Luluc: A Life in Many Movements
Preface: Nineteen years ago this month, Grant Alden and I were deep in the midst of creating the debut issue of No Depression magazine, which launched in autumn 1995 in Seattle. Nearly two decades later, our lives are much different. Grant and his wife run a bookstore and coffee shop and tend to a family farm in Morehead, Kentucky. He spins tunes for an hour the last Friday of every month on Morehead State Public Radio. I’m now a staff music writer at the Austin American-Statesman, after a few years with the North Carolina Triangle’s Independent Weekly.
Our business colleague Kyla Fairchild kept nodepression.com going as a community site after we stopped printing the magazine in 2008. Freshgrass bought the site from Kyla earlier this year. The new ownership has expressed a renewed interest in paid journalistic content. This piece is the first step in that direction; I wish the nodepression.com team the best of luck with the site’s future.
What hits first is that voice. The sound of Zoë Randell singing is as pure as a crisp winter sky, a gentle force of nature. It’s disarmingly soulful, though not in the way that word usually is applied to singers: Hers isn’t a fever pitch, but rather a peaceful serenity that reaches deep into the heart.
Through nearly all of Passerby, the second album by Australian duo Luluc, Randell remains rooted on the ground vocally. Her tonic beauty blends seamlessly with Steve Hassett’s empathetic harmonies amid the exquisite, deliberate melodicism of their songs. And then, for one sweet moment near the end of the album’s title track, she allows herself to take flight, soaring toward the heavens with a simple affirmation:
As you go,
Know I love you so.
In that moment, Luluc reaches a reckoning point. The song’s preceding verses flicker past with a tenor that suggests the singer’s life flashing before her eyes: As she recalls the sweetness of animals in her youth and the dearness of old friends, she faces the hard reality that “we all die,” Randell explained on NPR’s Weekend Edition in July. The song’s notion of “this passerby life” is, she says, “borne out of the knowledge you get through experiencing (loved ones’) mortality, and then obviously being confronted with your own.”
The passerby life of Luluc began in the southeastern reaches of Australia, in a tiny rural village and a cosmopolitan capital city. The plot hinged on a happenstance encounter on the other side of the planet in Scotland and thickened in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, finally coming to fruition amid the creative heartbeat of New York City.
Along the way, two musical souls united, a dear loved one departed, life-changing dreams were pursued, enchanting songs were written and recorded, and fateful connections intertwined to help bring two brilliant albums into being: Dear Hamlyn, self-released by Luluc in 2008, and Passerby, issued in July by Sub Pop Records.
I first found Dear Hamlyn nearly three years after its release. On February 18, 2011, I had an assignment to review a show on the Duke University campus about a half-hour from home, and on the way out of the house, I grabbed a tribute compilation called More Townes Van Zandt From The Great Unknown. It featured a few artists I knew well – Neal Casal, Kevin Russell’s Shinyribs, Band of Annuals – along with a handful of others I was curious about, and several I’d never heard of.
Van Zandt’s songs carry a heavy weight with me. I’d seen him play many times during my coming-of-age years in Austin, interviewed him a couple of times, and organized a tribute concert to him in Seattle shortly after his death in 1997. There aren’t many surer ways for an artist to connect with me musically than to deliver a moving rendition of one of Van Zandt’s songs.
I was most of the way home on the return drive from Duke when track 15 came on. The acoustic guitars were uncluttered and beautifully played. A voice emerged that perfectly captured the haunted echoes of dark souls at the root of Van Zandt’s songs. “Will it be the willow that hears your lonesome song?” she sang, with such a riveting presence that I had to pull over to the side of the road. When another voice joined her in heart-rending harmony on the last verse, only one question remained: Who on earth was Luluc?
I spent a good deal of the next three years finding out. I mail-ordered Dear Hamlyn that very night and soon couldn’t stop playing it, referring to it at one point as “the most beautiful record I’ve heard in 10 years.” That set high expectations for the follow-up, but when Randell and Hassett sent me the masters of Passerby in fall 2013 and asked what I thought, my answer was simple: “It’s the most beautiful record I’ll hear in the next 10 years.”
This is how they got there.
Rural Bliss and Blues
Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett grew up in the southeast Australian state of Victoria in the 1980s, separated by a couple hundred kilometers and entirely different childhood experiences. Randell was raised in Upotipotpon, a farming community outside the small town of Benalla.
“It was a pretty enchanted childhood in a lot of ways — growing up on a farm, learning about animals and being very much a part of the natural landscape,” Randell recalls. “I guess there’s pluses and minuses to that experience, but as a child, I really loved it.”
One of the pluses was an early indoctrination to music. Her father leaned toward classical and pre-1950s crooners, while her mother favored jazz. “But they also had a fantastic collection of Paul Simon records, and John Denver, and some Beatles,” Randell says. “I became incredibly enchanted with the Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel albums that they had. I remember, as a very young child, poring over the lyrics on the album sleeve and playing them over and over again.
“I could sing for hours in my room; I’d just put the cassette on and sing along. It became a fairly consistent part of my life, inside what was a fairly tumultuous childhood in a lot of ways, particularly in my teenage years.”
As she grew older, Randell found her rural environs less pastoral and more restrictive. Benalla, where she attended school, was “a mostly conservative town where people can get small-minded,” she says. “And so I had to navigate my way through that. For quite a few years there, I really did feel like I was biding my time till I could get out.”
She didn’t bide her time for long, leaving home at 15 and eventually making her way to Melbourne. “At the time it was very hard,” she reflects, “but I’m actually very glad for all of that experience, because I learned a lot about how people can behave, and definitely the way that I didn’t want to.”
As in her younger years, a soundtrack accompanied those difficult times. “A great thing to have in my back pocket was the music that I was into,” she acknowledges. “My parents had a great record collection, but I started getting access to a few more interesting things — some punk bands.”
Those new horizons came courtesy of a babysitter, who gave Randell a cassette with songs by the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and others when she was 12. “The attitude was fantastic in that music,” she says, “and that really was a great tool for me, as I was kind of struggling with the small-town stuff that goes on.”
Some of that spirit carried over into a band Randell formed after moving to Melbourne in her late teens. “I guess it was a little more punk sounding, even though I still was using acoustic instruments,” she said. “I was definitely processing a lot of stuff that had built up over a few years, and there was a bit of attitude in there.”
Those early band exploits were Randell’s first serious attempt at playing music, though she’d had some prior training. She took piano lessons for a couple of years as a young child — “not that long, but it was good to have a general grounding in a little bit of music theory and knowledge,” she said. “And I did learn a couple of chords on the guitar from my aunt Jo in Western Australia; she taught me how to play ‘Patience’ by Guns N’ Roses when I was about 14.”
An early instrument of choice was a nylon-string guitar, which lends a softer tone than the more common steel-string models. “My mum had a beautiful old nylon guitar, so I played around a little bit, but without having guitar lessons or anything,” she said. “When I was around 18 or 19, I was living in Melbourne and I still had mum’s guitar. I wrote my first song when I was about 19.
I was working in a record store and I was going to see a lot of bands, and it just sort of struck me that there were ideas I’d like to hear in songs that I wasn’t hearing. And I got that kind of spirit on the first song that I wrote — I was like, ‘Oh, I want to write something about this.’”
In the City and on the Beach
Childhood was very different for Hassett, who was raised in suburban Melbourne. “I went to a nice school and had a very stable life – not as drama-filled as Zoë’s,” he says. The common thread was an early love of music, fueled by summer beach trips that involved lots of singing with his brothers and two family friends.
“I had an older brother and a younger brother, and I think my dad might have thought that he had the next Bee Gees on his hands,” Hassett chuckles. “So he tried to encourage us to sing three-part harmony at all costs. And we loved doing that down at the beach. We got really addicted to singing harmonies and singing Beach Boys songs. All summer we would just sing and play music together — surf by day and sing songs by night.”
Like Randell, Hassett also took piano lessons early on, but his training included guitar as well. “By the end of high school, I would just hang out in the music room,” he says. “Every hour I could, I’d be in there playing music with my mates.”
The school’s facilities were a great resource, even if Hassett’s pursuits weren’t exactly what his teachers had in mind. “We had a good music department, but they weren’t very happy with us spending all that time there,” he says. “They were very much focused on more traditional music styles, like classical music, and then big-band jazz if you were going to be a bit left of center.
“Every lunchtime we would go there, and they would look for ways to kick us out, because we’d plug in the guitar amps and turn them up really loud. It was a very nurturing environment in most respects, but we were playing music that wasn’t really accepted.”
While Randell was turning on to punk, Hassett’s teen tastes turned toward different realms of the rock universe. “I was into more sort of glam rock and the popular glam metal bands,” he says. “As I got a little bit older, I started getting into a lot more psychedelic rock and ’70s-style stuff; I was a huge Pink Floyd fan, and got into Led Zeppelin.”
Inevitably, he joined a band that started playing shows in Melbourne, a psychedelic prog-rock quintet called Mars. “We would spend more money on lasers and smoke machines than we would on any other aspect of our production,” he recalls with a slightly self-mocking tone. “We were very tightly rehearsed. It was actually quite successful in that we had just finished high school and a lot of people would come to our shows. We’d have 400 kids at a show.
“But it was a bit awkward because it was run on consensus; everyone had to agree on every single thing before anything could be put down. And I think that ended up causing the premature end of the band. There were two main songwriters, and they were sort of at loggerheads. And I ended up just sort of ejecting myself — coincidentally, around the exact time that Zoë had left her band.”
This was unbeknownst to either of them, of course, as they had yet to meet. Their paths might have nearly crossed once or twice; looking back, Hassett recalls his band playing at the Esplanade Hotel, a storied Melbourne venue, around the time Randell was working there. “We think that maybe she might have been working a shift one day when I played,” he says. But that was as close as they came.
Instead, they’d have to travel more than 10,000 miles, to Edinburgh, Scotland, before they would actually meet.
Halfway around the World
It was 1999, and Randell and Hassett, having left their respective bands, simultaneously decided to travel to Europe for an extended period. “When you’re in your early twenties and you go overseas, from Australia it’s such a long way, you typically make it count,” Hassett explains. “I went for six months, and Zoë was gone for 12 months.”
Summertime found them both in Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival, a massive annual celebration that takes over the town for a few weeks with art, literature, music, theater, and the like. Randell’s uncle had a friend who ran a festival venue called the Spiegeltent, and she got a job working there during the event.
A mutual friend back in Australia had suggested to Hassett that he should drop by the Spiegeltent and meet Randell. Music provided the means of introduction: “I had a guitar,” Hassett says, “and she had neglected to travel with a guitar, and she was regretting that.”
Then came the moment of truth.
“As soon as she had the chance to play my guitar, she started showing me a song that she had been working on. And I just sang along with that,” Hassett says. “We realized there was a very natural blend in our voices that was really striking. Obviously I grew up singing harmonies and I love doing it, but it was really quite a striking blend. It was almost confronting, actually.”
I consider this one of those great fated encounters in modern music, akin to when Simon met Garfunkel, when Gram Parsons met Emmylou Harris, when Gillian Welch met David Rawlings.
Hassett and Randell would never suggest such comparisons themselves, but his use of the word “confronting” is significant: They knew, instinctively, what they had found, and that it demanded their attention. “From that moment on,” Hassett says, “we started working together.”
Which is not to say that Luluc began right there on that day. Though Hassett and Randell reconvened in Spain for a couple weeks after the Edinburgh encounter, he returned to Australia while she stayed abroad for a few more months. The remainder of Randell’s travels included her first visit to New York, a city she’d dreamed about visiting since she was a child.
“I could feel that it was the beginning of a relationship with the city; I just knew that I was going to spend time there again,” she says. “I remember hearing about a musician when I was kid, some person who’d gone to New York and was studying at Juilliard. I remember my ears pricking at the idea of being in a city like New York and doing music. I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing.’”
Back Home Again
New York would have to wait a while. When Randell returned to Australia in 2000, she was determined to pursue the schooling she’d missed out on as a result of leaving home at 15.
“I really needed to get a bit of education under my belt, and I was excited to as well,” she says, noting that she found the university environment “very different from the high school experience, and I loved it. … I guess it was kind of rounding out what was definitely lacking in my earlier childhood. And it gave me some pause when it came to the songwriting, actually: I had more to bring to it, which I’m very glad for.”
While Randell was getting degrees in art and law, Hassett returned to school as well. He’d begun university studies before the trip to Europe, but dropped out “because I wanted to learn the B-side of Abbey Road,” he says with a hearty laugh — before explaining that, in fact, he’s dead serious.
“It’s actually exactly what I did. I was trying to explain to Mum and Dad; we weren’t a wealthy family, and they sacrificed a lot to give me an education. So they were like, ‘Why are you leaving?’ And I said, ‘Well, because I prefer to learn the B-side of Abbey Road than learn anything I’m learning about now. So when Zoë came back (to school), I was in a similar position where I actually wanted to study. I went to music school, and then I went back to university and did an English and sociology major.”
Intertwined with their educational pursuits were a couple of prominent musical projects that bloomed for each of them. First was a group called Wagons, named after frontman Henry Wagons, that Hassett formed with several old friends from high school.
“It was sort of an ironic satirical country band,” Hassett says. “My mate Henry was a philosophy student who had written these funny country songs, and it turned out he has a brilliant voice.” Hassett parted ways with the band many years ago, but Wagons remains active today and has become increasingly popular in the US Americana music market in the past few years.
Asked about what Hassett brought to the band in its formative days, Henry replied that “Steve has always had the most impeccable sense for melody and harmony. He was the perfect counterbalance for my own occasional musical brutality. It made for quite a formidable combination as the band got off the ground. He also brought an unrivaled musicianship and general savvy that helped guide us through the early years of our band.”
In the midst of Wagons’ rise, a prime singing opportunity suddenly popped up for Randell, thanks to her participation in a Nick Drake tribute concert at Melbourne’s 900-capacity Corner Hotel. “‘Which Will’ was the song that Zoë ended up singing,” Hassett remembers. “And — biased me! — but I do think a lot of people thought that she brought the house down. She was fantastic.
“A year after that, this guy Paddy Mann, who plays under the name Grand Salvo, came up to us when we were having a drink at a club. He recognized Zoë from that night and asked her to sing with him. He’s got a great reputation in the Melbourne scene; it was a very folk-sounding thing that he was doing, and Zoë started singing harmonies in his band. She became quite known locally for that.”
“Learn to Love Your Debt”
In the midst of these auspicious life developments came a deep loss. In 2003, Zoë’s father, Gerald Hamlyn Randell, passed away after a long illness. Zoë was just 28 at the time of his death.
“He was a very eccentric character — a very big character,” Randell says. “It was keenly felt when he passed away, because he really was such a huge personality. He was a 1940s child. He was a lover of fine things; he was a real humanitarian, and a bit of a philosopher.”
A lecturer on agricultural science and economics at a college near Upotipotpon, he co-authored the Farm and Small Business Record Book, reflecting his dual expertise in rural and financial affairs. “He set up an accountancy center in town,” Randell remembers, “and he really looked after his clients in a very caring way; he took his position quite seriously.
“He was very intelligent, very funny, but he also had very serious health problems, which complicated things for him,” Zoë continued. “He unfortunately had a very serious stroke when I was about 12 years old, and over the course of the next four or five years, he really came very close to dying a number of times.
“After the period where it was very touch and go, he sort of stabilized. It was strange, actually, because he had such a strong personality that a lot of people didn’t realize he was sick at all. They’d hear about these big dramatic events, like when he had a stroke and was rushed off to a Melbourne hospital by helicopter from the country town, but he really kept his suffering and pain to himself.
‘When he passed away, we had a small funeral, and then a large wake at the Benalla Art Gallery. There were around 400 people there. He had this great saying that he used to tell his clients, which was: ‘Learn to love your debt for the things it allows you to do.’ My uncle Rob gave a speech, and he started (reciting) that quote, and pretty much everyone in the room joined in, in unison.”
Losing her father left Randell re-examining her life, and she came out of it with some firm conclusions. “A loss like that can really help you get a clear sense of your priorities,” she says. “And the thing that was clear to me in the aftermath of his passing away was that the most important things to me were people and music. That sort of clarity on what I wanted to try to do with my life became very prevalent.”
New York, Malta, and Dear Hamlyn
Decisive action toward that end came in 2005, when Hassett and Randell set out for a six-month trip split between New York and Malta. Family connections helped in both places: Hassett’s mother is Maltese and had relatives who were still there, while Randell had second cousins who lived in Brooklyn.
“It was a little difficult in New York to do much songwriting, because we were just kind of lapping up the exciting city,” Randell recalls. “But when we got to Malta, it was a very settled time. A lot of little ideas that I’d started in Australia, where I was busy doing too many other things, started to evolve. And then a couple of new songs came together.”
They did pick up one key piece of the puzzle in New York: a name. Cafe Luluc (pronounced loo-LUKE) is a modest little diner/bistro on Smith Street, a couple miles south of the Brooklyn Bridge. They’d grown fond of the place, but they chose the name largely for phonetic reasons: “I think the thing we liked about it is the way it lilts,” Randell told Weekend Edition. “We felt like that was appropriate for our sound.”
When they returned to Australia from Malta, they started playing shows as Luluc. They also began recording the songs they’d finished overseas in their attic residence in the Melbourne neighborhood of Fitzroy North, near the city center. Hassett produced the sessions, with engineering help from longtime friend Dave Manton of Melbourne band The Hello Morning.
An 11-song mood piece that brings to mind Nick Drake’s classic Pink Moon (a connection Randell acknowledged when speaking with Weekend Edition), Dear Hamlyn was fine-tuned with extraordinary care. “Not a single stroke or strum is obtrusive in 40 minutes of music,” I wrote after hearing the album in 2011. “Such mindful restraint is deceptively difficult to realize, but it’s a big reason Dear Hamlyn is magic.”
At its heart is “Little Suitcase,” in which Randell uses the inheritance of her father’s luggage to paint the picture of his loss. My observation in 2011: “In the end, Randell wonders: ‘If I were to travel to some new place, will I find a new home, or just more empty space?’ That emptiness bleeds in the beautiful resonation of Randell’s voice, which disarms with a gracefulness that is the very antithesis of pretense.”
“One Day Soon,” which highlights the blend of their voices, is the immediate standout, one that found its way to the network TV series Grey’s Anatomy a couple years later. The show also aired the album’s leadoff track, “I Found You,” which almost certainly is an effort to capture that fateful meeting in Edinburgh in 1999. “How my heart is beaming like the sun, and the moon, and the stars beyond,” Randell sings. “I found you.”
Reception and Connection
Issued through the Australian major independent label Shock in 2008, and to date never released in the United States (though there are tentative plans for a Sub Pop reissue), Dear Hamlyn put Luluc on the map in their home country. The album earned attention from radio and press outlets as well as from industry figures who helped them get booked as an opener in Australia for Lucinda Williams and Fleet Foxes and on festival bills.
Williams, who toured Australia with Luluc in April 2009, befriended the duo and invited them to stay at her house when they visited Los Angeles later that year. “I think Zoë’s lyrics are remarkable and together, she and Steve make musical magic,” Williams wrote via email. “She has that kind of voice that, when it’s wrapped around the right words, can make you cry. It did me.”
At the 2009 Golden Plains Festival outside of Melbourne, Luluc made a similar impression on Peter Jesperson, a longtime music executive with New West Records in Los Angeles who was previously a founder of Minneapolis’ fabled Twin/Tone label (and the early manager of the Replacements).
“They were the second act of the day and took the stage at 10:20 a.m.,” Jesperson recalled via email. “I had flown in from Adelaide very early that morning. My dear friend and Luluc’s then-manager, Bernadette Ryan, had facilitated me getting there in the nick of time.
“It was a cool morning. A small but attentive crowd was gathered in front of the stage. Some people were still just coming out of their tents. The setting was very serene and pastoral. I had heard some of their music and liked it but hadn’t totally connected yet.
“Within seconds of the vocals starting, I was hypnotized. The softly melodic, confident, unhurried music was riveting. To my ear, it had the flavor of Judy Collins doing Nick Drake songs. I was hooked. I got a copy of Dear Hamlyn that night and it became one of my most played records of the last decade.”
Jesperson subsequently helped set up a Los Angeles show for the band at Hotel Cafe in July 2009 that led to the Grey’s Anatomy placement, thanks to a rep from the show being in the audience. With prospects starting to heat up in the States, Hassett and Randell resolved to move to New York City for all of 2010 and the first half of 2011. “I really wanted to concentrate on writing for a bit,” Randell said. “We just decided to sort of set ourselves up for a period of time, like we had done in Malta, but we decided to do it longer.”
A few other opportunities arose during their stay. They played folk festivals in Winnipeg and Vancouver in the summer of 2010, thanks to recommendations from Canadian DJ Tom Coxworth. They played the North By Northeast industry event in Toronto — where they met Nick Blasko, who eventually became their manager — and New York’s fall CMJ confab.
Covering Hallowed Ground
Another offer came from across the pond. Jenny Wilson, owner of a U.K. record label called Forthesakeofthesong, dropped a line out of the blue after coming upon Luluc’s MySpace page and asked if they’d like to contribute a track for the second volume of a Townes Van Zandt tribute she was putting together. They recorded a lesser-known Van Zandt tune, “None But The Rain,” for the disc, which came out in October 2010.
About four months later, that song turned my world upside down: To my ears, it’s the best Townes Van Zandt cover ever recorded. Equally mesmerized by Dear Hamlyn when it arrived in the mail a few days later, I made plans to fly to New York the following week to see the band play a Tuesday evening show for about a dozen people at the Lower East Side bar Piano’s.
Speaking with the band after the show, I learned that Hassett would be at SXSW the following week, sitting in with his old band Wagons. We met up in Austin and spent much of the week together, allowing me further opportunities to understand what makes Luluc tick. After a few nights watching Hassett and his Australian pal Dave Manton closely observe the mixing boards in various SXSW venues, it became obvious that Hassett really knew a lot about the technical aspects of sound, which helped to explain the impeccable sonics of Dear Hamlyn.
Hassett’s longtime day job was a key factor here. “I actually supplemented my education by working as an engineer at live music venues, and then also at the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,” he explained. “I worked there from 2003 to 2012. There’s a lot of wonderfully experienced producers and operators there who’ve been recording orchestras and jazz; I’d ask questions and find out how it all works.”
Shortly after SXSW, Hassett sent me a note saying that “we have been asked to do a song for an outlaw country compilation … was wondering if you had ideas to give us a head-start on finding an appropriate artist or, better yet, a handful of songs to consider.” Taking this for the ultimate kid-in-a-candy-store moment that it was, I came up with a half-dozen or so recommendations, from which they chose the Flatlanders’ “Keeper of the Mountain,” written by Al Strehli.
Still, Luluc’s most resonant covers project was just around the corner. Shortly before their return to Australia in the summer of 2011, they got word from legendary producer Joe Boyd, whose credits include the landmark Nick Drake and Fairport Convention albums of the late 1960s and early ’70s, about participating in a series of Drake tribute concerts he was presenting later that year — in Australia.
“I needed to add two Australian singers,” Boyd recounted via email. “Various people sent me music by some excellent singers, but nothing really struck me. Time was passing. Meanwhile, I had a stack of CDs to listen to. I tended to play them late at night while reading; whether they could distract me was a good test. There was one I kept coming back to, entranced by the voice of the female singer. I’d never heard of them, but it wasn’t until the third evening that I looked at the CD cover and saw that Luluc was recorded in Melbourne! The voice was Australian! Problem solved.
“But then I had to convince the Australian presenters that Luluc was enough of a ‘name.’ I stamped my foot and got my way. And of course, Zoë and Steve — as well as our male Australian singer Shane Nicholson — were wonderful. A delight to be around and they stole the show!” The evidence appeared in 2013, when Boyd produced a live CD documenting the concerts and placed three Luluc tracks on it (more than for any other participating artist).
It was almost a miracle that Boyd ever received a copy of Dear Hamlyn. Woody McDonald, a radio programmer and festival booker in Melbourne, had been pestering Randell and Hassett about sending Dear Hamlyn to Boyd for more than two years. “He said, ‘I just think Joe would really understand it,’” Hassett recalls. “We were very grateful for his advice, but we thought it probably wasn’t worth sending to Joe because we thought he gets a lot of CDs and we didn’t know that he’d actually listen to it.”
McDonald persisted with the suggestion. When Randell and Hassett prepared to return to Australia from New York in 2011, “we thought, we can’t confront Woody without at least sending the CD to Joe,” Hassett said. “So Zoë put it in an envelope and popped it in the mailbox.
“We went back to Australia and we saw Woody, and he’s like, ‘Did you send it?’ And we said, ‘Yes, we sent it to Joe Boyd.’ We thought that would be the end of it: When we dropped it in the mailbox, we thought, ‘That’s done, we’ve fulfilled our requirement to Woody.’” Little did they know.
A National Treasure
After the Nick Drake tribute concerts, which included a night at the iconic Sydney Opera House, Luluc returned to the States for a good chunk of 2012. In March, they played several shows at SXSW in Austin and reconnected with film producer Craig Charland, who had met Hassett by chance at a restaurant in 2009. A couple months later in New York, Charland introduced them to Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner of prominent indie rock band the National, with whom he’d recently worked on a couple of film projects.
They ended up subletting Berninger’s place in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood, which happened to be above Dessner’s home studio. “Matt knew that we were recording,” Randell recalls, “and he said, ‘You might want to talk to Aaron about all that; he’s a very good producer.’ We didn’t know so much about Aaron’s production side of things, so we listened to a few records that we discovered that he’d done, and we really loved what we heard. We liked him so much; we really only had one or two conversations, but the connection was very immediate, and very strong.”
Dessner, reached by email while on tour in the UK, concurred. “The chemistry was so natural and immediate that almost everything I tried in terms of production worked almost from the first take — so it felt very natural and unlabored,” Dessner said. “I think the record itself feels effortless and casual while obviously still very composed. To me, this is the power of Luluc’s music; it has a trance-like quality beneath what appear to be folk songs on the surface.”
Randell and Hassett got down some of the basic tracks on their own in Dessner’s studio while he was away on tour. Dessner isn’t in the habit of giving bands the keys to his studio, but “by that point in the process, Steve and Zoë had become close friends of mine and they are absolutely lovely, very trustworthy people — so I of course was happy to lend them my studio and all of our equipment,” he wrote.
Given that Luluc hadn’t used an outside producer for Dear Hamlyn, they had to come to terms with the notion of letting another voice into the creative process on Passerby. “I think Zoë and I knew that on this record, the ideas we had for it were just a little bit beyond our experience,” Hassett says. “We needed someone who had a bit more of a skill set in certain areas. Aaron ended up being just so sympathetic and perfect — it’s hard to describe how effortlessly and perfectly we worked together.
“One of the things I really love about all of the music that Aaron produces is the way he builds momentum. He has amazing momentum in his music, and it builds through the course of the songs. And texturally they’re all very interesting. So on one level, it was daunting to take on another creative voice in the project. But I think at the same time, it was absolutely necessary for the album to become what we hoped it would be.”
It’s worth noting that while Dessner is a member of one of the world’s top-drawing rock acts, he didn’t necessarily feel motivated to make Luluc’s intimate music “bigger” in any measurable sense. “I wasn’t concerned with pushing the band to be more commercial or reach a larger audience, really,” he wrote. “But I did want to push the songs away from a bare, straightforward, acoustic, singer-songwriter feeling — as I think they have a much more diverse musical perspective and interest.
“I was inclined to re-amp the acoustic instruments and their voices in many cases, and I encouraged Zoë and Steve to play electric guitars. I also added a number of faster rhythms on guitar and percussion to the songs — I like when a seemingly mellow or slow song pulls you along in deceptive ways. We used some old synths to give the chords deeper resonance or bloom in places, but ultimately the songs are so good they’re sort of hard to mess up.”
“I Have to Return”
When Hassett and Randell shared with me the magnificent masters of Passerby last fall, I passed them along to a few folks I thought might hear what I heard, feel what I felt. It seemed important to do this, lest the hushed magic of their songs get lost in the cacophony of the modern musical marketplace.
On Nov. 3, I sent the music to Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman. The next day, he responded: “Wow! Exquisite.” Poneman happened to be in Brooklyn at the time; a few days later, he and label A&R rep Stuart Meyer met with Randell and Hassett and laid the groundwork for a deal that was finalized shortly thereafter. (In Luluc’s home country, the album is being issued by Mistletone, a label run by Ash Miles and Sophie Miles, nee Best, who was No Depression magazine’s Australian correspondent from 2001-06.)
While elements of Passerby noticeably up the ante — particularly the six-minute centerpiece “Tangled Heart,” which brings in a horn section at the end to ramp up the volume and intensity level well past anything on Dear Hamlyn — for the most part the album is simply an extension of Luluc’s established aesthetic, not a departure from it.
“Small Window,” the opening track, carries the same understated grace as the last album’s “Little Suitcase.” “Winter Is Passing” sketches the seasonal changes in a splendid vignette, with visions of “lilac blue mountains cast against the sky.” Best of all is the final track, “Star,” for which Randell’s former Grand Salvo mentor, Paddy Mann, created string arrangements that gracefully bridge the song’s opening verses to a majestic, enchanting conclusion.
“Gold on the Leaves,” an older number finally seeing the light of day, perhaps best sums up the long journey of Luluc. Its melancholic melody accompanies Randell’s fleeting regrets about the simple life of her childhood on the farm in Upotipotpon:
“These days, I’m bound to cities and crowds,” she sings. “But some days I yearn, and I have to return.”
Postscript: The timing of Luluc’s deal with Sub Pop was uncanny. Through the fall, I’d been in talks with the Austin American-Statesman, where I’d begun my career as a music journalist 25 years earlier, about returning to write about music for them again. In mid-November, they called to offer me the job. Just before Thanksgiving, I flew to New York for a show Luluc had with Basia Bulat at the Bowery Ballroom. We celebrated our new horizons, toasting the memories music had made for us in the past three years and anticipating the adventures ahead. As we wandered the streets of the Lower East Side on a cold Sunday evening, passing by streets and storefronts that helped inspire some of the songs on Passerby, I marveled at the dovetailing of our respective journeys.
And I thanked the heaven and stars for Townes Van Zandt.
photo credits: Top two photos by Karl Scullin; Luluc on NPR Tiny Desk Concert courtesy Alexander McCall/NPR.