Despite only coming together last August, Norfolk-based Americana pop duo Copilot have already found success in their work, having released an album ("Downbeat.") and playing shows all over New England and New York. They've even been heard on several radio stations.
For members Ry McDonald, 23, (vocalist/guitarist), and Maggie Quealy, 24, (vocalist), it's become more than a project; it's a passion, and in each other they've found their own perfect musical copilot.
The duo first met while attending King Philip Regional High School. After graduating in 2010, they both went on their own paths, as McDonald headed north to Vermont's Lyndon State College while Quealy headed to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
McDonald cofounded a folk-rock band called Suncooked, which made a name for itself in the Northeast Kingdom and in Burlington, Vt. They eventually opened for such bands as the Dropkick Murphys and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whose bassist, Joe Gittleman, is a faculty member in the Music Business and Industry program at Lyndon.
Quealy played softball at UMass Amherst and got away from singing until her junior year, when she joined an a cappella group called Sharp Attitude. During school breaks, she and McDonald would get together "to just sing and really jam out," Quealy said, adding that it was McDonald who really pushed her to get back into music.
Copilot started out on a six-month tour with Celebrity Cruise Lines, but McDonald was with fellow former Suncooked member Colin Murphy, not Quealy.
However, once they returned to dry land, McDonald became closer friends with Quealy and the two soon realized they really had something as a musical duo. Their first live performance took place at the Ashland Alehouse in Ashland, Mass., last August.
"I was a bit nervous," Quealy said. "He has been playing gigs for such a long time, so I know the feeling might have been a little different (for him), but I was also super-excited and overjoyed."
"I'd say we both felt very in sync right away, which was really exciting," McDonald added.
From there, things began to take off for the two. While also working on the debut album and posting videos of covers and a few originals to their YouTube page, McDonald and Quealy would pick up gigs in Massachusetts and Vermont. That eventually expanded to the entire region, from Portland, Maine to New York City.
"Portland has an amazing scene for original music with plenty of small venues," said McDonald.
He and Quealy added, however, that it's a little harder to find such venues closer to home, especially as they move away from covers and more toward original music.
An exception is the cafe at An Unlikely Story bookstore in Plainville, which McDonald called "an amazing outlet and addition to the area." They also enjoy playing colleges, having recently performed at Springfield College and New England College in Henniker, N.H.
Their teamwork also extends to the songwriting process.
"Typically, if one of us has an idea or some little ditty we wrote down, we are at a level with each other where we are super-comfortable to share and be OK with letting the other human hear it," Quealy said.
"What I like to do when I have an idea is bring it to Maggie and have her sing along with it over and over. I like to listen to her interpretation of my ideas, it helps us find our own special voice. Then we try out different ideas from there," McDonald said.
In December, they released their debut album, "Downbeat.," which had been in the works for some time and comes from a deeply personal place for McDonald. It honors the life and memory of a former Suncooked bandmate and close friend Jake Gregg, who lost his battle with leukemia in 2015. The album features several songs written either with or by Gregg, ends with four songs performed by him, is dedicated to him.
McDonald and Gregg recorded most of the album in a shed in McDonald's home in Norfolk, a place which Suncooked had nicknamed "The Surface." The exception was "Strange in the Morning," a track written by Gregg that was recorded at the Old Firehouse in Tinmouth, Vt., with three of Gregg's friends from home: Alex Heaton, Jon Watts and Rainbow Squire.
"Having these three on the track meant everything to me because they embodied everything I wanted the album to be about: making music in the memory of Jake," McDonald said. "When I got to do that with three people who loved him and I would not have met without him, it was very special."
On May 6 and 7, Copilot performed at the third annual Greggfest at Lyndon State College, where the outdoor skate park is transformed into an amphitheater to host the two-day music festival. The event began as a way to raise money for the Gregg family and his treatment, and now funds a scholarship to the school in his memory.
Currently, McDonald and Quealy say they are balancing time between performing and creating new material, something which she described as "definitely a continual process." McDonald added that they are both "continuing to find themselves every day."