Interview | Nick & Luke on choosing authenticity and their memorable experiences on the road

For Folk’s Sake’s Sami Posner recently sat down with Americana troupe Nick & Luke to discuss their latest tour and all of the memorable antics and adventures that have come with it. Trekking from one side of the US to the other and back again, the hardworking Baltimore duo proudly takes the “modern troubadour” ticket and wears it as effectively as they can each and every day that they skip from one city to the next, gracing them with their musical prowess.

You’ve each had extensive musical experience outside of your duo.  How did Nick & Luke come together?

NH: We met in college about 2010/2009. We met at Bucknell [University in PA] and started playing free jazz music, like sort of avant-garde jazz and we did that for a while, playing a lot of jazz music and I don’t know what it is—we tell this story so many times ‘cause everyone asks if we’re brothers and then they’re like “oh you’re not brothers! Then how did you meet?”

LC: We met through an e-mail chain at Bucknell, but we started playing music together in college. We’ve played music since then in many different forms and this is our most recent incarnation. But this whole both of us singing and playing guitar is really pretty new for us. We hadn’t done it that much and then we went on tour last February for about three months, and that was what sort of solidified the whole thing.  We just up and went! When we began, it was me playing guitar and Nick singing.

NH: Yeah, Luke only started singing about 5 years ago, maybe 4 years ago.

LC: It was more like Nick would bring his weird weirdo music to me and some other people and we’d try to figure it out and make it sound…lovely!

So weirdo music! How would you guys describe your sound now?

LC: (laughing) Right now? Normal. Less weirdo!

NH: Yeah, less weirdo.

LC: Music for norms!

NH: We do music for people who don’t want to think too hard or don’t have the capacity to think too hard. And it wasn’t our mission statement to confuse people, but I think that’s what happened.

Nick, you brought your music to Luke initially. Is that how the writing process still goes?

NH: No, we share the writing at this point. I do write more than Luke these days, but what we end up doing on the road is a lot of covers because so much of this past year has been nailing down the aesthetic and the feel—what we want it to feel like when we play music. It’s been mostly about refining the experience of living in the world and playing music rather than the business model.

LC: …feeling good on stage performing and that doesn’t necessarily have to involve playing original material. I do some, but we actually stopped playing some of the songs that I was doing because I want to try to write some new stuff because as you write, you kind of write from where you are right now.

NH: We’re just trying to figure out how we can stand on stage and feel good and interact with people and feel good and that’s been developing with the aid of classic country covers and old jazz tunes and old rock songs.

Your music has a nostalgic, old-timey quality to it.  What’s your favorite era of music? Are there any artists out of that era who inspire your work?

LC: It’s not like I fell in love with traditional music or early old time and bluegrass, country and jazz [on my own], which are the main styles I play when I’m back in Baltimore, not playing with Nick. But I play those things because I fell in with the communities in Baltimore and through [them] I’ve since really fallen in love with that music and enjoy it a lot, but I don’t have a bias towards it. I didn’t grow up playing it. It was more that I was going to jazz jams and R&B jams when I first transitioned from my other career, which was science related, to music. I was going to other jams and nothing really worked out until I ran into the bluegrass community and started playing folk stuff. Through that process, I started singing and all that’s kind of worked its way into what we do. Nick started getting into folk music independently too. But to go back to your question, we both listen to a lot of newer music too.  On our last tour, Nick played Jay-Z’s “Black” album for me and that was the most inspiring listen I’d had in a long time and so I’ve since been very into rap music. Big fan of Kendrick Lamar.

NH: Honestly, I think there’s just good and bad music that’s been made since the dawn of time, and we just try to tap into the stuff that feels particularly honest and that we connect with. And I think what’s helpful, as people who have done a lot of different types of music, country music allowed us to come back to square one in terms of our expression and the skills that we’re using to work together and we both love it. Also, we’re both from rural America, and I found bluegrass, in particular, the first song I really connected to was “Old Home Place”.  When I heard that song and I realized, unlike a lot of music that’s being done today, the lyrics in that are immediately reflective of the world that I grew up in.

What’s the most important part of being a musician?

LC: When I first began, it was about impressing people. And I’m just trying to exterminate the parts of my mind that still function that way by going into it as more of an individual because the more you do that, the less you’re competing with anybody else—you’re just doing your thing.

NH: For me, music has become this thing that’s let me deal with all the challenges I’ve always felt in life and I’ve just realized that more and more as it goes on. It’s an expressive process and that’s the most important part for me.

You’re currently on your 2018 Ramble Across America Part II tour.  What’s the craziest thing that happened on Part I?

LC & NH: Too many!

NH: Julian, CA. This is one of our favorite stories. We played at a pizza place there that had a listening room and at the end of the gig, there were two groups of people who came up to us.  A family came up to us and handed me a dollar bill folded up into a paper airplane because of the song “Paper Airplane” that I had written and they were like, “Hey, you guys were really great. We want to come play at a funeral tomorrow.” And we were like a little taken aback, mostly cause we were really tired. And then there was another couple that handed us a dollar bill and said, “Hey, we’re staying at a mansion out in the mountains and if you want, you can come stay with us here.” Many times when we go to a town we’ll just not have a place to stay or know anyone, or at least that’s what happened the first time around. So this is one of the times where we actually had a place to stay, so we were like, “do we really risk it and stay with these people that might murder us?” And we were like, “Yea! Yes we do.” And so we went out to the mountains and it turned out it was Merv Griffin’s nephew and they had this beautiful place with a sauna in it. We didn’t end up playing the funeral, although we wanted to.

LC: We didn’t play the funeral because it was supposed to be our funeral, if they had murdered us.

NH: That’s what we’re guessing.

LC: We go to a lot of open mics any time we don’t have a gig just to meet people, which is an incredibly good way to meet the community and also get a feel for what the city is like—what the music is like in the city. And it’s interesting to see…there are certain songs people do consistently and there was one, around all the recent political stuff…we heard the song “Mad World”

NH: like all the time!

LC: and one time we were busking in a park in Ashland, OR and this guy came up and sat across us on another bench and he was like, “Hey, do you know the song ‘Mad World’?”…he was kind of socially slightly unusual. So we were like, “Alright, let’s play this song so this guy doesn’t get mad or something and then we played a little bit of it and then he talked a little bit more, and at one point he pulled out a pen that had a razorblade attached to it and was like, “Hey, check out my pen with a razor blade attached.” I didn’t know how to react to that! Should I be afraid? And then he walked away. But that song came up again. We were in Denver…

NH: Two people in the same open mic played it. One of them had a guitar with a drum machine in it, and was doing sort of a metal version of it. It was great.

It’s tough to pinpoint specific things because when you’re doing this the way that we do, it’s like…we’re sort of immersed in weirdness and when it rains, it pours.

LC: It’s interesting how much happens to you when you step out of the normal, sort of safety bubble of living, like just doing something as simple as playing music on the street…you are somehow giving permission for anybody to come talk to you. And the kinds of people who come talk to you are often…they’re very interesting.

NH: Ashland, OR is great for that. A lot of travelers… We did have a moment, a powerful moment when we were playing with the homeless. The travelers were protesting the shutting down of the shelter for the weekends or something like that…

LC: at a time when it was still pretty cold

NH: They were going to try to do a sleep out at the one end of town and we started playing music with them and for them, and in the process of doing it, non-travelers came and were listening and paying attention and then conversations were happening and it was just a powerful exchange to be there with these people…just being able to be with people who lead such different lives.

LC: Yeah, I feel a lot more connected with all types of people after the amount of experiences like that that we’ve had.

Do you guys have any words of advice for aspiring young musicians who want to get on the road and do what you’re doing?

LC: Aw man…I just do it ‘cause I have to, I don’t know. Advice to young…just seek what you want and don’t stop and try to tease that apart from what everyone else wants you to do. Yeah, I could preach for a long time, but I don’t think I should!

NH: We both sort of share that. In the past, we’ve both felt a lot of pressure from external places to lead lives that we didn’t want to lead. And going on tour for us was a way to reclaim more of ourselves

LC: …and taking that, that was something I realized a long time ago…but now it’s seeping down into my behavior and that’s the next step because all of those conditioning patterns that maybe make you live a certain life or you’re trying to please somebody else…that becomes you in a way. And that’s the most painful part and if you want to be something else, you have to address all those things, so asking yourself, “how does my sacrificing my own wants into the noise of the world around me…how does that manifest in all aspects of my life in terms of my decisions and what I’m doing for work or how I interact with people?”

NH: It’s difficult to do it the way we do it. There’re people we know and our close friends who tour and they do it the very conventional way and they go to town and they play in a venue and they go back to the hotel or they do whatever. The way we do it has been really hard because we’re just unabashedly honest with ourselves  in terms of where we are and what we want to be and how we get there. And it’s led to some real breakdowns and some real low moments. But ultimately, at the end of the day, you come off of tour maybe feeling totally tired and worn out and battered and bruised, but the way we do, we get to look at ourselves and be like, “Oh, we did the right thing.” And it leads to a lot of growth. At least for now!

Words by: Sami Posner