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.
03/01/2013 | comments (0)
MAYA & the RUINS
Take This Song With You
There’s always something special about an album made with friends, and that spirit is alive and well on Maya and the Ruins debut album Take This Song With You. Virginia-based old-timey singer and songwriter Maya Lerman leads the group, and to record her album, she drew together members of Louisiana’s famed Red Stick Ramblers, as well as some of the best young traditional musicians in the country.
Maya came by her music through an honest love of American traditions, and learned it the old-fashioned way: by ear and through real connections with friends and mentors. By day she works for a branch of the Library of Congress in Virginia, unearthing and preserving musical treasures. These dusty archives certainly inform her music: she’s sourced a good number of the songs on the album from historical recordings of American musicians. But her music also reflects an understanding of the new roots music being made today, not by the superstars who are touring arenas, but by the people who are playing and creating folk music simply out of love for the traditions.
The recording of Take This Song With You coincided happily with a musician friend’s wedding in Southwest Louisiana. Celebrating in the heart of the Cajun music community, Maya gathered together not only the best of the local talents, but also those visiting for the festivities to record at Chris Stafford’s (of the band Feufollet) studio. Members of the Red Stick Ramblers permeate the album; not only with the propulsive drive and energy they are often regarded for, but with the same subtlety and sensitivity that first drew Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy to record their Adieu False Heart album with them. Special invited guests came through as well, like Kristin Andreassen of Uncle Earl, renowned Cajun fiddler David Greely, old-time fiddler Stephanie Coleman, top-flight pianist David Egan, and young Appalachian songcatcher Anna Roberts-Gevalt.
You can tell how much fun everyone’s having playing together, but there’s also a real sense of direction and craft, due in part to Red Stick Rambler Eric Frey’s capabilities as an emerging producer. The album’s focus is also due to the Maya’s excellent curation. She pulls together songs from a wide variety of sources: Tom Petty to Ola Belle Reed, Grayson & Whitter to Memphis Minnie, Jimmie Rodgers to Elizabeth Cotton, and fills in the rest with beautiful songs from her own pen. Title track “Take this Song With You” is a heartfelt love song sure to be a favorite to folk music fans, while “Write me a Letter” and “Like Askin” stand up well next to the classic traditional songs she interprets on the album. Throughout, Maya’s sweet voice anchors the recording, as simple and straight-forward as the music itself, but imbued with a lovely lilt.
As the album plays, you’re sure to find yourself singing along with at least one track. We’re partial to the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Bootlegger Blues”. As you sing along, you’ll get your own taste of the spirit of friendship and collaboration that infuses this album, and in this way you really will be able to take this song with you.
Maya & The Ruins: "Train Whistle Blues"
Maya & The Ruins: "Bootlegger Blues"
02/28/2013 | comments (0)
Ben Fisher is a wonderful songwriter, performer, and all -around great guy. But he's also a masterful street performer (or busker), and this is a very fine art as I've discovered. For a while there was a video going around of world-class violinist Joshua Bell failing as a busker on the NYC subway. Everyone said this was an example of how great music is mostly ignored by the unwashed masses. BULLSHIT! It's an example of how difficult it is to make any money if you don't know how to busk. No one, I repeat NO ONE , can stand on a street corner and watch the twenties roll in just by playing amazing music. Nope, you have to connect with your audience, and connect with an audience that's moving rapidly past you. You have to stake out the perfect corner, judge all the sightlines, and reconfigure your music, singing, and playing to break through the sounds of the busy street. You have to endure rainy/windy days, indifferent masses, and even thieves just to make some money for the day. But the best buskers can rake it in and have a great time in the process.
Ben Fisher is one of those buskers in Seattle, a town full of buskers. Sure, he plays at Pike Place, where busking is carefully controlled by a central agency and where there's a historic expectation to see great buskers. But he also plays on University Avenue, one of the grimier parts of Seattle and the home of the real buskers. He plays farmers markets and anywhere he thinks a crowd might gather. He knows how to busk and he respects the art.
In honor of his current Kickstarter campaign, we asked him to break down the Do's and Don'ts of great busking.
Ben Fisher's Busking Do's and Don't's.
1) Don't ever let a dollar bill blow out of your case, down the street, never to be seen again. Yes, it's just a dollar, but you're going to feel crummy about it all day. Run your ass after it.
2) Don't assume that someone you often play in front of doesn't like your music because they don't tip you or talk to you. There's a guy that I've been playing in front of for years, that I'd recognize anywhere. I've never said a word to him, and I've never gotten a dime from him, but last week he came up, dropped a wad of ones in my case and asked if I knew any Ryan Adams songs. There's no rhyme or reason to much of busking.
3) Don't buy produce the day before you busk at a farmers market. If you're lucky, vendors will drop everything from beets to kale to apples to carrots to 'special' fudge in your case.
4) Don't leave your harmonica within arms' reach of a toddler. They will play it.
5) Don't play the same song more than once during the same busking outing. Learn some more songs.
6) Don't scoff at change. It adds up.
1) Do bring strings. For the love of God, bring extra strings. When you're busking, you're playing loud, and it's inevitable that you're going to pop a string once in a while. My record is five strings in a two hour period. Bring extras.
2) Do get out there when it's overcast/raining. There won't be as much competition, and sometimes people are even more generous in nasty weather.
3) Do bring your CDs with you. Though there are some spots you can't sell them, like the bus tunnels, on a good day you can bring in as much money from selling CDs as you can from tips.
4) Do say 'thank you' when something drops into your case. If you've got a mouth full of words because you're in the middle of a song, give a little bow or a smile or something. So many people walk by you without giving a rip. Make the ones who appreciate you know that you appreciate them as well.
You can find out more about Ben and enjoy some more of his life musings via this Inside the Songs Feature we did with him a few months ago.
Ben's Kickstarting to raise funds for his new full-length album. It's kind of like digital busking! Drop some money in his bitmapped hat. The fund drive ends March 10, so help him out!
Ben Fisher Kickstarter
BUY Ben's previous albums on Bandcamp
02/27/2013 | comments (0)
Sorie Kondi’s life is a vision of the struggles of many people in Africa, and specifically Sierra Leone, and there’s no doubt that these harsh struggles have formed him into a prodigious musical talent… but there’s another story here as well. Kondi’s life is also a vision of the rebirth of Sierra Leonean culture and art, the rise of Africa as a world power in the 21st century. Born blind in the Sierra Leone village of Mangiloko, Sorie Kondi turned to music at a young age, teaching himself to play the nearly vanished traditional lamellophone (thumb piano) of his home region, known as the kondi. Living in one of the poorest countries in the world, Kondi was unable to attend school, so he threw himself into his instrument, using his new musical abilities to play ceremonies and weddings outside his village. Sierra Leone’s bitter civil war, fought during the 1990s, forced Kondi to move to the capital of Freetown in 1996. There he took the name Sorie Kondi, after his instrument, and adapted the kondi for his compelling street performances, adding homemade amplification and speakers inspired by his need to be heard over the sounds of Freetown’s busy markets.
Composing new songs and developing a powerful performance style, Kondi began to get noticed on the streets of Freetown, though he still lived in a ramshackle house on the edge of a cliff. When rebels sacked the city in 1999, Kondi was forced to hide in his house after everyone had fled while Freetown burned all around him. Even his plans for a recording career were destroyed by the civil war when his manager fled the country and his master tapes were destroyed. From this period of hardship, the bitter song “Without Money No Family” became his anthem. Ironically, this same song would become his triumph and the invitation for him to travel abroad to the US for the first time in his life.
Watch: "Without Money No Family"
A chance meeting in 2006 with American recording engineer Luke Wasserman on the street led to Sorie Kondi’s music being recorded and spread throughout Sierra Leone. He soon became a household name in his home country. In 2011, independent filmmaker Banker White, who had co-directed the acclaimed documentary on Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars, brought Kondi’s music video for “Without Money No Family” to New York-based DJ and producer Chief Boima (himself of Sierra Leonean descent). Boima fell hard for Kondi’s haunting vocals, biting lyrics, and beautiful kondi playing and knew he had to remix the song. His cutting-edge remix in turn led to Boima bringing Kondi to the States for a triumphant East Coast tour in 2012. Now in 2013, Sorie Kondi’s star has risen and will rise even higher.
Sorie’s new album, Thogolobea, is to be digitally released by Boima’s label Dutty Artz in the United States in March 2013. This is in anticipation of a full-length album coming in Fall 2013 that will be produced by Chief Boima. For now, Thogolobea is the perfect introduction to Sorie Kondi’s music. His kondi playing is brilliant, rippling across the metal tines of the instrument with breathtaking ease. His voice is rough, ground from the streets of Freetown, but capable of soaring flights and beautiful reverberations. His songs speak of his unique struggles as a blind virtuoso living on the street. But there are new sounds here as well, brought by the album’s Freetown producer Fadie Conteh. Autotune and digital recording technology has spread throughout West Africa and taken root in the music of everyone from Saharan nomads to Malian kora players. Thogolobea echoes with the 21st century clash of digital autotuning, thumping bass, and the ancient sounds of Kondi’s traditional instrument. Recorded in Freetown, Thogolobea is a triumphant return to the studio by one of Sierra Leone’s most visionary artists.
So much of Kondi’s life can be seen as a parable for Africa’s transition to a new century. It’s the story of how one man built his music from the ruins of the society that surrounded him, shaped a place for himself in an overloaded metropolis by the sheer power of his talent and ability, then took his music across the ocean, buoyed by the digital currents that flow between our worlds.
Sorie Kondi: "Ngalungala"
Sorie Kondi: "Joh Songoh"
02/21/2013 | comments (2)
Brassica is the second of four EPs from Seattle indie roots trio Hannalee. This series of EPs is timed to release with the seasons, and Brassica is a sweet hymn to the cold embrace of winter. The previous EP, Cucurbita, was an ode to Fall, and Hannalee have two more EPs (Spring/Summer) planned for the rest of 2013. Inspired by winter nights spent in the family cabin in the Methow Valley, Brassica wanders through snowy trails, late-night conversations around the fire, sleighbells, and many other aspects of an American winter. The diverse array of songs range from the beautiful love song “Baby Come Home,” to the Beatles-inflected “Born Again Tonight” and the gospel-choir uplift of “Shine.” Rain-drenched harmonies, windswept acoustic guitar work and the intimate warmth of three loving friends making music together complete Hannalee’s vision for their Pacific Northwest winter EP. With Brassica, this roots trio continue their journey to a holistic view of music, where the emphasis is on making music sustainable and plumbing the creative depths of a group.
More about Hannalee and this project:
Following a lull in his popular indie-rock band Motopony’s touring, songwriter Michael Notter returned to his home in 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, handmade 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.
Hannalee: "Baby Come Home"
Hannalee: "It's Snowing"