By James Monaco
Self-taught composers Alex Thrailkill and Jeanna Phillips met when Alex auditioned for Jeanna’s thesis project at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing. This audition, it turns out, was for a part he would play for the rest of his life (the couple is now engaged to each other). “This guy came in and looked me right in the eyeballs throughout the audition,” Jeanna recalls. She gave him the part, and the rest... “We started writing music together, and also laughed a lot, and then we realized we could hang out without playing music. Then once we realized we could do that, we were like, ‘Oh it would be nice to hang together for the rest of our lives!’”
Alex surprising diners with a stand-up performance at our Industry City Secret Supper in August 2017.
If you’ve never seen the duo perform, they have a fantastic dynamic that translates on and off the stage. They’re funny. They’re witty. They’re a little bit irreverent. They sway to the music and give it all they’ve got. They don’t hold back, which always gets the crowd going. And that’s why we’ve worked with them time and time again, ever since Spring Street collaborator and composer Ian Axness made the connection in late 2015 for our first play-cum-musical, Mermaiden; or, the Monogamy.
The pair’s complementary talents serve their puzzle-piecing, storytelling approach to making music. Jeanna plays the part of singer/songwriter/vocalist (“I play keys poorly”) while Alex is a multi-instrumentalist bandleader who plays guitar, bass, banjo, drums, trumpet. Or, as Jeanna says: “He can figure anything out. It’s awe inspiring, highly useful, and a little annoying.” (“Mostly annoying,” Alex confirms.) Jeanna layers lyrics and melody first, then Alex takes over, adding texture to chords and themes. Says Alex: “Jeanna conceives of the central idea, which is like a seedling. I help grow the song, but the whole orchestration already exists inside of that melody.”
The foundation for their seamless partnership solidified when they were in a band called SCOUTS. SCOUTS served the very important purpose of helping Alex and Jeanna figure out how best they worked together and with others. “When you’re in a band, you’re creating a continuous musical identity, one that travels with you from show to show. It demands a lot of consistency and sustained performance,” says Alex. “We were always interested in having a chameleonic quality though; we collaborated with different theatre projects, building different worlds each time. We didn’t like to stay still too much.”
Adding to their countless list of talents, Alex and Jeanna also are co-founders of Little Bandits, a weekly toddler music-making class that meets in various locations across Brooklyn. Alex says that the whole thing is a totally humbling experience indeed. “You have to use all of your tools as a performer to cut through the million stimuli and distractions and capture the attention of these little kids. If you’re willing to really give of yourself to them, you can create really magical moments. But it doesn’t always work — sometimes you just fall flat. And boy, that’s such an important practice of tolerating failure and building patience.”
See what we mean about passionate performances?
In recent years, the pair has taken on more and more theatrical compositions. A solid collaborative backbone has come in particularly handy for Alex and Jeanna’s forays into the world of Spring Street Social Society, which is almost always a case of Amy and Patrick reaching out with last-minute requests with total creative freedom. Jeanna says that she’s left every event feeling deeply valued as an artist, a thing that “doesn’t happen often in this town.”
The two have worked on a total of nine events, both separately and together, both as performers, and as creators of original works. The two took the stage at a Club Confidential in March of 2017, where they strummed acoustic interpretations of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River and Destiny Child’s Bills, Bills, Bills. They also co-wrote the Bermuda Parlor Party in December of 2016 (with this writer as playwright). But their largest Spring Street project to date is the full-scale theatrical production Secret Supper: The Musical, which ran for nine nights in November of 2017 at the Africa Center along the northern edge of Central Park.
Secret Supper: The Musical was a wildly ambitious assignment: compose the music and lyrics to an original full-length musical (in collaboration with director Andrew Neisler and playwright T. Adamson), teach the score to a band and cast of actors, and perform it from surprising locations inside a raw space — all in four and a half weeks. Crazy? Absolutely. But everything Alex and Jeanna had done up until this moment, the bands, the dipping of toes into theatrical waters, had prepared them for the challenge. They didn’t bat an eye.
“A thrilling aspect of all Spring Street events is the inevitable time crunch, which gives you zero time to second guess yourself,” says Jeanna. Alex agrees, adding that “there are a few things that are very helpful to stimulate creativity, two of which are assignments and deadlines.” Jeanna agrees with Alex’s agreement, confirming that the two like to play with others. “Outside collaboration enriches our partnership. That’s how we stay flexible.” Which is an ethos after our own hearts.