Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Honey Dewdrops Find Their "Silver Lining"

Hailing from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Charlottesville, VA, the Honey Dewdrops are Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish. Together, writing and singing in the veins of folk and old country music, Laura and Kagey have been touring the country over the past 4 years and have appeared on A Prairie Home Companion, gained Folk Radio notoriety with a #1 album and have shared the stage with musical greats such as Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mary Gauthier, and Matt Flinner Trio.

To mark the official release of the Honey Dewdrops' new recording, Silver Lining, I recently spoke to Laura and Kagey regarding their musical history, the making of their three studio albums together, where the two find inspiration, and what lies ahead for them.

How and when did you each begin playing and learning music?

Laura: At age 7 I took guitar and piano lessons and began singing around then too. Both of my parents were singers and met through Chamber Singers in College. Music was always on in the house and car. They were so encouraging when it came to playing music.

Kagey: At age 11 I got my first guitar and started playing with friends and at church. I was taking lessons in high school. We're both "by-ear" musicians, untrained for the most part with the exception of a few lessons on guitar here and there as kids.

When did you begin writing?

Laura and Kagey: We both started writing after college. During college we played old time, bluegrass, and covered our favorite singer-songwriters like Neil Young, Dylan, Gillian Welch, Tim O'Brien, John Hartford, Elvis Costello.

After we graduated we made friends with folks who were writing and we got into it too. It felt like the right thing to do. It was comfortable. Our first song won a small songwriting contest near Charlottesville and we were encouraged to keep going by our peers. We haven't looked back since.

When and how did you meet and form the Honey Dewdrops?

Laura and Kagey: We met in college in 2003. We played in a short-lived rock band and when that was over we realized we both really liked roots and acoustic music so we started playing together and have been ever since.

The Dewdrops were officially formed in 2007 after several months of playing 3 hour-long gigs in a coffeeshop near where we went to school. We had to learn a lot of material for those shows and things started gelling at that point in time, especially when Kagey started to sing harmony.

What drew you together musically?

Laura and Kagey: It was an appreciation for roots and acoustic music. Around the time we met, we were both getting into American music from the 1920's, listening to a bunch of Alan Lomax collections and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. We liked the same stuff and tried to learn how to play and sing it.

The idea of a duet seemed like the perfect thing to do because we were listening to many duets already and really digging the way two people can play and sing together. We were obsessed with the raw and minimalist sounds we were listening to and wanted to capture that in our own way. It was a funny thing to be mutually into for young college students.

Can you briefly describe your first recording, If The Sun Will Shine?

Laura and Kagey: Our first album, If The Sun Will Shine, was recorded in winter 2009 and happened the way it did because our friend Paul Curreri told us he made his recordings in his house with a computer and a handful of mics. We loved his sound and couldn't believe it! So, we tried it at our home (which at the time was an old barn that had an upstairs apartment in it.)

We learned how to set up mics and run the recording software and used money we got from our wedding to buy all the equipment we needed. It ended up being the perfect way to make a first record because we could work when we had time, since we were full-time teachers still.

The space was perfect, lots of old wood on the walls, ceilings and floors. It had a really high ceiling too which helped and ended up sounding really good. We took the collection of songs we had written during the previous four years and began recording them. We have always felt If The Sun Will Shine was a good first effort and that it was a great learning experience. 

How did that prepare you for making your second album These Old Roots?

Laura and Kagey: The idea for that one was to draw inspiration from older American music and compose a set of songs that were linked to the past but that were also new. The focus was to look at some of our favorite older duos like the Monroe Brothers, Stanley Brothers and the Cooke Duet and to see how we could play with the two-person set up and put our own twist on it.

We recorded everything live around a few mics with no overdubs in a friend's sound treated basement. As with If The Sun Will Shine, we engineered, mixed, and mastered the whole thing ourselves.

Which brings us to your new recording, Silver Lining.

Laura and Kagey: After working closely together as a duet for the past 5 years, we wanted to open up our writing/recording/performing process for the new album. After 4 years of touring around the country, we've made some good friends who we admire as songwriters, performers, and engineers. So as the logistics were coming together to make this recording, we invited some of these good friends to be a part of the entire thing.

Specifically, we had Jeff Oehler of Beehive Productions bring his 10+ years of experience at a large label to the table as producer/engineer for this project. We met Jeff and his wife Sue, who did all of our album design, in Saranac Lake, NY during our 2011 Fall Tour.

We also invited our dear friend Barry Lawson to lend his talents on mandolin and bass. Barry has joined us on tour in and around VA. Finally, we invited Caleb Stine, a talented singer/songwriter from Baltimore whom we'd met back in 2009 to help out with producing and arranging the songs.

It certainly was not easy to let go of the reigns and let others into our songwriting process because we've been in our own little artistic bubble for years, but it ended up being a great experience for us to learn and grow with the songwriting and arranging, and we could not be more happy with how the songs turned out.

Where did you record the record?

Laura and Kagey: We set up shop in a friend's country house in Catawba, VA which is out in the mountains of Roanoke County, VA. There were few distractions if any: no cell phones or internet, and we recorded as much as we could and then took breaks to hike around the mountains and cook meals. It ended up being a great bonding experience for us all.

We had an amazing sponsorship from Peluso Microphone Labs located near Blacksburg, VA and got to use some very nice hand-made mics for the sessions. We didn't really know what these songs would sound like when we first got started but we soon realized that what was happening was bigger than us. Everybody that helped out put themselves into this record and that means a lot to us.

You have appeared on A Prarie Home Companion, and have shared stages with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mary Gauthier, and Matt Flinner Trio among others. Can you describe a significantly memorable and inspirational live experiences?

Meeting Mike Seeger and getting to jam with him, and just hearing him up close was really special. Getting to sing a few songs with Garrison Keillor is something I will never forget. I think we did "Rock n Roll Music" with him and it was just this spontaneous thing that turned out really great.

Playing with the Matt Flinner Trio is probably the most inspiring experience for me because everyone in the trio can play whatever you throw at them. We did an Ola Belle Reed song called "I've Endured" with them recently, and Eric Thorin played a bass solo that was an all single note reworking of the melody. I think that's the fun of playing with others: you never know what you're going to hear because there are so many ways a melody can be rephrased, and a song I know well always comes off sounding different and new.

Laura: In 2007, we played an opening set for Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion at what used to be the Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville. At the very end of their set, they invited us up to sing "This Land is Your Land" with them and I remember how honored we felt to be asked. Not only to sing with Woody's granddaughter, but also with a duo who was really making a living at playing music. We were still teachers at the time and hadn't considered a career change and it was the first time we'd ever "shared" a song on stage with a big act. 

How did your previous experiences prepare you for working on the new record?

Laura and Kagey: We realized we wanted to spend more time with the songs and focus in on writing, arranging, and playing rather than on the engineering of the whole thing. It was really good to be hands-off on all the mic placements and the behind the board work and just focus on the songs.

When did you begin working on songs for the new album?

Laura and Kagey: Some of the songs began back in 2010, some were brand new in December of 2011 when we began recording. We're constantly writing so there is a backlog. The songs we picked for the record were our favorites from that batch and we thought they would go together, make a good set of songs.

At the beginning of the sessions we worked as a group to develop songs, and that was a really productive way for us to work. We were bouncing ideas off of each other about arrangements and lyrics. It was something we had never really done before, and we're looking forward to more group co-writing.

Did you have a preconceived direction set for the record?

Laura and Kagey: It was more of a song-by-song basis. We focused more on writing each song individually than we did relating or connecting them to each other. More than anything we wanted to give each song what it needed with time and attention.

That being said, there are similar threads that run through the songs, like finding hope in difficult situations, an they're are all pretty personal looks at circumstances and characters.

Was there a song that set the course for the album?

Laura and Kagey: "Hills of My Home." This is the first song that was finished and it was a different kind of song than we had written in the past. It's about mountain top removal coal mining which happens throughout Appalachia, and as we've travelled more and more over the years we've learned that it is happening all over the country.

The chorus of the song is a series of questions about how long the crop of coal can sustain us and whether the harm in harvesting it is at all worth it. It's a song with a clear message and we worked with the arrangement to make it sonically compelling, but to also get out of the way of the words and singing so the message can come across.

Can you discuss your writing processes?

Laura and Kagey: Musically, the process is about listening and learning songs from others. We're constantly developing ideas of our own, which means recording them and going back to them over time and seeing if they catch our ears again.

Lyrically, the process is a daily exercise of writing and continually gathering ideas. We work together on most songs but there are times when a song is finished by one or the other on their own. And every song is different, what works to bring a song together for one does not work for another. I think that's why daily work on them is good.

So far as we can tell, songwriting, like poetry, brings together remembrances that are both personal and shared by others. It links up situations and feelings that we all share.

We try to be original and make it our own but its hard to say how that comes about. There's no real recipe, we try to always have the hook out there ready to catch something, try to be willing to accept what comes our way.

What are some of your sources of inspiration and biggest influences lyrically?

Laura and Kagey: Traveling is a big one because we meet so many people, hosts, fans, musicians, random people in line at a store, who all have stories and experiences to share. The land and our relationship to it is a constant influence.

How does the music and lyrics come together in your writing?

Laura and Kagey: Each song is different and sometimes words come first and sometimes it is the music. When the words come first there is usually some kind of rhythm that's already established. Then we try to see what feels good surrounding it, major or minor feel, waltz or 2-step or 4 kind of feeling, or something completely different. A lot of it is trial and error.

We try to figure out which instruments will sound good: guitars or mandolin, banjo or octave mandolin, or no instruments at all. Sometimes a lyrical idea will fit into a set of chords or melody that's already been written so it's nice to have a back log of material to refer back to.

When the music comes first we always feel like the emotional color of the arrangement and melody has a certain control over the lyrics that will follow. The writing that follows is more directed to fit into the music than when the lyrics come first.

Your music is based on two-part harmonies. Can you discuss an example of composing a tune and how it all came together?

Laura and Kagey: "One Kind Word" came from a set of lyrics that we'd worked on for about 5 months. During that time there were a few different chord arrangements we'd played around with but none that we were that impressed with.

One day Kagey came up with a guitar part that sounded good and was very different from what we had already tried. From there, the verses seemed to fit in well. The choruses needed changing but only slightly. We both tried singing it in different keys to see who sounded better with the lead and we decided to go with Kagey. Laura developed a banjo part that fit nicely.

This happens a lot, where a song goes through a variety of arrangements until we find the one that really turns us on. Sometimes we need time, six months or a year, to figure out what is right for a particular song.

Which artists and albums inspire and influence you most?

Kagey: Mary Gauthier's writing is at the top of my list. She always tells the truth and never leaves anything out. I've also been very into Darrell Scott recently. He does everything so well. Writing, singing, playing. Our good friend Caleb Stine is the same way.

Laura: I found out about Eileen Jewel a few years ago and loved her sound immediately. There is something about the vibrato in her voice that I've tried to emulate in my own way and I found her record "Sea of Tears" as a great inspiration for my singing.

I've also loved an Alison Krauss & Union Station record called "So Long, So Wrong" since it came out in 1997. I don't hear a lot of people mention it when speaking of their favorite AK records, but I just love the arrangements, harmonies, and songwriting. I go back to listening to it still.

Recently, a trio out of Asheville called Red June has been on our player a lot. Both of their records are stellar and I can't get enough of their songwriting and singing. Really tight 3 part harmonies!

What would you say are some of the musical commonalities connected you to each other you?

Laura and Kagey: We both really like harmony singing, especially duets and we like the way our voices sound together. We've both been sharing the lead singing roles recently and it's been fun for us to explore the lead and supporting harmonies.

We listen to a lot of instrumental music too and both connect with it deeply. People like Bill Frisell, David Grier, and Matt Flinner. We're extremely drawn to that music and the images it conjures. Sometimes, it's all we'll listen to while on tour in the car. It's really nice to share a love of this kind of music. 

Are there major differences in your own individual musical sensibilities?

Laura and Kagey: There are definitely differences. We bring all of our strengths and weaknesses to the table with songwriting and arranging, and those can be challenging.

Laura has a knack for finding melody and harmony in songs which is incredibly helpful. She also has a very good feel for rhythm and has great intuition on what works and does not rhythmically. Certainly a positive experience for our songwriting.

Kagey is an amazing lyricist and works constantly at writing, always exercising the muscle. He's also so good at maintaining a consistent practice with all of his instruments. Another reward in our work.

These strengths bring out the challenges in trying to make room for each other to work in these capacities and accepting that the other may not be as strong in those areas. We're always learning something from one another and trying to compromise on what we feel is best for the song. There's probably some aspects of that having to do with our marriage and not just our artistry!

What are your non-musical sources of inspiration?

Laura and Kagey: Food. We really like to cook on the road and especially when we're at home. There's nothing like a good home cooked meal! We like to try out new recipes all the time and love to try out restaurants everywhere we go.

Photography too. Laura studied photography in school and has just started getting back into black and white photography. She's been photographing while on tour and we've been spending some time with a few monographs from our favorite artists/photographers (specifically, Robert Frank and John Cohen).

Will you be touring for the new album?

Laura and Kagey: Yes, we'll continue to travel and play across the country for the rest of this year.

What have you been listening to lately?

The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Matt Flinner Trio's Winter Harvest, Red June's Beauty Will Come, Darrell Scott's Long Trip Home, Bruce Hornsby's The Way it Is, The Beatles' Please Please Me, Bill Frisell's Sign of Life, Caleb Stine's  I Wasn't Built For a Life Like This, and Cahalen Morrison & Eli West's The Holy Coming of the Storm.

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