Boston bluegrass band Mile Twelve talks about their new album, how the band came about, operating without a label, and what’s next for the band
By Emily May
Boston-based Bluegrass band Mile Twelve has been creating plenty of buzz within the industry and amongst their fans since forming in 2014, deriving their name from the mile marker that sits at Boston’s southern border on route 93. Comprised of David Benedict (mandolin), Catherine “BB” Bowness (banjo), Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Evan Murphy (guitar/lead vocals) and Nate Sabat (bass/lead vocals), the band performs music rooted in traditional bluegrass with a modern, contemporary twist. Murphy, Sabat, Keith-Hynes and Bowness started crossing paths at house parties and pick-up gigs in Boston and decided to start a band together, gathering grassroots and industry support along the way. In 2016, Benedict relocated from Nashville to Boston to join the band. The band has won multiple IBMA Momentum Awards, winning the band category in 2017, as well as 2 nominations for Emerging Artist and Instrumental Performance of the Year in 2018 and instrumental category awards being awarded to Keith-Hynes and Benedict that year, as well. Through an active social media audience and radio support, the band has garnered an audience that spans the globe, with fans all across North America, as well as Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Their influences include artists such as Alison Krauss & Union Station, the Del McCoury Band, the Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and Jason Isbell, all of which shine through on the band’s latest album City On A Hill, a title that references the idealized imagery of a shining city on a hill, a phrase that has often been applied to Boston. Their latest album showcases their emerging voice as a band and was recorded as live and authentically as possible to give their audience an honest statement of who they are as a band. With plans to write more material and develop a vision for their next album, the band is definitely one to keep on your radar! The band will head out on tour on July 11th, one that includes many North American dates, as well as a few in France. You can follow Mile Twelve and stay up-to-date with all upcoming tour dates, band news and music news via the following links. Check out “City That Drowned” from their new album below.
iTunes/Apple Music- https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/mile-twelve/1015971754
You released your new album City On A Hill at the end of March. You explore a number of diverse topics and perspectives on the album. What was the inspiration behind the album
The concept for City On A Hill arose from the songs, rather than the songs arising from the concept. We realized we had a lot of songs that dealt with very real topics such as a refugee fleeing war, a soldier struggling with PTSD, a city facing an environmental reckoning, a convict trying to find his way back into society, a man who dreams of bringing peace to a dystopian place. These songs were simply responses to the world we see around us. We called the album City On A Hill because its a phrase that is supposed to summon feelings of pride, pride that has been scarce in American politics lately.
Nate- You have said, with regards to the new album, that it expresses your voice as a band in a way your previous record could not. How do you feel that you have all grown, both personally and artistically, since starting the band and how do you feel your voices as musicians have evolved?
Yes — we all believe that this album is the first project that clearly states our collective voice. While I believe that, from the beginning, all five of us have had the drive, focus and the instrumental and vocal facility to make this band work, what has changed dramatically is our personal and collective maturity, both on and off the stage. I feel that the quality of the songwriting, improvising, and all around musicianship has grown in fantastic ways since our last release.
Evan, Nate, Bronwyn and Catherine- The four of you knew each other from the Boston music scene and decided to form Mile Twelve in 2014. What led you to want to form a band together? How did David come to join in 2016?
It was very much a “right place right time” sort of thing. The four of us were similar in ages, and all had interest in progressive bluegrass music. But we all brought something a little different to the table. There was a good mix of interest in songwriting, arranging, harmony, and instrumental excellence mixed among the four of us. We knew that to achieve the full bluegrass sound we needed a great mandolin player. String band music is hard enough already without a drummer, to lose the percussive back beat of the mandolin is an extra challenge. David was the perfect fit for the band. We asked him to move from Nashville to Boston, and he was interested enough in the project to make the leap.
Evan- You have said that Bluegrass music, written and performed by young people, is very much alive. Do you all feel there is a misconception out there that it’s not a genre that many young people pursue?
A lot of audience members tell us how happy they are to see young people playing bluegrass music. There’s no question that there are plenty of young pickers, singers and writers. But I do want to see the craft of writing and arranging really stay alive within bluegrass. Sometimes there can be a real focus on honoring and imitating the legends of bluegrass, which is a really cool part of the tradition, but we need to keep producing new and relevant material as well. Music, when it’s really great, is responding to the world around it. If you’re only ever recreating the past, you’re playing music that was written in another time and place, responding to a different set of circumstances.
As a band, you combine traditional Bluegrass sounds with modern/progressive songwriting and arranging. Have you always been influenced by both sides of the genre? In a genre that is so steeped in tradition, what has it been like to forge your own path in Bluegrass music?
Our system, for the most part, is to write the songs we want to write and then arrange them in a way that best suits the song. But obviously we’re a bluegrass quintet, so every song is going to have strains of bluegrass tradition in it. Sometimes if a song sounds way too outside the box, we might just decide its best for it to be played in a different project outside of Mile Twelve which is always fine. And sometimes we really will try to write something right down the middle, like for example we might say “hey we really need a super fast bluegrassy song in the key of B” and then we’ll write it and work it up. But a lot of the songs aren’t really “bluegrass” songs so to speak, they’re just songs that become arrangements on five instruments that together form a bluegrass quintet. I like meandering between the traditional stuff and the progressive stuff, its all just a conversation.
You worked with guitar great Bryan Sutton on the new album. What was that experience like? He has said that he’s a fan of bands who strive for a balance of being musically unique and individualistic, while also working to include time-honored traditions found in the music. How have you gone about achieving that, playing to your individual strengths as artists while still staying true to the traditional aspects of the music?
Working with Bryan was basically as good as we could have hoped it would be. He is incredibly diligent and focused. Every morning when we arrived at the studio he was there, listening to tracks from the previous day or reading over notes. He was the consummate coach. As far as navigating between traditional and individual, Bryan is the perfect guy for that. This is a guy who has become the standard bearer for bluegrass guitar playing in the modern age, both as an innovator and an exquisite practitioner of the style handed to us by Doc Watson, Tony Rice and many others. If he said it was good enough, we could always trust that it was.
You have all helped to shape the material throughout the the writing and arranging process and all bring different strengths to the band. What do you feel that you each bring to the band that helps to challenge and inspire one another?
It’s a balancing act for sure. There are different strengths in the band, and we are always taking on certain roles. Nate is extremely creative, and is always dreaming up new material and ideas. He plays a huge role in the arrangements, and can hear whole sections of the song come together in his head. Bronwyn has to take on very daring projects as the fiddle player. She ends up bearing a lot of the weight in many of our arrangements since she has this quintessential melody instrument with sustain. She has to be able to hear and execute melodies, riffs and and textures on the spot. David has studied so much modern acoustic music that he is like a historian of different styles and approaches. He has composed two full albums worth of original mandolin compositions, which has turned him into a force of nature when it comes to arranging and playing this style of music. BB is a big picture thinker, and is always aware of how a song will sound in the whole set, next to the other pieces. Though she doesn’t write lyrics, she’s actually a brilliant editor, and has a razor sharp ear for when things just aren’t working, and for when they are. And I certainly play my role writing a lot of the material, and always trying to have a vision for where this band is going musically.
With your first album Onwards, you funded it through a crowdfunding campaign and released it without a label. While promoting the record, you handled all of the tasks typically taken on by labels and publicists. What was that experience like for you and what challenges did you face? Although you have management and representation at this point, you felt able to perform the label services yourselves and self-released the new album, as well. What lessons do feel you learned from the release of Onwards that helped you this time around?
The release of Onwards was an absolutely enormous learning experience for all of us. It was also a really exciting time for us, as David Benedict had just joined the band on mandolin, and we were really excited to share our new sound with the world. Keeping track of all of the Kickstarter rewards and mailing addresses, being constantly in touch with Rock, Paper, Scissors Publicity (we did actually work with a publicist for this album), and keeping the hype alive around the album was a lot to handle, but when all was said and done we were all really happy with the reception the record got. We felt like it brought us into the next stage of the band.
You have said that as you get older, family concerns have become more of a factor, especially with Evan and David getting married this year. How have you gone about finding that balance between focusing on the band and touring and family life?
There has to be a balance, that’s the only way to keep it sustainable. We’ve tried to keep tours shorter and more focused. We’ve worked to raise the fees we can ask for, in order to see more for our efforts. We always make sure there is free time for people. It’s hard, but we want to see this band survive for the long haul, so we have to honor those personal needs.
You have toured the world many times over at this point. What was touring like for you when you first started out and how has the experience evolved for you over the years? Do you approach touring differently as you’ve gotten older? How do you prepare for a tour, especially ones overseas?
When we first started touring, there was definitely a lot of giddy excitement in the van. None of us had been a part of a full-time touring project before, so it all felt very fresh and new. One thing that has definitely changed is the length of our tours have become much more specific and honed. We happily went on three and four-week tours in the first years, and now that just feels like too much time away from home. The way we prepare for an American tour involves a whole lot of spreadsheets, emails, Airbnb bookings, and Facebook posts on our end. The overseas tours we’ve done have always been with a booking agent on the other end, and they have also acted as defacto tour manager in certain ways to help our tour go smoother. We just did an 11-day tour in the UK this March with Maria Wallace from True North Music, and it had all the elements that make a great tour. Packed shows, a clean, easy-to-follow tour itinerary, and a really, really comfortable amount of days to boot.
It sounds like you all stay busy with different projects outside of the band. How do you find the time to juggle everything? Do you all have any exciting outside projects coming up?
The way that we juggle it all has a lot to do with the fact that Mile Twelve isn’t the sort of band that goes out for 250 dates a year. As a band, we’re honing in on 120 quality performances a year, which gives all of us some free weekends here and there to explore some other musical endeavors. David released his sophomore album The Golden Angle last year, and Nate released his debut solo EP Walking Away. Evan has his debut solo EP Born Again Town coming out this fall. Its a busy and exciting time. Bronwyn is starting to imagine a solo fiddle album. We all encourage each other to pursue other music. We feel that it’s really healthy for the band.
What’s next for Mile Twelve?
Mile Thirteen. (Sorry, bad joke.) We need to write a lot of new material and start to develop a vision for the next album. None of us want to make music just to make it. There’s a lot of music in the world already. If we are going to make more music it should have a reason for existing. It’s going to take time and though a lot of writing and arranging to see where we’re heading.