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Thursday, 24 May 2012 12:34

'Songwriting is like creating a riddle and solving it' A pre-Twangfest interview with Justin Wade Tam of Humming House

'Songwriting is like creating a riddle and solving it' A pre-Twangfest interview with Justin Wade Tam of Humming House
Written by Will Kyle
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Justin Wade Tam's fledgling Humming House is an impressive bunch.

Sporting an eclectic cast of members with a wide array of folky talents from soulful vocals to mandolin righteousness, Humming House has been impressing crowds with their playful blend of Irish, Americana and country-porch stomp leading up to and since the release of the self-titled 2012 debut record.

Like the band's polished first two videos for "Gypsy Django" and "Cold Chicago," the record (produced by Mitch Dane and Vance Powell) showcases Humming House's propensity for innovation and experimentation as well as thoughtful songwriting.

This year's Twangfest (running June 6-9) will be Humming House's St. Louis debut. Those of us that have heard the band are excited and those that haven't don't know what kind of an extraordinary sound awaits them. I recently interviewed lead singer/guitarist Justin Wade Tam by phone about the formation of Humming House, songwriting, the contemporary view of Nashville, musical proliferation, live covers and the production of his band's debut record.

Will Kyle: Can you talk about the jam sessions you hosted that led up to meeting future Humming House band members?

Justin Wade Tam: You're talking about the Irish nights. On Sunday nights, we would do this thing called "Finnegan's Folly" on Sunday nights. The story is that my wife did her Master's in Dublin at Trinity College. She's sort of Ms. Ireland around here, so we decided to host jam sessions where we just played Irish pub songs and drank Jameson.

We found an old songbook of Irish pub tunes and started playing them. There'd be anywhere between six to twenty people sitting around with stringed instruments singing along.

I found this very cool for Nashville, because people here are usually very serious about music, so having a situation where anyone could pick up and play three chords or sing along is refreshing. For most music people in Nashville, it's almost always business related. The jam sessions were more informal.

Did the sessions reach critical mass?

The Irish nights sessions lasted about four or five months. It's how we started playing with our mandolin player. He used to play in a bluegrass band, so he was able to join right in. After that the jam sessions morphed to be more about the band.

Seems like a natural progression. In your music I've noticed you often engage in multiple styles of music in one song, something I don't see very often. One can hear stylistic movement in the course of one song. Was this a conscious decision?

We just write how we write. I know that's vague, I mean, we intentionally nod to genre, but I've never set out to be like, "You know what, today I'm gonna write a rock song." No, what happens just kinda happens.

Someone once told me songwriting is like creating a riddle and solving it. I like that, because you start out, but don't really know what's going on, so you have to sit back and say, "Well here's what I've said so far, now how do I finish this story out?"

I see that same thing happening in other forms of composition, like poetry and short-form jokes. The artist has to take stock and figure out the next step.

What really excites me about your music, and I'm sorry to keep driving at this multiple styles thing, but to take "Cold Chicago" as an example, when you go into the bridge, the "Wheel in the well part," right after the mandolin solo, it feels like the part was inserted in there from a different era of music. How do you decide to do something like that?

Again, I think it just kind of happens. I'm a fan of such a diverse array of music, it's kind of just what I hear. We get to a point in a song and we think, "We need a break here," so we have to define that and figure how to make it not predictable, which is hard when you're in a city that writes songs on the box just to get in touch with country music and garner a number one country single. I really like that "Cold Chicago" bridge a lot. I like the form as well; it's a cyclical thing.

It really is, enveloping itself and spiraling on down. By the way, I just caught the song's story on your website. I had no idea it was about a guitar and not long lost lovers in different cities! It makes sense both ways.

Tell me more about your view of Nashville. Is there discrimination against anything that isn't traditional true-blue country stuff?

Actually, no, there's a great music scene -- tons of great music coming out of Nashville, but the tourist attraction is country and pop-country.

I mean, the CMAs last year were huge, people filled out the stadium. Thousands of these country bumpkin types were walking around, and more power to them, they like what they like. Music is subjective, and there's a great openness to that in Nashville.

Here is a great example: Our management company is RPM Management, and Scott Simon, who runs the company was Tim McGraw's manager for three years and worked with McGraw for his 31 No. 1 singles. Scott Simon is willing to do anything that sounds good.

Our manager, Amanda, does his day-to-day work, then manages us and a band out of Brooklyn called Yarn, a more alt-country Americana band.

Back to the CMAs and Nashville, the Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars played last year's event. I think the organizers are realizing what we're calling Americana these days has its roots in country music, so they are starting to embrace it. Over the next few years, I think we will see more and more crossovers from the Americana "hipsters" into mainstream country. It's not that far-fetched, it's just good songwriting.

Can you tell me more about your band? I know "Finnegan's Folly" was a big part of Humming House's formation, but how was it the other members become involved?

We're all just friends. I've known the mandolin player, Josh [Wolak], since I was 18 when I moved to Nashville. Same deal with our guitarist. Kristen [Rogers] fell into the band because her boyfriend was living in my house at the time. She grew up on diva music, and is a true R&B soul singer. It's cool, because we are starting to use her a lot more; we do a lot of covers live and let her go crazy on those. She's one of the most talented vocalists I've ever worked with and does session work all over town. She can do everything from opera to R&B and soul with an amazing natural ease.

Without ruining your upcoming live show here in St. Louis, can you mention some of the covers you play?

We pride ourselves on not doing typical covers. We do "Intergalactic," [Beastie Boys]. For Cinco de Mayo we did a '90s Latin-pop medley with tunes by Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin, but the folky versions of the songs.

Wait, so you folked-out the Beastie Boys song?

Yeah, but there is definitely some rapping as well.

Your sense of play and energy is fantastic. How did your first recording for the exuberant "Gypsy Django" happen?

The short version of the story is that I bumped into Mitch Dane at a party. He had heard my previous project, a band called "Quote," a folk duo I played in when I got of college. We did two records. I think Mitch Dane was familiar with the material and invited me down to the studio to do "Gypsy Django" as a one-off.

Kristen and Mike [Butera] were the only two players from the band who were involved with that -- I had some other players sit in -- but because it went so well, we were like, "Huh, we should do a record." Josh and Ben fell in from there through the aforementioned "Irish Nights," and we needed a bass player and Kristen knew Ben. "Gypsy Django" was the catalyst for all of that.

Then we did the video for "Gypsy Django" with a company called Yeah Yeah Creative, on a dime, and that really sold it. The video captures what we really want to do.

It was a nice departure, because my last project was emotive folk songs, but for this one, I was tired of going into bars trying to sell my music to an audience that just wanted to drink to my heart-felt songwriting. This time I wanted to start something that people were going to want to dance to and found entertaining.

Past that, I think too many artists are worried about hiding behind their art, instead of getting out in front of people to entertain and have fun. That's one thing we really wanted to do from the outset. Every time before we start a show, we're like, "Let's go throw a party."

How have the last few months of 2012 been? Have you guys been playing out a lot?

We played pretty much all of January and through April, May's been a bit lighter, but we have quite a few dates coming up in June. It's been good. We did that Cinco De Mayo event here with a band called the Delta Saints, which went really well. There were about 300 people here locally, which is hard to do in Nashville.

I imagine the competition there is fierce. When you guys come to St. Louis on June 6, is that going to be the tip of your June tour?

May 31 we're going up to Knoxville, then Bristol on the first of June, then we do Twangfest, then Daytrotter, and a Rock Island gig right after. We also have a date down at this amphitheater in Sea Side, Florida, so we'll take a little band vacation there for a few days.

I was inspired by the silent film aspect of "Cold Chicago" and the revelry of "Gypsy Django." Did you have the same production crew working on both?

Yeah, the same company helped us for both, Yeah Yeah Creative. They were just starting out when we first met them. They wanted to film "Gypsy Django" for their reel. Because they just really liked the song, they agreed to do it inexpensively. We got really lucky finding such talented people to work with, which validated us to have such a polished edge to those videos. It helps with booking and management.

Sounds like right time, right place.

Yeah, it was the same deal Mitch Dane and Vance Powell. They are both Grammy-winning producers and engineers. Vance Powell, who mixed our record and recorded the first four days of it, had just done the new Jack White record that went number one. Vance is a beast, I mean, Buddy Guy, the Raconteurs, Alicia Keys -- you name it, and Vance has probably worked with them. He built Blackbird with Martina McBride, which is the craziest studio you'll ever see. He's a unique guy. Anything Jack White touches it's all Vance. Just to have Vance on our debut record is insanely wonderful. It's a stamp of validity. Those names coinciding with those quality videos really helped us out.

Like a college getting accredited.

Exactly, but as silly as this seems, in entertainment, even if you're really talented, it's still a smoke and mirrors game. You have to package your product in a way people want to hear it.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to your St. Louis fans?

We are really excited to play St. Louis for the first time. Twangfest sounds great. Also, opening for Pokey LaFarge will be awesome. We are just stoked to get out and play. More than anything, though, it is humbling to see people responding so well to something that means so much to us. We created this stuff without pretense. It is simply what we like to do.

Humming House performs at Twangfest 16 on June 6 at the Schlafly Tap Room.

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