Serenade to a Donkey Jawbone

David Wax Museum’s Mexo-Americana sound.

A wintertime session at a recording studio in the town of Parsonsfield, Maine—which sits on the New Hampshire border west of Sebago Lake and east of Lake Winnipesaukee—may not bring to mind folk music from the sun-drenched climes of southern Mexico.

Likewise, Missourian David Wax and Virginian Suz Slezak, who met and formed the Mexican/Americana indie band David Wax Museum seven years ago in Boston, are not ethnically linked to the region of Veracruz, from where so much of their musical style derives its influence. But that has not prevented them from recording the latter two of their four albums up in Maine, and presenting their musical amalgamation with a fluidity that is accessible, authoritative, and an absolute pleasure to hear.

This week, Wax and Slezak return to the Valley—where they lived for five years—to perform once again at the Iron Horse.

“All music can be blended,” Slezak told the Advocate over the phone last week, as the couple drove with their infant daughter to Washington, D.C. for a gig with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “Any new genre is a blending of two or more genres. So there’s nothing necessarily special about blending rural Mexican with American folk.” Because not many musicians are doing it, however, especially in the Boston area, it felt fresh, she added.

As a student at Harvard, Wax studied Latin American literature and history before getting a post-grad fellowship to study music in Mexico. Learning from living masters of the style called son Mexicano, Wax returned to Boston with a deeper understanding of traditional Mexican music and a desire to form a band that incorporated traditional instruments like the leona, a deep-voiced guitar that sounds similar to a stand-up bass, and the jarana, a smaller, eight-stringed guitar. Not to mention the jawbone of a donkey.

Slezak had likewise returned from travels abroad. Back in Boston—where she attended Wellesley—she was playing various old-time bluegrass gigs when her collaboration with Wax began. Together, they formed the David Wax Museum in 2007.

The Museum released their first album, I Turned Off Thinking About, in 2008, and their second, Carpenter Bird, the very next year. Their third and fourth albums—Everything Is Saved, and Knock Knock Get Up—were recorded in successive wintertime sessions in Parsonsfield, and released in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Their first two offerings have a “more striped-down, folky feel,” Slezak says, while the second two add “more bells and whistles and sparkles” to their Mexo-Americana sound.

“Recently, we had a late night discussion with David’s cousin Jordan, who is part of the band, about how lots of people these days are traveling and living abroad,” says Slezak. “We look the same coming back home, but embody something different. It’s changed us. We’re trying to figure out how to express that. That might be part of the appeal for the younger crowd.”

Their live shows enjoy an appealing reputation. Band members regularly wander through the audience while performing the Museum’s tunes. Audience members yell and holler along. Slezak says songs like “It Gets Harder Before It Gets Easier,” and “Yes Maria Yes” are especially popular.

Sets for their current tour include new songs they hope to record in the next year, though it’s likely the session won’t take place until this upcoming winter.

This Thursday, April 17 they return to the Iron Horse, where the audience will include their young daughter, as well as Slezak’s father, who years ago home-schooled Slezak and, now retired, joins the current tour to help take care of his granddaughter.

“It’s been important for me, as a woman, to be able to incorporate being mom and having a career,” Slezak says. “We’ve already played about 15 shows, and she’s a joyful addition to the green room experience. It’s fun to have that other energy around, and I’m happy to have another female in the crew.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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