Read our interview with Nabraskan singer/songwriter Hope Dunbar
Interview with Hope Dunbar
By Rob Dickens
Nebraska-based country/folk singer-songwriter Hope Dunbar released her album Three Black Crows in October 2017. Produced by Emily White, the album was recorded at Little School Street Studio in Chicago, with Rachael Moore assuming mixing duties in Nashville.
Growing up in Mission Viejo, California, she shied away from the beach culture that predominated. Her parents enjoyed hosting foreign exchange students; their languages, accents, and songs whetted Dunbar’s curiosity about unfamiliar cultures. Six months spent in Paraguay during high school stimulated her interest in writing as she wrote about her experiences, while Dunbar’s fascination with travel led her to enroll at Valparaiso University, halfway across the country. She met and married her husband there and moved with him to a small town in Iowa, where he had been appointed to minister at a Lutheran church. She started singing folk songs with a new friend, at public libraries, farmer’s markets and fairs.
The wildfire need to write hit her, and she began penning her own songs.
Her debut solo EP, Woman Like Me, came out in 2013. In 2014, as a participant in the “RealWomenRealSongs” project, she wrote fifty-two songs, one per week. The following year, Dunbar recorded an EP, The End Of Wanting, and was a finalist at the Kerrville New Folk Festival. She took second place in American Songwriter magazine’s lyrics contest early in 2017 with her song “We Want.” She also performs in the ukulele trio, Star Belle.
She now resides in the small town of Utica, Nebraska. I saw her perform at Folk Alliance International in Kansas City this February and was touched by her songs. We had an e-chat this week.
R: Hope, we met at Folk Alliance this February which was my first time at the event. I saw you perform at a private showcase which, for those unaware, is usually a very short set in a hotel room where there is likely to be a very small audience and strict time constraints. The atmosphere in the showcase-designated rooms, corridors and floors is rather crowded, sometimes dark and hectic. You had, I recall, about ten such events over four days. How do you find performing in that environment where there’s not much time for audience interaction? Do you have to style your set in a particular way?
H: The good news is that I’ve been to quite a few of the Folk Alliance conferences that all host these private showcases so I’ve had some practice honing the perfect four song set (most showcases are about 20 minutes long). It makes it so that there’s no time for “hitting your stride” or slowly working up to your best stuff. It means playing your best work every time and delivering it well every time because it’s always a mystery who might be in that room for those four songs. The general atmosphere of the rooms and the hallways, however, will always dictate what you might be able to sing. I’ve had experiences where I had intended to sing quiet ballads, but because of the noise in the hallways and no amplification in the hotel rooms, I’ve had sets that I had to completely undo simply because the audience wouldn’t have heard any of it. It’s a crazy party in the after hours so you’ve got to be prepared to switch it up.
R: You now live in Utica Nebraska, after spending time in California, Paraguay and Iowa. Tell us a little about your current hometown and why you have settled there. How does it inform your writing?
H: Well, we initially moved here because of my husband’s job. We have three sons who were little when we moved so this is the only home they really remember. It was a hard move at first, having left friends and community in Iowa behind, but Utica, NE has served me very well as an artist. Our house sits just one block north of the city limit. The pavement stops and the dirt roads in any direction go for miles and miles chopping the corn and bean fields into sections. The wind rushes through the prairie and, when the weather’s nice, I head straight for those endless dirt roads and start thinking about songs, writing them in my head, reflecting on what’s been going on in my life.
After 8 years, we love it here. We’re very fortunate to live in a tight knit community where neighbors take care of neighbors. I’ve written about them and me in lots of my songs. Without this place, I can only imagine what my music would’ve become. They go hand in hand.
R: For this Australian, you don’t hear as much about folk/Americana from Nebraska. How do you assess the music scene in your surrounds? Is it a tight-knit music community?
H: I live about 35 miles away from the capital city of Nebraska, Lincoln. In my opinion, Lincoln is going through a real musical renaissance. They have a vibrant local music scene and the people of Lincoln are really getting behind their bands. I am friends with many of those artists and we try to support each other as much as we can. I’m also in a band, Star Belle Ukulele Trio, that plays around the state of Nebraska during the summers mostly.
So there’s lots going on in our state and lots to be excited about for the future. It just worked out that, as a solo performer, I started playing outside Nebraska early in my career and have continued to play in other markets more than in Nebraska.
R: I read somewhere you are regarded as a pioneer of the New American Prairie Style. Is that something you agree with? How would you define that genre?
H: Yes. I am a pioneer of the New American Prairie style which I define as a sound unique to the region in which I live. It describes a sparseness or emptiness in the composition. It describes a folk/Americana sound, but not of the south. More of the plains with a resilient spirit, a quiet toughness, perhaps gentle resignation but still fighting for it. Maybe not as fiery or as showy as other places, but still fighting. If that makes any sense.
R: Three Black Crows is your latest release, issuing in October last year. Tell me how you decided on fellow performer Emily White as producer and why choose Chicago for the recording?
H: First, Emily White is one of my best friends and I have complete faith in her. Second, she’s an incredible musician and songwriter but we don’t sound the same. We’re doing two very different things with our art and I needed someone to direct this project who was hearing things I couldn’t hear. That was Emily. I really wanted someone who believed in the work more than the paycheck I had a hard time finding someone like that. So when the notion came up that she and I should do the record together, it made total sense and I’m so glad we did. She knew I was looking for a pretty stripped down production of these songs and she honored that, but also she brought musical ideas and arrangements that I never would have imagined that made the songs exactly what they should be.
Also, I’ll confess that I don’t like studio recording work at all. It freaks me out and Emily White might be the only person out there strong enough to help me get through it and still be my friend on the other side.
R: I was taken by how personal your songs were. They seem to capture real people in a small town setting where individual stories are more out in the open, for neighbours to see. Are the songs based on real people, events?
H: Mostly, yes. Some of the songs that made it onto the album were songs I wrote just to make sense of hard things that were happening around me. I never deliberately wrote them to be public work until I started singing them at shows and having people approach me with stories about their own losses and tragedies. “She keeps going” is about my friend and neighbor. “Living after Losing” is about a friend of mine, Lloyd, and the second verse is about a young woman from church. “Better than ever” was written for family friends whom I have known my whole life. And “Losing Sleep” is about seeing Cory Branan play a Folk Alliance showcase in one of those hotel rooms a couple of years ago (but then everything else about the song is made up…:).
R: One of the new songs “I Write” captures beautifully a writer, a mother, a wife, a worker at a BBQ, full of hope and doubts, but defiant too …“The world doesn’t need another B-grade CD”. How autobiographical is that story?
H: Oh, it’s autobiographical alright! I joke that everything about that song is true except for the Highway 9 part. Everything else is true.
I remember sitting around one afternoon and trying to write my present circumstances. The breakfast table, the job, the dreams, the bar gigs and what the take away from it all should be. I’ve always thought of that song as a pep-talk to myself. I think it’s empowering to say that even if it doesn’t go the way I’d like it to go, I can keep writing songs at my kitchen table. Because who knows? Someone might find all those songs years from now and think the work was good and worthy. I don’t mind being the undiscovered songwriter. The tragedy would be to quit this art I love so much just because I don’t get a certain kind of recognition for doing it, ya know?
R: I am an unabashed fan of Darrell Scott and someone who thinks he should be more well-known. I believe you have even shared a stage with him which must have been a thrill. I am fascinated about another track “Better Than Ever With Darrell Scott” which is about learning to grow and cope? Is that Darrell contributing vocals on the song – I couldn’t find any liner note credit? Tell us about his inspiration for the song?
H: I too am a huge Darrell Scott fan. I consider him a teacher and a friend and having him sing on “Better than Ever” is, even now, still hard to believe. I fell instantly in love with his voice and his songs the first time I heard them. He’d come through town and I’d be the one in the first row trying to soak it all up so as not to forget any of it.
A few years later I was in his songwriting workshops learning from him and trying my damndest to write a song that might be considered good enough.
The fact that he was willing to sing on one of my songs is about the best thing that’s ever happened to me professionally. I wrote the song for people who are getting older (myself included) and tempted to think that their better selves are fading away. I wanted to write a song to express the opposite sentiment. That we’re being shaped into our best selves. We’re getting gentler and kinder and more merciful having survived hard times – that perhaps our best self isn’t our most photogenic self, but rather the self that has endured and become a better neighbor.
It made me think of lots of people in my life and it made me want to share the song with Darrell. I passed it along to him and boldly asked if he’d sing it with me.
To say I was stunned when he said, “yes.” is an understatement.
I know all his songs. I’ve been singing harmony with him while I drive my car and playing his records for years. To hear our voices together in harmony on one of my songs? It’s the ultimate honor. It’s the ultimate prize for me.
R: “Revolver” from the album is a chilling tour de force – referencing brutality in the home and portraying tragic conflict in a relationship. Similarly, “The Shooter” tells of the aftermath of a bloody episode, involving gun violence and the divisiveness that follows that leaves you “speechless and frozen like a loser”. Where did you get the inspiration for such evocative songs?
H: “The Shooter” is an example of a song that I wrote after another mass shooting committed in the U.S. It was the Pulse Night Club shooting and I wrote that song just to try and make sense of the tragedy. I never thought about it as a song that would go public…until it did. I wrote it in one sitting. I made very few edits to it. And I put it on the record because it reflects the times in which we live. Where mass shootings are tragedy, but also a huge part of a news cycle and also fuel for political causes that seem to somehow outweigh the mourning families and their lost loved ones. It’s a hard time to understand. In that moment, when I was there writing that song, my thoughts turned to my own actions. Am I consuming this terrible thing like entertainment? Am I turning this thing into a talking point to “win” a heated conversation? Am I doing anything about it?
We don’t like considering our own role in this messed up world. As I was writing that song, I couldn’t help but find myself guilty of doing nothing.
And “Revolver” started with one line “Jenny don’t drink a drop, but her husband does.” And I wrote the rest of the song. Oddly enough it involves gun violence of a different sort.
As you can imagine, both song themes are not popular topics.
In “Revolver” I wanted to explore what desperation can do and wondering what it might feel like to live so trapped that your only way out is by killing your captor.
I’m really proud of that song. It doesn’t sound like my other work, but it feels necessary.
As a songwriter, most of the time, I approach the craft saying to myself, “The world doesn’t need another song. The world needs me to blow up buildings.” It might sound terrible, but I’m not interested in writing sweet songs that lull you through the next 4 minutes. I’m interested in detonating high explosives so that everyone looks around and asks, “What just happened?”
These two songs are examples of my “drop bombs” songwriting philosophy.
R: Any plans in the wind for new material? Anything you are able to share with us?
H: I’ve got a very large back catalog and eager to get moving on the next record. For now, I’m touring on “Three Black Crows” still, writing lots of new songs and working on releasing a live record with my band, Star Belle Ukulele Trio.
R: So Star Belle is still an active musical outlet for you?
H: Yes! We start working a lot in the summertime. We describe ourselves as a country/folk Uke band. We are close friends (the band is myself, Emily Dunbar and Lisa Smith) and we have the best time touring and being up on stage together cracking each other up. If Hope Dunbar writes songs about hard times and sadness, Star Belle writes songs (Emily Dunbar, my sister-in-law, and I write for the band) about overcoming hard times and having fun anyways.
R: You told me a while ago you will be at AmericanaFest in Nashville this September, can you give me an outline of any tour plans you have?
H: I’ll start out in Texas playing some dates before making my way east to Nashville. This will be my first Americanafest and I am looking forward to taking it all in and getting into some showcases around town!
Here’s a clip of “Revolver”:
Read our interview with Nabraskan singer/songwriter Hope Dunbar