Ali Shea looks at her publicist, who she met for the first time not five minutes ago, and shrugs as she poses for a photo with her band, Empty Houses. “What am I supposed to do with my arm?”
Shea is new to doing photoshoots and interviews. Hell, she’s new to being a musician. The band has only played two shows, and is scheduled to play their third in a couple of hours just a few blocks away in a Brooklyn warehouse. Their debut album is about to be released and she and her two bandmates are excited about the buzz around it. But it’s not the press that’s got them optimistic. It’s a few new fans they’ve picked up.
“My grandma is very excited for ‘the disc,’” Shea tells me.
“Yeah, my parents like this stuff,” adds Adam Mercer, who plays keyboards. “And my grandparents, which is new for me.”
For a decade, Mercer and guitarist David Mackinder played in the pop punk band Fireworks together, and, although they amassed a fairly substantial following in their scene among the types of kids who dig New Found Glory, their music got no love from their respective families.
“My mom hated Fireworks. For ten years, she hated Fireworks,” laughs Mackinder. “Now, she listens to Empty Houses and says, ‘Finally, something with a good beat!’”
Empty Houses’ music has a familiar pop sound to it, like every feel-good hit song since the 1960 smashed into one. No longer reliant on distortion pedals and moshy sing-a-long choruses, Mackinder and Mercer have a new arsenal of instruments—pianos, horns, bells—giving them a more expansive sound. And it’s all tied together by Shea’s classic, powerful voice. It’s a formula that, beyond winning the love of grandparents, seems destined for late night show performances and festival success. But above all, it’s a combination that just makes you feel good. Whatever magic it is that makes a band special, that makes you say, “yup, that’s it,” they’ve got it.
“Ali’s sound offers a wide variety of arrangement ideas, but we never wanted to do anything that took away from her voice,” says Mackinder. “There are a lot of fun tricks in retro music—clever horn lines, or walking bass, or claps—but the emotion you capture vocally is what makes a song pop. It’s what makes you really feel it.”
Empty Houses technically started at a Christmas party. In December of 2013, Mercer and Mackinder found themselves at a holiday get-together in their hometown of Detroit, thrown by Shea’s sisters. Shea was there entertaining the Santa hat-wearing guests by singing holiday tunes like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
“Even when we were little, they used to make me sing for their friends,” Shea says of her two older sisters. “At sleepovers, they’d be like, ‘Sing for us!’” But she didn’t have any real singing aspirations, and instead planned on pursuing acting after college. Occasionally, she would cover a few Adele songs at local open mic nights, but that was about as far as her singing career went. “I think I’ve always wanted to sing, but I think I just convinced myself that it wasn’t something I could do,” she says. “It was kind of just always on the side.” But Mercer and Mackinder immediately recognized something special in her.
“I thought it was just such an unusual and unexpected tone from her that seemed so natural,” remembers Mackinder. “I wanted to collaborate. If nothing serious, then just out of curiosity.”
At the time, Fireworks was about to release their third and final album, Oh, Common Life, but were dwindling down, and would call it quits within the year. There were no big fights or public implosions; the six-piece had simply run its course.
“We weren’t making any money, it was just a fun thing,” Mercer says. “We couldn’t really tour, and I don’t think those songs were coming out anymore. We just needed a break.”
But watching Shea perform sparked some creative inspiration in them. They all talked about making music together. Shea was attending Western Michigan University, two hours away, “fortheater performance,” she says with a mock-bragging inflection. Mercer and Mackinder started writing songs around her voice and sent a few Garageband tracks back and forth with her over email. But these weren’t the melodic punk hooks they had made a name for themselves on during their tenure in Fireworks. The three made something else entirely.
They came up with five songs that fit right in with their Detroit setting: a modern take on retro pop, inspired in part by the Motown sound that put their hometown’s music scene on the map half a century ago. The tracks are instantly infectious—soulful and uplifting, and carry on the musical traditions started 50 years ago up the road at the legendary Hitsville U.S.A., the studio that birthed a near-endless list of hit Motown singles.
They put their songs up on the internet without many expectations. No expectations, actually. But they caught on fairly quickly, at first just among the former Fireworks fans who were caught off guard by the group bearing absolutely no similarity to pop punk, but then it started seeping in to a wider audience. It grabbed the attention of Los Angeles-based label and management company Sargent House, who offered to release the band’s debut album, Daydream. They accepted, even though Empty Houses bears little resemblance to Sargent House staples like guitar shredders Russian Circles or gothic industrial mainstay Chelsea Wolfe.
“I tend to always say to myself when signing a band: ‘If you love this as much as you do, then somewhere out there, other people are going to enjoy it as well,’” Sargent House founder Cathy Pellow says of the Empty Houses signing. “Talent is always what I gravitate toward, regardless of genre. I heard her voice and I loved it. I loved that it’s positive-vibe music.”
Empty Houses now find themselves with a ton of enthusiasm but not a lot of contemporaries. While some artists like Leon Bridges and Meghan Trainor have had success recently with retro elements, Empty Houses are starting from the ground up, trying to court a new audience without the resources of a major label. And relying on the Fireworks background wasn’t an option, as the band wanted to provide some distance from their punk past.
“We could’ve hopped on a ton of shows at home with bands we knew, but we made a conscious decision to do this in a different way, and it’s hard for sure,” says Mercer, who notes that the band is booked for upcoming tour dates that include seated audiences, with food being served, a new venture for him. “It’s like going into a new job with no contacts.”
Later in the day, the band unleashes songs from their debut album upon 50 local friends and family members for the first time. It’s appropriate that they perform with an American flag draped behind them. The music that Empty Houses makes is a purely American product, a sound so ingrained in fibers of US culture. But unlike their studio version, the band couldn’t afford to bring along any additional players to round out their sound with horns, bass, or even drums. It’s just the three of them, stripped down to the essentials of pop music. Mercer’s keyboards are minimal, and Mackinder has done away with the guitar effects pedals from his Fireworks days. All ears are instead drawn towards straight toward Shea.
There is a stunned awe at her voice as it completely envelops the room. People cheer and whistle in the moments when she flexes her skills and projects to reach its farthest corners. At the end of their set, which includes a handful of upbeat jazzy numbers like “Thunderstorms” and “Falling Away,” and their ballad “Every Word,” the band pays homage to their 1960s influences with a cover of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Shea delivers an absolutely perfect rendition, bringing pop history to life with each line. The crowd is small but their applause is overwhelming. Not bad for a couple of pop punk kids and an aspiring actress.
I find Shea afterwards and ask how it felt to perform without the comfort of a big band. A little nerve-wracking, she says, but a lot of fun.
“When we come back with a full band,” she smirks, “then we’ll really wow ‘em.”