Find your folk
A PREVIEW OF THE 36th Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Things are a little different this year. Instead of the usual format of the past few years — breaking down the two-day Ann Arbor Folk Festival's lineup into a progressive and classic night — both evenings will be a balancing act of vintage, contemporary, country, indie and Americana styles of folk.
"We really look at the festival as a whole and try to build variety throughout both nights," says Marketing Director Barb Chaffer Authier. "As time goes on, you will probably see more of a mix, as many of the older, more traditional artists are no longer with us. But more artists can resonate on either night." And this is a line-up we, here at Current, are excited about: on Friday, January 25 we get to see Rodriquez and Trampled by Turtles back-to-back and on Saturday, January 26, to close everything out, The Head and the Heart follows Lucinda Williams. Every aspect we like about folk bleeds together into a stellar line-up that will keep you on the edge of your seat. And it doesn't get much better than that.
Singer/guitarist Josiah Johnson chats about the Mumfordization of pop, opening for Obama and a new album by Julian Garcia
Time is accelerated for Seattle indie folk-pop darlings The Head and The Heart. They formed in the summer of 2009, signed with Sub Pop Records in November 2010, dropped an album in April 2011 and less than a week later they were playing network television on Conan. And a little less than four years after coming together, they snag the coveted Saturday night headlining gig at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. For most artists that success can take decades, or a lifetime (Rodriguez’s resurgence is only because a documentary revealed he wasn’t dead!).
The Head and the Heart consists of founders Josiah Johnson (vocals, guitar, percussion) and Jonathan Russell (vocals, guitar, percussion), with Chris Zasche (bass), Kenny Hensley (piano), and Tyler Williams (drums) with the lovely Charity Rose Thielen (violin, vocals) adding some feminine flair. They came together playing the open mic scene in Seattle, and after opening for some of the biggest acts like Dave Matthews, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket and Death Cab For Cutie amongst others, the band continues their meteoric rise by headlining shows across the country. Current caught up with Josiah Johnson to talk about the band’s remarkable trajectory and to reveal what’s in store for January’s Folk Fest.
You guys blew up fast! Is there a formula to your quick rise to success?
I think it would be ridiculous not to note some luck in timing, in terms of folk music. Folk was always there, and had it’s moments, but I think now its got this mainstream resurgence. So a lot of the success we’ve had is wanting to play that kind of music and realizing there’s this whole movement going on around it at the same time.
Also, it’s not being afraid to put in a lot of hard work before you see anything pay off. When we were just writing songs — I dont even know if we were even playing shows at that point — we weren’t just gonna practice like a day or two a week—it was going to be three or four hours a day five days a week, treating it as if it were a full
So you sense a shift in mainstream music towards the indie-folk/rock sound?
Yeah, I don’t think we would have been played on the radio nearly as much if Mumford (Mumford and Sons) hadn’t cracked that code somehow. Right around the time we were releasing our album they got played on the radio and we were like “Damn it, they beat us to it!” But its ultimately been really helpful for us and for bands like The Luminiers—they just got some Grammy shit going on! Which is rad.
You’ve been touring nonstop since forming, do you notice anything different about Midwest audiences compared to your home crowd in the Pacific Northwest?
The big thing I notice is when we play places like New York or Los Angeles or Nashville, people are so jaded because they can go see an awesome show seven days a week. So one show isn’t as big of a deal. I get the sense in the Midwest that no matter how many times a band tours through they are a little more stoked for it because they sometimes get passed over. The energy in the Midwest—there’s definitely something there you don’t get from some really huge markets on the coasts.
The band did a lot of work to “get out the vote” and for Obama during the Presidential election. Was that something you were approached to do, or was the group compelled to?
We’ve been moving so fast, we know we’re doing well, but I don’t think we ever thought we could make a difference—we just didn’t think we were that big of a band. But we were first approached to play a fundraiser for Barak Obama around Seattle in February and that was incredible. We were like “We just opened for the president! That’s ridiculous! That’s such an honor.”
So we left it open in terms of anything that we could do, and they started asking us to do more, especially in battle ground states. We visited offices in Colorado, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
We definitely felt that since we’re on the road and we can’t be calling people, we could do something to get the volunteers psyched and energized about what they were doing. Let them know they are appreciated—that’s something we were excited to do.
Recently you contributed to a holiday album with acts like The Shins, fun. and Paul McCartney for Starbucks. Is that a hipster ironic thing to like, or do people genuinely love Christmas songs?
I think people genuinely love holiday songs. When we recorded this song we didn’t want to record it a standard way. We wanted to record something that sounds like what we do, but you can’t entirely take it away from the feeling of what a Christmas song is like.
I think that people get into the holidays and get sentimental and those songs genuinely set the mood. Obviously, they can just as easily listen to old classics, but they choose to listen to these new bands take on it. So there’s a little bit of hipsterism in it for sure, but people genuinely get into the mood of Christmas.
So when will fans get to hear some new tunes? Are you guys working on an album?
Yes! The last month and a half we’ve hunkered down in our practice space and we’ve taken songs we’ve written the last couple of years, arranged them and we’re writing some new ones. I think we’re like halfway to two thirds there. We’re gonna do some recording in January, write some more and finish up in early spring. I’m not sure when it’ll be out.
The goal is to play several of them (new songs) when we’re in Ann Arbor and that’ll be nice for us to hear the songs outside of our basement practice space.
Trumpet, musical saw and melodica player Zach Nichols talks about the new album, complements from Ryan Adams and the Legend of Zelda by Scott Recker
It may be a weird time to have an album release party, but, on the first day of the festival —Friday, January 25 — Frontier Ruckus celebrates dropping their fourth full-length album, The Eternity of Dimming, there will be quite a few familiar faces around. The band formed in the early 2000s at Brother Rice High School in Detroit, where Matthew Millia and David Jones went to school. Since then, they have trucked through all the rites of passage: playing at Bonnaroo, being hailed by Rolling Stone, touring Europe, and now they bring it all back home, but first they catch up with Current.
In a few days [at the time of the interview; the concert took place last month in Cincinnati] you guys are playing with the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson; that's pretty exciting stuff. Do you remember the first time you listened to her music?
I remember I had a YouTube hour with Wanda Jackson when I was a freshman in college. That wasn't the first time I heard Wanda, but it was the first time I delved into her, listening to song after song. I remember she had the song "Fujiyama Mama," which was a hit in Japan, that I was showing my friends for a while.
Johnny Corndawg is also on the bill, which makes it a wildly eclectic line-up. How was that set up?
We had a show planned for that night in Cincinnati. I think we were going to be headlining. But, we were asked, and I think Wanda Jackson was looking for a place to play, and we would much rather open for Wanda Jacskon than play a headlining gig.
Between the artwork and the single from the forthcoming album, Eternity of Dimming, it seems to be a reflection on the memories from childhood and how things were different then.
That is very accurate. The lyrics of the record were written by Matthew; he would definitely agree with you that it is about the difference between childhood and what is currently going on. For the artwork, all of the band members were in Matthew's backyard and he had set up all these things: the soccer balls, the party hats, the cake. And, yeah, he wanted it be a surreal childhood pizza party and, of course, we all brought our cameras and took pictures of it while the sun was setting. That's how we got the artwork.
The last time the band put out an album, Ryan Adams tweeted that he "was loving the new Frontier Ruckus." After putting so much time and energy into something, what's it like to receive that sort of endorsement?
It felt really great. It was kind of a shock when he tweeted about us, because he was hanging out in Kalamazoo a few years before that and a friend of ours — who we didn't really know that well at the time, but now we do — recommended to him, since he had the night off, why not go see Frontier Ruckus; we were playing in the same town. So he came to the show, I think this was four years ago, and he said very nice things. After that — no communication for a few years; then he tweeted [about us]. It always feels nice when someone keeps track of you.
I saw a YouTube video of you and Dave playing a variety of songs from the Legend of Zelda video game series. What's the best Zelda game?
Dave and I, we have had the argument about this. I kind of think Ocarina of Time is the best. I fell in love with the older Zeldas first, of course. But Ocarina of Time was so good.
Speaking of Ocarina, one of the songs you guys played was the Lon Lon Ranch Theme song; someone commented on the video that Dave looks like Talon from Lon Lon Ranch.
He does. He definitely does. If he was wearing some overalls it would be even better. Next time.
Fiddle Player Ryan Young chats with us about recording in a log cabin, The Boss and being animated by the creators of Squidbillies by Scott Recker
Not to lean on a movie cliche, but sometimes a prosperous door opens right after another is slammed in your face. Take, for example, Dave Simonett, a founding member of Trampled By Turtles who, a little over a decade ago, was playing a final gig in Duluth with an electric band he was in at the time, when someone, who offered to help carry his equipment, just walked off with his guitar into the night. What can you do? Dave dusted off his acoustic and started what has come to be recognized as one of the most important blue-collar Americana bands on the scene. Ten years and six albums later, Current caught up with the band’s fiddle player, Ryan Young, who joined the band almost five years ago and has been an integral part of the its evolution.
The new record, Stars and Satellites, was recorded in a log house outside of the band's homebase, Duluth, where you guys lived and recorded in the same space. How did that shape the record?
It made it more relaxed. [Sometimes recording] kind of has a doctor’s office feel to it or you have to worry about getting your money’s worth, because you're paying by the hour, so you just try to get it done. So this felt really good.
You came into the band a little later than other members. How did you know the band was the right fit for you and that you were the right fit for the band?
I was looking to be in a traveling band. I liked their music and they seemed to like the way that I played.
You guys recently did a cover of Bruce Sprinsteen's "Open All Night" on a tribute album honoring the 30th anniversary of Nebraska. What is it about that album that is inspirational to you?
Everybody just kind of liked the raw emotion of that record. It's not overproduced like some music can be; there's no studio trickery or anything.
You, Dave and Tim also have an electric side-project called Dead Man Winter. How did that start?
It's just an excuse for us to play electric instruments. Dave writes the music for that as well. And some of the stuff he writes wouldn't necessarily fit with Trampled By Turtles, so it's another outlet, I think, as a songwriter.
I just watched the music video for the song "Walt Whitman," which was done by the creators of the show Squidbillies. It kind of threw you guys into the cartoon’s world — an animated version of the band, plays the song for the characters. I take it you guys are fans of the show?
I actually have never seen it. But, it kind of worked out. We did one of their theme songs; they have a different band do the theme song for each episode. We ended up doing one of those and that's how we got to know them. And then it came time for us to do a video and we weren't necessarily too interested in starring in a video; most of the guys in the band aren't into that, too much. We called up the Squidbillies guys, because we had already done that theme song with them, and they were into it. So, they made the video for us and it turned out pretty cool. I was pretty excited to be animated.
The 36th Annual
Ann Arbor Folk Festival
More folk to freak out about...
With country in her heart and blues in her fingers, Americana's scrappy sweetheart showed the world that you don't have to be a boy to be a grizzled badass. Her self-assured delivery balanced by a tender poeticism, drove her to simultaneously be an outsider and one of the world's most respected songwriters. That probably has a bit to do with her being three and a half steps ahead of her time: country music, for the most part, has rewarded sugary female artists and, God knows, Lucinda punches as hard as any man out there.
You have to be a special sort of musician — and person, for that matter — to MC a folk festival. You have to be articulate, funny, charismatic, witty, a little odd, and very talented. The Ark has a way of sniffing out viable candidates; and Colin Hay fits the description. As the lead vocalist for Men at Work, the Scottish-Australian songwriter and actor has made his mark on popular culture since the 80s, dropping albums with the group, being a member of Ringo Starr's All Star Band, and —where younger fans may have been introduced to him — as a sporadic cameo character on the TV show Scrubs. However you know him — or even if you don't — look forward to his short bursts after each act during tear down/set up time.
It's safe to say this guy has traveled a Woody Guthrie-like bumpy road faster than anyone in the last half century. If you haven't heard the story yet, in a nutshell, it goes something like this: he was signed in the early 1970s; released two albums; was dropped by his label; became wildly popular and inspirational in South Africa; had an album go platinum in Africa; all his overseas fans thought he committed suicide; he didn't know about any of the last three things mentioned and was found living in Detroit in the late 1990s. If you want the story in more detail, check out the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which premiered at Sundance. But, in the meantime, just appreciate his hard-hitting social poetry that was amazingly — and rightfully — revived.
One of the most interesting bands on the ticket, they have unbelievable four-part harmonies; the way they feed off each other is uncanny, which brings up that three of them are siblings. Ian, Eric and Brittany Holljes — three of the band's six members — grew up together, bouncing from North Carolina to Nashville to San Francisco. Switching singing duties and building songs, they produce a wave of vocals, backed by rhythmic, pounding and deliberately overwhelming percussion, rolling guitars and sporadic keys. The only qualm is that sometimes the big vocals get a little church choir-ish; maybe, at times, they're just trying too hard to be earnest. But with a lot of hope, and a little skepticism, this is an act not to miss. —SR