Lauren Hoffman & The Secret Storm
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As a jaded, rebellious teenager, Lauren Hoffman connected with Jeff Buckley. She was backstage at a concert, waiting for her father who worked in music. “I asked him, ‘Are you always that depressing?’ Jeff was visibly offended,” she recalls, laughing, “but somehow he was also intrigued.” So they hung out. “‘I told him I write songs but didn’t think I should do that for a career.’ And he said, with all this intensity, ‘If you don’t express and put out what you have, it will destroy you from the inside,’” she says. “I really took that to heart. That affected me, long-term.” Jeff became a mentor to her, up until his death in 1997 just one month before she released her debut solo album.
That full length—the critically hailed, darkly melodic Megiddo released by Virgin Records—earned Lauren a spot on the original Lilith Fair tour. After parting with her major label, she subsequently released three more albums, including the mercurial, eclectic Choreography, which yielded the grassroots hit “Broken.” More than a decade later, she’s still driven by a sense of artistic purpose, which Jeff so passionately impressed upon her. Family Ghost, the debut album from her latest incarnation, Lauren Hoffman + the Secret Storm, melds her previous albums’ angst over love, relationships, and expectations into a powerful, cathartic release. A whirl of cabaret, broken ballads, and indie rock, it is a collection of heart-bending narratives that double as emotional exorcism.
“I’ve become interested in what we don’t talk about in our daily lives,” Lauren says. “I love the ability of art to communicate that secret storm inside us. Music or art, in general, gives us a format to expose some of that. If you’re playing a show, freaking out about something very real to you, that’s appropriate. Do the same in the middle of a busy street, you look like a crazy person"
In exposing her own pain, Lauren hopes to tap into the universal feelings we all carry internally and manage on a daily basis. “ ‘Family Ghost’ as the title song, deals with the intensity of relationships, whether with family, lovers, or ourselves,” she says, of the surging, time-signature tripping track. It sets the thematic tone for songs such as “Don’t Look Back,” which paints dystopian, cinematic dread that, she says, “imagines children in a post apocalyptic world. But really it’s about my parents’ divorce.”
Family Ghost’s music and lyrical foundations were set by Lauren, who pens the songs and then brings them to the Secret Storm for fleshing out. The group includes: guitarist Tony Lechmanski (an old friend from Charlottesville, and member of goth-band Bella Morte), cello-violinist Cathy Monnes (of the indie-pop Sally Rose Band), bassist Jeff Diehm (formerly of The Last Dance, an L.A. darkwave band), keyboardist Ethan Lipscomb, and new drummer Kevin Ardrey. “I love how they play,” she says. “So the first thing we do is listen to everybody’s ideas about what I’ve written, and try them out.” On previous albums, Lauren would bring a demo version of a song to a recording session, where she and longtime producer John Morand would start building on the framework. “We have the same musical vocabulary and never have to talk about what that plan is,” she says of him. “Those types of creative relationships are magical.” For this album, that relationship expanded to include the rest of the band members, resulting in a layered, multi-dimensional finished product. Thanks to this diverse band, one of the most remarkable qualities the album is its sonic push-pull, with no two tracks sounding the same.
Though Lauren assembled the Secret Storm a few years ago, a handful of Family Ghost’s songs were written more than a decade back. The oldest of these is “The Dragon,” the album’s most avant-garde offering—a cathartic purging, punctuated by sharp strings. (“I’m in love with a dragon put my hand in the flame,” she sings on the track. “I know I should’ve known better but I did it again.”) She dismissed the song years ago for being too weird, but then revisited it after a friend told her to “let her freak flag fly,” a phrase she initially resented, but later understood and came to the realization that she was not taking as many risks as she should. “‘The Dragon’ isn’t about a person,” Lauren says. “It’s actually about this journey of figuring out my struggle between the muse and the music business.”
From a young age, Lauren has been both skeptical of and attracted to the industry. Her parents divorced when she was six and Lauren along with her sister, left the families idyllic hippy farm life to follow her mother, a spiritual seeker from town to town to ashram, landing in Charlottesville, where Lauren still resides. Still, Lauren always felt
emotionally and creatively connected to her dad. As manager for the Dave Matthews Band, he worked long hours to break the band and to build a better future for his daughters. “He felt like he was doing it for me: ‘Once I’m more successful, I can do more things for you.’ But I was a kid and just wished he hung out and paid more attention to me.”
In order to fulfill her alternative high school requirements, she began interning with her father in music management, working with Matthews. She experienced a time of rebellion, partying, and personal and family drama before focusing on music. “I saw how much Jeff Buckley struggled with the business and expectations being met,” she says. She’d experience the same struggle soon enough. “The first year of Lilith Fair was a good time for women in music, but in another way, there was an intense amount of body scrutiny.” Lauren struggled with anorexia, drugs, and a car accident, and found that music itself was the remedy. She was simultaneously attempting to rebel against the industry standard and be a part of a community that encouraged authenticity while feeling unable to ignore the weight of the music industry’s pressure to have a certain body image. The battle between being a feminist creative and the image of what a female artist “should” look like threw her off balance and was a detriment to her creativity
“That moment you realize you’re not living the life you pictured for yourself” is a sentiment driven home more universally in one of the album’s newer songs, “I Just Broke Up With a Guy Who Looks Kinda Like You,” When singing of relationships on Family Ghost, Lauren is exploring both the real and the abstract - relationships with her dad, the music business, ex-lovers, herself and “the boundaries of what kind of change you can affect when a relationship isn’t working in some way.” The percolating, mid-tempo “Fastlane” and the folk-pop “In the Sun” are companion tracks in this respect. The first addresses the narcotic honeymoon period of a relationship, and the latter describes the abrupt fading of that contact high.
Despite the baring of wounds, Lauren entered this project seeking something transcendent out of her personal story. She feels more at ease separating the act of writing, arranging, and recording her music from the measures of success according to the music industry. The promotional side “can kill the connection to the muse,” she says. Despite her ambivalence with the business side of things, she feels that the songs are not complete until they are out in the world, until the audience hears them and connects. The search for the genuine connection with others is what keeps Lauren Hoffman going.
“One of the things that got me to begin this project,” says Lauren, “was that while I was at home with my baby, my song ‘Broken’ took off on the Internet.” At the time she was, she says, “quarantining myself from the pressure and critiques, to be able to remain creative.” She was moved by how the song, though written a decade ago, took on renewed relevance, to new fans. “Young women tweeting the opening couplet: ‘You’re a little bit damaged / I’m a sucker for that.’