"I don't think we would still be a band if we didn't love each other," says Laurel Lane, one-half of Nashville's own Fort Defiance, back here in town for a house show on April 5. She and husband Jordan Eastman formed the group in 2014, and they've played nearly 600 shows since then.
"We both really insisted that we not date prior to starting Fort Defiance," adds Eastman, "and we did get to know each other pretty well beforehand, but there's a whole different side of things that comes out when you're together 24 hours a day, in 30 square feet of van space for months on end. You quickly learn all the things you love and hate about a person, and gain a vast understanding of what they need to do to maintain on a daily basis." The closeness comes through in the music; their sound is like honey rolling down a playground slide in the summer. It's a warm, smooth, even flow; everything fuses quite naturally, nothing is forced-that's the result of hard work and thousands of miles on the road.
"The first year of being on the road was extremely difficult," says Lane, "and we probably squished in the same amount of arguments in the first six months than most couples have in their first 10 years. Now we're great, and worked through so much to make things enjoyable. Even though Jordan jokes that marriage has made his songs about bitter and depressing stuff, they've actually always been that way."
The house show is hosted by trumpeter Dennis Negrin, best known for his work with Crescendo Amelia Big Band. Fort Defiance caught his eye (and ear) at their Blue Jay Listening Room performance Feb. 9. Like anyone who sees them live, he was immediately taken in. That night, he offered to set up another gig for them. Local audiences embraced the duo right away, having a solid grounding in that style through home-grown practitioners; the feeling was wholly reciprocal. For Eastman, born in Titusville, "any chance to come back to Florida is nostalgic. We've also never really focused on North Florida until the last six months, so it's been nice to keep coming back and watch things grow. We've always tended to go further south in the past."
Eastman and Lane are on the road in support of their second album, 2017's The Haunts of Youth. A title track video was recorded in the trusty van that's already carried them from coast to coast at least twice, and will again this year. Though they're only two musicians, they make a big sound-a lot of which comes down to their choice of equipment.
"I play a Martin 000-15 and a custom 12-fret, Martin 00-15 that has an extra-deep body," says Eastman. "I push them through an ABY box that's clean on one side and goes to a 1961 Supro 1616T on the other. ... I play Hohner Pro Harp harmonicas, an LP Vibra-Slap and tambourine, and stomp box, which is just a wooden box with a microphone inside." Lane adds, "I play a Recording King open-back banjo, a Luna Guitar ukulele, a tiny, pink, toy piano, and a jangly box we built the day we started the band-a fruit crate with chains and railroad spikes dangling in it. I also stand on a stomp box, but it's not mic'd like Jordan's is."
"We've played shows to a packed sea of people with little reaction," says Eastman, "and others, to 10 or 15, where everyone there knows every word, buys our merchandise and begs us to come back. ... People want to feel something and we have the opportunity to be a catalyst for that, so it's been great to witness street corners, venues, theaters and festivals all give us the same chance." Their smallest gig was in Charlotte. "That one only had four people there," says Eastman, "two of whom were Laurel's parents. It was the venue's last night open before going out of business, and they'd already taken down signs, blacked out windows and turned off the phone and website. Everyone in town assumed they were closed, but they still had us play for some reason." He pauses, then amends himself: "I guess there were actually five people there-their lawyer was signing paperwork in the back for a few minutes."
Regardless of crowd count, Fort Defiance attacks each show with equal intensity, and each mile down the road brings them closer to each other. "I do think that we're at a point now musically where we know what the other will do, and is capable of," says Eastman, "so our songs have started to fall into that mold. There are a lot of songs we do now that we never could have pulled off two years ago. ... I feel like we're finally at a place where we're comfortable enough to write things that are intended for us as a unit, rather than for one of us with the other accompanying." Their vocal harmonies, however potent, pale in comparison to the harmony they've crafted in their lives, and that is really the true art form.
Fort Defiance House Show
April 5, RSVP for address firstname.lastname@example.org, $10