Storytelling and music often go hand in hand. Musicians have a way of turning personal heartbreaks into compelling anecdotes brought to life with vibrant instrumentals and mystic vocals. They craft songs to explore various realms of life, love, and in the case of The Diving Bell, Panama excursions and poisonous frogs.
The alternative folk rock group is headed by husband and wife duo Steve and Clare Hendershot, backed by Charles Murphy, Mike Parton, Graham Gilreath and Jake Gordon (pictured above). Clare and Steve met roughly five years ago during an open mic night at Uncommon Ground and have since worked on a number of creative products in addition to their band, including a multimedia art project and podcast. Even after recently welcoming a new member to their now family of three, the couple shows no signs of stopping. With a new EP expected for release later this year, and a few upcoming shows, Steve and Clare settle onto a couch in their Edgewater home to share how they’re turning art and creativity into a family business.
Listen Live and Local: What is a diving bell and why did you decide to name your band after one?
Steve: Diving bells were submarines in the 1800s. We wanted to have a very old timey [sound] with some older acoustic instruments, but also, we sort of wanted to do some digital stuff, like combined old and new. So we figured, old meets new, how do you say that in one band name? And the answer was old technology.
LLL: There’s a song on your debut EP called “Pacific Pearl Co. 1869”, which tells the story of the first great diving bell. Can you tell the story behind the song and what inspired you to write it?
Steve: It’s been awhile since I told this story. In Panama, there had been this really exploitive business for 100s of years where native divers [were hired] to dive and bring up pearls. They would tie rocks to their legs so they would go down deep, grab pearls, put them in a bag and then cut the rope off and float to the top. Eventually, so many natives died that they brought in slaves. Then [the slaves] died. [Then, since] people never stop in the quest for profits, they were like, “We need a machine that can go deeper.” They spent the equivalent of millions and millions for this civil war engineer to create the first great submarine. They take it to Panama, and in fact, it was successful. It goes deeper and it allows people to work lower and longer than they ever had. Except, it turns out, there are no pearls at that depth of the ocean, deeper than where the humans were able to go. So they take the world’s first great submarine and park it on the beach and walk away because it had no purpose. Obviously, people had figured out how to do submarines elsewhere, but the tides changed and the submarine was covered by water until it was discovered in 2001. I heard that story and wanted to write a song about it, and I did. There was an artistic idea that I was going for. It was that industrial revolution age. I mean, how brutal and selfish it was and yet all this stuff did get invented. I really liked that tension [of how] all this cool stuff happened in an ugly way.
LLL: You’ve put together a multimedia project called South and South: the Curious Tragedy of the Whiskey Jane Expedition, 1894 that was showcased at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Can you talk a bit about that?
Clare: Our desire is to create an experience, not just play a show. We’re working on how to do that in a venue where you don’t have very much control over everything. With [South and South], we made a carnival [and] had a whole experience. It wasn’t just like [listen to] music and then you go home.
Steve: I’ve always been into long evolved narrates. I’m a lyricist first. I’m probably an instrumentalist second and a vocalist third. I love telling stories in songs. With South and South we were like, “What if this whole thing was an experience [where] you were literally led from A to B to C, and that’s part of where that story came from. I constructed a narrative to get you from one song to [another] so there wasn’t a break. I think we’ve all been at concerts where you were really emotionally invested in one song and it end and then something completely different happens and it’s a little of like, “Oh we’re talking about this now. That’s cool, but I’m really not done being in that other place.” I wrote a story about an explorer searching for the lost city of Atlantis in the Great Lakes. It involved a couple songs that we had already written, then we wrote some music for it. Then we produced narrative bits in between. It was sounded designed in such a way that some digital stuff was happening and our band would play during those parts. Then we’d play a song and back and forth. We [also] made a really elaborate set. Clare’s a phenomenal artist. We also have a friend that does production for the Lyric Opera, so he helped us figure out how to make it look cool and found a distillery in Grand Rapids that would let us set up for a month and do this thing a couple times a day. I’m proud of the visual parts of it. We did a huge show at Workshop in the West Loop last year where we had origami poison frog making and taught people to rivet leather. So that was bringing the experience we created in Michigan to Chicago for this one big night. Most of the show you can listen to as opposed to look at or participate in, so that’s what [our upcoming] EP will be. We have actually written some new music for it that wasn’t even part of the show in Michigan. That’ll come out this year, and then we’re already working on our next, regular, non-concept album so that we don’t go three years between [album releases again.
LLL: The two of you also run a podcast called Cedar Cathedral, which explores the creative lives of artist throughout the Great Lakes region. What encouraged you to start a podcast on top of running a musical career?
Steve: I really care about the music scene and also, we’re not 21 anymore and I hate the idea that music is something you have to give up if you’re not 26. So how can we make this a lifestyle and a career? We’re married with kids. So part of that was let’s make music a family business. For me, writing isn’t a day job, but it’s something I’m really passionate about and love and don’t want to stop doing. So it’s like, let’s integrate everything together and use that to connect in these communities and tell stories of people who are doing amazing things and just need their story told well. I get assigned by magazines to write a profile of a person that brings them out into the world in a way that helps them connect. So let’s do that. No one is going to pay for this, but I do think that artists, and not just musicians, but all kinds of artists, have these great stories. [The podcast is] super time intensive. It’s not a podcast where we just talk for an hour and then post it. It’s NPR style. They take a long time. It’s been a few once since [we did] one. We’ve managed to gig with a small child and doing projects the last few months, but not to do podcasts, so very soon the podcasts will return.
LLL: You both have been a part of the Chicago music scene for some time. How do you feel about its current state?
Clare: I feel like I actually read someone else saying something like it’s kind of a difficult scene in some ways and they mention the idea of having a whole big group of bands in one night and they’re all very different. That was definitely part of my experience. I would be part of a bill that was just very different realms of genres. It wasn’t very thoughtful and felt hurried. But it’s also a cool community, especially if you start getting to know the community; the people who really seem to respect art and musicians and listening.
Steve: When [Clare and I] met at an open mic [at Uncommon Ground], the same people were coming every week and they were really talented and working on really great songs and you felt that. I think lots of open mic communities or even the communities of friend band groups, which is a huge way to get around that thing Clare was talking about where you don’t necessarily want to count on the clubs to help you find the community. You’ve got to find a way to find other bands that you partner well with and then play shows together and song write together and listen to each other’s work. All that stuff is really important to growing your audience by playing shows together and growing as artists by experiencing each other. Some of that stuff, when it works out, is just magic.
Photo Credit: Steve Serio