Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt seem to thrive on the chaotic activity of their band, Nancy And Beth. For our conference call interview, Mullally is in Los Angeles while Hunt is at a noisy bar in Austin, Texas, on a path to find a quiet spot to hear and be heard.
The pandemonium of Hunt’s environment mirrors the duo’s hectic career arcs; both are renowned actors with extensive credits: Hunt has had roles on Friday Night Lights and Californication, as well as in several indie films, and Mullally is best known for her Emmy-winning portrayal of wealthy elitist and unrepentant horndog drunk Karen Walker on Will & Grace, as well as for her work onstage and in films both great and small.
None of that matters at the moment. Hunt and Mullally are hitting the road with Nancy And Beth, which is their full band’s name and not the names of characters they play within the band. The band comes to the Taft Theatre Ballroom on Sunday.
In Nancy And Beth, the pair utilize exquisite harmonies and inventive arrangements to interpret an almost impossible range of material, from Dinah Washington’s “Harbor Lights” to Joni Mitchell’s “River” to George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to Gucci Mane’s profane “I Don’t Love Her.” On the latter, which Mullally wryly calls “a feminist anthem,” every eyebrow-raising expletive is left intact and the song’s uber-male perspective is unchanged.
“It’s not a comedy band, it’s just a band,” Mullally says. “But when you see it live, you see there’s a lot of wit in the choreography, and between songs we talk about whatever. It’s kind of like this interview — it gets weird.”
The biggest controversy the two women have generated is with their chosen spelling of the conjunction in their name.
“The thing about the name of the band is the ‘A’ is capitalized,” Mullally says. “People have gotten so mad. Certain publications and newspapers were like, ‘We’re not printing it capitalized. It’s not grammatically correct.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, but that’s the name of the band,’ and they don’t care. We’re Megan and Stephanie and the band’s called Nancy And Beth, so you’ve got to capitalize the ‘And’ or people are going to think it’s four chicks that are going to do the show.”
“And we’re just backing up Nancy And Beth,” Hunt says of herself and Mullally.
“Why (was) it fine for Ke$ha to have a dollar sign?” Mullally asks, with mock indignance. “Why does the Washington Post not object to that?”
Nancy And Beth began six years ago when Hunt and Mullally were both cast in the indie film Somebody Up There Likes Me. The pair escaped the Texas heat by ducking into an air-conditioned car and out of boredom began singing, with Hunt directing Mullally on their impromptu car karaoke set list.
“It was very clear that our voices sounded good together and there was something to that,” Hunt says.
With little forethought, Hunt and Mullally moved forward with their musical plans, such as they were. While still in Austin, they brainstormed band names, with Mullally documenting on her phone. Back home in Los Angeles, Mullally typed up the list when a new name flashed across her frontal lobe.
“The name Nancy And Beth came into my head, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll stick it in the middle of the list somewhere and see if she notices,’ ” Mullally says. “I emailed it to her and she immediately emailed back ‘Nancy And Beth.’ If you see the band play live or even just see the music video, it makes total sense, but we can’t explain why it’s called Nancy And Beth because we don’t know.”
“It’s part of the thing,” says Hunt. “We both intuitively know why we know what we don’t know.”
After gigs at the Newport Folk Festival and opening for the likes of Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris, the pair recorded their eponymous debut album three years ago. But due to their individual schedules, they didn’t release the album or tour again until last year.
Like nearly everything else about Nancy And Beth, Hunt and Mullally are intuitive about what songs wind up in their set lists. They change their set every night, and this current tour will feature songs from their 2017 album, a few songs they added to last year’s set and some new ones that they may record when they hit the studio next month for their sophomore release.
What makes a good Nancy And Beth cover song? “You feel it in your tummy somehow,” Hunt says. “And the songs are really polished, but it’s a nice juxtaposition because it’s loose and all of a sudden we’re dancing together. Sometimes a song will go from something we weren’t sure about to something amazing, because these dance moves have taken it to another place.”
Mullally adds: “We always have the same feelings about the same songs. We get that feeling where we have to clutch something to hold ourselves upright. One thing we realized last year — and it wasn’t a conscious decision — is we don’t sing victim songs, like torchy, the-man-that-got-away, my-man-done-me-wrong kind of songs. It’s funny because we never really talked about it.”
Much of the duo’s animated choreography winds up complementing the physical arrangements of the songs, which they work out with their crack band. Drummer Joe Berardi was Mullally’s timekeeper in her previous band, Supreme Music Program. Mullally knew violinist Petra Haden as a “weird musical genius.” Hunt connected with keyboardist Datri Bean and bassist Andrew Pressman through a recommendation from the costume designer on Somebody Up There Likes Me.
“And they knew a guitar player, and he was our original guitar player, but we killed him and we’ve got a new guitar player and now we’re on the run,” says Mullally, presumably joking. And, with a sly reference to Thelma & Louise, she says, “And that’s why we’re called Nancy And Beth.”
Nancy And Beth play the Taft Theatre Ballroom (317 E. Fifth St., Downtown) 8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.