If you looked at my bank account in 2012, you would have questioned my life choices. Six years after graduating from college, I was still pursuing a career in music. I was earning $38 a month from streaming royalties — certainly not enough to cover the rent for my Roscoe Village apartment.
I had started as a solo singer-songwriter before launching an indie folk-rock trio, Fort Frances, in 2010. We rode the highs — sold-out nights at Schubas felt like we were on the brink of hitting the big time — before bottoming out at the lows of indie rock obscurity: playing at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in Columbia, Missouri, for four people. Touring was a game of working to break even, lugging massive gear down basement steps, cramming into a Quality Inn motel room, eating granola bars, getting sick, not going to the doctor because of poor health insurance, coming home — and convincing myself that I should do it all over again. Hoping to earn some time in the spotlight instead of feeling like the dim background soundtrack at a bar, we released a series of cover songs. It was an effort to stay relevant and get some attention — most of us just want to hear something we already know — while we worked on new material.
Initially, we stayed in comfortable territory: Beck, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Grateful Dead. But after a few releases, I started to think we should do something more unexpected. Why not hip-hop? Other than the fact that we had zero swagger, it seemed like a great idea. At my piano, my hands stumbled upon a song that felt like it had potential: the 1991 DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince classic “Summertime.” Could I sing the line “It’s like the summer’s a natural aphrodisiac” without laughing? It was time to find out.
I recorded a solo version with a somber four-chord progression underneath the lyrics about double dutch, chasing girls, and driving cars on oversize rims. I emailed it to my bandmate Jeff Piper, who churned out a bassline and drum samples that turned it into a more mellow summer-party vibe than the original track. We released it on SoundCloud.
The track was ripe for a tongue-in-cheek video — one where we could embrace our lack of hip-hop cred. We filmed ourselves playing basketball (with the same penchant for air balls that got me cut from the B-team in sixth grade), burning hot dogs on a back porch grill, and splashing around Lake Michigan with an inflatable dolphin. After taking music making so seriously for so long with limited results, it felt like the right time to treat everything like a joke.
The release initially did what most everything does on the internet: It got some clicks, then it got lost. Soon, though, we noticed an uptick in new fans on Facebook and sign-ups on our email list, all with unfamiliar names — Agné, Sarunas, Donis. YouTube comments on the video rolled in: “Love you from Lithuania.” “Come to Lithuania!” “I’m playing it nonstop on my car radio — good luck from another Lithuanian fan.”
Were we being punked? Was the Kremlin financing some crazy bot campaign to target lower-class American bands? Over the next couple of years, the YouTube view count continued to climb: 30,000 … 65,000 … 125,000. Then in April 2015, an email arrived with the subject line “Lithuania calling.”
“Since your cover of ‘Summertime’ was really popular last summer, we think it would [be] a great idea to bring you guys over for a gig,” Victor Diawara, the owner of a venue in Vilnius called Loftas, wrote. “I might even be able to set up 1-3 performances. Is there any time you plan to be in Europe this summer?”
The answer, of course, was no. We had no manager, no label, no publicist — and certainly no European booking agent. Our touring plans for the summer included renting a U-Haul trailer to play shows in Wisconsin and Colorado. But I wasn’t about to let this chance slip away.
“Anytime Lithuania calls, we answer,” I wrote back. “Right now, we don’t have any plans to be in Europe, but I’m hoping that we can get something in the works.”
Victor and I volleyed emails back and forth until he suddenly disappeared. Lithuania, it seemed, had called, gotten me excited, and promptly hung up. Then, in late July, Victor was back in my life with an unlikely companion: the U.S. Embassy. As part of a cultural exchange agreement, the embassy had agreed to help cover our travel expenses. The trip was on. We were set for top billing at Loftas Fest, alongside Le1f, a rapper from New York who had signed to XL, and Young Fathers, a Mercury Prize (the U.K.’s Grammy equivalent) winner.
There was one big problem: Aaron Kiser, who had been behind the drum kit since we started the band, couldn’t go. His life was complicated at the time, with a young daughter at home. I needed to find a replacement. Fortunately, my old friend Chris Farr, one of the best drummers I’ve ever met, had recently moved from New York to Berlin. I called him with an invitation: Did he want to come to Lithuania? He was in.
On our journey to Vilnius, Jeff and I still felt the unease of internet success. The language barrier in some of our email communications had created a long delay in actually booking flights. They weren’t confirmed until 10 days before we were to leave, and even then, my ticket had been booked under the name “Davin,” which seemed like a potential hurdle for the TSA. I was 50-50 on whether the entire thing was some sort of band catfishing scam that would involve demand for payment to return to the United States.
After an eight-hour flight to Frankfurt, a five-hour layover, and a two-hour Lufthansa connection, we arrived in Vilnius — and discovered that our status was indeed real. Our faces were plastered on fliers and billboards promoting the festival. Victor’s team had secured us a full slate of PR appearances, including a TV performance on Labas Rytas, Lietuva (that’s “Good Morning, Lithuania”; the host asked about our “chill vibes”), an interview on the country’s public radio station, and a drop-in at ZIP FM, a popular Lithuanian radio station that had put “Summertime” in its rotation early on. Back home, the best we had managed was a couple of spins on WXRT’s Local Anesthetic — a small success but a nod to our favorite station’s belief that we weren’t bound for much beyond the shore of Lake Michigan. We had made it to the Baltic Sea, and we had a translator. Take that, 93.1 FM.
Still, there was one concern I couldn’t shake: What would our Lithuanian fans think about the rest of our material? Crafting a set list for any one-hit wonder is not easy. How does the band Chumbawamba plan 60 minutes of music when the whole crowd just wants to sing the chorus of “Tubthumping”? But we faced an even taller order: “Summertime” was a hip-hop lightning bolt in the midst of a cloud cover of midtempo Americana and alternative rock.
I asked our translator to teach me some key phrases in Lithuanian — ačiū is “thank you”; labas vakaras means “good evening” — to help endear us to the sold-out crowd of around 3,000. I told Jeff and Chris that we needed to bring the groove of a hip-hop act even though we weren’t one. After our set started, sometime after 1 a.m., I realized the Lithuanian audience didn’t just love chill vibes — they were chill. I’m sure plenty wondered when we would stop playing Fort Frances originals, but they seemed respectful and happy to wait (save for one guy who threw a beer can onstage, but I’m going to continue to tell myself it was due to excitement).
Finally, I put down my guitar and strolled to the keyboard to play that familiar G minor chord. The crowd roared. There is no better feeling than watching an audience smile as they sing every word louder than you. We had spent the better part of a decade chasing a big break, but we didn’t need three chords and the truth, as Harlan Howard once put it. It turns out what we needed was four chords, someone else’s truth, and love from a country approximately 4,600 miles away.
In the years since, my music career has continued to bounce like a teeter-totter between rising success and crushing failure. I have written songs that have been featured in hit TV shows, and I have cried backstage after playing to nearly empty rooms. I have shared the stage with Grammy-winning songwriters, and I have woken up at 4 a.m. with a crippling level of anxiety about the need to find a day job. In that time, nothing has been as magical as our closing song in Vilnius. But each summer, I see a glimmer of hope from somewhere new in Europe. “Summertime” will hit the top 50 Shazams in Athens, and I’ll imagine a crowd of people at a bar with someone holding up their phone. The algorithm scours a database before spitting out that this track, this reminder that it’s time to sit back and unwind, was recorded by a band in Chicago that you have never heard of — until now.