For a few years, it was an autumn tradition: Wrap up the turkey and pumpkin pie, wash up the dishes, then head down to the Record Bar for a Ha Ha Tonka show.
But it’s been awhile since Ha Ha Tonka came to town — long enough that a whole new RecordBar awaits their return. The band, with Springfield, Missouri, origins and a name borrowed from a state park at the Lake of the Ozarks, has gone through a few changes.
“We took a couple of years off to write a new record and settle down a little bit,” says Brett Anderson, the band’s lead guitarist, mandolinist and singer. “We’d been touring non-stop for seven or eight years. We thought we’d take a little bit of a break and cool down and spend time with our families.”
Now the band has a new CD, their fifth. Heart-Shaped Mountain reveals important changes in the band’s sound and personnel. After drummer Lennon Bone (of Kansas City) left to spend more time with his family and focus on his producing career, they brought on drummer Mike Reilly, as well as multi-instrumentalist James Cleare.
The newcomers joined into the songwriting process, Anderson says, “and we really enjoyed their input.” But Heart-Shaped Mountain nearly shared the same fate as the once-lovely, now-ruined castle at the center of Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
“We finished the recording in January 2016,” Anderson recalls mournfully, “but the first session got completely erased. There was a major malfunction that never happens … and it happened."
As upsetting as that was, it ended up being a good thing. “We went back into the studio that January, and made the songs better," Anderson says, "since we’d already done them once.”
The current songs are each a touch bigger, whether it’s Cleare’s rolling gospel piano and synthesizer on “Land Beyond,” or many of the new songs' choir-like harmonies.
“They used to be four-part harmonies, and now it’s a full five,” Anderson explains.
Those harmonies anchor the songs' full yet broken-in feel.
“Brian Roberts writes all the lyrics, so we pin all the messages on him,” Anderson says of the band's lead vocalist. “He sticks to a lot of thematic lyrics based on his experiences in Missouri, which is something we’ve always stuck to. Heart-Shaped Mountain is a little bit more straightforward. It’s based on getting older, growing into love and comfortability with the people you’re surrounded by.”
The first single, “Everything,” captures that theme with a single wistful wish: “I hope it’s everything you thought it would be,” from “a fireworks show on the Fourth of July” to “meeting your daughter for the very first time.” Taking things a little bit deeper is the deceptively titled “Party,” which asks the burning question: “Why do we always seem to be the last ones here at the party?”
“Being on the road sometimes, you literally are the last ones at the party," Anderson notes. "But it’s also kind of a ‘coming to age’ story. When you’re in your 30s, everyone starts to get married and have kids and starts to move on from that (going out) scene, and the song hits home to people who haven’t quite gotten there yet.”
Or, as Roberts puts it in the lyrics: “Everyone you know is having kids/and you can’t remember all the new names/but you try to remember all the new names.” Band members themselves have also drifted, literally, around the world.
“We started this band in 2005, and we were all living in Springfield then,” Anderson says. “Everyone is everywhere now. I live in Lee’s Summit. Luke lives in West Plains, where he grew up. Brian is living in Berlin, Germany, working for a company that lets him travel as much as he wants. James, our keyboardist, lives in Brooklyn, and Mike, our drummer, lives in Philadelphia.”
Maybe that's why Anderson's favorite song on the record is “Favor.”
“I really enjoy playing it,” he says. “We didn’t know if it was going to make the record at first, because it’s got more of our bluegrass or country vibe.” Amid a swirl of mandolin and guitar licks, one of the “favors” Roberts requests is that the listener “Follow your heart back home/you know where I live.”
Luckily, that home is within a day’s drive of where we live, too.
Ha Ha Tonka, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at RecordBar, 1520 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-753-5207. Milwaukee’s Trapper Schoepp and the Shades open the show.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.