When Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors' new album was released, it was the first of their six records over a 10-year period to crack the Billboard Top 50.
"We've watched artists that have definitely risen to much greater heights than we have, but they also seem to the fall faster. It's like physics — the longer the arc, the steeper the downward slope," says Holcomb, back less than 24 hours from a partially sold-out U.K tour, in only their second visit.
"Charleston's a great example of how we're graduating into these seated rooms," Holcomb continues. "As a songwriter, that's a really great thing. We love a standing rock room, too, but our crowd is kind of maturing with us, age-wise, which is something I've always hoped for — because at the end of the day, my idols are still making music well into their 60s. I hope we get that lucky."
The new album follows 2013's Good Light, and while Medicine is not exactly a dramatic departure from the LP's easy-going roots rock, Holcomb's latest is a different album that has a more immediate, cohesive vibe. It's an album that doesn't ignore the pain of existence but doesn't wallow in it either.
This is apparent from the outset, beginning with the wistful, "American Beauty." When Holcomb whispers, "I wish I had held her longer," it's almost a meditation as the organ rides a mournful tone, and a finger-picked guitar walks a precipice.
"I think what I was trying to get across in that song is the reality of loss — broken youthful dreams and broken youthful love — without it being despairing," Holcomb says. "It's healthy nostalgia that recognizes the reality of the pain, and the fact that it's not something you can change and you can't just turn your back on it."
This is also the first album Holcomb has written almost entirely by himself, excluding "Avalanche," co-written with Ian Fitchuk (Landon Pigg, Mindy Smith). On previous albums, Holcomb had shared the writing with his wife, Ellie. She gave birth to their first child Emmylou around the release of Good Light, and she's pregnant again, so she's staying off the road, and in this case, out of the studio. (That said, she released her debut solo album, As Sure as the Sun, early last year.)
"I was just able to stretch out more than in the past," Holcomb says. "Having Ellie more prevalent on previous records made it feel like we needed to be a little more autobiographical. Anytime there's a love song, our fans would interpret it in a personal way — and this record I didn't have to as much. She's gotten off the road and we've gotten some creative distance in our relationship, which has actually been a really healthy thing."
Another change from previous recordings was that the group recorded every song start-to-finish before moving onto the next one. Bands typically make albums like a cake, laying down the basic foundation tracks of drums and bass for all the songs before recording guitar and, finally, vocals. After watching some documentaries on old classic studios and recording techniques, Holcomb decided to change up the process.
"I had one rule for the making of the record: Nobody says, 'We'll fix it later.' Play it until you get it right," he says. "It just made the whole thing feel a lot more in the moment, which is certainly what I knew we were capable of as a band, and, thankfully, it worked."
Even the flaws proved to be part of the masterpiece. "Perfection is not a real thing, and accepting the human errors is part of what makes great music come alive," Holcomb adds a moment later.
The album itself is a mix of exultation ("I've Got You," "You'll Always Be My Girl," "Here We Go") and hope in the face of darkness ("Tightrope," "The Last Thing We Do," "Ain't Nobody Got It Easy"). This provides a kind of narrative arc, concluding with the into-the-sunset endurance of "When It's All Said and Done."
"There's a lot of misery in the world in the last couple years, and there's been a lot of suffering around Ellie and I, not in our own particular lives and family, but for a lot of our community around us, various things from broken marriages to cancer to other health and emotional challenges that also correspond to what's going on in the world," Holcomb says. "The music, for me, is a way of trying to make sense of the kind of paradox we're in, where we have these great moments of joy — like with my daughter and with the growing success of our music — against the suffering that is both personal and universal in the world."
Now entering his 30s, Holcomb feels a greater confidence in both his personal and creative endeavors that manifests in letting the chips fly. It's a weird tautology of caring and letting go.
"I was having a conversation in the U.K. a couple days ago with [guitarist] Nathan, who's been playing guitar with me since the very beginning, 11 years ago. We were talking about how five or six years ago, every record and every tour, we felt like we had to kind of re-think our identity," Holcomb says.
"Now there just isn't that same concern. The concern is more that we want to get up there and play the songs as best we can and have fun doing it, because in a lot of ways, you forget what you are doing is supposed to be fun."