Sunday
Aug042013

Interview with The Kennedys by Paul McGee

 

 

Thanks for taking the time to talk with Lonesome Highway and your fans. May I start by asking how you reacted to the recent Ireland/UK tour which saw you play a punishing schedule of 24 dates in just 30 days?

Maura: We love to play, so a gig every night would be ideal! This was our first UK tour without the benefit of Nanci Griffith's crew and bus, so it was a challenge, but an enjoyable one, to get ourselves around "low to the ground". We loved it.

What were the highlights of the recent tour – people, places, reflections?

Pete: Driving all the way west in Ireland and playing Listowell as the first show of the tour was a quick plunge into the real culture, distinct from American influence, although our presenter there loved to shout "rock'n'roll" in an Elvis Presley voice, so we felt somewhat at home! After the show, we went down to the John B Keane and were treated to an informal session that covered everything from traditional songs to Tom Waits, many of them sung by random patrons.

You’re presently based in New York and I wanted to ask how easy it is for you to run your affairs from a big city, as opposed to being based in a more rural setting, where your music is not swallowed in the daily rush.

Maura: In New York City, especially where we live in the Village, you're constantly aware that Dylan, Kerouac, Guthrie, Holly, Coltrane, Miles, Ellington, Armstrong, Holiday, Leadbelly, et al, walked the same sidewalks, and did much of their greatest work right here.

The new album is your first in four years. Can you fill us in on what caused the break in momentum that had seen, pretty much, ten releases in the previous twelve years?

Pete: Maura cared for an ill family member (who is now totally recovered), and produced a solo CD, and that was quickly followed by our reunion of sorts with Nanci Griffith, which involved many trips around the US, Ireland and the UK, as well as the production of Nanci's CD, Intersections, which we handled, so all of that was time consuming, albeit in a creative way.

Your first release in 1995 ‘River of Fallen Stars’ was partly written while touring with Nanci Griffith in Ireland. How big an influence was she in getting you the initial recognition that your career needed?

Maura: We credit Nanci for getting us started, because you can't just say, "we write songs, and we're great". If you are coming out of Nanci's band, you have her imprimatur, so to speak, because she will only work with people in whom she strongly believes, so that's the foundation of the whole thing. Working with her was also a chance to work on various occasions with Dylan, Emmylou, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Prine, Lyle Lovett…the list goes on and on, so watching those people up close was like getting an advanced degree in contemporary folk.

Can you talk about your early musical influences and what it was that got you started on this road in the first place?

Pete: I grew up partly in New York and partly as a "townie" or native of Arlington Va., just outside of Washington DC. The townies don't participate in national government, and we had our own music scene that was drawn from a cultural diaspora from the deep South to DC, where there was work. The migrants in the 1940's brought with them blues, gospel, jazz, honky tonk country and bluegrass, so I heard all of those things every day when I was growing up.

Pete, can you tell the readers a little about your guitar technique; when did you begin to include classical pieces into your playing and was there a specific player that influenced your unique playing style on the fret board.          

Pete: I never fancied having one style, because the players I liked; Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, and local guys like Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, all combined different styles in a way that kept the music interesting and fresh. Gatton was my roots music mentor, but I also learned to read music after hearing Segovia play "Bouree".  I figured out the first half, and realized that I would have to learn how to read (music)and understand theory to play the second half! So that set me on my way.  Reading (music) enabled me to do gigs with artists like Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Byrd and Burt Bacharach; something that never would have happened if I hadn't kept exploring and learning.

Maura, were you always drawn to singing. Did you learn guitar as a natural extension to your joy of singing?

Maura: I've always sung, and I've always had an ability to absorb lyrics and melodies, especially from my idols growing up; Sandy Denny, Patsy Cline, Emmylou and Nanci, too. Learning their phrasing and melodic sense was the foundation of my own vocal style. My goal on guitar is to be a great rhythm guitarist!

Is your time spent in the studio the key to on-going creativity between you both?

Maura: We not only spend time in the studio; we have literally lived there for two decades, since we set up our first home studio back in 1994, before Pro Tools etc., when that was considered very pioneering. We record as soon as we get the inspiration for a song, so it's a different energy than "formal" recording.

Does the live experience give you a new energy or do you question the treadmill of touring; another town, another sound check, another travel commitment?

Pete: Bruce Springsteen said, "It's the OTHER twenty-two hours that are hard!", and he's right, that the travel and logistics are tiring, but the energy of playing for a great audience really sustains you. No plans to ever retire!

Can you tell us about playing in the White House in front of the President of the USA twice!?

Maura: We were hoping that Clinton would sit in and play some sax, but I think he was a bit busy being feted at his inaugurations! He has great taste in music, so were on a long bill that included Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Aretha, Dylan, Al Green…wonderful to be lost in that shuffle!

What are the key lessons that you’ve learned over the years of being professional musicians?

Pete: Tell you own story through the music and support others when they tell theirs. That makes the whole experience sort of a village culture in which you are constantly interacting with friends, both on stage and in the audience. That's paramount, more important than having a great voice or instrumental technique. Dylan tells his story in a different voice than he did in 1963, but it's still a great story...

Has the business side of being a musician changed so much with the Internet and free downloads, that it is easier to reach your fan base than before, but more difficult to earn a proper living with music treated as a commodity?

Maura: You have to adapt to a paradigm shift just as musicians in the 1920s had to adapt to radio and recording. The notion of selling discs will probably die out with our generation, but the notion of promoting your music around the world with the touch of a button was unknown just a short while ago so there is a certain freedom in no longer needing corporate entities to market you, but as with all freedoms it comes at a price.

You have always been generous in your recognition and support of other artists. Many cover versions of songs appear in your live shows and on disc. Can you discuss what moves you to pick one particular song?

Pete: When I was a kid, I saw Hendrix. He opened with "Sgt. Pepper" and closed with "Wild Thing". When I saw The Beatles, they opened with "Rock'n'Roll Music" and closed with "Long Tall Sally". So there is merit in honoring your influences. Shakespeare's plays were based on earlier plays and stories, so we all take part in "the folk process" and we love to acknowledge our sources, rather than try to conceal them. It's a celebration, so to speak.

What are your plans for the immediate future?

Maura: We will be playing a special Nanci tribute show, with a full set of her songs, in Southport, England on 22 September, followed by another of the same show at the Greeen Note in Camden Town, London, on 24 September. 

Is Life still Large?

Pete: We get to live our dream. It doesn't get much larger than that!

Photograph by Ronnie Norton

Wednesday
Apr172013

Interview with Rose's Pawn Shop Paul Givant by Stephen Rapid Photography by Ronnie norton

 

Based in Los Angeles, Rose's Pawn Shop is a five-piece  band who play roots rock incorporating elements of both acoustic string band and bluegrass music with an upright bass and fiddle which can shift those elements around. Guitarist John Kraus moves from Gretsch lead guitar to banjo with ease, his skill on the former helping his playing on the latter. The band is led by singer/songwriter Paul Givant who has listened to a lot of music but found a special affinity with bluegrass and American folk music.

The band’s name came about after Givant's former partner, following their split-up, took the band's instruments and sold them to a local pawn shop. After a period of live performances they went into the studio to record their debut album The Arsonist which was followed in 2010 with Dancing on The Gallows, produced by Ethan Allen. Only Givant and Kraus survived from the first album so the current line up now also includes Tim Weed on fiddle and mandolin, Stephen Andrews on bass and Christian Hogan on drums,  all of whom also add vocals to the sound.

Prior to this extensive UK/Irish tour,  the band finished off their third album. On this tour they played many  venues that had free entry. This was the case on their Dublin date as they playied in the relatively cramped quarters of the front bar in Whelans. The two-part set showed the band's skills and strong songs. The mix of guitar and banjo as lead instrument colour the tone of the song while the bass and drums are in tune with both textures. The fiddle touches on traditional as well as Celtic and gypsy jazz tones that give the songs depth. Paul Givant is a strong singer who was fighting a sore throat but still managed to sing out and the band gave vocal support with John Kraus singing lead on the traditional tune Sam Hall with its "God damn your eyes" refrain. While they held the attention of some casual barflies and the few who had come along especially to see them, the band will be better served next time by playing the upstairs venue. 

Right before we left for this tour we hit the studio for the last month and a half and we finished what will be our third record and it's being mixed by the producer right now. We couldn't get it out in time for this tour. So we decided to tour on Dancing on The Gallows which hadn't been available over here before. It will be new to most people over here. 

This is your first European tour?

Yes, this is our first time to come over. So we're finishing up the first week of the first tour over here. It's been great. We've been playing places big and small including Edinburgh and Bristol and some small places like one in Shropshire. We sold out three shows and all the others have been well attended. Not big rooms but to have over 100 people come to a show when we've never been here before is great. I hope that we can get back on a regular basis. We were told that Dublin's a little hard if you've never been before so that's why were playing here (in the front bar) to get a foot in the door the first time out. So hopefully we can build on that.  

What direction will the new album take compared to the previous two?

There's many of the elements of the last record in the new album but it is a bit of a departure. It was produced by a gentleman by the name of Ted Hutt. He's worked with bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, Gaslight Anthem and the Dropkick Murphys. He was one of the founding members of Flogging Molly. He was great to work with the songs. Dancing On The Gallows pulls from a lot of styles, which is what we do; we have rock and country and bluegrass and Celtic, all of which are a part of Rose's Pawn Shop,  but I think this record is going to be a little more narrow in focus. Its going to be more our own sound,  a more unique signature than what we have previously put out. I mean I love our first records but I think they're more derivative sometimes than this new record will be. 

How much are you directly influenced by the Californian country-roots rock tradition?

Growing up I listened to so many different types of music and in this day and age it's hard not to be exposed to a lot of different things. When I was very young I listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone and bands like that. As time went on in my late teens and early twenties I got more into folk and American roots music like Woody Guthrie and Bill Monroe. As a band we come from different backgrounds and from different places but we all meet in Los Angeles. That's where I grew up myself. California is a real melting pot with so many different musical styles and cultures; a lot of fusing different styles together which is what we tend to do.

On the more contemporary side?

I remember listening to Gillian Welch, The Revelator album, and something about that record really struck me. I loved the way the songs sounded really old (but) are all current at the same time. They had a timeless quality and her writing was really straddling that line. She was writing songs that could have been written 100 hers ago. But they also seemed very relevant to people's lives. That record made me want to try and write songs like that, so that record was a huge influence on me. I mean we're not trying to sound like that album but rather more current but still with sounds that are sonically old.

Is the writing generally a solo concept or more of a group effort?

The general process is that I will write these song on my own,  then I'll bring them to the guys and they'll help me flesh them out. They like to say that I start the song and then they'll fix it (laughs). I want to say finish it,  they want to say fix it. This recent record has been a bit more collaborative. I started the songs but we had more time to work together from that starting point. Some of the songs we started at moment one together. 

A lot of the album is acoustic based but there is still that rock element; a lot of banjo and fiddle with acoustic guitar and stand-up bass. Then we have the drums and electric guitar thrown in here and there. It's still very much acoustic based. We hope to have the album out later this year. It's being mixed right now. A lot depends on whether it goes out on a label or we do it ourselves. 

Would a label be something that would be your first choice?

We have never released through a label yet. We've always done things independently. That has its benefits,  but a label can help a lot in other ways. It tends to lend some level of credibility to what you're doing. They have the money to do more extensive marketing. We're open to working with a label if it's the right fit. 

We have a manager who will be shopping the album around. There are some pretty good connections between our producer and manager and some labels that seem initially interested. We had just recorded the record and had one day off before we got on a plane to come over here. We haven't even heard it. So I don't know what it sounds like (laughs). I heard some playback in the studio but barely anything. Ted, our producer, is a really smart guy so I'm excited to her the final mix. 

Do you tour a lot in the current climate?

We have kind of turned ourselves into a touring band so we tend to play mostly outside of LA. We tour at least 100 days a year and probably then play LA two or three times a year. Some bands play there every week but that is not us. We've been lucky over the last couple of years to get more and more festival opportunities, some of the Americana roots festivals.  We've got some great ones coming up including playing with the Del McCoury Band. One is called Old Settlers Music Festival which is held just outside Austin, Texas. We have also done some dates supporting bands like Reckless Kelly and Railroad Earth and we recently went out with Bighead Todd and The Monsters. We’re getting more of those opportunities now. 

There are a lot of festivals that do a pretty good job of mixing the new acts with the more traditional ones. We've played them with people like Sam Bush and Old Crow Medicine Show. We kinda straddle the line with some of the more underground bands too. Bands like Hillgrass Bluebilly are good friend of ours. There's something honest about putting down the electric guitar and picking up a banjo. There's a band from LA, Old Man Markley,  who are from that background, they have that punk/bluegrass thing going on. Compare this to most of what is getting country radio airplay now, which is either pop or mainstream 80s rock. On the other hand, while Americana is a broad thing there are many traditionalists who get real uptight if you move away from what they think bluegrass should be. 

 

Monday
Mar182013

Interview with Christopher Rees

 

Born in Wales, Christopher Rees has developed his own path through roots music. He takes in everything from Welsh Male Voice Choirs to Appalachian influences in his music. He released his first record in 2001. That ep was Kiss Me, Kill Me. His first album 'The Sweetest Ache' came out in 2004. His latest album, his sixth 'Stand Fast' has just been released. His music is special so Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to ask him some question prior to his departure for SXSW.

When did you become interested in the story of Dorothy Squires?

I saw a documentary Cerys Matthews presented / narrated about Dorothy Squires on TV a few years ago and immediately became captivated by her story. When I learned that she was from my home town of Llanelli I was just gob-smacked. I just couldn't believe that such a huge star had come from my home town, hit the big time in London and then Hollywood and I knew nothing about her until I saw this documentary. What that says about the local media in Llanelli or my lack of awareness of my home town heroes I don't know. But her life story is quite remarkable. She was equally blessed and cursed.

It's a rags to riches to rags story that beggars belief. From her humble beginnings in Llanelli to the glittering London club scene of the 40s and 50s, a much publicised marriage to Roger Moore (before he became 007), the famous parties, Hollywood lifestyle and multi million record sales, she appeared to have it all. But then came the much talked about break up with Moore, her singing career began to slide and after a brief revival in the late 60s she lost one house to fire, then another to flood and became obsessed with taking the tabloid newspapers to court. There she lost most of her fortune before being declared a 'vexatious litigant' and was banned from The High Court. Bankruptcy soon followed and sadly she was forced to spend the rest of her days a poverty stricken recluse, back in Wales, living in a small terrace house provided by a charitable fan in the Rhondda Valley until her death in 1998 aged 83.

Her story is both glamorous and heartbreaking and I just couldn't resist the temptation to write about it. It would make a great film too I think, but that would be a much bigger project. I've tried to  condense it into a nutshell. I wanted to capture certain aspects of her personality with heartfelt compassion and respect despite the somewhat flippant title. The song provides some brief observations of her character in 3 short verses but ultimately I wanted to produce something that portrays and celebrates a much maligned yet truly amazing Welsh singer.

After working with the South Austin Horns did you feel the need to get back to the roots of your sound?

It wasn't so much getting back to the roots of my sound as much as these were the songs and the sound that slotted together and formed the best collection of material when I started thinking about the next album. I often stock pile songs and compartmentalise play-lists according to style and sound and the ones that compliment one another so I had been building this collection for a little while with the belief that the songs worked well together.

I really enjoyed working with The South Austin Horns and hope to do another album together at some point but for an artist in my position it is very challenging to try and tour or promote an album as ambitious as Heart On Fire was with a full 9 piece band. I was lucky enough to play a few festivals like Glastonbury with the 4 piece horn section and it felt absolutely wonderful to have that sound behind you but 9 people is a lot to manage and afford, unless you have some serious financial backing which sadly I do not. But that doesn't ever stop me attempting to make the best albums I possibly can no matter what the songs call out for. Saying that I did enjoy the relative simplicity of 'Stand Fast'. It is a pretty raw yet powerful album and can be fully represented with a basic 4 piece band set up of voice/banjo, electric guitar, bass and drums.

The majority of the instruments are played by yourself apart from the drums and, on one track, trumpet. Is that your favoured way of working or something of necessity?

To be honest it's a bit of both. I do enjoy working alone. I enjoy exploring the songs instrumentally as much as I can within my own limitations and especially enjoy it when I am able to stretch my own limitations and have small little breakthroughs where I might actually find a new guitar part or bass line or banjo pattern that I feel really works, enhances the song or takes it in a new direction. And when that happens I don't really see the need to get someone else in to recreate or replace the part I've worked really hard to find just for the sake of having someone else on there. Surely it's the best way to actually improve and progress as a musician and songwriter – which is always something to aim for. If I hit a wall and can't make a particular part work I'm not too proud to ask for help and I'm lucky enough to have some great musician friends who I can call upon, but it is very rewarding when you can solve a problem, find the feel, the style and the sound that your looking for and make it work yourself. Playing drums is a somewhat different matter and apart from the little bit of drums I played on my second album 'Alone On A Mountain Top' where I did actually play everything on the album myself I've never really had the facility to learn how to play drums. Maybe one day. I did used to play French Horn when I was 11 or 12 but that was a long time ago so I leave any horn parts up to the experts these days. 

Your music seems rooted in the appalachians but how much of it is filtered through the valleys of Wales?

I'm not sure really. Obviously you are influenced by the music you listen to. I don't believe that you have to come from a certain place or environment to be drawn to music from another time or place. If it resonates with you and you surround yourself with the sounds and soul of a certain style of music then I suppose certain elements will rub off on you. It's the same for anyone who might listen predominantly to say German Krautrock, or Indian sitar music or anything else from anywhere on earth. If you can connect with elements of that music or environment it will form your primary influence and shape the way you approach music and what you actually feel drawn to write and play. It happens in the same way that your immediate surroundings, parenting and upbringing will shape who you are as a person. It's all about what you engage with and are drawn to.

I was born and raised in Wales and I am a proud Welshman. As a child you can't avoid the sound of a male voice choir or church music or certain folk songs and that goes deep into your psyche. I do feel very connected to Wales as my home land. I also feel a very strong connection to great music. It  just happens to be that a lot of the music I felt most connected to came from mid century America. I do feel proud that Wales has produced such great, big, emotional singers as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, but as a teenager growing up they felt as distant and superhuman as Elvis or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. They are all great performers! They are all people to look up to, to admire and be inspired by.

To be specific about Appalachian music I think when I started playing banjo I was certainly more drawn to the old time Appalachian mountain sound rather than super fast bluegrass. At first that just seemed unattainable to me through pure technique and speed. But I blinding started navigating my way into playing banjo as a finger picking guitarist who could fumble his way around open G tuning and write songs. There is something so immediate about the physical acoustic response of a banjo that it can stop you in your tracks or send you flying as a writer. After almost a decade of playing banjo I recently had a little break through and am now beginning to actually play and write in a more traditional mountain clawhammer style. It's just clicked and now makes sense to me. I'm slowly decoding the puzzle. There are certainly a lot more banjo based songs in the pipeline. But the pipeline is also full of various other batches of songs that are capable of going in other directions too. I'm aware of my strengths as a song writer but I don't particularly want to be pigeon holed musically so I just write whatever feels good in the moment it arrives or is encouraged into life. I try not to stylistically censor myself.

What were your influences for Stand Fast?

I guess the strongest influences were the sound of the banjo and a Gretsch guitar soaked in reverb and tremolo through a Fender valve amp. I quickly started to realise that combination of intricate finger picking and big twangy, sweeping electric guitar chords created a certain atmosphere that I really liked. I'm really not sure I could pin point any particular artists as primary influences on the entire album like I may have been able to do more readily for the last album. I guess after so many years a lot of your formative influences rear their heads without you actually noticing. It's just in you. But I hope that I've found a certain distinctive voice of my own by now. Sound wise you can pick out elements of Appalachian banjo music, rockabilly twang, country shuffle, mariachi trumpets gospel and even a Welsh male voice choir, but I don't think I approached the album with any specific artists in mind. The play-list just came together as a whole on the basis of what songs worked well next to one another. I always try to produce a coherent album that works as a whole above anything else. 

Who of your contemporaries do you admire?

David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand) was significant in for making me pick up the banjo to begin with. I did connect and engage with his darker approach to it which itself draws heavily on Appalachian mountain music. I feel fortunate to say that I have toured with several contemporaries I really admire from William Elliott Whitmore to The Sadies, Eli Paperboy Reed, Michael J Sheehy, John Murry, Dan Aurbach (The Black Keys) and then of course living heroes of mine like Kristin Hersh, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Alejandro Escovedo, Wanda Jackson, Steve Earle and John Cale. I also love bands like Calexico, and Devotchka as well as songwriters like Ryan Adams, Mark Lanegan and many more.

You run your own label which gives you the freedom to record and release what you want but, in this age of the download, what are the most difficult problem you face getting your music out?

It has it's pros and cons. Yes, as long as I can stay afloat I can continue to record and release what I want, but with the shear amount of music available online these days it is difficult to try and raise your head above the parapet and get the exposure and attention that you might think you deserve. But then everyone thinks that don't they? The lack of any significant marketing budget means that I have to take on the heavy burden of responsibility when it comes to promoting a new record. Press and radio pluggers don't come particularly cheap and can often struggle to deliver enough of a tangible return in boosting actual sales to justify the expenditure. I think the longer I can survive making music and keep doing what I'm doing the more chance I have of being eventually heard and allowing the music to find its own audience. Nothing has ever come particularly easily to me and I have to be dedicated to achieve what I want to achieve. But I do feel that things keep moving forward in the right direction and I do feel lucky to have earned the odd break I get here and there. I'm committed to improving as a  musician and songwriter. And if I can do that I will always be creating new music and moving forward as an artist whether it sells well or not.

Are you able to survive strictly as a working musician or do you need to find other sources of income?

Yes, but I do have to be very frugal and careful how I manage myself and my finances. I have to play a lot of solo gigs to be able to pay rent. I would love to be able to demand the figures that could justify taking my band out on the road for any length of time but I have to do a lot of the leg work solo just to make it work financially. I try not to lose money touring although that can happen from time to time. I'm definitely have more of the slowly, slowly catchy monkey mentality than the speculate to accumulate mentality. I've seen lots of bands I know have lots of money spent on them then get chewed up and spat out the other side disillusioned with music and throw in the towel. I don't want that to happen especially if I'm the one who is over spending on an uncertain investment. The journey as a musician is its own reward. It is all about survival.

What is the over-riding impulse for you to make music?

There is an over-riding impulse and urge to find some form of artistic expression. To express the way you feel about yourself and the world around you. When I was younger I used to find it in painting or photography or dance but when I started making music and writing songs that was it. No turning back. The sense of achievement I get from creating something out of nothing is just fantastic. And I never take it for granted. Over the last three years I've made annual trips to Nashville where I've done some co-writing with other songwriters in a publishing house on Music Row. I had never co-written with anyone prior to my first visit but it came really naturally. Song writing isn't some magical, mythical process that comes down upon you like a lightening bolt. Yes, sometimes you might get moments when things happen but a lot of the time you just have to give yourself over to the creative process and just sit and work at it. As I said before the process of making music is its own reward. I am at my happiest when I'm alone with my studio and instruments in a cottage in the middle of the countyside writing new songs. It gives me a great sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.

What are you're feelings about your body of work, is there an album you favour or do you judge you own work on the strength of the songs?

Generally my favourite album is the latest one or the one I'm going to be working on next. I don't tend to listen to them much after they have been release but certain songs do hang around in the set lists for a long time. They are generally tried and tested live favourites and I often include a few from all the albums - apart from the first one 'The Sweetest Ache'. I never really carried any of those songs forward with me after I moved onto my second album. I guess they were from a slightly different musical perspective and perhaps don't work as well in a solo context. Just the other day someone came up to the merch table at a gig and looked at all 6 albums spread out and commented on the albums as “Quite a body of work”. I hadn't really thought of it like that much before as it's an ongoing process that I keep adding to but I do believe that the best is yet to come.

I think you have created a distinctive sound. Is it what you had in your head when you started out?

Probably not. I'm not really sure what I had in my head when I first started out. I think I have gone through various different phases whether it's obsessing over string arrangements, horn sections or whatever and continue to have periods where I might embrace one thing more than another and be drawn in a different direction. But the banjo and swampy/twangy Gretsch guitar combination is something that I feel very comfortable producing. No matter what musical direction I choose to follow I always want to sound like me and have a strong identity. Maybe that is the distinctive sound that will define my music but ultimately I think it always revolves around my voice and my vocal identity whether it's surrounded by dozens of other musicians or alone with a banjo.

What are you plans for this year?

I'm going back to Austin, Texas for SXSW this week and then return to Nashville later on for more co-writing sessions on Music Row. I've co-written 8 songs in Nashville over the past few years so I'm hoping I'll write another 3 or 4 on this next trip so that I'll have enough to put out an album of songs written exclusively in Nashville. My 'Nashville Songs' album if you like. I'd also like to possibly return and record the thing properly in Nashville with a choice band of Nashville musicians and maybe even work with a producer. After that I'm hoping to do a short tour of The Netherlands in April. I'd love to get back up to Scotland and return to Ireland too. I just need to keep on touring as much as possible to try and promote this new album and cover as much ground as I can.

Is the label as important as the music or just a means to getting your music released. Do you have any plans to release any other artists in the near future?

I have released other artists on the label like Michael J Sheehy's beautiful album 'Ghost On The Motorway, The Snakes and the Haiti Vodou album that I put out to raise money for the earthquake disaster, but at the moment it is more of a platform for my own work. If I come across an act that I absolutely love and could work with, I would certainly consider investing my time and efforts in them – if I could help and they wanted to work with me but, like I said earlier it's all about survival and I have to protect my own future, so I have to be very careful.

What has your years as a musician, label owner taught you?

I think I've learned a lot about myself through music and through writings songs. Having the ability to externalize and express whatever I'm feeling internally is cathartic and healthy  even if it can sometimes be somewhat dark. Creating something positive out of something negative is rewarding but it's also rewarding just to create, no matter what it's about. It's all valid in that moment. You have to cherish and nurture those moments. The actual craft of song writing is a constant fascination and as far as I'm concerned that is why I do what I do. It may sound a little precious and worthy but it is the truest thrill in the entire process. Yes, it's nice to have your ego stroked at gigs, in press or radio or whatever but there is a much deeper confidence and self belief to be found in the writing of a good song. And then you realise that you are in it for all the right reasons, no matter what anyone else says or thinks about you. That's what really drives me and sustains me as a song writer. As a label owner I've learned a lot of the little pit falls that are there to trip you up and make things get very expensive. I'm no entrepreneur or svengali. I'm just trying to get my music and the other music I love out there as best I can on very limited resources. The business side of things can drag you down sometimes and be very distracting from the main reason you started doing it to be begin with. But it is a necessary evil and having the platform to release music without depending on anyone else is a great thing.

How do you set about writing, do you draw for real life or from your imagination for inspiration?

There is no particular formula or specific way that I approach writing. It can happen in many different ways and often involves both real life reflection and wherever your imagination wants to take you. I've certainly written my fare share of deeply personal songs that come from real life experiences but then there are also those story telling narratives that might draw from fiction or the gospel, or folk lore, a twisted imagination or whatever and that can also be really rewarding as a writer. If you can invest yourself in the story or the song, inhabit the material and deliver it with conviction it's equally valid and rewarding – sometimes even more so. That's when you can really flex your muscles as a song writer. One way is no more valid than the other but depending on the subject matter you can generally tell the difference.

What would be your dream band?

Instrumentally I would love to explore all the sounds available within an orchestra. I suppose an orchestra is the ultimate dream band in terms of the sonic palette. But if you are asking me what musicians I'd like to have play in a fantasy band, well I think most dream bands would feature Jimi Hendrix (Lead Guitar), but it's hard not to just want to include all your favourite artists. I love Tom Waits so he'd have to be in there somewhere even if he's just coughing or banging a piece of led pipe against an open piano. John Bonham could thump the crap out of the drums and Nina Simone would keep everyone in check. That combination could be a complete disaster but it'd be fun to find out. 

Thirteen. Unlucky or not?

Let's hope so. I'm way too superstitious. But I've had to entertain the notion that 13 could be lucky or else I would probably never leave the house for the entire year. And that would just be irrational and self defeating. It's been a good year so far and I hope that will continue. 

Interview by Stephen Rapid

Sunday
Mar032013

Interview with Petunia

You need a powerful presence to front a band like the Vipers, a very talented bunch of players, two of who were in bands previously fronted by the dynamic Ray Condo. In the man called Petunia they have a equally striking frontman, one who is able to step back and allow his players their time in the spotlight. Petunia cut his teeth as a  busker who discovered classic country along the way and currently hosts a show that mixes his own songwriting talent with classic country songs that distill the essence of what is good and vibrant about the music. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to talk to him prior to one of his recent Irish shows.

When did you started to treat music as a career?

I started playing music about fifteen years ago,  playing in the street for six or seven years. I played in every major city in Canada, every street corner. I played in New York City in the Subway and that got me an article written up in the New York Post, it was a whole page. I woke up one day and was taking the Subway to work and there was a picture and people were looking at me. I hitchhiked around Canada and did some shows. I used to make movies and I met a lady I feel in love with and she had a suitcase full of country music tapes. That was the first time I heard Hank Williams, Jimmie Rogers, the Carter Family and various others. They're the main three I started out with. From there I started playing on the stage every now and then but hitch-hiking you can't book regular shows. I moved all over Canada and played with different musicians and while doing that I meet a lot of the guys who are playing with me now. Jimmy Roy and Stephen Nikleva both used to play with Ray Condo. When I'd go up to Vancouver I would go up and see Ray and I'd see Jimmy and Stephen play and I thought "wow, I'd love to have those guys in the band". Then Ray passed away. Ray Condo played in Ireland in Kilkenny and Jimmy was also with Big Sandy.  Marc (L'Esperance) joined later and we used some different bass players and now Patrick Metzger is playing bass with us.

So your love of country grew from listening to those tapes?

I'd never heard country music before that, so yeah.

What had you listened to previously?

Immediately before, it was mostly classical music,  the year or two before I heard those songs.  But before that it was bebop music, experimental jazz and I was into punk rock before that in my teenage years. I had my hair all spiked up and a leather jacket with studs.  Most people I meet in country music now feel that punk rock and country are very closely related. It's so common that people that use to be punk rockers are now at our shows. Fans of regular country don't necessarily get what we're doing. They want to hear Hank Williams or Johnny Cash but the punk rockers they latch on and they know what we're about. They have the same roots that I do. 

There seems to be a fair amount of country now in Canada with people like Lindi Ortega and Daniel Romano.

I don't know those people but a lot of acts apply for grants which are available in Canada but I have never applied. I was brought up with a different attitude, not that it's wrong, maybe it's wrong in the sense that if you rely on a grant, and the key word is rely, which I call a hand-out, then what happens when it runs out? You don't learn how to make the money you need. If you tour and rely on the money that's available with the grant it can all fall apart when that ends. While if you have never applied for them in the first place and you go the harder road you learn how to do it. Even going into a studio if you have tons of money you can use a wonderful studio with great engineers and everything else but you haven't had much experience working in a studio. You haven't learned any tricks, how to mic something so that when an engineer is mixing something you can say "well, actually this is the way it should be miced". 

Do you know Greg Garing at all?

No, I don't know him.

I can see some similarities in what you both do.

You are writing a lot of your own songs now?

Well on the new album there are two that aren't mine. I wrote the rest. Forbidden Lovers is a Lefty Frizzell song. He's one of my favourites.

You draw inspiration from that era?

I draw from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and so on,  whatever I hear. We're learning a Dead Kennedys song right now. 'Cause it sounded cool.  There's  a couple of my songs that are heavily influenced by Peruvian music. I spent time there. When you travel around you hear things. Now that I'm here in Ireland I'm sure that will be there too (laughs).

I heard about a great Scottish guitar player who learned from listening to the radio as there was no country music going on then. So he learned off the radio. In the Caribbean with Bob Marley and others there is a huge Grand Ole Opry listenership. There a lot of country music influence in early reggae. It was AM radio. 

You have released your album in vinyl too.

Yeah, it comes with lyrics,  a picture and a download card. It was recorded in Los Angeles in the Sound Factory which is next to Sunset Studios. We had a Grammy award winning engineer (Ryan Freeland). It was mixed by our drummer Marc. He's a top notch engineer and the proof is that when the mixes were sent to Bernie Grundman who said "who did the mixes?" He though they were brilliant as he barely had to do anything. He just ran it through his analog gear. 

Did you release it yourselves?

It's Trapline Productions, which is me and another fellow.

Is it your first album with The Vipers?

I have,  me the Petunia guy, eight or nine albums. We did another one before this one which was just done to have something to sell on the road. We did it in, like, four days. We were leaving in five or six days and we went into the studio, a room. We brought in our gear and laid it down. Spent a day or so non-stop mixing it and mastering it, then we were on the road. Just so we could have a CD to sell. This is kind of the official debut. 

How has Europe taken to you guys?

Excellent. 

Different feel from the audience?

It is the reverse. We have had to adjust. I'm not faulting anyone. They're just different. Here's the thing how do you respond?

LH: Well, we get into it, enjoy some real country and tap our feet.

Petunia: That's the level of understanding here while in America the level of understanding is people getting up to dance and drinking loads of beer. The two audiences see things differently. In a bar in America people make a lot of noise and they drink. That's the norm. There's no one telling you to shush. If some guys says ‘ shhh’  he's liable to get punched out. But here they listen. But there if the band is really good they do shut up and they listen because they are genuinely interested. But there are no rules and it's not like you are creating them. If they listen, then you're creating a scene. That's something special. So you know you're doing something good when that happens. You don't have that sense over here because everyone's quiet anyway. They're ready for things on a more intellectual level. It may even be the use of language. With the Irish or Scottish you have conversations on a different level. We have played in many theatre settings and when people are sitting and watching you they're ready for some that's a more intellectual kind of stimulation that the average American person. But I haven't been here long enough to say. I used to live in London for a year but I didn't go see too much music. I lived in Brixton, Leytonstone and Stoke Newington. I just spent time in all these places, in squats mostly. There wasn't much live music I could pay for. I played a little bit but didn't make any money playing in London. This is the first tour here with the band so I'm trying to add little side of the theatrical to the show. Talking between songs, things like that. We make some space for people to dance if they want to at the sit-down shows too. When people do that,  it helps, because when people are dancing you feed off that. 

Petunia: Do people here dance less?

There's a bit more self-consciousness about dancing with a band playing, everyone waits for someone else to start but once it breaks out it can spread quickly. These less inhibition in a dance club with a DJ though. 

How much of what you do is about being an entertainer rather than just a musician?

A bit of both.  If people are there for a good time,  then it's part of the job to give them a good time. But also as a musician, what it is historically to play music in front of people, then you have to look at your role. Its part spiritual and part entrainment. The spiritual part is wide and you have to consider too what's your responsibility as a musician? I could be operating on any level in trying to do that. If that includes politics or something sociological or religion or whatever I think people are interested. 

Well the origins of country music comes from the blues and a mix of different influences that reflected peoples lives to a large degree.

Take someone like Hank Williams. You think of him playing blues music or country blues. You don't think he's a rebel but if you're back in 1948/49 and you're in a place that's full of white people I can imagine that his playing a music that nobody was doing then as no one is doing exactly what he's doing and it's to a white audience so that's a socio-political statement without even talking about politics, just by the fact he's doing it. Johnny Cash told a young song writer "don't talk about politics" but he himself was a political figure I suppose. Yet he did songs like Don't Take Your Guns to Town. His songs don't usually talk about thing directly but they are stories that a relevant none the less. 

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton

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.