When a band releases an eponymously titled album, you can usually bet it’s a debut, and an exercise in establishing name recognition for an otherwise unknown brand. But in the case of Storyhill, an acoustic folk duo consisting of Bozeman sons John Hermanson and Chris Cunningham, the eponymity is attached to the group’s 12th release in a span of almost two decades. What does make Storyhill sound like a debut, though, is that Hermanson and Cunningham have rededicated themselves to the band after a hiatus of nearly nine years.
“We’ve never had a self-titled record,” Hermanson says in a phone interview. “So we thought it would be pretty cool to do that and feel like we’re recommitting. It’s a new era for us...”
The story of Storyhill began when Hermanson and Cunningham, who have been friends since elementary school, wrote their first duet together for the school choir during junior year at Bozeman High.
“We wrote a song for what was called the Candlelight Concert,” Hermanson recalls. “Normally students would cover songs but we decided we’d write [our own]…Our senior year we did the same thing and for graduation our parents gave us the gift of going into a local studio. We made a tape cassette.”
After a handful of geographical shifts, the two buddies ended up together at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and continued to collaborate. They were known as “Chris and Johnny” back then, a fairly bland moniker they changed to Storyhill in 1996, after playing together for a decade.
Then, just a year later, Storyhill dissolved. The two had spent considerable time on the road, avidly touring campuses and coffee shops until it became too much. Hermanson was living in Minnesota and Cunningham had made his way back to Montana, and for a few years they followed separate solo paths, both committed to music but not necessarily to Storyhill. That might have been the end of it, except for the fact that Storyhill’s record sales started going up during their years apart. When the duo tested out a 2001 reunion show at the Great American History Theater in Minneapolis, they sold out all 500 seats.
“I think a lot of that,” Hermanson says, “was that we had spent four years solid on the road basically touring across the northern half of the U.S.…spreading the word on a grassroots level.”
Still, Hermanson says, he and Cunningham didn’t dive fully back into Storyhill right away. They built a few more albums over the next couple years by sending music files back and forth, but it wasn’t until they recorded Storyhill together in the same attic room last year that they made a collective effort toward the future of the band.
“We really feel like the record is in some ways going back to our roots,” Hermanson notes. “We made a conscious choice to really strip down versions of these songs. Throughout the years we were basically selling way more copies of our live records than our studio records. And so there’s very limited overdub on this record.”
Storyhill is about relationships and, even more so, love and loss. The acoustic guitar plucking and layered melodies of “Give up the Ghost” have an urgent and goosebump-inducing effect. “Paradise Lost” is about development of open land into lifeless track homes. It’s no wonder that the band has been compared to Simon & Garfunkel, not only for the unfaltering vocal harmonization, but for the love theme, threaded throughout with subtle tragedies.
“In the course of our history together my songs tend to be about relationships and the outward world,” Hermanson says, “and Chris sort of writes about the inner psychological world. For this record we really manipulated each other’s songs and [made it] a real dual record. We surrendered a lot of our own egos and allowed it to be what it wanted to be.”
Whatever it is that makes this new album different for Hermanson and Cunningham, one development that ensures a fresh outlook is an alleged offer from a major record label. Band members won’t name names, but claim to be on the verge of a proposed deal offering much wider distribution than they’ve had before, without having to compromise their artistic vision.
“The label we’re talking to right now is great in that they’re looking at the record as a whole,” Hermanson says. “They’re not asking us to change anything.” In the meantime, as they continue to negotiate with the mystery label, Storyhill will remain available only at live shows.
The promise of the deal—if not its reality—marks a happy ending and a new beginning to a story about musicians who have weathered time, distance and the rocky shoals of independent promotion. Hermanson says he figured out as a young student at St. Olaf that music was what he wanted to be doing, and that it was something at which he could make a living.
“There were times in my life when I thought that would be sort of a bad decision, and an irresponsible career choice,” he says. And though he often uses the word “luck” to describe Storyhill’s fortunes, Hermanson concedes that it took a lot of sweat and blood to get here. He says, “I think we’re reaping some of those benefits now.”
Storyhill plays a CD-release show Friday, Sept. 29, at 8 PM at the University Center Ballroom on UM’s campus. $15/$10 students.