In just over two years The Lowest Pair has released several acclaimed albums, an output matched only by their appetite for hitting the road. The duo’s bluegrass and old time-inspired tunes cover a range of human experiences as expansive as the American landscape.
In a review of their latest release, The Sacred Heart Sessions, Paste Magazine wrote “With their bare-bones instrumentation and country-inspired, heartstring-tugging narratives, The Lowest Pair might be one of the best under-the-radar Americana duos today.”
Swallow Hill Music caught up with the band, comprised of Kendl Winter (banjo, vocals) and Palmer T. Lee (banjo, guitar, vocals) ahead of their Daniels Hall appearance opening for Eilen Jewell on November 21.
With roots not only in Arkansas, Minnesota and now Washington State, but also rural and urban – how do your physical surroundings influence your songwriting? “Minnesota Mend Me,” might be the most obvious choice of this influence, but it seems to weave itself throughout your songs. Related to that, despite its southern roots, does your relationship to the banjo change as the landscape changes?
Kendl: I don’t really have one way that I approach songwriting, but each song has so many layers, some of it is very literal and might even speak of or describe the exact place I am writing from. I spend as much time as I can outside, on trails and in the mountains if I’m back home during the right seasons and I find a lot of of my personal centering in nature so I tend to have a lot of lyrics alluding to that. I’m not sure my relationship to my banjo changes so much by my physical surroundings though different communities have different relationships to the banjo and I’m sure I’m affected by what kind of sounds people are excited and moved by.
Palmer: Our songwriting is very often inspired and thusly influenced by our physical surroundings. Be it geography, conversations, or culture of a place we might be when we feel moved, or even just an interesting sounding name of a place or word in passing, or our mood or reaction to a place or event in a season or time of day.
I’m highly influenced musically by the classic bluegrass, old time, and American folk song catalog and there is a lot of writing about places; mountains, rivers, towns, counties, events, and significant characters in society. I love those songs and love performing them. But there are only a few tunes I’ve found that are written about the area I’m from; the upper Midwest, the great lakes, upper Mississippi river valley. And though I’m sure there are always more to be found I feel driven to expand that catalog for the sake of (and/or fantasies of) posterity.
I think my relationship with my banjo doesn’t change very much relative to the landscape. As I reflect on how much time we spend traveling around the country, it doesn’t seem to change in any sort of instant or momentary way. But I’ve found that other people’s relationship with my banjo changes dramatically as we travel to different regions. People cast all sorts of expectations and judgments about what they expect our music is going to be like or what it ought to be like, or what they think just happened, based on their own relationships to the banjo. The most obvious examples easy to imagine are places like Nashville vs. Appalachia vs. cities along the Mississippi. Historically they all have very different relationships with the instrument and in more recent history every region, be it Colorado, the West Coast, the Northeast or the Upper Midwest all have organically developed different relationships with the instrument that seem to influence people’s perception and/or expectations of our music.
Some of your songs take an old time tune as a starting point for you to write new verses and melodies, is it ever daunting to take a song like “Ruben’s Train” or “Oh Susanna” and turn it into something more personal?
Palmer: I’ll let Kendl discuss those songs in particular, but I don’t find it to be daunting at all, quite the opposite really. Working with traditional repertoire is inspiring; it makes me feel a part of something bigger. There’s no ego around those songs because there is an understanding that they have to change and have always changed. So, you just pull a verse or a chorus or a melody, or a name, something in the song that moved you, then just begin to fill in the blanks with your own story. A lot of my favorite songwriters use this method and it’s one of my favorite things about their catalogs.
Kendl: It’s rare that I really approach my songs with the intentionality of using an old tune and turning it into something new. It’s more often that I’m singing an old tune to myself and almost accidentally start singing a new part or even more often I’ll find myself writing an original piece and then realizing that these lyrics from an old song hold the sentiment that I’m writing about or looking for and hold this much weightier and familiar presence because of their roots in folk music. I like to think that I’m tapping into a collective consciousness where all these songs are kind of fluttering around and I occasionally get lucky with my song catching net.
Your band bio hints at musical influences outside of traditional folk sources, are there any bands or artists that would surprise your audiences to learn you are big fans of? Is there a contemporary artist you draw any insight or inspiration from?
Kendl: I listen to all kinds of music and there are probably quite a few artists that fans would be surprised to hear that we listen to. I like a good song or a strong groove. I like hearing passion. I like to listen to music that makes me dance or cry. I tend to draw most of my inspiration from my friends’ bands and artists that we meet along the way. I would have a hard time just naming a few…
Palmer: I’m not sure what might surprise our audiences… if they are aware that though we draw from the traditional American songbook, and though we love bluegrass and old time, we really don’t make an effort to sound like any particular genre of traditional music. In fact we make at least a subtle effort not to. We are exposing ourselves to and being inspired by all sorts of things musically, old, new, beautiful, weird, most everything’s got something if it’s any good.
You have been on the road quite a bit over the last few years. Do you enjoy touring in general, or is it just a necessary part of playing music? Are there any creature comforts of home you try to replicate to make life a little more comfortable?
Palmer: Yes, and no, and both, depends on the day, the gig, the stars, the people. Generally I enjoy touring and/but it’s necessary. There are so many variables and so few consistencies that it can be exhausting and/or energizing, inspiring and/or depleting. But there are a few rituals that we try and implement to establish some semblance of consistency. Kendl is remarkably better at this than I am, but when I do get some momentum going toward building good road habits it helps a lot. Everything just feels smoother and less crazy. But regardless or rather even until, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, I’m living out a dream and that is beautiful and fun.
Kendl: We have been on the road almost since we started this project a little over two years ago. I think it’s a little bit of both. I love traveling and connecting the dots between regions and seeing the countryside change season to season. I also have a huge domestic side of me that longs for more of a home life and really misses my community in Olympia, Washington. I think touring really is a necessary part of spreading our music organically and since we call different places home, it was kind of easier for us just to hit the road when we started and to explore what kind of music we could make together along the way.
What are you looking forward to – as a band or individually – in 2016?
Kendl: 2016 is going to be a big year for us. We’re currently in the middle of two new records and hoping to have at least one of them ready for the spring. We’re going to take a couple months of down time this winter in our respective communities which will hopefully give us time to work on our individual practices and songs and skills which will get us fresh faced for the new year.
Palmer: I’m really looking forward to relaxing a couple of months, writing, playing, practicing, spending some time with my family and friends back home.
This interview was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.