One wouldn’t necessarily expect that serving a stint in Antartica would be the inspiration for making music, and bluegrass music in particular. Yet for Joey Capoccia, vocalist and guitarist of the Olympia, Washington-based band, The Pine Hearts, it did just that. Capoccia was working as a carpenter for the National Science Foundation, and holed up in the South Pole Station’s greenhouse when he wrote the song Wouldnt You Know, one of several descriptive tracks on the band’s exceptional new album, aptly titled Lost Love Songs.
Clearly, traveling and songwriting are two constants in Capoccia’s life, as evidenced by the fact that other songs on the album were written when he was in Kauai, traveling through California’s wine country, or simply pausing for a period in Nashville. Indeed, various photos that grace the album’s inside sleeve feature scenes from those diverse locales
“It’s probably true of a lot of songwriters,” Capoccia says. “You need to be in a tiny, quiet place to write a song. So, while traveling, you end up in these tiny nooks or crannies. You find… a closet, a beach, wherever you can go to get away from people and hash the songs out.”
Joey was originally inspired by the independent punk aesthetic fostered in Olympia, as infused with bluegrass and grassicana. Naturally then, it provided an upbeat attitude, even as it found him reflecting on friends and places left behind. On the other hand, it was those distant realms that allowed him to source out his sentiments. That was especially true of the time he spent at the South Pole.
“I’d say the biggest effect is the shear magnitude of traveling to a place unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” he reflects when asked how those far reaches affected his musical thinking. “It’s the closest thing to being on another planet I’ll ever know. 24 hour daylight, 10,000 foot altitude, blue and white for as far as you can see… or travel for that matter. I also enjoyed getting to know the different science that goes on there. It gets your mind working in a different direction, thinking about ice, and continental drift, millions of years passing by, and the whole continent being virtually the same. Plus it was conducive to spending time in your room after dinner, working on the next tune.”
With traveling a constant, creating bluegrass beyond borders is something Capoccia is used to pursuing. It is, in fact, a factor that feeds his muse.
“The biggest part of it is probably the people you meet,” he suggests. “Especially if they are writers themselves. It’s great to experiment and write with different people. Not only does it give you new ideas, but it’s a great exercise in having ‘first thought, best thought.’ You can’t spend too long debating your choices. So too, the more scenery the better. Songwriting is all about experiences, so traveling brings them in a little quicker than staying put. I’ve been spending a lot of time on Kauai these days. I met a lot of really great people and musicians. I notice that different regions have a particular flare to their music. The same way one town might bake bread, or another season their stew. Everyone bends their notes on Kauai; that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed, and it sounds really good! You learn a little from each community.”
Indeed, songs such as Ocean In Your Veins and Oceans and Limousines reflect an obvious island influence, albeit within the boundaries of bluegrass.
“That’s the part I love,” Capoccia insists. “I think that with any type of music, if you are really far on one end of the spectrum, you can’t bring in a listener who wouldn’t normally be into that style. But blending genres is kind of like introducing someone to a mutual friend. People are able to understand what makes an otherwise dismissed style of music so important. I love going over to a friend’s house who’d normally not be listening to bluegrass, and hearing them blasting Sturgill Simpson’s Cutting the Grass album.”
Like Capoccia, the other members of the Pine Hearts hail from Olympia, Washington as well. The band’s roster currently consists of Capoccia on guitar and vocals, Derek McSwain on mandolin and vocals, and Dean Shakked on upright bass and vocals. “Olympia is a small town, so it’s easy to figure out who all the musicians are pretty quick,” Capoccia recalls. “Yet, to be honest, the three of us connected through our passion for perfection. Not that we are anywhere close to perfect, but we all get it when one of us wants to work a song more, or practice more. We’re all striving for the same thing.”
He goes on to cite such diverse influences as Belle and Sebastian, Rvivr, The Sea and Cake, Bruce Springsteen, and Jack Johnson. “As far as guitar playing, I love Bryan Sutton and Tony Rice,” he muses. “There’s nothing shocking there, but boy, there’s not a week goes by that I don’t hear some bluegrass guitar playing, and I think, ‘Wow! Who’s that?!’ It typically turns out to be Tony or Bryan.”
Not surprisingly, the far-flung realms and diverse impressions shared in the band’s sound don’t always find favor with those strictly bound to bluegrass of the vintage variety.
“We get some traditional folks who are sure to let us know,” Capoccia notes. “However, I think music should always be growing, so we like a modern take on bluegrass. One example is our tune, Losing You, which I wrote for my friend’s electronic pop band XOHNO. Once it was done, I thought it’d be fun to see how it sounded if we played it on acoustic instruments. I’m pretty excited with how it came out!”
Given their wider reach and Capoccia’s wanderlust in particular, Lost Love Songs found the band honing in on both the music and the messaging. “The biggest thing is that we allowed ourselves the time to get it just how we wanted,” he recalls. “In past recording experiences, there’s been a rush to finish, whether it’s due to budget concerns, leaving for a tour, or just scheduling conflicts. This time, we gave ourselves the leeway we needed. There was no stress. We got to go into the studio and enjoy ourselves.”
Ultimately, Capoccia remains philosophical about what it takes to pursue their prowess, regardless of style or sensibility. “Honestly it [the pushback] comes from myself at points,” he allows. “I get worried that we don’t fit in the bluegrass world. But I try to keep in mind that the real reason to make music is to put your perspective out there. It’s your story. That’s easier said than done, but that’s what we strive for.”