By ERIC SCHELKOPF
After Tom McKeown and Heather Humphrey wrote more than 100 songs for other people, they discovered their best voice was their own.
Chicago-based Humphrey-McKeown has four CDs under its belt and the prolific songwriting duo plans to release its fifth CD this year. The band will perform Jan. 16 at The Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison St., Chicago.
Low Swans, Skippin' Rocks and Mike Gasset also are on the bill. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $7, available by going to www.ticketweb.com.
I had the chance to talk to them about their music.
Q - Great talking to you. I understand you are working on your fifth album. What should people expect from the new album? Will you be building on your previous efforts?
Tom: This next album is expanding on some things we were working on during the writing phase of the fourth release. I think there will be a lot more mandolin and piano based songs.
That’s a combination that I’ve never heard anyone else using. Typically, mandolin is the “noodly” sound in the background. We try to make it the primary rhythmic instrument.
The piano seems to perfectly compliment the higher pitches of a mandolin. We are also going to record the next album with the five us in the same room. That’s never been the case, so it is an exciting time.
Heather: By the time #5 is out, we will have written five albums in five years - always searching for what is new within us - but #5 will have the same deeper lyrics that we are known for, but will show a growth in our songwriting and musicianship abilities.
We’ve written so much that growth is now coming from many angles. For instance, I think this next album will connect with fans on an emotional level, with lyrics cutting even deeper into their core.
We want people to feel the words, so this will be even more personal, and in some cases, heartbreaking. As far as music goes; I’ll be leading from the piano more which is something new for us.
The guys in the band have really become integral in our sound over the last year so we will be having Jim (drums), Tony (upright and acoustic bass) and Gary (violin) play on every song; whereas in the past we would record a lot of those parts ourselves.
Q - Last year, you released your fourth album, "All I Wanted to Hear." In sitting down to make the album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? Is there a meaning behind the album's title?
Tom: Over the course of our previous three albums, we were trying to define our style and really narrow it down to the proper instrumentation to best represent the songs. I think we both agree that “All I Wanted to Hear” was sort of our breakthrough CD, where we really had a very focused album from start to finish. The title was taken from one of the songs and basically say “I wanted you to say “yes” but you said “no”. I think many people go through that in life.
Heather: Our goals for “All I Wanted to Hear” were to always begin with an acoustic instrument - one instrument - keep it clean with space to breathe - then build other instruments in like a woven cloth.
Then, ensure that the lyrics really say something that people can connect with. Our belief is that an audience needs to know what’s in it for them right away - they will get it musically through a hook or through lyrics that they can emotionally connect with.
Next, when we recorded the album, instead of singing our dual vocals separately, we sang at the same time giving the album more of the “live” feel we wanted. We used a few high dollar vocal mics to capture us together; Wunder CM7 GTS and a Neumann M149 to record final vocals.
Finally, since we were used to having Tom arrange and play all the instrument parts, we brought in musicians that could make the album even stronger - Chicagoland artists, Jordi Kleiner and Jeff Teppema on the violin, Tony Meadors on a few bass parts and Jim Livas on drums. This took a great deal of trust and release of control over the creative performance aspect.
We feel, because of the success of the album, we made the right decisions and definitely accomplished our goals.
Calling the album, “All I Wanted to Hear” was a strategic move since we wanted fans to say…"Yes…this is all I want to hear." But if you listen to the song on the album, you’ll also get a sense that most people in life want to hear “yes.”
There’s a feeling of relief to be accepted…either because your idea is accepted, your opinion in validated, your are noticed in some way or you feel accepted as a person by someone else. Apathy is a killer of all things creative - so the album title ties in nicely to where we wanted the album to sit in the history of Humphrey-McKeown - accepted, validated and very much noticed by fans.
We definitely feel this was the right move as well.
Q - I understand that the two of you started as a songwriting partnership that wrote songs for other people. What made you want to start a band of your own? Was that a hard transition to make?
Tom: I suppose if we had been hugely successful as contract writers, we would have stuck with it longer. But, we kept wondering what “real people” thought of what we wrote as opposed to corporate insiders.
We did what most people do; we found a couple open mic nights where we could try out the songs. The response was so great.
We instantly were asked to be the “closers” for those nights and we enjoyed it. It was nice to finally get some validation on what we were doing.
The band process was much more painful and long. We started out with friends and then it grew to friends of friends and now we just have guys that bring a lot to the songs but were unknown to us prior to the last album.
Heather: Starting a band was a huge transition - but we wanted to get our music heard to see what kind of response we would get; by having a band, we could get fan feedback right away. It meant that we would have to struggle through teaching music, balancing expectations and learn to live with not only our failures and successes, but those of others - very much like a family.
We used to have eight in the band ( two drummers, three guitarists, two keyboardists as well as bass), but that was way too much sound over the vocals. We were always drown out and since the vocals are the heart of what we do, something had to change.
We toured this past year internationally with just four members of the band. It does get wearisome, but when there’s magic…you know it and you can feel it.
The band has ebbed and flowed with the need of the songs we write - and we know we have the perfect mix right now with our songwriting and lead vocal being complimented by the rest of the band.
Q - You've probably heard your music described in many different ways. How would you describe your music?
Tom: We used to ask our fans at shows what style we play. They would tell us that they had no idea, but it always sounds like us.
That got us wondering what we are and where we fit. We even hired a consultant to help us work through that.
We found that there’s a lot of new music coming out now that doesn’t fall into the prescribed musical genres. That catch-all seems to called Americana now.
It’s a blend of various American music types. We have elements of folk, rock, pop, country, bluegrass, jazz and blues in what we’re doing so it’s a little hard to nail down. Fortunately, people just like it.
Heather: We’ve struggled through this…are we folk-rock? Folk-pop? Art folk? Richard Milne of WXRT called us art-pop when describing our song “The You I Knew” last year on his Local Anesthetic program. Lilly Kuzma’s Folk Festival on WDCB calls us folk-rock.
What we’ve learned over the past year is that there is a mix of artists in the Americana genre that use drums and piano to develop their sound as we do. Coupled with our love of the acoustic instruments - mandola, mandolin, dobro, acoustic guitars, violins, irish bouzouki - we coin ourselves Folk-Rock Americana artists which cover the ground as far as musical style.
I like to say some of our music is “swampgrass” (swampy-bluegrass), but that style hasn’t quite made it to BMI or ASCAP yet.
Q - Do you think that the renewed interest in folk and roots rock in the past few years has helped the band gain fans?
Heather: We tell people that we are a mix between Fleetwood Mac (finger picking guitar and piano), Civil Wars (lead dual vocals), Nickel Creek (creative mandolin, violin, acoustic guitar) and Punch Brothers (alternative progressive bluegrass). Also with adding a huge drum kit on our sound, you could also hear a bit of Mumford and Sons.
So based upon our musical influences, I would emphatically say that the folk and roots rock explosion - or the Americana and Folk musical explosion - has helped drive some of our success. We believe in the sound and that the sound of folk-rock Americana is timeless.
Tom: I think it has helped in that people are now a bit more open to different types of sounds. For so many years, contemporary music has had to be fronted by electric guitar. I’m kind of bored with all that.
It’s been done before. It’s nice that we can drive a song from mandolin or banjo or even just an upright bass and people are liking it. With the collapse of the corporate music industry, there are a lot more unique sounding bands out there.
Whether they get national exposure or not is hard to say, but it is an exciting time in music.
Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you see the band fitting into it?
Heather: I think the organizations like Old Town School of Folk Music, Michael Teach’s Chicago Acoustic Underground (CAU) and others are giving folk and roots artists a place to perfect their art and get connected within Chicago. The surrounding suburbs still like their '80s cover bands, but since we started playing out in 2011, we’ve definitely seen an openness within the Chicago music scene to embrace our style of music.
On our tour stops in Canada, Michigan, Missouri and Oklahoma there’s an instantaneous embrace - - Chicago’s connection to Mumford and Sons and other Americana or Folk artists such as Gillian Welch or Nickel Creek even over the past year, are giving artists such as Humphrey-McKeown the space to be embraced here in Chicago.
Tom: It’s been an uphill climb but we do see more opportunities coming our way. We work with a lot of independent promoters in the city and it’s worked well for us.
We’ve been able to steadily grow a fan base. I would still love to see more clubs that are known for having a certain style of music like ours, similar to how jazz and blues clubs still are.
People know if they go to a particular club, they are going to hear great jazz or blues. Americana hasn’t reached that level yet. We’d love to have a “home-base” club where other bands who are similar to us could hang out and get our music heard.
Q - What are the band's short-term and long-term goals?
Tom: Our short term goal is to keep writing the fifth album and work with polishing the band. Longer term goals would be some more extended tours of the U.S. and Canada as well as a possible trip to England.
Heather: We just want to be writing yet another song. We are in the studio a lot writing and perfecting the next song.
We’ve written half of the songs on the new 2016 album and we have five or six still to go, so we are excited to move that along. Additionally, we are driving mass communications of our “All I Wanted to Hear” album with investments in radio airplay across the country and internationally.
We are also looking into TV and movie placements for our music. Finally, we want to expand our current friend base (our fans are our friends) with SXSW in the spring, along with summer and fall tours and keeping up with social media, which is a weekly love of mine.
Long term is keeping short-term in perspective - all of us in the band have families and the need to balance home lives with our passion for writing and performing music. At the end of our lives, we want to ensure we’ve kept all of what we want to do musically in line with caring for those we love.
This next year is shaping up to be great!