DULUTH — It’s a tale as old as the pandemic: A musician had plans to record an album in mid-March 2020 — one of those all-immersive sessions at a sleepover studio. Then plans were scrapped a few days in advance because COVID-19, of course.
“We were all set; we had our songs,” said Breanne Tepler, the singer-songwriter who fronts Duluth's Breanne Marie and the Front Porch Sinners.
But rather than a time of pause, the postponed studio date allowed for fine-tuning and calling on musical mentors for extra sets of ears. Toward the end of the summer, the local country-gone-Americana band was able to record at Sparta Sound in Sparta, Minn. — with workshopped material and safety guidelines in place. No more sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the engineer. Eventually, a portable bathroom was added to the yard.
The break proved beneficial.
“Juniper” will be released this week and the band will be streaming live at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, from Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth.
Tepler, whose band also includes her husband, Evan Tepler, struggled with the idea of not making music. It’s a priority in her life, she said, not just a fun hobby.
The band is among the acts that found a creative way to perform virtually when Duluth's 2020 Homegrown Music Festival in-person events were canceled. The Teplers played from inside the house while Kailyn Spencer can be seen through a window playing fiddle in the yard. Off screen, beaming in from a patio, but not seen on camera, were Johnny Peterson on pedal steel and Kyle Gondik-Anderson on bass.
“I wish we were at Sacred Heart Music Center tonight, like we were supposed to be, but we are not,” Tepler says into her microphone for an online audience on that May 2020 day. “We are here in West Duluth.”
It was a slice of life: The dog went missing, the band's fans popped up in the yard, a neighbor started using a chainsaw.
“Hashtag, find Huck,” Spencer said, through the window.
This makeshift, 45-minute set matched the level of urgency and innovation that led to pandemic period rehearsals for the band.
“I created a pandemic plan,” Tepler said, “like any small business.”
She and the Front Porch Sinners minded professional health recommendations. They established a designated entrance. Bandmates sanitized on the way in and on the way out and tested regularly. The musicians played at least 6 feet apart.
When the weather allowed it, they kept the windows open. And, when COVID-19 numbers surged, they backed off and canceled practice for a bit.
For a while, Tepler, as singer, was the only one unmasked. But then she found inspiration watching masked college chorus students from St. Scholastica, where she works, in Mitchell Auditorium.
“If they can do it under hot lights, I can do it,” she said.
Most of the band recorded in mid- to late summer at Sparta Sound, a process that involved less face-to-face feedback and more emails, which meant more time to mull the artistic decisions.
"It gave us more time to be really intentional about it," Tepler said of the album.
Matt Leibfried added trumpet for three of the songs, "Central Hillside," "Dead Man Walking" and "Turning Stones," from his home using a high-quality microphone and Garage Band. He would listen to the song through headphones, then play along with the recording. When that didn't sync the way the crew expected, he recorded himself singing Tepler's parts, too, so that his parts could be more easily inserted.
"Juniper" is slower than Tepler's past work, which leans toward boot-shuffling, twangy country. She has been inspired by Americana and folk sounds she's hearing in Minnesota and Nashville, she said. In media tied to her new album, she's calling it "Great Lakes country music."
The collection opens like an album itching to break free. The first song-turned-single is "Central Hillside," a nostalgia piece about the early 1990s, but festively feverish and straight-up country, right down to the fiddle. From there, a departure to a softer, more contemplative sound.
The album's finale, "Juniper," is her first song about lust, Tepler said.
"It's a sexy song," she said. "I was doing these chords, and it just oozed mojo."
Though they have the same name, her album title comes from an entirely different place: an experience of practicing yoga at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. Tepler said she noticed these small, rugged trees and became curious about survival at that altitude. There, in her research, she found a likeness.
"I thought, 'I'm a juniper tree, weathering every storm that is,'" she said. "Standing as tall as my 5-foot-2 body can stand."