Boasting over 40-years of combined performing experience, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which career-musicians Allison Messier and Paul Cienniwa would be caught off guard onstage. That is, however, exactly what happened during the duo’s June 2015 recital at Little Compton’s St. Andrews-by-the-Sea.
After performing classical and baroque music together for about four years, Cienniwa, of Fall River, Massachusetts, was thrilled when Messier, a Little Compton resident, suggested trying out a few contemporary songs for the performance. Drifting from the classical music they had practiced for years, Messier sang the songs of beloved musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Instantly, the subdued classical fans who typically graced their audiences transformed.
“Our audience actually sang along,” laughed Cienniwa, recalling the performance. “That doesn’t happen in classical music. In classical music everyone is telling everyone else to be quiet. So, when they started singing? We found it hilarious!”
Along with singing came dancing and, soon, song recommendations.
“People actually had suggestions for us,” said Messier. “They were coming up to the stage saying, ‘You need to do this song!’ and they were so excited about it! It was scary at first, performing songs that people know and love. In classical music, I’m often the only one in the room that can sing these songs. But the buzz in the room of people actually knowing the songs we were playing was amazing.” Inspired by the reaction, the classically trained pair decided to build on excitement and, with that, ALLISON was born.
In November, the pair headed to Overclock Studios in Middleboro, Massachusetts, to record “ALLISON: Volume One.” The 11-track album, released in February, features the works of some of music’s most celebrated songwriters, including Young, Mitchell, Billy Joel and Graham Nash.
Messier’s masterful vocal talent bursts from the songs, spotlighting the equally masterful words of legendary lyricists. Bounced along the delicately plucked strings of Cienniwa’s harpsichord, the sound is uniquely ALLISON. The songs, famous and familiar, are presented in such an original way it’s as if they’re being heard for the first time. Refusing to drift entirely from their classical background, however, “ALLISON: Volume One” also features two classical numbers, which blend seamlessly into the collection, shaped by ALLISON’s newfound liberated approach to playing classical music.
“On ‘Come Away, Come Sweet Love,’ we started doing things with tempo that we never would’ve done before,” explained Cienniwa.
“We broke it out of its glass case,” added Messier.
After completing much of the album’s production work on their own, Messier and Cienniwa turned over the reins to a local artist and fellow musician for the album’s artwork.
“I completely trusted our graphic designer, Atticus Allen. We gave him all of the text we needed and Atticus went to town.”
The trust paid off and, in the end, “ALLISON: Volume One” appears capable of sliding seamlessly into the dusty crates of any vintage record store beside the works of the legendary songwriters which grace its credits. Citrus orange lettering pops from the cover, contrasted against twisting streams of green flora. At the center, Messier and Cienniwa stand side-by-side, framed in a hollowed-out orange window and donning psychedelic floral shirts fittingly reminiscent of the flower-power ’60s. “The inside of the album is amazing too,” said Messier. “It’s psychedelic. He did an amazing job.”
Recently, Cienniwa and Messier’s schedules have been crammed with their classical gigs. On Saturday, April 23, however, the newly formed duo is scheduled to make their Newport debut at the Edward King House Senior Center.
“It’ll be nice to cross the bridge,” said Cienniwa. “This will be our first time playing on the island, and Newport has such a great folk history. It’s nice to sort of get involved with that a little bit. We never would’ve thought we’d be saying anything like that a year ago.”
“We hope people come out to the show and like the music,” Messier said of the Edward King show. With live performances featuring an even wider array of songs beyond those on the album, ALLISON’s horizons continue to expand along with their fan base, opening the duo’s eyes to even further creative exploration.
“We haven’t had time for an official release party at this point,” said Cienniwa, “but as the weather gets warmer we’d like to squeeze that in. Also, with this album being called “Volume 1,” you can imagine there’s a Volume 2 coming down the pipe. We expect that to be out in December. We’ve been in the classical box so long that it never occurred to us to write our own songs, but that also may be something we get around to.”