by Gavin Heaney
Wesley Schultz is not afraid to sing out of key. Pitch can get in the way of perfection. Especially when it comes to expressing the raw humanity that The Lumineers convey in their songs. Production is the enemy of authenticity, it gets in the way of the true meaning. The message is best expressed plain and simple.
“I think that vulnerability is exactly what sets every human being apart from one another.” Shultz said in an Atwood Magazine interview. “It’s such a more interesting way to present music than to polish it up and make it slick. I think we just wanted it to sound analog and real and flawed.”
The Lumineers are essentially a singer-songwriting duo in the classic sense with Schultz on guitar and Jeremiah Fraites on piano. The two met in New York City, where they began to collaborate but could not advance in the crush of the big city. Almost whimsically, with no particular reason other than to go anywhere else, they relocated to Denver. There, they crystallized their musical chemistry in the open mic scene.
Something about the Lumineers is different. They are somehow more than the sum of their parts, a mystery of musical alchemy that takes place when they combine. Fraites’ piano and tight harmonies lay the perfect bed for Shultz’s plaintive cry. The combination is rich and expansive with melody. At times it seems accompanied by an unseen orchestra, as if an angel band was backing them. It’s unfathomable that their sound can fill so much space.
The Lumineers are steadfastly earnest. Their debut self-titled album from 2012 shouted “Ho Hey” at the world and ushered in the stomp clap sound that heralded the peak of the new folk pop. While other bands like Mumford and Sons rushed to the heights of embellished production, saturating the genre with layer upon layer and ushering in the equivalent of folk glam rock, The Lumineers went the opposite way. With their following album, Cleopatra (2016) they were noticeably less polished. It caught on and proved they were no one hit wonder. Hit singles “Ophelia,” “Angela,” and “Cleopatra” showed the world still needed honest music. The Lumineers album III (2019) is one of the most important albums of this generation. The concept album illustrates the damage of addiction in the American family and is divided into three parts, each following one of its characters. The accompanying music videos for each of the ten tracks join together to form a short film of startling yet somehow beautiful tragedy. If our “sweetest songs tell of saddest thought,” as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, The Lumineers embody this ever so poignantly in their song “Gloria.”
Their latest offering, Brightside, was released this year and is yet even more stripped down than their previous albums. Like peeling an onion, the duo are hellbent on dismantling themselves to the very heart. Wisely, they have avoided the pressure and temptation to throw the studio at the songs and instead have thrown songwriting at the songs. This has been the key to their longevity and relevance.
“This one is more about the idea of not ignoring a situation and acknowledging that there is this insane trauma that is happening around the world, that no one is getting out of it unscathed,” Shultz said of the album. “At the same time, there is also this weird hope within all of us right now, this need to breathe and how we’ll do anything for that next breath, and I feel like right now all of us also have this drive innately to feel hope. We were trying to strike that chord of the balance between destruction and pain along with hope.”
If The Lumineers are a one trick pony, the trick never gets old. The magic is in the truth they impart. To be unengaged is turning a blind eye to the struggles and suffering that are pervasive in our world. Looking the other way will never make it go away, and they face these hard truths head on, doing us a great kindness by not sugarcoating it.
Shultz explained his impetus for his songwriting in an interview with Fifteen Questions.
“The impulse I think comes from an innocent place,” he said. “To get started, there just needs to be some magnetism, some thread of emotion that gets stirred up by a melody or phrase that you stumble upon. There’s some great mystery around so much of this that feels much more like a séance where you’re channeling some energy like an antennae. I think the creative state is like your brain is half awake. You can let go of all judgment and intellectual thoughts and things can flow out of you, sometimes for a few seconds and sometimes for an hour.”
Shultz channels songs from a deeper consciousness by distracting his gross mind to access the more subtle. The source is prenatal, an unformed idea that is incubating, waiting to come out. The process is primordial. It is essential to have no expectations of an outcome when songwriting. You mustn’t try, but abide.
“I think you can write a song and the meaning can shift as your life experiences affect you …but I don’t think music is ever that linear, at least good music. It isn’t telling you what to do, it’s trying to describe something poetically. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive. And a lot of time can be spent patiently waiting for that to happen, almost like when you’re waiting to fall asleep, the harder you try the longer it takes.”
Similar to their songwriting process, the duo have fashioned their own method to record them. Like organic farmers, they harvest and hand bottle their homemade goods in order to preserve the original taste. Fraites explained to Goldmine Magazine how The Lumineers assemble their song ideas in the studio, turning their ideas into the recordings that appear on the albums.
“It’s kind of a three-tiered process. The first is writing song ideas in your hotel room or wherever. Then me and Wes get together, we’ll rent out a house and turn it into a makeshift studio. We’ll work on the demos there and start to make them into full-length songs. Almost all the songs are constructed there, and once we go out to the quote-unquote real studio, we actually turn these full-length demos into songs. We come up with everything there, that’s where it all really happens.”
The Lumineers’ songs all seem to end too soon. Their anthemic calls long for more elaboration. But that hold out is where the listener is allowed to complete the picture, like paint by numbers. Their accessibility is an invitation that allows the imagination of their audience to participate. The space that they leave open makes the music so much bigger than any glossy, explicit overdub could embellish. The message is the medium, not mediocrity and Shultz never settles.
“For me it’s always been, may the best idea win,” he said. “When Jer and I collaborate on a song, he gives me the space to explore a drum idea, even though I’m a novice drummer, and same for him with lyrics with me.This applies to all of it. Sometimes an innocent perspective also offers a new approach that can’t be touched by those who are experts or more practiced. The only thing that is imperative is that you have an idea of what’s good, you have your own taste for what is good. Like a bloodhound knowing when she’s on the trail of something and can follow that to its end.”
The Lumineers are on the hunt, trailing the next song wherever it leads, shedding light on all the darkness.
The Lumineers play BeachLife Ranch September 16.