When Rachel Dean and Tim Paul Gray first met in 2015, all the elements were set for something beyond their respective projects. Combining their musical pasts, songs, and newfound love, the couple formed Starlight Cleaning Co. three years later and began crafting their self-titled debut, a narrative of their desert lives, and union, and the many ghosts of their past.
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Recorded throughout 2019 at the couple’s home studio, Starlight Sound, Starlight Cleaning Co. was produced by Bart Davenport and engineered by Joel Jerome, and later dedicated to the memory of guitarist and producer Neal Casal, a close friend of the couple’s who passed away in 2019 and played on several tracks on the album.
“He [Casal] was someone that was really close to us,” says Dean, “and that kind of took me a little bit of time to deal with, so it took us time to get back on the horse and get things going again.”
Casal produced Dean’s 2015 solo album Indian Summer and the two remained good friends for many years after, eventually regrouping for Starlight. Dean had sent some of the duo’s songs to Casal—who was touring with his band Circles Around the Sun at the time—while they were in the early stages of recording. After suggesting a few tracks they’d like him to contribute on, Casal found a studio in Pennsylvania on tour and laid down the guitar for the requested tracks.
“It meant the world to me then, and it means even more now,” shares Dean. “It’s something that’s truly special. This album is an extra little piece of Neal to look back on.”
Some time after Casal’s death the couple returned to the album and then resumed talks with labels by the beginning of 2020.
Most of the songs on Starlight Cleaning Co. were songs written by the couple while they were dating, while others were born before their time together. “There’s a handful of songs that we had created earlier, but we brought them all into our lives,” says Dean. “We started playing the songs together and turned them into something that’s much different than what they were before.”
Dean adds, “I think what brings these 10 songs together is that it’s a view of our lives together. It’s kind of like this little book of our lives.”
Starlight Cleaning Co. hovers over a moonlit desert drive and the pomp and soaring harmonies of Dean and Gray coasting around the opening “Don’t Take It Away,” the dustier alt-country drift of “The Race,” one of the tracks featuring Casal, recounting the couple’s struggles when they moved out of state—Running with your eyes closed, deep into the wild / Pushing forward into the night—twisting around the introspective “Train Wreck,” a track Gray penned many years earlier and keeping its Americana pulse on the Dean-fronted “Senses Again.” A more lo-fi mid-point, “Sooner Than You Learn” addresses the detrimental state of self-medicating and the need to slow down with Starlight Cleaning Co. moving through the night and day, and waves, of life on “The Current,” originally written by Dean in 2007, the desert-dipped anthem “Free to Roam” and the closing psych rifts of “House of Hangups.”
The couple that writes separately stays together. For Dean, who has released material under her own name, and Gray, who fronted The Delusions and Charles Mansion prior to Starlight Cleaning Co., “separate” writing works best.
“I like the dynamic of Rachel being a frontperson because I like to be behind the scenes, writing,” says Gray who tends to write chunks of lyrics then connects the dots later.
“We probably write more individually than together,” says Dean. “Though, we did write one song together, ‘Don’t Take It Away,’ but it’s hard to write together. There’s arguing, especially when you’re romantically involved. You can’t really wear a mask with your partner, but we did take a lot of each other’s songs and add little things here and there to put our little spin on them.”
Working on new music, the couple continue basking in Starlight Cleaning Co. and say the desert will always be a major organ of their sound.
“It definitely creates a sense of calm, of peace,” says Gray. “There are quiet moments where you can really think clearly and focus your energy on what you’re working on. I think it probably comes out in the music in some ways, sounding spacious… or something wide open.”