Right out of college, singer-songwriter Justin Wade Tam undertook a seriously high-concept musical project with his then-active folk duo, Quote. It was more than an album — it was a veritable coffee table art object, featuring not just original songs, but lengthy stories, poems and visual art by other artists compiled in a 150-page book.
“We barely broke even,” Tam chuckles, “but it was a great coming of age project.
“Getting out of that, I sort of decided that I didn’t really wanna be in a project where I had to go to a bar and feel like I’m yelling over an audience anymore. I wanted to do something that was really upbeat and fun. With multiple members it’s a lot easier to command an audience, especially with five band members that can all sing.”
Humming House is the quintet he’s referring to, an ebullient, Nashville-based, folk-pop string band that’s just released Revelries, its third album (counting a live set). It’s the sprightly, swinging, tuneful fruit of Tam and his bandmates — powerhouse singer Leslie Rodriguez, fiddler Bobby Chase, mandolinist Joshua Wolak and bassist Ben Jones — dedicating themselves to providing the opposite of a subdued, stationary listening experience. This is a roots outfit that’s taken notes from wild-eyed Celtic bands and danceable pop smashes alike, which is to say, an anomaly.
View the video for “Great Divide,” then read our Q&A with Tam below the player.
CMT Edge: It wasn’t a given that the group of players you assembled to record the first Humming House album would become an enduring group. You could’ve made it a solo project. What was appealing about going forward as a string band?
Tam: I think you’re speaking to something that a lot of songwriters have to decide at some point, especially in Nashville. You can decide, “I’m gonna own a hundred percent of everything and I’m gonna hire everybody and it’s gonna be my thing,” or you can decide that the people that are playing in the project are as invested as you are and they’re contributing as much as you are creatively and go about it in this wonderful and messy way of having five people in the band family.
For us, it was clear that it was a band record and not a solo album. And the band has become such a large part of the live show.
You entered a roots music landscape that was already pretty well populated with acoustic-based, energetic bands. Where did you see Humming House fitting in?
I think on the fun side, hopefully. Believe me, I’m the first one to love listening to records that are one mood from start to end, especially somber ones. But we set out to be an entertaining live band and we wanted the records to reflect that. … As far as where we fit into it, we definitely want people to enjoy themselves once they’re at our show.
A particular kind of performing space, the parlor, is featured in a lot of your videos. There’s a whole parlor song tradition. People would order sheet music and gather around the piano to enjoy music in their homes. How did that domestic space become a focal point for you?
Our first parlor session was shot in my living room. … The band was borne out of these traditional Irish sessions we had called Finnegan’s Folly. It was all taking place in that same parlor. We realized we wanted to have a space to capture our songs live for YouTube, so that fans could have access to what we do. So we felt like it was fitting because the band, in a way, was borne out of that parlor. Since then we’ve taken it to several parlors. We did songs of ours or covers that fit in that space.
Your cover choices have included quite a bit of mainstream pop, like Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Moby. What do you feel like it’s done for how people view the band?
It’s definitely a roll of the dice, depending on the song. For us, it’s more because we have such a varied musical background. Several of us are hip-hop fans, so we listen to modern hip-hop, and a lot of us are fans of country music and songwriters, and a lot of us grew up on indie rock music.
In our live show, it’s been, to use a boxing term, like a left hook. We get three or four songs into a set and an audience may think, “OK, this is cool. I get it.” And then all the sudden we throw something in that they wouldn’t expect. I think it’s that surprise element that’s been really valuable. … It’s kind of an appeal to something familiar which will bring people into what we’re trying to do musically.
The covers are not a complete departure from your originals. I can tell you paid attention to how you could maximize melodic appeal in your writing and hookiness in your arrangements on the new album. Have you embraced pop instincts as an element of what you’re doing?
Yeah, I think that’s an astute observation. At the end of the day, we are writing pop songs. We definitely have done a lot of genre-nodding from the beginning of the band, from bluegrass to rockabilly to Celtic, and now even to modern indie rock and pop music.
I did still hear a bit of Irish flavor in “Hitch Hike,” but not as much as on your first album. Is that something you want to keep in the mix stylistically?
I think so. It definitely was a very strong influence in the beginning and is not something we’re intentionally departing from. I guess from the beginning it hasn’t been about the genres as much as it’s been about the songs for us and trying to convey whatever song as well as possible, if that means nodding heavily towards pop music or nodding heavily towards tradition. I don’t think we’re necessarily scared to take the risk either direction.
There’s a historical precedent for bands making their repertoires out of folk songs from all kinds of sources, originals and Tin Pan Alley pop songs they adapted to suit their styles.
You’ve got people that have been playing jazz songs for ages. At the end of the day, people are there to dance. And if there’s a modern song that they can recreate in a way that’s their own, if it gets the audience off their chairs and onto the dance floor in that moment, that may be more important. We definitely are out to be entertainers. As important as the songwriting is to us, we want to make sure that people can be involved in what we’re doing.