If I could dream in music, I would want that music to be composed and played by Forlorn Strangers. And really, the music of this Nashville-based, Americana quintet is like a dream, because just like dreams are so far removed from what we know of reality, their music is so much better than the stuff we hear on the radio every day. But there is also something incredibly concrete about the music of Forlorn Strangers. Their music is alive; it jumps right out of your iPod and into your soul, and it makes you want to laugh and cry, and it makes you want to remember and forget. More than anything, I think, Forlorn Strangers’ music is representative of the way I want the world around me to be. There is beauty in the music, but it possesses a restlessness like the restlessness you might hear in Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen if you catch their ballads on the right day and in the right mood.
In February I wrote about how Forlorn Strangers made me feel when I saw them play at Fort Laurderdale’s For The Love music festival. We are so thankful to have had the time to catch up with them through the following interview, and we can’t wait until their next show in South Florida!
Little Utopia: How did you all become interested in Americana/bluegrass music?
Forlorn Strangers: Americana music (as distinct from modern popular music overall) had a presence in each of our lives individually in one way or another, even coming from differing areas of the country. We encountered it in church; it was hummed and played by parents and grandparents. It wove itself into the fabric of our younger days in small ways through blues, gospel, rock, and a cappella tunes. It recaptured our imaginations as we all began to play and sing on our own, going back to traditional sounds and root sensibilities as that which made us feel most culturally connected and musically alive.
Good American music is always heartfelt. Bluegrass specifically enthralled us because it blends so many of those Americana passages into one exciting story. It’s thematically both religious and secular. It’s technically satisfying on a vocal and instrumental level because it can be raucous and flashy, or solemn and simple. It’s also acoustic, which is important to us because our instruments and voices can connect on a more primal level.
What made the five of you decide to start a band? Was there one particular moment that led you to that realization?
Three of us (Benjamin, Christopher, and Hannah) began writing and playing together down in South Florida and felt an instantaneous connection. Most nights of the week were spent sipping whiskey around a fire and discussing music, literature, poetry — whatever we could get our hands and minds on. We took a creative sabbatical and farmed for a short period in Waco, Texas, and then moved to Nashville where we met Jesse and decided to record.
Then we recruited Hannah’s sister, Abigail, to sing on the record, and that was probably the moment, sitting around singing and laughing with one another in Jesse’s house on Riverside Avenue. It was a real family experience. There was an unmistakable kinship that surfaced passing around the jar and the guitar and opening up to people who you knew would receive and augment what you had to offer in love.
How has Forlorn Strangers evolved since its inception?
There are two main threads of evolution in the band. Jesse’s addition provided upright bass and therefore an inclination to make a rhythm section of stomps, shakers, claps, tambourine whacks, and generally whatever we can get our hands on. It fills out the sound and helps to serve the songs more than the initially simpler setup we had devised.
Our live sound has also been his brainchild. Moving from an all microphone bluegrass setup into a hybrid system with live microphones and direct inputs has given us much more mobility and adaptability to provide better quality sound and a more nuanced performance overall.
What has been the most rewarding part of Forlorn Strangers so far?
Not to be too cerebral or philosophical, but we all believe in living as presently as possible. Music as a focus for us is a branch on a bigger tree of living as intentionally as we can. It’s not about recognition or the thrill of being in a band. We just don’t believe in mortgaging our younger more able years on the idea that you’ll have time later.
Music for us (touring, specifically) is part of living as passionately as we can and loving others in the best ways we know how. We’re often told how joyful we are, and that’s probably the most rewarding aspect. We found each other, and we take refuge in and advocate for one another, and in doing so we spread as much love, joy, and peace as we are able to the folks we meet along the way.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on tour?
We played a small club in Wilmington, Delaware that we’d never played before. We booked sight-unseen (as we do much of the time), and when we arrived we were slightly dismayed to find that the logo of the bar was a giant, murderous looking clown, and the denizens were metal-heads and punk-rockers. Not to be dissuaded, we jumped in and did what you do in those situations: Pull out a banjo and drink with the locals.
By the time we were set to go on we were in good spirits, but the other band refused to relinquish the stage. Tempers all around got so hot for a second that it looked like fists would fly. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and we played our set and — believe it or not — people loved it. We ended up dancing and hugging folks by the end of the night.
Fast-forward to the next time we were in Wilmington at a different club. We mentioned to a fan after the show where we had played previously, and he laughed. “Good thing you weren’t there on a Thursday!” he said. It turns out that this club in sleepy, colonial Wilmington, Delaware actually doubles as an S&M dungeon on Thursdays. We did wonder why they had chains on the ceiling. Dodged a bullet on that one.
What’s been the most challenging or difficult aspect so far, and how did you overcome it?
Communication and logistics have been challenging for us because of the nature of Forlorn Strangers. Most bands will have a person who is more or less in charge, such as a primary songwriter or front-man or -woman. Part of the MO for us is that everyone brings their individual songs into the band, and those songs are workshopped and fleshed out as humbly — yet specifically — as possible. The general rule of thumb is if you write it, you sing it. Because we don’t have someone to slam the gavel and yell for order, we have to be extra sensitive to one another and leave our egos at the door.
When it comes to booking and band art and other necessary elements of correspondence and logistics, getting five people’s heads on the same page as quickly as possible can be a daunting task. That being said, we’ve only gotten better and soon I’d wager we’ll have it down to a science. We’ve moved from carrier-pigeon to cell phone now, so that’s a plus.
Much of your music (I’m thinking of songs like “Cleveland,” “What I Don’t Remember,” “When It Rains,” “Measure Me Up”) has a melancholy or — to be really cheesy — a forlorn quality to it. However, on stage you play these songs with such joy that the melancholic sentiment is almost entirely lost. How do you explain this dichotomy? Or is it something that can’t really even be explained?
This is a great question for us in particular because it touches on a thread that has woven through our whole existence, even our name. As you mentioned, it’s almost intangible. We all appreciate a good dose of musical irony (sad music with happy lyrics, happy music with sad lyrics). We encapsulate that in our existence as a band, by and large. Heartbreak is a deep well for songwriting, and Forlorn Strangers as a name in and of itself suggests a difficult pilgrimage.
As artists, we try to embrace the fullness of life with responsibility: a little bad in good, a little good in bad. The ultimate fact of the matter is that even though we feel like we began playing and singing in trying circumstances, when we play together we feel such joy that even in the sad memories we’re likely to convey happiness from the stage whether we know it or not. When someone listens to a record of ours, we hope he or she is able to take the journey his or her heart wants to take. When you see us live, though, we may just have to smile when we play for you. We simply can’t help it.
What are some of the things you hope to achieve as a band?
We’re all blue collar kids. From driving trucks, moving furniture, running a kitchen, slinging java, or riding a bike taxi, we believe in hard work. If we’re honest, part of what we want to achieve as a band is to use what fulfills us most creatively, emotionally, and spiritually to be the thing from which we can make a living wage.
Beyond that, though, the real foundation of the “why” of Forlorn Strangers is, at its core, interpersonal and spiritual. We love each other, and we love sharing our lives together and making good music. We love meeting new friends, and we love seeing our families. If we can travel and spread joy through our music, live intentionally from the bottom of our hearts, learn more about ourselves and others through the arts, and share our stories and learn new ones, we have succeeded.
What do you have planned for the near future (new albums? more touring?)?
We are at the tail end of booking our 2015 summer tour, which will take us from the beginning of May to the end of August this year. We’ll be as far west as Denver and Taos, dip all the way down into New Orleans and the deep south, and as far north as Maine in nearly 50 different cities! We’re beyond excited to say the least. Odds are we’ll begin recording a full-length as soon as we return to Nashville, and I’m sure we’ll be obnoxious about letting everyone know when that will transpire.
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