Lauren Hoffman had never heard of Paste Magazine. But in 2006, soon after the release of her most acclaimed record Choreography, the LP’s lead single was included on one of the national magazine’s music samplers alongside the likes of The Hold Steady, Bright Eyes and The Shins.
It wasn’t the only reach enjoyed by “Broken,” an atmospheric relationship track with a catchy-as-hell opening line: “You’re a little bit broken/I’m a sucker for that.” The song went on to earn around 300,000 YouTube views and twice as many iTunes downloads as any other track on Hoffman’s four-album discography. And that’s saying something considering her 1997 LP Meggido was released on the major label Virgin Records.
The Charlottesville singer-songwriter didn’t get to build on the success of “Broken” or Choreography. Hoffman essentially quit music in 2008 to focus on raising her daughter, who’s now going on 7 years old. She released one more record, Interplanetary Traveler, in 2009 but said she didn’t necessarily put everything she had into producing or promoting it.
“In 2006, I was working really hard at making it all happen as an independent artist, and I was starting to feel like, ‘I don’t know where this is going,’” Hoffman said during a recent interview at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. “And then life changed and I had a kid. It changed my priorities, because doing music…you can just write songs and put them on SoundCloud, or you can go way out on a limb for them.”
Nine years later, the local songstress is going out on a limb for a new project, The Secret Storm. The band, comprising six local musicians of various stripes, will play its third show on April 3 at The Southern Café and Music Hall. The Secret Storm is in the process of finishing its first full-length record. Hoffman said several singles and videos are completed and should be released soon, followed by the LP early next year.
“It’s exciting to be starting over as The Secret Storm because my Spotify profile still has something about me being 17 or precocious or something,” she said.
That precocious 17-year-old was born in Los Angeles and moved to Charlottesville when she was 2. Her father, Ross Hoffman, worked with Coran Capshaw in the early years and was instrumental in the launch of another C’ville singer-songwriter, Dave Matthews.
Indeed, it was through working at the Dave Matthews Band fulfillment offices that Hoffman met fellow musician and Matthews’ collaborator Shannon Worrell, who introduced her to John Morand and David Lowery of Sound of Music Studios in Richmond. Working closely with Morand, Hoffman produced her first record, hoping a label would pick it up. She moved to New York, earned some word of mouth and press buzz, and was signed to Virgin Records. The teenager was poised for a breakout.
Hoffman’s debut didn’t go as planned, though. The original A&R rep who signed her soon left the label, and the team that took over never really knew what to do with her.
“After that whole thing went down with Virgin, I came back here, and there is a whole chapter about how I got out of my deal,” Hoffman said. “It was my choice.”
Hoffman admits she’s never been as closely associated with C’ville as some local artists. Despite first learning bass under local jazz icon John D’earth as a middle schooler at Tandem, despite attending three high schools in the area and despite her connection to Capshaw and DMB, Hoffman’s always operated outside the local mainstream. She said that’s probably why, when she returned from New York, she was drawn to the punk scene at the Tokyo Rose, where she started an acoustic series called “Shut Up and Listen.”
“I came back here and discovered these people I had known from different worlds as a child and a teenager were in a band together,” she said. “When I first heard them, I thought it was sort of funny.”
The band was goth rockers Bella Morte, and one of those people was guitarist Tony Lechmanski. Lechmanski opened up a world to Hoffman that became her musical home and introduced her to some of the people who now make up The Secret Storm, which is rounded out by cellist Cathy Monnes, keyboardist Ethan Lipscomb, bassist Jeff Diehm and drummer Jordan Marchini.
The Secret Storm gives Hoffman the opportunity to be what she’s always wanted to be, she said: a lyric-driven songwriter. She doesn’t play an instrument with the band, and that’s been freeing in a way. It’s also been freeing to think of her musical career as less of a profession and more of an expression.
“Mostly I am hoping for the same thing that happened with ‘Broken’—just hoping that a couple of these songs really speak to people,” Hoffman said. “It has to be a balance. I want to teach my daughter that there’s great value to doing this thing that you feel is what you’re meant to do in life, but I don’t want her to feel like it comes first. That is a hard balance.”
Do you have a favorite track from a local singer-songwriter? Tell us in the comments.