During the hot, humid days at Homegrown Music Festival along the Mulberry River in Arkansas, Grateful Web got the extreme pleasure of chilling out on the river for an interview with banjo duo The Lowest Pair. Palmer Lee recited a poem, Kendl Winter spoke about her creativity style, and we discussed their inspirations and collaboration styles.
GW: How was your journey today? It’s kind of out of the way but a beautiful place, right?
PL: Yeah, we were just in Conway (Arkansas) last night.
KW: We were in my hometown last night.
GW: If you guys weren’t musicians what do you think a different career for you would be?
PL: Garlic farmer.
KW: I’d probably be a ranger; try to figure out how to go stay in a cabin.
GW: That’s awesome! You could do trail maintenance or something like that.
KW: Yeah, count birds…
GW: Do you like birds?
KW: I like birds! I like just a reason to be outside for some time.
GW: Do you have a favorite bird?
KW: I feel lucky when I see bluebirds.
PL: ...bluebirds, magpies, loons, swallows.
GW: How long have you guys been a band together?
KW/PL: Three years
GW: What’s the progression of your band been like – what have you been through? How have you changed?
PL: I think we’re always dreaming about what the next thing is going to be. But we’re touring almost constantly so it makes it hard to go back and hash out these dreams. We’re trying to get ourselves out of debt, as it goes with a startup. So we’re kind of on a cash diet – these things limit our aspirations a little bit. But we have dreams of putting together different types of outfits and doing unique records with string bands, rock bands, country bands…and being able to tour those records.
KW: Over the three years it’s been neat because we came together as songwriters out of string bands. I was working on a solo project and we met up under that “let’s see what happens when we play together.” It’s been really neat, as two songwriters, having a vehicle to share our songs. And over the last couple of years we’ve collaborated a bunch and written together. Or I’ll write a song that Palmer will sing – it’s neat to hear your tune with somebody else.
We’ve started adding more guitar as well. We’re both banjo players primarily, but we’re both aspiring guitar players. I like a little low end – I have a high voice and with the banjo it’s nice to get that bottom level covered. We’ve been exploring added percussion and harmonica during the last year.
GW: What’s something that each of you has learned from the other person about music or writing?
KW: Intention. Palmer is very methodical and kind of slow with his songs – but when they come out they’re kind of the most brilliant songs ever. I’ve always been kind of like: We’re just making it- this is what I feel like doing today! I have a lot more material but you have to sift through it to find the pieces that are worth sharing.
PL: I think it’s a good balance – Kendl kind of hit the nail on the head there.
KW: We saw a palm reader when we first started together and she was like “You are like a rocket ship, flying all over the place and he’s like a train – going from point A to point B.”
PL: I think what I’ve also gained from Kendl is being more comfortable putting stuff out there, opening up a little and generating more things.
GW: Besides the guitar, what’s an instrument you can’t play but would like to learn?
KW: I’ve spend the last two Januarys working on it during the time I have at home.
PL: I’ve spent probably a cumulative four days working on it over the course of the last year.
KW: I’d also like to learn how to be good at drums.
GW: Who are some fiddle players you all look up to?
KW: Bruce Molsky
PL: Yeah, the singing with the fiddle; those slow ballads, making chords between the slow doubles and the voice.
KW: Tatiana Hargreaves – I think she’s a beautiful fiddle player.
PL: John Hartford
KW: Yeah, our namesake, The Lowest Pair, is from a poem by John Hartford.
GW: What resonated about it for you?
KW: Palmer knows the poem – do you want him to recite it?
PL: Now, first thing is to say this:
Much further out than inevitable,
Halloween's thy game.
Sky King has come and Wilma's done,
Uncertain as it is uneven.
Give us today hors d'oeuvres in bed,
As we forgive those who have dressed up against us.
And need us not enter inflation,
butter, liver, onions, and potatoes.
For wine is a shingle, and a Moore,
and a story for your Father.
The Lowest Pair – John Hartford
We were trying to come up with a band name. Initially this project just started off as the idea of collaborating between banjo-oriented song players. And then we got together and jammed and traveled a bit, and decided we should come up with a band name. We had the idea of paying homage to one of our favorite banjo-playing, fiddling, dancing
PL: …storybook-writing, poetry-writing weirdos. So we just went down a list of John Hartford songs that might make good band names and The Lowest Pair was an accurate name for two musicians trying to start a band together.
GW: That’s awesome! I think it’s really special that you know that poem – people don’t hear poetry a lot anymore and it’s great you can just whip that out.
You guys released two albums at once. Tell me about why you did that or what was happening there.
KW: We started a record in Minneapolis one winter and we didn’t finish it. By the time we went back to it we had another record’s worth of material. I feel like writing songs is very much a thing I’m doing as process to my life, and if people like it that’s really great. But that’s also a secondary piece of it. It’s really important for me to record and by the time we recorded a bunch of these songs we felt like we had two album’s worth to share. We had a busy touring schedule so we thought it’d be nice for us to keep our shows interesting and have a large library of songs to choose from.
They kind of capture different moods.
GW: What would you say each mood is?
PL: I think they both have a somberness to them, which has been thematic throughout our career so far. But one of them is a little more directly dark and exploratory in the arrangements, songwriting and studio production of it. Whereas the other one is a little more ballad-oriented like our first record was; pared-down arrangements, pretty low key. It strikes me as more of a songwriter’s record.
GW: Do you find each of yourselves tending to write toward a certain theme?
KW: Death is always kind of a theme because…do any of us really matter? Just the larger scope of how far you zoom in and how far you zoom out theme. I don’t think we really stick to anything, though.
PL: I feel like we go through phases, personally. I’ll be talking, thinking about a thing for a day, month, year or five years and then it just sort of switches over to something else.
KW: I think the nuances of emotion – trying to figure out the things that are quirky. The more you dig into yourself the more you can be specific about these pieces that feel really unique to your own experience…but really we’re all having these unique experiences. I like trying to dissect the miniscule pieces of my emotion in the hopes that I’m not alone in that experience.
GW: What’s something you’ve been thinking about a lot lately?
KW: The rambler. For a long time, I’ve not wanted to only write songs about being on the highway, but I’m like…you know, that’s what your life is lately. So what is that desire to travel, be on the road and leave the things you love? Really loving things and for some reason having your life take you away from them.
GW: Having that distance created between you and them…
KW: And creating that distance kind of because you have to. And then the longing being this beautiful thing.
GW: Have you written any songs that tend toward that recently?
KW: I’ve been working on some, but I wouldn’t say they’re done. I’m shaping them.
GW: What about you [Palmer]?
PL: You know…I haven’t written a whole lot of songs in the last few months – a small handful. Mostly I’ve been writing poems somewhat freely. But I think thematically it’s been returning a lot to the process of ‘okayness’ and happiness – finding that beauty in the ultimate. I’ve had an emotionally trying year or so and I think being turned on to some things and seeking and cultivating beauty has really turned me on in a big way. That’s where my mind is right now – just chewing on some of those things.
GW: If you would like to share it, what are some of those things that cultivated that wish of understanding?
PL: Well, last winter a friend of mine turned me on to the poetry of Hafiz, and specifically translations that were done by Daniel Ladinsky, who is amazingly hilarious. They’re kind of less like translations as they are interpretations. He’ll really embody what the idea of the poem is and then write what that is to him…so just retelling the poem.
So the concepts are still there, and the intention is still there – but it’s done in a more amusing, hilarious, confusing and insightful way I think those poems were intended; I really related to it immediately.
KW: Is that The Gift?
PL: Yeah, there’s a number of those.
KW: It’s good. It feels like a massage for your heart. It makes you want to be better and more loving.
GW: So is The Gift a book or a specific poem?
PL: It’s a collection of poems. It’s kind of viewed as an oracle in a way.
KW: I think it makes you a better person if you read one of those poems every day.
PL: Apparently in Iran, that particular collection of Hafiz’s poems sells more copies than the Quran.
GW: Wow! That’s awesome. Do you guys like Rumi?
KW: I love Rumi – one of our songs on our first record is called “Rumi’s Field.”
GW: So what are some other things that inspire you? We’ve got travel, poets, nature…
KW: When I go home I try to make it up to the mountains as quickly as possible. I’ve gotta return to nature as quickly as possible.
PL: The story songs of old-time tradition really inspire me a lot. Sort of that concept of beautiful sadness.
GW: Sort of that sublime beauty?
PL: Yeah, but with a real darkness to it. For some reason I have a really romanticized notion of pain – there’s something really sweet and beautiful about the intensity of the emotion. Weeping and laughing are both equally emotional. I’ll find myself being very directly inspired by something like an old coal-mining song…sort of retelling a different story in that moment of being inspired by that.
GW: Are you working on any albums or just touring right now?
KW: Well, it’s kind of festival season so we’re hitting a bunch. We’ve been enjoying the new records and we have another idea for two totally split ideas for records.
PL: Three, sort of.
KW: *laughs* Three, sort of. It’s kind of that game where you put the ball in the top and see where it lands. We have a lot of different songs and they’re kind of ending up in three different categories.
GW: Y’all seem super prolific. Are you just kind of always writing or thinking about those things in your head?
PL: I think as far as manifesting songs Kendl is more prolific than I am. I get these really lengthy dry spells – but it’s not like I’m making nothing…it’s just not always song oriented.
KW: I pretty much have something in my head all the time.
GW: Do you create any other types of art besides poetry and music?
PL: Kendl is kind of also a prolific doodler. She’s done the artwork for three of our records.
KW: I just kind of need to be in motion all of the time. If I’m not driving I’m sort of singing, writing, drawing or something. I’m just kind of a busy-head I guess. *laughs*
GW: So does that work out well for you both? [Palmer] you seem like a person who might enjoy some solitude and chillin’ out, you can’t be going all the time…
KW: I run a lot so [Palmer] gets some time in the room to himself.
PL: Yeah, it does create a little bit of tension from time to time, the different modes of operation. But, you know, just kinks to work out.
GW: Yeah, there’s a lot to learn from each other when you have those kinks to work out.
KW: It’s creating this really unique art form with the two of us together – it’s neat to see what we create together because of our contrasting modes of operation.
GW: Do you have any other collaborations coming up?
PL: Not really. I spent last winter in Minnesota and started scheming on some other projects and talking to people about some other collaborations. I think I’m going to end up in the Northwest this winter so none of that will probably manifest – for me it’s kind of back to the drawing board for me a little bit. I’ve been fantasizing for years about actually buckling down on a solo record…no promises on that.
KW: I have a lot of buddies in the northwest that I collaborate with but it kind of depends on how much time we end up off the road. We’re trying to take a good break this year and I imagine something will come out of that.
GW: So what’s something that each of you personally are looking forward to in the future?
PL: The stuff that’s really on my mind I can’t talk about. *laughs*
GW: Let’s just say you’re looking forward to something and it’s so awesome you can’t even talk about it!
KW: I’m looking forward to being home for a little bit, and just hanging out with my community. I live on a boat in Olympia (Washington) and it’s lovely to be there and really inspiring. I feel like you get on the lockdown of touring and you don’t get the time to practice and cultivate. I’m excited to have time to manifest some of those ideas I have going.
PL: Something else is the creating process is very central to us so we really want to do that. When we’re on tour creation is put on hold to an extent…you know: drive, cram in a meal, play a show, do laundry. Having time off, we actually get the time to do the thing we like that got us into this.
GW: Everybody deserves a break from their job, even if it is their life also. So what are you doing in the next few months? What kind of shows will you be playing?
KW: We’ll be in the Midwest next.
PL: We’re going back to one of our favorite festivals in the country, Boats and Bluegrass in Winona, Minnesota.
GW: So it’s bluegrass and boats…?
KW: It’s on the Mississippi River.
PL: You get a canoe rental with your ticket and you can paddle around in the backwaters.
GW: That is so cool! I guess you guys like water. It’s a good metaphor for about everything in life.
KW: It just kind of draws me in.
PL: It is life…
GW: Do you have anything you’d like to say to fans or listeners on Grateful Web?
PL: Thanks! And…stay up!