Who Now? Hoonah!
By Stephanie Sowder
Cutting through the crowded bar while jubilant dancers hoot and holler, I grab my friend’s hand and pull her closer to the stage. She is immediately mesmerized by the free-spirted performers, and I can tell that their lively playing and raucous sound has transported her to a different time and place.
The ageless, timeless and softly weathered voice of Spencer McKenna rings out over the country-infused chime of his guitar, while Jessica Larsen glows like a Gatsby goddess singing sultry harmonies to his lead. I notice my partner in crime eyeing the washboard whose raspy rhythm cuts through even the loudest dance floors.
I lean in to proudly share my knowledge: “She made that! Hand painted it. Put all those bells and whistles on it too!”
They’re playing an original: “Honey Drum Girl.” I take in Alex Faught’s Scruggs-esque banjo picking, appreciating how well it emphasizes their perfect blend of country-swing Americana with bluegrass roots and jazzy textures. I order a whiskey right about the time their bass player, Chris Eanes, takes off on one of his dexterous and complex blues runs. Welcome to Hoonah and whiskey go hand in hand.
I sip Makers Mark and tap my toes to the pulsing groove of drummer Matt Leonard’s rock-solid beats. The crowd goes wild as harmonica-virtuoso Robby Carden spits out high, fast, blow bends with a speed and complexity that leaves everyone breathless. He would go on to impress us with his conga skills later in the evening.
As I lean back against the bar, reveling in my friend’s awe of this brilliant band, she turns to me, jaw dropped, and says “Who are they again? Welcome to who now?”
I yell back excitedly “Not who now…HOO–NAH!”
A Band on the Rise
It’s been a few years since I first introduced my friend to Welcome to Hoonah at that show, and at the time, they had yet to become the locally well-known powerhouse that they are today. They had only just started playing with their current line-up and were still adjusting to the changes. But it was with this new line-up that, over the next couple of years, they gained a substantial fan base at a rapid rate and made a real name for themselves. I imagine these days, I’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the local music scene who isn’t familiar with Hoonah and their successes.
2015 was a big year for Welcome to Hoonah, with the release of their much-loved EP, Lasso the Sun, and the thrill of a fully booked tour schedule. They opened for Emmylou Harris in July of 2015 as one of their five sets at FloydFest, an abnormally large number of performances for one band at that festival. They even gained the coveted honor of winning the festival’s “Band on Fire” competition that year.
I expect more big things are going to happen for Welcome to Hoonah, so I sat down with them to pick their brains and gain a little insight into their history, their music, their roles in the band, and their thoughts on the local music scene. To those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to experience this Roanoke gem, you are probably still wondering “What exactly is a hoonah?” or “Why should I check them out?” This read is also for you.
The Origins of Hoonah
Welcome to Hoonah’s history is as homegrown and charming as the songs they play. When Jessica Larsen met Spencer McKenna in 2008, he had a brand new band, Grass Monkey, and they wrote a few songs together for that band. Three years later, Spencer began a weekly open mic where he met Kevin Kittredge, a bass player and former writer for The Roanoke Times.
Before long, Kevin was coming to their home to play music in the hopes of starting a new project with Spencer. Jess would sit there in the living room and hum along. One day Kevin said, “You should try singing with us,” and as Spencer and Kevin put it “that was that.”
They were already keenly aware of Larsen’s song writing skills – her uncanny knack for creating poetic, enigmatic lyrics with an emotional resonance that pairs perfectly with McKenna’s melodic hooks. So it was a welcome surprise, which made perfect sense in hindsight, when they discovered someone who is already adept at music construction also has a talent for harmonizing and keeping rhythm. Thus, the birth of Welcome to Hoonah.
The band underwent many changes in those early days, but after several years of working with various musicians and honing their sound, the members are all in agreement that the group they have now is “signature Welcome to Hoonah.”
“We love 70s rock / country, e.g., The Band,” Larsen notes, “and that is definitely the sound we are aiming for. With these musicians, we have gotten closer than ever while maintaining our own distinct style.”
When asked about the name Welcome to Hoonah and its origins, Larsen explains that:
We [Spencer and Jess] took a cruise to Alaska with his family, and our favorite port was Hoonah, home of the most bear per capita in the US and the greatest bald eagle population. It was beyond beautiful, reaching into mystical – lush, dark and surreal. A tiny town on a tiny island whose name means something along the lines of “where the north wind doesn’t blow.”
They took lots of photos, including one of the town sign, which was a concrete wall with letters pressed into it. And that image is the basis of their logo.
A Sound Beyond Genres
Perhaps my greatest curiosity is with the development of Welcome to Hoonah’s completely unique and genre-bending sound. The band notes that they have eclectic tastes and that their music is a definite outcome of their democratic song-construction process.
Typically, Spencer, Jess and Alex will have a writing session that results in the main idea of a song, lyric and chord structure. They then take that lattice work to the rest of the band, who write their own instrumentation to add to the song.
While Spencer, Jess and Alex all have a love for bluegrass, Americana, Bakersfield country and old-time music, they differ in some of their tastes as well. Spencer, for example, has a penchant for 60s and 70s rock, while Alex loves old country and Jess adores vocal jazz and indie rock. Add Robby and Chris, who have previously played together in Funk Punch and Cloyd the V with their groovy brands of rock and roll, and Matt, who brings in that jam-band feel – and the result is distinctive, yet familiar.
As Hoonah says, “Our songs are very strongly rooted in the progression of American music, and we love uniting a lot of genres. We like to think it works even if it does sound crazy!”
The Camaraderie that Makes Them Click
With so many different tastes and contributions, I remain impressed by the sense of mutual respect, teamwork and unity found within the band. Creating with anyone can be difficult, never mind five other individuals with their own artistic stakes and impulses.
One of the most charming aspects of a live Hoonah show is seeing the camaraderie between band members. It’s akin to seeing a family band, but without the cheesy trappings of an awkward Partridge Family vibe. Their affection is natural – their warm feelings and obvious appreciation of one another so clearly unrehearsed that it makes their positive vibe all the more refreshing and contagious. It’s easy to fall in love with a band when you see how much they love each other.
When I ask them how they manage to keep such healthy relationships in an industry plagued with turmoil, breakups, stress and demands, I am somewhat surprised to learn that the topic is something they’ve been discussing a lot amongst themselves recently.
As the band notes, “Now that we have had a regular group of musicians working together for at least a year, our relationships are much more involved.” They go on to clarify:
We are friends as well as coworkers. We truly love one another, and that energy is all over the stage. When someone knocks a solo out of the park, we are all so happy for them and glad to be a part of it.
Feeding off of one another’s excitement allows for an intimacy that very few work relationships possess. We’ve had moments of great exhilaration together, as well as disappointment, but the positive outweighs the negative tenfold. The most important ingredients in productive relationships are respect and honesty, and we all practice those principles.
Perhaps a Welcome to Hoonah how-to book is in order for the music industry? I’d buy it.
Given Hoonah’s humble disposition and attitude of gratitude, it’s no surprise that when I ask about the level of support they’ve received from the local scene, they overwhelm me with positive anecdotes:
We are lucky to live in Roanoke, where there are musicians and artists aplenty. It is a very supportive community. We have to give a shout out to Nathan Webster of the Village Grill for giving Hoonah a weekly gig there when we were first starting out, Mike Flanary of Cornerstone Bar and Grill for doing the same a year later and Jason Martin [of Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grill].
We have also had the joy of working with JD Sutphin of Big Lick Entertainment, Kris Hodges of FloydFest and want to throw a little love to Tad Dickens, who works diligently to stay on top of what’s happening in our area and spread the word through his position at The Roanoke Times.
They also make a point to mention some of their favorite places to perform – Martin’s Downtown, the Rives Theatre in Martinsville, The Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount, among others.
“The Blue Ridge region is packed full of great places to catch some original music, and there are more talented local bands than you’d think!” Larsen says.
Thoughts and Advice
Finally, left with that question that seems so predictable yet necessary, I ask what the rest of us always want to know – the quintessential “How do you do it? What’s your advice?” More specifically, what suggestions would Hoonah give to artists and musicians who are just starting out?
And again, I earnestly suggest they write a how-to book because I find their responses to be both helpful and thoughtful:
Play every show you can for a while. Don’t be picky until you’ve earned it. Don’t be afraid to be self-critical. Love on other musicians and bands in your area. Listen to as much original music as you can. Treat every gig like a job but also have fun, or you’re doing it wrong. Talk to your audience before and after the show. Most of all, respect and honor your band mates.
Sounds to me like the perfect start to the “Ten Commandments of Musical Performance.” After all, seeing Welcome to Hoonah live is about as good as a religious experience gets in my book.
Thus it is with great faith, sprung from the revelatory insights shared by these musical prophets, that I arrive at a most satisfying personal conclusion. I now know exactly how to spread the good news about this talented band to new and potential followers while answering that same recurrent, common question, “So what exactly is a hoonah?”
They’re a band you can believe in.