From Dirty Linen #106, June/July 2003.
This article was a blast to do--I still think of these women every time I see a honey bear.
Me and my instinct for musical cross-pollination: When I interviewed Richard Thompson, not long after this, for an article in Paste, I was telling him about the honey discussion, and we had one of our own, during which he agreed with Trish on the strangeness of honey bears: "It also means that your honey has to be a certain consistency, whereas the best honey is much thicker...Things that Europe does better: honey, bread, and yogurt. There are no equivalents in America. It’s a bit more real."
If you haven't read the chapter "Honey" in John Fahey's How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, you're missing something sweet.
The Be Good Tanyas
Moving Hearts & Moving On
by Pamela Murray Winters
The three women of the Be Good Tanyas — Samantha Parton, Frazey Ford, and Trish Klein — are chatting over tea. The conversation is flowing—voices in counterpoint, sentences begun by one and ended by another—but the honey isn’t.
“Bears work better for dish soap than honey,” declared Klein, fruitlessly jabbing a near-empty plastic cub at her mug. “Because then you get the cute little bear standing on the counter looking at you every day. So he’s still around, but you don’t have to deal with the frustration where you want to rip his little head off.”
It’s not the first dark act recounted by the Tanyas, whose songs speak of more gloom than a mortuary full of goth kids. And it won’t be the last — their latest album offers such mordant titles as “The Junkie Song” and “Waiting Around to Die.” But the British Columbia-based trio is never hard to be around. It’s not merely that they’re charismatic and charming and, yes, cute, although that’s certainly part of the equation. It’s a certain clear-eyed idealism and direction that permeates their music as well as their offstage presence. With just two albums since their formation as a band in 1999 — 2000’s Blue Horse and 2003’s Chinatown — Parton, Ford, and Klein have made a worldwide impact, by being, as the BBC’s Charlie Gillett put it, “single-minded young women with a sense of purpose and not the slightest intention of following any of the rules laid down by the music industry in its current form.” Or, less elegantly, by “speedqueen13” on RollingStone.com: “i mean, i know joni mitchell and neil young and fred eaglesmith are all canadian and they’re all great and everything, but i think [Blue Horse] is the first canadian album in years that has completely floored me.”
Ford and Parton first encountered each other at a tree-planting camp in British Columbia’s Kootenay Mountains, about eight hours east of their native Vancouver. When the lumber industry takes down the old growth, it offers a sort of amends to the forest by sending planters out to fill in the deforested areas with new growth. The seasonal work brought Ford and Parton together, and they discovered their shared musical interests. When planting season was over, they parted. A few years later, Klein met Ford — singing an a cappella version of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” — at an open mic while both were attending music school in Nelson, British Columbia. It wasn’t until 1999 that the three of them, along with Texas songwriter Jolie Holland, finally came together in Vancouver. Parton had toured the States with performance poet Chris Chandler and sung country with the Illegitimate Daughters of Johnny Cash; Ford had played trip-hop music in Montreal, and Klein and Ford were part of the jazz/folk band Saltwater June in Vancouver.
Holland, who per-formed on both Tanyas albums, introduced them to a song called “Be Good Tanya,” written by her friend Obo Martin. Taking their name from the song, the women began to develop a group style through listening and jamming.
A discussion with the women reveals their musical omnivorousness. On tour with them in the States in January, in their various CD holders, was music by Blackalicious, Jimmy Cliff, Wilco, Tom Waits, Kathryn Williams, Lou Reed, and Mary J. Blige. “We have very diverse tastes,” affirmed Ford. “We listen to everything, except for folk.”
“I think it’s funny that none of us really listen to folk music,” Parton put in.
“We get folked out,” allowed Klein.
Indeed, the Tanyas say they may have mistakenly ridden the O Brother wave a few years back, when Blue Horse came out. “There’s harmony on the album. There’s a banjo!” Parton laughed. But they trace their international buzz, in part, to the keen ear and enthusiasm of the British music press, in particular BBC Radio 2’s “Whispering Bob” Harris.
“I have to say that in England, the listening audience, people who go out and seek out music that’s not mainstream, is so much huger,” said Ford. “And your access to this type of music through the magazines and the press is so much more available. We lucked out, too — they have these iconic DJs over there, and they play your album, and it’s just like everybody listens to the BBC there, so if they decide that they like you for some reason, it’s like you automatically have this big audience. So we lucked out with that there, and then it just sort of spread to Australia.”
“England is just so openminded about music and is just so hungry for something fresh,” said Parton. “But they also have this really rich sense of tradition that they’re really tied to. So maybe the fact that we’re slightly traditional yet somewhat fresh worked in our favor.”
Whatever the reason, Blue Horse was enthusiastically received. Recorded in a shack outside Vancouver, with the band and Futcher producing, it featured cover art by Klein and songs by Parton and Ford along with Holland and other writers. Traditional material was represented, as well, including “Lakes of Pontchartrain” and “The Coo Coo Bird.” The opening track, a Parton/Holland co-write called “The Littlest Birds,” brought the group a nomination for Best Song in the BBC2 Folk Awards (it lost to Linda Thompson’s “No Telling”). The Tanyas also received a nomination for Best Group but were bested by Altan. Still, for three North Americans who’d just made their first album, the nominations packed a wallop. Tours in Australia and the U.K. also helped bolster their international notice.
Some would say that to fully appreciate the Be Good Tanyas, you’ve got to see them live. There’s a wholeheartedness to their presentation, mixed with an appealing vulnerability. And there’s the music — a mix of guitar, banjo, and mandolin with sweet voices blending through.
Emmylou Harris has said, “I think I was pulled in by the sound of their voices and harmonies. They have this quality that is very minimalist, but there’s something very fearless about what they’re doing.”
For Chinatown, the Tanyas took over production by themselves, although Klein noted, “Saying ‘production’ is kind of funny. We feel that our whole sound is really unproduced.” The recordings attempt to capture “the sounds of us live.”
“We went into a process for [Chinatown] where we multitracked a bunch of songs,” she continued. “Then we went away for a month.” Listening to the tracks, they decided to try a more direct approach, using overdubs only minimally. “In the end, we realized the spontaneity and feeling and groove is better” than sterling perfection, Klein said.
Released in March 2003, Chinatown is named for the area in which all three women live. “It’s the oldest neighborhood in Vancouver,” said Klein of the Strathcona neighborhood.
“Vancouver is kind of a vacuum city, for whatever reason, and the area that we live in is one of the more soulful areas,” said Ford. “We can feel the history and soul. The more I live there, the more little stories I hear about what it was like 50 years ago.
“A lot of the interesting neighborhoods kinda got destroyed in the 80s because the real estate went up like 10 times…I think a lot of money flowing through a city in a short amount of time can do that. I think it’s starting to recover, though. It’s been in an economic slump for a while, and I think that that’s always good for the soul of a city; it brings out the artists.”
Economic ups and downs have also made for some problems. Said Klein: “Unfortunately, a lot of the nicest part of Vancouver has turned into this really high concentration of addicts. Some of the most beautiful old buildings in Vancouver, old hotels and old cabarets and stuff, they’ve basically become these heroin hotels. That neighborhood — I don’t see how it’s going to recover.”
Parton disagreed, seeing a hope for a rebound: “It’s right on the edge of the highest property values. They keep trying to edge in. But Vancouver has the worst heroin problem in North America, so the junkies are everywhere. And concentrated in an area just on the other side of Chinatown from us.”
“But Vancouver’s going through an interesting change of politics right now,” Ford said, in reference to new civil governments that offer more humane, “European-style” treatments for addiction. “The last couple of civil governments we’ve had attempted to adopt the American war-on-drugs policy, which didn’t work. So they’ve done a lot of research. There were a lot of cities at one point, like Amsterdam and Frankfurt, that were as bad as Vancouver, if not worse. And they’ve managed to deal with the problem and create a more humane way of dealing with it.”
The Tanyas address these issues in “Junkie Song,” which was written by Ford. “It’s a funny thing to live in a place where you’re surrounded by misery,” she said. “And you don’t see it every day. I think when you move to a city you learn to put on these kind of blinders, because just to be confronted with the level of human misery every day and try to live your life and be happy is a paradox, but then at a certain point that blinder may break down. That’s what happened right before I wrote that song. Suddenly [I realized] these people live just outside my house, and this is how they live, and this is how we choose to see them or not see them, but they’re still there, and they’re part of our psyche, and they’re part of our life. It’s shocking and sad that people walk by — or just that we haven’t responded. And I think that collectively, as a city, Vancouver’s come to a point where it’s just gotten so that they can’t not see it anymore.”
“That, and that they’re in for the Olympic bid for 2010,” Klein added.
Ford persisted in her idealism. “But an overwhelming number of people came out and voted, and the main issue was a government that was gonna deal with the problem. And there was like an 80 per cent voter turnout. And a lot of people were saying we’ve ignored this problem long enough and we want to respond in a way that was humane.”
How does a songwriter like Ford address social issues in her work? Very carefully, says Ford: “I think that that’s a really hard thing to do and that it [can come off] as preachy…I wish I could write great political songs, but it seems like very few people in the world can actually do that. You have to be subtle, and you can’t hit people over the head.”
“And it’s gotta be groovy, too,” Klein observed. “It can’t just be like you’re reading the newspaper.”
Ford went on: “I think a song comes across if you’re really responding as an individual to a feeling that you actually feel. But as soon as it becomes an abstraction, an ethical idea, that’s a really hard thing to convey and still create any emotion or interest for it.”
“You’ve gotta put a bit of a human element to it,” said Parton. “It’s gonna be more effective if somebody’s telling a story that really hits home about an actual person, what actually happened to them. For me, anyway. It’s gotta, like, move my heart for me to want to actually listen to the message behind it.”
The Be Good Tanyas intend to go on moving hearts wherever they pass. Though touring is being curtailed by Ford’s pregnancy — the baby is due in May — it seems unlikely that they’ll stop drawing on the wellspring of creativity that feeds them. “We have a really strong bond with each other,” Klein said. “You go through so much with each other, it’s like siblings, or a marriage…Sometimes it’s really hard, but we can still laugh. I’m always surprised at the resilience of our friendships.” While touring, beset by issues of privacy, transportation, laundry, and bad food, “we still get up in the morning and do yoga together.” And even though they plan to stay apart when they’re not on the road, self-imposed separation never works: “I’ll call up Frazey and say, ‘I’ve just made a Greek salad!’”