxed groove with cleanly strummed electric guitars, chiming keys and a stop-time chorus.
The title track, "Sunny Seat," alternates passages of 4/4 and 7/8. "I picked the sunny seat on the train / but my mind and body remain the same / the physical emotional train / is terrible, unbearable," Zivic sings, referencing Canal Street and other Gotham locales.
Gov-Ari's expanded harmonic sense rarely chafes against Julia's melodies. "A lot of bands who play around with harmony: if the singer sounds weird over the chords, they'll ask the singer to do something else," Gov-Ari says. "I think if the singer has a good melody that doesn't fit over one of your chords, you should consider changing what you're playing."
"The music we're doing now encompasses our personalities more," Julia says. "It makes us happier, knowing we're all putting in our best efforts."
There's a conscious effort, Gov-Ari continues, to play interesting chord changes, but also to support Julia's vocals.
"At the end of the day, when you listen to a song, the first thing you hear is the vocal melody," Gov-Ari says. "If that doesn't work, the greatest chord progression in the world isn't going to do you any good. There are probably only two songs where Julia sang a weird note and we changed it. Usually we just change what we're playing."
Vinegar Mother is working on a full-length album. There are a few gigs on its schedule (mostly in New York). The band wants to play in Hartford, New Haven and other places in Connecticut, and also to tour, once basic tracking is completed.
NYC looms large in the band's present — Roninson lives there now, and Zivic spends time in the city as she finishes a degree at the Institute of Audio Research — and also its future, maybe.
"I really like New York," Julia says. "I've lived there for a couple of years. It's a great place for music. A lot of our friends, a lot of the bands that we play with and love, all live in New York. It's a big hub for us."
"The city's really expensive," Gov-Ari says. "I'm not ruling it out. It's a question I wrestle with all the time. If we all end up needing to move in, the reason and opportunity will present itself. That's going to be the time to do it."
After graduation, Julia will look for a job as an audio engineer, preferably mixing live sound for other bands.
"It's something me and Jason [also an audio engineer] are both very passionate about," she says. "We're going to try to get our business out there, just mixing some shows and doing some events and networking, while still doing our music, making it work our own way. You can do that when you're in a band."