By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
2008 was a tough year for Eben Stine. After souring on academia and dropping out of graduate school, Stine was sent further reeling by the collapse of a long-term relationship and concurrent loss of a close friend to cancer. Rather than take the typical twenty something guy route of sublimating his sadness into despondent drinking and excessive Xbox hours, though, Stine turned the pain into tunes. The personal trauma would eventually be repurposed and set to music as the self-titled debut album from pristine folk-pop septet Lost Shepherds.
"Really, all of the songs are wrapped up in those three things," admits the 26-year-old Stine. "Quitting school, my relationship ending, my friend dying. Even though that was obviously a dark time, the strongest feeling for me during it wasn't depression. I wanted to have a better life and feel good, so I put those hopes and that positive energy into the songs."
Appropriately enough, the 11 songs that make up Lost Shepherds' first foray into recording sound like a balm for the broken-hearted—diaphanous ditties whose hushed beauty is best appreciated late at night with the lights down low. Lost Shepherds may only have two gears—gently loping folk rock and even gentler, lullaby-evoking ballads—but the group makes up for any lack in dynamics through elegance of execution. Stine's boyish tenor is paired at every turn with lovingly layered female harmonies; exuberant xylophone fills and buoyant banjo runs have a knack for dropping in at just the right moment; and lead guitarist Chris Wilson always seems to peel out a tasteful solo at the precise moment the proceedings are in danger of getting too sleepy.
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The end result is simultaneously lush and restrained. A band that bears the mark of its isolated origins—Lost Shepherds began as Stine's one-man bedroom recording project—it's been super-sized to a septet while retaining a highly intimate feel. Stine is quick to credit his bandmates for achieving the pleasing musical paradox. "This is my first real band, so in the beginning it was hard listening to other people's thoughts about the songs," he admits. "I met everyone in the band now literally at random. As we've become friends it's become very easy to hand the songs over to them, and really quite freeing. Chris [Wilson] is really the arranger. He directs everyone when to step back, when to play louder. Without his direction it would just be a big mess."
While Lost Shepherds' artful arrangements are what initially grab one's attention, it's Stine's big, beating heart that keeps listeners sticking around. The inspiration for Stine's songs may be firmly rooted in real life experiences, but his lyrics tend toward the dreamy. Most songs read like abstract ruminations on the need for openness and perseverance in order to best brave an often cruel world ("Raise your empty glass/ Let the despair pass / Brave the safe boundaries of the molds we've cast./ Built to last and never to simply grasp. / Hold me fast and let's not decry the past."). Alone on the written page, such sentiments can easily come off as mawkish, but set to Lost Shepherds' soaring melodies they're undeniably uplifting. The empathy so evident in Stine's songs is no accident.
"I've been a caretaker in a group home for disabled people for the past six years, and it's had a huge impact on me," says Stine when asked to reflect on the intersection of his occupation and his art. "I've always struggled to open up and get close to people in my normal life, and spending a full-time work week with people facing serious challenges like cerebral palsy has been a huge learning experience. In my early 20s and as a teenager I had a natural tendency towards being down, and it's just not possible for me to be like that anymore because the people I care for are so joyful even though their lives are so much more difficult than mine. I want to be more like them in that regard. A lot of these songs are about that struggle to connect and feel like my relationships are valuable."
Now in a far better personal place than he was just a scant two years ago, Stine's tribulations have made him the rare young local music talent with his feet firmly planted on the ground, and little apparent appetite for the limelight. "As long as I'm making music I'm proud of, I don't care if we're setting the whole world on fire," he says. "I'm more interested in just being happy, and making music is a huge part of that for me. If it can continue to be personally fulfilling for me in some modest way, then that's good enough."
LOST SHEPHERDS play their CD release show with Tarlton and Minor Kingdom on SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, at the 331 Club; 612.331.1746