The lead singer and guitarist tells us about his lasting creative partnership with Jeremiah Fraites and writing using voice memos
Over four albums, The Lumineers have established themselves as one of the very finest modern folk-rock bands. At the heart of their style is a commitment to songcraft, meaning that singles such as Ho Hey, Ophelia, Gloria and Brightside (from this year’s album of the same name) have both an instant impact and enduring appeal. It’s also one of the reasons why they work so well in a live setting; these are songs that you’re still singing the morning after the show the night before.
The core of the band is made up of Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites and the duo have developed a back-and-forth writing technique that involves the swapping of ideas and song parts over voice memos, refining things until they’re ready to be taken into the studio. Judging by the strength of Brightside, an album that matches their melodic appeal with a charming openness, it’s a process that is working wonders.
Here, singer-guitarist Wesley Schultz reveals more about this approach to writing…
Why did you develop the process of going back and forth with voice notes?
“I think, for us, too many, too many cooks spoil the broth. In the beginning, there’s a lot of isolated work done between me and Jer[emiah]. If we were sitting in the room and he was playing something that I liked I’d want to hear what he would naturally do, and let him fully form it – and vice versa – instead of accidentally interrupting what would take its course naturally. So voice memos have always been helpful in that way where we can record an idea and let the other person react to it.
“A lot of times it’s the best way to immortalise and not forget an idea – when you often don’t have nice microphones on you anyway. So we’ve been amazed at how good they sound. Our Christmas song Pretty Paper was a voice memo, they just mastered it. They’re good quality as is. I find that they allow you to remember all your good ideas in an incredibly easy way, versus what people used to have to do which was carry around a tape recorder or memorise it in their head.”
Do your songs always start in the same way?
“Our process really varies and I think that’s part of the fun of it. If there was a really specific formula, I don’t know if it would be as interesting. For example, a lot of lyrical ideas but on Brightside, a lot of the lyrics on Birthday, Where We Are, Never Really Mine. All of those were ones that Jer sent me. With something like Never Really Mind, he sent me a kind of different feeling of that song and he didn’t have a verse. So I immediately sent him back something that was similar chords, and I attached it to it – that was the verse – and that’s how we work.
“Other times, maybe the reverse happens. Maybe I’ll send him a chorus and he’ll come up with a verse or maybe he’ll write most of the chord progressions and I’ll write the melodies. Even sometimes, you know, out of the box, I’ll have an idea start to finish, or Jer will. So there’s not really rules about it, it’s more like, ‘May the best idea win,’ and if it’s not moving us, if it’s not giving us goosebumps and that emotion, then it’s really not gonna matter to anyone else. We’re trying to move ourselves, that’s the first rule: ‘How distinct is this?’ If it’s not, I don’t really care about the idea.”
What would you say are the advantages of working in that way?
“I would say it makes you far less rigid. I think when someone tells themselves, ‘I’m a drummer, so I know how to drum and this person doesn’t,’ they miss out on an idea that they would never naturally come up with if the person offering it isn’t a lifelong drummer. That innocence, that different perspective, can actually promote an original idea, sometimes more so.
“A great example would be hearing Ray Davies from The Kinks talk about his angle on music and how he was a visual artist and then felt relatively novice and innocent approaching music. The same thing happened with us with different instruments. So with Jerry with lyrics, for example, he said, you know, what he said, “I don’t know where we are/ I don’t know where we are, but it’ll be okay” and it felt so straightforward. I was so used to writing lyrics in a more roundabout, poetic way that it hit me really suddenly. I was stopped in my tracks because it was so blunt. I realised I would never have written something like that and I love that perspective.
“I think the advantage is that real collaboration can give you things that you could never do alone. So in a way, the sum was greater than its parts, if the parts can put their ego aside and listen to the thing that hits them hardest and not worry about keeping score of who did what.”
And are there any disadvantages to that technique?
“I think the only disadvantage is that, when you do it this way, you’re basically married to someone else in addition to whoever you’re married to. You can ask our wives, but it’s a really heavy thing to do all of that work together and constantly remind ourselves that it’s about the song and not about your feelings. It’s a check to your ego, I think it’s a good thing but I think the challenge is, especially when things do well, your ego wants to grab onto those and say, ‘I did that.’ The challenge is to say, ‘We did that,’ and not have to worry about that, because you’re trying to make something good together. That takes a lot of trust between the two people, and respect.
“We’ve been writing together for almost 17 years and we’ve had ups and downs. You have arguments, you have disagreements, but I think the challenge is always to have love and respect between each other, and then the music will be good. That’s the thing, whoever’s in your life that is your partner is going to have to deal with this third party. It’s part of the cost of doing business and it’s worth it.”
With the voice notes and going back and forth, has your songwriting improved or changed?
“I used to write songs on my own. I remember, I was working in a butcher shop and I would call myself and leave a voicemail. I was standing in a walk-in freezer, calling myself and trying to hum a melody that I thought up while I was slicing meat. That was way more of a pain in the ass than being able to open voice memo and hit record, you had to wait for all the rings and then it would go to voicemail and you’d hear yourself say, ‘Hey, I’m not here right now.’ So in a way, it’s gotten way easier to get those ideas down in a hurry. I would say I’ve always tried to not forget ideas. It’s like a phobia that I’ll have the best idea but I won’t have something on me to remember it. So I was always doing that and now it’s a little bit easier.”
What advice would you give to others looking to use similar songwriting techniques?
“Jer and I used to live together and we worked together, because we had the same side job, and we toured together and would write together. There’s not much time apart but the benefit of that was that I got to hear all of his fiddling, all of his messing around without much intention. Every once in a while, I’d walk in and say, ‘What was that?’ He often wouldn’t remember and he would try to blindly repeat what he did.
“Sometimes, with this collaborative stuff and with recording yourself, it’s really good to let the tape run. You know, to hit record and play for a while and see what comes out without the pressure of, ‘Here’s the idea.’ Then you might find some gems in there. It requires a lot of patience to go back and listen through however long you hit record for but there’s a great thing that happens when you forget you’re recording. It’s not always about waiting for the moment of inspiration and then hitting record, sometimes you already have to be recording and something happens by chance.”
What songwriting mistakes have you made along the way that others can avoid?
“I used to write a lot of lyrics but not spend any time on the melody. I used to play a lot of cover songs in bars and coffee shops, so I would play originals and I played covers. Whenever I was playing the covers, I noticed that it was more fun to actually sing that song than my own. I hadn’t put it all together, but I realised later – because they were from Bob Dylan to Bob Seger and everyone in between – there was so much work being done, such beauty in the melodies. That was the reason why.
“I remember doing ‘the hum test’, where I would hum a song – if you did that with Wonderwall, let’s say – everyone around you knows what you’re humming right away. It’s such a distinct melody. My songs were all flat because it was all about, ‘Can you understand the depth of this story I’m telling you?’ So, if you can hum your own melody back, even if you recorded it as a voice memo, and don’t get caught up in the lyrics, that’s going to tell you a lot about how strong or weak it is. That was my biggest mistake, making these really flat, boring melodies. That and thinking that the strength of what I felt I was saying was going to carry the whole thing and I was definitely wrong. Luckily I realised that before it was too late.”
At what point does a song get to before you leave it ready to pick up again in the studio?
“It’s a gut feeling. Usually, for me, it’s realising that if I had to I could record this right now from the blueprint of this demo, that’s all I’m looking for. I know in the case of Brightside, I didn’t want to overdo it. In the past, we did sort of overdo it and we recorded everything but it’s knowing that you have enough.
“When they talk about a house having good bones, it’s like the structure of it is strong enough to support everything within it and above it. When you feel that and you can go to an open mic and it sounds good in a stripped-down way, that’s plenty to take it in and be ready. Beyond that, it’s about a comfort level. There are producers that will throw the kitchen sink at a song and not in a good way.”
How do you deal with producers like that?
“Eventually we found a good producer and good engineers. Right in the beginning though, not everyone’s going to know what you’re going for. And they might say, ‘You know what sounds good on here is a flute’ and you might be like, ‘I hate flutes.’ So try to find your voice in all this because, if you’re not careful, other people will take it down a direction that you wouldn’t do and that’s not the point of this.”
Interview: Lily Batten