WHAT CHEER? "I'm actually a happy person," says "Duke" Jesse Lortz (here with "Dutchess" Kimberly Morrison). "This is just my outlet for things I'm unhappy about."
Jesse Lortz is always ready to lay something heavy on you. As the primary architect and male half of Seattle indie-folk troubadours the Dutchess & the Duke (who come to T.T. the Bear's Place this Sunday), he spent their 2008 debut, She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke, contemplating loneliness, disgust, and death. When, last October, they released Sunset/Sunrise just as Lortz was entering fatherhood, the media excavated his dreary lyrics, found a shred of optimism, latched onto it, and magnified their prize. They saw that glimmer as signaling D&D's gradual move toward brighter horizons.
Lortz, for his part, appreciates the thought but doesn't see the new album as more upbeat. "I don't feel like that record is optimistic at all. It's more depressing than the first one, honestly. It's pretty fucking bleak."
Bleak is a good word for it. In the vein of its predecessor, Sunset is a smorgasbord of sin and loss: there's regret ("Never Had a Chance"), deceit ("Scorpio"), and the memory of tragedies you'll never be able to shake ("New Shadow"). Most arresting is the raw "Hands," which feels like a high-noon showdown between a heathen and his maker. It's punctuated with slight organ flourishes; the strumming is sparse, and the drums sound ready to face death itself. The emptiness is what turns the song transcendental.
Much of D&D's character owes to Lortz's singing. His ragged, masculine voice draws comparisons to Mick Jagger — but Johnny Cash might be a better fit. Complementing Lortz as Johnny is Kimberly Morrison ("The Dutchess") as June: her vocals are commanding but less imposing.
Although Lortz's songs are emotionally strenuous, he doesn't accumulate material through months of discontent. Instead, he writes most of it within a week or two of his deadline, sending a rush of ideas forward. "It's a revealing process. It's this huge expulsion. I don't get a chance to edit it, because I need all the songs. I don't find anything out until a few months later, when I have a chance to sit down and think about what the lyrics are saying."
One subject likely to work its way onto the inevitable third D&D album is his recent divorce. Despite his familiarity with discussing personal matters in a public forum, he's uncomfortable with taking flak. "When you put out something that is honest, that you don't really have the balls to say, it can be harsh for somebody to hear how you feel on the radio."
Still, he's not going to mask his feelings. "You can't do that. Why would you?" He cites "Heart of Stone" and "She's Not There" as Sunset tracks sprouting from reality. "Every person that has written a song has based it on a person in their lives. People that they're not about can still relate to it, but there's always going to be that person that knows, 'Fuck, it's about our situation.' Yeah, it's ours."
Lortz and Morrison do have a lighter side, and it shines through in on-stage conversation. "We've become so stupid in between songs," he admits. "We can't help it. I'm actually a happy person. This is just my outlet for things I'm unhappy about."