Hannah Walker and Jamie Elliott come from different sides of the Lower Mainland tracks, with the idyllic suburb of Tsawwassen miles removed from Vancouver’s notoriously gritty and troubled Downtown Eastside. To spend time with them is to, at first, think the women of country-folk duo Twin Bandit couldn’t be more different.
Meeting up with the Straight at Gastown’s retro-funky the Birds and the Beets restaurant, the quiet and soft-spoken Elliott endearingly admits to being nervous about the interview process, this having everything to do with being more comfortable in the background than in a spotlight. Walker is outgoing, gregarious, and laughs often; when Twin Bandit plays live, she’s the one who typically ends up chatting with audiences between songs.
Elliott, the daughter of a biochemical-engineer father and a nurse mother, grew up in Tsawwassen with two sisters, their days often spent roaming the nearby beaches. Music wasn’t played much around the house, but that didn’t stop her love of singing, something that she started doing in choirs.
“I was always really shy, did well in school, and played lots of sports,” Elliott, 28, recalls. “I did a lot of things—horseback riding and dance. Basically, my parents wanted to put us in a little bit of everything and then see what stuck. I sang the whole time—I always wanted to be a musician. After being in choir I picked up the guitar at 15 and started writing songs. And music stuck—I started touring through the Gulf Islands and then went across Canada when I was 17 or 18. We were in a trio called Halfass Bluegrass.”
Walker was raised in the Downtown Eastside, one of five sisters. Unless you think Irish step dancing is a sport, she did no sports. Her dad—who once played in a metal band called Metal Monks—today runs a social reintegration program, helping those with mental-health and addiction issues learn trades after recovery. Her mom—who loved the pioneering country of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline—founded a nonprofit inner-city program for kids called the Saint James Music Academy.
Music was, predictably, always part of Walker’s life.
“Our family mantra, for every road trip, is ‘Tush’ by ZZ Top,” the 24-year-old says with a laugh. “You can imagine five girls sitting in a van with that song blasting, our mom shaking her head as we rolled down the highway, our dad grooving until he realized the lyrics that all five of his daughters were singing along to, and then questioning his life decisions.”
Elliott and Walker first met in the kitchen of the Saint James Music Academy, which is located in the Downtown Eastside. Thanks to her mom’s involvement, Walker was a regular on-site. Elliott showed up a well-meaning newbie.
“I walked in and one of the first people that I met was Hannah,” Elliott remembers. “For me, it was love at first sight.”
Laughing, she adds: “For her, it wasn’t. But right when I saw her, I was like, ‘I need to get to know this person.’ ”
Walker remembers things like this: “Basically, I was being an impatient asshole. I remember being really stressed—there were about 90 kids coming in, and I was the only one working in the kitchen at that time. Jamie is meek when you first meet her. She came in and wanted to help, but I didn’t have time to explain what she needed to do. When I’m on the job, it’s big and bold and ‘What needs to happen here?’ Jamie is a processor—she’s really good at stepping back and assessing the situation.”
But despite their differences, the two bonded in no time at all, quickly becoming inseparable friends. Music can be a powerful thing, especially when you launch into a country-folk traditional like “The Good Old Way” while working in a kitchen, and then someone you’ve never met before ends up knowing all the words.
“I started singing, and then Jamie joined in,” Walker recalls. “And that was truly it. It’s so cheesy, but it’s true. I turned around, and that connection just happened.”
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, the two musicians—who are set to realize their dream of playing the Vancouver Folk Music Festival—realized they weren’t really different at all. And that might explain why, as they build a name as Twin Bandit, they are totally united in one goal: to make the world a better place.
In six months, Twin Bandit went from the Saint James Music Academy kitchen to house shows to a deal with respected Vancouver-based indie Nettwerk Records. When it came time to work on their debut full-length, For You, Walker and Elliott decamped to a farm in Maple Ridge with producer Jon Anderson (We Are the City), who urged them to push themselves sonically.
Twin Bandit started out centred around the vocals and guitars of Walker and Elliott. Remarkably assured and accomplished, For You positioned the duo as an act that’s about much more than acoustic six-string and heart-melting harmonies. Downtempo keys and cool-jazz trumpet push “Crown” into territory that’s part Blue Note Records and part easygoing Americana. A cover of Daniel Lanois’s “Shine” benefits from rumbling rolling-thunder distortion, while the American-gothic fiddles and reverb-drenched guitar make “Tumbleweeds” badass enough for anyone from the Church of the Man in Black.
The members of Twin Bandit share musical touchstones that transcend folk, Walker having even played in a postrock project at one point.
Country icon Emmylou Harris is a mutual obsession, as is Fleetwood Mac’s essential cultural touchstone Rumours. Early on there was bonding over the recordings of Lanois. (The Canadian icon also happens to be a Twin Bandit fan; earlier this year he invited Elliott and Walker down to his property in Jamaica, where the two wrote songs for their next record.)
Quite unashamedly, Elliott cops to being a big fan of Nashville pop-country. But before you go judging her, consider that she’s equally enamoured with the genre’s icons. One of her favourite shows of the past year was whiskey-snortin’ country upstart Nikki Lane, who ripped up the Cobalt last November.
“I was right at the front,” she says with a laugh. “We showed Jon some of her songs, and said ‘We kind of want a little bit of this.’ ”
But despite the sonic territory they cover on For You, both Elliott and Walker happily describe themselves as folk musicians. And it’s therefore no surprise they’re jacked about playing the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
“Jamie and I found this piece of paper the other day—it was our goals when we first met,” Walker says. “We had gone, ‘Okay, let’s get super crazy here, and imagine down the road what we’d like to accomplish.’ And we’ve been ticking off things all the time: play Europe, play the Vogue Theatre, play the Winnipeg Folk Festival, play the Vancouver folk festival.”
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival is extra special.
“I think because it’s in our hometown, and it’s because of our roots,” Elliott offers. “I went as a kid.”
“I never went, because we couldn’t afford it—our family is poor,” Walker adds with a laugh. “But we’d go and sit outside of the fence and listen. We’d go as a family, me and all four of my sisters, set up the picnic blanket, and have a great time on the beach. Being from Vancouver and being a folk musician who’s now invited to participate in that is definitely a mark of pride. And I mean pride in the healthy sense—like ‘Wow, I’m excited to be doing music, and excited to be able to play with all these really talented musicians.’ ”
Part of that excitement is, perhaps, due to the values that folk music stands for.
Dating back to giants like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, the genre has a storied history of pushing for positive change, whether it’s political, environmental, or social. The idea that the world could use a little more compassion is woven into folk music’s very fabric. And that couldn’t be more important to Elliott and Walker.
For proof of that, look no further than For You’s “Rosalyn”, a slice of golden country where Walker pays tribute to a Downtown Eastside woman whom she grew up knowing thanks to her family’s involvement in the community. Rosalyn, who was older and heroin-addicted, taught a young Walker how to play poker and bonded with her over a mutual love of Scooby-Doo. And while the opening line “The tracks on your skin tell me how far you’ve been” give a good idea how the story goes, the song ends up a beautiful celebration of a hard life rather than a bitter rumination.
“There’s a strong emphasis culturally right now, for whatever reason, to write music that’s cynical, that speaks to the darker side of human nature,” Walker posits. “One criticism that we heard a few times from people—and it was meant to be constructive—was ‘Get darker. Get grittier.’ That came from this maybe misguided conception that, to be an artist, you had to be tortured. That may be true, but I have enough of that in my life. It’s a reality that I live with.”
To elaborate on the darkness, the past year should have been one of the best of Walker and Elliott’s lives. For You received wonderful press, critics praising Twin Bandit for its honeysuckle-scented chemistry. The friends and bandmates found themselves championed by local roots stalwarts like Jack Mercer and Rodney DeCroo. Touring became steady, taking them to Europe and across North America. Both have been lucky to do music full-time, and also to give back to the community, with Twin Bandit having regularly performed at the Carnegie Centre as well as inner-city events like the HomeGround Festival in Oppenheimer Park.
But there were also painful periods, including Walker’s family losing three close members on her father’s side.
“I’ve got a lot of friends struggling with mental health,” Walker reveals, “and that actually seems to be something that’s really common among my peers these days. A lot of young people are really struggling with anxiety—chronic anxiety—and depression. It seems like every week I’m talking to friends who are like, ‘I’ve just gone on medication for my depression and anxiety.’ I’ve struggled with depression in my life as well, so I have a little bit of insight into what it’s like to go through that.”
If anything comes across after spending time with Twin Bandit, it’s that Elliott and Walker are crazily in tune with each other. On the rare occasions when they aren’t immediately forthcoming (whether or not, for example, to share the Lanois story) they’ll quickly shoot each other a glance that makes one wonder if they’re telepathically working out an answer. Elliott was one of Walker’s friends who was battling through hard times mentally, that bringing the bandmates even closer.
“We were touring and doing all these great things, but behind the scenes we were struggling quite a bit,” Elliott reveals. “We appreciated the opportunities that we had, and tried to see the light through it all and to be present. Hannah helped me a lot, and that was something that really helped me return to my core, and to my true self.”
Twin Bandit, and the joy of making music, would eventually provide a sense of salvation.
“It gave you something to focus on, right?” Hannah says.
Elliott answers with: “I was so sick for a while, and then all of a sudden I was thrown back in to playing and to work. And that definitely helped shape my recovery.”
It is also shaping the future of Twin Bandit. No one would be upset if the duo made another For You, which was one of the best roots albums to come out of not only Vancouver last year, but also the country.
Elliott and Walker are thinking they’d prefer to go a simpler and more stripped-down route, however. And, more importantly, to take an approach that’s in the grand tradition of many of the acts that have played the Vancouver Folk Music Festival: to prove few things are more important in life than compassion.
“For our next album we want to focus on things that are encouraging. Jamie and I have been through a lot of really hard things in the last year. To write songs that are full of inspiration and drawing on life-giving aspects that we also have in our lives has been a really therapeutic way to focus on what’s still good. And I think we’re a bit nervous about that. It’s not cool to be happy.”
Except that maybe sometimes it is. Especially when happiness comes from having an unlikely bestie by your side, as committed as you are to making the world a better place. -
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival runs Friday to Sunday (July 15 to 17) at Jericho Beach Park, with Twin Bandit playing all three days. Check thefestival.bc.ca/ for exact times.