In 2013, Carly Bond was thinking about going to a trade school to study music production and recording. She emailed local legend John Vanderslice, owner of San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone studio, for some advice.
“John, would you ever hire somebody who went to a school like this?” she asked. He quickly responded: “Absolutely not! Come to the studio right now! This is a huge mistake! I’ll hop on the phone with you!”
She took Vanderslice up on his offer for a tour of the famed studio, which has played host to sessions from St. Vincent, Spoon, Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, Bob Mould and countless others. A year later, after saving up her tips from working at an Italian restaurant across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, Bond booked a day in the studio to hammer out a couple demos with her old band.
The engineer she met and worked with that day, Rob Shelton, is now her husband. Their relationship, which began in the studio during that fateful session, developed in more ways than one; Shelton is also the synth player in Meernaa, the band fronted by guitarist and lead singer Bond that grew out of countless days working as session musicians at Tiny Telephone until they eventually decided to write songs of their own. About a half-decade, a handful of singles and an EP later, they unleashed their stunning debut album, Heart Hunger, on San Francisco’s Native Cat Recordings.
“It’s just through Tiny,” Bond explains. “James [Riotto], who’s another producer and engineer who did a lot of work on the record, also worked there during that time and went to college with Rob. He was the impetus for everybody, or at least for Rob, to start working at Tiny Telephone because he randomly met John [Vanderslice] and started playing with him and touring with him back in the day. I think Andrew [Maguire, drums] and Doug [Stuart, bass] just being on the Bay Area music scene and being such sick players and good dudes, they got in there as session musicians. Just playing together on sessions or playing shows together and this band just randomly formed.”
The end result is a dazzling display of instrumental prowess and technical know-how, culminating in nine genre-fluid songs that alternate between warm synth-pop and slick R&B, complemented by War on Drugs-esque guitar freakouts. Bond’s deep and impossibly smooth voice connects the dots, and her musings about love and loss give her sometimes dance-y, sometimes meditative music an even more complex feel, one that rewards multiple listens.
The best of Meernaa is on full display on “Black Diamond Mine,” an eight-and-a-half-minute tour de force that combines Bond & co’s strongsuits—deep personal lyrics, perfectly-recorded synths, and a surprise guitar solo in double time lasting over four minutes, what’s maybe the best guitarwork of 2019. Beginning with a dreamy dream pop intro, the track slowly morphs into a gorgeous laid-back ballad of sorts before exploding into a fist-in-the-air krautrock outburst, connected by a record-scratch type sound.
“I wrote ‘Black Diamond Mine’ as this really simple song because I was trying to chill my brain out because every time I write, I’m like, ‘I’ll do something simple to prove I can play an instrument or something stupid like that,’ Bond remembers. “And so I was like, ‘Just like relax and write a nice song!’ But it still felt so, I don’t know, like too chill or something. We’ve been playing it live for awhile, but we were in a rehearsal and I was like, ‘We need to go into some Black Sabbath thing’ and the band was like, ‘That’s ridiculous Carly! This is too silly!’ It basically started out as a joke and turned into something very real as most things do!”
The resulting song would make Courtney Barnett or Kurt Vile jealous; “Black Mountain Mine” is where Bond stakes her claim as the Bay Area’s preeminent guitarist—it’s no wonder Vanderslice decided to take Meernaa on tour this spring to play as his backing band. But the track is also where she flashes her lyrical expertise, using beautiful metaphors to describe personal events that transpired in her family’s tragic history: “I woke up with stars in my eyes, but they are wet and they are dying / To busy to yearn because they are too busy trying to survive / What if they never grow up? / What if they never had the chance to?”
“I wrote [“Black Diamond Mine”] thinking about peoples’ ancestral lines in general and how it’s kind of amazing that we’re just here as a result of our family’s pasts,” she explains. “I was coming to terms with a lot of ugliness, but learning how to compartmentalize moments of beauty inside of ugliness. Great release comes with that, which felt good to have that big cathartic krautrock jumble at the end.”
Family doesn’t just play a major part of “Black Diamond Mine,” but also in the album as a whole. Its title, Heart Hunger, comes from a poem by Bond’s great-great grandmother. The familial theme runs deep through each track, from the direct “Better Part” to “Backroads,” a song that reminisces about the freedoms of young adulthood.
“The poem was about the loss of her child and this deep grief of loss and desire for this missing thing in her life,” Bond says. “But there are also a lot of beautiful lines about having memories and all of these things about her lost child. I think this whole record is kind of like a process record. A lot of this is me processing a lot of stuff, like collectively as a human in the world right now but also learning some dark things about my family’s past and present and trying to feel all of those things and get it out. It comes full circle into anger, grief, joy, compassion, empathy and eventually being able to openly love somebody and feel comfortable in that newness.”
That ultimate catharsis, Bond’s newfound love with Shelton, shines through on multiple occasions throughout Heart Hunger, but it’s most obvious—and meaningful—on lead single “Better Part,” which Bond describes as “the first real love song I’ve ever written and truly meant with my whole heart.” Over sparkling ‘80s synths and whispery vocals, Bond croons, “I never really knew it would feel quite like this / Is it the way I adore you? / I never really knew it was something I’d missed / It’s in the way I adore you.”
The song sums up Meernaa’s story brilliantly; as the dreamy landscape builds into an effortless guitar solo that rips the whole thing open, Bond realizes that this is what she’s been waiting for her entire life: a love that not only enriches her own life, but pushes her to be an even better songwriter and musician. Every moment since Bond met Shelton in Tiny Telephone all of those years ago led to the song itself, an exquisite testament to the couple’s undeniable chemistry, onstage, in the studio and in their daily lives.