Charlottesville-based art-folk duo Lowland Hum recently released “Palm Lines,” the first single from their upcoming album “Thin.” The track showcases Daniel and Lauren Goans’ talent for unique lyricism and lovely vocal harmony.
It also gives a taste of the intimate setting of the record. Recorded by the duo in the attic of a friend, “Thin” promises to be a more intimate record than Lowland Hum’s past releases.
The two will be touring in support of the album, first opening for Josh Ritter, and then as headliners early next year. Before they hit the road, Daniel was available for an interview with Taylor Ruckle.
You moved here from North Carolina—how did you end up based in Charlottesville?
In 2014, we were touring through here, and just kind of got this feeling like “man, this is such a great place.” And around that time, someone told us about New City Arts Initiative. They have a gallery on the Downtown Mall called the Welcome Gallery. But at the time, they were running this artists in residency program out of The Haven. If you were offered a residency, you would be given a place to work on your craft in The Haven, and you would do a joint project with some of the guests at The Haven as part of your residency. In a way it was kind of a random thing, and we applied, and then we were surprised to get a call back, and then did an interview. We got offered the residency, and part of our thinking was, you know, it’s a shared workspace with some other artists, our lifestyle is pretty isolating, so we thought it might be sort of helpful to, when we’re not on tour, to be working in the same space as some other artists.
And it really was. We worked there from 2014 through 2015, did a big album release show at The Haven for our last record, and just felt so welcomed by the community that we decided to just keep staying. It’s been really a great and encouraging community for us. I think also, we’re both from North Carolina, so I think, you know, our families are there, it’s just kind of helpful to start over, not really start over I guess, but to base our operations somewhere where there isn’t a lot of history, and people are meeting us, just like, as Lowland Hum. That’s been really helpful.
I think also there’s a large percentage of really excellent artists for such a small town. It’s like Chapel Hill in that respect, and that’s where I went to school.
One of the things that you talk about in the preview for the new album is making a record with just the two of you, your own skills, and the tools at your disposal. Was that a difficult process?
The first few weeks were kind of like, getting adjusted to that workflow, and it was somewhat—I don’t know, there were some growing pains. But I think once we started finding a rhythm with the new equipment—Lauren had never engineered anything, and so she was learning a whole new skillset. And that just can be uncomfortable, you know? For us, we did our last record in the studio with an engineer, so it felt like, “man, it’s all on us.” So I think it started out feeling a bit pressured, and then once we felt like we had our bearings, we felt much more room to spread out. Just, you know, kind of new territory, it can bring out insecurities.
So I think dealing with that was a little tough, but I actually think it ended up making the record better. Those first two weeks when we were in the attic, when we recorded the record, I wouldn’t have said that necessarily during that time. But as it went on, I was like, “man, that was really important,” that we were both sort of humbled by our lack of knowledge, and then had to kind of grow in our knowledge until we were getting sounds that we could live with. And then not only that we could live with, but that we ended up thinking, “man, we really feel like we achieved what we were aiming for.” In all honesty we weren’t sure if these were going to end up being demos, or if we’d actually be able to make a whole record that way.
Were there any kind of surprises or developments that came out of that you didn’t expect?
Yeah, I think on this record we ended up, like, I would hear a part in my mind, or Lauren would, and on past records I might call up a musician who plays an instrument—or, you know, play something myself—but I think because of the intimacy of just the two of us being in there, I would just be like, “well Lauren, what if we did that, what if we created that sound but used your voice to do it?” Or like, “What if you sang this sort of thing that wouldn’t normally be a vocal part, but let’s just try it and see what it feels like?” […] The very last track on the record, she spent a couple hours arranging layers of her own voice, and I was just hitting record. And originally what we thought was that it was going to be a string section, but we ended up using her singing over her own vocal sounds to create a, pretty much a string arrangement with her vocal tone. […] We’re married, and we’re best friends, and so we felt like, “man, we could just, like, try anything,” and if it was lame, we’d just erase it, and just like, not worry about it.
What was it like working in that space of the attic? How did that space shape what the album became?
You know, I think it kept us really focused on, “was that the right take?” Because there were some things we had to let go of, being in an unorthodox space like that. The environment’s not going to be perfectly silent. We would often have to re-track things when a car went by, or definitely if a truck went by, we’d have to, “oh, okay, well, play that again.” So, you know, not having a soundproof space to do that in, kind of had us thinking, “okay, how does that take feel?” Did you feel, did you, you know, were you able to deliver something that would invite the listener into the song even if there were some squeaks or birds or, you know. It really honestly had us evaluating with a different set of criteria than we may have had in the studio. I think what that does is bring the listener closer to us in this record. We’re very much more uncovered in a way.
What we do is pretty intimate, because there’s not a ton of sound covering up our vocals. Any time, you know, and when we play live and stuff. But you know, it felt like, this is like, we’re sitting really close together, you know, Lauren’s hitting record, and I think the environment of being in this attic, kind of felt like we were recording in a treehouse, like, up in the air. Sometimes the guy’s house, you know, he was incredibly generous to lend us his attic for that whole recording time, which ended up being about four months, and it’s just unbelievably generous. But he’d come home for lunch from work or, you know, or his dog would bark at the mailman or something, and then it’s like, “well.” I think in a way it had us both really focus on the take, but also had us realizing this is important, but this isn’t the only thing going on in the world. And I think sometimes when you go into a studio, you’re so removed from everything that you can get fully immersed, and your perspective really can be like, “this, you know, this is the world right now.” And that lends to a certain kind of powerful creativity, and I’ve made a lot of records that way. But I think for where we were, it kept our perspective humble and sort of focused on our own smallness.
Something else I wanted to ask you about is whether that sort of experience impacted the kind of songs you were writing, or the lyrical themes that came out.
Yeah, I definitely think so. I mean, it’s been an interesting year. And this time last year we thought that a bunch of things were in the works that would have—I don’t know, we just thought that things were growing in such a way that we would be in a very different spot for our next record than we ended up being. And so I think we were already writing about coming to the end of ourselves and having to square with some of our own limitations, and you know, to even get to do music is an unbelievable gift. But all of us who are pursuing music, we have all these ideas, and all these dreams, and for me, this started when I was like 12 years old. So I’ve always dreamed of these certain venues, and always looked up to these great songwriters, and had a like, unspoken timeline, you know, like “by the time I’m this age,” […] so we’re already writing about having to square with the things in those dream spaces that haven’t been realized, and then learning a different kind of gratitude for all the things that have happened, and for actual life.
I mean, it’s much more meaningful to love your actual life than it is to achieve some arbitrary goal that didn’t necessarily directly connect to the meaning, but seemed important to you as a kid or something. So I think the themes of that were already happening, but having someone so generously share their home with us, and then having these like, experiences where you have to laugh at yourself when you feel like, “oh, I’m really nailing this!” and then a truck goes by and beeps the horn. And you’re like, “well.” You know? There is some magic in that feeling of when you know you’re locked in, and you’re killing it. But there’s also, like, you’re making music in a world packed with interruptions. So I think the environment pushed us further into those spaces of writing about human frailty and limitation.
Since you mention it, who were some of the songwriters you looked up to that made you want to be a songwriter?
So, some of the old guard—Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon—I don’t know if they’d be called the old guard, but anyway, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, those more in the last ten years or so I would say. When I was younger, the first band that really blew my mind was probably The Beatles, which is almost everyone’s story, but it also is mine. I heard “The White Album” when I was 12, I had never heard the Beatles at that age somehow, and I was completely amazed. And Motown, and Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye, and a lot of those singers blew my mind, but they blew my mind in the like, “that is completely other, and you will never approach that,” which is another kind of fun to listen to. But then I started hearing guys like—Neal Young’s been big for me too, Joni Mitchell’s been really big for us. These people, well, more Neal Young or Bob Dylan in terms of, you know, the vocals, I think they’re both excellent singers, but it’s of a certain kind. It’s not a virtuoso singer that blows people’s minds, but it’s more like inviting you into something through lyrics, and through a kind of human quality to the voice.
I think for Lauren, some of the inspirations tend more toward jazz, and trying to like, she also—this is funny, but she also is super into Led Zeppelin, and Electric Light Orchestra, and Queen, and these like, unbelievable arrangers and singers that are so insanely gifted. These kind of theatrical epics and people. So we have a blend of that in our influences.
Those are some of them, I could talk forever about what I love. I listen to a ton of music. What about you, man, what are some of your favorites?
Oh, wow. Well I had a similar origin point, The Beatles of course. My parents were huge fans of the Beatles, they had every album, but “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the one that got me. But I had kind of a second musical awakening when I came into high school, and a lot of the bands that were really popular around that time, indie bands, I got really into the White Stripes of course, I think probably the Decemberists were my first favorite band, or maybe Death Cab for Cutie.
That kind of reminds me, I was also super into U2 and Arcade Fire, early Coldplay. The first real serious band I was in was more of a pop-rock, kind of arena rock sounding, sort of Coldplay but not as cool.
If you think back, what was the first song you ever wrote, and why did you write it?
Oh man. The first song I ever wrote was called “Pressure,” and I was 13, and it was about the social pressure and awkwardness of middle school, and how hard it was, and how angsty I was. So it was pretty atrocious, it’s really hard to even think about it without cringing. But my mom loves it. She still brings it up on a regular basis, she really loves that song, it’s kind of funny. So that was the first song I wrote.
That’s definitely a constant, is that your mom will love the first thing you do no matter what it is […] there was a song I learned to play, it was one of the first songs I ever learned how to play on guitar, and every time I’m home, or I have the guitar out, my mom will ask me to play it.
What was that?
It was—oh, are you familiar with the band Switchfoot?
Oh yeah, man.
It was the song “Chem 6a.” The refrain is about how “I don’t wanna read the book, I’ll watch the movie.” And my mom just loves when I do that song.
Our whole thing was really influenced by that “Beautiful Letdown” record, I think, and I knew of Switchfoot before that, but that was the main record I’m familiar with. We were really influenced by that band. This is like, 2003 through 2007, when I was in that band.
What kind of literary influences do you have? Or do you think that’s impacted your music in that way?
When I started writing, it was Toni Morrison, Steinbeck, and then I think also the Romantic poets, like Keats, and really nerdy English major stuff. But in recent years […] I’ve been reading Salinger. Not Catcher in the Rye, but Franny and Zooey. And I think like, Toni Morrison really impacted both Lauren and I when we first read Beloved. And still. I mean, not just when we first read it. […] Elena Ferrante wrote these four novels called the Neapolitan series, so that was a big influence in the last few years, I think. It just was an immersive experience. It’s become more and more rare the kind of book that I like, I feel like I can’t put down and I also know it’s really well done […] Anyway, yeah, it’s extremely excellent, and kind of immerses you in this world of Naples right after World War II. It’s a very foreign world, you know, for me to inhabit. So I read all four of those. It’s pretty dark, and it can be disturbing, the book is from a woman’s perspective, and I think it was a pretty violent culture, and the experience for a woman was a pretty powerless one. But yeah man, very worth reading.
Books that have been a little more influential in the past few years are Marilynne Robinson’s books, so Gilead, Home, and Lila. Those have actually been much more influential than the other ones I listed, they just slipped my mind. Those have been really big for us.
For more information, check out Lowland Hum on their website.
“Palm Lines” is available now on Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes.