Some of today’s most successful indie bands, like The 1975 or Two Door Cinema Club, met while still in school, years before achieving international prominence. Following in the footsteps of these long-haul musical collaborations is D.C. dream pop band Lavender, all graduates of American University.
Though the band has been through a few iterations, the current lineup of guitarist-bassist Alli Vega, vocalist Emily Carlson, drummer Matt Wright, and guitarist Trent Burns has held steady for three years. The four became friends during college, playing house shows, teaching themselves how to write songs, and releasing debut EP You Are in the Right Place in 2017. Since they formed during their transition into adulthood, Lavender’s music so far has focused on rapid change and personal hardships. The genuine friendship they’ve built carries over into their songwriting, which Burns describes as “a collaborative process, but there’s usually someone who’s bringing the skeleton of the song.”
Though all four band members have pursued different lines of work after graduation, music permeates their lives outside the group. Carlson is an elementary school teacher but doesn’t find her second-grade classroom too distinct from the chaotic environment of a live show. “Teaching is performing, performing is teaching, in a lot of ways,” she says.
Wright, who works as a political communications specialist, also draws similarities between the worlds of music and politics “in terms of talent and the amount of work you have to put in to rise, it’s all about who you know and contacts and connections. It’s very bizarre.” Burns’ experience as a full-time photographer and videographer has come in handy as Lavender prepares to release their first music video on Jan. 31. Vega’s job as a talent buyer also gives her valuable insight into the logistics of booking and promotion. With demanding jobs, it can be tough to muster the energy to practice and write after a long day at work, but all agree that they feel better after seeing each other and letting the music lead the way.
“Being a band is not about being best friends, but being best friends helps,” Wright says.
That bond is what sustains Lavender through what they call the “trial by fire” process of band life, like the time Vega heard Grammy-nominated alt-rock group Wolf Alice wanted a local opener for their sold-out July 2017 show in D.C. On a whim, she submitted Lavender for consideration, never expecting to land the coveted spot. When the offer came, the four had only played one official gig together and were one song short of the setlist requirements. They all stayed up the night before the show writing a new song they would have to perform at Rock & Roll Hotel the next day. Burns remembers Wolf Alice “set a really good example for basically just how to treat your fellow musicians” and even watched Lavender’s performance, a surreal moment for the group while it was still in its infancy. “We were all probably visibly nervous,” Burns says. “They were so kind and set us at ease.”
As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true for a band. The group is grateful for the music community they’ve found in D.C., starting with audio engineer and fellow AU graduate Brian Harrington, whom they affectionately refer to as their “fifth Beatle.” He let Lavender record its first EP in the campus recording studio as part of his senior project, and their collaboration continues even as Harrington’s career has taken him to Los Angeles. “In 10 years, he’s going to be so successful because he’s such a good engineer,” Vega says.
The band also credits 7DrumCity for providing them with an affordable rehearsal space when they have a recording session or big show coming up. Burns notes that in addition to hard work, “it also takes venues that are willing to support their local musicians” for a band to accumulate a show history and grow its audience. Among their favorite spots the band lists DC9, Pie Shop, and Songbyrd Music House as venues that pay musicians and are willing to take a chance on newer acts. Just as much as Lavender benefits from the DIY music community, they’ve also become veterans of the D.C. scene who can help other groups just starting out. Through her job, Vega gives advice to smaller bands, pointing them to the appropriate venues for their experience and following. When Lavender was offered an opening slot at 9:30 Club earlier in 2019, they sent back the names of local acts they thought would be a better fit to open for the headliner instead, one of which was ultimately hired for the gig.
As rising local housing costs lead to the disappearance of house venues, giving up a show is no small matter. But the band knows they’re guaranteed two performances a year as part of Lavender’s biannual house show traditions, hosted at the home Carlson and Vega share together. Since Carlson’s birthday is May 5, the band throws an open-invite birthday bash called “Cinco de Emily” every year, as well as a Halloween party. Even though the point of these events is to have fun together, Carlson admits to getting nervous, since their fall show is mostly Halloween-themed covers. “That week in preparation for the covers I feel more pressure than any Lavender show that we’ve played,” she says. Last year’s Halloween party swelled to more than 200 people, suggesting Lavender’s word-of-mouth popularity has reached a fever pitch.
Playing a major festival is on the band’s bucket list, but for now they’ve recorded new music to be released throughout 2020, including a second EP coming out Feb. 21. They’re planning the year’s release schedule in advance since Burns will be moving to New Zealand this month for a one-year sabbatical. The temporary separation will be a new chapter for Lavender, but the group is keeping things in perspective and still intends to rehearse and exchange music. “We’ve got a tighter crew than a lot of other bands, so that’s been something really special,” Burns says.
After all, the future has never been predictable for Lavender. When they were still in school, they never imagined opening for Wolf Alice, heaving their equipment all the way to a show in New York City, or being recognized by fans on the street. Burns often tells himself “if 16-year-old you could see you scurrying off to the gig after work, he’d be freaking out.”
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