Cahalen Morrison & Eli West are, simply put, two of the most innovative and subtle roots musicians today. Their music draws from old folk sources, but it sounds vibrantly alive. Cahalen Morrison writes songs that sound like a Cormac McCarthy novel: simple, beautifully crafted, and seemingly formed from raw natural elements. Eli West brings jagged, angular arrangements based in bluegrass and old-time, but refracted through a 21st century lens. Like Ansel Adams’ photography, their music is instantly accessible and built from the simplest materials, but at the same time seems to transcend its base fundamentals. Together, Cahalen and Eli tap the root of the old country and bluegrass duets. As the sparse landscapes of Cahalen’s vocals reflect the warm glow of Eli’s voice, it’s clear that this duo was made to sing together.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West’s new album, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, is a stunning example of the power of great songwriting and musicianship. And we’re not the only ones saying this. They’ve been building buzz first and foremost among the top echelon of roots musicians, with Tim O’Brien, Dirk Powell, and Aoife O’Donovan actively singing their praises and spreading the gospel. Cahalen & Eli can easily back up that kind of expert acclaim, as they show on album standouts like the title track, “Our Lady of the Tall Trees,” or the opener, “Stone to Sand.” Their stripped-back cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” has been gathering early praise as well. Cahalen Morrison & Eli West’s music sounds eminently familiar, for they’re drawing from our common love of American roots music, but it also sounds entirely different. Even on the classic, or traditional covers on the album like “Church St. Blues,” or “Poor Cowboy,” they sound totally unlike the many, many roots music bands covering this same hallowed ground. Gone are the twangy accents, gone the overplayed search for the “old, weird America,” and gone the banjo-as-a-prop theatrics. This is music built on the joy of the craft, made by hand by two young masters with love for the traditions, but a bold vision for how the old sounds can fit into new soundscapes.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Our Lady of the Tall Trees
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Stone to Sand
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Church Street Blues
09/06/2012 | comments (0)
Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros have passed the only kind of test there is for true country music: the dancers. Liam cut his teeth playing the hardcore country taverns in Seattle that you never hear about in the tourist brochures, and the dancers there don’t mess around. You’d better have a rock-hard beat, an ace pedal steel player, songs as honest as they are direct, and a voice with just the right amount of twang. You can fake your way through country music to the rest of the world, but when you play for dancers, they’ll see right through any kind of trickery.
Liam Fitzgerald grew up around country music in his hometown of Klamath Falls, a small town nestled into some of the rougher natural territory of Eastern Oregon. He comes from a large family of cattlemen, shepherds, and rodeo stars that dates back generations to the Wild West, but despite this upbringing, Liam didn’t start playing country music until he’d moved to Seattle. Hooking up with a like-minded group of players, he started writing country songs, obsessing over old vinyl country records, and opening for all the hot country bands coming through town. Liam’s talent as a roots country songwriter was immediately apparent, and he moved to the upper echelon of Seattle country dance halls, playing sets at the Little Red Hen, The Shanty, and Darrell’s, all dive-bar, insider venues where the last remnants of Seattle’s working-class past still remain. Don Slack at KEXP was an early adopter of Liam’s music as well, featuring him frequently on his tastemaking show “Shake the Shack.” Those who know true country music in Seattle knew Liam very well.
With the second album from Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros, titled Last Call, this crackin’ Seattle crew of country pickers is poised to move into a much larger spotlight. With just 10 songs, Liam chronicles the bad break-ups, late night bar tabs, hard-luck ramblers, and drunken jokers that typify the Golden Age of country music. The band is hopping, with Russ Blake and his remarkably agile pedal steel solos, Tyler Johnson on hard-rock country bass, Johnn Mercury on the shimmery, reverb’d out electric guitar so key to the old country sound, and Donnie Staff laying down the kind of dancefloor country beats on the drums that made The Rainieros’ name. Plus Liam invited in the best fiddlers in Seattle’s old-time scene (Joe Fulton of the Tallboys and Greg Canote of the Canote Brothers) to lay down some Western swing fiddling. Last Call positively crackles with a vintage, analog sound, and Liam takes this aspect of the album very seriously. He sent the album to mastering twice, striving to get the kind of analog sound quality that he loved so much from his extensive collection of country music vinyl albums from the 1950s and 60s. One listen to the opening track, “What Would You Do,” and you’ll hear he succeeded!
As soon as you hear Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros, you know they’re different. There’s no “alt” here, no “indie” attached to their country music, this is the real deal, straight no chaser... old-school roots country songwriting born from a remarkable talent.
Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros: What Would You Do?
Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros: I'm Always Gonna Be in Love With You
09/04/2012 | comments (1)
I titled this post somewhat facetiously, since I don't really think that veteran bluesmith Eric Bibb cut his new album in Louisiana on vacation. It's just that the album, Deeper in the Well, sounds so relaxed and natural that I wouldn't be surprised if everyone involved considered it their personal vacation. The promo shots on the album of Bibb traveling the bayous in his Hawaiian shirt and lounging barefoot on the porch pickin' his guitar help with this image, as does the pic of all the great collaborators on the album with huge grins on their faces. It's just that kind of music: the old-fashioned summery country blues and roots music done with such joyous ease that you just can't keep from grinnin'.
The story behind the album is that Eric Bibb met with his booking agent Matt Greenhill of Folklore Productions. Greenhill suggested adding to Bibb's touring duo–Bibb and Seattle harmonica virtuoso Grant Dermody–by approaching renowned old-time and Cajun multi-instrumentalist (and awesome recording engineer) Dirk Powell. The collaboration between Bibb, Dermody, and Powell went so well that the decision was made to record. In a second stroke of genius, Greenhill suggested adding Louisiana Creole super-star fiddler and accordionist Cedric Watson. That's one hell of a band there, and indeed this group is actually touring now under the name "The Eric Bibb String Band." In any case, this super-group of roots musicians from country blues, Southern old-time, and Louisiana Creole/Cajun backgrounds got together around Dirk Powell's Cypress House Recording Studio in the charming, sleepy little town of Breaux Bridge, and proceeded to knock out a thoroughly relaxed and wonderful album together.
Bibb leads the group, and anyone who knows country blues knows how effortless this music is to him by now. Grant Dermody shines throughout, helped by his experience playing harmonica in many other genres outside the blues. We recently promoted his solo album, which we completely fell in love with, and we also recently reviewed his recent trio album with dobro master Orville Johnson and guitar whiz John Miller. Dirk Powell brings a whole stack of instruments to the recording, plus his truly excellent ear at recording acoustic roots music. Cedric Watson fiddles throughout and basically proves there's nothing he can't play. The songs are drawn equally from traditional sources and Eric's pen, but sound traditional throughout. Standouts include the rollicking "Dig a Little Deeper in the Well," sourced from an old Doc and Merle Watson recording, a jointly written song, "Money in Your Pocket," from Eric and one of our favorite songwriters, Michael Jerome Browne, and a fascinating reduction of the classic "Sinner Man."
I could talk a lot more about this album, but honestly the point here is that it's just pure fun to listen to. And I imagine it must have been pure fun to make. Wish I coulda been a fly on the wall at these recording sessions!
Eric Bibb: Bayou Belle
09/02/2012 | comments (0)
We're excited to be working again with Northwest songwriter and folk artist Coty Hogue. Based out of Bellingham, WA, her debut album, Going to the West, was so well received that we had high hopes for her follow-up. And she sure delivered! On When We Get To Shore, she again taps into her signature blend of influences: her own songs, songs from her friends, covers of well-known popular songs redone as roots music, and haunting Appalachian balladry. She's one of the few artists we know who can move effortlessly between these genres of music, while bringing a cutting-edge vision to each. That's no small feat! Add to this the fact that her new album is a live album taken from high-end recordings at a recent Empty Sea Studios show in Seattle, and Coty Hogue's talent is undeniable.
Coty Hogue - When We Get To Shore
It’s exceedingly difficult to create a great live album, but with When We Get to Shore, Northwest songwriter and folk singer Coty Hogue seems to have succeeded at just that. When recording live music, there’s no safety net. There’s no autotune to adjust the singing, or do-overs to cover up mistakes, but Coty Hogue clearly needs none of that. Her live album crackles with electricity and showcases her distinctly beautiful voice. It’s the kind of voice that’s equally at home singing a subtle, acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” as it is singing songs from her own pen, or a mournful Appalachian ballad. Few singers today can claim that kind of diversity, but Coty Hogue walks these lines easily.
All these influences come from a life well-lived. Raised in Montana, Coty Hogue grew up with the awe-inspiring wide open skies and rugged mountains of her hometown embedded in her music. She left at a young age to move to Bellingham, WA, a small arts-based city nestled into the waters of the Puget Sound about an hour and a half North of Seattle. She nurtured her songwriting talent there, collaborating with other artists, including fellow songwriter Sarah Fulford (whose song “Jonah” opens the album, and whose songs have featured on all of Coty’s albums). In 2009, Coty moved across the country to Boone, North Carolina to work for a Masters in Appalachian Studies. She studied the old songs and ballads of Southern old-time music, immersing herself in their sparse, haunted landscapes. Returning to Bellingham, where she now lives, Coty’s carved out a space for herself in the national folk scene as a uniquely versatile singer, an artist whose music resonates with knowledge of our past history and hope for a bright future.
When We Get To Shore was recorded live before a joyous audience at Seattle’s renowned Empty Sea Studios. Recording engineer Michael Connolly has perfected the art of live recording, and it really shows on this album. Joined by fellow Bellingham musicians Aaron Guest (vocals/guitar) and Kat Bula (fiddle/vocals), Coty’s sound is rich and warm, but also intimately alone, unbuffered by studio trickery. The songs run the gamut of her influences, from a Fleetwood Mac cover (“Second Hand News”) to beautiful, thoughtful renditions of traditional songs like “Wedding Dress” and “Handsome Molly.” Coty’s songs feature prominently, like the graceful mourning of “Cannot Deliver,” and the bitter taste of “Fire and Ashes.” The album closes with a song from Bill Monroe and a song from Hazel Dickens, cementing Coty’s love for American roots music. Each song is treated with careful reverence, as Coty draws out its inner essence. It’s the kind of album that makes you wish you’d been there that night, which is the best thing you can say about a great live album.
Video from the LIVE recording session:
Coty Hogue: Fire & Ashes
Coty Hogue: Handsome Molly
08/31/2012 | comments (0)
If you're like me, you're missing the heck out of HBO's medieval epic series Game of Thrones at the moment. Season Two just ended and Season 3 isn't due until March 31, 2012!! You're missing hating on Joffrey Baratheon, pining over the trials and travails of Daenerys Targaryen, and cheering openly for The Imp (Tyrion Lannister) and Rob Stark. And if you've read the books, you're also dreading the possible arrival of the Red Wedding in Season 3 with all your heart (don't google it unless you like HUGE spoilers!). But either way, we've got a long wait ahead of us until the next season comes out on HBO.
Well fret not dear reader, the annals of American folk song have retained a goodly number of horrific, medieval ballads to tide you over until the sexy bloodbath that is Game of Thrones returns. While hunting some of the rarer ballads down, I made sure not to look across the pond for inspiration. The British and Celtic folk traditions have tons of old medieval ballads about courtly intrigue and bloody political gambles, but I wanted to find these here at home in North America. I love that the tales and legends of the Middle Ages still echo in our ears today, handed down carefully from generation to generation, each one hoping to find something in the old songs that could match with their own lives.
So here are a few examples of old ballads in the New World that sound like they could be ripped from the pages of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
Ralph Stanley: Little Mathie Groves
This is the all-time classic medieval murder ballad and it's a perfect foil for Game of Thrones motifs in American folk songs. The wife of a nobleman, Lord Arnold (sometimes Lord Daniel), seduces a younger member of the court, Little Mathie Groves. When Lord Arnold discovers this (in other versions, there's some element of courtly intrigue and gossip that lets him know about the tryst), he calls Mathie Grove out of his bed and challenges him to a duel. Little Mathie does well, but not well enough, and is struck down. And in this particularly horrific version from the great American songmaster Ralph Stanley, Lord Arnold kills his wife as well, slicing her head off and kicking it against the wall. It seems that so many murder ballads take place outside in nature, or in the village, but this one is nestled deep in a castle, with the unfortunate events unfolding before everyone's eyes. It's the tabloid-rag of murder ballads, and definitely in keeping with the murderous castle-bound intrigues of Game of Thrones.
On a high, on a high,
on a high holiday,
on the very best day of the year,
little Mathie Grove to the church did go,
The Holy Word to hear.
Some come in all dressed in white,
some in purple and blue,
and then come in Lord Arnold's wife,
the flower among the few.
She looked at him, he looked at her,
the like had never been done,
'til she got up and took his hand,
and bade him come along.
Well they tossed and they turned in the bed all night
'til they lay fast asleep.
when they woke up in the new morn dawn,
Lord Arnold stood at their feet.
He said "Get up, little Mathie Grove,
and put your clothing on.
For it'll never be known in old England
i slade a naked man.""
I shan't get up, I won't get dressed,
I fear so for my life!
For you have got two very short swords,
and me not nary a knife."
"Well yes I've got two very short swords;
they cost me deep in the purse,
and you shall have the better of the two
and I shall take the worse."
"And you may strike the very first blow,
and strike it like a man.
and I shall strike the very next one,
and kill you if I can."
Well Mathie struck the very first blow,
it hurt Lord Arnold sore.
and Arnold struck the very next one,
left Mathie layin' dead in his gore.
He turned his eyes to his wife in her bed,
the rage and the hate saw she.
"Who do you like best now?" he said,
Little Mathie Grove or me?"
Very well do I like your brow," said she,
"very well do I like your chin,
but I like Mathie Grove in all of his gore,
better than you and all your kin.
Well, he took her by the hair of her head
he led her through the hall,
and with his sword cut off her head,
and kicked it against the wall.
Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer: Les Trois Gentilhommes
Sorry to switch to French, but this is one of the best of the bloody old complaintes (ballads) of French Canada. It's still sung today and this version is from one of the best trad bands in Quebec, Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer. An all-male a cappella group, Les Charbonniers are a treasure trove of old songs and wildly inventive male vocal harmonies. The narrative of this ballad fits perfectly with the world of Game of Thrones, where the soldiers of the king (or kings) ride where they please, murdering peasants by the villagefull.
The song itself tells the story of three brothers traveling the countryside. Happening upon a beautiful peasant girl, they attack and rape her. She escapes and alerts the nearest town, where she lives. When the brothers arrive at the town, the local constabulary arrest them and try them for the rape. They sentence all three to hang, but little do they know that the brothers are actually royalty from Paris. Their other brother hears of the sentence and races South from the capitol, whipping his horse bloody. He arrives just in time to see them all hanging and races to cut them down. The two older brothers survive, but the littlest dies from the hanging. So the remaining brothers turn the King's soldiers on the town, burning it to the ground and murdering everyone in sight so that the streets fill up with blood to the level of the horses' flanks.
LES TROIS GENTILHOMMES (translated to English)
There were three gentleman brothers of King Louis' court.
On the road they encountered three beautiful young maidens,
Who they took aside and had their way with.
The youngest brother who molested a girl: You should have repented.
If you pass by the nearby town you will be thrown in jail.
They passed by the town and this is exactly what happened to them.
The youngest one cried and sobbed, saying "I am afraid to die".
His two brothers tried to encourage him, saying:
"Don't cry my brother, we have another brother in King Louis' court.
If he knew what was happening, he'd be here in a flash.
He'd kill the marquis of the town, and burn the countryside.
He would judge the countryside, and judge that all should die."
The jailer was nearby and heard everything they said.
[The jailer to the judges of the town:]
"Listen judges, listen to what the brothers had to say."
Meanwhile, their brother in King Louis' court
Met a poor beggar on the pont de Paris [bridge in Paris].
"Ah, tell me my poor friend, what is the news of the countryside?"
"The news, my gentleman friend? Your three brothers were arrested."
"My poor friend, what is to happen to the prisoners?"
"I think, my gentleman friend, that they will hanged at seven o-clock"
"Tell me, my poor friend, can I make it there by seven o'clock?"
"No, no, no, my gentleman friend, you ride much too slow!"
The brother put his hand on the bridle, and rode faster than the wind.
When he got to the hills, his horse was sweating blood.
When he got to the town, he saw his three brothers hanging from the gallows.
He saved Pierre, he saved Jacques, but for little Jean it was too late.
From the mouth of the little Jean flew a white pigeon.
The older brother blew on his trumpet, and summoned his men.
He said to his soldiers "Dress yourselves all in white.
We are going to pass through the town killing everyone and burning everything."
Women cried out from their windows to all-powerful God:
"For the love of a brother, why kill so many people, so many men, women and children?"
From the four corners of the town, the gutters flowed with blood
From the four corners of the streets, the horses walked in it up to their flanks.
They didn't spare anybody: it is the town of innocents.
Castle By The Sea: Tim Eriksen
I'll confess I picked this one mainly for the castle by the sea references, but really this is a great song that ties into the simmering hatred of the sexes in Game of Thrones. Marriage and love are used as weapons either to cripple an opponent or exploit their weaknesses, and men and women alike revel in a very real battle of the sexes. In traditional American music there are many songs of men murdering their wives and lovers; it's kind of the basic premise of the murder ballad. But here the lover's a little quicker than the man and does him in with bit of swift treachery. This is one of the more cinematic of the old ballads, with the six drowned maidens, the sylvan bower, the castle by the sea, and the generally action-packed narrative. It's also strange that Boston town got slipped into this one. Last I checked there weren't many castles around Boston. Unless there's a Boston in the UK that I don't know about...
Tim Eriksen: Castle by the Sea
(from the excellent album Northern Roots - Live in Namest)
The Castle by the Sea
Arise, O arise, my lady fair,
For you my bride shall be,
And we will dwell in a sylvan bower
In my castle by the sea.
And bring along your marriage fee,
Which you can claim today,
And also take your swiftest steeds,
The milk white and the grey.
The lady mounted her white steed,
He rode the turban grey.
They took the path by the wild sea shore,
Or so I've heard them say.
As she saw the walls of the castle high
That looked so black and cold,
She wished she'd remained in Boston town
With her ten thousand pounds in gold.
He halted by the wild sea shore,
"My bride you shall never be!
For six fair maidens I have drowned here,
The seventh you shall be."
"Take off, take off, your scarlet robes,
And lay them down by me.
They are too rich and too costly
To rot in the briny sea."
"Then turn your face to the water's side,
And your back to yonder tree.
For it is a disgrace for any man
An unclothed woman to see."
He turned his face to the water's side,
And his back to the lofty tree.
The lady took him in her arms,
And flung him into the sea.
"Lie there, lie there, you false young man,
And drown in place of me.
If six fair maidens you drowned here,
Go keep them company."
She then did mount her milk white steed,
And led the turban grey,
And rode until she came to Boston town
Two hours before it was day.
Lord Randall: Jimmie Driftwood
Boy, they sure love poisoning in Game of Thrones. From the opening of the book, the poisoning of Jon Arryn was the first blow in the game of thrones that leads to the total destabalization of the kingdom. And other characters get poisoned too, though I can't say who without a big spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that poisoning is a particularly medieval form of assassination. This great version of the Child ballad "Lord Randall" comes from Ozark Mountain singer (and songwriter! He was famous for writing the "Tennessee Stud" and "The Battle of New Orleans!) Jimmie Driftwood. It's a simple song, for sure, but there's something deeply poignant and sad about the way it captures the last dying hours of Lord Randall as he returns home from courtship. I love how each version of this ballad unveils the guilty party in the last verse as Lord Randall wishes for her death.
"Where have you been a-ridin',
Lord Randall, my son?
Where have you been a-ridin',
My handsome young mon?"
"Been a-ridin' and a-courtin';
Oh, make my bed soon."
Chorus: "I'm a-weary of a-courtin',
And I fain would lie doon.
Heart weary of a-courtin',
And I fain would lie doon."
"What had you for your supper,
Lord Randall, my son?
What had you for your supper,
My handsome young mon?"
"Red lips that were pizen.
Oh, make my bed soon."
"What will you to your sister,
Lord Randall, my son?
What will you to your sister,
My handsome young mon?"
"My trunk full of diamonds.
Oh, make my bed soon."
What will you to your brother,
Lord Randall, my son?
What will you to your brother,
My handsome young mon?"
"My horse and my saddle.
Oh, make my bed soon."
"What will you to your lover,
Lord Randall, my son?
What will you to your lover,
My handsome young mon?"
"A strong rope to hang her.
Oh, make my bed soon."
Nelstone's Hawaiians: Fatal Flower Garden
Kids have it especially hard in Game of Thrones. Much of the books are devoted to the endlessly depressing and bloody plights of the children in the story, especially the wanderings of Arya Stark as she tries to reunite with her family, and the forced escape of Bran Stark (whoops, spoiler alert!). Kids don't have it much better in medeival ballads, and a harrowing example is this old song which has been nicknamed "Fatal Flower Garden", though it also goes by "Sir Hugh" and "It Rained A Mist". It's horrifying from beginning to end and really sets the scene for the abduction and murder of an innocent child. It's also interesting that the murderous woman is here portrayed as a gypsy. She's also been portrayed as a Jew in early versions of the ballad.
It rained, it poured, it rained so hard,
It rained so hard all day,
That all the boys in our school
Came out to toss and play.
They tossed a ball again so high,
Then again, so low;
They tossed it into a flower garden
Where no-one was allowed to go.
Up stepped a gypsy lady,
All dressed in yellow and green;
"Come in, come in, my pretty little boy,
And get your ball again."
"I can't come in, I shan't come in
Without my playmates all;
I'll go to my father and tell him about it,
That'll cause tears to fall."
She first showed him an apple seed,
Then again gold rings,
Then she showed him a diamond,
That enticed him in.
She took him by his lily-white hand,
She led him through the hall;
She put him in an upper room,
Where no-one could hear him call.
"Oh, take these finger rings off my finger,
Smoke them with your breath;
If any of my friends should call for me,
Tell them that I'm at rest."
"Bury the bible at my head,
A testament at my feet;
If my dear mother should call for me,
Tell her that I'm asleep."
"Bury the bible at my feet,
A testament at my head;
If my dear father should call for me,
Tell him that I am dead."
These are just a few examples of old, murderous, medieval songs in American traditional music. What are some other ones you can think of that mesh with the courtly-intrigue and medieval warfare of Game of Thrones?
BUY THE MUSIC PLAYED HERE
Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer's self-titled debut album
Ralph Stanley: A Mother's Prayer
Tim Eriksen: Northern Roots - Live in Namest
Anthology of American Folk Music
08/22/2012 | comments (0)
As a music writer, I get a fair amount of album submissions from hopeful musicians. I listen to them all, or as many as I can, but honestly these days most of my musical finds come from my own research or from friends. That said, every now and then and album comes completely out of the blue to blow me away. Jeffrey Martin's Gold in the Water is a perfect example. I'd never heard of Jeffrey Martin before getting a random email about him, but immediately, on the first listen, I knew this was special. Martin's a marvelous songwriter, effortlessly drawing out fully-fleshed stories and lush natural metaphors from a simple folk music structure. He's an incredibly rare find among today's glut of singer-songwriters: a songwriter whose songs are immediately affecting. These are the kind of songs that can change you. I listened to Gold in the Water over and over, and got the same feeling from his songs that I got from Cahalen Morrison's songwriting. Somehow his songs sound like they're coming out of a great novel, or that they're part of a larger work.
I checked into his background, and unsurprisingly he's a creative writing teacher in Eugene, Oregon. He doesn't tour very much, and his album isn't too widely known, even in the Northwest. But I can't imagine him staying hidden for long. His music is too good! I fired off an email to try and get more understanding of his songs. He wrote back about three songs I'd chosen and added some extra info too on his songwriting process. Enjoy!
Inside the Songs with Jeffrey Martin
How does being a creative writing teacher influence your songwriting (or vice versa)?
Jeffrey Martin: The greatest thing about teaching high school English is that it is impossible not to be constantly humbled by it. Young people are, by nature, testing the waters in all areas of their lives, with every word they say and everything they do. This results in a lot of stupidity, but also in a lot of creativity and genius. I haven’t had much experience teaching at this point, but I’ve already been floored more times than I can remember by what my students have come up with. As we get older we carve out grooves that we like to follow, in our thinking and in how we feel our way through things. I think those grooves are just less defined in teenagers. They are wild and free to try on perspectives that escape older folks entirely. Sometimes this is maddening. Most times, even when it’s maddening, I realize I’m holding on too tightly to the groove I’ve carved out for myself.
The second greatest thing about teaching is that I’m forced to read (and write) constantly. To be immersed in so many words and stories, edits and suggestions, keeps me primed for my own writing.
How do you keep from tapping out creatively, i.e. hitting a block because you're writing so much?
JM: When I was earning my BA in English I realized that you can’t approach creativity like it’s a finite substance. It’s not the oxygen, it’s the act of breathing. Even if there was no oxygen, you’d still make the attempt to breathe, and that’s what writing needs to be. And I suppose, if you were constantly concerned about the levels of oxygen available, you’d begin each new breath with trepidation. But writing is gasping; you have to be gulping things down, heaving, recycling all the time. So I think I just decided that something that carried so much passion and weight in my life as writing does can’t possibly be dependent on something that can be exhausted. On the flipside, I get exhausted often. Creativity can’t run out, but the muscles to wrangle it are muscles just the same as any other. I think it’s okay to lay down the guitar for a while, and the pen. Maybe they need time to rest also. I do a lot of carpentry on the side, and exhausting myself physically with manual labor is a perfect way to let the songwriter section of my brain get some sleep.
Jeffrey Martin: "Stolen from Them"
JM: I was living in Tacoma (WA), on Hilltop, and losing my mind when I wrote this song. I was working days and weekends at a country club, and living alone in this crummy little studio apartment with a hugely slanted floor, like a ship always titled to one side. The neighbor had a dog he wasn’t supposed to have, a big old muddy colored mutt with a bark like a gunshot, and across the street was a halfway house for pregnant young mothers (essentially a depot for late night ambulances). The song came entirely from the first line, something I jotted down in a poem, living in the city feels like crying in the rain / until you learn how to scream everybody looks the same. I stole the guitar part from a thousand different folk singers before me, it’s nothing fancy, just a podium for me to rest my elbows on while I get the words out. Or something like that. I felt swallowed up by concrete and fumes and noise and orange streetlights, and it seemed like the only way to be noticed in all that mess as anything remotely human was to scream out loud at people, or at the world in general. I wanted to get somewhere, to woods, the mountains, where there was no desperation to be noticed. Then the song (as they often do) became something else. It became this call and response between a boy (maybe) and his older wiser self (maybe.) It became a realization that I’m always assuming that I can think up a better outcome than what my life has produced at any given moment. If only I was hopping a train out of the city to the mountains, then I’d have some peace. If only I’d not been so scared to reveal myself to that woman. If only the world didn’t have such ugly corners, then it would be a whole lot easier to believe in God. If only I could be some place where I wouldn’t wish to be in any other. But all of these if only’s are answered by that other voice in my head, the one I should pay more attention to, that reminds me to take a breath, and own my failure, and see the human heart for what it is, fickle.
Jeffrey Martin: Why Can’t I
JM: One night I was sitting in my car outside my girlfriend’s apartment, waiting for her to get home from a party. It was one of those off nights when you just can’t stand the quiet of being alone, and you drive just to move some place, or you browse through shops you’d otherwise not be caught dead in just to feel like you have a mission of some sort. I had a junky old garage-sale guitar in the backseat, all out of tune and missing the low E; but it had this perfect tone for the moment, like every note passed through a soup can, like a radio in another room. The song is just a question to myself: why can’t I just be? Why do I have to look at every instance and determine it to be good or bad, positive or negative? I was struck by the idea that the natural world exists apart from value and moral implication. A leaf falls from a tree, and it just does. It’s blown by the wind, and it just is. I had a rough day, and I pick it apart and dwell on it and trying to extrapolate the reasons for it. I definitely think there is great value in thinking about our lives, our choices; and I’m not trying to be one of those people who claim everything is what it is, and we have no responsibilities and we suffer no consequences. I just think there might be a balance to be had, and sometimes we should just let things be. I have a love-hate (no, not hate, more like love and let’s-just-be-friends) relationship with the song. I like the words, but sometimes it feels hokey to sing. I have this specific idea in my head that it should sound tinny, and old timey, something that would be playing on a scratchy radio on a Sunday afternoon in 1951 while everything is sweaty and metal and dusty. And when I do it live, it never lines up with how it exists in my head. Maybe I could tape a soup can to the mic, and put a pick-up in that junky old guitar.
Jeffrey Martin: Winter Place
JM: This song exists in a very specific time and place. It was written during one of those brief windows of time when that easy feeling comes crashing down through the muck, and it’s wonderful and life giving, but it doesn’t stay for long, and one morning you wake up and it’s hissed away. I love Christmas time. I like the cold and how people’s attitudes change into something more jolly (usually) while they are all bundled up and bouncing down the street. I like coming home after working outside (I was siding houses that winter) and getting warm and clean and buzzed on whiskey. But there is this obvious level of superficiality to Christmas (in the pop culture sense.) We all know everything isn’t so peachy as those jolly songs make us feel. We all know twinkling lights and ribbons and hot cider are just props for a very temporary season. But we embrace it for what it is. And despite the fact that the season is so temporary, and is based on so much fluff, we can still grab hold of such strong and meaningful memories that we carry with us throughout the rest of the year. Your girl dancing to your new guitar diddy while she makes homemade eggnog, for example. So Winter Place feels like a pop song to me. I don’t think anything about it, the lyrics or the melody, is particularly challenging or thought provoking, but that’s okay. We all know what it feels like to hope that it snows so deep we are stuck home from work with someone we love the next day, and that’s all that song is.
How does the natural environment of Eugene, Oregon affect your songs?
JM: Eugene is a beautiful town, and the beach and mountains and rivers and lakes are so easy to access. But nature doesn’t often find its way into my songwriting, at least as a main character. There are archetypes from my boyhood that will forever exist in my songs, mountains and rivers; and they serve as ancient places that I can always count on to bring me back somewhere I got too far from. I think the separation between the city and the wild is a really interesting concept. I think if you spend time in the wild with the city too much in your heart (if that makes sense) then you might as well not have come. And I think if you spend time in the city with the wild too much in your heart, then people will treat you like you shouldn’t be there. And it seems like so much of life is about trying to be courageous enough to claim what we are at our most raw. In the woods, a mirror can be the most terrifying thing. In the city, a mirror is a tool that we use for everything but examining who we really are. I think I’m getting way out there now, and I better bring it back down to the concrete. Yes, without a doubt, nature affects my songs, but more so behind the scenes, in the foundations.
Do you have a new album coming soon? Are you making new songs?
JM: I have a truckload, and a boatload, of new songs. Last year I had the chance to hang out with Martyn Joseph for a bit, and listen to some of his advice. Something he told me was that I should take my time in making albums. Everyone is always so anxious to make an album, to capture the sounds, but, according to Joseph, not enough folks give enough time to shaping their songs on stage before they get in the studio.
I’ve been playing a lot of shows this past year, and will continue to do that through the fall, and I really like how my songs have found a final identity. I’m currently recording an EP in Portland, six or seven songs that I can tour on this fall. And then this winter (January) I’ll be getting to work recording another full length album.