From First Aid Kit to the Tallest Man on Earth, some of folk and Americana’s most radiant stars hail from the other side of the pond. Though now based in Nashville, rising duo Audrey and Hugh share European backgrounds that inform their spirited sound as much as American folk standards like Dylan and Seeger. It’s a sound that’s being billed as “Americana-meets-World”. In the open moments of their new single, ‘Witness (Hey Ho)’, with its invigorating rhythm and energized, electrifying melodies, it’s a tagline that’s easy to grasp.
With Audrey and Hugh’s debut album, Sisterman, set to drop on 3 April, the duo took part in our ongoing series of ‘FFS 5’ interviews in which we ask each artist or band the same set of five questions.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?
H: Short answer is Northern Virginia. That’s where I spent a lot of formative growing up years, but in truth I don’t really have a home town. My dad’s a career journalist, and his assignments took our family all over the world. I was born in Helsinki, Finland in 1988. I spent my first few years in Moscow, and then between the DC area and Prague, Czech Republic through high school. I got my start musically in New York, which is where I met Audrey! She and I had a prodigal reunion in Nashville years later, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.
I’ve always felt like a performer, and have been playing guitar since my dad taught me as a youngster. I really felt the calling, though, in New York, busking in Manhattan in my early 20s. The timelessness of street performance, the challenge and rewards of courting a pedestrian audience, the romance and also harsh realities of minstrel life… it all came together and consummated my love and commitment to music.
A: Like Hugh, I moved around a lot growing up; I spent most of my childhood in New Hampshire. My family brought us to live in Rome for a short stint when I was about 4, and then when I was 7 we moved again to Lucca, Italy where I started taking piano lessons. I didn’t stick with the piano but something was definitely sparked within me. On a whim at 16 I moved back to Paris from my small town in New Hampshire, where I stayed for three years living mostly alone. At 19 I moved back to the states, to New York City and that is where my interest in music took off. I stumbled upon a robust and emerging arts scene of musicians and it led me to meet Hugh.
We met briefly one night at a DIY venue in Brooklyn called Muchmores where Hugh booked and was bartender but it was only a brief meeting. That was a big time for me in terms of influence but I still wasn’t making much of my own music yet, at least that I was comfortable sharing. From there I traveled around more in my early 20’s; Orlando, FL, Jacksonville, FL Amarillo, TX and Dallas and East Texas before finding my way to Nashville. When I got here I did what everyone does — played all the open mics where you signing up at 6pm and sit around until 2am waiting for your turn to play. I realized something about it just wasn’t quite my vibe, the whole moody singer/songwriter thing.
I have always loved harmony singing from my background in choir and musical theater and singing alone wasn’t quite doing it for me. I’m a Gemini so I love people and I love collaborating. One night, as fellow New York ex-pats, Hugh and I reconnected through Instagram and got together to sing. He had moved here and I was desperately looking for friends, haha! We sang a bunch of Bob Dylan songs together that first night and it felt like I had finally found what I had been looking for musically. Our voices just seemed to lock in. The rest is history!
As artists, how do you define success?
H&A: Hm. That’s a tough one. I suppose we feel that success as an artist is living one’s passion, creating and sharing as a way of life; to be systemically sustained and nourished by the creative process. Victory, so to speak, for an artist, is a seat at the table, achieving a voice in a larger cultural conversation. We believe all this deeply, but at the end of the day success is a more basic truth. We go back to our busking roots when we think about success; when you’re fishing and singing in the world, and someone tugs at the song at the end of your line… that is success. Hey, a Grammy would be pretty nice too.
What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?
H: These times really are a Renaissance for the independent artist. Theoretically anybody with a smart phone and wifi can produce and share an album. The arts have been profoundly democratized in the past decade. In my opinion, this also presents a real problem for artists. Music, film theater… so many artforms, if not all, are deeply collaborative. Artistic products are the results of lots of different specialized skill sets coming together. The fact that an artist today has the capacity to act as writer, producer, engineer, agent, manager, promoter, etc. means that the whole process can become diluted or thwarted right out of the gate.
“Jack of all trades, master of none” has been a mantra for me navigating my early career. It’s frustrating and often very very unproductive. The digital world has also been a huge obstacle for me on a fundamental level. I’m only 32, but I feel like an anachronism every day. I think social media and everything really passed me by after AIM. Remember that, or am I dating myself? It’s my own damn fault for not getting on that train, but phones, Instagram, Twitter, etc. all make me very anxious. You can imagine what a handicap that is in this line of work. I am more grateful for my partnership with Audrey than I can say. We are soul mates, kindred spirits, and creative compliments. I learn from her artistic process, lyricism and spirit everyday, and we bring out the best in each other as musical comrades. On the level of promotion, outreach and visibility, Audrey has carried the weight of this project in a HUGE way. I honestly don’t know where I’d be without her. Oh yeah, probably busking at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
A: Keeping up with everything. There’s so much artists need to be these days, a social media guru, a publicist, a booker a manager. It seems like there’s so many hats we need to wear and not enough hours in the day. I would say that is the biggest struggle for all independent artists; trying to do everything and also focus on the songwriting. It feels like an impossible task at times.
What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as a band? What do you hope to achieve?
A&H: Piggy-backing off our response to your question about success, an artist’s goals can be very lofty and idealistic. We’d love nothing more than to solely to investigate the world through art and music, but one can’t eat passion, or pay bills with creativity alone. As we get older we crave sustainable success as artists. We’re grateful to live in a world where artists can be compensated and supported, that there is an economic place for us. But it’s a fragile space, hierarchical, fickle… Really, we strive for a committed fan base whose support will allow us to record, tour and be creative while maintaining a healthy, modest life. So many mediums and interests make up who we are and what We have to offer. A sunny library in a house with a yard, where we can return to our families, our guitars, our books and our paints… That doesn’t sound too crazy a goal, does it?
Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?
H: The Yin to my musical Yang is painting, or imaging rather. I work with acrylic, wire, wood, photography and a host of found materials. It’s actually a joke between my bandmates, wife and friends, that I’m a bit of a trash hoarder. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure!”
I love assembling unlikely objects into a comprehensive whole. As with lyrics and music, I feel that I can express feelings in visual art that simply elude other forms of communication. I also never erase and rarely throw away an art piece. I actually welcome “mistakes” when I make them, emphasizing awkward lines and splotches by framing or loudly repeating them. A brush stroke is a commitment, for better or worse. Just like a note sung on stage. Once you sing that note, whether it’s soaring and perfect, or a broken squeak, there’s no taking it back. I live most vividly in those performative, irrevocable moments.
The importance of painting for me, as foil for my musical life, is that it is quiet. Unlike a stage performance in front of an audience, I paint alone. There is risk and the same sort of gears turn in my head when I sing and when I paint, but with the latter there is a serene, contemplative quiet that I find very therapeutic.
I also read a lot. I devour fiction, but am trying to broaden my tastes, influenced by my wife, who teaches philosophy. I studied film in school as well, and watch far too many to this day. The dance of narrative, aesthetics, history, writing, etc. in a film, whether it’s a C-rate horror flick, or a Bergman masterpiece always absorbs and stimulates me. Finally, I walk. I love to walk, usually without a cell phone. Some of my best work is done walking, though I often forget to bring a notebook, so as many ideas are lost as remembered. But that’s ok.
A: Man that’s a hard question– I feel like the only thing I really do is music. I guess I cook sometimes. I am learning to play the upright bass right now and have recently become interested in Old Time and Appalachian music. I go to a lot of Old Time and Bluegrass jams here in Nashville and sing sometimes with other groups. Lately I have been doing some harmony singing with Sierra Ferrell which has been a lot of fun.