rows of seats inside of a large performance hall
May 3, 2023
Flathead Beacon

Big Sky City Lights Looks Ahead to June Show at FVCC’s Wachholz Center

By Mike Kordenbrock

McClaren Hall in Flathead Valley Community College’s Wachholz Center will host a homecoming of sorts in early June, when Nick Spear and Susan O’Dea, who make up the indie folk duo Big Sky City Lights, take the stage for a performance back in the Flathead Valley where they first met more than a decade ago, and where their first full-length album came together in 2021.

Even as they continue to create and perform music together, Spear and O’Dea still live time zones apart, with Spear remaining in Whitefish, and O’Dea living in New York City. The geographic duality of Big Sky City Lights is so essential to the music group that it’s embedded into their name, which references Spear and O’Dea’s separate home bases.

But there’s a significance to the upcoming show beyond that of two musical collaborators who often find themselves thousands of miles apart coming together on the same stage. At the June 3 show, Big Sky City Lights will be performing a lineup of old and new music, including songs from their latest musical project, a body of work that’s still in development and is likely to take the form of a small group of singles, or an EP.

“We’re just looking to kind of experiment and expand, and we’re really excited for what that means for us,” O’Dea said. “And a lot of this concert that we’re about to do with our band is going to show some of where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

The early work of Big Sky City Lights started with covers that came together during the lockdown days of 2020, and eventually turned into a full-length original album in 2021, called “Wake Me When We Get There.” That work yielded them opportunities to perform twice at the Whitefish-area music festival Under The Big Sky, and to also perform in music industry hotbeds like Nashville and New York City. While their current project isn’t fully formed yet, the two already have at least a partial sense of how it will differ from the past.

“I think a good way to put it is it’s moving away from the intimacy, almost cinematic intimacy that we had with the first album and moving more toward a band sound, which means that it will feel like a band is playing it, as opposed to just me and Nick and a guitar and some instrumentation around it,” O’Dea said.

Still, O’Dea said that they don’t want to completely lose the harmonic and vocal intimacy that was so essential in the early days of Big Sky City Lights.

“But we’re really ready to expand to bigger sounds,” she said.

About a year ago, Spear and O’Dea met in Nashville and started writing new material. But when they can’t work in the same space, the creative process sometimes takes the shape of barrages of text massages — O’Dea joked that given the fact that she’s in a time zone two hours ahead, Spear wakes up to her early morning creative thoughts in the form of about 1,000 text messages. Ideas continue to percolate and go back and forth, in what Spear wryly called “any-time-of-day-stream-of-consciousness.”

But beyond the sometimes-chaotic nature of that long-distance exchange of ideas there is an impact on how the music takes shape.

“When you’re not in the same space and you’re not writing and firing back and forth, there is a second that you have when someone sends you something to think about it, to digest it, and to send them something back. So, it’s a different style of writing, and I do think it created different sounds and different songs,” O’Dea said. “Definitely sounds that are influenced by the spaces we’re in.”

Some of the recording work for their current project has already been done, but O’Dea and Spear said they have plans to continue recording and writing songs in Montana this summer, and that local musician and songwriter Mike Murray will be working with them in a producer role.

“His aesthetic … he’s just a top-notch songwriter and producer. We’re really excited to work with him,” Spear said of Murray.

The performance at McClaren Hall, the music hall and event space at FVCC’s new Wachholz College Center, is just one piece of what’s shaping up to be a significant summer for the band. In addition to their plans to get in the studio with Murray, Spear and O’Dea said they’ve got a Montana tour in the works for the summer, some of it taking place at smaller venues, and that more shows at larger venues lay ahead after they recently signed with a management and booking company.

Even with those other performances on the horizon, Spear indicated he’s excited to take the stage at McClaren Hall for the first time, saying it’s the kind of space with “that’s so acoustically amazing” that you feel “compelled to just move the microphone aside.”

And there are tentative plans to do that, O’Dea said, describing how they want to go completely acoustic at some point during the show for at least one song, as a way of connecting with the audience in a way that’s ideal for a space with quality acoustics.

The Flathead show will also be special in the way that only the experience of coming home can be.

“You can feel that from the audience, too,” O’Dea said. “These are some of the people that supported us form the very beginning and are the reason that we decided to continue doing this same thing. So that exchange between the audience and us is very much alive, and there in the Valley.”