Josh Small is not your typical singer-songwriter. He replaces the brooding, solitary stereotype with an easygoing demeanor and a heart as big as the hearty voice that comes out of his diminutive frame. He'll even forgive you for adding an "S" to his last name and chalk it up to "a lazy Southern thing to pluralize everything."
Always the inviting guy who can play virtually any instrument in sight, Small has shared the stage with a host of notable Richmond talents, including Avail frontman Tim Barry. He often lends his guitar-playing to the punk band Brainworms. But one friendship stands out above many. About six years ago, Small fell in love with Liza Kate and her music.
"Having just started performing solo acoustic music myself, watching her captivate a basement crowd was a great inspiration for me. We have since made an inconsistent habit of singing and playing together," Small says. "Liza has an unschooled and singular style of guitar-playing that really reinforces the idea that instruments should be used not only to demonstrate a level of mastery, but also to reveal the transparency of their more important role as a conduit for the song itself."
When it came time to record his latest album, "Tall," the choice to call on Kate for her talents was obvious. "When he asked, I couldn't refuse," she says. The result was "Move Your Hips," a meandering, semi-country song, inspired by a photo-booth picture, that finds the pair tangled in the kind of succinct harmonies that typically bless only blood relatives.
"We create a three-part harmony, where I occupy the high and low ends while she kinda dances through the mids," Small says. "It just came about in a very improvised manner -- she just got in the vocal booth and started singing. For a while it was difficult for me to distinguish the three different vocal lines."
Kate's appearance may come as a welcome surprise to some, since she once proclaimed, "I hate playing music," and sought refuge in the comfort of photography and downtime with her dogs.
"A small break from music helped me to focus on the things I was neglecting," Kate says. "I function differently now because I feel less vulnerable, less exposed. Musically, my tastes and influences have changed slightly over time. I listen to music differently now, and I suspect that has influenced my playing. I think I sound like I've grown up a bit."
The evidence of this comes in the form of three new demo cuts on her Web site (www.lizakate.com) that fuse melancholy lyrics with delicate strums. She sounds a little like a more refined Lucinda Williams. She also promises to lay down more tracks this summer.
"He's got guts" and "She is kind and understanding" says one about the other. You'll find no excessive flattery between them, but one listen to their collaborations suggests a sense of ease and deep appreciation of the music and each other.