Finding Strength and Structure in the Process
Much of the creative process can be considered a journey, and in the case of Humble Fire that journey is one of many peaks and valleys. The dream-pop band formed in Washington D.C. over the internet, with singer Nefra Faltas and guitarist Dave Epley coming together on Craigslist. The pair later recruited bassist Xaq Rothman and filled out their lineup by adding Jason Arrol to play the drums. The band has grown as a collective over the years, learning what it means to be a touring group, navigating relationships while on and off the road, and understanding “how to start again” after successful and unsuccessful relationships. A philosophical sophomore album, Builder cuts right to the heart of grieving, longing, and the search for meaning in decisions we make.
Central to Builder’s thesis is the two-fold process of construction and reconstruction, of having lost but also having found. This album materialized during a difficult time for the band: Faltas had lost both of her parents within a year and was struggling to keep creating music, and the band as a unit struggled to keep themselves together amidst the stresses of touring life. Shortly after the writing and recording process, the songs on Builder took on a retrospectively combined outlook — the tracklist had a common theme, the restoration of self, and so the phrase “builder” took on various new meanings.
Opening track “Taliesin” is, in more ways than one, a perfect representation of this “work in progress” notion. The song is built around sparse rhythms, Faltas’s fragile echoes and a shifting syncopation that ambles along nicely. The song doesn’t lead to a conclusion; rather, it feels ever evolving — as if under constant renovation. The title comes from the name of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in southern Wisconsin, notable for its harmonious connection between design, culture, and the environment. Humble Fire’s sound can draw a lot of similarities to this idea — of synergy between all of life’s parts: from friends, family, and loved ones, to our daily surroundings and environment.
“Taliesin” is a great starting point to discuss Humble Fire’s sound, in part because it is stylistically unlike anything else on Builder. It shows a more pensive and technical side to the band’s character, instead of the all-out pop-rock aesthetic of subsequent tracks. The song’s lyrics are relatively simple, yet sonically complex as they’re used more as a texturing instrument than a method of storytelling. “So you took refuge / but did you ask me to / so you took refuge / and now I’ve lost you,” Faltas reflects on a chorus that closes both the song and the impervious heartache with open trepidation.
The rest of the album is more or less moody pop-rock, punctuated by the album’s title track and second single, “Builder.” Incredibly well produced, it succeeds with simple instrumentation and sparse rhythms. “I’m done with existential woes / and the seasons come and go / seems like the architecture’s wrong / but I know that I can carry on,” suggests a refusal to be dampened by the stresses of life. Faltas aims to move past this turmoil and accept her inability to have all the answers. Structurally, the song builds over two verses and a slaloming guitar riff, before erupting into a warm crescendo: Faltas’ warbling chorus — “When I stop, and I see / this mess in front of me / nevermind that I lost my mind / finally put the pieces / and build something,” – articulates both the struggles of grief as well as the opportunity to build something new out of such a harrowing experience. The everlasting coda at the end of the song, “For the life of me” is repeated as Faltas’ faltering voice hangs on every word; a catchy hook, perhaps, but in this context it signifies more of a cry for answers, a search for the glue with which to put back together life’s pieces.
Penultimate track, “Blood is Red,” sounds more progressive for the group, following the jazz tradition of syncopated light rhythms and irregular time signatures. Contemplative in nature, yet still lyrically searching for existential meaning, “Blood is Red” plays like a heavier iteration of Humble Fire’s dream pop aesthetic. There’s a section of the song that is full of distortion and feedback, and for a moment it feels like the well-polished album has some real grit to it. The chorus line, “The night is black / but your blood is red,” suggests a deep connection between the human condition and the surroundings in which we might find ourselves.
Builder is a strong sophomore effort from Humble Fire. With introspective lyrics and smoldering instrumentation that sounds almost effortless, Humble Fire seek to renegotiate the struggles they’ve experienced. The process wasn’t easy, the pain was real — but now the group has emerged on the other side with some semblance of an answer. Finding refuge in the process, Builder plays like a cathartic balancing act: an attempt to escape grief, but also to acknowledge the feeling in the first place.