KITHFOLK, Issue 2
Scott H. Biram
Scott H. Biram's Rambling Ways
by Devon Léger
Scott H. Biram is known for his electrifying one-man band stage sets where he tears through old-time country, blues, gospel, hillbilly, and gut-crunching electric roots, banging on an old guitar and singing into a bunch of vintage microphones taped together. So I was a little surprised that I caught him gardening in his garden when I called him at his home in Austin. I mean, this guy rocks harder than pretty much anyone else in underground roots music, plays guitar like a metalhead, and swears like a motherfucker. Check out his cover of Mance Lipscomb’s “Alcohol Blues” on his new album, Nothin’ But Blood, for one of the most raging and profane covers of a traditional blues song, and you’ll hear the kind of dark side Biram has. But there he is, telling me about what he just put in the ground. Maybe I could say something here about how earthy his music is? Or how grounded he is? Or some kind of pun like that to tie this into my image of him? Naw, fuck it, the thing I love about Biram is that he’s absolutely fearless in choosing old songs or writing new ones. He’s as liable to break into a rousing yodel in the middle of a set (a la Jimmie Rodgers) as he is to sing about wine, women, and drink, so I guess I’ve always embraced the traditional and the non-traditional sides to Scott H. Biram. And the bottom line is that his music can make you move. There’s not many these days in American roots music that can make that claim. Here’s my interview with Scott, after we stopped talking about his garden.
Devon Léger: Where do you live?
SCOTT: I live in Austin.
How long have you been in Austin?
SCOTT: I’ve been in the Austin area my whole life, but I’ve lived IN Austin since 2005.
Where were you born and raised?
SCOTT: I was born in Lockhart, Texas, they call it the “Capital of Meat”, the “Barbecue Capital of Texas.”
Is it the barbecue capital of Texas?
SCOTT: Yeah. It’s got a lot of barbecue places that are well-known. They have all these new ones in town that are making headlines but I still stick to the old ones.
What’s your favorite barbecue in Lockhart?
SCOTT: Smitty’s is my go-to but I like them all pretty well. They’re all a little different.
You’ve been representing Texas for a long time in your music and who you are. What is it about Texas that makes it such a seminal place for American roots music in your mind?
SCOTT: It’s a big place. We have a lot of different cultures and a lot of different geography. It helps that Leadbelly and Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb and so many of the greats came from here. That’s inspiration…
Tell me about the new album. Where was it made and what went into the making of it?
SCOTT: The other albums I’ve recorded, I’m at the studio at my house. This time, for the first time I recorded some of the songs at another studio in town called Cacophony Studios with an engineer named Erik Wofford. He’s done some albums with people like The Black Angels. I think he’s recorded some Robert Plant.
Is it just you on the album?
SCOTT: Mostly. There’s some bonus tracks on the end that are gospel bonus tracks and my friend, Jesse Vain did “John the Revelator” with me but the rest of the record is all me.
You’re a great live performer. What’s your tip for people who want to translate live performing into the studio? What’s one of your secrets for doing that?
SCOTT: Sometimes we go the other way around. Having to learn how to translate from the studio to live, that’s where it gets hard. There are plenty of songs that I wrote and just started playing live and said, “Hey, I got to record these on a record.” That’s not a problem. It’s easy to add things to a song and do over-dubs but when I write a song, a basic foundation song, and then I take it in the studio and start recording it and add extra parts, then I have to figure out how to make it as powerful live. I get pretty scared sometimes and I’m like, “Oh shit, I’ve painted myself into a corner.” For instance, on the first song on the new record, “Slow and Easy,” it doesn’t really have any percussion in it on the recording, but on the live show, I’ve been just beating my foot with my stomp-board thing, along with it and that keeps it a little more driving and a little more powerful. If I just played it acoustic… that might be good enough for some people but it’s not good enough for me.
There are a lot of covers on this album, why was that?
SCOTT: There’s actually more covers on this album than have been on any of my records since I got signed. Part of it is that I’m on the road all the time and I don’t have time to write. It’s just a lot of songs I’ve been doing for years and after a while I’ve been doing them for so long and haven’t recorded them, I’m like, “Shit, I’ve got to record this before it gets lost, before it changes. On this album I did a Howling Wolf cover of “Backdoor Man” and I did Mance Lipscomb’s version of “Jack of Diamonds”… I’m trying to think of what else I did.
SCOTT: Yeah. That’s a Doc Watson song. Doc Watson was one of my biggest influences. I saw him play in 1980 at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin with Merle Watson when he was still alive. I saw Doc about 4 or 5 times in my life and he’s why I learned how to do country-pickin’ and flat pickin’. I used to be in some bluegrass bands back in the late 90s… like that was so long ago.
Did you start out in Punk and Metal first and then go into Roots music
SCOTT: When I first started playing guitar when I was 13, I originally learned blues songs and classic rock songs: Neil Young and the Eagles and all that kind of stuff. But my first bands were punk-rock bands, like metal-punk, psychedelic metal. We were listening to a lot of The Butthole Surfers and Ministry… I was into all that stuff.
What do you think ties early American Roots music and Punk together? It seems like there’s always been a lot of crossover interest between the two of them? What is the tie?
SCOTT: It’s just a want to cry out. I think there’s frustration behind it, and there’s a really human foundation in there. It’s all to the point; it’s not very flowery. Sometimes, folk songs can get really flowery; I suppose there’s some roots songs that have flowery lyrics, but, for the most part, I think it’s all straight from the heart or straight from the liver! [laughing]
I like that!
SCOTT: Or straight from the crotch! [lots more laughing]
That’s awesome! Do you think that there’s some element of the rawness that comes from recording technology? Either in the old music or in what you do too? I’ve seen you play and you have all these old microphones duct-taped together.
SCOTT: Yeah. I often find myself wondering what Hank Williams Sr. would have sounded like if he was all clear and recorded on ProTools. I don’t know if we would have liked him as much. [laughing]
What are some of your guilty listening pleasures… like stuff you listen that inspires you and that you don’t necessarily put out on your brand?
SCOTT: You mean, like stuff that I might be embarrassed to talk about?
SCOTT: I’m not so embarrassed to talk about it but a lot of people get disappointed when I tell them that I fuckin’ love Steely Dan and over-polished 80s music: Michael McDonald and Doobie Brothers. I like Boston! [laughing]
Have you tried to bring that 80s sound into your music at all?
SCOTT: Not necessarily into my music but sometimes when I’m recording and I’m going about different textures in the sound and the style of mixing, I lean toward the 80s in my mixing, even though it sounds dirty and stuff. As far as sounding produced, I don’t want it to sound over-produced like that Nashville pop crap or any of that pop music… but I do want it to sound well produced. Along with being a musician, I’m a producer and I want to learn how to make really great recordings, do stuff like Pink Floyd. I want to master the art of making things sound really well recorded. It’s been a battle for 25 years now.
What have you been producing?
SCOTT: My own records. [laughing] I haven’t been recording anybody else but I do spend months and months and months on all these records even though it’s my own stuff that I’m producing.
What do you think of the folk music and the folk revival? When I see you in Seattle, it’s usually in a punk club like “El Corazon” or at the Tractor, but you’re playing folk music. Why have you not been embraced by the older folk revival?
SCOTT: Because I say “fuck” a lot. [laughing]
Is that really all it is?
SCOTT: No. First of all, I’ve been underground for a really long time. So a lot of people just don’t have a chance to hear me because I’m playing in rock clubs. So the folky people in the folk culture don’t get turned on to it. The few that I do get are from the local college radio stations or bluegrass shows that might play my music. Also, because I throw all that hard rock in there along with it. I have a really big smorgasbord of music; it’s blues, it’s country, it’s punk, it’s hard rock, it’s bluegrass, it’s hillbilly, it’s a big mix of it all.
Does it ever bother you? Do you ever wish you were playing more folk festivals?
SCOTT: Sometimes. I’d like to be able to get into blues festivals, some bluegrass festivals. I’m not really too into singer-songwritery music. One of my least favorite sounds in the world is the sound of a BAD acoustic guitar picker. [laughing] Like when people are trying to do really soulful blues music but they’re singing it like yuppie white people. [lots of laughing]
Some of the early black music you’re working with, especially chain gang music, it comes from such an incredibly tough place. It was just a step up from slavery really. Is it hard, as a white artist, tapping into that incredible rawness in the black tradition?
SCOTT: For me, it just really spoke to me so strongly that it hasn’t ever been hard. I’ve occasionally pondered about it being offensive, what I’m doing. When I really like a musician and I cover their music, it’s hard for me to not try to seem exactly like them. I don’t want to offend anyone because I am trying to sound like an old black man and I’m just a middle-aged white man but, what spoke to me about chain gang music and the old negro spirituals, is… it just seems like it’s from the very foundation… Like what we were talking about the punk and roots music, why they’re connected. It really just seems like it’s coming from the most basic feelings and where the spirit actually comes from: pain and love in its simplest form. And drinking a lot probably didn’t hurt. [laughing]
So, speaking of drinking and touring… What drives you to be on the road so much? You tour more than anyone I know; you’re really a hard-touring artist.
SCOTT: It started out as… I went on tour with my bluegrass bands a while back in ’99 for a couple of years. I was out there going, “Wow, man. I’m on the road! I’m livin’ it!” and then, it sucked me in. I feel obligated to be on the road. The road calls me and then, when I’m on the road, home calls. There’s also the necessity to pay bills. I’ve done fairly well touring and being able to live off of that. If I stop, then I’ll probably have to get a real job again and I don’t want to do that.
What was the last real job you had before music?
SCOTT: I was already in college and still cooking at a diner. Christmas eve 2001, was the night I quit that. They let me off early and an hour and a half after I would normally get off I was still working, and the owner and his wife were drinking mimosas with friends in the front. I finished up the dishes and I cleaned the grill and I said, “I won’t be seeing you guys anymore,” and that was about that.
Has that ruined your taste in mimosas?
SCOTT: Yeah. I just took it from there and really went headlong into booking. That’s back when I was booking myself and I started taking any gig I could get and tried to set up tours and get enough to pay for gas and food and find couches to sleep on or I’d sleep in the back of my pickup camper.
Did you learn that from touring with punk music first or the bluegrass band you were touring with, that kind of DIY touring?
SCOTT: Bluegrass bands were what I was in when I first started touring and then, when I went out by myself, I was playing acoustic. Back then, I had a lot more covers; I was doing Bob Dylan and Doc Watson and Leadbelly and whoever and I had 4 or 5 of my own songs. Eventually, I started wanting to play in rock clubs again like I did with my old band and I did what I could to soup it up and get more amplification on everything.
Right. Are you still touring as the One Man Band or do you have a band with you now?
SCOTT: One Man Band still.
Have you thought about moving to a band?
SCOTT: I think about a band sometimes but I’m doing pretty well for myself this way and I’d have to start splitting the money and I don’t think I could maintain as well. I wouldn’t necessarily cover the cost as well and I’d have to get along with everybody. I think about it all the time; it’s just, I’m on the road so much that I don’t have the time to put a band together and try to get all that worked out. The time that I do have at home, I’m trying to write or clear my head.
A friend of mine, Michael Chandler, he was the one who first got me turned on to your music, I asked him if he wanted to ask you any questions. He said, “Ask him about his ‘coon dick bone’. I don’t know what that means.
SCOTT: [laughing] I have about 4 or 5 of them in my mojo hand, my little red voodoo bag. Most people don’t realize that there are more mammals in the world that have these than don’t. It’s a penis bone. Raccoons have one and old Cajun guys keep them in their hat band, on their cowboy hats and they pick their teeth with them. [both laughing] They’re like a little white toothpick with a curved end on it. I have a song called, “I Want My Mojo Back” and it says, “She took my black cat bone, she made a black cat moan.” Basically it says, “I want my mojo back, she took my coon dick bone.” It really comes from a story of my old friend, John Meyers, also known as “James Leg” now. He was the “Black Diamond Heavy” that used to play with me on a few records. We were in England one time and he got arrested for having a pocket knife. He pissed off these old guys and they saw that he had a pocket knife when he pulled his change out to pay for a beer. They told the cops about it and they arrested him for having a pocket knife. He came back, walking in the next morning and he said, “Man, that’s the nicest jail I ever slept in… but they took my coon dick bone!” That’s what my song, “I Want My Mojo Back” is about.
Where do you get these things?
SCOTT: They’ve been given to me by different people. It’s just a charm; I’m not sure really, it’s a hoodoo charm. I keep it in my mojo hand. I got a mojo hand, which is a little red bag. I think you’re supposed to keep it around your neck, but I keep it in my drawer but mine has a collection of coon dick bones, a piece of wood from Muddy Waters shack, Jello Biafra’s phone number, a piece of sea glass with an anchor on it that I found on the beach in Italy. It’s got some high john root and low john root, it’s John the Conqueror root, another hoodoo thing. But it’s basically supposed to be for good luck.
Is there anything I missed that you want to talk about?
SCOTT: I had a dream that I was at a festival and I was Lightnin’ Hopkins’ handler and he was a little guy and he was really drunk and he couldn’t stand up. I was walking around with him, holding him up everywhere I went. It was cool man, actually being friends with Lightnin’ Hopkins. That was a pretty cool dream!
That’s your happy place?
SCOTT: Yeah. That is definitely my happy place.
Leyla McCalla's Roots Extend to Langston Hughes and Haitian Song
With Leyla McCalla’s Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, another artist examines the possibilities presented in setting famous poetry to music. McCalla is not the first to do this—favorites of mine in recent past have included Kyle Alden’s Songs from Yeats' Bee-loud Glade and Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love—Songs of William Blake. It might seem that such a plan makes life easy on the musician: “Look, free lyrics! Just make up a tune!”, but it is much harder than that, as other musicians have found to their dismay. You see, a successful song is more than good words and good melody. First of all, the two have to fit, as far as style, mood and structure, but more than that, there are some things that we love about good songs that not all poems naturally have; on the other hand, some poems feel like lyrics from the beginning, and this is one reason why McCalla’s choice works so well.
The poetry of Langston Hughes is imbued with music. Music was an important aspect of his the times and settings of his life, in America, Europe and the Caribbean, and of the movement he is famously linked to: the Harlem Renaissance. McCalla calls him “the Duke Ellington of words—painting the most incredible portraits with simple musical ideas that just come together in amazing ways.” Consider the use of jazz in such poems as “Dream Boogie” or “Lennox Avenue: Midnight”:
The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
The gods are laughing at us.
The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,—
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.
And the gods are laughing at us.
Or the undertone of the blues in “Song for a Dark Girl”:
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
If I had read those lyrics without knowing they were written by Hughes, I would have guessed Leadbelly or Son House. So McCalla makes the natural step of setting Hughes’s poems to jazz and blues, and the effect is perfect. They are as they were always meant to be.
McCalla shows Hughes’s versatility—and her own—through the variety of music she uses. The upbeat raggy setting of “Too Blue” works perfectly for the wry, morbid humor:
I wonder if
One bullet would do?
Hard as my head is,
It would probably take two.
But I ain’t got
Neither bullet nor gun—
And I’m too blue
To look for one.
The song is perfectly backed up with a tenor banjo and Hawaiian guitar that make the arrangement sound as if it came straight from a smoke-filled 1930s speakeasy.
McCalla feels a deep connection to Langston Hughes; in fact, she called him a focal point in her life, and credited him with inspiring her to pursue a creative path. But this album throws in quite a twist that you might not have seen coming: much of the album is incorporates Haitian folk music. In fact, Vari-Colored Songs is essentially Langston Hughes set to music plus Haitian music, with some overlap between the two. But that twist makes perfect sense not just in McCalla’s life, but for Hughes himself. McCalla’s parents are Haitian, and so the music is of more than academic interest to her, and Hughes himself also felt a deep connection to Haiti. He began one of his books in Haiti, and wrote a play and an opera about Haitian Revolution, and he translated a work by Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain. Hughes was very interested in pan-Africanism, the idea of a world-wide Black culture. You can imagine that he would nod approvingly at the idea of his poems sitting side-by-side with such songs as “Kamèn sa w fè” and “Latibonit”.
McCalla keeps the instrumentation intentionally spare, so we don’t get the sound of big bands. There are no drums or horn section on these tracks. Guitar, banjo and cello are of primary importance. She is very creative with the use of these instruments, though. The opening track, “Heart of Gold”, is built around a strummed cello, shifting back and forth from an A minor to a C ninth, but nevertheless the effect is clearly jazz, aided by McCalla’s excellent vocal ability. She uses this fascinating technique on other tracks as well.
I wouldn’t call Vari-Colored Songs “foot-tapping”; it’s not meant to be party music, as some jazz is. I absolutely would call it “engaging” and “ingenious”, and even “fun”, in the music-and-history nerd sense of the word. Fortunately the CD comes with extensive liner notes, and I recommend listening with the words close at hand at least once. Because the lyrics are poetry first, there is never a wasted word, and Langston Hughes’s wry and insightful wit comes through. The combination of prying questions, political consciousness, and biting wit is one thing that makes the poetry of Langston Hughes so great, as can be seen in such poems as “Cross”, “The Ballad of the Landlord”, and the poem “Vari-Colored Song” itself:
If I had a heart of gold
As have some folks I know
I’d up and sell my heart of gold
And head north with the dough.
But I don't have a heart of gold
My heart's not even lead.
It's made of plain old Georgia clay.
That's why my heart is red.
I wonder why red clay’s so red
And Georgia skies so blue.
I wonder why it's yes to me
And yes, sir, sir to you.
I wonder why the sky’s so blue
And why the clay’s so red;
Why down South is always down
And never up instead.
It’s a perfect combination.
Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca
The Family Roots of Conjunto: Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca
by Devon Leger
Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca are two of the most famous artists in Texas Mexican (Tejano) conjunto music. But they’re also both the sons of legends as well. Flaco’s father, Don Santiago Jimenez, was a pioneering accordionist, singer, and songwriter in Tejano music, and Max’s father, Max Baca, Sr, was also a great accordionist and bandleader, though based out of his native New Mexico, rather than Texas. Both Max and Flaco are actually third-generation accordionists, as their grandfathers played as well. For both artists, this is a family business, so it’s a real pleasure to hear them both going back to their family repertoires on their new release on Smithsonian Folkways: Legends & Legacies. Together, Flaco and Max make up the classic duo that is at the heart of all conjunto music: the three-row button accordion and the bajo sexto (a large stringed instrument somewhat similar to the 12-string guitar). Both artists, Flaco on accordion and Max on bajo, are considered among the very best in the world and have become ambassadors both for their music and for the instruments. So what you hear on this album is the very best Tejano conjunto music there is. Here it’s gloriously simple, but also devilishly complex, tied to the family roots that sustain it, and freed from the glitz and glamor of modern conjunto music (not that there’s anything wrong with a little glam in your accordion music!). The songs are rustic and heartfelt, drawn from their fathers’ songs, but also from classics of the genre. The songs, like most country music, are about lost loves, unrequited loves, and the love of drink.
The album is also an ode to fathers and to families, with great stories about how both Flaco and Max grew up in the dancehalls of the American Southwest, surrounded by seminal music making. Growing up in San Antonio, Flaco remembers his father playing Friday through Sunday night at the Gaucho Garden and working as a janitor during the day to support his kids. “He always wanted me around,” says Flaco in the liner notes, “and I wanted to be around him, because I loved the accordion, I loved how he played. I used to check out everything. I took care of him in some ways, and I packed his accordion in his Model A car. Then afterward, I started growing up a little more, and he decided to take me to where he played because I think he knew that I was ready to perform. It was like him taking me to Disneyland or something, you know, for me to go with him to where we played! It was a spontaneous thing, because I was just sitting on the side of him because he was playing at the dances.” Eventually, Flaco got invited up onstage and cause quite the fervor in the joint with his accordion playing, though he was too small to reach the mic (they had to put a case of Lone Star Beer under him to get him to reach). He was only seven years old.
Max grew up in New Mexico, and his father was responsible for pioneering much of the New Mexican Hispanic music that still exists today, though there clearly have always been ties with the Tejano community in Texas. I interviewed Max Baca over the phone at his house in San Antonio a little while back, and he talked about the fascinating story of his father’s music and his father’s influence on “chicken scratch” music (the music of Southwest Native Americans). Here’s an excerpt from that interview with Max Baca:
“I remember as a kid growing up, playing at different festivals and events, especially the fiestas at the Indian reservations. My dad would play and I was just a kid, I was maybe 6, 7 years old. I was tagging along with my dad, he had me go with him to gigs and by the time that I was 8, I was already playing the bajo, I was already playing the bass. I was actually my dad’s bass player, and that’s how I got into the music. My dad would say, “Okay, here’s the bass guitar and learn it! I need a bass player. We need you. We’re not going to pay another musician, I’d rather pay you.” We all contributed: me and my brother were part of my dad’s band as well, plus my uncle. It was kind of a family band type thing. My uncle played the drums and my other uncle played the bajo. I was the bass player and my brother was the back-up accordion player for my dad. My brother would play accordion and my dad would grab the trumpet. It was pretty cool, a different sound, accordion and trumpet. They would sound beautiful together, harmonizing.”
Living in such a multi-cultural society, there were many ties to Southwest Native American culture. In blood, but also in music. Here’s Max on his father’s influence on chicken scratch music:
“I remember going to festivals, or fiestas rather, when I was playing in the afternoon and then we’d always play the “baile” or the dance at night. I remember there was a couple of [Native] accordionists, and they would go to my dad and my dad would actually teach them a few pointers here or a few songs and that’s how they got started in the “chicken scratch” scene. Now there’s a lot of Native Indian chicken scratch. In Tucson, there’s quite a bit. My dad was a big influence on that because he had his band. His band was really popular and he had a big band. He had 2 accordion players, he had 2 sax players, he would grab the trumpet and would play with the sax players and they would have a kind of orchestra with the conjunto, it’s cool. Some of these Native Indians would pick up on it and before you know it, when I was maybe 12 years old, and we’d go back to play these festivals and they would be getting a band together and, of course they would never sing the songs because it’s another language. So, I noticed they would just play instrumentals and they would play the same songs and they would play them but instrumentally without the words. It was interesting and it was really cool and I think that’s pretty much how they do it nowadays too.”
“My dad was New Mexican, Indian, he had a little bit of these different influences... My dad, for some reason, he was a polka freak. He came out with polkas that were off the wall. Flaco Jimenez loved my dad’s polkas. They were just different. They had this really cool twist to them. They’d sound hard. hey were simple but they sounded kind of hard. It was a technique that he would use. Really catchy polkas and really, really catchy music. It’s funny because the native Indians, when they would dance my dad’s polkas, they would dance like the Germans. They would jump up and down, instead of like the Texans. The Texans would dance really slow, in a circular motion, clockwise and shuffling their feet but the native Indians would dance. They would actually jump; they would hop to my dad’s polka music! It was different. I have seen some of the German polka dancers. They hop like that. They jump and have little hops with it.”
Native Indian dancers, accordion riffs with no words, polkas you can’t stop thinking about, songs you can’t stop drinking to, and Germans lurking at the edges of the music, these were the roots of Tex-Mex accordion and bajo sexto, and these glory days live on in Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca. Long may they reign as the kings of conjunto!
NW Roots: Timberbound
Northwest Roots: Timberbound Resurrect Lost Oregon Forest Songs
by Devon Leger
The town of Keasey, Oregon, is so small that it barely shows up on Mapquest. There’s just a little marker when you search the name, peeping out from a green sea of pixels like a lost hiker. Keasey’s not really a town, it’s more the site of an old logging camp and a locational marker for the folks who live in the woods in the deep wilderness of NW Oregon. Yet for all its small size and isolation the town and the region has a rich history of sea and forest folklore from the fishermen and loggers that live there. It’s a history that young folklorist Joe Seamons grew up in–you can hear his wailing as a wee baby in the only record of two great Keasey folk artists Hobe Kytr and Dave Berge while Joe’s mom and neighbors sing choruses. Now living in Portland, Joe has returned to the music of his youth and created a new group of musicians from his generation to cover the music of a short-lived but influential group of 1970s folk musicians from around Keasey area known as Timberbound.
The inspiration behind Joe’s Timberbound project is the music of John and Kim Cunnick, who lived in the Keasey area in the 70s until John’s tragic death in 1976. They had moved into a region populated by old loggers, but brought a communal attitude and a nature-based reverence that seemed to mesh with the locals. In any case, John had a clear knack for capturing the spirit of the loggers and the forest-based culture of the region in the original folk songs that he wrote (or the traditional folk songs that he covered and rewrote). Living off the land, he and Kim spent many hours playing music and writing songs. After his tragic and untimely death in ’76, Kim Cunnick compiled the songs he wrote into a songbook and began playing them with others, forming a group called Timberbound. Together with other locals like logger and poet Gary Everett, fisher poet/folklorist/historian/folk signer Hobe Kytr, harmonica player and close friend Mark Loring, and the hugely bearded logger and autoharpist Dave Berge, Kim resurrected the songs of her late husband, sharing them with everyone in this corner of beforested NW Oregon who would join along. These songs are still sung today at family and community gatherings in the area, though Kim left many years ago to remarry and move to Costa Rica. But in sharing the songs of her duo with her husband (this was her way to overcome the grief of his passing), Kim ensured that his music lived on long beyond his death.
Now in 2014, Joe Seamons has formed together a new group of young folkies to bring back John’s songs and to bring back other songs written by artists around Keasey. He’s also collaborating with Kim Cunnick (now named Ruby Fergus) to publish an updated and expanded edition of the Timberbound songbook. That’s wonderful news, because the songs of Timberbound are deeply beautiful and evocative of a strong regional culture. When I asked Joe why he found this nearly-lost folk music so compelling– after all Timberbound never released an album and the songs are only remembered by oral tradition in these woods– he had this to say:
“The songwriting is witty, poetic, and captivating. I loved their vocal harmonies most of all, and their whole style is just very naturally old timey. Some of the songs seem like they could be much older compositions, but they are sprinkled with local references to places and people that were in the periphery of my entire childhood. The band itself is compelling because they seem unique for their lack of any commercial ambition--these folks wanted to play music because it helped them process a very tragic loss, and because playing music was a joy and a pleasure. Those are the old, enduring reasons for music making that define folk music (versus music as a commercial pursuit). I strive to balance my work as a professional musician with a dedicated focus to music for the reasons of pleasure and self-expression. Those reasons are too easily lost in the shuffle today.”
Here are three songs from Joe Seamons’ new Timberbound project. And be sure to watch out for Joe’s other projects. He’s also collaborating with Seattle-based fiddler and community organizer Ben Hunter to form a killer country blues/old-time duo AND he and Ben both just joined on to be the backing band for Dom Flemons (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops).
Inside the Songs with Joe Seamons of Timberbound
‘Boys of Columbia County’ - lyrics & melody by John Cunnick
John’s note introducing this tune in the Timberbound Songbook describes this as “already a local classic of sorts”, and it has remained such ever since. In contemplating this song, I often think of Hobe Kytr’s observation that the best and most interesting way to write a good song is to describe the specific tools and terms of the kind of work you do. Definitions of “skidder,” “yarder,” and “greenchain” are given in the Songbook, and one can discover a lot of great information about the region and its logging culture .
I would add that this is the most widely sung song from the Timberbound songbook, folks around the area where I grew up still sing it quite often, each in their own way.
John's note from the Timberbound songbook can be seen in the attached photo, his note is typically self-deprecating regarding his abilities as a melodist:
"The tune is original & undistinguished; in combination with an even more lackluster hi harmony it sounds fairly exciting, but the listener is left with little or nothing worth whistling. The chorus ought to have a different melody than the verse but doesn't.”
“Timberbound” – lyrics by John Cunnick, melody by Kim Cunnick
It is worth reproducing in full the definition of this word as printed in the Songbook: “A timberbound tree is a curved one. They look reconciled to the shape they’re in, but cut into one and you’ll find they are under a great deal of stress half a century after they were first warped.” The song alludes to the early experiences that made John who he was. I never knew the man, but I feel certain that he was like many musicians I know who remain under a great deal of stress long after they are first warped by sorrow. Music serves as a healthy tool to open the release valve for that stress--often it’s the only tool worth using.
Part of what's drawn me so strongly to the Timberbound songs is my love of the blues. John and Kim were both lovers of blues music, and the transcendence of sorrow through singing about one's troubles is a theme that I find woven through many of these songs.
"Boys of Columbia County" is a great song, but Timberbound is an anthem. It's really fun to sing the chorus, and the lyrics alone have a rhythm that carry the music along with it. I find the song to be both meditative and hard-driving, and the song distinguishes our people and our place from others even as it expresses a unity between people across boundaries physical and metaphysical. I can't say enough about it. We sing this every year. We keep aging but the song seems to keep us young.
“Timber Faller” – lyrics & melody by Dave Berge
“’Timberbound’ was written by a sawmill worker, but John was a man of letters--a poet and a musician first and a laborer secondarily. Dave Berge, who wrote ‘Timber Faller,’ was a full-time logger. When he wasn't logging, he was fishing. I consider ‘Timber Faller’ to be among the half dozen greatest songs of the past half century written by laborer about his work. This one's right up there with Hartford's ‘Steamboat Whistle Blues’ and Chris & Oliver Wood's ‘Postcards from Hell.’
This is an autobiographical song that, through an honest and un-skewed portrayal of its subject, becomes an accurate portrait of a whole class and generation of people. Dave Berge is now near the end of his life, having been brought to this point by decades of hard work and hard drinking. We were really, really lucky that he could still play autoharp and sing enough to play this one in the studio with us. It's just a shame that Dave is no longer the autoharp player he once was--his ability to play melody and beautiful rhythm on such a chordal instrument was really remarkable. He also retains some of his beautiful baritone, but one needs to listen to the Dog Salmon and Rutabagas album [Dave Berge’s only album with Hobe Kytr] to really understand what a fine musician Berge was.
For more information on Joe Seamons’ Timberbound project, pick up the album online. He’s got wonderful stories in the liner notes and he really brings the project to life through these stories.
Buy the Timberbound Album HERE.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Exclusive: 1960s Folk Era Photos from Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’ recent movie about the 1960s Folk Revival sparked a lot of debate within the community, especially with folks who felt the movie was too dark to portray the hopefulness of the folk scene. But truth is that the Llewyn Davis team really did their homework, and were especially interested in what the New York folk scene was like today, though they didn’t incorporate too much of this into the movie. The filmmakers headed out to the Jalopy Theatre, home to many of the best young folk acts in the city, and talked with some of the artists there. On the soundtrack, they also include The Down Hill Struggles with John Cohen, a band who’s a perfect example of today’s multi-generational, hardcore traditionalist folk world in New York. We talked to Eli Smith of The Down Hill Strugglers (and also the organizer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival at the Jalopy) and it turns out the filmmakers went one better. They took promotional photos of key Jalopy Theatre bands in the style of 1950s and 60s folk musician headshots and framed them on the wall behind the promoter Bud Grossman in the film. Thanks to the set designers on Inside Llewyn Davis, we can exclusively show these photos to you! The photos feature new old-time stringband The Whiskey Spitters, Eli Smith and Walker Shepard of The Down Hill Struggles, Feral Foster from Jalopy and young folk singer Elizabeth Butters. But first, here are a few thoughts from Eli Smith of The Down Hill Strugglers on being involved in the film:
"My band the Down Hill Strugglers together with our friend John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers contributed a song, the old ballad "Roving Gambler" to the soundtrack album of "Inside Llewyn Davis." We were very happy to receive the call from T Bone Burnetts office and showed up as arranged at a very fancy recording studio in mid town Manhattan. T Bone, the Coen Brothers and several of the actore from the film were there. We recorded several songs for them that day, and they ended up chosing "Roving Gambler" as the one to include on the soundtrack.
It was very nice to see them include our friend, mentor and often times bandmate John Cohen, a founder of the New Lost City Ramblers, the great old time string band of the folk music revival of the 1960's from New York. John is one of the main people that made the world of folk music in Greenwich Village, which is depicted in the Inside Llewyn Davis film. The Down Hill Strugglers is a part of the New York City folk music scene today, centered around the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn, and I also produce the Brooklyn Folk Festival and the Washington Square Park Folk Festival. Although they used very popular and famous musicians for their soundtrack album as well as the actors in the film, it was nice of them to include us as a nod to the grassroots of the world depicted in the movie and also a nod to the great and vibrant scene that is still going on in the city today."
A Quieter Riot
A Quieter Riot: Women in Contemporary Russian Roots Music
A certain band of masked ladies may make world headlines, but their success begs a question: Why aren’t female Russian roots musicians as popular internationally as their Scandinavian or Celtic counterparts? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Russian traditions themselves are wildly compelling and remarkably well documented. Rich regional differences abound, from the more reserved songs of the northwest to the riotous dance numbers of the west and south, from the songs of the Old Believers in Siberia to urban ditties and romances from European Russia.
Traditional music, urban and rural, has inspired Russian singers, musicians, and poets for centuries. In the 19th century, aristocratic Russians, especially under the influence of Herder-style nationalism, took a strong interest in Russian songs as a source of unique national genius. Serfs, who made up the overwhelming majority of the population, performed music as part of their village lives, and some became professional musicians (and even won their freedom in the process). Ethnographic research—formal and informal—became a significant component of artistic activity, and folk concepts and melodies increasingly filtered into “high art” compositions.
In the 20th century, Soviet cultural activists sifted through varied traditions and established carefully crafted song and dance ensembles (even the Red Army had one). These groups incorporated Western classical and ballet techniques, and remain a popular model for certain groups in Russia, even if their virtuosic showmanship doesn’t quite fit into Western notions of “folk” or “roots” music. Toward the end of the century, as the cultural and political environment in Russia changed, more experimental approaches—especially the innovative work of composer/researchers like Dmitri Pokrovsky and his ensemble—appeared.
Yet being a performer outside of the pop machine or the classical system in Russia is no easy feat. There are few allies in the media and sympathetic venues, even fewer brick-and-mortar stores, and most promotion, even for established artists, is done via social media or informal channels. Making a living is truly tough; as one musician recently told me off the record, Björk would have starved to death, had she been Russian.
Despite a challenging music market and the post-Soviet quasi-implosion of institutions for studying and perpetuating traditional music, seasoned performers and upcoming musicians continue to flourish artistically. Women in particular have a vital role in this continued development, both as the traditional songbearers and as intriguing modern re/interpreters of ritual, lifecycle, and lyrical songs, whose words and melodies speak of generations of hardship, perseverance, and passion.
Meet four women-led groups with deep roots and quiet but potent sounds that deserve to be heard.
This youthful ensemble uses live looping, beat boxing (a method closer to some traditional sounds than you’d think), and other approaches from the hip hop and club music worlds to create gorgeous vocal pieces. They keep true to tradition—especially the upbeat, polyrhythmic jams of western Russia—while moving the music forward, not unlike what Hedningarna did for Swedish and Finnish music.
“We take into account that we’re immersing ourselves in a centuries-long tradition of folk songs, and for that reason we approach them with great care. At the same time, these songs really move us, and they feel more relevant and fresh than a lot of what you hear on the radio. All the elements we incorporate are an unmediated, sincere response of young musicians encountering something truly great and wonderful. The rhythms that we emphasize with our beatboxing are already there. We just try to bring them home to our listeners.” –Aliona Milulina
A veteran of the indie scene and a specialist in uniting rock and other musical elements with traditional song, Zhelannaya established herself as part of the popular group Farlanders, but has forged an interesting solo career. Often emotionally intense and atmospheric (think Dead Can Dance), Zhelannaya’s nimble, subtle voice and edgy but funkified arrangements click beautifully.
“We simply get together and play. We search, discover, polish, listen. When we like the result, the song’s done. Then we simply hope that it will appeal to those who hear it. We would like to attract listeners who aren’t satisfied with middle-of-the-road sounds. We’re not out to please or entertain everyone.”
Inna Zhelannaya live
A new project, but one devoted to both historical imagination and women’s fates. Inspired by medieval Russian life and by the everyday struggles of women—birth, courtship, marriage, childbearing—woven into traditional songs, Rybonka incorporates novel instrumentation like cello with eerie, lovely vocal arrangements that suggest the strong narrative the group feels in traditional songs. Their current project traces a woman’s life from birth to giving birth to her own daughter via folk songs, with a sound that suggests Värttinä, Malicorne, and Rasputina.
“At some point, I realized that for people in our day and age, people who live in cities, folk music feels somehow foreign. Russian folk music is hard for folks to get into, to embrace, if they were raised modern harmony and sounds, on Queen and the Beatles. Nonetheless, it’s on par with Celtic, German, Scandinavian, and other folk music when done correctly. The artists who have developed folk music using contemporary sounds are few and far between.” –Anastasia Ovch
Gusi-Lebedi (Geese and Swans)
Angela Manukyan, a singer obsessed with ancient Slavic texts and the power inherent in folk songs, has spent several decades trading ideas with experimental electronic musicians and hard rock guitarists. The results flirt with metal and house, with Terry Riley and Basement Jaxx, while channeling the uncanny, the raucous, and the unexpected in Manukyan’s unique vocal interpretations.
“Old Slavonic texts are not about the lightness of being. They are powerful, tough, and ground us in our relationship to nature. Humans are not king, not god. Nature is. Acoustic instruments just don’t have enough oomph to get to that place," Manukyan told the Russian service of the BBC in a recent interview.
Za vorota (Outside the Gates)
Jessee Havey of The Duhks
An Interview with Jessee Havey of The Duhks
by Devon Leger
For a while there at the turn of the 21st Century, Canadian folk-rock bandits The Duhks ruled the roost. They were touring all over the world, selling out major shows, and pulling in the kind of draw that any kind of roots band would kill for. They had the best band of pickers in the business, and were head of the pack at a time when other bands like The Mammals, Nickel Creek, The Paperboys, were exploring a more progressive, song-driven side to modern roots music. But it wasn’t to last. Many lineup changes, and especially changes between lead singers took the Duhks off the circuit for a good number of years, and they were missed. They’re back now, and with a newly returned old friend at the helm again: lead singer Jessee Havey. Together with banjo player/vocalist/bandleader Leonard Podolak, she’s one of the earliest remaining band members. With a new album out on Compass Records, The Duhks also have new members drawn from the ranks of the best young traditional artists: Brooklyn percussionist Kevin Garcia, wildly talented Québécois multi-instrumentalist Colin Savoie-Levac (from the excellent young Québécois trad band Les Poules à Colin) and New York old-time fiddle prodigy Rosie Newton. It’s an exciting new time for the band, and the new album clearly has the potential to bring The Duhks back to full form again.
The new album, Beyond the Blue, was produced by E. Coast folk-kingpins Mike & Ruthy and it showcases what made the Duhks great in the first place: songs informed by traditions but fueled by pop songwriting, burning banjo playing, masterful arrangements, and especially the lovely, pure vocals of Jessee Havey. It’s the kind of voice you’d find ringing from the rafters of a church as easily as you’d hear it lulling a baby to sleep, the kind of voice that exhibits a staggering range of emotions and variety. It’s great to have Havey back in the band, especially she brings such great energy to the mix. We wanted to hear more about how she felt back at the helm, so we reached out over email to get her thoughts on returning to Duhkdom.
Welcome back to The Duhks! How does it feel to be back in the band and riding the Duhks train again?
Jessee Havey: Why, thank you! I am beyond thrilled to be back. It feels like coming home. As it so often goes with any kind of home, sometimes one must leave the nest to fully realize just how much they love home and don't ever want to leave for any prolonged period of time again. I want people to know that I am fully aware of how insanely blessed I was to have the opportunity to help front such a "successful" creative endeavour in the first place, and I thank my lucky stars daily for the chance to take another swing at it. I have done a lot of work on myself and am a much stronger person now. I'm ready to embrace and rock whatever comes my way this time around. All I want is to put people at ease, make them think about things from a place of compassion for themselves and others, and to generally feel less alone. This world is crazier than anything and we all need more love and compassion. Music is such an amazing tool for community celebration and healing.
You guys picked out some seriously awesome other new artists. Colin's a great guy and a killer musician in Les Poules à Colin, and Rosie's one of our favorite fiddlers/singers. We've written about both before. Where did you find them and what were some reasons for bringing them in the band?
JH: We won the lottery with our new lineup. Each one of our three new Duhks (Kevin Garcia on percussion, Colin Savoie-Levac on guitar and various other instruments, and Rosie Newton on fiddle) has an abundant and diverse musical background and brings something totally unique to the mix, which was the original concept for the band. Bringing it back to its roots feels really good. We met Rosie in the early days of the band through our good friend Lydia Garrison (who wrote, played, and sang on the song 'Burn') and fell in love with her. She is extremely well connected in the Cajun, Irish, and Old Time scenes in Ithaca - traditions that have always been represented in our music. Such is the case with Colin, but with the traditional Québécois background. Playing with them just makes sense. They are all salt of the earth folks (good eggs, if you will) who are excited and grateful to be a part of this, from what I can tell. We want this to be a healthy, supportive, and totally positive experience for all involved. We want that to shine through. We've been blessed with amazingly loyal fans who have been so patient with and accepting of us through all kinds of ups and downs and the precariousness of our evolution. It's like unconditional family love; a sacred thing. They kept such faith in us and we want to return the favour.
What brought you back to the band? And what made you leave in the first place?
JH: I was twenty-five and exhausted, disenchanted with the industry, and basically just unraveling. Starting the band right out of high school and touring nine months a year right from the get go meant that I missed out on a lot of things that I thought I wanted (having my own place, dating, having relationships, seeing friends more than once every two or three months and other such things that constitute the "normal" twenty-something experience). It was primarily a matter of self-preservation and allowing myself to figure out if this was what I actually wanted to do with my life. I felt I owed it to myself. It had very little do with band dynamics or the music. I just needed to get off the hamster wheel to gather, strengthen, and ground myself. I accepted the fact that I was no good to anyone if I couldn't be good to me. It was crucial for my sanity and growth as a person. I am stronger and more comfortable in my skin and able to give from a place of completely honest love and faith.
Tell me about your musical background. You were born and raised where? What got you into roots music in the first place, or did you come from a different background.
JH: I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the heart of the Canadian Prairies, to a very musical and artistic family. My grandmother is a beautiful mezzo soprano who turned down a scholarship to study opera to marry my grandfather and have a family. In some ways, I feel like it's part of my duty to live out the dreams she never got to. Selfishly, I am glad she didn't, as I might not be here. My mother and uncle both sang in the synagogue choir alongside her when I was growing up. My father moved here from Nova Scotia to study fine arts. He is also a wonderful singer and multi-instrumentalist and he and my mom do the occasional performance together, which is about as sweet as it gets. They are true folkies. He's always jamming on the third floor of our house (his art studio and jam space) and is constantly in the process of building some sort of instrument. We performed together as a family a lot when my brother (now a Physiotherapist in British Columbia) and I were growing up, and there was always music in our house. I had a charmed childhood. My mother has been heavily involved with the Winnipeg Folk Festival all my life, founded by Leonard's folks. That's how they became such good friends, and helped shape us both into the hardcore folk nerds we would inevitably become.
You were a founding member of The Duhks, right? How do you think spending so much time in the group shaped your artistic vision? What was it like to work on your music outside of the band?
JH: Leonard's first band was called Scrüj MacDuhk and I was OBSESSED with them as a kid (he is eight years my senior). They were a young, fresh, hip band that was doing something I had never seen done before - playing all the music we were raised with, deeply rooted in the tradition, but because they were young, they made it cool. They were so exciting to see live and I wore out their records. I'm pretty sure I wanted to marry all of them. I even went as far as to write them a letter (I didn't remember this until my mom told me several years ago) when I was a teenager, telling them they were my favourite band and that I loved their singer (Ruth Moody of the Wailin' Jenny's), but that if she ever decided to leave the band, I wanted to be their singer. I was a tenacious little bugger. Still am. I think a huge part of what I loved about them was that it was a true Collective. Everyone was such an individual, making it so unique and interesting. It was an amazing thing to witness. I wanted to be a part of that. I had some experience in collective creation through my theatre training, which I think helped make it a pretty natural role for me to step into. Having everyone's personal opinion and style shine through is so inspiring and enriching and makes for such a special sound. I love stepping out of my comfort zone and trying new things. In my time away from the band, I was fortunate to have lots of people who believed in me and didn't want me to stop singing, so I'd have to put these bands or duos together, which was really new and fun for me. Winnipeg is host to an exceptionally rich, diverse, and supportive musical community. I did tons of musical theatre, dance, and straight theatre as a kid and was on stage at any opportunity I could get, but The Duhks was my first band. Being back home and having all these people gently nudging me to keep it up gave me the opportunity to tap in to a small fraction of our outrageously huge pool of talent, considering that Winnipeg is not all that big (it's got the big small town or small big town thing happening). One of those projects was a funk/R&B band that I started just for fun called Jessee Havey and the Quirks, which was a 6-10 piece revolving door of characters on electric instruments, which was completely foreign territory for me. We had so much fun, and it also made me appreciate just how much time and energy it takes to be a band leader. I will cherish those memories forever.
I don't have the liner notes for the album, but is Tania Elizabeth on the album? But no longer in the band? Does the album reflect the new lineup?
JH: Tania is on the album, but no longer in the band. She didn't want to be there anymore and we wish her all the best. Rosie is also all over the album and now tours with us.
I'm pretty impressed that we managed to pull of all we did with this record, considering the massive transition we were in the midst of. I do think it reflects the new lineup, but we are also chomping at the bit to get another one started where our new members can really shine. Finding the right guitar player proved to be the toughest piece. We wanted to find someone who gave us the same feeling we got when Kevin came along. Immediate and organic, where you just want to squish them all the time and tell them how special they are! Like, 'where have you been all our lives?'. Jordan McConnell [the main Duhks guitarist previously] is a world class guitarist with such a unique and renegade style. In the process of finding someone up for the job, we got to play with some pretty cool players, but when Colin came along, it was so obvious. Love at first note. He is our guy and the only guitarist any of us have ever heard with a similar style to Jordan's. He is twenty years old and I think largely influenced by Jordan's playing, whether directly or through others who adopted his style. I thought my heart was going to explode when he told us one of his bands used to cover Annabel (off our first record). Leonard put it best when he said, "He's like our musical nephew." I am so excited to show him off to the world, as well as humbled at the thought of watching him thrive. It's pretty wild to think that he is only a couple years older than I was when we stared the band. I am enjoying being one of the big kids now.
You clearly draw a lot of inspiration from powerful female vocalists and musicians. Do you yourself sometimes struggle with the role of women in music today? Or do you feel that things have changed enough that this isn't as much an issue anymore?
JH: My earliest influences were Dolly Parton and Judy Garland. As I said before, I was a musical theatre kid. Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, and Barbara Streisand were pretty huge for me. I also loved the Andrews Sisters, who were brought to me through my grandparents. There was an all oldies radio station in Winnipeg called KY58 that I listened and sang along to incessantly in my bedroom. As I grew, Aretha, Ella, Billie, and Sarah Vaughan had a huge impact and I tried to mimic everything they sang. Mimicry is a great way to learn to sing and develop techniques. As far as overall aesthetic and attitude, Cyndi Lauper is it for me. I read her memoir recently and am about to read it again, as it was so inspiring. Bonnie Raitt is another big one. One of the best things Sugar Hill (our former record label) did for me was expose me to Bettye LaVette, who was playing a show at the Mercury Lounge in Nashville while we were there recording Migrations. I was hesitant, as I'm the kind of person who doesn't always like to go out, but they implored me. That night brought a lot of things into focus for me. Aside from the fact that she is a totally fierce performer and singer, what hit home most was the fact that she proudly professed herself a "Song Interpreter". At the time, I felt a lot of pressure from a lot of people for not writing more songs, which sucked. I did not yet consider myself a songwriter, and people couldn't seem to accept that and just lay off. My feeling was that there were way too many brilliant songwriters we knew (Kat Goldman, Dan Frechette, Ruth Ungar-Merenda) whose songs were criminally obscure, and I wanted to use the Duhks as a vehicle for exposing their songs to the world. I also believed that, being in my early twenties, I didn't have enough life experience to write songs that weren't exactly like every other song on the radio. Essentially, I didn't want to write songs just for the sake of writing songs. I wanted to wait until I was older and wiser and had more experience and perspective to draw from. I certainly had things to say but didn't feel quite ready to articulate them. So I took my time and embraced the "Song Interpreter" role, which made a huge difference in my sense of identity and confidence. It is only in the last few years, as I have reached my thirties, that I am starting to really hone the songwriter thing. I've been writing like a maniac lately and plan to have more and more original songs on our future records.
As for my feelings on the status of women in music today, I could write a book. Perhaps I will. Suffice it to say that I wholeheartedly believe it is still an issue, and one that I am determined to fight for. Anyone who believes it is not still a very real struggle is either delusional, ignorant, oppressed, or misogynistic. We are still fundamentally expected to be submissive sex objects, which is just not something I subscribe to. I want to show kids that you can be a successful and powerful woman all while keeping your clothes on and relying primarily on your voice, spirit, and intelligence. It's no easy fate, but I was raised to be a feminist, and will do whatever I can to help change things.
One major motivating factor in my identity as a feminist is that men seem to constantly be critiquing me. A recent and perfect example is of a Duhks fan who made a comment on our Facebook page about how he hates my new hair. I couldn't care less that he does not approve of my short hair, but what makes my blood boil about this is - as the fellas in my band pointed out - no one ever comments (especially on a public forum) when one of them changes their physical appearance in any way. Throughout my performing career, men have commented on my weight, what I wear, and my hair. The situation has always been the same, but now I have the guts to stand up for myself when something bothers me in an effort to not contribute to the oppression of women through passivity. I feel a great responsibility to be a part of the solution.
What are some struggles in Canada today that you feel most strongly about? There's a vision in the US of Canada as our harmless, more boring neighbor, and while it's true y'all aren't as insane as we are, there are still plenty of issues in Canada that should be brought to light.
JH: O, Canada. I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to explain to Americans that Canada is not this perfect utopia that some seem to be under the impression that it is. Without getting too far into it, I think it's pretty safe to say that in recent times, our petticoats have been exposed. Anyone who watches television or participates in any social media was bombarded with the Rob Ford scandal. There's plenty of corruption in Canadian politics. Are we harmless? By comparison, absolutely, insofar as having restricted firearm possession regulations and a military that is focused primarily on Peacekeeping. Our current prime minister is causing all sorts of harm, though. There have been massive cuts to funding for the arts as well as crucial social service programs. He has made Canada a pariah at international climate summits. It's embarrassing. The best thing he has done that I am aware of is to not reopen the abortion debate. I saw a quote by Tommy Douglas (the man who brought universal healthcare to Canada) recently that I shared on my Facebook page that said, 'Let me remind you what fascism is. It need not wear a brown shirt or a green shirt - it may even wear a dress shirt. Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege." All that said, something Leonard instilled in me that we like to make clear to our audiences is that, at least in our experience, the people are not a reflection of their government. A big part of our mission is to break down barriers and bring people together, regardless of their political views, religion, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or socioeconomic status. We are all human beings and we don't need to agree on everything. It takes all kinds to make this crazy world go 'round, and they all deserve music and a sense of togetherness. That's what we're here for.
Purchae The Duhks' New Album HERE.
An Interview with Dublin roots band Lynched
Lynched is a traditional irish group from Dublin, Ireland, started by brothers Ian and Darragh Lynch as a folk punk duo in the early 2000’s, they have recently added the masterful playing of Radie Peat and Cormac MacDiarmada. Their new album, Cold Old Fire, seamlessly weaves together a punk energy, slow boil neo-folk darkness and plenty of real old time Dublin street grit into one beautiful whole. It’s rare to see musicians in traditional music who can shred through tunes with the elegance of people steeped in Irish culture, but who aren’t afraid to leave some bad notes in there, if it means keeping the energy of a good take. This isn’t plastic Irish music with purple button ups and hair gel, Lynched is the CRASS patch on Paul Brady’s shiny pants. My personal favorites on the album are “The Old Man from Over the Sea” a disturbing english ballad sung by Radie, the Darragh’s chills-inducing cover of “Cold Days of February” by the Incredible String Band and “Cold Old Fire” penned by the mysterious Berlin songwriter (and occasional Lynched and Blackbird Raum co-collaborator) Cian Lawless.
The lads from Lynched sat down with our correspondent (and Blackbird Raum conspirator) Caspian Reprisal a few weeks ago in Port Townsend, WA, during their West Coast US tour to talk more about their music.
Caspian: You guys are all from Dublin. Is the music of Dublin often overlooked in the study of irish music? How important is it for you to represent the place you're from? How does the melting pot of Dublin relate to the intensely regional traditions of Ireland?
Ian: Me and Darragh’s family are from Dublin for as far back as we can ascertain. My mother’s side have been involved in the street-trading of fruit, vegetables and fish in the historic Liberties area of the south inner city for four generations, while our father’s family came from the north inner city. This is quite unusual, as the majority of people I know are from families who came to Dublin from other, usually rural areas, in the last generation or two. In this respect I think it’s fair to say that we are pretty ‘Dublin’ and this has always been something that has come out in our music. When I used to play in punk bands it used to really bamboozle me as to why people from Dublin would put on an English accent when they were singing, and it still really irks me when I hear people doing it while singing traditional songs. It’s a very important thing for traditional singers to sing in their own accent and to be not be ashamed of it, but for some reason this can be hard for some people, even in the traditional music scene, to understand. In Ireland the Dublin accent is commonly associated with working class people, or ‘scumbags’, and thus it is often castigated and looked down upon. You will never hear somebody on the TV or the radio with a Dublin accent, even in Dublin, unless they are being caricatured or being made fun of. In some ways this attitude is replicated in the wider traditional music scene, in particular with the songs, which I feel can be often looked down upon. I think that this must go back to idea of Dublin being the capital, as well as the erstwhile seat of British power in Ireland. I think that for a long time, the general consensus would have been that ‘real’ Irish culture existed in the west, while Dublin was not much more than a debased British city with no culture of its own. In reality of course it has its own very peculiar culture, slang, customs, music (I think the others could tell you more about this), and indeed singing tradition. Ideas about the Dublin singing tradition seem to have changed in the last few decades with great Dublin singers like Frank Harte, Barry Gleeson, Jerry O’Reilly and Luke Cheevers having given recognition and legitimacy to the the songs of Dublin.
Darragh: I get the impression that the music of Dublin, in terms of song at least, is often relegated to the status of slightly embarrassing and quaint second cousin to ‘real’ traditional music, so it is quite important to me to treat it with a bit more respect and dignity than it would usually be given. The fact that my family on both sides has a deep Dublin history, as Ian has mentioned, probably adds to this. Of course this is a huge generalisation and the singers Ian has mentioned, amongst others, are a refreshing exception. As regards tunes (this is the term we use for traditional dance music like jigs and reels), I think the other band members might have a better overview, but I do know that Dublin has been fairly instrumental (pardon the pun) in keeping the piping tradition going with the formation of the Piper’s Club, as well as producing legends like Tommie Potts, the Kellys and the Glackins.
Radie: I have definitely come across an attitude within the purist traditional tunes side of things that considers Dublin tunes and Dublin musicians to be somehow less traditional or legitimate. I actually think this is a load of shite and some of my favourite trad musicians of all time are Dubliners, for example Tommy Potts and the Glackins. I would say this of course, because I’m also born and raised in Dublin, much like the Lynches, both my father’s and mother’s families are Dublin at least 5 or 6 generations back. I think expressing where I’m from isn’t really a conscious decision when making music but it definitely comes out either way.
Cormac: I was born and raised in Dublin but both my parents are from east Galway so spent a good part of my holidays as a child & teenager in Ballinasloe. People would ask where you’re from and usually respond with general positivity and appreciation for the music. In fact the comment that stands out in my head is “Some good players up in Dublin”. I’ve heard the odd negative remark about the Dublin style or lack thereof but never paid any heed. A lot people emigrate to Dublin so it’s had more exposure to players from other parts of the country.
Tell us about touring the states, does every white American really think that they are Irish? What places or aspects of the country as a whole impressed you and what didn't? is it surreal being in "Irish" pubs in the states?
Ian: I love touring the states. Although the wider mainstream culture, over the top consumerism and uncontrollable advertising leave me feeling quite alienated, this is usually balanced out by the amazing people that you meet along the way. To the average Irish person North Americans are fat, loud and ignorant, and I remember my father refusing to believe me that there were huge portions of the population who were nice, smart, who didn’t support US imperialism, were aware of their country’s history, and who were not proud of all the fucked up things happening in their name. Obviously every country has its own national caricatures e.t.c., but I’ve always felt that the US is much cooler on the inside than the outside. In short, I am constantly impressed by people’s resilience, creativity, and ability to build real community in the face of all the odds. These are the things that people should be proud of, not the fact that their great-grandmother’s best friend’s postman came from a certain country 150 years ago. As for Irish pubs, it doesn’t really bother me. The ‘Irish pub’ is another consumer good, just one more choice on the menu of infinite variety that is American consumerist society. At it’s worst it offers nothing more than a racist stereotype of Irish people as hot-headed drinkers, with alcoholism as their only marketable export. At its best, it offers nothing more than bad Guinness. Whatever.
Darragh: I used to get really annoyed with every second Yank telling me they were ‘Irish’, but to be honest I’m a lot more sympathetic towards it these days. This might be because I’ve become a lot more interested in my own family history recently, possibly due to the songs I’ve been getting into, or possibly vice versa, I’m not really sure. Anyway, I was out drinking with my parents a few months ago and we bumped into my ma’s uncle and I got mad excited and sat him down with a pen and paper and got as much information as I could from him about our family history (some of that information ended up being represented in the album artwork by Glyn Smyth actually), and I reckon it’s a similar feeling for Americans who have any Irish ancestry, though I have been told by a few of them that they have family history in various European countries, but the only one they give shit about is Ireland, which I find a little bit strange. Has Ireland’s marketing campaign really been that successful?
As regards places in America that I was into or not, I loved all of it, and how the landscape changes so drastically from state to state. Things that impressed me were all the amazingly hospitable people we met, the musicians we played with, and the people who did things like invite us into their bakeries or restaurants and let us take whatever we wanted just because they liked our music, or were happy to let us into their house and show us around. Things I didn’t particularly enjoy were how controlled and regimented the whole society seems to be (jaywalking, arresting homeless people, laws against sleeping in vehicles, ID checks at every bar etc.) and also the absolutely fucking dismal selection of food at most places, how big the servings are and the disturbing amount of corn syrup in every single fucking thing! No wonder the country has a problem with obesity!
There’s ‘Irish’ bars all over the world so it didn’t really phase me at all. It always humours me though, that these places are actually nothing like pubs in Ireland in the slightest.
Radie: To be honest I used to find Americans telling me how Irish they are intensely irritating, especially before I had travelled much myself and I would only come across the archetype American tourist in sandals and a fanny pack telling me where their distant relative came from in Ireland, meanwhile mispronouncing all the place names. I definitely understand this a lot better the more time I've spent outside Ireland. And I have a much better idea now that I've actually spent a significant amount of time here in the states. I get the impression that a lot of Americans are kind of grappling for a sense of identity. There definitely seems to be more of a tribal or scene culture over here in comparison to in Ireland. People seem to seek out communities united by fashion, or music, or political ideals, or lifestyle to be a part of to a greater extent. I think that identifying with your Irish heritage serves a similar purpose to this, and so I much more understand why it is that people want to embrace their Irishness. Bizarrely as Darragh points out, Ireland seems to be a popular choice among the national identities. Someone here told me that that’s because it’s a way of being white but still being oppressed! As for what I think of the states, I was really impressed by how beautiful it is, some jaw-dropping landscapes, really amazing people as well. There are a lot of places I plan to come back to and see more of.
Your music subtly references a lot of different genres, while simultaneously being wholly trad Irish, What are some names from the tradition that inspire you heavily? What about bands from other genres?
Ian: To be honest, my musical tastes have gotten so pretentious over the last while that I don’t really listen to anyone unless they’re dead. Solo Uilleann pipers such as Tommy Reck, Willie Clancy, Peadar Broe, Sean McKiernan, Jimmy O’Brien Moran constantly amaze me, and after many repeated listens you can still find new elements to their musicianship. Likewise, the traveller singing tradition has always amazed me, and I still have never heard anybody singing with as much heart and feeling as the likes of Mary Delaney or John Reilly. As for other genres, I like all kinds of stuff, although I do have special soft spots for early 90s grunge, second-wave Scandinavian Black Metal, and of course Iron Maiden’s first eight albums.
When it comes to Lynched’s music, we never sat down and decided on a specific sound we wanted or anything, but we all just played together, adding or taking away elements until it sounded right. In this way, everything that makes up our musical consciousness must have made its mark in some way or another, but I think the trick is to keep it subtle and just don’t make music that sounds shit because life is too short.
The music you're making fits in a kind of in-between space and it seems like you could be comfortable playing with bands in the neofolk, folk punk, trad irish or a number of other genres. do you adjust what you're doing depending on who you play with? This in-between sound also gives you access to venues that wouldn't have their doors open for a straight up traditional band, for example like squats and infoshops. What is it like bringing this music into new places?
Ian: These days we have found ourselves adjusting what we do not according to what kind of music we think the crowd may be into, but depending on how loud/rowdy they are. I really prefer playing the quieter atmospheric songs, but if you’re playing an acoustic gig for a load of drunk people who won’t shut up then its good to be able to play a few more upbeat ones and a few sets of traditional tunes or whatever. When we play in Ireland we usually get a big mix of traditional musicians and singers along with punks and metallers and other assorted weirdos. I personally think that this is great and I can’t imagine many other bands with a similar kind of draw. There are people who come to our gigs who have never listened to traditional Irish music before and somehow we are making it accessible for them, which is probably one of the best things I can imagine doing. Playing in squats and info shops is similar, as most of the time you’re playing to people who would have very limited exposure to the type of music that you’re playing. They don’t always like it, or get it, but to me its always far more interesting to play these kinds of venues. In the states, the alternative would be a lot more Irish bars, and I think that would drive us all demented.
Radie: I think we do adjust setlists based more on the noise volume level of the audience rather than what we think they would like. Sure thats half the fun of it, playing something for people knowing its absolutely not what they’re expecting. I thoroughly enjoy introducing people to trad who wouldn’t usually come across it. I also like to think we do that with integrity, we don’t deliver nice bite sized chunks of easy to digest upbeat dance tunes… On a personal level I love playing for purist traditional audiences on the other end of the spectrum, its hilarious, a lot of them really love it and are really positive about people doing something that is their own but not exploiting the tradition as a gimmick to do it, a lot of them also just think its a bit mental.
Your first record (Where Did We Go Wrong?!) is much more folk punk, though with nods to Irish music in form of psychedelic tin whistle solos and a funny cover of a Christy Moore (of Planxty) song. Is this something you want to distance yourself from now that you guys have a more serious and traditional sound, or is it all part of the same journey?
Darragh: Fuck off! I’m very proud of that album, as scrappy as it may be. I would never distance myself from it. We actually had double LP reissues of it for sale on this tour. It seems to have become a bit of a cult classic in some small pockets around the world, which I’m very proud of too. I think part of its charm is that it’s very unselfconscious and in no way tries to fit in neatly with any other sound. Just two cheeky young punks drinking too much, taking the piss out of themselves, their friends and the world, and being quite funny… if I do say so myself.
Speaking of Christy Moore, rumour has it that he actually heard your cover of Ride On [called “Sign On”]? Have you guys had any other funny interactions with the luminaries of irish music? How are people in that community digging your music? What would Noel Hill Say?
Ian: Yeah, Christy Moore came to one of our singing sessions and half way through he came up and started asking me about Lynched. He said that someone had passed the Where Did we go Wrong?! CD on to him and I was surprised, because we only ever made a few hundred. He asked me about the ‘Ride On’ parody, and I said ‘Yeah, Sign On!’, to which he replied ‘Yeah, that’s it, good stuff!’. He was really sound and only sang in the session when he was asked. Its nice when you meet one of your heroes and they’re actually really nice. The traditional scene in general has been very receptive to our music, which really inspires me, because they all generally know their stuff really well and do amazing things themselves. I think the singers especially are happy to see younger people getting interested in the songs and actually digging deep into the tradition. I think a lot of them are also sick of the over-produced, over-polished style of singing that has become the norm for traditional groups over the last few years. Obviously our sound is a bit more rough and ready, and I am sometimes surprised at the people who seem to find this a breath of fresh air. I don’t really know what Noel Hill would say, but hopefully nothing involving abortions.
Cormac: I was at a singers’ circle with Andy Irvine a couple of years back. I’m a huge fan and was quite nervous at being in his presence. I think i may have managed to say hello but that was about it. Like Ian said people have been very receptive to what we do and I think it’s different but accessible so that makes it easier.
Lynched plays songs from the English tradition and also from Irish travellers, it seems like a lot of trad bands wouldn't have the comfortability or inclination to dig into these sources, what attracts you to this material?
Ian: I think it is slightly disingenuous for traditional singers not to recognise the great contribution that the Travellers made to the singing tradition. By the time that collectors such as Tom Munnelly, or Jim Carroll and Pat MacKenzie were recording singers from the traveling community in the late 60s and early 70s, there were still many who had retained a wealth of songs, ranging from the ballads which were sold on printed sheets at fairs and gatherings (often by travelers themselves), to songs composed within the traveling community, to the hundreds-of-years-old classical ballads (often referred to as ‘the Child ballads’, after the scholar Dr. James Francis Child), which had long died out elsewhere. For example, when John Reilly was recorded by Tom Munnelly in the late sixties, he was singing a song (‘The Well below the Valley’, or ‘The Maid and the Palmer’), which had disappeared from the English singing tradition over 100 years earlier, and which ballad scholars had believed to have died out completely. When Tom Munnelly found a vagrant Traveller in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, singing it, rumor has it that many British scholars refused to believe that it was true. Planxty actually recorded a few of John Reilly’s songs, including that one, and I remember reading their liner notes which piqued my curiosity and led me to check out the original field recordings that were made. The traveller style of singing can be described as quite free-flowing and unrestrained by strict adherence to a strong rhythm, and to me, this often leads to a greater emotional level in the singing. Listening to a lot of these singers, and actually to a lot of traditional singers in the past, there is often a roughness in the voice, an earthy grittiness that you don’t really hear a lot in singing these days.
Darragh: For me it’s just good songs. The particular tradition is less of a concern for the most part. It just so happens that Travelers and English gypsies (and Dublin) have some cracking songs that emotionally resonate with me. The likes of ‘The Old Man from Over the Sea’ we just heard on a record, loved, and decided to do. Not particularly because of where it came from, but just because it was deadly. Another factor may be that a lot of the really great traditional Irish songs have been abused for so long - like tired and pitiful old, underfed, emaciated, desperate donkeys, decked out with sparkly blinkers and spangly ribbons, whipped up and down some coastal beach, day in, day out, carrying fat, uncaring tourists on a short, overpriced journey to nowhere, with no discernable positive outcome but a miniscule boost to the local economy and a photograph to bring home - that we wouldn’t be that interested in singing them, so we go looking for fresh, agile young ponies.
Tell us about the process of making Cold Old Fire. What about recording at the Irish Traditional Music Archive? I'm curious about the album art as well.
Radie: Yeah we recorded it all in the basement of the Irish Traditional Music Archives with Danny Diamond, who is a friend, a brilliant musician and an all around lovely man. The process was pretty much blood sweat and tears, so rewarding when things came together and at the same time we all went a bit loopy. This was my first time recording and it was difficult in parts, theres a lot of existential shit that comes up, like, “Jesus, Im crap at this,” or, “Why do I think this is good music?,” “What is good music?” etc. Also in the mixing process we heard the stuff so many times that it was like when you say a word too many times and it stops making any sense. That probably needed to happen though, at least we can to sure that we gave it all we had.
The plan was to make a recording with just the two of us on the odd spare evening that Danny had… Two are originals too, ‘Cold Old Fire’ which we wrote with the legend that is Cian Lawless and ‘Lullaby’ which I wrote during a brief spell of wonkiness and we arranged together. The recording process itself was intense. After deciding it was a great idea to go drinking til 5 in the morning the night before, leading to a slightly ropey first day, we all got really into it. We were fairly thorough and had more than one argument. I’m glad we did though, as it means all of us really put the effort in. The mixing was even worse, and we all lost it a bit, and nearly gave up caring at the last minute. I think we’re all pretty happy that we went so far down the rabbit hole of nonsense though, because we’re pretty happy with the results.
We had planned from the start to get Glyn Smyth at Stag & Serpent to do the artwork because he’s an old friend and, more importantly, a phenomenal artist. We actually drove up to meet him and thrash out ideas, telling him about our family history and my ma’s uncle I mentioned above! It’s always a big thing with him that every element of his images have a particular meaning and aren’t just for decoration, so the likes of the Norse/Celtic knotwork represent the formation of Dublin itself, while the grating is actually taken from where the River Poddle meets the Liffey, and is where the Vikings settled. It was called ‘An Dubh Linn’ (The Black Pool), which is where Dublin got its name. The water and the woman herself represent the matriarchal lineage of our family histories in Dublin (me and Ian’s family have been selling fruit/veg/fish on Dublin’s Thomas Street for generations) and the face on the other side is a green-man like representation of the male element of fire from the album’s title. We had to wait a while because he has a pretty hectic schedule but it was well worth it. Much better than a picture of us on a cliff, holding our instruments and smiling, I think you’ll agree...
Mélisande Looks to the Québécois Tradition for Songs of Women
by Devon Leger
Folk music fascinates me. The fact that these old, old songs, some with little connection of any kind to our everyday life (ex: all the Cajun songs about horses and buggies), are still sung and enjoyed and examined in this day and age is particularly heartening. It makes me wonder what brings people into the tradition in the first place? What’s the point at which something in the ancient unknowable of a folk song pulls you out of the present and throws you into the past? And what does it mean to take all of your creative energy and funnel it into recreating archaic songs? What I’ve found is that artists who do this are often looking for themselves in the songs. They revel in the old language and ideas, but are constantly searching for their own reflection in this mirror of time.
This is the case with Québécois singer and songwriter Mélisande. She got her start as a well-known pop and rock singer-songwriter on the Montréal scene in Québec, and was known for a long time as an original songwriter. She’s married now to Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand (they have two very cute kids together), the bassist and flutist in French-Canadian trad band Genticorum (who Hearth has worked with before). In effect, she married into the tradition! Being around Alex and his band and the whole world of French-Canadian folk music, much of which is much more accessible to American and overseas audiences than the Québécois chanson tradition from which she came, Mélisande began to adopt the old traditions as her own. The result is her new project: Mélisande [electrotrad]. Together with Alex on electric bass and flute, master producer Mark Busic on keyboards and beat programming, and violinist/mandolinist/banjo player Robin Boulianne, Mélisande [electrotrad] focuses on Mélisande’s stunningly powerful vocals wrapped around old traditional songs. But traditional songs that speak to her–namely songs with a strong feminine slant that uncover aspects of the life of women in French-Canadian and old French society. Speaking with Mélisande and Alex backstage at the Festival La Grande Rencontre in Montréal where I was attending the World Trad Forum, Mélisande talked a bit about how she came to “discover” trad music later in life [her words are translated here from French]. “Without Alex, I would probably be in the group of people that don’t know trad, because I was doing pop, rock, and even progressive music, you know. So surely it was meeting Alex, but also it was going to all the festivals with Alex and Genticorum. I took all that in, being in contact with the music and with the songs. Plus there’s the fact that I like interpreting songs. So rather than doing, say an homage to Bob Dylan, well now it’s like these trad songs are original songs, because nobody knows these old songs.” After deciding to form a group with Alex, Mélisande pored over old books and old archival recordings looking for songs that spoke to the plight of women. “I started reading the texts of these songs and found that the themes were still very current… I was looking for material that was about women’s issues, and for example, women who are afraid they will never marry, that’s very current among today’s adolescents – whether or not you have friends, romantic partners, love.” I asked her whether these old songs didn’t seem hopelessly out of date and she referenced the traditional song “Le vin est bon” (Wine is Good) which is on the album and references the “business of women”, like sweeping the house, much of which is supposed to be out of favor today. But on the other hand, women DO still sweep the house in many cases (she called me out on this, since it’s true that my wife actually does do much of the housework). So whether we like it or not, the songs still have very specific meanings today.
As a songwriter, Mélisande was also interested in molding the songs a bit. She spoke to the difficulty of modifying a classic song like “J’ai planté un chêne,” a cover on the album by the legendary Québécois songwriter Gilles Vigneault, because it’s so well known. But the traditional songs aren’t as well known, so perhaps there’s a chance to slip in some new ideas, something which would likely have been part of the tradition in the first place. Speaking about the song “Sort des vielles filles” (The Fate of Young Girls), Mélisande described her songwriting process. “[That’s an] example of the plight of a girl that doesn’t have a husband. She does everything to get a man. She does her hair, she has nice shoes, she is good looking. It’s all a bit “posh” and I needed to lengthen the song so I wrote some verses that explained that she wasn’t married because she had ‘opinions.’ I wrote two verses that say ‘I have a head, I know how to read and think and it scares guys that I like my liberty.’ That is really my invention, and it makes her a woman with a head on her shoulders, and it could be a good reason to not have a husband rather than just ‘Oh well, I don’t have a husband’.” I asked if there were instances in the tradition of young women like this who bucked the trend and refused to compromise their personalities. Mélisande brought up the last track on the album, “L’ivrognesse” (The Drunken Woman). “It’s about a woman who goes out and says ‘woman are so crazy to obey their husbands. Me, I am not like that, I command him at my pleasure.’ She says that she is going to the tavern and tells her husband to sweep the floor and take care of the child while she drinks a tall glass. In the song, she is at the tavern when her husband comes looking for her and she says: ‘Wait a minute, I need another half hour, I’m having some fun.’ Then the song ends with ‘the good wine for the women and the well water for the husbands’.” It’s a song with many versions that probably comes from France originally. “I took what interested me,” Mélisande says, “and then ran into some problems with the words of some songs.” She cites the example of the song “Je fais le difficile” (I Do What’s Difficult), which features a young woman trying to decide which husband to take and ranking them according to how annoying their work is. “The original versions always ended with the women wanting a big merchant. They don’t want this guy, they don’t want that guy, but they want a big [rich] merchant. I added ‘I want a musician because he is handy with his hands.’ Also in this song we had some fun with the verses, adding: ‘We don’t want a politician because we can’t trust him and his hands are not clean.’ We made some changes like that; they were changes that ‘updated’ the song.”
Mélisande and Alex’s electrotrad project is a fascinating combination of the music they were first in love with, alternative rock and pop, and even some elements of prog rock. It’s more similar in a sense to the long-form explorations of electrified trad groups like Steeleye Span than any kind of “Skrillex folk” fusion. And what underlies the whole album is a great sense of love, both for each other, but also for the tradition. In a sense the songs are examinations of love as well. As Mélisande scoured the far corners of the tradition to find the songs, she consciously selected songs that reflected different aspects of romantic love from a female perspective over a number of centuries. Which is a beautiful thing.
Hurray for The Riff Raff
Hurray for The Riff Raff and Misfit Culture in Americana
Last month I went to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s sold out show at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. Their headlining set began with the subtle force of Alynda Lee Segarra’s power alto, and oversized guitar, “Got the blues from my baby left me by the San Francisco Bay.” The music and the raw emotions of her performance washed over us. Reveling in one of the most culturally diverse crowds in Ballard’s notably white Americana scene and my six year obsession with this band... I just kept thinking …Hurray!
Hurray! that Hurray for the Riff Raff are swiftly becoming champions of misfit culture in Americana! (Hip, Hip) Hurray for Alynda and her crew of misfits; this year’s (and perhaps our generation’s) soundtrack for marginalized Americans in Americana music. Hurray for riff raff idols, like Woodie Guthrie and Kitty Wells! And for the lesser known misfits, like Deford Bailey and Patrick Haggerty. For the riff raff we say - hurray! For carrying old forms in new ways, all proud and complex with your radical riff raff nature and stalwart creativity! With a new album out on ATO records and a recent appearance on Conan O’ Brien, hurray for Small Town Heroes everywhere!
Here’s what I like about this album:
Sad truths in strong tones, full of unmatched vocal and lyrical honesty. My roomate says Fiona Apple. That shocked, then eventually sat okay with me: radical ladies covering the dark arts in strong and extraordinarily lovely tones.
The Rest of the Riff Raff
....are tight. Like really tight. An ever changing but finally seems-to-be-sticking New Orleans collective, these folks are well trained, well-busked members of their city’s unofficial and long running music bootcamp.
“St Roch Blues”
The album’s Southern gothic folk ballad, “St Roch Blues” infuses alternative rock, classic country and folk. The song is masterfully subtle, humbly sad, and the music video is a stunning respect piece on New Orleans life.
“No One Else”
I call this song’s genre No-Choice-But-To-Dance Soul. Plus I can’t get enough of Sam Doores’ (The Delondes) sweet, churchy vocal harmonies and parlor piano.
All about the Soul-twang, this song is tinged with gospel choir hooks and a flawlessly integrated Rock-N-Pull feel.
“The Body Electric”
100% Peace-Driven Art Activism! And the album’s most talked about song. Alynda tells the tale of a woman that goes back for her murdered friend–murdered in a murder ballad; intentionally giving voice to a long-held habit of murdering women in folk songs… a kind of folklore. This song is the anthem for those who love singing old-timey songs, but want to detach from the anti-female, anti-awesome, kill-culture of Americana’s murder ballads.
New Orleans and John Lennon
By telling Southern gothic tales of disenfranchisement, poverty and violence, Hurray for the Riff Raff is bringing the real New Orleans to Americana music and couching it in a queer-identified stance of marginalized groups in American Folklore. Alynda bellows tales of Southern Gothic Americana, but as a reflection of us all: “Said you’re gonna shoot me down put my body in the river, the whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong...Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world so sick and sad.”
This band unapologetically knows where their music is coming from and wears their list of influences like a badge of honor. Most notably, unofficial band mascot John Lennon:
“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.
When we are afraid, we pull back from life.
When we are in love, we open to all that life
has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.
We need to learn to love ourselves first,
in all our glory and our imperfections.
If we cannot love ourselves,
we cannot fully open to our ability to
love others or our potential to create.”
Hurray for the Riff Raff are well aware of Americana’s dirty habits. Alynda’s perspective as a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, and her musical partner Yosi Pearlstein’s perspective as a trans-identified old-timey fiddle player, puts Hurray for The Riff Raff front-and-center as a counter-culture cohort in American roots music. They are bustin’ through the swingin’ doors of honky tonks, bringing an unforced mix of acceptance and true grit that can break down barriers. Alynda and Yosi have a sibling-like connection and a stylized honesty that blends activism and traditional music into a catchy, people lovin’ PolitiArt, that sounds like Hank Williams and feels like John and Yoko. For the feminists and folks of color, for queer folks and anyone else alienated by traditional music, Hurray for the Riff Raff are quickly becoming country music icons.
Travelogue: Cajun Music in China
In April 2014, public radio program American Routes along with the U.S. State Department, the National Endowment for the Arts and lots more folks sponsored the first-ever tour of traditional Louisiana Cajun artists to China. Joel Savoy, Jesse Lege & Cajun Country Revival (Nadine Landry & Sammy Lind of Foghorn Stringband) bundled up along with Nick Spitzer of American Routes and Cajun filmmaker Connie Castille to tour China and to showcase American Cajun culture to Chinese audiences. The group toured through Beijing, Guangzhou, Harbin, Shanghai and Nanjing. It was great fun to follow along with Joel Savoy and Nadine Landry as they posted photos and stories on Facebook, so I thought it would be fun to share these with the gentle readers of KITHFOLK. Joel especially had a great knack for writing about the culture shock of a Louisiana native son dropped into the middle of crowded China. Of course, being Cajun, much of the travelogue revolves around food and looking for great food, but who doesn’t love to travel with their stomach?
If you’d like to learn more about Nick Spitzer’s American Routes projects to bring traditional American artists abroad to showcase, among other things, our “swagger”, check out this great audio interview. Sacred steel master and NEA Heritage Fellow Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers is over in China now on a new American Routes tour:
Joel Savoy & Nadine Landry’s China Tour Travelogue
Joel Savoy, March 31, 2014
30 hours door to door, passing right by the Arctic Circle and a stop in Beijing, China’s largest city, I’ve arrived in China’s third largest city, Guangzhou, formerly Canton (ie Cantonese food!), population a staggering 13 million! No customs or anything at the airport, so I wandered out to find my driver who shuffled me into the familiar surroundings of a dodge grand caravan with an upright bass in the back seat! Met up with Jesse Lege and Nick Spitzer at the loft we're staying in and will have our first show this evening.
Played for a bunch of conservatory students tonight who danced and really loved everything! Master class with them tomorrow then a concert!
Joel Savoy, April 1, 2014
Day 2 in Guangzhou in southern China. After a crazy rainstorm last night we woke up and found that Sammy and Nadine had arrived in the night but their bags are lost! Slept pretty well despite the time diff, and feeling pretty adjusted already. We all headed down into our little neighborhood for breakfast and after wandering through a huge produce market we settled on a little street cafe for breakfast. We didn’t have a translator, so we just pointed at people’s dishes and used fingers to say how many. Best meal so far! We had wonton soup, more "long noodle" with egg and bean curd and pork, and some stir-fried noodles. Served with tea.
This is a giant of a city and we're staying in and old village that got swallowed up by the sprawl. The whole place is under this wacky unorganized construction- people doing stuff everywhere on homemade bamboo scaffolding that’s just tied together with twine.
Joel Savoy, April 3, 2014
Wow! Had an amazing first public performance last night in Guangzhou! We did a workshop of sorts in the afternoon at the conservatory where we talked about our music and answered some wonderfully intelligent questions with the aid of a talented translator. At one point Sammy and I got to try playing a sort of erhu, the "Chinese violin," but we weren’t very successful... The people- mostly young but a few older folks- were so attentive and interested- they danced and clapped and had a ball and we gave it everything we had. I don’t think I have ever played for such a genuinely attentive crowd anywhere in the world! They seemed so happy to be there with us listening to our music! When Nadine sang for the first time all the women started cheering and clapping- it was an incredible moment. After the show everyone wanted to come have their pictures taken with us so we did that for a good while- the people were so excited and happy- I had lots of conversations with people that didn’t even care that we didn’t speak the same language!
Nadine Landry, April 4, 2014
After two days in Guangzhou we flew 4 hours north to Harbin, a huge city (well, they're all huge!) where old architecture meets new development. We've been giving lectures on Cajun music and culture to university students, concerts at night and been teaching waltzes and two-steps to people who want to shake a leg. We are invited to meals after our performances with the organizers. They sure can put a spread on! A dozen or so dishes displayed on a round table with a revolving center are offered to us, interrupted with toasts and cheers from all parties seem to be the custom around here. The discussions are lively, filled with humor and great joy. Jesse Lege gave a great toast tonight to all the families left behind when musicians leave their loved ones to pursue their musical journeys.
Joel Savoy, April 3, 2014
Arrived in Harbin way up in the top of China, near the Russian border. For you Risk players, it’s not too far from Irkutsk. Nice change in weather- from hot and humid to cold and dry. A city of over 6 million, Harbin stands out like a sore thumb in the surrounding barren wheat fields. There’s a big movement to urbanize the rural Chinese people to commercialize farming in rural areas, so there’s MILES of towers of apartment complexes coming up that in theory will house these folks. I mean just tens of square miles of gigantic incomplete uninhabited apartment towers slowly being built on the outskirts of the city. So far most of the China I’ve seen seems to be either in poor disrepair or incomplete. However, Downtown Harbin is your typical modern city and our Holiday Inn is feeling pretty cozy in this cold weather (low 40s today).
This area has a lot of Russian influence and as a result they have their own dark peasant bread, a really good smoked sausage- you could make a gumbo with this stuff!- and a clear spirit here called Baijiu (bye jo). Funky stuff, man, but we had to try it!...
So far the weirdest thing I’ve eaten here was in Harbin. Potatoes with frogs. It was steamed potatoes in a sauce with whole little cooked frogs on top! Like rainettes or little leopard frogs or something. It was pretty good! But lots of tiny bones!
Nadine Landry, April 7, 2014
Shanghai is a great city, so extravagant yet so down to earth. Joel, Jesse, Sammy and I took a cab to Xin Tian Di, a part of town referred to is as an affluent car-free shopping, eating and entertainment. We got there and were surprised to see Starbucks, Gap, Cartier and overly fancy shops common to any big international city downtowns. The place was oozing tourists and we thought we would try to get lost somewhere else! We walked through beautiful parks, including People's Park and made our way to East Nanjing Road, also referred to us as a great shopping district. Once again there were fancy shops and seas of people. But then one street over: only locals, fruits and vegetables markets, old men playing cards, little boys playing with little dogs and funny looks on people staring at us! We found a small cafe with cheap beers (38 RNB instead of 80 at fancy places). We walked to The Bund, probably the busiest place in the city, by the river, with an incredible view of the tall skyscrapers. Our friend told us they call the biggest buildings "the key chain essentials", as one looks like a bottle opener, the next like a screwdriver and the other like a knife!
Joel Savoy, April 9, 2014
5 days in Shanghai! Although we haven’t learned much Chinese, we're getting around fine with gestures and occasionally using the translation app. I’ve got the words Hello, Thank You, Beer and "bottoms up" down pretty well- that seems to cover most of the bases. We had two days off for the "sweeping of the tombs" holiday over the weekend to settle in and explore a little... After dinner we found a guy down the street cooking crawfish in an enormous wok! Smelled soooo good, but we were stuffed, so we cabbed it down to the Bund to check out the Peace Hotel- a beautiful deco hotel on the river recognized as one of the earliest jazz clubs in Shanghai. It was a beautiful spot with a great bar, and there was a Chinese old-timer jazz band with piano, upright bass, drums and a horn section. Coulda been New Orleans. The youngest guy in the band couldn’t have been less than 75!
The people here are so different from us westerners. It’s inspiring and rejuvenating to be here surrounded by such gentle curious people- it makes us all want to just get out and see and try everything. All of the people seem to have a job- we haven’t seen anyone just sitting around doing nothing- people sweeping streets and sidewalks with homemade bamboo brooms, people selling fish and meats and vegetables, people cooking everywhere. Makeshift mechanic shops the size of an outhouse along the sidewalks. People doing laundry and hanging it out to dry- there are no dryers here! I had some pants and underwear laundered at a little place on the street and a few hours later I walked by and it was all hanging on a rack on the sidewalk to dry! Prices of things seem to fluctuate wildly from door to door. It seems the places geared to westerners are way more expensive (duh) but if you go one place over stuff costs a fraction of the price! People smoke everywhere- we were in our hotel lobby yesterday and these old Chinese business guys were standing under a no smoking sign lighting up while they talked to the concierge and no one seemed to care! Traffic is like a video game- I have just stopped watching because it seems like there’s gonna be a wreck every second and it just flows on gracefully.
Joel Savoy, April 15, 2014
… heading to Nanjing. The first day Sammy and Jesse Lege and Conni Castille and I took a cab into the old part of town to see an ancient Confucius temple. Did a little more trinket shopping, then we headed away from tourist land to find some lunch. We ended up on a side street at a place that advertised crawfish (we saw the pictures) and decided we had to try ‘em, so we ordered that and several other dishes. Everything was, as usual, fantastic. No one there spoke English, but luckily the menu had some pictures so we chose and washed it all down a bunch of big beers. The crawfish were great! They were served piping hot in a big bowl in a spicy broth full of whole garlic cloves and big chunks of a mild green pepper. The server gave us little plastic gloves to wear and just like in Cajun country, there was a sink towards the back of the dining room to wash up after. We tore em up! In our classroom discussion, we got to meet and play with some local traditional Chinese musicians which was really cool! There were two Erhus (the "Chinese Violin"), a Pipa (a lute-like fretted instrument), and a Chinese gourd flute. We heard them play and jammed a little and that was really fun! The next day we took the bullet train back to Shanghai for our last show!
I'm home now and although my body still seems to be somewhere between here and China, I'm very happy to be back. Although, as Jesse says, I'd go back in a heartbeat if they asked! Thanks for reading all this, folks! I'll see you around, I'm sure!
Roots Music Duets
The Secrets of a Great Duet: Mandolin Orange and Pharison & Jason Romero Sound Off
by Devon Leger
There’s magic in the music of a great duet. Two voices intertwined in harmony, twisting and turning on an almost psychic level. The best duos are often siblings. Two people linked together through birth and family, cooped up together long enough that they know how the other thinks before the other thinks it. Husbands and wives make great duets as well, but even complete strangers can duet perfectly well as long as they know how to sync up their music together. There’s a kind of alchemy to music this primal and simple, as if all the trappings that usually encumber music fall away and it’s just two people sharing something special.
I was curious to know what the secret was to a great duet, so I asked two of my favorite duos to comment on this: Mandolin Orange and Pharis & Jason Romero. We’ve worked with husband-and-wife team Pharis & Jason before and their music has been hugely popular in and out of the old-time roots music communities. The magic of their duo largely transcends genre in my mind. Mandolin Orange, likewise, ride the line between old-timey folk and rugged Americana. This duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, write and perform songs that seemed carven from the old wood of a barn door. They reference old blues, honky-tonk, country folk, even some of the populism of Woody Guthrie. Their songs have a depth unusual in the Americana scene and of course, being a professional musical duo, their voices are synced so beautifully together in harmony.
Here are some tips on making a great duo from Mandolin Orange and Pharis & Jason Romero:
What goes into making a great album of duo music or duets?
I think the key element of making duo records, for us, is arranging and working out the songs just the two of us. Even though we often involve other players/instruments on the final recording, we get the song oriented as a duo, and I think that identity carries through to the final product. A lot of our favorite music is very duo-harmony oriented, and in a lot of those duos each member has a clear role. Finding the balance seems to be the key.
Pharis & Jason Romero
For us, it seems like the key is that we spend lot of time together. We listen to music together, or individually get excited about something and bring it to the other. We also seem to have a similar innate sense of rhythm and timing; it might be because of all the time we spend together or just something we lucked out with.
Do you feel like both people need to know each other inside and out in order to make such tight duet singing and music?
Not necessarily. The first time we sang together it really clicked, and I think that's just because we both have somewhat straight-forward singing styles and an ear for harmony. That said, I think it only gets better with time. The more we sing together and subconsciously learn each others' nuances, the more effortless it becomes. I think that's when it sounds the tightest.
Pharis & Jason Romero
In our case the answer would probably be yes, as we have definitely seen our duet grow as we get to know each other better. But there are always going to be people that you musically mesh with quicker than with others. Those relationships are probably worth exploring further, right?
Who are some other duets who inspire you and on whom you base your sound?
We try not to actively base our sound on our influences, but I think it comes through naturally. We listen to a lot of Monroe Brothers, Everly Brothers, Norman and Nancy Blake, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Gram & Emmylou, etc.
Pharis & Jason Romero
Pretty much anything Tim O’Brien does (Tim and Mollie O’Brien, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott), E.C. and Orna Ball, the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, Louvins, Blue Sky Boys, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, Welch & Rawlings, the Milk Carton Kids, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms, the DeZurik Sisters, there’s so many more. Not sure about basing our sound on these groups, but they sure as hell inspire us.
Why do you think duos have been so big in Americana these past few years (Welch/Rawlings, Civil Wars, you guys, Milk Carton Kids, etc).
I think people are inspired by simple music, and seeing how two people can click. With the emergence of a lot more folky music in the mainstream recently, it makes sense that more duos are also finding their way to the top, so to speak, because duos have always been very present in folk music realms. People seem to want to see folks play and sing together, where you can hear the two parts becoming something bigger, but still identify the source.
Pharis & Jason Romero
There’s an exciting, on the edge intimacy of watching two people perform together - the space around the sounds, the movement like a dance - or hearing the raw power when two voices hit that frequency where they are near indistinguishable. It’s a bit of a step between a true solo artist and a band, and might be an aural break for someone who’s used to hearing mostly one of those two musical combinations.
Coffee Shop Confessional: Twin Forks and Chris Carrabba
by Sean Jewell
Chris Carrabba is sitting across from me staring out the window. He’s slight, clean shaven, the corners of his mouth are turned down. Short, pitch black hair peeks from beneath his ballcap, his steely eyes wander the grey haze outside. He’s formulating an answer to a roundabout question I’ve asked. He’s leading an indie folk group called Twin Forks who just released an album of giddy, nuanced pop music, but he’s most famous for his work as the lead man in the late nineties emo group Dashboard Confessional. After meeting for coffee in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood I told him a story about how one of those concerts was my least favorite, how I was headed to see Mudhoney but showed up early enough to catch a show of his, and how I’d avoided his music based on an outlandish comparison since; to the point that I almost didn’t consider his new work, and how something interesting happened when I shared his new album with people –they compared it to Mumford and Sons.
After careful consideration he says: “I guess we’re just lucky they like to play the same instruments we do.”
We laughed. Still, I was seeking Carrabba’s connection to folk music. “When I began with Dashboard I sat down to write a folk record, but something else came out.” He stops, stares out the window again, sips his coffee, and then patiently intones: “I think I felt like I wasn’t even capable of making this kind of music back then. Punk sounds harsh at first, you have to be ready to put up with it on the surface, but once you’re in it’s easy, it’s inviting. Folk is easy and fun on the outside. Once you’re in, then it gets complex, it takes work to make it well.”
After launching a successful music career that includes a platinum selling MTV unplugged appearance, he decided to keep learning. In an effort to better relate to the music he intended to make he released a solo album of covers that included his versions of songs by Guy Clark, Justin Townes Earle, and John Prine. It’s around that time --after years of training himself to travis pick the guitar instead of strum-- that he began to consider the sound of Twin Forks. Thanks to some encouraging words from his bass player Jonathan Clark he began to write in the style he hadn’t before. “Jon’s a big dude,” he said excitedly “one time he and I were playing together and I played a Bob Dylan song. Jon put his hands on my guitar, muting the strings, and he asked me why I was afraid to play this way. It made me think.”
For their eponymous album Carrabba put together a network of contacts he’d long considered working with. “People who knew me, but didn’t know each other, people who you want to be like a little bit” is how he describes his band. The album they made is a percussive, progressive folk foot stomper. It was recorded live by Jonathan whose engineering decisions Chris describes as “pressing record when it was good”. He captured some electric moments too; laughs, whistles, claps, choral chants, and most appealing: Carrabba’s new, more lyrical picking on guitar, and upbeat, love story lyrics.
Twin Forks opened for a rock band that night, but their energy got a packed house to dance, to laugh, to listen to folk music. Earlier Carrabba summed up the benefit of Mumford And Sons as a band that got people to consider music they normally might not. He mentioned that he was jealous I got to stick around and see that Mudhoney show all those years ago, his band had to leave right after that show and he’d never got another chance to see them. I realize watching Twin Forks that I’m the guy who’s lucky enough to get to stick around, to listen to music I normally might not.
Buy Twin Forks' New Album HERE
Nickel Creek Are Back, But Did They Ever Leave?
25 years ago, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother, Sean, got together to make music as Nickel Creek. From 1989-2000, Nickel Creek released two albums—Little Cowpoke and Here to There—but in 2000 the band invited Alison Krauss to produce their next album, released as Nickel Creek. Over the next few years, the band gained recognition for its crafty and canny blend of musical styles, taking off from bluegrass and winding through folk, and covers of indie rock tunes. From 2000-2007, Nickel Creek received several Grammy nominations and CMA Awards, winning the 2003 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for This Side, and in 2000, it was named IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year. In 2007, the band announced that it would no longer be recording together, so that each member could pursue individual projects.
Seven years later, in part to celebrate their 25th anniversary, Nickel Creek returns almost right where it left off with new album A Dotted Line; it's great to have the band back. Yet, because their harmonies echo as crisply as ever—with Thile's mandolin, Sara Watkins' fiddle, and Sean Watkins' guitar weaving around each other—and their shrewd, often playful lyrics, resound with heart-rending emotion, it's almost like Nickel Creek never left.
A Dotted Line kicks off with "Rest of My Life," a romping folk tune that manages to blend the high harmonies of Poco's Good Feelin' to Know album with a bridge that arrives musically from the Byrds' "Chestnut Mare." It's at once a song about a hangover and about the effects of the long bender of a band's uncertainty about what comes next: "Where no one claps 'cause they're sure that there's more." Sara Watkins channels the bluesy vocals of Christine McVie and the folk grittiness of Hazel Dickens on "Destination," which features her screaming fiddle playing. Chris Thile's sparkling mandolin dominates the rambunctious bluegrass instrumental ramble, "Elsie," while Sean Watkins' gospel song, "21st of May," scampers along, racing down Watkins' guitar lines, joyously reaching the Hallelujah groove by the song's end. "Christmas Eve" channels Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell," while the trio delivers a raucous, screeching punk romp cover of Mother Mother's "Hayloft"; though it's a ballad in which a daddy with a gun comes looking for the deadhead that's doing his daughter in the hayloft, the trio delivers the song with such energizing harmonies and the lyrics with a nod and a wink that it comes across as a comic moment.
Nickel Creek is back, mining solid gold from the deep waters of its clever and cunning lyrics, its tight musical stylings, and its glorious, ever-expanding, harmonies.
---Purchase the new Nickel Creek Album HERE---
I Am The Center
I Am The Center: New Age Music Reissue Compilation from Light in the Attic
by Devon Leger
In the early 1970s, a mysterious young guitarist, occultist, and mystic Wilburn Burchette recorded a series of LPs in limited pressings of ethereal electric guitar meditations. The most famous LP (famous only in obscure record collecting circles), Guitar Grimoire, burbles with a kind of meditative chaos, a churning soundscape that’s somehow both soothing and unsettling. Speaking in his own words to writer Brad Steiger, Burnette explained himself in 1973. “I considered music to be an art form of time, through time, and in time. I assumed that everything was time. However, that which conceives time doesn’t necessarily have to be in it. The breakthrough to Higher Reality is outside of time. When you break through time, that is revelation, that is breaking through to the Godhead.”
Burchette hasn’t been heard from since the late 1970s. The liner notes to the new compilation from Light in the Attic Records, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America, 1950-1990, have only this to say:
“Little about Wilburn Burchette (1939- ) can be revealed at this time.”
Did Burchette break on through to the other side? Did he transcend time and move to another plane? These are the kind of mysteries and stories that make the re-issue compilations from Light in the Attic Records so compelling. And somehow I Am the Center is chock full of these kinds of stories. From compositions created in 1920s sex cults, to a street musician who recorded with Brian Eno after Eno dropped a note in his autoharp case (his eyes were closed so he didn’t see Eno), to transcendental meditationists, a mad Baroness, an incarnated high priest of Atlantis, and then to normal-seeming folks who just loved Hawaiian shirts, Buddhist philosophy, or piles and piles of analog synthesizers. The tracks on this double-CD are drawn from “private run” New Age music, meaning albums cut for a very small audience, often just for sale at events or to friends. And all of the tracks are out of fashion in today’s New Age music world of Yoga compilations and endless khirtan albums from white singers with Indian names. Instead, the demand for this music moved to a small circle of enthusiasts on the internet, some of whom came from the world of underground electronic and noise music. They found old albums of analog synth wizards, or erstwhile gurus, crazy characters that spiced up the search for music that had mostly been forgotten. I come from a later age of New Age, having happily whiled away many hours at my local New Age bookstore in Ashland, Oregon, snapping up the world fusion albums (actually mainly just Hamza El Din albums) that marked New Age from the late 80s to the early aughts.
Things change, music changes, and people change, but the products we create at a certain time do not change. So what does it mean when an album you created in your youth is rediscovered and lauded? The reissue record label business is full of stories of both sides of response: the reclusive artist that became more reclusive, or the artist/community that became reinvigorated under the attention. It’s a fascinating process of discovery and rediscovery and marketing and to get the bottom of it I really wanted to interview the folks at Light in the Attic Records who put out such a beautiful album of private issue New Age music.
Hearth Music Interview with Matt Sullivan of Light in the Attic Records
Hearth Music: You guys are digging so deep to find this music and these almost lost artists. So, what is the selection process? Are you looking for stories? Are you looking for music?
Matt Sullivan: It always starts with music. There’s an endless amount of great stories in the music world but, if the music’s not good, it doesn’t interest us. We have to love the music. That’s the key. What are we looking for? For the New Age compilation; we listen to a lot of that type of music. It has to be something that sparks our interest. I know it sounds vague but something we really enjoy what we’re hearing. It’s not very specific. There’s just something in that music that is great to our ears.
You say you’re looking for music more than the story but the stories on I Am the Center are mind-blowing. The liner notes are unbelievable. Did you know that going into it or did that surprise you?
MS: That surprised me. Douglas McGowan, who was the curator and producer of the I am the Center compilation, he knew a lot of those stories and uncovered them one by one. He found the artists and met them but for me, I wasn’t familiar with many of those stories and artists. It is mind-blowing when you first discover it and it was mind-blowing when he first discovered it for himself. One thing that people take for granted is all the sacrifice and love that goes into these recordings. This is people’s art and they really cared about it and back in the day, when it was so much harder to do these things, there’s a lot of incredible stories to share. It wasn't easy.
What’s the story behind Wilburn Burchette? I’m completely fascinated by him. You say,”Little about Wilburn Burchette can be revealed at this time…”
MS: I don’t know. He didn’t like to say much. He was nice but he liked his privacy. I think that a lot of people don’t understand with these projects, especially now in the digital age when everything is at your fingertips, meaning information. People want the songs to speak for themselves rather than go to the Wikipedia page and someone can tell what Wilburn Burchette’s favorite color is and how he recorded the songs, what type of shoes he likes to wear. For him, the songs are the songs. Let them figure it out for yourself. There’s something nice about that.
It also breeds a lot of mystery. I spent hours trying to find out what the hell happened. I figured he had transcended time and hadn’t been heard from again. There’s nothing on the internet.
MS: [laughing] He’s out there. He exists but he’s off the grid.
It seems that you guys are attracted to mystery.
MS: We are intrigued by mystery but a lot of these projects have strange, mysterious characters involved with them. You start listening to a record, you get obsessed by a record, and then you start digging into who these people are, what is this record about, how was it made, and, all of a sudden, you end up with more questions than answers.
Do you think it’s hard to find this kind of mystery in the internet age? I was shocked I couldn’t find anything on Wilburn Burchette after 1979. Does this seem rare to you, do you think?
MS: The internet’s made it easier. We’ve been doing this for 12 years; it’s not an eternity but, in terms of the modern reissue world, it’s a decent amount of time. It’s gotten a lot easier to find people in the last few years than it was 12 years ago, no doubt. This would have been a really hard job to do in 1979 but, if you’re Rhino Records, they did it. A lot of people did it. I imagine you collected phone books, literally. It’s easier, but it is still hard to find people and it’s not surprising when you can’t find somebody. Think about how big the world is and not everybody wants a Facebook page.
Actually, a lot of them do. [laughing]
MS: It’s funny how many old-timers are on LinkedIn. It’s weird, the kind of places that people turn up. But the honest truth is, some people don’t want to be found, for whatever reasons.
Do you respect that element? There’s an element: they create the music and walk away from it and let it be as it is. Is that something you respect in your creation of these items?
MS: I totally respect that.
It’s a nice thought that you create the music and let it live beyond who you are.
MS: I think that’s a very respectful thing. Also, that people who don’t want to play live. “That was me in 1971; I’m now 65 years old; it’s 2014; I couldn’t play those songs the same and I would end up not being true to the songs.” Other people want to continue because that’s their passion, their love, and we can definitely respect that.
Listening to I Am the Center, you’re struck by the stories each of these fantastical people have. They’re far more than ordinary, they’re all star children of the 60s, members of the Age of Aquarius, and there’s a dreaminess to the music, a haze of time that must be a result of a new generation’s perspective. And with that you’re reminded that we always view music through our own lens, the shimmering, prismatic effect of the music on I Am the Center is more from the refracting of a person’s life and story through multiple generations across space and time.
The Inexhaustible Marius Barbeau: A Canadian Identity Forged in Music and Story
The study of folk music in Canada begins with the study of the work of Marius Barbeau (1883-1969), a giant of a scholar, collector, and a champion of the idea of a cosmopolitan Canadian culture. Barbeau was born in Quebec in Sainte Marie-de-Beuce, an 18th century municipality. There is a museum that bears his name in nearby Saint-Joseph-de-Beuce. Raised in a farming family, he was later a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and studied at The Sorbonne. He joined the newly formed anthropology division of the Geology Survey of Canada in 1910. Under the direction of American anthropologist Edward Sapir, he and his colleagues promoted intensive fieldwork and brought “professional authority” to salvage ethnography efforts and the popularization of so-called “traditional” cultures of Canada including Québécois, Tsimshian, Huron-Wyandot, Gitskan, and Iroquois. Canadian archives abound with thousands of recordings, transcriptions, and over “30 linear feet” of field notes, all products of his prodigious work life. He made films, published a thousand books and articles, lectured widely and collaborated in gallery exhibits with artists such as Emily Carr and the Canadian painters of the Algonquin School.
In 1956, he founded the Canadian Folk Music Society (now the Canadian Society for Traditional Music). Barbeau, who was an anti-modernist, believed that “traditional” cultures were “vanishing” (a sentiment shared by anthropologists and ethnomusicologists at the time), and set out to capture what remained. His wax cylinder recordings are available for study (see below). Though critiques of his work and the philosophy and ideology of salvage ethnomusicology and the concept of the “traditional” are replete, without Barbeau much of the music available to us now would have been lost. Unfortunately, archived, recorded tunes are largely decontextualized. “Salvage” ethnomusicologists typically made recordings of songs or films of dances that were staged or made outside of the cultural venue in which they were performed. Thus, though passionate musicians work from Barbeau’s cylinders as well as transcriptions and some notes about performers, they are of necessity limited in how much authenticity they can bring to their modern day performances. Though faithfulness to original performance is impossible, there is surely a gold mine of tunes and lyrics in the archives: enough to keep contemporary artists and scholars busy for years. Conrad Laforte (1921-2008) was another well-known student of French Canadian music. He collected some 150 hours of recordings in the 1950s. His published and archived work is another wonderful source for musicians.
No matter how a general audience hear the old tunes interpreted and rendered today, one would hope that the diligence of scholars such as Barbeau would be noted and credit given to the original musicians.
A Hearth Music Conversation with Kris Drever
by Devon Leger
We make no secrets about our fandom of Scottish (Orcadian to be more specific) singer and songwriter Kris Drever here at Hearth Music. We’ve written about most of his projects, especially his duo with Irish banjo player/guitarist Eamonn Coyne (last KITHFOLK issue). And that’s because Drever’s one of the strongest voices of his generation in Scottish traditional music. He comes from the tradition–his father was in the seminal band Wolfstone–and has about a million bands and projects rolling, each one more innovative than the last. Apart his duo with Eamonn Coyne, he’s also a key member of LAU, one of the most prominent Scottish trad bands. And now his label, Reveal Records, have been re-releasing some of his solo back catalogue. First they re-released the Black Water album, which was actually released in the US back in 2006. And now they’ve released the album I was most hoping for, Drever’s Mark the Hard Earth from 2010. It was released only in the UK and unfortunately few people in the US heard it. Too bad, since it’s the perfect snapshot of Drever’s greatest strengths. He proves himself as a powerhouse songwriter here with the title track, proves himself a master interpreter of the tradition with songs like “Freedome Come A’ Ye,” proves himself a great lover of American roots music with his superlative cover of “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” and proves himself a curator of other songwriters by pulling out fascinating gems from folks like “jangle pop” guitarist Murray Attaway, and underground Scottish songwriter Sandy Wright. It’s a gorgeous album that features Drever’s signature vocals as well as a host of great roots musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.
We caught up with Kris Drever online to talk more about the reissue of his album and about his musical influences and the current culture of Scottish traditional music.
Hearth Music: What was the impetus to re-release Mark the Hard Earth? And how has the response been?
Kris Drever: The re-release came on the back of the Black Water re-release which was very successful. I'm glad we did it because it gives me a reason to go back and perform some of those songs again, there are lot's of good things on there that I'd kind of forgotten about. Plus the new cover is cooler!
Are you working on a new full-length? I've loved your work with Eamonn Coyne and Lau of course, but do you have plans to do a solo album soon?
KD: I'm doing a lot of writing and playing just now with a view to releasing something at the end of next year. I've moved to rural Shetland and find myself with a healthier amount of creative time than I have had for quite a while and although the commute is trickier there are definite advantages. Before we get to the end of next year though there will be an EP with Eamonn and a gang of great musicians from Shetland and a new Lau album so I'm trying to stay focused on those things just now.
Tell me about the last Lau album, which I also loved. How was it working with renowned American indie record producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Laura Veirs)? He's an amazing producer!
KD: Lau’s Race the Loser was an undoubted artistic success for all of us, maybe the best thought out thing we've done so far. The fact that it was well received in the press and sold well is also a win but the biggest thing was probably meeting and working with Tucker. He creates a very relaxed atmosphere but he embodies a ferocious work ethic. The results from those recordings were so beautiful and full of unexpected details, truly inspirational. I still hear new things when I listen back.
What was it like growing up in the tradition? Where were you born and raised? Your father was in Wolfstone, of course, do you remember the band gathering at the house and hearing those songs from an early age?
KD: Well, my folks played around the house from as far back as I can remember but Dad actually left Orkney before he joined Wolfstone. I do remember session tunes played with a lot of the local folkies. I still get tunes with those people now when I get back there. There was a lot of music for sure but much of my repertoire I picked up in my teenage years.
What was the point where you started writing your own songs? Did this seem to you like a break from tradition or was it more of a continuation of what you knew from your father and other inspirations?
KD: I started writing almost immediately that I started playing guitar, it just seemed natural and somewhat easier than trying to learn other peoples music. I don't know if I think it's a break from tradition. The music I write is heavily informed by the music I grew up with and so must at least be family to that music. It's not a conscious decision but certainly the audiences I attract seem frequently to also listen to more folk/trad/roots music than the average Joe.
You seem to be really drawn to American roots music. Certainly Mark the Hard Earth features Tim O'Brien and covers our buddy Caleb Klauder. Plus you cover Cahalen Morrison on the Storymap album w/Eamonn Coyne and cover American traditional songs as well. Why are you drawn to this music? What do you hear in it that links it to Scottish trad?
KD: I think partly it's timing. The banking crash coincided (possibly not coincidentally) with more US acts coming over here playing gigs and festivals so I've seen more American roots acts than a lot of the musicians who grew up here before me. I met Tim O'Brien first in my early twenties while I was playing Double Bass with Kate Rusby and his way of playing really impressed me, I had never seen anything like it before. I instantly wanted to emulate the boneless right hand. I feel like there are parts of American music that are very close in spirit to the music that I play but I also feel that there are good things in the technical delivery of that music that can be taken into Scottish music without altering its intent.
I toured with Caleb some years ago in a project exploring the historical trans-atlantic links of various songs and tunes from Scottish and American traditions hence the cover, and similarly I love Cahalen’s music and wanted to try and incorporate it into a set with Eamonn.
What do you think of the state of Scottish traditional music today? Do you think the glossy, classical fiddling or overdriven ceilidh tunes have started to fall away in favor of rawer music? Certainly folks like Alasdair Roberts seem to be bringing out a much rougher side to Scottish traditions.
KD: There are definitely sessions around where that's true, that has been true for a long time though. When I first moved to Edinburgh in the mid 90s there was a scene that bore no resemblance to the styles you describe except ironically and they existed sometime post Easy Club. The Ceilidh scene is as separate from the trad scene as the piping scene is. They're almost totally separate worlds, in many ways there are closer ties between the jazz scene here and the folk scene than any that exist between the Ceilidh players and competitive fiddlers and pipers. There's a newfound confidence in the older material, in the Scottish voice on record and in the production of art in general.
You have so many projects going on, many of which bring out new albums. Do you feel you draw strength and inspiration from collaboration? Why so many different projects?
KD: It's all stuff that interests me and that I don't feel I get to express in the other projects. There is a definite freshness to be gained from moving from one discipline to another and that, I hope, is beneficial to all of them. Mostly it's because it's fun though, to make new friends and to learn new music.
What brings you back to the old music? Do you ever feel like you're obsessing over antiquations? Or is trad more of a foundational template to support your own ideas?
KD: It's important to play it socially, to express that music with like-minded friends because it's challenging. It's lasted a long time in some cases. Because it's good. It's conversational and it's interesting, it's a beautiful way to feel like part of a team that's all pulling in the same direction. Sometimes even in a room of strangers.
I'm a social guy.
Though the idea of Celtic music is largely a fantasy, what do you think differentiates Scottish music from its "Celtic" cousins like Irish, Welsh, Manx, etc...
KD: The accent, the way tunes are phrased, the decoration, the repertoire. There are lots of little regional ways in which the music of Scotland is different from one place to the next. There are obvious familial similarities between the nations too.
I think it's largely shaped by people though. The players we all love the best are usually the most distinctive and individual. I suspect this has always been the case so the countries sound different because they followed the examples set by their best.
What was one important lesson your father taught you?
KD: Try and get some stuff done while you're young.
Buy Kris Drevers' Album HERE
The Okee Dokee Brothers
The Okee Dokee Brothers’ Appalachian Adventure Album
by Kora and Devon Leger
The Okee Dokee Brothers are two friends, Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing, from Denver, Colorado, who love to explore the outdoors and make music together. Each album they make is based on an adventure that they embark on together in the great outdoors. Their first album, Can You Canoe?, which won a Grammy, was based on canoe trips they took together down the Mississippi. Their new album, Through the Woods, is based on their month-long trek along the Appalachian Trail. On each adventure, they network and meet local artists along the way, often really amazing roots musicians, inviting them to be part of the process. The music of The Okee Dokee Brothers is geared towards kids, but it’s honestly accessible at any age. You just have to love acoustic instruments, great songs to sing along with, and you should also have a sense of adventure. After all, that’s what’s fueling their work.
Both of my daughters, Kora (8) and Zoë (5), completely fell in love with the new Okee Dokee Brothers album and have had it on constant request around the house. Little Zoë’s favorite song is “Lighten Your Load,” which surprised me since it’s the most “adult” of the songs on the album, and Kora’s favorite song is “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” because, well, she’s a kid and that song has enchanted a goodly number of generations. The best thing about The Okee Dokee Brothers is that they understand that music for kids doesn’t have to be dumbed down. Their songs work just as well for adults and feature all kinds of great ideas and inspirations.
When The Okee Dokee Brothers came to Seattle, I jumped at the chance to bring my daughter, Kora, along, and she was interested as well in interviewing the two of them backstage. Here’s her interview (and she took the pics too!):
Kora Léger Interview with The Okee Dokee Brothers
Kora Léger: My favorite song is: “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” What’s the message of “Big Rock Candy Mountain”?
Justin Lansing: “Big Rock Candy Mountain”. There’s a whole bunch of imagery in “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It’s a land that’s “fair and bright,” so the lyrics say and it’s something new and a place where everything is happy, happy-go-lucky. What’s the message, hmm? You got a message, Joe?
Joe Mailander: It’s a fantasy land and it’s in your imagination and it’s a place you can go where you don’t have to worry about the worries of life. It’s an old traditional song that we didn’t even write. We’re re-doing an old song and we changed some of the words so that it applies more for children.
Kora: What inspired you to create this experience for kids?
Justin: That’s an even better question. We were inspired first of all by the Mississippi River. It’s a big, old river; it’s the biggest in the United States and we live near by it in Minneapolis and we see it all the time. And we thought, “Maybe we should base some of our music on that. Because we’re inspired by it, I’m sure kids would be inspired by it too.”
What did you see on the Appalachian Trail?
Joe: First of all, we saw a lot of mountains and we saw a lot of hikers. We also saw some wildlife, animals: a lot of birds, squirrels, deer. We thought we were going to see a black bear but we didn’t.
Justin: We were kind of hoping to see a black bear but then, black bears are dangerous. So, we were also kind of not hoping to see a black bear.
My sister was wondering if you got along on the trip.
Joe:Got along? Well, we write songs about that. There’s one song on this album and on the last album about friendship. We call each other brother, we’re really close. Sometimes you have good days where you’re really close, you’re really happy, you’re having a great time. Some days are really long, rainy, you’re tired and you might get tired of one another. Does that happen with you and your sister?
With my best friend…
Joe: Oh, your best friend. Is that who it is? We say there’s ups and downs, just like the trail. Sometimes you’re going uphill and it’s feeling good and you’re up and sometimes you’re going downhill. So, we say that there’s ups and downs.
Even though there’s ups and downs, in the end, what we walk away with, with our friendship is really positive. We get to make music together and share it with other people, inspire kids and families to get outside. So, even though there are some good days and some bad days, most are good days. [laughing]
Kora: I hope.
Devon: What are you considering for your next adventure? Are you guys thinking of new adventures already?
Justin: We are. Good question. We’re thinking about going out West.
Justin: We’re still figuring that out. We’ll probably ride some horses; we’re going to probably see some mountains.
Devon: That sounds cool.
Joe: Do a western album with cowboys and cowgirls. Do you like horses? [to Kora]
Kora: Yeah. I like unicorns.
Joe: You like unicorns? We should do that. If we can find some, we’ll do that. I promise.
The Uncanny Songwriting Skills of Zoe Muth
by Devon Leger
It’s all about the song. And Zoe Muth knows songs. She writes them so well that her own songs stand up to the best Americana songwriters. This isn’t idle hype, this is the simple fact of what makes Zoe Muth so great: she has the uncanny ability to turn a simple phrase in such a way that it hits you like a hammer. That kind of ingenious craft is at the heart of all great country songs. It’s the moment when the song reaches out and grabs you, and it’s almost unfair how easily Zoe Muth can access these moments.
On her new album, World of Strangers, Muth brings us moments like the opening line in “Mama Needs a Margarita”: “Nothing to do, nowhere to go to/Just me and the baby eatin’ straight from the jar”, painting a picture in one sentence of the loneliness of new motherhood. On “Make Me Change My Mind,” she nails the kind of furious broken-hearted songs most songwriters spend a lifetime trying to perfect with lines like “I’ve got the walking blues down below, and a heavy head up above / Worn-out shoes and wasted words are something I seem to have plenty of.” Muth writes the kind of songs that can paint a picture with just a few words. These pictures focus on the kind of folk hit hardest by our modern world, the people left behind. Songs like “Annabelle” also show how Zoe Muth’s has pushed her country roots to new places. Swelling strings, and a melody line reminiscent of friends and fellow songwriters like Eilen Jewell or Anais Mitchell turn the song into a powerful ballad of disappointment. Muth’s interest in early Fairport Convention can be heard on her cover of Ronnie Lane’s “April Fool” blended in with bluesy accordion licks. Bits of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers can be heard throughout as well. With World of Strangers, Zoe Muth has retained all the power of her roots songwriting, but is now channeling a world of new influences into her songs.
These days Zoe Muth makes her home in Austin, Texas, though she first made her name in the Pacific Northwest. Up there she was called “Seattle’s Emmylou Harris”, and heralded as one of the best songwriters to come out of Washington State since Loretta Lynn. These were big shoes to fill, but those words had little effect on Muth’s craft. She just kept moving and writing, performing and touring, content to rest in the moment of the song. She put together her first band in Seattle to back up the songs she couldn’t stop writing, and when she fell in love with and married Greg Nies, the drummer in her band, she rebuilt a new band with a new sound and moved South to Austin looking for her fortune. World of Strangers came about from Muth’s new Texas-based life.
There’s an irony to some people that Zoe Muth could be such a great country singer without having grown up deep in the country. But they’re missing the real point here: Muth’s songs are couched in the vintage hum of old thriftshop vinyl, but that’s just the vehicle for their stories. What hits the hardest in Zoe Muth’s songs are the moments when we realize that the story she’s telling is our own story. That’s what made country great in the first place, and that’s what Zoe Muth taps into every time.
Groupa's Primordial Swedish Sounds
by Carl-Eric Tangen
“From silence springs sound, from all that was and all that will be.”
Swedish folk-trio Groupa’s newest offering, Silent Folk, is like stepping into a warm tide pool as a child, with so many new and strange sounds and creatures to behold. The tide catches you, unaware, and you’re slowly pulled out deeper and further, to the icy depths of the open sea. You might realize suddenly that years have passed and you’ve learned to breathe underwater. And you may continue on, never looking back to shore. The music of Groupa seamless. The second you think you’ve grasped where one tradition ends and another begins the distinction vanishes into thin air and you’re caught questioning whether you heard anything at all. It’s a testament to how Groupa manage to take something familiar–Nordic folk music–and make it a thing of eerie, timeless beauty unlike anything you’ve heard before. This is not fusion music. Anyone else could have done that. This is three
musicians shamans calling the four winds of the earth to themselves and wielding them to their will.
I grew up listening to Scandinavian folk music and have long been enthralled by the vast, piercing sound of the Hardanger fiddle. In Groupa, Swedish fiddler Mats Edén plays a fiddle of his own creation with haunting perfection and earnestness, while still reminding you from time to time that this is an instrument that has lead many wedding processions and dances. Jonas Simonson’s flutes breathe the cold, Nordic air with a comfort and familiarity that no outsider could handle, while somehow managing to evoke the cutting edge of European jazz. Percussionist Terje Isungset crafts his own instruments out of elements from Norwegian nature, including stone, arctic birch and other plants, even sheep bells and ice. Isungset’s sounds put Edén's and Simonson’s into a landscape. He makes it as real as the ground you walk upon (literally-many of his sounds come from granite and slate). There is a timelessness here, only further driven by his other major contribution, the jaw harp, widely considered to be one of the oldest instruments in human history. But you’ve never heard it played like this.
Upon first listen, one could be forgiven for mistaking Silent Folk for the soundtrack to an art film about the formation of the world. And while it’s certainly cinematic (these sounds are so visual they might kill a synesthete), if anything it’s the accompaniment to the origins of the Earth itself. Groupa are searching for the silence between the notes, for the point of creation of music itself. Talking to Jonas Simonson over email, he explains, “In the Silent Folk project, we have continued with our exploration of the spaces in the music. The melodies are there, but there's even more space for reflection, listening, interaction and a quieter conversation. A kind of minimalist interaction, where the melodies are deconstructed and transformed into new meditative soundscapes.” But to say that Silent Folk is a soundtrack to anything would be to undermine the true achievement that Edén, Isungset, and Simonson have here. The music stands on its own as a work so primal, so perplexing, so uncomfortably beautiful, that it may actually touch the sound that created the world.
Buy Groupa's New Album HERE.
Galician Music 101
Galician Roots Music 101
Galicia is an autonomous province in northwestern Spain, directly north of Portugal. It has countless fjord-like inlets called Rîas, a fact noted and exploited by the Vikings a thousand years ago. Indeed Galicia's seafaring heritage produced many of Spain's sailors, and Galician surnames are common throughout Latin America. Traditionally one of the poorer regions in Spain, as is often the case with rural, non-industrialized societies, it has preserved an astoundingly rich folk and musical culture, which it has been sharing more and more generously in recent years with the outside world.
My own interest was piqued on a trip to Galicia in the late 70's. I found myself in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia's capital, and a famous site of a pilgrimage which has brought seekers to its Cathedral for over 1200 years. I however had heard there was an excellent bagpipe (my new passion) museum somewhere in northern Spain, and was hoping it was in Santiago. As I climbed the road from the train station into the lovingly preserved old city and the cool breeze drifted down like the breath of the ancient stone archways, the centuries seemed to melt away. Then I heard it; the sound of - bagpipes! I charged ahead, ran around a corner and came across a traditional quartet, two pipers, a bass drummer and and a man playing tambor. I ran up to the lead piper, and in an ecstatic spasm of enthusiasm shouted out, "Bagpipes!" The piper, whose name was Galin, stopped, and stone faced, asked, "Where are you from?" “The USA,” I answered, and he quickly asked me if I knew a man named Bruce, and he did a little imitation of Bruce's distinctive walk. And I knew him. I said, I know Bruce! And without missing a beat or changing expressions, he handed me a package of bagpipes reeds and asked me to deliver them to Bruce. Then he said, " Come, we go to play". And I followed, into the world of Gaitas, the Galician bagpipes.
All countries in Europe were once home to bagpipes of all shapes and sizes. 80 different types in France alone. Luckily for we bagpipe lovers, piping is making a comeback after years of neglect. Galicia is one place where, though pipers became more rare than they had been, the tradition never really died out. Church iconography tells us that there have been pipes in Galicia in pretty much their current form for over a thousand years - 400 years before they were documented in Scotland. Today in a country of two and half million people, there are over 90,000 pipers. It is a vital and rich world of folk music, allied recently with the burgeoning Celtic category of world music. Galicia's name comes from the Gaelic tribes who were there when the Romans arrived, and the faces of the Gallegos reflect the genes generously contributed by Celts, Romans, Germans and Vikings over the years, as they came attracted by Galicia's green valleys, and wild beautiful coastline.
Today young people can learn pipes in school, there are pipes in rock bands, in military style bands that ape the Scottish tradition, in traditional bands large and small. There are even very popular pipers, such as Carlos Nunez, who are given government support to help spread Galician music around the world. Pipes can be heard on the streets, in concert halls, in competitions, and in lovely community gatherings called Serans, where amateur musical singing and instrumental groups play for each other. Groups get 15- 20 minutes, and the programs often last from 8 at night till 2 in the morning, with spontaneous dancing erupting around the often very crowded dance floors. These are wonderful scenes, with folks of all ages, food and drink, families, and music flowing in all directions. Musical performances include the traditional bagpipe percussion quartet, more modern types of arrangements, called charangas, which can include saxophone, accordion, and sometimes bass and drums with cymbals, and singing goups reflecting Galicia's deep, strong vocal tradition. There are female singing groups, who accompany themselves with dazzling technique on pandeireta, a type of large tambourine, on pandeiro, a square frame drum, and on other percussion instruments. The vocal music reflects its Celtic, Latin and Arabic heritage in equal measure, and is mesmerizing
Traditional dance rhythms include the Muiñeira, in 6/8, the Xota ( pronounced, shota) in 3/8, or fast 3/4, The passacorredoira, a walking tune in duple meter, the pasodoble, in varied meter, the alborada, a stately piece in 2/4 or 4/4 used as an invocation at dawn on feast days, marchas, danzas, and since the return of emigrants, rhumbas, polcas, and even fox trots. These are some of the main dances, though there are many more. Galicians love their traditional dances, and when the pipes begin to play, often people of all ages will start to do a Xota or Muiñeira.
We, the Family Carr, were lucky enough to spend a month in Santiago in 2010, near where our daughter Molly had been living for several years. We have deep friendships there, which feel now feel more like family connections.
Here are some notes, by no means exclusive, about the music you might want to check out.
Susan Seivane has been a virtuosic performer on Gaita, and an innovative band leader for years now. She comes from one of the foremost Gaita making families in Galicia.
Other solo Gaiteiros and Gaiteiras who front bands of their own are:
Carlos Nunez, who gained fame as a teenage prodigy touring with the Irish supergroup the Chieftains, and now is a virtuoso headliner who spreads the gospel of Galician music around the world.
There are also great pipers Xose Manuel Budiño and Cristina Pato, who has been in the US, playing with Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and earning a PhD in piano performance.
And the brilliant Pablo Carpintero - who has done vast amounts of invaluable research on Galician musical traditions, and is a wonderful performer and luthier.
The number of great Galician folk bands is huge. To mention a few is to do disservice to the rest, but here are a few wonderful examples.
Luar Na Lubre
The Galician Cheiftains, Milladoiro
Newcomers Os d'Abaixo
Please realize that this list is a small, a tiny sample of the brilliant music being played in Galicia today.
Pass It On: The Mizell Brothers
Pass It On: The Mizell Brothers
A new column by Larry Mizell Jr.
We all take our traditions seriously, in all the myriad forms they take—they're our link to the past, what keeps our cultures alive, and and that's what this space is all about. My own understanding of traditions, in music in general, come to me from those who came before me, literally.
My pops and his brothers are known best as the successful production/writing team the Mizell Brothers, super-influential makers of funk/jazz/R&B/disco from the early 70's through the early 80's. When I first became fascinated about their work on my own, I started looking up reviews of their stuff from back in the day, from old magazines and giant dusty jazz books alike. To my shock, I found overwhelmingly that their genre-blind productions were reviled by jazz traditionalists for being sellout, commercial trash. The purists of the time absolutely loathed what they did.
What they did, incidentally, was pave the way for acid jazz, fusion, neo-soul and a gang of other shit in later years, not the least of which was a score of classic hiphop songs that sampled their works, from Tribe to Main Source to 2Pac to Ice Cube, you name it. The older DJ's and producers I came to know as I became an active participant in hiphop all assured me that they all owed a debt to the Mizell's productions.
Of course, a lot of those same cats' generation are the main ones that protect the gates—that believe staunchly in the rules of hiphop, a form that was defined by rule-breaking. Sampling anything. Literally inventing new technologies. Making something out of everything. How could such a thing ever be made static, a museum piece—confined to the ideals of how it sounded or looked when it was in high school?
So this is exactly what I keep in mind when I think of the tradition handed down to me. In my own way, I've tried to uphold it. I strive everyday to know the history of the music, to revere and respect the game, but also to advocate for fucking it up, mutating it, seeing it take new shapes. Only dead things are dry and brittle—things that are living and new are pliable, adaptable. This is how everything survives, from bacteria on up; how could we be any different?
New Roots Voices
This is a new column in KITHFOLK where we profile four new discoveries on the international roots music scene. These are young artists actively redefining the boundaries of tradition, whether it’s a tradition they come to naturally or have searched for all their lives.
Alsarah & The Nubatones
Singer, songwriter, ethnomusicologist, and bandleader, Brooklyn based Sudanese vocalist Alsarah has created a project to celebrate the glory days of her Nubian musical heritage. With the Nubatones, Alsarah’s new album, Silt, is a gorgeous and deeply compelling journey through many different influences from Sudanese musical traditions and beyond, specifically the music of East Africa. I don’t know a lot about Sudanese music, but the music here is absolutely accessible. Alsarah’s voice is pure honey, and she has not only complete control of her vocals, but also a kind of charisma to her singing that draws you in. It’s something only the best singers have and it’s also something that transcends culture and language. I know Nubian music mostly from the great oud player, composer, and vocalist Hamza El Din. I’ve listened to Hamza’s music for years and years, and he even was a family friend of my wife’s family during his time in the Pacific Northwest (he was artist-in-residence at the University of Washington’s Ethnomusicology program). Hamza’s loping, looping oud playing was a key part to his music, and it seemed at times that he was exploring the silence between the notes as much as the notes themselves. On Alsarah’s album, the recently deceased Haig Manoukian provides the oud lines, and though his oud sounds very different, he’s very proficient on the instrument and it is a key element of Sudanese music. It turns out that Sudan also has a long history of music made by women, a sometimes contentious thing in majority Muslim countries. There are definitely precedents for Alsarah’s band and her powerful songwriting, and she must be drawing inspiration from the powerful women who came before her.
Born in Sudan, Alsarah left the country when she was 8 years old, relocating to Yemen to espace the regime at that time, and eventually settling in Brooklyn in the 1990s. Now a long-time Brooklyn resident, she created the Nubatones in order to specifically delve into material from and inspired by Nubian culture in the 1970s. Many of the songs on Silt are about migration and displacement, a strong theme in Nubian culture that was also a key to Hamza El Din’s music. The building of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1960s and 70s had a huge impact on Nubian culture. Much of Hamza’s music was pre-occupied with the displacement he felt when he was forced to leave his home to make way for the dam. This kind of displacement echoes in Alsarah’s life, as she was forced to move halfway across the world because of the political regime’s affect on her family. Silt is a beautiful, thoughtful album full of the sounds of Sudan, Nubia, and East Africa, and Alsarah is absolutely the new voice of East African roots music for her generation.
There’s a video on YouTube of Pete Seeger singing “Down that Lonesome Road”. It’s one of the most chilling songs ever written by human hands, a song whose refrain is a death moan (You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself). Seeger, like a clueless idiot, is leading a crowd of college kids to sing along. It’s a song whose very existence is predicated on the fact that we’re alone in this world, but he doesn’t get it. That’s why I like the new album from Jonah Talchin. He’s writing songs in the Pete Seeger vein, eminently singable, drenched in folk traditions, and lovely to share around a campfire, but he gets that there’s a cold loneliness at the heart of folk music. And that’s the irony. Among all the sing-alongs and hootenannies, these are songs about loneliness, heartbreak, and the terrible foreboding of the Bible. Just twenty-one years old, this young folk artist from Nashville gets it. Like Seeger, he went searching for his roots and stumbled into the rich mud of the Mississippi Delta. Growing up in New Jersey, he must have felt, like a young Dylan, deracinated. Struggling with adolescence, he happened upon the “blues” genre in iTunes and found the song “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” by Buddy Guy and fell in love. It’s story I’ve heard many times from baby boomers, but not as often from folks of my generation, but it’s the same story many Americans share: looking for our roots in the lost, forgotten corners of this land.
In the space of the first four songs on Clover Lane, Tolchin goes from Mississippi junkyard blues, to mountain hillbilly stringband music, to electrified Howlin’ Wolf swagger, to softly sweet whisperfolk. That’s a dizzying array of styles, but it all makes sense when you have Tolchin’s world-weary voice carrying the load. His voice is slightly cracked, a bit weathered, maybe kind of rough-hewn, but full of the kind of burning ache of a youth trying to pull away from the lure of the city to return to his roots. Beyond the voice, Tolchin also just writes really great songs. “Low Life”, “Diamond Mind”, and “Mockingbird” will all stay with you long after the album, and the lyrics in most of these songs have the power to really touch a nerve. Clover Lane was made with the help of some pretty heavy hitters: Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), John McCauley (Deer Tick), but after you listen to the album, Jonah Tolchin is the only thing you’ll remember. This is some really special music.
Noura Mint Seymali
Mauritanian griot Noura Mint Seymali has a voice that can stop you in your tracks. Her voice is impossibly powerful, schokingly strong, the kind of voice that you’ll find hard to believe isn’t fueled by some divine power. She’s a master vocalist, heir to the traditions of Mauritania, but also heir to a legacy of modernization as well. Her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, was a scholar and an artist responsible for bringing Mauritanian traditional music into a Western context through his development of a notation system and his work on the Mauritanian national anthem. Seymali’s step-mother, Dimi Mint Abba, was one of Mauritania’s most popular musicians. It would seem impossible for Noura Mint Seymali not to follow her family into a musical career and not to want to innovate with the tradition herself. This she does on her new album, Tzsenni. She takes the sounds of the beautiful traditional lute, the ardine, and amplifies the instrument, buzzing out the sound in a very African way to create something larger. Her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly plays the tidinit, or guitar, in a similarly amplified manner. In some ways, the music of Noura Mint Seymali touches on the “desert blues” of Tuareg musicians like Tinariwen. You’ll find the same swirling, tranced-out melody lines and driving electric bass beats, but Seymali’s music seems closer at times to the world of Moorish traditions, possibly even close to Andalucian roots. Mauritania has always been part of the bridge between North African Arab traditions and sub-Saharan African roots.
The lyrics of Seymali’s songs reference classics of the repertoire (including a lovely song written by her father and a song from her step-mother), but focus as well on her own history and her work contextualizing the old traditions in today’s world, the key work of any griot. The song “El Mougelen” references a Mauritanian dish traditionally made by women, and Seymali uses the song to address women directly: “My thoughts are on the women of today. God bestows blessings and takes them away.” The music of Noura Mint Seymali’s new album is a cry of power, a chance to take a stand for tradition, but also for the meaning tradition can have today. Seymali has an uncanny knack for creating entirely new music that feels infused with old ideals. She’s got a great vision, and the intense, searing power of her vocals is burning that vision into the minds of her audiences as she tours around the world.
I’ve been pushing the music of Newfoundland ballad singer Matthew Byrne for a while now, so I’m more than happy to start up again now that he’s got a great new album out. Byrne has two key things going for him that make him one of my favorite Canadian roots musicians: 1) he was born into the tradition of ballads and sea songs in Newfoundland and has actively learned songs from his family’s repertoire, and 2) his voice is so beautiful and compelling. The combo of songs pulled from the hearth of family traditions and pure and focused vocals makes him one of Canada’s best folk singers, though I don’t think he’s as well known in that country as he should be. Byrne’s been getting some international notoriety recently thanks to his group The Dardanelles, who I see as some of the very best young Newfoundland trad musicians. The Dards, as they’re called, have been touring all over the UK with great acclaim and I keep hoping we’ll get them out to the US. But to me, Byrne’s at his most special when he’s singing solo. The songs really come out then and we have the time to consider the wind-swept, salt-stained poetry of the words. I interviewed Byrne a few years ago for No Depression and loved what he had to say about the tradition: “I love the melodies, and the way they're written. For me, it's not as much the meaning of the lyrics. I'm more intrigued by the poetics. These ballads demonstrate an older style of writing that you just don't see anymore, and when paired with the right melody, the result is simply beautiful.”
On his new album, star-crossed lovers, murdered wives, and hoary whalers, and heroic sea captains all rub shoulders across the divide, their ghosts brought back to our minds in these old songs. In “Bold Nelson” (a song Matt learned from his great uncle John Hollett of Spencer’s Cove) the singer calls on the “Sons of Britannia” to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Trafalgar, even though the great hero Admiral Horatio Nelson lay dying in the water. The hauntingly beautiful a cappella ballad “Banks of Sweet Dundee” (from Matt’s great aunt Flora Gambin of Clattice Harbour), tells the story of a farmer’s daughter who falls in love with a ploughboy far below her social status. In “Fair Ellen” (learned from his grandmother’s singing), the lovely and cheerful melody belies the sordid tale of lovers’ murder that the song references. Joined by members of The Dardanelles and other great acoustic musicians, Matthew Byrne’s new album is a beautiful love song to the traditions of his native Newfoundland.
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Short Album Reviews
Dawn Landes. Bluebird.
2014. Western Vinyl.
The new album from indie folk star Dawn Landes reminds me, more than anything of Mississippi John Hurt. Which might seem strange–comparing the elfin vocals of a young Brooklynite to the aged master of the country blues–but it’s all there. The gentle vocals, the sweetly heartfelt lyrics, the intricate bubbling of the Hurt guitar lines, even the twinkle in the eye you can almost hear in the music. Of course, Landes’ album touches on a lot more than Hurt, you can hear little echoes of Sarah McLachlan, or French chansons (which she fell in love with touring in Europe and France). Really you can hear echoes of many influences, as she cites everyone from Dolly Parton to Woody Guthrie in interviews. And her music certainly brings in a lot of different sounds, making her album easily one of the contenders for best Americana album in the true sense of Americana’s diversity. But underneath it all I still hear the beautiful simplicity of Hurt. Just one lovely person with a beautiful guitar line and songs that flow forth as easily as water from a spring.
Maeve Gilchrist. 20 Chandler Street.
2014. Adventure Music.
It’s not an easy thing to bring the harp into the rough-and-tumble world of traditional Irish or Scottish music. Sure, it’s lovely for those slow, evocative melodies, and beautiful for accompanying traditional song, but when you sit it down in a jam session in a darkened pub, well, then it gets a little harder to keep up with the rapid fire, punch-drunk tunage of either tradition. Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, however, does fine in both worlds. On her new album, her lilting playing winds around original compositions of her own, like the title tune 20 Chandler Street (named for the address in Boston where she used to live), but she more than holds her own here against alpha fiddlers like Darol Anger or Duncan Wickel. The album is a lovely blend of Scottish and Americana flavored tunes and songs, most of which are written by Gilchrist. The standout track, though, is the eternally chilling classic ballad “Twa Corbies.” The story of two crows cynically dining on a knight fallen in battle, is just as timely today as in any age. Maeve Gilchrist has crafted a beautiful, cerebral album made for true lovers of acoustic traditional music.
Korrontzi. Tradition 2.1.
2013. Baga-Biga Musika Ideiak.
Man, this album is a lot of fun! Young Basque traditional band Korrontzi have turned in an album that not only shows the virtuosity and joy at the heart of Basque music, but also infuses the music with many flavors of Europe as well. They’ve invited special guests they’ve met on their travels to join them on a track-by-track basis, which makes for an intriguing adventure through some very creative collaborations. Sardinian polyphony, Irish flute, Galician bagpipes, Scottish accordion (Phil Cunningham!), Spanish guitar, Portuguese guitar, Sicilian ballads, even Arabic qanun, Malagasy valiha or Zimbabwean song all show up in various tracks here. But the real stars of course are the Basque accordion, the trixitica. Played by trikitilaria and bandleader Agus Barandiaran, the instrument bubbles and froths like a cool mountain stream, carrying sense of watery weightlessness. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s pretty much impossible not to feel lighter after listening. Other classic Basque instruments are featured as well from the band, like the tambourine (panderoa), the hornpipe (the alboka, which is a totally wonderful and amazing instrument) and the famous txalaparta (a kind of Basque wooden marimba). Throughout, Korrontzi demonstrate that the know and love the tradition, but also love to share with like-minded master musicians around Europe and the world. Great stuff, this.
Sangre De Muerdago. Deixademe Morrer no Bosque.
Do you enjoy sitting in the forest, not doing anything, just sitting there? Does it really bum you out thinking of factories belching pollution and sea birds covered in oil? When you watched “the Wicker Man” did you cheer when they burned the priest at the end? Do you enjoy mourning? If you answered yes to most of these questions then Sangre De Muerdago, a Galician neo-folk group just might be your new favorite band. Their music is beautiful and terribly pensive, in fact it might be a bit too much so for the ADD and Iphone set, but it goes perfectly with candles and trees. Both traditional and original material blend effortlessly around the axis of lead singer Pablo’s classical guitar and soft crooning. Deixademe Morrer no Bosque, is their newest full length, and it’s a great place to start, also check out their newest release “Braided Paths” a split release with American goth-folkers Novemthree.
Black Prairie. Fortune.
2014. Sugar Hill Records.
What started in 2007 as a side project for guitarist Chris Funk of The Decemberists takes on a life of its own, as Black Prairie burns up the grooves of their third album, Fortune, with blistering rock, stomping punk, and scalding lyrics full of irony and emotion. Jenny Conlee's and Annalisa Tornfelt's dreamy, languorous vocals weave an often haunting, often straight-to-the-heart-of-the matter spell around and under Tornfelt's scampering, soaring fiddle and Conlee's pleading, boisterous accordion. The tunes on Fortune range from the Cajun-inflected "Kiss of Fate"—which gives a musical nod to The Band's "Acadian Driftwood," thanks to Conlee's accordion—and the scorching, sizzling It's a Beautiful Day-meets-Led Zeppelin "Let It Out" to the sultry, Uriah Heep-like sonic title track, and the urgent, galloping whirlwind tale of a late 19th-century Oregon fur trapper in "Trask." "Songs to Be Sung" channels The Beatles of the White Album, with a dash of Stephen Stills and Graham Nash-like harmonies thrown in for good measure. The penultimate track on the album, "Be Good," is an almost perfect song—starting slow with a simple guitar riff around and over which Conlee wraps her voice; accordion, tambourine, piano soon weave around her Christine McVie-like vocals, and the songs ends in a harmonious flight of fiddles, piano, and heavenly backing vocals. Black Prairie's richly wrought album is our good fortune, indeed.
Kaia Kater. Sorrow Bound.
Young folk artist Kaia Kater was quite the discovery for me at the Folk Alliance conference earlier this year. I missed her shows sadly, but her new album, Sorrow Bound, is just a delight. For someone so young, it shows remarkable depth, maturity, and the kind of subtelty of craft that would make any one of her elders jealous. Opening track “When Sorrows Encompass Me Round” encapsulates Kater’s vision perfectly: working from the foundation of an old traditional mountain song, she’s written new lyrics in the same heart-worn vein, but added beautiful clawhammer banjo and an unsettling electric guitar drone. What’s great about Sorrow Bound is that Kater’s not trying to be anything she’s not. She’s just singing these gorgeous songs and working hard to build a sonic environment that fits the vision of her lyrics. You get the feeling you’re hearing something new and refreshing because her perspective on old-time roots music is just that: new and refreshing. It’s kind of unfair that a kid this young on the scene is making an album this good, so if you haven’t been paying attention to Kaia Kater before, you better be paying attention now!
Yvette Landry. Me & T-Coe’s Country.
2014. Soko Music. (drops June 14, 2014)
Cajun singer Yvette Landry carries a torch HARD for true honky-tonk. Her new album, Me & T-Coe’s Country, is all pedal steel, loping guitar lines, and slightly smokey, sweetly beautiful and seriously twangy vocal lines. Cajuns have long held a great love of honky-tonk, and in some ways a lot of Cajun songs, once you translate them to English, sound just like a teary country song. So there’s a natural connection here that Landry doesn’t have to dig deep to find. What’s interesting, is that this album is really a slow-burner. Most of the songs are taken from various old-school country sources (Hank Williams, Jerry Reed, Buck Owens, Pee-Wee King, Hank Cochran), but they’re slowed down to a nice, relaxed pace. It’s quite lovely, and quite difficult to pull off, actually. But Landry’s got the kind of presence that draws you in. This is a collection of classic honky-tonk that plays more like a steamy Southern novel than a packed dancehall. Special kudos to Landry for picking up our buddy Caleb Klauder’s excellent “Can I Go Home With You” and for writing some classics herself here. Lovely album!
Lonesome Shack. More Primitive.
2014. Alive Natural Sound.
Seattle juke joint blues band Lonesome Shack have finally come into their own with their new album, More Primitive, on kickass indie label Alive Natural Sound. They’re bringing an interesting sound too, at once tapping the Mississippi hill country trance blues of T-Model Ford, but bringing a very Northwest sense of lyricism and mellowness. The album rolls slow, like an old caddy on a dirt road, and the fuzzed out vocals have just enough glassy-eyed psychedelia in them to prove that this band comes from Seattle. It’s a fascinating combination, but at the end of the day, the best part of Lonesome Shack are those rolling, rolling grooves, burning up the road all night long.
Christian Sedelmyer & Dave Goldenberg. The Show About Nothing.
2014. Tasty Note Records.
Nashville’s ultra-fiddler Christian Sedelmyer and mandolin kingpin Dave Goldenberg come together for a fascinating album of stringed duets as inspired by jazz improvisation as by folk traditions. I’ve been watching Christian’s playing closely after meeting him in Bradford Lee Folk’s Bluegrass Playboys and falling in love with his duo 10 String Symphony (with Rachel Baiman). I met Dave Goldenberg in Bradford Lee Folk’s Bluegrass Playboys as well, and he’s an endlessly inventive mandolinist, able to exploit a whole range of sounds on his instrument. On their debut album, The Show About Nothing, they trade off solos and vamp around each other like a conversation, and though most of the tracks are original, there are some lovely covers too: a version of “Greensleeves” that will make you fall in love with this old chesnut again, an awesome instrumental cover of “Every Breath You Take” from Sting, and a lovely Swedish polska. It’s an inventive and refreshing album, just the kind of music you’d expect from these two.
2014. Anti Records.
The new album from Tinariwen ups the ante on their brand of N. African desert rock. Separated from their native Mali by unrest and violence, these Tuareg rockers retreated to Joshua Tree in California and somehow tapped into the Hunter S. Thompson desert-psychedelia found in Southwest American culture. Check out their video for “Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim” on YouTube and you can see how two desert cultures come together in wave after wave of fuzzed-out, tranced-up guitar riffs. The new album sounds tighter than ever, but hasn’t lost the rough edges that make their music so great. But what’s perhaps best about this album are the translations of the songs. Singing in Tamasheq, I’ve always wondered what Tinariwen’s songs are really about. Now we can see what a powerful poet lead singer/songwriter Ibrahim Ag Alhabib is:
I followed their tracks, drowned out by the rain.
Disorientated, without points of reference
In space or time.
My camel bogged-down, knee-deep
Overcome with regret,
Like a mother-camel pining for its young.
Bryan Sutton. Into My Own.
2014. Sugar Hill Records.
It’s a pretty simple formula to make a great album when you’re bluegrass guitar legend Bryan Sutton. Just pick the shit out of some awesome bluegrass tunes with amazing buddies like Sam Bush, Noam Pikelny, Stuart Duncan, Bill Frisell and Ronnie McCoury. All the tunes and songs on this album are great, and it’s refreshing to hear such a wide swath of styles. Everything from guitar jazz to progressive bluegrass to barn-burning old-time numbers are represented. And with such mastery! This album makes bluegrass sound impossible easy. One listen to Swannanoa Tunnel and you’ll be hooked for life. It’s the kind of album only a small handful of artists in America today could make.
Sia Tolno. African Woman.
2014. Lusafrica. (drops June 17, 2014)
I’m not an expert on Afrobeat music, but evidently there’s a paucity of women in the genre. If that’s true, then Guinean singer and bandleader Sia Tolno comes as an extra strong breath of fresh air. Her new album, African Woman, aggressively rebuilds the Afrobeat template from a female perspective: hot-as-hell brass lines, funky bass riffs, Pidgin English (learned in Sierra Leone’s Freetown in her case, rather than Lagos) lyrics, seriously edgy political rants, and vocals to shake the rafters. It’s a winning combination and the album positively crackles with raw energy. Among the topics of her songs are warlords, police corruption, education for women, the dangers of emigration from Africa, and typical machismo attitudes in African culture. Tolno herself came from a rough background. A member of the Kissi people of Southern Guinea, she grew up in Freetown in Sierra Leone. Because of the civil war, she was forced to flee to Guinea, where, left with few options for employment, she took to the nightclubs of the city. Choosing songs from great Western singers like Piaf, Houston, and Simone, she rose to prominence on African reality TV via Africa Star. After popular previous albums, Tolno’s new album was produced by Afrobeat star Tony Allen (he was Fela Kuti’s drummer). With this album, Tony brought Yoruban funk and Ghanaian high-life influences together. It’s an amazingly powerful album by a breakout artist.
The False Beards. Ankle.
2013. Ghosts from the Basement.
British folk/roots duo The False Beard have a remarkably broad palette of inspirations to draw from on their newest album Ankle (not yet released in the US). With acoustic instruments guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, slide guitar, and an old melodeon, they tap into everything from a West African instrumental to and East Anglian accordion hornpipe to Greek rhythms, old British folk ballads, Louisiana country blues, and some good old psych folk. It works because they really know and love each of these touchstones. Singer/guitarist Ian Anderson runs the venerable UK magazine fRoots, so has been closely tied to many of the incoming folk, roots, country, blues, and world artists that have toured the UK over the past 50 odd years. He’s got exactly the kind of raw, earnest voice that we’ve come to expect from the best British folk singers and his guitar picking is a rock steady underpinning based on the best American blues pickers. Bouzouki and mandolin player Ben Mandelson equally comes from the world music world, but also has punk and new wave roots. The thing that works about this album is that The False Beards aren’t trying to be fusionists. They just genuinely love a lot of different musics and have a knack for finding some kind of common ground between them to creatively meld them into a new sound. Try out their cover of “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones for a taste of their gonzo world folk vision.
Julie Fowlis. Gach sgeul – Every Story.
2014. Machair Records.
The new album from Scottish singer Julie Fowlis (famous for her turn on Pixar’s Brave soundtrack) is a glorious celebration of the Scots Gaelic language. The whole album is in Gaelic and Fowlis has gone out of her way to touch the deepest roots of the tradition. Songs feature subjects like mythical creatures (water-horses), Gaelic mouth music (phuirt-à-beul), Gaelic literature and poetry, Scottish clan history, lullabies, and songs of the sea. Each song nestles into its own setting of lush acoustic instrumentation, played by some of the best Scottish traditional artists, but the focus of the album is on the songs. There’s a weight to each song, a weight of centuries in some cases, or just the weight of a culture under fire. I recently saw a British folk publication negatively review an album from another Scottish Gaelic singer basically by saying, “Why isn’t she singing this in English?” So it takes guts to sing entirely in Gaelic, and also to dive so deeply to find these gems. One of the standout songs, Òran Fir Heisgeir (Gura Mis’ Tha Fo Mhìghean) contains incredibly beautiful imagery of a ship returning to port.
“Rising between each glen
Sea crashing her oak timbers
Opening ribs and scales.”
Other songs speak to really fascinating ancienty mythology, like An Ròn and Ann An Casolas Od Odrum which tell the story of children of a Scandinavian king who’ve been placed under a spell and banished to remain creatures of the sea–seals. Each song is like a book in itself and there’s a lot to be found in this new collection of songs from a true master of Scottish Gaelic song.
Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas. Abundance.
2014. Culburnie Records.
It’s kind of a no-brainer that an album from longtime musical partners master Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and trailblazing cellist Natalie Haas will be amazing. And that’s certainly the case on their newest album, Abundance. Fraser has a deft hand on the bow and a huge knowledge of Scottish fiddling traditions from the Old World and has the kind of fire in the soul that you need to keep Scottish fiddling from slipping into the stilted classical sounds of yore. As the leader of a series of fiddle camps Fraser is at the forefront of traditional fiddling in America and knows pretty much everyone on the scene. Cellist Natalie Haas is another person at the vanguard here, being one of the first folk fiddle cellist and head of what’s become a real movement (I’m seeing folk cellists pop up everywhere these days). Here her hand at arranging the tunes is truly impressive. She draws out some of the lovelier aspects of each melody with her arrangements, not merely seconding the fiddle but preferring to use her cello playing as a highlight. It’s a powerful affect that really changes the music in a very positive way. The whole album here is beautiful and chock full of interesting tunes and ideas. What more would you expect from two masters?
Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II. Side by Side.
2013. Rebel Records.
What a glorious album! Dr. Ralph Stanley is the great old master of traditional bluegrass, or really just traditional mountain music. His ties to bluegrass date from before the Monroe & Scrugg stamp crafted the mold, and his influences stretch back across the centuries in Appalachia. And what a voice. His voice can’t be imitated, copied, or faked. It’s a voice that grew up in the churches and hollers of the mountains, truly steeped in the tradition. He’s been performing for 70 years, but it’s surprising that this is the first time he’s put out an album in duet with his son, Ralph Stanley II. His son, often called just “Two,” doesn’t have the same voice as the father, but he does have some similar inflections and a rich, Southern accent. Two is still an excellent singer and brings a touch of the same gravity to the music that the elder Stanley is famous for. Together they rip through classics of the genre, like “Wild Bill Jones,” “Walking With You In My Dreams”, the Carter Family’s “Darling Little Joe,” etc, and there are some truly great moments, like the mountain lament “Dirty Black Coal,” or the musician’s lament “Six Months Ain’t Long.” There’s a lot to love about this album, whether or not you’re a bluegrass die hard. It’s just great music, really, made between father and son.
Boulpik. Konpa Lakay.
What a revelation this album is! The old street music of Haiti is alive and well with this band of young musicians. On banjos, percussion instruments, and the manouba (a kind of bass marimba), this is konpa music, but it sounds more like the rootsier twoubadou singer-songwriter music of Haiti. Either way, Boulpik marry the kind of early calypso or mento sounds of the Caribbean with a decidedly modern edge. Boulpik’s album shows that a group can look back to tradition but also accept many different newer influences into their sound. Founded by Franckel Sifranc from Western Haiti, Boulpik took on the memories of the ti djaz (little jazz) music he heard growing up in which small orchestras with home-made instruments would perform different styles of street music at home. Moving from his rural home to the capital, Port-au-Prince in the 70s, Sifranc has had a 34 year career in music and is one of the elder troubadours in Haiti now. For a country that’s suffered so much upheaval, it’s beautiful to see that music can still sustain people. Boulpik’s album is pure joy from start to finish and deserves to launch them into the international spotlight.