“We want to focus on the core, not the illusion.” – Wesley Schultz, The Lumineers.
The Lumineers are one of the unlikeliest success stories of the past few years. A scruffy independent Americana trio out of Denver, their irresistible anthem “Ho Hey” took the world by storm in 2012, followed by a second #1 single “Stubborn Love” and their third charting single “Submarines”, all carrying them on a journey from the Grammys to the presidential iPod, from the top of the charts to the Hunger Games. Their self-titled debut album became a multi-million seller as they stormed stages around the world and legions of new fans fell in love with the wide emotional and philosophical range of their rich, lyrical songwriting. Now, at long last, they are back with their second album, Cleopatra, a collection of such depth and texture it affirms The Lumineers as a band in for the long haul, with a growing canon of songs that stand comparison with the best America has to offer.
The Lumineers are songwriters Wesley Schultz (vocals, guitar) and Jeremiah Fraites (drums, piano). They are joined by cellist and backing vocalist Neyla Pekarek, who became a part of the group in 2010. Cleopatra is the result of three years of non-stop touring in the heady whirlwind of growing fame, six months of secluded writing in a small house in Denver, and two months of recording in the rural isolation of Woodstock. “I think the old fashioned way is the honest way,” says blonde, bearded, soft spoken singer Wesley. “We wanted to take our time, strip it right back to its raw and honest essentials, and make an album we believe in.” In a world where sophomore albums are commonly rushed out the door, Jer felt they, “took the right amount of time we needed to make the record we imagined, on our own timeline.”
Cleopatra is full of strange and touching tales from the frontline of life in a real world behind the veil of pop illusions, of everyday hopes and busted dreams. “We put an onus on the kind of characters and stories that are not so prevalent in popular music today,” says Wesley, who writes all the lyrics and collaborates on the music, melody and structure with Jeremiah. “We want songs you can wrap your arms around. There’s enough generic stuff out there full of recycled words that don’t really mean anything. There have to be other stories to tell, and other ways to tell them.”
The title track, “Cleopatra”, sprang from an encounter with a taxi driver Wes met in the Republic of Georgia, who related a tale of personal tragedy without a trace of self-pity. “As an American, a lot of what we do is tell the world how great our life is,” says Wesley. “People create stories about themselves through social media which are completely disconnected from what we personally know about their lives. I felt cleansed to be around someone who was just telling me how it actually was for them.”
It is a potent metaphor for The Lumineers whole approach to their art. The black and white photo on the cover depicts silent movie star Theda Bara in the 1917 production of Cleopatra. “It’s such an arresting image, vulnerable but strong. I think a good song is like a beautiful woman and no matter whether she’s wearing something crazy front of fashion or old sweat pants, you can still tell she is beautiful. We want to focus on the core, not the illusion.”
It confirms The Lumineers as a timeless band. Theirs has been an old fashioned word of mouth success, based on great songs and emotive performances, a return to essential values that saw them hailed as America’s answer to Britain’s nu folk movement. “I never thought of us as folk but there was maybe some connection in the rejection of modernity,” says Jeremiah, the lively percussionist who started writing and performing with Schultz in New York in 2005. “We gravitated towards a sound that was more pure and timeless.”
President Obama revealed himself to be a fan when Lumineers’ second single “Stubborn Love” which he featured on his Spotify playlist alongside Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. “We were humbled by that,” admits Wesley. “Especially when you’re surrounded by great artists who have stood the test of time. We’ve got our work cut out to live up to that.”
The Lumineers expanded to a five piece live, with the recruitment of long-time friend pianist Stelth Ulvang and new bassist Byron Isaacs. They built a passionate following with intimate, energetic shows and sold out tours and festival appearance in the UK. “When we perform, we’ve gotten to a place where we can be vulnerable and honest and share something real with audiences,” says Wesley.
Hollywood came calling when The Lumineers were asked to write a song for The Hunger Games. “Francis Lawrence, the director, said you’ve got to be able to hum it, whistle it, or sing as a mass group of people,” recalls Wes. “So we approached it like a really dark nursery rhyme.” The lyrics to The Hanging Tree were written by author Suzanne Collins. It was sung by Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I and became a top forty hit around the world. “It was interesting to be ghostwriters but it’s a song for Kat Everdine not the Lumineers. It’s not something we would play live, unless Suzanne Collins wants to come along and sing it.”
The Lumineers are extremely wary of the potential corruption of fame, something which has fed into their new album. First single, “Ophelia”, personifies fame as a dangerous temptress. Another of the album’s stand out tracks, “My Eyes”, portrays the ways Hollywood can crush the life out of wannabes. “The world sees you as being put on a pedestal but you are also put on a hamster wheel, and that does strange things to people,” says Wesley. “Even a little bit of fame can distort perceptions, if people see you and react abnormally. Back when we were working as bus boys to support our music, I felt invisible to the world. I remember thinking I could be naked and pick up a plate and no one would even notice. That’s an interesting place to write from and I’m wary of losing it.”
When it was time to record a new album, Wesley and Jeremiah went into retreat, to re-establish the principles that had made their debut so great. They rented a small house in Denver and spent six months writing and honing material.
As dedicated fans of the raw Americana of The Felice Brothers, they were delighted that maverick singer-songwriter Simone Felice agreed to produce the follow up album. They decamped to a rural studio in Woodstock for two months of intensive sessions that they recall as a bizarre mixture of recording and therapy. “It was almost like a cleansing,” says Wes. “Jer and I had gone through ten years living together, writing together, working at side jobs together, on the road together, it was like there was no separation. There was so much shit swept under the carpet there was nowhere else to put it, the streets were overflowing, the sewers needed to be flushed out so that we could look at each other clearly and have a conversation. The only way to do it was to go on long walks, and talk and cry and scream and make up.”
“And then you go back in the studio and try and figure out what the chorus needs,” laughs Jeremiah. “It was the most intense, densely packed experience of our lives. There is no way to sum it up. When people ask how it was, you just have to laugh and say it was great.”
In its warmth, intimacy and quiet sense of contemplation, Cleopatra is immediately identifiable as the work of The Lumineers, although the sound palette is a shade broader than their debut. “I had to sell my electric guitar years ago, because I ran out of money,” says Wesley. “Then when things started looking up, I went into the guitar shop where I sold it, ten minutes to close, and bought a Guild right before a show, on a whim. It was kind of a revenge buy. I felt like I was evening the score with the universe. And that replaced my acoustic for the entire set, overnight, and so it fed into the sound of the new album.”
“The first album you could play in an electrical blackout,” says Jer. “We set up in a living room without amplification because that is all we had. The second one is plugged in. But the concept behind the writing stayed the same, which is that you have to be able to strip it all the way back, and find the essence. I find it easier to tell when a Lumineers song is not done, than when it is. But when all of the pieces of a song finally fit into place, it’s one hell of a feeling.”
Cleopatra is full of deeply felt songs that will get under the listeners skin. Opening track “Sleep On The Floor” is a tale of escape from the humdrum, delivered with the confident swagger of a young Bruce Springsteen busting out of Atlantic City. “Gun Song” is rumination on parenthood, based around a memory of Wesley discovering a pistol in a drawer after his father died. “Angela”, already one of the most popular tracks on the album, is a tender guitar picked homily to a small town beauty struggling to escape her past. Every song is finely detailed, beautifully performed, sure of its own inner purpose.
“I felt like we had won some good will,” says Wesley. “So we could take our time, savour the moment, because if you trust us and stay with it, you know there will be something there for you. This is going to sound crazy, but, if making an album is like robbing a house, the first album felt like the homeowners were taking the dog for a walk, and we only had 10 minutes to get in and get out. It was manic. It was rushed. But on the 2nd album, Jer and I felt like the owners were taking a 2 week vacation. We could get in there, take our time, and find exactly what we were looking for.”