We've been keeping a close eye on young Michigan bluegrass pickers Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys and good thing too, since their new album is a delight from start to finish. Anchored by great songwriting and the utterly charming vocals of Lindsay Lou, the band is red-hot, pickin' up a storm throughout the album. There's hints of swing jazz and pre-war American music alongside progressive bluegrass and plain old-fashioned fun. Check it out!
Young Michigan “rootsgrass” band Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys pack a tight punch. Instrumentally, they can turn on a dime, and their arrangements show a well-developed taste in music. Based on bluegrass traditions but frequently dipping into swing jazz and popular song craft, their sound is deftly guided by the clarion vocals of lead singer Lindsay “Lou” Rilko. Their new album, Release Your Shrouds, marks a remarkable step forward, and that’s thanks in part to the relationship between the two singers, Lindsay and Joshua Rilko, which blossomed in their college days and, with their recent marriage in July 2011, now forms the core of the band. Josh was one of the group’s founders and has guided their development from college band to national touring group. He plays mandolin and joins his voice with his wife, Lindsay, in beautiful harmony on the new album. A precocious talent, Lindsay joined the band after a series of open-mics and kitchen jams in college. During a study abroad in Ecuador, she knuckled-down to focus on writing songs and discovered a hidden talent for song craft that now puts her at the top of current acoustic roots music songwriters. It’s impossible to leave the new Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys album without humming at least one of her songs for the rest of the day. With the full band melding their sound to hers, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys have jumped into the forefront of today’s progressive roots music movement. The twelve songs on Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys’ new album, Release Your Shrouds, show that this is the sound of a band moving quickly to maturity, and turning what was once a college project into a tightly knit family.
Release Your Shrouds is a window to a bluegrass band spreading its wings and incorporating new influences into their sound. On “Wonderful You Are,” bass player Spencer Cain shines in a duet with Lindsay’s Billie-Holiday-like vocals, and dobro player Mark Lavengood brings the fire on “Lemon Squeezy.” Keith Billik’s banjo playing not only offers the driving bluegrass sound, but also brings a level of sophistication to the less traditional numbers, like instrumental track “Barbarossa.” Lindsay’s songs are fully crafted stories, often based on real-life experiences, with lovely hooks and choruses. The breadth of the songs’ themes pushes each band member to work outside the bluegrass box, and the results are delightful. With the addition of trumpet to “Tied Down to You,” the swing-jazz roots of Lindsay’s singing make this song seem almost like a Squirrel Nut Zippers number, while “Leaves and Pods” has all the slow-burning fun of an old rockabilly waltz from the 50s, and “The Leaves Are Changin’” sounds like a sweeter-than-honey Western swing song. Songs like “My Side of the Mountain” and “Pass Me the Whiskey” are pitch-perfect romps through traditional bluegrass, just to show that each band member can still pick with the best.
Like any family, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys are more than the sum of their parts. They’re an all-American family, front-porch pickin’ party, with each song shining with the polish of handmade homemade acoustic roots music.
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: All Day
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: Hat's Off
08/06/2012 | comments (0)
Kevin Brown is a well loved musician, songwriter and bluegrass DJ based out of Eastern Washington, an arid land of high desert, dense forests, and some serious cowboy culture. We've been working with him promoting his new album, The Beloved Country, but we also keep hearing about The Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival (Aug 10-12 this year outside Spokane, WA), an all-star Washington State bluegrass festival that he curates and runs. After spending last weekend at Pickathon, we were more curious than ever to learn about what goes into building a great roots music festival. This is part of our ongoing "Behind the Scenes" interview series in which we get to meet some of the people behind the scenes of the roots music industry. The quiet builders and humble workers who get it done without much credit or many accolades. We loved how Kevin thought about acoustic roots music and turns out he brings that same quiet thoughtfulness and refreshing honesty to building and producing one of the best bluegrass festivals in the Northwest!
[Kevin Brown at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival]
Hearth Music Interview with Kevin Brown
When was Blue Waters started? Did you start it? If not, when did you start working for it? If so, what caused you to start the festival?
Kevin Brown: Blue Waters was started in 2002 by some folks in the community of Medical Lake , a small lake town near Spokane, WA, who wanted to have a music festival to raise money for some local charities. They decided on bluegrass even though none of them knew much about the music, and wisely enlisted the help of some people in the Inland Northwest bluegrass community. I attended the first meeting with my friend Jim Faddis and it was a strange mixture of beer-can-pounding Good Old Boys, suburban bluegrassers, and miscellaneous business and community leaders, with very little organization to the meeting. I think most of us felt like spectators at a rodeo, but somehow a planning committee was formed. I had recently started doing a bluegrass radio show on our public radio station so I got recruited to help book the bands. The festival was held at the city park on the shores of Medical Lake that August, and if I remember correctly there were about 50 people in attendance at that first festival. The saving grace was an absolutely beautiful location and some great music from Jackstraw, John Reischman & The Jaybirds, and a few local bands. It took a few years to really get off the ground and grow, but the lakeside park and some high-energy bands in those next few years like Broken Valley Roadshow (Montana's young hotshot band at the time), Hit & Run Bluegrass, The Biscuit Burners and The Wilders helped the word to get out, and we grew to our present size of 800 - 1000 people.
Steep Canyon Rangers at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Why do you think bluegrass fests seem to be so location-focused? I'm thinking of the Colorado festivals that have these amazing backdrops of mountains and nature.
I want to think that location is everything, but then there are festivals like Wintergrass that are held in the most ungodly un-bluegrass places on the planet (a hotel complex in downtown Bellevue WA?!) that are wildly popular so I guess that sort of deflates the theory. Still, when it comes to outdoor summertime festivals I think you've got to have some natural beauty and an environment conducive to sitting in a chair and watching bluegrass without baking in the sun. Also, not everyone in a family or group of friends has the same tolerance for sitting and listening all day, so having the opportunity to swim, hike, ride bikes, or go join the campground jam session all make for a more enjoyable weekend. Water, trees and great summer weather make for a multi-sensory experience, and the natural beauty seems to go with the earthy nature of the music.
What's the natural environment like around the fest? Tell me more about the location!
One of the most consistent bits of positive feedback we get about Blue Waters is that we have a stellar location. The festival is held in a park on a nice little lake under a canopy of Ponderosa Pine trees. The stage actually sits nestled between 4 or 5 really big Ponderosas that are kind of like pillars. Eastern Washington summers can be hot, but we don't have humidity, we have great shade, and the lake has a family-friendly swimming area and a nice walking path around it. It's just a sweet spot, and it's also within walking distance of local shops and restaurants. In fact, there's a second lake within walking distance as well, with better fishing and it's a nice place for an hour or two of quiet during the weekend. We are only a 4 hour drive from Seattle, 3 hours from Missoula, and 2 hours from Eastern British Columbia, so we're centrally-located for a wide geographic region of folks who tend to love the outdoors. Spokane is sort of off-the-beaten-path, but I think that's part of the charm. If you want to get away, you want to GET AWAY to some place that feels like summer!
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
How is Blue Waters different from other bluegrass festivals you've been to? What other festivals have inspired you recently?
There are several other great summertime bluegrass festivals in the region (Darrington, Columbia Gorge, Pickathon). I guess if I were to differentiate our festival I'd say that we're a little more "small town" than those, being farther from the major cities on the I-5 corridor, but still very passionate about maintaining a high-caliber of music and a breadth of styles while being affordable. Our national headliners have been some of the best of any bluegrass festival our size in the west -- Dan Tyminski Band (his only festival appearance in the US the summer of 2010, with a one-time all-star backing band), The Seldom Scene, Darrell Scott, Mountain Heart, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, etc. Many of the Northwest bluegrass festivals tend to stay in a pocket of more mainstream bluegrass, or just regional bands, or picking-only festivals. I think we offer more variety. And yet our weekend passes are still lower than most festivals our size.
As far as inspiration goes, I have to admit I haven't been to as many other regional bluegrass festivals recently as I would like, but I do scour the lineups of other festivals to see who's booking who, and which festivals seem to have some unique personality. There are several that I have my eyes on to attend, like the Durango Meltdown and Pagosa Festival in Colorado, the Big Horn Mountain Festival in Wyoming, and of course some of the big ones like Merlefest and Delfest. Every year or two I try to go to one of those (my favorites have been Grey Fox and Rockygrass), but they do always get a bit depressing from a Festival Promoter standpoint, because our budget is so small compared to theirs.
Dan Tyminski Band at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
How do you pick the performers? Are you focusing on draw, or artistic choices? What are you looking for in choosing your lineup?
Being a DJ at heart, I approach the lineup similar to my bluegrass radio show, as a set of music that gives everybody something they already love as well as something they maybe haven't heard before, and have it all hold together and yet still be sort of organic. We offer a variety that includes some of the young progressive bands, songwriting legends, old-time masters, and a blend of local, regional and national artists. I do look for draw, but maybe in less conventional ways. Dirk Powell for instance, is not a household name -- not even in casual bluegrass circles -- but he has such mega-respect in the roots music community that I already know people are making some pretty long drives just to come for him. We had the same experience with Darrell Scott a few years ago for his reputation as a performer and songwriter who isn't necessarily "bluegrass". I am committed to keeping this a bluegrass festival, but want to keep somewhat off-center with that, in some different ways perhaps than other festivals do.
For instance, this year I think we're simultaneously a bit less bluegrass than past years, but ironically we're more traditional! We are also more fiddle-heavy than we've ever been, which is great because Spokane has an absolutely thriving fiddle scene with some of the best instructors in the region, and a couple of fiddle dynasties that have multiple National Champions, and an openness to a wide range of styles. This really happened quite unintentionally. It just hit me when the lineup was about finished that there was such sheer power in the breadth of fiddlers and the bands they play with and styles they play: Dirk Powell, The Quebe Sisters, Jenny Anne (Bulla) Mannan, the Foghorn Stringband's Sammy Lind, and the husband wife fiddle duo of Greg & Caridwen Spatz who will be playing in Jim Faddis' band. Greg is the fiddler for John Reischman & The Jaybirds but he'll be playing mandolin for this set! There is also a really incredible local band called The Dead Fiddler's Society that is steeped in traditional fiddle tunes and styles, and they always host one of the best jams in the campground as well as putting on a great stage show.
The Quebe Sisters aren't bluegrass, but the style of Texas Swing they play is so retro that it can certainly be called "traditional", and so infectious and danceable that I know they're going to be a huge hit. And our other major headliner is The Josh Williams Band, who are certainly VERY bluegrass and who I'm very excited to finally see live. Josh Williams is just so ridiculously talented and solid in every respect.
There is also a young husband-wife duo Anne & Pete Sibley who are a lot like Pharis & Jason Romero, or The Honey Dewdrops (who they are good friends with). Very traditional, and yet armed with plenty of powerful original songs, and the sweetest stage presence.
Really the bottom line is I want a lineup I can personally be excited about. That is definitely the case this year!
Crooked Still at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Do you run the festival as a non-profit, or is it for-profit?
We are a 501-C-3 non-profit, and I can tell you we definitely do NOT make a profit!! Our goal has been to support some local charities after all the bills have been paid, but these past few years especially have made that hard with some loss of sponsorship due to the economy. We are entirely volunteer-driven, and we are short-staffed with committee folks. Several of us have been involved since the very beginning, and we all wear multiple hats. It's a lot of work to put on a festival, and I can see why some of them don't last more than a few years. But every year at the end of the Festival Weekend we all kind of look at each other and say "Wow! That was a blast!", and people thank us profusely as they are leaving, and so we gear up and do it again.
What are some of the challenges of producing a bluegrass festival? Name one or two of your best AND worst moments producing Blue Waters.
Finances, obviously -- especially in an economic climate where it's hard to get consistent sponsorships. But perhaps even more so, trying to make a festival succeed when all you've got is a motley collection of folks who collectively don't have all the skills or know-how necessary to make it all happen smoothly. We are woefully deficient in fundraising energy and experience, and not the most organized committee in the world. The hardest moments have definitely been related to finances, or staffing (100% volunteer), or the myriad of drudgery pre-festival tasks and meetings. But somehow the festival weekend goes off without a hitch and we all have a blast.
Probably the worst moment I can think of was back in 2006 when The Wilders played. They arrived late after fighting traffic on their way out of Seattle, so they came straight to the festival. They put on an incredible set (starting with Ike's yell "MAN, I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW GLAD WE ARE TO BE IN SOME REAL COUNTRY!!"), and then they hung around and talked and maybe even jammed a little afterwards, and then headed to their hotel room. I had forgotten to un-silence my cell phone, and even though I was up late picking in the campground I never heard the 3 or 4 frantic calls from Betse Ellis. Apparently the hotel had given away their rooms to some other tired travelers when midnight rolled around, and they only had one room available for the guys, and ended up putting Betse in a rollout cot in a tiny room. I was horrified when I found the voicemails about 2AM! Fortunately the hotel was able to find her a real room for the next night, but I'm pretty sure we ended up switching hotels for the next year. The great thing, though, is we had The Wilders back last year and Betse didn't even remember that incident, and she even helped me fix a broken tent pole on my tent (I camp behind the stage) after their set!
I think one of my favorite stories was a couple of years ago when Martha Scanlan played. She arrived a bit late and got out of her van and there was a young man with her. He seemed quite a bit younger than her and I wasn't about to start speculating about what the relationship might be, but was more focused on wanting to get Martha backstage where she could start getting ready for her set. But the story came out in bits and pieces as she was getting ready and he was sitting their quietly writing in a journal. A few songs into her set she stopped and told the whole story to the audience. She said that she had been driving through The Middle Of Nowhere, Washington by herself and passed a young man hitchhiking, and just had some inner jolt that she needed to stop and pick this young man up. He was soft-spoken and seemed nice enough, and it turns out his wallet and cell-phone had been stolen in Portland and he was hitchhiking home to the Midwest where he was supposed to be teaching a class in a few days. So Martha -- being Martha -- gave him a ride, brought him to the festival, and proceeded to take up an offering to buy him a bus ticket home. It was a Sunday afternoon set she was playing, and being a preacher's son I know the difference between a religious experience and a hole in the ground, and this was nothing short of the weirdest and holiest moment I've ever witnessed at a music festival. People filled four or five ball caps full of money and the young man sat backstage crying, witnessing this whole spontaneous outpouring of goodwill, and no doubt wondering by what token he had ended up in Martha Scanlan's van that day. I told him most guys there would have just been satisfied to end up getting a ride from Martha Scanlan.
It also struck me that day that in order to be a good songwriter you've got to live like a songwriter. That's why Martha is so good. I think I learned more in that moment about bluegrass & folk music than in any workshop I've ever attended at a festival.
What's your general philosophy behind the festival?
Good, live, authentic music is IMPORTANT. I believe that to the bottom of my soul. People need real music in their lives -- not the stuff you hear in the background at the store, or listen to half-engaged on Pandora or Spotify. People need to experience music, either by playing it themselves or being right up close to a performer who is passionately playing it under the stars. The beauty of a good outdoor festival is people are brought together to enjoy music without being encumbered by their daily responsibilities, and some really beautiful Community happens and some incredible music is made. There's just something about that energy that makes all the time and effort of putting on the festival worthwhile.
The Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival will take place August 10-12 on Medical Lake, near Spokane, WA. Sounds like a great day trip out for all our Seattle friends!! Find out more :
THIS YEAR'S LINEUP: The Josh Williams Band, The Quebe Sisters Band, Foghorn Stringband, Dirk Powell, Anne & Pete Sibley, Jim Faddis & One More Ride, Jenny Anne Mannan, The Callenders, Big Red Barn, The Dead Fiddler's Society, Old Bear Mountain, and Kevin Pace & The Early Edition.
08/04/2012 | comments (0)
Hokey Smokes, we are insanely excited to be heading off to Pickathon this weekend! This scrappy little festival outside Portland, Oregon, has gone from an all weekend picking party among friends to one of the most creatively advanced festivals in the nation. Seriously, you kinda have to go to believe this, but it will blow your mind. Check out our interview HERE with Pickathon founder Zale to get a better idea of his risky programming strategy. Here's a quote from Zale: "We feel more confident in the fact that, ‘Hey, this is just great music’ and people are going to catch on and gravitate for the fact that this is something different and people are going to be okay with crossing a lot of ground."
We'll be interviewing artists for Pickathon at their brand-new Interview Stage. It's gonna be really cool, we'll be interviewing artists as they come off the Mainstages (well, Devon Leger of Hearth will be interviewing along with other crack interviewers from around the NW). It'll be like those sports reporters who interview the sweaty, heaving athletes as they roll off the field. Only we'll be asking nerdy questions about their banjos.
The Interview Stage is backstage and closed to the public, BUT you can watch our interviews live on either KEXP or Paste Magazine! Here's more info from KEXP and Paste on that.
Artists we'll be interviewing directly:
-Sierra Leone Refugee All-Star
08/01/2012 | comments (0)
Nashville, Tennessee songwriter Arthur Alligood has been on my radar for a while now, and I feel bad this is the first chance I've had to write about his music. I've got his earlier album, I Have Not Seen the Wind, and it's a great slice of dark Americana and a vehicle for Alligood's excellent songwriting chops. I'm not the only who thinks he's a precociously talented songwriter either: in 2011 he won the Mountain Stage New Song contest. No small feat that, and he got a recording contract as well out of the win! His new full-length album, One Silver Needle, comes out of that contract and it's more proof positive as to his rock-solid songwriting chops. Each song on the album is carefully constructed, in fact I'm starting to think of Alligood as a master craftsman of American songwriting. Arthur's also been moving into the producer's chair more, first with the excellent album from Alabama indie roots band Fire Mountain. I figured it was high time we got to new Arthur a little better, so I sent him along some questions to find out more.
Hearth Music Interview with Arthur Alligood
What's Nashville like? Do you find it hopelessly mired in old-school mainstream country, or is there a great creative community for you to work with? Where are you from originally?
Arthur Alligood: I've lived in middle TN most of my life…mostly in suburban towns just around Nashville. Nashville is a great city with lots of history. As far as the music scene goes, a lot is going on besides modern country music. You have everything here from gospel to hard rock. I think more and more outsiders are taking notice of the diversity of our music scene.
What were your earliest musical inspirations?
AA: Good question. Didn't listen to much music until late high school. I remember having an oldies tape that had songs like "Yakety Yak" and "La Bamba" on it. Not sure if I was really inspired though. I think the band that made me want to play guitar was Jars of Clay.
Where do you write most of your songs? Is there a place you go to for inspiration, or isolation?
AA: I write 99% of my songs in my house either at the kitchen table or in the bathroom. Sometimes I record melody ideas on my phone when I'm driving and then work on them more when I get home.
Tell me about the new album and the Mountain Song contest. How did that come about? What song/songs helped you win the contest? Is the album, One Silver Needle, a direct result of that?
Well, I entered three songs in the contest this past year. I was fortunate to be chosen (based on those songs) as one of 12 finalists. So, I flew to New York for the competition and long story short, I ended up winning the whole shebang. The grand prize was an opportunity to record with producer Mikal Blue out in L.A. One Silver Needle is the record we made. I'm pretty proud of it. The songs I entered in the contest were the same songs I played during the live competition. They were: Gavel, Keep Your Head Up, and Turn It Over. [note: Songs from his 2011 album, I Have Not Seen the Wind]
You seem to move effortlessly between beautiful acoustic folk songs with carefully crafted, subtle lyrics, to more pop-oriented songwriting (great hooks and choruses, lyrics less about telling a story, more about conveying emotion). That's not a dig at all, that's a compliment. Do you see this in your own songwriting, or do you see less of a dichotomy between singer-songwriter lyricism and pop songcraft?
I've learned over the years to just run with what's working. I'll go through seasons where all I can write are ballads. Then I get bored I think and start experimenting with melody and guitar hooks. This fog eventually lifts and I find myself writing an old country song. I seem to jump from one rock to the next. It all feels good to me. I think my albums for the most part reflect this method. In my mind, there is no division between any of it. I am really aware though that it's easy sometimes to write the same type of song over and over. I don't want my records to come off this way. The trick is to write songs that can stand up all on their own and also fit together to make a greater work i.e. the album. People say the album is dead, but I still believe in its power. When you can take a group of "singles" and make a great record you have done something.
How is the new album, One Silver Needle, different from your past album, I Have Not Seen the Wind?
There is lots more storytelling on One Silver Needle. I think this is the major difference. I Have Not Seen the Wind in my estimation was more of a "relational" record. There were some narrative songs there, but for the most part the album felt more like a conversation. One Silver Needle feels more like a group of short stories.
Your new album seems more produced (bigger band, more arrangements, fewer acoustic numbers) than the last album. Did you have more time in the studio, or a different vision for the music?
I had way more resources at my disposal this time around. Mikal brought in players that he thought would suit my style well. Legends like Jim Keltner and Leland Sklar played on several songs, which was an honor. I was out recording in L.A. for nearly two weeks. We were really only supposed to do an EP, but we decided early on we were going to press hard for a full-length album. Beyond writing the songs I didn't really have a vision in terms of production. It was fun to see how Mikal shaped the songs.
Tell me about your work as a producer. I recall you produced the Fire Mountain EP, which was excellent. How did that go and was it a challenge for you to move outside your own perspective as solo artist to produce the work of a full band that you're not actively a part of?
I met Perry from Fire Mountain a while back and fell in love with his voice and songwriting. We did some pre-production via Skype and then they came into town and we tracked the whole EP in one weekend. I'm not really a producer, but I do enjoy the process and seeing the end result. Working on songs that aren't mine makes me a better songwriter. It gives me a different perspective and helps me to see my own songs more clearly.
I can't find a bio of you anywhere on the web. Why is that? Do you not like writing about your music? As a challenge, I'd love to hear how you'd describe your music in a sentence or two! :)
Bios are way harder to write than songs. I've written them over the years and have never really been happy with how they've come off. I make the music and am up for talking about it, but I just don't like having that conversation with myself, which is what a bio seems to be to me. Describe my music? Why don't I describe the music I like and hope I make. It has to have a certain ache. It doesn't take long to listen to feel it and hear it. It's the ache of the broken and lost. It's that desperate ache to see things made right as they should be. I guess you could say I make modern roots music with subtle, poetic lyrics. Hopefully, it has the ache too.
Who are some other songwriters who've really inspired you? What about writers, like authors? Do you read much for inspiration?
My songwriter list continues to grow, but here are a few of my favorites: Paul Simon, Townes Van Zandt, Washington Phillips, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty. I used to read a ton, but my reading has died down due to having kids and what not. Some of my favorite writers are Flannery O'Connor, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines, William Gay. I love me some Southern literature.
Arthur Alligood: Darkness to Light
Arthur Alligood: We Had A Mind To Run
07/28/2012 | comments (0)
This is the start of a new series of blogs from Hearth Music focusing on some of the people behind the scenes in the roots music industry. We love interviewing and profiling musicians, but we've also learned a lot from the wildly creative and deeply passionate people that put on festivals, run record labels, book venues, book bands, design posters, and any of the other more interesting jobs out there.
To start off, we're proud to present this interview with the founder of NorthSide Records, and one of the principal founders of RykoDisc, Rob Simonds. I was talking recently with Easy Ed about how much we missed the Nordic roots music that NorthSide used to produce. In the late 90s and early 00s,
NorthSide records were ubiquitous at American record stores, distinguished by the super cool Nordic trad and neo-trad bands they had tracked down, their transparent spines on the jewel cases, and their famous (possibly infamous) "Cheaper than Food" sampler albums that could always be bought for under $5.
For a starving student of ethnomusicology like myself, they were the perfect entree into Scandinavian music. Ed helped me track down Rob, the label head, who's now the executive director of The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. I was so curious to know how he had managed to not only corner, but create the market for Nordic roots music, what happened to the label after its heyday, and what his advice now would be for those looking to start their own record labels. Here are his answers.
Hearth Music Interview with Rob Simonds of NorthSide Records
-When did you start Northside Records, and what was the impetus for doing so? What was your background in music and in Nordic music at the time?
Rob Simonds: A brief bio is required for this:
I started my career in the music business by working in record stores starting in the 70's. By the early 80's I had gone through virtually every position from basic clerk to store manager, and I made the next step by starting my own wholesale distribution company, importing vinyl records from Japan. When CDs were introduced I was one of the first people in the U.S. to have a CD player (I had my Japanese exporter buy one for me and include it in a shipment), the Sony CDP-101. Soon after I started importing CDs from Japan and Europe, and it so quickly came to dominate my business that in 1983 I sold off my vinyl and became the country's first CD-exclusive distributor, East Side Digital.
In 1984, as a way to give my distribution company proprietary product, I started a record label with two partners, called Rykodisc. Ten years later, Rykodisc was a $30 million company, with its own national distribution arm, an international office in London, and a publishing division. Since my responsibilities for Ryko included sales, distribution and finance, I was the one in charge of putting together its U.S. distribution company, which was a rather enormous task, and one that ultimately burned me out. By 1995, I was looking to get out and started to cast about for what to do next.
I had started a smaller imprint in the late 80's (ESD) to release some of my favorite music that was too obscure for the quickly growing Ryko label. In the 90's as my responsibilities for Ryko expanded, I hired a label manager to run ESD and stepped away from it. So one obvious path was to regroup ESD and take it in a different direction. Ultimately, part of the strategy became starting a sister label, NorthSide, dedicated to the interesting Nordic folk revival. How did I come upon that? As CEO of a national distribution company, one is inundated with people wanting to get distribution for their artists or labels. Rykodisc's Swedish distributor stopped by one day with a box of a new label they had started dedicated to the folkmusic revival there, called Xource. Once I got around to sampling those discs, I quickly became obsessed with the music. I decided to check out the summer music festivals in Sweden and Finland in 1996, where I got a sense of how active this movement was. That lead to deciding to start an imprint dedicated to it.
-Who were the first artists you signed?
RS: My first deal was actually a licensing deal with the Xource label, and I chose four artists from them for my initial releases: Hedningarna, Väsen, Hoven Droven and Den Fule.
-For a while in the late 90s and early 00s, NorthSide was ubiquitous in world music circles. I saw your releases absolutely everywhere and it really got me into Nordic music. How did this happen? Did you have great distribution, or powerful marketing, or strong connections or a blend of all three? I know that NorthSide had amazing branding. Like those old RealWorld albums, you always knew immediately that an album was from Northside as soon as you saw its CD case.
RS: Nice to hear! I certainly had an advantage since I had been an owner and the CEO of my national distribution company! But I think I had learned a lot through my Rykodisc years about marketing, and creating that strong brand identity was important to me from the beginning. The company started with a pretty solid marketing strategy.
-When did NorthSide Records end? Why and what caused it to end?
RS: Actually, it has not ended. My only active artist at this point is Väsen, but we are in the process of making a new record with them. We still sell the titles that we created with them, through our website, iTunes, and when they tour (which is 2-3 times a year in the U.S.). But the rest of the catalog has been retired. Most of it was based on territorial licensing deals (NorthSide only had North American rights, and they were released on other labels elsewhere, mostly in Scandinavia), and that's really not a workable model in the digital world. Physical product is easier to keep segregated by territory than digital files!
RS: It was always a labor of love, but most of the individual projects at least paid for themselves.
-At the height of the label, how many people were working for it and did you have offices? Where were you located?
RS: There were 4 or 5 of us in the late 90's, and our offices were located in the former Rykodisc building in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis. When Ryko closed its offices here in 1998 and sold the building, I structured a rent deal with the new owners. By 2002 I had moved into the basement of my house and was down to one other employee.
-You must have had to travel a lot to connect with all the artists the label released. Do you miss all that travel?
RS: I miss the music festivals in Sweden and Finland. But I still regularly go to music festivals and conferences for my new job at The Cedar.
-Tell me about the Cheaper than Food series of albums. I'd love to hear how the idea for that came about. As a poor college student, I bought the heck out of those and then pored over the liner notes to try and discover new Nordic bands.
RS: When we structured our original agreements we included the ability to use limited tracks on a royalty-free basis for the purposes of low-cost samplers. With no royalty obligations (and just as importantly, no accounting needed for same), we then set out to figure out the cheapest possible price for selling the samplers. The "cheaper than food" tag was actually a running joke at the Ryko Distribution offices about lunch at Taco Bell. That's what we originally deemed "cheaper than food"! Then I thought it worked as a good tag line for the samplers.
-Do you think that the label may have oversaturated the market? In the sense that you almost created the market by releasing so many albums, but then perhaps there ended up being too many and people couldn't keep up?
RS: The first goal was to create a new genre called "Nordic." The large number of titles was an important tool towards that goal. We always knew that a handful of artists would emerge as the viable career builders, and that much of the catalog would end up being one-offs. When we started the label it was still true that you could sell at least 2000 copies of just about anything, and that worked. But then everyone, including NorthSide, oversaturated the market, while the market itself was actually shrinking without anyone really understanding that for years.
-What advice would you give to people wanting to start a record label these days? Do you think it's possible any more, or is it just too outdated a business model?
RS: My knee-jerk response would be "don't do it!" But that's over-simplifying. While I think it's possible, it would look nothing like the model I've just described. But at the foundation of any label there still needs to be an innovative marketing strategy. The biggest mistake is to think that releasing great music alone is enough. It's simply not, and never has been.
-Do you think NorthSide helped introduce a lot of new people to Nordic roots music? I know it did for me and other friends, but I wonder if that feedback has come back to you in force.
RS: Absolutely. I've heard that from consumers, musicians, presenters, and even other record industry people. Even referring to this music as "Nordic" or "Nordic roots" is a testament to the work we did. That term did not exist before NorthSide as it relates to music.
-What were your Top 10 albums that you released on NorthSide? Or if it's too hard to choose, just give me a rundown of some of your favorites and favorite memories from running the label.
RS: I consider Garmarna's "Vengeance," Hedningarna's "Trä" and Väsen's "Whirled" all to be landmark recordings in any genre. Those are three masterpieces in my opinion. I think Väsen continue to make incredible music that has impact on the world of acoustic musicians. The Punch Brothers just covered a modern Väsen tune on their new record, for example, and it's a highlight of their current live set. Other personal faves are Sorten Muld's "III," the "Airbow" record with Sven Ahlbäck and Maria Kalaniemi, JPP's "String Tease," "Bäsk," and Mari Boine's "Eight Seasons."
-What did you do after NorthSide ended? How did you get into the work you're currently doing with the Cedar Cultural Center.
RS: I joined the Board of The Cedar in 1991. As NorthSide was winding down, in 2007, they were looking for a new Executive Director. So the timing worked well for me. The Cedar is a 450-seat (or 625 without the seats) non-profit music venue who's mission is the presentation of world music to increase cultural understanding. Between 1999 and 2008 we had ten Nordic Roots Festivals here where we brought in a lot of NorthSide artists for a full weekend of concerts, workshops and collaborations. It was an amazing run. In 2009 we decided that ten years was about right, and transformed the festival into a broader Global Roots Festival, which serves to start our season with free concerts by great international artists. While the recording business struggles to figure out a workable business model, live music has thrived, and it's a very exciting time to be involved with that side of the business.
-What kind of work do you do with Cedar Cultural Center?
RS: A little of everything. I still do some booking but have largely handed those responsibilities off to someone else as I work on helping to prepare the organization for its first major comprehensive campaign. In general, I'm the organization's leader and main advocate. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by a committed Board and extremely talented and dedicated staff. And we have fun.
-Would you consider starting a label again in the future? Or working with a label?
RS: I'm happy with the level of work I'm doing in the record business at this point. I don't foresee doing much more than that.
07/15/2012 | comments (0)
Since interviewing Rita Hosking about her fascinating family history in California's Cornish mining communities, we've had mining songs on the brain. So we jumped at the chance to invite Brooklyn-based, but Idaho-raised, singer-songwriter Karen Dahlstrom to share the stories behind the songs on her Idaho-mining-country-influenced EP, Gem State. It's a gem of an EP, just five songs, but the stories in the songs leap out of the melodies. We wanted to know more about her inspiration in making these songs and she was happy to share. Check it out:
Inside the Songs with Karen Dahlstrom
"I love old-time and traditional folk music styles, most of which come from the Eastern and Southern US. I've played with many musicians from Virginia and North Carolina, and this music is part of their very bones. Having grown up in Idaho, I admit I was a bit jealous. I wanted to sing songs of my home too, but most folk songs from the West are generally of the cowboy variety from Texas -- a good 1500 miles from where I'm from.
As an exercise, I began writing folk songs that musically drew on the styles of the East that I love, but lyrically reflected my home state. After all, there are mountains, pines and mines in Idaho, too -- they're just different kinds of mountains, pines and mines. State history, family stories and personal experiences served as inspiration, but the songs are primarily fictional.
For example, the song "Galena" was named after an actual mining camp that existed in Idaho during the 1800s, but that's where the facts end. The rest came out of my imagination. The gold, silver and gem mining camps were a free-for-all, and pretty horrible places to be for anyone except wild-eyed young white men getting their first taste of freedom, and I liked the idea of writing a song from their perspective.
Karen Dahlstrom: Galena
"The Miner's Bride" is also fiction, but it was inspired in part by stories of women like "The Poker Bride" -- a Chinese concubine who was owned by an Idaho miner and (as legend has it) lost in a poker game to a rancher. The mining camps, obviously, weren't great places for women or minorities, and I imagine being sent there would feel like a death sentence.
Karen Dahlstrom: The Miner's Bride
"Streets of Pocatello" came from stories my dad told me about the post-war years in the town where he grew up. Pocatello was a pretty rough railroad town and street fighting was a popular sport with some of the men -- including a relative of mine who eventually lost his life in a knife fight. The song's narrator wasn't inspired by the victim, but by the one who did the deed. The title is a little tip of the hat to "The Streets of Laredo," possibly the best cowboy song ever written."
Karen Dahlstrom: Streets of Pocatello