Last week, with a summer-long tour on the horizon and a Dave Cobb-produced album, 3, due out June 9th, HoneyHoney headed to Colorado to rehearse, refresh and prepare for the months ahead.
"We're in Denver," Suzanne Santo announces one morning, while bandmate Ben Jaffe bangs around the kitchen behind her, heating up some soup for breakfast. "It's like the rock & roll Olympics up here. You get adjusted to the altitude, learn how to sing at this elevation and then come back down to sea level and tear some shit up."
If Santo and Jaffe's time in the Mile High City feels a bit like the Olympics, then the past four years — a roller coaster of success and struggle, from the release of the band's acclaimed second album, Billy Jack, to the slow death of their record label, Lost Highway — must've been spring training. The roots-rock duo had moved from L.A. to Nashville around Billy Jack's release, looking to be closer to their label's headquarters. When Universal Music Group absorbed Lost Highway several months later, though, HoneyHoney found themselves in new, unfamiliar water without an anchor.
"We were on our own," Santo says. "Our time in Nashville was basically a long transition of changing a label and an agent. We were feeling freaked out, so we wrote about it. The days are so long in Tennessee compared to L.A. — you can get around town quickly, without being stuck in the car — which gave us these long-ass days to sit together and write and work out our insanity."
Eventually, between self-financed tours of the U.S. and a long, sold-out run opening for Jake Bugg in Europe, a new album emerged. The songs were dark, rooted as much in raw rock & roll as the harmony-driven Americana music that had sustained the band for years. Looking for someone who could help sharpen that edge, they turned to Dave Cobb, the hands-on producer behind Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Chris Stapleton's Traveller and other albums that take a left-of-center approach to American roots music.
"We had spent four years poking around, trying to develop ourselves," Jaffe explains. "We'd been playing some of these songs for close to half a decade. Dave is someone who's very direct, musically, and we appreciated that. You go into that studio and play something once or twice, and that's it. That's your take. It helps you make an honest record, with nothing to hide behind."
Songs changed. "Marry Rich," originally written as a Gillian Welch-inspired folk tune, evolved into a gritty, guttural blast of late-night soul, while live staples like "Numb It" and "Yours to Bear" grew new legs. The familiar highlights of HoneyHoney's sound — the instrumental tug-of-war between Santo's banjo and Jaffe's guitar, the blend of their voices, the salve and sweep of her violin — remained, but the world around them changed, thanks to a guest appearance by pedal steel legend Robby Turner, a rhythm section assembled by Cobb and a handful of string arrangements written by Jaffe himself.
Six months after those recording sessions in Cobb's Nashville studio, HoneyHoney are living out west again, with Los Angeles serving as their home base between tours. They've been playing most of their recent shows with a drummer, an addition that echoes the big, bold sound they carved out in Tennessee. Stripped free of the string sections and steel solos, though, Santo and Jaffe's new songs still pack a punch. Watch the pair perform a live, acoustic version of "Father's Daughter," one of the album's highlights, above.
"It exhibits the range of our influences," Santo says of 3, which marks the band's first release for Rounder Records. "It goes from folk to country to soul to rock, all in the same album. Honestly, we don't know what to call it. We keep trying to come up with a word for the sound."
"We made this poster for one of our shows," Jaffe offers, "where we're hitchhiking in the desert and Suz is holding up a sign that says, 'Rock?' I feel like that's our thing. Maybe it's rock? Maybe it's something else. But it's ours."