Interview: Getting to know Maine’s new folk quartet SnugHouse

Named for the Greenlandic word meaning “What is it?”, Sunaana is a steady growing music (and craft beer) festival that poses a bunch of questions for the U.S city of Portland, Maine. It’s focused on discovery, but also asks how a small historic city in New England can pretty much become a music festival venue, similar to the relationship between legendary showcase event Iceland Airwaves and Reykjavik. The AU Review were invited over to the second ever addition to see how this festival, which took place in early March, was growing and how it plans to grow in the future.

You can read more about about what happened and our thoughts and feelings on Sunaana HERE.

While in Portland, Maine (no, not that Portland, the colder one) we took the opportunity to catch up with two of the bands that most caught our attention, one being from Iceland and one being from Maine. We already bought you our chat with Iceland’s excellent CeaseTone last week, so this time we’re highlighting Portland locals SnugHouse, a four-piece who impressed with their dynamism and witty, poignant songwriting.

SnugHouse is Nikhil Dasgupta, Alex Millan, Rosie Borden, and Laura Pauline, a group of talented singers all whom take the lead vocalist role on different songs in the band’s modest but endearing body of work. Since Sunaana’s approach to music is very much focused on discovery, SnugHouse is still very much a project in its very, very early stages so we thought it best to grab some details on the origin and story of how these four excellent songwriters came together.

So I’ll start by getting you guys to take me to the origins of SnugHouse. How did you all meet?

Nikhil: So our name…Alex and I were actually working on this project called SnugHouse about a year and a half ago. It was a very different thing. It was us plus a bunch of other musicians, but it wasn’t as together as it is now.

Alex: We were looking for a sound. We knew we had the people but didn’t know what the song or the musical identity was. It was just like none of us were doing anything but we wanted to play together. Nikhil had a lot of songs, and I was performing a lot at an open mic at a bar here in Portland. Laura and Rosie were also performers there so I got know them socially, and when this first attempt at a band fell apart I thought, “How great would it be to play with these amazing singers”? I knew them as just really great writers and performances and I thought it’d be really fun for us to get together. Nikhil and I were kind of looking for a group…

Nikhil: Yeah, to fill the holes of what were left after the first iteration of SnugHouse sort of fell apart – people moved and people quit.

Alex: During the first round of SnugHouse we actually recorded the EP with two other friends. So we found ourselves as a folk quartet with two other members, but jobs and life kind of took them away. So we had recorded this EP but we needed performers, we needed people who could be around.

Nikhil: About four months ago we found that the four of us worked well together. We all care a lot about singing, I think that’s something we’ve thought a lot about as individuals before meeting each other. I have background in arranging for vocal parts so that very quickly became one of our strengths. We don’t have a whole bunch of instruments we kind of just have the pieces – guitar and bass, sometimes piano and bass – though we’re working on making that bigger. And it’s about the songs that we have, and building them up into something engaging and interesting with those two instruments and four voices. I think it’s going really well right now; all of us are kind of bringing something to the table, we’re bringing either songs or certain attitudes to the group that we have. We all love hanging out as well so that’s a plus.

Rosie: One thing that you asked was the name. There’s a bar here in Portland on the east end called The Snug. Nik lives above the snug.

Nikhil: So that apartment, where I live, has been called the “Snug House” as kind of like a joke for awhile. And so it sort of became very natural to take on that name.

Alex: The reason why Snughouse worked is that it was something we were already saying and it was something built around our identity. I think when you’re coming up with a band name you’re anxious about “What will people think of this”. But we don’t really care, because it’s something that’s our identity anyway. It matters to us, so people will associate it with our sound.

There’s a nice dynamic on stage with multiple vocalists and you all switching parts. Do you all just write your own songs that you perform individually?

Nikhil: So far that’s very much been the case. We all take our turns singing lead. Generally the song that someone is singing is the song that they wrote, and we build an arrangement around that. Maybe in the future we’ll write as a group but to date, it’s been working along the lines of someone brings a song to the table and we think how it comes to life in the context of SnugHouse.

Alex: It’s been very fun because we’re all very different writers from different backgrounds so figuring out how to get all our voices represented by the SnugHouse identity and having the chance for us all to show of what we do, that’s been fun.

Nikhil: There’s an identity there, and it’s also informed by the fact that we came together because we all have an appreciation of the same things in songwriting. It’s not just that we’re coming up with all this crazy different stuff and making it fit.

Alex: Now we’re at the point where we bring songs to the band that we want to sound like SnugHouse, and we probably all have songs that we don’t think fit so we keep that for ourselves. It helps build us both individually and as a band, which is really cool. No one feels unheard or that their songs are being used in a way they don’t want.

Bringing the conversation to Sunaana. What does it mean for you guys to have a slot at this festival?

Alex: It means the world.

Nikhil: The reason it’s happened is that Darren Elder does the music curation and he’s someone who heard us on the radio and reached out and wanted to help us on our next project. So we’ve been meeting and talking with Darren about how we are going to move forward and make this record. He’s also a great guy to hang out with and he’s so invested in the Portland scene and what it means to play music here. Meeting him is what led us here. One day we were just talking and he was like, “We’re doing this festival and if I met you earlier, you’d totally be a part of it”. But then a week later he was just like, “I have a slot for you, are you playing?”

Alex: The identity of the festival is totally Portland’s local scene. I think, without speaking for Darren, it probably means so much for him to be in Portland, because for the reputation he has he could be anywhere, or be anyone, but the fact that he chooses to be here and spotlight bands he likes really means a lot to us. It feels really good to be at the point where someone is seeking you out because they like your art.

Nikhil: It feels cool to be thought of something that’s up and coming. It was flattering and super fun to play.

What are you guys looking forward to for the rest of the year?

Nikhil: So much of this industry has been figuring it all out one step at a time. Every step you just think of the next thing you’re going to do. I think where we’re at right now is just looking to record an album with Darren and figure out how we can promote it. We want to get bigger venues in Portland, trying to play out in Boston more. We’re just hoping for the best.

Alex: We’d love to tour, but as far as we can look forward is just the next immediate thing. We love performing and writing together and feedback from the audience. We just look forward to sharing our thing with people.

A big part of this festival seems to be Portland in general and there’s been talk of a kind of spiritual connection to Iceland, which is why the model of Iceland Airwaves is working so well here. What would you say defines the music scene here compared to other places?

Alex: I would say a lack of competition. There’s a lot of different sounds, there’s not a lack of ambition clearly but I think in bigger cities there’s that notion that you really have to fight for your spot. But here everyone just enjoys each other.

Nikhil: That cut-throat competitiveness is not there which is just beautiful. We’re kind of at a tipping point where in the last five or ten years the scene has gotten big enough where locals are really doing important things. People are doing things that are coming to national attention, and there are these bands starting to become really relevant, but at the same time its small enough so people like us can run into those people who are doing important things, like how we just bumped into Darren. It’s this really rare in-between spot where I think ten years from now it’ll be too commercialised and not as easy to navigate.

Alex: And there’s room for everyone, all genres. There’s the pop music, hip hop, folk music scene, connection to nature. Basically, that door is open to everyone.

Funny you mention connection to nature because that’s a big defining point of Icelandic music, for me at least. Does that seep into your songwriting, the natural surrounds of Portland?

Alex: I think it seeps into my existence. Laura is from Maine but the rest of us are not. It wasn’t my reason for coming here, but certainly one of my reasons for staying. Portland is at this unique point where it’s the cultural centre of this mostly rural state. We are on the water, we have beaches, mountains, you drive a couple of hours in any direction and there’s skiing and surfing. You feel very grounded here. Portland feels special in this way that’s hard to describe, but it comes across in the people you meet.

Laura: Portland has a combination of nature and music, and as we’ve said it’s not competitive. There’s a sense of grounded-ness.

Nikhil: Portland feels like a family.

Rosie: It’s got the small town charm, even though it’s a city.

I find that the best songwriting comes from lesser known places because artists who grew up in those smaller locales have more empathy with their location and you can hear that sense of place in the music.

Rosie: I feel like it’s almost harder to find your own voice in a place that’s so crowded. Here it feels more natural, like we all just found each other organically. We all identified things in each other that we value musically and did so very easily.

Alex: I appreciate Portland because of that. I think for the type of songwriter that’s seeking or yearning for something and identifies with a sense of place, Portland is a really cool place to feel that. There’s something about sense of place and making a setting for a story that I love, and Portland has a lot of that.

To keep up to date with SnugHouse head on over to their Facebook page HERE, and for more on Sunaana give their official website a visit HERE.

Feature image credit: Alexander Bertoni.