Friday, August 18, 2006

Zoe Mulford (Washington Post)

From today's Weekend section of the Washington Post (Aug. 18, 2006).

ZOE MULFORD "Roadside Saints" Azalea City

HERE'S THE ZOE Mulford formula: Isolate an idea -- say that soup stock is a metaphor for both the lifecycle and the creative process or that kids grow up or that you are the colors you wear. Then bring American folk-music culture -- with a goodly emphasis on the cheery offerings of the seminal book "Rise Up Singing" -- to bear on its development into a perfectly crafted song.

It's not that Mulford is formulaic; her songs benefit from the familiarity of their structures and melodies, and from Mulford's somewhat everyday voice, and if they don't offer earthshaking insights, they present eternal beliefs in a lively and pretty way.

"Our Lady of the Highways," which might as well have been the title track of "Roadside Saints," offers a meditation on a well-known statue that overlooks Interstate 95 on the way to Delaware: "Blessed be the children and the strangers / We are all together, we are all alone." Its sweet country harmonies are perfectly suited to its contemplative mood.

Mulford isn't the least bit credible as an irreverent Irish emigrant in "The American Wake," but she delivers her sprightly lyrics with an appealing lilt. Like the makers of "Stock" ("Open your mind up, see what you've got / Haul it on out before it starts to rot"), she does the best she can with what she has.

"Roadside Saints" does offer some tiny surprises, most of which come courtesy of producer John Jennings. His electric guitar and Rosie Shipley's violin sometimes cut through the songs like sudden, small alterations in the weather -- just enough of a change in the light to remind the listener how enjoyable this timeless sort of music can be when it's done not only sincerely but well.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Sloan Wainwright (Dirty Linen, late 1997)

A reference near the end to "blooming" meals will make more sense if you know that the lunch we had at the cafe had edible flowers in the salad. That part got edited out.

I hate the title. I hate the lede. I probably will hate the article, when I reread it. But I love Sloan, so here it is.

From Dirty Linen #73 (Dec '97/Jan '98)

Sloan Wainwright
No Thinking Too Much!

by Pamela Murray Winters

Can you have it all? And if you had it all, where would you put it?

Sloan Wainwright’s treasures are in Katonah, New York. It’s the area where she was raised and where much of her family still lives. (Brother Loudon visits when he can.) It’s the home of the Bakers Cafe, which she runs with her sister. It’s where her husband, too, was born, and where the couple lives with their two sons. And it’s where the roots of her creativity and her personality run deep.

Wainwright had a classic baby-boomer childhood, with an artistic twist. “We had a great piano in the TV room, and I would come home from school and play piano and watch TV concurrently and sing little songs about what had happened in school that day... I was one of those kids who loved to listen to show tunes and get up and act them out.”

When you take your show out of the living room and onto the road, sometimes things change, as the young Wainwright discovered performing original songs in New York folk clubs. “I had a very hard time dealing with the scene. I was young, and I was perhaps not motivated enough, didn’t want it bad enough to just continue forward. I was oversensitive... it was very hard for me to deal with criticism.”

For a time she turned to traditional music, finding that it was easier to express herself without the burden of that personal connection to the songs. (She said old-timey music also suited her “pounding” piano style.)

She’s still a closet trad player, though she won’t bring out the banjo onstage. “It was refreshing and renewing, and it was detached from my whole sort of personal expression — even though what it really did was bring up a whole new bunch of stuff for me. But I wasn’t singing words about what I was feeling or what I was seeing.”

Meanwhile, she was getting married, having children, and working at the Bakers Cafe, where lunch is a treat for the senses. So how did Sloan Wainwright find her way back to the stage and to the studio?

I was involved in a local production company,” she said, “and we were doing original children’s theater with original music...and what started happening was that these shows had to be performed. And that was how I squeaked back onstage. That was about 14 years ago.” She never stopped writing songs, and as she found that her earlier hypersensitivity had faded, she returned to performing her own compositions. Sloan Wainwright was released in 1996 on Waterbug, and a new album, tentatively titled From Where You Are, is due this spring.

Working with a strong band — “Even though I write the songs and sing the songs, the individual personalities of the group come through” — has probably led to some of her success on the adult album alternative market.

Her sound combines folk, rock, jazz, and funk in a way that fans of Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading will recognize. She hopes that her new album will include more of the solo work that once frightened her off the stage.

The power of her voice and her imagination makes it sound like she’s never stopped singing. Anne Saunders of Falcon Ridge Productions said, “Her range must be close to five octaves and starts somewhere down where only trees and other elemental beings of the earth can hear.”

Thus, the origin of “On a Windy Day” (from her self-titled album) seems appropriate. “It was a little assignment I gave myself to write a song from the perspective of a squirrel. Now at a show I would never tell anybody that before I sang the song — it would ruin it! And it’s about death and renewal... but the original idea was I was sitting there and playing, and I was looking out the window and going ‘A squirrel!’ ”

She seems like the earth mother so many of us want to be, but when asked, “What’s it like being a superwoman?” she recoiled, laughing, protesting. “There’s a part of me that feels a little shy about ‘Sloan: mother, wife, baker, business owner, musician...’ ” Sometimes she worries about how it looks to outsiders. “My biggest fear is of being a dilettante — being a doer of many things and not really very good at any of them.”

Deep down, where it counts, she knows that it’s all part of the same creation. There’s an organic unity to her life that pleases her. As the Bakers Cafe serves up blooming meals and her sons reach maturity, Wainwright feels the nourishment of her roots and rejoices in fruition. “The creative expression is always there.” Waving her hand across the sunny table, she continued. “I did it here — expressed myself through this place, expressed myself through my children. And now I can stand on a stage and sing, which is really what I’ve been waiting for, saying what I want to say. I’ve been waiting. And if I think too much about it, I get scared — I think, ‘Is it too late?’ I hope not!

If I think too much... I’m tired. But isn’t that true for everybody? Don’t worry, be happy? Or as my dear sweet acupuncturist Dr. Wong says: ‘No thinking too much.’ ” She offered a serene smile. “No thinking too much. Very good phrase.”

O'Malley's March (Dirty Linen, 2001)

Well, Mayor O'Malley did leave his band, eventually. Can't say what ever happened to him after that.

From Dirty Linen #93 (Apr/May '01)

O’Malley’s March

Featuring His Honor,
the Mayor of Baltimore

by Pamela Murray Winters

The club is hazy, especially around the stage, where green-lit smoke billows down on the band. The front man has his muscle-T on. He’s got the shortest hair on the stage, and a choirboy face, but he can pogo and duckwalk like some unholy combo of Chuck Berry and Joey Ramone. He even strums his six-string behind his head. It’s a hell of a spectacle, and the music’s not bad, either. He’s got his dream gig, opening for Shane McGowan and the Popes, but some of this happy, staggering throng is here to see him, not some ex-Pogue.

After the first number, panting slightly, he tells the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, my mother and father raised me with three ambitions. Number 1, to serve my country. Number 2, to be a faithful and loving husband and father. Number 3, to open for Shane McGowan.” He’s three for three tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, the youngest-ever mayor of Maryland’s largest city, a family man, and a kick-ass musician: Martin O’Malley.

A native of Rockville, Maryland, Martin O’Malley has been playing Irish and Irish-based music for 20 of his 36 years. He started performing in junior year of high school, at Washington, D.C., venues like Ireland’s Own, the Four Provinces, and the legendary, now-defunct Matt Kane’s. “When I got into music,” he said, “there must have been seven full-time Irish bars and only about four full-time Irish bands” in the Washington area, so his band, Shannon Tide, got a lot of work.

Somehow, O’Malley managed to combine music with legal studies and politics. He worked on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, graduated from Catholic University and the University of Maryland School of Law, and became Baltimore’s Assistant States Attorney in 1988. That same year, he formed a trio, playing “Planxty-type music” with uilleann piper Paul Levin, known then and now as “the Piper of Pikesville.” (Pikesville is a largely Jewish Baltimore neighborhood; O’Malley noted that folks outside the band’s hometown miss the joke.) Levin had become interested in Irish culture in college and traces his own musical career to a trip to Ireland after grad school: “I picked up Planxty’s black album [Planxty (Shanachie, 1973)] on that trip and have been trying to play the music since. It’s a good thing I didn’t know how hard the pipes were going to be to learn, otherwise... Anyway, as Liam O’Flynn’s playing was so effortlessly compelling, I had to try.”

The band’s sound broadened and deepened over the ensuing decade with the addition of new members. “Jamie Wilson, our drummer, keeps it going,” said Levin, “and our electric guitar player, Ralph Reinoldi, adds a lot. He learned my repertoire practically overnight; now he and I trade tunes all the time.” The current lineup is rounded out by bass player Bob Baum and harper/trombonist Jared Denhard.

The drums, electric guitar, and horn section have let us put more kick and drive in what we do,” Levin noted. Further, O’Malley has become more active in bringing new songs to the band: “Martin has more and more written his own material from out of the Irish-American experience and his response to Irish history.”

O’Malley emphasized that his perspective is Irish-American, not Irish. “My great-grandfather came from Ireland,” O’Malley said. His most recent composition, “Farewell Clonbur,” commemorates the Irish town from which his great-grandfather emigrated. He’s been to Ireland four times, most recently last September with a group of local politicians on Aer Lingus’ inaugural direct flight from Baltimore to Dublin.

The city that O’Malley now helms has strong Irish roots, O’Malley observed. “It’s not as Irish as it once was, when it had Irish enclaves. But in the 1840s, Baltimore was second only to New York in Irish immigration.” In 1827, the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, started from the city’s Mount Clare Station. Many Irish immigrants who intended to go West came through Baltimore, and a good number of them stayed.

But Baltimoreans of all origins are loyal to their hometown band, and O’Malley’s election in 1999 has led to more eclectic bookings. “His high profile, and the way he has been so warmly received by the people in the area,” Levin said, “has increased both the size of the audiences that show up at any gig, as well as the types of gigs we have been offered. In this past year, we played two remarkable, sold-out shows with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, opened for the Chieftains and Los Lobos at Pier 6, opened Artscape in front of Patti LaBelle, and played to a great crowd at the 9:30 Club in front of Shane MacGowan.” (At 9:30, when Levin introduced a Turlough O’Carolan tune, someone in the crowd shouted a request. O’Malley replied: “I’m not gonna do ‘Dirty Old Town’—are you frickin’ kidding? Blasphemy!”)

But the City Hall gig has its downside, O’Malley noted. “Being mayor has cut down on opportunities to practice and play.” It’s difficult for him to play bars these days: “If a bar [that O’Malley’s March plays] should do some questionable advertising, the neighborhood association will call to complain that I’ve played that bar.

One of the things you give up when you’re elected to a high-up office is your alone time. That’s when you typically write stuff. I’ve struggled with this. I wrote ‘Farewell Clonbur’ only because I had a day by myself — I wrote the song outside Queensbridge Housing Project in New York, working the polls [campaigning] for my little brother.”

O’Malley’s March closes the 9:30 set with the closer of the band’s second album, Wait for Me: “Song for Justice.” In his classically Irish tenor, O’Malley croons: “If the nations of the world can rise, so genocide will cease / Can’t we hope that in our lifetimes that Ireland will know peace?” O’Malley is proud of “Song for Justice,” calling it “the most significant thing I’ve done in politics” – besides seeing Baltimore’s notorious murder rate drop 13% over the first year of his administration.

If O’Malley is forced to choose between music and politics, he’ll be leaving the band that bears his name. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to keep playing, because of the demands of his office. “But that’s part of the suspense,” he grins.

Stephen Fearing (Dirty Linen, late 1997)

From Dirty Linen #73 (Dec '97/Jan '98).

On more than one occasion, I've heard Stephen tell a story onstage that relates to the very night of our interview. He was opening for John Wesley Harding, who was then given an opening slot for Cracker at the 9:30 Club. Or--whatever; I don't know all the technicalities of who's "opening" versus "co-billed" and all of that. What I do know is that Stephen ended up playing first on a bill of four artists, with what seemed like 17 people in the audience. It was an instance that really brought home to me how thankless a job a touring musician can feel like he has sometimes.

Anyway, we cut out early, went over to the Brickskeller for the interview, and we missed some kind of rock-star moment with Cracker, during which someone smacked someone else in the face with a bass, or something. I haven't seen Stephen in years; you ask him about it when you see him (because you should see him).

The bit at the end was a sidebar--it's all in Stephen's words.

Stephen Fearing
Messages From Home
by Pamela Murray Winters

Home, turn the headlights off, close my eyes
And let go of the wheel...”

Stephen Fearing, “Home,” 1997

Stephen Fearing has to be the most patient interview subject ever — putting up with inane questions, apologizing for “talking your ear off,” allowing a writer to drive him through darkest Washington in search of a parking space without pointing out that maybe it would help if the headlights were on.

He’s a man at peace with his life, a man who has been on welfare and watched a 10-year relationship crack in two, a man with many fathers, a man who has struggled to find home. Industrial Lullaby, his fourth solo album, reveals that man, easing into his 30s with a wealth of worldly experience, reaching out and finding something better than the innocence he’s lost.

Connect the dots on a map of the places Fearing has lived, and you’re left looking at a strange constellation: a bent arrow. He was born, to an Irish mother and English father, just outside Vancouver in a place called Horseshoe Bay. Six years later, when his family traveled to Ireland for his uncle’s wedding, his mother fell in love with the best man. A year later, his stepfather-to-be came to Vancouver and took Fearing’s mother and her children back to Dublin.

Fearing spent the next 11 years in Ireland, where his interest in music began. (Some of his schoolmates at Mount Temple Comprehensive were similarly inclined; they later became The Stars of Heaven and U2.) At 18 he met a fellow outsider, an American exchange student, and traveled back to Minneapolis with him. After two years in the United States, he returned to British Columbia, where his sisters lived, then to Alberta, and then back to Vancouver. Now he’s in Guelph, Ontario, midway between the extremes.

It’s no surprise, then, that so many of his songs were written on the road. His pursuit of classical and acoustic guitar skill and his rich baritone come more naturally to him than songwriting, and he recalled an early attempt: “I remember when I left Minneapolis, my friends and I took this trip — we hopped freight trains from Minneapolis to Seattle, except we ended up in Portland by mistake. I came back to Minneapolis and did some more playing, and then I caught a bus out west. I remember sitting on the bus and just going through hell trying to write this song and wondering if it was good or bad. And that was the start... I don’t know how many years later, I’m still wondering if it’s good or bad.”

It’s also not surprising how much of his history makes its way into his songs. “The Longest Road,” from The Assassin’s Apprentice, details the conflicted feelings of a young nomad: “Canada/The first country of my youth/My heart was ever drawn to you like a tongue to a broken tooth.”

I first met Fearing as The Assassin’s Apprentice, a set of tales of people on the move, had just crossed the border into the United States. It was no longer a new album (Fearing had already begun the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings project) and he was able to reflect on it.

It is, musically for the listener and personally for Fearing, an album of turning points. “None of the songs on it were consciously about breaking up a 10-year relationship, but I listened to it four months later and realized that it’s all over the record.”

Poet Angela Hryniuk was his companion for a decade. In 1988, the couple was living on welfare in a downtrodden section of Vancouver. They met an accountant named Gary Nixon, who, Fearing remembered wryly, “took great pleasure in the fact that my girlfriend’s typewriter cost more than our car.” Impressed with Fearing’s talent as a singer and guitarist, Nixon put up the money for the album Out to Sea.

That album won Fearing a reputation: “For a while I was the young up-and-coming political songwriter.” You can hear authentic pain in the mournful melody and acute lyrics of “Welfare Wednesday,” based on Fearing’s firsthand observation of his neighborhood. “It was very real for me. The thing that struck me at the time was the fact that I was living in a neighborhood of people most [of whom] were on welfare. I knew that wasn’t my lot. I was lucky enough to be raised white, middle-class, male, and I was just doing some time there and was going to move on. But there were people there, they’d been living that life for a long time, and they’d probably live it the rest of their life.”

Indeed, Fearing moved on and up. Blue Line was produced by Clive Gregson and featured such luminaries as BJ Cole on pedal steel and Christine Collister on backing vocals. Many, including Fearing, consider it the weakest of his albums, but it builds on his social-critic reputation with songs like “Turn Out the Lights,” an adult’s recollection of childhood abuse. It came out just before its label, New Roots, went bankrupt. “In 1990,” said Fearing, “I found myself with no record label, no manager, and no voice because I got singer’s nodes.”

Another three years passed. “I put records out about every three years,” Fearing noted. Along came a new manager, Bernie Finkelstein, and a new record. The Assassin’s Apprentice was the one that looked like a starmaker, with guest spots by Sarah McLachlan and Richard Thompson, production by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and the strongest set of Fearing’s compositions and vocals to date.

The album produced no hits, no major publicity, no burst of radio airplay on either side of the Canadian border. His relationship with Hryniuk ended, and he left Vancouver once more. A less stubborn man would have quit by now, gone back to bus driving in the Rockies or back on welfare. Fearing was saved by his own persistence, maybe a little luck, and the influence of a new crowd.

There’s a songwriter in Canada... I started off by being a very long-distance fan of his; when I was living in Ireland, my sister gave me a copy of one of his records. His name’s Willie P. Bennett, and I’d be very surprised if you’d heard of him.

When I moved back to Canada, I met him and was star struck, and we became friends slowly, and now he’s one of my real close friends.

So when I moved out east to where I live now, outside Toronto, I felt the need to get in touch with some of the musicians I knew there. I phoned up a fellow called Colin Linden, who’s a blues prodigy — there’s a picture of him at the age of 13 with Howlin’ Wolf. I said we should get together, and we did and had a great time, and I realized that he’s a very busy guy and it wouldn’t be possible to get together with him that frequently — unless I could come up with a really good idea.

Something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years was to do an album of Willie’s stuff. I e-mailed Colin and he basically freaked out because he’d been talking about exactly the same thing with his wife that day, when he got my e-mail. That was in November, and we were in the studio by January [1996] with a third vocalist named Tom Wilson. And basically we did it as a band. We put a band together with three vocalists, three very different styles. Tom plays in a band called Junkhouse, very heavy-duty hardcore rocking music from an industrial town, Hamilton. Colin’s a blues player, and I’m the sensitive singer-songwriter guy. So it was three different takes, and it took three of us to cover the material.

The studio process was the antithesis of everything I’ve done in the studio; we had five days to record 15 songs. We were literally counting in songs, the tape rolling, I wasn’t sure where the chord changes were, and Colin’s going ‘One! Two! Three!’ and I’m freaking out and following him as we’re recording. And there’s a spontaneity to the record that I’ve never gotten onto a record before. There’s a vibe and an energy. And there’s a lot of mistakes. But there’s something very lovely about it, and it was really good for me. Colin really made me look at the idea of flying by the seat of your pants. So I’m hoping that next time I make a record it’ll have that sort of spontaneity about it.”

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings spurred a tour that was a lot of fun for all concerned. “With Blackie,” said Colin Linden, “that was just Stephen and I and Tom Wilson getting to know each other. We had no idea, when we did the Blackie album, that we would really turn into a band. And further to that, we had no idea we’d become such close friends. And I really feel like I love those guys — they’re two of my closest friends in the world. All that happened, really, since we made the record. Making the record was great, but when we actually went on the road with it we just had so much fun.”

When Linden became the producer of Fearing’s fourth solo album, Industrial Lullaby, he used the Blackie experience to help move Fearing into a new place, where instinct grabbed the reins from perfectionism. Linden said, “Stephen — he’s quite critical of himself, which is in some ways why he’s as good as he is, but I think this time he had a lot of support from his pals.”

On Industrial Lullaby, Fearing’s memories sprout new wings: The personal becomes universal in a new and powerful way. He worked as hard as usual, particularly on songwriting. “I deliberately tried, when I was writing my lyrics, to write a little bit less densely. So I was constantly throwing words out of sentences, getting rid of extraneous ‘ands’ and ‘the’s’ and what you end up with is maybe a little more poetic, but there’s certainly a little bit more room in it. That’s what I was trying to get, more space in the lyrics. They’re not so dense, and yet they don’t lose their bite or their depth. So I was trying to be simple and yet not be simplistic.”

But he also let spontaneity enter: “I don’t feel like I’m processing everything right down to crossing all my t’s and dotting all my i’s before I’ll write about it, in that I’m not necessarily trying to tie everything up as neatly. So I’m writing things that are a little bit more oblique and not necessarily trying to sort them all out.” The songs, by Fearing alone or with Wilson or Bennett, are still new to him: “‘Dog on a Chain’ is the last one I wrote — I basically wrote it on a Friday-Saturday and then went into the studio the following Thursday.”

Producer Linden is pleased with the result: “It kind of felt like the previous records might have been a little bit in color. This one, I kind of think of it as more black and white — less high-end glitzy sound, less of a crystal chamber, more of a cedar box. Woody tones, a bit of a grainier sound to it overall. And I thought that a lot of that was accomplished by what we chose to record with and where we chose to record, but a lot of it was recording it in a room where a lot of us played together.”

The affection of Fearing’s friends is easy to see. Fellow Canadian musician James Keelaghan enthused, “He’s one of my best buddies, and I think he’s a spectacular talent, and a largely underrated talent. I also think he’s a musician’s musician, an incredible guitar player and a great lyricist.”

Fearing’s married now; the song “Coryanna” on Industrial Lullaby, a gorgeous, unabashed toe-curler, is dedicated to his wife. He’s reached a state of serenity but not, never, complacency. “On the one hand, after three years my home life is very settled. It’s a real strong anchor for me. And I think after you get very introverted — introverted in the sense of ‘OK, this is my new home, this is my new situation’ — at some point, when you feel like your house is in order, literally, you start looking out again and it’s the same old world out there.”

I think people who have liked Stephen in the past can hear him having a good time on this record,” said Linden. “They can hear him evolving. So it’s not like, ‘Oh, now he’s doing what he should be doing’ or anything like that. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is cool, where he’s going’.”

So why isn’t Fearing as well known as many of his nominal peers? Could it be that some find his lyrics too dark? “I don’t find it easy to write funny or happy songs, per se, although for sure I try and find some happiness in my life, and it’s important to me to try to get it down,” said Fearing. “I guess I find it very difficult to write about that only. Even if I’m writing a love song, to my wife — “Coryanna” — the only reason that it’s positive and happy is because we had to go through the mill. And so I feel that it’s my job to write down both ends of it; otherwise, it doesn’t seem real to me. So a lot of my songs might have an overall dark subtext, but it’s part of the whole picture for me. And actually, a lot of times when people look at my material and think it’s very dark, I feel like they haven’t read it all the way through.”

Some of the best of Fearing’s songs feature lyrics about the loss of innocence. The theme was made crystal clear in “Turn Out the Lights”:

I have kept it secret
And denied my youth away
And my family is too frightened now
To look into my eyes
There’s a child behind the adult
They would surely recognize

In the wooden box of Industrial Lullaby, the pain is rougher still. “Man O’ War” couples a driving rock accompaniment to the images in the eyes of a young soldier:

The cheap, broken china of civilians
The anguish of a father breaking down...
And the eyes just dry out if you don’t close them
And the heart becomes immune to the sounds
I lost my religion to a rifle
I’ll talk to any deity now

The title track juxtaposes beautiful visions with ugly realities; the dense interplay of the Blackie band’s guitars echoes the hazy, deadly loveliness of the skyscape. The studios used for the recording added to the track’s resonance. “The whole record was done in places that were more environments than polished recording studios,” said Linden about Chemical Sound and the Gas Station. “We’d have to occasionally stop in the middle or something waiting for the drummer downstairs to stop practicing or for the truck that was delivering beer to the bar down the street to stop honking his horn.”

Fearing is eager to get the album heard and to get out before audiences once more. He thrives on the energy of live performance — it’s how he honed his craft in the early days. In his school days, “I was a guitar nerd. I played some sports, and I played my guitar and hung out with my buddies, and we’d have long nights drinking — we’d buy a six-pack illegally and go home to somebody’s house and play a Neil Young song 20 zillion times. And so it was the performing that I loved, and I still love.”

With Industrial Lullaby, Fearing the nomad becomes Fearing the traveler, with a home at his center. “Guelph is where my family is. It’s where a lot of my friends are. It’s a little community; you can wrap your brain around it pretty easily and know what’s going on there. I have a lot of very good friends there, very supportive.” But home seems to be within Fearing himself, and his messages from that place give us wings.

Writing Tips from Stephen Fearing

I lived with a writer for 10 years, a woman named Angela Hryniuk, who’s a wonderful poet. She sat me down one day after a concert and she said, “Y’know, the hard thing about your songs is that if you don’t have the record and you haven’t had a chance to listen to them over and over, there’s no repetition, so it’s like one image is stuck in your head and you’re just getting it and then there’s another five that come at you.” I took that to heart, and I’m trying to find a way to still have songs that are thick, that are dense, but at the same time there’s some space in them; they’re not clubbing you over the head with images and metaphors.

When I get a song I’d do anything — I’d wash the dishes, I’d clean the car rug first — as my manager told me one day, he said, “Stephen, I could put you in a room with nothing in it and you’d have to refinish the floors before you wrote a fucking song.” And he’s right. But once you’ve got a song, it’s like pulling threads that turn into a string that turns into a rope and then you know you’ve got it. I’ll sit up ’til the sun comes up and feel refreshed like nothing else. It’s weird. And there’s an immediate feeling of, almost, depression, because you know you’ve got to do it again.

Go back out and start pulling on threads, and they all break... it’s a very weird thing to do, I think, writing songs. I write in a journal every day. I play games with myself like sharpening two pencils and I’m not allowed to stop writing ’til they’re both blunt, or I have to write four pages a day, no matter what. I did that for the last 12 months, since I moved and settled into my new place. And at the end of it, I had piles of journals that were full of a lot of garbage. I’d finish a journal that’d take a couple of months to fill, four pages a day, and then I’d sit down and write a song in a day. And on the one hand it’s possible that you get more in shape, but a lot of the time I was writing about how much I hated writing! I sorta read it and go, “This is absolute crap, this is whining.” And I know that when I get hit by a song idea, if I follow it through...I have learned that if it’s late at night and I get a song idea, I gotta get up and write it down. That’s something I’ve learned because I’ve written a gazillion half-songs in my head that never make it to the page. But the actual writing for the sake of writing...I’m not sure if it really works for me. It’s a debate that I’m still having with myself.

Sometimes it’s fun to play games where you take somebody else’s melody and strip the lyrics away and try and write your own lyrics, and then strip the melody away and write your own melody to the lyrics you wrote, and you end up with your own song, but it’s directly related. [Stephen, have you done this on your latest album?] Um... yep, and I’m not going to tell you which ones, and I’m not going to tell you who I listened to. But yeah. I was playing games with myself all over the place to sorta edge this thing out and get this thing going. There’s any number of little outwitting-yourself games. It’s really quite fun to do.

Oliver Schroer by Numbers

This article is from Dirty Linen #90 (Oct/Nov 2000). I don't know how the somewhat unusual format will translate to this rather ordinary layout, but you'll get the idea.

When last seen, Schroer was playing in James Keelaghan's touring band.

Oliver Schroer by Numbers

by Pamela Murray Winters

5 feet, 17 and a half inches

That’s the self-described height of the person onstage. The audience can’t help but take note of this, and of the mohawk that crowns his head (for those who can see that far up).

The man describes what he is about to play, a tribute to one of his favorite composers. After a rather lengthy discourse, he lifts his instrument, delicately, and plays with great passion and intensity. And the audience doesn’t hear a single note.

3 minutes, 59 seconds

That’s the length of the piece this mysterious figure has just played on his invisible/imaginary fiddle. It’s called “John Cage’s Reel,” and it’s on his latest CD, O2. Not once, but twice. (The longer version at the end of the second disc is described as “John Cage’s Reel [extended version].”)

Welcome to the world of Oliver Schroer, dubbed by a friend “Canada’s tallest freestanding fiddle player.” If you think you’ve wandered into a Monty Python sketch or a Peter Schickele experiment — P.D.Q. Bach’s cousin Oliver? — think again. Schroer is utterly serious about music. It’s with him every second of the day. He composes, sets his compositions aside, and finds that they seem to write themselves when he separates himself from them. In the liner notes to O2, he writes: “I didn’t really write these pieces at all. Rather, they announced themselves to me, and I was quick enough and lucky enough to catch them as they flickered by.”

Head in the clouds? Sure. Feet on the ground? Absolutely. Schroer’s music is rooted in a wide range of influences. Here’s his list: J.S. Bach, the Beatles, Johnny Winter, Yes, Steeleye Span, Lenny Breau, jazz yodeler Leon Thomas, Ricky Scaggs, and early Emmylou Harris, Quebec fiddler Jean Carignan, Frankie Gavin with De Danaan, Kevin Burke, Canadian fiddler Denis Lanctot, Norwegian fiddler Sven Nyhus, “various hot Balkan bands, Ituri rain forest pygmy music, Tuvan throat-singing,” Dewey Balfa, and Calvin Carriere.

Like many other children, Schroer was first exposed to music when he was given violin lessons. Again like most kids, he found practicing a bore. On his website, he tells this story: “I got a cassette player at a certain point, and I made a tape of my scales, exercises, and arpeggios. When my mom told me to go upstairs and practise, I would go into my room, and play the tape. I never told my mom till last year!”


That’s the age at which Schroer began to lose interest in playing violin. Classical instruction was “too rigid, not enough fun.” He learned “Orange Blossom Special” on a dare, as a party piece. But his father gave him a guitar for his 16th birthday, and for a time his tastes turned more to Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant. “Structurally,” he said, “that music rubbed off on me. The Beatles, too. I was a real Beatles fan.”

He was a musician at heart, but on paper he was a graduate student in philosophy when he went back to the fiddle. “I met an old friend from high school who had this band. In the context of his country swing band, I picked up the fiddle again and got into just playing lines on the fiddle. Then at one of those dances we played, we needed to actually do the music for a square dance, so he passed along a tape of Don Messer to me. I learnt a couple of those tunes, and that’s how I got into it. And then I kinda got hooked on fiddle tunes and began learning fiddle tunes. Even though things have got pretty esoteric and stuff, I really did start with Don Messer, like a good Canadian boy!”

100 bucks (Canadian)

That’s what it cost to be an official busker on Toronto’s subway system. “They had this system where you audition, and then you get a license to busk,” Schroer explained. “Only eight people got the license. So it was actually pretty stiff competition.”

Schroer went on: “I would play for about 5 hours a day. For me, it was a real journeyman thing,” At this point, in the 1980s, “I played alone, I didn’t jam with anybody, I didn’t play with anybody, I just played all the time in the subway and learned tunes like crazy. Somebody passed along a tape of De Danaan, and I heard Frankie Gavin for the first time—that blew my mind. Somebody passed me on a tape of Jean Carignan, the French-Canadian fiddler, and that blew my mind. And then I heard Scott Skinner, and that was amazing. So various friends took it upon themselves to give me a bit of an education by passing along stuff.” He also put his music-reading skills to use by learning tunes from books. When he first got the busker’s license, Schroer knew about 35 tunes.


That’s the number of tunes Schroer knew four years later, when he ended his busking apprenticeship and embarked on a new educational path. Philosophy had fallen by the wayside much earlier. “I’ve also got the kind of mind that I’ll forget a lot of things,” Schroer admitted freely. “I mean, I studied philosophy—how much of that do you think I remember? Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Very little. But tunes...I just have this mind that will not forget a tune.”

Through fiddle playing, “I eventually locked into this circle of fiddle players who would get together to do old-time fiddle music. Basically old timers, basically old guys.” One of them was a character named Norm Gibson.

“Norm had made it his personal mission to collect fiddle tunes, collect all the fiddle tunes he could. But he only liked Ontario-style tunes! Fiddle music, in the realm of possible music, is a pretty narrow piece of the pie, really. Even within the pie of fiddle music, the part that he wanted was a narrow slice of that pie. I played him some incredible Irish music once, and some Scottish stuff, and he said [puts on crotchety old-guy voice], ‘Don’t play me that Scottish shit!’ He was really quite the character.”

For another decade, Schroer became Gibson’s transcriber. “He would go around to fiddle parties or contests or wherever there was a tune being played and tape them on his little Walkman thing, and he would make me a tape, and they would often be really bad tapes, and I would end up transcribing the tunes. So I got really good at writing out tunes. I could do that for myself. If I went to fiddle contests and sat around at parties afterwards and listened to people play, then I could pick up great tunes that way also.”

It was back to tapes and recorders for Schroer, only this time, the struggle wasn’t to convince someone that he was working on his music—it was to save the music itself, sometimes from the clutches of its collector.

“He was funny,” Schroer said of Gibson, his late friend. “He was such a lousy ethnomusicologist! Because if a tune had three parts — he didn’t believe that fiddle tunes should have three parts. He thought they should have two parts. So then he would make me chop off a part. Or if it went up to third position — it went up high on the fingerboard — ‘Make it low! You know what I like!’ So he’d make me change tunes! I tried to stay true to the original, harmonically and stuff.”

“I got them filed alphabetically!” Schroer mimicked Gibson’s voice, describing the file cabinet where he kept the transcriptions, divided primly into waltzes, jigs, and reels — about 5,000 of them.

“In the context of Norm, I did so much writing, and I remember when I started out it was quite laborious, and I really had to listen hard. But it really was an education for me. I’ve developed this new system of notation where I can write down music as fast as I can hear it. I can write down jigs and reels at playing speed. I haven’t quite perfected it yet, but I’m getting there. Because I can hear it—it’s just a matter of physically getting it down on the page. Looking back on it, I realize that those years and years of doing that thing for Norm really paid off for me.”

As he was transcribing tunes for Gibson, he was finding music of his own. “I guess I began writing tunes in about 1988 or so — actually, earlier, about 1986 — but only a little bit. And then over the years it snowballed, it became more and more.” By 1993, he found himself with “this huge pile of tunes” and decided to make a CD. But he had a problem: too much music for a single disc.

Furthermore, while a lot of his music was directly influenced by the traditionalism enforced by Gibson and heightened by listening to Celtic recordings, he also had a fair amount that was “the wild, wild stuff, the crazy, Balkan-sounding stuff, and the musical soundscapes.”

So he divided the pile in two. He started with the more-accessible project. Once again, he found himself listening to a lot of tapes. “A lot of things developed because I got this little four-track cassette recorder, and I began layering up things. I’d play riffs, or I’d jam around and then I’d come up with a riff, and then I’d come up with another riff on top of that. So it became finding the vertical structure of music — not only strong melodies, because at that point I’d been playing so many jigs and reels and exploring what I thought were the best ones and modeling those tunes, in the sense of saying ‘I want to write a tune that sounds like’— whatever, like ‘Mason’s Apron’ or something, that has the punch of that tune, and trying to come up with something that was new, but sounded like it had always been around. That’s a really interesting exercise — to do tunes that sound sort of linked to a tradition, but really brand new.

“With Jigzup I was very conscious of doing a fiddle album for non-fiddle players. Fiddle players can listen to an infinity of tunes. It doesn’t matter. It’s like ‘Another tune!…Oh, that’s great! Another tune!’ ” But Schroer wanted an album of songs for a non-fiddler’s attention span. He wanted brand-new tunes that sounded ageless. He hit his mark. Jigzup came out at the end of 1993 and was rapidly nominated for a Juno. Suddenly Schroer found himself scheduled to appear onstage at a huge Toronto venue for a Juno showcase. It was a far cry from transcribing tapes or collecting change in his fiddle case.


“Before I made Jigzup,” Schroer recalled, “I had actually begun playing with a lot of different people. Those were the years where I was playing in piles of bands. I remember checking my date book one year and realizing that over the year I’d played with 37 different bands. I was a musical slut!”

He drew on these connections when it came time to assemble a band to promote Jigzup for the Juno showcase. “I’d filled in with the bagpipe funk band Rare Air for a while, so I knew the drummer for that band [Rich Greenspoon]. I had this band called Eye Music…I got the bass player from that band [David Woodhead], and then there was a young percussionist in town who played bodhrán and stuff who was really good, and I got that guy [Ben Grossman]. My friend David Travers-Smith is a trumpet player. I was living with him, so I roped him in, right? So that’s how Stewed Tomatoes came to be.”

The Stewed Tomatoes sound, described as “an aromatic mix of tunes that would make the Mustaphas envious,” is less akin to Jigzup than to Schroer’s 1994 album Whirled, which was drawn from the second pile of tunes he’d accumulated. The first Stewed Tomatoes album, appropriately titled Oliver Schroer and the Stewed Tomatoes, was released in 1996. Its elements span the planet, as evidenced by the descriptions of the compositions that are given on Schroer’s website: “The Yodeller from Guadalajara—snappy, happy latin alpine feel”; “My Uncle’s Pockets—Klezmer meets Don Messer”; “Way Down—swampy, funky acoustic hip-hop.”

With this kind of eclecticism, does Schroer worry about being pegged as a dilettante? He gave a typically thoughtful answer. “If you suddenly discover something, and you know you feel a strong relationship to it, strong enough to elicit years of hard work, then you will probably get somewhere with it. Look at Tracy Schwarz, for example. He played old-timey stuff with the New Lost City Ramblers, and then, one day, he discovered Cajun music, and dug really deeply into that to become a well-respected master in that tradition. The danger lies in dabbling — a little of this, a little of that.

“My audience doesn’t have to know all of my influences and background to understand my music. I compare it to cooking. I use a wide and strange array of ingredients, but when I cook up a tune or a concert of tunes, people respond immediately — does it taste good, or not?”

9 months

The length of time it takes to make a baby is the same length of time Schroer once went without playing. He had tendinitis. “It led me away from super-fast jigs and reels into more subtle territory, where the criterion is not speed, but musicality and heart.

“For me, music is so experiential,” Schroer explained. “When I’m not near my instrument, I always have my virtual fiddle, that internal instrument every musician carries with them. I’m constantly creating tunes in my head by playing them on an imaginary violin. On the other hand, I do spend a fair bit of time trying to actually push myself to do entirely new things.”

One of Schroer’s relatively “new things” is production. He produced James Keelaghan’s 1999 CD Road, which represented a departure for Keelaghan’s recordings. “I think the sound is wider,” Keelaghan told the Canadian newspaper, Globe and Mail. “Oliver suggested some things that I’d never considered, like saxophone and clarinet, and they worked beautifully.” Keelaghan described his producer and friend as “endlessly creative, very concentrated, able to handle a vast work load, and totally entertaining.”

While Schroer was working on Road, he was also working on his fifth album. (His fourth, Celtica, came out in 1998.) Using what he’d learned while composing Jigzup, he went back to the tape recorder to find the shapes of the tunes. “I recorded the whole thing from top to bottom. I turned on the tape machine and played one tune, then I stopped, had a little breath and said ‘thank you’ and played the next tune, and went through the whole darn album without even stopping tape.

“The reason I did that was so that having played one tune and having chosen carefully what tune would go after that, each tune infuses the subsequent tune with a certain amount of its energy. It’s like you tell a story: You tell the next part of the story, and then you tell the next part of the story. The listener does change as they go along with you.”

The next two nights, he repeated the process. “I had three complete versions of the album. So I picked out the best stuff, the best versions of the tunes, put them on a CD and listened to them for about a week. And in listening to them I realized where things weren’t happening, where I was skipping over an area or making too much of something or maybe making not enough of something. And then I went back and I did the whole thing again.”

When Schroer talks about “skipping over an area,” he doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s deviated from a written score. He first began working on O2 — or, more accurately, first realized he was working on O2 — when, as he played, “different things began popping out. Different kinds of melodies. They weren’t jigs and reels, they weren’t Balkan-sounding things, they weren’t really Stewed Tomatoes-sounding things, but they were a whole different kind of thing. And that’s what became the O2 stuff. It was a different kind of melody. It was based on subtle rhythmic distinctions and subtle harmonic things and it basically seemed to work in a solo sense. It was almost like they’re these little folk partitas, like the Bach solo partitas in the solo classical violin repertoire. They were a little bit related to that, a little bit related to some bluesy things, almost like Creole Cajuny bluesy things in a way — because I did play a lot of blues when I was a guitar player, when I was like, 17 and 18 — all these little influences filtered through there again, but it was like a different kind of melody.”

Schroer went on. “Also, these melodies weren’t like jigs and reels, where there’s one succession of notes. It’s like this note follows that note, this note follows that note, and that’s the way the tune goes. This was more like: In this general territory, I want to get from A to B, and I generally do it this way, but it’s a little bit different every time. I spend so much time playing a certain musical territory that when I play, instead of following a melody to get from point A to point B — ’cause that’s all melodies are, it’s a way to get from point A to point B — I can basically strike out cross country, and go off-road. And I don’t have to follow that particular melody. I can just play around because I know the geography, I know the territory really well.”


Schroer has come up with new names for the 23 tunes that comprise O2: shapes, whimsies, fractal reels. Yes, the adjective “hippie-dippie” has come up in at least one review of the album. But there are two ways to understand that Schroer is for real. The first, and best, is to listen to his music. The second is to listen to him talk about it. Even “John Cage’s Reel,” the concept of which sounds at first like bargain-basement Dadaism, has a purpose for the listener. Schroer ended each of the two discs of O2 with a version of “John Cage’s Reel” because he wanted us to clear our palates for what would come next — to have “a kind of mental breathing time, just to reload your brain.” He observed that on multiple CD players, when a CD ended “ there’d be something totally different on there afterwards, just when you’d set a certain mood up, then it’d go straight into something really raucous and crazy and disturb your whole brain state there, right?”

Right. When you relax into O2 or treat yourself to a Schroer solo performance, trust him. He compares himself to monologist Spalding Gray — his stories are as much a part of his shows as the music. Gray once said, “You know, I say that I can’t make anything up. I think of myself as a collage artist. I’m cutting and pasting memories of my life.” Oliver Schroer creates aural collages, built of sound and silence, that are drawn on his decades of being Oliver Schroer. That’s his truth and his tradition.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Richard Thompson, Action Packed (and my 100th post)

I had to find a Thompson review for my 100th post.

In case you just came in: I'm putting various published pieces, old and new, on my blog. The order is more or less random. Sooner or later, I'll have tracked down all the old stuff worth repeating, I guess.

I will try to fix all of the fonts sometime. And I'm sure there's a more efficient way to present clips, anyway, but I'm of a family whose motto is "That'll Do Temporarily." (It's supposed to say that on the Winters coat of arms, but no one ever got around to adding it.)


This is from the Washington City Paper, May 11, 2001.

Action Packed: The Best of the Capitol Years
Richard Thompson

"Of the three things I do—writing, recording, performing—probably recording is my least favorite," says a characteristically self-deprecating Richard Thompson in the press kit to his new album, Action Packed. And dammit, Richard, it shows. Comprising 16 tracks from his six albums with Capitol—released between 1988 and last year, when Thompson left the label of his own volition—as well as a new recording and two outtakes, Action Packed is a decidedly uneven collection. Although it may present Thompson's favorites among his recent compositions, it also offers some of the most egregious missteps in his 30-year recording history. Mitchell Froom produced four of Thompson's Capitol releases, and the resulting recordings are cluttered with synths and other injudiciously chosen lush-pop sounds that are at odds with the guitarist's essential rawness. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the gentle lost-love song "I Misunderstood," in which the elegant guitar figure that opens the song is buried under reverby keyboards and Casio-plastic percussion. The few songs that are spared undue Froomage—"1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "Beeswing," and "Waltzing's for Dreamers"—reinforce Thompson's folky cred but reveal only that one dimension of his work. Of the albums excerpted here, only 1999's Mock Tudor, produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, shows the quietly stubborn artist whose music is rooted in tradition but has rampantly blossomed into something neither folk nor rock. Four Mock Tudor tracks lead up to the fan bait at the end of Action Packed: "Persuasion," originally written for the film Sweet Talker, and the Mock Tudor outtakes "Mr. Rebound" and "Fully Qualified to Be Your Man." The outtakes are as purely Thompson as anything on Mock Tudor: The former is a Celtic/Moroccan-sounding cuckold's plaint, the latter a double-entendre-laden punk-pop romp. But it's "Persuasion" that should make the Capitol suits sorry they let Thompson get away: With spare yet rich acoustic instrumentation and vocal harmonies—Thompson sings most of the backup, with the lead taken by his silken-voiced son Teddy—it's more radio-friendly than anything else in Thompson's iconoclastic back catalog.

Stephen Fearing, That's How I Walk

From the Washington City Paper, March 29, 2002.

That's How I Walk
Stephen Fearing
True North

Stephen Fearing is the second-best-known artist on Canada's True North Records, home to fellow thinking-person's Canuck Bruce Cockburn for some 30 years. But like curling and the metric system, Fearing enjoys far more success on the kindler, gentler side of the border. There seems to be no reason for his relative obscurity on the Stateside new-folk scene, however: He's got the singer-songwriter hat trick (guitar prowess, pleasant voice, taut compositions), and his work is fairly accessible. Dark? Sometimes, but in a genre in which divorce, depression, and death can be smart career moves, that's a given. Perhaps what's kept prospective listeners at bay--even as it attracts a certain breed of fan--is Fearing's prolixity. In an interview just before the release of his fourth album, Industrial Lullaby, he told me: "I'm trying to find a way to still have songs that are thick, that are dense, but at the same time there's some space in them; they're not clubbing you over the head with images and metaphors." Nearly five years later, Fearing's fifth studio album, That's How I Walk, shows that he's still trying, notably on "Rave On Captain," which tosses Clinton, Dubya, and capitalist crassness into a cocktail shaker: The bright melodic garnish doesn't hide the fact that the drink would have gone down better with fewer ingredients. But less isn't always more here: What we don't get on That's How I Walk are uninterrupted stretches of Fearing's note-perfect fingerstyle guitar-playing, a talent indulged on earlier albums with instrumentals such as "Carsten" on 1988's Out to Sea. What we do get, however, are lush, sophisticated production by Fearing and Colin Linden (Fearing's bandmate in Canadian roots-rock outfit Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) and Fearing's characteristically thoughtful songwriting and alluring baritone. That's How I Walk shines brightest in its most introspective moments: a love song so classically simple you'll think Fearing took a time machine to Tin Pan Alley to retrieve it ("When My Baby Calls My Name"), a gentle view from inside the bell jar ("Me & Mr. Blue," co-written with Ian Thornley), and the lonesomely horny "Glory Train" (by Fearing and Brian denHertog). If it isn't the 39-year-old Fearing's best album--that gold goes to Lullaby--neither is it the work of a coasting midcareer musician; rather, That's How I Walk is an exploratory voyage helmed by a far braver captain than most of the guitar-troubadour expeditions out there. --Pamela Murray Winters

The Kennedys (Washington City Paper, July 2001)

From the Washington City Paper's too-infrequent "Acts Locally" section, July 27, 2001.

Have Love, Will Travel

In an amphitheater in a Bridgeton, N.J., park, a few days before the solstice, a crowd is fidgeting through the midday swelter as Northern Virginia folk-pop duo the Kennedys finish up their set. Maura pulls a favorite trick, emulating a bass with her Takamine guitar by popping the low-E string. As Pete moves himself and his orange Gretsch downstage until he's out in the elements with the common folk, Mother Nature finally does what she's been threatening all day: turns on the shower heads.

Immediately, the festival-savvy crowd shifts into waterproof mode: Umbrellas swing up, tarps unfurl, and inhibitions lift. And Pete and Maura shift into a Beatles tune. The crowd is soon singing along: "Rai-ai-ai-aiaiaiai-ainnnn/I don't mind."

Later, under the merchandise tent, a dripping but chipper Maura, clad in a multicolored circa-1970 polyester romper, confides that it's rained at nearly all of the last 10 or 12 festivals the Kennedys have played. "But don't let that get around," she laughs. "We'll lose bookings!"

Despite their knack for rainmaking, the Kennedys haven't been hurting for work. Pete, a native Arlingtonian, has been around Washington almost as long as the unrelated political dynasty that shares his name. From their days working in Nanci Griffith's Blue Moon Orchestra through their ascendance on the acoustic circuit, he and wife Maura have built a career out of being musical magpies, adapting to whatever crosses their paths.

Their new album, Positively Live!, is a product of circumstance, "a record that could have come out any time in the course of our career," according to Maura. "We decided to do it now [that] the window of opportunity is there, because we were on Green Linnet for our first two records, and...on Rounder for our second two, but we just parted ways with them—amicably, of course—and so it was the perfect time for us to do the live album."

The album is on the couple's new Jiffyjam label, which Maura hopes will expand their recording possibilities: "Record labels in general—not to dis them at all, but I think it's easier for them to do their thing if it's very clear what kind of music you do. Since we're on our own record label, we don't have to do that now."

Coming on the heels of their 2000 album, Evolver, on which the duo delved into multilayered '60s-style pop, Positively Live! could be seen as, well, retro for the two-person, two-guitar Kennedys. Pete, shaking the raindrops off his mod Chevy Chevelle Super Sport vinyl jacket as we escape the elements in a motor-home dressing room, muses: "I think what we wanted to do [with Positively Live!] was continue evolving—no pun intended—in terms of the music itself and creative energy, but separate that from production. With Evolver, what we wanted to do was take the production as far as we could. But for the next album, we said, 'Let's strip everything away, just the two guitars and our voices, but keep the same level of creativity and the same level of energy.' So it was a challenge in a different way, but definitely not a step backwards toward a more conservative approach."

"People [would] come up to us after a show and say, 'Which record is just like what you just did tonight?'" says Maura. "And we didn't have one, because we were doing the whole studio thing—which we love to do, and we'll never stop doing it. But we thought it was time to do a live album. Also, when we play live, we go into long jams and stuff. People are always asking for that, too: 'Where can I get Pete's long solos?'"

To capture their live show, the Kennedys recorded shows at clubs in Syracuse, N.Y., Lansdowne, Pa., Moundridge, Kan., and Chestertown, Md. The diversity of locales is in keeping with a career that has seen the group tour throughout Europe with Griffith, sojourn in Dublin (the inspiration for much of 1995's River of Fallen Stars), and make a pilgrimage to the Chelsea Embankment site in London where the cover of Richard Thompson's 1983 album Hand of Kindness was photographed.

The duo comes with a ready-made road-trip mythology: They wrote a song together—"kind of Buddy Holly, kind of Everly Brothers," says Maura—at their brief first meeting in Austin, Texas. There, Maura (née Boudreau) was performing in nascent alt-country band the Delta Rays and "studying the Louvin Brothers, that real hard-core country, almost bluegrass," and Pete was playing a solo date between gigs with Griffith. Later, when they decided to see each other again, Pete was in Telluride, Colo., with Griffith's band and Maura was still in Austin, so they settled on a supposedly equidistant meeting point.

Thus, their first date was in Lubbock, Texas—at Holly's grave. (A cursory Internet investigation blows a hole in this anecdote: Lubbock is 499.2 miles from Austin but a whopping 737.6 miles from Telluride. But, hey, the poor kids didn't have Mapquest in 1992.) In 1995, after completing their first album together and taking their marriage vows, they traveled to Woodstock, N.Y., and Las Vegas, visiting two wildly different pop-culture touchstones in one honeymoon.

The duo have a similarly syncretic approach to their music. After hearing their paisley-pop take on the Beatles in Bridgeton, I'm surprised when they cite, as their current musical fascination, gospel—especially the little-known Alabama singer Dorothy Love Coates.

"To me, she's the founder of rock 'n' roll," avows Pete. "Little Richard modeled himself after Dorothy Love Coates....We've been collecting really obscure live '50s gospel performances, because singing reached a peak at that time that was amazing."

Maura emulates the smooth and mellow tone of Sam Cooke singing "You Send Me" and then notes: "But you hear him singing gospel and it's like grit and fire."

"Last year, we were really into Miles Davis and John Coltrane about this time," says Pete. "So it changes."

For people who collect diverse influences, the Washington area is a good place to put down roots, says Pete: "It's a tremendous melting pot. It's like a crossroads in the desert, where different caravans meet up. It's been like that since World War II, when people from all over the country started converging on D.C. to work for the federal government. So there's been a tremendous melding of music, all kinds of music, from gospel and bluegrass to go-go and hardcore.

"I think the national media figures their plate is full in terms of the political scene in D.C. That's enough to cover, so they don't pay any attention at all to the music scene like they would in other places like Austin, which is known as a music town. But D.C. has a tremendous music scene, and types of music, like go-go, that come from D.C." He reels off a list of the area's music legends, from Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Patsy Cline to Danny Gatton, the celebrated ax man whom Pete counted as a mentor and a personal friend until Gatton's 1994 suicide.

"When I moved from Austin to D.C., I wasn't expecting much," admits Maura. "In fact, I knew a lot of D.C. [musicians] who moved down to Austin." She points to Annandale, Va., native Kelly Willis as an example. "So when I came up here I was really surprised at how big and diverse the music scene was. The whole roots scene—the scene that Pete was in—that was really big. There's all kinds of folk, hardcore, bluegrass—I had no idea."

And yet the Kennedys don't spend a lot of nonperforming time in their nominal hometown, Reston. "Our home is really our van," Maura laughs. (In Bridgeton, it's certainly the home for a lot of their apparel: When I last see them, they're strolling toward the lake, Pete in a gold-toned Hawaiian shirt and shorts, Maura in a bias-cut hopsack dress with rainbow stripes.) And New York is as much a home to them as D.C., thanks to the presence of both Maura's family in her native Syracuse and the state's multiplicity of clubs and festivals for the acoustically inclined.

The couple even hit the New York festivals where they're not on the bill. At the venerable Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, where they've performed three times officially and a couple more as drop-ins, they'll be appearing this weekend—not onstage, but staffing a vintage-clothing booth.

"We're on the New Jersey Turnpike a lot," says Pete. "We could have a home in either place and still be active in both music scenes. [But] we could never extricate ourselves from the D.C. scene, 'cause it's very rich." —Pamela Murray Winters

Natalie Merchant, The House Carpenter's Daughter

From the Washington City Paper, Nov. 7, 2003 (which happens to be the birthday of a fervid Natalie fan of my acquaintance).

This one has some references that were pretty topical then, but that are now a wee bit dated. "In the Cut"? Did anyone but critics and Meg's kids see that flick?

The House Carpenter's Daughter
Natalie Merchant
Myth America

Pre-In the Cut Meg Ryan notwithstanding, it's tough being an ingénue when you're 40. Natalie Merchant kept the earnest-college-girl-next-door concession going into her 30s, first with 10,000 Maniacs and then as a solo artist, Nation contributor, and poster child for the Utne Reader set. Of course, such schtick has its limits even for the youngsters: When Merchant declared, "I must be one of the wonders of God's own creation" on her 1995 solo album, Tigerlily, more than one listener suspected she believed it a little too much. And if lyrics like those gave the lie to the publicity description of Tigerlily as "humble and understated," so did some of its aesthetic choices. With the triphop rhythms and world-weary imagery of "Carnival," Merchant transformed herself from Joan Baez wannabe to Mighty Aphrodite. The singer's next tour, which opened with her shimmying silhouette projected onto a scrim, ushered in a few years of soul and strut before 2001's Motherland signaled a new stage. The House Carpenter's Daughter, Merchant's debut on her own label after a 16-year relationship with Elektra, signals another, positing the singer as heir not only to Baez, but also to Alan Lomax. She presents a selection of undeniably folky favorites, from Florence Reece's inspiring '30s protest song "Which Side Are You On?" to the delicate old hymn "Weeping Pilgrim." Every choice adds dimension to the Merchant we already know: "Soldier, Soldier," propelled by Graham Maby's ballsy bass, turns a jump-rope rhyme into an after-hours boogie; "Sally Ann," by New York folk-rockers the Horseflies, and "Crazy Man Michael," by their British counterpart, Fairport Convention, do more than pay homage to Merchant's inspirations—they're as deep and loving as a young woman in her grandmother's wedding gown. They rock a little, too, and Merchant takes full advantage of the Horseflies connection by lacing the album with Judy Hyman's fiddle and Richie Stearns' banjo. Sure, those who sneered back in the Maniacs days will probably groan, "O Brother!" and label this just another career move. But for those of us who've prized Merchant's womanly alto—and even, God help us, believed the Sincerity Thing was really sincere—The House Carpenter's Daughter is not only a wise choice, but a winning one. —Pamela Murray Winters

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Jennifer Cutting (Washington City Paper, 2000)

From the Washington City Paper, Aug. 11, 2000.

Composing Herself

The band life made Jennifer Cutting successful. Solo life makes her happy.

By Pamela Murray Winters

Five years ago, Jennifer Cutting had the world at her feet--which put her in the worst possible spot for the earthquake that followed.

She had spent 10 years as the leader of the New St. George, a Takoma Park-based band playing English-style folk-rock. Although the genre has never been particularly fashionable or lucrative, it's had an avid following worldwide for some 30 years. The British bands Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, each fronted by a powerful female singer (Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior, respectively), created the sound, which marries rock arrangements to traditional music or traditional-sounding arrangements to newly composed songs. The New St. George, which featured the rich alto of Lisa Moscatiello in the Denny/Prior slot, was a favorite of Fairport and Steeleye fans and appealed as well to a broader audience, first locally and then internationally.

Cutting played various kinds of accordions and keyboards; she brought a dynamic presence to the stage and also to the band's life behind the scenes as arranger and composer--the "architect" of the band's sound, as she puts it. The New St. George reached its critical and popular zenith in 1994, with the release of High Tea. By 1995, with high-profile gigs on the calendar and a second album in the works, the band seemed poised for greater successes. So it seemed entirely surprising when, in the spring of 1996, the New St. George announced its breakup.

The phrase "artistic differences" barely skirts the depths of the anger, frustration, and exhaustion that led Cutting to call it quits.

"I was writing what I feel was the best material of my career--material that could take the band to the next level: a better record contract, more airplay, more critical respect," Cutting recalls. "But this leap to being a national act is a critical juncture. It takes work to take the sound and presentation up to that level, and that is the crucible that either makes or breaks the band. The members hadn't all signed up to be working at that level of professionalism. Nor had they signed up to play anything but traditional English folk music, with the odd cover thrown in."

In particular, Cutting believed the band wasn't supporting her original material, which she describes as "a bit darker, more left-of-center, and much more adventuresome than what we had been doing."

"It's difficult to maintain creativity while you're struggling with the mundane details of running a touring band--while maintaining a day gig," says Mary Cliff, producer and host of WETA-FM's Traditions. (Cutting's "day gig" is as a reference specialist at the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture.) Cliff has known Cutting since Cutting first arrived in Washington 16 years ago, following her ethnomusicology studies at the University of London. "It didn't surprise me when, after the band quit working, she continued to write," says Cliff.

Cutting, now 40, didn't start writing songs until she was in her 30s. The first song she ever wrote, "All the Tea in India," serves as the centerpiece of High Tea. The atmospheric portrait of an enslaved farm worker shows the care that Cutting lavishes not only on composition, but on every element of a recording's sound.

"I love bringing Western art-music techniques to traditional music and electric folk," she says. "Whenever there's an ensemble of people playing my charts, they're playing written charts, in the same way a symphony orchestra is playing from music. It's a very premeditated art form. It's just so rare in folk and rock. Of course, you do have your exceptions. Bill Whelan is a composer within Celtic folk, and in rock you've got people like Frank Zappa, whose charts were so difficult that he had a hard time finding musicians to stay in his band. So I'm bringing an art-music sensibility into it."

The New St. George's last recording was a demo of a Cutting composition, a song called "Forgiveness." She began writing the song during the New St. George's death throes: "While I was writing this song, 'Forgiveness,' I was really engaged in this titanic struggle to actually forgive someone. Several people. So you had at one level this struggle to eke this song out, and on another level you had this great spiritual struggle going on, because I knew, in the deepest part of myself, that I needed to learn to let go and to forgive or it would be the cause of so much unhappiness for myself and others that it would literally kill me."

Cutting laughingly admits that, despite years of spiritual work, including studying philosophers from Thich Nhat Hanh to Jean Houston, she's not "the forgiveness poster child," but she says she's made enormous progress. The combination of self-discipline and artist's insight that has helped her in her personal struggles also gave rise to the pristine, hymnlike "Forgiveness."

"Knowing that it took Jennifer so long to complete the song, and looking at the words, it's obvious to me that she edited herself severely," says Cliff. "A lot of writers don't have the discipline to write 'less.' Of course, there's a time to ramble and a time to be precise. She knows the difference."

After the death of the New St. George, Cutting struggled out of her grief far enough to submit "Forgiveness" to the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, part of the Merle Watson Memorial Festival in North Carolina (aka MerleFest, a mecca for roots musicians). The result was a personal and professional triumph: She took first prize.

Cutting devoted a good part of the next four years to satisfying her vision of "Forgiveness." She no longer had a band to create the sound, which meant she found herself with the need--and the freedom--to choose musicians for the recording.

Cutting's roots in both traditional music and art-rock composition drew her naturally to Prior, the reigning queen of the English folk-rock world. Cutting had met Prior when Prior's band and the New St. George shared festival stages. "It took years to work it out," Cutting says, "but she wanted to sing ['Forgiveness'], and I wanted her to sing that song, and looking back I think perhaps I wrote that song for that voice. It was such a good fit. I had in mind something very majestic. And look up 'majestic' in the dictionary--it'll say 'Maddy Prior'!"

Prior was in England, not planning to come to America anytime soon. So Cutting decided to go to England. She called a local friend, guitarist John Jennings, to see whether he could recommend a guitarist for the British session, and was surprised and delighted when Jennings suggested that he go himself. He also brought in another legendary figure from the British folk-rock scene: ex-Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks, who had worked with Jennings in Mary Chapin Carpenter's band.

With Jennings and members of SunSign Productions, the company she formed to produce her compositions, Cutting headed to Chipping Norton Recording Studios in Oxfordshire last August. (Her New St. George bandmate Rico Petruccelli missed the party; he recorded his "Forgiveness" bass part later, at Bias Recording Studios in Springfield, Va.) The recording session took place Aug. 11 last year--the day of a total solar eclipse.

"The country was a madhouse!" Cutting recalls. "People were swarming the countryside with cameras and microphones. And there we were, in the very private, secluded grounds of Chipping Norton Recording Studios. We shut down, went outside to watch the eclipse through our special little glasses."

Cutting is immensely pleased with the result of her international collaboration: "The joy we took in making music together translated directly onto the recording." Prior described "Forgiveness" in a letter to Cutting as "a song of great subtlety and depth with a gloriously emotive melody."

Mattacks, who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Joan Armatrading, says, "I enjoyed the sessions. The combination of Jennifer Cutting's writing and direction plus John Jennings' and [my] intuitiveness towards the music--and Maddy's great vocal--got a nice result, I think."

Park Records in the U.K. will release "Forgiveness" as a track on a future Prior album. Cutting plans for it to be the final track of a SunSign-produced album involving musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. "Right now," she says, "running a fixed-lineup performing group doesn't advance my long-term goals of recording the most fully realized possible versions of my work."

Cutting won't rule out a return to performing ("She's a wonderful stage presence," Cliff says, "but that's not what's motivating her right now"); she says she values the time she spent with the New St. George. And her former lead singer admires her latest creation. "I always enjoyed singing 'Forgiveness,'" says Moscatiello, "and I think it suits Maddy's voice perfectly." CP

"Forgiveness," by the Jennifer Cutting All-Stars, is available as a CD single from SunSign Productions ( and from the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. To order, call (301) 270-9090.