I swung by vocalist Hillary Smith’s house to pick up the new hONEyhoUSe CD, which was
waiting for me in an envelope stashed behind the fountain by her front door. With
characteristic generosity, Smith had left two copies, and that only made me doubly nervous.
I had been so over-the-top smitten by the trio’s first album, Sun, that I was afraid to cut the plastic wrap on this one. What if their first album had just been lightning captured in a bottle, and not a sun at all? How would I tell these musical friends that I didn’t dig it?
I slid the CD into the slot on the dashboard, turned up the volume, and held my breath. It wasn’t too far into the first track, “Kansas,” that the goose bumps began to pop on my
forearms. Near the end of the song, where the hONEyhoUSe gospel choir takes us to church, the hairs on the back of my neck erected in sympathetic vibration, and I was in full voice accompaniment. (What an inspired choice, made in the studio on the fly by
producer John Wall and Smith, to multitrack the trio into a glorious choir.)
I herewith publically apologize to Mandy Buchanan, Yvonne Perea, Hillary Smith, and their djembe-playing percussionist Savannah Thomas for ever having had a doubt. Medicine Lodge burns hotter and sweeter than Sun.
Where Sun relied on a spare production aesthetic, Medicine Lodge has expanded the palette, adding a full drum kit and electric bass on most numbers and granting Perea’s electric guitar a much bigger role. The vocal arrangements make even greater use of the trio’s distinct voices—Buchanan’s sweetness, Perea’s earthiness, and Smith’s soulfulness—and weave complex, ear-teasing harmonies.
The expanded production was enabled, in large part, by executive producers Ralph and Linda Jackson—“angels walking the earth, seriously,” says Smith—who saw to it that hONEyhoUSe had the do-re-mi to get the resources they needed in the studio. There’s a high polish to this album and a more popularly tuned sound—several songs scream, “Put me on the radio!”—but the emotional power and the songwriting integrity have not been sacrificed to that possibility. The compositions, whether they bring laughter, tears, or rumination, are still unflinchingly and delicately personal.
Maybe more important than the expanded possibilities in the studio, though, has been the evolving relationship between the three principals. With the first album, says Smith, “we were still, I think, solo entities that had kind of come together.” Now, hONEyhoUSe is a unit made up of three equal parts. “There’s just no frigging question,” she says.
In separate interviews, all three alluded to the collaborative songwriting process. Perea noted that if she were doing a solo project, she likely would not have spent time trying to complete “Fire on the Hill,” a song whose melody had been bugging her for days. “But because I knew I was going to bring it to the table to these other incredible writers and singers, I knew
something great was going to be born from this song,” she says. “I trust them. I fall backwards into them, and I know they’ll catch me.”
Wall says that one of his early contributions to the project was encouraging the trio to make it a group effort, rather than, “an album that’s this girl’s song and then this girl’s song and then this girl’s song.” He suggested they start by writing a song that all three would sing lead on, and that became “Fire on the Hill.”
Each of them also points out that the trust they’ve developed has allowed them to make
discoveries about themselves individually that have, in turn, strengthened the trio. For Buchanan, who used to think her lyrics were “so obvious,” it’s the understanding that she can trust the simplicity and clarity of her songwriting and not worry about it being “simplistic.” For Perea, it’s finding the freedom, with a nudge from Wall, to experiment with her playing and grow as a guitar player. For Smith, it’s been the realization that she can write and arrange songs, though she adds, “I never feel like I have written anything alone because [those two] are such an influence.”
The songs on Sun revolve around a gravitational center of grief. Yes, there are upbeat tunes and rockers and hints of resolution, and the songs are beautiful and touching, but threading through that album is the pain of loss.
On Medicine Lodge, the songwriters have made a space in their hearts for those losses by
focusing on what they’ve gained rather than what’s been taken. “Kansas,” for example, with its fine opening and closing guitar work by Hayden Denny, was written after the death of a young friend in a horrific automobile accident, but it lifts the spirit. “We just kind of wanted to
celebrate her life rather than mourn it,” says Smith.
“New House” was inspired by Buchanan’s unexpected discovery, while unpacking in a new home, of a box that held memories of a close friend lost to another auto accident. The song poignantly juxtaposes the excitement of a new house in a new place in a new beginning with the ache of rediscovered loss, and resolves the pain with a grateful embrace of that lost
friendship and its gifts.
“Fire on the Hill” offers comfort for anxieties about control or the loss thereof, and “Grace” promises comfort and protection for someone whose strength and security has been robbed by aging. “Rio Grande” recounts an impulsive self-baptism that washed away doubt and
confusion, and the lovely harmonies of “Beautiful You” offer a prayer for a friend’s awakening to new possibilities.
Even the more lighthearted or humorous tunes—like “Vroom” and the rocking “Supahlove”—draw from a well of self-confidence, and the trio writes deftly about the various thrills and chills of love in “Cowboy,” “Half 100 Years,” “I Can’t Wait,” and “Root Beer Float.”
Medicine Lodge uplifts the spirit, offering healing for your ills and hallelujahs for your joys and touching places that are hard to get at in the day-to-day.
“It helps me do a lot of inner healing, stuff to write about that I would be maybe embarrassed to talk about,” says Perea.
The trio’s willingness to write and sing honestly about all of it is what makes the healing begin right in your ears.
CD release party for Medicine Lodge
BéBé La La opens
Saturday, March 23, 7:30 p.m.
Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale Blvd. SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $25/$20 members and students
For more info, call 268-0044.
© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.