As life traumas go, it’s right up there as one of the scariest: waking up in the middle of the night to a fire that’s taken hold. Today, the husband-and-wife Americana duo of Pharis and Jason Romero are able to look back at the time their lives changed with a strange sense of gratitude. Out of something horrible came good things, including a renewed faith in humankind and the feeling that life’s short, so you might as well take some chances. That thinking would eventually have an impact on Sweet Old Religion, the fourth—and quite arguably best—album the two have released under the banner of Pharis and Jason Romero.
But first, the fire. The nightmare started in 2016 in a workshop on their property in Horsefly, B.C. Having welcomed a second child, the couple started a major renovation on their house, moving into an adjacent cabin during the construction. Also on the property was Jason’s workshop, which happened to be headquarters for his booming business as a maker of high-end banjos.
“We started the reno in May in earnest, ripping the house apart but keeping the kitchen and bathroom, for obvious reasons,” Jason says, on the line with his wife and musical partner from Horsefly. “One night in June, after we got back from a party, I woke up at about 3 a.m. and saw a glow that I shouldn’t have seen.”
Along with their two small kids, Pharis and Jason were in a cabin they’d built on skids between the house and workshop, the structure giving them a place to stay during the reno. Jason bolted from bed while Pharis grabbed the kids, who were two months old and two-and-a-half.
“The fire was in the corner of the shop—I’m pretty sure it was started by a compressor that shorted out and had run itself red-hot,” Jason says. “There was enough ambient dust in the room that it caught fire. It was a very old building and it went up really quick. We tried to put it out with a garden hose, but then the fire got so big that it burned our power lines, which killed our pump. There was a live wire in the driveway, which caused all sorts of chaos. It burned down very efficiently.”
The collateral damage included five banjos that Jason had finished and was about to ship to customers, as well as a collection of prewar Martin and Gibson guitars. Also lost were countless personal items, which the Romeros had stored in the workshop for the renovation. But the couple eventually gained a different perspective on that night.
“In this day and age it’s insane how quickly news spreads,” Pharis says. “We got up the next day and went to our friend’s house to use the Internet and contact the insurance company for whatever insurance we had. I put up one post, that our shop burned down, on our personal page. That day, I talked to four different CBC Radio stations, and people just started sending help. Small towns are amazing when they rally around their people. We live in this expanded version of a small town when it comes to the music community and the banjo-building community, and the luthier community in general.
“I would never, ever wish for anyone to go through a summer like we went through, because I think it took a few years off both of our lives due to the stress,” she continues. “But I also wish for everyone to experience the kind of community support that we got. It fills your heart with a belief in the core goodness of humanity. It inspired Jason and I so much—to be able to get back on our feet, and then to be able to give again ourselves.”
In a weird way, then, the fire, as well as friends coming together afterward to help them rebuild their home and lives, inspired Sweet Old Religion. The palpable sense of easygoing joy that’s been unmistakable on past records is there once again, but this time out the two seem extra locked-in when singing together. Something magical happens when they join forces vocally, whether it’s on the rollicking banjo-powered “Salt and Powder” or the still-waters acoustic reverie “You Are a Shining Light”.
“Personally, I think both of us feel this is our best record yet, for a bunch of reasons,” Pharis says. “We just rehearsed everything like crazy. We sang together so much leading up to this record—not a lot of live performing, because of the kids and how life was structured, but more singing together every day for two hours for months. All the vocals on the record are live, and most of the playing is. There’s not a lot of overdubbing on purpose.”
What makes for a noticeable departure from past releases is the injection of some grit into the duo’s work. That gives an extra shade of darkness to the haunting “Age Old Dream” and a weathered charm to the harmonies-from-heaven “Come on Love”.
“I love a little scuff, but trying to figure out whether I want a little scuff, or having a note sounding right in tune, has always created a little bit of a conflict for me,” Pharis says. “But I think I might be finally leaning towards a little scuff. Jason, because he doesn’t have all these years of musical training hammered into him, has scuff all over his stuff, and that’s what makes him so freaking great.”
Ultimately, Pharis agrees, what you hear is two people who couldn’t be more on the same page. That she and Jason pretty much do everything together—make music, raise children, pile into the tour van, run a home business—suggests a bond as unbreakable as that of Johnny and June Carter Cash. That, evidently, is how you not only survive a fire, but come out on the other side stronger than ever.
“We’re full-on 24/7 between kids and being on the road and living and loving and owning a business together,” Pharis says. “Everything we do is in this little world. And we still really like each other, which is a good sign.”
Pharis and Jason Romero play St. James Hall next Thursday and Friday (May 17 and 18).