Feb. 9 2011 10:35 AM

From Idyllwild to Iceland to an attic in Golden Hill, The Tree Ring’s debut album travels well

From left: Joel P. West, Darla Hawn, Kelly Bennett and Douglas Welcome

There are moments in Generous Shadows that will stick in your head for hours. Sometimes, it’s a catchy or heart-wrenching riff from Kelly Bennett’s violin. Other times, it’s a string of Joel P West’s ethereal vocals—especially when he reaches a falsetto. If you’re paying attention, flashes of Darla Hawn’s drums or Douglas Welcome’s double bass will crawl into your brain and camp out until you play the album again.

The Tree Ring’s debut is good, but not necessarily because they’re more talented than other indie acts. The band just gives a shit. They’re careful and controlled—slow to book shows because they want the right venues that attract the right crowds—and they make the kind of music that takes a lot of hard work.

“We’re pretty picky because our music is pretty tough to play,” West says, sitting at a dining-room table, surrounded by his bandmates, his hands wrapped around a pint of his own homebrew.

It was West who, back when he was doing his eponymous solo act, once picked up his guitar in the middle of a gig and headed outside after the café crowd got too loud. A handful of hardcore fans followed him to a street corner and he ended up putting on a killer show.

West gave a shit back then, too, and for those who picked up his Dust Jacket album—which he gave away in exchange for poetry, photos and other creative endeavors—he became the kind of musician you almost didn’t want others to find out about, just in case he got swept up by a label and moved to Los Angeles.

But insta-fame wasn’t in the cards for West. Instead, he started cycling through musicians in search of people who could help him play songs from Dust Jacket. He just wanted to continue making and playing his music, but the music he started getting into became more than the folksy stuff a man can do with just a guitar. West found himself writing string arrangements and becoming more a composer than a simple songwriter. Eventually, the musicians he stuck with—Bennett, Hawn and Welcome—started collaborating on some of West’s compositions, planting the seed that eventually became The Tree Ring.

“We were like, ‘We have a sound developing that’s something unique, so let’s try writing a whole list of songs that wouldn’t work if anyone else played them,’” West says. “Songs that would suck if I tried to play them in a solo show. That was the goal when we set out writing this album.”

Once the songs were set, the band got ready to record. They booked cabins in Idyllwild, where they wanted to set up a recording studio that would capture a more organic live sound, and put the project up on Kickstarter, an online platform that helps artists raise money (I threw in a few bucks for a vinyl copy of the album). They decided to make the record even if they didn’t get enough money, but they raised the cash in just a few months.

In Idyllwild, The Tree Ring were in the zone. Their engineer, Chris Hobson, installed microphones around the entire cabin, which made for a casual setting for the band to record different parts whenever they were feeling it. Most of the songs were already written, but a few tracks changed a lot inside those wooden walls.

The resulting raw recordings were taken to a studio in Iceland built by the band Sigur Rós. The album was mixed by Birgir Jón Birgirson, a sound engineer whom West credits for some of the best music coming out of Iceland—music that’s had a notable influence on several songs on Generous Shadows.

A few weeks ago, The Tree Ring shot a video for the song “Wore it Deep,” a track from Generous Shadows, in the attic of the Habitat House in Golden Hill. Billed as a private concert, admission to the show was one house lamp; they used the lamps to create the video’s warm, cozy vibe.

Most of the album has the same sort of warmth. Sitting at the dining-room table with The Tree Ring, I did my best to describe Generous Shadows; I told them it felt like something I could curl up in.

“There’s a lot to being in that cabin in Idyllwild or being in that attic or playing the instruments that we play that are wooden and resonant,” Bennett says. “It’s about the absorption of that warmth and the texture of where we recorded and how we feel playing music. It’s sort of the aesthetic we’re going for. So, to think there’s room to curl up in it, that’s great.”

The Tree Ring will celebrate the release of Generous Shadows at the San Diego Woman’s Club on Saturday, Feb. 12. John Heart Jackie opens. treeringmusic.com