thousand springs

The Austin Five.

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Last week was a big week for THOUSAND SPRINGS. I got to make music with some of the most talented people in the Texas branch of the songwriting tree.

It took a little planning — in early May I drove up to Minneapolis with a carload full of recording gear, stopping in Chicago and Madison to play some shows. I flew out of Minny to Europe, leaving my car in a friend’s garage. Got back from Europe and drove south to Texas to see what would happen next.

Book People Book People

First thing in Austin was a reading for Medium Hero at Book People — one of the best book stores in the country. People came and I played and sang, so it was all okay. I felt like I had the green light to hang out, so I did. I ate tacos everyday and went to the Y at night so I could eat more tacos the next day. And I had the opportunity to record some of my favorite musicians in Texas. Here's who, and what.

Raina RoseIMG_6085

Raina Rose is one of my favorite people anywhere. Not just her songs with the words and the heart and the dancing voice, but her big personality that goes and goes and does not apologize for where it goes. Also she does something that is borderline impossible. She mothers two small boys with big personalities and she makes it look easy. And she has a weekly column on No Depression. And she does it all while making a song that fastens itself to your head like a well-placed earring.

We sat on the floor of her guest bedroom and she held her youngest, Benny, while I got a level and dialed in the tone. I didn't like how roomy the bedroom sounded so she let me tack a blanket to her wall. Indulgent. She sang pretty on two songs, Weathered Wings and the song I wrote for Chief Sitting BullLast Man Standing.

Listen to Raina’s tune If You’re Gonna Go while you read the story she wrote in No Depression about this year’s impromptu song circle at this year's Folk Alliance

Matt The Electrician Matt The Electrician

I knew Matt The Electrician to be a thoughtful, incisive song manicurist, but I didn’t know he played trumpet. Yes, he said, he went to school for it. I have chops, he said, flashing the beatific smile for which he is famous. He led me through his house to the office where his ideas hatch — a little computer desk in the corner, box amps, guitars on the wall, memorabilia hung painted sketched printed and/or framed from one of Matt's million past tours. On one wall was a book shelf completely filled with these things called CDs. “I remember those,” I said. While I set up the recording machines we talked about the Seattle grunge scene of the nineties and whether or not the documentary Hype got it right. Then Matt played trumpet and sang on a song I wrote called Mermaids. Then he sang on Last Man Standing. Then I headed out for tacos and he went to watch a minor league baseball game with his wife, Kathie.  "Date Night," he said, and smiled.

Listen to Matt’s song I Will Do the Breathing. Goto Matt's website and learn more about the interesting way he is setting about releasing his music. 

Anthony Da CostaIMG_6120

Electro-folk prince Anthony Da Costa has more tones in his guitar than there are bubbles in a bottle of Topo Chico. He’s been out all year with Americana darling Aoife O’Donovan and he was fresh back in town when we got together last Tuesday. He came over to my house pro tem and we set his amp head up on a cat tower and used a shoe closet as the isolation box for the cabinet. To our collective surprise, it actually worked. Anthony spent the next 4 hours devouring pretty much everything I threw at him. He didn’t even eat the bowl of almonds I brought him, such were his powers of concentration.

I love living where I do, but Nashville has a tendency to tame musicians over time. I went to Austin because I wanted the people who still had some weird in them, and Anthony does.

I wonder if he will appreciate the bruise I photoshopped off his shin. Not sure but I did it anyway.

Watch this video of Anthony playing with Aoife O’Donovan recorded earlier this year at PASTE Studios.

Andrew Pressman Andrew Pressman In Austin, Andrew Pressman is in charge of all frequencies below 1KHz. I’ve seen him play on upright and electric many times, always with verve and precision, and best of all, taste. He holds down the low end for Raina Rose (to whom he is married), Ben Kweller, Steve Poltz, Sam Baker, Rebecca Loebe, Carrie Elkin, Megan Mullally’s band Nancy & Beth and loads of others.

About an hour after Raina sang, she laid Benny down for a nap and Andrew carted his gear in from the garage, texted his engineer buddy to find out which API preset was best for his rig (radio bass for you nerds) and we dug in. He laid tracks on Friend and a Friend, Weathered Wings, and a brand new song I wrote with Amy Speace called Father to the Man.

Carrie Elkin Carrie Elkin The first time I heard Carrie Elkin, she was singing with her husband Danny Schmidt on his song Company of Friends at the Rice Festival in Fischer, Texas. They sang under an improvised tapestry of christmas lights, inside a barn that held about a hundred breathless Texas song fans. That night kind of changed my life — I had just been to my first Kerrville Folk Festival, and even though I had lived in Nashville for 7 years and had played music almost constantly for 15, I had never seen scene like that. In Texas, songs live and die on the lyric. And the lyric can twist and turn in way that are decidedly uncommercial. Harder to find that stuff in Nashville.

Carrie has had a busy career, and it’s about to get busier. For one, she’s finishing up a new record with producer Neilson Hubbard, and for another, she’s about to be a mom. Big things ahead.

Watch this video of Carrie performing “Crying Out” with Danny Schmidt. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1cI0Dj26qI&w=560&h=315]

Can't say yet when the record is coming out, but I can say I'm excited about it. If you aren't a kickstarter backer and want to preorder a copy of Thousand Springs, you can do that here.

Uke Good

18 Hours in Bellingham with Bruce's Banjo.

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I saw Bruce Shaw months before I actually met him. He was onstage at a club (a Bellingham institution called the 3B Tavern), playing mandolin with a band I can’t remember the name of. I had just turned 21, and that night was the second time I’d ever been to a bar.

Up till then, I could count the number of times I’d seen live music on one hand, and I’d never seen anyone play mandolin before. Bruce was up there tearing it up, making a whirlwind of music while the rest of the band tried to keep up. I watched from a booth and drank Rolling Rock, transfixed. The feeling was simple. I have to play music with that guy. I said it out loud.

I was too shy to approach him that night, but we ran into each other at a party a few months later. The place was called Randy’s Roadhouse. Inside there were Dead posters and church pews and girls that spun in circles when they danced. I was full of determination and little actual talent, but I brought my guitar anyway. I remember being really into Doc Watson at the time. I knew Deep River Blues and would play it over and over like it was the only blues song in the world.

Bruce was up there on the little stage in the Roadhouse, older and wiser and more at ease with himself. He was jamming with another band, so I waited for an hour and watched. When things quieted down, I took the last swallow from the flask I brought and stood up. He was putting his mandolin away. I was intimidated as hell, because he could already do what I was only trying. But I walked up to the stage and asked him did he know any Doc Watson. And he said, “I know all of em!” and laughed his trademark giggle laugh, and took his mandolin back out, and we sat on the stage facing each other and played all the songs I knew, one after the other. He played slow so I could keep up.

A few weeks later, he came over to my house with a Norman and Nancy Blake album called Blind Dog. He left it on my kitchen table. Maybe check this out, he said.

The next week it was old time fiddler James Bryan, and then Dirk Powell. He never talked much about what I should listen to, they were just gestures, unspoken suggestions. It turned out that he had great taste in music, and at 21, I had a few things going for me, but taste was not one of them.

Bruce and I went on to form a band called the Barbed Wire Cutters, with Adam Carp, Josh Brahinsky, and Chris Glass. That was a pretty great time in my life. Not only was the band my day job for a lot of my twenties, but it had kind of a cultural impact on the Bellingham music scene in the early 2000’s. It seems sentimental to say it now, but it was important to me and to Bruce and to our friends too. Those years in Bellingham were pretty magical. Playing at the Boundary Bay, or rehearsing at the park or just jamming on a Washington State Ferry headed out to Orcas Island. I still run into people who met their now-spouse at a Barbed Wire Cutters show.

Bruce plays a lot of instruments, but my favorite  is the clawhammer banjo. I called him up a few weeks ago to set up a date, and the day after I recorded Reischman in the hotel room, I drove up to Bellingham for a quick visit. We met at Randy’s Roadhouse. I texted him before I got there.

You want anything? I asked.

Cookies and soda

is what he texted back.

So I stopped at the grocery store and picked up a box of Oreo Thins and two bottles of Dad’s Rootbeer.

We hung out for a couple hours and drank root beer and ate the Oreos. He played clawhammer banjo on Nothing Really Matters and Stormy Seas and I listened along with my big white headphones. Then we just hung out for awhile. I played with a sweet dog named Ace and he told me about his latest girlfriends. And then I got back in my car and drove south.

I love this man and I owe him a lot. I'm excited to share his music with you. And if you ever get to hear him play live, lucky you.

Hotel Room Recording with John Reischman.

IMG_5292John Reischman is a bluegrass legend. He and his 1924 Lloyd Loar mandolin have defined West Coast picking for more than a generation. He met me last night at the hotel he was staying at so we could record together. It was the first time I've ever recorded in a hotel room. Once we unplugged the refrigerator it was pretty ideal. We hunkered down at the far end of the room, between the window and the bed, and started laying tracks - Friend and a Friend, Nothing Really Matters, and then he and I both played Her Heart is Like a Rose, which is a song I won an award for at the Kerrville Folk Festival (New Folk 2013). The way I'm going about this - overdubbing in different locations around the country - is fun and offers a lot of options when start arranging and mixing. BUT it was nice to just sit down and play together, in real time. Has a different feeling. Old time.

Afterward we walked down to the lobby and he let me do a selfie while he held the polaroid I took of him. It was a great night.

Check out John's new recording Walk Along John. 

 

White Mortuary.

IMG_4563 This is the casket elevator at White Mortuary, the place my dad worked for my entire childhood. It's ancient. Works on arm muscle and pulleys. Remember that diagram you saw in your junior high physics class, where the guy lifts a car with one arm because of the application of science? Well I do. Something about the more pulleys, the less effort. I don't understand how it all works. But I do remember the sound those huge gears made. Every time we visited him at work, my little brother and I would beg Dad to take us in the elevator down to the basement where the bodies were embalmed. Dad was cool so most of the time he said yes.

The platform shifted and creaked when the three of us took our places, the mediciney smell of the formaldehyde wafting up from below, making my little brother wrinkle his nose. Dad stood close to the gear side of the wall. First he would pull the frayed nylon rope until the attached grey metal bar swung freely. That was the elevator brake. Then he took hold of the black rubber cable, giving it a powerful downward tug. We would stare up at the strange machine overhead  as the wheels began to groan and spin, each in proportion to its size. The descent of the platform was simultaneous, gaining speed as dad whipped the black cable faster and faster. 

That he could power an elevator with his bare hands was just another of our dad's apparent superpowers. The times when my mom was there, she'd watch us giggle until we disappeared below the threshold, and then she'd take the short flight of stairs and be waiting there for us at the bottom. The stairs were way faster, but not fun. Looking back, I'm grateful my dad always had time to treat us to the mechanical elevator ride. It's not like it only happened once.

So today, recording, I made a discovery: the elevator might be charming, but it isn't really an ideal acoustic environment. The song I was recording - Nothing Really Matters - has kind of a brushy quiet guitar thing going. Quiet means the room doesn't matter as much, as long as you're close to the mic. But for some reason there was just this woofy sound no amount of EQ tweaking on the channel strip could ameliorate. After an hour of trying, I gave up and switched guitars. The Martin D-18V is my main instrument, but when I switched to the Gibson, all the problems disappeared. That Gibson is a student model and has about half the tone of the Martin. But in this case, half the tone was perfect.

After I recorded the guitar track, I sang a few passes. The song is all low register at the verse, with a few big loud notes in the chorus. Over time, I've tended more and more to sing quietly, but too much of the same thing is boring. Plus I'm trying to do things that scare me, and singing loud scares me. So I went for it.

I haven't listened to the takes yet, but it felt pretty good.