There’s an old adage in winemaking: struggling vines produce better wines, for through that struggle comes character and complexity. The same is true in life though the merits of hardship are often only revealed to us in retrospect. 2016 was a tough year for many, including the Charlottesville-based acoustic folk duo Lowland Hum. But although they lost much, they held on to the essentials, and in the end, it turned out that those essentials were all that mattered.
Daniel and Lauren Goans form the soul of Lowland Hum, a husband-and-wife team known for their intimate songcraft and sincere execution. The two met when Daniel crashed a party at Lauren’s apartment some years back in Greensboro, North Carolina. Daniel, a fulltime musician, was working on a solo project and asked Lauren to create the album artwork. She ended up singing harmony on a few of the tracks, and from there, the relationship blossomed. Lauren went from being a featured guest, to a collaborator, to a full-on bandmate. That last phase started with the founding of Lowland Hum in 2012—the same year the couple was married.
After releasing their debut album Native Air in late 2013, they toured relentlessly. Spiraling outward from their hometown, they clocked ten months on the road in 2014 and a grueling eleven in 2015. In those early stages, as many up-and-coming bands do, they served as both performer and booking agent. Their hustle has payed off, as now they have a dedicated tour manager and a lot more notoriety. Notable performances have included sets on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert as well as a feature on All Songs Considered alongside Panda Bear (co-founder of Animal Collective) and Björk.
Lowland Hum’s new album, Thin, comes out this month on February 10. As the title implies, they take a more minimalistic approach when compared to the full band arrangements of their last self-titled record. “When we set out to make this record, we wanted it to be different from our last one,” Daniel said. Before, they would perform as a full band with Lauren, Daniel, a drummer, and a bassist. But in the middle of each show, Daniel and Lauren would take a few songs on their own, like a stripped down set within a set, allowing them to explore new interpretations of their work. As Lauren explained, “We didn’t feel the need to exactly replicate what was on the album. These are two different expressions of the same song.” The feedback they got from these mini-sets was overwhelmingly positive, and in time, fans opted for the intimacy of their duets over the Arcade Fire-style arrangements.
This is Lowland Hum’s first release since splitting from their old record label, so the bare bones approach has an even deeper resonance with many of the songs addressing themes of fragility and loss. “We started working on this album at a time when it felt like a lot of things were being stripped away from our work and our life.” Thin was written, arranged, and recorded entirely by Daniel and Lauren. With few exceptions, it features only acoustic guitar and vocal duets. “Honestly, the front end was really hard because Lauren has never engineered,” said Daniel. “We were watching YouTube videos and turning knobs, it was very intense.”
“Getting a recording of a song that you not only don’t hate, but that you’re proud of, it’s like solving a complex problem that’s a moving target.”
This process put pressure on them in different ways. For Daniel, he had to set aside his producer’s imagination and adjust to the simplicity of two-person arrangements. For Lauren, she was forced to take a more active role in the technical side of the recording process. To make matters worse, these sessions took place in a friend’s attic in Charlottesville during the warmest summer on record. “It was hot,” laughed Lauren. The days were long and the atmosphere was a little tense at times. Without other collaborators to offer support, the two had to push through any issues by themselves. As Daniel explained, “It was uncomfortable, but I think it bonded us in the end.”
Recording in the attic also resulted in their having a strange hypersensitivity to ambient background noise. As they discovered, the constant waiting for lulls in the outside noise of cars, construction, birds, and cicadas colored the way they now interact with the world. “My ears would be so on,” Lauren joked. “The world is so noisy!” Serendipitously, there are a few of these aural artifacts that made the final cut. For instance, if you listen closely, you can catch some subtle chirping on the song “Palm Lines.” “The birds we didn’t mind so much,” Daniel noted, “Lawnmowers, cars, construction, they’re not ambient in an interesting way. Nobody wants to hear that.”
Despite these limitations, they worked together to find positive aspects of the process. “Limiting what you're allowed to do causes you to think of things you wouldn't think of,” said Lauren. This approach lead to a series of experiments where melodies would be added, dropped, plucked, sung, or hummed depending on the needs of the song. “Music is unique because you’re not compensated for the thousands of hours of writing and practicing,” said Daniel, “but you’re honing your ability to find what you need to find, to figure out what you can do on certain instruments.”
During the recording process, the two wrote many songs that didn’t make it to the album, knowing full well that some of these ideas would never be more than a file on a laptop. “Getting a recording of a song that you not only don’t hate, but that you’re proud of, it’s like solving a complex problem that’s a moving target,” Daniel said, before Lauren added, “But if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the family of songs on the album, you don’t want to throw it in just because you worked hard on it.”
The final result is as complex as it is relevant, the product of struggle, loss, and adaptation. By accepting limitations, Lowland Hum has carved out a new sound for themselves on Thin. And although they have stripped away much of their former comforts, the fruit of their labor is here for us to savor like a wine poured from troubled vines.
Lowland Hum’s new album, Thin, will be released February 10. Their tour includes several dates in Virginia including February 11 at the Modlin Center for the Arts (Richmond), February 17 at The Southern (Charlottesville), and February 28 at IOTA (Arlington). To learn more, visit lowlandhum.com.
Photography by Tristan Williams