If Kali Giaritta fears the unknown, she doesn't show it.
She met Matt Harmon at a party one night while they were both attending college in Boston (Boston University for Giaritta, Berklee College of Music for Harmon). Although the two had never met before, Giaritta walked up to Harmon and asked if he'd be her best friend.
"Whenever in my life I see someone I want to be my friend, I just ask them," Giaritta explained. "And Matt was the coolest one [at the party], so I made a qualifier and I was like, 'Would you like to be my best friend?'"
The two became not just friends but romantic and artistic partners. Now married and living in Portland, Ore., Harmon and Giaritta performed for six years with five-piece band The Ascetic Junkies, which released two full-length albums and played Treefort 2012. Their current two-person project, There is No Mountain, was selected as one of 1859 Magazine's "favorite of-the-moment Oregon bands" and played the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts in New York City as part of this year's American Songbook series. The duo plays The Crux on Thursday, June 19, with local openers The Great Pogwah (Adam Jones of Hollow Wood) and Urquides.
Giaritta and Harmon self-deprecatingly refer to TINM's music as "pop with a short attention span." But nothing about them or their music is that simple, including their band's name, which comes from both the Donovan pop song "There is a Mountain" and the Zen koan that inspired it.
"We found a couple different interpretations of the koan that it's based on," Harmon said, "but the meaning that I kind of take from it--'First there is a mountain / Then there is no mountain / Then there is"--is kind of like describing differences in perspectives on things."
Such an interpretation suits the multifaceted songs on TINM's 2013 self-titled debut. Sweet, light harmonies and bubbly tunes meet with offhandedly dexterous guitar work and dramatic tempo shifts, which reflect Harmon's jazz and classical training and Giaritta's love of musical theater.
The lyrics add another layer of complexity. On one of the album's best songs, "Good News," Giaritta sings about finding comfort in death and existential meaninglessness over a bouncy African beat. Other songs like the hectic vignette "Nail Salon" and the swinging, pro-agnostic "I'm Not Convinced" strike a similar balance of playfulness and thoughtfulness.
According to Harmon, the growing idiosyncrasy of his and Giaritta's songwriting led them to disband The Ascetic Junkies.
"We started noticing that the music we were writing was getting pretty far away from what The Ascetic Junkies had been initially, which was a lot more folksong-structure-based," he said. "And then we pared down to a duo so that we could tour--and that was supposed to be a temporary thing--back in the first half of 2012, I think. We just started feeling weird about playing all these new songs live for people when we were on tour... and then knowing that they were going to get home and put these [Ascetic Junkies] CD's in and they were not going to sound anything like what they just heard."
In Giaritta's view, playing as a duo gives TINM more room to stretch out sonically.
"With a five-piece, you can only get so quiet unless you're telling [the others], "OK, you four don't play,'" she said. "You can really only play with dynamics so much. Whereas with a two-piece, we use all eight of our limbs to make sound sometimes and then other times, it's just guitar and voice or something really simple, which I like a little bit better for myself."
Giaritta isn't the only one who likes the duo's new sound. A scout from the Lincoln Center caught a TINM set last year and walked away impressed. After another scout saw the group play and had the same response, Giaritta and Harmon were invited to play the American Songbook series: the lineup for the 2014 event included Deer Tick, Beth Orton, Marty Stuart and Jason Isbell.
"It was a crazy experience," Giaritta said. "I felt like we had jumped 20 rungs on a ladder playing there. They treated us better than we've ever been treated at a venue, times about a hundred."
Harmon and Giaritta are following that experience by working on a second TINM album, which will include a number of songs the duo wrote on the road.
"I think when you're on tour, you don't know what's going to happen on any given day," Giaritta said. "So the unknowns are greater than any other normal day of my life, at least. ... So for that reason, I think we both really love to tour because it's kind of a crazy opportunity to grow and to learn new things."