Music | Woman Seeking Man: Arthur & Yu create hazy and nostalgic folk out of a want ad 

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There is little about what’s happening that Grant Olsen fully understands. “I’m trying to get my brain right with all this,” he laughs as he strolls around his Seattle apartment. And there’s a lot to try to grasp. Like the fact that he just finished his first major tour, a massive three-month jaunt that took him and the rest of Arthur & Yu around the country. Or the fact that Arthur & Yu even gets to tour at all. That it has a record deal—the first one with Sub Pop splinter imprint Hardly Art, no less. Or that people even care. Because up until last year the group—which is essentially Olsen and singer Sonya Westcott, along with a rotating group of backing musicians—was nothing more than a living-room project. It was just a good time, an experiment. Now Olsen doesn’t have a day job.

“I’m still getting used to all this,” he says. “I’m getting used to being in the van and playing all these shows. I can’t complain. I love it. And the shows are amazing. I’m just still trying to put together how we got here.”

Like a lot of good musical romances, Arthur & Yu started with a want ad. Olsen wasn’t in the habit of trolling around Craigslist for a new partner. “Usually they’re all guitar players that say they’re ready to rock,” Olsen says. But something about Westcott’s ad caught his eye. He can’t remember much of the details, whether it mentioned her tenure as the original bassist for Rogue Wave or that she had recently moved from San Francisco to Seattle. That all might have come out later. Regardless, “Sonya’s was just different,” Olsen remembers. So he responded to the ad—the first time he’d ever done that.

“It was a real risk,” he says. “I’d only played with my friends before that. This was a leap.”

In fact, it was almost like a courtship. After picking Olsen’s response out of a pile, Westcott called him and made a date to meet at a bar. It went well. Another date was made. Things continued on like this for roughly a year, the two just hanging out, talking, seeing if they were really musically compatible. There were some living-room jam sessions, but there were just as many chats about sounds and songs, about growing up and funny kid stories. The group’s name came out of the latter—Olsen’s nickname as a kid was Arthur while Westcott’s was Yu.

Eventually, some time toward the beginning of last year, the two began regularly setting up in Olsen’s living room. They played songs and bits of songs for each other, always trying to figure out how the two could cinch their voices together suture-tight. They started recording these sessions on an old four-track recorder, just as a way to get a rough draft down on tape. Olsen poured on the reverb, trying to both re-create some of that lost early ’60s soul sound and to make his living room feel bigger. To fill in the edges, the two turned everything from glasses and beer bottles to a garbage can into a percussion instrument.

The end result was an occasionally creepy, always sepia-toned set that sounded like a SpongeBob-obsessed version of Mazzy Star, with Olsen and Westcott pumping out hazy and nostalgic tracks about childhood, innocence and leaving both behind—willing or not. Guitars clanged and shimmied in the background. Tin whistles and plinking melodicas gave everything a Romper Room vibe. And Olsen and Westcott’s dueling voices—his occasionally gruff, hers sweet like nectar—peaked through the reverb fog. Everything was intimate and distant. It was an admittedly odd mix, one the band tried to re-create in a real studio but could never get down.

Which was a good thing, actually. Hardly Art got hold of the living-room demos somehow and wanted to put them out as is. That surprised Olsen at first. “These songs were meant to come out like this,” he says. But now, a few months after the release of Arthur & Yu’s debut In Camera, he’s grown more comfortable with everything.

“I’m glad that it came out this way now,” he says. “It’s a cohesive album. I like how it’s rough around the edges. I’ve always been drawn to music and art that seems to be working against its own constraints. I think this record is.”

And that’s great for the music; not so great for Olsen—at least at the moment. In a couple weeks, he’ll be back out on the road dealing with his own constraints—namely the band’s van. He’s vowed to work with it this time rather than against it.

“I’m still just trying to figure out how things work in a 15-passenger van,” he laughs. “I’ll get it. I know it’s all about relationship. But that’s still a work in progress.”

And probably will be for some time.

ARTHUR & YU with Iron & Wine @ Great Saltair, 12408 W. Salt Air Dr. Friday Dec. 7, 7 p.m., SmithsTix.com

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Jeff Inman

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