by Ashley Lucas
Student band The Magnolias started by chance. Sam Gatlin met Bryton when they were assigned as suitemates their freshman year. They bonded by writing music together and found that despite their different musical backgrounds, they worked well together. That summer Sam met Danny, who shares a hometown with Sam. Like Sam and Bryton, they bonded quickly by writing music and discovered that they worked well together. Sam describes this connection that he felt with both of his other band members as “distinct, musical and personal.” In their debut album An Exhibition, Sam, Bryton, and Danny took on different roles. Sam played the keys, guitar, and bass throughout the album as well as wrote many of the lyrics, progressions, and song structures. Bryton played drums and guitar and also helped Sam with song structures. Danny acts as the vocalist and was also tasked with writing the vocal melodies. With their combined talents, The Magnolias were created.
The Magnolias recently released their debut album An Exhibition. Sam described the album, saying “Lyrically, this album has a large focus on the personal consequences of depression, as well as the ways it can affect people around you. There are songs about self-harm, depersonalization, suicidal thoughts, the memorialization of art, growing up, and more. We wanted the album to flow in such a way that it feels like a story more than just a collection of songs.”
In order to do this, they gave themselves a lot of freedom to explore a wide range of genres and sounds, all while holding on to musical and thematic cohesion. The band thought deliberately about how each track fell into the story. Sam attributes this way of thinking to keeping them grounded in pursuing their own sound rather than sounding like someone else. Bryton noted that you can hear each band member’s individual influence in the tracks on the album. “We have several specific influences like Adult Jazz, Jeff Buckley, and The 1975, but our cumulative music experiences (and the way our musical identities interact) really shaped the album more than anything.”
When Sam returned to campus in the fall after he met Danny, he was enrolled in a music production class with Lecturer Jason Richmond. Eventually, he shared some of the demos that he and Danny had recorded that summer and was met with an enthusiastic response. The band credits Richmond for much of their success in recording An Exhibition. Sam said “He never felt like just the guy behind the board to us. In many ways, we thought of him as the fourth band member of The Magnolias.” Richmond made recording the album possible by getting The Magnolias access to studios, acting as their recording engineer/producer/mixer, and providing overall guidance surrounding the sound of the album as it was being recorded.
While Richmond helped them with all these different aspects of recording An Exhibition, they have also had to contend with the global COVID-19 pandemic in order to get it finished. The pandemic made it hard to gather to work on recording, writing, and other media for the album. The challenges did not stop there and only became greater after releasing the album. Bryton said that after the release of the album, the pandemic affected them much more as a band. “One issue has been in getting a record deal, which has yet to happen, and we haven’t really even gotten close. As we understand it, record labels aren’t really signing new artists right now for various reasons related to the pandemic. We also can’t play live, which is really bad for several reasons (money, audience connection, playing experience, spreading our music, etc.).”
An Exhibition started the summer that Sam worked with Danny to create several recorded demos that would turn into tracks for the album. However, each song on the album came about in a different way. Sam said “Some songs on the records were written by Danny and me before Bryton and Danny had even met (of course his influence had tremendous positive changes on these songs). Other songs were figured out by Bryton and me, but they lacked vocals before they were presented to Danny. The majority of the album was completely fleshed out in the studio with not a lot of concrete arrangement ideas thought out beforehand, although song structure and the core parts were previously written.”
Lyrically, Sam said the process was a little more structured as he wanted to make sure that he created cohesion. They spent a total of 9 days in the studio that were split up with a few months in between to record their 14-song debut album. However, the writing of the album took place over many years. Sam said, “I came up with an earlier version of the song “Dream” freshman year in our dorm and a few songs were written just a week or two before our final recording session in July 2020.”
While they are proud of the whole album, both Sam and Bryton have specific tracks that they point out as being the ones they are particularly proud of. For Bryton that is “Blood in the Sink.” He said “It was our first time ever recording and the first time all three of us were together at the same time (& the first time Danny and I met). I got a really good drum take that I haven’t been able to beat while practicing ever since. The song has so many parts and several were written in the studio. It’s a really fun song to play as well.”
Sam attributes his favorite being “Are you Cold?” due to his different relationship with the song. “Bryton wrote and played the piano part (his one, but amazing piano part) as well as came up with the harmonic and musical structure on this song. I wrote the lyrics on this one, and I think they are among the best (if not the best) lyrics on the record. So, it was a really unique and exciting process for me to pick apart what he had written and shape my lyrics to best fit the music.” Sam also said that he is really proud of “Ran Over the Flowers” because of the way that it feels “pretty punk” while also having a mature and thoughtful sound.
While they are waiting for things to clear up before playing in person, The Magnolias hope to have a virtual show at Cat’s Cradle in the coming months. In the meantime, they will be practicing and getting ready to play shows as soon as it makes sense to do so. “We really want to be able to share our music with the people around us, particularly other UNC students, in a more intimate way than through headphones.”
Listen to An Exhibition on Spotify or below.