One of our favorite music projects of the last few years was 2014’s critically acclaimed debut album from Beth Whitney and Bradford Loomis, a collaboration titled The Banner Days. As the project started out and spending a few hours writing together they thought they might have stumbled onto something great and indeed they did. The musicianship and production on The Banner Days album is nothing short of spectacular. From the breathtaking opener of the album “My Beloved” to the gritty and powerful “Wanted Man” as a closer, the album is everything you could want and more.
The instrumentation is blended in such a way that you almost don’t know they are there but make no mistake, they are there and they are brilliant. The guitar and piano work combined with some well placed violin leads to an irresistible audio blend. Toss in a ukelele, pedal steel, a banjo and an upright bass and the ante gets raised even higher. In addition to Beth and Bradford, Beth’s husband Aaron Fishburn lends his upright bass skills and backing vocals.
Separately they are fantastic musicians but they are a living breathing example of the statement that the sum is greater than the parts. With multiple North American tours booked and eyes set on Europe, there’s only one direction to go for this brilliant group. We got a chance to catch up with Bradford Loomis and Beth Whitney recently.
NWMS: So the album’s been out for a while now. Has it accomplished what you were hoping it would accomplish?
Bradford: I don’t know that I’d personally say that. It’s certainly gotten more critical acclaim than anything I’ve ever done before, so that’s been really cool. And the thing that’s kinda interesting about it is it didn’t happen at first – it’s kind of settled in. We just got notified that we’re finalists in like 4 or 5 different contests, so that’s been kind of a trip. So I guess I’d have to say yes, but I don’t remember having like settled expectations.
Beth: I feel like we captured the songs, which was kind of the first goal in my mind, to write the songs and then capture them well in a studio. And it’s been well-received, probably more well-received than I’d anticipated. I think the reason I didn’t have big expectations is because we were between the open door at the time and the next step, and so we kinda just stepped through it, and it’s been awesome.
NWMS: It seems to me like The Banner Days was the perfect storm of your two styles. Did it feel like that when you were recording it?
Beth: Yeah, it really did. It kind of pushed and pulled in these cool ways that I wouldn’t have done on my own terms, and he wouldn’t have done on his. There’s definitely a dynamic there.
NWMS: How is it different from your separate projects?
Bradford: For me, I don’t really have a formula. I’ve done five different recording projects, but you can really only ever find three. The first two were very different. This was easily my favorite. Beth and Aaron are all that you could ever hope for in bandmates, and the team we had around us were pretty amazing. We had a ton of fun every single day, and I’ve heard so many horror stories of that not being the case for a lot of bands. But the songs are very different, and we write them in a different way, which I think has made me a much better writer. The way that she sings has made me a much better singer, I think. One thing that really stood out to me was that I believed more what I’m singing on this record than on the previous ones, and I think a big part of that is Beth. She just has a way of conveying exactly what she’s feeling, and you can’t help but get swept up in it. It’s a great way of communicating emotion. I was just trying to keep up with her. I knew we were onto something pretty spectacular and different in the best way possible.
NWMS: You guys have played a lot, and you play a lot of house shows. What do you think is the biggest difference between playing a house show, and playing like a club venue?
Beth: Well, the floor isn’t sticky, usually. The bathrooms are cleaner, always. It seems like folks are there to listen to you. I love doing house shows. And you aren’t playing at 10, you’re playing at like 6, you know?
NWMS: You mentioned that people are there to listen. You’re more acoustic artists, and so you’ve played those bar shows where people are talking the whole time. They don’t do those in house shows as much?
Bradford: I think Beth and I have had one house show where people are talking. And you know, at a house show, if someone’s talking while you’re playing, everyone hears it. It’s the best kind of peer pressure. It’s interesting, I’m not sure exactly what the cause of the difference is. I think it’s just that they’re sitting usually. It’s a very simplistic but potent factor. When people are sitting, they tend to be quieter. And it’s such an intimate environment. You’re right in front of them. You aren’t separated by height, you aren’t on a stage, the audience is right in front of you. I think it really brings out a certain level of respect that venues don’t, somehow.
NWMS: Which do you prefer?
Beth: I don’t know, my dad always said, “Play for an audience of one.” In the bigger picture, I don’t think it should matter. You created a song, and you’re sharing it with people, but I do like clean floors and clean bathrooms, so……..
NWMS: What was the process like – these are pretty epic songs – what came first, the music or the lyrics in this project?
Beth: We both brought two songs that we’d written on our own, and then we co-wrote three. I know from my side, they came at the same time. Like, I would think of a hook, and then kind of build a structure around that. That’s usually how I approach a song. If they don’t come at the same time, it’s kind of hard for me to match music to lyrics especially. But if the music comes first, that’s a little easier to put lyrics on top of. So for me it was both at the same time.
Bradford: It’s very similar for me. When we write together, we have some kind of brief idea together, and sometimes there’s lyrics attached to that, and sometimes it’s just like a setting with a couple chords. Usually we just kind of plow through potential lyrics in one setting, after we find out what the songs are going to be about, and then the idea usually comes along, and a usual idea that comes along with a chord progression.
NWMS: How do you feel about the state of music these days?
Beth: Sometimes I see the new industry as an opportunity to be creative. Obviously not just with music but with the avenues of how to get your music out there and how to share it with people. And other days I can be discouraged by it, like with anything.
Bradford: I have very mixed feelings about it. I listen to the radio a lot, but it’s generally talk radio because music is so hard right now, so a lot of what gets played on mainstream radio all sounds the same, boiling down to what they know is going to work and what’s going to sell. I have kids, and a lot of the music that’s on the radio my kids can’t listen to. It’s so gratuitous; it’s hard to listen to. But the good side is, because of that blandness, and the mind of the traditional record industry, there’s so many more avenues for independent artists. So primarily the music my family listens to is independent artists. There’s so much more of it that’s really good, and it’s easier and cheaper for artists to make quality recordings. There are more avenues now than the entire history of our art to make a living making music.
NWMS: Who are some of the local artists you’re listening to?
Bradford: I’ve been listening to a lot of Native Siblings lately. They’re really, really good. Sarah Gerritsen is about to put out a new record on April 29th, and we’re playing at that show with her. I’ve been gifted an advanced copy of it; it’s incredible.
NWMS: What are the future plans for The Banner Days?
Bradford: We’re going in to work on a new record here in May, and immediately thereafter we’re flying down to the south and starting the first leg of our summer tour. We’ve got four legs planned. We’re going down to the south to Nashville, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and then we come back for about a week and a half, and we head out to the Midwest, and then we come back and we’re doing kind of a regionalized Montana-Idaho area tour and then we have a West Coast tour planned as well. And we’re eyeing some potential dates on the other side of the pond – going out to Europe.