Fruition: Do What You Want
Fruition shake off their twangy reputation with the help of twin albums that would make Jack White proud
It’s a surprisingly warm February afternoon, and the five members of Fruition are killing time at a crowded Midtown Manhattan café, a few hours before a big gig at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl. The roar of the lunch rush hums in the background as the band chronicles the rapid-fire release of their latest albums, Wild as the Night and Broken at the Break of Day, in the span of two months.
Needless to say, the quick turnaround was a challenge. But with over a decade of touring under their belts, the roots-rock collective aimed to defy the typical album cycle and create what keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Kellen Asebroek describes as two “conceptual companions.”
Sitting around a table, Asebroek is flanked by Jay Cobb Anderson (vocals, lead guitar, harmonica), Mimi Naja (vocals, mandolin, guitar), Jeff Leonard (bass) and Tyler Thompson (drums). For lunch, they all order different varieties of grilled cheese.
“From the time I was young, all I wanted to do is play music,” Anderson says between bites. “When I moved to Portland, I moved with my car full of records, a couple of guitars, my amp, a suitcase of clothes and maybe like $200. I remember my dad asking, ‘What are you gonna do?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, but I’m gonna play music.’ It wasn’t long after I showed up that I met Mimi and Kellen, and that’s what we did.”
Since that leap of faith, the band has released a total of seven LPs, toured the globe and shared stages with the likes of The Wood Brothers and Jack Johnson. But then again, Fruition have never had a problem coming up with compelling story ideas.
“We have tons of songs,” Anderson explains. “We have three songwriters in the band, and there’s usually way more material than there is a lack of material. But what was interesting with this whole thing is that we also tried to do a lot of co-writing. We did more cowriting for Broken at the Break of Day than we’ve ever done.”
For the album, the band set aside time between tour dates to go to Naja’s Asheville, N.C. abode and hash out a bunch of ideas together. It was the first time they had embarked on that type of songwriting trip during their 12-year career.
“The weather was dreamy—Blue Ridge Mountain views and my backyard,” Naja recalls fondly. “Having dogs around was helpful.”
A separate writing session at a friend’s house in Denver was also particularly fruitful, yielding “Do What You Want,” a track that the band considers one of their most collaborative. “Jay found a cool noise on his guitar and we just started jamming along. Then it was like, ‘Woah, that’s a thing!’ We’d never had that experience before,” Thompson recalls.
The tune balances “Revolution #9” fuzz with some snappy drums, and its driving chorus, “You can do what you want/ Don’t let anyone stop you,” makes way for Anderson’s squealing guitar solo—the type of abstraction that would make Jack White proud.
“[‘Do What You Want’] is really representative of how we’ve evolved because, before that, I feel like we were a folk band in a rock-band body, where one writer brings the main structure—the main bones, the meat of a song. But we have all the approaches now. When we’re asked, ‘How do you write?’ It’s like, ‘How don’t we?’ And that’s really cool,” Naja explains.
In 2018, Fruition made Waves at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, stepping onstage for a surprise sit-in with Johnson. Prior to their debut on the Gentilly stage, the quintet opened for the laid-back singer-songwriter during a stretch of dates, giving them a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of a major cross-country tour.
However, Jazz Fest was an undisputed highlight. They jammed with Johnson on his cuts “Breakdown” and “Big Sur.” Following the eye-catching performance—as a testament to the band’s work ethic—Fruition hightailed it to the Big Easy’s House of Blues for their own late-night headlining gig, welcoming ALO and Jack Johnson keyboardist Zach Gill for a version of his “Handy Man” and Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Later that year, the band supported Railroad Earth at Red Rocks and—in 2019—they made headlines by trading sit-ins with jamgrass stalwarts Leftover Salmon at the ARISE Festival.
They’ve also continued to bolster their own headlining tours regularly. “It’s been about 200 shows a year, pretty steady for like the last five years—it’s a lot,” Anderson chuckles.
As for their most recent projects, Fruition’s songwriting retreats may have taken them through the Southeast and the Mile High City, but the musicians initially cut their teeth in Portland, Ore. In fact, the art for both Wild as the Night and Broken at the Break of Day is designed to evoke the look of the Northwestern hub. Starting in 2008, Asebroek, Naja, Anderson and original bassist Keith Simon spent their days busking with their instruments, playing for the people passing by and making the most of their meager earnings. They all shared a single bedroom in a large house on Division Street and took odd jobs, like working the concession stand at the local Cirque Du Soleil.
“We loved it. I still miss it,” Anderson grins. “It was one of those things—there was a golden moment when we first formed, when we were in our early twenties. None of us had jobs. Our friends were gracious enough to let us rent one room and we’d rotate sleeping on couches.”
“Whoever wanted the bed first, got the bed. That was quite the time,” Naja laughs. “We were hanging out. We were working. We were partying. We were practicing. We were performing. It was like living the fucking life.”
Partway through that magical era in Portland—about three years into Fruition’s existence—Thompson came into the picture. A childhood acquaintance of Anderson, Thompson toured alongside Fruition as part of Anderson’s side project The Bell Boys, but his casual sit-ins with the band quickly became a nightly affair. “It was anticlimactic for a band with a drummer to play before a string-band headliner. So they were like, ‘Come on up,’ and then it just kind of happened after that,” the drummer recalls of his informal enlistment.
In 2015, Leonard replaced Simon and the ensemble’s lineup has remained steady ever since. However, since the band started with a string-based format—and continues to utilize acoustic elements— they’ve been dodging genre labels since day one. Even today, many uninformed listeners still think that Fruition is a straightforward bluegrass band.
“Not that we avoid that [classification], but the issue is we’ve been called that so much. We’re not a bluegrass band. We’ve never been a bluegrass band,” Anderson explains.
“We have grassy songs—there are some grassy songs,” Naja counters.
“There’s definitely bluegrass sensibilities in our sound and the way that we play,” Anderson continues. “The harmonies are very reminiscent of bluegrass-type things, but also reggae, doo-wop and soul music. We’re so roots-influenced. We all love the old Bob Marley recordings. I love Delta blues stuff. There’s bluegrass in that too. It’s just all mixed together. But the bluegrass thing has been frustrating because I feel like we’ve been kind of pigeonholed, and it’s difficult because we want people outside of that world to listen to us—some of them are a little scared or they have the wrong impression of us.”
“And we’ve been on String Summit and WinterWonderGrass bills for eight years. So, you know, I get it. I get it,” Naja adds, taking a drag of her Juul after lunch.
“That’s one of the struggles we have as a band, especially moving forward,” Anderson concludes. “First of all, it’s hard to move up in the scene that we’re in because we’re not a jamband and we’re not a bluegrass band. And then, it’s hard to move up in any other scene because they all think that we are. It’s a weird conundrum and it sucks. It’s something we’ve dealt with for a long time and we don’t know how to break it. We just keep doing what we’ve always done, which is focusing on the music. That’s all we care about.”
For the time being, Fruition’s main priority is focusing on the music. Since the coronavirus pandemic took them off the road, each member has taken a turn hosting their weekly “Thursday Thing” livestream, where they play for longtime fans and recruit new ones.
“Probably a year or so into the band, we were all sitting around in the living room before we were going on our first tour, and we made a group decision to quit our jobs and take this on full time,” Asebroek says. “That was the real starting point. We threw caution to the wind and prepared ourselves to sacrifice everything that the common, God-fearing American might have in order to chase this fucking dream.”
“From that moment on, there’s never been any looking back. It’s just always been, ‘What’s the next move?’ And now we’re way too far in,” Anderson says with a chuckle. “It’s like in the Gillian Welch song, where she says, ‘Too much beer and whiskey to ever be employed.’ I understand that lyric now.”