Jeremiah Fraites is best known as one of the founding members of rock band The Lumineers, who’ve won critical acclaim and wowed audiences around the world for their three albums – most recently 2019’s III.
After the band’s world tour was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jeremiah took the opportunity to record a solo album, ‘Piano Piano’. As the name suggests, it’s an instrumental, piano-driven record, made up of 11 songs that have been in the works for the better part of a decade. Fraites plays almost every instrument on the album, which was co-produced by David Baron.
Ahead of the album’s release, I caught up with Jeremiah to find out more about the record, how he found the process of making an album during a pandemic, the impact of livestreams and plans for new music with The Lumineers.
The last time we spoke was back in 2019 around the release of III – what have you been up to since then?
Well, we put out the album in September 2019, I think, and then we went on a beautiful tour all over Europe two months later in November. And we started a beautiful tour in the United States and Canada February 1st of 2020 and of course, middle of March in America the pandemic had really started to surge unfortunately and Lumineers tour got cut short. And then, went home to Denver after the tour with my wife and son. And first the big question was how to stay safe and what the hell’s going on, and question two was what do we do while staying safe and isolating and all that jazz.
And then my wife… I’ve had an idea to make a solo piano album for many years and I just never had the time or the right inspiration to do it and it seemed like now was the time. So my wife sort of gently pushed me, she said, “you know, this would be a great time to do it”. I didn’t really like the idea of doing it in the home, but then I realised that we were gonna be home for a while – that became quite apparent, so started and finished it in the home, this solo piano album.
What was it that drew you to make a piano album in particular?
I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t do it for this reason but it’s certainly in my head that, you know, people will never know what you’re capable of unless you show them. And I think that with Lumineers stuff, there’s two instrumental piano songs that got released. One was called Patience, on album two with The Lumineers, and then on our last album called III with The Lumineers there was a song called April. Both of which were completely instrumental piano pieces. And I think that those types of pieces are what’s been… I’ve been writing that type of music now for the better part of a decade, and I think that I just had a bunch of songs that I knew would not work categorically with The Lumineers. They were too complex or too this or too that, and I think that it was a shame that they were just collecting dust so I didn’t want that to happen. So I think that the idea to put them out, it’s been on my mind for a long time and then I finally was afforded this time because of Covid just to do it.
How did you find the process of making the record at home compared to other albums you’ve worked on?
It was quite different. I mean one of the biggest differences was that when you’re in a ‘real’ studio you can sort of record when you feel the most inspired. So if that’s at 10am or 10pm you’re at your disposal, at your whim to record when you want, when you feel the best. In the home setting it was sort of when you have time and when it’s quiet you just gotta do it no matter what. So even if I was feeling quite tired or didn’t sleep well the night before, as soon as our son Tommaso would take his afternoon nap it was the time to record, and I knew that I had maybe between one hour and two hours when he would nap that I would have this time to record.
So that was the biggest comparable difference, where normally again in the real studio it’s just a totally different atmosphere mentally and physically. In the house it was quite strange. I found it quite difficult at first. And then, you know, humans adapt to almost anything, which is a miraculous aspect of being a human I think – we can adapt to some pretty bizarre life changes and circumstances. And I think that as an artist that was very difficult at first to deal with. But then I got quite used to it and it just became normal. I normalised it. But that was a huge difference between studio and the home.
One thing I’ve picked up from the album is it has a very organic feel – there’s little snippets of background noise and things like that. Was that something you wanted to include on this record?
Yeah, I think it was quite intentional. I really wanted to make an album that felt like you were on the piano bench next to me, so to speak, and then also quite cinematic and quite beautiful. I think that… I just listen to so much music in my life and listen to so much instrumental music that I think that for my life I’ve always just taken mental notes about what I like and more importantly what I don’t like about when I hear songs and I think that. I just think that trying to preserve that stuff, it’s a fine line. If you preserve too much of it you run the risk of it being so raw and so indie and so this or that, and I think on the flip side though if your music is so cleaned up and so perfect you might actually turn someone off from listening to a great piece of music.
So that’s another fear I had, that I didn’t want it to feel so pristine and clean and plasticky feeling. And then obviously I didn’t wanna make a record that’s so raw, so vulnerable that nobody listens to it. So yeah, walking that fine line was… I actually found it quite challenging but quite rewarding too. Once all the songs were done the big questions were, ‘how do I want them to feel?; which I feel like is exactly what we’re talking about. Not the music and the notes but how do I want it to feel when someone hits play and they’re taking a train ride or a long drive in the countryside or if they’re walking down a city street and listening to this music, what is it doing to them? And I think that was something I spent a lot of time on.
You played almost all the instruments and co-produced the album as well. Was having that level of involvement and control a big part of this for you?
Yeah. I think it was really important for me and I think it was just something I really wanted to get right, because I wanted… I knew that I didn’t wanna use the same piano for the whole thing. It’s a total split down the middle between a grand piano that sounds very beautiful and grand piano-y, and there’s another one, this upright piano that is quite dark and quite muted and quite noisy and temperamental. So I really loved going back and forth between the two.
You also recently worked on some technology to preserve the sound of Firewood [Jeremiah’s upright piano] – can you tell us a bit more about that?
So basically the upright, it’s an old upright that I got a long time ago in New Jersey and then had it moved out to Denver where I lived. I just moved to Italy a few months ago, so still quite fresh. But basically it’s an old upright, it sounds really cool – I love the way it sounds, it’s a very distinct, different feel. But I went to this department store in Denver and bought this piece of felt for two dollars and put this piece of felt in between the hammer and strings, and it created this quite weird sound. It was cool because I was just able to work with an English company called Spitfire. So I sampled it, I recorded all the notes and we basically preserved Firewood for eternity in the digital world. So that was pretty cool. But in terms of recording with it, I didn’t use the samples, I actually used the real Firewood. It’s very temperamental, it’s quite creaky and I think the bridge is cracked. I love the way it sounds and it’s my favourite piano in the world to write on. It can cause sometimes more problems than good – one song I had to record three or four or five or six times over because it just kept giving me problems. Very, very soul-crushing, very, very defeating to have to go through that. But eventually patience prevailed and I got through it and it was totally worth it.
You mentioned your taking notes on your musical likes and dislikes earlier. Were there any particularly big influences on this album in that regard? Or were you trying to deliberately move away from that?
You know, I think that’s a great question. For me I was a little bit wary of listening to other people’s instrumental music because you don’t wanna just… It’s tricky, especially right before you record and you listen to something, you should be careful what you listen to. It can be really tricky. I think that I was wary of listening to other people’s music, particularly… I wasn’t wary of listening to music but I was wary of listening to instrumental music. I didn’t wanna be… I had a vision of what I wanted my album to sound like and wanted it to be like and I had a really strong, clearheaded vision on it. I guess I was afraid of that being changed or deterred or something if I listened to other people’s instrumental music.
I did listen to the first two albums of Sigur Ros, which there’s singing of course but their soundscapes and their sonic style is so identifiable and so beautiful. That gave me a lot of inspiration of just ‘oh wow, this is insanely beautiful’. I don’t know. I didn’t listen to a ton of other people’s instrumental music though. I think for that reason, I just had such a strong idea of what I wanted to happen with this record that I think I stayed away from it.
You’ve been working on this record for over 10 years now. Do you feel the way you’ve approached things has changed over that time or has it stayed mostly the same?
That’s a good question. I think they’ve changed. I mean I think I’ve gotten quicker at making decisions which I think is important. I think half the battle of making music is making it but more importantly knowing when you have bad ideas and knowing when you have a great one – knowing the difference between the two. It sounds obvious but believe me it’s not [laughs. And I think getting faster and making decisions quicker and being able to discern what’s good and what’s not is really important. So I think on the surface it’s probably always been the same – the idea to make something beautiful, the idea to make something sincere and all that stuff. But I don’t know. I think it’s changed in that I’ve gotten quicker and understanding what I really like and equally important being ‘oh I like that, it’s cool but it’s not worth it to record, it’s not worth it to work on’. Where like maybe 12 years ago I would have worked on everything – anything I thought was a good idea recorded, ‘well that’s a song idea, that’s a song idea’. Now it’s a little bit more… not more cutthroat but more like ‘OK, it’s cool but it’s not really a song’ and ‘OK, this is awesome, I’m definitely gonna save this, I think this is super cool’. So that’s changed, which is good I think.
Were there any songs on this album that were either particularly easy or particularly difficult, in terms of the composition and putting them together?
So the hardest song on the record was a song called Maggie. That was probably like four or five different times I basically scrapped and was like, ‘nope, this is no longer on the record, it’s giving me too much trouble, it’s annoying and it’s just frustrating me and it’s too much’. I think I struggled with it because I didn’t know what to do. I loved the verse and I had a good idea what to do in the chorus, but I think the verse gave me this trouble and it’s this sort of weird quirky piano, it’s sort of this weird complex rhythm that gave me a lot of trouble and a lot of… I didn’t know what was going on with the song. I knew I loved it but it just felt like the song was incomplete most of the time.
I think the lynchpin on that song was actually adding drums to the chorus. It was funny, my wife had told me five or six different times – she said, “you should add drums” and I was like, ‘nah, I’m not gonna add drums’. So stubborn about it. For whatever reason I made up a rule about it. I was like, ‘this is the only song on the album that’s gonna have huge drums, I think that’s gonna come across super weird and random’. And then I did it and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, you were right’ [laughs] ‘This is super cool and I love it’. So the drums and then getting the cello pieces down in Maggie, that was really important.
And then a song called Possessed was the complete opposite. I called it Possessed because I wrote it on the guitar, believe it or not. It started on the guitar while I was sitting on the couch just twiddling these notes and the whole thing came out of me in like five or 10 minutes. And then I rushed downstairs to the piano and transposed it from the guitar to the piano and I just instantly fell in love with it. I feel like everything came so easily, which… that never happens. It’s just so rare, it just never, ever really happens. And that’s why I called that song Possessed because it was as if something came over me. It lasted for about two or three days and everything got fine tuned. I recorded it and it was one of those songs like, ‘is this done? Is this an actual song?’ Because it came too easy and I was very wary of that, and then second guessed it a couple of times. And then I thought, ‘no, this is really neat’. It gave me very little trouble, which again is very rare [chuckles] especially with me.
What have you learned from this record that you’ll take forward either to future solo projects or your work with The Lumineers?
I think for one thing, being in the home and having to record whenever I just had to do it, if that makes sense. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to do it when I felt the best mentally and physically, I had to just do it when I had the time. I think that’s helped me to debunk the myth of ‘you need to be in the studio or a certain space’. I think for better or for worse a lot of artists are superstitious about their writing desk or the type of pen they use if they’re a writer or paint or the atmosphere or the time of day. I think for me just personally, in my life and my artistic style or work ethic, it debunked that myth where I was like, ‘OK, I just did a lot of great work and I was super tired and it was the worst time of day for me after a big lunch’ [chuckles]. It was like boot camp for musicians. I think it made me a stronger musician and that was really good going forward. So when I do work with The Lumineers and with Wes, the singer, when we write music again this year, or if I ever do any other outside solo projects I think I’ll be stronger because of this process.
What’s next on the radar for you? Obviously the record and I’ve seen you doing some writing with the band – are those the focus for the foreseeable future?
Yeah, I think aside from writing new Lumineers stuff, the joy of seeing the album coming out and then also touring eventually, hopefully by the end of this year. I mean nobody has any idea, nobody knows the secrets of when touring will begin with questions of vaccines. And especially a band like us – we’re international so what’s happening in New Zealand is definitely different than what’s happening in the United States for example. So in terms of where and when touring can resume is such a big question mark. It’s daunting and the number has changed from 20 to 21, it’s still the same and the question’s being asked. I find it a little bit hopeful with vaccination and vaccines, so fingers crossed.
How have you found not being on the road and adapting to the world of live streaming?
Yeah, it’s a cool replacement but it can also be quite tiresome. I mean, that connection you have with your fans, that connection of playing live, the connection of physically getting on a plane and travelling somewhere definitely gets lost and missed for sure. And I think it’s been tough. There’s been some really amazing things that technology allowed us to do, whether individually or as The Lumineers, to help out charities or help raise money for restaurants or this or that. But ultimately, yeah, it’s a huge… It’s a makeshift replacement for the real thing, I look at it that way. I think that technology has allowed so much of that to happen but yeah, I think we all in the band really miss touring. I know I do for sure. It’s the classic you take something for granted and then when it gets ripped away from you realise how lucky you were before.
And lastly… when you can tour again, do you have plans to come back to the UK, either with the band or by yourself with this record?
Yeah. I think for me on a personal level, now that I live in Italy Europe is so easy to kind of bounce around to, at least before Covid. I think it’d be really fun to go out with a small local band and play some live shows, particularly in Italy and particularly in the UK. That would be kind of like a dream come true. And I think with the band, we had a lot of shows still left on the table, I know a lot of festivals in Europe that were still slated to happen all got cancelled or postponed, I guess is the more positive and optimistic word. So yeah, it’d be great to come back on both fronts, Lumineers and as a solo entity. It’d be incredible.
Jeremiah Fraites’ debut solo album, ‘Piano Piano’, is out now on Mercury KX.