June 07, 2020
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Dark rockers make music labor of love

Most bands get together for practice, and one, maybe two people bring the songs and the rest of the band flesh them out. There’s bickering, there’s drinking, there are discussions on chord progressions and time signatures. Eventually, there’s enough stuff to play a live show and record an album. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The Portland-based band Isobell is not like other bands. Band practice for them is kind of like five laptops picking up the same wireless connection or five radios tuned to the same frequency. There’s a vibe, or an idea, and all five band members figure out how to groove on it. Musical theory doesn’t really enter into it.

“We’ve spent so many years finding other musicians who can work like we do,” said founding member Hannah Tarkinson, guitarist and vocalist. “We’re very much musicians that are emotionally and intellectually in touch with one another. We figure out songs by intuition. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle that we put together. Most musicians don’t work like that.”

Isobell makes dark, moody rock influenced by the dusky, dreamy music of Cat Power, Mazzy Star and PJ Harvey. Founded in 2005, the band, which is set to play on Friday, Feb. 13, at Roots & Tendrils in Belfast, is a kind of exercise in common ground. A mood is established and then the lyrics and music come.

“We all have a role in the process,” said bassist Josh Denkmire, who joined the band in 2008. “If we let different musical ideas marinate enough, and if we don’t rush it, it’ll come out how we want. Once we finish a song, though, and we play it live, it never sounds exactly the same twice.”

For the longest time, it was just Tarkinson and guitarist Chris McKneally making music. Other members came and went, unnerved by their way of playing. Eventually, Denkmire joined, intrigued by Tarkinson’s unearthly, evocative vocals and the prospect of playing in a band with a fluid creative process. Keyboardist Bekah Hayes, who performed with Tarkinson years ago, soon followed, as did drummer Mike Dank.

“Our current lineup is the best one we’ve ever had,” said Tarkinson. “I think we’ve figured out what works for us, and we’re all much better at our instruments now. We understand each other. I think we’re just hitting our stride now.”

The band released an album in 2009, “Maproom,” available at Bull Moose and on iTunes and CDBaby. It contains 13 tracks recorded in 2008 in Portland, including the piano-based torch ballad “Love in 3 Verses” and the passionate, rocking “Nonnie” — as good a candidate as any for what should be a hit single.

Isobell, however, doesn’t harbor too many rock star dreams. Tarkinson has two small children and owns a fashion label, Ponomo, designing jewelry and accessories. Dank is a music teacher in the Portland schools. Denkmire designs online textbooks. For them, Isobell is a labor of love.

“Our process is like molasses. We certainly don’t expect to make much money off any of this,” said Denkmire. “We just love to make music. That’s the whole point. And I know I’m really lucky to be able to work with like-minded people. It’s just really rewarding to make art and create something beautiful.”

Isobell will play with Marie Stella and Good Kids Sprouting Horns at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13, at Roots & Tendrils on Cross Street in Belfast. Admission is $6. For more information, visit http://www.myspace.com/izzabella.

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