Co-founder of The Lumineers, Jeremiah Fraites, released his first solo album, Piano Piano, in January 2021. The album is based on instrumental piano songs that he had been composing over the past decade.
I found this album to be a really strong and mesmerising collection of songs. The melodies and sonic landscapes within these tracks kept pulling me back in. Right now, we are living through a time when words are sometimes hard to find. And then when we do find them, sometimes they are just not enough to communicate feeling sufficiently. Piano Piano offers a collection of instrumental songs that have no words, but what they do have is an abundance of feeling. And this is something we can welcome with open arms. Songs such as ‘Tokyo’, ‘An Air that Kills’ and ‘Chilly’ really highlight how sound can convey feeling so beautifully. Words are not needed here. These songs soar, they leap, they stun, and they also comfort.
I asked Fraites a range of questions that touched upon his approach to songwriting and music. I found his responses to be so thoughtful and insightful, and they really underline his big-hearted approach to songwriting. I love that he values every second in a song. There are some beautiful moments in his responses to my questions. In addition to his songwriting, we touched upon topics such as writing a song for the Game of Thrones soundtrack, enjoying Rage Against the Machine live, touring with Tom Petty, and, of course, working with The Lumineers.
How are you at the moment? Where are you, and what have you been doing today?
I’m doing good, I just moved into my new home in Turin, Italy with my family. Not a whole lot. Been drinking some coffee, practicing piano, and enjoying time with my wife and son. We finally moved into our new home here in Turin, Italy. We just moved here a few months ago from Denver, Colorado, and it’s been difficult to move across the world in a pandemic but finally happy that we’re inside.
When you were growing up, what music played an important role for you? And was there a particular record that stood out to you when you were a teenager?
For me, growing up, actually classical music played a really important role for me. I really fell in love with Beethoven at an early age. There was this one cassette tape that my mom bought for me, it was Beethoven’s Sonatas, which just means the piano versions of his songs, with nature sounds in the background. The piano was prominent and that was a really important album for me. I loved listening to the piano and his writing, I think, is obviously genius. That record really stood out to me.
I play piano myself and started when I was 15, the week after buying Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes album in 1992, which inspired me to want to learn. When did you start playing, and what prompted you to do so? And what music do you like to play, aside from your own?
I started playing going from 8th grade into freshman year of high school and fell in love with drums originally and then started to really get into piano I think sophomore or junior year of high school. I don’t really play a lot of music that’s not my own. I really am kind of quite obsessed with constantly writing my own music for The Lumineers and then also for my personal stuff. But there’s a couple artists I like. There’s a song called ‘Avril 14th’ by Aphex Twin I really like. I’m trying to learn that song. I don’t really learn a lot of music outside of my own, I guess you could say.
Piano Piano is a beautiful and really striking collection of songs that has been in the works for a large part of a decade and was a long-held dream for you to release. Can you tell us about how the idea for Piano Piano came into being, and how this collection of songs took shape?
Piano Piano has been a long time coming. I mean, I write a lot of music with Wes, the singer of the band, for The Lumineers. I write a lot of music, so not all the music goes with The Lumineers, of course. I just put all the song ideas into a Dropbox folder. I didn’t really think about them for the better part of a decade. And then once COVID-19 struck and cancelled all of our shows and our big tour, I realized I had all this time isolating in our home in Denver and started to work on it. It was just a matter of time. I had planned on working on it after this album cycle, this tour cycle. I was going to work on Piano Piano in probably late 2021 or early 2022 when I was finished touring with The Lumineers. COVID struck and cancelled everything, so I just sat down for weeks at a time and sifted through hundreds of Dropbox ideas. There were voice memos that I put into a Dropbox folder and started to see which songs I liked and which songs I didn’t.
My favourite track on the album is ‘Tokyo’. Like many of the songs on the album, it fostered such a strong visual and emotional landscape that really captivated me. You wrote this song seven years ago – what prompted you to write it, and how did it develop?
My favorite song right now is also ‘Tokyo’. It just was a piece that reminded me of classical music. The original title, just so I could remember working on it, was called ‘A Major Classical’ because it’s in A Major and it reminded me of what a classical song might sound like. I really loved the shapes and the chords and the melodies in the song, I thought it was really interesting. I never really knew what to do with it and then once I forced myself to sit down and work on Piano Piano that song really came into shape and really came into form. I really just fell in love with that song. I think that ‘Tokyo’ is the best sounding song on the album. It really turned out fantastic, and I’m happy that it’s your favorite track also.
I was really captivated also by the song ‘An Air that Kills’, which swells and engages so beautifully. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration for this song?
‘An Air that Kills’ was a song that I really wanted to work on hyper-minimalism, I guess you could say. It starts off with that C4, just peddling the C, and I really wanted to just see how minimalistic I could start a song and make a song. It all stemmed from that original idea of hyper-minimalism and trying to work from there. The melodies I really enjoyed. Originally I thought it was just going to be a solo piano track and then the idea of a large orchestra came into my head. Once I started to demo synthesizers and large orchestral sounds on my computer I knew that there needed to be a large orchestra, and actually recorded with a 40-person orchestra from Macedonia, so that was really exciting.
Generally, how do you gain inspiration for the songs that you write? Does it tend to be based on personal experiences and feelings, or is there something else you try to capture? And what role and importance does songwriting have for you in your life?
I don’t know. When I just start to write stuff, I just start to write it. It’s never like I’m thinking about this thing. At least I don’t think I am, consciously. Maybe subconsciously. When I’m writing from the perspective of a piano, I really like, it has to sound good, of course, first and foremost. I also like looking at the shapes of my hands and look for interesting shapes and I find that sometimes if your hands are making interesting shapes that the chords and the sounds themselves can be also interesting. It’s not always like that, but sometimes it is. For me, songwriting is so important. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t a songwriter. I think it helps me understand things like anxiety and depression and trying to understand my place in this world. So, maybe I am thinking about a lot more than I’m aware of when I’m writing. A lot of that time it’s just trying to do something creative, do something interesting, and I guess trying to stimulate my own brain when I’m trying to write something.
The sound on the album is gorgeously intimate, as you “wanted listeners to feel almost as if they’re sitting on the piano bench next to me.” You also play nearly every instrument on the album, including guitar, drums, synths, and programming. Could you tell us a bit about the recording process for the album? How did you achieve this feeling of intimacy?
The recording process of the album was very difficult at times because I was doing so much on my own. I had to record the piano, and drums, and guitar and come up with all the ideas. Which was really fun. Don’t get me wrong I really enjoyed being able to do that all myself. It was also quite difficult at times. There were also times I wish I was in a “real” studio with my co-producer and co-engineer David Baron. He was a great help, remotely, from his home in New York state while I was in Denver. We worked on this together a lot. Pretty much everytime I finished writing a song it was either going to be recorded on the grand piano or the upright piano. I found that the upright piano, like the one you hear on ‘Tokyo’, gives a very intimate feel. Then the grand piano, on a song like ‘Chilly’, gives a very grand or grandiose feel. I think that was a big, that was a lot of fun for me once I finished writing the song. Trying to come up with whether or not to record the song on the grand piano or the upright piano I think fed into this idea of intimacy and all that.
I also really liked ‘Player Unknown’, which is quite different, with more instrumentation and an electronic feel. Can you tell us more about this track?
That’s a song that I wrote a long time ago. I like playing video games as a way to decompress after a long day of working on music, and there’s a game in particular called PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, it’s a game for the PC. I guess I sort of wrote it as an ode to that game, and I released it as part of a charity fundraising gaming event that I helped create. All the proceeds from that song went to a charity which was a lot of fun. I do love electronic music also, so it was a fun way for me to, I guess, showcase a different side of my musical interests.
You co-wrote the song ‘Nightshade’, which appeared on For the Throne, an album featuring songs inspired by Game of Thrones. I love this song, as it taps into the characters and universe they are in so well. Plus, the piano features so beautifully, too. Can you tell us about the process of writing this track and what you wanted to capture in the song?
I think with the song ‘Nightshade’ for Game of Thrones we just wanted to really capture the Stark, wintery, ice-cold feel. I think that piano recorded on the upright piano in that higher octave really made us feel like thinking of the Nightwalkers, and the wintery scene, and the brutalness that is Game of Thrones. That was a lot of fun, it was a huge honor to work on that song. We just really wanted to make a song that sort of, if you love the show, it would make sense that it is about the show. But also if you knew nothing about Game of Thrones you still wanted it to be a good song at the end of the day. It’s always interesting when writing for a movie or a TV show, you want to make sure that it’s not just going to be received because they like the show, you want it also just to be a good song that stands on its own.
How do you separate this work from that which you do with The Lumineers? Does your songwriting process change much when you are composing songs for your solo work?
For me, the songwriting process is kind of always the same. At the end of the day, you want to make a great song. Obviously the biggest difference with my solo stuff and The Lumineers stuff is that somebody would be singing on The Lumineers stuff, which would be Wes, of course. At the end of the day you want to just make a great song whether it has words or not, or whether it has drums or not or this or that. So I think at the end of the day it’s still the same. Also, if it’s a forty-five second song or a seven-minute song, you still want to make sure that every second matters, and every second counts in the song. At the end of the day, you just want to create, I think, a great song.
You are from New Jersey and Denver, USA but recently moved to Italy. How are you finding the experience of living there? And did you take your Firewood piano with you?!
I grew up in New Jersey and then moved to Denver eventually and now I just moved to Italy. It’s been a beautiful experience. It’s been quite difficult at times, with the pandemic of course, as you can imagine. No, I did not bring Firewood. Firewood lives at our home in Denver. It’s something that I wouldn’t want it to get broken in transit so it’s better off to live in America for now. I do miss Firewood though, not having it in my home in Italy.
As part of The Lumineers you toured with Tom Petty on his final tour. I love his music – could you just tell us a bit about what it was like touring together?
We only got to play a handful of shows, I think 2 or 3 if I’m not mistaken, but it was incredible to be able to watch Tom Petty perform. It was incredible to be on the same bill. That was a huge honor obviously. And also, sadly, it was one of the last handful of shows he ever played. So it was quite sad, but truly honored to be that close and you know, in that close proximity to all living legends. The whole band, not just Tom Petty, of course, are incredible world-class musicians so to be able to watch them was truly an incredible experience.
Thinking of live music shows, what is the best live music concert you’ve ever been to, and why?
Best musical concert I’ve ever been to was Rage Against the Machine at Randall’s Island. Probably, I want to say at least 15 years ago, maybe even longer. It was at Randall’s Island, it was part of a festival. Rage Against the Machine was the final band, they headlined and it was by far the best concert experience of my entire life, it was so crazy and intense. I was front row getting pushed up against the barrier, and it was awesome. I loved every moment of it and I hope they come back and tour again. It was the single best live show I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
How are you coping with everything during the pandemic, and the lack of live physical shows? As an audience member I so miss the feeling where the lights go down and the band or musician is about to come on stage. As a performer, what do you miss the most about playing live with an audience?
It’s been difficult during the pandemic not being able to play shows, of course. I think that’s such a big part of our identity as musicians. It’s not just the ability to write songs, but it’s also the ability to go out and connect with fans and tour and travel. I miss traveling a lot too. I think that really has a way to shake up your brain and sense of stimulation. I think it’s healthy and important to move around and interact with different people and different types of people and to not have that has been very challenging, I’d say mentally. It makes you appreciate it, obviously, as soon as you don’t have something. When you have something great in your life and it’s taken away from you and you no longer have it, it makes you appreciate it that much more. I think, for me as a performer, the thing I miss most about playing live is just that, playing live. I think being up there with the band members of The Lumineers, that I love and miss dearly, and the ability to look out at thousands of people sometimes and be playing our songs and they’re singing our songs back to us. It’s truly a beautiful experience that I miss greatly.
What songs or albums helped get you through 2020?
I worked a lot on my own stuff during 2020. I spent at least 4 or 5 months on Piano Piano alone. In some way, getting through that and finishing that album really helped me a lot, and that was really helpful that I had something creative to throw myself into. I do work a lot on my own music, constantly. I was also doing some writing with Wes with The Lumineers stuff. That was also really helpful and healthy and cathartic to be doing that again.
Finally, what are your tentative plans for 2021?
Tentative plans for 2021 are just to stay stimulated and occupied with some work, hopefully be able to write some more Lumineers material. The greatest hope of all is to hopefully get enough vaccines throughout the world that live touring and the world, obviously, can resume again. The greatest would be to be able to play live shows again. That would be the greatest if that could happen in 2021.
Piano Piano is out now via Dualtone Records/Mercury KK