"Detroit, man!" That's the exclamation from Nick Schillace as we walk into the home he shares with Jennie Knaggs, his musical partner and fiancée.
This enthusiastic response comes after our admiring remark concerning their lovely Green Acres abode, and in case you're wondering, yes, this is relevant to a discussion surrounding their band, Lac La Belle; the band's new album, A Friend Too Long; and the impending November 8 release show for said album.
But it's what's inside the house — the 1860 Heywood piano, the art adorning the walls (much of it by Schillace's mother, Isabel Schillace, who also painted the cover for the new album), the lounging cats, and the assortment of beautiful instruments — that gives it the look of how the record sounds.
Makes sense; the record was recorded here, by Eric Carbonara, a friend imported from Philadelphia.
"There are some benefits to recording in your own house," says Knaggs. "We could adjust the schedule as we wanted to, he was just here — captive! — for 14 days. We could start early in the morning and go late at night; we didn't have any limitations."
But even more importantly, A Friend Too Long was recorded in Detroit; Knaggs and Schillace want to stress that this is particularly a record of and for the city.
"We hear the Detroit urgency in ourselves," says Knaggs, "you just can't help it — we live here, and we're involved in the music community, and it's there."
Schillace agrees. "There's a real intensity that comes through," he says. "And with visual artists, too. I think it has a lot to do with the history of music in the city — that it's always been really fertile, and has had a lot of cross-pollination."
Speaking of visual artists, this release show is a multidisciplinary event; four photographers that the band has worked with over the years will be showing work at the venue, as well. And for their set, Knaggs and Schillace will be expanded into a quartet, with bass and cello rounding out the duo.
Music streams through the veins of Knaggs and Schillace, both multi-instrumentalists. They both teach music at a school in Lake Orion founded by Schillace, the Orion Music Studio, and Knaggs co-founded the Detroit Music Teachers Collective, a forum for music teachers to pool resources and work together. Lac La Belle has been a going concern since 2009, but both have been involved in widely varying music projects around town for a couple of decades. They came together over a shared love of traditional song forms after studying music in southern Appalachia.
"I try to be a traditionalist and not a revivalist," says Schillace. "I do a lot of different things that are in the historical timeline of American music, and I just try to look at the influences I have as far as aesthetics — artists, what they sound like, what they've done — and then the tools that are coming from those traditions. The way I play banjo or guitar — that's how I write. So the two coming together make our sound, and I think you can call that Americana."
Ultimately though, categorization is a moot point.
"It's just a way of putting that meta-data into iTunes, which is the same way you'd put a record in a bin in the old days," Schillace adds. "You have to look at where an artist comes from and understand the tools that they're using, and then the influence goes a little beyond that when it comes to the artist's own style."
This third record (on their own Double Lot label) was written in an independent-collaborative style, says Knaggs. "We took a few days to ourselves. Nick went up to his place in the U.P., I stayed home, and we completed a few things that we were working on. Then I joined him in the U.P. and we stayed up there for a week, and completed the songs together and shared ideas. So that's where our collaboration usually goes. Although we do have a few tunes where we threw ideas in a pot and then just went with it."
Schillace points out that even when they're writing independently, though, there's a collaborative process present. "I think that when you work with somebody, even if you're writing by yourself, you're sort of collaborating because you're thinking about what they're going to do ... It takes a long time to know you can rely on certain things. There's a comfort in that."
The songs on this record took on a more character-driven form than previous efforts.
"Something that all of the characters on this record have in common is that they're all stuck in some way," Knaggs says. "They're all limited in some way by their circumstances. And we all feel that way at one point or another, but I think when talking about what's happening in Detroit and the people that are being ignored, essentially, during this progress time, we do need to remember that there are people who are stuck, and we can all relate to it. Everyone has that moment."
"I love Detroit," Schillace says. "I've been in this area my whole life. But the last few years have made me feel conflicted about the direction of the city, about what has been marked as progress and what has been marked as successes. There are a lot of things that are just kind of getting pushed away, and misrepresented, and not considered. And it kind of breaks your heart to realize that people's concept of progress and people's concept of growth is almost entirely commerce-driven, and the human element is very much not considered. And I think if you're going to celebrate a new business or a new development without recognizing the things that are happening parallel that are harmful to residents, I think that you're missing the big picture. It might be a stretch, talking about the record and talking about that idea, but I think that I started to become a lot more aware of individual stories and individual people, and the fact that you have a large segment of the population in the city that are so far away from the things that have been celebrated that you just don't think that it's ever going to touch them in a positive way. And it made me just really observe my surroundings again and look a little more intimately at the individual stories, and it helped my writing to try to inhabit other spaces because we have a very positive experience living here. And we know that not very far away, it's a lot different. I really felt the energy, both positive and negative, when I was working on this."
"Our cultural community — feeding into it, being a part of it," Knaggs says, "that's our direction now."
"To look at the human condition and human element — that's what artists should do," Schillace says. "That's a responsibility — to reflect ... what's happening around them. And maybe that's where that energy comes from in the music, because there is that influence in the city.
"I'm proud of being a Detroiter," Schillace adds. "I've always been proud of wearing it on my art and knowing that that's my point of reference. And I think that the great thing about Detroit is that musically, culturally, in the arts — there are all these defining things that have happened here throughout the decades, specific artistic defining moments that created entire genres. And I still feel like it's an unwritten future."
Detroit, man! It's a conundrum. But it sure makes for great art.
Lac La Belle will be celebrating the release of A Friend Too Long at 7 p.m., Saturday, November 8 at the Holding House, 3546 Michigan Ave. The show will also feature performances by Matt Jones, Behind the Times, and the Webbs, with photography by Garrett MacLean, Riva Sayegh-McCullen, TorriLynn, and Elise Mesner.
Mike Ross is an artist who writes about music and culture in our fair city, and also feels that categorization is a moot point.