Justin Miner was searching for a heart of gold when he met Kate Lang Johnson while attending the University of Southern California. Justin was a musician playing in the band Fight From Above. Kate was an aspiring actress who has played roles in “The Campaign” and TV shows including “ER” and “Two and a Half Men.”
Justin’s search ended when he married Kate in 2012. After the two embarked on a trip across South America, they returned to the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles and turned their passion for music into family fun. The outcome was the indie folk band they dubbed Miner.
In an email interview with Tahoe Onstage, Kate said she doubts she would be part of a band if Justin hadn’t encouraged her to start singing. In addition to singing harmony, Kate plays mandolin, ukulele and harmonica.
“I had been learning guitar just for fun, but when Justin put together the band, he asked if I could switch to the mandolin,” Kate said. “We went out and bought a mandolin that same day, and I started practicing. The same thing happened with the harmonica a couple months later.”
Kate said making movies and making music are both rewarding in different ways. Making movies is a quieter, longer process which can mean repeating a scene numerous times until it’s perfect. In contrast, when they’re playing music, they only get one shot in front of a live audience. She said she still gets nervous before shows, but that’s part of the fun of it.
“I love them both,” Kate said. “But getting to play music with my family is pretty special.”
Here’s a slideshow of Miner’s Jan. 28 show in the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room:
In addition to Kate and Justin, Jeremy Miner (Justin’s brother) plays banjo and lead guitar. The lineup features Tobias Urbanczyk on drums and Nicholas Spiller on bass. Amanda Koosed, Justin’s cousin, plays keyboardsgiving the band a unique sound. He said the decision to add keyboards to the band came from wanting to explore new sound palettes, and to not limit themselves to any sort of traditional set of instruments.
Although the band has roots in bluegrass, Justin says he’s rarely thought about labeling or confining their music to one genre.
“I think you could fairly call us some sort of folk-rock band,” Justin said. “Between the drum set, electric guitar and keyboard, I think you’d be hard pressed to call us a bluegrass band. We just try to make music that speaks to us, and that we enjoy.”
Justin and Kate’s voices blend to form soaring melodies that pop with the sound of the banjo and mandolin. Songs like “Carousel” are a foot-stomping good time while slower tunes like “When I Win You Over” show the depth of duo’s songwriting abilities.
Justin said he doesn’t know how the husband/wife dynamic affects their songwriting, but he’s sure it does in some ways
“From a lyric perspective, it’s been helpful to have a female point of view, and there are elements of our own relationship we put into some songs,” he said.
Kate continued, “We’ve been together the entirety of our adult lives, so we know how the other one works, and it’s easy to build off each other.”
Although lyrics play a major role in both their songwriting, Justin said they approach them differently.
“I tend to be more interested in how the words sound and feel, sometimes regardless of literal meaning, while Kate often takes a more conceptual approach,” he said.
They most often draw inspiration from personal experience, literature and from nature.
“I find that (music and nature) both seem to stimulate something primal and pleasurable in my mind,” Justin said. “A meditative state.”
Although they usually only have a day or so to enjoy the mountains around Lake Tahoe, they hope to come back and visit when they’re not on tour. Justin said one of his favorite memories is hiking in the woods around Lake Tahoe during a family reunion when he was a child.
Kate added her favorite thing about Tahoe is all the friends they’ve made when playing here.
“The people there are truly some of the nicest people we’ve ever met on the road!”
Miner will be back in the studio in February to record the follow-up to its debut album “Into the Morning.” Kate said the band is evolving and they are always writing with the live show in mind.
“So far, it seems to be a bit bigger and band-oriented,” Justin said. “Playing live with a band this past year has definitely informed the writing and arrangement process for us.”
In their first year together, Miner performed at more than 15 national festivals including High Sierra, and played more than 75 shows across the nation. Kate said at times it can be hard to balance her acting career with her singing career.
“We’ve had some close calls where I almost missed a show racing between projects, but so far we’ve been able to make it work,” she said.
After more than a year on the road together, Justin said it the journey has reaffirmed that performing is what they love to do, and they’re excited to go back on the road in 2015.
When asked beforehand what they hope people will take away with them from a show, Justin said, “A big smile,” and Kate added “Some tired legs.”
Editor’s note: To see more Tahoe concert photos, visit Kurt E. Johnson’s website: LINK
ABOUT Garrett Bethmann
Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. An eight-year resident of Lake Tahoe, he now lives in Denver, Colorado.