Children’s Hour guitarist Andy Bar admits that he was nervous about opening for Zwan at a sold-out Metro show in January. “I was scared that people were going to hate us and throw stuff at us,” he says in a voice barely above a whisper. It wasn’t just that he was more accustomed to playing in front of 30 or 40 people who knew his music than 1,000 who didn’t. The two acts seemed like an odd match: the unabashedly spare, fragile music Bar performs with Josephine Foster–who sings and plays guitar, ukulele, and harp–couldn’t be more unlike Billy Corgan’s overpowering anthems. But the crowd dug them, Foster says–“and I don’t understand why. You can’t understand how weird it is. Maybe it’s just a mob mentality, but no matter what we did at Metro people loved everything.”

And the hot streak continues: in May they completed a six-week national tour with Zwan and the local Minty Fresh label issued their debut album, SOS JFK. Yet little more than a year ago they were ready to call it quits. “We were losing our enthusiasm and thinking about taking a break,” says Foster. She had plans to move to Portland, Oregon, and figured that if the Children’s Hour were to continue it would be as a collaboration by mail. So last April, when some friends in the rock band Kaspar Hauser asked the duo to open for them at the Prodigal Son, Foster says, “we were thinking it would be our last show for a while.”

Minty Fresh owner Jim Powers happened to be in the small audience that evening, and although he’d been unaware of the Children’s Hour before that, he was captivated by what he heard. “It had this plaintive quality that struck me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says. He approached Bar and Foster to offer his praise and ask about the band. Within a few weeks they were discussing the details of a record contract. “We thought it was really funny,” says Foster. “We had never really thought about making a record.”

Bar, who moved here from Cleveland to attend the School of the Art Institute, met Foster, a Colorado native who spent a year studying opera at Northwestern, through a mutual friend in the summer of 2000. When they started the Children’s Hour a year or so later, Bar says, they just hoped to record some four-track stuff and play the occasional show. They ended up playing out more than recording, and by the time Powers caught them they’d grown frustrated. “It’s hard for us when we play live to find our groove,” says Foster. “Sometimes we do good, and sometimes we fall flat.”

Their music is quiet and gentle, and with no noisy guitars or rhythm section, Foster’s delicate, mannered vocals are left utterly exposed. Her opera training is evident–her precise enunciation is miles from a slurred, slangy rock delivery–and the duo’s whimsical yet dark melodies borrow more from traditional folk and Tin Pan Alley than from anything written in the last 30 years. Their beguiling austerity often suggests the work of 60s British folksingers like Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs, though Foster says her knowledge of folk music doesn’t go much deeper than Peter, Paul & Mary; indeed, the arrangements veer on occasion toward the folk-pop sound of Judy Collins.

Powers persuaded them to stick it out. Late last summer he produced a live demo for them at Saint Gregory’s Church in Andersonville. The band wasn’t pleased with the results at the time (though four of the haunting tracks turned up later as an EP), and plans were made for some studio sessions. Then last fall, when Zwan took over the Hideout for a series of Monday-night open mikes, club co-owner Katie Tuten invited the Children’s Hour to sit in. Corgan and his bandmates quickly became fans. “They would talk to us and say stuff that would make your head big,” says Foster. “They were very encouraging.” Bar and Foster soon made their first out-of-town appearances when Minty Fresh set them up to open for labelmates Tahiti 80 in LA and Minneapolis.

In December they went into Gravity Studios in Wicker Park, again with Powers as producer. Drawing from the same pool of songs they had recorded live at the church, this time they added pretty overdubs–some parlor-room piano, some crystalline electric guitar–and jazz drummer Tim Daisy sat in on a number of songs to give the music a bit more forward motion. But Foster still feels somewhat dissatisfied with how it all came out. She says she doesn’t listen to music at home on an expensive system, so the playback monitors in the studio never sounded quite right to her. “Jim’s a nice guy, and he’s very nice to work with,” she says, “but I don’t think I operate very well under any authority, so no matter who it is I’d probably be at odds with him.”

Powers believes in the Children’s Hour, although they’re nothing like the pop acts he’s worked with in the past–Minty Fresh is best known as the label that introduced the U.S. to European sensations like Tahiti 80 and the Cardigans and released early records by Veruca Salt and the Aluminum Group. “I thought it was so powerful that there had to be some people who feel the same way I do,” he says. “We’ve always put out things we like and we also thought had some commercial appeal, but the current climate in the industry in terms of radio exposure and everything else makes it a waste of time and money to run up against it. Let’s get back to the pleasure of putting out stuff we like and believe an audience will be found if we put our minds to it.”

The Children’s Hour plays Schubas on Tuesday, July 8.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.