Backstage at AmericanaFest: With Justin Wade Tam and Leslie Rodriguez of Humming House

If you've ever wondered what goes on backstage with musicians before or after a show, this series of Q&As from showcases at AmericanaFest in Nashville this week will attempt to unlock that mystery.
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If you've ever wondered what goes on backstage with musicians before or after a show, this series of Q&As from showcases at AmericanaFest in Nashville this week will attempt to unlock that mystery.

First up is Humming House, a Nashville-based folk-rock-roots band fronted by Justin Wade Tam that first came to my attention in January 2012 with their self-titled debut.

Since then, there have been a couple of lineup changes, most notably the key addition of singer, snare drummer and social media butterfly Leslie Rodriguez, who originally hails from Louisville, Ky. Her booming voice and ebullient personality bring an explosive dynamic to the group, and is displayed on their most recent release, Humming House Party!

The Party! mix collection of live tunes includes covers such as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," along with Tam originals like "Tower Park" and "Gypsy Django."

Humming House, rounded out by original members Josh Wolak (mandolin) and Ben Jones (upright bass), along with recent addition Bobby Chase on fiddle (and occasional beatbox), are a vibrant group of performers, especially in a live setting.

After the terrific Americana Music Awards show Wednesday night, which rocked with the appearances of Patty Griffin and Robert Plant, Taj Mahal, Rosanne Cash and three-time winner of the night Jason Isbell, Humming House played an energetic 45-minute set at the Basement that began at midnight. Though small, the crowd, which included Rodriguez's parents (mom was celebrating her 60th birthday) was spirited.

Members of Humming House, from left: Bobby Chase, Leslie Rodriguez, Justin Wade Tam, Joshua Wolak. Not pictured: Ben Jones.

Beginning Sept. 20 in Tarrytown, N.Y., they're back on the road in their Ford Econoline van they've nicknamed Gina for a tour through the Northeast. They've recorded and mastered their next album, Revelries, which will be released early next year.

Put them on your list of Must-See Acts of 2015 (if not sooner).

Tam and Rodriguez spent a few minutes chatting backstage (technically, outside on the sidewalk to the alley-way entrance to the Basement) before their midnight show, being good sports while providing a behind-the-scenes look at their profession, including pre- and post-show habits. Some snippets from the Q&A:

Have you played previously at AmericanaFest?

Justin: We did two years ago. In 2012, when our first record came out, we played.
Leslie: That was before I was in the band. I joined them in February 2013. But I just missed AmericanaFest in 2012.

So what was that experience like, playing AmericanaFest for the first time. Plus, you're Nashville-based, right?

Justin: Yeah. It was great. Plus the festival has been incredible. I've been, I think, three or four years now either as an attendee or an artist. It's a good chance to see friends. That night we played with Steep Canyon Rangers and the McCrary Sisters as well, at the Station Inn.

Do you still get nervous before a show?
Leslie: I haven't gotten nervous for a show in a really long time. But I get really excited. So my adrenaline starts going for bigger shows. We opened, for example, for Emmylou Harris (at Music City Roots at the Factory in Franklin) earlier this summer. ... And that day I woke up with so much excitement. I didn't need coffee all day. I couldn't come down. So I get an excited jittery. I can't wait to do it.

Have you had some changes in the group?
Justin: We've had two changes in the group. Bobby Chase has been in the band for, I guess, about two and a half years now. Mike (Butera) left within the first six months. And when Kristen Rogers left, it was February (2013) and then Leslie came in. She was in the middle of a Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University. So she left the Ph.D. program to join a band. Every parent's dream. (both laugh)

Leslie, what led you to getting involved?
Leslie: I was already a fan of Humming House, and I know Justin and Josh, our mandolin player, from college. And Josh and I were in a different band together in college, a bluegrass band. So he knew that I could sing, and we kind of reformed that same band, like a side project. So we had already been working on that. And he actually heard me make a New Year's resolution that I wanted to do more music because I was pretty unhappy with what I was doing. So he heard that New Year's resolution and a month later he called me, and I guess he had it in the back of his mind as they were looking for somebody. And he kind of threw my name into the hat knowing that I was in the Ph.D. program, but just wanting to take that chance. And it worked out. I was ready. I was looking for something different, and I was ready to make that change. And I just jumped at the chance. Like I said, I was already a fan, I already had the album, I had seen them play and I loved it. And we were friends already, so it was an easy transition.

Justin, you did most of the lead singing on your first album, right?
Justin: Yeah.

Looking for somebody to not necessarily take the pressure off ...
Justin: I tell you what, it helps every night. Leslie takes about a third of the set these days. And it really started out with Kristen taking some covers. That's worked in our favor in a lot of settings. And it kind of gave me a break. And that sort of worked into, when Leslie came in, to her doing some original songs as well. On our new studio record that's coming out next year, she takes lead on three songs as well as this live record that we just put out a couple weeks ago.

Leslie, you must be the social media person of the group.
Leslie: I'm a fanatic. And Josh runs our Twitter. Josh is very clever, and can be clever in 140 characters or less. And he does the Twitter account. But I do all of our Facebook and Instagram. We even have a Pinterest. We have a photo blog. We have all that. If it exists, I've got it covered, I think.
Justin: Leslie's a fantastic photographer. When she joined the band, we all decided we actually had to show up to rehearsal looking somewhat decent. Because it was like having the paparazzi around all the time.
Leslie: And I never have to because I'm behind the camera. (laughs)

Getting back to being nervous before a show. If you do get nervous, how do you handle getting rid of butterflies?
Justin: Whiskey. (laughs)

Is there a process you go through before a show (to relieve the pressure)?
Leslie: We do vocal warmups. Breathing. Taking very deep breaths. We all do vocal warmups.
Justin: Yeah, sort of as a group. I think all those jitters usually go out within the first song or two.
Leslie: There's so much adrenaline. You can't even pay attention to it.
Justin: We sort of set out to have a show that brings everybody in to see we're having a good time. Like trying to throw a party, much like our party record (Humming House Party!). I think that's the sort of atmosphere you're trying to create, I think that within a song or two we're usually pretty comfortable in there anyways.

Any other pre-show rituals?
Leslie: Not rituals, really. A lot of times, actually, we kind of get rid of a lot of energy by writing backstage. We work on little snippets of songs while we're tuning up and warming up. It's happened enough, that, actually, that's where most of what we're working on right now has come from.

What else do you do to kill time backstage?
Justin: I think we probably kill a lot more time in the van.
Leslie: It's so different, depending on where we are and how much time we do have backstage. A lot of it's just ... for me, a lot of it's just getting ready. ... It takes me awhile.

Do you have help?
Leslie: No, it's all me. Having help would be wonderful. (laughs) One of these days. Josh took a nap backstage the other day. Just whatever we need. There's a lot of coffee.
Justin: It depends on the show. When you're driving from city to city, oftentimes you don't have a lot of time. We'll show up to a show at 5 o'clock, we'll load in, we'll sound check, we'll eat dinner and we'll watch the opening band and have a drink and play. Each individual band member has their own thing. Ben and I will like to try to get away sometimes, and take a walk because we're all slammed together in a van all the time. So it's good to get away and center yourself a little bit.

OK, do you call it a gig, show or concert?
Leslie: Show.
Justin: I'm split between gig and show. (laughs)
Leslie: I say show. I think that's probably what I've used my whole life, playing around town with my dad growing up. We would have shows, not gigs. Probably because I was so young at the time, it just sounded weird to say that I had a gig. So I just got used to saying show. I feel like gig sounds more like a job.

Do either of you carry a good-luck charm onstage?
Justin: No.
Leslie: No, but I do like to wear heels. I do feel like that makes the show better for me, having heels. (laughs)

Do you have a pet name for your favorite instrument you play onstage? You know, like B.B. King has Lucille.
Justin: (Laughs)
Leslie: We have a pet name for our van.
Justin: Her name is Gina.
Leslie: If she's broken down, Gina's not feeling good. Or if she's running smoothly, we thank her. "Thanks, Gina."

What kind of van do you have?
Justin: It's a Ford Econoline. A classic band van.
Leslie: We love her. She's like a pet. ... I'm gonna have to name my snare. I'm gonna buy a snare soon, my own. Because right now I'm using (Justin's). When I get a snare and name it, I'll let you know. I'll tweet it at you.

Before a show, what's your must-have food or drink? And is it written into you contract?
Justin: (Laughs) Yeah, in our rider, let's see ... what's on the rider? We definitely have bourbon. Several us really like kombucha. We drink that regularly. (Leslie shakes her head no.) I don't know. We always eat fairly healthy. So we're always asking for veggies and hummus.
Leslie: My preferred meal, if I can get it, is a salad. It rarely happens. Usually, it's pizza and burgers at the bar.

This week, who do you wish you could join (or could join you) onstage at AmericanaFest?
Leslie: Anybody? Like even from tonight (at the awards show)? I would have given anything to join (lifetime achievement songwriter) Loretta Lynn onstage. (Justin laughs) Anything! Oh, (accordionist) Flaco Jimenez (lifetime achievement instrumentalist) was onstage tonight. That was killer.

Which cover song do you never get tired of covering?
Justin: We really enjoy our version of (Michael Jackson's) "Billie Jean" a lot. It's kind of our own arrangement kind of a thing.

And which songs are you sick and tired of covering and will never do again?
Justin: (Laughs) We sort of have done a lot of old country tunes. And in longer sets, we've done fillers. But I wouldn't say we're tired of them. We just don't know if they fit the show as well as we'd like them to. So we don't choose to do them very often. They're still fun.
Leslie: This isn't one that I'm sick of because we haven't played it a lot but I will say that I never really enjoyed, it's a Motown song (by Stevie Wonder), "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." I never liked singing that one.

Is there something that happens during a show that makes you want to alter your set list?
Justin: All the time.
Leslie: Yes.
Justin: Almost every night, actually. It's typically the audience. 'Cause sometimes we'll go into a set thinking, "Man, this is gonna be a raucous crowd.' ... And then all of a sudden, they're like really listening. We're like, "Let's throw a few of these in that people actually will like ... like intimate songs. Or vice versa. We'll have a set where it's a lot of down songs that are really intimate moments and then we'll just cut them all like halfway through. Like, "All right. These people just want us to yell at them all night." It depends on the crowd. There's a time and place to have a crazy party of a set. There's a time and place to bare your soul for somebody.

Favorite onstage beverage?
Justin: For me, it's whiskey. Straight. (laughs)
Leslie: It's just water for me.
Justin: Typically, we drink a whole lot more water, but I'll usually have a small glass of bourbon onstage, if I have anything. It's a lot better than beer onstage, for sure.

What's the craziest thing you've been asked to sign at a merch table?
Leslie: I have a picture of this. At Old Settler's (Music) Festival (in Austin, Texas), this guy asked me to sign his (bare) chest. And Bobby took a picture. That was weird.

What do you do to unwind after a show?
Leslie: Sometimes we just want listen to soft classical music. That's what happened the other night after Beloit (in Wisconsin).
Justin: Yeah, listen to calm music. I don't know. It just depends on the night. I don't know if we really have a ritual to calm down. Sometimes it's really hard to calm down after a really big night. And a lot of times, the night just keeps going. Like after we've had a really great night or great set and there's tons of people around, we usually are going out and celebrating with them. (Tam, left, with Wolak.)

What time do you usually get up the day after a show?
Leslie: It depends if we have to drive, and how far.
Justin: (Laughs)

What about if you have a day off, or does that rarely happen?
Leslie: It rarely happens, but when it does, I would probably get up around 8. That's me, I'm a morning person. These guys will get up later.

Humming House photos by Michael Bialas. See more from their show at the Basement.

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