June and the Bee bring the noise (and the cellos) to Iron Horse Music Hall


Hae Young Yoo, Writer

“I wish I had more hair, so I could wear this,” said Emma June Ayres, a vocalist with the folk band June and the Bee, as she tried to put a fake sunflower into her short pixie cut. “It doesn’t stay.”

June and the Bee is on in half an hour, and the band sits waiting in the basement of the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on a recent Saturday night. Emma June and Olivia Holcomb are on vocals, Emma’s brother Eli is on the guitar, Sam Stein is on the drums, and Noah Schmitt is on the cello.

Yes, a cello.

It all started two years ago when Emma June and Eli decided to get together as a folk duo. Their mother’s nickname for Eli when he was younger was “Bumblebee.” They combined their two names  and out popped June and the Bee. Old childhood pals Stein and Schmitt joined the gang last December and Holcomb completed the group in the spring. Four out of the five went to high school together, but they never expected to be sitting where they are now.

Emma June Ayres, Eli Ayres and Schmitt are students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Stein attends Hampshire College and Holcomb studies at Greenfield Community College. The college students say that balancing school and the band is not an easy task. It is a game of sacrifice, a give and take.

The framework that holds the band together is the camaraderie among friends they’ve had for many years. Trust is essential. “At the end of the day, we’re all just really great friends, which is the most important thing,” said Stein.

The songs begin to take shape when Eli writes a few rifts and shows them to Emma, who will then write melodies or  poems they end up putting to music. Emma  and Eli will come up with a basic structure they bring to the rest of the band and everyone adds their own touch.

“We bring the skeleton, but everyone else adds the meat,” said Emma Ayres.

“I used to have this concept that when I bring a song to the band,” added Eli Ayres, “I want it to stay the way it is in my head, so I would tell everyone play this, play this. But in a band, you could do it that way, but I like what we’re doing now better.”

“Finding yourself,” said Holcomb, “is the theme behind the band’s music. The members are inspired by their individual adventures, the experiences that people in their early twenties go through.”

“At this age,” said Emma Ayres, “one of the big conflicts of life is generally love lost, love gained. That’s most of our songs. We’re just writing about the tension of being patient, finding someone, losing somebody, seeing somebody, the power behind that, learning about yourself, leaving yourself behind, being born into a new person. Just discovering the world around you, the exploration of this age. Being 20, 21, 22, it’s a big time. There’s a lot of conflict and you try to think of creative ways to get through all of that.”

From the basement, the band could hear the creaking of floorboards above them as people ducked out of the rain and into the dimly-lit venue. The noise from upstairs heightened as friends, family, and fans settled into seats and ordered their drinks and meals. The band recommended the pulled pork sandwich.

“I would say immediately it was very hard to bring my expectations down from what I had expected,” said Stein. “During the summer, we all had jobs and it sucked that we could only get together two or three times a week. But now, that would be the most amazing thing to play together three times a week.”

Now they practice once a week for three hours. The band is maintaining its repertoire rather than creating new music.

However, the band does have an album in the making. It has been recorded over the summer and they expect the EP release before Christmas. They set up a fundraiser to raise enough money to get the album mastered, produced, and printed on disks. The band has gone through changes as members have come and gone, and as they switched from acoustic to electric that gave it a different sound. But the music in this album, with the final five band members is unlike anything they have played before.

One of the band’s biggest accomplishments so far was when they opened for The Wailin’ Jennys at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton last May, “which was awesome,” said Schmitt.

One of the struggles is that the members in the band are all big, unapologetic, opinionated personalities who somehow work together.

“It’s been a struggle,” said Emma Ayres, “but it’s been a beautiful struggle really balancing those energies so that this collaboration can lead us to where we are today,”

“The twenties are the years of self-exploration,” said Holcomb, “and you have your bright times and you have your really dark times. Technically, everyone is bipolar when they are 20. There is always some kind of influence that you are trying to deal with, and I think that as a band, we pretty much kill it in interpersonal communication.”

“Sometimes it gets heated, but it always ends in resolution. It’s rad to be able to be yourself in a group of people and not be ashamed to voice what you think is right,” said Holcomb.

By the time June and the Bee get on stage, the people are already standing, screaming their heads off. Emma and Olivia start singing, Eli starts strumming, Sam lays down the drum beat, and Noah is sporting the cello.

Hae Young Yoo can be reached at [email protected]


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