Keeping Up With Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors
by Danielle Speiss
Every once in a while, you catch an opening act that rivals the headliner. You know it when you find yourself doing research on the band, looking them up on YouTube, downloading their music, humming their songs and thinking about them days after the show. Well, now is one of those times for me and Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors is the band. I must not be the only one that feels this way, as they will be headlining a national tour of their own this fall for Good Light, their just-released fourth album. Live versions of the new songs should not be missed, nor should music from their previous albums like Chasing Someday. That album that includes “Fire and Dynamite” and “Live Forever,” two of my new favorites.
If you are looking for the typical love-gone-wrong songs, you won’t find much of that here. There is a more positive and hopeful message in much of the group’s music and lyrics. While life is not perfect, with good friends, family and good neighbors things will be okay. There is a lot of that upbeat feeling in their songs.
Along with their inspiring music, they also have a fun and compelling energy on stage. It makes them as much fun to watch as they are to listen to. Holcomb and the Neighbors have a mellow sound with great harmonics, combining Drew’s soulful rock sound and his wife Ellie’s raspy and charming voice. But make no mistake about it, they can really rock out.
Speaking with Drew reinforced my feeling that he and the Neighbors would be good people. Both in conversation and on stage he gives off a warm and comfortable energy and a genuine kindness; almost like they are your friends or people you would love to have as your neighbors. And these Neighbors just might restore a little hopefulness to your love and life.
So you’re Drew Holcomb but tell me about the Neighbors. How did that name come to be?
I grew up in Memphis and moved to Knoxville for college. [I] moved back to Memphis after school and started pursuing a music career. It’s all encompassing. It was there that I met Nathan [Dugger], our guitar player. He was in high school at the time. I was 22 and he was five years younger than me. He was kind of a musical prodigy. He started playing guitar and piano in little local bands I put together. It wasn’t quite the Neighbors yet. It was just me putting together a random smattering of players. Ellie had been an old friend from college who I’d always had a thing for, but never had quite the opportunity to do anything about it. Shortly after I graduated our friendship turned into something more, so I moved back to Knoxville. Nathan moved to Nashville to go to Belmont University, which is a well-known music school. Ellie and I had shared a love for music in our friendship through college. I was already beginning a tour and she was an eighth-grade English teacher. We decided to get married. We moved to Nashville, and I was still playing music with Nathan whenever possible. I convinced her to quit her teaching job and go on the road full time. It was around the same time that we met Rich [Brinsfield] who was a friend of Nathan’s from Belmont. That’s the short version of it. We’ve been playing music now, the four of us, for eight years.
So you just decided to call yourselves the Neighbors then?
Oh, yeah. yeah. At the time when we first started playing with everybody, it was more like a side man kind of thing. It was just me and they were hired guns. One of the things I didn’t like about Nashville was that there was such a singer/songwriter-centric thing that felt like the players were often treated like just cogs in a wheel. For me, Nathan and Rich on the musical side and Ellie on the songwriting side were really integral. Not just to our live show but really to my formation as an artist. So we were trying to come up with a band name because I wanted it to be a band, not just them backing me up. At the time we all lived in the same neighborhood. It’s called East Nashville. So we thought: why not the Neighbors? It stuck.
Band names are such a strange phenomenon. I remember John Mayer in an article he wrote for a music column in Esquire magazine. [He] was talking about band names. He said if you take the music of My Chemical Romance and Death Cab for Cutie, they should totally switch band names. Band names are such a strange thing. You have to figure something to call yourselves. Some of my favorite band names were Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, something that just doesn’t get in the way of the music.
I like it. It works. We saw you open for Needtobreathe and loved the show. It was great how you all came out at the end and did “Stand by Me” in the finale together with NTB. I think it was Bear Rinehart [NTB’s lead singer] who kept referring to all of you as friends. Is that a genuine friendship that formed prior to touring together or did that evolve while touring together?
It’s both. We met through some mutual friends who passed my music on to them years ago. Probably three years ago. I met Bo [Rinehart, the guitarist] first at a radio conference we were both performing at. They were the headliner. I was one of many nobodies there. [I] introduced myself to him. He had gotten our record before, and he did not put two and two together at the time. Then a few weeks later, maybe even a couple months, he tweeted at me: “Hey enjoyed meeting you in Colorado. Really love your record. It’s one of my favorites of the year.” I responded to that with a thank you, etc. When they were on tour at the beginning of this record cycle, right after the Taylor Swift Tour, they were playing at First Avenue in Minneapolis which is a very famous kind of warehouse rock & roll room. There’s a smaller room there called the Seventh Street Entry. We happened to be booked in the smaller room on the exact same night. Long story short, we played earlier so that we could go to the show. They invited us and let all of our people come into their show, even though it was sold out. It was just pretty cool. They invited us on stage to sing and play. That just began a longer friendship. Yeah, they’re absolutely genuine friends. We stay in touch and text and try to see each other when we’re in town. That’s the thing that I love about touring with them, honestly. Their fans know that they handpick the opening band. The opening band has their stamp of approval, so their fans show up on time. They give you the benefit of the doubt. That’s not really common in the music world. Usually the opening band gets treated like second-class citizens. I commend the NTB guys for rising and stepping up above that.
Are you still touring right now with them or is the tour finished?
The tour with them has finished. They are in the studio now finishing their new record. We are in festival season. We just played the Hangout Festival [in Gulf Shores, AL] and we’re going to be at Bonnaroo [in Manchester, TN] in two weeks. Pretty much every weekend we have some kind of festival. Then we’ll do a headlining tour in the fall.
Yeah, you mentioned on stage that you would be back in Philadelphia, was it September?
I think it’s October. Oddly enough I think it’s Halloween night. [ed. note: It is, they play on Oct. 31.]
I won’t go trick or treating then. I’ll be there. I think it’s at the World Café Live?
(Laughs) Yes, it is.
How do you categorize your music?
I think the understanding of genres moves quicker than our transition as a band. I’d say that right now we probably fit under the Americana tag as much as anything else. We’ve been given the heartland rock tag. We’ve been given the folk-rock singer-songwriter tag. All those in some ways are appropriate, but Americana is probably the broadest and most all-encompassing of those categories.
Is that how you want your fans to see you?
You know, I do and don’t. It’s an apt tag for the music we make. I do think that it sometimes conjures up an image of music that we don’t make. It could isolate us from a broader and younger demographic who actually tend to enjoy our music. If we have to be tagged, sure, that’s a fine tag. My wife Ellie always jokes. When people ask us what kind of music we make, she says, “Hopefully good music.” We don’t let the tags define what kind of music we make. We just make the music we make and let other people decide what they want to call it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Does being married and on the road together affect your songwriting… the trials and tribulations of being a married couple?
(Laughs) Yeah sure, definitely that’s part of the story. On this album the songs “The Wine We Drink” and “What Would I Do Without You?” are the most closely connected to that aspect of my life. There are other songs. “Good Light” was really a fly-by of a lot of different friends and relationships. Packing them into one song. People going through hard things and finding identity and value amidst the trouble and the chaos. “Nothing But Trouble” is another marriage song. That one’s fun because it’s got all the little things like East of Eden which Ellie and I both love. John Steinbeck. And California is where we went on our honeymoon. On “I’ve Got Nothing but Trouble,” I’m more of the troublemaker in the marriage and she most of the time is always down for whatever adventure. She’s not very uptight. “Can’t Take It with You” is inspired by a Cormac McCarthy short story called “Sunset Limited.” [It] has been turned into a movie with Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones that I happened upon one night on HBO. There’s a variety of things that all meld together. I do this thing when I write. I keep a journal. Well, I don’t keep journal entries but it’s physically a journal that I collect words and phrases in. I do that on the left side of the page. Then I write from those words and phrases on the right side of the page. Songs can come really out of any direction.
It seems like your songs tend to be very upbeat as far as relationships versus the typical break up songs. It’s nice to know that your relationship inspires that.
Part of it for me is that Ellie and I both laugh [that] relationally we were both born on third base. That starts long before that speaking, without regard to our marriage. I come from a family that’s really close. My parents were really supportive of my career choice and same with her family. Her siblings are pretty close and same with me. So the hopefulness isn’t just based on the fact that we really enjoy being married to each other. I just got off the phone with my brother who lives in Rwanda. He’s coming home for three weeks. He and I are planning a four-day motorcycle trip through the Smoky Mountains. That’s pretty par for the course for the families that we were both in. Our music tends to be reflective of that. It’s not always so rosy. It’s easy to act like everybody is happy but some people have a good family, and some people don’t. It’s just the luck of the draw. My dad comes from tough, tough stock. Tough background, alcoholic parents. He made a choice when he was in high school after dating my mom… I’m giving you too much information.
No it’s awesome. It shows why you are where you are and where your strength comes from.
Yeah, well she was from this really amazing family. Her dad was really kind to my dad when he was just a boyfriend. He just thought to himself, “I’m going to be more like him. I want to be a man like that and have a family like that.” I guess I’m the product of wise, thoughtful, courageous choices by other people in a lot of ways. I want to carry that forward.
We could see it when you were on stage, honestly. You really connect with your audience and your genuineness really comes through.
Did any artists have an influence on your musical style? Who did you like to listen to?
There’s dozens and dozens. I was a typical 90’s middle school and high school kid who was inundated with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Then your best friend’s older brother’s record collection [teaches you] of U2 and The Cure and everything else. As I got into my later teens, I got into things like David Gray and Dylan and Springsteen and Patty Griffin. That led to the early 70’s LA scene with James Taylor, Carole King and all that stuff. So yeah, the singer-songwriter genre as a fan is what I mostly listen to. In the last few five years, probably my favorite artists are Ray LaMontagne and Amos Lee. A lot of artists want to act like they’re not influenced by the people that are making music and putting out records at the same time. But I would be a fool not to act like I don’t reference an Amos Lee recording every now and then.
Did Ellie ever do Gospel as a solo? I heard some things on YouTube that she did, but I don’t know if it’s on your previous albums. I only have the Good Light CD.
She has put out an EP. That is those songs. She is in the process of working on a full length in that space. She and I write separately almost all the time. Every once in a while, we’ll write together. We used to try to force writing together, but her heart lies in making music more in that space, so we just give each other room to be creative. That’s where she is right now. She’s out writing songs with friends while I’m just taking care of the baby.
Now will you do that project together or did you say that will be just Ellie?
It will be separate. It will be her own thing in her own name. Because it’s in that space it will be kept pretty separate. The music that I make is definitely not intended to be proselytizing or anything to do with that nature. You have to be pretty careful with that. You don’t want anybody to feel like you’re trying to manipulate them. That’s certainly not my music playing in bars and stuff. Ellie’s music is not that either. It’s going to be more like – hey this is what this is.
Take it or leave it.
(Laughs) Yeah, take it or leave it. Exactly.
Does Ellie play a lot of different instruments? I noticed she was playing the keyboard a little.
Yup. She plays a little bit of guitar. Mandolin is probably the thing she plays the most. And she writes a little on the piano, as well.
Do you prefer the larger venues or smaller venues?
It depends on the crowd. If the crowd is paying attention and there’s 3,500 to 5,000 people – sure, I’ll take that. If there’s 100 people that are paying attention versus the 5,000 that aren’t, I’ll take the 100 that are.
What would you do if you couldn’t perform?
Oh, I would probably find myself teaching and writing in some way.
I guess Ellie would be doing the same since you drug her from that.
Probably so, yes.
Is it difficult to tour while being married and have the baby with you on the road?
It’s an adventure. It’s not easy but it’s very rewarding. We’re really glad that we’re doing it.
How does the baby like your music?
She loves it actually. Embarrassingly so. Our new record is the one thing that will calm her down when she’s upset. I think it has to do with the fact that we made the record and wrote the songs while Ellie was pregnant.
Is she good on the tour bus?
Yeah, she’s great. She’s probably getting tired of sleeping in a car seat, but…
Since you’re married and now have a baby on tour with you, you probably have a couple different buses for the members, right?
No, actually we’re all on the same one. It’s a family affair.
I have a question about the song “Live Forever.” Looking at the video, is that about anybody? Is there a personal meaning to the song? I see a name on a memorial.
Yes, well it’s part of the video that’s possibly confusing. The song was actually written about my sister’s kids, who are the kids in the video. Those are my nieces and nephew. I wrote the song about them years ago when they moved. My sister, her husband and her family, they moved to Central America for a really cool teaching job that he got down there. That song was written in a melancholy state about how much I was going to miss them. Just wanting [to impart] that uncle advice to them. The song became a whole lot more than that. It became a song about family, a fairly nostalgic but hopeful song about how much we need each other. I did lose a brother when I was in high school. That’s that memorial in the video. For me it was more about what I was trying to communicate in the video. We had this family fun in the video in slow motion, but there’s always going to be this missing piece for us. Even my nieces and nephew that never knew their uncle, today they still know about him and refer to him in the first person. It was just a piece of the story that I wanted to make sure was told. It was not necessarily written with that in mind.
I’ll just ask a just few more, since I don’t hear a baby crying yet.
Nah, she’s asleep. I got her down right when you called.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
Oh, it changes a lot. I’d say consistently over the years “Fire and Dynamite.” It’s the one we closed with. On the tour it’s a big rock & roll song.
Do you bring a nanny with you on tour?
You probably don’t have much down time on tour. You probably go to bed as soon as you get back on the bus. But do you have a favorite thing to do when you hit a new city?
If there’s a spare moment, we definitely love to find a park or something nearby and get outside and catch a little bit of sunshine. I’m a bookstore lover, so if there’s a good local bookstore, I like to find a little quiet and solitude there.
Did you get a chance to do that in Philadelphia?
We did. Well I didn’t go to a bookstore, but we actually walked on the other side of the interstate and walked around Independence Hall.
Did you walk through Chinatown?
Yeah. We had a little bite to eat out there on the lawn.
Was that your first time in Philly?
First time in a while. We played at World Café one time about a year ago, but we literally pulled into town, played and left. We had some radio commitments the next morning. I have not gotten to spend a significant amount of time there in a while.
Have you ever done a show outside the US?
We just played in Canada with NTB. We hit Toronto about four days before we saw you guys. We’re working on a 2014 [tour] of UK, France, Europe, but it’s not confirmed. We’re still working on it.
That will be a headline tour or with someone else?
Hopefully, it will be a mixture of both. There’s quite a singer-songwriter scene over there. People who come to these small kind of folk clubs regardless of who’s playing. So we’re trying to get into that world.
Is there anybody that you would like to collaborate with?
Oh gosh, lots of people. Probably the one I’d like to collaborate with the most is someone most people don’t know of. His name is Jay Bellerose. He is the drummer, percussionist for Ray LaMontagne’s band. But his main thing is he’s a studio guy that works on pretty much everything that T-Bone Burnett produces. To me there’s such a necessary rhythmic soul to a song. He is my favorite drummer, who does that in a way that I love it so. I think that’s a feasible goal. Hopefully that one will come true.
You have had some music on TV show’s like How I Met Your Mother and also on House.
We did, we were the season finale commercial I guess about a year ago.
That must be pretty exciting to hear your music on TV.
Yeah, that was great.
Do you watch How I Met Your Mother?
(Laughs) Well, we’ve seen a few episodes. Not our favorite show but…
Are you involved with your fans on social media? Do you interact with them?
Oh yeah. I’m on Twitter. We have a very active email list. My favorite thing to do is about once every six to eight weeks I’ll do a Q & A on Twitter and try to respond to everything within a 30-to-45-minute block. We’re really engaged on that.
Where do you see yourselves in the next five years?
Hopefully just further along down the road we’re on. We hope to continue making records. We’d love to establish ourselves in the bigger-listening venues around the country. Continue to be able to write music that gets used in TV and film. We love playing live. We just hope to continue to tour, hit festivals, get to open [for] and collaborate with other artists we love.
Anything else you would like to share?
No, I think you got it.
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 30, 2013.
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