The Oh Hellos have taken the folk world by storm in recent years, earning the rare honor of playing two NPR Tiny Desk concerts, and selling out shows all over the United States, including The Granada Theater last time they were in Dallas in October 2016. I heard about them shortly after the release of their second album, Dear Wormwood, in 2015 and quickly fell in love because of my extraordinary affection for the “folk-estra” sub-genre (folk + orchestra). But now, I love them for many more reasons, including their narrative skill, their joyfulness, and their incredible ability to throw a party at their concerts. I can’t say enough good things about how fresh and wonderful their music is, but I can tell you that before writing up this interview, I was playing their music in my apartment and my roommate texted me from the next room saying she liked what she heard. Last week, I spoke on the phone with Maggie and Tyler Heath, the siblings who front their ensemble of friends and family who form The Oh Hellos.
Radio: Hi, this is Molly. You’re on Folk Ain’t a Joke. I’m really excited and nervous.
Tyler: Hey Molly, I’m super thrilled that you’re excited but there is no need to be nervous. We’re giant nerds. This is going to go great.
Radio: Awesome. I am also a giant nerd so sounds good to me.
Radio: I guess I’ll just start asking some questions.
Tyler: Lay it on us.
Radio: Tell me a little bit about the process of you guys coming up with the ideas for and making these four winds Ep’s that you’re working on right now.
Tyler: Sure. I remember that it started almost as a solo project of mine in between records. And it wasn’t at the time anything to do with four Greek wind deities. It was more like the four seasons. It was a project that, because it was a solo album for me, it was probably going to go nowhere. But a lot of the musical motifs and even just the general sound of a lot of the stuff that I was doing was interesting enough that when Mag and I came back together after our long break after finishing writing Dear Wormwood that we thought, well, we could use this. But people have done the four seasons so we asked, what else could we do?
Maggie: And when we started trying to put lyrics to it and trying to think what it was we wanted to write about, we realized we were more interested in talking about the changing of the seasons than the actual seasons themselves and how when in your life you can feel the wind turning and a time of your life coming to an end and a new one coming towards you. That can be a very scary sensation. But that is literally what our life is comprised of over and over again and trying to figure out how to deal with the change and not knowing what it’s going to be turning into. So from that, we decided, well, let’s focus more on the change and as we do, delve way deep into really obscure mythology.
Tyler: I mentioned we’re nerds.
Maggie: We found out about the Greek gods of the four cardinal winds and how their whole job was to usher in the new seasons. Like Notos would bring the winds in from the south that would cause really turbulent thunderstorms and stuff like that. They were basically the reason why the different gods of the seasons had their time and place.
Tyler: Greek mythology in general is one of the more easily grasped – or, like, everyone in America knows at least a little bit about the Greek pantheon and Greek mythology, which means it’s more of a shorthand. It’s a quicker way to get to what we’re trying to talk about that people will understand, which it’s fortunate that we have that kind of easy access.
Radio: Especially with Percy Jackson. I read that when I was in fourth grade.
Tyler: Right, yeah.
Radio: As I was writing these questions, I was thinking about how all of your music is inspired by different parts of literature and mythology. And it’s interesting because when you do this, when you’re inspired by people like C. S. Lewis or Greek mythology, you’re engaged in a conversation with this literature and with history. So do you guys have any thoughts on that or your relationship with this and creating music?
Tyler: That made me laugh because we have described our Dear Wormwood album — which is loosely or conceptually based on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, as opposed to a direct book to album transcription — we have described that as fanfiction.
Maggie: Glorified fan fiction.
Tyler: So the idea that this is a conversation we’re having with this author makes me think that this author would probably hate us. But that was my thought. “Oh no, what must they think of us?” I had never really considered that and basically that thought is terrifying to me.
Radio: Related to that, how has growing up in Texas, as y’all have, affected your songwriting or where these ideas come from and influences? If you have any ideas on that.
Maggie: I guess, most directly, with this current bout of music –
Tyler: I like that you said bout. Like it’s an illness we have to purge from ourselves.
Maggie: We tried to evoke a lot of imagery from our personal experiences growing up really close to the Gulf Coast. We lived about an hour south of Houston so every year we had to map out an evacuation route and keep an eye on the news.
Radio: I grew up in The Woodlands so I completely understand.
Tyler: There was at least one hurricane that we had to evacuate from. We didn’t really get a choice.
Maggie: So I guess that’s the most direct way. For me personally, I listened to a lot of old country crooners growing up. Which, the older I get, I’m realizing that has really influenced the way that I think of performing. But there’s also something so sweet about old classic country that no matter when you listen to it, it’s going to feel – whether you necessarily like it or not – it’s going to feel timeless.
Tyler: I was going to say, I feel like you’ve got a pretty positive relationship to it. Then for me it’s like, oh, here we go. This again.
Maggie: But also, our grandmother moved here from England when she was about 17 and our grandparents lived in the Pacific Northwest, on the other side of our family, so we had an, I don’t know, big bag to draw from. What am I trying to say?
Tyler: I don’t know but it’s probably not “big bag to draw from.”
Maggie: A wide pool maybe?
Tyler: Yeah, we were exposed to a lot of different – not necessarily really different, wildly different – but we were exposed to different parts of the country growing up, even different parts of the world, given that our grandmother was from England. I feel like musically, there’s a lot of imagery that we’re trying to evoke. Especially on the first record, we were, in part, trying to make it feel like the Pacific Northwest where we spent our summers with our grandparents. But there are other summer memories I have in Texas that I was looking for too, especially on “Constellations” or “Planetarium Stickers [On the Bedroom Wall]”, I was imagining night time, not somewhere else, but that warm, Texas summer heat but with stars overhead.
Radio: I know that well. That good old Texas heat. There’s nothing like it out there. Going off of that, again talking about influences and where some things come from, y’all are brother and sister and a lot of your band is made up of other friends and family. How does that affect the songwriting and performing experience for you guys?
Tyler: I would say that one of the comments we get a lot of the time, that I find really gratifying, honestly, is “Y’all look like you’re having so much fun up there.” Which fortunately has never been said in a tone that’s like “Well, at least y’all look like you’re having fun up there.” I think people can tell that we all really enjoy performing together and that there’s a lot of comradery between us during the show and during life. It’s a big group of friends, basically. Mag and I essentially reached out in our early days of trying to put a touring band together to everyone we knew who could hold an instrument because we had written these big, dense, 20-pair-of-hands kinds of songs and had to figure out how we recreate this live. And so the people we reached out to were the people we had grown up with and people we’ve gone to school with. Some of them were siblings themselves. There’s a lot of, I would say, closeness. It is also kind of like a family on a road trip in that occasionally you get squeezed together for too long and start to butt heads. But I feel like it’s one of those things where at the end of the day, everyone is trying to be on each other’s’ team and come out on the same side.
Radio: I can understand that. And it’s visible on stage, like you were saying that other people said. Something that I heard about on some other interview that I thought was interesting is the story of how you guys got your name, The Oh Hellos.
Tyler: It’s, originally, at least from our perspective, it originated as an inside joke within our family. Mag and I and our parents took a family vacation to Ireland, I think summer of 2010. We got there early in the week, like I think on a Monday. So all of our exploring and touring and going to pubs at night was all happening during the week. It wasn’t until a weekend, a Friday night, that the actual nightlife started and we realized, oh, we’ve been getting a very different version of the evening experience that the locals do. Point being, we left a folk concert that ended at 7pm and walked down a main street in a little town and passed a pub that was considerably rowdier than it had been before. And a man stumbled out and saw Maggie, and our dad moved her quickly aside, as the man’s expression was a certain expression. And then he saw our mom and his first words to her were “Oh, hello. Will you have a drink with me?” And our mom said, “No, thank you” and he said “Why not?” and she said, “Well, I’m with my family” and she gestures to the rest of us. He apparently didn’t a care about that because his next words were, “Oh, please?” And so we thought that was hilarious and when we needed a name under which to release music on the internet, which we kind of thought no one would ever hear – we thought this is a zero stakes game here. No one will ever care about this. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What about this? This looks funny. So we called ourselves The Oh Hellos and now we’re stuck with it.
Radio: And it’s interesting because you know the Netflix special – or it was a Broadway play – “Oh, Hello.” A friend was tweeting about that and I was like, hold on a minute. What’s happening?
Maggie: We are eternally afraid that they get tweets or something about us and say, who is this idiot band?
Radio: Well I think the Irish story stuck out to me because I have Irish heritage and I’ve been to the country a lot and there was a part – the instrumental part in “Torches” – it really hit me as really traditional Irish and I was like, yes!
Tyler: Oh, awesome. I fell that that’s been a big influence for us. We have worked harder and harder over time to have it be more of an inspired by kind of deal than just a direct, I want to say, almost a tribute. Because we played a few shows in the UK and Ireland at the beginning of this year and this was actually our first show in Ireland and I had the sudden and overwhelming thought of, oh no, what if they think that we’re posers? What if our inspired by, to them, feels like, I don’t know, not making fun of them but trying way too hard. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case. The show went just fine and no one jeered or booed, so that was good. I think a lot of where maybe our sound and influences come from, honestly, I can trace a lot of it back to that trip that we took. I mean, that’s where we got our band name and it’s also where, musically, we started pulling from when we first started writing together. We’ve got at least a little bit of Irish heritage too. I don’t know how much and it’s probably not enough to feel comfortable claiming that as huge part of who we are.
Radio: Ireland will give citizenship to anybody. Claim it. They will take anyone.
Tyler: That’s a comfort to me to know.
Radio: So I have a few more short little questions. What exercises do you recommend that people do to get prepared for going to one of your shows so they’re fit enough to do it?
Maggie: I would say lots of stretching. Make sure your muscles are limber. I do a lot of lunges.
Tyler: Backstage in high anxiety. Getting ready for the show, super nervous, that’s just an unconscious, uncontrollable –
Maggie: Honestly, that is more to make sure that my pants are stretchy enough than an actual exercise.
Tyler: Have you ever thought about what if they aren’t and you’re doing that 5 minutes before we go on? No?
Maggie: Well now I am.
Tyler: Something to think about. Plenty of cardio, although you’ll also get more of that at the show, I think.
Maggie: I would say mostly cardio. Mostly jumping based cardio so that you can make use of that vertical space.
Radio: Like you could go to – what are those things where people step up on to boxes? Stair stepping? Is that what it’s called?
Tyler: Sure. I don’t actually know. I feel like I don’t know enough about fitness.
Radio: I don’t either. So y’all mentioned that you’re nerds. What are your book recommendations right now?
Tyler: The book that brought me back to reading, that I remembered from my childhood but couldn’t remember the name of, is called Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones. And it was transformative for me. Other people might not have the same experience I did, but I had read a lot of fantasy fiction as a kid and then read this one and thought at the time, as I opened it, thought, oh yeah, anther fantasy book, cool. There’s a big, black griffin on the front with a scary looking dude with armor. What I found out was that it was a book – and I recommend it because I read it 3 days ago again – it’s about systemic injustice and oppression and exploitation and also both a love letter to and parody sendup of every trope that’s ever been in a fantasy novel from the years 1920 to 1970. It’s also this really great family melodrama and there’s a love story in it. It’s basically everything I ever wanted in a book and didn’t remember until I read it again when I was like 23 because I remembered fantasy tourism and looked it up. Oh, because the other thing is there’s a world directly next to our world that’s a fantasy world and someone from earth figures out how to get there and sets up Disneyland in the fantasy world, basically, using the entire fantasy world as a theme park. And after 50 years of it, the fantasy world was tired of it and wants to figure out how to stop this contract.
Radio. Wow, that sounds like it’s got it all.
Tyler: it’s super, super good and when I read it again this week, I basically remembered, oh yeah, this is where everything I like in fantasy comes from. That would be my recommendation since it’s so fresh on my mind and I’ve already talked about it so much.
Maggie: I would say for me, either Neverwhere or The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I feel like those two are on the less dark side. So The Graveyard Book was heavily inspired by The Jungle Book and it’s about a baby who gets lost in a cemetery and so all the ghosts take him in. At some points it’s very lighthearted and sweet and at other points it has some of the coolest horror things – not in a weird, gory way or anything, but in a very incredible spooky world building sort of a way. So yeah, I would say The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Neverwhere is good too but The Graveyard Book is an easy read that you can do in a couple days where Neverwhere is a …
Tyler: A bit more.
Maggie: It’s been a while since I’ve read a book because the last book I read was Neverwhere and I was too depressed when the story was over and I had to say bye.
Tyler: We’re adults. We know what reality is.
Radio: I should probably let you guys get going but thank you so much for talking with us today.
Tyler: Our pleasure. Thank you so much for having us.