Watching the four people who make up the Owings Mills acoustic-grunge and neo-folk group ilyAIMY perform is like watching fish swim, horses run, spiders weave or birds fly. When they are playing together, Rob Hinkal, Heather Lloyd, Sharif Kellogg and Rowan Corbett give the impression being totally in their element, doing what just they were made to do.
Considering that the band has spent much of the past five years honing its intelligent songs almost every night at coffee shops, community festivals, farmers markets and wherever they can find an open mic, perhaps it isn't surprising that its chemistry is strong and playing seems an innate form of self-expression.
Hinkal, the guitarist and singer who conceived the project, began his career in art as an illustrator and painter, and turned to music when he said he discovered it was "the ultimate in face-to-face communication with other people."
In a telephone interview, he said: "There is something cathartic about taking these emotions, these stories . . . it's an interesting exercise in pouring yourself out to these people over and over again."
The name ilyAIMY stands for "i love you And I Miss You" and comes from the title of an art school project of Hinkal's.
The quartet's sound is rhythmically intricate and based around his dynamic finger-style guitar and Lloyd's vivacious hand-drumming.
The two share vocal duties; Hinkal's near-whispers, snarls and grunts, mix effectively with Lloyd's soaring, soulful sound. Kellogg, on piano and bass, and Corbett, on percussion, add depth and color to the band's sound.
Rather than try to draw comparisons to other artists, ilyAIMY has let its listeners make those assessments. Hinkal said he has been told that ilyAIMY, with its mix of acoustic instrumentation, vocal harmonies, prog-rock rhythms, grunge aesthetics and smart songwriting, reminds listeners of a number of musical artists, including Alice in Chains, the Indigo Girls, Jethro Tull and Tool.
Critics, meanwhile, have been confused in thinking about ilyAIMY. The Washington Area Music Association has twice nominated the group for awards, for Best Contemporary Folk Group or Duo and once or Best Alternative Rock Album.
The band has always had a do-it-yourself ethic, handling its promotion, Web site design, management and booking. The band also independently released several albums, the most recent of which was "Between Lover & Twilight" last year.
Hinkal said the band is serious about art but not about themselves. Having a quirky sense of humor helps enliven their shows because the songs are often lyrically dark.
As invigorating as being in a full-time band that earns its bread from touring and playing heartfelt music has been, Hinkal said, ilyAIMY has scaled back its touring plans and is concentrating on local gigs while the members have taken on part-time jobs. "It's an awesome life," he said. "It's a terrible living."
-- C. Woodrow Irvin