I recently had the chance to talk to Larissa Chace Smith, one of the two sisters that head up the The Hello Strangers about the band, their transformation from an Austin duo to a Pennsylvania based 5-piece, their recent victory in the Airplay Direct Win An Americana Record Deal, plans for a new disc and more.
MK - Can you give me a band history?
LCS - Brechyn and I started The Hello Strangers in Austin, TX in 2006 as a duo, writing songs similar to the roots rock and country folk material that we heard so much while living down there. My husband, Ryan Smith, and I decided to move back to our hometown of Mercersburg in July 2007. It was a split-second decision made mostly because we were homesick and wanted to see what living back home would be like. Brechyn moved back home a few months later for similar reasons. We are very happy we did. We had wanted a full band since we started the project, so once we were settled at home we began the task of searching for musicians. Dave Holzwarth was an obvious choice since we had played music with him in the past, we knew him from childhood, and he expressed interest in playing with us again. Katie O'Neil (class of 1997) was another easy choice since she and I were old friends and classmates and she was interested in joining the band as drummer. Kevin Shannon, our guitarist was a friend of a friend and was looking to join in on a project like ours. It all fell together quite easily, as if it was kismet.
MK - I read that you don't write songs together. What can you tell me about the songwriting process?
LCS - Perhaps it's not that we don't write songs together, but usually don't start the collaboration process until one of us has started the melody or lyrics. Once we have a foundation, we get together and arrange the rest of the song, adding harmonies and finishing touches.
MK- What's the story behind the EP title "Introducing Max Schmidt"?
LCS - Max Schmidt is lovingly called our "band mascot." He is our accordion, named after the original owner, Max Schmidt from San Francisco, CA. Our bassist bought him at an estate sale when he lived out there in the 80s. He appears on several of our songs and is well-known by our local following.
MK - I read that you have a new disc in the works. What can we expect?
LCS - The new disc includes several years of songwriting that has yet to be showcased aside from at our gigs. We plan to include a variety of Americana gems, from a rowdy number called "What It Takes To Break a Heart" to a Townes-Van-Zandt-esque sentimental tune called "Never Roam Again." The plans are still in the works, and now that we are working with Steve Ivey at IMI Music, much could change over the next year before we plan to release the album.
MK - You recently won the "Airplay Direct Win an Americana Record Deal". Can you tell me a little about that and what that means for the band?
LCS - When we applied for the contest in November, we never expected to hear anything back. Then a few weeks ago we found out that we were in the top 5, and shortly thereafter, that we won! We describe it as winning the contest of a lifetime. How often do you win a contest like this, really? So it is at once surreal, thrilling, exciting, humbling, and a bit frightening. We are going to have the opportunity to work with an amazing team of professionals on a project that we had already begun, the release of our first full-length album. Now we will have access to innumerable resources that we never would have at the grassroots level from which we have been operating for the past 5 years.
MK - You do a lot of interesting covers live. Have you given any thought to recording any of them?
LCS - It has come up with Steve Ivey, but we will most likely focus this first album on our original songwriting.
MK - You released an EP in 2006, but I couldn't find much info on that. What can you tell me about it?
LCS - This was a demo that we recorded with the help of a friend while we were still living in Austin. This was when The Hello Strangers was still just Larissa and Brechyn. We had a small collection of originals that we were eager to record, plus a Ginn Sisters cover. We never intended to sell it, so we simply used it briefly as a demo before releasing our official EP with the full band in 2009.
MK- Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
LCS - Our songs are a combination of two sisters' real life experiences and imaginations running amuck. What we are most proud of in our music is the stories we tell. We hope everyone enjoys hearing them as much as we enjoy telling them.
Interview By Geoff Melton