Fate drew them together, but now Nashville's latest duo are creating their own destiny. Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann talk songwriting for a hit TV show and working with their dream producer, T Bone Burnett, on their debut album.
Do you believe that some musical success stories are just destined to be told? Like the day McCartney turned up to see Lennon's Quarrymen gig at the local church fête. And that certain spark producer Sam Phillips could see in the young Elvis Aaron Presley that all the bands he'd auditioned for could not. Or what about those 'musicians wanted' ads that connected successful partnerships with everyone from Ulrich and Hetfield to Elton and Bernie?
Hearing Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann's chemistry onstage and the story of how they met makes us believe in musical fate more than most other tales.
"It was the first week or so of school and we had come to Belmont University in Nashville," recalls Justin. "We were there as guitar majors and the deal was that, instead of introducing yourselves to the whole class, which was comprised of freshman, seniors... you had to go round two by two, selecting Freshmans at random.
"Then you had to get up in front of the class and improvise something with this other stranger. That was the twist of fate where Sarah and I got thrown together."
Justin's honest about what his first thoughts were at the time. "I didn't want to get paired together, because she was the only girl in the class and I had never seen a girl guitar player that could play. When they picked me and they picked her, I was just thinking, 'Great, I'm dead.' Then she whipped out her slide and proceeded to blow everybody's mind. She completely slayed it!"
That was eight years ago, but the connection was made. "You just jive with certain musicians," Justin continues, "just like you do with certain people, personality-wise. You have things in common. The same rules apply with musicians: some you just click with instantly."
The young country rock duo have been on a journey to refine their vocal, guitar and songwriting chemistry, which has taken them far already - from writing songs for global hit TV show Nashville, to working with one of America's greatest producers on their debut album, Nothing But The Silence.
Following that day at Belmont University when you were paired together, how quickly did you become a musical duo?
Sarah: "After that we would get together, go to the other's dorm room and just jam on stuff. After a while we both figured out we had written stuff forever so started writing, working on each other's separate songs and started playing around town a bit at the writer's rounds. That's where four or five people sit in a row and you all take your turn. We started doing that just for fun because we liked to play and wanted to get out.
"People would start coming up to us and say, 'What's you band name? Who are you?' In the beginning we'd just say, 'Oh, we're not a band, we're just doing this for fun.' Then they'd ask when our next [show] was and when they could see us. So we kind of had to come up with a band name and it was an accidental band in the beginning."
Did you start writing fresh songs in your collaboration early on?
Sarah: "It look about a year to lead up to that. Justin was playing with another artist doing radio stuff with her, and I was just playing with whoever I could. So there was a little time before we really started to say, 'Hey, let's do this for real.'
"In the beginning we both used songs that we had written in the past. I had a song that I thought was finished and Justin would say, 'Hey, if you just do this...' - those were the things that we were playing out in the beginning. Then started to write brand new songs together from scratch."
Justin: "We really fell into it because it was a lot of fun. We were seeing that the other was constantly progressing things; they were making things better. It was inspiring, because I always wanted to see what Sarah would come up with."
The Nashville sound
Some people will have heard your songs without even realising it on the hit TV show Nashville - you've had eight songs featured so far performed by the show's actors. How did that all come about?
Sarah: "We write for Universal Publishing, so a couple of months before [the show's producers] were going to launch the pilot, all the music supervisors were in town listening to songs all week from different publishing companies.
"It was their very last day, and one of the publishers at Universal called up [the show's music supervisors] and he said, 'Hey, I know you're on your way to the airport, but we'll buy you lunch. We'll take you to the airport. Just come by and listen to this duo.' So we actually got to play for them live and we did three or four songs, I think. They became big fans immediately, so it really sparked a relationship.
"I think they saw some similarities in what we were doing in their characters Scarlett and Gunnar at first. When The Right One Comes Along was our first song, with them [performing it]. We've actually been told that they wrote the scene around our experience, because the first place where we got to play that track was at the Bluebird [Cafe, famed Nashville venue], so that's where they had that song in the show.
"From there, we just kept writing songs. We've never really just written for the show, we've always just written to write, and they just latched on to a bunch of stuff."
When The Right One Comes Along is on your debut album, Nothing But The Silence. Tell us how you found the experience of working with the legendary T Bone Burnett, who was onboard as producer...
Sarah: "I expected to be a lot more nervous than I ended up being. He's worked on so many amazing things - and some of our favourite things ever - but I wasn't nervous at all when the time came."
Justin: "But I think that's his brilliance. The mark of a great producer is one that makes you feel comfortable, and [makes sure] you're not being self-conscious. I think he even said that once, that being self-conscious..."
Sarah: "... ends the creative process."
Justin: "I think that is so true. If you get that into your head, you start thinking about the gravity of it. His demeanour was very cool, calm and collected, but he commanded a presence. Like a smouldering ember or something... he commands an authority but he doesn't demand it of you. That's the beauty of it."
On the record
A lot of country rock albums will utilise session musicians. Are you both handling all the guitars on this record?
Sarah: "Yes, it's just the bass and drums other than our guitars."
Justin: "T Bone sat in on two tracks, and we recorded it all live, so if Sarah was on a mandolin part and I was on a guitar part, rather than have it missing, he might sit in on the acoustic part. But for the most part - other than those two exceptions - it was all us on the record."
Sarah: "It was awesome because we were all in a room. Me and Justin sat opposite each other, bassist right here and drummer just in the next room. So T Bone sat right next to us and we just went with it."
How would you describe your styles as guitar players?
Sarah: "I play a lot of slide..."
Justin: "But not exclusively. She definitely can do that so without any decision needing to be made - if we need a slide part, Sarah's going to do it. She's incredibly great with that, but also regular style playing.
"I've noticed that our styles tend to complement each other, so it's often pretty easy to divvy up the parts and figure out who's going to play what on each track.
"Sarah comes from a bluesier background - kind of the simplistic thing that I've always admired and want to do because I kind of came from a speed complex. But I love players who get on one note and just start hammering that one note until you feel it. Sarah's style of playing reminds me of that.
"I've always gravitated towards fingerstyle players because that's how I play. Lindsey Buckingham, then Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed for the country side of things. Hendrix and Clapton - those guys were huge - but also on the jazz side, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, and Lenny Breau, who was a really fantastic player."
Sarah: "I grew up listening to a lot of music, so anything from Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix, to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Rait... Those influences are all across the board for me."
When a guitarist goes to Nashville to make it as a musician, is it safe to say they really have to raise their game as a guitar player?
Justin: "That was the thing I thought about the first six months that I lived in Nashville, going out the first couple of times: 'I'm going to have to get better or I'm going to have to go home.'
"That's ultimately what everyone [in Nashville] decides: either they get better or they go home - or they go into something else, like management. Then they play guitar at home and it becomes more of a hobby. There's a dividing line where you either get better or you don't."
When you play live, you have a vocal dynamic between you, but there's also a whole other chemistry going on between your guitar rhythms...
Sarah: "We had to learn early on when we couldn't afford a band - or didn't have the option of playing with a band or anything - that we had to create our band in between the two of us, especially the acoustic stuff.
"There's a big percussive element that we try to convey, and it's most successfully conveyed when we would show the guys who made the record with us the arrangements, and that would evolve into a band. Whatever 'drum part' that we were playing with an acoustic, and whatever bass line we were doing, ultimately became the parts."
It definitely feels like the album is based around your vocal and guitar dynamic...
Justin: "I think that was always the aim, and even when T Bone helped us decide, it was sort of a group choice to make sure there were never too many instruments on there. At any one time, you'd only hear four: drums, bass and then the two of us playing guitars.
"With there being fewer [instruments], they can speak more, so you can really hear each one. You can pick them all out - if there were 20 guitars playing, it would sound massive, but then it's really hard to get in and really hear any one of them individually, because there's just so much."
Sarah: "To us, our guitars are just as important to us as voices, as our actual voices are. That's a huge part of what makes us who we are, so it was really important for those to stand out as much as the vocals."
Why Sarah and Justin love a loud Blues Junior...
Striking Matches are equally comfortable in both an electric band line-up and their more intimate acoustic duo guise with a Takamine TAN45C and ETN70C OM (as featured in the portraits).
For Nothing But The Silence, it was mostly an electric affair, with Sarah's American Fender Tele Deluxe, another unbranded Tele-style model, a Godin mandolin and a borrowed Kalamazoo from their friend Colin Linden (who also plays for the Nashville TV show).
Justin stuck mainly to his beloved standard Strat and Gretsch Chet Atkins, but when it came to amp choice for the record, they were both united. "For a lot of it, we used what we use onstage," explains Sarah.
"I played [through] a Fender Blues Junior, the little guy, and I used that for pretty much everything, including one of the songs I played on mandolin." Justin agrees: "It was amazing to see just what those Blues Juniors could do in a room. You just open them right up and they're in there, screaming!"