LANEY JONES AND THE SPIRITS: I’M NOT THE PERSON I USED TO BE
photo courtesy laney jones
With their critically adored 2013 debut studio album Golden Road and a feature on PBS’s Great Performances under their belts, Laney Jones and the Spirits are certainly a band to watch. Alison Krauss certainly thinks so—the country superstar described their work as “beautiful and original.” Miss Jones has a voice like honey and whiskey and can play a mean banjo, but this Berklee College of Music graduate and her band are still evolving their sound. They’ve been criss-crossing the country recently to advance their long-awaited follow-up album, expected later this year. Be sure to check out their Los Angeles debut tonight at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe. This interview by Emily Nimptsch.
How’s life on the road been treating you?
Laney Jones (lead vocals): It’s been great. It really is all about the kindness of strangers. People have been so wonderful inviting us out and giving us places to stay. Or a nice embrace (laughs). This family in Wichita, Kansas opened up their house to us and let us stay there for the night.
Matthew Tonner (guitar): We’re on a two-and-a-half month tour right now and we’ve been in a new city every day for three weeks. Being in L.A. is great because we get to be in the same place for a few days.
Laney Jones: Being on the road, there are a lot of things to get frustrated about. I can’t go on my morning run or where’s my freaking cup of coffee? It’s a lot of little things.
Tré Hester (bass): There are lots of little indignities of life on the road. I’ve showered in the sink a couple of times.
Laney Jones: There seems to be this mass exodus from Florida. No one is from Mount Dora except me and the guy we are staying with. We met him through AirBnB®.
Alex Shames (drums): The rest of the roommates in the house are from Orlando. Our Lyft® driver was also from Orlando. There’s this very strange Florida connection.
It seems like a lot of Floridians end up here because it has a similar climate and feel.
Matthew Tonner: Just driving around here, every block seems like the hippest block in Orlando.
Laney Jones: But it’s really exciting to be someplace I’ve never been. It’s my first time on the West Coast. Everything is so new. It’s all so beautiful.
And you’ve gotten a good reaction from fans so far?
Matthew Tonner: Just getting a nice response from total strangers—people you’ve never met before—that’s been super gratifying. Just to see it happening with the kind of consistency that it has been happening for us, it’s been really nice.
Alex Shames: There’s really no obligation for those people to say anything. For them to come up to us out of the kindness of their hearts, it really makes it worth it. And there’s nothing fake about it. It’s not like family who will come and support you no matter what. It also helps you put dots on the map and say that we know people everywhere.
Tré Hester: That’s the great thing about touring, you get a different perspective on a place. You start to identify with that particular culture. You meet such wonderful people. The fact that people will allow strangers in their home restores your faith in humanity. It’s just the most beautiful aspect of touring.
How would you describe the central Florida indie music scene?
Alex Shames: Growing up, I really only went to the theme parks in Orlando, but there is so much more going on there.
Laney Jones: There’s this one district there and it feels like Cheers. You go there on a consistent basis just to support live music. You start running into the same people over and over again. It’s a really great way to connect to people.
Tré Hester: I’ve worked in it for a long time and there is this sense of community. There is an ebb and flow of how many people are giving an effort. There are times when there’s not a lot going on. But it will always ramp itself back up again.
Matthew Tonner: Now that we’ve gotten the opportunity to play outside that scene, everything is rare. The diversity is amazing, though. There is a thriving punk scene there. There’s some really great folk rock, Americana stuff going on. It’s such a mixed bag of bands.
I think Florida has this reputation of being an older state. There’s this misconception that there’s no indie scene at all.
Matthew Tonner: There’s a lot of really bored young people. (laughs)
Laney Jones: You have some really cool young people who are just trying to make stuff happen.
And you have the internet…
Matthew Tonner: Orlando has internet? (laughs)
Laney Jones: Cool stuff does happen.
How did you get your first break in the industry?
Laney Jones: When I got into Berklee, totally on a whim, I auditioned for this singer-songwriter contest. Next thing I knew, I was in a country music session with Alison Krauss at the Kennedy Center. That was amazing. They were filming it, so we were on the PBS documentary.
She gave you a glowing endorsement. How did that feel?
Laney Jones: I was so nervous. I didn’t sleep or eat for two days beforehand. Once I got out there, the nerves disappeared. Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles were there. They were all super nice. It was a vocal masters session. We felt like such freshmen. It was pretty inspiring to watch them.
Matthew Tonner: That PBS documentary just aired in January.
Laney Jones: That was my first big break. I also applied to this contest with the southern department store [called] Belk. I auditioned in Atlanta. My parents drove me. Through Belk, we got to open for Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts—not people that we are super into, but hugely popular musicians.
Matthew Tonner: Their sponsorship also helped us get some licensing. The music is played in their stores. It definitely helped us get exposure. The prize money helped us pay for our new album. During that same tour, Laney and I got to perform at Eddie’s Attic Shoot-out. It’s really renowned in the song-writer’s world. John Mayer and Taylor Swift played there. We took home the grand prize. That helped us get connected to some people at BMI® and some people in the recording industry in Atlanta and Nashville. This is all in the past year. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind.
Laney Jones: I feel so fortunate. It’s really about meeting people and having a good time.
Matthew Tonner: We’ve done a lot of competitions and it feels a bit strange, competing for art.
Laney Jones: But those are great opportunities. You have to take advantage of them.
How do you write lyrics? Do you just jot them down in a notebook or on your phone?
Laney Jones: It’s a mix. I’ll get inspired by the way a word sounds, it will just sound like a melody to me.
Matthew Tonner: Every part of the song has to have something that hooks you in. There has to be something interesting to listen to in every section of the song.
That’s a lot of pressure.
Matthew Tonner: When you are dialing into that level of quality, it may seem daunting at first. But if you keep working at it, it will happen.
Laney Jones: It’s just like writing a school paper. It may seem like a big deal, but once you start it, it turns out not to be too bad.
When you are writing a song, how long does it normally take? Do you start with the lyrics first or the melody?
Matthew Tonner: I think it usually starts by singing a line or melody into your phone.
Laney Jones: Sometimes it starts with an instrument. You never know. The amount of time also ranges. I’ve written some songs in a few days. Sometimes it’s just an hour or two. Sometimes, I’ll get an idea and have to sit on it for six months until it’s ready.
Matthew Tonner: The craziest thing is when a song will come out almost fully formed. One of the songs I love from the new album … we were in our apartment in Boston and I went out to do some chores and I came back ninety minutes later and she had this whole song written out.
It feels almost downright paranormal.
Matthew Tonner: It can be. She’ll get the courage to share it with me and I’ll work on it. We try to attack it from as many different angles as we can. We try to convince the other person.
Laney Jones: Sometimes we’ll write multiple verses for one song.
Alex Shames: That happened a bit in the studio. We were just trying to mix it up and get some of the repetition out of there. It can completely change the construct of the song. With one or two rare exceptions, every song on this new album sounded and felt completely different before and after we got through the recording process.
How do you know when a song is finished?
Alex Shames: Wow. When the time bell rings. (laughs).
Tré Hester: At 5:30.
Alex Shames: When you know, you know. It’s hard to get to that point. There was one song on the record where we were about to put the garnish on top, give it some extra stuff. We got back into the control room and over the span of a couple of conversations, the song went through a complete transformation. Now that it is where it is, I can’t imagine it going back to what it was. It started life as a gypsy jazz, swing-type number and we removed all of the bass and drums and gave it a hip-hop beat. It sounds cohesive and you would never know if we didn’t tell you.
I think most of your fans know you as a blues or country group, but it seems like your sound is evolving. What will the songs on the new album sound like?
Alex Shames: We’re definitely folk-rock, but I hate using those terms because I don’t know what they mean anymore.
Laney Jones: For me, it’s all about opening your mind to all the possibilities. I’ve always had a deep love for jazz, folk, and swing. I also listen to a ton of rock bands. I realized that I can explore these different sides of myself. I can do this, too. I can pull it off. It’s just about writing songs that fit with that style.
Matthew Tonner: It’s just a testament to how great of a songwriter she is. She works with so many genres. You can go on YouTube® and find pop and electronic tracks that Laney has worked on. She also won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the electronic category. At the time that we put out our first studio album, we were listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch. Those people are still influences for us in terms of their lyrics and messages. Now, we listen to a ton of Wilco, Dr. Dog and Lake Street Dive. It’s not like now we’re going to go in the direction of rock n’ roll. We still have the rootsy, folksy thing going on. The bands that we love [are] in the indie-rock folk-rock category.
Laney Jones: I feel like we are moving more towards an electrified sound. We are just making it a little bit louder.
Matthew Tonner: Laney is so well-versed in this catalogue of obscure 1920s blues music. She’s listened to it, thought about it, and studied it at Berklee. That’s very powerful and and adds a gravitas to the music.
Laney Jones: It’s just love and respect.
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the blues. Why?
Laney Jones: If you listen back to old recordings, it just has so much passion to it. In a such a modern world, it really nice to hear something that’s so honest. It’s just so emotional and sexy.
Alex Shames: It sounds like there’s a living, breathing person behind it.
Matthew Tonner: A lot of shows now depend on visual effects. The guy onstage looks like he’s checking his email. That works for a lot of people. I’m certainly not digging at it. I think audiences still appreciate music being played by real people.
How do you reinterpret the work of your influences and make it your own?
Laney Jones: I think that’s one of the hardest things to do. Everyone is going to interpret a song in their own way. I think it comes down to your own ears and personal tastes. I don’t know how you do it. You just do. Every artist pulls from their influences. I think that’s what being an artist is.
Without stealing or copying.
Laney Jones: If you take one influence too far, that’s not cool.
Matthew Tonner: We like to play a game sometimes we guess what a musician was listening to when they wrote a particular song.
Laney Jones: It’s a terrible thing to do.
Matthew Tonner: It’s like a rabbit hole.
Laney Jones: A lot of the bands that I listen to have guy singers with electric guitars. I’m female and I play banjo. It’s gonna be different right off the bat. You make it your own.
Matthew Tonner: I think people feel like they know what to expect when they see a banjo. We give them something different. We are infusing an instrument that has been linked to a certain genre into a much broader environment. It’s just another element to the sound.
What instruments do you play?
Laney Jones: I started writing songs and learned the guitar. From there, it was the ukulele. I have tiny hands. I borrowed a friend’s banjo for one night and wrote a song on it. I felt such a connection to the banjo. That was the first one where I felt that I really understood it.
Did you take vocal lessons growing up or sing in any groups?
Laney Jones: I did some musical theater when I was young. There was a formally trained opera singer in the group. Every time that I sang, I felt like she was giving me the stink eye. It was that look that pushed me to get some lessons. I asked my parents just so I could kill this girl at singing. It came from a really spiteful place.
Do you have a favorite lyric from this upcoming album?
Alex Shames: I’ve always liked, ‘What’s the point of going to Heaven if you don’t know anyone.’ It’s interesting because it seems to get a chuckle out of the crowd, but only the older people.
Matthew Tonner: Also ‘I’m not the person I used to be.’ That’s kind of a meta-statement about who we are and what we are going through now with the road tour, the bigger shows, and better people by our side.
What is your favorite part of the process—the writing or performing?
Alex Shames: Oh, definitely the performing. I have input in the creative process, but performing is my thing. When I’m on stage and in the moment, that’s my favorite part.
Tré Hester: I’m a singer-songwriter and a musician. It’s just identifying what your role is. When you write the song it’s a high. When you perform it, it’s a different kind of high. It’s a give and take depending on what is called upon you.
Matthew Tonner: They are two very different experiences. When you write a song, it’s like the beginning of a relationship. You are really excited about it. You want to share it and you still have to be excited about it the one-hundredth time you play it.
Are you guys writing on the road? Are you working on anything new?
Laney Jones: It’s super difficult to write on the road. You’ll get creative at the most inconvenient times. I’ll be in the shower and someone is waiting for me to finish and I’ll get an idea. Or it’s ten minutes before a show.
Matthew Tonner: It is a pretty solitary thing. There’s not a lot of solitude in what we are doing now. Once we get back and have some time, we’ll get back to work on some new stuff.
Laney Jones: You have to live a little and then have the time to process it.
When is the new album coming out?
Laney Jones: We don’t even know. We are banking on late this year or early next year.