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“We want to focus on the core, not the illusion.” – Wesley Schultz, The Lumineers.

The Lumineers are one of the unlikeliest success stories of the past few years. A scruffy independent Americana trio out of Denver, their irresistible anthem “Ho Hey” took the world by storm in 2012, followed by a second #1 single “Stubborn Love” and their third charting single “Submarines”, all carrying them on a journey from the Grammys to the presidential iPod, from the top of the charts to the Hunger Games. Their self-titled debut album became a multi-million seller as they stormed stages around the world and legions of new fans fell in love with the wide emotional and philosophical range of their rich, lyrical songwriting. Now, at long last, they are back with their second album, Cleopatra, a collection of such depth and texture it affirms The Lumineers as a band in for the long haul, with a growing canon of songs that stand comparison with the best America has to offer.

The Lumineers are songwriters Wesley Schultz (vocals, guitar) and Jeremiah Fraites (drums, piano). They are joined by cellist and backing vocalist Neyla Pekarek, who became a part of the group in 2010. Cleopatra is the result of three years of non-stop touring in the heady whirlwind of growing fame, six months of secluded writing in a small house in Denver, and two months of recording in the rural isolation of Woodstock. “I think the old fashioned way is the honest way,” says blonde, bearded, soft spoken singer Wesley. “We wanted to take our time, strip it right back to its raw and honest essentials, and make an album we believe in.” In a world where sophomore albums are commonly rushed out the door, Jer felt they, “took the right amount of time we needed to make the record we imagined, on our own timeline.”

Cleopatra is full of strange and touching tales from the frontline of life in a real world behind the veil of pop illusions, of everyday hopes and busted dreams. “We put an onus on the kind of characters and stories that are not so prevalent in popular music today,” says Wesley, who writes all the lyrics and collaborates on the music, melody and structure with Jeremiah. “We want songs you can wrap your arms around. There’s enough generic stuff out there full of recycled words that don’t really mean anything. There have to be other stories to tell, and other ways to tell them.”

The title track, “Cleopatra”, sprang from an encounter with a taxi driver Wes met in the Republic of Georgia, who related a tale of personal tragedy without a trace of self-pity. “As an American, a lot of what we do is tell the world how great our life is,” says Wesley. “People create stories about themselves through social media which are completely disconnected from what we personally know about their lives. I felt cleansed to be around someone who was just telling me how it actually was for them.”

It is a potent metaphor for The Lumineers whole approach to their art. The black and white photo on the cover depicts silent movie star Theda Bara in the 1917 production of Cleopatra. “It’s such an arresting image, vulnerable but strong. I think a good song is like a beautiful woman and no matter whether she’s wearing something crazy front of fashion or old sweat pants, you can still tell she is beautiful. We want to focus on the core, not the illusion.”

It confirms The Lumineers as a timeless band. Theirs has been an old fashioned word of mouth success, based on great songs and emotive performances, a return to essential values that saw them hailed as America’s answer to Britain’s nu folk movement. “I never thought of us as folk but there was maybe some connection in the rejection of modernity,” says Jeremiah, the lively percussionist who started writing and performing with Schultz in New York in 2005. “We gravitated towards a sound that was more pure and timeless.”

President Obama revealed himself to be a fan when Lumineers’ second single “Stubborn Love” which he featured on his Spotify playlist alongside Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. “We were humbled by that,” admits Wesley. “Especially when you’re surrounded by great artists who have stood the test of time. We’ve got our work cut out to live up to that.”

The Lumineers expanded to a five piece live, with the recruitment of long-time friend pianist Stelth Ulvang and new bassist Byron Isaacs. They built a passionate following with intimate, energetic shows and sold out tours and festival appearance in the UK. “When we perform, we’ve gotten to a place where we can be vulnerable and honest and share something real with audiences,” says Wesley.

Hollywood came calling when The Lumineers were asked to write a song for The Hunger Games. “Francis Lawrence, the director, said you’ve got to be able to hum it, whistle it, or sing as a mass group of people,” recalls Wes. “So we approached it like a really dark nursery rhyme.” The lyrics to The Hanging Tree were written by author Suzanne Collins. It was sung by Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I and became a top forty hit around the world. “It was interesting to be ghostwriters but it’s a song for Kat Everdine not the Lumineers. It’s not something we would play live, unless Suzanne Collins wants to come along and sing it.”

The Lumineers are extremely wary of the potential corruption of fame, something which has fed into their new album. First single, “Ophelia”, personifies fame as a dangerous temptress. Another of the album’s stand out tracks, “My Eyes”, portrays the ways Hollywood can crush the life out of wannabes. “The world sees you as being put on a pedestal but you are also put on a hamster wheel, and that does strange things to people,” says Wesley. “Even a little bit of fame can distort perceptions, if people see you and react abnormally. Back when we were working as bus boys to support our music, I felt invisible to the world. I remember thinking I could be naked and pick up a plate and no one would even notice. That’s an interesting place to write from and I’m wary of losing it.”

When it was time to record a new album, Wesley and Jeremiah went into retreat, to re-establish the principles that had made their debut so great. They rented a small house in Denver and spent six months writing and honing material.

As dedicated fans of the raw Americana of The Felice Brothers, they were delighted that maverick singer-songwriter Simone Felice agreed to produce the follow up album. They decamped to a rural studio in Woodstock for two months of intensive sessions that they recall as a bizarre mixture of recording and therapy. “It was almost like a cleansing,” says Wes. “Jer and I had gone through ten years living together, writing together, working at side jobs together, on the road together, it was like there was no separation. There was so much shit swept under the carpet there was nowhere else to put it, the streets were overflowing, the sewers needed to be flushed out so that we could look at each other clearly and have a conversation. The only way to do it was to go on long walks, and talk and cry and scream and make up.”

“And then you go back in the studio and try and figure out what the chorus needs,” laughs Jeremiah. “It was the most intense, densely packed experience of our lives. There is no way to sum it up. When people ask how it was, you just have to laugh and say it was great.”

In its warmth, intimacy and quiet sense of contemplation, Cleopatra is immediately identifiable as the work of The Lumineers, although the sound palette is a shade broader than their debut. “I had to sell my electric guitar years ago, because I ran out of money,” says Wesley. “Then when things started looking up, I went into the guitar shop where I sold it, ten minutes to close, and bought a Guild right before a show, on a whim. It was kind of a revenge buy. I felt like I was evening the score with the universe. And that replaced my acoustic for the entire set, overnight, and so it fed into the sound of the new album.”

“The first album you could play in an electrical blackout,” says Jer. “We set up in a living room without amplification because that is all we had. The second one is plugged in. But the concept behind the writing stayed the same, which is that you have to be able to strip it all the way back, and find the essence. I find it easier to tell when a Lumineers song is not done, than when it is. But when all of the pieces of a song finally fit into place, it’s one hell of a feeling.”

Cleopatra is full of deeply felt songs that will get under the listeners skin. Opening track “Sleep On The Floor” is a tale of escape from the humdrum, delivered with the confident swagger of a young Bruce Springsteen busting out of Atlantic City. “Gun Song” is rumination on parenthood, based around a memory of Wesley discovering a pistol in a drawer after his father died. “Angela”, already one of the most popular tracks on the album, is a tender guitar picked homily to a small town beauty struggling to escape her past. Every song is finely detailed, beautifully performed, sure of its own inner purpose.

“I felt like we had won some good will,” says Wesley. “So we could take our time, savour the moment, because if you trust us and stay with it, you know there will be something there for you. This is going to sound crazy, but, if making an album is like robbing a house, the first album felt like the homeowners were taking the dog for a walk, and we only had 10 minutes to get in and get out. It was manic. It was rushed. But on the 2nd album, Jer and I felt like the owners were taking a 2 week vacation. We could get in there, take our time, and find exactly what we were looking for.”

J Roddy Walston And The Business

Heading into Destroyers of the Soft Life, the fourth LP by J. Roddy Walston and The Business set to be released September 29 via ATO Records, JRWATB pursued a brighter, more nuanced sound that teased out the band’s latent pop sensibilities without skimping on energy or attitude. As you press play on the opening track “You Know Me Better”, anthemic guitars scream out of buoyant, hooky lyrics as Walston’s chugging piano supplies a persistent heartbeat. The “bar band” sound of the past has been replaced by an aspirational, booming cacophony that could fill stadiums.

Instead of the raucous bombast JRWATB manifested on their breakout hit album Essential Tremors, the band’s leader had certain rules he was determined to follow on Destroyers of the Soft Life. One was: “Speak/sing clearly, no hiding behind mumbles.” Another was, “D.I.Y. but hi-fi — record ourselves as much as possible but have it sound amazing and full.” The final, most important, rule was, “Nostalgia is a cancer — acknowledge that you are in the present.”

“We had never been a band where we pretended that it’s 1965,” Walston says. “But we ended up in situations with our records where those rules were imposed on us.”

On Essential Tremors, JRWATB inspired pangs of joy in music fans that yearn for the days of Bob Seger and early Bruce Springsteen. But when Walston returned home from touring in 2015 and began contemplating his next move, he no longer felt the same connection to that classic-rock sound.

“Loud rock and roll music has become less relevant because it’s just been on a loop,” he says. “If there was any rule on this record, it was, let’s be a part of music right now. I want to be part of living music in this moment.”

Helping the band realize a new vision for its music was veteran producer Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes), who came in to apply some finishing touches after JRWATB completed most of the record in Virginia.

“The thing with Phil is he is a servant of the song and that is my vibe as well,” Walston says. “Ego has no place in songwriting or the studio and we hit it off in that respect right away.”

“Is there any point to making a record that has real instruments (guitars, drums, piano etc.) right now?” he continues. “Is there anything left to be said by writing this way? Do albums matter anymore? Can I make something that I care about right now because it’s a manifestation of the fear/love/excitement/ I am feeling right now, not because is tickles some easy to reach nostalgic pleasure center.”

Lead single “The Wanting” boasts a shimmering, uplifting guitar riff and an impossibly huge chorus that belies the song’s thoughtful exploration of familial relationships and the fallacy of distilling complicated people down to archetypes. “Did you do right by us / best it could be,” Walston sings, addressing a prodigal father figure. “You’ve done no harm / but you’ve been no good to me.”

Throughout Destroyers of the Soft Life JRWATB similarly melds engaging, melodic songwriting with sharp observations about American culture that take on a new kind of power in light of the 2016 presidential election. Standout tracks such as the infectious “Ways And Means” and swaggering “Blade Of Truth” offer the uncompromised, salt-of-the-Earth perspective of a songwriter who grew up among the white working class and yet has enough perspective to see the ways in which those people have undermined themselves in the political realm. As Walston sings in “Blade of Truth,” there is now “a judgement on the herd / and your privilege will burn.”

Amid the torn-from-the-headlines commentary, Walston revisits the same question: “Is the truth a hard line, or it is a flexible line that can be messed with?”

“I got to straddle the line a bit with this record,” he says. “I hit a point in my life where I could pay my bills on time for the first time ever, and take a breath. I got to see the life you can have when you’re not living a life of desperation. But I was just outside that line of desperation.”

The band’s newfound financial security is largely the result of the band’s hard work on the road. Looking back on the tour cycle for Essential Tremors, Walston can only chuckle.

“We probably toured on it way longer than our contemporaries would,” he admits.

Of course, not many bands experience the sort of growth in prominence and audience size that Walston and his compatriots have witnessed in the past several years. Road warriors from the time they formed in 2002, JRWATB has long been an underground favorite, toiling away in clubs and bars and carving out its own niche outside of the rock mainstream. But the radio success of Essential Tremors opened new doors and fostered exciting opportunities, including invites to Lollapalooza, the Newport Folk Festival, and Bonnaroo, and a featured slot in an episode of the prestigious music TV institution, Austin City Limits. With every new experience came requests to play more shows.

“The train just kept rolling,” Walston says, until finally he hit a wall. “By the time I came off the road, I thought, ‘I’m toast. I don’t have anything in the tank.’”

Walston’s world was also rocked by a huge life-changing event — the birth of his first child. “I think having a kid made me care less of what people think of me,” he says. “I have one ultimate mission right now — keep a human alive. I don’t care if someone doesn’t like my pants or my hair or whatever. Being a parent makes you powerful in that way.”

Over the next year and a half, Walston committed to building himself and his band back up into a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll beast. But before JRWATB could get started on its fourth album, Walston decided to do some literal construction on a new space for the band where it could rehearse and record.

The only space available in the band’s hometown of Richmond, Va. hardly seemed promising — it was “a completely annihilated warehouse” that had been a grenade factory during World War II, says Walston, who decided to rent the place after the landlord offered the first two month’s rent for free. Perhaps the landlord expected JRWATB to eventually pack up and retreat. But that guy clearly knows nothing about this band’s work ethic, or affinity for lost causes. Instead of giving up, they gutted the place and spent the next seven months rehabbing the building until it was transformed into a suitable headquarters for JRWATB.

Why go to all the trouble of making your own space when there are any number of established studios where you can make your record? For JRWATB, like it is with so many things in their lives, building a personal studio was a matter of principle. When you’re renting studio time, it’s always somebody else’s time. For once, Walston wanted to make a record on his time.

“I don’t listen to our old records because I get so stressed when I think about making them,” he says, reflecting on how rushed the band was in the studio back then. “We’re taking the experience back.”

Joywave is an eclectic group specializing in alternative pop hailing from Rochester, NY. After the success of 2013's 88888 mixtape, they established their Hollywood Records imprint Cultco Music, through which they released this debut EP How Do You Feel?. With a catalog that deftly jumps between genre, Joywave's How Do You Feel? EP demonstrates the band's pointed talent for blending influences. The Joywave sound is grounded in classic songwriting, often injected with house music's energy, disco's layfulness and an overarching hip-hop spirit. Where any other band might lose its identity in the quest to experiment with so many different sounds, Joywave's all-embracing approach and ineffable knack for making music that feels good puts their distinct personality front and center.

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