Ask Robinson & Rohe how the duo was formed and they’ll look at each other as if to say, Which beginning should we begin with? The two have known each other for over a decade, developing a friendship as they pursued their separate careers—spanning everything from playing Brazilian jazz gigs to composing orchestral scores.
Over those years, the two grew into powerhouse performers. Liam Robinson honed his wide-ranging skills as an original cast member of the Tony Award winning play “Warhorse,” as musical director of Anaïs Mitchell’s Off-Broadway folk opera “Hadestown,” as a composer in the Red Light New Music collective, and as a member of the Becca Stevens Band.
Meanwhile, Jean Rohe began touring and recording with her band, Jean Rohe & the End of the World Show, honing a honeyed, far-ranging voice and collecting accolades along the way (“a sure-footed young singer-songwriter,” says the New York Times.) Rohe also garnered attention for her unflinching alternative anthem for the United States, “National Anthem: Arise! Arise!” which continues to be performed and recorded by choirs and bands across the country, and was published in the Rise Up Singing songbook sequel.
Despite long days and separately flourishing careers, the two found themselves with a musical itch they hadn’t yet scratched. One afternoon, they sat at Robinson’s kitchen table, swapping harmonies as they sang some of the old folk songs both of them had grown up with. At the end of one song, says Rohe, “we both sat there in silence.” Stripped down to their two voices, they could hear the potential for something big: “It’s a magical thing to phrase with someone like that,” says Robinson, “to breathe together and land language in time, in tune, even pushing and pulling tempo together.”
They started exchanging lyrics and music—Robinson taking a fragment of writing from Rohe and delivering it back to her married to a melody. The collaborative process was the start of what would become their debut record, Hunger. It was also the start of their love story.
Robinson recalls writing a love song about Rohe early on in their relationship. He knew it didn’t belong on any other instrument but the banjo. The only problem was that he wasn’t a proficient enough banjo player for the music he had written. For him, the solution was simple: “I had to learn how to play it for those songs,” he says. “It took a while.” Rohe echoes this uncompromising drive to deliver whatever the songs demanded of them, saying that over the past few years, her guitar-playing has entered a new realm: “It all came from this necessity of expressing these songs the way they need to be expressed.”
All that love and labor resonates throughout Hunger. The record pushes the boundaries of its more formalistic structures, featuring lyrics that delve into questions of tradition and inheritance—even as it serves as a testament to the richness of both. Here, the tendency towards romanticizing often heard in traditional folk and Americana are brought down to earth with powerful, inquisitive lyrics and harmonies that haunt, leaving us with questions about where we might fit in this great shifting promise and myth of America.
Hunger is a record full of songs about love and land—often both at the same time. The tight title track explores the drive to consume and create at the root of some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and atrocities, all while charting the story of a love affair from youthful meeting to the parting of death: “And we wondered if our love would endure the certain pain/And if this land could withstand the endless strain of our hunger."
The detailed arrangements of the song come through with an urgency—in part a testament to the way it was produced. Over four days, Robinson and Rohe recorded the entire record in a single room, together with Hannah Read (fiddle), Chris Tordini (bass), and Kyle Morgan (resonator, electric and acoustic guitars). The energy of the performances—recorded at a studio space in an old house up in the Catskills—comes through with a richness that is earthy and immediate rather than overhandled.
That unadulterated sound lets listeners feel the intimacy and magic of the duo’s vocal harmonies. In “Louisa,” a song that gives Rohe’s lithe voice room to travel, a spurned lover addresses her tale of pain and abandonment to the Southern town she gave up her home for. “Shine,” too, traffics in the pains of love, and features some of the more affecting harmonizing on the record—Robinson’s voice rising and breaking alongside Rohe’s—the two moving beyond words to utter sounds that function as a single shifting instrument, while never letting you forget the two minds behind it.
“Shine” raises questions of trust and fidelity: “You say that you’re mine, love, but are you just mine?” The tone evolves throughout the song, and as it travels from ominous to pleading, we get the sense that we know how this will all end. But instead of death, destruction, or heartbreak, a kind of hope is uncovered.
This is no naïve hope. Emblematic of the open-eyed quality that characterizes the entire record, the song ends with a hope built on deep and unfaltering honesty. Hunger captures the awareness of the pain and challenges that are surely to come, and that glorious human decision to forge ahead anyway.