Born in the mountains of wildflowers and crystalline creeks, deep winters and short summers, a triad of young women became of one mind through their music. Lizzy Plotkin (fiddle, ukulele, mandolin), Katherine Taylor (banjo, guitar, accordion), and Jenny Hill (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) are the core creators of the band Free the Honey. They recently added Andrew Cameron on upright bass. And now, only two years old, the Gunnison Valley band is well on its way to bigger stages.
The three women are prolific songwriters, each with their own style that blends nicely as they add their musical prowess to each other’s songs. Their harmonies are smoothly angelic with a richness that is more like siblings with a genetic similarity to their vocals. “Once the three of us got together we were making music with those ‘Ah ha!’ moments,” Liz says. Katherine adds, “It breaks you open and that’s what art is for.”
Katherine was a self-defined introvert playing alone at home. She explains, “Coming into music for me has really been about song writing and that was the foundation in my music. I can compose and express myself and that’s really where I started. I come at it from a more lyrical place. I didn’t grow up classically trained and I didn’t start doing music until I was in my twenties. For me, Colorado is very connected to my musical inspiration. I got to Colorado on a Grateful Dead ticket, and String Cheese, so music brought me here. I started playing when I was given a mandolin—now I’m obsessed with music.”
Katherine says making art is a relationship with the universe. “When I’m songwriting, the universe is the audience and the co-creator. The most important thing about making art is how it makes me feel first. Even if there’s nobody else who ever hears it, I believe it ripples out and it affects reality. It’s a way of creating my own reality. What I’ve learned through Free the Honey is that when you make it communal it makes it that much better. The more people you’re sharing that experience with just enriches it—the collaboration, what we all bring to it, we awake each other. It’s really what art is all about, resonating with each other.”
Lizzy was playing various gigs with local musician Craig McLaughlin and other musicians. She and Jenny met when they were teaching together in Gunnison at ORSH—an acronym for “one-room school house.” When Jenny decided to move back to Texas in 2012, Liz inherited her job. Two months later, Jenny returned and the two shared the teaching position. “We became soul sisters,” Lizzy grins. Later that winter, Liz got a gig in Telluride at the Steaming Bean, a legendary place for Americana music, and the post-show excitement fueled the band’s inception.
Although Liz points out that each of them comes from different places in music, “What clicked between me and Katherine was, we might have different perspectives but we both know what resonates. You have to be okay with mistakes but we honor each other’s need for articulation.” Katherine agrees, saying, “We support each other’s vision and expression, and we defend it.”
Free the Honey formed in January 2013 in Crested Butte, Lizzy says. “We just started playing gigs and practicing,” Katherine adds. “We were excited to learn each other’s songs. We write individually but we bring it to each other. Collaborating gives it a richer voice.”
Originally, the band started out with the name The New Folk, based on new folk music, but in the band’s evolution they decided to create a new moniker by comparing lists of words that resonated with them individually. They combined those words into themes, Lizzy says. “Some words carried through with all three of us, like ‘liberation,’ ‘free,’ and ‘salvation,’ because when we play music it’s an endless unlimited process.”
They laugh that Katherine’s favorite word was “the” and Lizzy would be the “free” and Jen the “honey.” Of the dozen words they each had come up with Liz says, “We had all written ‘honey.’ Free the Honey is a call to action. We’re not something, we’re a process. We contribute to everyone else being more free.”
Jenny joined up with Lizzy and Katherine and says, “We met separately but came together musically. Our styles are all similar enough to be in the same genre and band. When we bring it to the table we all add our own interpretation to the other person’s song. My songwriting has a place in it but my songs are mostly about people who influence me, like my grandparents, or people I’ve met in Gunnison… It’s a blend of sense of place and a strong influence of friends and family that drives a lot of my songwriting. I definitely want to keep progressing more and more into our original songs, that’s what’s most inspiring.”
Jenny also wants to travel as much as possible because, she says, “Sharing music with people is one of the main reasons I love to play music. You meet people who you would never meet otherwise, from all walks of life. You learn from all these people, musicians or music ‘appreciaters,’ they all have something to add. I think the bottom line is that it’s fun, tons of fun, playing with these people. The genuine love for one another and the fact that these are my friends outside of music makes our friendship even tighter.”
The man in the band, Andrew Cameron, came about as the women were looking for an upright bass player to add that bottom-end depth to their already soulful tunes. “The music we play comes from a female perspective, but Andrew’s more of a honey than I am,” Lizzy laughs.
Andrew was a jazz student at Western State Colorado University (WSCU) who, in his high school years in Lakewood, Colo., was told by a school orchestra director that he should play bluegrass to make money over the summers.
“When I was ten years old, I was listening to Duke Ellington and that’s when I decided to play bass,” Andrew says. He came onboard with Free the Honey in July 2014 but he still plays with his other bands, Simpler Times Bluegrass and Gypsy Jazz Social Club. “I was hoping [Free the Honey] would ask me to join so I was glad they did. I feel like I’m in it with them and they’re great bandmates.”
In 2013 Free the Honey put their music online and out to the public, then followed it with a five-week tour in a van through the southeast last fall. “We made it happen,” Lizzy says. “We booked the gigs and then friends helped book gigs. We hooked up with other bands and shared gigs. We played radio stations.” Lizzy explains the group played the well-known Blue Plate Special live with an audience, a program which has been airing at high noon since 1985.
The tour was transformative for the band. “We came out of the tour with one mind,” Katherine says. “It was more a collective consciousness. We didn’t know that until we went on tour,” she says of the 22 gigs in five weeks. Post-tour, the band was energized and played a ton of shows this winter. The women agree this past year has seen much support from their home valley. “This year it’s really caught on and we feel support throughout the whole valley, and it’s multi-generational,” Lizzy says.
With two albums under their belt, the group is ready to take on an even more professional sound by cutting their new CD at Swingfingers Recording Studios in Fort Collins this month, with Aaron Youngberg as engineer and producer K.C. Groves. The album will have 16 all-original songs and will showcase them equally as songwriters. Each of them will have four to five songs of their own genre, which they dub Honey-grass. They describe their style as, “Self defined and influenced by bluegrass, jazz gospel, blues, folk and Gypsy.”
To get their project rolling, the band is raising money for the recording session, as well as the mastering, production, pressing, and promotion of the album. They enthusiastically agree that they’re ready for an international community.
The fundraising process begins with their April 10 show at the Gunnison Art Center, “An Evening with Free the Honey,” where they’ll be showcasing tunes from the new CD. There’s also a silent auction that will benefit their album project, which will need $15,000 over the next nine months.
The album will be available for pre-purchase starting April 10 online at freethehoney.com as well. They’re also accepting sponsorships to support them as artists to further their creative sojourn.
Free the Honey will play myriad shows this summer. Some will take them far from home but many are close, like the Palisades Bluegrass and Roots Fest, June 12-14. They’ll be at the Mountain Harvest Festival in Paonia this September as well as Big B’s Delicious Orchards this summer. This month the group heads out to Kentucky for a Festival at Terrapin Hill, and in May the Honey plays Hippie Jack’s in Crawford, Tenn.
The four will then van up to Bean Blossom, Ind., to play the John Hartford Memorial Festival.
“The connections keep happening. We’re very intentional about where we’re going and we’re having a lot of fun. We’re making beautiful music together and that’s all that matters,” Katherine says. “If we can keep adding to the beauty then were doing the right thing,” Lizzy adds. Katherine says we need to reclaim our culture locally, noting “We’re celebrating our place.” Liz agrees and explains, as a whole and as separate songwriters, the band is influenced by their surroundings. “We’re talking about the rivers, we’re talking about the trees. We write place-based music. We get the honor of living in a place where people are already celebrating the earth and respect it. For us, it’s a privilege to be onstage.”
For Free the Honey music and information, visit Soundcloud.com/free-the-honey or freethehoney.com.