Five years ago, Ben Hardesty had never opened his mouth to sing for anybody. He was 16 years old. "I wouldn't do it till someone made me," says the singer, guitarist and chief songwriter for the The Last Bison.
"Anybody who's outgoing like me, a totally type–A personality, there's always a voice in the back of your head saying 'It would be awesome to play music in front of people.' And then there's the other voice that says 'Yeah, but that's not realistic.'"
Lucky for us Hardesty finally unleashed his inner Levon, and produced a sweet but robust Appalachian tenor, around which the Last Bison (formerly just Bison) wraps delicate, complex acoustic music. With mandolin, banjo, violin, cello and a portable chaplain's organ (the sort used to conduct services–on–the–fly on WWII battlefields), the band's sound is a refreshing sort of classical chamber folk.
Hardesty's sister Annah plays bells and percussion, and sings backup vocals; younger brother Dan Hardesty is the band's all–purpose stringman. The other Bisoneers are Jay Benfante, Andrew Benfante (they're brothers), Teresa Totheroh and Amos Housworth.
Acknowledging their rural Virginia upbringing, the band members dress like 18th Century pioneers (or, if you will, contemporary Amish). Somehow, it fits with the music.
After a self–produced album in 2011, the band signed with Republic Records, which issued a four–song EP last fall. This week, The Last Bison's first Republic album is released (like the EP, it's called Inheritance).
"I think for a lot of bands it's hard to find an image or a branding," says Hardesty. "For us, that was kind of instilled in us the moment we started. I've always had a love for history, so we've always had this throwback from the 19th Century kind of vibe."
When the label folks came calling, their advice — "Don't change a thing" — was music to Hardesty's ears.
"We experience a lot of joy creating music, and at the end of the day what we want to do is translate that joy to people in our live show," he explains. "That's what's important to us.
"So having a label with a marketing team is exciting for us, because they have the ability to push it out to lots of listeners. Different age groups. And places where we couldn't necessarily do it on our own."
Creating lengthy pieces that flow seamlessly together isn't as easy as it might seem. Hardesty's not a control freak — he doesn't make detailed demos for the band to copy.
"The writing process is a long process," he says. "I don't just sit down and write. I spend a lot of time on each individual song. I want the emotion in the lyrics to be able to be translated through the music — even if you were just listening to the instrumental, I suppose. So there's a lot of time that goes into orchestrating and putting together the songs for the band.
"But there's a lot of creativity in my fellow bandmates that I don't want to suppress in any way. I want them to be able to express their own styles.
"Especially with Amos and Teresa, our cellist and violinist, who are very classically trained. I love classical music, and I can write pieces that sound classical but I don't understand it. I'm not classically trained. It's a meticulous process for us to write a song, getting seven instruments or more to have parts that work together. But it's really, really quite fun."
He's quick to illustrate the collaborative nature of the arrangements.
"One of the songs that's one the full–length is called 'Sandstone,'" Hardesty explains. "We were in the studio, and we told our producer 'We need an hour; we still don't have a bridge for this song.' We'd been working probably 16 hours on this bridge, a 45 second part of the song. It was never right.
"And in that last one hour of crunch time — with us kind of forced to be creative — we brought out this bridge that's actually one of my favorite parts on the album."