“It’s hard to talk about these songs,” says Sam Bush over a mug of cooling tea at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. He’s unwrapped the CD copy of The Hill and Wood’s latest record, When You Go, and crinkles the clear plastic wrapping in his hands.
“There’s a lot of pressure these days for bands to…fabricate a story [about a record] that’s easily marketable,” Bush says. Everyone wants to know how and why a record was made; they want to know a record’s theme, its purpose. But the truth about When You Go, which drops January 19 on Randm Records, is that it just…happened.
Along with his friend and guitarist Chris Campanelli, Bush founded The Hill and Wood in 2009, during their last year at UVA. Shortly after, flutist and vocalist Juliana Daugherty joined the band and Bush says the extraordinary quality of her voice was so powerful that people would often think Daugherty was either the “Hill” or the “Wood” and that Bush was the other.
Enthusiastic to become full-time touring musicians, the band bought a van, made a record (2011’s The Hill and Wood), performed at SXSW in Austin, Texas, played a Daytrotter session in August 2012 and released an EP, Opener, in 2014.
A band needs momentum to thrive, “and unless you pick up an extraordinary amount of traction, it is very hard for a band to even survive,” Bush says. The Hill and Wood had plenty of momentum—until it didn’t.
Some band members went to grad school while others got married or moved to other parts of the state and the country. But Bush, who serves as music minister for Christ Episcopal Church and runs the art space/music venue The Garage on First Street NW, kept writing songs.
Bush always wanted to make a record with Colin Killalea (of indie-pop outfit Klauss), whom he’d met at White Star Sound in Louisa years ago—Killalea is a fearless musician and producer, Bush says—but it seemed like a dream. That is, until Randm Records, which describes itself as “an independent record label offering up, well, randomly great music. Indie, rock, Americana, blues, country, bluegrass, folk and whatever else we like,” e-mailed Bush in summer 2015 with an offer: The label liked his music and wanted to fund a record, no strings attached.
“Randm Records is a bit unconventional in its approach: When they believe in a band, they want to support them, which is wonderful,” Bush says.
He assembled what he calls his own personal dream team of musicians—Daugherty, who also performs solo and with local act Nettles, on vocals and flute; Curtis Fye on bass; Robby Sinclair on drums; Killalea, who produced the record, on guitars and keyboards; and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb Records (he’s arranged strings for Foxygen, among others) on pedal steel.
When You Go was recorded at White Star in the first half of 2016, then sent to Mark Nevers (who produced and engineered Andrew Bird’s 2002 Weather Systems and has produced records for Lambchop, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Silver Jews and others) for mixing. For the cover art, Bush requested, and received permission to use, an image of an astronaut/deep sea diver suspended in darkness by Australian photo-realism painter Jeremy Geddes.
It’s an album that you can judge by its cover: When You Go is a bit darker, heavier than previous The Hill and Wood records, both in sound and perspective. It’s a record about being in your late 20s and early 30s and coming to terms with some of the stranger facts of existence. Take, for example, “Magnetar.”
“After everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve been through / I’ve seen two types of people, ones like me and ones like you. / Me, I’m just a moon, just a cold ball that lingers / And you’re a magnetar with lights coming out of your fingers,” Bush starts off on the keyboard-heavy ballad. Here, he’s singing about his wife—he feels drawn to her, a star with a powerful magnetic field. They’re strongly bonded by the union of their marriage, but they’re still solitary figures.
“It’s very human to need something other than yourself,” Bush says, and usually you need another human. But there’s tremendous sadness and fear in realizing that even the person you feel most connected to isn’t the solution to life’s loneliness. In many ways, we’re all the figure on the cover, untethered and floating solo in the dark, tangled in the life bursting forth from our busted seams.
“That’s what we’re all connecting over,” Bush says. “In order to connect with yourself or with others, you need to write about things the way they are. Those ‘things,’ unfortunately, are loneliness, fear and…well, maybe just those two things,” he says with a laugh, letting go of the cellophane as he finds for himself the threads that tie these songs together.
For all that these songs lay bare but cannot fix, Bush hopes the tracks on When You Go “allow someone a little comfort, or empathy or compassion.”
“Gone are my days / When I saw my life in black and white. / Most of the time I feel like I’ve been blind,” Bush sings over fingerpicked guitar on the record’s final track, “The Tide Decides.”
“I don’t know where The Hill and Wood is going,” says Bush. “Whether a lot of people hear this music or a small number of people hear it, I feel lucky that it exists at all. I want to move forward with it, but I’m comfortable not knowing where it’s going. …Finally, just finally, desire and ambition have been wrestled from me and I can enjoy it for what it is.” The tide, with its ebb and flow, decides where The Hill and Wood will go, and Bush is fine with floating.