Ani DiFranco: A Righteous Mom Soldiers On

Ani DiFranco turns 47 a week before her Sept. 30 show at The NorVa.

She has a couple of kids, ages four and 10. They’ve radically changed her work life, though not in the ways you’d expect. She’s working on a memoir, chipping away at telling her past rather than writing anthems for the present. And she’s headed back out on the road after a summer with family at home in New Orleans.

Out there on the road, she still has plenty to say. “Binary,” her new album, is uncompromising (natch), powerful, and catchy. It’s among the best of her career. The song titles make clear what’s been on her mind: “Binary,” “Pacifist’s Lament,” “Deferred Gratification,” “Alrighty.” She wrote it before the election, but it could be a reaction to Nov. 8.

During a wide-ranging interview from her home in New Orleans, still suffering flooding from the summer rains, she talked about politics, of course, as well as her changing perspective on work. As always, words, her words, often spoken in a thoughtful torrent of ideas, form center stage.

Sit back and join the journey.

First up, “Binary,” her latest creation that surprised her with the discovery she could still write a line that made even her pause.

She sat down to write “Play God,” a demand for reproductive civil rights with the idea of doing something different, she says during a long, captivating interview.

“It started out…This is going to sound weird, because nobody could ever imagine what’s in my head, but I was listening to Missy Elliott tracks. And Muddy Waters. I just watched some documentary. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I could write a thudding, bragging song not typical for me, more typical in the hip hop world,” she says. “So that’s where I started. I was on my own at 16. Fuck you all…”

I was done at 16
Using my momma’s key
It was all on me
It was all on me
Weren’t no free rides
Weren’t no IOU’s
I pulled my weight, yeah
I paid my dues
And I showed up to enlist
On the first day of recruits

But then she was in a hotel room writing on tour and those things — the things that have weighed on her and made her a beacon for 25 years — began percolating. “The song mutated as I was writing into a reproductive freedom anthem,” she says. “I sort of leapt from taking care of myself since I was 16 so I’m not a dependent and should not be treated as such. I’m a full contributing member. I deserve all my civil rights. As a woman, my civil rights include reproductive freedom.”

Just leave this one thing to me
‘Cause I’m my brother’s keeper
Every chance I can
I pay my taxes
Like any workin man
And I feel I’ve earned
My right to choose
You don’t get to play God, man, I do

 

 

“I remember when I wrote the line ‘You don’t get to play god. I do.’ I stopped and I had one of those moments that I hadn’t had in years. Oh shit. Can I say this?” she says. “What’s going to happen to me? It kind of pleased me that I was having one of those moments again. I felt like that was a good sign.”

There are good signs throughout “Binary,” her 20th album and the first since 2014’s “Allergic to Water.”

DiFranco’s lyrics and statements get most of the attention, but she’s a songwriter without bounds. As usual on the new disc, she is a sonic shapeshifter, slipping from deep grooves to chamber folk to indie rock. She says it’s hard not to think about how the songs will sound on stage when she’s composing.

“So when I’m writing a poem like “Binary” the second thought in my head is how can I make this danceable so I can pull it out on stage so people will not be like this is five minutes of waiting for the next song,” she says. “Put a little groove behind it and you can get away with sending poems to the world and hopefully nobody will notice.”

Is she influenced by music she hears? What is she listening to these days?

“I guess I would say I’m not listening to a lot of stuff these days, once again the arrow pointing back to the kids,” she says. “I get to listen to whatever she’s listening to – my ten year old. Growing up with two musicians, luckily she knows some shit. Lately she has been absolutely obsessed with the “Hamilton” soundtrack. I have been too, I think it’s an amazing piece of work.”

She writes “from my spleen” and then takes the tunes in to her band. She’s more collaborative these days. “I never approached music with I want to make a track that emulates something I’ve heard. I tend to come from a more primary, primeval place,” she adds, laughing.

Primeval with the deep dive inspired by science. Listen to her talk about the title cut, “Binary.”

“I’m really interested in neuroscience, quantum physics, all the stuff that’s really beyond my ability to understand,” she says. “I take intuitively away from these things what I can and I have been really intrigued lately by approaching feminism from a scientific perspective. I find it really refreshing to talk about patriarchy, for instance, in terms of brain science. We have this masculine side of our nature, each of us. We have a feminine side, each of us. In balance, I think our species realizes its potential. Out of balance, we have eternally what we see around us, these kind of nagging social diseases. “

For DiFranco, having children has changed the balance of her work life, though, of course, not in the ways we often take for granted. For one thing, she’s been home for the summer “the proverbial kids out of school family break shit.”

“I do think my children had a pretty powerful effect, but it’s not really that sort of sort of archetypical perspective change that parents talk about like suddenly I’m worried about the future. That was always on my mind. I’ve been pretty politicized and worried about all of that,” she says.

“My kids had an almost opposite effect of wrenching me away from everything. The worry, the fun, my work. I’m fortunate enough that I live my work. Until I had kids I never had a reason to stop. I was just sort of on my hamster wheel of creating songs and driving around and playing them for people.”

“I think my kids forcing me off of my little treadmill gave me a measure of perspective of what I was doing or not doing,” she adds. “It forced me to infuse my process with a lot of patience and a lot more time. I think that improved and certainly informed my songwriting. I think it also affected my performance. I’m definitely in an era when I’m more grateful to be on stage. “

“There’s nothing like being a parent to make your love your job all over again.”

She says she probably would have eventually awakened. “I think I sort of squeezed my towel very dry on stage for many years and I made much too much of myself available to the public,” she notes. “I needed to step back a lot more than I did and fill the well like you say. I think the records I’m making these days are better in general.”

“I’m able to step back from a three day (recording) session for six months and realize what I did,” she adds. “Those six months never happened before kids for me.”

She’s learned to stop being that teenager who operated on her own, who did everything herself. Tchad Blake, who has worked with The Pretenders and Andrew Bird, produced the new album. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver lends a hand as well. “Now that I have a team of people who can do things better than me, I’ll never go back,” she says.

 

The focus of her work offstage these days is something only she can do. She’s been shaping a memoir. “It’s a little bit of a strange moment for me,” she says.


After the election, she started getting calls for an anthem for the times. It felt odd not to respond, but the book comes first.

“You can only create so much at any given time and also keep children alive and all that,” she says. “So I have not not been writing a lot of songs because I’m trying to make a book. Oddly it’s a book about the past. In the moment there’s a lot going on politically in the present to speak to, but I’m writing about the past. My hope is if i can finish this book somehow it will serve some purpose in this moment.”

What’s the difference between writing songs and writing a book?

“Kind of night and day,” she says. “Songwriting is like an event. You have to sort of position yourself with the sun and the moon and the moment and something comes through if you’re lucky. Writing (a book) so far I’m a novice, but it’s just like whittling. It’s almost like manual labor compared to a song. It’s just a daily chipping away at this slab of stone or hunk of wood and trying to retain the vision long enough to sculpt something.”

Stepping away has caused a reconsideration of her back catalog. She sat down recently to learn an old song, “Willing to Fight,” that seems right for her fall tour. What’s it like going back to those early tunes?

“It’s really, really painful,” she says. “I have so much regret about my recordings. I feel like a lot of decent songs got kind of fucked over in the recording studio by me and my choices…I had my own very tweaked-out destructive emotional self at the helm. So it’s really hard for me to listen back to recordings that sound kind of hysterical or shrill or haphazard. Every mistake that can be made in terms of sonic quality or performance or production, I’ve made them. It’s tough for me to go mining into my own history.”

DiFranco started writing songs when she was 14 and became emancipated at 15. She opened Righteous Babe Records while still a teen.

She seems born with something to say. What tugged and pulled and cajoled her into music instead or prose or poetry or some other form of art?

“From this vantage point I see music as the universal language of the right brain, the intuitive emotional part of our consciousness,” she says. “Words can take you only so far. The music can take you the rest of the way. The music can tell you what the words can’t.”

 

 

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St. Paul and the Broken Bones Go Deeper

stpaul2Jesse Phillips, the bass player and one of the songwriters for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, arrived home in Birmingham, Alabama, from a show in West Virginia about 7 on this morning. A couple of years into the band’s startling run as headliners, he says he still wakes up and has to normalize a life that includes appearing on late-night shows, opening for The Rolling Stones, getting a call asking it Steve Winwood can come to a show, and playing Elton John’s Oscar party.

The band burst into stardom when barely out of its infancy with “Half the City” and the hit single, “Call Me” in 2014 then returned with a more ambitious, funkier and more socially-conscious sophomore disc, “Sea of Noise.”

The new album explores deeper, stepping back to take a look at the environment, race relations, gender identity and other political themes.  Paul Janeway, the band’s lyricist, channels Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. He cites reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption — a memoir about systemic racial inequality in the Alabama legal system — as a pivotal moment while he was working on the album. He explores issues in the songs, but doesn’t offer solutions. “I can’t tell what side I’m on / I can’t tell what’s right or wrong / We ain’t ever gonna sing one song,” Janeway sings.

 The band’s career almost didn’t happen. Phillips and Janeway, the band’s lyricist and captivating front man, had decided to make music a hobby and find adult careers. They got together in the studio for fun and those sessions quickly led to the formation of the band, including a three-piece horn section that included a couple of guys still in college.

The group comes to The NorVa on Sept. 12. Phillips swatted away the morning-after cobwebs to answer a few questions.

You guys struggled and almost quit. Tell me about that.

It was one of those things. Like a lot of people do, I’d been playing in bands since I was 15. I was around 30 by this time. Paul hadn’t been doing this for quite as long as me. But it was getting to the point where we were looking at growing up and devoting our energy to most of things do, which is usually like a career of some sort and not playing in rock and roll bands. Neither one of us was looking at quitting music. We were just sort of turning our attention to another more grown-up things. Paul was in accounting school. I’m not sure what I would have done. I have a lot of family who work in forestry up north. I would have probably done that or gone to grad school and become a librarian.

Around the end of the other band Paul and I were in together, which was called The Secret Dangers, we decided to continue working together on a for-fun basis and go into a studio here in town. We started going in once a week with an engineer playing around. The idea was just to record a few things for fun to sort of have a document of our time together, our musical friendship. That recording project ended up turning into St. Paul which turned into a real functional band which turned into a touring entity which got alarmingly serious quickly and it just seems to keep going.

I read where you met in a record store. 

Not quite. I worked in a musical instrument store here in Birmingham. The way I met Paul was through another guy who worked at the store who was a drummer. He was playing with Paul at the time.

What kind of music were you playing in the early days?

I’ve always been in rock and roll leaning bands. Some were more blues-oriented. Some were more pop oriented. But they were always certifiably rock and roll. This band is probably the furthest away from being a straight up rock and roll band I’ve ever been in. It’s fun because you have so many voices to play with in the band. A three-piece horn section. Hammond organ. All sorts of stuff.

A band out of Alabama ought to have a soulful sound. You ever think about that legacy?

We’re very aware of it. A couple of guys in the band are natives of the Muscle Shoals area. The keyboard player lives next to the Muscle Shoals in the tri-cities area. The guitar player is from Florence. They’re pretty much straight out of that legacy. They’re the next generation of guys working in that world. I came at it as an outsider, but I think because I was an outsider in some way I almost appreciated more what was happening and what had happened there than people who grew up there because they sort of took it for granted.

I’m somebody who moves to Alabama and (finds) there’s this tiny town where you can throw a rock and you can hit a legendary musician who has played on more hits than songs you know how to play. A lot of those guys still hanging out up there and they’re pretty supportive. It’s a neat thing to be graciously incorporated into that although we have a lot of proving to do before we can ever be measured on the same scale as those guys.

How was that early sound different from now?

My standard line is early on we made up for what we lacked in finesse with effort. It was always balls to the wall playing with our pants on fire kind of vibe. The band still retains some of that intensity, but it’s a more well-oiled outfit these days. There’s a little more give and take, push and pull, not everybody has to be making racket all the time.

When we made that first record we had maybe played 12-15 shows. By the time we got to the second one we had played maybe 500 shows. So a pretty substantial difference how it feels to play together.

You are a bass player in that soul tradition.

I came by being an R&B bass player accidentally. All of a sudden, you find yourself in this position and you really start listening. I like guys like David Hood and Duck Dunn from Memphis and Muscle Shoals. They made sure all the notes they played were really good notes put in just the right place. They didn’t really play too many of them. That’s a really good lesson to learn. I’m clearly still not anywhere near any of those guy’s levels, but it’s been really cool to study what they’ve’ done and try to build on that.

Tell me about the songwriting. You and Paul?

It’s more of collaborative all-the-way-around-the-band thing these days.

I think the main concern for us going into the second record was we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to be perceived as a retro soul novelty act. We kind of wanted to spread our wings and fly and explore some different territory and maybe lean on some strengths in the band we didn’t have the opportunity to explore the first time.  By doing so you establish yourself as a different kind of musical entity. After releasing our second album we can go in a lot of different directions on the third, fourth and fifth one. if we had done the first record over again with slightly more resources or fidelity or whatever I think people would have liked it, but then that would sort of been the thing we did for all time, what people expected us to so. The parameters we had to operate under would be more solidly set in stone.

I read one review that called “Sea of Noise” protest soul. I’m not sure about that, but there’s a long tradition of socially-conscious soul.

There’s a real proud tradition of making more socially conscious music, but it’s still fun. It’s still butt-shaking.

Was there a song that for you crystallized where you were going with “Sea of Noise?”

I think my personal favorite is song called “I’ll Be Your Woman.” It started out as sort of a cross between a Bill Withers vibe with a William Bell “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” sort of thing. And then it kind of took on a life of its own once Paul had the lyrics down, bending identity and changing perspectives. I feel like it came together really well. All the elements I was hoping would gel on that record did so on that song. The string arrangement adds to it and it still has this heavy rhythmic thing on the bottom end. The lyrics are excellently done. I have to give Paul props on that one.

 That William Bell record from last year (“This Is Where I Live”) is incredible. 

That guy has not lost a single step. We played the Otis Redding 75th birthday in Macon last year and we got to back him up on a tune. As soon as the guy opens his mouth, it’s a whole different ballgame. He still sounds exactly the same. This low earthy rumble comes out of his mouth. It’s rich and silky. He should be ten times more famous than he is.

 You guys opened for The Stones. You played Elton John’s Oscar party. It’s been a wild ride.

It is a funny thing. I’ll tell you why. As I said. I’m one of older guys in the band. It (success) didn’t happen until I was in my 30s. The process of resolution when you’re a bit older is different.

I definitely have had that that moment in the last couple of years where I’ve woken up and been in bed getting my brain together for the day. Ok, this is what we’re going to do. You have to go through this normalization process. We’re opening for the Stones. We’re going to play Elton John’s Oscar party. Or we’re hanging backstage with John Paul Jones. Steve Winwood’s wife called me to ask if they could see us in Nashville. I was like, of course you can.

You do have to normalize and once you get through, you’re like ‘Holy shit that was crazy’ then allow yourself to bask in the afterglow a bit. It’s been pretty surreal for me. I’d been working music retail and coffee shops for last decade.
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Rhiannon Giddens Part of a Dynamic Funhouse Lineup

Before Rhiannon Giddens went to New Orleans to work on her stunning second solo disc, the former Carolina Chocolate Drops member visited Sing Sing in upstate New York as part of a program for artists working with prisoners.

“It hit me like a blow. I’ve read all the books, I know the population of prisons, but to walk in there and to see so many black faces — the visceralness of that, the result of centuries of institutionalized discrimination, all of that,” she told NPR’s Terri Gross.

“So all of that was kind of swirling in the air, and I had gone down to Louisiana to start working on this record with my co-producer, Dirk Powell, at his studio … and we were sitting there talking about this and how intense everything is and we just started writing this song, which turned out to be “Better Get It Right.”

The song, one of nine originals among the 12 tunes on “Freedom Highway,” is about black men being shot that features Gidden’s supple, enchanting voice and a rap from her nephew, Justin Harrington.

“We were recently in Dallas with this show and it was just the most unbelievable thing. The exact thing that he raps about happened in Dallas like three or four days before we got there,” Giddens says. “This young man, straight-A student, went to this party with some of his friends and somebody called in underage drinking, so the cops were coming. So he and his friends leave in this car, he’s in the passenger side, and this police officer takes a rifle and shoots after the car and kills this young man, shoots him in the head, and he dies.”

“It’s like, doing that in that city in Dallas, three or four days after that happened and hearing the eeriness of my nephew rapping these words, it just — I don’t even know. I couldn’t even hardly get through the song, I just started crying.”

It’s not a comfortable subject, but then Giddens has been exploring heritage, race and privilege pretty much since she was the child of a white father and a black mother growing up in Greensboro, N.C. in the 1970s.

She’s the Sunday, June 25, headliner of Funhouse Fest, the three-day music extravaganza in Williamsburg curated by Bruce Hornsby. On Friday, Hornsby plays his “hits” before Sheryl Crow, touring behind a new album, closes the show.

On Saturday, there’s something for everyone starting with Kenny Garrett at 4:30 p.m. and moving through the stunning harmonies of the British trio, The Staves, and on to the dance and rock and roll soul of favorites Lake Street Dive before Hornsby closes it out playing songs of his buddy Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

The Sunday show may be the most intriguing for those with big and adventuresome ears. It opens with Hiss Golden Messenger, the folk rock band featuring MC Taylor from Carolina getting strong reviews for their new “Heart Like a Levee,” then features The Staves, Hornsby and the Sonny Emory Duo before closing with Giddens, a singular voice. (She also happens to be a TV star these days with an important role on the prime-time soap, “Nashville,” as the gospel singer with the voice of an angel).

Her new album after one solo disc and a couple for Carolina Chocolate Drops, Grammy winners, moves from Appalachian bluegrass to jazzy phrasing to spare folk songs including the murder ballad, “The Angels Laid Him Away,” that sound like they could be a century old. She makes clear this is not going to be easy listening on the opening cut, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a song she wrote about a mother anguishing over the future of a child, a future she does not control. “You can take my body, you can take my bones,” she sings. “You can take my blood but not my soul.”

That willingness to stare into the pain of history continues on cuts like “Julie,” a Civil War conversation between a slave and her mistress inspired by something Giddens read, and the wistful “We Could Fly” that is a modern spiritual. There’s also the sly, sexy Louisiana romp of “Hey Bebe” and her take on The Staple Singers classic, “Freedom Highway,” as the closer.

“I’m a very spiritual person. I believe we are all put here for a reason. Some of us are lucky to find this early on and some of us are not,” she says. “That’s just the way it is. If you are lucky enough to find what you are put here to do, then you better do it. I feel like that is your responsibility. One of the things I am here to do is to give voice to these stories. I didn’t write any of these songs. These songs were given to me. I am the instrument.”

Giddens has been a musical explorer for all of her career, now stretching more than a decade. That exploration has also introduced her to partners along the way that changed her musical direction like a river switches course. She declined an interview request but she has shared her story with NPR and other publications over the years.

She studied opera at the conservatory of Oberlin College then returned to North Carolina burned out on classical singing. There, she joined a Celtic band (eventually, she would marry an Irishman and split her time between Carolina and Ireland). Later, she competed in Sottish music competitions.
At Oberlin, she’d gone to a contra dance, not understanding what it was (she thought perhaps something out of Jane Austen). She fell in love with the rhythm and beauty.

She began traveling the state calling dances for money and also playing small sets on the banjo. Eventually, she found her way to a festival called the Black Banjo Gathering and her career took its second turn.

She met an octogenarian fiddler named Joe Thompson who introduced her to Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. Later, she met Sule Greg Wilson. Together with Flemons, they started playing as a postmodern string band, Sankofa Strings. Eventually, that band became the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

For Giddens, it was a chance to explore musical heritage. “When I first heard the minstrel banjo — I played a gourd first — I almost lost my mind,” she says. “I was like, Oh, my god. And then I went to Africa, to the Gambia, and studied the akonting, which is an ancestor of the banjo, and just that connection to me was just immense … the connection of that to the minstrel banjo, minstrelsy being the first American cultural export to the world. So this sound, that deepness, that quality is what people associated with American music.

“Whenever I play it, people are like, “What is that?” I’m like, “This is America, dude.” This instrument right here, born in Africa, but then made in America and then altered by white America, that’s the story of so much of our music,” she adds. “And it starts here — it’s the first thing that people heard.”

Giddens’s career took another bend when she met producer T-Bone Burnett while in New York for a show. He suggested she do a solo record — he produced her debut — and also featured her on the

Wrote Jon Pareles, the long-time music critic for The New York Times: “The concert’s real head turner was Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She turned to the folk revival repertory of Odetta for the enigmatic “Water Boy,” singing it with the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a field holler and the sultry insinuation of the blues. And she followed it with a pair of songs in Gaelic, making them peal and dance. These weren’t her local folklore; they were learned, and the performances were splendidly polished.”

Finding the common ground in a song, that place where the singer and the song’s history meet, is something Giddens has pondered, something she does so well.

“When you’re singing a song, you should have that common ground. You have to have common ground with it. I’ve been asked by white artists or students — because I do teach in workshops — and they go, “How do I approach this work song or this spiritual? Can I sing this?”

And I say, “Of course you can sing it. Should you sing it like an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama? No. You shouldn’t try to sing it like that. I can’t sing it like that because I’m not an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama. You have to find the core within the song that speaks to your core.”

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Super Doppler Hones Their Craft on New Disc

“It started as a half joke,” Neal Friedman says.

Super Doppler, the Norfolk-based band of high school buddies formerly Major and the Monbacks, were starting to think about recording their second album.

They were listening to an album by Virginia Beach’s Natalie Prass produced by Matthew E. White in Richmond

“We just kind of started talking about him for the next album,” recalls Harry Slater, a guitarist and songwriter.
“He was from Virginia and he was doing all this crazy arrangements,” says Cole Friedman, the band’s bassist.
But they had no reason to think he’d work with them and they had no contact information.

Cole, who handled management and booking in those days, texted people he knew in Richmond. Nothing. Eventually, he got a phone number from the guy who does a concert series on Browns Island.
That led to a conversation with White and eventually a meeting with the band on their way home, cold and dirty, from a festival in Roanoke.

More importantly, it led to a cascade of events that landed Super Doppler with a booking agency, New Frontier Touring, whose extensive roster includes The Avett Brothers, Seth Walker and The Band of Heathens.

 


They celebrate the release of their superb second album, “Moonlight Anthems,” with a block party at Bold Mariner Brewing Co. in Norfolk on Saturday, June 17, part of a national tour hitting big cities.

They’ve already released singles from the album, “We Are Doing Fine” and “Moonlight Anthems,” songs destined to be on the playlist for the summer of ’17 with their echoes of the Fab Four and The Zombies. But the album taps other musical touchstones including Americana roots rock, old R&B and the intricate arrangements and harmonies of the great Sixties bands.

Neal Friedman says it’s a move away from the blue-eyed retro soul of their first disc. Part of that is the band no longer touring with a horn section. That came about by accident when the group went on a road trip without horns, playing Firefly and other festivals. They were already writing songs without horns. Playing live without them, percussionist Tyler West says, “gave us a little more space, more room for creativity.”

“We were almost afraid of space,” adds Cole. “There’s always so much going on. We wanted to give the songs some space.”

There are horns on a few cuts on the album, but often White suggested they excise them or play them down. “He was like you don’t need the horns for the songs to be good,” Cole says. “We never would have done that unless we had someone pushing us to try it.”

“The recordings are so very busy with things other than horns, adds Slater. “There’s always a lot going on. We made a point on this album where in the past we’d default to horns on this section let’s try out something else, something crazy.”

From the start, White played mentor to the band. When they met at his studio in suburban Richmond in the late summer of 2015, he asked what they were thinking about as musical styles for the album. “Everyone started naming their favorite acts,” Cole says. “You could just see him get a smile on his face. He said that sounds so up my alley.”

White was big into The Band’s album, “The Last Waltz,” at that time. The guys in the band were listening to Paul McCartney’s “Ram,” The Zombies “Odessey and Oracle” and Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.” Listen and all those influences come through over the course of its 12 tracks. So do The Beatles, an obvious influence. “This is our “Revolver,” Neal jokes.

In the studio, White liked to use album references as a sort of language for what they were looking for in a song.

The title track has a decided Levon Helm/The Band feel. “We Are Doing Fine,” which is simply irresistible, marries The Beatles and The Zombies, Lennon and Argent.

Like the Fab Four, The Zombies and The Band, Super Doppler collaborates on the writing although different members take the lead. On “Moonlight Anthems,” Neal Friedman, guitarist Michael Adkins and Slater took turns are the primary songwriters. But the group is a small democracy. All the tracks are credited to the band and they often benefit from input from the entire group. The same goes for performing. There is no one frontman. About half the songs on the album had been around for a few years. The others are relatively new.

“Some of these songs we’d been playing on the road for a year and we really wanted to capture that live energy,” Cole says, “but we also wanted to experiment and overdub. We’d manipulate the tape and mess around with the analog outboard gear, and a lot of those subtleties are really important to the sound.”
They recorded the disc a year ago over 12 days, paying for it with money saved from touring.

The band formed originally with four friends from Maury High School and Norfolk Collegiate evolving from a loose garage band into something more, a rollicking good-time group with originals sprinkled in among the soulful covers. Slater started out as a roadie, but eventually became a guitarist and songwriter. Bryan Adkins, Michael’s brother, is the latest permanent member to join as the group’s drummer.

In the fall of 2012, the group started venturing out every other weekend to play fraternities. They were still a garage band, but the money was good. They began to think this was something more than an occasional lark. Over the next few years, they toured hard, sometimes playing more than 150 dates and wearing out a van.

Everybody in the band still has a side job. They’ve been off the road for much of 2017 so it’s necessary. But the road beckons again, this time with a new album already earning raves from publications like American Songwriter and Paste. Before they play their block party, they’ll hit Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, Charlotte and Charleston and after they head far and wide to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver among the stops.

No doubt, they’ll be back for some hometown shows at some point.

 

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One Man’s Junk Is Matt Lorenz’s Music

Matt Lorenz is The Suitcase Junket, a one-man-band who does it the old-fashioned way. No tape loops. No digital tricks. Just a bunch of junk — literally — on stage with him making noise.

Lorenz is touring behind “Pile Driver,” his fourth album showcasing that he’s got songwriting chops equal to his odd creative vision.

He’s the headliner on Sunday, May 28, at Work/Release for the conclusion of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Norfolk Fringe Fest that also features harp virtuoso Deborah Henson-Conant on May 26 at The Robin Hixon Theater, the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Wells Theatre May 26-28 and the Joey Alexander Trio at TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center on May 27.

Lorenz handled an interview smoothly while driving through upstate New York on his way to a Friday gig in Albany.

Tell me about the genesis of The Suitcase Junket and the one-man band approach.

It sort of spun out of a band I was in with my sister and another fellow. I found this guitar. I pulled it out of a dumpster and strung it up and fixed it up. It was a real beater, only sounded good in open tuning. I started pulling all these songs out of it that didn’t fit that other band.
I’d started drumming with my feet a little bit already, sitting on a box. I started building more foot drums to fill out the sound. The idea was if I’m moving my body, I might as well be getting sound out of it.

One thing led to another. I’m a tinkerer. I enjoy doing projects with my hands. It was a natural progression of what else can I do? How much sound can I make without going into the looping world?

What’s the oddest instrument you found in the garbage?

A lot of what I build instruments out of are old chairs. What else? A gas can. A cook pot. The oddest is I have a circular saw blade. It sort of sounds like boxing bell. Probably the weirdest little pile of things is I’ve got this little old wooden cheese box and I’ve got it hooked up on a high hat stand so that the box is a bottom cymbal. The top cymbal is an 8mm film reel with bones and silverware hanging off of it. You push the high hat pedal and all the bones and silverware will drop into the box with a crunching kind of rattle. People will sometimes contribute to the box. I get some pretty odd items.

You grew up in New England, right?

I grew up in Vermont. I’ve been in Massachusetts for a while now. My parents were very encouraging. Neither of them really played, but the house was always full of music. When the town library was getting rid of a piano, my parents got it. My sister started taking lessons. Then I was just like off on music. They helped encourage that, got me lessons.

Was there a high school band we should know about?

There was Red Flannel Hash. I played keyboards and sang a little bit. It was mostly a rock and roll cover band.

You went to college. When did you think music might be something you would do for a living?

I went to a weird hippie school where you design your own major (Hampshire College). No grades. All written evaluations. I was sort of interested in natural science and art and music. I remember a turning point where I decided I had these natural proclivities with music and I figured just go with that, you’re already pretty good at it. Then after college it took a while to figure out how to make a living from it. It took a little while working, fixing houses and working on farms and doing jobs where I didn’t have to think that hard so I could daydream.

You seem to stretch on the new album, “Pile Driver.” There’s a big range going from “Seed Your Dreams” to “Beta Star.” Was that the intention?

Definitely. Ideally that is where I want to be when I make a new album, right at the edge of my abilities. The most exciting stuff happens when you mess up. That’s where all the new ideas come from. I added a keyboard in there. It adds a whole other ingredient. That’s been a fun part of these live shows. Also pushing out a little more stylistically into the pop sensibility and then into the swampy sound.
It keeps me interested. One of pitfalls of being a one-man band is often they start sounding the same. I want to stay away from that for listeners and for myself.

Was there someplace you messed up that lead to a song?

I think the first track was one that was not really written when I went in but I knew I wanted to have this combination of keyboard sound and singing to guitar. I had lyrics to a pretty simple song. There were seven or eight takes of that altogether and not one of them sounded like the other. It was completely seat of the pants. Almost every part of that song was a surprise that came out of me just barely able to get my hands where they needed to be.

Where did the album title come from?

I’ve been considering myself as a pile driver because I drive my pile around. Then when I’m playing I feel like I’m driving a pile. Also it’s a wrestling move, which I thought was kind of funny, so be looking out for some wrestling video.

Swamp Yankee pile driver was the working title for the album for a while. Swamp Yankee is what I consider my genre now.

I was getting to that. Explain it. Remember, I’m from the North, but you’ll be appearing in the South.

The term got coined when I was playing a show in West Virginia and a guy came up to me after the set and said you remember that song where you ate a muskrat. I was impressed that he noticed a mention halfway through the first verse of a tune. He said are you a swamp Yankee? I was like, yeah, I hope so. First of all, I was thinking a Swamp Yankee sounds like a good thing to be. Also to my ears being a Yankee in the South of all the kinds of Yankees to be called, Swamp Yankee has to be the best kind.

Ever since then, when people ask what kind of music I play, I tell them Swamp Yankee music as though it’s a very well-agreed-upon genre. It’s evocative enough that people look at you funny, their head with a sideways tilt and say, I never heard of that, but I think I get it.

I hear a lot of old blues and old folk in your music. That may be my bias, but I wondered if that was something you were into growing up.

Definitely. I grew up listening to my parents’ record collection. Hendrix. The Who. The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. The Band and all that. The Stones were basically a blues band and I started listening to what they were listening to — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, that sort of thing. I put electric blues away for a long time. I was really just digging into that acoustic stuff. The Alan Lomax collection. I got kind of obsessed with the field recordings, that raw pure, honest music you play when nobody is listening. That really got to me.

You do some throat singing on this album. How did that come about?

That was kind of by accident. I took a South Indian cooking class in college. I learned words that have retroflex R’s where you touch the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. It’s a new mouth shape I was driving around trying out. I heard this really quiet overtone and basically shaped it in the car over five years. I sounded really bad for a really long time. I did not share that with other people. I tried working it into music for a while, but it wasn’t until I found that shitty old guitar that I was able to hide the weird singing with the weird guitar and they sort of had this marriage of oddities. They sounded well together. I spend a lot of time in the car practicing. That’s my main location for that.

In my research, I found you were once featured in a publication titled How to Grow a Mustache. Is that a hipster dream come true?

I don’t know. I’ve always wanted a mustache. There are pictures of me as a little kid and I’ve always got burned-cork facial hair. But I could not grow one (for a long time). I had a Charlie Chaplin, which is also a Hitler. That does not fly. So the first 27 years of my years of my life, did I have one? Nope. Once I could grow one, I haven’t trimmed it since.

So it grows the same way the instruments grow, organically?

Exactly. You just got to let it happen.

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Mark Rogers Finds the One Who Got Away

Mark Rogers spent a long time in suburban Washington, D.C. with his music on the back burner until a divorce in 2006 sent him in the direction of reconnecting with a long-gone love. They got together three years later, a romance that led to his migration from the suburban rat race to southeastern Virginia and set him in a path to recording his first album, “Rearranged.”
He recently released the disc, which features some of the area’s best veteran players, and agreed to talk about his journey.

You put your guitar away for a while to raise a family. What brought you back to playing and songwriting?

Actually, it never left, it was just relegated to hobby status in the 90s and 00s as I focused on my kids and career. When the music bug gets ahold of you, it’s hard to shake it. In 2006, I got divorced. And then reconnected with the “one who got away” in 2009 (whom I had met 22 years prior). That opened up everything for me and my music eventually started coming back. I wrote my first song in something like 20 years in 2012 and kept going from there. Last summer the gates opened up completely and I wrote most of the “Rearranged” EP in the span of about three months.

You spent some time playing in LA. There’s that sort of Eagles/Jackson Browne/Zevon feel to this disc.

In the early 80s, after college, I drove from D.C to L.A. by myself in a car that didn’t have a radio. I was chasing the illusion of Laurel Canyon — The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, CSN&Y, The Eagles, Jackson, J.D. Souther, Zevon and all my other high school heroes. I got a band going and we played Club 88, Madam Wong’s and a few other LA musical haunts, made a bunch of demos, shopped them to record companies. We might have been a bit out of time. We were trying to play Gram Parsons country in a Duran Duran Los Angeles. There was, however, a scene there that included The Long Ryders, Rain Parade, The 3 O’clock, Rank and File. Bands that were bucking the synth pop trends. I just ran out of money, and felt guilty for not following up on the education my parents had paid for. So, I eventually moved back to DC. The California singer/songwriter vibe you may get from my EP is a natural outgrowth of my musical heritage and that time in particular.

 

Was there a song, either one on the EP or one that didn’t make it, that made you realize you were back into the mystic of the music?

The first of many songs that sprung up last summer was “I Can’t Say Why.” I remember telling an old friend that I’ve written “my masterpiece”. Then several more, that were actually better than that one, presented themselves. There is one song, however, called “Blue Enough” that didn’t make the cut on the EP, because it didn’t work as well in a band setting, that I think is my best writing so far. I now do that song with just an acoustic guitar, and it works better with that simplicity. The primary reason for recording the EP in the first place, was to capture the creative surge that happened to me last summer. I think we effectively did that.

What brought you to the area from D.C.?

When I reconnected with “the one who got away” 22 years earlier, it didn’t take long before we both knew that we’d better take advantage of this “last chance” sooner rather than later. I was looking to get out of DC and she and her family run a business in Williamsburg. It wasn’t a hard decision for either of us. I love this area and truly believe it’s added years to my life.

You often play in the area and, I think, play open mics. Were those nights useful as you moved towards recording this album?

I met Vaughn Deel and Sueanne Doyer at a Peter Case show (with North Shore Point House Concerts) at Norfolk School of Rock about a year ago. They described the open mics that they run at Cozzy’s (in Newport News) and Victoria Station (The Big Pink in Hampton) and invited me out to do one. I was a bit timid having not played in public for a couple of decades, but it didn’t take long until I was attending two open mics a week for several months there. That coupled with a Dylan 75th Birthday tribute show that my wife and I saw in Williamsburg around the same time. This band called Exit 231 played a set at that show that just knocked us out. I thought “I can do that.” And then thought “I WANT to do that”. Those two events were all I needed. Now I’m unstoppable.

You have a great roster of area stars assisting on the album — Larry Berwald, Dave Hufstedler, others. How did that happen?

When I figured I had a half dozen or so songs that I wanted to record, I asked Dustin Furlow who he used to record his fine record. He introduced me to Rob Ulsh at Master Sound in Virginia Beach. After doing some scratch tracks, Rob suggested that Larry Berwald be brought in to help tweak some arrangements and play guitar. Both Larry and Rob really took an interest and were fantastic to work with.
Larry rather diplomatically made some necessary arrangement suggestions to a few of my songs and then brought in Dave Hufstedler (bass) and Powell Randolph (drums) to record them. We also got Jamie Lewis on the Hammond B3 and piano. I was over the moon with how well the sessions turned out.

Those guys were amazing. I hope to work with them again.

Jason Isbell: Stories for Listeners

jasonisbell4 I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink


I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

— Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”

On the day after the 2016 election, Jason Isbell was at home outside Nashville caring for his baby daughter, Mercy Rose, then a few months past her first birthday. His wife, Amanda Shires, was on tour in Salt Lake City that night behind her album, “My Piece of Land.”

The presidential election results, he admits, blindsided him. He knew the choices were tough, especially for the working class folks he grew up with in rural Alabama.

So he did what he does. He wrote. He wrote to unpack his feelings, to confront and explain those things that seem unexplainable or intolerable. He thought he knew America. On Nov. 8, he realized he did not.

He was thinking about family, about what the election of a bigot and a misogynist meant for his far-away wife and his so-near daughter.

“As hard as it was for me to see those results,” he says, “I could only imagine what it was like for a wife and later on a daughter to have to explain.”
Out of that came “Hope the High Road,” the first single off his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound.”

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

“After growing up in rural Alabama in a town without a red light or a post office and traveling the word for 17 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on America,” he says. “It turned out I was not right at all.”

 

His father works maintenance in a hospital. His mom has an office job. “My parents still work hard every day,” he says. “I’ve not made enough money to tell them they can retire. Hopefully, we’ll have some huge hits and everybody can move on up sometime soon.”

His father, he says, stood in line to vote torn by his decision. He’s been paying way too much from health care since the Affordable Care Act was passed. But he also didn’t believe he could vote for somebody like Trump, Isbell says.

 

“I hear both sides of the story,” he says. “My main concern was I feel like a lot of people who have been under represented had to ignore a lot of shitty things in order to vote in what they felt might be their own best interest. That’s what really bothers me. I can see middle class or poor working class Americans wanting somebody who is not a career politician. I can see them wanting somebody who speaks plainly and in a way that’s not coded the way political language often is. But I can’t really understand overlooking the bigotry and the misogyny.”

“So I felt like after all that went down,” he adds, “I didn

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‘t know people as well as I thought I did. That was a big awakening for me.”

Isbell, who opens the season at the Portsmouth Pavilion on April 26, understands what he calls the “Springsteen conundrum:” “How do you sing about working class people when it’s obvious what kind of money you’re making?”

He’s not near that level. He doesn’t think he’s all that far removed from his roots. He lives outside Nashville, about 80 miles from his hometown of Green Hills. “The differences between how I grew up and how I live now and the similarities between those two are of great interest to me,” he says.

Isbell famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Shires and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life. He’s sober — a battle he talks about freely — and out in the country now, surrounded by a few musicians and a lot of working class folks, similar to the ones of his childhood and his days in school.

“So I have a lot of concern for the issues of working class people,” he says. “I think you can empathy without living like that. To deny a successful songwriter the option of writing about people who are not having success is really to deny that empathy works as a concept.”

I ask him about the line, “I used to want to be a real man; I don’t know what that even means.”

“As I got older, I stopped using phrases like “I want to be a man” or “Man up.” Look at what you’re saying. It’s pretty insulting to women,” he says. “I just started saying, ‘Try to be grown. Try to be an adult.’ Insulting to children,” he adds, laughing.

He explores working class characters and their stories on his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound” that gives co-credit for the first time in years to his band, The 400 Unit. Shires adds fiddle and vocals. Dave Cobb is once again handling the knobs as producer.

It’s the third in a line of stellar albums from Isbell, after 2013’s “Southeastern,” the 2014 Grammy winner for best Americana album, and 2015’s “Something More than Free,” the 2016 Grammy winner for best Americana album.

In a suite of songs on “The Nashville Sound:” “Cumberland Gap,” a rocker, “Tupelo,” a mellow reflection, and “White Man’s World,” he explores the walls closing in on working class men.

I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say?
I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.
Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge.
If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.
– “Cumberland Gap”

“Cumberland Gap” is one of Isbell’s many short stories in song. “You start building a character,” he says, “and that’s how the characters behave naturally. There are people I know who have had very similar experiences and they wound up being the primary inspiration. I take three or four people I know and try to build a character. It’s not different than going about writing a novel or a short story.”

That begs the question of what Isbell was reading while writing the album. He finished in January, writing the dark “If We Were Vampires,” days before entering Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, the birthplace of albums by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Gillian Welch, among others.

He says he read an advance copy of George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others. He’s been a passionate about reading since sobering up, dipping into everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”

“It’s difficult,” he says. “I try not to show my influences too obviously. I don’t want to let those find their way into too much of my material.”

Isbell named the album, “The Nashville Sound,” partly as an homage to the studio, managed for so many years by Chet Atkins, and as a way to stake his claim to the type of music made there.

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Our talk is on the day after The Academy of Country Music Awards. Isbell has no tolerance for the music showcased there. “It’s obvious from last night’s awards show how much out of touch the pop country music world is,” he says.

“The Nashville Sound” reflects the kind of music still made in Nashville. While there are a few more rockers on this disc, Isbell says he never sets out to make one kind of record or another.

“Really the only thing that matters to me outside of documenting a point in time is trying to get the best songs I possibly can. That’s my guiding light.”

“The way I’ve gotten through the world and made myself happy and gotten more than I could have ever asked is early on I found something I wanted to do when I didn’t have to do anything else,” he adds. “It’s still that way. I’m very lucky.”

He’s worked at Wal Mart, in a fireworks warehouse and waiting tables. But since he started performing professionally he hasn’t had to do anything else other than play and write songs.

Among those songs are “Anxiety,” a dark tune about dealing with that fear written with Shires, and “If We Were Vampires,” a serious song with a funny title about mortality. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings. “I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift. Give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”

“That one caught me by surprise,” he says. “I wrote that the last day before we went into the studio. I was really proud of it. It’s really heavy and it took me a while to get through and be able to sing it without emotion.”jason77

“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell told me in another interview last year. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.

“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds.

“Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much anymore.”

That’s not surprising. Jason Isbell albums are therapy, time to sit and think and ponder the big questions. He understands no radio station today is going to play songs like “If We Were Vampires” or “Anxiety” and he’s just fine with that.

“I’ve just always been somebody who listened to music directly. It wasn’t’ really a background thing. That’s what my whole life has been based on. I know a lot of people who aren’t musicians who are that way. They don’t just have music playing while they’re having a party or washing dishes or something.

“I think I kind of write songs for those people, people who like to sit down and listen to songs.”
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