Song Writing

Found Wandering

by Jeff Suwak

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The reinterpretation of classic songs is a time-honored practice in folk music, and one that Pennsylvania's Found Wandering has made very much their own. The band's first three albums cover an eclectic variety of music ranging from traditional gospel to the preeminently non-traditional Tom Waits. In every case, Found Wandering goes beyond the simple "cover" and brings its own personality into the work, re-envisioning rather than merely reproducing. Each song is infused with their down-home sound and a sense of simple, emotional authenticity unmuted by digital meddling and often difficult to find in today's popular music landscape.

The core of Found Wandering is husband-and-wife team Sarah and Colin Comstock; Jake L'Armond joined the duo as a full-time member in 2015, and up to 12 backing musicians occasionally join them for live performances. Since the release of their eponymous 2014 debut album, Found Wandering has quickly grown in popularity, with their third album On a Christmas Night (released late 2015) debuting at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart.

Despite their success with reinterpretations of established songs, the band has plans to release some original material. They are currently at work on their first full-length album of originals, scheduled for completion in 2016. If their self-penned single "Gold Underground," a haunting combination of ukulele and ghost-haunted vocals, is any indication, then the album should prove to be an interesting next step in the band's evolution.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Found Wandering is an intriguing name. Is there a particular meaning behind it?

Colin Comstock: Sarah came up with it and it was one of those things where we knew it was right as soon as we heard it. I like that it can mean different things to different folks. For me personally, my spiritual life has been all over the map, but I often look back on things and realize there was grace and guidance for me the whole time, even when I wasn't feeling particularly close to God.

Sarah Comstock: From a Christian perspective, we are always "found" in Christ even if/when we are wandering (and I don't believe wandering is always a negative thing unless it is hurting oneself or others)... and we wander daily. So I can't speak for the band as a whole, but for me personally, it speaks of God's grace in meeting us daily where we are, and His invitation to come as we are.

Songfacts: Can you tell us a little about how you met and your musical backgrounds?

Colin: Sarah and I met playing in bands in the vibrant arts and music scene of Jersey City, New Jersey. We were even roommates in a communal living/arts warehouse/studio space before eventually falling head over heels for each other (and breaking the band up in the process). Prior to that I played in a bunch of punk, hardcore and psych rock bands, and Sarah had been a part of several choral groups.

Songfacts: Most of your songs so far are reinterpretations of existing tunes. How do you settle upon which ones you will focus on and record?

Colin: We pick songs that resonate with us. Initially it's a gut reaction, and then we just play the song over and over, breaking it down to its basic elements and trying to see which way we can push our arrangement. We feel pretty strongly that, if you are going to play someone else's song (particularly if it's an awesome one), then you have to put your own spin on it.

Songfacts: On 2014's Found Wandering, you have a version of "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)." The song has been interpreted by a diverse range of artists, from Pete Seeger to The Byrds to Wilson Phillips. When you set your eyes on this song, how did you determine what unique angle you would take on it? Is that a conscious decision, instinctive, or something in between?

Sarah: Every few months, we are asked to play the offertory at our church. One particular week we were asked to play last minute and it happened to be the Sunday following Pete Seeger's death. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" instantly came to mind, as the lyrics are adapted from Ecclesiastes, and he had been on our mind.

Colin: It's definitely a combination of conscious decisions and instinctive ramblings. For our arrangement we really wanted to push the circular nature of the lyrics, make it something with a repetitive groove that you can get kind of lost in. We used an open tuning on the guitars and experimented with adding and subtracting layers of percussion and violins to really give it that feel.

Our engineer, Ron DiSilvestro even ran Kevin Gosa's soprano sax part through the Leslie cab and put some effects on it to trip it out further. It's one of those "everything and the kitchen sink" songs, but we kind of feel like that's how life is, and that's reflective of the spirit of the song that resonated with us in the first place.

Songfacts: In the video for "Turn! Turn! Turn!," you use found footage from your own lives, yet the video strikes a chord of universality with the audience. Was that your intent? Is that an extension of what you were trying to accomplish with your interpretation of the song as a whole?

Sarah: Yes! Obviously the footage means a lot to us, but we are happy that it strikes a universal chord and that these moments have the potential to resonate with others as well. No matter what our differences might be, we as human beings have this in common: Life's journey brings us through many seasons... and the decisions we make will have an effect on the generations that follow.

Songfacts: 2015's The Living Room Sessions has interpretations of Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," Tom Waits' "Green Grass," M. Ward's "Chinese Translation," Paul McCartney's "Ram On," Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and the folk staple "Wildwood Flower." Is there an underlying aesthetic or thematic thread that you see in this grouping of songs? What made you choose this particular catalog to record?

Colin:They are all songs that we've been playing around the house for years. Many of them are actually the first batch of songs that Sarah and I started played when we first got together.

"I'm On Fire" was the first song that Sarah and I played in public together after we started dating. We learned "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome" for a wedding between two of our good friends. M Ward's Post War album (which features "Chinese Translation") just completely floored us when we first heard it and was the soundtrack to the first few months of our relationship. "Poison Cup" from that album was actually our wedding song. And we've played "Green Grass" more times than any other song we know, particularly if you include all the late-night summer porch hangs where the instruments always end up coming out. They are all songs that we just really love and feel a deep connection too and we were happy to be able to record them and do the videos at the same time.

Songfacts: What made you decide to record an album of songs from the living room?

Colin: We had just come off of the experience of recording our self-titled record in a studio over the course of several months and just really wanted to do something completely different. Also Sarah was pregnant at the time and we had been practicing weekly in our living room with Jake (L'Armand), so it just felt like an easy/comfortable way to record the songs. It was a lot of fun and we hope to do it again soon.

Songfacts: You're fans of Bob Dylan and, as of 2016, you've made two Christmas albums. So, I feel compelled to ask: have you heard Dylan's Christmas in the Heart and, if so, what do you think? Some critics felt the album was a parody, but the artist himself insists it was made with honest intentions. What are your feelings on it?

Colin:One of my favorite things about Dylan is his fearlessness and the way he changes from album to album with little regard for what people will think. I would never pretend to know his intentions, and while it's not my favorite work of his, I don't think it was intended to be parody. It's an above average Christmas album (but a below average Dylan album), and I think it's awesome that he made it.

Songfacts: "Come on up To the House" is nestled between more traditional gospel tunes on your 2014 debut album. It's not a particularly popular song outside of serious Waits enthusiasts and also seems to me to be a rather challenging one, with lyrics such as "Come down off your cross / We can use the wood." When you include a song like that among more traditional, straight-forward gospel tunes, do you ever get a questioning or confused reaction from your audience?

Sarah:To me, it's a call for humility and the putting down of one's pride... the recognition of a bigger purpose outside the scope of ourselves. I think we can all agree that the world would be a much better place if we could exercise grace, forgiveness, unconditional love, etc. We haven't received any negative or confused feedback, but would welcome the opportunity to chat with anyone who felt that way.

Songfacts: Leading off from the previous question, how do your listeners generally respond to your mixing of genres? 2015's On a Christmas Night has tunes of unreserved Christian praise such "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Sing We Noel" alongside "The Rebel Jesus," which challenges Christian hypocrisy. It's a thread that runs through your career thus far, and it seems like you don't neatly fit into any easily defined category, though you're generally promoted as "folk gospel" or something similar. What kind of feedback do you get from your mixing of influences and styles and the fact that you don't neatly fit into any one box?

Colin: We have consciously tried to set ourselves up so that no one can be too disappointed about us switching genres or even lyrical themes. We've been doing that from the beginning. We love gospel music, but we also love sad love songs like "Wildwood Flower" or "Green Grass." We love folk music but also blues and psychedelic rock music. "The Rebel Jesus" is definitely a challenging song lyrically, but I think that's a good thing and all of us (myself included) could use a little shake up every now and then.

Sarah: Jackson Browne thoughtfully articulates his observations (admittingly as a non-believer) that I believe (as a churchgoer myself) are convicting and important reminders as to what our hearts should be focused on year round but particularly during the Christmas season.

Songfacts: You use a large number of backing musicians on some songs. How did you create such a huge network of fellow musicians?

Colin:Some date back all the way to childhood (Jon Frost, Lauren Coen-Iltis), others to our days in Jersey City (Kevin Gosa, Jamie and Scott Zillitto) and others we met more recently through the being a part of the thriving Philadelphia music scene (Caleb Spaulding, Jake L'Armand, Erik Sayles, Chuck Staab, Donald Robinson). We are super thankful for each of them and always get excited when someone agrees to be a part of a recording process or a live concert. I love the idea that the "band" can expand and contract based on who is around and available, and that we are all friends who are happy that our paths continue to cross and that we get to make music together.

Songfacts: "Gold Underground" is the first originally penned Found Wandering single. It's a beautiful tune, with the juxtaposition of the normally cheerful ukulele against the airy, distant vocals creating a haunting effect. Could you talk a bit about the inspiration behind the song, musically and thematically?

Colin:I had been wanting to buy a ukulele for several months and even talked about it on our ride down to Charleston for vacation a few years ago. We were very surprised to find a ukelele resting against the wall as we walked into the house where we were staying and I played it every chance I could. The song is about trying to uncover our potential, to grow into the people that we are intended to be, and how difficult that can be, even impossible without the relentless love and support of God and the community of friends and family.

Songfacts: Do you intend to write more original songs?

Colin: Yes! We are currently practicing twice a week with Jake, working on our first batch of original music. We have about six songs so far, and there are more coming. We have always been able to write music but have struggled with lyrics but slowly that fog is lifting and it feels great. We are excited about the new original material!

Songfacts: What's next for Found Wandering? Do you have anything particular in mind for your recording future? Anything you'd like to let fans in on?

Colin: We hope to be start working on our next record (and our first to prominently feature original music) this summer. Additionally, we hope to shoot and record Volume 2 of the Living Room Sessions sometime this spring. We will continue to post updates on our website and our Facebook page. Thanks so much for listening and for your interest in our band.

March 11, 2016.
Get more at foundwandering.com.

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Comments: 2

  • M.h. from Florida Love the song, I'm interested in hearing more of their music. I'm a HUGE bluegrass fan and grew up on gospel. This article was very informative and well written.
  • Shanie from MaineGreat Music & Great Article!
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