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The Oh Hellos Bring C.S. Lewis Inspirations to Rich New Album 'Dear Wormwood': Interview

by Carolyn Menyes   Oct 15, 2015 14:04 PM EDT

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The Oh Hellos may have started off making music together simply as Tyler and Maggie Heath by writing a loving, joke-filled song together as a birthday gift for their mother's birthday but this is the sort of act that needs to be taken seriously. What started off as a remedy for being a couple of broke children soon developed in to a rich, fully formed musical project with the sort of richness of Fleet Foxes or The Head and The Heart. But, the kicker is The Oh Hellos create those sounds as a duo.

After releasing the critically-acclaimed record Through the Deep, Dark Valley in 2012, the Heath siblings had a unique challenge: how to follow it up?

The result is Dear Wormwood, a concept album of sorts which tells the story of an abusive relationship through letters from the victim. Despite the dark inspiration, the music itself is layered and brings in a massive wall of sound, deeply rooted in Americana and some Texas tradition.

MT: The new album Dear Wormwood is inspired by C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. How does that book tie into the album?

Tyler Heath: The Screwtape Letters is like this collection of letters written by this character Screwtape who is a senior tempter in the lower courts of hell and all these letters are written to his nephew Wormwood who is out in the field in like kind of right around WWII era of Britain and Wormwood is basically the tempter of this one specific person, this guy who is just the ordinary person, and Wormwood's whole job is to just lead him astray. And so it's this book that's obviously got some theological stuff, and when I read it I first found it in high school and thought this is the coolest I can relate so much to what this character is going through. And I've read it a bunch of times since then and so we kind of took the central device of writing letters to this tormenter and then kind of ran off in our own direction with it.

Maggie Heath: In the simplest form it's our fan fiction from the perspective of the human basically.

TH: We took some cues from the actual narrative arc of the book but it's not like this album is the book. We really just took inspiration from it and did our own thing.

MH: From that idea of like having a specific relationship that as your eyes are being opened to the toxicity of it your attempts to leave it for good I guess.

TH: In a very general sense it's an album about a very unhealthy or abusive relationship. So at least that's the lense that we write through. The language is very affectionate but it's always with the intent to communicate that obviously something is not right and that the character is trying to get out.

MT: If I gather this correctly then the songs are a little bit in the form of letters themselves. Your first album wasn't really like that. How did you change your approach to song writing for this album if at all?

TH: Well, we wrote in a different person. Before the album really had a definite shape or a definite concept, there were just a couple of songs that just by chance all happened to be in first person talking to someone else. Like "Dear Wormwood" is one of the songs that was mostly written first. As the album started to take shape, we just kind of leaned into that. And it's definitely different but I especially a lot of my songs, I've told people before, are like pep talks to myself. So for me, writing in that point of view, talking to someone is a little more natural almost. It's harder for me almost to write songs that are not in that first person point of view. So I mean it was a little different.

MH: When we first realized this could be a concept album based around The Screwtape Letters, we tried our hand at completely writing from a third characters point of view, and we found that to be not really genuine. We kind of realized that and pulled back. We found that it wasn't really too much different then writing Through the Deep, Dark Valley because we were writing at least partially from our own personal perspectives and from our own experiences at least to an extent.

TH: We kind of like changed the recipient a little bit because in Through The Deep, Dark Valley you've got songs like "I've Made Mistakes" that are obviously very first person, "True to the Cave" is kind of the same way and "Wishing Well." So, essentially we just added a very definite target or recipient.

MT: Did you find that it was any more challenging to do a concept album?

TH: I would say it was challenging in that we wanted it to be better. We challenged ourselves to bump up the quality more and to pay more attention to what we were doing. I would say that Through The Deep, Dark Valley kind of just happened. When we released it, we called it a concept album, not really knowing what that term meant. It was the best way to describe like, "Hey, this is an album that kind of follows a narrative arc a little bit, it has some central themes it's all basically the same idea we were writing around." So this time with Dear Wormwood, we ended up just really trying to focus in on that and it was basically like, "If we are going to do it, let's do it well."

We felt like it was just a more intensified way of writing than Through the Deep, Dark Valley was. It didn't feel different, it just felt like we were really honing in on what we wanted to do. We paid a lot more attention to writing the lyrics. The difference between Through the Deep, Dark Valley and Dear Wormwood's lyrics is that Dear Wormwood as a whole really pays attention to things like meter and rhyme schemes whereas Through the Deep, Dark Valley a lot of the time is kind of loose with that kind of thing. We did that partly because of what we had been reading. Both of us since we wrote Through the Deep Dark Valley have read Patrick Rothfuss's books like The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man's Fear. His way of writing was revelatory. It opened my eyes to a new way of looking at language. It's just like really good and inspired us to want to be better at what we were doing, and so we did and we tried really hard and put a lot of effort and thought into it.

MT: How long did it take you to record this album and write it then?

MH: We started like the writing process honestly as far as song writing goes, we started that in the fall of 2014.

TH: That's when we really said, "OK, for real now here we go let's write this album." And I would say it really kicked into gear where that was our only job in like January of this year and recording started in March. Recording took almost five months and writing took and we were still writing when recording so the whole process if you want an official amount of time was about seven months.

MT: Oh wow, that is a lot of effort.

TH: I mean, our style or the way that we write and record is it's just the two of us and we write and then record all the part ourselves. But, we record as if we have 20 people because we write these very dense kind of intricate, kind of involved songs that are very -- I don't know -- I call them tall. There's just a lot going on.

MH: More like in an orchestral arrangement than a pop song.

TH: There's just a lot there with only two people to do that you have to go back over stuff a lot and record additional parts and stuff. So, to us that feels like normal.

MT: This album is sort of a sequel to Through the Deep, Dark Valley. Can you talk about what is the specific connection between the two albums?

MH: So, in Through the Deep, Dark Valley when we started writing that we had a handful of songs and realized that they kind of had a narrative between them. It's not super overt, I guess, but at least we felt a narrative between all the different songs. At the end of Through The Deep Dark Valley when it reaches the song "The Truth Is a Cave" it's kind of been the story of someone who basically left home and was rebellious and basically just messed themselves over. So, when it gets to "The Truth Is a Cave" it's kind of this turning point of, "You know what? Maybe I need to go home and right some wrongs that I did." That kind of left the rest of the story untold.

So, when we started writing Dear Wormwood it was one of those moments again where we realized a lot of these songs kind of have a narrative.

TH: They sound like they are coming from the same perspective. It felt like a single protagonist saying all these things across both albums...The protagonist stops and takes a look at what he or she has been doing or going through or dealing with and then turns and goes off in another direction and then that's like the end of Through the Deep, Dark Valley is just that turn and then cut the black roll credits. Dear Wormwood picks up at like the first step in the new direction.

The Oh Hellos' new album Dear Wormwood will be released on Friday, Oct. 16.

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