The Lumineers aim for strength in simplicity

The American folk-rock band explores the intimate details of family life while on tour for their newest album

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'The Lumineers' are an American folk-rock band with three full-length albums.

Courtesy Danny Clinch

When imagining the everyday lives of some of the music industry’s most prevalent artists, a typical mental picture might encapsulate the thrill of screaming crowds, masses of doting fans and a whirlwind life full of parties and wild excitement. However, for Jeremiah Fraites — one of the founding members of indie rock band The Lumineers — the experience of headlining a large-scale tour for the band’s most recent album, 2019’s “III” — which will come to John Paul Jones Arena Feb. 16 — has been exciting not only for those reasons, but also on a more significant level because of the time he has spent with his family. 

“This tour has been our biggest that I think we’ve ever done in terms of the size of the rooms,” Fraites said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “We’re playing really big arenas, some places we’re doing two nights. It’s really mind-blowing. This tour is different to any other tour I’ve been on because my wife and son — who just turned 21 months old — [are with me] on my own bus.”

This sentiment of pure joy about the simpler aspects of touring are perhaps not the expected response of a typical musician, but then again, Fraites is no typical musician. As one of the two original founders of The Lumineers alongside Wesley Schultz, Fraites has spent a long time building up his vast repertoire of original musical innovation, but 15 years ago a 19-year-old Fraites had vastly different ambitions. He recalled the experience fondly, noting that despite an early interest in the creation of music, he really wanted to be a producer to “help bring the best out of bands.” In the midst of the process, he was introduced through a mutual friend to Schultz — a University of Richmond alum and singer/songwriter — whose aspirations of performance immediately clicked with Fraites. 

“Over the years it became apparent that me and Wes really loved writing songs and really wanted to take this to the next level,” Fraites said. “The initial idea was to be a cover band — we’d play things like Dave Matthews Band, the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty — but as the years went on we wanted to write originals — ‘that would be so cool if people could come see us just for the originals.’” 

Setting off on their own unique trail, Fraites and Schultz slowly began to develop their own style, eventually garnering significant interest and widespread popularity. Despite this increased attention, the two band-mates remain true to the songwriting process that works for them — a process Fraites describes as “multi-tiered.” 

The first stage of the process relies on the spontaneity of everyday life — anything from “walking down the street, humming a melody and recording it on your phone, to being in the house on your piano or in a hotel on tour when you happen to have a guitar,” Fraites said. After a year or two of being on tour and collecting these snippets of inspiration, Fraites and Schultz begin the difficult task of combing through the recordings and ideas for several months, searching for promising fragments of what could eventually turn into songs. This is where the most significant stage of the process comes into play. 

“For us, the best tried and true litmus test is that a Lumineers song needs to work just on one instrument for us to think it’s good enough, so that later on we’re not reliant on production techniques,” Fraites said. 

This heavy-handed emphasis on the strength of a melody in its most basic form is what gives The Lumineers such a distinct and recognizable flair. As explained by Fraites, the goal of the songwriting process is to create strong stand-alone music — music that can, for example, be sung around a campfire with whatever singular instrument might be on hand and still retain a level of familiarity and recognition. In addition to this instrumental distinction, much of the staying power of the band’s discography lies in the minute attention to detail within the lyrics themselves. Recognizable tracks such as the 2016 hit “Ophelia” and 2012’s “Stubborn Love” — which was featured on former president Barack Obama’s summer 2015 playlist — imbue the characteristic twangy folk-rock with subtly complex and intimate lyrics — a feature which the songwriters markedly approached with a more straightforward tactic on “III.”

The album — structured around a fictional family called The Sparks — delegates each of three successive chapters to a different member of the family. Alongside the album, a film was produced from the compilation of videos filmed for each song, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. In writing “III,” Fraites and Schultz — who “writes 99 percent of the lyrics,” Fraites said — worked to relay the emotional complications surrounding deeply personal details of life — particularly focusing on the idea of family members who have struggled with addiction and mental health issues. 

“This album, more than the two previous albums, is more on the nose about it, so people are maybe realizing it more,” Fraites said. “There’s a song on album two called ‘Long Way From Home’ where [Schultz] talks in detail about his dad’s struggle with dying of cancer. What I hope people think is that ‘Oh wow, this album is really personal, this is really intimate,’ and then go back and retroactively see that this was here all along.”

Despite the serious tone of the album, the experience of writing and touring for “III” has been intermixed with a period of joyful transition for both Fraites and Schultz, who each became fathers shortly before the process began. This situation allowed the album to be written much faster than previous albums.

“Everytime we left the house and had to be away from our children, we would really make the best of our time,” Fraites said. “It wasn’t easy to write this album, but it felt easier and faster than other albums in the past.”

Now that the intense work of writing “III” has been completed, both Fraites and Schultz are able to experience the many new excitements of tour with their families by their sides. Refreshingly accessible and down-to-earth, The Lumineers continue to maintain their compelling hold over the attention of loving fans across the country. 

The Lumineers will perform at John Paul Jones Arena Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. 

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