There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned murder ballad to inspire sweet harmony.
Arizona native Leeann Skoda was singing with Westside bluegrassers the Get Down Boys at a college show in Pomona about three years ago when she caught a set by fellow LA singer-songwriter Jessie Payo. Bonding over mutual love of old folk and country, they worked up a couple of songs to sing at a restaurant Payo was booking in Culver City.
“We had so much fun singing together I was like, ‘Hey, I’ll sing harmonies on all your songs,’ and that’s how it just grew,” Skoda recalls. “She would sing on my songs, I would sing on her songs.” They eventually adopted the name Pretty Polly from the mother of all murder ballads, after playing some shows with a murderous theme.
After that, Skoda says, “it just grew together very organically. … We both have a good ear and can learn things quickly, and we both write. I love singing harmonies, and playing guitar in a way that complements the main part. So if she brings a song to the table, it’s really fun for me to learn, and I play on hers and she does the same for mine.”
The versatile Payo grew up singing in a blues band with her dad, and has been performing professionally since. Upon moving to LA Skoda quickly fell in with the bluegrass community, where a premium is placed on instrumental agility. Now living in Silver Lake, she and Highland Park resident Payo are part of an active circle of bluegrass and jazz musicians rotating around Echo Park’s 1642 Beer & Wine bar.
Pretty Polly’s first album, 2015’s “One Day,” was an acoustic covers collection of songs by Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Bill Monroe, Bessie Smith and Gillian Welch. It also featured a rustic take on Payo’s “Smoking Gun” (co-written with Adam Tressler) — the title track of the studio album they’re releasing Friday. Stephen Hodges’ throbbing drumbeat and Tony Rinaldi’s organ evoke early rock ‘n’ roll in an arrangement showcasing Payo’s bluesy belting chops.
Most of the new album leans into the Appalachian heritage suggested by Pretty Polly’s name. The duo’s spot-on harmonies hover above their solid guitar strumming, with Skoda’s clear, tensile soprano shadowed by Payo’s smokier tones. A lilting stroll through the Louvin Brother’s “My Baby’s Gone” fits comfortably alongside Payo and Skoda compositions like “Caroline,” “Carry You Home,” and the Emmylou Harris-style “Till the Evening Comes” (by Skoda and Josh Bond). Their mettle as singers is certified by the way they mesh their individually distinct voices and glide through producer Chris Schlarb’s dreamy “All Good Things.”
Between Pretty Polly and solo projects, both Payo and Skoda are working full-time as musicians — for now.
“It’s feast or famine,” acknowledges Skoda, who sometimes freelances in film production. “It comes in waves.”
Pretty Polly celebrate the release of “Smoking Gun” and rowdy San Francisco quintet the Brothers Comatose headline at the York Manor, 4908 York Blvd., Highland Park, at 7 p.m. Friday, May 18; $15 advance/$18 at the door. prettypollymusic.bandcamp.com, thebrotherscomatose.com, theyorkmanor.com, kensingtonpresents.com