The roots of Judd and Maggie's Subjects, stretch back to an old house on the west side of Baltimore, where the siblings spent their first years. When he was fifteen and she was eleven, their family traded this urban setting for the countryside near Frederick, Maryland, about 35 miles north of Washington, D.C. While corner groceries and friends' front stoops had once been steps away, woods stretched over the hills that Judd, Maggie, and their five siblings could now see from their windows.
Two streams of music flowed through this household. "Back in the Sixties our dad was in a folk band called the Glencoves," Maggie says. "They were kind of like the Kingston Trio"
"or the Folksmen," Judd suggests, "if you've seen A Mighty Wind."
"And my mom's family is our boisterous, Irish side," he adds. "They sing show tunes in bars at the top of their lungs."
Judd followed his dad's approach to music. He played in bands throughout high school and college.
Meanwhile, Maggie, like her mom's relatives, was memorizing the Broadway canon. In high school and college she appeared in The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Fiddler on the Roof, anything that involved belting a melody toward the balcony. ("Judd taught me how to tone it down a bit," she admits.) They started working as a duo during weekends, when Maggie would come home from college in Virginia. It wasn't unlike what they'd been doing since they were kids at church events and parties. In fact, neither could remember any particular show as their debut. But there was one night in Ireland: "Our family had been driving around and we wound up at this pub in Galway," Judd remembers. "My parents, our two younger siblings, Maggie, and I started to sing a few songs. Afterwards, when we were at dinner, our dad looked at us and said, 'You know what? You guys have to play together!" "Maybe he'd had a few drinks by that time, so we got him to promise to support us as we were starting out," Maggie adds.
And that was that.
Back home they began performing around Baltimore, little clubs and cafés. They cut a homemade CD. Their harmonies tightened, their lyrics matured, their sound grew deeper and more transparent. The instrumentation remained simple: Judd on piano and acoustic guitar, Maggie on bass. Labels started making offers. After their set at a used bookstore in New York called the Housing Works, an RCA Victor A&R representative invited them to the BMG Building in Times Square to perform for some RCA executives.
"We actually went back there a few times and played in their conference room," Maggie says. "Each time more people would show up," Judd says.
"It was actually kind of disarming because we sang without mikes and created this intimate, personal environment with all these sultry billboards and the New York skyline through these glass windows as our backdrop," Maggie adds.
Signed to RCA Victor, they were in Los Angeles within a few months, on the first of two visits dedicated to recording Subjects. Recorded into Pro Tools and run through tube preamps to mix digital clarity with analog warmth, every detail, from the reflective string quartet on "Sponge" to the tiny electronic hook at the end of the choruses in "Sleep Interrupted," was conceived to serve the song without cluttering its spare and airy texture.
Backed by musicians whose tenures with Beck taught them how to get inside great songs, produced by Joey Waronker, executive produced by Joey's dad, the incomparable Lenny Waronker, Subjects is as subtle as a whisper. Like water on stone, it's gentle and irresistible. And in contrast to most of the "product" we hear these days, it has less to do with career strategies than just two siblings doing what they've always done and would have done anyway, deal or no deal. "The musicians that Joey Waronker brought in understood this perfectly," Maggie says. "Sometimes it's hard for incredible musicians to play simply, but these guys had so much taste. They made every note count. We learned a lot by just watching them play."
"I had a great time working with Judd & Maggie," says Joey Waronker. "Besides their cutting wit and charm, they brought some very deep and original music to the table. I think they have that special inspiration that makes their music sound timeless and classic. They are fearless in their pursuit of their own unique musical vision. They are also really incredible performers. You can't help loving them when you see them play!"
Equally important was Lenny Waronker's belief in Judd and Maggie. "I was entranced by the sheer musicality of Judd and Maggie¿s songwriting; by the strength of their individual voices; and the power and beauty of the vocal blend." Hearing just three or four of their songs was enough to persuade him to come out of retirement and oversee the production on Subjects. Given the role Lenny played in developing James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, and other titans, his involvement with Subjects speaks volumes. His experience, complementing Joey's young energy, mirrors the album's marriage of complexity and simplicity, emotional richness and understatement.
"Really, we write and sing about basic human conditions," Maggie sums up. "The title, Subjects, is about people, the subjects of our songs. And of course it's about us, Judd and me. We developed our sound in our living room, and we've been able to maintain that integrity. This album is a perfect representation of who we are."