For a group working in the field of traditional music, Lac La Belle is anything but traditional. The music of Lac La Belle exemplifies the many dualities of their hometown Detroit; combining a deep appreciation of what is long past, side by side with modern grit and grace.
Foraging a new path in a city once known for Motown, but more recently for its ceaseless output of Rock and Roll, Lac La Belle can’t help but appear to be outsiders toting banjos and ukuleles about town. On first listen one can hear that they go beyond the folk vernacular, with complex compositions layered with their vast influences from old time, early country and jazz, classical and rock.
Jennie Knaggs and Nick Schillace, both music educators, don’t deny their deep love of traditional American music, and the two carry a reputation for precision in their honest delivery. And they’ve earned it too; both musicians spent time in the Appalachians honing their craft, (Knaggs is a hollerin’ champion in both Kentucky and Virginia), as well as both vivaciously studying the music history of the U.S (Schillace’s 2002 graduate thesis on John Fahey goes deep into the stacks of early recorded music of the 20th century).
Knaggs and Schillace met performing in Odu Afrobeat Orchestra, an international group led by Adeboye Adegbenro of Nigeria (former member with Fela Kuti’s band, Egypt 80). They performed together for six months before they realized they had a common love for traditional music. “I heard Nick perform solo, he created these beautiful soundscapes on guitar, that were both graceful and antique, but with a drive that was more experimental. I immediately wanted to work with him,” recalls Knaggs.
Schillace’s experiences in his youth brought him closer to the roots of American music. Raised by folk and blues enthusiasts, he spent summers at the Augusta Heritage festival in Elkins, WV, learning guitar from greats such as John Jackson, John Cephas, Roy Book Binder and Paul Gerimiah. “I was aware that what I was being exposed to was not only different, but historically important,” recalls Schillace. “I was a pre-teen when I first started playing traditional music and fingerpicking the guitar, but my musical tastes were all over the map. One day, when I was a young adult, I realized that my early exposure to traditional music had more of an impact than anything else.”
Like Schillace, it took a few years of playing out before Knaggs realized the strong effects of her own musical upbringing. Rock n’ roll had always been an influence, but her writing kept leading her towards country and folk.
Classically trained, Knaggs says growing up in Michigan was an unknown blessing. "I was surrounded by musicians\, and very young I started getting involved in folk jams and playing local music festivals...I had my first recording session at 14 years old. It wasn't until I spent some time traveling that I realized what a privilege that was."
Several trips to Appalachia cemented her love of traditional American music. Knaggs explains, "I became obsessed with how the lyrics changed and developed over time. I went to countless libraries in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, copying every version of ‘John Henry’ I could find. I love that in folk music there is no single version; those songs were only survived by the people who sang them. I try to recreate that storytelling in my songs".
Both work to knit together the experience of their vast musical backgrounds to create a smooth and eclectic flow on their newest record, "Bring On The Light"
"Bring On The Light" displays Schillace's avid finger picking on guitar, banjos, and his signature National tri-tone resonator guitar. Knaggs rounds out Lac La Belle's sound with accordion, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, and her soaring vocals. The ethereal track "Autumn Song" guest stars their homemade "Ghost Fiddle", also known as singing glasses, a hauntingly sparse backdrop to Knaggs' acrobatic vocal melody and Schillace’s banjo. The duo works its small army of instruments well by changing combinations to add a diverse tapestry of sounds both on record and in performance.
But beyond influence and instrumentation, “Bring on the Light” is an album that is personal for both writers. Having suffered loss and major transitions during the writing and recording process, their experiences and observations come through with every lyric. Having strong ties to their home state, they pay tribute not only in their name (Lac La Belle is a small village in Michigan's Upper Peninsula), but also in their songs about Detroit, such as "Around the World" and "Novocaine”.
Lac La Belle acknowledge that they are a product of their history, as well as a product of a long line of musicians before them. Their songs, both rustic and modern, carry this momentum effortlessly, weaving the past into a new point of reference, ready to join the ranks of tradition and influence the next pair of ears.