Saturday
Feb022013

Interview with Ben Kyle by Stephen Rapid

 

Ben Kyle is a singer and songwriter who has just released his debut self-titled album after being a part of the band Romantica and releasing an album of duets with Carrie Rodguiez (We Still Love Our Country). Ben Kyke’s album was a surprise when I first heard it and became a firm favourite and one of the albums of the year. So Lonesome Highway to the opportunity to ask Ben about his background and his musical influences.

Ben, you left Ireland when you were 13. What memories do you have of living here before that?

Oh many, many very good memories indeed. I recollect a very rich boyhood; mostly memories of family and friends, schools and sports. I was the third of seven children. My father was a medical doctor turned ecumenical pastor, a sort of physician turned spiritualist. You could say he went from being concerned with healing bodies to healing hearts.

My mother played field hockey for Ireland. I like to say she was an international sports star turned head coach of 7 children. We were a Protestant family with a Catholic fertility ethos! We grew up in a type of community life, frequently engaged with not just our own friends but our parent’s friends, stopping in for tea, coming over for dinner, or often living with us.

It was a fairly routine life, with summer holidays on the same beach each year... I had four brothers with which to hone my football skills and 2 sisters with whom to enact faux weddings and living room concerts. 

Did you inherit any musical impulses or roots from your Irish heritage? 

I imagine I did although growing up, as many do nowadays, with an eclectic soundtrack, it's difficult to discern what really came from where.  But there IS something of the land, the air, the ethos of the place you are from, that remains with you in your soul and comes out through your music.  We did learn traditional songs in school and those melodies still resonate with me.  GK Chesterton once wrote of the Irish "All their wars are merry and all their songs are sad".   If there's a sweet mellowness or a melancholy longing in my music I think it may come from here. I think of the Irish poetic heritage too; Synge, Swift, Wilde, Yeats and Joyce among many, and their great concern with words. A reverence for words has followed me too.

What are your earliest memories of music and your initial influences,  and when did you start to play?

My grandmother was a pianist, organist and choir director.  My father was a songwriter himself and wrote a lot of music for the church. We used to have family 'praise times' where we'd all sing together and play our own instruments. I shared a room with my older brother and on Saturdays he would always be tuned in to the "Top 40 Countdown" on the radio. They would be giving away albums to the first 5 callers and he would just sit there with the phone on re-dial! That's how we built our first record collection!  I remember some of the spoils- Paul Simon, Lionel Richie, The Boss.  As I look back, I realize there were a lot of classic songwriters in rotation; Dylan, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel among them too. We had an old Dylan songbook lying around, so when I picked up the guitar, those were the first songs I learned to play. But in our house it was as natural to make up your own songs as it was to play somebody else's, so I began a sort of rudimentary writing right away. My uncle had a moderately successful duo group in the 70's called "Stewart and Kyle," so I joined ranks with my boyhood chum Ricky Higginson and formed "Higg and Kyle" - it didn't have quite the same ring - and we began gathering material for our first album by photocopying pages from the biblical book of 'Revelation' that seemed to provide colorful enough imagery to set some tunes to. The album was shelved by "Higg and Kyle Records" for obvious reasons, but the ambition was clearly there, and it would only be a matter of time before that aspiring songwriter matured and refined some of his own 'revelations'.

Some early years were spent learning and imitating songs that I enjoyed listening to, with less compulsion to write. But after my family's emigration to America at the tender age of 13, I was ripe and ready to coalesce and express some of the things I was feeling and observing about my 'new world' in the song form. These early musings came out in a sort of Dylan inspired, but adolescently awkward and youthfully self-righteous toned, socio-political commentary. Thankfully any demonstration recordings have been long-lost or burned and these early sketches survive only in the forgivingly nostalgic memories of a few teenage campfire companions!

Was Romantica your first band?

Yes. I continued to write and play through my teens. I tried to give up music while enrolled in Art School so I could give myself fully to the studies, but I was never able to really let go. I even showed up at a painting critique once with a song instead of a painting. (Thankfully, I'd a gracious professor.)  But after I finished the degree, I knew the next thing was to follow the music. So that's when I began Romantica.

There's a clip of you playing I Don't Want To Go Out Tonight with Romantica. Were some of the songs written over a period of time that feature on your solo album?

Yes they were. I had been playing a few of the songs with Romantica, but they just seemed to fit the feel and context of this album.  

The mini-album you recorded with Carrie Rodriguez quite obviously suggests that you have a love for traditional country. How deep was that?

I discovered traditional country through Gram Parsons. There's a purity and straightforwardness about it that I love, but there's also a charm and an easy self-consciousness about it, like "I take myself really seriously" but at the same time "I don't take myself too seriously."  As a band it was our favorite touring soundtrack. Many a highway mile was passed to the sound of Hank, Lefty, Marty, Buck, Merle, Porter, Dolly, Townes, George, Cash and co.

How did you decide what songs to record given you had a limited amount of studio time?

We each threw some ideas out and landed on the ones that we both agreed on, and felt we could give our own 'thing' to. 

Do you intend to record together, in that way, in the future?

It was a brilliant experience with Carrie and the band and I love recording that way... locked up, with the limit of a couple of days.  There's no plan at the moment, but if the stars align, I'd do it again, for sure.

Is your solo album a side-step or do you intend to continue as a solo artist?

It wasn't a side step, so much as a next step and I'm seldom aware of what's two steps ahead!  I imagine there'll be more Ben Kyle releases, but there could quite possibly be more Romantica releases too.  

Some of the songs suggest a weariness with traveling and need to be closer to your family. Is that an option for a working musician?

It's a great question. It's definitely a tension. I think it's all about finding the right balance. And also about defining what you do and hope to do. If you hope to be a sensation, then you probably ought to assume the kind of rigorous touring schedule that the industry demands. If you hope, as I do, to be open to a sort of spiritual navigation system, have a grounded family life, make beautiful albums and sustain a living by periodically traveling to perform and share that music in a meaningful live experience... then yes, you can be a working musician and remain close to your family!

You use the pedal steel as an integral part of the sound on the new album.  In one case you have four separate steel players. What attracts you to an instrument that was so integral to country music at one time?

I love the sound of the steel guitar. The way it bends and moves so fluidly from note to note, chord to chord. The way it swells in and gently departs. It's very analogous to a feeling.  To me, it sounds like spirit in its very timbre and tone. Especially when played with less 'twang' and more 'vibe'.  It carries longing. In a sense, the steel guitar is to American country music, what the low whistle or the uilleann pipes are to Irish music. It's not a wonder Daniel Lanois calls it his 'church in a suitcase'. 

This album is self-released. Is that the best path for you?

It's good for this moment.  I wanted to understand the benefits and drawbacks.  It allows me the autonomy to follow the sort of path I outlined before.  But it also gives me an appreciation for the role and function of a good label.

What is the best way to get to know Ben Kyle?

By reading this interview!  The new album is very personal, so that's a good way too.  

What is music to you?

Music is about feeling. It's all about feeling. Getting a feeling,  expressing a feeling. Expressing how we feel in this world in a medium that can be felt by everybody.

Do you have any plans to return to Ireland?

I love Ireland.  I don't imagine finding myself living there again, although I wouldn't resist her if she called - and gave me a good reason. But I hope to return often to visit and to play. 

 


 

Saturday
Dec082012

Interview with Ryan Bingham

 

 

Ryan Bingham released his latest album on his own Axster Bingham Records , a label he formed with his wife Anna Axster, after three albums on Lost Highway. His most notable success so far has been with the song The Weary Kind that he wrote with producer T-Bone Burnett and which was featured in the Oscar winning film Crazy Heart. The Weary Kind is not indicative of the songs he is currently writing or playing. He has played in Dublin three times and his most recent Whelan's visit was without his band The Dead Horses, but with a new set of musicians and a shift in the sound which featured a mix of acoustic, roots and outright rock songs. We caught up with Ryan for a brief chat before the show.

Was it a good time to start your own label?

Well, it seems right. I have a good team around and we hired a publicist. We're working with Thirty Tigers in the US and we do separate deals for the album in other territories.

The songs on Tomorrowland seem to have  some anger and an amount of tenderness in them.

You know,  I never really thought about it while I was recording the record,  but after going back and listening to it I can hear a bit of that myself. After The Weary Kind and the film Crazy Heart it was the first time I'd taken any time off from the road, I took about a year off. There was a lot of stuff happening at the time. Right about when I made Mescalito my mother passed away and then right after The Weary Kind came out my father passed away. I was going through a rough time through all of that stuff. That and the way society is today for a young person growing up trying to deal with the world and trying to make sense of it both economically and with social issues is tough and that stuff just came out in my music. It comes from travel and the places I go to and the people I meet when I'm on the road and talk to. 

Playing the electric guitar had a lot to do with it as well. It was the first time where I had a place and could set up an amp and some pedals and experiment. The first time I played electric was when I did the first record and Marc Ford, who produced it, just handed me an electric guitar and said "I think this will fit your personality". But after that,  I never really had a chance to practice as we were straight out on the road and I was just playing rhythm guitar. I had to learn as I went along, so when I got home, as I say I set up and tried some different amps and began to experiment with the sound. I listen to a lot of stuff like The Clash, Zeppelin and Hendrix. I was learning about tone and just listening.

Did the perception after Crazy Heart that you were a county singer distract you from your natural course?

Oh yeah, totally. When I first started writing and recording I was still very much trying to figure it out, what direction I was going in and I still feel that I am. The more I learn and go on the road and tour,  the more I'm influenced by different styles, different music and different cultures. So when I get home I always feel that I'm experimenting and having some fun. For some record labels that's hard to market, especially when they need to put you in a genre, they need to find a place to put you so people can find a way to buy it. I had that country stamp of this is what it is. Any time I tried to veer in and out of that it was always something I had to deal with as I went along. I try not to worry about it too much.  

So where do you think your music will take you?

A lot of times it depends on what kind of mood I'm in. I still love playing acoustic guitar with that feeling of just a guitar and a song. That's where I started when I played in those little dives in Texas, in the roadhouses and stuff. You can always turn it into anything you want after that. You could bring in fiddles and banjos and make it folk or country or you can have the electrics. For me, I don't like to be restricted as I'm kind a free spirit and like to roam around and be adventurous.

Your roots and stories still have their basis in that Texas tradition though.

Totally. My foundation is that. That's how I still write. Even though this time I wrote on an electric guitar, it was still just me and the guitar. The tones and tempos came from that and whatever mood or feeling you’re in. But it definitely starts with a guitar and a song. 

Does you process start with the words or music first?

I've always got to start with the music first it seems. It's always sitting and playing around with the key or the melody that brings out whatever emotion it is. Sometimes I don't know what that emotion is at the beginning. It turns into whatever it is and I have to go back and then try to figure what it's really about. 

Following the success of Crazy Heart and The Weary Kind,  did a lot of offers come in for soundtrack work?

I did get some offers to do some fairly straight pop-country stuff. Put the cowboy hat on and polish the boots up,  but I really didn't think that was a good direction for me if I want to be creative and experiment in the future with my music, so I just tried to stick to what I was doing. 

The fact you now have your own label gives you that freedom.

Yes it does.

How has this tour been going?

It's been great. I'd been off for about a year and a half so I just did some dates back home and with all the new music and new sound it was interesting. It's always an adventure and you never know what it's going to be like till you get out there. We're having a blast. 

Who's the band? 

Matt Sherrod, who plays on the record and (also) plays with Crowded House, and his wife Kelly is playing bass. Evan Weatherford is on guitar. I met Matt through Justin Stanley the album's co-producer. They played with Beck years back. So I met Kelly through Matt and Evan was living in Nashville too. We just started jamming and playing.

Did you find the songs changing as you began to jam and rehearse?  

When we did they always seemed to take on a life of their own.

Would you have liked to go back and record them again after playing them live?

Very much so. Next year I'd love to do some live recording. We have a bunch of songs out there, and to find the right venue and have the energy of the crowd, who take it back and forth and to record that and the new ways of doing the songs is something I'm interested in trying. We keep it loose. I mean, we rehearse the songs to an extent but we leave space in there for them to take on a life of their own.

With your own label and channels of selling your music, is that an effectives means of survival for an independent band?

I think so, if you're willing to get out on the road and tour. Because I remember when I first started and was doing home recordings and demos and playing small gigs in roadhouses and places that, the internet was around and websites were beginning and you could at least put your tour dates there if you had an savvy. Now with social media (you) can instantaneously let people know that you’re coming into town. You can sell your music off your own website so It's like worldwide distribution. So if you’re out there, it's easier than ever to build a fan base. 

How important is a physical CD for you?

I don't know. We still have a lot of people who like to buy them. A lot of people are buying vinyl, especially at shows. I can see there being more vinyl with a download card included or both together. But a lot of younger kids are buying vinyl. It's pretty cool to see. But in some cases labels will wait to see what the demand is before they go and print up thousands of copies. I think people still like to have something to hold onto. Some friends of ours - a band call The Americans -  a folk/jug band, who can play a set of music from the 20s or the 40s, all old-timey influences -  they did their own album and they bought decks of playing cards and put a download code on that . The cards had their logo on and they sold that at gigs.

How far do you think ahead as regards what you might do? 

It's such an adventure and it changes from one day to the next, so it's hard to have any expectations as to where you're going to be (laughs). I'm enjoy the journey and writing songs and I'm enjoying playing with this new band. They're a lot of fun and inspiring to play with and so has (been) setting up the new label and the creative freedom to know that I can get into it and see what I can come up with. There's the idea of the live album and also, maybe, a double album with one half acoustic and one half  electric.  Ten songs on each half.  It's nice to be able to play both ways as I still love to do acoustic shows too.

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton

Wednesday
Nov212012

Interview with Ed Romanoff

 

Meeting Ed Romanoff one encounters a friendly and curious man who has had a successful backstage career in the entertainment industry, working on the staging and presentation of a wide range of shows and events. He comes late to the world of being on stage rather than backstage and is a talented writer and engaging performer in his own right. We talked to Ed before his first live show in Dublin. 

You were a late starter to songwriting I believe?

Yes, I was. It's something I became interested in in 2009. I had a thought that I really wanted to start writing songs, so I started to go to songwriting retreats. That's where I met Mary (Gauthier). She was teaching, as was Darrell Scott and Beth Nielsen Chapman.  I also met Josh Ritter there. He and I became good friends. I'm a curious person by nature so I wanted to know the craft side. Just what makes it work, how could you build a song that would hold up, before you get into the inspired side of writing, of what you're trying to say? 

Then there was another guy who I met out in California who was really interesting. He took apart a lot of the Beatles' songs and analyses why they worked. I don't know if they were aware of what they were doing and that they were doing it intentionally, but there's a pattern to a lot of Beatles' songs. I find that kind of stuff compelling. 

So I was a late starter and I guess you know my story? Which is; I thought I was tone-deaf and in the family I grew up in, my father was tone-deaf, so I didn't sing. But I liked music and I started to play the guitar and I wanted to write some songs so I started to take voice lessons. That was with a guy named Bill Riley who is a voice coach in the city, in Manhattan. He works with people like Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder and Pavarotti. The first time I went to see him (Riley) I was so nervous to be sitting in the same seat that Bruce Springsteen sat (in), I could barely breathe. I was nervously sitting there and he said "first of all, your posture's terrible and you have cleared your throat 20 times since you walked in the door and I'm not doing anything until you gargle". He took me in the kitchen a made a baking soda mixture with warm water which he had me gargle.

That was about two and a half years ago. Working with him I have extended my range dramatically. I could sing maybe within twelve notes and now I have three octaves. I had four notes in the low end I didn't know existed.  None of the high end too.  That was something I would never have even tried. So it turned out I'm not tone-deaf as I had thought I was. The father I grew up with I had discovered was not my father. 

Some people sing so great and they talk good. Whereas if you don't sing that good, and that's a category I put myself, you have to think about what you’re saying. I also come from the Mary Gauthier school.  I was taking her class and I knew her a little bit, but not that well, and I knew she was working on her record about having been adopted (The Foundling) so I sent her a demo of a song I'd written called Orphan King and she liked it and she asked me to finish it with her. I couldn't believe it, as a student for your teacher to say "I like your demo let's go work on it down in New Orleans". That, at the orphanage where I was left on the day I was born, and that was like as if John Prine had said "hey, do you want to go and get a sandwich". 

So we flew down to New Orleans and we stayed near the orphanage in a hotel, this was after Katrina, and the place was in bad shape. I literally slept with my boots on as there had been a power outage earlier and there had been people outside my window trying to figure out how they could get in. I figured that if they got in I could run down the hallway. We then finished the song The Orphan King and it got on the record, stunningly. Working on that song was an eye opener to me as it was the first time for me to see a person's process. Mary is the bar by which I aim to be. We went through probably 80 drafts of that song. It was so fascinating to watch how she worked. She's inspired and she's hard working. She comes at thing with an insight. She says amazing things, so I used to follow her around with a note book. Every single word was looked at and when we were done she said “if anyone asks you just tell them we wrote it in the cab on the way to the studio” (laughs).

Some writers spend a lot of time getting a song right.

It matters.  I'm pretty new at it as I've only been writing since 2009. I have found that for me, and my experience is limited, that it helps me to get close to where I think it's done and then to play it out at some clubs where I get a chance to play and I find out how the songs ‘grows up’ in a way. There are certain words you feel fall away and areas where you begin to feel that something else might work better. 

For those of us who are fascinated by the process of making music it's important to be involved in some way.

I agree. That's why I started to work as a producer behind the scenes. I produced entertainment shows for years and years. I did comedy with all kinds of people from Jay Leno, George Burns and a lot of country acts - Reba McEntire. I worked with a lot of Motown bands too, producing their live shows. I liked being around it. But I never dreamed that I would be on a stage, ever. A, I was terrified and B, I didn't think that I could do it.

The one cover on the album is the Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran song I Fall To Pieces.  How did that come about?

A friend of mine said why not do that Patsy Cline cover and I thought "mmm, a Patsy Cline cover? That's insane. Why would I do that?” but I played it and I really connected with the song. Then I found out that (co-writer) Harlan Howard had been in a lot of foster homes as a kid and it apparently ended up with him being in a foster home where his mother lived and so the legend goes that song is really about his mother, but who knows if that's true? 

When I started playing it and it started to go down well live and when I started to work with Crit Harmon as a producer, who's fantastic, he said let's move it down one and a half steps and swamp it up a little bit. I had a mixed sense about it and I was looking for something on it. In the studio Duke Levine was playing the riff and in doing it I had made a mistake on one of the words. When you have great writers like that you don't change the words and I said "Crit, I got to redo that as I sang one of the words wrong". He said "No. It's done, don't break it". That was our one pass. It was our practice run and he said "don't break it". I was thinking I've song a word wrong and people are going to think that I think I know better. So I said "Please let me sing it again" and he insisted that as I was playing it on the acoustic the mics were picking up everything and it wouldn't work. 

Crit Harmon is a believer in that there is a magic to certain takes, and it's hard to figure out which one it is, and if you start thinking too much you're just singing words. It now seems right to me that very often the first one has got a certain charm to it. So what he did was after we'd done the basic tracks, there are four tracks I believe where the vocal was the first take, and we went back and we took those basic tracks and every night we did one shot at each song. We had a candle lit and a cup of whiskey and we did it like a show. We did that four nights in a row and we picked the best first passes. So there's very little punching in. In the end it was worth it. And almost invariably it was the first one of the night that had it. It's one of the reasons why I Fall To Pieces went so well for us as it's such a perfect song. I feel if the writing's worked out in advance then the other stuff falls into place. If there's something not right with the song, then it can take a bunch of time to fix. 

Covers tend to say something about a writer by the choices that are made in picking a song.

Josh and I have talked about this as I was deciding whether to put a cover on the album and he said "You know sometimes it's hard for people to decide if they like somebody until they hear how you interpret someone else's song". I thought that was interesting. I have been opening for a woman recently called Rachael Yamagata. She's a really special writer - she's like, if this is possible, the female Townes Van Zandt of female piano singer/songwriters. She just says and does things that she doesn't know why she's doing them. She is so special. She invited me to go on the road with her and she's in that same place as Mary. I couldn't believe it when she invited me. 

I opened for her on one show and this is when I was working behind the scenes, about five or six years ago. And I didn't play piano but I started to take piano lessons when I was doing the voice lessons. So anyway I wanted to play a song of hers that I was there the day they recorded it as I felt a connection to it. So I played one of her songs opening for her and it was interesting because the people in the audience knew the song so they were able to sing along. It might have been a bit of a crazy choice to cover the song of the act you’re opening for, but that's the thing about being a little naive about it. I don't know enough to know when I'm doing something, so that allows me take some chances. Now I'm going to get to play it on tour with her and sing the song with her. 

What do you intend to do next?

I'm halfway through the next record. I'm working on two projects right now - one is a book and the other is the next record. The songs I did for this record are all basically true stories. Lady Luck is about my cousin. TwoYellow Roses is about my hometown. St Vincent is kinda autobiographical, Sacred Wrecks the same. But, to be honest, I'm over that,  but I had to get them out, I guess. They were sort of in the way. So now I've got one about a bank robber named Willie Sutton. He's famous in the US, he's was an Irishman actually. He robbed 200 banks but got pardoned by Governor Rockefeller. That was because he was such a popular guy and Rockefeller wanted to get re-elected, pardoned him and did get re-elected. I found that very interesting so I write the song about him and I really like it.  

The songs I'm doing right now they feel the same but their happy and they're kinda on the other side of things. Another that I've finished that I like a lot is called Less Broken Now. There was a woman in my office who got Lyme Disease and she almost died. But, thankfully, she survived and I went to see her and I went to give her a hug but she had wires hanging out and I said "I don't want to hurt you" and she said "oh, it's ok I'm a little less broken now". So I took that and wrote a song about a relationship. So I'm having a lot of writing about these different things. 

What's the book about?

The book is about... it started with the DNA test I took with Mary. We were on the road and she said she was going to take this DNA test because she don't know who her family was and so I said "I'll take it too". I woke up one morning and I looked in the mirror and all these years I thought I was a composite of my parents. So I saw my Mum and my Dad in the mirror and then I look and I'm thinking "ok, who's this half?". 

That was a weird feeling and as I like puzzles I thought "well here's one". So I wanted to solve it. I decided I could either hand it off and get someone to look into it or do it myself. So what I did was, when my mother died, I went through her address book and her scrap book and then I flew round the country and started to interview my mother’s friends. So the book is about the conversations I had with these elderly women and from that I found out what happened. It was amazing and these women were so funny. I didn't find out who my father was but I found out how it happened. Then I found a family who it could have been but the guy had passed away so I met his kids and we have since become really good friends. 

It also turned out that my DNA matched this guy Niall Of The Nine Hostages. I was like "this can't be right" so I sent it in and the science was done with this group who said "you're in". So my name is in now next to McCracken, O'Malley, O'Connell. A bit like a New York City fire department roster. (laughs). Then it's Romanoff! But it turns out we're related. This family who I have now become friends with, they have the exact same DNA, but not the same genome. So they are also related and they didn't know it either. We're actually distant cousins, not half-siblings. In the DNA breakdown there was 4% Ghanaese and I can't dance (laughs). I have to really practice with a metronome for tempo. I was told that this was over a very long period of time. But the majority was Irish. I didn't believe it at first. 

Meeting Ed Romanoff one encounters a friendly and curious man who has had a successful career in the background of the entertainment industry working on the staging and presentation of a wide range of shows and events. He comes late to the world of being in stage rather than backstage and is a talented writer and engaging performer in his own right. We talked to Ed before his first live show in Dublin. 

You were a late starter to songwriting I believe?

Yes I was. It's something I became interested in in 2009. I had a thought that I really wanted to start writing songs, so I started to go to songwriting retreats. That's where I met Mary (Gauthier). She was teaching, as was Darrell Scott and Beth Nielsen Chapman, I also met Josh Ritter there. He and I became good friends. I'm a curious person by nature so I wanted to know the craft side. Just what makes it work, how could you build a song that would hold up before you get into the inspired side of writing of what you're trying to say? 

Then there was another guy who I met out in California who was really interesting. He took apart a lot of the Beatles' songs and analyse why they worked. I don't know if they were aware of what they were doing and that they were doing it intentionally but there's a pattern to a lot of Beatles' songs. I find that kind of stuff compelling. 

So I was a late starter and I guess you know my story? Which is that I thought I was tone-deaf and in the family I grew up in my father was tone-deaf, so I didn't sing. But I liked music and I started to play the guitar and I wanted to write some songs so I started to take voice lessons. That was with a guy named Bill Riley who is a voice coach in the city, in Manhattan. He works with people like Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder and Pavaroti. The first time I went to see him I was so nervous to be sitting in the same seat that Bruce Springsteen sat, I couldn't barely breathe. I was nervously sitting there and he said "first of all, your posture's terrible and you have cleared your throat 20 times since you walked in the door and I'm not doing anything until you gargle". He took me in the kitchen a made a baking soda mixture with warm water which he had me gargle.

That was about two and a half years ago. Working with him I have extended my range dramatically. I could sing maybe within twelve notes and now I have three octaves. I had four notes in the low end I didn't know existed. None of the high-end too. That was something I would never have even have tried. So it turned out I'm not tone-deaf as I had thought I was. The father I grew up with I had discovered was not my father. 

Some people sing so great and they talk good.Whereas if you don't sing that good, and that's a category I put myself, you have to think about what your saying. I also come from the Mary Gauthier school. I was taking her class and I knew her a little bit but not that well and I knew she was working on her record about having been adopted (The Foundling) so I sent here a demo of a song I'd written called Orphan King and she liked it and she asked me to finish it with her. I couldn't believe it, as a student for your teacher to say "I like your demo let's go work on it down in New Orleans". That at the orphanage where I was left on the day I was born and that was like as if John Prine had said "hey, do you want to go and get a sandwich". 

So we flew down to New Orleans and we stayed near the orphanage in a hotel, this was after Katrina, and the place was in bad shape that I literally slept with my boots on as there had been a power outage earlier and there had been people outside my window trying to figure out how they could get in. I figured that if they got in I could run down the hallway. We then finished the song The Orphan King and it got on the record, stunningly. Working on that song was an eye opener to me as it was the first time for me to see a person's process. Mary is the bar by which I aim to be. We went throughly probably 80 drafts of that song. It was so fascinating to watch how she worked. She's inspired and she's hard working. She comes at thing with an insight. She says amazing things, so I used to follow here around with a note book. Every single word was looked at and when we were done she said if anyone asks you just tell them we wrote it in the cab on the way to the studio (laughs).

Some writers spend a lot of time getting a song right.

It matters, I'm pretty new at it as I've only been writing since 2009, I have found that for me and my experience is limited that it helps me to get close to where I think it's done and then to play it out at some clubs where I get a chance to play and I find out how the songs grows up in a way. There are certain words you feel fall away and areas were you begin to feel that something else might work better. 

For those of us who are fascinated by the process of making music it's important to be involved in some way.

I agree, that's why I started to work as a producer behind the scenes. I produced entertainment shows for years and years. I did comedy with all kinds of people from Jay Leno, George Burns and a lot of country acts - Reba McIntyre. I worked with a lot of Motown bands too producing their live shows. I liked being around it. But I never dreamed that I would be on a stage, ever. A, I was terrified and B, I didn't think that I could do it.

The one cover on the album is the Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran song I Fall To Pieces how did that come about?

A friend of mine said why not do that Patsy Cline cover and I though "mmm, a Patsy Cline cover? That's insane". Why would I do that but I played it and I really connected with the song. Then I found out that (co-writer) Harlan Howard had been in a lot of foster homes as a kid and it apparently ended up with him being in a foster home where his mother lived and so the legend goes that song is really about his mother, but who knows if that's true? 

When I started playing it and it started to go down well live and when I started to work with Crit Harmon as a producer, who's fantastic, he said let's move it down one and a half steps and swamp it up a little bit. I had a mixed sense about it and I was looking for something on it. In the studio Duke Levine was playing the riff and in doing it I had made a mistake on one of the words. When you have great writers like that you don't change the words and I said "Crit, I got to redo that as I sang one of the words wrong". He said "No. It's done, don't break it". That was our one pass it was our practice run and he said "don't break it". I was thinking I've song a word wrong and that people are going to think that I think I know better. So I said "Please let me sing it again" and he insisted that as I was playing it on the acoustic the mics were picking up everything and it wouldn't work. 

Crit Harmon is a believer in that there is a magic to certain takes and it's hard to figure out which one it is and if you start thinking too much you're just singing words. I now seems right to me that very often the first one has got a certain charm to it. So what he did after we'd done the basic tracks, there are four tracks there I believe were the vocals was the first take, and we went back and we took those basic tracks and every night we did one shot at each song. We had a candle lit and a cup of whiskey and we did it like a show. We did that four night in a row and we picked the bet first passes. So there's very little punching in. In the end it was worth it. And almost invariably it was the first one of the night that had it. It's one of the reasons why I Fall To Pieces went so well for us as it's such a perfect song. I feel if the writing's worked out in advance then the other stuff falls into place. If there's something no right with the song then it can take a bunch of time to fix. 

Covers tend to say something about a writer by the choices that are made in picking a song.

Josh and I have talked about this as I was deciding whether to put a cover on the album and he said "You know sometimes it's hard for people to decide if they like somebody until they hear how you interpert someone else's song". I thought that was interesting. I have been opening for a woman recently called Rachael Yamagata. She's a really special writer - she's like, if this is possible, the female Townes Van Zandtz of female piano singer/songwriters. She just says and does things that she doesn't know why she's doing them. She is so special. She invited me to go on the road with her and shes's in that same place as Mary. I couldn't believe it when she invited me. 

I opened for her on one show and this is when I was working behind the scenes., about five or six years ago and i didn't play piano but I started to take piano lessons when I was doing the voice lessons. So anyway I wanted to play a song of hers that I was there the day that they recorded it as I felt a connection to it. So I played one of here songs opening for her and it was interesting because the people in the audience knew the song so they were able to sing along. It might have been a bit of a crazy choice to cover the song of the act your opening for but that's the thing about being a little niave about it. I don't know enough to know when I'm doing something so that allows me take some chances. Now I'm going to get to play it on tour with her and sing the song with her. 

What do you intend to do next?

I'm halfway through the next record. I'm working on two projects right now - one is a book and the other is the next record. The songs I did for this record are all basically true stories. Lady Luck is about my cousin. TwoYellow Roses is about my hometown. St Vincent is kinda autobiographical, Sacred Wrecks the same. But, to be honest, I'm over that but I had to get them out, I guess. They were sort of in the way. So now I've got one about a bank robber named Willie Sutton. He's famous in the US, he's was an Irishman actually. He robbed 200 banks but got pardoned by governor Rockerfeller. That was because he was such a popular guy and Rockerfeller wanted to get re-elected, pardoned him and did get re-elected. I found that very interesting so I write the song about him and I really like it. 

The songs I'm doing right now they feel the same but their happy and they're kinda on the other side of things. Another that I've finished that I like a lot is called Less Broken Now. There was a woman in my office who got limes disease and she almost died. But, thankfully, she survived and I went to see her and I went to give her a hug but she had wires hanging out and I said "I don't want to hurt you" and she said "oh, it's ok I'm a little less broken now". So I took that and wrote a song about a relationship. So I'm having a lot of writing about these different things. 

What's the book about?

The book is about... it started with the DNA test I took with Mary. We were on the road and she said she was going to take this DNA test because she don't know who her family was and so I said "I'll take it too". I woke up one morning and I looked in the mirror and all these years I thought I was a composite of my parents. So I saw my Mum and my Dad in the mirror and then I look and I'm thinking "ok, who's this half?". 

That was a weird feeling and as I like puzzles I thought "well here's one". So I wanted to solve it. I decided I could either hand it off and get someone to look into it or do it myself. So what I did was, when my mother died, I went through her address book and her scrap book and then I flew round the country and started to interview my mother;s friends. So the book is about the conversations I had with these elderly women and from that I found out what happened. It was amazing and these women were so funny. I didn't find out who my father was but I found out how it happened. Then I found a family who it could have been but the guy had passed away so I met his kids and we have since become really good friends. 

It also turned out that my DNA matched this guy Niall Of The Nine Hostages. I was like "this can't be right" so I sent it in and the science was done with this group who said "you're in". So my mane is in now next to McCracken, O'Malley, O'Connell. A bit like a New York city fire department roster. (laughs). Then it's Romanoff! But it turns out we're related. This family who I have now become friends with they have the exact same DNA, but not the same genome. So they are also related and they didn't know it either. We're actually distant cousins not half-siblings. In the DNA breakdown there was 4% Ghanaese and I can't dance (laughs). I have to really practice with a metronome for tempo. I was told that this was over a very long period of time. But the majority was Irish. I didn't believe it at first. 

Welcome to the tribe Ed.

Interview by Steve Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton

 

Wednesday
Aug082012

JD McPherson, Jimmy Sutton, Jason Smay Interview

 

When JD McPherson and the band played in Dublin recently (see live review) we were able to have a quick Q&A with band members JD, Jimmy Sutton, label head, bassist and producer and drummer Jason Smay.
One quote I read was that you had an inclination to sound like Stiff Little Fingers on Del-Fi Records so I figured you guys had a wider musical upbringing that some might expect.
JD: I keep forgetting about these things that I say. They pop back up and I laugh. 
Jimmy: You know what when you say something it's signed sealed and deliver and may come back on you.
Growing up in a small town like Broken Arrow was music your link to a wider, weirder world?
JD: Completely. It was all I did. Draw and listen to music and read about music. I read every magazine I could get my hands on. Photo copied fanzines as well as Creem and Spin and whatever. It was all there was to do. That and getting into trouble. 
What was the range of music that you were hearing back then?
JD: My Dad grew up in Alabama and his music was rural black music. He listened to blues and rhythm and blues. He also got into jazz in the army. I liked his blues stuff. I wasn't so much into the jazz when I was I school. I just didn't get it. He was listening to some pretty heavy stuff like Thelonious Monk. I love that now but back the I didn't. My Mom listened to whatever was easy listening on the radio at the time. So my first kinda thing when I started to get into music was through my older brothers. They were into Southern Rock and Arena Rock - Zeppelin, Hendrix. Basically guitar music. That what I was starting to do - play guitar. I though that Eddie van Halen was the best thing that there ever was. As I got older I realized that Bo Diddley was more interesting. 
We talked about the way music comes from a lot of sources and how early country music brought a lot of different strand together and later sophistacaction with singers like Ray Price. JD felt he was like a country Dean Martin and Jimmy said he had elements of jazz in his delivery, depending on what part of his career you were listening to. Music for all of us was a wide open world.

Jimmy was your background similar?
Jimmy: I grew up on the south-side of Chicago by the University of Chicago. It was a real inter-racial culture surrounded by a ghetto. Literally one block from my house was the start of Brownsville. I had all kind s of stuff hit me from all angles. But I have to tell you my first concert ever was Count Basie. He used to play our church on the south-side. My first rock concert, which was the day my brother said I turned cool was The Ramones, before that he said I was just a pest. When I do these interviews I think about it and when you slam Count Basie and The Ramones together you got something there. But in Chicago the local station they were playing Joy Division before anybody else. They were playing everything before it caught on. It was pretty eclectic. I kinda learned a lot from that but as JD said when your young you can only digest so much. So I was really listening to jazz and things like that back then. My brothers were a hugh influence on me and The Beatles were a big thing. The along came The Ramones and DEVO and I had a crush on Debbie Harry. But then a lot of that punk thing came along and it was hand in hand with rockabilly. All the cats - The Stray Cats, The Polecats, The Rockats, the Bob Cats. That was like my Kiss when I was a teenager. That open the doors. I think we all shared that experience and we all wondered "who wrote those songs?". So that's me in a nutshell.
Was it similar for you Jason?
Jason: I grew up in a small town near Rochester, New York. It was small and there was no real music scene in it. So I grew up listening to what my Dad listened to. That was Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple, 60's rock music. I was always interested in rock 'n' roll so greaser culture was something I found myself in real quick. That's what I was brought up on. 
Jimmy: Greaser Culture, that's a good one (laughs).
You guys got together after JD contact you Jimmy?
Jimmy: Yeah, he contacted me on MySpace. When you get approached as I was and I was getting tapes all the time it was "Ok, sigh, here's another". So when I listened to JDs I was definitely taken by surprise. It was "yep, he's got it, that's my boy" (laughs). It's funny you guys both talked about your parents and I should mention mine. My Mum is from Peru so she listened to a lot of latin music. She was disorganized and had this record collection and there were two Elvis records in it, one was a gospel record and I forget what the other one was. My father listened to whatever was on the old-time radio which was WGN and that was mostly big-band jazz and vocal harmony groups - whatever was happening. 
Jimmy: I think the soul resurgence has helped us a little bit. We're not soul but I think we're maybe soulful. 
You are still touring Signs & Signifiers even though it came out on Hi-Style two years ago. Is that a something that holds you back?
JD: It came out in October 2010. 
Jimmy: October 18th. on my small little label Hi-Style. Which was just me talking a big game.
JD: It's fun to go into a new town and play this stuff, like tonight. I just know tonight's going to be wonderful. I just can't wait.
Jimmy: We have a great feeling about tonight.
Jason: I was a good sign that when we were coming in  the immigration guy said "Oh, you're playing in Whelans so you must be good! - have a good show"
Jimmy: While in Heathrow they just gave us shit.
You had a vision about how this project would sound and also how it would look?
Jimmy: Well both JD and I are art school kids. We are both into visuals and concepts. I think that's what attracted me to JD. 
JD: It's the talking about the concept for a record, the packaging and all that stuff is just as exciting as everything because that was part of one thing that I really liked, well two things actually, that I liked about punk. That was the economic freedom - the do everything yourself type of thing. The other was that all the bands were like tribes. Bad Brains was this... not even punk, David Bowie had tons of stuff to look at. So I love coming up with the visual side.
Jimmy: I goes along with the fact that most of us like to listen with our eyes.
The demise of packaging is somewhat over dramatized.
Jimmy: It's fun. It's exciting, another one of our senses engaged. We listen but we also want to look. 
Ronnie: You have got the look right, so the first thing that people who don't know the music see is the styling.
Jimmy: Thanks.
Ronnie: You tour list is pretty tight. Is that how it works for you guys?
JD: You worry more when you look at the schedule but when you just do it it's alright. 
Jimmy: It's pretty exciting times right now with the recording coming out on Rounder. It's kinda a fun ride.
JD: A shot in the arm for sure.
How do you go about touring?
JD: Back in the States with our regular set-up were hauling around an acoustic piano, an M3 and a Leslie. We put everything into it. 
Jason: You get into a groove with it as it's just what you do. When you do have a night off it feels, for me, wow, aren't we supposed to be doing something tonight? What's going on here.
Jimmy: As Jason said there something to be said for lack of schedule but it takes a bit of time to get there. It's almost like your internal clock. So going back to what you said about the schedule being insane but, I think, at this point were just like on. The record has been re-released and it feels like it has fresh legs. But yes we'd love to put out another record and play some new material but at this point we can't even figure out when we can rehearse.
Do you think that the music will change when you do do the new album?
JD: It occurred to me that when I made this record, for me, I just wanted to make a real traditional rock 'n' roll record.That it could be indistingishable from something from another time. I just wanted to do that because it was something I'd always wanted to do. But then getting to know Jimmy and getting to know the studio and being there and listening to stuff it was about half way through that things began to change a little bit. Songs like A Gentle Awakening and Signifiers were written. That's when I got really excited because  I sensed that this was a new thing to me. 
Jimmy: It also developed early on when some key words that came when we first started talking about trying to put out a timeless record and as JD's a great wordsmith so I started to wonde if I could push him to be more contemporary yet still timeless. To sound like you're not trying too hard. 
JD: Our conversations were around that too. I was talking about the three or four songs I had going into it like Scandalous. That's a very Lieber/Stolleresque thing as I was totally aping on those guys. The new record I still want to be rhythm 'n' blues but I really want to open that up a lot and mess with that.
Your look, sound and recording process are all rooted in an earlier era of music making. Is that something that is important to you methodology?
Jimmy: Well, we recorded most of it live right to quarter inch. That being said you have to have a good performance in the space that you are in. The microphones are going to pick up the same things so we had to sound good right there and then. That also made me think who I was going to get on the session - what piano player, what drummer as not all drummers can play to a smaller envoirnment and yet still sound intense. A lot of drummers are very heavy handed. Once they try to play quiet they sound like they're trying to play quiet and that's the thing. You need to get over that hurdle. The drummer I originally got was Alex Hall who was very fluid and he also knows how to rock. Someone like Scott Leigon the piano player he just loves all kinds of music. He loves Johnnie Johnson and the first time I heard him play we had this wedding band and we were playing this song with a simple left hand piece (Jimmy hums the riff) and he said "Oh. that sound's great" and he was more than happy just to play those three notes throughout the song and that's rare. You don't find that many players that do that. As far as guitar I think JD's a great guitar player. I love his styling. I think he want's to play like Eddie van Halen sometimes (laughs). I love the simplicity, it's the way his brain is working.
What's the plan  to achieve world domination?
JD: I just want to keep playing and making records but right now things are happening that I can't really explain. Last night Nick Lowe was in the dressing room and at another gig Tom Waits was in the audience. Dan Aurabch from the Black Keys came to a show in St. Louis. That kind of stuff freaks me out. 
When you played I heard some comparisons between you to early Blasters.
Jimmy; That's great I love The Blasters. 
JD; I remember when I first started to listen to punk rock I used to think "this is it, I'm a punk" and it was punks listen to this and skinheads listen to this and rude boys listen to this thing, each segmented, and then I remember reading about shows in the early 80s with the Blasters, Dwight Yoakam and X on the same bill and I was like "ok, you can have this cross pollenation of people". So I like it when we get a mix with the opening act. We did a show recently with a New York punk band Lucious and it was great.
Jimmy: If It's all the same thing then it numbs the senses.
Thanks guys.
Interview by Steve Rapid with Ronnie Norton. Photography by Ronnie Norton

 

 

Monday
Jul232012

JD Wilkes

 

According to online information Joshua "JD" Wilkes was born in Texas in 1972. He later moved to Paducah, Kentucky a State where he acquired his honoury title of Colonel, something that was bestowed on certain residents associated with the State. Wilkes is a southern renaissance man best known for his musical endeavours but who is also a film maker, his Seven Signs was premiered in 2007 and is available on DVD. He is a cartoonist with his Head Cheese strip appearing in Nashville's Metromix and his work also featuring in other publications. He had a book Grim Hymns that  featured his artwork and his sideshow banners can be viewed at www.jdwilkes.com/banners.htm a site that features his artwork in general. 

He founded the Th Legendary Shack Shakers in the late 1990s in Nashville, playing the honky-tonks on Lower Braodway. He is now the sole original member of the band. Their album Cockadoodledon't was released on BloodShot records in 2003 though a live recording of an earlier line up was featured on Hunkerdown released on Spinout in 1998.

Believe, Pandelirium and Swampblood were released on Yep Roc between 2004 and 2007. Their most recent album Agri-Dustrial came out via their own label Colonel Knowledge in 2010.

The Dirt Daubers, the band formed with his wife Jessica have released two albums. The most recent Wake Up Sinners was also released on Colonel Knowledge in 2011.

JD is a compelling frontman, a formidable harmonica player and musician, a distinctive singer and a rewarding writer and a honest interviewee. On his trip to Dublin with The Dirt Daubers Lonesome Highway presented these questions to him.

As the constant member in both Th’ Legendary ShackShakers and The Dirt Daubers how easy is to maintain a vision of what the both band are?

It’s easy to separate in my mind, since both bands have their own, separate, cerebral hemisphere deep inside my brain. They are separated by a synapse, with the Daubers on the right, the Shakers on the left. 

However, logistically, it can be tricky to “open up for yourself” night after night. And it’s tough keeping people hip to the differences between the bands too. Oh well. They’ll learn one of these days.

The Shack Shakers have had numerous members and you mentioned when we spoke that the band now has a new lead guitarist, can you fill us in on that?

Rod Hamdallah is our new guy.  He stepped in after Duane hopped off to play with Mike Patton’s Tomahawk project (and a new project with Einsterzende Neubauten members).

Rod’s great!  He’s got a bluesy, old soul that fits better with 95% of our material.  So expect to hear a more rockin’, bluesier/swampier sound from us in the future.

It would appear that, although the bands have members in common, the Dirt Daubers are a separate parallel entity rather than a side-project. Is that your intention?

It’s just easier using people you already know who are good.  Finding full time musicians, or “lifers” is a tall order.  LSS and DD have enough common musical roots that we can get away with such a thing.  And yes, the Daubers are a separate-but-equal act.

Have you any intentions to explore southern culture in any formats other than music following the film Seven Signs having done your cartoons as well previously?

Actually, I have more of the same...loaded up and almost ready to fire. New short films on southern musicians/visionaries have already been shot and are in the editing process. And Grim Hymns 2 is ready for printing, once some funds come in. No new media formats, just music, art, and film. Isn’t that enough?!!

Do the Shack Shakers have any intentions to record in the near future as you’ve written a bunch of new songs?

I have a whole record written for LSS. More swampy goodness and southern gothic lyrics. A bit of weirdness thrown in. You know how we are. It’ll be out late this year, early next year.

The Dirt Daubers old-time music still seems to edgy for some traditionalists, is it hard to get past the gate-keepers?

Screw ‘em. Old Time fans have already morphed into being as bad as Bluegrassers.  Funny how they don’t realize that, in Old Time music, it was quite “authentic” to be “wrong”...to play whatever and however the heck you wanted. There were no rules (except maybe those imposed by the limited technology of the day.)  Hell, if it made a noise and there was enough whiskey flowing, it was music, by God!   

“What’s that?  A jaw harp and a pump organ?  Let’s jam!” 

Looking back over the many fine albums and great gigs you have done what stands out for you?

Favorite records: Cockadoodledon’t and Swampblood.

Favorite gigs: Robert Plant tour, Bla Rock in Tromso, Unit D in Tulsa.

What would you rather forget?

Certain “former members”, if you know what I mean.

Agri-dustrial suggested a weary eye on the way rural/urban divide was heading. Do you still keep abreast of the political undercurrents in the US?

Yes, but Jessica helps remind me to not pay too close attention. What can I do about it anyway? I’m just waiting for the Big Meteor to hit.

Both your bands have developed a strong set of fans but how difficult is it for either band to reach a wider audience?

It’s difficult getting the right management. Seems like we’ve had a few duds in our days. Thank God the strength of the live show is what it is.  That is what continues to propel both bands, frankly. 

Despite the problems do you find your creative energies still need the music to express or exercise yourself?

Yes, but I have other outlets. Old Timey banjo playing is what consumes me now. Sometimes it distracts from my other interests and I’m sure I’m driving everyone nuts in the van.

You have built up a loyal following in Europe is that something you want to expand on?

Heck yeah. Especially England, Ireland and Holland. Those places are crackin’ for us, I tell you what.

An early champion was Robert Plant who had you support him on tour. Do you keep in touch now that he lives in Austin?

Not really, but his oldest friend and sound man is a very good pal of the band. They all have places in Nashville too, I think. 

How do you feel that the hillbilly underground is developing, there seems to be a lot of bands out there now?

It’s great as long as the song writing is literate. The whole point is too embrace what’s fun and wild about southern/Appalachian culture while still upholding its spiritual, lyrical and artistic integrity. Otherwise it’s just a belligerent parody that confirms the worst of those “Deliverance” stereotypes.

It’s about being a “wise fool”. Don’t forget about the “wise” part, though.

Any you have seen that have taken your fancy?

Ummm, how many times have I mentioned “Pine Hill Haints” over the years? Am I allowed to mention them again? Oh yeah, and I love “Serious” Sam Barrett, the English ballad singer from Leeds. The two tour together frequently.  

Do you like the direction that Hank3 is taking his music? In some ways his two sides are already reconciled in the Shack Shakers.

I like that he’s pushing the envelope in an experimental direction.  It’s not too terribly listenable to most folks (although I love auctioneering, I worked at an auction house for a year and it’s music to my ears) But, to most it’s challenging so, as a result, he’s got my respect.

What are your hopes for the future of both bands and given that you are doing joint gigs is that an ideal package, or is it hard to do both on the same evening?

As I said, it’s tough. We might need to put more distance between the two. Dirt Daubers should be seen as a parallel band, not a “side project.”

When can your fans expect to see you in person or on record next, or is that too early to say at this point?

Soon enough. Hopefully we’ll have a new record when we return this April. I think you’ll love this new guitarist’s take on things. Personally, it gives me goose bumps.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Thank you!

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photograph by Ronnie Norton