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Photo By Paul Moffett
The Hart Strings

The Hart Strings Aim for the Stars

By Kevin Gibson

From New Albany they came, hitherto unknown: Four high school students armed with guitars and cellos, and a song at the ready. Ready, that is, to take over the world.

OK, maybe Southern Indiana's the Hart Strings aren't bent on world domination, but these four teen-agers definitely are ready to make sure you know who they are. With a new release out, and WFPK spinning the new track "California" with some regularity, and bookings coming in, the Hart Strings appear poised to make at least one or two waves.

"I lose track a lot of times that we're 18 and have only been a band about a year," frontman Ted Hartog said. "At this time, we're more than happy to be where we're at. I was a little shocked to be on the radio, because we're a teen band from Southern Indiana."

That said, Hartog and his bandmates Jared Murray, Josh Druin and John T. Renfrow don't feel undeserving of the attention they're starting to get and not just from their enthusiastic classmates.

In their short year together, the Hart Strings have played McDonald's grand openings, coffee shops, done radio interviews, played Louisville venues like the College Coop, and recently played a CD release show at Jimmy's Music Center in New Albany. And Hartog played solo before 1,200 people at the Montreat Talent Show at the Montreat Youth Conference in Louisville.

Not really the normal lineup of venues you read about, eh? No Zanzabar, Zazoo's or Headliners? Well, remember, they are 18. And they also recently played the Vernon Club, with more big shows on the schedule. On the docket the next few weeks are the Jeffersonville RiverDtage, opening for A Lion Named Roar, as well as a music festival in Clifton called Poorcastle, sponsored by Crescent Hill Radio and Apocalypse Brew Works.

The Hart Strings

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Hart Strings The Hart Strings

The Hart Strings

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Hart Strings The Hart Strings

The Hart Strings

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Hart Strings The Hart Strings

The Hart Strings

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Hart Strings The Hart Strings

The Hart Strings

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Hart Strings The Hart Strings

The Hart Strings

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Hart Strings The Hart Strings

In fact, Hartog said, if there is any obstacle at the moment, "I think it's kind of our age it's kind of hard to be taken seriously when we contact people. It's hard to say things like, 'Please let us play on the show' when we have no background information. People don't want to take the risk."

However, he adds, "We've tried with every opportunity to give them the best show we can give them."

With their Avett Brothers-influenced blend of folk, bluegrass, Americana and rock, they certainly do offer up a fine performance. Between Murray's cello, Renfrow's guitar and harmonies, Druin's violin and Hartog's distinctive and compelling vocals and lyrics, it's an almost startling combo, especially at first listen.

In other words, expect the door of opportunity to continue widening.

"We're not at the stage yet where we have the option of turning down gigs," Hartog said. "We have the mindset of, no matter how good you think you are, you haven't done anything yet."

WHAT'S ALL THE FUSS?

While the Hart Strings are happy to be gaining momentum, they aren't altogether shocked by it.

"Um, I'm a little surprised," Renfrow said, "but to be honest, we work really hard to try and make this a career for us, so it's more rewarding than surprising when good things happen."

"The feeling you get from knowing that the music you make touches the lives of your friends and family," Murray said, "as well as complete strangers, is very satisfying and I do appreciate it. I always knew that we had something special going, and the attention we've been receiving lately is only validation of that."

"I don't want to sound pretentious," adds Hartog, "but I always had big dreams for this band. Given the talent level these guys are bringing in with their training, I always assumed we'd generated some sort of buzz eventually but I am excited. But definitely, we can do a little more."

Patti and Larry Hartog, Ted's parents, aren't totally surprised either.

"My husband, Larry, and I have always loved listening to their music," Patti Hartog, who sometimes acts as an unofficial band manager/sponsor, said. "They have a style and a message that appeals to all ages; they are really reaching people. It has been exciting to see the reaction people have to their music. People are always telling me what their favorite song is, and how they introduced their friends to The Hart Strings. "

"The most exciting experience I've had with the band is just playing shows with so many people" in attendance, Druin said. "It's so awesome to look up and see so many faces digging the music. … For the rest of 2013, I can see a lot of shows and other opportunities opening up. We've made some really good connections lately, and I'm excited for what may come."

DIVERSITY DISTILLED

While these guys have been playing music for most of their lives, they didn't necessarily come from folk backgrounds. Their current influences such as the aforementioned Avett Brothers, the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, are relative new players in music, and the Hart Strings arrived in the genre later as well.

"I used to be into the kind of bands that go on the Warped tour," Hartog said. Yeah, that's a far cry from the Lumineers. But everyone has to find their sound at their own pace, and the recent evolution and explosion of folk-inspired music helped him find his.

"When he was in about the fifth grade," Patti Hartog said, "he watched the movie 'Drumline' and was hooked he wanted to play drums. He took some lessons in the summer before middle school and auditioned for drums in the Highland Hills Middle School band. … Sometime in there, he also taught himself piano and started writing songs. And, he saved his lawn-mowing money and bought himself a ukulele."

"I was 12 years old when I heard 'Imagine' by John Lennon on the radio," Renfrow said. "Ever since then I've wanted to create music."

"I got into music when I was 5 years old," Druin said. "I asked my parents if I could get guitar lessons; I've been playing in bands ever since. I started playing violin in fourth grade and taking lessons in seventh grade." (It should be noted, also, that he and Hartog were in a seventh grade band together.)

Murray suggests it's the nature of the musicians in the band that actually drives the band's sound: "I think that there has been a revived interest in folk music in today's youth counter/hipster culture and that is some of the inspiration for our music. I think the main inspiration, however, came from our choice of instrumentation and what kind of sound and look we could draw from that."

"I started writing songs around seventh grade," Hartog said. "It was always the mindset of a solo thing. I always wanted to make it a thing I could do for living and not just a hobby. Then after a couple years, being in 10th grade, I realized it was very had to get gigs as solo project. I knew my friends were talented orchestral musicians. My idea was to just have them play my songs, and that's how it started."

THE BREAKOUT RELEASE

The new album, Good Conversation, is a gentle journey through Hartog's mind. Recorded, mixed and produced by Hartog himself, the songs on the album leave one with a feeling of peace. While the Avett Brothers' influence is easily recognizable Hartog's measured lead vocal delivery even resembles that of Scott Avett, who handles much of the lead vocal duties for his band there is also an element of freshness that is difficult to pinpoint.

Songs like "April Mix Tape" convey an earnest hopefulness to go along with an accessible mid-tempo, toe-tapping tune. But what may be most striking about the Hart Strings' songs is the maturity in the songwriting. In "A Train in Georgetown," Hartog plays on a standard element of songwriting in any genre drinking away pain when he sings, "Well, I'd go home and drink for hours/If drinking was a thing that I do."

And even while "Train" is an inherently sad story, the delivery and general mood is somehow lifting.

"Joy" is nearly a standard country song with its meandering beat and muted guitar, and provides a hopeful gleam. This is a song with an amazing hook based on the vocal melody, and it's actually a wonder this one hasn't made it to WFPK yet. But "California," the one local public radio chose for airplay, also has a single-worthy sound as well, with an engaging story and some gorgeous vocal harmonies.

The song is about a girl Hartog met during church camp.

"It's one of those things where she writes poetry and stuff like that and I write songs," Hartog said, "so I thought that was a cool connection. It's not a love and loss kind of deal, but I rarely see her at all. The story was over-dramatized in the song, but the feelings behind it were emphasized by, 'I don't know when I'm going to see her again.'"

Hartog couldn't be more pleased it was chosen for radio, given that it's his favorite song of the 10 on Good Conversation.

"I don't know if bands are supposed to say that," he said about playing favorites. "But I wasn't sure which one they were going to pick up. I thought they might play 'Sharp,' which is a more radio-ready kind of song. I guess they feel how I feel about it, so that's a good sign."

His bandmates feel similarly, at least about his songwriting in general.

"Ted's great," Renfrow said. "He always surprises us when he shows us a song."

Renfrow said he was the one who came up with the guitar riff, and Hartog finished the song from the riff, "which is amazing. We wouldn't be nearly as good without him behind the pen."

"Ted's songwriting is really phenomenal," adds Druin. "He's an expert of writing catchy hooks and chord progressions. It's really easy on Jared and me to write our parts, because we can usually hear what would fit perfectly over certain parts. Ted's lyrics are also really personal and relatable."

"From day one I have been impressed with Ted as a songwriter," Murray said. "I've found his lyrics to be well beyond his years and I often wonder where he draws such deep and poignant memories to write these fantastic songs of his. His falsetto is pretty rad, too. "

Perhaps ironically, Hartog insists he's simply writing the truth. Not that he doesn't appreciate the praise, especially when he is told his songwriting is mature beyond his 18 years.

"It's always my favorite compliment," he said, citing the Avett Brothers is inspiration. "People say, 'How do you write songs?' It's hard for me to explain, other than you've got to write in the way you speak.

"I kind of see a relationship between performing music and performing theater. I have a difficult time getting lost in a role, so what I do in music is put it in terms I deal with every day."

What that does is make his songs instantly accessible, which is a good thing. Especially if your hope is to sell records and play more shows.

"Since I've been writing for five years now wow, I've been writing music five years now," he says, and then pauses to reflect. "I go through cycles where I write lyrics and I have filtered through all the things I can't write well personally. People can tell when I'm not singing something I believe in."

Honesty in songwriting? Now there's a concept.

The next step is to get his songs to the right sets of ears, which is the next order of business for the Hart Strings.

"We're starting to get fans on Facebook and people messaging us that we don't know personally," Hartog said. "It's starting to spread with us doing the same things we were already doing. It's starting to catch."

He said there is a chance for the band to New York in August to play some radio shows. After that? Well, Hartog is off to Nashville for college. But he says that won't stop the Hart Strings; it may just mean more shows in Nashville and fewer at McDonald's grand openings.

"That will, of course, present some obstacles but we'll keep it together and try to keep gaining ground," Hartog said. "There are so many opportunities down there. We'll have to be a lot more savvy about how we use our time going forward."

That won't change the directive, which is to keep gaining fans and ultimately make music full-time. Of course, that's probably every band's dream. But the Hart Strings won't give up.

"It's all about the right person hearing you," Hartog said. "We're just waiting for that person to hear us on radio. Of course, I'm shooting for the stars. I think we have the heart, the passion and the talent."

And it can't hurt that time is on their side.