The Oh Hellos on C.S. Lewis, Christian Art and Learning to Trust the Music Industry

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Hailing from Southern Texas, the Oh Hellos are a brother-sister duo turned ten-piece band, and they're bringing their Celtic-influenced style to Denver's Ogden Theatre on Thursday, September 29. Identified by slightly harrowing vocals, somber strings and celebratory eruptions of drum and choral cheers, the Oh Hellos captivate listeners with intensely emotional harmonies and a timeless, rustic allure. Maggie Heath's vocals compel in a manner that warrants single-track attention.

The Oh Hellos' debut album, Through the Deep Dark Valley, was born of family roots, intimate memories and personal ideas on love, growth and identity — written, recorded, produced, mixed and mastered by siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath. The sophomore album, Dear Wormwood, however, had many more hands on deck. The album demonstrates a progression in depth and an expansion in the lyric-writing to include perspectives outside that of the singer. Somewhat of a concept album, Dear Wormwood was inspired by character interplays and metaphors drawn from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. The resulting collective is a musical refurnishing of a literary classic, cleverly developing the perspective of under-explored characters.

Westword spoke to the Heath siblings to learn more about the inspiration behind the album, as well as a few of the  meanings and themes that they hope resonate with listeners.

Westword: In earlier interviews, it seemed that prior to your debut album , you guys were quite reluctant to go into the music industry professionally. What were some of your biggest concerns at that time?

Tyler: What do you think?

Maggie: Well at that time, we had just seen, I don't know, a lot of the bands that we discovered in an early stage; we watched them be taken advantage of suddenly and be put in a constraining box. Once they started signing with labels, they didn't really understand what they were about, and I guess for us, it was all that we maintained the control over...especially the creative process, and how we presented our music to different people.

Tyler: And in the beginning, it was about freedom. Because we didn't even know how long we even wanted to make music, and at the time, it wasn't even [wanted] professionally. We didn't know how to pursue this and keep our options open and be able to walk away and be in a position we where we had to 'not sign a contract for three albums.' We didn't know how things worked, and our assumptions about how we thought things worked.... But it was basically all about freedom and the ability to kind of stay in charge of our own course. That's been important to us, and that was what we thought the best way to go about it at the time was. 

What s been the biggest surprise about making that decision — to become a "famous" band?

Tyler: It's flattering you would call us a "famous" band!  I don't know, something has changed. We've loosened a little bit about how willing we are to work with other people. For the longest time, we didn't even have a manager.

Maggie: I think a lot of what changed was we had a lot of opportunity meeting people in the industry while doing various jobs, like management and booking, labels and all that sort of stuff. There were plenty of people who were basically like what we expected, but we also met so many people who were clearly just as excited about the music and artists that they were working with... It was kind of a breath of fresh air, to realize it wasn't all some "money-making guy."

Tyler: It is encouraging to see that there are mostly just people in the music industry. That it is less of a machine than we really feared. Maggie mentioned that she knew the artists that [they] represented, and we ended up working with those artists. So we really got to be a part of how the music reached new people and grow. I guess we are a little bit protective of the music and our ability to make decisions, but there definitely has been a shift in our ability — weren't  we just talking about that? Our willingness to delegate or willingness to expand?

As far as being "protective'"of the music initially, when it was just the two of you: How has such a large number of musicians changed that process? Can you compare the process of composing the first album to Dear Wormwood, now that you're a much larger ensemble?

Maggie: Well, we write new music all the time... It is just Tyler and I writing and arranging and figuring all the parts and stuff. The thing that was really great about it was we would really shape the ideas that we first brought to the band to perform. So much of it changed with the live part that they're basically two separate creatures. When we wrote Dear Wormwood, it was the same thing. The two of us just basically wrote and arranged everything and really just tried to communicate what had been in our hearts and minds and stuff. When we brought it to the band we had that clear idea of "This is what we're thinking" and the emotions. It just really allowed everyone to just know what we were trying to say, and then be able to speak it through their own voice and be able to make it their own.

Tyler: Yeah, like we started with our idea and our vision and built upwards from there. I think the primary difference between the recordings and the live show is..it gets a little bit more chaotic, as there is everyone there contributing. But I think the main difference is just that the live show is hugely energetic and intense and explosive. And I think the flip-side of that is also touring with musicians that understand the quiet and intimate, intricate and delicate side of what we are trying to do.

Dear Wormwood is almost a concept album, as you've shared that it was influenced by The Screwtape Letters. What was compelling about that story in particular and inspired you to elaborate upon it? What was missing from it, in your eyes?

Tyler: So honestly, I don't know that off the top of my head. My thought process was just that story was such a great lens through which to put my  own ideas personally. And it fit so well with what both of us were writing. This is a really interesting concept, to write letters.... I'm only realizing now that, as a book, everything is in double-speak: Everything that Screwtape says is bad is good. And everything he does that's good is bad. The double-speak was talking about this obviously unhealthy relationship — this tormentor figure — but couching it all in this very affectionate, very lovey-dovey way. It hadn't even occurred to me that we had done that. Maybe that was our intention? Or I didn't know we did that intentionally. But I mean, I didn't know how nicely that worked. For me it was just a really interesting perspective, or interesting mechanism, for a way to tell the story.

Is there any song on the album that means the most to each of you?

Maggie: Do you have one?

Tyler: For me, it's "'Tyrants." But that's at least as much because it's the last song on the album as it is because it's the one that's most special to me. I must like the sense of wrapping things up. I hate when a story ends, because at the same time, that means that you're done with the story, but there's that really satisfactory, cathartic sense that there is an ending. It was a fun song to write and record, and also a fun writing process. It was very cathartic to finish and wrap up the whole album as well.

Maggie: It's been so long since I've thought about all of the music instead of just playing  it!

Tyler: I know, instead of all just the muscle memory.

Maggie: I would say "Soldier" ["Soldier, Poet, King"]. Because that song is supposed to be a fairly easy song to sing along to, like folk songs you can relate to throughout this awesome life and times. It's a song that we can all sing together and keep moving forward and sing to, even though it's the darkest times. And keep moving forward together.

With lyrics such as "flesh to flesh" and "children of Eden," for example — is faith something that consciously comes up in your music?

Maggie: It's definitely intentional, yes. Tyler and  both grew up in the church and have spent time questioning our faith-upbringing, and kind of come around to, I guess, an understanding of what it is we truly believe. So when it came to our music, and wanting to write music from our heart, we do tend to use a lot of our biblical knowledge, or language of our childhood. We were wanting to write music that was sincere.... We never really pinned ourselves as a Christian band, because that kind of connotes "music written for Christians, by Christians, and that is just for Christians." If you're not a Christian, then you won't relate to that, and that's not we're trying to do.

Tyler: Yeah, and we just wanted to write music that comes from a personal place inside of us, and we just wanted to be able to make it resonate with anyone.

Maggie: We are all human, and we all share the same story. Well, not the same story, but the same pieces of the story. So it doesn't surprise me that a lot of Christian blogs or radio want to talk about us.

Tyler: We appreciate people are picking up on that, but at the same time, we try not to be so overt about it that it scares people away. We want to keep the music accessible and, I guess, as universal as we can. So, yeah, it's in there on purpose.

The Oh Hellos performs at the Ogden Theatre on Thursday, September 29, 303-832-1874.

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