The band's work is unlike anything I've really heard before -- making it difficult to classify their style in to one, or five, genres. From lead singer Justin Wade Tam's soulful tone and songwriting to the mandolin solos and the lulling melodies on the ukulele, their music seems to get better with every listen.
The first time Humming House rolled through St. Louis was in 2012 to play Twangfest. Last October, they returned for a performance at the Gramophone, and this May 1, the band will return to perform at the Stage at KDHX.
The Nashville, Tennessee-based band released its debut in 2012 and recently wrapped up recording on its second album. Humming House is on the road more often then not, giving intimate in-home performances and singing to crowds of hundreds.
I recently spoke to songwriter Justin Wade Tam about life since Humming Houses's first release and the exciting times ahead.
Liz Schranck: Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what influenced you as a musician?
Justin Wade Tam: Sure. I grew up on the West Coast, in California. I'm from San Diego. I grew up listening to Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My sort of first introduction into folk music was Van Morrison and Simon and Garfunkel. I really got into Ryan Adams my senior year in high school. His records "Gold" and "Heartbreaker" sort of turned a corner for me as far as being able to listen to roots music. From there I kind of got invested into a lot of different songwriters: '60s folk music, stuff like that, which eventually inspired kind of where we are at now.
Hearing you say that makes a lot of sense after listening to your debut. Speaking of that, I'm curious how you, Leslie, Bobby, Josh and Ben came together to form Humming House.
Initially, the first record, everybody just kind of came in as session musicians. We've had some band member changes in the first year. There were two different people in the band originally. It just became clear after the record that it was more of a band record. So in a lot of ways, the record sort of burst the band. I was toying with the idea of doing a solo project, then realized it was a lot better to travel with friends. The songs lent themselves more to kind of coming together as a band.
The new album we just finished is more of a collaboration in the band. We just finished recording it, and we've already been writing past that. The newer stuff, especially, is a lot more of an intense collaboration within the project, which is a cool transition to make --giving everybody a bigger voice than they've had in the past. Everybody is a very talented writer in the band, and I'm very thankful to play with them because they're all such great musicians, but they are wonderful songwriters as well.
The second record! When are you planning to release that?
Well, we don't have a release date set yet. We're sort of in the middle of business negotiations at the moment.
(Laughs) The record is pretty much done. We're going into mastering in a couple of weeks. We've selected a visual artist for our artwork, and we're doing all those kinds of things.
You released your debut in 2012, which was produced by Grammy-winning producers Vance Powell and Mitch Dane. How did that opportunity come about?
I don't know that I've ever told anybody this story before, but I actually bumped into Mitch at a bachelor party. And I think he heard through the grape vine about my music. I used to be in a former folk duo and he had heard some of those records. I was looking to do some new stuff so he brought me in and we just produced one together, the two of us, with some of the original band members. And that song turned out to be "Gypsy Dgango." So that was the first song we ever cut. That was probably about nine months before we did the record.
I think it really was because of Mitch, and then subsequently Vance taking us seriously that kind of gave me and subsequently the band the confidence to kind of really go after it, you know? It was cool -- Vance was only involved in the project because Mitch actually had a family emergency happen in the first day or two of the recording process. So Vance sort of came in to help Mitch out, and we ended up getting along so well that Vance ended up mixing the album as well. So we tracked half the record with Vance and then Mitch finished it out producing it, and Vance ended up mixing it. Vance, at the time, was in the middle of recording "Blunderbuss" with Jack White and has Grammys from the Raconteurs and has done stuff with Chris Thile, has a Grammy from a Buddy Guy record and stuff. For us, it was like, holy crap, Vance Powell just walked into the room.
Because we got along so well with that team, we decided to do the second record with them. This next record's a little bit different because we recorded and produced the whole thing with Mitch, and then Vance was on the mixing side. So that's been cool to see the different process and the differences between how we worked with them. But we're definitely happy with the product.
What a great opportunity. And it's great that you had such a good experience on the first album that you can say, "Hey, we trust this producer to stay true to us as artists and our sound."
Yeah, exactly. It was a very easy decision. We were like, well, they understand where they're coming from and they understand where we want to go. They're just really great guys and extremely talented. And the gear they have over there is just...silly. It's like any sort of audio nerd's dream.
Speaking of that first album, "Gypsy Django" is one of my favorite songs on the record. From that to "Southern Seamstress" your songwriting definitely takes on that story-telling, narrative form, but it's also catchy, stuck-in-your-head good. Where do you draw inspiration from your tunes? Are they autobiographical?
Yeah. I think that those two are very different sources. "Southern Seamstress" is actually a very personal song about my wife. So, definitely a very direct, personal song. I played it for the first time at my wedding. So there's some mushy stuff for you right there.
"Gypso Django"... I actually was sort of exploring some jazz music and I heard, probably about 10 years ago about Django Reinhardt on NPR and then started digging into his career. I read some books about him and really got into his records and his story. I think I had gotten a ukulele around the time that I wrote that song, and it had this riff that just sort of popped out and ended up being a loose biography about Django Reinhardt.
So, simple narratives. Sometimes they're totally fictional, sometimes they're inspired by real people, and sometimes they're just based on experiences. The new record we've got coming out is based on personal experiences from having been on the road so much for the last two years, sort of chasing this hope of pursuing art with our lives.
You guys have done quite a bit of touring and opened for some big names. What are some of the most memorable performances or experiences that you've had on the road?
(Laughs) Let's see. This year, I think, has been really cool. We've had some really cool opportunities just since January. We were on the Cayamo Cruise with Brandi Carlile and Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, the Lone Bellow and our new friends Elephant Revival. So that was a really cool festival experience for us.
And we just played Old Settler's Festival and we went on before bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. Shovels & Rope were right after that and then Jeff Bridges. So, we got to hang out with the Dude.
More than anything, I think we just really enjoy performing a lot. Our mandolin player is an incredible performer; Josh tears it up every night. Bobby is an amazing fiddle player and they're great harmony singers, too. And our bass player is a great backbone to everything and just kind of keeps us all in line. The coolest thing about the live show is that it really features everybody, probably better than an album would.
I was on your Facebook page and I saw something really cool -- a banner asking if any fans would be interested in becoming a Humming House Architect [to help spread the word about shows in their respective towns.] Is this something you guys have always done?
Yeah, it's a new thing! Our biggest problem thus far has been getting in front of enough people. It's really hard when you've got a limited budget on the road to hire big time publicists to get the word out. And we have so many fans who are really passionate about what we do and really enjoy the music, so we just kind of thought we would create a family for them to be a part of and literally help us create the structure of Humming House in different cities.
So they will hang posters around town for us, invite their friends on Facebook to like what we do and in exchange they will get exclusive merch packages and things like that. We're currently designing an "architects only" T-shirt.
And it's your fans who, sort of, make your music happen.
Yeah, and to be honest, some of the most meaningful performances we've had have been in people's living rooms. We've sometimes had a better time playing in front of 50 people at a house than we've had in front of 400 people at a club. That's where there's more opportunity to really get to know people.
KDHX presents Humming House on the Stage at KDHX on May 1, 2014.