Listening to High Tea’s most recent music, you probably wouldn’t guess that it was composed during a worldwide quarantine. Ranging from cowboy stories to songs set in fictional, time-bending towns, the music is full of adventure, a far cry from what most of us have been experiencing the last two years. The indie-folk duo — lyricist, guitarist, and vocalist Isabella DeHerdt and vocalist and percussionist Isaac Eliot, both 23 — split their time between Boston and Greenfield. On Monday, they’ll be playing a set at the Middle East in Cambridge that will include songs from their new EP “Old Cowboy,” released Dec. 8.
The band’s music has an “Alice in Wonderland”-like quality to it, and not just because it was named after a tea party. DeHerdt and Eliot’s songs delve into the intimacies and intricacies of growing up, and all that adulthood entails: love, loss, isolation, frustration. But through it all, they maintain a childlike reverence for stories and storytelling, deftly weaving plot lines, narrative, and dialogue into their music. And like Alice, they have gone through several transformations.
The pair met in 2016, at a five-week summer program hosted by Berklee College of Music. “Feels like lifetimes ago,” DeHerdt said, adding that “it took us a few years to actually start doing music together.” Now, five years down the road, they have become “partners in both music and life.”
The pandemic, Eliot said, became something of a catalyst for their music. Both of their other musical endeavors were put on hold, giving them the chance to focus on a single project together. DeHerdt graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in jazz and world music in 2020, and soon after, the pair moved into an apartment in Greenfield, where they recorded their first album, “Hell of a Ride,” from start to finish. Eliot, who is finishing up a psychology degree at Southern New Hampshire University, described the experience as “an exercise in how much you could take on multiple roles surrounding a single project and compartmentalize while doing so.”
“It was all written, recorded, and mixed in our apartment,” said DeHerdt. “We did everything because during the pandemic, you couldn’t really easily go out to a recording studio.”
It was DeHerdt’s mother who suggested the name High Tea (before that, the duo had performed briefly as Mabel). The pair wanted to “flip the idea [of a high tea] upside down, on its head,” DeHerdt explained, by taking a concept “that is normally very elegant and [adding] that little bit of rock and roll, a little bit of grunge to it.”
And that they do. “Old Cowboy” introduces a more stripped-down, stage-ready sound. The soft harmonies and background vocals that overlay much of “Hell of a Ride” have been peeled back somewhat, allowing bluesy guitar riffs and percussion to rise to the forefront. That simplified approach has a practical application: “During recording, it’s easy to add layer after layer to a song,” Eliot said. “When you have to [play] live, you realize that you can’t do it as easily.”
Each song tells a different story, utilizing a variety of perspectives and narration styles often framed in the first person. “Not all of it is autobiographical, but a lot is pulled from our lives,” Eliot said. “But I think that’s the nature of what pulls people to do art, is having feelings that you want to express.”
And like that of any good writer, DeHerdt’s lyrics leave space for listeners to bring their own interpretations to the piece. “That’s something I always strive for in my writing,” she said, “something that can be understood in many different ways [and] can speak to people in different walks of life.”
With Old Tom & The Lookouts, Nick Hames, Conor & The Wild Hunt. At the Middle East Upstairs, Cambridge, Dec. 20 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $12-$15, www.mideastoffers.com