AVENUE

Stray Local reemerges with new EP, new sound

(article originally published in Star News, additional Q&A below)

By Brian Tucker

Stray Local continues searching for what resonates. New EP Passenger is neither beginning nor end in that search and also the best part. Its six songs sound like another band, far from the old time and folk music dominating previous recordings and their reputation as a live act. Fans of the band – at its core Hannah Lomas and Jamie Rowen, will be surprised and taken in.

“We know that some people aren’t going to like it but you can’t be concerned with (that),” Lomas said. “You’ll lose some fans and gain some too.”

It’s a change that’s likely been brewing for years, hinted as far back as their first full length The Sun Still Shines (2014) with its mix of styles (a cover of “In the Pines,” the bluesy sass of “Ain’t Missing You”). They solidified the old time sound with 2015’s excellent Lonesome Road and two ensuing live albums. For Passenger it’s practically reinvention.

 

stray local albumcover

Lomas and Rowen had been back in the States for two weeks when they spoke about Passenger, still energized about a string of shows over fifteen days in Ireland and United Kingdom. They played festivals and house shows, quickly became accustomed to driving, logged over 1600 miles, and surprised to hear people there playing North Carolina traditional old time music.

“It was so surreal. We kept looking at each other, it’s like we’re at Shakori Hills,” Rowen said. “We had to keep reminding ourselves, looking up the hills where all the sheep were, we’re in Wales.”

But the music they played overseas reflected the past. Passenger is the future, Stray Local’s paint board doused with more colors. Its smoky after-hours sound can be intimate or grand (see “You Won’t Believe Me”), dotted with modern R&B flourishes, varied instrumentation, and Lomas’ always strong vocals. For fans she’ll feel familiar on the ballad “Watch it Grow” and quite opposite on “Escape” which is like a hybrid of Massive Attack, Sophie B. Hawkins, and haunted banjo.

This is an album showing musicians taking a strong step forward, and personally. “Passenger” was the first song they wrote after getting engaged during Christmas in 2017, created during the snow storm following the holidays. It’s a love song about them taking a long time to accept they should be together.

“We’ve been friends for ten years. In 2013 Jamie moved to Wilmington so we could write music together,” Lomas said. “We were nervous about messing up the roommate relationship, the band, and friendship. If we dated and it didn’t work out all those things would basically be over. So we waited a while.”

The EP’s persona, aided by producer/mixer Lee Hester (Beta Radio, Rio Bravo), is a fresh sound, so much that it could warrant a different band name. And genre name – the songs are a color swirl of flavors difficult to pinpoint . That ambiguity only makes it better. 

We worked with Lee because of what his records sounded like,” Rowen said. “He’s awesome at mixing and taking a more producing role. We were looking for that, a more produced sound,” Rowen said. “He didn’t really know our folk stuff, didn’t know what to expect. No one knew what was going to happen.”

“We’re trying to experiment and find what hits for us,” Lomas said. “(The EP) is still fresh. In the sense we redefined our sound, its something we’re proud of. We got to put out a new sound that we think is unique, we think is different.”

Additional Q and A

Each Stray Local record is different from the next in some way – be it style or approach.

Jamie: We keep putting them out because, here’s a snapshot, and it’s like, we’re not claiming we now what our genre is yet either because the next record could be completely different.

Hannah: It’s still fresh. In the sense we redefined our sound, its something we’re proud of. It’s a stepping stone in a new direction, we don’t think it’s the ending place. Or where we’re going to land and stay but we got to experiment and put out a new sound that we think is unique, we think is different.

Who created the album artwork?

Hannah: My sister designed it – flower, water, rose, the galaxy. There’s a song called “Passenger,” it just seems to fit. If you’re on a journey, for the ride. We like to travel. It just seemed perfect, one of the first songs we wrote. “Passenger,” remember the snow day, snow week.

Everything was closed for a week. Day one we’re out exploring in the fluff. Day two it was an icy wonder world of not being able to leave our house. Or else slipping and falling, which was perfect because we stayed in and wrote music. This is the first song we wrote after getting engaged. That January we wrote this song, we walked down to the Port City Java near our house and forced ourselves to write. Jamie was helping but then he started writing a screenplay.

Jamie: I started with her and then got sidetracked.

Hannah: He wrote one of the rhymes and then he helped me with the words. It’s a love song about us. It took us a while to accept that we should be together. Three years, a little over, officially. It’s been along time since we had a studio album and the first studio album we didn’t know what we were doing at all.

What did Lee Hester bring to the table in shaping the record?

Hannah: Some examples of his touches on the album is his knack for creating new sounds by layering. On (“Escape”) we’d have a melody, say a banjo melody, Jamie plays on the banjo. When we’re recording Lee would say, why don’t you also play that on the electric guitar and double it.? Hannah, why don’t you sing it and I will layer it in the far back so that all those three things are doing the same melody, just to create a new sound. Or (step back behind form mic), I would sing it and he would put it in the far back where you almost can’t hear it and it still affects, but still mixed in. Its not, there’s banjo. You’ve heard a banjo, it’s this whole new instrument, that’s banjo-voice-guitar.

Jamie: He’s so good at doing that with his own music. He’s a vocalist, and that was what we had recording in the past. We were having that on the CD – doesn’t sound as good as it does live, doesn’t feel right. It’s great working with him because he’s a great singer and awesome with harmonies.

So he said, what I do is record Hannah left, center, and right, the same exact line at different placement of the microphone and then ghosting it back farther and you’re singing louder but has a different effect. Then he mixed that whole thing and it feels so nice, the vocals are probably the thing we’re most proud of with the record. It’s not a wall, its here, here, and here.

Hannah: I think the vocals envelope the whole song in some parts. I would sing the same part six times. I would nail the lead vocal the way I wanted it. He says, do that two more times up close at the mic, then step back five feet from the mic, we’re going to twist the mic around and I’m going to have you do that three more times. 

The distance makes it feel almost like an echo, down the hall?

Hannah: It’s a spatial thing, makes the vocals very thick. Lee was mixing Beta Radio’s newest record while we were recording. It’s really good, what he shared with us.

Jamie: We hired him because we love his reputation and what he’s done. He didn’t really know our folk stuff, didn’t know what to expect. No one knew what was going to happen.

So why a different musical direction?

Hannah: It’s me. In our previous original songs I was not, we always co-write, a lot of the times Jamie would come with the idea and I would jump in and we would work on it together. For this record, a lot more, I would come with a song idea and then we work form that. It wasn’t really the case, I didn’t have the confidence in songwriting. I’d never done it before. 

This album is more cohesive. I like singing the old time stuff but it does not satisfy me. I like a lot of different styles and I don’t think it really suits my voice. I don’t really have that sweet, old timey voice. I don’t feel authentic, doing that and trying to put on a twang. I think we tried to go a little bit more comfortable for me this time. Honestly, this one is a step in another redirection too, we’re still searching for what gels with us.

We’re really happy with what we have. It’s a step in a good direction. When we brought the songs, our songs, we’re like, what genre is this, we don’t know where it fits. Some of them are indie folk and some are not folk at all. I would go with indie and people can fill in that second word. We want to write what feels good for us.

Jamie: We only use those terms because we don’t really know. This record might be more specific when we realize what is on these six songs. Because these songs are very different. 

You took a vacation and did a tour simultaneously?

Hannah: We put the tour together, flew into Ireland and then went into UK. Went to Wales and played a festival, a show in Cardiff. We arranged the shows before, I found these places and contacted them ahead of time. They asked if we needed more shows and picked up one in Manchester. We set up with friends of friends to stay with, or contact the venue, made connections, found a place to play.

What did you perform on tour, since you were a duo?

Hannah: We did mostly older stuff because we were playing to the festival. We could have been in North Carolina, there were that many people playing American music. We showed up real late having driven from Bristol, showing up at nine or ten and the sun is going down. We are going to the tent to drop off our stuff there was a group of eight or ten people playing traditional old time North Carolina fiddle music.

It was so surreal. We had to keep reminding ourselves, looking up at the hills where all the sheep were, we’re in Wales. We had a great reception at all of our gigs, mostly played originals, stuck to our originals. Maybe a couple of old time traditionals. 

STARY LOCAL - PASSNEGER - JUL 13 2018

Did anyone there play standards like “Nine Pound Hammer”? 

Hannah: There was a band, we couldn’t believe was playing old time music, it wasn’t “Nine Pound Hammer,” but they were playing “Trouble on My Mind,” a song we know so well.

Jamie: I think the interesting thing about bands, a lot of fiddlers here, the fiddle is the most important instrument (to create that sound). Our fiddle player grew up playing Scottish and Irish music in the U.S. and played old time. A lot of the fiddlers we know play Irish music as well as old time.

I think it’s the same over there. Their home base is Irish or Scottish but then they play old time because the language is the same, the music and everything. I think there’s a lot, if you study abroad, and you’re a fiddle player and meet some guys, you get a band together.

A universal instrument for old time music.

Hannah: It’s the one that makes it sound traditional. There were a lot of mandolin players, more than the banjo.

Jamie: The banjo in Irish music is a four-string banjo and it’s plucked the way a mandolin is played. So that’s a little bit different in those genres. But the fiddling is the same and the mandolin is the same. That’s why if you play it you can cross over easier versus the banjo, it’s totally different. Claw hammer playing versus three-finger playing versus Irish. You have to learn different techniques.

Hannah: It’s like the stuff you do with your family, back in the day. You get together and you play music. For some, you gather around a piano and you sing songs, you get together and play music and everybody has an instrument.

 The band took a hiatus?

Jamie: We didn’t play as much as in 2015 and 2016 was probably the peak of playing every weekend. That was good because it paid for all the equipment that we need. But then we started to want to write more and change styles. If think that’s partly why our sound started to settle more in a different genre. We love folk music but it wasn’t where we wanted to write. Folk music is fun and great for gigs at bars and people love it, can dance and have a good time to it, but it’s not artistically where we wanted to go.

Hannah: We didn’t stop, just a little bit less, maybe not playing every weekend.

You’re engaged, but there was a fear of relationship messing up the collaboration?

Hannah: That’s the whole thing, we’ve been friends for ten years. It was 2013 when Jamie moved to Wilmington so we could write music together. My roommate at the time was getting married. The apartment I was renting had a room so we would be roommates. We were just nervous about messing up roommate relationship, band, and friendship. If we were to date and it didn’t work out all those things would basically be over. So when we decide to start dating we have to decide its super serious. So we waited a while.

The Passenger songs were written over a short period?

Hannah: We’ve had “Watch it Grow” for years. The other songs are newer but on we didn’t rush these. “Passenger” is the most recent, from last January. No, we’ve had them awhile. We wanted to do it right. We have played them live a lot and let them take shape. They take a different shape live. We did demos at our house, used GarageBand, recorded them ourselves to do pre-production. We’ve spent time with these songs for sure.

Jamie: I think that was the best decision we made. We went in there and could pick from the eleven songs we cut and pick six. We had so much more of a cohesive idea of what we wanted instead of writing the song in the studio and could work on the musicality of it because we already did the grunt work. And it was re-recording and making really good production choices. 

Hannah: There is experimentation in places, in new ways, instead of what guitar line is going to work. Live, Jamie plays acoustic guitar, but we have a lot of electric on this album where we were able to have acoustic on the demos and then pick up an electric guitar and test things out to figure out we want to be on the record in the demo phase. We’re not in the studio wasting time trying to figure out a part. You get to experiment in cool ways, how are you going to stand near the mic to get the best sound? Or, playing around with pedals and giving a new tone versus the writing part. 

Jamie: We worked with Lee because of what his records sounded like (Beta Radio) and he is awesome at mixing and taking a more producing role. We were looking for that. We were interested in getting a more produced sound because we had done the live stuff with the live feel. We’ve done that, live recording.

Hannah: We are the band and Jessica Landes plays with us mostly, she’s been with us a couple of years. Then we have a couple that have just started with us. Sean Richardson, Ross Cage and his girlfriend Hannah Stomsky, we love hanging out with them and hope they stick around to play with us for a while.

The record was recorded last March and April. Have you digested what you made?

Hannah: It’s still fresh. In the sense we redefined our sound, its something we’re proud of. It’s a stepping stone in a new direction, we don’t think it’s the ending place. Or where we’re going to land and stay but we got to experiment and put out a new sound that we think is unique, we think is different.

Jamie: I think we’ll continue to do EP’s. I like doing the six songs. It was so nice focusing on six rather than ten or twelve and getting cohesiveness.

Hannah: We think these six songs go together. Individually they’re very different. If you listen to the order that they’re in they make sense, put “Black Eyed Daisy” next to “Believe Me” you might not get it without the context of the other songs on the album. If we tried to put songs on this album we would have to be stretching for some of the others songs to go with these. Its better trying to do to have the six gel together.

Talk about “Watch it Grow.”

Hannah: It’s about my sister who broke up with her boyfriend who she really loved. They broke up and thought that was going to be better. They’re back together now and love each other very much and doing great. But at the time it was kind of a message for her that sometimes you have to trim relationships in your life that are really good and see if something even better come out of it. At the time it was, let go and move on. Move on and something great might come. You trim it, like roses, and all these other blooms come out of it instead of one bloom, you snip it, and you see all these other blossoms.

Jamie: You don’t cut it, more won’t grow.

Hannah: That was the metaphor. She loved it but its funny now to see what direction it went. Maybe they needed to break up to see realize how much they loved each other, missed each other. Oh, we know how that goes. (Jamie) went on a date and I tried to play it real cool. I was the one that said no, no, we shouldn’t date. He went on a date, came back, and I was asking how was your date was, trying to be okay with it and telling me how great it was. I said, you’ve got to stop. I can’t hear this.

Jamie: I did it on purpose. I wanted to date her.

 

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