How to find strength in community even when you are wearing thin.
Vulnerability is becoming something of a buzzword nowadays for all manner of cultural influencers and leaders. But for Daniel and Lauren Goans, the husband-wife duo behind Charlottesville, VA folk outfit Lowland Hum, acts of vulnerability are indispensable to their artistic pursuits.
You can hear it in their music–and feel in their live performances. On any given night Daniel and Lauren are liable to make up a song on the fly, open the floor to questions from audience members between songs, and share about the less romantic side of life on the road as touring musicians.
I had the chance to connect with Daniel and Lauren as they hit the road shortly after the release of their newest album, Thin.
An Origin Story
Andrew Collins: At your concert at Royal Oak Community United Methodist Church the other night you gave a ten-second introduction telling the story of Lowland Hum. I think that’s as good a way as any to introduce yourself, so you can you rattle off that spiel to give us a snapshot of the band?
Daniel Goans: The spiel is from my own perspective, but it paints a good picture of the gist of how all this started. It goes like this: I used to write songs by myself, then I met Lauren and I was like, “Whoa, we should get married.” She said okay, and started singing harmony on my songs, which changed my songs, then we started writing together, then we became Lowland Hum, and we’ve been touring ever since.
Andrew: You’ve been making music and working in the music industry as a producer for quite some time now. Can you share a bit more about how your experience and musical background gave birth to Lowland Hum?
Daniel: When I look back over the last 12-13 years, I can see how each of my experiences in music has been folded into the identity of our band and my current production work. I started out playing pianos and guitars in a pop rock band in 2003 and in that context discovered that I was a songwriter and I had my first studio experiences and touring experiences. After that band ended, I continued writing songs on my own and wanted to record them, so I pulled out an old microphone some friends had bought me when I was in high school. I recorded my first solo album on Garage Band in my parent’s basement and realized that I not only loved songwriting and performing, but I loved arranging…searching for melodies, rhythms and layers that would bring the song to life in a recorded form. Using the first album I made on my own, I got a small grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and upgraded my recording setup.
That was in 2009, and after writing around 35 songs that year and performing around North Carolina, I applied to be a Trinity Fellows Academy fellow. I pitched the idea of making an album as my project. Many of the things I learned at TFA opened new space in my imagination for ways to write, arrange and perform. While working on that second album, I invited Lauren to sing on a few of the tracks and our collaboration was born. By the time we released my second album, the music was already starting to change because of Lauren’s involvement. We were married in February of 2012 and we starting touring about a month after we were married. I started producing because a few bands heard my solo albums and liked the sounds and arrangements. So, I have discovered my musical identity in stages, starting in 2003, and I can see how each iteration of my career laid a foundation upon which Lowland Hum has been built.
Andrew: During your time at the Trinity Fellows Academy your research question looked at how folk music follows in the way of Jesus. What did you mean by that, and in what sense do you feel like your music falls in that tradition?
Daniel: It was helpful to me to have people asking me to articulate why I was drawn to folk music and why I wrote the way I wrote. It pushed me to explore and think about what I was doing in the context of a group of people who, for the most part, weren’t in art circles at all. My exploration started with one of the staff saying something like, “are you sure that songwriting and performing is not just about you showing the world how special you are?” I’m sure the question was softened a bit more than that phrasing, but the gist was a challenge to really ask myself why I felt called into the specific music scene and tradition in which I was creating.
I looked at folks like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and recognized a complete lack of guile and a concern about the plight of disenfranchised people. The humility of the singers’ voices, the unadorned nature of the arrangements and sounds and the subject matter all appealed to me and felt in line with the ministry of Jesus. So, as I understood what compelled me about these older folk singers, I began to see differences in what I was doing and what they were doing.
The songs I was working on while at TFA were much more metaphorical and less straightforwardly narrative driven. I think this is where I started exploring the idea that, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the truth can only be told slant. When given the opportunity to share with crowds of people, Jesus often told parables that were not understood. When asked to explain further, he often departed. This hiddenness of meaning has always intrigued me and I think the mystery leaves space for and reminds us of the otherness of God.
Engaging with the listeners & forming community
Andrew: One of the trademarks of Lowland Hum’s live shows is that you provide the audience with lyric booklets so they can read along to the songs. What made you decide to do that? And what kind of effect have you found it to have on the audience’s experience of your music?
Lauren Goans: When we first started out as Lowland Hum a good friend of ours urged us to think about what could set us apart from other guy-girl duos. This started us out on an exploration of how we could incorporate aspects of my visual art background to offer audiences a more holistic experience in the live music setting. The lyric books were one of many things we tried in the beginning. I am more of a visual processor and I have found that I am able to connect more deeply to music when I can read lyrics as I listen. For both Daniel and I, really, one of our favorite ways to listen to music is to follow along in the album liner notes. So we started making lyric books by hand and they seemed to facilitate a deeper connection to the lyrical content of our songs.
It is really exciting when an audience member comes up after a show, wanting to discuss specific lines in a specific song. It is also really beautiful to look out while performing and see people reading along, or several people huddling together around one book. That changes the feeling of the room from one of individuals having singular experiences, to a group of people experiencing something together. Somehow people seem to be more aware of each other.
Andrew: During your shows you seek to create a welcoming, open, hospitable space for the audience. What does that look like for you guys, and how much of a role or responsibility do you think artists have to play in creating spaces of vulnerability and hospitality?
Lauren: We experience hospitality from others when they create a space in which we feel comfortable being ourselves. We try to do that for our audiences at our shows, and I think the main way we go about it is by being ourselves from the stage and by trying to remain present during the performances of our songs. Often it means sharing vulnerably so that others in the room feel safe accessing vulnerable spaces within themselves. I don’t know if I can speak to the responsibility and role of other artists, as I guess it depends on the motives and goals driving their work. But it seems to me that if someone wants to encourage engagement with ideas, whether intra- or interpersonally, creating a safe, open and hospitable space is one of the best ways I can think of. We personally feel led into hospitable work, but someone may have great reasons for creating art that grates.
Andrew: As much of an effort as you make to welcome people to your shows, the life of a touring musician can be a very isolating and lonely one without the consistent presence of a community. Has this been your experience, and what have you both done to guard against the personal and spiritual perils of life on the road?
Lauren: It has been an isolating experience in many ways and we are still very much learning how to best guard against it. Part of it seems to be a mindset game. When we are feeling entitled to a specific expression of community, life on the road can feel excruciatingly lonely. We have found it crucial for us to receive community in the form that it is given while on the road.
For us that means being present with those in front of us in any given moment. After so many years of intense travel, we do have dear friends with whom we are able to connect deeply, spread out all over the country. Making time for connection with those friends along our tour routes is one way that we are able to fight the isolation. It helps us to remain present to the gift of each other’s companionship as well. We may not get to walk through life side by side with people in a regular and consistent way right now, but the open friendship we share with one another is surely not to be taken for granted.
We also take a lot of walks. Being on the road entails a lot of “in between time,” as we are always getting places early just in case we encounter traffic. Killing that time with long walks helps us air out our thoughts, process recent events, and even engage in a sort of conversational contemplation with one another.
Creating a vulnerable album with grounded footing
Andrew: Let’s talk about your newest album, Thin, which you recorded in the attic of a friend’s home. What makes Thin different from your past work? And what were some of the big ideas or experiences that inspired it?
Lauren: Around the time we decided it was time to think about recording a new album, we separated from our label and had a few other big things fall through. This, combined with the exhaustion of three years of nearly constant touring, brought us into a season of reevaluating our goals and vision for the band going forward. For the first three years of our collaboration we were really pushing for a specific breakthrough or outcome, and we were constantly over-extending. Often our recordings would take place between tours and we would go straight from the road into a studio, with no margin between or time to refocus.
The record we released before Thin contained somewhat frenetic full-band arrangements. It was loud and exciting and we experimented a lot in the process of making it. We even took the guys that played bass and drums on the road with us for a few months. However as we reached the end of that year, all of that pushing brought us to the realization that maybe we could create by way of overflow, rather than striving and pushing. We knew that things needed to slow down, and we knew that we wanted to limit this next album’s recordings to something close to what we could pull off live just the two of us. Thin is still closely and intricately arranged, but it is much quieter and more sparse than any of our other albums. The songs explore themes of exhaustion and frailty, but those explorations are coming from a more grounded place, I think.
Andrew: It seems like Lowland Hum has been on the verge of breaking out for the past few years, yet every year, by your own honest admission, you just barely make ends meet (and still haven’t landed that profile in the New York Times). What does success mean to you as an artist? How do you determine what really matters in your creative endeavors?
Lauren: We want to do this work for as long as we feel called to it, which means we want to live and work in such a way that we can remain healthy and centered. At this point, we aim to consider being able to create from a place of spiritual health and unity as our main metric for success. We hope to always be growing the excellence of our craft, and while it would be exciting if things spread to a wider audience, we are learning to let go of the things that are outside of our control. Our job is to work faithfully to the best of our ability, and when we become focused on the result or outcome, we have really lost sight of our realm of control.
Photo credit: Eric Kelley, courtesy of Lowland Hum.
Andrew Collins is a fellow at the Trinity Fellows Academy. He enjoys reviewing movies, reading good books, writing about something other than politics, and playing ultimate Frisbee.