SPOTLIGHT: The Honey Dewdrops Find More to the Story
Photo by Michael Patrick O'Leary
When Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish sing together, it sounds timeless. But there was a time — their first three years, in fact — when The Honey Dewdrops existed without those signature intertwining vocals.
In their early years as a duo, Parrish primarily played guitar while Wortman took lead singing duty, but one day as they were playing music at home, something new happened.
“Laura was singing a Neil Young song, ‘Unknown Legend,’ and it was one I had been listening to for years and probably sung along with in the car,” Parrish recalls, “and I just started singing along with her. I don’t really know why, it just happened. Somehow, I had a little bit of a harmony that went along with Laura singing the lead on it, and we thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool.’”
Across five albums, including their latest, Anyone Can See, released March 1, The Honey Dewdrops have honed their harmonies, crafting a sound that’s both sweet and strong atop instrumental lines that pull from old-time and folk traditions to make timeless-sounding music for a modern world.
When they first met, though, they were in a rock band. A mutual friend put together some musical friends for a one-time gig, including Parrish on guitar and Wortman on vocals.
“We met at a practice for that band that had just one show, and just kind of kept in touch after that,” Parrish recalls. “We realized we had some other friends in common and that we had some music in common too — we were both at that point in interested in a lot of different kinds of music, but especially getting into acoustic music.”
The friendship continued as each finished college in Virginia, and then a romance blossomed, as well as a musical duo. But for both Parrish, an English major, and Wortman, a photography major, music was just a hobby. Their main occupations, early on, were organic farming for Wortman and, eventually for both her and Parrish, teaching. Looking around them, though, they found inspiration to bring music to the fore.
“We had friends who were farmers, we had friends who were musicians, we had friends who were visual artists — all people who were following their creative paths, and giving all of their time to that kind of endeavor,” Parrish says. “We kind of looked at them … and thought, ‘Why don’t we try music and see if we can do that, for a little while at least, and see what might happen.”
Seeing the World
Teaching, as it turns out, was a good foundation for a life in folk music.
“I think that goes hand in hand with folk music and singer-songwriter kind of material, because that kind of music is about making sense of how people fit into the world, how people fit into the different systems of government, systems of how different social kind of things work in this country and in this world,” Parrish muses. “So I think that working at a school was a deepening of my understanding of how differently people live and move through the world.”
That power of observation, an empathy that transcends time and place, has always been evident in The Honey Dewdrops’ songs, but it’s rooted in the here and now on Anyone Can See.
Songs like “Welcome to the Club” and “Going Rate” offer commentary on events in their adopted hometown of Baltimore that have much wider implications — gentrification and the death of Freddie Gray in the back of a police van, respectively. And “For One More” is a statement on immigration and human connection:
There’s always room at the table
There’s always a chair sitting ready and able
There’s always a place
There’s always a cup
Always something good to fill em up
For one more.
The album’s title comes from a line in “Rainy Windows,” a song about depression and “not being able to understand where you are in that moment of feeling super low,” Parrish says.
“It has to do with the ability to perceive,” he explains. “It seems like we’re in a place in history right now where there are many different ways to see what is going on. But that phrase, it just hits me as, like, some people are going to choose not to even look around at all, but others are. There was something hopeful about the phrase being anyone can see.”
Seeing is important in this day and age, but it’s also kind of hard amid all the conflict and confusion, the blurred lines between truth and fiction.
“It feels like a time when we’re being told what to see, or there are certain lenses that people are looking through,” Parrish says. “It’s impossible for me to not think about the division that’s going on in this country. It has to do with politics, but I think it also has to do with where we are as a culture. There is a sense of division. I would also say on the other side of that, though, riding around to a lot of different communities across the country, having just been in Europe, there’s a lot of similarities, too. So while we do feel super divided, there’s another side of that too. … That division is not the only story going on here.”
Unity is the message from The Honey Dewdrops, and also the method on the new album. For Anyone Can See, Parrish and Wortman recorded their parts together, sitting as close together as possible, with mics set in front of them but also all around the room. “We were basically just going for as natural a sound as we could,” Parrish said, with help from producer Nick Sjostrom.
The idea was to capture the sound that the duo has honed for its live performances. Parrish cites artists he admires, including Del McCoury, Gillian Welch, and David Francey, as inspirations for that approach. As much as he loves their recorded songs, he says, “there’s an extra dimension that happens when I’m sitting in the audience and watching any of those bands do what they do onstage. … There’s a kind of magic that can happen — that’s what I want to spend my time doing, trying to figure out how to tap into that magic.”
In some ways, taking a live approach can simplify the process — fewer people involved, fewer layers to coordinate, no click track needed — but it also means you have to know the songs as a whole entity, inside and out, Parrish says, without overdubs as a fallback. You also have to be at peace with whatever may unfold on a recording day.
“It was kind of a lesson in, like, don’t edit it to death, don’t nitpick every note, because you’re not happy with all of the tiny little details,” he says. “It really meant we had to be okay with some of the details not being exactly what we would have chosen to do. Part of what you get with a recording process like this is you’re going to get stuff that you hadn’t planned for. And if you’re lucky, you get some stuff that you absolutely love, because you wouldn’t have gotten it any other way.”
Now 10 years into the story of The Honey Dewdrops, Wortman and Parrish can’t see their own lives any other way, either. They’ve learned a lot about the world, and about themselves.
“I want to be able to spend my life working as a songwriter and working as somebody who gets to tour and gets to play live shows and every now and then gets to make documents of the work with records,” Parrish says. “What I’ve learned is I love spending my life this way, and I want to keep doing that.”
At the duo’s 10-year mark, looking back is fun, but now that the “let’s see what might happen” question has been answered, their eyes are on the future, Parrish says.
“Now it’s like ‘Yeah, let’s write some more songs, let’s make some more records, let’s keep going down this road.”