Willy Vlautin Interview

Richmond Fontaine, a place, a person, an ideal or a band? The latter most definitely as Richmond Fontaine were always a band. Willy Vlautin as the singer and main songwriter was always inevitably the focal point and the one who usually did the interviews. Through the years Lonesome Highway has been fortunate to be able to talk to Willy on his regular visits here with the band. He has always been a shy and somewhat reluctant spokesman but never less that obliging and completely honest in the answers he gave. Though this may be the last time that Richmond Fontaine appear in this guise we look forward to seeing him back with The Delines or on a book reading tour. Willy Vlautin is one of the good guys.

It seem like the time has come to bring a natural end to Richmond Fontaine’s career.

Our bass player Dave left. He moved to Denmark so we started to slow down then. So that’s when I started The Delines but I didn’t want to leave the band on the high country and I wanted to write one more record for the band for sure. Then when we did the record we all liked it so much and were proud of it and we were getting along so well that I wanted to leave the band in a better place than when it started. I didn’t ever want to have the conversation where one guy wouldn’t get in the van. Because he’s getting older or too tired or that we don’t make enough money. So I didn’t want to put anyone in that situation. I wanted to leave the band tattooed with good memories. The best way to do that is to leave when you’re really proud of it. It’s one of my favourite Fontaine records (You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To) so I thought that would be a good place to stop.

So what happens next for you?

I’m hoping to work with The Delines but Amy got hit by a car back in March. She got ran into the side of a building and broke both her legs. She’s just starting to heal up now where she can be on crutches. Which is a huge improvement because she couldn’t walk for 5 months. So when she’s ready we’ll start going again. We’re nearly done with the new record. I love playing music with Amy. It’s a really fun band; for such a sad band it’s the rowdiest set of people I’ve ever been with. So that’s what I hope to do. I want to write novels and hide in the back and write songs for Amy to sing.

Obviously your writing is still a big part of your creative process. How is that coming along?

I just sold my new novel to Faber & Faber and Harper Collins in the US so that’s a big relief to me. I just found out a couple of days ago. However no one likes my title . But then no one ever likes my titles (laughs). So it’s untitled at this moment but it’s done. I just have to do some edits when I get off this tour.

At this point in your career as a musician/songwriter and a fiction novelist you have achieved recognition. Does that afford you time to relax?

I’m kind of a workhorse. Because I’m so scared of having to go back and get a job to be honest. My girlfriend always says “relax, once in a while” but I’m just scared of having to go back to painting and working a shitty job that I always keep writing. I like writing stories. It’s my favourite thing to do but sometimes working so hard is a bad way to do it. I get kinda rattled. But in the end I like doing it and life’s short. I want to write a couple more novels. 

In your last book The Free you used some different techniques to express the narrative including dream sequences

I was really interested in the idea, which is more apparent now, of who’s a real American. I grew up in a household that got more progressively like that. “That’s a real American. That’s not a real American. if you don’t agree with this way of thinking you’re not a real American.” That idea is so insane, preposterous and ridiculous to me. So the only effective way for me to write about that was through a guy’s dreams. So to take this guy who’s not even a solider but a National Guard guy -  the National Guard never say that when the country is overloaded with a war that their not suited to fight in but they bring in these guys. Rather they would say in time of tornado, earthquake or hurricane that they will be there. So I wanted to write about the effects on a normal kid getting sucked up into Iraq and the affects of that. Like in all countries their happy to send guys to war and then everyone turns their head when they come home. Which has happened as long as humanity has been around. 

Are you at all politically motivated, especially in such a polarised climate as there is currently in the US?

Not really. Doesn’t affect me at all I live in the lefty haven of the US which is Portland, Oregon. One of the most open minded, coolest cities. I just surround myself with weirdos and musicians. But I did grow up in a really conservative home but my Mum passed away so I don’t have to deal with that on a real basis anymore. I’d be really interested to see what she would think of Trump because in so many ways he’s against so many things that I though she liked but I don’t know, though she would probably still be going for him.

How different is the writing process for you with The Delines as opposed to Richmond Fontaine?

Lately I have been writing instrumental music as I want to do an album for my new book. Then I’m just writing songs for The Delines. I haven’t written a song for me in months. I try to write classic tunes, best I can from my dented, small mind. I try to write songs that Amy can get behind like Dusty Springfield, Sammi Smith or Bobby Gentry. I try to write songs like that. I love doing it, it’s really fun. The story’s the same pretty much. I think it’s just my heart as I haven’t figured how not to write from that side of me. I just chase classic songs and hope that I stumble around one  and grab a song like that and give it to her.

So does that mean that you immerse yourself in some classic soul music?

I’ve always liked that stuff. It was preposterous for me to sing that stuff. I could never sing half The Delines songs. I don’t think you could pay me enough to get up and sing a soul tune. I don’t have that kind of voice and I’m too shy … all of it. But when you take me out of the equation then I like soul ballads. But where I like soul music is in the lyrics of those ballads, the cheating songs, the stories. The upbeat, happy-go-lucky soul tunes I can’t do, I’m too dark minded I guess. As a kid I liked those soul ballads but I also loved ska, reggae. But the “baby, baby …” the ones that grooved never moved me. I’ve always been a lyric guy on top of it. Since I’ve gotten older I’ve liked the 60s and 70s soul but I wouldn’t be caught dead singing it. I’d be too embarrassed! I’m happy being a guitar player I could probably spent the rest of my life being with The Delines, I think. I’ve never been the best front guy so I think it would be nice to not be. It’s hard to do something you know you’re not that good at. 

Do you have a timeline for the next album in the light of Amy’s recovery?

I’ve a couple of book things in the US that I’m doing until almost December. I’m only home for a couple of days before I go out to do that. Then in January the Richmond Fontaine guys and me are doing a cowpunk instrumental album for my new book. I got a handful of sad, weird melodies and I’m trying to convince these guys (Fontaine) to hang in there with me. Then I’ll hold tight to see what Amy’s doing. I’m hoping we can get her up to Portland to stay for month or two and get her back in the studio. It’s Sean and Freddie from Fontaine, a guy named Cory Gray, the keyboard player, and me. We’re hoping, once she’s well, to get back playing again.

Did the fact that you were featured in Uncut have a big effect on your status in Europe?

We sure got lucky there! Without that I probably still wouldn’t have a passport. (Back in 2004 Uncut ran a feature article entailed “Whiskey, Painkillers & Speed” about Richmond Fontaine written by the editor Allan Jones.) That was a really lucky break on so many levels. Maybe the luckiest break I’ll ever get. Being in Richmond Fontaine and getting to travel over here has been so much fun. Before that only one us had a passport, none of us had been anywhere except we’d just been driving around in a van in the US. So, I think that’s why when we got the chance to tour over here it was special. We were older I was was 35 when we started coming over here. At 35 if you haven’t gone anywhere there was a good chance you were never going to go anywhere. I was scared that I was never going to get to see anything of the world.

What was that like,those first visits outside America?

It was fun. The first time you’re going through an airport and you’re carrying your guitar and you’re thinking “I’m going somewhere” you feel so proud. I remember one of the first times we toured there was a guy who was loading baggage who was a fan of Richmond Fontaine and he came up and he’s been loading our guitars into the hold. He wanted to know “where are you guys going? Are you touring?” We were going “this guy knows who we are!.” Like the first time we came to Ireland we were like “is this Candid Camera? Are they going to make fun of us ‘cos they’re clapping and I don’t know who they’re listening to. Why are they clapping for us?”. It was all lucky. Kilkenny (Rhythm & Roots Festival) was so much fun. Hanging out with people who like music … just lucky breaks.

How has the shift in the way people consume music affected you?

When you go to Scandinavia now no one buys anything anymore, everyone’s Spotify. You get a lot of people at the shows but no one is buying anything. Because there’s no distribution you have to pay for publicity, which you can’t really afford when you don’t sell anything. I don’t know as I’m not the best businessman. I just keep my head down. I got fired (laughs) in like ’97 from having anything to do with money for Fontaine. We played really bad one night and I felt bad that we had because we were so drunk and I didn’t think we were any good so I didn’t take the money. When I got in the van the guys asked how much we had made and I go “well I didn’t think we played well and there weren’t that many people there and they went ‘You’re fucking fired!’” I was so happy as I’m not the best at that stuff. 

Physical sales of both books and music are going through changes. What are your thoughts on that?

The CD was a great era as the mark-up was so much. So once we went out on our own we were making a CD for 2 bucks and you sell them for 10 or whatever. That was great for a small time band. When we started putting out our own records was when we started to stay in motels. We were able to get brand new tires for the van rather than used tires. Stuff like that, we ate in restaurants. Record companies made a killing on the CDs. They could do them for like 20 cents because there doing millions or whatever. I’m a vinyl guy so I’m excited that our stuff is now on vinyl. When we started you might do a 7” but you would seldom do LPs. Spotify is amazing. I got it to record records as I do a lot of work with this producer and might need to find something. He’ll often send me a list of 10 songs to listen to and I’ll go there to listen. You can’t fight that. For bookstores Amazon is the devil. They have a programme that when you take a picture of a book cover in a bookstore and you send that picture to Amazon they will give you an extra 20% off their already low cost. That’s horrible, right? But it’s so easy and convenient for people. So Amazon wins and the bookstores struggle. It takes a lot of effort to only shop in your local book or record store and make a choice. There is, though, a swell of some independent bookstores doing ok. In the US anyway you have to be pretty savvy, like owning a record store, as as it was in the old days it’s pretty much a labour of love - or maybe have a rich spouse (laughs). That gets you out of the gutter once in awhile. You’re not going to make a lot of dough running a bookstore. But they are surviving and I think a good bookstore owner can guide you better, with records you can find out really quickly if you like a band without anybody’s help, but with books you need someone to understand your taste as it’s hard to browse Amazon and to find the right book

Do you enjoy the book reading/signing process?

I like the fact that I’m not as insecure (in a book reading context) as they are there to hear me, I always feel that I’m the weak link of any band I’m in or with anything I’m doing, so I’m not as insecure about the books as I am about the songwriting I guess. It’s the only time I really around people who like books. The guys in Fontaine read books but most musicians are that big readers - that I meet anyway. So reading in bookstore means I get to hang out with people who love books. It’s one of my favourite things. When I did the reading in Dublin and was interviewed by Roddy Doyle it was one of the greatest nights of my life. I went to the Stag’s Head and had a beer with him and I’ll never forget that. He’s an inspiring guy on so many levels. A lot of what he said made a lot of sense to me. My Grandma bought me The Commitments when it first came out and I’ve read everything his since. So I’ve always been a big fan. He’s a cool guy to top it off. I really like the work ethic of writing novels. 

Another author who has brought out CDs to accompany the launch of his books is the Irish writer John Connelly.

I have met him a couple of times at festivals. He’s also very cool. I hung out with the crime writers there. They’re the ones that are the most fun. They made the most money so they’re pretty happy and they like music. They love crime books and novels. I hung out with him and some other crime writers. I loved hanging out with them as sometimes when you’re with the literary writers they aren’t much fun. They don’t talk about music and they bitch about their jobs as professors. The crime writes are the ones wearing leather jackets and buying expensive drinks (laughs).

You have always expressed a fear, built of shyness, of getting up onstage as a front man. How have you coped with that?

As I said I’m not meant to stand in front of a bunch of people singing. When you’re a kid in a rock band you think it’s going to save your life. I loved records so much that I wanted to eat them! But I didn’t know what to do so I figured that I’m just going to have to join a band but I was barely able to go to school I was so shy. I even had a hard time going to a store. The reason I’m probably not stuck in a warehouse and only shopping at midnight is from being in a band. I didn’t play sober from 15 to 30, around then. Then I quit drinking before gigs but before that I was always shit-faced drunk for over 10 years. It was horrible and I’d be half way through a gig and I could barely stand. Your anxiety is gone because you’re doing it and your relaxing but you go “oh shit, I’m really drunk now.” If you’re really adrenalised you can drink a lot and I’d been half way through a gig and I’d realise that I could barely stand. I’d feel that I couldn’t physically get through the gig and I’d be chasing that the whole time. So if it took a guy 7 hours to come see our band and he was sleeping in his car afterwards and he had to drive back to go to work and I was really drunk and I’d played bad and I was so ashamed of myself that I realised that I’d have to quit playing music or overcome my fear. So then I started drinking an hour before a gig. Then a half hour before, then just two beers before the show just to get through. I was ashamed of that but that’s I cured that. Being in a band did that for me.

Interview by Stephen Rapid   Photography by Kaethe Burt O'Dea


Freakwater Interview

We were given a rare opportunity to sit with Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin on their first visit to Ireland and to share some conversation regarding their collective talents and song writing secrets. The cult status of Freakwater is something that endures, from their debut in 1989 through to the current collection of songs on the new Scheherazade release.

The girls are both very amiable, open and full of fun and dove-tail regularly throughout our conversation. Both are enthusiastic and support each other’s opinions and insights; they laugh regularly and clearly share a deep bond between them.

LH: It has taken you quite a while to get to Ireland

C I: I don’t know why we never have, maybe because our booking agent is in Germany. My father comes from Northern Ireland where I have a lot of relatives so they were always trying to get us to play a show there. There is a Bluegrass Festival in Omagh but we never did play there. But it’s been really nice to finally come over and play here.

LH: Not that you have had a lot of time on this tour

JB: We have had back to back shows for 2 months now with just one day off, in Manchester, I think and that was a travelling day between cities. It has been pretty intense.

LH: So, from not touring at all to this extreme

Both: We have been touring on and off over the years in-between but just not to this extent. It is probably the same in that we would have had days of being happy with each other or just being exhausted with each other. We have different people on tour with us so when you put us together in a small place for a long period of time you can get feral very quickly. There are probably four possible ways of being when on tour and we probably each cover all of them at certain times.

LH: The cover of the new CD is indicative of life on the road. It pictures you both in a hotel room crashed out on twin beds in different states of decompression

Both: On the bed crying and drinking bourbon ...! It took us hours of a photo session to get that shot and when we saw it we said ‘stop’, that’s the one … It seemed to capture the essence of what we wanted.

LH: Is that an important part of the process for you; the way that the packaging comes out

Both: Yes, very much, I think that both of us are very strong on personal aesthetics. Our last record on Thrill Jockey, Thinking of You, had the label almost refusing to put it out. The cover was based on a Polish greeting card and it was ironically an image that we had all agreed on. The label was unsure if people would ‘get it’. For some, it can appear as somewhat ugly but it is essentially part of the narrative of who we are and it just felt right. You would think that the label would know us enough to realise that the way to get us to NOT do something is not by telling us that it doesn’t look right – we are very contrarian - in a good way of course …!

LH: Has the process of recording songs changed over the arc of your career

Both: I would like to think that it is coming in a full circle in a way. I think it is evolving constantly and becoming more nuanced. It is hard to say in that it is up to the listener. As you grow older and your understanding of the world changes you find more things to be upset about. If you can capture it in a way that is more developed and reflects more insight, then that is a good thing.

LH: When you are writing, do you ever say that ‘this is not a Freakwater song’ but one that could go on separate projects or in different directions

JB: Catherine doesn’t do that but if I’m writing for other projects, there is usually a thread to all of them. Songs for Eleventh Dream Day, my other band, are more in a rock vein and we couldn’t do those as Freakwater songs. There are some songs that you modify and think of in a different way and some of those are on the new record. The Asp and the Albatross for example was made as a quirky little carnival waltz and then was made into a more country thing with a change to the rhythms.

LH: Some musicians say ‘I had a bunch of songs that I had that just didn’t suit my band, so I made a solo album’. Do you just write when you write, without this consideration?

CI: When I am writing songs, I can definitely think of Janet’s vocal part so I hear that while writing. Also, the songs on this part of the tour, that we are now doing without drums and bass, are different to what you imagine but also sound great without those instruments.

JB: I had a hard time getting my head around those songs at the start but I am growing to accept how they sound without the band because they were originally written with the band in my mind.

LH: Not having drummer & bass player with you – is that just the economics of the tour?

Both: They were with us in England up to very recently but, with the costs of the tour, we could not afford to keep the full band with us on the road so we had them leave for the last part due to the expense involved with the backline and everything. In a way, it has been good for us to get back to what we used to do anyway and that is to play as an acoustic combo

LH: Have the economics of touring changed much for you?

Both: No, we have never made money! I think that things have changed in general but we still like to look for the cheese tray before a show and get despondent if it is not there. We have always done it pretty economically, we don’t ask for much and we do things in a thrifty way. We don’t make a lot of money but we view it as a way of having a holiday and doing something that is important for us to do.

LH: Over the years something as basic as the price of gasoline can make a huge difference

Both: The tour we did in the winter with a large band in the states cost us a lot on gasoline and the cost of merch can be expensive also. Especially when we fly these days. It’s a challenge.

LH: A quote attributed to your career said that is was defined as ‘a lack of any normal human ambition and an inability to capitalise on the brightest moments of critical acclaim’. Is this a conscious decision to stay true to your punk ethic?

Both (laughing): No, not at all ... I think that over time we have both said pretty much the same thing. We think it is interesting that we could even perceive that and then continue doing it as a conscious choice.

LH: Your music is so enduring and yet you don’t have a momentum to the output in terms of recording and touring regularly

JB: What we do is not popular. We are outliers in every sense, we are not Americana, we are not Country, we are not Folk - in all honesty there is not another band like we are and that is a great thing because there is no-one to take our place.

CI: Our lack of popularity is not entirely based on our inability to capitalise on our brightest moments.

JB: I think that we are not easy music for some people, some find it dissonant and gloomy and some people are drawn to it. When we tour the US, and have people come up to us and say that ‘we reared our kids listening to your music’, if it means a lot to a few people then that is really powerful.

CI: Our self -destructive tendency does not go as far as to refuse anything that is offered to us.

LH: In the past you have not identified who writes the songs. It has just been songs written by Freakwater. Also, the lyrics have not been included on past releases.

CI: For this release, we do have credits for who wrote what.

JB: But I have always liked the ambiguity of not knowing who wrote what ...

LH: Talking about the cover of the new record, I like the fact that the packaging is that little bit more substantial. In this era of downloads, you have got the lyrics and the photos and a sense of what the recording experience was like and that is an important part of the process.

Both: We wanted that. The packaging on the new record is great and it shows the people what we have created. After a long association with Thrill Jockey we switched to Bloodshot records and they were really happy to have us. We told them what we wanted to do and they gave us a lot of money so we had more flexibility to make a colourful record cover with an inside sleeve and booklet. The images from the sessions evoke memories of growing up and looking at album covers forever. That is something that we like. We had a big input into the vision of the new album and having detailed information and a certain look was important.

LH: You have this strain of Appalachian murder ballads meeting with abstract sonic sound; banjo meeting with guitar feedback – this seems almost unique to the band.

Both: Rather that it being intentional in order to do something odd, it was more just a natural development and including sounds that everyone wanted to have. The banjo and Moog on the 1st track is a really good combination. When the record came out it went to number 6 in the bluegrass charts which was a surprise for us. We have always thrown different things together, whether it was lyrics or sounds; we were singing about things that were not traditional early on and not in the accepted Americana genre. We do this thing that is unique to what we do and It is not genre specific – our lyrics speak to something that is somewhat different and our instrumentation is also somewhat different. There is a density to the lyrics that people can see as being odd and people either like that or they don’t.

LH: If you look at the Handsome Family and the success that they had (title track to the True Detective first series); is this something that you think can happen also to you?

Both: I don’t think that it changed the perspective in that the Handsome Family are still doing the same thing they always did. Maybe the perspective on the Handsome Family has changed for some people? But those people will still not come to the shows and want to follow the band. People are so used to music in tv shows and getting music for free. Some monetary effect may happen but I don’t think it is as much as you imagine.

LH: How do you choose the musicians for your studio recordings. Is it a from the community of musicians in the Chicago area?

CI: Warren Ellis lived in Chicago and we had met him several times with the Dirty Three and Nick Cave. You have to love his playing… Warren asked what was going on with Freakwater and we invited him to play for the record. We send him the tapes and he played really beautifully. We have friends who come in and play from both Chicago and Louisville, some we had already been playing with but also others we didn’t know who we introduced to us. Chicago can be so much busier than in a smaller town so we recorded in Louisville as we thought that a languid, slow quality vibe could be good; dreamier and sludger. In the studio, it was the most relaxed time that we ever had as there was no pressure on us. Dave (David Gay), our bass player, paid for the studio time and he offered a very generous budget. The whole thing had a calmness to it.

LH: Where do the ideas for the songs come about?

Both: Anything really. Something in the news, something that happens to you. In the last few years a lot of political events drive the song-writing. There are moments where something comes to you and it is then a struggle to get to the rest of it. You are playing and identify something but then, digging through everything to get to the rest of it – now that’s work… What I do know is that the more you do it, then the quicker it comes to you.  Sometimes the original idea you have for the song becomes almost facile by the end of the process and you are getting rid of the initial idea.

LH: Do you write any of the songs in character

Both: The songs tend to be personal, not that writing in character isn’t somewhat personal, but we don’t use character writing.Each of us write personal songs and really thinking about something is what we tend to do.

If you have not checked out the wonderfully rich catalogue of releases that these two talented artists have produced, then a real treat lies in store. Make sure that Freakwater are a regular part of your journey going forward.

Interview by Paul McGee and Stephen Rapid   Photograph by Kaethe Burt O'Dea


Aaron Lee Tasjan Interview


Roots singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan is steadily becoming the male face representing the burgeoning music scene in East Nashville. At the recent Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville Tasjan seemed to appear everywhere, from co-hosting a killer nights music at The Basement East to appearing at JP Harris’s Sunday Morning Coming Down event at The Fond Object and fitting in slots with Margo Price, Cale Tyson and others in between.

Heralded by B.P.Fallon as one of the premier songwriters currently talking the talk, the iconic Irish writer, DJ and musician recently wrote "The cat’s song writing is treble mega in a lineage that embraces The Fabs to Willie and the driest wryness since John Lennon." 

His latest album Silver Tears, recorded on the New West label is due for release in November and follows his self-released and well received debut album In The Blazes (2015).   

Razor sharp wit, stylish and a wizard song writer and guitarist, Lonesome Highway had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with the modest, gregarious and affable young man at The American Legion in East Nashville.

Your surname would not suggest any Irish ancestry but I believe you do have some Irish blood flowing through your veins?

 My family does in fact have Irish blood. On my Dad's side ... his grandmother was Irish. However, my grandfather was adopted and that's how I ended up with the last name I have today.

 Tell us about your relationship with BP?

The first time I hung out with BP Fallon he was introducing my band at one his NYC Death Disco gigs. His introduction started, "When I came across them, I didn't know if they'd be crap or brilliant." I loved him immediately. Through the years we've worked together in many capacities, but my favourite capacity to work with BP, and one of my favourite things in the world really, is to sit at the kitchen table, spliff in hand, face to face with Beep, writing riffs on which he can hang his wonderful words. But in the end, for two chaps whose dancing was once described as "freedom" by Bono, I'd say we're hanging in there ok.

How did your involvement with New York Dolls come about?

My involvement with the NY Dolls really came through BP Fallon and Steve Conte. You see, Steve had seen me playing guitar around town in NYC thanks to BP who'd brought Steve around to check me out. When Steve needed some time off to be with his new son and his wife, I was very honoured to step in for him. That band informed so much of what I do. You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory is as brilliant a country song as it is Rock'n'Roll. Hank Williams could have sung it no problem. So it all connects, you see? Like The Dolls singing Pills by Bo Diddley. The blues is not punk rock but it is when they sing it. The Dolls are a Rock'n'Roll band of the highest order. They aren't a punk band but their influence on punk and the many twists and turns Rock'n'Roll has taken since The Dolls inception is undeniable.

Fill us in on your musical influences as a teenager growing up in Ohio?

Though I lived in California and Delaware for brief periods of my childhood, New Albany OH is where I feel like I'm from. It's where I went to high school and came of age. I fell very hard for a girl I met my first year of high school. She was my main influence for songs. They were almost all about her. Musically, I was listening to everything. I probably loved the Beatles the most but John Prine, Arlo Guthrie and of course Dylan were right there too. In middle school, I used Oasis songs to learn guitar. They were simple enough to learn on your own. I also played Freddy Green style guitar in The Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra and even learned to play banjo for the Gahanna Community Theatre production of Little Orphan Annie.

You are one of many acts under the Americana umbrella whose early music career began in an entirely different background. Take us through the journey from glam to where you are today?

My journey to making the music I make has been long and varied but the goal has always been the same: write pop songs that are performed scrappily by a tride and true Rock'n'Roll band. I want the lyrics to be my own language and I want the guitar playing to fuck with you and fuck you up and make you wanna fuck. I started on acoustic guitar. The first riff I knew was My Girl by The Temptations. Then I learned all the folk songs...Woody, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Tim Hardin etc...From there, I started learning the blues...first Hendrix then Buddy Guy then my favourite blues singer, Slim Harpo. My Dad also made me study Spanish classical and jazz guitar. My favourite jazz player was Grant Green. But my heart and soul are always swayed the most by rock'n'roll. Give me John Lennon and Keith Richards lunacy and a tab or two and I'm yours. Shane MacGowen, for the love of God. Please. Keep being wild and free and poetic. Live forever, if you don't mind? rock'n'roll isn't just marketing term, kids. It's a real, living breathing thing and it's the best one of 'em all besides hip hop.

You appear to be adopting the mantle of the male face of East Nashville in recent years possibly borrowing the baton from Todd Snider. Tell about the music community there and the support they offer to each other?

I will tell you this ... there is one folk rock singer in East Nashville and his name is Todd Snider. Any credit I get in terms of repping the East Side would only be because of him. He is one of my absolute favourite writers and performers. Fearless. He has a new song where the first line is "This song is even better than it sounds." That's championship level stuff. He is also my friend and we hang out all the time at his lake house. Lots of celebrity sightings there. Rorey Carroll, Elizabeth Cook, Kevin Gordon, Allen Thompson. A who's who of East Nashville grifty, shifty raconteurs and instigators. 

Margo Price, practically unknown outside East Nashville last year, has deservedly made a major breakthrough both locally and internationally this year. Do you expect any other East Nashville artists to follow in her footsteps in the near future?

I love Margo Price. One of our best and brightest. I anticipate in the next year, East Nashville will become a National Monument and protected under the Jed Hilly Bill of Rights which will guarantee showcases to anyone who can out-dress Nikki Lane. The town will be closed off to all visitors except for certain sections where you're be able to view songwriters in their natural habitats: like Cale Tyson at a hot chicken restaurant writing hit songs on pickle slices or me sitting on my front porch being very, very nervous.

Your new album Silver Tears was recorded in Southern California. Was there a particular sound you were looking for that brought you to California for the recording?

There are these guys that live in California: Elijah Thomson, Dan Bailey, Frank Lenz and David Vandervelde. They are the best guys at recording I've ever met. I don't really want to have a sound. I want to make music in the moment. My sound is always going to be whatever I come up with on the fly. I don't work off of concepts. I work off momentary insanity, manic depression and lapses in judgment.

Like many other artists you are now classified under the Americana umbrella.  Are you comfortable with that and do you consider that the title Americana has given many artists a categorisation that they otherwise may not have had?

People can call what I do whatever they want. I don't need to be defined by a genre and feel people who listen to music based on genre are musically ignorant. The function of art is not categorization. Now, I say this as someone who is making music for art, not money. If you want to make money at this you will have to hold everyone's hand the whole way through it all and tell them exactly who you are and what you do and how you tied it all together on your wonderful new album whether you actually know the answers to those questions or not. I'm too lazy for all that. I know what I am and who I am and I really don't feel obligated to fake an explanation that will make people feel like they can figure me out. That's not what I signed up for and what I did sign up for can be done without a bunch of tiresome salesmanship.

Are we going to have the pleasure of seeing you perform in Ireland in the near future?

Boy, I sure hope so. I love it there. I got to sit in with Dan Baird at Whelan's last year and Lenny Kaye and I backed up BP Fallon at Electric Picnic a few years back too. Kilkenny Roots always seems like a blast. I'd love to play that. I'd consider bagging my entire career if Lisa Hannigan would let me be her roadie though.

Interview by Declan Culliton 


Interview with Elana James 

Hot Club of Cowtown return to Ireland for an eleven date tour kicking off at The Sugar Club Dublin on 25th October and finishing at The Black Box Belfast on November 6th. In between they will be appearing at Letterkenny, Newbridge, Drogheda, Cork, Clifden, Dun Laoire, Antrim, Bangor and Castlebar. The trio consisting of Elana James on fiddle, Whit Smith on guitar and Jake Erwin on bass have been enthralling audiences for two decades with their unique take on western swing, gypsy jazz with a little bit of country thrown in the mix. They are without doubt one of the most exciting and entertaining live acts around as punters that attended their shows at Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2010 will testify. Technically superb, stylish, humorous and genuinely delightful people their shows will no doubt brighten up those dark, gloomy autumn evenings!

Delighted to see you back touring Ireland in October and November. It’s been too long since your last visit in 2010.

Thank you! It has been too long!

What influenced you personally to switch from Classical music to more traditional and folk?

I pretty consistently played Classical music from age 4 up until I was 21, playing violin (and later viola) in orchestras, chamber music and stuff like that. Even so, I never had a traditional approach to Classical music in a way, though-like I wasn’t big on practicing or self-discipline. I was always behind, always wanted to do things besides practice (like run around on my horse in the countryside), even though I was passionate about playing. My mom was a professional Classical violinist (and still is) and I think that growing up watching her get dressed in her black velvet and go to gigs all the time and play shows in the Kansas City Symphony or pit orchestras and traveling shows and the ballet. I saw what it was like and the mystery or allure of it for me maybe was lessened. The idea of going off into the blue yonder of folk music started out really as a kind of compulsion: by the time I was in high school I had started taking my violin into the hip, bohemian part of Kansas City and playing fiddle tunes for tips on weekends, sometimes totally by myself or with my sister on flute or a friend on tambourine. I was also drawn to central Asian and North Indian Classical music in college, as well cowboy songs when I began playing in a band on a ranch in Colorado for a few summers around the same time. So in these ways, I started to creep away from Classical music without really realizing it.

One of the most influential things that happened to steer me toward American traditional music and stop considering whether or not I should go into Classical music was going to India right after college to study an esoteric style of North Indian Classical music called Dhrupad with my late, wonderful teacher, Vidur Malik. He would take his handful of students, maybe five of us, on these adventures in the rural countryside of North India and we would play at festivals, at a local temple, for Hindu renunicates living in the forest, or really just anywhere. And when we would go on these journeys, especially when we were floating down the Yamuna River every so often at sunset, he would be singing and playing his harmonium and I would be playing along on my viola and at some point he would always stop and say, “American Geet!!” (which means American music) with overwhelming enthusiasm, and would have me play a hoedown of some kind and he absolutely loved it. I think that that single experience of his enthusiasm was very powerful for me because it showed me that we think something is exotic when it comes from somewhere else, but the very thing we know and love and may take for granted that is truly and uniquely ours, is deeply thrilling and exotic to someone else. So his enthusiasm helped me see the legitimacy and honour in pursuing my own folk music, and I soon went back to the United States and found my way to fiddling and hot jazz and never looked back.

Did Hot Club of Cowtown target a particular audience for your music style when formed back in 1996?

I think the audience that we targeted was ourselves! When Whit and I started playing together at first it was just this thrilling way to learn songs together that we loved. I can be impatient about playing out--once we had a few songs together it was like, let’s go play these for people! But it’s really been the joy of just playing that led the way to playing in front of anyone, and then forming a trio, meeting up with Jake so many years ago and solidifying this trio as we three. If we had been aiming for commercial success I guess it’s unlikely that we would have formed a Western swing trio. And yet, the impossible has been possible in that we have continued to play together for almost 20 years and make a living doing it. Kind of insane.

How challenging has it been to continually record new material two decades later given that you have remained loyal to the musical genre you represent?

There is an endless trove of songs from the nineteen teens through the 1940s, folk music from the American west, jazz standards, traditional gypsy tunes--an endless source of material. It seems that if a vocalist records American Songbook standards it’s considered jazz, but when a band does it, it somehow becomes a retro or revival act. We approach these songs the way any artist today may be looking for new material--we pick songs that are utterly vital and relevant, in some cases more than ever, but they happen to have been written a little longer ago, and then we sing and play them as modern, living people for other living people who come out to our shows. So it is very contemporary in that way, and there is always something new each night even in just the improvisation and spontaneity of the set.

Your live performances always seem to be driven by a particular bond and chemistry with your audience. Is it difficult to maintain that level of enthusiasm and intensity given the constant touring?

I do sometimes feel like when I am home and rested I would sing and play twice as well as I do when we are on the road. But the truth is, touring, through its gruelling nature, instils a kind of grit and depth into any band that, to my mind, cannot be achieved by just staying in one place the whole time. It gives you that patina of wear, that bittersweet authenticity that’s hard-won and can’t be faked. Also our audience has taught us so much through its energy about songs, what works, what needs work. So even though I think sometimes I could do certain things better, I would rather play imperfectly in front of a live audience who is sharing something with us in real time, participating in something ephemeral with us, however raw it may be, than just at home playing in my living room.

It’s refreshing that you have steadfastly remained loyal to what you do so well. Has there been any temptation to conform to a more mainstream style given the surge in interest in Americana in more recent years?

I have said many times I am ready to sell out but no one has made an offer!

Despite a few brief periods when Hot Club took time out you seem to be constantly on the road or recording. Are the rewards worth the sacrifices?

The truth is, you have to do something in this life, devote yourself to something, and it may as well be music--you’re lucky to have a choice and to even be able to choose music, or to have music choose you, and if you are going to be a successful band, you have to tour. Isaac Stern has a great quote that sums it up, which was in his obituary in the New York Times from 2001: “I have been very fortunate in 60 years of performance,'' he said in 1995, ''to have learned what it means to be an eternal student, an eternal optimist ... because you hope the next time will always be a little better - and eternally in love with music. Also, as I said to a young player the other day, you have no idea of what you don't know. Now it's time that you begin to learn. And you should get up every morning and say thank God, thank the Lord, thank whomever you want, thank you, thank you, for making me a musician."

You played in Bob Dylan’s backing band for a period. Did that create any appetite to work as a backing musician rather than a leading role in your own combo?

Yes, I loved touring with Bob. The thing about working for someone else, though, is that, at least for me, what may be my own natural impulse in my own band may not be the thing that’s needed in someone else’s band, to get their songs across in the way that they intend. So there is this aspect of filtering what I would normally play and vetting it, is this appropriate? Is this what will get the song across best? When you have your own band you answer those questions yourself and play accordingly. Working with and for someone else, whether in a live show or on a session, it’s a responsibility to let your own ideas out but also shape them to what the artist you’re working with is going for, and I enjoy that collaboration and that challenge because it pushes me to try new things that I may not be used to doing. I do love doing session work and I love playing with other people when we are not on tour, it’s just that we’ve been a tad busy lately so not a lot of time for that right now.

Many thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Hot Club of Cowtown were voted not only the finest but also the happiest bunch of musicians at your appearances at Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival in 2010. Lonesome Highway look forward to more of the same at your Dublin shows.

Thank you so much! We are thrilled to be embarking on a genuine tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland--it’s really the first time we have done this many shows in a row, to really settle in for a few weeks over on your beautiful island. We are very much looking forward to it.

Interview by Declan Culliton  -  Photograph courtesy of Hot Club of Cowtown by Valerie Fremin.


Luan Parle Interview


Not many artists at the age of 34 in the music industry can boast a career spanning over two decades. Even fewer musicians can lay claim to child prodigy status and continue a successful career in the industry as an adult artist. Luan Parle can boast (though I doubt that she would) to have managed both and is possibly in the third phase of her professional career at present.

Much has been documented over the years in respect of her career launch age of twelve, signing to Sony Music, supporting Elton John and James Blunt, Meteor Award for Best Irish Female Artist, Tatler Woman of The Year Award, Big Buzz Most Stylish Female Award and more.

Lonesome Highway had the pleasure of meeting the unpretentious and convivial young Wicklow woman while on tour in support of her excellent EP Roll The Dice.

I get the impression of Luan Parle as an artist totally reinvigorated at present. Lots of positive energy and focus?

Yes, absolutely. I took some time out after The Full Circle before the release of my last EP Roll The Dice. It was the best thing I ever did. I was very young when I started working in the music industry, so it gave me the time and space I needed to refocus and reflect on my musical career to date. Afterwards I felt completely re-energized, reinvigorated and had a completely different outlook on the "business" side. I do what I do because I love it and I love it more now than ever. I have a new appreciation for it and feel very lucky. I have a fantastic team around me who I trust with my life - which is key.

You certainly seem to have a busy 12 months, between your live shows and TV & Radio appearances?

Yes, I've been incredibly busy. I self-released 'Roll The Dice last year and released four singles from the EP in Ireland. Between promoting the releases and the live shows it has certainly kept me busy.

How did dates in Slovakia and Finland materialise?

I have been playing the FestDobréBohunice since 2009 and building up a fan base in Slovakia. Last year I headlined the festival to 1,500 people and completed a mini tour of Slovakia last November. I was asked this year to play the Irish Arts Centre in New York City as part of their Song Lives Series which was in May. After that I was contacted by Mal Fay the organiser of the Helsinki Irish Festival to headline September 30th with Clive Barnes. It will be my first time to play Finland so I'm extremely excited. 

Signing a record deal at the age of 12 reads like every teenage girl’s dream come true. How did your professional career impact on you as a teenager growing up?

To be honest not that much. My life has always revolved around music and it seemed all very normal. I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to record an album at 12 years of age, that kind of experience is priceless. I learned so much at such a young age which has helped me immensely.

To say the least, you have certainly experience the highs and lows of the music industry. From signing to Sony and Elton John’s Management Company to losing both deals.  Has the experience made you stronger personally?

That's the nature of the business. I feel very lucky to have had those opportunities. I don't look at it like I've lost anything, I've gained a huge amount of knowledge. I've written and recorded songs with Grammy winning songwriters and producers such as Bill Bottrell, Chris Kimsey and Billy Steinberg to name but a few. I toured extensively with James Blunt and opened Elton John’s London shows at the Apollo Theatre. I also recorded my album Free which featured my top hit single Ghost and won the Meteor Irish Music Award. I have grown up in the industry and will continue my musical journey taking all that I have been lucky enough to learn from all of those experiences.

You have spoken on the record many times of the trauma and even guilt you suffered as a result of losing your record deal and your father’s ill health. Is that chapter closed now?

I am so happy to be embarking on this next chapter. I feel excited and very blessed that my dad is still with us to share it.

Roll The Dice has deservedly enjoyed very enthusiastic reviews. Was the idea of recording an EP rather than a full album a case of ‘dipping your toe in the water’ and seeing the reaction?

Not really, I spent quite a considerable amount of money on the recordings as I wanted to have the best product I felt was possible at the time. I was lucky to work with amazing musicians on the recordings and mixes. As the product was self-funded I needed to keep some money aside for distribution and PR.

When can we expect the next release and is it ‘same again’ with or without any re-mixes?

I'm working on the next batch of recordings at the moment and hope to have something out very soon. Whether it will be a self-release this time or not I cannot say. The remix of Roll The Dice came about after the single release so I'd never rule anything out.

Are you enjoying the freedom of self-releasing music and managing yourself rather than under the control of a record company?

I have definitely enjoyed it but it's tough going and a lot of work. At this point now I would like to hand that side of things over so that I can concentrate on the music, writing and performing.

Most of your recent tour features the talented guitarist and artist in his own right Clive Barnes on stage with you performing as a duo. Is this a format that you enjoy rather than solo or with a full band?

Clive is an absolute joy to play with. He's an unbelievable talent and having toured with incredible artists such as Eric Bibb, Joe Cocker and Taj Mahal Clive is always in high demand. We've been touring together for almost two years and it just works. What Clive brings to my songs is very special and I feel incredibly lucky to get to play to him. During the shows Clive plays some of his own material, I've never seen anyone play like him, he's an exceptional talent. We've also been writing together recently which we're both really enjoying and seemed like a natural step. I also love playing with a full band but it can be costly.

Has working with Clive influenced the material you are presently working on in terms of style or direction?

Absolutely, Clive's songs are so beautiful, poetic, melodic and inspire me to want to write songs. He sets the bar high.

I expect there is some competition on the road trips to shows as to what CD ends up in the car stereo! Clive is a man of exceptionally varied music tastes from jazz to metal!

He sure is and I'm happy to be educated by him, so he's in control of the iPod.

You are heavily involved in the Irish Music Industry both through you work with IASCA and with the various Rock School Summer camps you subscribe to. How important is this to you?

Hugely important. Music wasn't an option in my school when I was doing my Leaving Certificate so I felt a bit cheated. My guidance counsellor would constantly ask me what I wanted to do when I finished school to which my response was always that I wanted to become a professional full time musician. I was looking for some sort of guidance or a nudge in the right direction which I never got and I felt hugely frustrated. I felt that there was nobody to help me with the path I had chosen. Most musicians starting out haven't a clue how to go about things so I try to pass on a little bit of what I've picked up along the way to up and coming musicians. They are our future.

Your Summer Camps must cater for many youngsters with ambitions and dreams of a career in the music industry. How optimistic are you that the industry can offer them a viable career going forward?

You know there's never any guarantees with any career path you chose in life. You've got to follow your dreams and never give up on that dream. It's not an easy road but then is anything?

Have you set yourself career targets going forward?

Always. For the moment I'm looking forward to releasing the next batch of material. Publishing is something that I'll be concentrating heavily on next year and touring outside of Ireland a lot more. As long as I can play music and people like what I'm doing I'm happy.

Interview by Declan Culliton - July 2016

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