Unsettling memories of a near-death car crash, a beat-up piano and a manic voicemail all played roles in the composing of “Where We Are,” a song from the Lumineers’ new album, “Brightside.”
The album’s title single—released in September—reached No. 1 on Billboard’s alternative rock and adult alternative airplay charts.
Recently, Wesley Schultz, the Lumineers’ co-founder, lead vocalist and the song’s co-writer, reflected on how he and Jeremiah Fraites composed and recorded “Where We Are.” Edited from an interview.
Wesley Schultz: In the spring of 2011, I was driving on a highway near Flagstaff, Ariz., with my girlfriend, Brandy, when it started to rain and snow. We were in the early part of our relationship, driving cross-country to California.
Earlier in the day, our rental car had steering problems, so we called the company. They told us to drive to Flagstaff for a replacement. We headed east on Route 40 and were almost there.
Coming around a curve that afternoon, the car veered and hydroplaned off the highway. The smooth sound of asphalt gave way to crunchy gravel and then no sound at all as the car went airborne, flipping almost three times before landing on its side.
Once Brandy and I realized we had survived and could move, I climbed out first and then helped her out. We had no idea where we were. By then, cars had pulled over, and people walking toward the car were crying. They assumed we were dead.
Next came fire trucks and a checkup by the paramedics. Brandy had a concussion and broken ribs, and I was bleeding from my right hand and face. They urged us to get a more thorough exam. We [declined] care. We didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford huge hospital bills.
A tow truck drove us and the totaled car to Flagstaff—first to a salvage yard and then to the rental office. Ironically, we had sprung for rental insurance, so they gave us a new one. The car had coverage, we didn’t. We checked into a motel and, the next day, we drove two hours to the Grand Canyon and hiked.
The accident happened two years after Jeremiah Fraites and I had formed the Lumineers in New Jersey. We soon relocated to Denver.
In 2020, we were asked to write and record a song for a film called “The Starling.” Jer and I set to work. By then, the lockdown had started and Jer was in Italy and I was in Denver. So we exchanged ideas back and forth by texting voice memos.
At one point, Jer sent me an audio clip of him playing synthesizer chords that sounded like a cello. I strummed his chords on my guitar and recorded them on my cell phone. Then I composed a melody and we had a verse.
It sounded so good and propulsive that we saved it for our next album. For the movie, we wrote a different song, “Isabelle Fly.”
As we continued to work on the album song, Jer returned to Denver, where he played his initial synth chords on Firewood, his nickname for an old piano he loves. It sounds as if a piano and a drum had a baby.
We still needed a chorus. While we worked on ideas, I began writing lyrics while walking in a Denver park near my home. I write many of my song lyrics by going on walks and muttering a hypnotic chant to find words.
During this process, I had an appointment with an osteopath to treat various aches and pains from touring. He had me lie on my back on a table while he worked on my ankle. The process activated my memory of the car crash.
On the table, I looked up at the ceiling fan turning and started humming the song to myself and came up with lyrics for a verse:
“Layin’ on the table like I wasn’t even there / Holdin’ on the steering wheel and coming up for air / What was I / Drivin’ in the rain / What was I / Callin’ out your name.”
Later, at my apartment, I went into my little writing room and finished lyrics for the verses on a legal pad. I also had some lines for a chorus: “I know who you wanted me to be / Always holding up your tragedy.”
But I wasn’t completely set on that. Then I remembered Jer had sent along a strange chanting audio message. I played the message again:
“I don’t know where we are / I don’t know where we are / I don’t know where we are, you know?”
He sounded crazy, but there was something about his mania that was so truthful, innocent and direct. Initially, we were going to use his chant as the song’s fading outro. But Jer’s chant captivated me. We turned it into the chorus:
“Where we are / I don’t know where we are / But it will be OK / Where we are (where we are) / I don’t know where we are (where we are) / But it will be OK.”
We used the earlier chorus for the song’s bridge. Then we went to Sun Mountain Studios, in Boiceville, N.Y., to record. We had song elements, but we weren’t sure yet how to piece them together for the album.
As we worked, we decided to skip an instrumental intro and launch right into my lead vocal. Initially, it was going to start with Jer’s piano. But in the studio, we felt the eerie new approach was more dramatic.
At first, my lyrics were about the crash. But once the pandemic lockdown started in 2020, the concert tour for our previous album was canceled. That’s when the crash and song became a metaphor for the virus.
Covid was like a global car crash that happened just as suddenly. Our generation had survived and was trying to pick up the pieces and move on with some normalcy.
I proposed to Brandy in Paris, a year after the car crash, in 2012. Brandy said “Yes!” We bought a baguette and some wine to celebrate and hung out near the river. We married a year later at the courthouse in Denver.
Brandy had two items from the crash framed, with a map of the Flagstaff region as the background. On top of the map, she mounted the VIN information we had removed from the totaled car so no one could restore it.
She also added a photo that the tow-truck driver took of us standing on top of the wreck at the salvage yard. Today, the framed collage hangs in our dining room. It reminds us how we once cheated death.
By Marc Myers/Wall Street Journal