To borrow liberally from Jerry Maguire . . . . . You had me at the harmony.
Forlorn Strangers, based out of Nashville, sing with a delight and power reminiscent of the greatest brother/sister combos in traditional music. The band’s five part harmonies are rooted with sisters Hannah Leigh Lusk and Abigail Dempsey who, in the spirit of the Stanleys, Louvins, and the Carters, harmonize in a way that can only happen between those sit on the same limb of the family tree.
These delicious harmonies are only accented by the multi-instrumentality of Lusk, Dempsey, and band mates Chris Banke, Benjamin Lusk, and Jesse Thompson. Each member of Forlorn Strangers is more than proficient on a variety of instruments, and this affords the band a flexibility in songwriting and performing that I have come across in very few bands across the years.
The band’s debut album, recorded with noted songwriter and producer Phil Madeira at the helm, dropped earlier this month, and it reflects both the strong songwriting and instrumental prowess the quintet has honed through their road warrior approach to touring.
So come, friends, and find this band when they take to a stage near you. Let yourselves be strangers no more.
I recently caught up with Hannah Leigh Lusk to chat about the new record, singing with family, and working with, and around, legends.
BRO – You guys recorded the new record at The Butcher Shoppe, John Prine’s studio. He’s a hero of mine. Any Prine sightings?
HLL – Oh, man. He’s a hero of ours, too. We were honored to record there and definitely channeled some of that good energy. He didn’t stop by during our time in the studio, but we got to hear some great stories from the engineers who work with him regularly.
BRO – How did having Phil Madeira at the helm for the new record stretch you as a band?
HLL – Phil Madeira’s decades of experience as an artist and producer enabled us to explore musical rabbit holes we otherwise wouldn’t have. The primary projects that drew us to him to produce this album were his Mercyland compilations. He managed a wide swath of Americana artists – Emmylou Harris, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins – and maintained an absolutely cohesive sound. Because our band is comprised of five different songwriters and quite different veins of American music, our goal with Phil was to be able to develop each song as deeply and honestly as possible, while still creating a seamless, whole album. Phil continually challenged us to not be afraid of pursuing instrumentation or arrangements that we hadn’t or couldn’t reproduce live. His guidance stretched us, but we think we got the best album out of it.
BRO – In traditional music, is there anything more powerful than the harmonies created between family members?
HLL – It sure doesn’t seem like it. Arranging harmonies is one of the most life giving parts of being in this band. It is so fulfilling to take a song from one person playing the skeleton on acoustic guitar to a fully structured song with five part harmonies. When we workshopped the bridge on our song “The Light,” and we sang the “ooooohs” for the first time, everything stopped. That’s actually how a lot of things go in this band. Our influences are expanding as well. Traditional music will always be our backbone, but the harmonies in bands like Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Fleetwood Mac, and The Band have been fueling us quite a bit lately.
BRO – Each member of the band is a multi-instrumentalist. How do you determine who will play what on a given track?
HLL – Everything we do is determined by what will serve the song. We try to approach new tunes without any preconceptions. If the song wants dobro, played by Jesse, then I will play bass. Depending on the groove, Abigail will play percussion instead of the fiddle, or sometimes both. Also, since we tour all year, it just keeps it fun to be able to switch up what we do. Sometimes Benjamin and Chris will write leads together that sound great with two guitars or the mandolin and the banjo. For as many options as we have, it’s surprising how organic and unanimous the instrument choices are.
BRO – We are featuring “Bottom Of The Barrel” on this month’s Trail Mix. Got a favorite barrel to get to the bottom of?
HLL – The peanut butter jar! On a serious note, this song was inspired by the great work of Pete Seeger and Dr. King in the sixties and beyond. The lyric came from an exasperated place of feeling like we haven’t grown very much since then. The song is a cry towards figuring out how, individually, and collectively, we can do better. We’re trying to get out of this barrel!
Our friends out west can catch Forlorn Strangers over the new few weeks as the band stops in Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, among other places, before returning east in mid-September with gigs in Virginia and North Carolina.
For more information on Forlorn Strangers, including how you can find a copy of the brand new record, please point your browser here. And, of course, don’t forget to check out “Bottom of the Barrel” on this month’s Trail Mix.