"When we’re young, we’re indestructible. We’re going to capture greatness,” says lead Lumineer Wesley Schultz on the phone from Dublin, as the folk-punk trio that became a global sensation with the obsessive love declaration “Hey Ho” that would eventually sell two million records, begins a world tour. “That is so universal, and that is where Cleopatra comes in.”
“Cleopatra” is the title track of the multiple Grammy nominees’ new album, which debuted – as we speak – at No. 1 in around the world. With 108,000 physical copies in America alone in its first week, the true story that held a larger metaphor for the song also reflects the reality of a little outlier band that could.
“She’s someone I only met eventually,” Schultz continues. “She’s Eastern European, a Russian Orthodox family where they wait – so all the kids are in love and in lust, essentially. She was an actress as a girl. Those lines, ‘I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress/ When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand/But I was sad when you asked it...’ They’re all true.
“Her father had just died. Her love asks her to marry him and she just lays there. So young, you don’t know or realize. In mourning, she wasn’t able to respond – and he goes off, leaves the village and is never seen again. She loses the great love of her life at 16.”
So much for happy endings, it seems. But Schultz believes in transformation, the unknown in devastation. Though now driving a cab, Cleopatra’s resilience and willingness to take life on its terms inspires the songwriter.
“She picks you up with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, has this masculine gate. The world hardened her, and she talks about how when she dies alone, she’ll finally be on time. But there’s a courage in her confrontation with life, having this defiance about it, and a sense of humor.”
The Lumineers – guitarist/lead singer Schultz, drummer/pianist Jeremiah Fraites and cellist Neyla Pekarek – embody that same notion in so many ways. Fraites and Schultz came together to write songs to cope with tragedy, tried to make things work in Brooklyn and found themselves frustrated by the state of the world around them.
Laughing, Schultz offers, “Listen to ‘Sleep On The Floor.’ I’m a flawed person and I judge like everyone else. You see things, want to get away and do what it takes for your dream.
“My time in New York, it seemed like a bunch of rich kids whose parents were bankrolling their stay, telling me about the five bands they were in. I barely had time for one band ‘cause of all the work to just fund that. I’d gone in with such high hopes, wanting to find my tribe of people wanting to make art!
“You can get so caught up in that, but it seems to conspire against creativity.”
After a big buzz show in their hometown of Ramsey, N.J. fell flat, with people being turned away from the bar, there was an important realization: “We didn’t know what to do. We were staring at our shoes – and the moment passed. If you’re hoping for the moment, know what having that moment means.”
Rather than mourning the lost moment or seemingly intractable roadblocks, the pair who began as Free Beer re-grouped, moved to Denver and rethought what they were meant to be. Raised on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, then finding Ryan Adams on their own, they wanted the words to matter and believed in a world of fast beats, thick production and austere approach would stand out.
Stand out was an understatement. Signing to tiny Nashville independent Dualtone, The Lumineers struck a chord with the heavily emphasized percussion, momentum building songs and acoustic grounded production. “Hey Ho” was a global sensation; but more importantly, in a declining business, a small label helped a stark trio create a platform that mattered – and have one of the biggest selling albums of 2015.
“People are invested in the songs and the band,” says Dualtone Chairman Scott Robinson. “In a world of all streaming, they’re buying physical product. And when you go to the shows, it’s not just the hits, the fans know every word – and sing them back to the band.”
Songs of the disenfranchised that are honest without being defeated, angry or blaming are part of it. Also songs of love that burns beyond reason adds a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love In The Time of Cholera sort of romance to reality. For like Cleopatra, enduringThe Lumineers love carries us and offers something that can’t be purchased: hope.
Even with Cleopatra topping charts in the UK, Canada, Australia and other places, it’s a bit surreal. As Schultz explains, “If we had expectations, it would be hard to take in. But we didn’t have any, we just wanted people to hear the music and to be able to connect with people.
“And if we’d had our way, we would’ve put this album out sooner, but we were touring relentlessly. There were places we hadn’t seen, where they wanted to take the music. South Africa, Japan, Latin America. We had to decide. We didn’t have a record deal beyond the first record, so there was no one telling us...”
Schultz’s voice drifts off. As hard as they’d worked to have that moment, all the rejection or worse indifference fills the void. Rather than succumb to fear, they continued their mission of connecting with people, sharing their songs in spite of conventional thinking to “strike while hot.”
When it was time to record, they retreated to the Catskills with Simone Felice. Rather than rush, they gave themselves over to the process. “It was like a womb, with this almost borderline energy, almost cultish. We were all looking in the same direction.
“You only have three to five records to make an impact, so it’s pretty urgent if you’re only going to have people’s attention for that. You need to make the best stuff you can, things you believe in. We felt it was much more important to make a good record; if you’re worried about being forgotten and rush, why should they care?”
Listening to the low impact blue-eyed soul of “Into the Light,” as much hushed church meeting as whispered comfort, or the foreboding strum of the non-overt protest “Gun Song,” which is more a call to think about how one lives than a preachfest, the Lumineers have let their music evolve from the core. Especially the lyrics which show instead of tell, stories that never declare their moral.
“It was nice working with Simone, who is so well-read and cares about lyrics. In 2007, we saw the Felice Brothers in a synagogue doing these old gospel songs. Their set was so beautifully deranged and out of sync -- and great. So he was all about the songs and arrangements that focus on them.
“You know the way someone says a sentence, and it’s really a short story? So much is said in a little bit. I think that’s part of (their success in the studio).”
Part of that success also comes from leaning in and embracing life.
“I’m tired of all the Facebook and now Instagram posts, these dopamine hits of how great our lives are. It’s like you start running a PR campaign for your life, you start having a distance from it... We’ve been making a deal with the audience, saying, ‘We’re all here now, and this is getting in the way. It’s distracting me – and probably a lot of you. So let’s take a few moments and really be together and really enjoy this.’”
Engaging with people. Showing up. Being present.
But also being aware and understanding the room you’re in. They chose Dualtone because “it’s a Mom and Pop record company: people who really wanted to do the work. Not hip people with hip beards. They tailor-made the experience of promoting our record to what we needed, not how ‘they’ did it, which makes a difference.”
In an urban/dance-driven pop world, a “Hey Ho” could dominate CHR, rock, adult contemporary and alternative radio as a novelty. That “Stubborn Love” would have two four-week runs at the top of the Alternative charts, then “Ophelia” six weeks at the top of the Adult Alternative charts speaks to the universality of people wanting to feel.
“The Lumineers was like a first date, a blind first date with the world. It was rushed and crazy, trying to put the best face forward – and say, ‘This is who we are.’ This was like we’d been on five or six dates, we’d built up some trust and could show you who we are, what we feel.
“You have to give people more credit, realize they’re open to (life). You might be distracted by how something’s dressed up, but a good song is a good song. People feel something if it’s true.”