Few groups can match HoneyHoney's prestigious beginnings. In 2007, after winning a battle-of-the-bands contest, the twangy singer-songwriterly duo was essentially hand-picked by actor Kiefer Sutherland for his then-burgeoning new imprint Ironworks.
"Mark McGrath gave us a novelty-sized check onstage, and we were off and running," says guitarist Benjamin Jaffe, who had only begun playing with violinist, banjo player and former model/actress Suzanne Santo just one year earlier.
Initially, the Ironworks deal was unbelievably promising. Sutherland let HoneyHoney record their full-length debut, First Rodeo, in a sprawling warehouse he'd purchased. He'd converted the old iron works (hence the label name) into a high-tech studio, complete with the star's collection of more than 80 vintage guitars. Sutherland also directed and starred in their first video, "Little Toy Gun," and sent them out on tour with another one of his signings, Lifehouse.
But heaven turned hellish just as quickly. Ironworks' distribution deal with Universal splintered, as did the label's own infrastructure.
"We were on the road and realized what was happening. So then we got into a seven-month legal situation to release us from the contract," recalls Jaffe. "We knew that it wasn't going anywhere: A major label had picked up our contract, they had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on us, and when we found out, we were like, 'Whoa, what are we going to do?' But we got out, safe and sound."
Relieved, the team began work on its sophomore outing, Billy Jack, this time licensing it to Lost Highway. What could possibly go wrong? In retrospect, everything, Jaffe says. Just as the album was being released, label founder Luke Lewis announced his departure; HoneyHoney became Lost Highway's last album of new material.
"He rode off into the sunset, and they became a catalog label," sighs Jaffe. "There really wasn't much for them to do with us."
The experiences were daunting, ultimately depressing. But the duo had relocated from L.A. to Nashville, so rent was relatively cheap. They began utilizing Kickstarter to underwrite touring, even selling personalized haikus and hands-scrawled album lyrics to ardent fans in the process.
Once they identified their core audience, they could communicate with it, Jaffe says, giving them the confidence to complete the appropriately-titled 3. Before long, indie label Rounder Records had become intrigued by forlorn folk-rock tracks like "Big Man," "Father's Daughter," and "Burned Me Out," and eventually offered a contract.
"It took us from just being a band to becoming a small business," says Jaffe of the two previous setbacks. This time, he's hopeful that the duo has enough DIY knowhow to survive whatever comes next.
"We got lucky with our first contract, because we had powerful enough friends to get us out of it, unscathed," he says. "But at this point? We would have to make a lot of money to get fucked."