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March 10, 2010

Death to SXSW

Louisville-born cellist Sarah Balliet returns to Austin with Murder by Death

Sarah Balliet of the quartet Murder by Death is hoping for a smooth trip to Austin, although a past excursion to South by Southwest gave her more adventure than she wanted. As she recently told LEO by phone, “We had a crazy incident, because it gets so packed down there. We booked a hotel way in advance — I mean, you have to … we had told them we were a performing band, and they said ‘Oh! No problem.’ We showed up for our room after a really late night, and they had just sold it to someone else. So we spent that night — after some yelling — searching downtown Austin and then ended up staying far outside of town.”

This time around, the Louisville native says she would like a guaranteed bed, as well as a good reception for the new material that’ll be released on the Indiana band’s new CD, Good Morning, Magpie, on April 6.

For Balliet, along with singer/guitarist Adam Turla and bandmates, there is some added risk to the new release. “We’ve taken a new approach with writing, certainly. We usually do concept albums — and this one is not a concept album, but it deals with many subjects that we usually tackle. Instead of a long story arc, it’s more about little vignettes.”

Considering the band’s twisted tastes in Americana, the best of their vignettes can resemble stories from the great Flannery O’Conner — had she stirred in more regular doses of theatrical absurdity.

For Balliet’s part, her cello has a prominent place in the band’s instrumentation. “It’s been a really exciting challenge, learning how to incorporate myself — especially into our louder songs. It’s always fun to write a sweeping, beautiful cello melody. But when the guys come to the table with a loud song or a fast song, it’s a fun challenge to think of a part that fits.”

When Murder by Death started out in Bloomington 10 years ago, a cellist among rockers was some kind of special guest appearance. They’re now slightly more common as regular band members, but Balliet isn’t taking any cues from fellow cellists on the rock scene. “I just saw a band called Ra Ra Riot, and they had a couple of cellos — and they were playing them standing up! I think that’s just people being innovative. But I don’t think that I’ll be changing my style; the way that I learned was just a very classical approach, with some great instructors in Louisville.”

At the 2010 South by Southwest, Murder By Death is moving past the concept album. Though it’s hard to argue with the likes of 2008’s Red of Tooth and Claw, the band decided each song would earn its own way onto the new record. Balliet points to the track “Yes,” saying, “Adam wrote that years ago… As a band we weren’t ever ready to play it. It’s kind of bright, happy. It’s a song about loss, but it’s a lot more upbeat in tempo and mood than we’re used to. It kind of made us all a little nervous. But we decided as a band to tackle it for this album, and I’m glad we did.”