Mercersburg-based Chace sisters tap their time in Austin as the harmonious, Americana-leaning rock band, The Hello Strangers
While attending the University of Texas, Larissa Chace Smith called her younger sister, Brechyn Chace, and urged her to move to Austin.
The siblings grew up in the quiet town of Mercersburg, more than 1,500 miles from the country-fried honky-tonks of the Live Music Capital of the World. But their band, The Hello Strangers, owes plenty to both locations.
Once Brechyn moved to Austin in the mid-2000s, the sisters began performing together. Their first songwriting credit came with the tune “Pregnant in Jail” – a true story based on a friend who had been behind bars a few months into her pregnancy. The Chace sisters gigged for awhile as a duo, taking in all that Austin’s thriving music scene had to offer. By 2008, though, they experienced a bout of homesickness and decided to head back north.
The Hello Strangers may have been born within the bustling Austin music scene, but the band was nurtured right here in the Keystone State.
“There were definitely things we gave up for moving away,” Larissa says about leaving Austin. “Just being constantly immersed in that great, great scene. Whenever I go back, I always have this weird feeling of like, ‘Aw, we should move back to Austin.’ Then reality hits, and I think, ‘No, we like what we’re doing, and we made the choice we did.’”
Larissa, who’s six years older than Brechyn, started playing guitar around the age of 12. The sisters grew up in a musical family, so their unofficial partnership began by performing in front of relatives. By the time they decided to pursue a career together, they already had built a solid foundation as a duo.
The sisterly bond turned out to be a positive for The Hello Strangers. There are no juicy stories of Oasis proportions, and the sisters haven’t sworn off working together like Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks.
“We’re luckily very different and don’t have the same personality, and I think maybe that works in our favor,” Larissa says. “I’m good at making decisions and moving forward with things, and Brechyn’s really good at keeping a cool head and letting things roll off her back.
“We balance each other out, and I feel like we disagree very infrequently. There’s just no reason to be fighting with each other when you have this responsibility to your other band members. Emotions come up and things happen. You have to put out fires sometimes. But luckily, we don’t have to do it much at all.”
Once Larissa and Brechyn returned to Pennsylvania, they recruited a few more musicians and formed a band. Six years after starting The Hello Strangers, Larissa, Brechyn and the rest of the group scored a record deal by winning an AirPlay Direct contest for Americana artists. The competition was right in their wheelhouse.
The record deal resulted in the band’s self-titled debut, which dropped in October. The 13-track album pays tribute to the group’s origins in Austin – the folksy, roots-rock blend is rounded out with a hint of country and carried by the harmonies of two sisters working as one vocalist. The scenes around their hometown near the battlefields of Gettysburg helped inform the album’s lyrics.
Larissa points out that the “spooky murder ballad” titled “Conococheague” is named after the creek that runs near her home. And “Caribou” was inspired by dark winter imagery that Pennsylvanians know all too well.
“Oh, cold wind/Will I never see your darkest days again?” the sisters sing on the track. “Will I never hear your silent nights again?/In your gloom I watch my life unfold/I see my courage in your quiet streams/And all the beauty in your deepest snow.”
The two cover songs that appear on the album also carry great significance for the sisters. First, there’s “Que Sera, Sera,” which Doris Day made popular in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It serves as homage to their grandfather, Ronald Chace, who performed with Day when she was a teenager.
Then there’s “What You Don’t Know.” Jim Lauderdale originally performed the tune, and he’s a big deal in today’s Americana scene. He’s recorded nearly 30 albums since 1991 and has earned the title of “the King of Broken Hearts.” Lauderdale joined the band for its cover of the song, adding his rich, deep vocals to Larissa and Brechyn’s crystalline harmonies.
“[Lauderdale’s] like the king of Americana,” Larissa says. “That was a really big deal for us. It’s a lot of pressure to take a song by someone who’s really well known and make it your own. He liked it, though.”
The Hello Strangers spent the second half of March in Austin, playing gigs around the unofficial South by Southwest circuit. They’ll hit New York and West Virginia this month, along with a handful of shows in their home state of Pennsylvania.
It’s almost as if Larissa and Brechyn are experiencing the best of both worlds at this point. They’re able to experience the seasons and be close to family for a majority of the year. Larissa and her husband, Ryan, can raise their son, Boone, away from the constant hustle of a major city.
But whenever the mood strikes, they can call up the band and hit the road for some gigs away from the cold temperatures, icy creeks and all the other Central PA imagery that inspires melodic ballads about murder.
“Musicians are a strange breed,” Larissa says. “We’re doing all this because we love to play music. Some gigs pay more than others, but you deal with the ups and downs because you’re just compelled to play and write and share your music. It’s kind of an interesting identity.”
Catch The Hello Strangers at the Lagunitas Launch Party at Central Market York (34 W. Philadelphia St., York) tonight at 7pm. Event info here. The Chace sisters return to the region on April 26 to play the Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. (50 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg) with The Stray Birds. 7pm. $10. 21+. Click here for tickets.