Sam Cooke

Quick Q and A with Hank Wonder

Hank Wonder is a Boston-based band that makes me smile…a lot. When I think of them, I think about “good time” music. Whether it’s an upbeat dance tune or a melancholy ballad, their sound is irresistible. The band members – Darren Buck, Annie Bartlett, and Michael Loria- are pros. Their songs are cohesive units that take you on a fun ride oozing with creativity and charm. Imagine walking into a club and seeing this trio on stage and scratching your head and smiling from ear to ear when you hear hints of “Your Cheating Heart” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life” in the same song! Pure Joy.

Check out Hank Wonder on their website.

Enjoy this terrific video of “Flip Side” which was written during COVID.

How did Hank Wonder become Hank Wonder?  Tell us about what prompted you to form the band.

Hank Wonder was actually an idea I had during my decade living in NYC. In 1998, I was between musical projects and listening to a lot of Classic Country (Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, etc.) and Classic Soul (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Stevie Wonder, etc.). I placed an Ad in The Village Voice classified section, seeking musicians who might want to marry those two genres into a new musical project. I titled the Ad “Hank Wonder”. The name was a mash-up of two legends. 

I got no response.

Fast forward fifteen years. I was performing as a guest vocalist in a Boston-based cover band led by two old college friends. They offered me the chance to perform a song of my choice with any of the musicians in the group. I chose to sing the Everly Brothers classic “Let It Be Me” with two band members I had just met. Annie Bartlett on fiddle and Michael Loria on acoustic guitar. I knew right away that the sound was Hank Wonder. Patience pays off!

How would you describe your sound?

We call it “Soulful Americana.” In our promotional materials, I still include a phrase first coined by Jake Armerding back when we first started up. “Equal parts down-home and gussied up.”

The combination of Hank (Williams) and Stevie (Wonder) makes me think of  country music merged with rhythm and blues.  Was that the original intention of the band?

Yep! See the answer above. 

Please give us some info about the band members, including yourself.

We all come from different musical backgrounds, with some overlapping elements. Annie Bartlett is a classically trained violist and violinist, Michael Loria has played guitar in bar bands since he was a teenager, and I’ve sung in choirs, cover bands, original bands, and on musical theater stages in New York City. I think all three of us look at this band as an opportunity to grow as musicians, expanding our individual palettes while folding our three unique styles into the overall Hank Wonder sound.

Darren, I know that you are a visual artist and teacher as well as a musician.  Can you compare and contrast the creation of a piece of art and the writing of a song?

To me, both processes require humility, patience, and trust.

For me, it’s crucial to remain humble. While my skills may be sharpened a bit with each project, I’ll never have it all figured out. I can devote hours to attaining some level of mastery (technical skills in drawing, painting, printmaking, graphic design, singing, guitar playing), but that’s only one small part of it. The composing of melodies, arrangement of chords, and writing of lyrics often feel like they’re not even up to me… which brings me to patience.

The spark of creativity will come when it’s ready, and forcing it never seems to work for me. I need to be patient and trust that my inspiration is like a field being nourished all the time. Harvest will come, but I’ll never know exactly when. 

One of the big parallels between visual art and songwriting is the importance of “walking away” from your work, trusting that anything worth the effort will endure, despite gaps in the process. For me, overworking something can often be a death knell.

Waylaid is your newest album.  How does it differ from your previous album, Little Mysteries 

A musician friend of mine once remarked that a songwriter’s first efforts are often like “studies” after the music he/she/they have loved and listened to up to that point. Hopefully, as a songwriting style develops, inspirations are less obvious, and a true voice begins to emerge. I feel like Waylaid demonstrates a true arc of growth for me. I’m not there yet, but getting closer to developing my true voice as a songwriter.

Additionally, I have a real appreciation for songs that pack a punch without lingering too long. The total running time of Waylaid is under 40 minutes, a testament to how short its songs are. I’ve been to a lot of songwriter open mics, where songs often go on and on. It takes a bit of work to keep your songs tidy. I’m of the mind that you should say what you need to say without wearing out your welcome with the listener. It takes work to keep your songs tidy, and not all songs need a bridge!

Was Waylaid in the can before COVID hit us all or did you work on it during quarantine?

Seven of the album’s ten songs were recorded in November 2019. A return to the studio was delayed by COVID, but we finally got back to Q Division in February 2021. We recorded three additional tunes. “Wilbur Driscoll & the Widow McGee” and “Flip Side” were written in the time between the sessions, and  “Loons on the Lake”  was a tune I had been kicking around for a bit.

“Waylaid in Grand Lake” seems to me a song dedicated to an idyllic time and place–something that we all desire.  I was especially struck by the lines about troubles hovering like hummingbirds.  The song evokes a closeness to nature in that way.  Do you have a special location in your life—is Grand Lake a real place?

I absolutely love that you picked up on the hummingbird line. Friends of ours head out to Grand Lake, Colorado every summer to spend time in a cabin built by one of their ancestors in the early 1900s. We went out there in the summer of 2018, and fell in love with the place. Thanks to an airline I won’t mention, we were delayed getting there… and delayed leaving. That extra day in Grand Lake was even sweeter, after having a chance to experience its magic! The song is about a fictional music-making couple who are stranded in a nearby town (thanks to a broken down Volkswagen Westfalia), and decide to just stay there!

If I had to pick a special place, it would be the state of Maine.

I’m curious about your songwriting about characters–the way you tell a story about people like Wilbur Driscoll and the Widow McGee. How do you approach the song–is it much like writing a short story with a hook in terms of character development?

I suppose that song is a lot like a short story. Probably because I’m a visual artist as well, imagery played a big part in developing the song (i.e. the house upon a hill, the barn out back, the mercantile, the bench beneath the oak tree). When COVID first set in, I devoted a lot of time to making an animated music video for the song. I think it helped to soothe me when the world felt like it was shutting down.

Here’s the video of “Wilbur Driscoll and Widow McGee.”

The song “My Margery” is a special one.  I enjoyed the references to the record albums that were important during the relationship of the couple.  What is it about shared musical memories that are etched in our hearts and souls so vividly?

To me, there is no stronger bond than the one formed by a shared musical experience. When a song is tied to a romantic partnership, and that partnership comes to an end… just a note of that song is a potent reminder of what once was. I guess that’s where that song came from. I am so proud of how that song came together in the studio. Zachariah Hickman did such a phenomenal job of preserving the tenderness, emotional rawness, and intimacy of the lyrics. 

Do you have any music aspirations that you’d like to attain in the short and long term?

I’d love to commit more time to improving my skills as a guitarist. I’m envious of the singer/songwriters who can accompany themselves with such ease onstage. Though I’ve been singing my whole life, I only started playing the guitar just under ten years ago. I made a vow to get to the point where I could comfortably strum a handful of chords. I never dreamed I would start writing my own songs. It’s as if I’d unlocked some kind of gate for them to walk through! Though I’m certainly not the most prolific songwriter, I’m still amazed I’ve managed to write the 25-30 tunes that I have. It still feels new to me, and I never want to lose that feeling.