Having just released their warmest, most mature and most expansive record yet in Love The Stranger – their first for Merge – Friendship are on a rise that they’ve earned through perennial positivity, Tom Williams reports
While speaking to me, Dan Wriggins – lead singer of Philadelphia quartet Friendship – is driving from America to Canada with his fellow bandmates as they embark on the next date of their 12-day-12-stops North American tour. The band’s new LP, Love The Stranger feels like it was made specifically for these sort of long distance road trips. Ruminative, expansive and radiating warmth, Friendship’s third full-length is all about finding beauty in the everyday while striving for more from life.
Since 2017’s Shock Out of Season, Friendship’s music has alternately been described as indie-rock, folk and Americana, but Wriggins reminds me that Friendship, at its core, is a country band. Though the expansive nature of Love The Stranger makes it difficult to easily categorize, it certainly shares the free-wheeling, open-hearted spirit that defines country music at its best. “As if anything could stop your heart / From loving the stranger”, Wriggins sings on album highlight “Chomp Chomp”.
Wriggins cites singer-songwriter legends Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams as central reference points during the creation of Love The Stranger, and like both those artists, his music transmits a sort of wounded innocence; enduring optimism in the face of a bruising past. A lot of Friendship’s third album is about muddling through an increasingly confusing and confounding world – “What can a poor kid do to keep busy? / Because I still need to love this little world” he asks on “Mr Chill”. On album highlight “Hank”, he finds bittersweet solace after entertaining a series of increasingly “ugly thoughts”, declaring, “I’m usually lost, and I’ve got precious little finesse / But I’m still the boss, I’m still tougher than the rest.”
When I ask Dan about “Hank”, he tells me the central influence was Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckle Bird” – specifically the opening line, “What a beautiful thought I am thinking”. Here, that line is twisted into something altogether darker: “What an ugly thought I was thinking.” From that one line, he says writing the rest of the song flowed naturally and quickly. Fittingly, “Hank”, like pretty much all of Love The Stranger, sounds like it was created effortlessly and painlessly. But of course, sounds can be deceiving – and I’m sure the Friendship members are aware that the flagship LP of their influence Lucinda Williams (Car Wheels On A Gravel Road) was actually the result of years of hardship and tension.
I wondered whether something similar was true for Love The Stranger’s creation, given that it was written in the midst of a hugely disruptive pandemic that proved fatal for so many creative endeavors. But Wriggins says that the pandemic offered something of a boon for the band – noting the practical assistance given by the stimulus checks offered by the US Government, as well as the band’s newfound creative freedom during this fertile and unsure period.
The way in which Dan Wriggins speaks mirrors the lyrics he pens – captivatingly direct and charmingly blunt. Towards the end of our conversation, I ask him about upcoming tour dates with acclaimed indie-rocker Indigo De Souza and the opportunities offered by performing to the breakout songwriter’s young audience who arrive largely unacquainted with Friendship’s music. They’re “really open to new music…”, Wriggins tells me, “…and not jaded like the rest of us motherfuckers.”
Love The Stranger feels like a landmark for the band – though partly written during a period of forced isolation, it comes at a time where the band’s world is rapidly expanding. It’s the quartet’s first album under the Merge label (Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Waxahatchee) and has seen the band pursue new artistic connections – including with comedian Joe Pera who directed the music video for “Hank”. Pera, Wriggins tells me, was a “pleasure” to work with, “he worked so hard, he put so much into it”.
Wriggins has nothing but good things to say about the band’s new label. He notes that Merge was founded by two musicians (Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk) and that this means the label is particularly sympathetic and understanding of the complex realities of being an artist. He says the label has “pushed [the band] further than we ever could have before”, and such is evident in the music of Love The Stranger – a sweeping, varied soundscape whose expansive vision never comes at the cost of the band’s original homespun charm.
King of the Hill-quoting album closer “Smooth Pursuit” closes Friendship’s third LP so perfectly that I originally wondered if it had been written with the specific purpose of ending the album. Dan assures me such is not true; “I have [never] been able to operate that way”. But he admits that the sparse, mournful number is a fitting note to end on – “this seems great for the end, it has a funeral it”, he remembers thinking. Documenting a tireless pursuit for “inner peace” and the bending, uneven path that life inevitably takes despite our best efforts, “Smooth Pursuit” captures the band’s open, bleeding heart entirely. Its final two lines, ultimately, stand as testament to the band’s central message: “Down here in the greasy mess / Hoping for the best”.
Friendship’s new album Love The Stranger is out now on Merge (stream/buy).