From the moment Blabber’n’Smoke first heard Sacri Couri we were convinced that they were a very special band. They played a short set when backing Dan Stuart back in 2012 which we described as an “astounding palette of sounds that ranged from surf and Duane Eddy type guitar to Nino Rota cinematic whirls with Joe Meek electronica and superb percussion to take the audience on a trip through some weird places.”
Their album Rosario confirmed their wide range of influences and left no doubt that there is a “Sacri Cuori universe,” a strange and wonderful place where a cornucopia of delightful sounds coalesces to deliver a true Technicolor dream. Often described as purveyors of imaginary soundtracks (and very much influenced by the likes of Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone) Sacri Cuori actually delivered the soundtrack for a movie, Zoran, which won several European awards in 2014 and now we have Delone, an album that positively drips with aural delights and is indeed, as the press release claims, a kaleidoscopic road trip.
For an Italian band Sacri Cuori have long been associated with American music due to their association with the likes of Dan Stuart, Calexico, Richard Buckner and Giant Sand with their first album, Douglas and Dawn recorded in Tucson. Delone however sees them proudly reclaim their homeland with guitarist Antonio Gramentieri saying, “in every sound and feeling on the album, Italy is the heartbeat.” It’s an Italy that is viewed through the lens of Hollywood and Cinecitta, the Italy that was cool and hip in the sixties, land of Vespas, Gaggia, Mastrello Mastrianni and Virna Lisi. The band look to the music of Italian film composers, not only Rota and Morricone but lesser known artists such as Riz Ortolani, Armando Trovajoli and Piero Umiliani, composer of the song forever associated with the Muppets, Mah Na Mah Na. With a musical palette then that includes orchestral sweeps, funk, goofy humour and Euro pop they also toss in tango, surf music and a nod to the subversive pop genius of Serge Gainsbourg. Morricone’s spaghetti western whistling is married to the traditional sound of Secondo Casadei’s Romagna Mia and lit by a neon stream of vibrant Giallo colours.
Delone features Evan Lurie, Marc Ribot and Steve Shelley on additional instrumental duties while the vocals are handled by Howe Gelb (on Serge), Carla Lippis, an Italian diva they discovered in Australia and Emmanuelle Sigal with the songs variously in English French and Italian. The opening number, Bendigo is a turbo charged Mexican infused surftrash thrash that Quentin Tarantino really needs to hear. Delone, the song, tells the tale of the album’s anti hero, a man in the shadows , in a manner redolent of sixties spy thriller theme songs while Dancing (On The Other Side Of Town) is romance as danger, a David Lynch nightmare delivered with a deadpan sense of cool. With spoken word snippets between numbers, twanging guitars, deranged horns and fairground keyboards enlivening the instrumentals the entire album is a delight to listen to. It’s infectious, humorous and intelligent and marks Sacri Cuori as one of the coolest bands around.
p.s. watch the video below for a cameo appearance from Marlowe Billings, Toni Delone’s American friend.
OK, a bit late on this but for some reason this review wasn’t published when submitted originally. Given that it was Bronwynne’s UK debut and that Blabber’n’Smoke really dug her album I thought it worthwhile to revive it………
A UK debut here for Mississippi raised Bronwynne Brent and before we say anything else a triumph over adversity as Brent’s initial plan to bring over her own musicians (including her producer Johnny Sangster) fell apart leading to plan B, a scratch band who only met the singer/songwriter two days before the show. So it was that Euan Burton, double bass player with Kris Drever and guitarist Jamie Sturt from This Silent Forest were recruited, given some sound files to work with and a day’s rehearsal with Brent on her arrival on Scottish soil. Credit to them and to Brent as the trio excelled on stage sounding for all the world as if they were road veterans and companions, Burton’s bass warming the songs while Sturt was a revelation, coaxing some sublime sounds from his guitar and effects board, always sensitive to the moods of Brent’s songs.
As for Brent herself she appears on her album sleeves as a bit of a flower child, an image belied by the almost American Gothic sound of her songs. On stage she seems like an amalgamation of the younger Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris, long flaxen hair and hesitant presence. She admitted to being nervous but once she started to sing, her voice, world weary and stained with echoes of Karen Dalton and at times Amy Winehouse had the house in thrall. Roaming from the dark folk of Dark Highway to tumbledown blues such as Wrecked My Mind Brent impressed as she invoked the spooky Americana feel of acts such as the Handsome Family , a feel that was bolstered by Sturt’s inventive sounds effects and guitar. A measure of the trio’s cohesion was the compelling version of Bulletproof, on Brent’s Stardust album an organ infused blues jaunt but tonight delivered in a spare manner before Sturt’s guitar sparked into life scattering aural gunshots from the stage. For a singer who was keen after the show to seek reassurance that her nervousness wasn’t too apparent one only has to point to the excellent rendition of Don’t Tell Your Secrets To The Wind delivered earlier. Mixing chanson and Calexico’s Tex-Mex style Brent was both coquettish and confidant while Burton and Sturt filled all spaces absent from the recorded version.
After this stage debut the trio headed off for a short UK tour and a Bob Harris session due to be broadcast in March. In the meantime tonight was a wonderful opportunity to catch a very fine songwriter and performer who might soon outgrow the relative confines of the bijou setting tonight.
Alabama born Nashville raised JP Harris brought his road tested honky tonk sound to Glasgow last night for what was an exhilarating set in the hot and sweaty confines of the 13th Note basement. Holed up on the tiny stage inches from the eager crowd Harris, acclaimed by Rolling Stone and Saving Country Music for his latest album Home Is Where The Hurt Is, stormed through a set that was stone cold classic country, hard as steel and crunchingly loud.
With roaring yet sweet pedal steel and some clamorous guitar work from Adam L Meisterhans the band zipped through a selection of songs from their two albums along with a few choice covers. Give a Little Lovin’, Two For The Road and the truckin’ Gear Jamming Daddy (with a sizzling pedal steel solo) were countrier than country while South Oklahoma added an exotic touch of the Mexican border on a tale of a girl longing to leave the titular State. They covered Red Simpson’s Happy Go Lucky Truck Driver and transformed Jimmy Martin’s Freeborn Man from a bluegrass number into a magnificent maelstrom of clashing guitars and frantic pedal steel which broke through the dance barrier as some crowd members elbowed their way to the front to frolic joined thereafter by most of the audience. Beer was spilled and collisions ensued in the crammed space but the overall feel was one of joy with Harris obviously enjoying the atmosphere. Adding another feather to their bow the band went into Western Swing mode for an unrecorded Harris song written about a “high impact tractor crash” he was involved in. This was a highlight of the night with Harris and Meisterhans playing twin guitar lines towards the end after yet another zinging pedal steel showcase.
A rigid curfew curtailed the encore with only one song played however their version of Dave Dudley’s Six Days On The Road was as tight as the proverbial duck and a fine summary of their tightly honed country roots. A great night with the audience warmed up nicely by the incredibly hirsute Harry and the Hendersons who provided a fine rootsy Americana with harmonies to the fore and Have Mercy Las Vegas with their Celtic tinged foot stomping romps.
Currently a resident of Austin Texas John Neilson was recognised initially as a songwriter when in LA. Writing with LA Guns and Sophie B. Hawkins among others he eventually teamed up with producer Jim Wirt and Tomorrow Comes The Spring is their second joint effort. The first thing to say here is that this is not an album that sounds as if it were birthed in Austin. There’s no grit and little swing evident, instead there’s a shimmering pop sensibility that ranges from upfront summer tinged power pop to ethereal swoons with Neilson’s light voice swathed in harmonies.
Neilson tops and tails the album with two fine shots of chiming power pop. Fall belts out of the starting gate and never lets up with a great chorus and a fine bridge leading to a smashing guitar solo before crunching back into the song, listen loud. Walk Away which closes the disc is a chunkier affair but the guitars continue to churn and burn as Neilson offers up another fine and melodic chorus which is just on the right side of sentimentality. In between Neilson walks a line that straddles folky singer/songwriter tales and romantic ballads, the latter again veering dangerously close to showbiz sentiment. Starlight Eyes for example creeps into view with an almost whispered declaration of love before sailing into Christopher Cross territory but Neilson rescues the song halfway through with a key change and an inventive arrangement that takes him closer to Brian Wilson. The arrangements again are the saving points of Dreams At Night and Columbian Cocaine, another two songs where Neilson bares his heart. He’s on surer ground with the tarnished tales featured in Lights Of Los Angeles although the soaring chorus here jars with his finely observed words. Coming Home is a sturdier effort with Neilson hitting the right emotional buttons as he lays down a downbeat Christmas song (wrong season John!) as a weary drunk contemplating a seasonal homecoming without his girl. Take A Shot is a portmanteau song that starts off with rippling country tinged guitar and bucolic lyrics before a swift shift into a brief appendix in a manner that recalls McCartney back in the days.
We struggled with Tomorrow Comes The Spring which apart from the two rockers is not an immediate listen. However it’s proof that an album can grow on one and the fine arrangements to be found here do repay repeated listenings. However it’s tempting to ask if Neilson could provide a whole album of those souped up power chords next time.
Not a name that’s overly familiar perhaps but check out albums and tour bands from the likes of Chuck Prophet, John Murry, Hiss Golden Messenger and John Doe and it’s a fair bet that Tom Heyman has been involved. Following the breakup of Go To Blazes, his 1990’s Washington roots rockers band Heyman relocated to San Francisco where he’s been in much demand as a sideman with occasional forays into solo recording with a ten year gap between his last album and this third one, That Cool Blue Feeling. Happily we can report that it’s been well worth the wait as Heyman delivers an album that fulfils his intention to find a sound that “combines the loose late night low down groove of JJ Cale and the melodic storytelling of Gordon Lightfoot.” From start to finish this is an album that slowly burns into the listener’s ear with Heyman’s laid-back vocals pouring over some tasty yet subdued guitar licks. Recorded in Portland Heyman plays guitars (acoustic, electric, slide) and organ and is supported by Rusty Miller on drums, bass and piano and Mike Coykendall on drums and bass. They fuse wonderfully and the production (by Coykendell) is warm, capturing a feel of spontaneity that is heard to best effect on Time And Money where the guitars churn and the percussion thumps like a heartbeat heard through a stethoscope.
The album prowls into view with the slow burning blues of Black Top, a Southern inflected moan that sounds as if it has crawled from the swamp. Cool And Blue is a delicate and fragile attempt to fan the flames of a failing relationship, cooled by wintry references in the lyrics but warmed by a very short but tremendous guitar break in the centre of the song. In The Nighttime World carries on with this mundane existence, a world-weary Muscle Shoals type shuffle sees the relationship over with the singer reduced to smoking dope and buying gifts for his ex via late night TV shopping channels. There’s more moping on the snarly Always Be Around, a fine sidewinder blues swatch, a last gasp attempt to win back his girl but it seems unsuccessful as on the last song Heyman bares all on the naked acoustic of Losers Like Me.
Aside from this domestic disharmony, Heyman throws in a couple of classic Americana styled portraits. Chickenhawks and Jesus Freaks has Paul Brainard on pedal steel decorating a set of lyrics that capture the chills and thrills of hitching a ride in the deepest South. Jack And Lee is a robust portrait of a drinker trying to hold his shit and his marriage together while Number 9 burrows into a methadone user’s method and madness while it rolls along like a bona fide trucker’s song.
Overall the album sounds great, warm and vibrant. Heyman’s guitar playing is at times scintillating and the songs are all top class. It’s an album to be savoured, perhaps late at night and perhaps with a beverage but it does burrow in.
Hot on the heels of ten dates in Ireland Portland’s acclaimed “Ass Kickin’ Redneck Stringband” ferried over for the first of their two Scottish dates on this tour. Suitably limbered up The Foghorn Stringband proceeded to offer up a master class in old time music with songs and tunes dredged from the past and from across the USA. Fiddle tunes, Cajun waltzes, Appalachian ballads and bluegrass workouts all testified to the band’s collective force as they flipped from one to another deftly changing places around the microphone depending on who was leading. With four superb singers, each with their own distinctive style, there was a cornucopia of vocal delights and harmonies galore as they ranged from the high lonesome sound of The Carter Family, the goofiness of old time country and the plaintive yearnings of Acadian settlers.
There was fine picking and strumming with Nadine Landry on double bass providing a solid bedrock for Reeb William’s assured guitar while Stephen “Sammy” Lind excelled on fiddle and occasional banjo. Caleb Klauder played fiddle as well but for most of the night he handled his mandolin with a deftness and alacrity that was somewhat astonishing, bursts of notes spilling from him as he sang with a huge grin on his face. There was of course that choreography, unique (I think) to old time string bands where they participate in what amounts to a dance on stage with the vocalists and solo instrumentalists weaving in and out to offer the best amplification around the single microphone. It’s always a joy to watch and the Foghorn crew have it down to a T with Ms. Landry moving her bass with no discernible effort. In addition there is no better sound than when a good acoustic band is in full tilt, meshed in and tight and this was evident throughout the show but particularly on the outstanding version of Fall On My Knees.
There was a good deal of humour on stage despite the usual country tales of heartbreak. Their version of The Carter Family’s Charlie and Nellie, a tale of long ago love letters and let downs led to a discussion of how best to break up by email these days while Reeb’s rendition of the Stanley Brother’s Pretty Little Miss In the Garden caused Caleb to ask if it was the same couple. There were some spine tingling moments however with Reeb and Nadine offering an excellent a capella duet on What Will We Do.
Overall the band were in fine fettle but for a show that almost demands participation be it singing along, dancing or foot stomping the confines of the CCA were not too conducive. A black box of a room with fixed seating subdued the audience. Klauder’s entreatments to ask for requests were blanked with only the promoter’s request for New Shoes, a Klauder song that was sung in the same room some months ago by The Stray Birds coming to light. Nevertheless it was a fine show and proof that The Foghorn Stringband are prime purveyors of that old time Americana, a well we all should sup from from time to time.
With a hot new album, Devil in The Seat, (reviewed here) safely delivered Portland’s premier old time crew, The Foghorn Stringband are currently touring the British Isles to promote it. After a week of shows in Ireland they arrive in Glasgow tomorrow (Sunday) for a show at the CCA and in advance of this they took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke. We started off by asking about the unusual locationfor the album’s recording.
You recorded the new album in Kauai in Hawaii which seems an odd place to record an old time string band album. How did that come about and how did it compare to sitting around a microphone in rain swept Portland?
Some of us had visited friends on Kauai on our way back from an Australian tour and thought it would be a great idea to record there. We travel so much with the touring and never get to spend more than a day or two at one place. With this recording idea, we thought it would be really healthy and productive to spend a whole week in a gorgeous setting, surrounded by a few great friends, enjoy the odd game of croquet between takes, a walk and a dip in the ocean every day. We were full of energy and so grateful to be there. Who knows where the next album will be recorded!
Some of the songs appear to have a closer connection to Celtic or English folk music than I recall from your previous albums. The notes say that you learned What Will We Do from Cathy Jordan. Do you see this as a direction the band will pursue?
We choose music that we love, regardless of the origin. On the two previous recordings, we decided to add a few Cajun selections but didn’t include any on Devil in the Seat. We were looking for a girl duet and Sammy remembered hearing Cathy Jordan singing What Will We Do in a session somewhere in Ireland and we tried so hard to find a recording of her, with no success. We did find a recording of The Silly Sisters singing and learned it in Hawaii just before recording it!
You usually note the sources for the songs and tunes on each album, a habit which has caused a great deal of Google searches in this household as I try to hear the originals. Where do you hear the versions that inspire you, do you have a trove of old albums or access to an archive?
We collectively have a great quantity of field recordings and have shared various collections with peers at old time music gatherings and on the road. We also get to play sessions with a ton of musicians every year and some tunes stick with us days after the jams! It’s an amazing community out there of folks who share the love of the music but also the love of good company, food and simple living. It’s almost a way of life as much as it is a style of music!
How do you decide what material you’re going to put on each disc?
We wanted to make sure everyone was featured and that it represented us well. We ended up recording 36 songs in Hawaii and kept 16 for the album. We wish we could have fit all of them but made though choices and ended up with a good flow we think. Maybe we’ll release the other tracks in the future!
Are there any essential primers you would recommend for anyone wanting to delve into the world of old time music, books or records?
As far as old time and traditional music goes, you have to go for the classics such as Tommy Jarrell, The Skillet Lickers, John Ashby and The Free State Ramblers, The Carter Family and the list goes on! A big fiddle hero of ours who just passed away who influenced the band greatly is Garry Harrison. He travelled throughout the Midwest (not a region you’d first think of for old time music) and collected hundreds of tunes and songs and published a book called Dear Old Illinois.
With the current line up you can range from Bluegrass to country to Honky Tonk to Cajun at the flick of a switch. Do you play all of these styles live?
Yes! We have loads of freedom playing live shows. We typically don’t use set lists and decide the next song as we go. We like to cater to each audience and honour their requests. It’s fun for them and artistically interesting for us to play as much material as we can without too many repeats. We made a list of our repertoire and with over 700 titles we can do days without playing a number twice! Each person in the band came from different backgrounds and with this line up, we cover lots of ground!
You’re touring Ireland this week before two dates in Scotland and another five in England towards the end of the month. How do you find the audiences are over here, do they react differently from North American audiences?
We love being here in UK and Ireland. The similarity in instrumentation seems to help the audiences identify to the music we do. Some tunes are played on this side of the ocean but have different titles than us or a ballad we sing has another ten verses we were not aware of and that always makes up for good conversations! The crowds here in general are very respectful and really listen to the lyrics. But it doesn’t mean we don’t like a good rowdy crowd!!!
The Foghorn Stringband are at The CCA, Glasgow, Sunday 17th May at 8pm.
05/18/15 Edinburgh Traverse Theatre Bar
05/20/15 Newcastle Cluny2 Theatre – Jumpin Hot Club
05/21/15 Liverpool The Caledonia (Free show!)
05/22/15 London Kings Place
05/23/15 Kent Cajun Barn – King Charles Church Hall Tunbridge Wells Kent
05/24/15 Towersey (10 miles from Aylesbury) The Three Horseshoes
Full info here
Canada’s Brock Zeman has steadily pursued his career over the course of 11 albums, several of which we’ve featured on Blabber’n’Smoke or over on Americana UK. While he’s ranged musically from dusty ballads to hard-bitten country from album to album his lyrics have consistently impressed proving him to be a fine storyteller with a firm handle on vivid sketches of hard living and lovelorn regret. Pulling Your Sword Out Of The Devil’s Back maintains this standard and shows Zeman continuing to grow in confidence with several of the songs benefiting from additional instrumentation and tight, almost poppy arrangements which has led to the album getting several radio plays from UK Roots music radio shows.
The album opens with the feverish spoken word title song as Zeman describes his songwriting process with a passion. “I live in a house full of ghosts that just won’t let me be. I let ‘em in myself, but now I can’t get ‘em to leave. I’m haunted by love” before stating “It’s just heart to tongue, tongue to hand, blah, blah, blah, and struggle.” Referencing the song itself he says “there’s no chorus in this one it’s ugly and it’s wrong, there’s no melody so you won’t be able to sing along. No pretty little voice like the angels singing low pushed through pretty little lips in a pretty package wrapped up in a pretty little bow” The irony here is that for the remainder of the album Zeman wraps the songs in melodies, keyboards, strings and synths and even some female harmonies while the song itself blossoms from its initial guitar and violin cushion into a full blown anthemic thrash.
Walking In The Dark which follows is a fine demonstration of Zeman’s new found melodic sensibility as the song uncurls like a Springsteen drama with some sparkling guitars bouncing off of the slick beat. Zeman half speaks and the lyrics are full of neon lit street life images on a rumination of the revelations available to late night dog walkers. Sweat is a funky low rider of a song that sounds like Johnny Dowd backed by The Ohio Players with Zeman getting down and dirty on the vocals. In contrast Don’t Think About You Anymore is a string driven threnody while Some Things Stay is almost power pop with its insistent beat. Towards the end of the album Zeman pulls out two crackers. Little Details harks back to 1980’s rolled up cuffs and big quiffs on brat pack movies but does so with an attractive and pulverising insistence that draws the listener in. Dead Man’s Shoes also seems to be trapped back in the eighties but the template here is Elvis Costello and his excavations of sixties pop on Get Happy.
Zeman winds the album up with the flipside of the opening song. Instead of the writing process he enquires of the listener what they are listening to on their radio on Everybody Loves Elvis.
Overall Pulling Your Sword Out of The Devil’s Back is less immediate (and less rootsy) than Zeman’s previous work but its layerings and variety grow on you after a while and deserve some delving into.
2015 marks 30 years of Giant Sand, the protean band that has been the primary vehicle for Howe Gelb’s restless sonic journey over three decades. Through various incarnations from duo to 12 piece (aka Giant Giant Sand) Gelb has steered the band’s unique path and also found time to release solo albums and recordings under various names (including The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, OP8, and Arizona Amp & Alternator). Heartbreak Pass, released on New West Records on 4th May is the latest Giant Sand offering with Gelb explaining that the album is an attempt of sorts to celebrate the band’s twists and turns. “There are three volumes of 15 songs here representing living two lives for 30 years” adding “Don’t do the math. It doesn’t figure.” Featuring the current Giant sand line up along with contributions from artists scattered across the globe (Tucson, Portland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Bristol) much of the album was recorded at pit stops as Gelb criss crossed the Atlantic over the past year before being mixed by John Parish in Bristol. Over the course of the album Gelb is joined by the likes of Grant Lee Phillip, Steve Shelley, Jason Lytle, Maggie Bjorklund, Sacri Cuori and The Voices Of Praise Gospel Choir. Gelb was back in Bristol earlier this month for a preview showing of another project he’s involved with, Out Of The Desert, a documentary of the last Giant Giant Sand tour filmed by Peter Triest. We managed to hook up with Howe by telephone as he travelled back to London by train the day after the screening. Despite a poor connection and a lot of background noise Howe began by talking about the film screening the previous night.
It was really good, it went down well. It was a preview, testing to see the audience reaction….how well it’s coming along. He’s (Peter Triest) put it all together with his own money, his own investment before he does a kickstarter or whatever you do now to finish it properly, get a final edit. The first half of last night was me doing a solo set with John Parish on drums and the second half was the film screening. It’s a film of the tour we last did with the big band and then there’s my narration over it. He took excerpts of me reading my tour journal, each passage relating to a show. Now he has to see how it works, maybe trim it down a little bit. I think if he wants it to have a broader scale he needs to make it a film that doesn’t just preach to the choir. I think it’s a hard job to make a film like this entertaining.
Heartbreak Pass is being billed as a celebration of 30 years of Giant Sand. Was that in your mind when you were recording it?
Well I think it was in my mind in the way that I was thinking of how much time I’ve put into it, how much time has passed. I don’t think it’s obvious but I was trying to assemble it with material that warrants three decades, I didn’t want to put in stuff like I did in the beginning. Back then I would put in stuff that was unwarranted so to speak, more playful. I didn’t mind killing time, wasting some time to go to battle with the eighties for example but now I have a shorter story to tell, it’s more to the point
The album was recorded in several locations, often as you passed through on tour.
Yeah, I think that’s the natural way to do things. It might make a lot of sense to just spend two weeks in a studio to make an album, it worked maybe many years ago but I don’t see the merit in it now. That’s the beauty of it, recording wherever you are lets you capture the lightning bugs in the jar at the moment they’re around.
Yeah, those little insects that light up in the night, fireflies. The songs are the fireflies and the album’s the jar.
I get a sense in some of the songs on the album that it’s describing you as a global traveller, missing out on things like family, kids growing up etc. Is it time to do less of the travelling and spend more time at home?
Well the thing is you can’t afford the family without going to work so this is the impossible nature of trying to this… this particular job. It’s a job without retirement or security so all I can do is reflect on the impossible nature of it, not with regret or even celebration that it happened at all or that I’ve been able to do it for thirty years and that three children can be raised up. I think I’m able to pause and consider all the ramifications but at the same time I don’t think I’m ever that obvious in my lyrics, I understand what those songs are about but the listener can just take from them whatever they need
Do you see yourself then as being on some never ending tour, a bit like Dylan?
Well I think he stands as a symbol for just being around so long. I think he decided to just stay on the road to keep him from going senile. If you’re forced to be sharp by staying on the road then with that kind of challenge then you’re not going to get dementia. I think he needs it for an exercise. For me, I’ve taken the blue collar route. You have to tour in order to make a living, I enjoy it more than ever but you have to recognise that travel takes its toll but then if I worked in construction I’d have congested lung.
You spent much of last year on tour with Grant Lee Phillip
Yeah, we just finished a couple of days ago in Florence, Italy, after a year of doing it. We’ve talked about getting together again to record some songs.
Talking of Italy, Sacri Couri appear on one of the songs on the album.
Yeah on that song, Hurtin’ Habit. Well I was in Italy and I just started to write it and they were there so they helped me out.
Getting back to the 30 years anniversary I noticed that at SXSW you joined up with some previous collaborators, The Psycho Sisters, Winston Watson and Scott Gerber. How does it feel when you’re catching up with folk like that from the distant past?
Well life gets so crowded that you can’t spend as much time or at least the time you would want to with people you’ve met along the way. Like with Winston, it was so great to play with him again, it feels so familiar but it gives you a new pulse.
Can I ask you about Lonna Beth Kelley who does a wonderful job on the vocals on Pen To Paper?
Lonna and I have been very good friends for a long time. I adore her, I love her voice and the way she carries a song.
The album’s out in May and I believe you’re coming back to the UK to play some shows with Giant Sand. In May we’re touring through Europe, Switzerland, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. We’ve got some UK dates lined up in June . Liverpool, I’ve never been to Liverpool so it’ll be good to be there. The others are at The Brudenell Social Club, a great venue in Leeds and Union Chapel in London, one of my favourite places.
With that Howe’s train sped on and we gave up battling with the onboard announcements. Since then Giant Sand have been confirmed to play at The End Of The Road Festival in September. Heartbreak Pass is released on 4th May on New West Records and the progress of the film Out Of the Desert can be followed on its Facebook page
Spiral Road, the impressive debut album from Canadian Suzanne Jarvie has been universally lauded since its release in April. Compared by many to Emmylou Harris Jarvie delivers sweet country rock, lilting ballads and lowering country funk over the course of the disc’s 10 songs. The heady mix of Hammond organ, pedal steel and crunchy guitars on Never Gonna Stop is just short of monumental while Tears Of Love with its keening melancholy buoyed up by a joyful country arrangement would be right at home on Emmylou’s Pieces Of The Sky album, indeed it sounds as if it were written by a metaphysical Dolly Parton.
Jarvie, whose day job is as a criminal defence attorney, began to write these songs in the aftermath of a family tragedy, her son in a coma after a head injury. His road to recovery unlocked a creativity in Jarvie. While she had always dabbled in music she found herself “in a feverish fit of writing” until her songs were heard by producer Hugh Christopher Brown who eventually helmed the album setting Jarvie’s songs in crystalline and sparkling arrangements. The result is a triumph, a testament to the human spirit, uplifting, sad yet joyous with lyrics that recall the cosmic mysticism of Mike Nesmith and Gene Clark.
Ms. Jarvie is currently in the UK preparing for her first European appearances, several dates in the Netherlands throughout May. Prior to this she’s taping a session for Barry Everett’s House Of Mercy radio show and on Thursday 7th May has a free show (with Lynne Hanson) in West Hampstead, London, laid on by Locally Sourced, details here. Just arrived in London and battling jet lag Suzanne was kind enough to answer a few questions from Blabber’n’Smoke.
Spiral Road has been unanimously praised in review after review here in the UK and the continent. Do you read the reviews and if so did you recognize yourself in them? Yes and no. Sometimes it’s like reading about a stranger who is living the dream I wanted but could never quite reach. I do ask myself, who is the person who wrote those songs. Are they mine? Other times I recognize the artist in myself that was silent all these years, (thanks Tori Amos) which feels like a homecoming. Especially given my years working and developing as a litigator. There’s an element of poetry in advocacy, and I see now how that’s the well I was always drawing from. The realization of an artistic longing in a way that has integrity and honesty. Also, my son’s accident, which was the catalyst for these songs, was almost 4 years ago, so that experience is somewhat misted over, at least in terms of emotional immediacy. Sometimes because of that I feel detached from the reviews, which I am incredibly grateful for. They reflect so much on the amazingly collaborative aspect of the work and I am deeply honored by the response.
This is your first album, written as you say after your son’s accident. Prior to that were you playing music, singing anywhere or writing songs? It seems astonishing that an album as assured as this wasn’t in gestation for some time. I have been playing and singing for years, but until this record, not creatively. When I was much younger I played the role of musical mimic. Even when I tried to write, which was almost never, it was either something contrived or hopelessly mawkish and 16 year old school girl diary-ish. While I had a deep longing to be more and do more creatively, I don’t think I even understood what that meant. I did not know then that creativity does not come from the mind per se. Similar to the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ problem. My son’s accident turned off my mind completely for a while and suddenly there was tremendous room. When the mind is quiet – a sudden awareness that something else is present. So I think the unformed essence of the record had been gestating for ages, but the trauma of the accident opened the door and fertilized the material. Getting a bit reproductive here.
Hugh Christopher Brown says that a friend of his told him about you, he heard you and was somewhat blown away which led to him producing the album. How much of a role did he have in the musicians who play with you, did you know some of them or did Chris open up his phonebook and call in some folk? Chris’ role cannot be overstated. I had a couple of good friends who I wanted to play on the record, but other than that I had no one. No band and songs which had stripped down arrangements. I had general ideas about sonics but no specifics on how to achieve them. Chris has a pretty orchestral vision and a wide circle of wonderfully talented musician friends – so we built the record in layers, largely based on his various waves of inspiration regarding who to call on (like the Homes Bros., the Abrams Bros., Mickey Raphael, Tony Scherr etc).
While a couple of the songs (2458, Angel Of Light and Wait For Me in particular) can be seen to be about your children’s’ illnesses the remainder of the songs are highly allusive with you singing about stars, the universe, molecules and such. There are references to Navajo tradition and Enola Gay tackles nuclear destruction with powerful imagery without descending into an anti bomb diatribe. Having had some time to listen again to the album and study the words I’m wondering what authors or poets (or songwriters) might have been an influence here. My influences are elusive. Some days I think Dark Side of the Moon, some days Gillian Welch, other days Joni Mitchell, or Tolkien or Jung. Some days I know it is meditating on death (I don’t mean that morbidly). It’s like trying to identify a spice in a dish made by someone else. I know it’s “my” imagination, but it doesn’t feel like that when it’s doing its thing. I had a transcendent experience because of my son’s accident. Something about that finally allowed me to draw on my influences without being a mimic, but also without being able to definitively identify them either. Maybe that’s the whole point!
I see that in the liner notes you credit Dylan Thomas, J.K. Rowling, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas for inspiration. Care to elaborate on this?
My imagination is a pretty thick soup of science fiction, Victorian literature, escapist fantasy, children’s classics and random poets whose work hit me hard, like Dylan Thomas and Phillip Larkin. I like the high brow low brow mix up too. All four of my kids have a similar penchant, and so together we have spent hundreds of hours reading and watching the Harry Potter stories, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars etc. I got pretty wrapped up in the recurring metaphors and archetypes. I wonder at the endless capacity for the human imagination to reinvent themes relating to corruption and redemption. I hate clichés, but the question of hope’s endurance and resilience is mysterious and inspiring. When everything is getting pulverized it appears and guides, like the deluminator orb! How is that? Also, passivity versus the emotionally active life. The universe really does want you to go tearing down the street after your dreams. When you do, it will give you tail wind. I think Never Gonna Stop and Enola Gay contain those themes. Spiral Road for example, is partly inspired by my experiences with the Navajo and partly by the Tales of Beadle the Bard, J.K. Rowling’s story within the story. As for Dylan Thomas, it’s something about Fern Hill. I read that poem for the first time at age 15 and found it emotionally devastating. It’s never left me. Ultimately what you know about mortality in the abstract is irrelevant. Fern Hill gave me that epiphany on mortality, through art. I think about that all the time, about the existential power and fundamental role of art and artists.
You’re playing a few dates in the UK and The Netherlands in May. Is this your first time in Europe? Will you be playing solo or with a band? This is my first time in Europe and I am beyond thrilled. Chris Brown is touring with me, so we will perform the tunes as a duo. In addition to his awesome keyboard stylings he gets to work his falsetto on the harmonies!
So, if you’re in West Hampstead tomorrow night you know where to go. In the meantime there’s the album to enjoy, guaranteed to astonish and delight.