Seattle songwriter and busker Ben Fisher has the same kind of starry-eyed enthusiasm a young Dylan must have had around his heroes like Woody Guthrie. I've seen him at shows in Seattle, his focus 100% on the stage where one of his music friends or companions is laying it down. He attends shows almost as much as he plays them, and though he's one of the most recognized characters in our Seattle roots music scene, he's remarkably ego-free when it comes to music. As a songwriter, his songs channel the bleak winters of the Pacific Northwest, and his new EP, Roanoke, is no exception. Whereas his previous album had an infectious youthful innocence that won over all the snarky cynics in Seattle, his new EP is hinting at something deeper and darker. It's a promising artistic progression, so I really wanted to know more about his process in creating the music for the EP. Hearth Music hit him up for the background stories behind our three favorite songs off Roanoke. He had some fascinating answers:
Ben Fisher: Dublin Blues Pt. 2
"I was at a friend's house for dinner during the snow storm we had in January. After we ate, as is customary when I'm at his place, we broke out his laptop and started playing James McMurtry. We're both big fans of McMurtry's songs, and as time goes on, and the beer bottles stack up, we usually start to branch off into other Austin songwriters. Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, etc. He played me the Guy Clark song 'Dublin Blues', which I'd never heard before and I was immediately struck by it. The fact that it totally bowled me over even through shitty laptop speakers is a testament to how good of a song it is. The line "I have been to Fort Worth/and I have been to Spain/and I have been too proud to come in out of the rain" is songwriting at its finest.
I played the song obsessively for the next few days. Then I borrowed a Justin Townes Earle picking pattern and went to work writing about what I'd been up to since a then-recent breakup. I knew that the the first line that hit me, "I'm making a list of things I would tell you if you hadn't let me go" was too long to be a song title, so I made it the refrain. You can look at someone leaving you in many different ways, but at its most basic, a breakup is when the person who you used to talk to the most, you no longer talk to. So (as mentally unhealthy as it sounds) I found myself filling that gap by thinking about things I would talk about if she were still around.
I've noticed a tradition in Americana music where someone will write a great song, and then years later, someone will write a new that's either stylistically or thematically similar and title it after the original. For instance, Bob Dylan's Workingman's Blue #2 after Merle Haggard's Workingman's Blues. I figured Dublin Blues Pt. 2 bears some stylistic similarities to Guy's song, so I titled it after his."
Ben Fisher: Hibernation
I also wrote this one in January. It was 2 AM, the night before I had a big test, and I had been studying on and off, but mostly off. As I've become more interested and invested in my musical career, I've become a little bit disillusioned with my studies. I thought to myself, "Where am I going with this?" and had a line for the first verse.
I made some tea and toast, and pulled a chair into my pantry (my preferred writing location, as strange as that may be), using a shelf as a desk and finished the song in about 10 minutes. The melody and guitar part changed a little bit, but I don't think I changed a single word. I'm pretty bad at editing my lyrics.
Sometimes you have to drop everything, make some tea and toast, and write a song.
I've always been fascinated by history's unsolved mysteries. The story of the lost colony of Roanoke is no exception, and goes like this: in the late 16th century, a group of British colonists sailed to the New World and established a fort on Roanoke Island, in present day Virginia. They quickly ran out of supplies, so a group stayed, and a group sailed back to England. Because of a skirmish that Great Britain found itself involved in with the Spanish Armada, they were unable to return for 3 years. When they did, they found absolutely nothing. The fort was gone, and there was no sign of anyone ever being there. The only thing left was the word "Croatan" carved into a tree. As years passed, there were rumors of blue-eyed Indians being spotted in Virginia, so nowadays, most historians believe that the colonists were either absorbed or attacked by the Croatan tribe.
The first two verses of the song are written from the point of view of a Croatan Indian. I had that first line "I know your mother tongue/And I'll sing along with my broken lungs" in my head for a long time - well before I had the idea to write a song about Roanoke. When I decided to write a song about the lost colony, I realized that those lines fit well with some of the things that happened once explorers started coming to the new world. The "mother tongue" line speaks to the tradition of Native American translators who helped bridge early language and culture gaps with the colonists (although I'm not entirely sure there were translators that early on in America's history - so I hope there aren't any fact checkers out there). The "broken lungs" line ties into the horrific introductions of diseases (smallpox, etc.) passed to the natives, whose immune systems were completely ill-prepared to fight them. I really liked the idea of a old, wise, Native American giving advice to a young and fresh European man before the cultural clashes of the coming centuries.
It took me a while to draw a similarity between that historical event and a personal experience. The parallel that I ended up drawing between the historical and personal aspects of the song was the idea of leaving somewhere, and then coming back to find that things weren't exactly the same as how you'd left them, which is a pretty universally understood notion - and using the example of the lost colony hyperbolizes that idea.
05/23/2012 | comments (0)
We've been waiting to post this review for a while, but with rain pouring down on our roof in Seattle and a roaring fire in the hearth, there's no better time for some deep, dark British folk music.
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker. The Seas are Dead.
It's no secret that British folk traditions laid the groundwork for all the Southern music we've come to love. The old songs that the Appalachian settlers brought with them would form the basis for folk revival after folk revival up to the present day. So there's something deeply inspiring about listening to the music back at its source. Young British folk singer Josienne Clarke has a wonderfully thick British accent, the kind you actually notice while she's singing. Which is funny, because British music is so engrained on our American psyche thanks to their ubiquity in rock and roll that we Americans hardly even register a British singer's accent anymore.
Josienne's a masterful songwriter in her own right, as she proved with her 2010 album, One Light is Gone. But with her new album, The Seas are Dead, she turns to the songbook of British folk ballads for inspiration and delivers an album's worth of stunning renditions of the classic songs. You've never heard "Silver Dagger" like this before. And you'll not soon forget her version of "Lily of the West" either. There's nothing fake or artificial here, no hazy hipster re-envisioning of old Steeleye Span/Fairport Convention influences. She presents the songs as utterly simply as possible, just her gorgeous, rending vocals and the clever, deft acoustic arrangements of her musical compatriot Ben Walker. She's stripped the songs to the bone and given them new flesh purely through the power of her beautiful vocals and her staunch respect for the tradition. This album floored me.
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker: Silver Dagger
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker: Hare on the Mountain
05/22/2012 | comments (1)
Looks like we're the first on No Depression to review the new soundtrack to the hit Hollywood movie, The Hunger Games. Sure, we've all been hearing about it, especially the much ballyhooed Taylor Swift/Civil Wars collaboration and the production by Americana icon T-Bone Burnett, but the album itself is a musical wonderland. Burnett's off the leash with this one, gleefully quoting Appalachian tropes while shoving this old music into the swift currents of today's pop Americana.
It's ironic that the Hunger Games soundtrack is so good, since I don't remember a single one of these songs in the film. Two of them played over the end credits, but everything else was pretty generic composed film music. Technically this is a companion album, basically made up of songs inspired by the film rather than songs played during the film. It's ironic too, since the film isn't that great. Hair-brained director Gary Ross made the "artistic" decision that the camera work would be entirely hand-held, close-up shots in order to mimic the "urgency" of the action. Ugggh. The filming is constantly up the actor's faces, shaking as bad as an iPhone. It never pulls back to show scenery, or to show the bigger picture in a scene. Too bad, this could have been a great opportunity to really play up the Appalachian background of the film with beautiful vista shots and evocative staging. It's still watchable, largely because the story is so compelling and the acting is excellent, but I got motion sickness for the first time in a movie.
The Hunger Games is supposed to be set partially in a futuristic Appalachia. The story's heroine, Katniss Everdeen, lives in District 12, a downtrodden borderland far from the capital center, impoverished by a fascist government and shackled to the main economy: coal mining. This Appalachia-light theme is the main reason the soundtrack is so focused on Americana, and it seems the main reason the soundtrack is so fully fleshed out in album form, but not in the film. Most of the action takes place outside of District 12, so the Americana themes are mainly used in the beginning.
Anyways, enough background, the soundtrack's the real star here. It's not uncommon for soundtracks these days to bring together a large number of eclectic pop stars, but Burnett has a larger vision here, and manages to tie the disparate artists into a compelling whole. The album flows beautifully, and the tracks are all interesting and innovative takes on the themes of the Hunger Games. It's Americana, but done by artists who know the genre well enough to play with its constraints. I also love how Burnett juggles the obvious constraints of working with a blockbuster Hollywood film with his own personal taste. The annoyingly bombastic and cloyingly pop song from Taylor Swift ("Eyes Open") is clearly there for the Billboard nod (I think it charted or something, but don't really care), but it's immediately followed by a gorgeous and subtle song from indie darlings The Low Anthem ("Lover is Childlike"). This song's enigmatic beauty is an amazing contrast to the lipstick pop sheen of Swift's craptastic single. It takes guts to pull of that kind of transition in a compilation album, and Burnett nails it. He even manages to subvert pop paradigms, pulling a remarkably edgy performance from pop-rapper Kid Cudi, and then following his gritty hip-hop track with a powerfully arranged song by the Punch Brothers.
Standout tracks (aside from the ones already mentioned) include Neko Case's powerful "Nothing to Remember" (what a voice!!!), a beautiful Appalachian ballad ("Daughter's Lament") from The Carolina Chocolate Drops' Rhiannon Giddens (she's amazing at these slow ballads), Miranda Lambert's pitch perfect country track ("Run Daddy") with the Pistol Annies, and blogosphere stars the Secret Sisters bring a cool retro vibe to their song "Tomorrow Will be Kinder." Here's a quick buying guide:
What to Grab on iTunes:
2. The Secret Sisters “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”
3. Neko Case “Nothing To Remember”
4. Taylor Swift “Safe & Sound ft. The Civil Wars”
6. Punch Brothers “Dark Days”
8. The Carolina Chocolate Drops “Daughter’s Lament”
9. The Civil Wars “Kingdom Come"
12. Miranda Lambert “Run Daddy Run ft. Pistol Annies”
15. The Low Anthem “Lover Is Childlike”
What to Skip:
7. The Decemberists “One Engine”
10. Glen Hansard “Take The Heartland”
14. Taylor Swift “Eyes Open”
PS: As much as we love to hate on Taylor Swift, HUGE kudos to her and the Civil Wars for turning out a truly amazing song. We've been listening to "Safe & Sound" over and over and over. It's a masterpiece!
This article first appeared in No Depression, where Hearth Music is a featured writer. Check out our No Depression page!
05/21/2012 | comments (2)
We've got a special guest blog today from travel writer Melissa Rae Cohen, writing all the way from Portland, Maine, about the great roots music in her hometown!
Hearth Music Guest Blog: Roots Music in Portland, ME
by Melissa Rae Cohen
I grew up in a very musical environment. My father and grandfather used to sit at the foot of my bed crooning Tex Ritter’s "Blood on the Saddle" every night. A rather ineffective lullaby, their rendition (which changed the word “saddle” to my name) usually threw me into giggle fits, as opposed to lulling me to sleep. My father was a touring musician and worked as an engineer for some of the coolest acts of the 90s, and my papa would later be inducted into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame. I was surrounded by my family, their friends, band mates, and fellow artists, and I can barely recall a minute where there wasn’t some kind of music filling the air.
This was my first introduction into the local music scene of Portland, Maine, which was alive and thriving long before I was even a twinkle in my mother’s eye. Naturally, I became involved in music myself. I am happy to report that the scene is still booming in the city today. Some of the most amazing folk, blues, country and bluegrass music I have ever had the privilege of hearing is being made right in my home town. Here are a few of the acts you should check out should you find yourself on the east coast.
Ex-punk rocker turned folkie, Micah Blue Smaldone is nothing short of amazing. I first heard this artist from the seaside town of Kennebunkport about eight years ago when he opened for Texan songstress Jolie Holland on her Escondida tour. He had just released the album Some Sweet Day, a rag-timey masterpiece. His sound has since taken a more mellow turn, reminiscent of the 1960s British folk revival. He is not currently on tour (as far as I know), but keep an eye on his MySpace page, because you won’t want to miss his big return. While you are there, you can listen to a few more of his songs.
Smaldone got his start in The Pinkerton Thugs back in 1994. The band is still together, sans-Micah, for those interested in the punk genre. He went on to form the hardcore band Cops and Robbers before making a drastic change in style with the solo release of Some Sweet Day. He has since released Hither & Thither (2005), Live in Belgium (2007), and most recently, The Red River (2008). You can also hear Micah with Fire on Fire, another local outfit whose records you can pick up from Young God (home to Devendra Banhart and Wooden Wand). No word on when we will be hearing more from him, but I hope it’s soon.
Micah Blue Smaldone: Row Fisherman Row (from The Congos)
One of my all time favorite folk bands, husband and wife team Buck and Shanti Curran have been performing as Arborea since 2005. They have reached considerable success, performing world round with the likes of Meg Baird and Vetiver, and have been featured on the stages of Wales’ ever popular Green Man Festival (alongside Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, Six Organs of Admittance and Alela Diane, to name a few). Their 2011 album Red Planet was named “Best Under the Radar Album of 2011” by Rolling Stone, and they have also been featured at SXSW. You can stay updated on their whereabouts via their Blogger, but if you visit Portland during the summer, you are almost certain to catch an intimate Arborea performance free of charge. They have quite a few shows in the area during the next couple of months, as well as shows booked in Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Red Planet is definitely their most critically acclaimed and popular recording, but personally, I am rather partial to 2009’s House of Sticks. I also recommend checking out Leaves of Life, a compilation that Buck Curran put together to benefit the World Food Programme.
Arborea: Red Bird
Guaranteed to delight any bluegrass fan, whether their tastes are old timey or modern, the talent behind the Jerks of Grass is undeniable. Performing both classics and originals, this outfit has been gracing the stages of Portland, Maine every Thursday for years, in addition to other regular performances and festival appearances. They are currently spending Thursday evenings at Bayside Bowl, despite their lead singer/guitarist taking off for a few months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (Follow his adventures online at http://jasonhikes.com). For the full effect, I really recommend planning your travels around Jason’s return. They are marvelous even in his absence, but his guitar skill and speed are unsurpassed.
Though the band was originally formed over a decade ago, they only have one album! 2008’s Come on Home was recorded live and really represents what you can expect to hear from these guys (and girl!) on the stage. So, if you don’t get a chance to catch the Jerks of Grass in the flesh, at the very least do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Come on Home as soon as humanly possible.
The Jerks of Grass on local Portland television program:
Dapper blues man Samuel James has been rocking the socks off of locals for some time, and has blown up internationally, touring the globe and delivering the gift of song far and wide. Rolling Stone France has even labeled him the “guardian of lightning.” Despite his success, James still puts on a hell of a local show on a fairly regular basis. You may be able to catch his act in your home town, but if you can make it to Portland, you will be in for a real treat.
His performances are unique in that he is seldom backed by a band, but still manages to make a big sound. Acoustic, electric and steel guitars are accompanied by the tap-tapping of hard soled shoes, the harmonica, and a voice well beyond the years of the body it emanates from. One of my favorite things about Samuel James is that he is a storyteller. Not since the singer/songwriters of the sixties and seventies have we been privy to such tales spun into song. This is not your run of the mill “blues rock” artist. James is a true blues man through and through, and his sound will appeal to aficionados young and old.
Not only is Samuel James an impressive performer, he is also a heck of a nice guy, so don’t be shy if you want to shake the man’s hand after a show.
Here he is performing Blind Boy Fuller’s Stranger Blues at one of my favorite Portland venues, One Longefellow Square.
Just for fun, check out Samuel James' fascinating blues cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean":
I could go on and on forever about all of the great acts that Portland, Maine has to offer, but you really just have to come and see (or hear, rather) for yourself.
Bio: Melissa Rae Cohen is a music obsessed travel writer from Portland. She works with Excellent Hotels in Maine, helping people explore her native state.
05/16/2012 | comments (0)
At HearthPR, in the temperamental climate of the Seattle, we've been having 80º -pool-party-with-palm-trees-and-cocktails kind of days here in our office, thanks to The Two Man Gentlemen Band's newest album Two at a Time. Channeling the mod, swinging lifestyle of 1950s Southern California, tenor guitarist Andy Bean and string bassist Fuller Condon are irreverent songwriters, expert instrumentalists, former street-performers, and consummate showmen.
A duo in the tradition of the great Slim & Slam, The Two Man Gentlemen Band have an obvious affection for American roots music; everything from pre-war jazz to back-alley hokum, jazz guitar pickin’ like Charlie Christian, Louis Jordan’s jump blues, plus countless other influences, find their way into the Gentlemen’s music. But they’re no period piece. The decidedly contemporary feel of their lyrics and the hilarious, often ridiculous, improvised banter that peppers their live shows combine with the music for a thoroughly modern ruckus. “It’s as if,” one reviewer commented, “The Smothers Brothers were young today, wore better suits, and wrote hot jazz songs about drinking.” To the Gentlemen, that sounds about right.
To make their latest album, Two at a Time, The Two Man Gentlemen Band employed an extreme contrast of modern and old-fashioned techniques. They funded the project with an online fan-fundraising campaign via Kickstarter. But, once the budget was in place they switched their computers off for good and proceeded to record, design, and package the album without the use of any digital technology. They recorded live to monophonic analog tape using exclusively 1940s/50s microphones and equipment. To package the album, the Gentlemen turned to Stumptown Printers in Portland, OR. Using hand-set lettering, a refrigerator sized linotype machine (one of the few in the country still in operation), darkroom film prints, and an offset printing press, the folks at Stumptown created a one-of-a-kind package untouched by the graphic design software responsible for nearly every bit of printed matter one sees today. If someone goes to the trouble of purchasing a physical CD or LP, the Gentlemen believe, it ought to come in a container worth holding on to.
The music on the album is mostly original, penned by singer Andy Bean, who’s developed a knack for writing “smart, funny, sharp-rhyming songs that put them in the company of classics like Louis Jordon and Louis Prima.” (Boston Phoenix) Songs that cleverly blend cuisine and love figure prominently, like “Pork Chops” or “Tikka Masala,” and songs about well-mixed drinks are always favorites with The Two Man Gentlemen Band. As for the song “Pool Party”… well, who doesn’t like a pool party? Acknowledging their increasing debt to early jazz and western swing, two obscure tunes learned from Lil Hardin Armstrong and Jack Guthrie round out the record. Throughout, The Gents limit themselves to two instruments: Bean’s 4-string electric tenor guitar, played through a vintage 1937 Gibson amplifier, and Fuller Condon’s upright bass. Audiences are consistently amazed that the Gentlemen can raise such a ruckus as a duo. Two at a Time is the first of their albums to accurately capture that experience. Clever arrangements, “keen vocal harmonies” (The New Yorker), and “virtuosic playing” (The Herald – Glasgow, UK) that hasn’t lost the ramshackle edge of their street-performing years make up for what the band lacks in size.
The Two Man Gentlemen Band: Pork Chops
And help yourself to a free download at: twogentlemen.bandcamp.com/track/pork-chops
The Two Man Gentlemen Band: Please Don't Water it Down
05/15/2012 | comments (0)
There’s something deeply triumphant about the new album from veteran country blues singer Rory Block, and what’s strange is that I’m not sure why this is. I Belong to the Band, released May 29 on Stony Plain Records, should be a simple album of covers of Reverend Gary Davis, the fabled blues/gospel shouter made famous in the 60s/70s folk revival. But there’s something deeper at work here. I think it’s love. In the liner notes, Block talks about visiting Davis with guitar master Stefan Grossman, and how Davis’ kind but stern, and thoroughly imposing, demeanor greatly impressed her. She soaked up the music, though it seems she didn’t actively take lessons from Davis, but more than that she connected to both Davis and Grossman as friends and reflects on that time with the slightly sorrowful memory that comes in later life. In creating an album of Davis covers, she’s both drawing forth these memories and also tying them to the memories of her life. Somehow she touches something deeper by doing this.
While I was expecting either iconoclastic covers of Davis, re-envisioning his music via her own lens, or pitch-perfect recreations, this album actually has neither. She just plays the music hard, beautifully hard. Her voice is as powerful as Davis and her picking gets the job done right. Despite the rather straight-ahead renditions, there’s a sense of triumph underneath, a sense of barely suppressed joy in the music. As the baby boomers move into late life, the music they once imitated has now become the music of their own lifetimes. In the liner notes, Block laments the loss of old-time tradition bearers like Davis, but doesn’t reflect that perhaps she might be bearing traditions of her own. Why did people fall in love with Davis’ music if not for the fact that he brought a lifetime of love to it? And that’s why I’m falling in love with this album from Rory Block: it reflects her own lifetime of loving the blues.
Rory Block: Twelve Gates to the City