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
07/14/2012 | comments (0)
We've written about young Newfoundland trad band The Dardanelles before. They were first one of our favorite finds of the 2011 Folk Alliance Conference, then we wrote about the amazing solo album that lead singer Matthew Byrne released. Now they're back with a new album, The Eastern Light, of tunes and songs from this far corner of Eastern Canada, and they're in better shape than ever.
The Eastern Light was produced by Irish guitar king John Doyle, and it's similar to other albums he's produced in the way it couples an honest love and appreciation for tradition with masterfully built arrangements. The album flips back and forth between sets of traditional Newfoundland dance tunes and songs led by lead singer Matthew Byrne. Byrne's in fine form here and his voice has never sounded better. He's got one of the sweetest male voices I've ever heard, a soft tenor that any fan of Irish singing will recognize kinship with, and a gentle touch that really draws out the emotional heart of the old ballads he's singing. The songs are glorious finds, concerned with life and love on the windswept seas off Newfoundland. There's much in this album for any lover of maritime music, including a rousing sea shanty with special guests Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett from Great Big Sea! The tunes are well sourced as well, drawn from the mainstays of Newfoundland fiddle like French Acadian fiddlers Émile Benoit and Rufus Guinchard, but also from Dardanelles' accordion player Aaron Collis' visits with Boyd Cove musician Bernard Newman, who passed away in 2011 with over 90 years of age!
We were curious to find out more about Aaron's playing and influences, and about Newfoundland accordion music in general, so we asked him for some background. Here's what he had to say:
"I grew up in Central Newfoundland in a place called Appleton. My mom played guitar and sang on occasion when I was younger so I wasn't a stranger to music, although traditional music wasn't something that she played. I actually started taking piano lessons with a neighbour when I was eleven and although I continued with the piano, I developed an interest in Newfoundland music after having seen the accordion played at a wedding reception and at other local events. So I saved up some money selling newspapers and bought myself an accordion when I was 12. I learned to play by ear, watching other players whenever I had the chance and listening to recordings.
As in any place, style differs somewhat from player to player, though Newfoundland accordion music is typically rhythmic and punchy. The playing isn't as highly ornamented as that of Irish playing styles, and the tempos of the tunes tend to be faster. I actually use an accordion in the Irish tuning of C#/D on both of our albums but I like to think I've retained characteristics of the Newfoundland style in my playing. Although single row instruments and boxes in tunings such as A/D or G/C are more prevalent, the Irish systems are growing in popularity, mainly in St. John's where there are weekly Irish tune sessions.
I enjoy Vince Collins' playing as well [note: we're huge Vince Collins nerds at Hearth Music]. Some other recommendations I would give you in the same vein as Vince's playing would be The Four Stops, an album which features traditional players from the Northern peninsula and the Labrador Straits, the late Minnie White, and the great single-row player Frank Maher. Geoff Butler's playing was great on Figgy Duff's first few albums as well. I think right now, Daniel Payne and Graham Wells are two players who are raising the bar for accordion players in Newfoundland." [note: Thanks for the tips Aaron!]
Alongside Aaron's hefty accordion playing (Newfoundland accordionists in general have a lot more rhythm than Irish accordionists), fiddler Emilia Bartellas more than holds her own. Her playing is one of the album's centerpieces, and she shines on every track, with a rich tone and strong command of the special rhythms of Newfoundland music. Tom Power on guitar is another key part, obviously influenced by Doyle, but able to draw out beautiful chords along with his powerful backing. Tom's also a broadcaster on CBC Canada who's done some great work promoting Canadian roots music on the air. In fact, he just aired a special internet channel for Canadian roots HERE. Check it out, he's got great taste and wide breadth of knowledge. Bodhran player Richard Klaas rounds out the band's sound nicely, adding a great bass element to the group. With this current lineup, it seems The Dardanelles have found their sound!
The Eastern Light deserves a lot more press and attention, so I hope you'll share this music around if you're touched by it as well. Not only are The Dardanelles perfectly able to communicate the salty soul of Newfoundland music to Celtic music fans, they've also managed to cross over to become one of the best Celtic bands around.
The Dardanelles: Pad's Song
The Dardanelles: McCarthy's
(McCarthy's Double/Kitty Got A Clinkin'/Diane's Happiness)
07/13/2012 | comments (1)
Caitlín Nic Gabhann's been a young master of the Irish concertina buzzing around insider trad circles for some years now, so her much self-assured debut album, Caitlín, doesn't come as much of a surprise to us at Hearth Music. After all, she's toured with Riverdance (as a dancer, actually!), put together a group, NicGaviskey, of next gen powerhouses (including Billy McComiskey's son Sean), and toured the world a couple times. So we know she can play. What's delightful about her debut solo album is not her masterful performances or her consummate knowledge of the tradition–these things are expected of any Irish trad player worth their salt these days (the bar for Irish trad recordings is remarkably high!)– but the gentle joy she takes in the music and the thoughtful presence she brings to her playing. It's an album that can be enjoyed just on the surface for the wide variety of tunes and technique, or on a deeper level through her excellent liner notes and rare tunes sourced from interesting players. Caitlin's also got a very accessible style on the concertina, informed partly by the old school simplicity of County Claire players and the deftly compact virtuosity of concertina great Mícheál O' Raghallaigh. But all insider talk aside, this album is just great fun to listen to and if you're unfamiliar with the tiny concertina–possibly the cutest form of accordion–it's a great introduction to what the instrument can do. This is a wonderful modern album of Irish concertina playing that should sit proudly on the shelf of any fan of Irish traditional music.
PS: Special mention should go to the two lovely waltzes Caitlín includes on the album, a rarity in Irish music unfortunately, and to her stepdancing, which is a welcome treat on a few tracks.
Caitlín Nic Gabhann: The Rookery/Joe Cooley's Morning Dew/The Edenderry Reel