A few days ago I posted a video on YouTube of two Mormon sister missionaries performing an upbeat version of “Nearer My God To Me” (watch it here). It’s already received over 10,500 views and climbing!! The arrangement they are singing was originally written by Paul Jacobsen and performed by a really cool “mega-band” called The Lower Lights. I caught up with Paul, who kindly agreed to this exclusive interview (i.e., Q&A via email).
MEET THE LOWER LIGHTS
MoSop: Hi Paul. Let’s get to know you first.
Paul: I’m Paul Jacobsen. I’m just one of the many singers and musicians that make up our collective. Most of us have our own music projects–from folk singer/songwriters to indie rock music to bluegrass to country, you name it. In the Lower Lights, I mostly sing and play acoustic guitar, though I’ve been known to dabble perilously in banjos and pianos, at least until the real banjoists and pianists get back in the room. I’m one of a bunch of musicians who will bring arrangements to the recording sessions and I’m the guy who typically makes the lousy jokes at our performances. I guess I’m also the token redhead.
MoSop: What led to the creation of The Lower Lights?
Paul: I think a lot of us have wanted to do something at least loosely related to The Lower Lights for awhile, which is to say: record folkie/bluegrassy/rootsy versions of the hymns. That said, I think the seed really started with Patrick Campbell, one of our drummers. He wrote a bit about his take on it all on his blog Patatomic.com. In the end, we just gathered a bunch of great musicians we thought might be into it, reserved some days in the studio, and let things happen. Which, luckily, they did.
MoSop: Who are the founding members?
Paul: That’s a huge list to name! We have a bit of a revolving door of artists. We’re built in a way that allows us to be modular, which (hopefully) means that nothing hinges on any one person. We’ve had a few changes lately that are testing that idea, but I think we will grow back into it. I guess we have some core artists, who have been deeply involved in recordings AND performances more than some of our other “satellite” artists. But the group needs everyone in different ways, at different times.
MoSop: Whose idea was it to sing Gospel/Revivalist style?
Paul: Maybe it was someone’s idea. To me, it feels like it just happened that way. We knew our strengths. But, going back to Patrick Campbell, his original vision (which we honored to some degree) was to do an album of hymns using ONLY instruments that could’ve been transported across the plains. That didn’t happen, but the organic spirit of that is intact, I think.
MoSop: Who chose the group name, and why?
Paul: There are 6-7 of us who deal with the day-to-day, week-to-week running of the group (though most of it falls on Sarah Wiley, our benevolent manager). We spent a ridiculous amount of time tossing names around and The Lower Lights felt best to us, both in just the way it sounds as well as in its derivation from the hymn “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.”
MoSop: You’re from Utah. So, is this a “Mormon band” ?
Paul: This is not a “Mormon band.” A lot of us are Mormon, but quite a few of us are of different backgrounds. Coming from Utah and playing the songs we sing, it’s not a shocking leap to make. But I think people would be surprised by the spiritual diversity of our group.
MoSop: The Lower Lights had an epic recording launch! If I understand correctly, it was 5 days of non-stop collaboration, writing, recording, etc., correct? How did that work? Where exactly did you do this recording? How many people participated? Did any of you stop to actually eat or sleep or was this pretty much a continual all-nighter?
Paul: We occasionally ate and even less occasionally slept, especially Scott Wiley (producer/engineer/studio owner/guitarist) who really torched the midnight oil. We would go from 10 am-ish until the wee hours of the morning sometimes. They were long but great days. Our second sessions (when we recorded our second album and our Christmas album) were much the same.
MoSop: What are some of your favorite stories or memories from the recordings?
Paul: Man, what a question. If you were to ask different members of the band, I bet you’d get 100 different answers. One thing that I loved, in general, was the ego-less collaborative spirit of it all. Musicians can be insecure and prideful and all that, so to have talented people tamp that down to do something great, was great to see. I loved seeing a song being worked up in the hall while another song was recorded in the studio and yet another song was being arranged in another hall. The place was dripping with music.
MoSop: What do you like best about being a member of Lower Lights?
Paul: Again, you’d get a lot of different answers from different members. Personally, I love getting to play with such incredible musicians, who also happen to be my friends. And there is a freedom to playing songs that aren’t mine (which is what I typically do). You can just play and not worry about it.
MoSop: What are the biggest challenges?
Paul: Logistics. Scheduling that many busy people is a headache. Having that many people onstage and getting the right sound can be tough— just ask our usual sound genius, Joe Anderson, who wrangles 17 different mixes and feelings and needs. It’s a circus.
THE BAND MEMBERSHIP
MoSop: How many people are involved? (is it really 40+?)
Paul: In the studio, 40+ is not an exaggeration. We’ve never played a show with that many people. But we’ve had as many as 20 people onstage at one time. Like I said, it’s a circus, but it’s really fun. And can you ever have TOO MANY good singers or TOO MANY great guitarists? We sort of operate under the idea that you can’t.
MoSop: How many original members have stayed with the group?
Paul: We have people come and go. As I mentioned earlier, we sort of ask people who we think will be a good fit, but also usually happen to be very busy and have their own music careers to tend to. So sometimes people go off and do their thing–musically or have a child or go study in Ireland or move out of state or whatever– and we don’t hear from them for awhile. But the hope is that anyone who’s lent their talents to our recordings or shows would feel welcome. It can be hard to juggle and I would imagine that we don’t always do the best; but we try to make everyone feel important , mostly because they are.
MoSop: Do you take auditions for new members?
Paul: We’ve never had auditions before and, as of now, it doesn’t look like we will. Mostly because we are already busy juggling the folks we have and wouldn’t even know where to start with the audition process. It’s certainly not an elitist thing. We’ve had people ask, in the past, to audition and it’s very flattering that anyone would want to be part of this.
MoSop: Lower Lights has a very distinctive sound. It seems to be a cross between Gospel, Bluegrass and Folk. There’s a real “Brother Where Art Thou?” movie feel to this. Was that the goal? This sound isn’t heard very often in the mainstream genre (well, at least not in my neck of the woods).
Paul: You’re right. We sort of sit where bluegrass, gospel, and folk intersect. Our last album (A Hymns Revival Volume 2) incorporates some more classic country influence and also has a few songs that I think broaden our range. “Be Thou My Vision” is a beautiful Celtic hymn that Debra Fotheringham sings beautifully. “Go Down, Moses” is an old spiritual that we do in a more swampy, haunting way. And I don’t really know how to categorize “Lead, Kindly Light.” I don’t think it’s bluegrass or folkie at all. It just sounds fresh to me, which is a credit to Nate Pyfer, who came up with the arrangement.
MoSop: Who would you consider the groups greatest “inspirations” when writing your arrangements and performing?
Paul: Ha! Again, I am totally unqualified to speak for the group. I think we lean–in performance and in recording–towards some of the classic country/bluegrass artists like Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe. We want people to connect with the music in live settings, so we try to inject some doses of singalong, clapping, stomping. That said, there are probably some pretty crucial members of the band who AREN’T into Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and for sure the diversity of our influences and musical backgrounds makes for a richer and sometimes more surprising result. A guy like Stuart Maxfield from Fictionist will come in and sing and I know for a fact his influences have jazz and classic rock and math rock and who knows what else in there. Sure, it all stirs into the gumbo, but the influences are pretty broad, I’d say.
MoSop: Do the singers in LL change / modify their voices in order to produce this sound?
Paul: If I understand your question correctly (which I’m not sure I do), I would say that we don’t ask people to put any affectations on their singing.
Musically, we’re doing a certain thing, but we want each singer to be able to do what they do, without feeling inauthentic. One of my favorite recordings is our version of Hank Williams’ “Calling You”where you get a real cool cross-section of the band— Mindy Gledhill is a pop singer who normally wouldn’t be doing a Hank song like this and she brings her unique voice to it in the way she feels best about, then there’s Dustin Christensen who can sing just about anything but is more of an Americana singer, and then Mark Smith who has this great, unmistakable drawl to his voice that I just love. The three of them on one song, to me, is one of the best things about the Lower Lights, this juxtaposition of different things that somehow works.
MoSop: What has been the general reaction to your sound publicly? Who is your target market?
Paul: We’ve gotten generally favorable reviews and have rarely played shows to anything but enthusiastic fans. We did get entirely ignored at least twice, though. As for target market, that’s not really a question I worry about. Maybe I should. But it’s just about the songs for me. (So maybe I’m my own target market?) I think if anything, we wanted to make music that we’d want to listen to.
MoSop: Is there a certain area of the country that are more aware of you / have a bigger fan base?
Paul: Utah for sure. We are rooted here and play the majority of our shows here. So it stands to reason that awareness of us would be deepest here.
MoSop: Will there be any new recordings released soon? If so, What is the anticipated date?
Paul: There’s no date yet. But we are hoping to re-convene in the summer and see what happens. Stay tuned?
MoSop: Any upcoming concerts or events we should be aware of?
Paul: We want to keep making albums, though that may sound archaic in a world that’s trying to drive albums into obsolescence. But, as a group that plays a lot of throwback music, why not be a throwback with our goals too? We’d also like to tour some more— we have plans to go back up to the Pacific Northwest as well as down through the Southwest and into California.
MoSop: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Paul: Thanks! We really appreciate anybody who bothers to listen. We made the music because we love it and we hope that comes through.