AAA Music meets Abigail Washburn
aaamusic | On 01, Feb 2011
Currently touring the UK, AAAMusic were able to chat to Abigail Washburn about everything from Vants to the Beijing Olympics! Read the results below:
AAAMusic: Hiya Abigail, How are you today?!
Abigail Washburn: I’m very fine, thank you for asking! Everyone in the band is wearing what we call “vants” (van pants- cozy pants meant for travel) and telling stories on the long ride from Newcastle to Winchester. We decided to try to recall something smart we learned from college and share it with the band. It started smart with discussions of cultural theory and evolutionary biology but quickly deteriorated into sharing inane swear word games and napkin tricks learned in the cafeteria during meal times.
AAAMusic: When did you decide that you wanted to write and perform songs?
AW: I always sang in school and community choirs (never chosen for the leads although I would try out) but it wasn’t until I had spent several years in China that I realized I wanted to learn a string-ed instrument, specifically the banjo because of its ties to traditional US culture. I had spent so much time studying and loving China that one day I wole up and realized that I hardly knew a thing about my own trad cultural roots. The banjo is the perfect window into US roots music because it arrived with the earliest immigrants and evolved into a beloved and statedly “American” sound. Strangely I had a reverse experience from most musicians in terms of my path to the stage and professional musician status and writing. I was literally “chosen”.
I was on a “farewell to America” road trip along the east coast, soaking in the sights and sounds of Appalachia and learning a few banjo tunes along the way. My last stop was Louisville, KY for a Bluegrass convention. I brought in my banjo but spent most of the time listening to other people jam in the hallways of the convention center. After randomly connecting with several young women we sat down in an elevator lobby and played thru the few tunes I knew. An A&R rep from a record company walked by at that moment and asked if I would come to Nashville to cut a demo for their record company! It blew my mind and changed my life forever. I started writing songs and learning how to play music on mic at that point. I really started to become a performer with the band Uncle Earl when I started touring with them 6 months or so after the star-aligned shift from sinophile to musician.
AAAMusic: Are there any people or musics that particularly influence your songwriting?
AW: Friends and family and people in my immediate surrounding probably have the biggest impact but it’s a hard one to totally describe. Certainly my husband, Bela Fleck, has had a huge influence on how I think about myself and my music and how i think about the possibility of it all- he is such an outrageously gifted, skilled and creative human… I felt lucky to be in his presence and try to soak some portion of it in.
In terms of specific artists that have had a major role in my songwriting, there are a few that I listen to continually. Often I will listen to one song that I love several times over and over and then shut it off pick up the pen and try to write my own version of the same song. Artists that come to mind for this specifically are George Washington Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson, Hazel Dickens & Zhou Xuan.
AAAMusic: You have performed both by yourself and with groups; do you have a preference?
AW: I haven’t spent much time performing alone. The few times I have had the chance there has been a discovery of absolute freedom that is enlightening, emboldening and scary all at the same time. I do not fancy myself a skilled solo performer but hope to build up to feeling comfortable as a solo performer some time down the road. For now I am fully engaged in the band environment. Touring City of Refuge I get to be with a couple of extremely dear and talented friends on a continual basis. The musical mind meld of the band environment is unbelievably fulfilling on a personal and musical level. We’re all trying to bring out the best in one another in order to communicate the love of life and music and growth to audience…. and on the magical nights, which luckily happen often, there is a full sense of reciprocity. Perhaps at some point I will find a similar dynamic with audiences as a solo performer but for now I’m reveling in the beauty of my bandmates and the village-like approach to art and beauty and sharing with audiences.
AAAMusic: Is touring something that you enjoy or do you prefer a studio setting?
AW: I love touring because I love people and I think our purpose here on earth is to help one another. Recorded music is certainly an aspect of this as well but the live show is where we get to connect and feel the beauty of the moment and it’s passing together. I wouldn’t give this up for anything.
AAAMusic: You are currently touring the UK; how did the audiences here compare to the ones in the US?
AW: I have never toured the UK under my own name. Other than my long term relationship to the Celtic Connection audience everywhere else feels like new terrain… like I’m meeting the audiences for the first time, and for them it is a first as well. Newness is a vexing and beautiful thing. Some nights I find myself wondering if the audience is mostly connected to folk because my musical past is mostly folk-oriented, but this new sound has a firm planting in progressive sounds of rock, pop and even art music at moments. Sometimes I’m not sure who is sitting in the audience and what they are expecting. I think the best nights are when I don’t think about it at all… just play!
AAAMusic: Performing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 must have been pretty special; do you have any other live highlights so far?
AW: One of the most memorable shows ever was playing the Animal Husbandry College of Tibet with the Sparrow Quartet in 2006. We were the first US band to officially tour Tibet since 1949. And no foreigners had ever been to this particular area of Tibet. We were literally aliens to this audience- they loved us because of our novelty and reacted to parts of the music I never would have expected… like clapping in the middle of a very slow verse or standing up to clear their throat and spit in the middle of a song w/o concern for its impact on the performance. It was disorienting, surprising and mind-blowingly interesting.
On this UK tour so far, we had a fantastic experience with the crowd in Sheffield! Oh my! THey were so fun to play for. We were excited by their enthusiasm and they seemed to respond to everything we threw at them. They even started singing spontaneously on a song called Keys to the Kingdom that we hadn’t even taught them… it was incredible. That one will go down in my mind as one of the most enjoyable shows ever.
AAAMusic: How did your performances with Richard Thompson and Paul Jones come along?
AW: Joe Boyd invited me over for the Incredible String Band reunion show in summer of 2009. I formed a dear friendship with Robyn Hitchcock on the show at that time which has led to my participation in his psyh-rock folk unit called The Hungry Moment. I also had a chance to play a few songs with Richard Thompson who I have been a fan of for a long time – it was a thrill to me and I certainly hope that in time it wiil lead to more chances to play together. I saw him at the bar in Glasgow the other night and luckily he remembered me on sight!
My connection to the UK however, began with the maestro John Paul Jones. Lucky for Uncle Earl, the all ‘g-earl’ string band I was in for 5 years, JPJ was in love with old time music. He came to a US folk festival called Merlefest where he met & connected with Rayna Gellert (fiddler for Uncle Earl), and I got to meet him ever so briefly as well. When the band was brainstorming producers we thought of him although we couldn’t imagine he’d even consider the notion, but Rayna reached out any way. And MUCH to our surprise he agreed to produce us! It’s been a magical friendship that has had long-lasting positive impact on me as well as all the other ‘g’earls’.
AAAMusic: What is the story behind the Afterquake EP?
AW: I have been going to China, studying Chinese language and culture, since 1996. My first extended time in China was Sichuan Province,Chengdu, 1997 for 6 months. I have been back again and again to visit dear friends there. In 2008, a massive earthquake hit western Sichuan killing hundreds of thousands. I was concerned and wanted to see if there was a way I could help. I went to Sichuan for 6weeks and taught American Folk music at Sichuan University. Nights I would travel with the Sichuan Quake Relief organization to relocation schools around the disaster zone. I connected so many amazingly brave children. They told me their stories of recovery and sang me songs. That’s when I knew I wanted to help share their voices with more people. With the continual partnership of Sichuan Quake relief (SQR), I got together with The Shanghai Restoration Project producer, Dave Liang, to make a record of the children’s voices to raise money for SQR, raise awareness of the lingering issues of recovery and hopefully provide an avenue for healing thru music for the children involved in the project. Luckily we have been able to raise money for treatment of PTSD and have had wonderful interactions with the students that have proven that the project had a positive impact on their sense of self and sense hope for the future… it has done the same for me!
The album is for sale and the money from the sales continues to go to great uses for the continual recovery efforts. The album is produced by myself and Dave Liang in effort to make music that the kids themselves would like, hence the electronic beats and pop treatments. If you want to support it: www.afterquakemusic.com
AAAMusic: Did you enjoy making ‘City of Refuge’ and how has the response been to the album so far?
AW: The making of city of refuge has been journey of enormous proportion and significance in my life.
First of all, the music itself continues to reveal it’s own powers over me as I continually play it live… words and characters in the songs channel new and deeper meanings as they embed themselves further into my psyche and become a part of an audience as well.
Secondly, the collaborations necessary to make this music, both the recorded and live versions, are varied, unexpected and life-changing. 2 years ago I didn’t even know at least half of the people on the record… I have found musical friendships over the last little bit that have totally changed my musical and personal trajectory. Tucker Martine, the producer, brought a whole new transformative set of expectations and odeas to my musical orientation… he wanted live, intuited beauty to fill the sonic landscape of this record as opposed to music driven by tradition (Uncle Earl) or intentional composed continuity & improvisation (Sparrow Quartet). For the first time I felt a real freedom to base the music on what felt right, what felt beautiful and promising for the hopes of the song itself… it allowed for magic and spontaneity. Kai Welch, brought a collaboration of immense proportions turning my banjo and vocal sounds and songwriting into a fusion with his own rich past with rock and pop and even classical influences. City of Refuge sounds the way it does hugely due to the fact that everything filtered through him as well. Other newer friends and musicians came into play and changed the sound of the record:
Jeremy Kittel of the Turtle Island String Quartet composed string parts for songs for the first time in his life and blew all of our minds with his gloriously challenging and fitting harmonic & rythmic ideas.
Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket brought his epic electric and pedal steel sounds to the record, growing songs from quaint landscapes to anthemic vistas, i.e Burn Thru, Chains
Bill Frisell found ways to fit into full recordings and provide the inevitable sound of a walking line or a backward riff that it seems the songs couldn’t have existed before without
Chris Funk of The Decembrists brought a rooted unabashed willingness to try unexpected atmospheric sounds and give songs texture and intensity
Rayna Gellert brought her fiddle and bow and laid down the most soulful fiddle lines
Wufei came over from Beijing with her guzheng and added the sounds of the ancient 21 string zither to an otherwise un-noticeablely chinese influenced cast of songs.
Hanggai Band in Beijing overdubbed throat singing on a gospel him from Appalachia that we had performed live together several times in China
It took a whole community of artists to make this music.. and it changed me!