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SnugHouse Sings the Sounds of Portland

Photo of SnugHouse, the band

SnugHouse

If the new gig economy is all about taking chances, finding opportunities, and making limitations work for you, then SnugHouse is very much a 21st-century band. Sitting somewhere between alternative rock and folk, theirs is a sound derived organically from the tools, instruments, and people available to them. There's nothing contrived or synthesized about SnugHouse. Despite the “Millennial” label, they won’t be vying for your YouTube eyeballs with quick-hitting flash. Instead, the band crafts their sound with time, care, and attention. This is a band that feels its way forward, not relentlessly, but thoughtfully.

Photo of SnugHouse, the album.

SnugHouse, album.

The core of SnugHouse is the duo of Nikhil Dasgupta (piano and guitar) and Alex Millan (bass). Both are trained musicians – Alex also teaches music – and they rely on their strong musicianship to create complex and multi-layered harmonies. Additional vocals are provided by Oriana Farnham and Tom Peabody who, like Nikhil, sang in a cappella groups in college.

This combination makes for an interesting soundscape. The guitar and piano lean country, but the vocals yearn for something more complicated and nuanced–think of a stripped down Mumford and Sons, but with less folk (no jangly banjo!) and more melody. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a foggy afternoon, lounging about in your pajamas when you should be doing something “useful.”

No such idleness for SnugHouse. After gigging solidly for six months, they've just released an eponymous EP, the band’s first. "The songs on the EP, getting them into this format was pretty easy," Dasgupta says. "We were pretty well rehearsed."

This is no misplaced hubris. Snughouse is a very tight outfit and there's no denying the EP has a certain maturity to it; these guys have paid their musical dues. But the lyrics reveal the restlessness of youth and a constant searching for answers: And seasons come and go and come again / I'm going nowhere, Dasgupta sings in “Come Summertime.”

Although the band is based in Portland, Maine, none of the band members are from there. Rather, they are nomads, drawn to this small-town community with big-city opportunity, and the blend of urban and natural, as well as sand and fog, comes through in SnugHouse's lyrics. Even the band’s name is a nod to their new home, coming from a popular local pub, The Snug.

Sure, SnugHouse's songs aren't breaking any molds structure wise—chorus follows verse; bridge follow chorus—but the particularly blend of country, folk, pop creates a sound that is all theirs. What stands out most are the vocal harmonies, often delivered a cappella. The first track of the EP, for example, opens with guitar and a lonely male voice. “A-ha,” you think, soulful ballad. But he is quickly joined by other voices, throwing your expectations off in the most pleasant way possible.

This musical bait-and-switch is a testament to the musical training of Dasgupta, Farnham, and Millan, all of whom sang in college a cappella groups. "It made it natural having people that can hear these harmonies and understand and sing them," Alex says. "If you've never been in an a cappella group, harmonies might not make sense to you. So we've been really lucky with our singers' backgrounds."

 

The lyrics reveal the restlessness of youth and a constant searching for answers: And seasons come and go and come again / I'm going nowhere...

 

As with so many other band origin stories, Snughouse came together almost accidentally. It's the usual meeting of friends through friends and friends of friends, old high school connections, college groups, and a dose of chance. Indeed, they met their EP’s producer, Ian Hundt, in the same way. After gigging regularly at local venue Dog Fish, they discovered Hundt, who ran the soundboard, had a home studio. Hundt definitely thinks the band fits into the local scene. "Portland audiences seem to be able to really tune in to a good song and an original voice," he says. "Snughouse has that element with an extra little bit of pop sheen to it."

And so after just a few months, Hundt and the band got together to record their EP. The first song, “I Couldn't Be,” explores beginnings and endings—an apt start. As the band readily admits, they feel like they are at the beginning of something special. What that “something special” is going to be, they'd rather not speculate and just take each day as it comes.

Plus, the band has already seen much change. Originally, SnugHouse started out with a drummer and two keyboardists and sounded more like a funk band. But in their nascent period, the line-up changed frequently, musicians came and went, until they were left with just piano, bass, and vocals. However, SnugHouse sees this as a net positive.

Photo of Nikhil Dasgupta, SnugHouse

Nikhil Dasgupta, SnugHouse

"It's easier to focus when there are limitations," Alex says, describing their sound. "Once we pared it back to a string bass, guitar, keyboards, and a lot of vocals, we became a lot more focused. And we were tighter through having to excel in that sound with less to hide behind."

Nikhil and Alex share song writing duties, but they write separately. When either of them writes a song, they come together to work on the arrangements. Their partnership means that a song like “I Couldn't Be,” which could almost be melancholic, is instead lifted by its harmonies. It flows naturally into the next track “Come Summertime,” which takes the same questions of identity and weaves them into themes of change, or not changing, of wondering what you can be and what you're not.

But if come summertime you change your mind / and you leave every last nagging doubt behind / you know people can change.

The final offering on the EP, “Brunswick,” proposes a musical turning point; it starts out with a lone piano and vocals whereas the rest of the EP centers on the guitar. It also steers away from the complex vocal melodies, offering a much simpler structure. It's a curious choice to close out the record, given what's come before.

Whatever the secret sauce, SnugHouse has proved popular. MaineToday music columnist Aimsel Ponti calls SnugHouse's vocals "a thing of pure emotional beauty" and has been playing them on her local music show on radio station WCLZ. "I love this band," Ponti says simply. "If there’s one thing that destroys every fiber of my being, it’s harmonies. So I’d like to thank SnugHouse for reducing me to a pile of bones."

Naturally, the band couldn't be happier about the support they've gotten from local press and broadcasters. "It's very flattering to know that someone that has the choice to not say something would choose to say something really kind." Millan says.

"And also," Farnham says with a smile. "She really likes Nikhil's lyrics."

"Oh yeah," says Alex. "She loves you."

This casual teasing and playfulness is at the heart of the SnugHouse friendship. The band stresses again and again the importance of communication. As a bunch of young twenty-somethings who are exploring their sound, their professions, and their futures, they have to compromise, communicate, and stay open, honest and flexible—just like a romantic relationship. It’s the only way for the band to stay sane.

"We'd rather stay friends than push each other too far," says Millan. "I've been in some more business-oriented bands just playing to get paid. And that's fine. But it's more fun to have your friends."

"And you can't really communicate in a band like that," Dasgupta adds. "If there's no full-on understanding between people, it compromises what you create."

Videos were produced by Alexander Bertoni, please contact him at Bertoni Media

 

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