My Favorite Music of 2018

This was a fine year for music so my list is longer than usual. Please share your favorites.

The War and Treaty – Healing Tide

Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake

Boz Scaggs – Out of the Blues

Lera Lynn – Plays Well with Others

Kelly Willis – Back Being Blue

John Hiatt – The Eclipse Sessions

Kim Richey – Edgeland


Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Downey to Lubbuck

First Aid Kit — Ruins

Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild!

Lori McKenna – The Tree

Gretchen Peters – Dancing with the Beast

Chris Smither – Call Me Lucky

Dawn Landes – Meet Me at the River

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

The Beatles – White Album Remastered, Esher Demos

Ruby Boots – Don’t Talk About It

Iron and Wine – Beast Epic (holdover from 2017)


Drive-By Truckers Address the Big Issues

A day after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Drive-By Truckers played the first of three homecoming shows in Athens, Georgia, and opened with a dark, slow version of “Guns of Umpqua,” an already-dark song about a community college shooting in Oregon that left one professor and eight students dead.

The song looks back to that day and ahead to too many days since, like the afternoon in Parkland, Florida:


Waves crash against the banks where Lewis and Clark explored

We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more

Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon

 It’s a morning like so many others with breakfast and birthdays

The sun burned the fog away, breeze blew the mist away

My friend Jack just had him a baby

I see birds soaring through the clouds

Outside my window today

Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door

Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door

For Patterson Hood, who wrote the tune, that night in Athens provided a bit of catharsis. But only a bit.

“A song can only do so much,” he says during an afternoon call from his Portland home a week after the shootings that left 17 dead. “Somebody with some power needs to try to do something or at least make us feel like they’re trying to do something.”

Hood wrote the song not long after he moved his family to Portland a few years ago. He’d spent the weekend before the Umpqua shootings camping and hiking in the Cascade Range. The song, like several on the Truckers’ most recent album, “American Band,” is a look at the American promise and the American reality, flashing between scenes of the immortal beauty Lewis and Clark explored in the Cascades and the existential horror of moving classroom chairs to barricade the door.

As a father with children in public school, the shootings struck hard. “Don’t tell me nothing can be done. You can’t stop the problem, but you can certainly make it better,” Hood says. ‘The majority of these situations wouldn’t have happened if things were tightened up. This isn’t about taking away every redneck in Alabama’s hunting rifle or some rancher in Montana’s hunting rifle. We’re talking about machine guns that when I was growing up weren’t that easily accessible to the general public.”

“I get hit, as you can well imagine, by people who feel very differently from me. I hear, ‘I guess you want to ban box cutters.’ Well, if he’d had a box cutter, he might have gotten one or two people injured or killed before he was stopped. That would have been horrible. But this was 17 murdered and it’s just one of many already this year.”

He brings the Truckers and their fearsome live show back to The NorVa on March 25. “I love The Norva,” he says. “It’s been a couple of years. We’re overdue. It’s going to be fun.”

Throughout their long career, Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley, who write separately, have addressed issues, so “American Band” wasn’t a surprise. What it means to be Southern. Racial politics. Economic justice. Murder (notably in a song about Bryan Harvey and his family, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”). The nuances of the “feud” between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant (see “Southern Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama”).

But with “American Band,” Hood and Cooley put their personal and very political stories front and center.  The two have polar opposite writing styles. Hood writes, writes, writes and then sorts out what works and what doesn’t. Cooley is economical, creating only a few finished gems per year. “To me, our best records are the ones where the songs have this connection,” Hood says. “‘American Band’ is probably the best that’s ever been. Maybe the best since ‘Decoration Day.’ “

“Ramon Casiano” is Cooley’s song about a 1931 murder outside El Paso, Texas, with echoes of Trayvon Martin decades later. “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Down” is a tune Hood wrote on the night he penned the first draft of an op-ed for the New York Times Sunday Magazine suggesting there were other things Southerners could be proud of instead of a divisive flag. (Hood grew up outside Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His father was the bassist in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that recorded with Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon, Etta James and the Staple Singers although Patterson leaned towards The Clash and The Replacements and, more recently, Big Thief and The National.)

“What It Means,” the emotional heart of the album, had been sitting around for a while. The song alludes to a shooting on Ruth Street in Athens in 1995 not long after Hood moved there. A black man named Edward Wright was shot by police. Hood lived across the street from the family. He didn’t know him well. He’d see his mother working in the yard.

“In the mid-90s, everybody didn’t have a camera in their pocket,” Hood says. “It got talked about then people who didn’t live in the poorer part of town moved on. In that regard, some of this is progress. People are seeing it in their face, people who normally had the benefit of being able to pretend this didn’t exist.”

“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks,” Hood sings on “What It Means,” “well, I guess that means you ain’t black…You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” He chronicles one shooting after another from Ferguson to Baltimore, from Chicago to Miami. And then he wonders why some man with a joystick can land a rocket on a comet, but we can’t stop shooting unarmed men.

“We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but at the core is something rotten…but don’t look to me for answers cuz I don’t know what it means.”

In the end, though, the song is about how all of us look at people, people who are different and how we filter our “truths.”

“All of those songs are personal, every one of them,” Hood says. “I feel good about what we did. I think we made a good record. The majority of people who heard it seemed to have liked it. There are definitely people who didn’t, people who say they used to be our friends, but are no longer our fans. Whatever. When we’re writing, we’re not really thinking about things like that.”

He says the band has recently returned to most of the towns they played in the first month after the album was released in 2016 and were welcomed with bigger crowds everywhere, calling it one of his favorite tours in the history of the band.

Since “American Band,” the group has released one searing single, “The Perilous Night.” Hood started the song on the evening the Electoral College elected Donald J. Trump as president, but then put it aside. Until Charlottesville. “I ended up taking another stab at the same song and rewriting it,” he says. “I felt like it was too hopeless, but in the wake of Charlottesville, I changed my mind. Sometimes you just need to vent your anger.”


 I’d like to tell you there’ll be better days

But optimism’s running low today

We’re off the deep end with a lifeguard that can’t swim

The Klan and the Nazis are taking up the fight

Against their own salvation in the saviors light

We’re moving into the perilous night, Amen

“Judging from the reaction it gets live, I guess a lot of people need to vent their anger,” Hood adds.

He says he’s started writing for a new record. Usually, his writing is a reaction to the last record, a correction. So that would suggest a return to more personal and less political musings. Hood isn’t committing, though.

“It will be different,” he adds. “I can’t say it will be devoid of any of that. The shit’s still stirring us up.”

He sees hope in the young people standing up for their lives. “When I hear people my age or younger talking bad about the younger generation, I get really fired up quickly,” he adds. “For starters, I have kids. I’m around them and their friends and I never cease to be amazed how much better kids they are than the kids I grew up around…The kids down in Florida, they’re pissed. That is the first step towards making some change. Being pissed and having the smarts and articulation to be able to act. “

In another moment, he admits his usual optimism is wearing thin. “It’s a really disquieting time,” he adds. “I’ve generally managed to be fairly optimistic through most of my adult life feeling that as bad as things are, the arc of history was moving in a positive direction overall. That’s kind of been shaken to the core over the past couple of years.”


My Favorite Albums of 2017

This is a longer list than usual. I listened to a ton of music this year — and saw a ton of shows. These were the albums I lived with most. It’s a little more alt country and a little more newgrassy than usual, but that’s what caught my ear this year.

Yes, there are several North Shore Point House Concert alums as well as a couple of artists I hope to book in 2018.

My favorite local albums were Super Doppler’s “Midnight Anthems” and Feral Conservatives’ “Better Lives.”

Rhiannon Giddens — Freedom Highway

John Moreland — Big Bad LUV

Paul Kelly — Life Is Fine

Don Bryant – Don’t Give Up on Love

Twisted Pine — Twisted Pine


Waxahatchee — Out in the Storm


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound

 Chuck Prophet — Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins

Mipso — Coming Down the Mountain

Joan Shelley — Joan Shelley

Slaid Cleaves — Ghost on the Radio

Big Thief — Capacity


Turnpike Troubadours — A Long Way from Your Heart

Travis Meadows – First Cigarette

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — Soul of a Woman

Aimee Mann — Mental Illness

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong

Nikki Lane — Highway Queen

The Dustbowl Revival — The Dustbowl Revival

Jae Sinnett Rearranges the Christmas Classics

When Jae Sinnett first was asked if he’d be interested in playing a Christmas show, he said sure. A day later, he thought, “What did I get myself into?”

He realized that if the straightforward jazz quartet from his latest disc, “Zero to 60,” was going to do songs “that have been played a bazillion times,” he would need to rethink those classics.

“I said, ‘Ok, if I’m going to do this I can’t go on stage and go bah, bah, bah,” he says humming the first notes of “Little Drummer Boy.” “I got really involved in reconceptualizing those classic songs in the style of the Zero to 60 Quartet. People think, oh, he’s a drummer so, of course he’s going to do “Little Drummer Boy,” but it’s not going to be like (what) they think.”

For his show at the Attucks Theatre on Dec. 9, he chose holiday favorites that were malleable. “I wasn’t’ just thinking about songs I like, but I was thinking about songs we can manipulate and make conceptually fit how we play,” he says. “In my head, I’m thinking how do these songs feel?”

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” offers a drummer a bounty of choices. A section of “Little Drummer Boy” will be played in a different time signature. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a jazz favorite because there’s so much harmonic variation to it, he says. “Things like that. I just tried to break things up and make it interesting, “he adds.

To make it more interesting, he decided to bring in Grammy-nominated singer Denise Donatelli from the West Coast. She will join saxophonist Ralph Bowen and pianist Allen Farnham, who played on his latest album, and bassist Terry Burrell (bassist Hans Glawischnig played on the CD). 

“I’ve worked with Denise a few times,” he says. “The most recent time was the San Jose Jazz Festival with her. She is an amazing singer. When I first worked with her, she was doing these arrangements by pianist Geoffrey Keezer. They were some of most challenging arrangements I ever played and I’ve played a lot of complicated music. Those arrangements were flat-out crazy and here she was singing over that stuff.”

“She’s a classy, beautiful singer,” he adds. “One of the greats singing this music today.”

Sinnett, who has hosted WHRV’s “Sinnett in Session” for nearly 28 years, prepared for the Christmas show with a rehearsal in August in New York with the quartet. That they were together rehearsing winter songs in the hot summer is another story. Sinnett says he never intended to record and release the music that became “Zero to 60,” his 14th album.

He writes all the time so the tunes were there when he decided to look for some new players to do a few gigs. Then one thing led to another and an album was born.

But, first, exactly how does a drummer write songs? Sinnett says it’s a common question.

“I write from the piano,” he explains. “I play a level of piano. I understand the harmony and theory behind it and I understand composition. Then I start to conceptualize all the instruments in my head.”

When he first started writing, he would sit at the piano for hours and hours working on songs. But later when he was sitting at his drum kit to rehearse, he’d have no idea what to play.

He was at a rehearsal one day with sax player Steve Wilson and pianist Cyrus Chestnut just destroying the music on the drums, making one mistake after another. “Steve Wilson stopped and said sarcastically ‘Are you sure you wrote this music,’ “Sinnett recalls. “That was a revelatory moment for me.”

He realized he needed to think about the bigger picture when he composed. “Now, the way I write, I will have a specific rhythmic foundation in mind, a rhythmic idea, a certain feel, tempo and I will develop the harmonic structure around that rhythmic foundation,” he says. “A lot of times I hear the melody first.

“There’s writing from top to bottom or bottom to top. Top down is melody to rhythm. Bottom is rhythm to melody. Lately, I’m mostly writing from the bottom to the top.”

He feels like with his newest disc, he finally got beyond his insecurities about developing melodies, “I really wanted to write melodies, themes, memorable themes,” he explains. “That’s one aspect I think I’ve developed over the past couple of years.”

Before “Zero to 60,” he’d done a series of albums highlighting different genres. But jazz beckoned.

“I wanted to play some straight-up jazz with a really good tenor saxophone player. I was thinking about the tenor players I’ve worked with like Branford Marsalis,” he says. “Ralph Bowen had always been at the top of that list. Since OTB, I’ve been a big fan of his. You kind of roll the dice and see what happens. I sent him the music and he got back with me, ‘Man, I love this. Let’s do it. Let’s play. The connection with Ralph Bowen was really the spark that got this going.”

The idea was to get together and play, not to record. “But the guys kept asking me are you planning to record this music? I was like, no. They said, ‘You should. “


For their sessions, he wrote out the music, but left room for improvisation. “With this level of players, you’ve got to give them room,” he says. “What they bring to the table is incredible. A lot of times they will play something I’d never have thought of.”

It also helps that the four guys genuinely like each other. “There’s an inter-activeness that is necessary on my bandstand and it starts with the personal relationships,” he adds. “These guys are like brothers to me.”

They recorded the album in two days at Bias Studios in Springfield. “I never thought they would record with me,” he adds. “I thought they would come down and do a couple of gigs and that would be it. But one thing led to another and we ended up in the studio,” he adds. “I’m glad we did. I think it’s my best jazz record by far.”

Now that he’s returned to his jazz roots, he’s not looking back. “Sometimes you feel like you need to do that and get it out,” he says, “but now that I’ve done it, I have no desire to go back and do it anytime soon. I’ve written some new music and it’s not jazz. It’s rock and funk and soul, blues and R&B, light jazz fusion. It’s a mixed bag of things, man.”

For now, though, he’s looking forward to playing his take on Christmas standards with Donatelli and the quartet, a group that’s locked, not just local musicians backing the headliner. “I just love playing with these guys and playing live with the band,” he says. “It’s such a good band. We have really good arrangements. And it’s a real band, which is rare in jazz these days.”


The Dawg and CGP: Brothers in Strings

Tommy Emmanuel first came to Virginia by way of Nashville and longtime harp guitar player, Stephen Bennett who lived in Gloucester County for years.

The two met at a Chet Atkins convention in Nashville in 1996 and immediately hit it off, two virtuoso guitar players with distinctive styles.

“We became brothers,” Emmanuel says by phone from Australia where he’s playing his last show on the continent in Brisbane later this day. “We still are. We see each other from time to time.”

Bennett lives in Connecticut now. Emmanuel, who joins David Grisman for a CGP and Dawg show at the Sandler Center on Nov. 16, lives in Nashville, but back then he looked for a place in Virginia.

“It’s one of the first places I played in America,” says the 62-year-old Australian. “I wanted to live in Virginia, looked around for a house and I just couldn’t afford it at that time.”

The tour with Grisman, longtime collaborator with everybody from Jerry Garcia to Peter Rowan to Tony Rice, formed out of a similar friendship in 2014.

Grisman, who answered questions by email, says he was invited to sit in at a show at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts with his friend, Martin Taylor, the Scottish guitarist, and Emmanuel.

“I had him up to play and we just hit if off like crazy,” Emmanuel says. “I was a fan of his since way back in the ’70s when Dawg music first came out. That was a unique style.”

Emmanuel’s manager suggested they see if recording together might work. So when Emmanuel was playing in California, he set aside a few days and went to Grisman’s home in Washington.

“I flew my engineer “dB” Dave Dennison and his wife (who’s Australian) to record us in our living room which sounds great,” Grisman says. “Tommy brought his family as well (both Dave and Tommy have two-year olds) so it was a session for all ages.

“Tommy surprised me by wanting to record my compositions and I had a fresh batch so out of ten originals, five were new and never recorded. We also recorded “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Tommy’s beautiful arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda”.”

Emmanuel learned the new songs on the spot and they recorded ten tracks in just a couple of days. “I enjoyed it because I had to be Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Django Reinhardt, and Frank Vignola all rolled into one,” he says. “It’s fun and challenging for me as a guitar player and his collaborator. I like the way he writes. It’s not predictable, yet you can follow it and I can memorize it pretty quickly.”

Emmanuel says the two will sit on stage, playing just like they did in Grisman’s living room. “We played acoustic to each other, just like we were sitting in a room having a jam,” he says. “We miked everything up and recorded the whole album like that.”

That’s the way they’ll play in Virginia Beach. “This tour is going to be the first for me when I’ve gone on just with an acoustic guitar and a microphone. No plugging in. No electronics,” he explains. “It’s going to be great fun.”

Emmanuel first worked with Grisman and another strings hero, Bryan Sutton, in Nashville in 2016. That whet Emmanuel’s appetite for the sessions in Washington. It also cemented a friendship.

“Aside from his very exceptional musical abilities, Tommy is a very warm human being and a force of nature, “Grisman says. “His interest in my music was also very inspiring for me. I’m very fortunate to have found such a new friend.”

Emmanuel jokes that he needs to turn his guitar up when he plays with Grisman. “David’s mandolin, we call it the Crusher it’s so loud,” he says. “If you sit close to him, you can’t hear anything you’re playing. He will drown out anything,” he adds, laughing.

Grisman, 72, credits another Australian, a mandolin builder with giving the instrument, one of the first Gibson F-5 models built in 1922, its nickname.

He most famously played on The Grateful Dead’s classic, “American Beauty,” and joined Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn to form the bluegrass group, Old and in the Way. So his pairing with Emmanuel is another in a long line of them.

“Music is a wonderful team sport with great potential for give and take, especially in a duo setting such as this,” Grisman explains.

While Grisman’s heralded career dates to the Sixties, Emmanuel started playing guitar at four and toured Australia with his family living out of station wagons until he was 10. After his father died, his family abandoned the road. At 15, he left school and headed to the city to make his way, listening to everything from Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed to Neil Diamond and Carole King to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens before diving into the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra.

Over time, Emmanuel became friends with his idol, Chet Atkins, the longtime country star whose musical lineage goes back to the Carter Family and forward to playing with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Emmanuel signs CGP after his name. In 1999, Atkins presented Emmanuel with a Certified Guitar Player Award, one he gave to only four guitarists.
“He was like a daddy to me,” Emmanuel says. “A great man.”

Emmanuel says an album released the year before Atkins died in 2001 is the one that turned his career around. Called “Only,” it was his first acoustic disc.

“I think that album was the watershed album,” he says. “That was the album that turned people on to me and my writing and playing. It’s all original songs, everything done in one take. It was an honest album and I think that’s what people liked.”

His forthcoming album features duets and some singing. He’s working with Jason Isbell, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell and Mark Knopfler, among others. He will tour with Crowell starting in February.

While Emmanuel’s songs have no words, he says he hears words when he’s writing them. “What I’m trying to say really is I don’t write as if I’m just writing something to play on the instrument. There’s a greater purpose,” Emmanuel says. “I’m trying to tell a story and write a song that gets inside your head that gets into your soul. I often hear words when I’m writing melody. But I’m telling a story without words. “

He will sacrifice perfection for feeling. “Being in the moment and playing what you really feel at the moment, that, to me, is being the real musician,” he adds. “Sometimes the best idea I get I can’t remember ten minutes later. It’s gone. “

That magic of the moment, here and then gone forever, is what he looks to unveil onstage. “When I’m playing a song where I improvise solos, I’m always waiting for the magic to appear. I’m digging for it, looking for that gold nugget. Sometimes I hit it with my spade and I know what it is. Other times, I’m digging around and all I find is dirt,” he says, laughing.



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.”





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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