Los Angeles folk-pop duo Freedom Fry didn’t need to be convinced to cover “Man on Fire,” a track by one of the bands to whom the two look up, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Marie Seyrat and Bruce Driscoll, who are also married, didn’t necessarily believe their cover, a gender-flipped “Girl on Fire,” would be turned into a popular Super Bowl commercial, either.
“You never know when they’ll work out,” Driscoll said in a recent call from the couple’s home in mid-city L.A. “Most of the time they don’t. So we’re always just trying to make it happen when things like that come [up].”
The pitch, from Intuit, called for a female-empowerment anthem that could be used for both a commercial spot during the most-seen televised event in the world, as well as a full video. Freedom Fry happened to be on someone’s shortlist of folky male-female duos. Somehow, even though Driscoll is originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Seyrat is from Paris, they settled on an A.M. gold, Laurel Canyon sound that fit the bill.
Rather than try to reinvent the song, which Freedom Fry already loved, they decided to pay homage by playing it straight, only looking for small touches or embellishments they could make along the way.
“We noticed all these little production things [Edward Sharpe] do,” he said. “It’s really cool to study someone else’s track like that.”
The cover was a boost to the duo, which had released several EPs since 2011, but had yet to write a full-length debut. That happened earlier this month, when Freedom Fry released Classic, a 12-track album helmed by the nostalgia wave-riding title track.
Not bad for a duo that met accidentally. Driscoll was already in Blondfire with his sister Erica when he met Seyrat, a stylist, at a video shoot. Driscoll moved from New York to L.A., and they were married a year later, becoming the rare married Americana and pop duo that can switch from English to French in the blink of an eye.
Classicmaintains the strong male-female dual-vocal dynamic of bands like the aforementioned Edward Sharpe, and in fact, the duo got to work with several collaborators, including that band’s Stewart Cole on the title track. All of the songs, such as single “Die Tryin,” brim with bittersweet melodies and campfire choruses.
We spoke to Seyrat and Driscoll ahead of their July 6 show at Rickshaw Stop about the new album, recording the perfect cover and scouring San Francisco for locations used in the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
RIFF: Over the last few years you have covered everyone from Britney Spears (“Oops!… I Did It Again”) and The Smashing Pumpkins (“1979″) to The Cranberries (“Linger”) and Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”). How do you go about choosing who to cover, and how do you go about honoring the original artist?
Marie Seyrat: We grew up in the ‘90s. … We have a list of songs that we love, and we keep adding to it. And we choose [from] this list which one we would like to cover, and which one would sound good in a more simple, acoustic version.
Bruce Driscoll: Even before the “Girl on Fire thing,” we were always trying to flip the gender on who sang what.
Seyrat: That makes it more interesting when someone knows that it’s a female vocal on a certain song.
Driscoll: Our approach has always been that you cannot fuck with the melody. You can change almost anything else; you can even change the chords. But the melody is like what gives that song its identity. We try to keep everything in … that someone might have liked about the song. So our approach is always to change it just enough to make it ours. But make sure that we don’t screw with what was right about it.
How did you go about covering Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in French?
Driscoll: I’ve always been a Tom Petty fan. And I think Marie, you growing up in France, you weren’t that exposed to him. … So I was always trying to get her into his music. And I always just loved that song.
Seyrat: And we tried to do a disco version, because French people do love disco. So we [thought] it would be cool to change that groove. And also make it in French and try to make it Frenchified.
Driscoll: I don’t speak French. So Marie really had to translate the whole thing. And it was a matter of saying the same thing at the same rhythm. It was very difficult, because French tends to be more wordy. English is more direct.
Seyrat: I think French is very wordy and very poetic. … Certain words next to each other don’t sound good, so I wanted to keep the meaning of each sentence, each verse, each lyric of the song. But also make it cool for French people to listen to. So, it’s always an exercise that’s pretty tricky, but I love doing that, actually.
Marie is from Paris and Bruce is from Grand Rapids. How did you end up settling on your folky AM gold tone in the songs you write?
Driscoll: It was a little trial and error, I guess. Because when we first started writing, we were just starting our relationship. We were dating. … It was something for us to do, and we didn’t think too much about our sound at first. It was like, “Let’s just write whatever comes out.” As we kept going, we got to know each other better; each other’s likes and dislikes.
Seyrat: Yeah, at first it was more of a way to connect. Because I came to visit him there, in New York. … I think he must have been like, “What if we don’t have anything to talk about? What if it is boring?” … He told me later on that was kind of to fill the time, not knowing how it was going to go. Every day we are going to write a song for at least three hours. … So we wrote five songs on that trip. And that’s how it started; our first EP.
Classic is your first LP. Who decided, seven years after you started, that this was the right time?
Driscoll: It’s always been so easy for us to pop singles or EPs out on Spotify, or wherever. And promoting those isn’t such a big deal. If you put a song out and it doesn’t catch on, you kind of move on to the next one.
Seyrat: It’s a long process to build an album, creatively. But after that, you have to have the budget. You have to have the team to back it up. We wanted to make that happen at the right time; otherwise, it would be a waste of time for us and of money.
Driscoll: This album has probably been taking up the past year of our life. Just in terms of creating it, figuring out how to market it. … This is more of a strategic, planned-out body of work.
Is there a thematic core that lives throughout Classic, or a story you’re trying to tell?
Driscoll: A lot of it is we’re pretty nostalgic people. It’s been like looking back at things that meant a lot to us and trying to do something that would, in our minds, at least production-wise and thought-wise, stand the test of time. Like you said, the kind of “AM radio feeling,” that good feeling when you hear a song that sounds new to you, but you feel like you’ve known it for a long time—those are the types of songs that we try to write and the type of songs we tried to put on this album.
Seyrat: We’re old souls trapped in modern times.
Driscoll: Yeah, but we didn’t want to make it too overtly retro, so we tried to walk that line
Do you have any favorite Bay Area memories?
Driscoll: One time, we walked to the Golden Gate Bridge. And then we took a taxi across to Sausalito. We had a day to kill, basically. And it was one of my favorite days. We walked around the city, actually. I’m a big Hitchcock fan; we both are. And we ended up going around the city to different locations from the movie Vertigo.
Seyrat: We were like, “let’s make it a nice walk.” And every time he was adding a new direction. Like, “now that we’ve seen this, we could probably go there!” And we ended up walking the whole city, but it was so nice.
Does your love for Hitchcock have any connection at all to the nostalgia you seek in your music?
Seyrat: Totally. We do love old movies too.
Driscoll: I grew up watching movies from any era. And I didn’t really discriminate. My dad … when I was a kid, gave me a pass that said I could rent any movie I wanted to, rated R or whatever. I used to ride my bike and I would get tons of black and white movies. I was reading recently that a lot of kids these days haven’t seen any black and white movies. Like the oldest movie they’ve seen is Back to the Future, or something like that. It kind of made me sad.
Seyrat: In our music video for our song, “Classic,” a girl transforms into James Dean. And she meets a girl who is basically a Marilyn Monroe type. And after we made it, I started thinking, “I wonder how many 20-somethings actually know who James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are?”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.