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When Jeremiah Fraites was in high school, he told himself that he never wanted to be in a band with a singer. “Really complicated instrumental music is what spoke to me,” he says. “In my head I was like, Well, everything you can think of has already been said about love.” He obviously changed his mind after he met Wesley Schultz, who Fraites co-founded the Lumineers with more than 10 years ago. Since that time, the pair, along with a rotating cast of other band members, has released three internationally acclaimed albums. And much to the chagrin of Fraites’ 17-year-old self, all of the records include songs with lyrics.
Fraites never let go of the idea of creating his own instrumental album, though. Once the pandemic forced all of us to shelter in place, he did just that. The product, Piano Piano, is set to come out on January 22. Before it does, we caught up with Fraites to discuss his love of instrumental music, the challenges of recording during a pandemic, and what he learned about himself while working on his first solo project.
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5280: I read somewhere that it was a lifelong dream of yours to make an instrumental piano album. Why were you always so interested in that format? And why the piano of all instruments?
Jeremiah Fraites: When I was younger, there was always something about specifically just the music that, for some reason, penetrated my brain. The words and lyrics, they just kind of went in one ear out the other, but I would always listen to the sound of a piano or the melodies or just the overall arc of the piece. I thought I was just going to make instrumental music. When I met Wesley that all changed quickly. I’ve written all sorts of piano music since we formed the Lumineers some 13 years ago. We would write more music than we obviously use and a lot of that I just saved in a Dropbox folder over the years. Voice memos and all sorts of things I did while we traveled and stuff. I pulled a lot of the music on this album from that stuff, which means parts of it are more than 10 years old.
Why did you decide that now was a good time to put the album together?
Once the world kind of shut down my wife urged me to try and do it. At the time, I didn’t have much inspiration. I was feeling quite depressed as well. But she was like, You know what this is a great opportunity to do this. I don’t want this album to be branded as a “COVID record.” I definitely was planning on recording it at some point no matter what. With that said, if the pandemic wasn’t happening, I don’t think I would have recorded it in my house like I did.
I am sure recording in your house brought up all sorts of interesting challenges.
It definitely did. There was a house being built next door to us here in Denver. We have a dog that for some reason likes to bark when I play the piano sometimes. We had the whole family cooped up together. And I was trying to record a quiet, dynamic album. It was pretty crazy there for about three months. When my young son would take a nap—usually between like 1 and 2:30 p.m.—I would try to use every minute to record. I would try to record at night as well. If you listen really, really closely there are probably moments when you can hear my son in the background or a plane flying overhead. It was the most atypical recording experience I have ever had.
Were you just in your living room then?
Essentially, yeah. I spent a lot of time working with this guy David Baron. He’s a composer who has helped us on some Lumineers stuff. He was in New York state and I would FaceTime with him, moving mics to see how they were picking up sound and if they were good. But it was all just in my house in Denver. One of the pianos I used was this old upright one that my piano tuner had nicknamed “firewood” because he thought it was an old piece of crap that I should just get rid of. But I love it.
What was it like going back through that Dropbox folder of old music? Some of that stuff you recorded a long time ago. Did it bring back memories of certain places, people, or times in your life?
Oh yeah, it brought back very specific memories. There are songs that I remember writing in a hotel room in Massachusetts or in my dorm room. There were tapes where I could hear things in the background like my wife at a younger age. That feeling of going through the artifacts and hearing some more raw sounds made me realize that I didn’t want the album to feel so clean and overproduced as well.
Do you think the fact that you wrote the music over such an extended period of time also brought a lot of different sounds and feelings in? Maybe some stuff that wouldn’t have been included if the music was written in a tighter period of time?
Yeah, definitely. Some of it included ideas that I don’t know if I would really write now. There were chords or textures that surprised me. Honestly, though, at the beginning of the process going through everything was a bit overwhelming. There were so many scraps and mementos and voice memos. When you are looking through a lot of old stuff like that, most of it is probably going to be crap. So in some ways you are trying to find a needle in a haystack. That made the initial stages kind of difficult.
What did you learn about yourself through the whole process?
I was really terrified of releasing my first body of work as just Jeremiah Fraites. I didn’t want it to feel like a Diet Coke version of the Lumineers. I hope people can interpret this as something wildly different and wildly new. I feel like it is. It’s kind of terrifying, though. At the beginning, it’s strange because you aren’t working without the usual safety nets you feel like you have in a band. That was tough, but it was also really invigorating to do so much by myself. Having a project to work on every day also felt good. I realized I am lucky that my passion, and obsession, and almost addiction for music can allow me to escape. It gives me something to throw myself into and that’s great.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you and Wesley were working on new music for the Lumineers. Do you all have plans for the next album?
Yeah, we are trying to figure it out. We had this whole amazing tour booked through 2020 and part of 2021. We were going to go to South America. We were going to play Coors Field for the first time ever here in Denver. It was such a bummer that we didn’t get to do all of that. But I’ll just say we are chipping away. We are conjuring some new ideas.