The Music Calls Lebanon’s Laura Jean Binkley Back to the Stage
What Comes Next After Her New York Dream?
Laura Jean Binkley is back performing after leaving New York and vowing to quit the music business and work on a tomato farm. (Chris Mazzarella photo)
Laura Jean Binkley plays in a trio and a bluegrass band locally. (Chris Mazzarella photo)
“Turn around,” Charley Conquest, owner of Hanover Strings, ordered his customer.
Laura Jean Binkley obliged, covering her eyes and wincing as she surrendered the guitar that had accompanied her at subway stops, in bars and in songwriting sessions, since her parents gave it to her as a 19th birthday present. It had been making an intermittent buzzing noise.
Conquest violently wiggled the neck of the guitar until it warped alarmingly, resetting the truss rod that runs down the guitar’s neck before allowing Binkley to see her instrument again. “It should be all set,’’ he said.
“I have an interview today,” Binkley told Conquest as she left, giving him a hug. “I’m making it big-time!”
“Well, I knew that,” Conquest replied with a smile.
Binkley, who lives in Lebanon, had just finished work for the day. She’s a program manager for advancement events at Dartmouth, a job she described, in part, as “making sure they don’t serve chicken too many times in a row.”
Binkley is also lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter in her Laura Jean Binkley Trio, she said, during a stroll from Hanover Strings to the bustling college green. The occasion for the tune-up was an upcoming performance: a show on the Lebanon Green at 7 tonight, as part of the Front Porch Music Series.
It was Hanover Farmer’s Market day, and on the bustling Dartmouth green she ran into her harmonica player, James Burger, who was playing a gig with another trio under a tent. Fiddler Nate Hamm fills out the trio.
Burger, who hails from New York’s Lower East Side, connected with Binkley when he saw one of her song titles, Lower East Side.
“I knew she was going to be great,” he said.
Burger turned to Binkley, “I’ve heard people who can play guitar and people who can sing, but you have the whole package. “
Burger spoke of Binkley’s adherence to her own distinctive style — on the folk end of pop — mentioning her “weird tunings” and occasional use of two capos.
Binkley shrugged modestly. “I just go with the flow.”
Binkley sat on the grass on a shady corner of the Dartmouth Green. At 30, she has a small delicate frame and a composure that hides a certain buoyant optimism. In conversation, her wry sense of humor gives way to a quick smile.
A Midwest transplant, Binkley grew up in Brookings, S.D., where music was an ever-present backdrop to her childhood. Her parents both played guitar casually, and on weekends brought Binkley and her brother to folk and bluegrass festivals.
“Music was always there in the background,” she recalled. “At family gatherings, we’d inevitably break out the guitar and play Janis Joplin or something.”
Binkley first picked up a guitar when she was 9, and composed her first song as a senior in high school. Besides a few lessons here and there, she taught herself to play, listening to Ani DiFranco and Bob Dylan, or experimenting, playing a song backward and improvising from there.
Binkley went to the University of Minnesota and throughout her time in college, her interest in music blossomed. As a freshman, she auditioned and was chosen for her first acoustic showcase, in a bar called Borealis, she remembered.
“I was skipping class to practice,” she recalled, laughing. “And I made my whole floor come to the show.”
She transferred to the University of Missouri, and in 2004 she recorded and released her first album, State of Mind. By the time Binkley graduated with an English degree in 2006, she had achieved all the “firsts” of a developing musician: first performance, first album, first bar gig, first producer.
Just a few months after receiving her diploma, Binkley headed to New York City. It was a realization of her childhood dreams; in third grade, she said, she made a collage of the city across her bedroom wall.
After a year working as a live-in nanny, Binkley struck out on her own, renting an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “It was the mecca of hipsterhood and art and music,” she said, listing off the music and art havens she’d frequent.
She spent five years in the city, playing solo in the evenings, busking in subways, playing in showcases, at open mic nights and in bars. During the day, she worked various part-time jobs; the longest was a two-year stint as receptionist for an apparel and fashion company.
Binkley released two records: a solo album, Ebullience, in 2006, and an EP in 2010. She had a manager, and was performing in venues around the city.
By late 2010, however, she was ready to move on. “It didn’t really end well,” she said, a little wistfully. “It becomes about making money.”
She hesitated, looking out past barefoot Dartmouth students throwing Frisbees and the lengthening shadows that stretched across the green. “I grew up a lot there,” she said.
Familiar with the Upper Valley from vacations during her nanny days, Binkley decided to try something new. She vowed to give up music and work on a tomato farm. “I was ready for something more familiar,” she said. “For open space and fresh vegetables.”
Instead of picking tomatoes, she ended up sharing an Orford apartment with another singer-songwriter and working in the alumni office at Dartmouth.
As fate would have it, Binkley also couldn’t manage to give up her music. Starting with occasional solo or duo shows, she met and began playing alongside LJB trio fiddler Nate Hamm. A year ago, Burger heard them play at the Canoe Club in Hanover and joined them.
In 2011, Binkley was added as a female vocalist in the local bluegrass band Reckless Breakfast, in which Hamm also plays. She got married last year to a fellow musician, Olivier Gilloux, and these days, between the two groups, she plays a couple gigs a month.
For the moment, at least, that’s enough.
“There was a time when I wanted to throw in my chips,” she said, admitting her weariness of others’ expectations. “But music just keeps coming back.”
Now she writes all the music for the trio, who will debut their new name, The Tiny Top Hats, at the Lebanon concert tonight. They have a yet-unnamed album that will be released in September.
“She has a powerful voice, just hearing her in Reckless Breakfast, you heard the clarity and the artistry,” said Krissy Flythe, recreation coordinator for the Lebanon Recreation and Parks Department, who booked this week’s show.
Dave Clark, of Quechee, whose website “Yellow House Media” promotes local art and music, called the trio highly talented and said that they “can hold their own in a variety of settings.”
Clark highlighted Binkley’s passion and individuality. “I was very impressed with her ability to hold a song and give it energy. And she’s just writing from her heart, she’s not trying to fit any particular genre.”
And perhaps, Binkley’s adherence to her own style and her first love/original passion is what has changed since New York.
“It’s the most amazing thing to write a song you like and you just want to play it over and over and over,” she said. “So many older musicians around here play all the time and do it just because they enjoy it and because music really enriches their life.”
She shrugged. “You have to love what you do, I think. That’s the best any of us can do.”
Laura Jean Binkley’s website is http://laurajeanbinkley.com.