For Mike von Grey, the moment of truth came in 2010 as he watched his four teen-aged daughters — none over the age of 16 — walk onstage at Chastain Park as the opening act at a Sarah McLachlan concert.
The sisters — known professionally as von Grey — had won a local competition for Best Undiscovered Female Act leading up to the Lilith Fair revival tour stop at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood. The prize was a spot as an opening act. But the tour was canceled before it ever got to Atlanta. Instead, McLachlan, who cofounded the Lilith Tour in the late ’90s, performed a solo show at Chastain and invited the teen band to open for her there.
“I was in the audience and my stomach was in knots,” says von Grey. “They were backstage just as cool as a cucumber. That was affirmation because, you know, every parent thinks their kid is a genius.”
Much has changed in the three years since that appearance. The sisters have released two EPs with a third on the way in January. They’ve signed with a Los Angeles–based management team. They’ve appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and “Conan.” Letterman made a “Sound of Music” joke about the von Trapp family singers; Conan O’Brien referred to them as “Mumford & Daughters.”
The quartet from Johns Creek — Kathryn, 18 (cello and mandolin); Annika, 17 (lead vocals, violin, banjo and keyboards); Fiona, 16 (lead vocals and guitar); and Petra, 13 (keyboards, background vocals) — play two local shows this week: Thursday night at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center and Friday night at the Captain Planet Foundation annual gala.
Over the past 12 months, von Grey hit the charts with a single (“Coming For You”), appeared on national television and performed at the South By Southwest and Bonnaroo festivals. “They’ve had a pretty good 2013,” Mike von Grey says with a laugh.
The story of the von Grey band is one of the most improbable you’ll ever hear.
Neither Mike von Grey nor his wife, Jill, have a musical background other than both took piano lessons as kids. “I lived in a small house with a very dark basement, and that’s where the piano was,” he says. “When my parents would say, ‘Mike, go to the basement,’ it felt like punishment.”
The von Greys wanted their four daughters to appreciate music and, at the age of five, enrolled each one into classical music instruction, first on string instruments and then piano. “The challenge is when you have four of them, each playing two instruments,” says Mike von Grey. “All of a sudden, that’s eight lessons a week. That’s a lot of car time.”
The travel time was cut down when they decided to homeschool the kids. They found a music school in Roswell that specialized in the Suzuki Method — focused on initially learning music by ear and performing in front of peers — and it enabled them to all take lessons there when other kids were in their regular school classrooms.
Because they played the instruments of a classical chamber music quartet — two violins, a viola and cello — the school suggested they perform together at the daily recitals. That led to invitations to play chamber music at weddings for money, and then corporate functions.
The oldest daughter at the time was 13; the youngest was eight.
Everything changed when Annika attended a two-day workshop on Celtic and bluegrass fiddling. When she expressed a desire to learn that kind of music, her parents found someone who could teach her. She began to attend weekend fiddling contests. Then, at the age of 12, she won the U.S. national Irish fiddling championship in New York City. That led to her sitting in with the legendary Irish band the Chieftains at the Fox Theatre and a trip to Ireland to perform there.
Annika’s sisters followed her interest in bluegrass music and began to learn guitar, banjo and mandolin. They also began to sing. Then came the three-month trip to India, where Mike von Grey often worked setting up hospital billing systems. Many of his friends there were Indian musicians who loved Western rock and roll and blues.
“One of them came over and was showing our daughters how to play Eric Clapton licks,” says Mike von Grey. “Within a week or two of being there, these local hotels heard about the girls and offered them a job. And so they had two sets. They’d do a classical chamber music quartet set, and then they’d come back and do a bluegrass set. In India!”
The sisters released an extended play (EP) CD called Make Some Noise in 2011 that was bluegrass and country flavored.
But that musical direction was short-lived. The sisters went to their parents and said they weren’t sure if that style of music reflected who they are, and asked if they could try something different. “They took control of their creative direction and that was another point of affirmation,” says Mike von Grey.
“They kind of had to go through those morphs,” adds Jill von Grey. “That was a big turning point. They were writing songs all summer and what was coming out was them.” Those songs turned into an EP called Von Grey, which included the catchy and infectious single “Coming For You.”
At a rehearsal last Sunday afternoon (they were learning Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” at the request of Ted Turner, the founder of Captain Planet, for the gala), the sisters ran through a five-song miniset. Their sound is firmly indy-alt-folk, marked by the virtuosity of their musicianship and the uniqueness of their sound. There’s Kathryn’s classical-flavored cello, the robust Celtic-influenced fiddle playing of Annika, the fierceness of Fiona’s guitar-playing and the graceful piano lines played by Petra.
Even though she just turned 16, there’s a power and confidence in Fiona’s voice, and the harmonies between her and Annika and Petra are gorgeously rich in texture. And they’ve already shown a knack for writing interesting and compelling songs.
Their parents have given their daughters ownership of their career and their look. Fiona, for example, shaved off her hair on both sides of her head. Annika likes to sport a nose ring and at one point dyed her hair green. “As far as style, anything that’s not permanent they’re allowed to do,” Jill von Grey says with a laugh. “We’ve taught them to be free thinkers and independent.”
That freedom extends to the music. “They know what they want,” says Mike von Grey. The sisters control their photo shoots and music videos, conceptualizing them to the point that they choose the photographers and design their CD artwork.
“Our main thing is they’re excelling at what they do, and they seem to enjoy it,” he says. “They don’t need a lot of motivation. Most good things stem from being passionate about what you’re doing.”
The sisters have already far outgrown the local club circuit. In March, they’ll play 14 shows on a tour with Marietta-native Ron Pope that will take them from New Orleans to Texas to St. Louis and Chicago, and then on to Toronto and Boston.
Their driver/roadie/road manager is Jill von Grey. Her husband calls her the “unsung hero” of their daughters’ music career. “The road is not glamorous; it’s a boatload of hours,” he says. “They play, go to a hotel and get not very much sleep and then drive the next day. But when they’re not on the road these days, they’re itching to go back.”
Being homeschooled gives them the flexibility for the extended road trips. “Doing well academically is a condition of doing this,” says Jill von Grey. “For the moment, it’s a little surreal. But I equate it to soccer moms or theater moms. You support what your kids want to do.”
Except soccer moms usually aren’t helping load amplifiers and gear at one in the morning.