When you talk to Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz about making music, the recording industry and the strange alchemy of coaxing a new album into existence, you get the sense he very much agrees with that famous line about freedom being another word for nothing left to lose.
His band's upcoming third album — titled simply III and set for a Sept. 13 release – is on one level an admission that the traditional way of making albums doesn't work anymore. Everything has changed, from the form albums take to how you can put out the music. "Everybody's just guessing," Schultz tells Billboard.
"I started noticing things a lot of other acts were doing, especially from genres like rap and hip-hop," Schultz says by way of explaining some of the novel things his band has decided to try with III. The record is arranged, for example, less like a traditional collection of songs and more like a book, with "chapters" comprised of song sets. There are nine songs in all, bundled into three chapters that focus on three fictional characters: Gloria, a grandmother; her son Jimmy Sparks; and Junior Sparks, her grandson. It combines specificity with a more general exploration of family, love, loss and pain — and, yes, arranging the songs that way is meant to trick you into consuming the whole thing.
"Gloria," the just-released new single, introduces a fictional family matriarch who resembles what Schultz says was a close real-world relative who was also an alcoholic. He, and others, wanted to save her from herself. If you listen closely, the words are uncomfortable. The music is typical toe-tapping Lumineers, with a furiously strummed guitar adding a hopefulness to the imagery:
"Heaven help me now, heaven show the way, get me back on my own two feet / I would lie awake and pray you don't lie awake for me…"
As opposed to letting a traditional single be the placeholder for the next several months, the Lumineers will continue rolling out some introductory chunks from the album ahead of its release.
In deciding to shake up the format a little, Schultz says he paid attention to how other artists "were breaking the mold, how you'd have someone like Childish Gambino put out a song or video that didn't even have a home. It was kind of like an orphan of a song. There was no EP attached to it. Basically, that showed us… you can have people hear your music and you can have success without, you know, saying 'let's put out a normal album.'
"Seeing things like that, seeing people kind of break the quote-unquote rules… it seems like a really good time to be an artist. You still need good ideas. You need good songs, but we can get really creative with how we roll things out."
Schultz and fellow songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites are the remaining core of the band, following the departure last year of cellist/vocalist Neyla Pekarek, who decided to launch a solo career. III was recorded after she left, though the songs themselves were the product of a long creative gestation. Schultz and Fraites wrote separately, eventually renting a house where they workshopped the tunes for a few months before heading into the studio.
Schultz decided to return to an old place for inspiration. He dug up long-buried notes and diary entries, revisiting the seeds of ideas he never got around to planting. He'd gotten the idea for a song "chapter" about Gloria more than a decade ago. Back then, he was also thinking along the lines of spreading three stories across three EPs that all related to each other, with the working title of Love, Loss and Crimes.
He had the idea at that point, but not the songs, so it got put on the shelf. Along the way, the band matured and broke through. On the individual front, it's surely more than coincidence that they're putting out a record about family when, in 2018, both Schultz and Fraites became first-time fathers. Maybe there's something about starting a family that makes you pause, look back and take stock of how you relate to the ones you love.
"Jimmy believed in the American way. A prison guard, he worked hard and made the minimum wage / He found his freedom locking men in a cage…"
Fraites, as it turns out, was working his way through the Harry Potter books as the new album was coming together. Noting how they became progressively complicated and textured, he felt the same thing was happening with the band's material. The group, Fraites says, in the beginning "came from a seemingly light place," with earlier records that sound happier. They're just allowing their palate now to get darker. Just a little.
One of the new songs actually has so much of a tense undercurrent that director M. Night Shyamalan, with whom the band had become friendly, rejected it for his most recent movie Glass. He'd asked the band for a song that could be used over the end credits, but he felt what they gave him — the song that closes III, called "Salt and the Sea" — didn't really fit the vibe. So the band took it back.
"I tried to draw from a lot of personal experience," Schultz says about the writing throughout, and about the made-up family tree that got created. "I was trying to keep some level of anonymity to the people I may be singing about, but still referencing real events. I always feel like that makes things the most interesting. It's pretty hard to fake the truth."
The band's hope is that by trying something a little different with this record, it will give people a nudge to spend some time with the whole thing — as opposed to picking out one song to fixate on, like Ho Hey" on the first record.
"I've given friends an album to listen to, it may not be mine, but let's just say it's a good album," Schultz says. "And they'll go, oh yeah! I can't wait to listen to this, I'll do it this weekend! … As if that's an insane amount of time to devote. But then they'll go home and stream eight episodes of a show on Netflix.
"I think there's this weird thing with music, where people get easily overwhelmed. So, we're just trying to take that out of the equation, in a way." Instead of an album with a dozen disparate tunes that people might not listen to all the way through, here's one built around thematic pieces – with those pieces being almost like episodes, tailor-made for the age of the binge.