JEREMIAH FRAITES | INTERVIEW
Co-founder of The Lumineers, composer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Jeremiah Fraites is a man of many talents. Annie Bishop caught up with him at home in Italy to talk about his first solo album, Piano Piano.
Hi Jeremiah! Where are you calling from today?
I’m in Italy, I’ve got a three-year-old here in lockdown. The whole country has gone into what’s called a red zone. All the parks are closed and it’s making parenting very difficult. Hanging in there, but long days!
How are you finding the move to Italy? Are you settling in?
I love it. I moved here in August or September and it’s such a cool country, there’s so much food and good restaurants and all that. You can’t really enjoy any of that aspect at the moment though. But it has been nice to enjoy being with my family while I’m not on tour with The Lumineers.
Your solo album Piano Piano came out in January, and it’s a beautiful album: the calming lockdown people need at the moment. What has the reception been like?
Thank you so much. I tend to keep my head in the sand about that sort of stuff, but I think it’s been doing well. Like you said, people seem to have been taking it like a medicine or something – a meditative thing, or a way to relax.
I purposefully waited until January to release it because I just thought 2020 had bad vibes on it, especially in America. I wanted to make sure to release this album way after the November election and start on a clean slate – it was hard to sit on the album for close to nine months, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. Hopefully it provides some sort of solace or peace for people out there.
On top of the nine months that you were waiting to release it, I understand that this album has been a decade in the making. Can you tell us more about the journey you’ve been on up to this point?
The more I do interviews and talk about this, the more I remember little bits here and there. I had just turned 21 – I’m 35 now – and was studying abroad, in Kingston-upon-Thames, when I actually recorded the guitar for [album track] Nearsighted. I came home late from the pub, went to my dorm room and recorded this guitar and didn’t think much of it. I always knew I liked that guitar, but I never thought 14 years later I’d be making an instrumental album.
That gives you an idea of the scale: that is by far the oldest song, others might be seven or eight years old, some are younger, four or five years old. Some were finished or written completely last year, right down to the wire.
Once The Lumineers’ tour got cancelled due to COVID-19 in March 2020, and I knew that I was going to be home for a long time, my wife said I should record my solo album. I sat down every day for a couple of weeks with my headphones, listening to voice memo after voice memo, drinking a lot of coffee. For the better part of a decade, any time I’ve written a song idea I knew wouldn’t work for The Lumineers I’ve put it into a Dropbox folder. There was a lot of material to go through. Sometimes I would have like a five-minute voice memo but only ten seconds of something cool in there. In the end I was left with 40 or 50 different ideas; I wrote them all down on paper and put them all over my floor like a madman to match them up. It was a lot of work to do by myself and it wasn’t always easy doing it in my home, but there was something kind of beautiful and magical about that.
Did it end up having to be a pandemic home recording?
During the pandemic I actually reached out to a studio in Denver, where I was living at the time, and it just seemed like it wasn’t going to be safe. It didn’t seem like it was worth potentially contracting COVID to record piano. So I recorded everything myself, working with an engineer, David Baron, who co-produced and co-engineered the album. He was over in New York state, so we did a lot of Facetime. In America, getting shipments and deliveries in the early days of the pandemic was crazy: places were closed and I had to buy microphones, so it took a while to get everything to my house. Once we figured out how to record everything, it was relatively smooth sailing.
A bunch of people recorded with me remotely – my Lumineers bandmate Lauren Jacobson recorded some beautiful violin at her house, I think in her closet. I remember a Friday morning where we started at 6am to record a 40-person orchestra in Macedonia, which was really cool. The technology we used was very high quality, clear audio, so I could watch and listen to them doing it. It was really surreal to watch 40 Macedonians performing my music all wearing masks.
All this with a three-year-old in the house as well?
It was crazy because he would go take his nap and I knew it could be anywhere from 45 mins to two hours to record. For the first few days it was really difficult – I’ve always been used to being in a professional studio and being able to record under ideal, serene conditions – but after a few weeks it became second nature, which debunked a certain amount of myths for me that you have to have these perfect conditions to record something beautiful. There’s a part where I can hear my son’s voice: he’s playing upstairs during the recording of a song called Arrival. It’s on the second chorus and almost impossible to hear, but I know where it is and I love that.
In general, for this album, I really didn’t want to make a perfect sounding record. On the flipside, I didn’t want to make a record that felt like it was recorded in someone’s house – but I wanted to flirt with both. I wanted people to feel like they were on the piano bench with me, listening in my living room, but also wanted people to be able to escape reality, which I think sometimes world class, high definition sound helps people do.
How does an instrumental album like this one, where you’re communicating to your audience through the music alone, compare to communicating through vocals and lyrics?
With The Lumineers, Wes [Schultz, frontman] writes 99.9% of the lyrics, and I always know there’s going to be vocals. It made this more challenging because I knew I had to communicate solely through the notes. Sometimes I would just write the piano chords, and I liked the way it was when it was bare, but sometimes I felt compelled to write something.
The last step of each song was coming up with the song title, which was actually a more difficult process than one might think – it’s literally the only indication of what the song is about, or what it’s going to sound like. Before I started working on the record I made a mission statement which said something like – keep it raw, don’t add too many strings, keep all the mistakes, don’t add too many strings. I added that twice because strings and piano is such an easy combo: they always sound beautiful, but I didn’t want that to be my easy out if I didn’t know what to do creatively in a song.
Tell us a bit about your favourite song on the album.
It changes day to day – my favourite today is Possessed, which was written during the pandemic. I was on the couch with a guitar in my hand while my son was watching cartoons; I came up with this melodic bassline and eventually, when my son went to sleep, I ran downstairs and applied everything I was playing on the guitar to the piano. The whole song basically got written on the guitar in about 15 minutes, but the finished version is mostly piano.
I called it Possessed because I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing with my fingers – I started to play this bassline, then some melodies on top of that, and the next two or three days straight I worked on that song to finish it. I quite literally felt possessed by the musical gods or something! That was one of the songs where the melodies were naturally built-in and was really fun to work on – most songs don’t happen like that, and if they do they’re probably something you don’t like the next day. This was something I feel like in 50 years I’ll still love and be proud of.
Finally, how have you found this solo experience compared to working with The Lumineers?
Interesting! Branching out and doing a solo endeavour like this brings back full circle how lucky and grateful I am to have what I have with Wes, and how beautiful the relationship is with all the other amazing people I get to tour with. I think it was healthy that we both branched out and did separate things – he put out a beautiful record himself where he did different covers of awesome songs [Vignettes, released last month]. Neither of us put out a ‘diet’ Lumineers album which could cause resentment.
We’ve had long talks about this type of thing and I think our relationship is in a really great mature spot. It was really fun to do it, but it’s not something I would want to do all the time because I love what we do with the Lumineers. It was great to get this out, to exorcise these demons or whatever.
Jeremiah Fraites’ album Piano Piano is out now via Decca. Info: here
words ANNIE BISHOP