Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, that venerated holiday of green beer, ugly shamrocks, and watered-down Irish culture, trad supergroup Dervish is back with one of their hottest albums yet. While their past albums have lightly been pushing on the walls of the Irish tradition bit by bit, the new album, The Thrush in the Storm, is a solid return to their roots in the Irish session culture of County Sligo. The tunes fly fast and furious here, and Dervish again earn their title as one of the most technically dazzling bands in Irish traditional music today. I heard (but can't confirm) that this album was made in 5 days, and only Dervish could pull off something like that. I'm sure just hanging around and jamming they sound about this great.
The Thrush in the Storm is an even split between sets of instrumental dance tunes and songs. In the songs, of course, singer Cathy Jordan is a revelation as always. Her voice sparkles like a clear mountain stream, as she flows effortlessly through beautiful and rare songs in English and Irish Gaelic. "Baba Chonraoi" is a standout here, the story of a young girl mistreated by her (forcibly) adopted family who deserts to run away with the English army. Though you may not understand the Gaelic vocals, the song is remarkably touching nonetheless. "Handsome Polly-O" is a great example of Jordan's trademark ability to sing the more rhythmic and sprightly songs of the Irish tradition. Her voice is remarkably nimble here, and she navigates the twists and turns of the song with effortless ease. "The Lover's Token" is a beautiful and seemingly old ballad that tells of a love returning from war to test the faith of his beloved. It's a stunning showcase for Jordan's arresting vocals and a great song to boot.
Instrumentally Dervish are at the top of their game. They can blaze through a set of reels better than pretty much anyone else out there. But there are some nice slower moments here as well, perhaps more than on other Dervish albums. "The Harp and the Shamrock" is a lovely set of of hornpipes, I believe, that Dervish plows through ever so softly and carefully. It's a nice moment of restraint for a band perhaps better known for their show-stopping instrumentals. It's also nice to hear "The Rolling Wave", a set of beautiful jigs that ends with the ubiquitous tune, "The Rolling Wave". Dervish have nothing left to prove, having already cut albums full of rare and obscure tunes, so it's nice for them to have a victory lap around this old chestnut.
If you've never heard Dervish before, this album shows them at their best. If you have heard the before, then this album is a return to their most traditional roots and a great showcase for a band totally at ease with the music. Either way, this is about the best you can find today or any day in the world of Irish traditional music!
Dervish: Baba Chonrai
03/15/2013 | comments (1)
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)
You read that right! We are looking for a dedicated individual who wants to help promote great music. Are YOU that person?? Please take time to read the job description and submission policy below. We look forward to hearing from you!
Part-time Music Publicist for Hearth Music
Hearth Music is one of the leading roots and world music publicity agencies in the US. Our artists have been covered by NPR, Daytrotter, USA Today, No Depression, Country Music Television, most Northwest media outlets and many more. Hearth Music is rapidly expanding and looking to hire a passionate, focused individual as a part-time music publicist. There is room to grow for someone who wants to get to know the music industry inside and out. We are based out of Seattle, Washington.
- A passion for roots and world music.
- A proven ability to write creatively on a variety of topics.
- Knowledge of a very wide variety of musical genres and a strong desire to learn more.
- Experience working with artists from a diverse background.
- A proven ability to multi-task.
- Proficient knowledge of the following: Microsoft Office, E-mail/Gmail, Social Networking. CMS familiarity is a plus.
- Must be self-motivated.
- Strong writing abilities.
Additional Skills That Would Help
- Experience in music marketing, publicity and/or radio promotion.
- Event or festival production experience.
- Experience as a music blogger or journalist.
- Published writing, whether in print or online.
Job Duties Include
- Contacting radio stations about artists.
- Interfacing with DJs and Music Directors at radio stations.
- Writing bios for artists.
- Monitoring plays for artists and press.
- Compiling Excel/Word reports on publicity campaigns.
- Writing creative blog posts.
- Tour publicity for artists and NW events publicity.
- Interfacing with music journalists and media outlets, both nationally and internationally.
This is a part-time position, currently looking for 20 hours a week, with expectations to expand to full-time. Hours are flexible and compensation will range depending on qualifications up to $12.50 an hour. Applicant must be ready to start immediately.
Opportunities for Advancement
This position offers the potential for advancement and job development, including, but not limited to: scouting artists and attending events or conferences on behalf of Hearth Music, booking, show production and festival production/programming.
Please submit a resume detailing pertinent work experience. Please include two to three writing samples of your choice with your resume. In addition, please submit a two-paragraph sample biography on the following artists we’re currently working with: Pharis & Jason Romero.
Resumes and writing samples, including the sample bio, should be submitted as soon as possible and before Friday, March 18th, 2013.
Please submit resumes and writing samples to:
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com (no phone calls please!)
03/09/2013 | comments (0)
Cesaria Evora. Mae Carinhosa.
Sometimes as a music writer you get tired of running down all the details on an album. Sometimes you don’t even care where an album comes from or how it got to your desk. Sometimes you just want to sit back and let the music wash over you. It’s a similar feeling to relaxing on a beach after work (not that I’d know; I live in Seattle and our beaches are cold!). You let the little worries (like “I should probably be spending this time searching for the one-sheet that went with this album”) slide away and you just enjoy the beauty of music made by great minds and hearts.
That’s the case with the new release, Mae Carinhosa, from recently deceased Cape Verdean giant Cesaria Evora (she passed in 2011), which I recently got in the mail from the fine folks at PR firm Rock Paper Scissors. Does it matter when these songs were recorded or where they came from? If you’re an Evora completist it might. But I’m not. I’m just the kind of guy that feels like sunshine is washing over my body when I listen to her rich rich vocals. The kind of guy who loves the shaker beat of Cape Verdean music, and wishes she was maybe my grandmother. It’s impossible not to feel your spirit lift when listening to Evora. And that’s the gift this album can bring to you. 53 minutes of spiritual transportation. A queenly voice that sucks sadness out of you. A fleeting desire to run away from it all to a beach on Cape Verde. A phantom sensation of sand and salt. Money can’t buy these sensations. But money can buy music. And music can transport you.
Cesaria Evora: Mae Carinhosa
To find out more about this album, go HERE.
You can stream the album for now on CBC MUSIC.
03/07/2013 | comments (0)
There’s a magical moment in every songwriter’s life where they discover that turning inwards to create their music and looking close to home for inspiration can make for truly powerful music. California songwriter Rita Hosking’s new album, Little Boat, is a perfect example of this ethos. It’s a stripped-back affair, a chance for her to focus intently on the craft of making songs, and also a chance for her to draw closer to her family. With her 18-year old daughter Kora Feder now writing songs with her, and playing beautiful clawhammer banjo as well, and with her husband Sean Feder joining her on vocal harmonies and bringing a remarkably subtle talent for dobro accompaniment, this album became a family affair for Hosking. Drawing closer to her family meant that she also drew closer to her songs, and because of this her music has never seemed warmer or more intimate.
Little Boat was recorded in late 2012 over four days in Austin, Texas at the home studio of producer Rich Brotherton—who also produced Rita’s last two records, Burn (’11) and Come Sunrise (’09), both of which went on to win awards and accolades from the US and abroad. Some of the songs on Little Boat are inspired by Rita’s recent life travels–“Blow Northwest Wind” comes from family summers spent on an island at the top of the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada; “Where Time is Reigning” was inspired by Rita’s family trip to the Griffith Observatory’s planetarium in Los Angeles– while others come from Rita’s observations on life in today’s hectic world. “Clean” was inspired by her experience working as a housecleaner, and “Sierra Bound” was inspired by her family’s roots in the foothills of this Northern California mountain range. The album’s standout song, “Parting Glass,” is an intimate, loving, but urgent reminder of mortality shared with Rita’s husband Sean on moving dobro and harmonies. Throughout the album, Rita stakes her claim as a songwriter uncommonly attuned to the rhythms of everyday life, and able to draw inspiring moments from her life, her relationships, and her time in nature.
Though Hosking’s voice can hover just over the cracked twang of a country singer, she also sings with the full reverberations of a true folk singer, letting her rich vocals guide the album. With help from her family and producer Rich Brotherton, her voice settles over a landscape of beautiful acoustic instrumentation, recalling her love for American roots music. It’s the kind of album that draws you in ever closer with each listen, looking for your own experience and your own life in each song.
Rita Hosking: "Blow Northwest Wind"
Rita Hosking: "Parting Glass"
03/02/2013 | comments (1)
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.