Isolation has its advantages.
Growing up in the tiny northern Mennonite hamlet of La Crete, Alberta, about 250 km south of the Northwest Territories border, Brad and Curtis Rempel were cut off from the type of media exposure the rest of us take for granted.
For example, you might be surprised to learn about the kind of music the brothers Rempel – known musically and professionally as High Valley – didn’t have on their radar.
“We’d never heard of Michael Jackson until we moved to Nashville,” admits Brad. “We’d never heard of Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana, or any of these other famous bands people think we’ve heard of.”
No “Stairway to Heaven”? No “Billie Jean”? No “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?
“Ricky Skaggs was one of only three albums we were allowed to listen to when we were growing up,” says Brad, during a recent promotional trip to Toronto. “We didn’t have any radio or TV, so all we had was bluegrass music. So we’d heard of Ricky Skaggs, and Del McCoury, and Ralph Stanley, and stuff like that.”
It’s an interesting circumstance, because if you think you hear echoes of Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers in High Valley’s rollicking rhythms, spirited harmonies and stomping beats – on such songs as “Dear Life” and “Young Forever,” from the duo’s fifth and latest album, Dear Life – the Rempels claim they were Mumford before Mumford was Mumford.
“What we’re doing now is what we did for the first 15 years, but nobody heard it,” says Brad. “In brutal honesty, we tried to make that music for a couple years in Canada, but we felt pressured to fit in, and write and record music that sounded like normal country radio.
“What we’re doing now is what we did for the first 15 years, but nobody heard it.” – Brad Rempel of High Valley
“We bought our way out of our record deal two-and-a-half years ago, and finally we said, ‘OK, now we’re going to do what we always done.’ Then we started hearing Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and the Avett Brothers on pop radio, and I called Curtis and said, ‘Hey, they’re playing bluegrass music on pop radio. I wonder if they’re going to start playing it again on country radio soon.’
“So we went back and started making the same kind of music we’d always made. If you listen to the record our family made when I was four years old – and I had two songs on it – in 1988, it would sound a lot more familiar with what we’re doing today than everything we made in between. It’s what we should have stuck with the whole time.”
While U.S. audiences are just beginning to discover High Valley, thanks to a deal inked with Atlantic/Warner Music Nashville – and the song “Make You Mine” (recorded with the duo’s childhood hero Ricky Skaggs) – Canadians have known the hit-making band since 2007, stretching back to their trio days when brother Bryan was a member. They scored three Top 20 hits with “Love You for a Long Time,” “Trying to Believe,” and their first Top 10, “Rescue You.”
Brad Rempel also won a 2016 SOCAN Country Music Award for “Make You Mine,” and has earned four SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards, all for topping the CMT Canada Countdown Chart: one in 2016 for “Come On Down,” co-written with Jared Crump (SESAC) and Frederick Wilhelm (BMI); two in 2015, for “Make You Mine” and “She’s with Me,” both co-written with Seth Mosley (SESAC) and Ben Stennis (BMI); and one in 2013, for “Let it Be Me,” co-written with Crump and Philip Barton (BMI).
After brother Bryan Rempel high-tailed it to spend more time with his family, Brad and Curtis had the latitude to return to their basics. “We figured we’d rather be at the front of a line of people doing this sound than the 25th-best version of the bro country sound, which is what we never fit into, although we almost pretended to fit into it for a couple of years,” Brad explains. “Our music has naturally been about faith, family and farming, those kind of things, and for me to be able to write old-school songs using the bluegrass language.”
“Rescue You” was also responsible for putting a solid songwriting team in place: Brad, his pal Stennis, and Grammy-nominated producer Mosley, also a member of Me in Motion, a Christian rock band. The trio is so comfortable with each other that their creative process is actually pretty enviable.
“Ben’s wife and his kids; me, my wife and our kids; and Seth, his wife and their child, we all go to the beach together, multiple times a year, to Pensacola Beach in Florida,” says Brad. “We’ll write during the day, go to the beach, come back and record. A lot of the lead vocals on Dear Life were me holding a mic in my hand in the beach house, singing it for the first time.
“We just wrote the song, I sang it, and that’s the vocal that’s on the record. So ‘Dear Life,’ ‘Don’t Stop,’ ‘Memory Making’ and ‘Young Forever’ were all recorded at the beach. We love writing that way. We love recording that way. Zero of the songs on this record that I had anything to do with were written on [Nashville’s] Music Row. I bought this old farmhouse in the country, so we worked at the farmhouse, or at Seth’s house in Franklin, Tennessee, or at the beach house.”
Brad describes the process, one in which he says suffers no pressure. “At the beach we have a makeshift studio,” he explains. “For several tracks on the record, Seth would literally bring a laptop, use Logic [recording software] and say, ‘I want to test my skills and only use the built-in skills that came with Logic on my laptop.’ I literally sang sitting on a chair, holding a studio mic in my hand for some of the songs. And we recorded some at the Castle, where Al Capone used to hang out in Tennessee.
“Warner was really cool,” Brad continues. “We signed with Warner Atlantic, and all of a sudden we had this budget where we could record anywhere we wanted to, which was mind-boggling. But we still went to Seth’s place to record it just like County Line, the last record. We’re cheap, stingy, Mennonite kids. We don’t really want to change anything.”
In terms of subject matter, Brad says he’s inspired by nostalgia. “It’s very, very easy for things to give me memories of my childhood,” he says. “It’s very important with me, with our kids, that everything we’re doing are things that we’ll remember in positive ways. What if I fly on this airplane and I never see them again? What are they going to remember? I think way too much about that stuff.
“So there’s a song called ‘Memory Making’ – that’s one of the beach songs. My wife Rebekah came up with the title for ‘Dear Life.’ I had come home and she said, ‘Man, our kids are growing up so fast – I feel we’re hanging on for dear life.’ And I said, ‘Man, that’s a great song title.’ We saved it for the next beach trip, and I told the guys, and we wrote it like a diary. Hopefully the album is like a diary: here’s what we’re thankful for; here’s what we’re scared of… and here’s what we’re proud of.”
With “Young Forever” recently placed on the ultra-popular video game Madden 2017 and ESPN picking it up for college basketball broadcasts – and “Make You Mine” denting the U.S. country charts – High Valley’s big-picture musical philosophy is offering something fresh and different.
“People call it Americana, and folk, and Mumford, and we just call it bluegrass, though we hired a very progressive producer who pulls it into a much more 2016 vibe,” says Brad. “Then we come at it with all the banjos, and mandolins, and acoustic instruments we can find. It’s like this tug of war where it ends up being the High Valley sound that we’re definitely proud of. It’s definitely different from normal country radio, for sure.”