Gossamer StringsPhoto by Athena Delene

They Saw the Light

Eugene old-time folk duo release new album, Due to Darkness

As a songwriter, Eugene musician Liat Tova Lis works best when she’s in motion.

“Usually on my bike,” Tova Lis says. “I find a little phrase and melody and expand upon the theme from there, playing around with timing and word choice until I come up with something I mostly like.” 

After fleshing out her idea on guitar, she brings it to her songwriting partner Kyle McGonegle. Together, Tova Lis and McGonegle form Gossamer Strings, an old-time folk and bluegrass duo celebrating the release of their latest full-length, Due to the Darkness, on Friday, Sept. 27, at Tsunami Books. 

Tova Lis has been playing banjo for only about 10 years.

“I was a very bad piano student as a child, but always loved singing along with the radio,” she says. “I found my love for banjo and old-time music pretty much the first time I heard someone play clawhammer banjo, and I asked them to teach me immediately.” 

McGonegle, on the other hand, grew up on punk. “After moving to Eugene, I became obsessed with acoustic music,” he says. He already played guitar but banjo proved too difficult for him, so he tried the mandolin. It stuck. 

The simplicity of old-time music is what appeals most to the musicians. “You only need an instrument and a voice, and I usually have those two things,” Tova Lis says. 

“Bluegrass and old-time music have always stirred something within me,” McGonegle adds. “There is a unique intimacy and connection that happens when you sit around and play instruments together, and I feel like that comes across when listening to it as well.”

Due to the Darkness is a collection of standards and originals featuring high harmony, the sing-a-long feel of old Carter Family recordings, some athletic bluegrass sprints and even the quiet, contemporary indie folk of artists like Florist. 

“We love taking traditional tunes and putting our own spin them with different arrangements,” McGonegle says.

The title of the album came from an experience McGonegle and Tova Lis shared while hiking at Effigy Mounds National Park on the banks of the Mississippi. They came across a sign at the park that read, “Go no further past 5:30 pm due to darkness.”

The phrase “due to darkness” stuck with the musicians, and as they traveled they meditated on what might be due to darkness, what could be because of darkness and what we might owe to darkness. 

A train of thought is reflected in these lines from the song sharing the same name as the album. In “Desperate Lands,” McGonegle and Tova Lis sing in harmony, “Battered and beaten and burning. I wouldn’t last a day on my own.”

“All of the songs touch on the darkness in our lives and the beauty that comes from that,” McGonegle says.

Harmonizing with McGonegle is like partner dancing, Tova Lis says. 

“Anticipating moves and falling into sync,” she explains, “grooving together to create a complex and yummy tone that is just not possible with one voice. It feels very collaborative, how we do it, not so much just lead and follow, but making space for each other’s voices, almost creating a third voice.”

“As cliched as it sounds, it really is a situation where the sum is greater than the parts,” McGonegle continues. “It is deeply satisfying to contribute to something that feels bigger than you.”

Gossamer Strings mark the release of Due to Darkness 7:30 pm Friday, Sept. 27, at Tsunami Books. Eugene Poet Brie Huling will open the show with a reading; $10, all-ages.