A DESERT SUN EDITOR REMINISCES ABOUT THE BAND’S EVOLUTION AHEAD OF ITS STAGECOACH PERFORMANCE
While recording their latest album, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors didn’t bring any musical influences into the studio. It was a different approach than their last two records, when they introduced all sorts of ideas into the mix. This time, at producer Joe Pisapia’s place, they found the sound on their own, apart from the deep reservoirs of musical inspiration you can never really get away from – Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Carole King.
But, then again, the entire process for “Souvenir” was a little bit different.
This is the sixth studio album for the Nashville-based Americana band, formed in 2006 by Memphis singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb. It’s the first to introduce sex and politics into their lyrical songbook, and the first in which guitarist/keyboardist Nathan Dugger and bassist Rich Brinsfield helped Holcomb with the songwriting.
It’s an album about “identity, memory and nostalgia, but also moving forward,” the front man explained by phone from Houston, and it comes after the group’s most successful record to date. Their 2015 release “Medicine” topped out at No. 47 on the Top 200, according to iTunes, and resulted in a nearly 200-show tour over 18 months. “That record was incredibly personal for me,” Holcomb explained. It was the first after his wife, vocalist and guitarist Ellie Holcomb, left the band’s full-time tour to focus on their growing family and her solo career. “I felt an immense pressure to really make a great record because a lot of our fans were pretty disappointed in her departure.”
And he did. But in the wake of its success and rigorous tour, Holcomb “hit a wall.”
“It was one of those moments where you go, ‘Man, I don’t really know how to say what I need to say,” he explained.
So, he started getting together with Dugger and Brinsfield every Monday that they weren’t on tour, writing songs for six to eight hours over the course of about eight months. “I’ve been playing with these guys, Rich and Nathan, for over a decade,” Holcomb said. “They know me, they know my voice, they know what I like but they also know how to challenge me.” Some of those songs can be heard on the record. “It also sort of pushed me over the cliff back into the water of writing by myself.”
Three songs on the album were written right down to the wire – Holcomb finished “New Year,” “Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing,” and “Morning Song” in an airport hotel in Amsterdam, waiting to fly home from the band’s European tour. He wrote “Wild World” during election season, and recorded “Fight for Love” the day after Election Day. Taken as a whole, “Souvenir” is an album that exudes a new kind of confidence, a full-circle maturation from the early days of Holcomb’s career. Back then, he was “searching for his voice, both literally and figuratively” and co-writing songs “peppered with too many influences,” according to a statement released by the band. “Souvenir” is co-writing at its best – productivity within a space of well-known intimacy – as opposed to “letting too many other voices” inside his head.
“‘Medicine’ was music heals. With ‘Souvenir,’ it’s more like music narrates. Music tells our story, this idea that music is something we carry with us,” Holcomb explained. “… We’ve been making records for a while and so, in some ways, I want to reinvent but I don’t want to betray what we’ve built.”
See photos from Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors at Stagecoach
I saw Holcomb at the beginning of that European tour. “Medicine” released late January 2015 – Jon Radford had since joined the band on drums – and by that time, I’d already backpacked through four European countries and was on my way to the United Kingdom. An early February morning spent exploring the shadowy hallways and quiet courtyards of the University of Oxford ended at The Bullingdon, where Holcomb and Dugger took the stage after local artist Bethany Weimers. I don’t remember what they played, but I remember we sat on foldout chairs, and I sipped rum and orange juice from a plastic cup. There couldn’t have been more than 150 people in the room.
Holcomb was as stoic on stage as he’s always been, his burly beard nearly blending in with a dark jean shirt beneath a beige pork pie hat. Fans were tickled when the front man broke character and donned a banana suit (and dance moves) for the band’s “Here We Go” music video in December 2014. He chuckled when I asked if there’s ever a time when he’s “sunshine” as opposed to “rain.”
“My stoic personality allows really hard things to become ironic and then, therefore, funny pretty quickly,” he said. “… Even in marriage, I’m typically the one who finds the humor in something terrible or something hard before Ellie does, and it ends up allowing her to process something through that lens of humor.”
That night in Oxford, I’ll admit that I was disappointed when Ellie wasn’t on stage. Like many fans, I, too, had to grieve her departure. The daughter of producer Brown Bannister, she’d shake her tambourine and lift her hands mid-verse like she was leading a charismatic church service, her voice a warm blend of alto honesty and Southern twang. She’s since released two Christian solo albums and won New Artist of the Year at the 2014 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, but I remember the first song I heard her sing. It was “Magnolia,” off the band's 2009 album, “A Million Miles Away.” As her voice floated through my laptop speakers, I sat on my bed beneath a quilted comforter in my college apartment and cried.
“You’ve been walkin’ through this world alone / No place to call your home except your heartache / You’ve been tryin’ to make it all work out / When the sun goes down your soul is burdened / Oh Magnolia.”
In 2013, Holcomb told NashvilleLifestyles.com: “I think sometimes in a good way and in a bad way, the marriage can become the center of attention. Even [Ellie] has said she feels like people miss the song sometimes because they’re so focused on us together. What I feel is a really healthy sense of challenge that I have to let the songs do all the work. It was easy to rely on Ellie’s charisma on stage. It’ll be a new challenge for us to put on a really interesting and vibrant show and let the songs do as much of the talking as possible.”
There are still occasional hecklers who inquire (read: yell) as to where Ellie is, Holcomb told me while he walked around The Heights Theater in Houston a few hours before a show. “Where have you been for the last four years?” he laughed in response. Then, he let me in on a surprise: That night, Ellie was playing 45 minutes down the road in Sugar Land and planned on catching a ride to his venue to come onstage at the end of the night. There are still occasions, though few and far between, when she makes these kinds of appearances. Stagecoach, Holcomb says, might be one of them.
“It’s interesting, our fans have sort of changed since she left,” he added. “There’s a lot more beards in the crowd than there used to be.”
I didn’t notice any change in facial hair in the two years between that Oxford show and when I saw the band live in 2013. I hovered in the back of a dimly lit Lincoln Hall in Chicago as Holcomb, still holding his guitar, stepped out from behind his microphone to peer over the front of the stage.
“Sometimes I wake up with the sadness / other days it feels like madness / Oh, what would I do without you?” he sang acapella, his voice reverberating across the room.
“When the colors turn to shades of grey / with the weight of the world at the end of the day / Oh, what would I do without you?”
It felt like church, this sacred moment. Holcomb was hatless. Ellie, still in the band, had been swaying beside him. Bright yellow bulbs glowed with the words “Good Light” behind them, and I smiled next to a man I’d just married. The Holcombs' “Hung the Moon” had played right before I walked down the aisle two months earlier.
That song, “What Would I Do Without You,” almost didn’t make the “Good Light” album. “It doesn’t even have a chorus,” Holcomb said. “I felt pretty selfish putting it on the record because it was like, ‘Oh, this is just a song that I love.’ Nobody else in the band was thrilled with it and the producer was just like, ‘That’s cool, whatever.’ ”
Sometimes, resonance comes from taking risks, adapting outside the box to the point where it surprises you. The track has garnered more than 6 million plays on the band’s Spotify page. The next highest is “American Beauty” at just under 3 million.
Some reviewers have called “Souvenir” the album that could break Holcomb through to commercial success. It’s difficult, or, perhaps – bittersweet – to imagine them no longer playing the venues where you can see the strings they’re picking and hear every word they’re singing – see Holcomb’s eyes light up as he tells stories about his daughter, Emmylou.
He’s notoriously never chosen to sign to a label (“If we could find someone at a label who could really champion us over the long haul as a career band and a career songwriter, then we would certainly contemplate that”) so I asked him, what is commercial success? Does he want it?
“That’s honestly not been a concern of mine until recently,” he said. “It’s sort of an internal wrestling match that you have in terms of defining success. There are certain places we can go, and we can sell 1,500 to 3,000 tickets where we’re playing in these beautiful, seated theaters and it’s just this incredibly beautiful and intimate experience. Then, there’s other places where I go, and we could sell 200 tickets and it’s a grungy dive bar, and it’s an experience altogether different.
"I don’t necessarily want to say that I don’t want the second category because I’ve learned a lot from it. I’ve grown a lot as a human being and as an artist through the long haul of hard work," he added. "Would I like to be on a tour bus and be able to pay my band more? I think at this point, if we did have commercial success like somebody like Chris Stapleton has had, who’s such a real artist but has been able to sort of break into whatever that means, a national platform, international platform. Do I want that? Sure. Am I disappointed if I don’t get that? No, because this has already been a beyond-my-wildest-dreams journey. When I first started out, my goal was to sell out a club in Nashville called 3rd and Lindsley, which holds 400 people. Now, I’m playing two nights at the Ryman back to back.
“We just continue to make music and press on and hope. If this record does do that, that would be great,” he said. “If it doesn’t, that would not mean it’s a failure.”
"Souvenir" derives its name from a track called “Sometimes.” It’s a song about being alone and loving yourself. “All the memories that have put you here / carry on just like a flame / Takes a special kind of souvenir / to help you along the way.”
“When Rich sent me that song, I was just like, ‘Well, that one’s done. Let’s make a record,” Holcomb said. “He has never written until this record and that’s the kind of stuff he’s coming out with.”
Finding his own voice in his bandmates’ songs was a unique challenge. “Yellow Rose of Santa Fe,” for example, is a cowboy ballad about a one-night stand in New Mexico. “Those first two times I sang through it, I sounded like Garth Brooks,” Holcomb said. “It was just really taking the time to find my voice in someone else’s writing.
“The musical hook at the top of ‘Postcard Memories’?” he added. “It took me like three days just to learn how to play it. The fact that [it] was such a difficult sort of melodic piece, I would never have written it because I didn’t even think to create it.”
“Postcard memories only paint a picture / of how you are in one place at a time." If “Souvenir” is a snapshot of where Holcomb is at this moment of his career, it’s this: confident enough to ask for help and take on a challenge, rising to the occasion of thoughtful reinvention.
He’s never considered himself a political artist but wades into the waters on this record with a fiery gumption not heard on previous albums. “You got to fight for love / Fight for what you’re dreaming of,” he sings on "Fight for Love." In the midst of the current political climate (“[President Donald Trump] lost me at mocking the disabled reporter as the brother of a disabled kid”), he said, it’s a song about refusing to give over to “hopelessness” and “cynicism.”
“Instead of doing that, it’s like, well what can I do?” he explained. “I can treat people with respect and dignity, and I can raise my kids to treat people with respect and dignity, and I can treat my fans with respect and dignity and equality. And I can encourage them to do the same thing. That’s not necessarily a blatant policy point of view, it’s just a political act nowadays because it’s not normal anymore. Who knew that treating people with dignity would be a political act? But it is 2017. That’s sort of what the song is about. You have to fight for it. You don’t just get to throw in the towel.”
That resilience has been a constant theme throughout Holcomb’s lyrics over the years. An early song, “The Wine We Drink” is about how the “mundane, hard parts of life sometimes are the defining places of connection and affection.” When I asked him what he’s learned about toeing the line between love and grief, he recalled losing his brother at 17 years old, and how out of that darkness has come a friendship with his sister and brother that is “one of the greatest joys” of his adult life. “The well that sorrow digs inside of you," he said, "is also the well of joy.”
It is music that carries him through. “When I lost my brother in high school, the thing that I gravitated toward was music,” he said. “Soul music. Not, like, genre-wise soul music but music that really spoke to my soul.” Van Morrison, Radiohead and David Gray, to name a few.
I understand the sentiment. After nearly a decade of listening to Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, "Hung the Moon" is still my favorite track. ("I was sitting on the couch playing that guitar part just by myself, Ellie was in the kitchen doing something and all of a sudden she just starting singing the first line. ... I just sat and played that guitar part for like two hours while she worked on lyrics"). But these days, listening is a bit bittersweet. The marriage that started right before that show in Chicago has long since ended – breaking right around the time "Medicine" came out as a reminder that music heals. But after the looking back comes the moving forward: a search within the well to find our own souvenirs.