Cincinnati’s Young Heirlooms have been active locally for close to a decade but the only change in that span that’s been more constant than their shifting sonic profile is the group’s tendency to shed members. Stability is the key to any structure; once Young Heirlooms found a steady lineup, they were able to focus on a consistent sound and build a loyal fan base. That took some time.
“We sounded like Postal Service and Feist,” says vocalist/rhythm guitarist Kelly Fine. “We had a 10-piece band, a lot of Disco drums, a lot of horns. We recorded an entire album and (co-founding vocalist/guitarist/mandolinist) Chris (Robinson) and I were like, ‘Uh oh, we want to play Bluegrass. Oh shit, we want to play songs, we don’t want all these instrumental and solo sections. It’s too distracting from the story.’ That’s what brought us in, the storytelling.”
Until last year, the Heirlooms’ current membership had remained intact for close to four years, a period of their greatest successes, including the release of their sophomore album, 2017’s The Hammer, until harmony vocalist Laura Bock left last year in order to pursue other creative ventures.
“Laura wanted to pursue different creative outlets and not be committed to one,” Fine says. “This band is a big commitment — we rehearse once a week, even still, in our ninth year. Everyone ended things on good terms, she still comes to see us and it’s not weird.”
Rather than install a replacement for Bock, pedal and lap steel player Steve Hauke offered his vocal services. Hauke’s newly discovered prowess has allowed the Heirlooms to continue as a quintet of Fine, Robinson, Hauke, upright bassist Kyle Elkins and drummer Chris Alley.
“Steve learned Laura’s vocal parts because his falsetto is amazing,” Fine says. “I can’t believe he can sing that high, that loudly. So we still have the three-part harmony and we still have him on pedal steel. There are songs where Chris and I had to go back and rearrange for two voices, which was hard. You’re fighting your initial muscle memory of the duo, to the trio, and back to the duo, but your voices have changed, you’ve evolved as writers so now you want different harmonies and you can’t remember which version you’re on. But we’re making it work.”
In fact, the Heirlooms had to make another temporary adjustment to make it work, due to Alley’s touring responsibilities with local singer/songwriter Jeremy Pinnell. Until he’s able to return to the fold, drummer Jaki Howser is keeping his seat warm.
“She’s a total badass, her solo project Madqueen is super awesome, she teaches at Guitar Center and she’s worked for Everything But the House, so she can operate in a structured environment,” Fine says. “She showed up at her first rehearsal ready to go, she already knew everything, and she’s been finessing since then. Last Friday, we played at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, which is a venue I’ve always wanted to play. That was her first show and it was fun to have her energy. I’ve never played with another drummer (besides Alley), so it was exciting and terrifying.”
The Heirlooms began in 2010 while Fine was in the midst of undergrad work on her graphic design degree from the University of Dayton. She wanted to drop out and begin pursuing music, but her parents insisted she stick it out. She started playing music regularly (“It was a way for me to understand myself…”), and she enrolled in an Appalachian immersion project dedicated to community building. During her six-week stint, she attended the program’s Barn Jam fundraiser where she met Robinson through a mutual friend after seeing each other perform.
“He was like, ‘My name is Chris Robinson, I really like your music and I think we should write together,’ ” Fine says. “We played (TLC’s) ‘No Scrubs’ around the fire, which is a fun cover we still pull out when we’re feeling that way, then we wrote a complete song the next day.”
Through early band defections and every iteration of Young Heirlooms, Robinson and Fine remained together. After the release of The Hammer, the Heirlooms increased their already busy Midwestern bookings and were amazed at the number of people who knew them, largely through airplay on the now-defunct Northern Kentucky radio outlet WNKU and its online streams.
“They were crucial to so much of our fanbase, probably (responsible for) 60 percent, honestly,” Fine says. “We played Fort Wayne (Indiana) for the first time and had people come up and say they’d seen our WNKU video. Someone said, ‘We know your videos. We love you guys. Where’s Laura?’ It was crazy. So many people of all ages, all demographics, watched that video and listened to it on the radio and it broke my heart. It was so humbling.”
Young Heirlooms’ next steps include a full slate of summer festival touring with Howser behind the kit, including their upcoming Bunbury Music Festival date, and more recording to complete demos to shop around for a possible label deal. The band
“The songs are really good, we believe in them and I feel like The Hammer backs it all up,” Fine says. “It’s been a cool adventure to work with a producer, having an impartial, non-emotionally invested bandmate who contributes to sculpting the sound as much as a member is terrifying, but it went great with Rob. He’s the best. The reality is if no (label) bites, we can self-release, but this music is so good, I really want more people than I physically know to hear it.”
Young Heirlooms perform at the Bunbury Music Festival at Sawyer Point on Saturday, June 1 at 3:30 p.m. on the Metro by T-Mobile Acoustic Stage. Tickets/more info: bunburyfestival.com. And for more info on the band, visit youngheirlooms.com.