Edmonton Winters & the Winter King: An Interview with Tyler Butler

Despite that Edmonton’s Tyler Butler has previously recorded an album, he has become one of my favorite artists discovered this year. His new album,
Winter King
, will be listed on my best albums of 2011 list for its gorgeous stripped down, spacious production of soft, dark folk music. Now, months after our botched yet enjoyable interview and conversation via Skype, I’m happy to finally get to share it with you…

Edmonton settles itself into another heavy winter, put off by a brief pocket of hot air. I know, and everyone knows, that the icy grip hovers above us, waiting to ensnare the city once more. –Tyler Butler

CFM: Describe how an Edmonton winter affects your personal and social life.

TB: Addressing the social first, the cold affects our ability and willingness to leave our centers of warmth. Before all excursions, we are faced with the question: “Is this worth braving the winter?” In Edmonton, our burgeoning scene, now recognizable, steadily chips away at that question. Our musical gatherings are deeply engrained with a sense of place and community — absolute hallmarks of my perception of folk music and the folk.

Addressing the personal, winter has great affect over my lifestyle. I eat differently: root vegetables, stews. I sleep differently: guarding a warm pocket of air under my blankets against the morning. I travel differently: riding the bus with troubling frequency. And, I tend to spend much more time indoors. Perhaps this explains my tendency to write prolifically during the winter.

CFM: In what way does Edmonton and Canada affect your music and your own personal taste in music?

TB: The musicians in Edmonton who developed alongside me — Caity Fisher, Liam Trimble, Jessica Jalbert, Layne L’Heureux, to name just a small few — are a constant source of inspiration. Winter King speaks as much to them as it does to me, and their influences are felt in every nuance of my style. A great deal of my listening time is spent on my friends’ music. Outside of Edmonton, I am often inspired by the hardworking musicians who trek across the wide expanses of Canada — Zachary Lucky or Eamon McGrath, for example. Garrison to garrison, their dedication and craftsman’s approach is an attribute of the Canadian touring musician that I profoundly admire.

CFM: What was your creative process like while making and recording Winter King? What was your inspiration for the album?

TB: My creative process is always similar. Lyrical ideas and a thematic outline come first. Then, as music comes to me, I fit it into aspects of that outline, and complete the songs individually. This does not always result in a conceptual album, but helps frame the completed project so that it sounds like an album — as opposed to a collection of unrelated songs.

Winter King is unique because it was written in two stages. The second half of the record, titled “Waxwing,” was recorded a few months before the first half, as a project I showed a few friends. The first half, titled “House Painter,” is more conceptual, although the whole record aligns to the themes I initially laid out.

CFM: You borrowed heavily from winter mythology on the album, explain these myths. Why use them? What do they add to the songs?

TB: Edmonton is a city without a story. When I wrote Winter King, I collected a series of myths about winter, and stories about the greater concerns about winter: life, death, claustrophobia, sex, companionship, friendship. In a way that felt (perhaps unjustifiably) Canadian, I integrated these myths, their characters and their themes into stories that are set, I feel, quite recognizably in Edmonton. My hope for Winter King is that it encourages other writers in Edmonton to engage with hyper-local settings, and in turn create a kind of mythology or sense of story around the city.

CFM: Is there one song that is more personal or holds more meaning than others on the album? If so, why is it more personal and what is its meaning?

TB: A brief answer: “Kingfisher”. It is a highly literal song about an evening with a dear friend.

CFM: How often do you write? What inspires you to write? Have you written any more songs since the release of Winter King? What are your plans for the future?

TB: I write very frequently. Not always songs — I have written short stories and poetry since Winter King. I have written a few new songs.Most recently, I published “Sprinter in a Field” to my bandcamp page. I hope to complete a new album this year, although I’m still working out the details of how I will record it. We may not have seen the last of Winter King either…

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Q & A with Avant-Garde Folk Singer-Songwriter, David Simard

I approached David Simard, an avant-garde Canadian folk singer, to do a simple interview and he so kindly agreed. And, even though Simard is a relative newcomer, for the past two years the Canadian press has been touting him as one of the best. I happen to agree and you will too once you’ve read this interview and listened to his new album, Slower, Lower.

CFM: When and how did you first become interested in music? How long have you been playing music? Have you always wanted to be a musician/singer-songwriter?

DS: I was always singing and telling stories as a kid. At a certain age I started writing these stories out. Like a lot of people, I took piano lessons for a while and then quit as soon as my parents let me. When I was twelve, I taught myself to play the guitar and the rest came together so naturally that I haven’t looked back since.

CFM: How does it feel to have your first album out and into the hands of the public?

DS: It’s a great relief, actually. I felt like I was carrying so many songs in me that I was kind of choking on them. I’d joke to other songwriters that there were too many goddamn kids in the house and that I couldn’t wait for them all to move out, get a life of their own, and maybe make some space for a new brood. I’m happy with how the album sounds, and I hope that the songs do well for
themselves.

CFM: You have been named in Canadian publications as one of the Best Folk Acts of 2009 and Best Singer-Songwriter of 2010, how has this affected you personally and professionally? Has it added any pressure?

DS: It was really encouraging to see that there was a community of people in Montreal actually taking some notice of me. Other than that, it’s just been good press!

CFM: How would you describe your music and songwriting style?

DS: Hmm… I might leave that question to you and the others reading this, April!

CFM: Slower, Lower contains many different styles, tempos, and instrumentations. Why all of the variety?

DS: It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Like I said before, there were a lot of songs waiting for this record so the album itself spans about six years worth of songs. Most of them are more recent than that, but there are a few that have hung on throughout some very different periods in my life. Gives it a larger sort of landscape, I think.

CFM: Describe Slower, Lower. What inspired the album? What was your creative process like while making and recording the album?

DS: Slower, Lower was actually our mantra during the recording process. I’d been playing with the Da Da’s for over a year so we didn’t have to think much about the song structures or arrangements too much. We just decided to try to find the tempo and the key where the songs really dug in, which inevitably had us saying, “Well, let’s try it a little slower, a little lower too, maybe.” A lot of the songs stayed where they were originally, but a few really came to life when we had them in the right place.

CFM: What motivates you to write, record and perform?

DS: Writing is a necessity for me – singing as well, but I don’t often write just for myself. The idea of an audience changes things. Something that’s being observed takes on a very different quality than it had before. I’m fascinated with that concept and how it relates to songwriting. So, the writing generally comes from a very personal place, then it becomes conscious of itself, and then it has to run it’s natural course by being recorded and performed for an audience.

CFM: What’s next for you?

DS: Well… The album is out now and I’m kind of cheering it on from the sidelines. The Winter months should be calm ones, and when the Spring comes I’m planning to move into my family’s shack in Northern B.C. For the summer, I’ll be chasing the Canadian festival circuit around the country.

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Q & A with Seattle Busker, Ben Fisher


A few months ago, I featured an album from a popular Seattle busker by the name of Ben Fisher. His debut album, Heavy Boots & Underwoods, is a great list of songs written and sung by Ben and is somewhat reminiscent of the folk singers of the past but done in his own style. And, although Ben is not as well-known outside of Seattle, his star is quickly rising. Recently, he did a live acoustic performance on Seattle’s KEXP radio station and will be one of the featured acts at Seattle’s Folk Festival‘s winter concert event at Columbia City Theater on Saturday, December 10th.

So, as Ben gains more recognition, I thought I’d better score an interview with the man. You can read it below. It’s actually entertaining and I guarantee you’ll enjoy reading it.

CFM: When and how did you first become interested in music? When did you realize music was what you wanted to do?

BF: My parents started me on classical piano at a very young age, but I wasn’t particularly interested in it. It bored me, and I would sneak into the kitchen to knock a few minutes off the stove timer that my mom set for me when I was practicing. I started playing vihuela (a Mexican guitar that I played with a rounded back and 5 nylon strings) in a mariachi band when I was living in Atlanta, and I used my mom’s classical guitar to practice because I couldn’t take the vihuela home with me. I taught myself some chord progressions on it and started listening to my dad’s Dylan and Springsteen and Neil Young albums at around the same time, probably when I was in eighth or ninth grade.

I realized music is what I wanted to do the first time I saw a video of Dylan playing live in 1966. The footage of him playing during that era is pure magic. How could anybody not want to do that?!

CFM: Describe your experiences in and with music thus far. How does it feel to get the kind of recognition you have been receiving?

BF: It’s like being patted on the back for eating your favorite food or watching your favorite movie. That’s not to say I’m ungrateful though, I’m completely and utterly thankful that people enjoy my music, and making cold hard cash when I play blows my mind.

CFM: How has busking helped with your music and career? Why do you prefer busking to performing in clubs?

BF: Busking has helped me develop my voice — my literal singing voice. I’ve gone from sounding like a bad Dylan imitator with a head cold to having my own bellow-y voice which you can hear a block and a half away. When I busk at farmers markets, the other buskers hate me because I drown them out and they have to steer clear of me. Busking prepares you for playing in front of people whereas practicing in your room doesn’t.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I prefer busking to playing shows, but I’m definitely more familiar with it. One thing that I enjoy about busking is not having to use microphones. They scare the hell out of me. I like being able to control my sound rather than leaving it up to technology. Another thing I like about busking is the 2 or 3 year olds who are mesmerized (or petrified) by me and refuse to leave when their parents try to drag them away. I love seeing the elderly people who dance in their wheelchairs to my versions of “Folsom Prison Blues” or “The Weight” at farmers markets. The 80-90 year-old crowd don’t generally make it out to my shows, but they roll down the sidewalk in packs.

CFM: As part of the Seattle music scene, how has the city affected your music and development as a musician? What have you contributed to Seattle, its streets, and its music?

BF: As many musically literate people know, the Seattle music scene is extremely vibrant and phenomenally rich. When you’re a musician living in Seattle, you’re surrounded by musicians who inspire you and challenge you. I thought my album was great when it was all done. Then I heard Bryan John Appleby’s new album and Kelli Schaefer’s and Noah Gundersen’s, and I thought mine was complete crap. When you’re immersed in a group of people that have talent pouring out of their ears, it demands that you work harder to keep up with the pack.

People like to joke that I write too many songs about fish. Hell, there’s a salmon on the cover of my album. If I was still living in dusty old Atlanta, where I grew up, I almost surely wouldn’t be writing nautical songs like “Cast Your Line” and “For Hiram M. Chittenden”, the latter of which is named for the Ballard Locks here in Seattle. Seattle is a beautiful town and the landscape has found its way into some of my songs.

There are a hundreds of great bands in Seattle, but when I listen to some of them, it seems like they don’t consider lyrics to be a priority. I pride myself on my lyrics, and I think that I add a lyrical presence to Seattle’s music.

CFM: Describe the music that you create and your songwriting process. How often do you write? What inspires you to write, make music, and perform?

BF: I think it was John Prine who said something along the lines of “If given the choice of getting a hot dog or writing a song, I will always go get a hot dog.” That’s me. I love making music but I hate forcing it. Songs hit me; I don’t seek them out. A specific line (which usually winds up in the song’s chorus) will slap me in the face at the dentist’s office, or at dinner, or on the bus. I write when I have something that’s been bouncing around in my head, which could be seven times a week or not for a whole month. The songs I write have to do with what I’m up to at the time as well. I took a class about Mystical Islamic Literature at the University of Washington last quarter and found myself writing all sorts of songs that sounded like they were written in Oman 1,400 years ago.

For example, my song “Cast Your Line” came from listening to a lot of Dylan and a lot of Mark Knopfler simultaneously. The first line, “Where she leads me, I do not know” is from a Dylan song that never got released. The second line “But it’s fishing season, and it’s time to go” was my riff on Mark Knopfler’s “The Trawlerman’s Song.” Then after I pilfered ideas from two of my idols, I made it my own.

I’m inspired to make music every time I see a great show (I saw Richard Thompson a few weeks ago; he’s 62 and his fingers are as limber as they were 40 years ago) or watch a great music documentary (every time I need inspiration, I’ll watch a recording of Springsteen & The E Street Band and that gets me going again).

CFM: Discuss the recording process for your first full-length album, Heavy Boots & Underwoods. Explain your feelings and what it’s like to have your music heard not only by the people of Seattle, but nationwide.

BF: I met a Seattle singer-songwriter named Gabriel Mintz around this time last year. He’s a great guy who I’ve played a few shows with. He introduced me to his friend Bradford Button who plays bass in a band called Whalebones and also has a recording studio. I recorded my album with him. I went into it thinking that it’d be just a solo album with guitar and vocals, maybe a little harmonica. However, Brad cut me a deal, and I had enough money to spend more time than I expected in the studio, so I started adding more instruments onto the songs. Gabe sang on a few tracks, Dylan Rieck played cello, and I played a bunch of instruments that I don’t actually know how to play.

I sell a lot of CDs when I busk, but the first time I sold a copy of my album on Bandcamp to a stranger, I thought it must have been some sort of computer error. The first thing that comes to my mind is the rapid globalization of this day and age, but the internet has helped independent musicians get their music out there in ways that didn’t exist 30 years ago, which is definitely a step forward for unsigned bands.

CFM: Which musicians do you admire? Why?

BF: I love Townes Van Zandt and Ryan Adams and Tom Waits, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I admire any of them. I admire Josh Ritter. First of all, he’s obscenely talented, but I respect him because on a regular basis he’ll stand for hours outside the venue after his show and talk to the folks that came to see him. You talk to him for five minutes and feel like you’ve known him for your entire life. He’s a guy who has made it; he’s been on Letterman, and Springsteen goes to his shows as a fan, but he’s completely down to earth.

I have a friend whose name is Brandon Decker who lives in Arizona. He’s a singer-songwriter and he tours all over the damn country. For some reason, before I met him I thought touring was something that was done exclusively by musicians with record deals and tour buses, but when I met Decker, I realized that all you needed was the motivation and enough gas in your tank. I admire him because he gives up the day-to-day comforts that we have like sleeping in your own bed every night to play his music for complete strangers.

CFM: What are your future plans? What would you most like to accomplish with your music and in your career as a musician?

BF: I plan to graduate from the UW with a degree in Arabic, just as a back up. I’m going to record another album in 2012, probably the spring or early summer. I’d like to tour, either next summer, or if not, the summer after that. I’d like to be able to make music a personally fulfilling but also financially sustainable career. I’ve already worked at Starbucks. I don’t want to go that route again.

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Pharis & Jason Romero – A Passing Glimpse

Every once in a great while the stars align and the universe works its mystical powers to match and unite people into perfect and harmonious couples and/or partners like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Johnny Cash and June Carter, and, now, Pharis and Jason Romero. However, unlike some of these pairings, Pharis and Jason aren’t only united in music but united in marriage as well, and this comes across on their new album, A Passing Glimpse.

Pharis and Jason are both well-known in the old-time music circles. Pharis for her work with the group Outlaw Social and Jason for his work at J. Romero Banjo Co. handcrafting banjos. On A Passing Glimpse, both showcase these amazing talents harmonizing and picking, which Jason does on banjos he made by hand.

Their old-timey music not only reflects their hands-on approach, but, also, their rustic lifestyle deep in the woods of Northern British Columbia. Pharis’ voice is as golden as the sun’s rays seeping through the forest ceiling and Jason’s banjo and guitar playing is as thick as the pines. When listening to Pharis and Jason, it becomes clear that this is music made by two authentic people who not only sing the songs but also live the lifestyle.

A Passing Glimpse is a beautiful collection of antique tunes and equally ancient-sounding songs written by Pharis. It’s a well-crafted album made by the hands of and from the hearts of two people who love each other as much as they love the music they make.

Pharis & Jason Romero’s Website
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Uncle Bengine and the Restraining Orders – Comes In Nines

Comes In Nines Cover ARt

Uncle Bengine and the Restraining Orders make me happy. It’s partly their dirty punk rock take on country music and it’s partly because they remind me of an early 90’s punk band called “23 More Minutes,” a group that has always been dear to my heart. 23 More Minutes mostly did the loud punk thing but they also threw in some acoustic numbers which, given the genre, seemed pretty risky at the time.

Comes In Nines is the first full length from Uncle Bengine and the Restraining Orders and they fit a lot of piss and vinegar into the album’s 33 minutes.  Like 23 More Minutes, this Harrisonburg, VA trio is not afraid of genre bending. In some songs they mix the old Bay Area pop punk sound with more traditional country instrumentation, like in “Jesse Lee and Daniel D” and the title track, “Comes in Nines.” On other songs, such as “Devil’s Blood,” they follow in the footsteps of The Gun Club and inject that lonesome desert sound into the musical stew. The album also has some pretty fantastic cover art.

One of my favorite things about listening to new bands is discovering how they ingest previous forms of music, chew them all up, and spit them out again.  And since we’re quickly coming up on Thanksgiving, I just gotta say that I’m grateful for genre-bending country and western punkers from the east coast.

Uncle Bengine Website

Download and/or Stream Comes In Nines

Uncle Bengine and the Restraining Orders – Jesse Lee and Daniel D

Gregory Alan Isakov – This Empty Northern Hemisphere

This Empty Northern Hemisphere

There are some albums that just command your attention and This Empty Northern Hemisphere is one. Released in 2009 by South African-born, Philadelphia-raised and Boulder-based Gregory Alan Isakov, This Empty Northern Hemisphere is a fantastic listen through and through. Isakov’s career as a singer-songwriter has been like his songs, quiet and unassuming.  And, for an album which Isakov says was “recorded in many different locations: a closed down bookshop, my apartment, the studio and our friend Brandi Carlile’s house,” there is a natural flow to the songs and their loose and emotional stories.

In This Empty Northern Hemisphere, Isakov shows that he is not only a competent songwriter, but an excellent one at that. You see, he has this extraordinary talent of stringing together some of the simplest words and turning them into meaningful lyrics with such profound sentiments. For example, in “Words” Isakov sings, “Words mean more at night/ Like a song/ And did you ever notice/ The way that light means more than it did all day long?” And, if you think about it, Isakov is right. Words, especially those written or spoken to a lover, whether near or far, always seem to be more important and have more meaning at night. Of course, this isn’t the only lyrical example. In an album centered around love, heartache and nostalgia, Isakov effortlessly creates honest and emotional lines like “Hope was a letter I never could send/ Love was a country I couldn’t defend” in “Big Black Car.”

These words of sadness and longing are only matched by Isakov’s melancholic voice, which at times sounds flawless. Equally flawless is Brandi Carlile, who provides her remarkable voice to a handful of songs. In “That Moon Song,” Isakov opens as Carlile expertly adds her distinctive vocals intermittently throughout the song. I must say, that for me, the very moment Carlile joins Isakov, it’s as if the clouds part and the angels sing. It’s these duets with Carlile that give This Empty Northern Hemisphere its moments of brilliant beauty.

Also, beautiful is the folksy instrumentation surrounded by string sections and orchestral arrangements. “The Master and the Hound” is absolutely gorgeous — probably the most stunning song on the album — with Isakov’s painfully heartbreaking vocal performance supported by the distressed finger-picking of an acoustic guitar and ending almost on a cinematic note. The use of the acoustic guitar, mandolin, pedal steel and a faint banjo gives “If I Go, I’m Goin'” a depressed quality while the affecting duet creates feelings that are all too real and raw. However, despite the emotional gravity of the record, Isakov does include some great mid-tempo tracks like “Evelyn” and “Virginia May” to lighten the mood.

This Empty Northern Hemisphere is a poignant tour de force of richly textured and poetic songs. It’s a glowing collection of folk that will continue to find its way back to my ears and heart for many years to come.

Gregory Alan Isakov’s Website
Purchase This Empty Northern Hemisphere

Gregory Alan Isakov – That Moon Song

Corinna Rose

Corinna Rose

Here’s a song to help you get through Monday. It’s called “Belle Guitare” and it comes from Corinna Rose’s new self-titled EP. It’s a good ol’ barnburner of a tune that slowly builds before erupting into a three alarm blaze. By the time the third verse rolls around, the whole band has joined in and you’ll likely want to start kicking holes in your cubicle. Proceed with caution. The rest of the EP is worth picking up as well, especially at its name-your-own-price rate. “Born on a Mountain” has a similar vibe to “Belle Guitare,” whereas the other two tracks — “Amanda” and “Hymn for a Heartbreaker” — tend more towards indie and are reminiscent of early Ida.

Rose’s previous musical project, the Rusty Horse Band, also has a single up on Bandcamp called “Green Mountain State.”  The track is a catchy little number that exists at the intersection of indie and folk and is used in Sarah Polley’s new movie Take This Waltz.

Corinna Rose Website

Stream and download EP