On November 28th, Strawberry Heritage -- the project of Grand Rapids songwriter John Hanson -- will perform at Bell's Eccentric Cafe. Hanson like a lot of songwriters, he writes his tunes alone, inside his bedroom most of the time. Yet with harmonies, strings -- even an oboe -- his songs don’t sound quiet. Hanson says each of his albums is like an archive of a certain time and place in his life. The only constant on each record is Hanson, with a rotating cast of West Michigan musicians collaborating and adding their own sounds to each recording.
"I find a lot of excitement in bringing someone in," Hanson says. "Maybe they don't even listen to the track first. Maybe we just put a mic up and go and see what happens. And inevitably there's going to be some kind of spark that you capture this energy in their first responses to things."
"That's really exciting. It's this practice of improvisation. Maybe there'll be a couple duffs in there, but we can fix that. I think it does kind of come back to the relationships and that trust that's there."
Hanson says it was forging these kinds of relationships that actually made him want to move to Grand Rapids from Chicago a few years ago. While he was still in the Windy City, Hanson remembers watching an online interview with another Grand Rapids band, the Soil & the Sun.
"And the [interviewer] was like, Wow, so you're about eight people in a band, how do you do it? Can you guys all get along? Is that even possible? And (singer) Alex's response was so good, it was, What are you talking about? We love each other! We love making music! These people are married! I'm married! We love this! We live for this. And also in that interview, they talked about Grand Rapids and how cool it was. And in my mind, something clicked. That oh my god, this kind of music is being made in Grand Rapids? I need to be there."
So Hanson made the move. And Strawberry Heritage has slowly grown into a "neighborhood band" -- full of neighbors, friends, married couples, even Hanson’s brother-in-law -- all working together. He says you can really hear the effects of that collaboration on one particular song, on the band’s upcoming album Overgrowth.
Yeah, our single, "Bound to Separate," was one of the first songs that Jacob Bullard, another Grand Rapids producer and I worked on tracking together. I showed him the song, I played it for him on the acoustic guitar. It’s like, this is the vibe I want, the kind of electric guitar part I want you to play. We started playing together, and he took that little idea that I had and just kind of added this kind of slower, more mellowed out, like style to it. And then added all these other, little high notes in different places. And all the sudden, the whole song gained this new sort of momentum and this weight to it, and the whole song was forged from these two guitar parts. Then that structure was set in place so we were able to track all these different instruments and percussion on top. It all just came together from that. This improvised moment of synergy between Jacob and I, it was really cool.
But Strawberry Heritage hasn’t been Hanson’s only way of connecting the music community in his city. A few years ago, he founded the Lamp Light Music Festival, a weekend event in Grand Rapids with local and regional bands playing nearly 40 house shows inside the city.
"It's kind of a deeper, cultural value that comes through in an experience like that. It's really interesting. And I think there's also value in bringing all of these creative minds and community members and people of all walks of life together, there's like this cross-pollination process that happens! People get to know each other. And networking happens and new relationships are formed out of that. So I think it kinds of creates a stronger community. And this is bigger picture stuff. It's not instant stuff. But the fabric of our society becomes a little stronger, because these people know those people and this band knows that band. And they end up hosting them or coming to their show. Or this person produces this person's album. It kind of builds on itself."
Hanson says the goals of his projects have never explicitly been to build these connections. But he says as an artist trying to make it in a Midwestern city, bringing people together is a natural thing to do if you want to survive. Not necessarily a do-it-yourself approach, but do-it-together.
"I guess for me, living as a freelance artist, it's better for me if I have a healthier art community," he says. "So I guess, in a way, this is my way of building a healthier art community. So that I can survive better! So that my work can be better through collaborating with other really intelligent, great artists. So kind of fostering that community and nurturing. Sometimes it just means making a pot of soup for my band practice, so everyone feels good and healthy, and everyone can enjoy each other's company."