Native Bozeman duo reminisce on new album, look to begin again
Acoustic folk duo Storyhill are back in Bozeman with a renewed energy and fresh batch of songs at the ready. The new tunes are featured on their fall collection, Where to Begin.
Born from rehearsals for their 30th Anniversary Road Show last summer, the album renovates early material and signals a fresh start for members Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson.
In advance of the album release celebration, the Rolling Zone spoke with the duo about the new LP and retaining that certain live magic.
Rolling Zone: Following last summer’s road show, Storyhill returns to Bozeman with more reason to celebrate – a new record. Serving as the album release concert for Where to Begin, can you tell us about what’s planned for the Emerson concert?
John Hermanson: It’s been a while since we’ve played the Emerson, but it has an important place in our history. That was where we played what we thought was our final show in ’97, so it feels a little bit like heading home. We’ll play quite a few songs from the new record, which are some of the first we ever wrote. Where to Begin celebrates our beginning times – these are songs that we looked at again with fresh ears, as older guys having been through it and having written so many songs after. It’s all been pretty cool to revisit. [The show] is a way for us to bring it home again and celebrate the release of the record.
RZ: The tracks on Where to Begin revive early Storyhill material. Was there a general consensus about what you wanted the album to be?
Chris Cunningham: It was actually pretty spontaneous. We had revisited a bunch of older songs to get them ready for the road show, and that process was really fun and kind of eye-opening. Like, ‘Wow. Who wrote this? Are we covering ourselves?’ It gave whole new life to them. So we decided on this commemorative activity of going back to where it all began, back to Peak Recording to do a little guerrilla, lo-fi video or something and make something out of it. We just took little steps, [the songs] started to take shape, and we got more serious about the approach to recording them. We did a session and thought it went really well, so we booked another to really do it when we had more time to focus.
JH: Yeah, it felt like an organic thing. We relearned these songs just so we could play them for people that might want to hear them, [then] got something out of them ourselves that we didn’t really expect. Most artists are more excited about their recent material, but the number of breaks we’ve taken have given us a little more insight and perspective. There was a newfound appreciation for our earlier material that we had sort of thought must not be any good because we didn’t know what we were doing back then, or whatever. The early songs have a freedom to them, an exploratory feeling that don’t necessarily follow convention or patterns that we figured out later in our career. There are maybe three we’ve played from time to time, but a lot of them came from this process of rediscovery.
CC: A lot of our earlier songs came from that place of innocence, an unrestricted kind of mentality – and like he said, weren’t very conventional. They have their own shapes and forms. I used to be able to enter that space as a younger guy with less day-to-day distractions and responsibilities. It was refreshing to go back and rediscover that. Not that we need to write like that anymore, but on this new record the songs sound the way we want them to. A lot of the early recordings were not quite there, or we sound young and out of sync. One of the things we’ve been able to do as a duo over time is to really find our connection musically, really come together as one and realize that that’s the Storyhill sound.
RZ: You enlisted longtime collaborator Gil Stober for the record. What role did he play in the recording process?
CC: He was dutifully a shepherd, sort of a cheerleader in the engineering seat. It was really a self-guided effort for us, but he was a really pleasant presence to be around. And of course, it was super fun after all those years. That was our first studio experience really, back in 1989. To come back together after 30 years was trippy and fun.
RZ: This album was recorded with a raw, very live sound in mind. What was the motivation behind that?
JH: That’s kind of our main way of working now. We’ve done a couple of records where we made sure everything sounded great, starting with the guitar part and singing over it, but the result doesn’t feel as natural. You’re trying to make something sound live but you’re doing it track by track. There’s something that happens when Chris and I are both singing at the same time that can’t be captured in that way. Our last two studio albums are all live for that reason. It makes capturing the sound trickier because you get the bleed from the other instruments, but there’s nothing like when we’re playing together. The sound of us trying to follow each other is the sound. It’s hard to imagine going back to a more methodical ‘lay down Johnny’s part, lay down Chris’ part.’ That will probably never happen again. The resonance, when we’re in a moment adjusting to each other, that’s the sound.
CC: The music needs to originate from the same space and time. You have to be listening, and like Johnny said, playing off of each other. Then that resonance occurs.
RZ: The album title actually pops up as lyric during “She Holds My Heart out in the Wind,” opening up the phrase ‘where to begin’ to interpretation. Why did you settle on that name to represent the collection?
CC: When a record is in the works, you naturally start pondering possible titles, kind of searching around for ideas. I think I came up with two or three. One of the other candidates, ‘From Peak to Peak,’ was even more of a double entendre. I think it got the ball rolling with me, Johnny and our manager Jim Kowitz, who is always a part of our creative process these days. It illustrated the movement of our career, up and down between peaks, and here we were back at Peak Recording. But there was something about ‘Where to Begin,’ that one kind of snuck out [during] a listening back of all the songs.
JH: I was definitely drawn to the double meaning, it resonates in a lot of different ways. ‘Where do you even begin to talk about everything we’ve been through?’ And the one I really like, ‘this is where we begin, again.’ It feels like a fresh start for us. We’re just really excited about making more records together, playing more shows.
CC: It’s a sort of declaration, a statement. This is where we begin.
RZ: Chris & Johnny celebrated its Dirty 30 last year. Obviously your respective artistries have found ways to evolve in that time, solo outings included, but what about this duo hasn’t changed since those early days?
CC: With a really low percentage of exceptions, we’ve kept it the way you see it – just the two of us, voices and guitars. A lot of working together as a duo to create a bigger sound and musical experience, or at least allow that to happen. The music itself is so much about the meaning of the songs and the melodic interplay of our harmonies. To try to do much else, like add drums and bass to form a band around it, would probably not work for the style of music we’ve created. That’s been the same since we first started singing on Johnny’s parents’ front porch.
JH: The way we judge if a song is there or not, it has to resonate with both of us. That insistence is something that hasn’t changed. We’ve always been a duo in the truest form. Both of us are personally invested in every song.
CC: It’s got to work for both because we’re both going to be responsible for delivering it and putting it out there. You don’t want to be Garfunkel to a Paul Simon. You want to feel like you can step in and own it. I guess that’s one reason why we’ve never distinguished our songwriting and just credited Storyhill.
JH: When we bring a song to the duo, we’ve learned how to let go of our preconceived notions of what it means to us as individuals. If it’s going to survive as a Storyhill song, it’s not going to be the same. It’s going to morph into this third voice and be something that one of us wouldn’t have been able to come up with on our own.
CC: Without taking it too far, when we’re singing as one and really in sync, you can often times hear these ethereal overtones and harmonics. It’s this magical space we try to find every time we’re in a live setting, mainly, but in the studio as well. When we’re really in the zone, you can sense there’s this bigger-than-us energy happening that’s more than the sum of the two of us and our parts. I’ve heard people say that it’s eerie, but they kind of like it. [laughs]
RZ: You mentioned future plans for more records and touring, and Storyhill Fest is returning to Minnesota this summer. What’s coming up for this duo?
CC: We’re coordinating to give ourselves as much time together as we can. Storyhill Fest is exciting, to say the least. It’ll be a resurrection of sorts of this interactive, somewhat intimate songwriter festival [where] our fans and listeners have had some of their favorite summer musical experiences. That’s going to be a really cool thing to keep working toward. Storyhill Fest, Where to Begin, the 30-year road show and a lot of our projects come from not only Johnny and I, but also Jim’s creative efforts, who we consider kind of the third member. He’s poured tons of creative energy and managerial savvy to keep our ship going straight, and was actually the one who drew us out of hiatus.
JH: In terms of what our plans are moving forward, we’re working on new records right now. The last two records were sort of retrospective. The Stages record was all about reaching back into our live shows and pulling out songs that we wanted to share from all those years. Where to Begin obviously goes back to our earlier material, so we’re really excited about cranking out the new songs that we’re working on. And after this hiatus, we’re excited to just play more shows and get to other parts of the country. It’s super enjoyable to have this new perspective with a whole history behind us.
Storyhill returns to Bozeman’s Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture on Wednesday, February 12th. The music begins at 7:30pm. Advance tickets to this all-ages show are $20 (plus service fees) at www.brownpapertickets.com. The Emerson is located at 111 S Grand.
Learn more about the duo at www.storyhill.com or find them on Facebook for updated tour details and other announcements. Their new album, Where to Begin, is available now. Stream on Spotify and Apple Music. •