Humming House Wants You to Be Moved
Perhaps more than ever in its history, Nashville is a city asserting itself on the national scene. The larger image of the city is one of Southern cosmopolitanism, a fitting home even for hipster aristocracy such as the Black Keys and Jack White. So, for outsiders to hear only the bro country and thinly veiled pop music dominating the country charts, one might never guess that bands like Humming House emerge organically out of Nashville jams.
To hear this troupe tell it, they’ve ended up in Nashville, at least in part, because its music business headquarters mean it’s where careers are made. Don’t confuse their motivation with the overwrought clichés of those glossy, calculating songwriters shopping their wares to major labels and publishing houses on Music Row, though. Humming House embodies the old-school heart, grit, and heritage of a place where backyard picking sessions and house party jamborees are slowly and lovingly distilled down to high-proof songcraft over months and years. In that sense, Humming House works from the best traditions of their adopted hometown, traditions that extend many decades prior to either the bro country or urbane Southern chic that takes credit for the city today. Their newest album, Revelries, is a potent document reminding all that Nashville has always given the world a few truly precious gems among the clutter of flashy rhinestones.
Luckily for Humming House, singer-songwriter Justin Wade Tam has a deep resume in the business side of music – essential for rising above the fray – and he can even claim an association with rock royalty that pointed him in this direction.
“Like any kid growing up in the late ’90s,” he says, “I listened to the radio and tried to emulate the rock music going on at the time. I loved Radiohead, Coldplay, Jimmy Eat World, Rage Against the Machine, Death Cab for Cutie, etc. I also dug into classic [and] Southern rock and fell in love with Credence Clearwater Revival, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I … discovered ’60s folk in Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. I learned to play in a band at my church youth group, and eventually I formed what can only be described as an ‘emo’ band in high school. We played a few shows here and there and ended up cutting an EP.
“Our friend Glenn Scott, who was painting my family’s home at the time and used to be the tour manager for the Beach Boys ended up tracking and producing the record,” he explains. “Glenn is the first person that told me I should go to school in Nashville. He said that there was a school called Belmont where I could major in business but focus on the entertainment industry, which appealed to my father. I investigated it and sort of fell in love with the idea. So, at 18 I moved to Nashville without knowing a soul, to be in the music business.”
After relocating from California and settling into college at Belmont, Tam soon found himself among a number of like-minded young musicians. After graduating from Belmont, he created a recurring East Nashville jam that combined equal parts Irish whiskey and traditional pub tunes. These sessions came to be known as Finnegan’s Folly, and the goal back then, in 2010, was simply for Tam to remain connected to the traditional Irish songs he enjoyed singing when he visited the old country a couple of years prior with his wife, Kacie, a PhD candidate who was there studying British and Irish literature. From those humble origins drinking Jameson and singing “Whiskey in the Jar,” Tam amassed a string band that included Josh Wolak on mandolin and guitar; Ben Jones on double bass, viola, and kick drum; Mike Butera on violin, and vocalist Kristen Rogers.
Butera and Rogers eventually left the group, but these days, with a couple of new members and roughly four years under their belt, Humming House is on a mission to bring well-honed music to as many people as will have them.
Leslie Rodriguez, who replaced Rogers as one of the band’s main vocalists, began performing at a young age. She talks about the excitement of touring, which she sees as exploring “new territory and new markets,” with a zealotry just shy of a religious convert. Given that Humming House rescued her from a life in academia that she no longer found fulfilling – she was a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology – such a comparison is apt. Imagining Rodriguez as a professor presenting papers at academic conferences is almost impossible. “I have a dramatic flair,” she admits, “and I can get carried away when the crowd is riled up.”
She’s not alone. All the members of Humming House are pleasantly, joyfully dumbstruck to find themselves in a position where they can be touring, career-focused musicians.
Business and Pleasure
Despite the years that have passed since those jam sessions began, it wasn’t until a few months ago that Tam quit his day job to focus exclusively on Humming House.
“In college, I tried to get my feet wet in every aspect of the music industry,” he says. “I started a small publishing company, I worked as a stagehand, I formed a booking agency, I took recording classes, and I interned with an artist manager.”
After spending four years trying to find his calling on the business side of the music industry, he eventually accepted that his real passion lay elsewhere. “I’d fallen in love with songwriting,” he explains. “Someone had given me a Ryan Adams album my senior year in high school and that sort of became a gateway to a lot of folk and Americana artists - Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, Josh Ritter, Bright Eyes, Gillian Welch, John Prine, and about 1,000 others. At graduation, I decided to pursue songwriting and being an artist – a decision I’d been trying to avoid by pursuing the business side of music.”
That shift in dedication shows: Humming House’s music is a like a quilt that pulls together American and European folk traditions, early jazz, blues, and other roots music styles with a few shimmering threads of classical music interspersed throughout. And, like a quilt, it is a decidedly American folk tradition that can range from the simple and spartan in design to the elaborate and complex. What makes Humming House’s musical quilt so infectious is that they are unabashedly committed to pulling all of their musical restlessness and intelligence through a filter of pop-like hooks and songcraft worthy of old-school radio airplay.
Often arranged with the good-time ethos of the Beach Boys (there’s that connection again), the songs are at once complicated and accessible, sometimes dense but often danceable, thoughtful but approachable. “Americana” might be the most convenient label, but Humming House is more simply a quintessential American band that expresses influences from centuries of the vast melting pot that is the American songbook – from Bessie Smith to Bill Monroe, Aaron Copland to John Coltrane, Hank Williams to Brian Wilson.
Of course, they are in no way a “throwback” or revival group; they’re a postmodern string band that mixes high with low and old with new at every turn. Its five members – Tam, Wolak, Jones, Rodriguez on vocals and percussion, and Bobby Chase on violin, viola, keys, and tenor guitar – represent distinct regions spread across the country. From the sunny shores of San Diego to the iconic expanses of Washington, D.C., from the bourbon-soaked fields of Louisville, KY, to the gritty rustbelt capital of Detroit, the geographical history of this band is as vast as their influences.
Building Their Sound
The first incarnation of Humming House, circa 2011, resulted in a self-titled album and a good deal of road experience. The original quintet was important in creating much of the band’s textural character. Rodriguez now fills the “strong female vocalist” role with a powerful voice that effortlessly transitions from deep, earthy, soulful blues to lyrical folk and jazz ballads. Violinist Chase, the youngest member of the band, keeps the group’s classical influences out front often, though he appears equally comfortable sawing percussive riffs when necessary. In fact, percussive playing and rhythmic duties are essential for a band that lacks a dedicated drummer but seems committed to having at least part of their oeuvre be up-tempo and party-worthy.
The band is not totally devoid of percussion, though. In their live sets, the skins are sparse and scattered – literally – about the stage. Jones somehow mans the kick drum while also wielding his upright bass, making him exclusively in control of the bottom end. Rodriguez supplements her vocals with a snare drum on some tunes while working maracas and tambourine on others. Her bandmates joke that she will soon graduate to a floor tom and might eventually have a full kit worthy of Rush’s Neil Peart, taking up half the stage. Then there are the strong pulsing rhythms of the band’s strings and, sometimes, their voices that define much of Humming House’s idiosyncratic energy.
Tam speaks of differing “rhythmic leads” that each instrumentalist might take from song to song or perhaps might even trade back and forth within sections of compositions. With Wolak’s bluegrass-influenced mandolin chop, Tam’s percussive guitar, and Chase’s fiddle saw, the whole band sometimes functions as its own shape-shifting percussion section, with waves of rhythm flowing up and down the quintet. This trading between “rhythmic leads” might be clearly defined once in the studio, but the origins are often organic and intuitive. The approach also keeps the band cohesive. As Tam puts it, when you don’t have a dedicated drummer to keep everyone in line, “You have to hear everybody.”
Rounding out their sound, background vocals, chants, and voice inflections – often harmonized – also give life to the distinct and urgent pulse that permeates Humming House. There’s an impulse to describe this as a pop conceit, but saying so might oversimplify the work of five serious musicians with legitimately complex chops. The emphasis toward “danceability” is undeniable, however. This serious nod to pop music functions as a necessary counterbalance to their inherent headiness – something that could easily take over if they let it.
Instead, Humming House exudes restraint and a wily intelligence. They never pander to their crowd, but do respect them. They also seem to understand that the best music comes from an exchange between artist and audience rather than simply one giving and the other receiving.
As Tam puts it, these songs were “road-tested” before they were taken into the studio. More than many bands with such a strong emphasis on composition and arrangement, live performance and touring are integral to the Humming House project. This holistic care – carefully managing all areas of their craft from the genesis of a song to testing on the road and, finally, to documenting in the studio – naturally leads to the questions: What motivates these five musicians? Ask them, and you’ll get refreshingly simple, straightforward answers that are wholly without artistic navel-gazing: “Fun,” declares Wolak. “I just want to have fun.”
Jones adds: “Humming House wants you to be moved. Perhaps emotionally, definitely physically; hopefully both.”
Before you go thinking this is some kind of Pollyanna, happy-go-lucky band snuggling unicorns and dancing under rainbows, though, consider how they describe their songwriting process. Getting a song nailed down tight, Wolak says, can be “painful, difficult, overwrought.”
Tam elaborates: “We deconstruct and reconstruct songs until they fit or are discarded. This can take one rehearsal or three years of road-testing a composition. … Majority rules,” he adds, with a twinge of good-natured but exhausted resignation.
An Open Relationship
It becomes clear, in talking with them, that this band truly values the smooth polish that results from the arduous finishing their songs undergo. Humming House is made of five very strong-willed musicians, each of whom have deeply held opinions. The payoff for the strenuous work of mutual collaboration, ego resolution, and painful compromise is, in large measure, the joy and energy derived when performing.
It’s been said that the best romantic relationships are those in which each person secretly feels they are getting the better end of the deal. It’s only natural to wonder if the same might be true for a band. It’s obvious that each member has a deep respect for the others. They’re remarkably mature in negotiating the stressors of democratic cooperation
“We take collaboration seriously,” says Rodriguez. “We try every sincere idea that someone comes up with before saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ That process is always worth the effort, both for the emotional well-being of the band and for the creative enterprise itself.”
Because they are committed to respecting the boundaries and compromises of being a cohesive band, they are wise enough to give each other space to pursue outside projects. If the above analogy to a romantic relationship is to be extended, all of the members of this band are in an open relationship, free to scratch those itches that Humming House may not be best suited to reach at this time. Rodriguez and Wolak play together in a side project called Hickory Slim, while Jones is heavily involved with a local classical music program, the Nashville Chamber Music Series. These side projects undoubtedly keep the members creatively satiated, while also keeping fresh energy and new ideas always forthcoming. So, their creative process is always in flux, though some tendencies recur frequently. The division of labor is not wholly set in stone, but certain members have more naturally taken on certain roles to a larger extent than others.
Thus far the primary songwriter, at least lyrically, Tam wrote most, if not all, of the early songs. He is quick to point out that the rest of the band, in whole or in part, was instrumental in fleshing out the arrangements. “Every single member of this band is a talented songwriter in their own right,” he says, “and we are learning more and more how to feature each person as a clear voice. I wrote the first [self-titled] album on my own, and then as a band we arranged and recorded the songs. That has changed dramatically over the past four years, as we have become incredibly collaborative.”
Tam also takes on a bit of a producer role. Chase and Jones default to engineering and gear techs as needed. Rodriguez and Wolak are utility players, providing support in all of the capacities, as well as much of the banter and stagecraft that keep live gigs on track and more fluidly entertaining. Combining these distinct personalities with all of this bustling musical energy makes Humming House – and Revelries – a force driven by sharp wit, well-honed craft, and tightly controlled kinetic drive.
“We don’t set any boundaries with genre and try to experiment as much as possible,” Tam explains. This artistic openness is apparent on Revelries, and the painstaking collaboration is undoubtedly what keeps the album so tight. Freewheeling creative risks versus taut compositional arrangements are far from the only polar negotiations found on the project. There is also a notable contrast between struggle and celebration.
The music is pleasantly and deliberately elusive. Over repeated listens, the album slowly reveals itself to be downright masterful in crafting transitions that move and shift as naturally and gradually as morning mist fading into sunlight. Many songs begin sounding like fairly straightforward examples of a certain genre or style – an Irish ballad or homage to jazz standards, for example – but over time they evolve into something much larger and more complex. Quite often, they begin sparsely, only to build to cohesively crowded compositions of competing riffs, arpeggios, and voices. Miles Davis once said about music that “yes” doesn’t mean anything until you say “no” first. Whether deliberate or intuitive, this is a repeated concept of Humming House.
Even in the most up-tempo tunes, the listener can sense the strong shadow behind the bright light. This seesaw tension between conflict and resolution, joy and pain, complexity and simplicity is what makes Revelries so revelatory. The same tune that plays as a steering-wheel-pounding jam one day might resonate more as a melancholic expression of emotional confusion another.
“Carry On,” for example, is a song whose driving rhythms and aggressive, rocking instrumental breaks partially mask more muted lyrics that conjure ideas of painful personal transitions and changing definitions of desire and conquest. Extending Miles Davis’s idea, the music says “yes,” but the lyrics shrug “maybe; I don’t know.”
“Hitch Hike” showcases the strong influence of Irish music very directly. The song begins with a forward-leaning, almost urgent vamp on violin, accordion, and mandolin, sounding very much like an homage to the pub tunes that helped inspire the formation of Humming House in the first place. The chorus, however, takes the tune into a much more lyrical and sunny direction, with harmonized voices underpinning Tam’s lead vocals. It vacillates between tension-building verses and the relief of pop-inflected chorus, yet still makes room for an interspersing of dark, melancholy bowed strings and a mandolin solo reminiscent of progressive bluegrass. This is all accomplished seamlessly. A casual listen might miss this hidden complexity.
“Nuts, Bolts, and Screws,” meanwhile, is the album’s rawest, most infectious tune. It’s a crowd pleasing, blues-drenched soul piece. It starts with a simple ostinato groove of percussive strings, then breaks open into an irresistible mix of guttural growls, glissando vocal slides, and outright screams that showcase Rodriguez’s immense vocal range and talent. The lyrics suggest the building of a passion project and might serve as an allegory for the album, if not the band itself. Its grittiness, both musically and lyrically, proves that Humming House is as comfortable in their body as they obviously are in their heads.
As complex as it can be, Revelries doesn’t try to challenge the listener with discordant compositions that jar the ear and mind into an open space against its will. Instead, it teases and seduces you into unexpected territories and keeps you content to hang around a while. Further, what makes Humming House a collective to contend with is that they keep us from noticing all of the welding, weaving, glue, and tape that holds the compositional sets together behind the scenes. Quite often, this sleight of hand is accomplished via a sneaky hook aimed right for the pleasure center of the unsuspecting listener’s brain.
Another hallmark of their sound is the use of clever, competing counterpoint melodies – no doubt much of this rigor results from several members’ classical training. Wolak studied classical trombone from age eight, before eventually making his way to mandolin. Chase speaks of lengthy classical pieces he wrote on the piano as a child and recorded to cassette tape. He worked his way to violin at the ripe age of ten, and there his classical training continued. Jones played viola in the youth symphony growing up, even after he discovered the double bass. The discipline instilled by such early classical music training must provide some of the structural elegance of Humming House. This classical influence functions as a buttress to the ad-hoc amalgam of styles, unruly cravings, and whimsical creative impulses. Jangly strings are juxtaposed with long and lilting violin and viola strokes on more than just a few tunes.
The band’s use of acoustic instruments and a mostly traditional stringband template also helps ground what could easily become a messy collage of disparate ideas in less focused hands. Creativity often thrives under constraints, after all. Despite all of this talk of restraint and control, it should be noted that Humming House knows when to simply let loose altogether and put sheer emotion in the driver’s seat. To that end, they made a self-conscious decision to add a little dirtiness to their sound while in the studio this time.
Revelries was produced by Mitch Dane who, along with the band, strove to bring some of their unleashed live-show energy to the recording sessions. This was accomplished in part by having instruments played in the same room where the vocals were recorded, rather than isolating the vocalists in a booth separate from the rest of the band. This allowed for a more organic musical exchange, of course.
Once the tracks were laid down, Vance Powell was tasked with mixing the record. The band looked to Powell, who has helped craft the sound of Dead Weather and Buddy Guy, to bring a more aggressive and earthy tone to the tracks in the mix. Powell says he felt his job was to “stick my thumb in the icing on their cake.” Again, this is a band that always keeps its ego in check in service of the music. They are aware that being an acoustic band with no “real” drummer can result in something a little more clean and crisp than what they want the Humming House sound to be. However, if a band this artistically restless were to get overly seduced by electric gadgets and other technology, they might end up having to haul an extra trailer on tour just for their gear. Given their love of the road and live performance, a more stripped-down approach to technology is for the best at the moment – something Dane and Powell seem to have sensed.
Home, Where My Thoughts Will Take Me
Like all brilliant performers, Humming House has come to crave the dopamine and adrenaline of earned admiration from their fans with the unrelenting passion of an addict. That is not to say that they don’t feel the sting of missing family and missing home while out on tour.
“Leaving your loved ones at home is just awful,” says Wolak when asked about some of the biggest challenges facing his band. But they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and treat one another as a second family, which may serve to dull some of the heartache and homesickness that creeps in for any touring act.
Wolak beautifully captures the sheer giddiness of doing what you love with people you respect while sharing a collective vision: “There’s something truly magical about being a 30-year-old, grown-ass man, and still getting to have slumber parties every night,” he quips. “I say that with no irony whatsoever. Remember having your friends over after school on a Friday, to pound pizza and play video games? That’s tour.”
Knowing this quintet can survive hardcore roadwork and remain not just respectful but loving to one another says a lot about their dedication to the music and to each other. It also gives further credence to their insistence that Humming House is not just a collective of musicians, but also a coalition of performers who require a congregation to fulfill their artistic ambitions.
The songs on Revelries are all roughly two years old by this point, and given their emphasis on live shows and touring, Humming House knows them inside and out. They are fully primed to take the world by storm. So ready, in fact, that while waiting for the album to be released so they could get back on tour, the band cut a record live in studio. They titled the project Humming House Party!, as it was recorded amidst a party they threw for 50 of their friends while hanging out, drinking, and dancing in the studio. That recording was inspired by a mid-’60s album put out by the Beach Boys just prior to recording Pet Sounds, when Brian Wilson was feeling restless as he was working out that forthcoming masterpiece and wanted to release an album of covers in the meantime.
Humming House Party! offers a few covers, too, including an enchantingly slowed-down version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Time will tell if Revelries becomes their Pet Sounds, but what Humming House Party! illustrates, once again, is that this is a band that is happiest in front of an audience. Still, as good as it must have felt to blow off that steam, Humming House also knows well that there’s more to making a living in this game than just playing shows and having a party, even when the responsibility of the business comes wrapped in big a leap of faith.
An early track on Revelries titled “Great Divide” is a partially autobiographical narrative inspired by the sheer joy and profound fear that Tam felt in the earliest days of Humming House, on a hastily arranged ten-day tour of the Rockies.
Amidst shouted background chants, emphatically repeating the phrase “on our way,” the song’s chorus seems to bolster the decision to throw caution to the wind and chase the very dream that Humming House is now pursuing:
And if we find our way, we may never be the same
And if we lose everything, what we have we to gain?
If we don’t try to go
We may never know…
What we were built to be
Only we can decide
To cross the great divide.
The “great divide” not only references a passage in the Rockies, of course, but seems to be a metaphor for the long journey of becoming a “real” band.
At the risk of employing an overwrought cliché often abused by aging writers, the manner by which Humming House has retained control over their music and their career seems very much a result of their growing up as digital natives. They are exemplary of the millennial generation whereby artists and creative entrepreneurs have shattered the prior limitations of DIY culture. Savvy young artists like this quintet are able to compete with any “professional” creative agency, management rep, and even recording engineer in many cases. This is a band that has cultivated the will, talent, and energy to create their own opportunities – to market themselves, craft their own image, book their own gigs – in addition to, in large part, producing their own records.
Wolak has been the band’s graphic designer for album art and other print materials. Rodriguez is a professional photographer and has used her talent to document the band’s adventures both formally and informally. She even provided the B-roll for the “Great Divide” music video with her Nikon D-90. Since joining the band, she has maintained a photoblog titled Humming House with a View. At every turn, they show themselves to be well-rounded creative beings that make the most of all of their talents and the technology available to them. Of course, no amount of business ingenuity can make up for the time spent paying their dues as a band, and they’ve done plenty of that too. They have negotiated the rigors of the road and the studio together. Their education from Belmont is probably less important than the wisdom they’ve gained as professional musicians in an industry town.
Despite what many might picture when they hear about Nashville musicians, Humming House is a quintessential Nashville band. During a recent showcase performance that included an emcee who asked questions of the bands between songs, the subject of Nashville came up, and the host trashed Music City’s “bro country” machinery that, admittedly, can dominate the consciousness of the town. Tam was quick to defend the supportive and diverse community of artists that exists, as well as the authenticity that he and Humming House have found and even helped to cultivate in Nashville.
Indeed, their press bio includes the following line: “No band embodies what’s right about 21st-century Nashville more completely than the quintet known as Humming House.” No truer words have been written in a promotional bio. Those who yearn for Nashville to retain its artistic vibrancy hope that 21st-century Nashville is, indeed, a place of fluid creativity and a home for aesthetic risk-takers like Humming House.