Come join me in the moment I first heard Eustace the Dragon perform live.
Jessica Smith and Danny and Amanda Churchill make beautiful, low-fi folk melodies that are multi-layered, rich in anywhere from two to seven part harmonies. And their new 16-track record, Glad Friends, has been a long time coming. I first saw them about five years ago, and since they have woven their folk music and their friendship deeply into my understanding of what it means to feel welcome, at home, familiar. Their joy radiates before them, tendrils of tender inspiration reaching far and wide in the Twin Cities music scene.
Glad Friends is a gift they made to share. So please join them to celebrate this achievement, whether from near or afar.
Eustace the Dragon LP Release
with Humbird and Sister Species
Thursday, September 28th at Icehouse
doors 9:30 / music 10
$8 advance / $10 door, 21+
Featuring Julie Thoreen (Har-di-Har), Jess Nelson and Liz Akhavan (Jacob Champlain & the Blue Jays), Hannah and Evalyn Tjoflat, Andrew Thoreen (Har-di-Har), William Samsel and Peter Miller (We are the Willows).
1. Okay so, I have to ask: how did the three of you meet / come together to make music? And where does the name Eustace the Dragon come from?
All three of us met at small church in our neighborhood and we started leading worship together. Jess and Danny also played in a cover band for awhile together called “Matchy Matchy” with covers ranging from Radiohead and First Aid Kit, to Sufjan and Iron & Wine.
We began to be challenged by our friends and other musicians we admire – saying they enjoyed the covers we were doing, but wanted to hear what we had to say. Someone said, this is unacceptable. Haha. So we took the challenge! Danny and Jess began writing songs in 2012, and once we had enough to create a full set for a show, we pulled Amanda in for that sweet third harmony. We’ve been Eustace ever since.
The band name comes from a book series [The Chronicles of Narnia] – there is a boy named Eustace whose selfishness gets him turned into a dragon. He is stuck, ugly, and has to learn to rely on others in order to get by. It’s a beautiful story of despair, honesty, and redemption, which tend to be themes in our writing. Plus, Jess is obsessed with books with dragons in them.
2. You’ve been working on making this album a reality for a long time now. What have been some inspirations as well as obstacles along the way?
Our friends and family regularly find themselves, their stories and statements, even struggles, woven in and out of our songs. We just love them so much. So in a way, completing this album feels like we’re honoring those stories.
When we began playing as a band, we sat down (years ago!) and made a list of goals/dreams we had for ourselves together, and creating a full-length album was one of them. One obstacle is that it took so long to make this album a reality. People have asked us for a full length from the start, but it took us a while to be ready I think. By the time we were four years into being a band, we had so many songs to choose from. And we also had a hard time knowing what songs to record that would really capture who we’ve become as a band together.
One of our desires for the album was that it would sort of document who we are, what we’ve done so far, and that it would be the very best that we could currently offer. There’s a lot of pressure to make an amazing album, with so many other albums out there by musicians we respect and love! But we had to keep ourselves focused on what we can do, what is our very best. We think it’s an honest way of approaching / recording / sharing our music, but we definitely got stuck along the way.
Some of the tracks on this record are some of the very first songs we ever wrote together. Because it’s taken us so long there were definitely stretches of time that passed where we questioned if we were doing this right, and it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the unknown as none of us have taken on this sort of project before. We named the album Glad Friends partly because creating it was one of the hardest things the three of us have ever done together. This project tested the limits of our friendships, we had some hard fights and some good cries, but we pushed through!! We can honestly say that we’re glad we’re still friends. Haha.
3. Why did you want to make this record sound more like a relaxed “campfire hang” compared with a more traditional studio album? What were some other goals in making your first full-length release?
Some of our favorite musical memories together are when we are sitting on someone’s porch, or gathered around a campfire, just singing our hearts out with the people that we love. There’s just something magical that happens when it gets a little late, everyone is singing over each other, you’re creating silly and careless new beautiful sounds. You’re all being musicians. Jess also likes to think about the crazy lady standing in back of the church, singing her heart out. Sometimes when she’s writing she’ll ask, what would that lady be singing? How would our friends sing along to this song if it were a tipsy two in the morning, and we’re all so happy to be hanging and shouting together?
Another goal of the album – we wanted different types of songs! We wanted some of the tracks to be built up by other musical friends (thanks Andrew Thoreen! thanks Pete Miller!). We wanted some to be stripped down just the three of us. We wanted lots of snippets! haha. So we said yes to all three! Which ended up giving us 16 tracks, haha. Oh well. It took us so long to accomplish that we figured we may as well do every little song we wanted.
We wanted this record to bring you right there in the room with us. That vibe felt 100 percent more authentically “us” then a super polished studio album. In the end, with so many varied types of songs, I think that transparency is what holds it all together, and keeps it from feeling like three different records.
4. What is a typical way you three go about writing songs? Do the melodies and harmonies comes first? Are other songs inspired initially by lyrics?
Jess and Danny both typically write songs separately, but the three of us tend to develop them together. Jess is the brains behind all of our harmony arrangements. As for which comes first, the lyrics or the melodies, it goes both ways! Jess thinks first of what she wants to say, and the melody follows, whereas Danny typically starts with a melody, and later fills it in with lyrics. An example for Jess is “Lilies and Birds” [above] – she wrote the lyrics in the early morning when she was in a bit of a panic. After saying the phrase ‘See the lilies of the field, See the birds of the air’ over and over and over, she picked up a guitar and began playing whatever would fit what she was singing. Which is why she tends to have some funky time signatures in her songs. Danny is such a beautiful guitar player. It’s hilarious – he’ll be playing a new chord progression beautifully, and mumbling total nonsense until he discovers what he wants to say.
5. You three have made some songs with atypical lengths, ranging from less than a minute to over five. How do you know when a song is done?
Most of our songs are never really finished! We love changing them over time, and get a little bored when we’ve sung the same thing over and over. One of our goals for the album was to make sure that each song was recorded in a way that it hadn’t been recorded or performed yet.
In the initial song writing stages though, a song feels finished when we’ve expressed completely what we were wanting to say. It doesn’t mean we won’t perform (or record) an unfinished song though. Sometimes we add lyrics later, combine songs with others, or write new songs as responses to the original song.
An example of that would be “Glad Friends” and “Never Give You Up.” “Glad Friends” is a song Danny wrote years ago about divorce and about giving all of yourself away in a relationship. The song talks about struggle and leaves you with a feeling of heaviness. “Never Give You Up” was written as a tender response to “Glad Friends.” Adding that tag really helped us to feel settled about “Glad Friends,” and now we never play one without the other.
Another example is the blending of “Miss” and “Eternal Christmas” – two completely separate “finished” songs in real life, brought together to make their own song for the record. This is why we made the “Eternal Christmas” tag its own track. Or the “Prisons” reprise! Danny wrote that one the day before we began recording, haha.
5. Have any specific bands or musicians influenced you in your individual or group music making?
Danny: Manchester Orchestra. Aaron Strumpel. Mutemath.
Jess: Radiohead, Sufjan, My Brightest Diamond, Joanna Newsom.
6. What’s your favorite venue in the Twin Cities to play? Is there some place you’d love to perform where you have not yet?
We LOVE playing at the cozy beautiful Icehouse, which is why we’re choosing to have our release there. And we love playing the tiny romantic Aster cafe. Someday, we’d really like to play a show at the Cedar Cultural Center or even First Ave. Festivals would be fun!!! Jess will always dream of having late night campfire shows – these are her favorite.
We can’t wait to share the record with people! Both with friends and family who’ve been asking for it, and with friends we haven’t yet met! We’d like to do some touring with the album, are hoping to do an Audiotree session next year, Jess’ 2018 goal is to learn more about recording at home and to put out more solo work. We LOVE touring together, so we’re super excited to get into that in 2018. And Danny and Amanda will have a BABY!!!!