Pretty Polly gives new life to traditional ballads at Casa Del Mar

By Bliss Bowen

Jessie Payo (left) and Leeann Skoda, accomplished artists in their own right, can really slay a murder ballad together

Since migrating from the British Isles to Appalachia, “Pretty Polly” has pretty much set the gold standard for murder ballads and been recorded by everyone from Dock Boggs to Aoife O’Donovan. With its instant evocation of Americana roots, it was a smart choice for a band name when Jessie Payo and Leeann Skoda started playing together two years ago.

Aside from rootsy melodies and acoustic instruments, the defining element of Pretty Polly’s sound is the vocal chemistry between Payo and Skoda. Both strong independent artists who juggle various projects, their dynamic harmonies achieve a dramatic tension that suits their material, whether they’re performing their originals or interpreting traditionals popularized by Bill Monroe, the Everly Brothers and the Grateful Dead (“The One I Love is Gone,” “Down in the Willow Garden,” “Cold Rain & Snow”) or Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Meyer” (a worthy twist on the “Pretty Polly” tradition of murder ballads). Those songs can be heard in their live sets and on the lo-fi album they released last year, “One Day,” so named because that’s how long it took them to make it.

The diminutive Payo is a savvy show biz veteran who started belting out blues and funky rock in clubs across the Southland with her dad while still a kid; in 2013, she released a Kickstarter-funded country album on her Payote label.

Skoda, an Arizona native who last year released her first EP, “Didn’t We All,” is familiar to Irish Times audiences in West L.A.; her light, sultry tones form the smoke to Payo’s gutsy fire.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Alice Gerrard and the late, great Hazel Dickens took traditional songs once considered the province of male artists only and made them sound new and relevant again as the pioneering folk/bluegrass duo Hazel & Alice. It’s heartening to hear two independent women similarly reviving old songs and claiming them as their own.

Pretty Polly harmonizes at Casa del Mar (1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica) at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23. Call (310) 581-5533 for venue info and preview “One Day” at