By Brian Tucker
If you caught Stray Local performing on a downtown sidewalk or a show in the past they’ll surprise you with new album The Sun Still Shines. The trio – Hannah Lomas, Jamie Rowen and Nick Simon, formed over a year ago. Today their sound is more than the old time music they began with. At the core is acoustic roots music, but the album is a Sunday gathering of songs sassy, funky, soulful, uplifting and soaked with horns.
“We love (old time music), but that’s not where our heart and soul is one hundred per-cent,” Lomas said. “The title of the album comes from one of the songs. There’s a lot of themes in the album talking about the sun going up or down, but metaphorically the sun still shines, keeping a positive spin on things, so much of it is hopeful. And “In the Pines” it has where the sun don’t ever shine.”
Simon, Lomas and Rowen talk about the new sun-soaked album sitting outside on a muggy mid-October evening as heat lightning punches the background. They talk like lifelong best friends, though Lomas and Rowen met at UNC-Greensboro in the music program.
“We knew each other freshman year but became friends playing music together,” Lomas said. “He was living on the music floor. All of my friends were and we all hung out.”
Simon, who plays bass and percussion, is like the older brother – quieter, observational, perhaps echoing the solitude of having lived in Wasilla, Alaska. Lomas is from Wilmington and Rowen grew up in Pennsylvania. After graduation they emailed music ideas back and forth – melodies and guitar parts. It was promising enough that Rowen moved to Wilmington. After playing a few gigs they saw Simon performing with Crissie McCree downtown.
“Jamie said we should talk to him. But what do we say?” Lomas said. “Nick was wearing a bow tie, looking all fancy – we can’t go talk to him. As a band, we didn’t exist much without Nick.”
“Nick stuck with us perfectly right away,” Rowen said. “We were looking for someone to fill different shoes. We thought he was a drummer but he was a bass player.”
“Things easily fell into place,” Simon said, and shows followed. As did busking, often on the sidewalk outside Kilwin’s Ice Cream. They came well rehearsed, wanting to introduce their music to people and test new material.
“And ice cream money,” Simon adds with a smile. People would buy them ice cream and it also led to a handful of private party gigs.
“That was always one of our stops,” Hannah added. “People would ask us what flavor we wanted. The busking, people could tell we rehearsed, not just out there trying to make money. People walking by ask who we are and we’ve gotten a handful of gigs from it, private parties. We played a private party in Greensboro from a guy who heard us last summer playing downtown.”
They later won ten day’s recording time with last year’s Hourglass Studio’s EP contest. They ended up recording with engineer Trent Harrison four extra days, resulting in twelve songs. For this year’s contest they helped with judging.
“It’s interesting because we know how the process went and knowing what they went through, that they had three takes to do their song,” Hannah said. “It was really hard. I think Trent will continue to tweak how the contest works so it’s fair as possible.”
“A lot of bands that wouldn’t necessarily do anything come out. It’s an easy way to get a nice video and possibly record,” Simon said.
Their album is centered with the first song Lomas and Rowen learned (a sultry, sullen take of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines”), horn playing courtesy of Temple5’s AJ Reynolds and Aaron Lane and Lomas’ twin sister Jesse. And there’s “Identity Theft,” a song inspired by the December 2012 robbery-murder of 19-year old Joshua Proutey in the parking lot of Hannah Block Community Arts Center.
“We lived on 5th and Orange and that was so close. We were shocked about this terrible thing that happened. (Proutey) asked for his ID back and the guy shot him. (The song is) based on it, not a direct narrative. When you decide to steal things from people you’re saying something about your own personality.”
It’s just one of many ties to Wilmington. Lomas’ other sister Kayce did the album’s art work.
“My mom texted me,” Lomas said. “(she texted) I couldn’t be more proud that my three of my daughters are on the album.”
Hannah: Its one of the highlight programs of the school in addition to nursing, business and education. It’s known in the southeast as a being a strong music school. You apply and then go in an audition for the faculty. Mine was voice so I sang an Italian aria.
Before forming the band with Nick, you met at UNC-Greensboro. In the music program?
Jamie: I did classical guitar. I got into music during my freshman year of high school not knowing I could go to school for music. I delved into it and later got into school, somehow, and saw how good everyone is.
Hannah: We both had similar experiences; neither of us had private lessons in high school or before but was obsessed with music. I was always in chorus and auditioning but when you get to college everyone is the best of the best and they all had private lessons. We show up and its like, these people are so good.
Jamie: We had some practicing to do.
Hannah: We weren’t the closest friends in college. We knew each other freshman year but only became friends playing music together. He was on the music floor but all of my friends were on that floor and we all hung out. Jamie has always been a nice, bubbly person to be around. We get along naturally.
Jamie: She’s not shy at all, but to learn she was shy in high school is surprising.
Hannah: We get along so well together. It wasn’t by chance, things happen for a reason.
Can you tell that someone’s classically trained versus self-taught?
Hannah: Yeah, you can tell but other times it’s not so obvious. It’s probably more apparent than playing guitar. I had a hard time at first, transitioning (in college), because I sing with a straight tone and this is a very opera school as far as voice department. UNCG is very opera, and so that took me a while to get used to. I felt that I wasn’t good enough for the longest time.
Jamie: A lot of times I like people who aren’t classically trained, who don’t have their mind clouded. You can get your mind clouded, but you can clear it. With guitar I did classical but got into jazz and we got into old time music which is the opposite of classical. (I had) all this theory in my brain in college and then our teacher said ‘don’t talk to me about theory; don’t talk to me about all these particulars, just play the song.’
Hannah: we weren’t allowed to write out the music, to look up chords. You had to do it by ear, the opposite of being classically taught.
Jamie: So many classical musicians, you take away their sheet music, and a lot of them we went to school with, you ask them to improvise something and they say “what?”
Nick: I started playing piano and I felt like I became a better musician all around. You could say the same for many instruments, but the piano definitely helps you learn music theory.
Where did everyone meet?
Jamie: We met Nick (Simon, who plays bass and percussion) in Wilmington. Nick was playing in a duo at the Farmer’s Market in downtown Wilmington.
Hannah: We had just started as a band and Jamie said we should just go talk to him. But what do we say? Nick was wearing a bow tie and looking all fancy, we can’t go talk to him. We didn’t exist much without Nick as a band.
Nick: We played a couple of times together, no formal invitation.
Jamie: Nick stuck with us perfectly right away. We were looking for someone who could fill different shows, we thought he was a drummer but he was a bass player. We went to a fiddle festival and saw a washboard and thought we should get one. Nick did and figured it out.
Hannah: We’re playing with a different set-up everywhere we play. Nick will stomp on a mic stand for a bass tone, or on the floor. No matter where we are we’re going to have percussion. We can play in a big venue plugged in with a kit or a tiny spot, we can still have a great sound. It’s different depending on where we are.
What were you doing before?
Jamie: I worked as a recruiter for UNCG in 2012 and 2013 and Hannah was a choral teacher. She was here and I was in Greensboro. We would send tracks to each other, we’d write some songs. I’d send a guitar track and she’s send some melodies. I thought they sounded real good and decided to quit my job and moved here last year.
Hannah: We played a wedding and a showcase where we played three songs (at Ted’s Fun on the River) and that’s it.
What do you play in the band?
Jamie: I’m the guitarist and play banjo. Our strengths and weakness are polar opposites. I work through harmony, chords and different finger picking playing. Hannah helps me so much with melody, I’ve struggled with that. Now I can give her a nice structured harmony and she can give me a nice vocal melody I never would have thought of.
Hannah: We do it collaboratively. Sometimes I sing a melody and Jamie will say simplify that a little bit. Nick, now that we all live together will be more crucial to the songwriting. Now, we have his strengths, which is rhythm, making it more interesting.
Nick: I play bass, drums, percussion. I’ve been in bands my whole life, learned that way. I started playing bass. I didn’t really play in school but I started playing electric bass while living in Alaska. A friend left a drum set at my house and I started playing it. It felt natural; I was always pretty good at it. It took a while to separate my limbs but I stuck with it. We practiced a lot, that’s what we did there; we just played music and hung out. I never really practiced my rudiments. I’m kind of paying for it now.
I came up in late punk rock era, 90s ska music, Green Day, Rancid, Operation Ivy, kind of wishing we were down there in California. Simple stuff, but effective. I lived in Wasilla and Anchorage is the big city. It was bar bands, cover bands in Wasilla and some select shows there. We and our contemporaries at the time tried to create a scene, putting on shows at a train depot or a gym. There were always those things happening. We didn’t even get the new artists that came, wouldn’t hear about it. We’d go to the music store and browse.
You studied music in high school.
Jamie: We had a guitar lab in high school, so it was four levels of a lab in my public high school. First level was intro to guitar, second finger style guitar, third was jazz and the fourth you picked what you wanted and I picked singer-songwriter. I got onto a little bit of classical. Researching college you either had to pick classical or jazz. I got a few lessons from high school teacher to figure out what I should audition for. I got in for classical. Starting out, I played in a few bands and we just played a little around town.
Hannah: I play mandolin but only in the past few years. I would never call myself a mandolin player. I started singing chorus in school, fourth grade all the way through. I’ve only studied music in public schools but I had great teachers. I was obsessed with it. I soaked in all the theory I could. I auditioned for everything I could. Honors chorus. I went to governor’s school which was a summer after junior year that was for six weeks, focusing intensely on choral music. That’s my background, then when I went to college and did acapella groups and old time ensemble.
What was the idea of forming band, what you wanted to do?
Hannah: We started out with old time music, that’s how Jamie and I started playing together. So when Nick came to the band we kept that as a foundation. We were playing a lot of old time tunes. We only had a handful of originals but our early originals are heavily influenced by old time music. But we all have different backgrounds in what we like.
Jamie: Now that we’re all living together we’re writing together.
Hannah: We played this morning for a couple of hours, actually.
The new album is all over the place – funky, soulful, traditional.
Hannah: Yeah. You know, we’re still young as a band and maybe later we’ll focus it. But we have so many interests that maybe we won’t. We have very different backgrounds anyway and we don’t really want to cut any of that part out of it.
Making the album, did you have the songs down before going in?
Nick: As much as possible. There wasn’t a lot of time. We had been writing heavily and playing with the drum kit very recently. I was living out on the farm I worked at. We didn’t really have a rehearsal space but we knew recording was coming up and we have to start rehearsing with this drum kit because we all wanted a full band sound on the record. I had the drums, but didn’t have a proper place to set it up. We worked out temporary areas to practice, but there wasn’t a lot of time.
Hannah: We’re new and still experimenting with instruments. I just a keyboard so things are going to be different. We all play multiple instruments but we’ll have different people coming in to play bass (at the show).
Was the album recorded in live takes or in pieces?
Nick: That’s why it took a little longer to record. We weren’t as rehearsed as we should have been. We were kind of writing them as we went. The core of the songs was written but we got in there and there was a lot of attention paid to detail. We’re glad we ended up paying for and taking the extra time to do that.
Who played the horns on the album?
Hannah: My twin sister Jesse plays trumpet. She’s a classically trained trumpet player. And we got two guys – Aaron Lane and AJ Reynolds from Temple5 who are fantastic improvisers. They are jazz musicians, classically trained and they are funky.
Jamie: It’s funny because we only started over a year ago. It’s kind of this stigma, maybe that I worry about, that people think we’re old time music. We didn’t know what we’re going to do yet. At the end of the day we’re going to do what we want, put horns on it…
A lot of the band YouTube videos are old time music. People will be surprised by it.
Hannah: I think so. (Old time music) is where we started. Early on we didn’t have two hours of original music so we’d use old time music we knew. People enjoy it, its appropriate in so many different ways and its family friendly. We love it, its fun, but that’s not where our heart and soul is one hundred per cent. People who may have heard us early on might not expect it.
When we wrote “Lucky Card,” one of the songs with horns, Jamie played exactly what the horns are doing. He played it so rhythmically with the guitar, he put all this rhythm and funkiness, and so we pulled that exact same idea and the horns are playing that. To us it doesn’t feel as different as where we started but to someone listening it sounds totally different.
Jamie: The guitar is lower on it. I wrote a lead part for it. That’s what I’ve enjoyed also. Now that we’re writing more songs with Nick, having a percussionist there, whatever he’s playing that day, so when it was just us I would have to fill in everything I hear in my head with the guitar. Now that Nick is giving a funky groove I can do a lead or not play a constant rhythm.
Now that you’re all living together you’ll get a lot more done.
Hannah: Yes, especially since we decided to schedule business time. We’re all in the house and we enjoy each other’s company, so it’s easy to just hang out and not do business, but in the past several months we’ve gotten really good. We teach in the evening and have gigs at night so band practice is in the morning.
Talk about “Identity Theft.”
Hannah: Last year there was a 19 year old young man named Joshua Proutey was killed. We lived on 5th and Orange and that was so close. We were thinking about it and shocked about the story, this terrible thing that happened. We heard he asked for his ID back when the guy shot him. He asked for his ID because why would they need an ID, they could take his money, which I believe was only eight dollars. That story was the inspiration for that song.
And “Ain’t Missing You”?
Hannah: Sometimes I feel sassy, and sometimes when a relationship doesn’t work out you do go through this mourning period and other times you just need to get over it. This song is about getting over it, and saying I can do better without you and I’m not hurting at all. There’s not a lot of words in that one, it’s just about the feeling expressed in it. I think a lot of people can relate to it.