Chantell Moody’s eyes lock resolutely with everyone at Empire Garage as she raises her fingers and begins a count-off. “One, that is what we all should be. Two, fingers in the air for peace. Three, words that mean everything: I Love You.”
The onstage focal point of eclectic electronic-pop band the Digital Wild, Moody is an immediately engaging presence, with boundless energy and charisma plus a background in dance that helps make her a riveting performer. Those words Moody recited to introduce the song “Plume” also appear in its lyrics. They’re a good measure of the message the band sought to deliver on their new five-song EP “Tall As Trees.”
“We wanted to make music that had beats you could dance to that were catchy, but we could still sneak inspiring things into people’s lives and help people feel empowered,” Moody explains.
Chelsea Seth Woodward, her partner in the Digital Wild since the band began in 2012, agrees. “Chantell and I love all types of music, but we definitely want to play music where we get to celebrate life every day that we sing it,” he says.
On “Tall As Trees,” that includes not only the uplifting chorus of “Plume” — with its assurance that “Love will save us now” — but also “Take Somebody,” in which Moody declares up-front that “I don’t need an S on my chest to save the day.” As the song continues, its aim becomes the listeners themselves: “It’s gonna take somebody standing in this crowd.” When the band played the song at Empire Garage during its EP release show on April 14, they exhorted the crowd to sing along on the line, “I can’t be the only one feeling like this.”
Developed from beats Woodward worked up with fellow Austin electronica artist Jinx McGee, “Take Somebody” became a prime example of the socially aware music the Digital Wild strives to make. “Chantell and I had been talking a lot about this EP having a certain overall theme and a message about it,” Woodward says, “and I wanted something that was ambiguous enough to empower a large group of people, but that had an anthem sound to it that really brings people together.”
Dwelling on the word “somebody” helped him get there. “It’s like giving yourself power by remembering that you are a key player in this world, that we’re all important,” he says “And I also like that we made it interactive: When we play it live, it talks about how it’s going to take somebody in the crowd. It brings people in.”
What probably brings people in to the Digital Wild’s music first is the sound, a fascinating blend of modern pop influences that’s hard to pin down. They draw on deep rhythmic structures, but they’re not really a hip-hop band (though their 2014 debut album featured more of those elements). They rely heavily on the keyboard and synth contributions of James Blair, who joined the band two years ago, but the rich melodies at the core of their songs trace back to Woodward and Moody’s early acoustic collaborations. Blair adds electronic drum rhythms as well, but the group also performs live with a drummer. (They’ve used several over the years, most recently Matt Judson.)
Moody, 26, and Woodward, 33, first met in Iowa around 2009 when Woodward, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., was touring with his former band Paper Mache. Moody kept in touch with Woodward after he subsequently moved to Austin, having been enthralled with the city during visits to South by Southwest. Moody followed a year later.
“Seth had kind of stopped doing music for a bit, but I had encouraged him to get back into it, because he was pretty inspiring to me and to a lot of other people,” she recalls. “We started working on songs together, just our voices and acoustic guitar. Later we started to bring in digital elements.”
“Into,” released in 2014, featured a third vocalist and spoken-word rap passages woven into the songs. That record’s wide-net approach was intriguing, but the tighter focus on “Tall As Trees,” produced by David Butler of the Austin electronica duo Missio, ultimately serves the material better. One song in particular offers a stark contrast: “They Say,” the EP’s leadoff track, is based on “Riskin’” from “Into,” but it’s been changed significantly enough to warrant the retake.
“As time went on, Chantell and I started to realize a little bit more of a specific direction we wanted to go,” Woodward says. “I think what we realized was that we enjoyed the hip-hop culture and the vibe more than we felt like we needed to have a rapper on everything. It’s also hard to balance three singers. That’s a lot of ideas; it’s a lot of lyrics. We want to be able to embrace the space in the songs.”
That space they’ve embraced creates great dynamics within their music. “Wait,” a highlight of the EP, uses a dramatic pause to great effect before Woodward breaks into a mesmerizing chorus, following chants of “this is my favorite part” with an emotional avowal to “stay in this moment.”
While Woodward says he intended the song to stay within the EP’s theme of “bringing people together and positivity,” he also tried to get more personal. “I wanted to have a lot of that raw, youthful energy of first lust and first love, and everything that goes along with that — the excitement and the sparkle of life. But also it was like a surrender to everything.”
Just back from a two-week East Coast tour, the band is pausing a bit before its next local shows, in part because Moody has work to do soon with her other band, Fort Never, led by producer/songwriter Timothy Ruch. Being in two bands “is challenging,” Moody says, “but it’s a great challenge. I’m being able to push myself further than I ever have musically, and just like learning how to balance it all.
“There are people like Sabrina (Ellis) from Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog doing it, and I find that inspiring. And while we’re on tour, Fort Never are back home building a studio for us and practicing, so that when I get back, we can get right back into recording. So it’s really beautiful how it’s all playing out.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH, MAY 2017: The Digital Wild
Members: Chantell Moody (vocals); Chelsea Seth Woodward (guitar, vocals); James Blair (keyboards, drums).
New record: “Tall As Trees” EP, released April 14.
Prior recording: “Into,” 2014.
Austin360 video: See highlights from the band’s April 14 record-release party at austin360.com, plus a video in our studio coming next week.