Archive for Indie Roots category
I met Anna Tivel at the same fateful Triple Door show that brought me Inside the Songs features for Jeffrey Martin and Nathaniel Talbot, and the three are all friends and colleagues. Together they're building quite a creative songwriting community! On her new album, Brimstone Lullaby, Anna Tivel (recording with her band as Anna and the Underbelly) brings a raft of beautiful songs with brine-soaked images of Pacific Northwest tidepools, oceans, and the birds that wheel above them in the gray skies. Her gentle, fragile voice sounds a bit like Laura Veirs, and brings to mind the same effortless folk phrasing and soft inflections of Veirs' best work. We loved the songs on her new album and wanted to catch up with her to find out more.
Inside the Songs with Portland songwriter Anna Tivel
Rosy-colored Skulls is a song about watching the world go by from a treehouse. I used to live in the top story of a house in north Portland, and spent a lot of time sitting at the tiny kitchen table playing guitar and writing and looking out the window. The cutest firecracker of a seven year old girl lived next door, and I wrote that song watching her play with her friend down by the woodpile. They made up this game with lava and monsters and a wooden city and about nine thousand different rules. It made me think about what it is to be young and see so much magic everywhere, even in the places where the rest of the world can find very little, like dirt fields, and woodpiles, and concrete steps. It's about feeling hopeful and innocent and free, and about falling asleep and waking up trusting that there's good to be seen and done and had.
Reservation Road was a poem I wrote about this eerie stretch of road in my little hometown in Northern Washington. It's the first song I ever wrote from a poem, which is probably why it only has lots of words and next to none chords. Driving there late at night always gave me this feeling that time had slowed down to a crawl and everyone was hanging suspended in it, just waiting and watching for something. Maybe waiting to leave town, or for things to get better, or for someone to come home. It's the kind of quiet road where you can hear a dog barking somewhere far away, or a coyote, and the few houses through the trees are dark except for the blue flicker of a TV, or the glow of someone's cigarette on the porch, even at 3 or 4 in the morning.
I wrote Brimstone Lullaby in that same north Portland house. It had the best windows overlooking a park:) I guess sometimes I spend more time looking out windows or into windows than actually existing in the places where I am. Anyway, that little neighborhood park had so many different kinds of people and so much life going on. Daytime and nighttime were vastly different in their colors and sounds. There were gospel concerts in the summer, kids trying to chase each other and make out with each other, people lurking and dealing on the corners, people walking around and around yelling and talking to themselves, babies screaming and parents screaming and dogs barking and always the sound of sirens and ice cream trucks and basketballs thumping and bass lines thumping in the cars going by. I've never lived somewhere so alive, where people do everything as loud as they can, where they rejoice, and play, and fight, and sob with everything they have. The song is sort of about how people live and believe in things with their whole hearts in order to survive. And when something difficult and terrible comes and shoots it out of the sky, they find a way to keep trudging along and something else to believe in and hold on to just to get by.
04/03/2013 | comments (0)
The Folk Alliance International Conference was held this year in Toronto, and what a rush it was! It was my second year attending as a publicist for HearthPR, and also as a freelance roots music writer. This year I was able to put together a showcase room which was an incredible experience. In conjunction with 12X12 Management (Pokey Lafarge, Betse Ellis) and Quicksilver Productions (booking for Frank Solivan, New Country Rehab, Caleb Klauder), we rocked it from 10:30pm to 2:30 am three nights of Folk Alliance. Plus we had free beer! Having all my favorite artists playing a few feet from my face in a cramped motel room was an intense and wonderful thing for me and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to connect to more cool folks at these conferences.
Some of my highlights from our showcase room: Cape Breton Scottish music masters Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac breaking into a Gaelic version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" mid-set, being hypnotized by Charlie Parr's country blues, Laura Cortese & Mariel Vandersteel's explosive fiddle duet on "Greasy Coat", The Revelers packing the room with a sweaty Cajun dance, Québécois trad band De Temps Antan in close quarters was very intense and wonderful, Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg sang such beautiful, heart-breaking songs about the life of traveling musicians, Betse Ellis' jumping around and fiddling and singing "John Henry" and jamming like a madwoman with New Country Rehab, Joe Crookston is still one of my favorite story-songwriters, Tony Furtado's dazzling musicianship, and much much more!
This year I happened on some great finds and some wonderful new music that I would have likely missed without Folk Alliance. You can't help but find something inspiring at Folk Alliance, and I recommend the conference to anyone with even a passing interest in American roots music.
Hearth Music Finds from the 2013 Folk Alliance International Conference in Toronto
Lee was, for me and many others, one of the truly surprising standout acts of Folk Alliance. In a fair world, his new album would get as much attention here as it did in the UK, where he's from (Ground of Its Own was nominated for a Mercury Prize this year). But this isn't a fair world, and I wager few people in the States have heard of him. Well, hopefully you can help me change this.
Sam Lee's formula seems simple at first. In a gently reverberating voice, he sings songs he learned from British travellers, the nomadic folk of the British Isles also known as tinkers that Brad Pitt so famously emulated in Guy Ritchie's film, Snatch. Lee learned this music first as an apprentice to the legendary Scottish traveller Stanley Robertson (nephew of legendary singer Jeannie Robertson) and later to Irish travellers who he found and befriended. There's a lovely article in the Economist about Robertson's upbringing, his stories and songs, and his life's work in a fish factory. He sounds like a truly remarkable person. And the way Lee talks of him is enchanting. Interviewed in fRoots, Lee talks about Robertson's influence with a deep reverence. Not just a mentor, Lee was chosen by Robertson to receive as many of his thousands of songs as possible before Robertson's passing in 2009. And thought that must have been intense, Lee speaks too of Robertson's spiritual influence, how Robertson traveled astral planes and could see into Lee's future with an uncanny accuracy. Perhaps there's a hint of romanticism here for the nomadic lifestyle of travellers, but Lee's done the fieldwork, spending hours and days making lifelong friends among traveller communities, and drawing out some of the songs that have been part of a rich oral history for many generations. And here's the thing: He's an utterly transfixing interpret of these songs. On stage he sways and dances like a man lost in trance. Though his band is made up of Anglo artists playing on a huge variety of "world" instruments, nothing sounds fake or derivative. It's because Lee's actively disassembling and rebuilding the music in new ways. His quote from his fRoots interview is indicative of his take on folk music for a new generation: "Martin Carthy came out with this famous statement that the worst thing you can do with a folk song is not sing it. That was great at the time but I think now the worst thing you can do to a folk song is not change or challenge it." At Folk Alliance, Lee stole the show, emanating a kind of animal charisma that had me calling him the "Father John Misty of British folk music."
His debut album, Ground of Its Own, is the kind of album that sneaks up on you. There's immense power here, the kind of electricity in the old songs that powered a village, that fueled a people. You'll be listening with half an ear, perhaps reading a book or a magazine article, when a single line of an old ballad will knife into you, as Lee's voice effortlessly parts the skin. Tears will come to your eyes and you won't be sure why. It's because there's something in each of us, something born of the late night campfire, that wants to touch the windswept unconscious where the heart of these songs is buried. Lee approaches his music from an almost spiritual level, and after listening you start to think about whether there's some swiftly flowing, nearly uncontrolled river in these songs that we've bricked over. We've built our pop music palaces on paved streets over this river, and have forgotten it was there. Until Lee breaks through the pavement and we suddenly don't understand our own music anymore.
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer:
Old ballads were clearly a big hit at Folk Alliance this year. Along with British wunderkind Sam Lee, Americans Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer were another revelation. Anais Mitchell is a well-known songwriter on the American roots music circuit, with a number of well-loved and beautiful albums under her belt. Jefferson Hamer is a wildly inventive acoustic roots multi-instrumentalist living in Brooklyn. In 2012, Hamer released a fascinating duo album, The Murphy Beds, with Dublin folk musician Eamon O'Leary. That album seems a precursor to his work with Anais Mitchell, and it was clear he was using that album to pull apart the insides of the old traditional ballads looking for their heart. Collaborating with Anais Mitchell (he was lead guitarist in her band) for the utterly spellbinding 2013 album, Child Ballads (released in the US March 19), Mitchell and Hamer enchanted the audiences at Folk Alliance. We'd all heard these songs many times, but Mitchell and Hamer brought something new, a level of complexity and simple beauty that somehow broadened the songs. Their voices interlocked like wood parquet floors, and Hamer's guitar lines were often whole instrumental tunes in themselves. And yet through the complex arrangements, they never lost sight of the story. That's the real key with singing ballads. That's what the great old ballad singers understood. If you lose the story when you're listening, you lose the point of the performance. Instead, Mtichell and Hamer's renditions of classic Child Ballads like "Geordie", "Willie of Winsbury", and "Tam Lin" are utterly riveting. Performing in a packed, sweaty showcase hall at Folk Alliance, they sucked the air out of the room with their music, and the crowd was held in rapt attention. It's no wonder--their voices on these Child Ballads are impossible fragile, like holding an ice crystal. This is the kind of music you'll want to savor, to turn over and over, admiring for its beauty.
Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line:
I came to Folk Alliance looking forward to catching Nora Jane Struthers (just "Jane" to her friends) live. As the former lead singer of Bearfoot and an avowed roots music social networking maven, I was figuring she'd deliver on her promise of long-form story songs, twanged-out acoustic music, and honey-dipped vocals. And I wasn't wrong! She's a killer performer, decked out in vintage dresses from her extensive and famed collection, and belting out ceiling high vocals at the drop of hat. Definitely the kind of music perfect for long road-trips on hot summer days with the windows rolled down. Or a cramped hotel room at midnight. Her new album, Carnival, drops April 16 and it's a collection of road-worn Americana folk anthems, tied together with a red-hot backing band.
Aaron Jonah Lewis:
And that band brings me to a major discovery: young old-time players Aaron Jonah Lewis (fiddle) and clawhammer banjo berserker Joe Overton. Both are key players in Nora Jane Struther's band, where they're great, but I was treated to some intense late night duo jams from these guys that blew my mind. I've heard quite a lot of old-time fiddle and banjo playing, trust me, but I've never heard it like this. They both played at break-neck speeds, Aaron's fiddle whipping around tight corners like a high-end sports car, and Joe's clawhammer banjo was wickedly complex. He improvised wildly across the fingerboard, playing on a fretless banjo to boot, and came up with the most interesting counterpoint. It was like watching Bach hopped up on speed, composing kickass barn dance tunes in Appalachia. Kind of. Both these players are people you need to watch. Aaron's just dropped a new album (he releases a lot of helter-skelter old-time albums and videos with various picking friends) via one of his bands, The Square Peg Rounders, called Galax, NYC, an ode to the urban Appalachian movement that's lighting up the old-time scene. Galax NYC is a fun set of old-time tunes played with a lot of joy. It's just the thing to perk up a rainy Spring day, as I've found from personal experience!
Note: I tried and tried to convince Aaron and Joe to cut a duo old-time album together. Hopefully they're thinking about it! In the meantime, grab a copy of Galax, NYC for Aaron's fine fine fiddling and a copy of Nora Jane's new album Carnival for Joe's beautiful banjo playing.
Fish & Bird's Cassette Tape:
Canadian acoustic folk-rockers Fish & Bird always do well at Folk Alliance (and we've written about them before), but they outdid themselves this year. And in the most clever way. They wandered all over handing out custom made cassette tapes of their music titled 10 Golden Hits. A fun ploy, but I just loved how they actually made the cassette tapes out to look like those old nerdy folk music tapes I have piling up in my closet, most of them from obscure Canadian record labels. They got the fonts right, the whole look of it right, and jamming their tape into my dusty old boom box, I got a shiver from the old analog feel and sound of the play lever on my boom box. I was flooded with memories of my many roots music cassettes and the hours I spent with my original yellow walkmen. So much of roots and folk music is about memory and these guys nailed it with their retro packaging. And the music's great too! Just as the title says, these are 10 Golden Hits from their back catalogue (and I think one new song), including their 2011 album Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void, which we reviewed HERE, and their 2009 album, Left Brain Blues, which we reviewed HERE.
I asked guitarist Ryan Boeur where the cassette tape idea came from. I love his response: "We know a lot of people with old trucks that only have cassette players!" Talk about a slice of rural Canadiana.
If you've never heard Fish & Bird before, the cassette tape is a perfect way to get into their music. If you have heard them before, like me, the mix of songs is a great way to rediscover their music. So buy it would ya?
BUY THE ALBUM ON BANDCAMP
A.J. Roach & Nuala Kennedy:
Roach was a totally new discovery for me. He participated in a great songwriters-in-the-round session at Brad Yoder's room (shout-out to Brad Yoder for sharing his room with so many great songwriters and inspiring everyone) and the word is that he and Irish flute/singer Nuala Kennedy will be releasing an album together soon (they're an item). I'm VERY much looking forward to that album. Together, Roach and Kennedy made a great team, her beautifully rich vocals complimenting his own tremulous (in a good way) vocals, and her fluid and rich flute playing bringing a new sound to his songs. I got ahold of Roach's last album, Pleistocene, which was produced by Kentucky-born indie roots banjo king Matt Bauer, and it's a fascinating bit of quaver-folk (new term I coined!). In the showcase, Roach was dressed as a dapper Southern gentleman, and had a deep Southern accent. On the album he brings that kind of gentlemanly flare to a healthy batch of songs. His songwriting is subtle, gentle, intricate, but still hummable, still singable. It's a fine line between obscure songwriting and memorable lyrics and Roach treads it expertly.
BUY PLEISTOCENE FROM ROACH'S WEBSITE
This trio of amazing vocalists (Abbie Gardner, Molly Venter, Laurie MacAllister) wasn't really a new find, since they've been building huge buzz in the folk music world for years, but this was the first time I'd seen them live... And WOW! Even missing one of their three singers (Abbie Gardner was trying to save her voice for their later official showcase), they still belted out hair-raisingly beautiful harmonies at a level of professionalism that was stunning. I sat through the whole performance (which is usually difficult with my ADD musical personality) entranced by their music and singing. Great songs, both original and some traditional (their cover of "Come On In My Kitchen" from their last album is just glorious), and great playing as well. The most powerful moment for me from their performance was their show-stopping cover of the old Doc Watson song "Long Journey Home." Behind them, the hotel room window looked out on the bleak gray cityscape of Toronto as bitter snow flurries whirled past. It's one of those moments that remind you just how powerful this music can be. Pick up their latest album, Light in the Sky! It's a blend of folk, twang, and country, mixed just right.
Red Molly: Come On In My Kitchen
I'm a huge sucker for old-timey jugband hokum music, and Sheesham & Lotus sure delivered. Crowded around a bizarre lead pipe contraption designed to filter two voices into "glorious MONO", this trio of roots musicians from Ontario belted out crazy vintage songs and harmonica dance tunes with the kind of glee that you would have found at an old medicine show in the South. Consummate showmen, they danced around so much and sang and shouted with such abandon that all my crappy iPhone pictures came out completely blurred. They had everyone in the room shouting along and clapping, and their music was just about impossible to sit down for. They covered songs of their latest album, 1929, and mixed it up between old fiddle tunes and back-alley hokum songs like the absolutely excellent song "1929". Do NOT miss these guys live if at all possible, and check out their last album for a huge helping of happy hokum goodness!
Sheesham & Lotus: 1929
Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman:
Melody Walker is a well know roots musician and songwriter based out of the Bay Area. Her side project band Front Country recently won Rockygrass (and got to go on the Mountain Song at Sea cruise which sounded fabulous) and her latest album, Gold Rush Goddess, has been doing well. I liked that album a lot for its interesting mix of twangy folk, acoustic rock, and ethnomusicology. That last element was a bit of a surprise, but the Afro-Cuban elements in the title song make a surprisingly great combination with the kick-ass feminine storyline. Melody's partner Jacob Groopman played a big role in the Gold Rush Goddess album, and brought some of his experience playing Afro-Beat bands in the Bay Area as well. I liked the album a lot, but was even more surprised at how great Melody and Jacob sounded just as an acoustic duo, which is how they played our showcase room. Melody's got a shout-to-the-back-of-the-hall voice, that puts out a surprising amount of power with a surprising amount of control. Jacob's lovely harmonies were more than a match for her voice, and the two seemed to spin each other up to even better heights musically. Also, and this is very important for Folk Alliance, they just really get folk music. They weren't afraid to cover Paul Simon's Graceland, a daunting feat, and they played it straight (no crazy re-envisioning). We were all singing along and clapping along and it felt so great for that moment to be really participating in actual folk music. Which is the point of Folk Alliance. Melody and Jacob are going into the studio soon for a duet album and I for one can't wait to hear what this will sound like. Here's a sample of the two together from a previous EP:
Canadian indie folk singer Jenny Ritter was one of my favorite discoveries of 2012, and we profiled her via a No Depression Inside the Songs feature which I just love: CHECK IT OUT. It was great to see her at Folk Alliance in Toronto and I heard some great buzz about her over there, but I was equally happy to meet Elise Boeur, the fiddler from her band. Elise has been in a number of interconnected Canadian roots music bands, including O'Mally, but recently she's been deeply entrenched in Scandinavia learning tunes. Now she's back and has a trio with Jenny Ritter on guitar and Adam Hill on bass. Simply lovely Scandinavian fiddle music with an indie vibe. Love love love. Get a full album out soon Elise!!
I'd heard about Connor before from his beautiful videos filmed live at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle. Then I met him by chance in the halls of Folk Alliance hanging out with my songwriting hero and idol Joe Crookston. He was leaning in to learn a song from Joe when I drunkenly interrupted. I felt a bit bad about this, but I asked for his album anyways. Now I've been in love with the song "Pencil Frames" all this week. Connor's a remarkably gentle songwriter, capable of swift turns-of-phrase that deepen the song in the most beautiful ways.
Connor Garvey: Pencil Frame
This song of Connor's always breaks my heart:
I met Jeremy late night outside our showcase room. We got to talking and I was floored to find out not only that he'd lived in Seattle for years, but that he'd been a hardcore busker at Pike Place and we had some friends in common. We especially had Jim Hinde in common. Jim was a giant of a man, a real force in the Seattle busking community. Indeed he was about the only one who could corral all the different buskers with their wildly diverse personalities into a festival (the Pike Place Busker Festival). He was a good man and I loved working with him at Northwest Folklife. He was also a great songwriter. Jeremy sent me his last album, Mint Juleps, and I've been enjoying some of the songs on it quite a bit. He's a folk songwriter of the very best kind: the kind of folk songwriter whose songs can be enjoyed on the streets or in a coffeeshop, the kind of folk singer that writes about people because he truly cares.
Jeremy Fisher: Spin, Spin
WHEW! That's it for now! We'll be back next year for sure and we hope to see you there!
The 2014 Folk Alliance International Conference will be held in Kansas City, MO from February 19-23. Registration beings July 1, 2013. Get crackin'!
03/11/2013 | comments (0)
I first heard Washington State songwriter Nathaniel Talbot at a songwriter's showcase in the Triple Door's Musiquarium lounge. He was playing with Jeffrey Martin (who's already done an Inside the Songs HERE) and Anna Tivel (who's schedule for an upcoming Inside the Songs). What a great trio of songwriters right here in our own backyard! Nathaniel's songs were intimately rooted to the earth, tied to the cycles of nature, and somewhat mystifying. So when I approached him to do an Inside the Songs with Hearth Music, I wanted to hear about his connections to the natural environment. Turns out he's an organic farmer on nearby Whidbey Island and works his love of the land into his songwriting. Here he talks about his new release, Here In The Fields.
Inside the Songs with Nathaniel Talbot
Tell me more about your work farming in the Pacific Northwest and how this informs your music!
Nathaniel Talbot: Two years ago I uprooted myself from the Portland music scene to pursue a career in organic farming on Whidbey Island. An interest in growing food had been creeping inside me for several years. I grew up on a 8-acre, mostly-forested homestead tucked in foothills of the Cascades, so perhaps the move north stemmed from a deeper desire, not just to farm, but more generally to rediscover a land-based way of life, as an adult, on my own terms. This was in no way a music-based decision. In fact, I had already began to accept that a move to a small, rural community and a commitment to a career in agriculture would likely result in an end to my musical career as I knew it. But it hasn’t worked out that way. If anything, farming has only cranked the heat under my musical kettle, so to speak, opening up vaults of new lyrical themes and imagery. The basic acts of hoeing, harvesting, and evening driving a tractor allow space for my mind to arrange and rearrange new musical ideas, play with lyrics, and if nobody’s around, sing aloud to myself.
My songs have always been strong reflections of the landscape in which they were written, both natural and urban. It seems natural to now be weaving the images and stories of farmers, their fields and surrounding communities into the music. But more importantly, moving beyond the immediate subjects of the songs on this record, I think this album signifies a strong maturation in my general approach to storytelling... In “Here in the Fields” I think the stories, for the first time, played a dominant role in helping sculpt my songwriting. As I grow and evolve as a farmer, I’m inadvertently uncovering stories that are too rich to ignore. The interactions of humans with their land base, in my opinion, provides some of the most interesting, tragic and underrepresented, raw subject matter for songwriters to work with, especially in the folk tradition.
Jamestown was inspired by a very basic ecological observation. Why do crows and ravens, while exhibiting such strong physical similarities and genetic relatedness, occupy such different niches both in the natural environment as well as human folklore? Crows are the weeds of the city, thriving and multiplying from refuse of human civilization, while ravens are generally relegated to the wilderness, or at least areas where the natural world has been partially spared. This very simple relationship between wildlife and their preferred environments helped launch "Jamestown," essentially an accelerated narrative of the shaping of the American landscape via westward expansion. It serves as somewhat of an overview for the album, setting the tone by which some of the later songs get to further explore this theme in detail. There’s no agenda here, no attempt at delineating right from wrong, just a broad statement that what we have done as farmers, loggers, miners, engineers, etc. to forward our own basic condition has unequivocally left the natural world a profoundly changed place. As a side note, on the farm I often get to observe both ravens and crows interacting in concert in my own semi-natural farm landscape, but I think that’s fodder for another song.
“The Great Levee”
I guess when spoken aloud, the phrase “soil erosion” doesn’t sound like the most poignant topic for a folk song. But I think that if we allow ourselves to dig beneath the rather emotionless or cursory first impression, I think there’s a lot there to explore. In fact, the loss of topsoil has arguably affected human civilization more than war, disease, or any other like phenomena, combined (whoa). As a new organic farmer I’m learning that careful soil management is paramount to long-term growing success, and as I become more attuned to it, I see of the consequences of soil neglect around me more and more. “The Great Levee” is an attempt to shine a bit of light on this arena, while at the same time illustrating some of the social dynamics that have helped accelerate our global loss of soil. The song takes of the form of a somewhat playful parable, occurring in no specific time or place. “Bucket by bucket-full we will carry…the clay back to it’s home on the hill.” This has actually happened, and continues to happen, in farming regions all over the world where the erosion has reached extremes. At the risk of sounding too academic (I know we’re supposed to be talking about music here…) I’d encourage folks to check out the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, which helped shape some of the ideas in this tune.
The Pacific Northwest empire was built by the logging industry, an industry that over the course of a mere century voraciously gobbled up over 90% of our native forests while simultaneously stripping itself of it’s own future. By the early ‘80s, when I was born, many small logging town like Edison, WA were already reeling from a decline in our forest lands, and then came the ‘90s when the Spotted Owl controversy and Northwest Forest Plan finally put a halt to what little clear-cutting opportunities remained (at least on certain federal lands). A lot of these towns never really recovered from this bust, and you can still see the impact as you drive through the economically depressed foothills of the cascades where I grew up. But Edison had a more interesting fate, seizing on an opportunity for tourism development, blended with a dose of art, slow food, DIY hipster culture and organic farming. When I first stumbled into this little town I was completely charmed and fascinated by its revitalization, which from talking to some locals, seemed to emerge out of a very intentional effort to create a way of living independent from any corporate industry. I hope their dreams last longer than those of their predecessors, as it will take something stronger that a house of cards to survive whatever economic storms the future inevitably holds.
03/01/2013 | comments (0)
When you hold Hannalee's album in your hands, it's so freshly-pressed that the paint almost feels wet. But it's more than an artfully hand-crafted EP. It’s a promise. It’s a promise of new beginnings, a promise of new creativity rising from the ashes. It’s the first in a series of EP releases from Seattle folk trio Hannalee set to coincide with the seasons. It’s the result of a holistic view of music, where the emphasis is on making music sustainable and plumbing the creative depths of a group.
Lead singer and songwriter Michael Notter was living the dream this year, jetting all over the nation with his popular indie-rock band Motopony, but when a key member left the band to join Frank Ocean’s tour, it all ground to a halt. He returned to his home in the wet, rainy hills of Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood and turned his music inwards, looking for a way to form his creativity into something deeply sustainable and satisfying. He returned to his dreamy folk trio, Hannalee, that he had formed in 2010 with his wife Anna-Lisa and childhood friend Fidelia Rowe, and poured his energy into the group’s lush 3-part harmonies and original songs. The result ended up being 4 EPs of material that will be released with the turn of the seasons from Fall 2012 until Summer 2013. Each EP will be screen printed with original artwork, made by hand by friends. The goal of the project is to make music of such quality that it lifts up the listener, and to surround that music with as much beauty as possible.
Sometimes when you look for the roots of your music, you go deep, and that’s clearly the case with Hannalee. Each song sounds like it’s been hand-woven from gossamer threads, and the voices weave together with the kind of beaming brightness that only the best singers can pull off. Michael’s not the first to find a kind of life-affirming energy in homemade folk music, but there’s something infectiously joyful about this album. It’s the feeling that it’s made with the love of friends and family and the purest love of music devoid of any of the usual worries and troubles of the music business. As Michael says, “I wanted to dwell in the experience of the music, rather than making a record and moving on.” Sometimes you gotta go back home to save yourself, and it sounds like Michael discovered this simple truth with Hannalee.
Released in the Fall of 2012, Hannalee’s EP Cucurbita is an offering to the end of summer and the coming harshness of winter. The gospel-influenced song “One Day My Soul” speaks specifically to the season, “The rain came down, it was such a lovely sound/the rain upon the water…One day your soul will rise up too/ Burst like a cloud inside of you,” but the other tracks speak more to the feelings of loneliness of Fall, of everyone’s search for warmth and comfort in the coming dark months. While “Valhalla” has a triumphant feel, almost like a choir of voices uplifting the spirit, “That Was Before” has a strong “Beatles” feel, tapping the stoic nature of the old British Invasion bands. “Never Been to Memphis” rolls along like a finger-pickin’ freight train, wistfully ruminating on a life of hard travels. Each song on this EP speaks of careful thought and deep love. These are shimmering pop song gems set into the hand-wrought gold filigree of American folk roots. Hannalee’s already working on their upcoming Winter EP, but we wanted to tell their story and get this album out before the year turned over.
Hannalee: "One Day My Soul"
12/20/2012 | comments (0)
For me, indie roots music has been a bit dry recently. Maybe I miss those old "freak folk" days when Joanna Newsom and Alela Diane were making such pretty acoustic roots music, but these days every other indie roots band seems to want to channel the 70s California folk rock sound. Which is fine, don't get me wrong, it just ain't my thing. There are plenty of other reviewers writing about these Fleet-Foxes apostles, so I'm gonna sit back and go after the more acoustic-oriented bands hitting the indie-wavosphere these days. Here are some of my new favorites!
Lost Lander. Drrt.
This is the kind of album I always have trouble reviewing. Because really I just like it a lot. Portland ensemble Lost Lander have great songs, and more importantly great song construction. Their music is catchy and at times lightly informed by acoustic folk and country blues. It's the kind of music that I like humming and singing along too. But to get more specific about why I like it is tricky. I think the key here is that Lost Lander bring together two important elements: great songwriting from Matt Sheehy, a respected Portland singer-songwriter, and a band made up of awesome Portland sidemen and women. Lost Lander the band bring a whole slew of instruments and complex arrangements to the table, bringing a level of intellectualism to the pop-wash of the songs. It's a great combination, and I've found myself totally intrigued by the music of Lost Lander. And the lead songwriter too. Matt Sheehy is a forester for his day job. I thought that meant lumberjack, since this is Portland, OR we're talking about, but forester is a much cooler job. He's a scientist of the forest, studying trees and humping across the wilderness to understand the forest, but a forester is also a rough job spent close to the company of any number of forest crazies in the Oregon wilderness. In medieval times, according to Wikipedia, a forester was also the sheriff of the forest, stopping illegal poaching and organizing armed gangs to hunt down escaped criminals. I imagine nowadays Sheehy has to watch out for pot-growing mafias and survivalists, so it's still a roughneck job for a scientist. My point here is that the music of Matt Sheehy and Lost Lander carries real weight, perhaps even the weight of a dense, Northwest forest. Check them out!
More about Matt Sheehy the Forester:
The Native Sibling. The Tinderbox Sessions.
Why, oh why is The Native Sibling not one of the best known indie roots bands around? They've got it all: gorgeous, honey-drenched vocals, beautiful songs, lush harmonies, stripped back acoustic guitar work, and the kind of salt-air, windswept treeline atmosphere you only get from growing up in Santa Cruz. Well, for one, they should probably release an album! So far we've only got three tracks (that I could find), starting with this February's stunning "Follow Trees" (available HERE for free download). Though they're saying they have an EP coming, they followed their first single with two songs released on Bandcamp from live sessions at Tinderbox Studios in Santa Cruz. Equally stunning, the second song, "Weather Veins," had my heart forever when it unexpectedly slipped into a totally new take on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken". Evidently The Native Sibling really are siblings–brother and sister duo Ryan and Kaylee Williams. I'm not sure if they tour much, since I don't think they have a website (just Facebook), but I hope they'll drop that EP soon. This is DEFINITELY a group to watch for in the near future!
Hope for Agoldensummer. Life Inside the Body.
2012. Mazarine Records.
Hope for Agoldensummer is the kind of band I don't want to know more about. I just want to listen to their gently floating harmonies and shimmery twangy instruments and imagine them a trio of hippie siblings from Vermont readying their house for the incoming Fall and toiling over jars of preserves from the summer harvest. Reality? They're based out of Atlanta, GA. I didn't want to know that. I was sure it was Vermont. I've actually been following this indie folk band for a while, mainly through my intense, vertiginous love of their old song "Malt Liquor" which I think I listened to about 100 times over the past couple years. Their new album, Life Inside the Body, is full of strange, half-whispered lyrics, lo-fi glockenspiels, and oodles and oodles of vocal harmonies. I always fall flat trying to write about their music because this isn't music for critical listening, this is music for daydreaming. This is the kind of music that should accompany a late summer evening staring up at the stars and wondering if you should try and kiss the sweet lady nestled up next to you. Their new album is full of lo-fi goodies, all done up with bows and delivered with love. It's the kind of music we could all probably use more of.
09/18/2012 | comments (0)
So yeah, I kinda made up the genre "alt-stringband", but I think it fits well. There are a good number of groups taking the old stringband idea and ramping it up with avant-garde arrangements inspired by jazz listening and conservatory training. These two bands are some of the best examples of where traditional stringbands have been taken today.
Black Prairie. A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart.
2012. Sugar Hill Records.
By now, most people should know that Black Prairie is the "stringband" side project of Decemberist members accordionist Jenny Conlee-Drizzos (Sparklepony from Portlandia!), dobro multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, and bassist Nate Query (plus drummer John Moen). Portland roots scene stalwart John Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) rounds out the band, and Portland fiddler Annalisa Tornfelt steps up to the mic on the new disc, assuming lead vocal duties. She's got a gorgeous, ethereal voice, so it's great to hear Black Prairie bringing her more to the fore. Though the arrangements and compositions on the new album are notably complex and nuanced, really the key to Black Prairie is their insane blend of a hundred different cultural influences. In the space of one song, say "Dirty River Stomp," you can hear barrelhouse piano, old cartoon musical accompaniment, Parisian cafe nuances, and some grooved-out Zydeco accordion. "Taraf" features guest musicians Paul Beck on cimbalom (Hungarian hammered dulcimer associated with Roma music) and Irish pennywhistle player Hanz Araki and sounds like a full-blown Eastern European party. Perhaps the most interesting track conceptually is "34 Wishes," a riff-based folk jam that started off, according to Nate Query, as an attempt to put Mastodon's crushing heavy metal jams on to folk instruments. Hunting out strange musical influences in this new Black Prairie album becomes something of a fun game as you progress through it. But this hides the fact that only the best players can unite so many strange ideas into a cohesive whole. Don't try this at home folks, otherwise you end up with the gypsy-jazz-klezmer-slam-grass hybrids that seem to proliferate everywhere. Throughout all these madcap musical melanges, Annalisa Tornfelt's voice floats supreme. And the best tracks on the album are definitely the songs. "How Do You Ruin Me" got a ton of plays at our house before we got the advance copy, mainly because it's such a gorgeous, catchy song. "Little Song Bird" is another keeper, a great folk song that could fit on a lullaby album. "Rock of Ages" sounds like it could have come off a Sarah Jarosz album. Which makes sense since they're labelmates and have collaborated before. I guess the main point here is that Black Prairie is clearly having far too much fun rifling through each other's record collections for cool ideas to bother coming up with some kind of new genre definer for their music. Good thing too, who needs those phony genres anyway!
Black Prairie: Nowhere, Massachusetts
Real Vocal String Quartet. Four Little Sisters.
2012. Flower Note Records.
From the opening track of their new album, Four Little Sisters, Real Vocal String Quartet bring a stunning vision to their arrangements. The first song is an acoustic stringband re-envisioning of Regina Spektor's song "Machine," and I guarantee you haven't heard a cello, violin, or viola played this way before. Machine-gun stutters, growling, rippling rhythms that sound almost harmful to the instrument, and floating ethereal vocals. Sounds a bit out there, but these four women are grounded by the traditions and the instruments they've chosen, and the album has a remarkable consistency. The cello buzzes along, often treated like a bass instrument (actually this is a tradition itself from Appalachia, where early stringbands couldn't afford or couldn't carry around full string basses, so used cellos), the fiddles soar together in twin flights, and the viola spins between both axes, pulling down grumbling rhythms and smooth melodic runs at the same time. This is definitely the kind of band that must have formed at a music conservatory from virtuosic musicians who were chafing from the strictures of classical music. I can see them all gathered in a rehearsal room in the stuffy conservatory, happily poring over their lists of favorite songs from any genre and dreaming up ways to arrange these songs for the quartet. I've met two of the four members of Real Vocal String Quartet actually, both at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, and they're dedicated roots musicians with the kind of chops to pull off these lush arrangements. Nice folks too!
Four Little Sisters is all over the map in terms of influences. Malian wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare is given a tribute track, Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil is featured as well with an arrangement and translation of his song "Copo Vazio", there's a nod to Cajun music with a cool remake of the common song "Allons à Lafayette," Swedish roots crossover band Väsen gets a nod as well with "Falling Polska", and there's even a cover of David Byrne's "Knotty Pine". Fiddler Alisa Rose's composition, "Elephant Dreams" is another standout track, matching a lilting Celtic-ish melody with some really cool harmonies and counterpoint.
There's no doubt this is a masterful album from a group with great vision and a lot to say. Search it out for yourself and you'll find that these four musicians leave few stones unturned in their quest to bring new traditions into their chamber stringband.
Real Vocal String Quartet: Elephant Dreams