Last month, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, the Canadian husband-wife duo of singer-songwriters performing under the banner of Whitehorse, released Leave No Bridge Unburned (iTunes, Amazon & Spotify), a follow up to their romantic 2012 album The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. The pair’s latest collection continues the theme of adventurous songwriting that won them attention from the beginning, but its amplified this go round. And the album layers in percussion and guitar riffs to create a sense of seduction and mystery – like something you’d typically find at the opening of a Bond movie. This is especially true in the album’s first single, “Sweet Disaster,” which tells the tale of one rich man’s quest to send a couple to Mars. I recently caught up with Melissa and asked all about that.
“Sweet Disaster” and a few other tracks on the new album feel like they could soundtrack a Bond movie. Is that a vibe that you were going for?
I think the Bond vibe has always been present in our music – mostly because of Luke’s approach on his Gretch White Falcon, and maybe because of the keys and tempos of our songs. We worked with producers for the first time on this record (Gus Van Go & Werner F) and they wanted to extract more of this sound from our music by adding big, epic drums, certain reverbs and allowing for a ton of space in the production.
The original demo is more of a lilting country song and [Gus] injected some Zombies in there, as well as the Bond spy vibe. He really took it to a whole new place, but ultimately made it sound more like Whitehorse than the original demo.
A rich man’s quest to send a couple to Mars? Where’d that idea come from?
I unintentionally scrambled two news stories together. One is a nonprofit in the Netherlands looking for two astronauts to launch into space on a one way journey to Mars where they will live out the rest of their days. The other is the hunt for an average couple who will be hurled into space with the intention of returning (hopefully!). I loved the idea of this ‘all or nothing’ journey to unchartered territories. I like to think of this as some kind of epic metaphor for the way Luke and I live our lives. It’s ultimately a love song & an ode to our journey, as we navigate our way through an uncertain universe.
I love the video, which only continues the Bond vibe.
We filmed the video eight weeks after we had a baby. I was in a state of extreme and constant hormonal fluctuation and my entire paradigm had shifted. This was the first time Luke and I had done anything ‘Whitehorse’ in months – and here we were suddenly singing this love song to each other. Our baby was 10 feet away from us watching us perform and I couldn’t seem to get through a verse without becoming a mess of tears. Unfortunately it wasn’t a Sinead O’Conner crying performance and it didn’t make it into the final cut.
Whitehorse tours the Southeast this week, with a show at The Basement in Nashville on Thursday, another in Memphis on Friday and hits Birmingham on Saturday before heading to Texas for SXSW.
Q&A: Jerry Douglas on Flatt and Scruggs, Poppy Bluegrass & The Earls of Leicester’s NYC Show Tonight at BB King Blues
Tonight, The Earls of Leicester, the bluegrass supergroup assembled, organized and produced by veteran Dobro master Jerry Douglas, will perform at BB Kings in Manhattan. Coming off of their Grammy win for the Best Bluegrass Album, the band will perform songs off of their self-title debut (iTunes, Amazon, Spotify) comprising of 14 tunes lifted from the sacred Flatt and Scruggs songbook.
While the core Earls – Shawn Camp on lead vocals and guitar, renowned Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman on banjo and guitars, fiddler Johnny Warren, the son Fiddlin’ Paul Warren of Flat and Scruggs, and Barry Bales, Douglas’ longtime bandmate in Alison Krauss and Union Station, on vocals and bass – are playing songs that pop up at all kinds of bluegrass gatherings, Douglas says that he’s wanted to organize a project with this material his whole life.
He witnessed the awe of Flatt and Scruggs, in concert for the first time at the age of seven. Fifty years later – with 14 Grammys to his name and a reputation of the most in-demand Dobroist in the world – Douglas says that vivid memory is still with him and he wants the younger generation of bluegrass fans – those fans that were converted by the skilled yet progressive acts like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Old Crow Medicine Show or even poppy bands lacking instrumental greatness – to experience this music first hand.
I caught up with Jerry this week and asked him about that.
You’ve said that you’ve wanted to pursue a project like this for a long time. Did you always have these guys in mind? How did you go about assembling this all-star crew?
I didn’t have this particular crew in mind when I began assembling the idea for such a band as the “Earls”. This all happened over a matter of years. Every time I played with either Johnny Warren or Charlie Cushman though, the idea would float back to the top though. Those instruments are, I believe, the core of this group.
Any magic you can share about the production of this album? How’d you walk the line to maintain that classic feel while adding a bit of freshness?
We tried to use a combination of recording techniques for this project. For instance, a microphone setup known as the Decca Tree was used. Three microphones in a triangle, one in the front, and two in the rear create an audio image with depth that was a common to the era when Flatt and Scruggs made their landmark recordings. All these microphones were of a matched type. In this case, Neumann M50’s, a very rare microphone, were used along with several other old RCA 77 Ribbon mics. This type of recording requires the player or singer to walk into an area instead of staying next to one microphone to capture their performance. You can literally hear/see the choreography of the band this way.
A good portion of younger bluegrass fans today were drawn into the genre by more progressive bluegrass acts – even some that you’ve been a part of – and don’t know these legendary songs. What’s it been like for you to put a throwback album out in an environment like this?
That is exactly the reason I wanted to put this group together and record it. Part of the mission of this group is to re-establish the impact The Foggy Mountain Boys had on this genre. Their songs are played often, but not with the spirit of their original form, and so often I hear them performed with their corners worn off. Lester Flatt was a singer in the league of the big band singers of the 40’s and 50’s who sang the entire melody, not leaving out important nuances that were important to the song. I believe Shawn Camp is also in this league and can rehabilitate some of the habits that have been taken up by young singers. So often we have phenomenal young instrumentalists, but less time put into singing, which is so important in furthering the music we all love.
Do you worry about the future of bluegrass or get frustrated when you see poppy bluegrass and less skilled instrumentalists winning a lot of attention? Do you think it’s a fad or has it always been this way?
I have no problem with anyone getting attention with an individual prowess on instruments, or adopting influences from other genres. That is an important way for any music to grow. There is room for everyone and they will find out what works for them or not. It’s very flattering to hear someone use my techniques, especially when I see promise in the journey of a young player. What I want is for them to use whatever they need to find their own voice.
Bluegrass was happened upon after a long list of trials and errors. Some probably were hoping we were a fad too.
What can we expect to see tonight at BB King’s in Manhattan? Will you perform the album straight up or will you mix in other songs? Who is performing for the show? While Tim O’Brien joined the band for the album, I know he’s had some conflicts with tour dates.
When the Earls of Leicester plays BB’s in Manhattan we will attack the songs on the record like the first time we played them, and we will add many songs that are not on the record. We are all having a blast reconnecting with these songs and presenting a musical and entertaining show. Frank Solivan, who has a huge buzz going with his band Dirty Kitchen, from the DC area, is singing tenor and playing the mandolin with us on this leg of the tour.
Tim opening that slot with the Earls has given us an added bonus of bringing in some ringers like Frank, Shawn Lane from Blue Highway, and Jeff White, who has been playing with the Chieftains, Alison Krauss’ early Union Station, and singing tenor vocals with Vince Gill for years. We have enjoyed working with each of them and showing our audiences different views of these guys. The connecting thread with all of them is the love of being raised listening to the same music each of us was brought up with and exploring it all over again.
Earlier this week, Andrew Combs released All These Dreams (iTunes, Amazon & Spotify), his new album that includes backing from lead guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel guitarist Spencer Cullum Jr. of the fantastic Bond-like Nashville instrumental duo Steelism. While Combs worked with Fetzer and Cullum on previous projects, this latest album easily represents his best work yet.
A departure from some of the Jennings-like classic country throwbacks that we’ve seen come out of Nashville as of late, the album features songs like “Nothing to Lose” that tip the hat to more of an Orbison style. While other tracks maintain an old school vibe, they venture into pop and classic rock tunes. The album is brilliantly produced by Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson, and mixes Combs’ authentic songwriting with stellar solos by his backing band. Check out a few of my favorite tracks off the album below. Hopefully we’ll see Combs popup on the Newport lineup in the next few weeks.
On February 24th, Jacksonville-based JJ Grey & Mofro will release their seventh studio album, Ol’ Glory (Amazon, WSJ Speakeasy). Hailing from the same hometown as The Allman Brothers, Grey and his band have taken their blend of soulful blues and southern rock around the world for more than a decade. They’ve been grouped in all kinds of genres, but have mostly been defined by Grey’s down-home songwriting and stand out voice – not to mention Mofro’s massive stage presence on the festival circuit. While the band’s sound falls somewhat outside of the normal parameters of this blog, it’s that voice, that stage presence and the authenticity of album that really drew me in.
This Saturday, Grey & Mofro perform at Terminal 5 with Marc Broussard. I chatted with JJ by phone from his home a few weeks back about the new album and upcoming show.
You’ve previously talked a lot about the way your hometown and the land you live on come through in your writing. How did that play out on Ol’ Glory?
I think it shines through in its own way and its own time. It effects me whether I realize it or I don’t – even if I’m not even singing about it. A song like “The Island” is about a place right near my home that I love. And then the song, “The Hurricane,” is about standing outside and seeing it happen. It’s kind of like, you can feel the wind but you can’t see it. I think this place does that to you – every aspect of my life. I’m breathing it in and it’s always affecting me.
More specifically, I put the deer and the persimmon tree on the album cover with the sun behind it. For me, that was my own little ode to this place…and life itself. There’s this glory shining through all of these things and speaking to me – as long as I’ve got my ears open.
It seems like this album captures the experience of your live performances better than your previous records. Why do you think that is?
I think it does a little bit more. Not to sell everything else I’ve done short, because that wouldn’t be true either, but this feels more lived in. In the past, I’d go into the studio with my songs demoed and I’d sent the songs to all the musicians. This time i revisited my tunes over and over during the sessions – something that normal people do that aren’t lazy like I was. Sometimes when I listen to some of my older stuff, I think, “damn, I wish I could re-record that.”
My friends that are the biggest fans of yours are all jam band kind of folks. Is that representative of your fan base or is it broader?
This might sound self-serving, but it’s honestly a lot broader. I’ve never had any experience with the jam world. I put out Blackwater, my first record, with Dan Prothero at Fog City Records and he was working Galactic, which isn’t really a jam band either, but we both were invited to play were at those types of festivals. I still have never figured out what a jam band is, but do think there are jam fans.
When I signed with Alligator we instantaneously became a blues act. I had never had anyone call us a blues act. They had said we were bluesy, but that’s it. Everybody’s got an idea of what something is and it’s all personal. I feel like tomorrow if I sign with a big time indie rock label – and it’s way to late for that and that’s not going to happen anyway – but if we became Pitchfork darlings then we’d be an indie rock band.
This happens to all bands. Everyone tries to figure out what they’re listening to so they can describe it to their friends. That’s fair enough. I don’t mind either way.
Are you doing the same thing you’ve always done? Do you feel like your genre has changed over the years?
No. I’m not into genres. I don’t set out to sound like one genre. It’s just like talking. I just open my mouth and talk. I don’t try to make it more funky or bluesy. I just do it.
How do you like playing New York?
I love it. The first time I went there I felt like Levon Helm in “The Last Waltz.” You go into New York, get your ass kicked and leave so it heals up, then you come back and eventually you fall in love with it. When I visit, I can feel the electricity in between people and in the life there.
The first time I played New York was on my first tour back in 1990 and it was a different place. I was a really young kid. It was rough. I didn’t mind the grit and dirt, but it wasn’t fun for someone who had never been to a big city. Later I moved to London and got used to to the city and being around people. Now I can come to New York and relax and I love being there.
Marc Broussard is opening up for you on this tour. That’s a lot of soul for one stage. Have you guys crossed paths before?
We’re really good friends. We do Southern Soul Assembly together with Anders Osborne and Luther Dickenson where we just get in a circle with our acoustic guitars and go around each playing our songs, and tell stories about each of the songs.
The first time we did that, I’d never heard Marc live. When I heard him, I was floored. I told him that he was the best singer I’d ever been on stage with. I mean, he can sing. So, he’s joining us at Terminal 5, then a show in Boston and then we’re touring Europe with us.
On Thursday, Charlottesville native and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Carl Anderson plays The Living Room in Williamsburg, opening up for Mary Bragg. Typically performing alongside his wife, Ellen, Anderson is a songwriter that has been celebrated in folk circles for his deeply honest storytelling – a trend that continues with the release his sophomore full length album Risk of Loss, which is due out in April and follows his 2012 debut, Wolftown.
With an early listen of the new album, I was drawn in with “Hurricane Wind” – a song that Anderson wrote two years ago when he was going through a rough patch. “I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere with my music, I had no money and was feeling pretty discouraged about everything,” he told me in an email. “It’s a simple gospel number that came to me at a time when I was feeling hopeless. I wrote it to try and lift myself up and to this day, the song encourages me to keep going, to keep doing what I love even though it can be hard as Hell.”
Anderson said the song took on a new life when his band hit the studio to record the album. “I had first imagined it with just guitar and voice and some light instrumentation, but when my drummer kicked in with that beat the whole vibe changed. For the first time I put down my guitar and just focused on capturing a really honest vocal performance.”
Catch both Carl and Ellen at The Living Room on Thursday at 7PM. Tickets are $10.
Kristin Andreassen traveled the world her previous projects Uncle Earl and Sometymes Why, but this year the Brooklyn artist embarked on the first headlining tour supporting her solo work. The tour is timed with the release of Gondolier (Amazon), Andreassen’s first solo album in six years, which similarly ventures into new territory than her prior work with its songs that cross throwback old time with more modern and adventuresome folk. Due out on February 17th, the album, stunning both lyrically and musically, features accompaniments by an all-star cast from New York’s bluegrass and folk scene, including Aoife O’Donovan and Ruth Ungar Merenda (Mike + Ruthy) on backing vocals, as well as Chris Eldridge & Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), Jefferson Hamer, Alec Spiegelman and others in the backing band.
I caught up with Andreassen over the weekend to get the skinny on the new album and more.
You’ve had a bunch of great projects since your last solo album, but was there anything holding you back from putting out a follow up?
Great question. I think there are two answers. The simple one is Miles of Music Camp. I started this all-ages music camp five years ago, and while it’s been incredibly rewarding, it definitely took my focus away from my own music career. To be completely honest, If I’d known how much work it would be, I probably wouldn’t have done it! But now, the camp is doing well so I have some free time again, and it turns out that the people I met through camp are some of my biggest supporters in putting this new album out. Being a part of this community is now giving me lots of energy to create again, and in that sense I think I’ve spent this break exactly how I was meant to.
The second answer is a little more complicated and psychological. I’ve always loved writing and recording, but the truth is I’ve been ambivalent about promoting myself as a solo artist and band leader. My bands Uncle Earl and Sometymes Why ran their course around 2009, and while my first album was doing pretty well on the radio, I knew exactly how much work it is to launch a solo career and I just wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted.
Then Robin MacMillan came to me about two years back and convinced me that I was hoarding songs and I just needed to record and share them with people. He wanted me to do it for the sake of making art, with no specific timeline for releasing an album. That sounded easy enough, and we slowly created the core of these recordings. Eventually, I thought “Yeah, I would like to share this music with people. That would be fun.” That’s why I thank Robin more than anyone else involved in this project. He really helped me get past the question of “Why?” and instead just ask “What should it sound like?”
You wrote most of the songs for Gondolier on an island in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee – the site for your annual Miles of Music Camp. Why’d you choose to make that your writing place?
So actually, it worked the other way around! First I was invited to this magical island for a writing retreat with about a dozen other songwriters from Boston (I had just moved from Boston to Brooklyn at the time). My dear friend Laura Cortese and I were both on that retreat, and as soon as we saw the island, we said, “this is where we should start a camp!”. So we did. But I still get to go to the same island each year for a week before Miles of Music Camp to write with these friends. We call ourselves the Sub Rosa Collective because initially we were all involved in a sort of underground open mic curated by the great songwriter Rose Polenzani. Session Americana’s Dinty Child was a part of that scene, and he also happens to be the off-season manager for the island, so he brought us all up there. I write there now because of peer pressure!
While there isn’t a title track on this album, you reference a gondolier on “The Boat Song” – a song that seems to be about destiny and navigating a world of choices to find the life we desire. Is that about right? Is that theme threaded throughout this album?
Um, yes. I think my dad is still wondering why I’m not a journalist. People who worked with me as a community economic development facilitator in Cape Breton are no doubt baffled that somehow I’m making my living as a singer-songwriter. And when I’m hustling the load-in after a long drive to some crazy gig, I’m definitely thinking about both of those alternate paths. Isn’t this true for most of us? Fate or choice could have brought us to a very different place.
That idea is all over this album for sure. “The Fish and The Sea” is about realizing what you have when you don’t have it anymore. “The New Ground” is about the sacrifices that are necessary for new opportunities to emerge. “Lookout” is about how time is the one true enemy army. Yeah, I think you hit on one of the central themes for these songs and, not surprisingly, for me as I was asking the question “How did I get here?!” (except The Talking Heads already nailed that song so I had to write different ones).
Many of those playing with you on the album are your closest friends in New York. What sort of impact does that have on a project with your name on it?
I just feel grateful and honored first that I have so many talented friends, and second that they would be willing to lend their skills to my songs.
What was it like having your boyfriend, Chris “Critter” Eldridge, perform on and serve as executive producer of this album?
This album wouldn’t be what it is without Critter’s work. He didn’t have an official title till the moment I was typing the liner notes and I realized he’d put in as many hours as any of us. He heard every rough mix and, in addition to playing guitar on several songs, he also played the critical role of telling me when the recording was done and when it wasn’t. When you start a recording project that’s as open-ended as this one was, it can be very hard to find the end! So Critter had important suggestions all along the way, from tiny details (he edited several tracks on his laptop while on the bus with Punch Brothers) to the biggest picture of choosing which songs should go on the record and which to leave behind. I’m beyond grateful.
The other person that can’t go without mentioning is Lawson White, who produced and played drums on “The New Ground”, “Some Do” and “‘Simmon”. I brought Lawson in to finish these three songs last spring when Robin got especially busy with other projects. I couldn’t have called anyone better, and Lawson just poured his soul into these tracks. He’s got incredible ears and so much soul. He really seemed to get the music and I couldn’t have finished the album without him.
Also, Alec Spiegelman! His woodwind arrangements add a layer of spice to your live performances that are pretty hard to replicate without Alec Spiegelman. Are you taking that kid on the road? Who else is hitting the road with you?
Alec arranged these gorgeous trio parts for bass clarinet, clarinet and flute. He’s a totally brilliant musician and ton of fun to play with live so yeah, he’s playing with me as much as he can! We just got back from this crazy radio tour playing Mountain Stage, Woodsongs, Music City Roots and a few more shows as a quartet with Alec filling the bass role with the clarinet and also Jefferson Hamer (guitar and harmony vocals) and Rosie Newton (fiddle and harmony vocals). That band is both rocking and pretty unusual in its instrumentation.
For these official CD Release shows coming up (Northampton, Boston, NYC) I’ll bring the full album band which includes Jacob Silver (bass) and Robin MacMillan (drums) plus Alec, Jefferson and some chicks on the harmony vocals. Aoife will sing in NYC. Ellie Buckland, Isa Burke and Mali Obomsawin (three awesome ladies I met when they were campers at Miles of Music) will sing in Boston and open the show with their new band The Wiles.
In April, I’m touring on the west coast as a duo both with Chris Eldridge and with Jon Neufeld (of the band Black Prairie). Planning a Colorado tour in May with my old Uncle Earl bandmate and friend KC Groves on bass!
I’m working on the summer now. It’ll include some fun festivals with various combinations of the above cast. (Got a gig for us? Gimme a ring!).
How long do we have to wait for the next one?
Way fewer than six years.
Check out Andreassen’s calendar for tour dates, including a number of Concert Window shows. One unlisted here is her House of Love show in Red Hook, Brooklyn. For a taste of her live performances, here are a few vids of a session I caught in the Pewter House at last year’s Summer Hoot.
Q&A: Mipso on Carolina Bluegrass, Their Forthcoming Album & Show This Sunday at NYC’s Mercury Lounge
Chapel Hill-based string band and gcb favorite Mipso recently wrapped up the recording of their sophomore album – a follow up to their 2013 debut, Dark Holler Pop. While the band is pretty tight-lipped on the timing and details on the new album, I caught up with them this week in advance of their performance at the Mercury Lounge on Sunday with Brooklyn’s Jus Post Bellum to see what I could get out of them. Here’s what I got.
You are the only band that has played my backyard. What has this done for your career?
Libby Rodenbough: Let me put it this way: We’re still driving around in a minivan with a broken DVD player and no interior lighting.
Classy. You’ve had quite a ride since you graduated from UNC and then almost immediately released Dark Holler Pop in the Fall of 2013. What’s been the most exciting or surprising thing from the last year or so?
Libby: The biggest surprise for me personally has been that I got a job, right out of college, without so much as a summer on my parents’ couch. Although, since then I have spent a lot of time on a lot of people’s couches. And it’s a pretty fun job, at that! I don’t want to get too schmaltzy on you, but I think the guys would agree that it is continually surprising and exciting to be doing what we’re doing for a living.
Joseph Terrell: Yes, definitely that. Bringing Libby on full time has helped us keep honing in on what we sound like. Also one especially gratifying moment was playing UNC-Chapel Hill’s 1,400-seat performing arts theater, Memorial Hall, with the Steep Canyon Rangers last fall. We’ve seen people like Bela Fleck and Merle Haggard on that stage while students at UNC, so it was surreal to walk out there ourselves. And actually have people clap for us.
While people rightly hold Carolina bluegrass of yesteryear on a pedestal, you’re a part of a pretty strong community of great modern string musicians around North Carolina’s Research Triangle – many of whom are playing more progressive material. What’s your take on the scene there?
Libby: It feels like a great time to be making music in North Carolina. Actually some of the bands we most look up to live right in our neighborhood. We love Chatham County Line. And Andrew and Emily from Mandolin Orange are close friends—we really look up to them. And they live three blocks from Joseph! There’s one of my favorite songwriters ever, Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Cook brothers of Megafaun fame, the Rangers…that list goes on and on.
Joseph: There’s definitely a sense of collaboration rather than competition. Andrew Marlin is the lynch-pin of the acoustic crew around here. He’s always organizing a jam or a one-off show. And folks respect and admire the early greats like Earl Scruggs, or whoever else, but no one is enforcing an exclusive, preservationist mindset, either. I think it goes back to Doc Watson’s idea of “traditional plus,” which is a pretty good description of what we’re going for.
While I know you can’t dive into the details of the album yet, what can we know about what’s to come? Any details for the good people?
Joseph: Here’s sort of a spoiler. “Dark Holler Pop” was very much us, but it was pretty bluegrassified. It was our main course with a bluegrass garnish, if that makes sense. Guest fiddlers and three-finger banjos. While making this record we talked more about old time as a reference. It’s rhythmically tight. It prioritized simple melodies rather than flashy breaks. Libby’s fiddle playing helped take us in that direction. Andrew Marlin produced the record, and he’s is featured on clawhammer on most tracks. But it doesn’t sound old or stripped down, either. Some of them are just…lush, layered, big pop songs.
Libby: Not exactly Tommy Jarrell meets Prince, though. That would be blasphemous.
You guys have gotten behind a number of causes in the last year with benefit shows. Are there some regular issues you’re getting behind or were those more one offs?
Joseph: We were proud that we did a show against Amendment One, which was the anti gay marriage bill in North Carolina. And we’ve done two big shows to raise money for female cancer patients in western North Carolina. Both things we care a lot about.
What are your set lists like these days? Mostly the old stuff or are you working in the new stuff? What can we expect to see at the Mercury Lounge?
Libby: These days we’re doing all the hits of yesteryear and trying out some new material, too. We have begun to refer to this phase as “guinea pigging.” If people throw tomatoes during one of the new ones, we might reconsider album inclusion. So please do bring your tomatoes Sunday.
You’re on the road a lot. What’s your favorite place to stop on the highway?
All Band Members in Unison: Sheetz.
Libby: The pretzel bun cannot be beat. At least for under $3.
Joseph: Yes, the classic Sheetz vs. Wawa debate. Sheetz wins. Hands down.
Tickets for Sunday’s show at the Mercury Lounge are still available. Here’s a video of the band performing “Louise,” a favorite off their debut, with Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin on banjo.