ENCINITAS — Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar, the folk roots duo that make up Mike + Ruthy kicked off their tour March 15 in support of their newest album. The married couple, who lives near Woodstock, NY, that famous town that had that big festival that didn’t actually take place in the town, Ungar said, is bringing their soulful, folk-style music to Encinitas Saturday.“The word ‘folk,’ which I would say in the ‘90s, was completely uncool,” Ungar said. “For a long time, ‘folk,’ that meant from the ‘60s, and now it’s a word that could mean something new and exciting.”
Ungar’s musical background is seemingly steeped in folk music tradition; her father is Hudson Valley fiddler Al Ungar and her mother is folk-singer Lyn Hardy. And while she said it was wonderful to grow up with parents who play music, and credits that upbringing with her ability to quickly learn and develop music, it wasn’t until her twenties that her interests in music began. It also happened to be when she crossed paths with Mike. “I didn’t really seek it out, it just started to happen and let it happen,” she said.
Since then, the duo has been singing and writing songs together for years, starting with their first band, The Mammals, which Ungar described as being an “Indie string band.”
“We were influenced by old time music and fiddle and banjo music,” she said. “That band was…a part of a certain music scene. And when we branched out as Mike + Ruthy, we went more into a song writing material. But we still keep that old vibe alive. So we’re somewhere between the Indie string band-sound and the soulful, folk original songs.”
That soulful, folk sound comes through on their latest album, “The NYC EP,” which will be released April 17. The album grew from the opportunity to record a version of Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded song, “My New York City,” as part of a celebration for what would have been his 100th birthday July 14.
Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, approached the duo with the idea of recording the song, of which was just one out of a myriad of lyrics, demos and other materials about New York that Guthrie never finished.
“For the songs that didn’t have recordings, they contacted New York musicians to finish them,” Ungar said. “We were super lucky to be on that list. I imagine they picked this song (for us) because it’s a pretty love song and maybe they hoped to hear some nice harmony on it,” she said. “But the minute we started working on it, it felt like the right one.”
It took them about a year to get the song how it appears on the album. “I remember the first time we sang it for people and many people in the audience said immediately it was their favorite song on the night,” she said. “It’s a deceptively simple song because the chorus talks about all the beautiful things in New York…but there’s heartbreak in that song and there’s a lot of real tender emotions that just really connect to people.”
The seeming resurgence of the folk music, Ungar explained, may be attributed to the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and its bluegrass and gospel infused soundtrack.
“I feel like every few years there’s something really rootsy that catches on, and maybe now it’s Mumford & Sons, and before that it was a little more quiet like Iron and Wine,” she said.
When it comes to performing live shows, there’s a lot of humor and storytelling in a Mike + Ruthy show, Ungar explained.
Both Merenda and Ungar have theater backgrounds, which help them to perform in front of an audience and telling stories about the songs, even if something goes wrong during a performance; just don’t expect them to break into characters during each song.
“I really like the organic way that you can connect to people,” Ungar said. “In theater, you don’t really normally look at the audience…I found that in doing music and performing songs in a concert setting it really freed me up…to look at everybody and really be there.
“And I think that’s what’s so enduring about this whole tradition of going out to do live music. We’re there, you’re there; we’re all in one room and there’s some kind of shared experience going on,” she said.
“We sing from the heart and sing harmonies that make you feel comfortable and nice,” she said.
To hear songs from their latest album, visit mikeandruthy.com.
San Diego Folk Heritage presents Mike + Ruthy
Where: San Dieguito United Methodist Church, 170 Calle Magdalena
When: March 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $18, $15 for members