Images of grizzly cubs traipsing and tumbling through lush Alaskan meadows are set to meandering and mesmerizing piano melodies. Large grizzlies stand on the river’s shore, scanning the rolling waters for fish. A dripping wet bear pounces and emerges with a salmon clenched in its jaw as the drum beat builds and strings are added. It’s a music video for Jeremiah Fraites’ — multi-instrumentalist and cofounder of The Lumineers — single off his first solo album, Piano Piano, but it’s also a conservation plea.
Until very recently, the grizzlies of Bristol Bay, Alaska, were threatened by the development of a proposed copper and gold mine that would have destroyed the watershed and salmon fisheries the bears rely on. In late November 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the Pebble Mine, effectively killing the controversial project.
“It felt just really disgusting, the idea that these bear habitats and fish habitats and just the whole nature would get desecrated for money,” Fraites says.
Fraites, as part of The Lumineers, has long held music as a conduit for speaking out about causes he believes in. But it’s also a way of life, a religion if you will. It’s something he, acting as an antenna, receives from some other-worldly place or maybe he conjures up the notes himself, broadcasting the music outward into the universe.
“Honestly, the way I think about it, I’m addicted to music. I’m obsessed with music,” he says. “I think there is a spirituality to music and I’ve always thought of music as like my religion without the church or without the idea of a specific god.”
The new album, set to release Jan. 22, is a piano-centric instrumental album 15 years in the making, and Fraites’ first foray into the world of solo musicianship. When he started The Lumineers with Wesley Schultz more than a decade ago, he says he barely knew how to string chords together on a keyboard. But he was raised on classical music and always imagined he’d compose an instrumental album one day. In high school, he even rejected the idea of being in a band with a singer, he admits.
“I was probably arrogant — 16 or 17 years old and just sort of thought I’ll never be in a band with a singer because everything that’s been said, everything that’s been talked about and sang about love and sadness, it’s all been said before,” he says.
Nevertheless, he and Schultz have found worldwide success with The Lumineers, painstakingly cowriting every song for the band’s three full-length albums. They were scheduled for a world tour for most of 2020, even into 2021, in support of 2019’s III.
Like most people, Fraites’ world came to a screeching halt as the coronavirus pandemic descended on us in early March. He quickly found himself holed up at home in Denver with his wife and toddler son, along with their dogs and a large construction project underway next door.
At his wife’s urging, he began to mine a Dropbox folder full of 15 years of song ideas he’d stored away, ones that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of The Lumineers’ repertoire, but that he’d kept with the intention of someday recording a solo album. For the first few weeks of shutdown, he’d spend hours sifting through the files, drinking coffee, revisiting more than a decade of memories — a melody here, a certain chord progression there.
“It was a painstakingly difficult and tedious, meticulous task,” he says. “But in some ways it was a lot of fun too, because I would hear ideas [and be] like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember being in that green room in Boston on tour; I remember being in Prague, writing this piano idea; I remember being in Tokyo when I thought of this.”
Although he writes plenty of songs on the guitar with The Lumineers, piano is Fraites’ muse. As such, Piano Piano centers itself around the instrument, but isn’t beholden to it. Only a couple songs made it as singularly piano performances, while most of the tracks “have a little subtle salt and pepper” to complement the music. The album is both intimate, evoking a sense of sitting next to Fraites on the piano bench as he intended, but also expansive, creating worlds around sweeping instrumentation and melodic drumbeats, most of which Fraites performs himself.
He also decided to record the album himself home, and that wasn’t without its own challenges. He collaborated with engineers and producers over video chat, attempting to get equipment placement just right to capture the sounds he was after. Drowning out the construction noise, he had to essentially force inspiration as soon as his son went down for a midday nap or his dog Spaghetti wasn’t around barking and singing along or after the rest of the family went to bed at night.
“Noise is sort of the kryptonite to recording, especially a quiet piano album so I had to get very creative,” he says.
It was stressful, he admits. Some days he’d spring out of bed, grateful he had a project to keep him going, something he could contribute in such an unpredictable year, an answer for subsequent generations when they asked, “What’d you do in 2020?”
Other days he’d be overcome by self-pity, unmotivated, defeated, listless, wallowing in the difficulty of doing everything — writing, recording, playing almost every instrument and part — alone. He would waiver between boredom and depression, the lines between the two often blurring into a level of creative depletion he was unaccustomed to.
“I think just the isolation, even just being in the house all the time, being around the same people all the time, these little things,” he says, “they’re very difficult to cope with sometimes.”
In the end, he says, it always came back to an amorphous impulse, “this thing” that was “sort of tapping me on the shoulder being like, ‘Hey, keep going.’”
Sticking with the religious metaphor, he adds, “For me it was really something that saved me.”
In spite of the challenge — or perhaps because of it — Fraites says he has a romanticized view of the album, as it invokes sweet memories at home with his wife, son and their dog, elements of which can be heard if you listen closely.
There were times when Fraites would record what he thought was a perfect take, ending with a drawn-out note using the sustain pedal and letting it resolve. But then the sound of a hammer next-door would interrupt, or the heavy bass of large trucks driving down the pot-holed street. Or the sound of his son playing in the background, which can still be heard on the song “Arrival.”
But Piano Piano, translated as little by little in Italian, his wife’s native language, isn’t so much an album about the pandemic, he says, as it is a product of time the pandemic afforded him.
“It was like the most beautiful and the best thing that I’ll probably never do again.”
ON THE BILL: Jeremiah Fraites’ ‘Piano Piano’ out Jan. 22 via Dualtone Records/Mercury KX.