The members of Company of Thieves are collectively grounded, and well-versed in the challenges the world faces today. "This is a scary time for a lot of people, government-wise, art-wise, and especially business-wise," says singer Genevieve Schatz. "People seem to be very held back in what they're willing to invest in – personally, emotionally, and financially. But at the same time, there's a new, gutsy energy coming out right now, almost a generational thing. Today's youth, and to some extent their parents, are really wanting a change, and there's a feeling that we're at the edge of big change right now. Great art always rises up when change is going on."
These exciting – if uncertain – times are reflected in the eclectic sound of Ordinary Riches, an album that moves effortlessly from the seemingly jaunty, piano-led "In Passing" and the catchy pop tones of "Pressure" to the arena-ready sing-along chorus of "New Letters" and the Jonny Greenwood-ish guitar figures on "Old Letters." They are erudite without being pretentious, hooky without being saccharine, and plainly dedicated to its ideals, Company of Thieves' stunning debut album Ordinary Riches reveals a band very much of its time.
"It's true what they say about new bands, that you wait your whole life to write your first record," says guitarist Marc Walloch. "This is the sound of us piecing together things we wanted to try out, playing different parts to see what happened."
"We're influenced by a lot of different artists," Schatz adds. "Everything from jazz and Motown to Billie Holiday and the Beatles. Seeing how they expressed themselves helped us to figure out another way to express ourselves in music.
"It's like when you read a really good novel," she continues, "and you end up thinking like that character, or in that writer's style."
While the influences are at times detectable – a little Fiona Apple angst here, a bit of John Lennon's social activism there – the band is far from being mere mockingbirds.
"That's where the band's name comes from," Walloch says. "We've taken what we know and put our own twist on it. It's a kind of 'thievery,' but it's all about paying our respects to what we were inspired by."
One of those inspirations is Oscar Wilde, whose name not only serves as a song title but whose essay The Soul of Man under Socialism also gave the album its title: "Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you."
The Anglo-Irish bard may not be everyone's idea of a rock n' roll icon (notwithstanding his appearance on the Sgt. Pepper cover), but Schatz explains that his Victorian-era lifestyle speaks loudly to the group.
"He was very in-tune with his culture and upper-class society, but at the same time he was making fun of them in his work," she says. "And they embraced and loved him for it, but at the same time they so disapproved of his private life that he was shunned. And in the industry, there are a lot of big shots running around who love the idea of having an artist around only when it's convenient. People like that embrace you but don't realize there's more to life than all this other, superficial stuff."
Another lesson from Wilde that applies equally to the group is his indefatigable spirit, says drummer Mike Ortiz. "It's better to struggle doing what you love than just settling for doing whatever everyone else is doing," he says. "We all took risks with this band, and had to make sacrifices in our personal lives, but if you really pursue what you love then you'll ultimately reap benefits from it."
That Company of Thieves presents such a united front is no accident: this is very much a band, as opposed to what they laugh off as "a chick singer with a backing group."
"For at least the past 10 years in mainstream music there's been this overwhelming focus on the 'front man,' which has really gotten out of hand," Walloch says. "When we were kids we knew the names of every member. It was the bands who were important then, and we're hoping to bring that kind of feeling back."
The band also strives to hearken back to a time when songs' subject matter went beyond hitting the dance floor and hooking up. Time and again, Ordinary Riches presents a cinematic vision of a relationship gone sour or a world in turmoil that speaks to deeper truths.
"We all go through life processing so many things all the time – the weather, the setting, the mood," Schatz says. "Lyrically, we're exploring real-life experiences and how people navigate relationships. Traveling around the Midwest allowed us to see America for what it is and isn't, and helped us get in touch with ourselves."
As such, Company of Thieves songs are often more outward- than inner-looking. "They're not necessarily first person; more from the point of view of a camera," she says. "This is about us presenting our worldview and how we see things today."
That's not to say the album's all about abstract emotion, however. "The Tornado Song" is an intensely personal song for Schatz, based upon a dream of her divorced family trying to reconcile itself and highlighted by a climactic, near-operatic peal of emotion from the gifted singer.
"That's a great example of how we're about not limiting ourselves," Walloch says. "It's not something you hear on every pop/rock album, and it was a challenge for Genevieve – but at the same time it showcases her different vocal abilities. We never feel like we 'can't' do something, and we plan to limit ourselves even less in the future."
One constant factor, Schatz says, will be the band's empathy with the world around them and their peers.
"A lot of people come from a place that's very judgmental, which in turn makes them paranoid about what people are thinking of them. That results in their not allowing themselves to truly connect with someone and have a real relationship, or even a genuine conversation.
"A friend of ours recently said that, for all its flaws, Chicago is a forgiving city, and we really do come from a forgiving place" she adds. "It's about wanting to hear somebody's story. Isn't that what life is all about?"
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