Conspicuous Bystanders, a soulful Lansing-based rock ’n roll group, is embarking on its “Government Letdown Tour,” which spans Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. On June 15, the band performs a homecoming show at Mac’s Bar, opening are LVRS, Tangelo and the Driven Strings. Formed in 2016, Conspicuous Bystanders comprises founding members Jenna Roark (vocals) and Emmet McGuire (guitar), along with MSU jazz students Zachery McKinney (drums) and Duncan Tarr (bass).
Here’s what Roark had to say about the outfit’s vibrant blend of R&B, blues, jazz and jam-band flavors.
Your bandmates have all played in other bands, when did you first get on stage?
Jenna Roark: I started singing on stage when I was just 3 years old—primarily bluegrass, old church hymns and country. I’ve pursued singing seriously my whole life, but this is the first real band I’ve ever been in.
What vocalists inspire you the most?
The amount of music that has inspired my voice, let alone this whole band, is exactly why our genre is and always has been so hard to label. Over the years, I’ve tried to learn these things from the best, like Amy Winehouse, Adele, Axl Rose, Jim Morrison, Beyoncé, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and Lady Gaga. None of us in the band can deny the impact that classic rock has had on our style, but it’s the flavor outside of rock that I think makes us so interesting.
Over the past few years, you’ve been battling cancer, what can you share about that?
I’ve come to terms with my permanent situation and it’s something I’d like people to have the opportunity to learn from. In 2016, I found out that I have brain cancer and that it is non-curable. After having the majority of the tumor surgically removed, it started to grow back, which is typical, and I began chemotherapy treatments the spring before we recorded our album, “You Can Have It All” (2017). It was incredibly challenging to continue singing with the amount of energy, both for the eight months of healing after surgery and also through the two years of chemotherapy.
However, I could not face this battle without my music, and so I have to give it all I have. Playing in a band with three encouraging and strong musicians has allowed me to overcome my biggest obstacles in life and hold me accountable for my health. I know that no matter what I must face in the future, as far as my brain is concerned, I can turn to singing for strength.
You’re leaving soon for an East Coast tour, is this the band’s first tour?
It’s the first proper tour for our band. Until now, we’ve done our best to play in cities around the Midwest over the weekends, but we’ve never strung them together. While I’ve been on chemo these past couple years, I felt it would be too risky to leave the state doing something so strenuous. I didn’t want to cut our tour short because of me. When it became clear my treatments would be over, at least for the summer, we began planning.
Conspicuous Bystanders collaborate on the songwriting, including the lyrics. Are there any reoccurring themes?
I write about life. Sometimes I write about what I want my life to be, but, generally, I just write about how it is. When Emmet and I collaborate on lyrics we tend to have an easy time seeing the picture the other is trying to paint. The songs we write together seem to always make the best stories.