Bloomington brothers' songs resonate whether on the sidewalk, in a rock club or with an orchestra in Arcade Fire's studio
Brothers Lewis and Addison Rogers began writing songs together before they hit their teen years in Bloomington, Indiana. When they started performing as a band, the siblings took their music to the streets, performing for passersby.
Those early busking experiences left an indelible mark on the duo, which records and tours as Busman's Holiday. “You have to get people from the outset, otherwise they leave. You have to make songs good enough that they don't want to leave,” Lewis said recently by phone. “We learned how to project, [but] it took me a while to realize that I didn't have to sing as loud as I possibly could [on tour]. It's kind of like theater versus movies. If you have a mic in front of you, you don't have to be yelling all the time. It's only now that I've thought, ‘Oh, we could whisper if we wanted to.' Before that felt like a no-no.”
For the past two Busman's Holiday albums, 2014's A Long Goodbye and 2016's Popular Cycles, the brothers partnered with arranger Matt Nowlin and Montreal producer/engineer Mark Lawson, who worked on the last three Arcade Fire albums. On Popular Cycles, Busman's Holiday fleshed out its indie-pop and folk-rock with a 21-piece orchestra, resulting in huge, gorgeous arrangements of impressionistic yet instantly relatable songs that center around the concept of memory.
To get those sounds, Lawson first traveled to Indiana to record the band. “He stayed with us in Bloomington and got to meet our family. Our parents would make him dinner,” Lewis said. Then Lawson returned the favor, hosting the brothers in Montreal and recording them at Arcade Fire's Sonovox Studio.
Some of the song arrangements came about gradually and organically, while others, like the strings and woodwinds on “See the Rain,” appeared all at once in dramatic fashion. “One day we were on tour driving down a highway, and I remember imagining [an orchestral part] in my head, and I had a bit of a moment where I had to stop driving,” Lewis said. “It was pretty emotional. I told Addison, ‘All right, this next album is gonna be really good, and we gotta have a big orchestra.'”
For the affirmational anthem “What We Need We Know,” Lewis took inspiration from Indiana-born landscape painter Victor Higgins. “The cattle congregate/The ground was red and warm/A muddy sky replaced the blue jean superstore,” he sings, before launching into the refrain: “The days are young the times are old/What we need we know.”
“There's something magical about writing,” said Lewis, who's currently penning new songs for an April recording session with Lawson. “I've always wanted to be the type of person who's really particular about how they go about writing, like a chess player. But when it comes down to it, I write and … a year later I come back and it's like, ‘Oh, that's what that was about.' In the moment I'm just working on intuition. It's always nice later when you realize, ‘Oh, my subconscious is a lot wiser than I am.'”