It’s early in Utica, Nebraska, population 800. The kids are off at school, her husband has begun his day at the church where he ministers, so Hope Dunbar settles down at her kitchen table to write songs. Behind where she sits, a window opens on what most folks would consider an empty vista: a dirt road disappearing through fields toward a flat horizon.
Hope doesn’t need to look out that window as she writes because she already knows what’s really there: limitless possibility, a place that gives her room to conjure stories about people nearby or far away, who live both public and secret lives.
She’ll jot down whatever words occur to her. Some turn into opening lines of songs filled with sorrow: “The victim didn’t know what hit him …” “She keeps going ’cause she has to …” “We can’t keep these clocks from ticking …” “Jenny don’t drink a drop but her husband does …”
Or they might spin a narrative suddenly into unexpected directions. With just two words, “I sighed,” “Living After Losing” veers from unspeakable tragedy to the necessity of moving on. After describing a horrific murder in “The Shooter,” she contemplates the fate of the victim and horror of the witness. And then she whispers, “I’m more like the shooter.”
After that, having pulled another amazing song out from darker corners of her mind, Dunbar heads out to to begin her shift at a cafe in town. It’s a dichotomy she recounts vividly in “I Write”: Over a childlike, singsong tune she confesses, “I write like a sailor knowing the ship is going down. / This is my flare in the night, hoping that one day I might be found.”
Taken together, these songs and the others from her new album Three Black Crows confirm that Dunbar is a singer/songwriter like none other. A traveler as a young girl, who moved with her family repeatedly and spent six months of her high school year in Paraguay, she finds the prairie amenable to her process now. “I really enjoy the empty space,” she says. “There’s no noise where I live in Utica that can get in the way of what my brain wants to write about.”
Dunbar’s songs live on two planes simultaneously. One describes the everyday routines to which we all eventually surrender. The other zooms in on the people who move through their habitual rituals. Her target is the sorrow from which they’ve learned to hide but can never escape. And -- perhaps her greatest achievement -- she reconciles the two, time and again, with resignation (“Better Than Ever”) or fury (“Revolver”) or even empathy for the well-intentioned but alarmingly clueless lover (“Jeneane”).
All of which makes first impressions of Hope Dunbar paradoxical. She’s actually pretty happy, quick to laugh, blessed with a lively sense of humor. But is she content? That’s harder to say. After all, a restless strain has run through much of her life. Growing up in Mission Viejo, California, she shied away from the beach culture that predominated in her school. Her parents enjoyed hosting foreign exchange students; their languages, accents and songs whetted Dunbar’s curiosity about unfamiliar cultures. Her time in Paraguay stimulated her interest in writing; as she filled her journal, she challenged herself to come up with ever-more descriptive images and expressive words.
“That taught me a lesson I still use when writing songs,” she says. “The longer you write, the more you can take charge of the blank page and the closer you get to feeling free.”
Dunbar’s fascination with travel was one reason why she chose to enroll at Valparaiso University, halfway across the country. She met and married her husband there and moved with him to a small town in Iowa, where he had been appointed to minister at a Lutheran church. To help her adjust to these surroundings, she started singing folk songs with a new friend, at public libraries, farmer’s markets and fairs. It was fun for a while ...
“ … but after about two years I began feeling like I didn’t want to sing somebody else’s stories anymore. So one day when the kids were asleep, I tried to write something of my own. Of course it sucked,” Dunbar says, with a laugh. “But the need to write hit me like wildfire. I’d be up nights during those first months, writing four or five songs a day.”
Drawing from Simon & Garfunkel, Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith, Joni Mitchell and other inspirations, she developed a distinctive perspective, musically and lyrically. In 2014, as a participant in the Real Women Real Songs project, she wrote 52 songs, one per week. The following year, Dunbar recorded an EP, The End Of Wanting, and was a finalist at the Kerrville New Folk Festival. She took second place in American Songwriter Magazine’s lyrics contest early in 2017.
All of which leads to Three Black Crows, a masterful overlay of gentle acoustic textures, emotional turbulence and philosophical insight. Dunbar already knows is a milestone in her young career as well as the flare in the night she foresaw in song.
“These songs are more honest than what I’ve done in the past,” she insists. “They’re based on real-life people I see every day. In a small town, you get real close to your neighbors. You hear about moms and dads who lost a son you didn’t even know they had because you weren’t there when they died. Their loss will never go away but they’re living with it. They keep going because they have to.
“If anybody needs a song, it’s these people.”