The first time I saw Lizzie Quinlan and Hannah Martinson play, I was sitting on a couch in the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Quinlan, with dreadlocks and nose ring, had an instrument I’d never seen: a miniature harp that rested on the tops of her thighs. Martinson, blonde and dressed in an oversized sweater, began to sing in an angelic, clear voice. When the two first harmonized, they gave me goose bumps.
Quinlan and Martinson first started singing together on their way to a Kappa pledge retreat when they were freshman. It was a Nickelback song: Burn it to the Ground. “If we are going to be honest about what brought us together, it was probably Nickelback,” said Martinson with a laugh.
At first I was unsure if the earnest anecdote was meant as a joke, but when Quinlan added that they used to introduce themselves as a ‘Nickelback Cover Band,’ her lighthearted playfulness and quick smile expelled my doubts.
In fall of 2012 they decided to make their jam sessions more official. “We were like, let’s, like, be a band. Let’s have a name and stuff,” said Quinlan, who plays the harp and sings. They decided to ditch the name Nickelback Cover Band (NCB for short), and instead went with RiverRan.
“We thought we should have a name that describes what our motivations are.”
”Where we come from, that sort of thing.”
”Hannah grew up on a river.”
”There are a lot of rivers and mountains in our songs.”
”One day I woke up in the morning and was like, RiverRan. And then I came to Lizzie and was like, what do you think about this?”
The friendship between the two is apparent from how they finish each other’s sentences. However, RiverRan has grown beyond Quinlan and Martinson. During winter quarter, violinist Eli Katz and pianist Patrick Kennedy joined the group, and spring brought guitarist Gabriela Leslie. All five live together in 576.
When asked about how the band came together, Kennedy remarked, “In all honesty, once we started playing together, I was surprised it hadn’t happened earlier.” Quinlan, irreverent and sarcastically melodramatic, responded, “Like all great loves, we wondered where everyone had been all our lives. It started as a lively stream between Hannah’s voice and my songwriting, but like the very universe we inhabit, RiverRan is ever expanding.” Quinlan’s voice dropped to a whisper before she began giggling. On a more serious note, she added, “There’s such an element of luck in finding the right people to play with. That’s been the most important thing for me.”
Like her laugh, Quinlan’s music is contagious and startlingly beautiful. When asked to describe their sound, the group usually opts for folk. “When pressed to describe, that’s what we go to. It’s folky… It’s harp folky… It’s acoustic… It’s…yeah.” As even the musicians themselves are at a loss for words, the best way I can describe their music is warm. It feels like hot chocolate that’s just cool enough for you to drink but warms you long after you’ve reached the dregs. Their music smells like pine needles after a rain.
The songs are largely written by Quinlan. She participated in a Levinthal tutorial in poetry during the winter, exploring the relationship between poetry and song. When I asked if she is the primary songwriter, however, she shrugged off the question, mentioning how she writes some and Kennedy writes some and sometimes they jam and write together. Martinson disagreed. “I would say it’s mainly Lizzie’s songs. She’s a phenomenal poet.”
RiverRan has performed at Acoustic Jukebox, the Senior Arts Gala at Bing, and at The Red Couch Project in San Francisco, an off campus student-run performance space. They have recently finished recording their first song “Bear Creek,” featured on this year’s edition of the Stanford Soundtrack, and are hard at work on more. The answer to if this is going somewhere? Kennedy put it cryptically. “Yes. Just yes.”