Leif Vollebekk and I met in New York on Friday afternoon, just prior to his opening performance for The Barr Brothers show at The Bowery Ballroom. As we talked, one of the Barr Brothers was showering in the next room. We were sitting on a couch (Leif and I). It was the day after Lief had just heard the news, that he (as well as Nathaniel Rateliff), will be touring with Gregory Alan Isakov, come January 2015. Leif and I discussed a variety of things including his degree in philosophy, Newport Folk Festival, the Montreal music scene, his collection of musical instruments, how to cook, and… a stolen journal. “F… yeah! This is Leif Vollbekk’s interview!”
Lauren Jahoda: You released your first album, Inland, four years ago, right?
Leif Vollebekk: That’s probably right (laughs). I don’t remember. Yeah…four years ago…2010.
What were you doing right before you committed to pursuing a career in music above most other things?
I was at school. I was studying philosophy in Ottawa because they said it would be free if I went there. I would have rather gone to McGill University but they said it would be $1,000, (laughs) like nothing (laughs), but I was like “Fuck you McGill! You don’t want me bad enough to pay for all of it!” (laughs) It turns out that I should have gone to McGill (laughs) because I moved to Montreal eventually and that’s where all the musicians I fell in love with are. That’s where these guys [The Barr Brothers] are from. I chose philosophy because I liked it and I knew I’d end up doing music somehow and I didn’t want to do it right away. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it made sense.
Did you finish your degree?
Yeah. I finished my degree. It’s hard to go back into that head space. I remember writing a lot of songs then and six months later thinking, uhh, that’s the worst song ever. That’s so terrible. I’m embarrassed of that. I remember thinking, just keep on writing. I told myself that if I don’t hate it after a year, maybe I’d be onto something.
You needed to let the songs sit.
Yeah. I was really thankful that I didn’t put out the first things that I did, like the home recordings.
If you listened to those very early songs now, do you think you would still feel the same way?
Oh, I found a bunch of them in my parents’ basement. My mom said, “What is this?” It was the old four-track and then I listened to them. They were from when I was 16, 17, 18…just thinking about it makes me so grossed out. I don’t even know, ugh. It’s really gross (laughs). The old me is a weird me.
I think it is for everyone (laughs). Was music a large part of your childhood? What was your first instrument?
My first instrument was the violin and then I picked up the guitar. I just didn’t get anywhere with the violin. I was pitchy. I started playing the guitar and everything was in tune because of the frets. So one summer, when I was 15 or 16, there were days when I just got up, picked up the guitar and then it would be 6 PM. I would not stop playing. I wasn’t practicing, I was like the monkey at the beginning of Space Odyssey, ya know. Just bashing at it (laughs). By September, I learned how to play guitar. I knew what a chord was. I knew how to tune it. I knew how to sing songs. Growing up though, my folks listened to a lot of music, but no one really played that much piano. My mom’s dad and all her brothers did, so all my instruments I got from them. Because they’re all dead (laughs). I have dead people’s instruments (laughs).
Oh no. Did they give them to you or did you inherit them somehow?
The electric was given to me by my uncle. He said “If you want it, take it, my arthritis is so bad.” He called it his Hawaiian guitar because he set it up to play slide on it and sing Hawaiian songs (laughs). In the 60s, there was this trend of Hawaiian music I think? (laughs) Maybe there’s something there? I don’t know (laughs).
It was exotic (laughs).
Yeah. It was exotic and it had this [Leif mimics the sweet sound of Hawaiian music]. So I just set it up and yeah, I love it. It sounds great. It can only do so many things but, what it does is amazing. I play my grandfather’s acoustic. They all sound great, but they also have limits, which is what I like about them too. That way, I don’t have to make a choice… like buy a Martin for $2,000.00 (laughs).
So you still use those same family instruments?
Have you bought anything else?
I bought a Wurlitzer. I bought two of them actually because they break…[Leif catches me imagining a Wurlitzer keybo]…(laughs) I want to hear what you think it is.
I think it’s an organ (laughs).
Kind of, yeah. It’s basically the electric guitar equivalent of a piano.
That’s actually what I was imagining (laughs).
It’s kind of amazing. Some famous recordings, like “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles is on a Wurlitzer and Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” It kind of sounds like an electric guitar, but it feels like a piano.
The comparison is a bit of a stretch, but I imagine that, like the pedal steel, it doesn’t have a…it’s not an earthy sound. It’s more like an ethereal sound.
Yeah! It is kind of like that. That’s interesting because the pedal steel also didn’t exist pre-1950s. Inside the Wurlitzer it’s kind of like a xylophone.
Is it easy to transport?
I have them here with me. It’s heavy, but not too heavy. I prefer to play the piano, but I got tired of playing gigs where there weren’t pianos. I would just play acoustic, electric guitar and sing and part of me would be think, that’s right you can do it, but I didn’t like doing it. I felt like I wasn’t playing songs with the right feel or the way I wanted to.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s sort of like you know what’s missing. You know what’s good for your songs.
Yeah. Totally. It becomes way too much about the lyrics if I do solo/acoustic all night. So I just started bringing the Wurlitzer.
Can you tell me about the music scene in Montreal?
It changes every 10 years. It just morphs into a different beast. The people who do really well end up disappearing or playing less. When you start selling out arenas, you stop playing Montreal 10 times per year, not like when you were starting your band, playing with different people and trying new things. I think that also makes things change. And if you don’t do well, you quit and get a job sometimes. Every 1o years, it’s totally different people, and different shapes and sizes. There’s a band called Shapes and Sizes but they changed their name (laughs).
There are a few clubs that are part of it…it’s kind of complicated. There’s the French scene that’s not part of the English scene, and there’s the English scene that’s not part of the French scene.
Do they ever mix?
They mix sometimes. I played on this amazing French singer’s record a few months ago. So that’s cool. So they mix. I’m finding that it has started to happen within the last two years. The scene is great. It feels like a really small community of artists, but if you’re not in it, it’s quite large. There are a lot of venues and a lot bands. A lot of different configurations and crossovers. I’m too immersed to describe it (laughs).
Do you live in the city?
Yeah. I live on the cusp of the French and the English areas, that metaphorical line.
Can you name some current or fellow musicians who inspire you?
I really got into Gillian Welch. Her and David Rawlings’ thing is very rootsy and they are inspired obviously by the Carter family and that kind of thing. It’s kind of weird because my current influences are people who are influenced by what I’m influenced by. Even the Ryan Adams record I really like and even the later Bob Dylan records I’m really into, but those are especially rooted in old folk songs and ripped off of 1940s/1950s melodies. I love Sigur Ros. They’re the best.
Yeah. They’re awesome. I’ve heard you talk about them before.
I miss the keyboard player in that band though. He left and he was one of my favorite parts of that band. Really beautiful.
I saw your journal online…it’s called “FuckYeahLeifsJournal” (laughs), but the last post was from 2012.
Yeah that’s my friend Andrea. I left my journal…it’s not really a journal, more like my songbook…and I left it at City Winery here in NY. I was in Vancouver and she was going to NY and I asked her if she would get it for me once I realized that’s where I left it. I didn’t know her that well at the time so she thought it would be funny to be like “Yeah, sure. I’ll be sure not to read it”…*wink**wink*. So she took a picture of everyone she met in New York City reading my journal. She’s got firemen reading it, police officers, tourists, her friends and some really angry people who didn’t want to do it, the naked cowboy with his guitar. That’s what that was.
I think that’s safe to say (laughs).
Can you tell me about your experience performing at Newport Folk Festival this summer?
It was great. It was the best festival I’ve ever been to, ever. Every stage there was someone amazing playing on it, all the time.
Which stage did you play on?
I played on the Quad Stage. It’s a great stage. Inside the Fort. It was amazing. Gregory Alan Isakov played there right after me, so we were sharing a dressing room and that’s when we met and that’s how these things work out. So I get to tour with them. Otherwise, I don’t if we wouldn’t have met. Everyone who runs it is a sweetheart. I got to talk to Mavis Staples too. I went to one of the after-shows too and that was great.
You recorded at four different locations for North Americana — what was it that made you arrive or leave those places?
It’s not even an interesting story. I started recording at this one great studio in Montreal and I decided I wanted to go further and do different songs and record them differently because I was figuring out what sound I wanted. Then they booked up and I was touring. They were booked out for about 8 months. So I went to the places where people sounded good. I ended up in France because I was touring and I ended up at this studio because I was working on someone else’s record — it was where Feist did The Reminder. It’s a nice place and I decided to do a couple of days there in between my tour. So, I didn’t have to pay for a flight to get there or anything. Then, I liked this one engineer who worked on a Sigur Ros and Ryan Adams record, so I wrote him and asked him where he wants to record and he said at this place. So we did this place in New York. I just had songs that needed to be recorded and I had to figure out where I was, in relation to who I wanted to work with. Yeah. It just kind of happened.
I really love the song, “From the Fourth.” Can you tell me a little about writing that song?
That’s the last song I wrote for the record, so it’s always nice when people like that one. I wrote the first two verses and then I carried them around for awhile. I was working on it in this little village in Ireland called Clonakilty and I was on tour with Sam Amidon and then he missed his flight and I had to do the show solo. They were so amazing, this bar called De Barra’s and this guy Ray…he was like, “Well, how about I get you an apartment?” So I stayed there and I had the apartment to myself. I worked on it there. I liked the song but it was missing something. I don’t remember when, but I wrote a third verse because it had only two verses. It was very in-need of that third verse. It takes forever sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. The ones that are good and the ones that are bad aren’t distinguished by how they are written at all. It’s just a bunch of stuff all the time. It’s like cooking. Some things take time and it’s better if you braise it for 10 hours and sometimes it’s better if you just don’t cook it at all. But the timing can really kill things and sometimes it can help things. Just keep all the burners on and don’t fuck it up.
Did you just make that analogy up right now?
I very much enjoyed meeting and talking with Leif. His music is amazing. He was obviously at a high point, just moments away from opening The Barr Brother’s concert, and still aglow in the fresh news that the next leg of his musical journey, to begin in January, will be alongside Gregory Alan Isakov and Nathaniel Rateliff. It is a certainty that, in the days to come, you will suddenly see and hear more and more of Leif Vollebekk and his incredible music… like the very moment when the subway comes above the ground.
We headed to New York City Sunday afternoon for Guitar Mash at City Winery. Great concept. Great performances. The Greg Allman Band’s musical director, Scott Sharrard started off the show, which included phenomenal performances led by the engaging and animated Mark Stewart (Paul Simon’s guitarist/Music Director) (see our pre-Guitar Mash interview with Mark here), Duke Robillard (Fabulous Thunderbirds), Robert Randolph (Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitarists), Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), David Bromberg, Valerie June…and a bunch more. If you couldn’t get there this year, plan ahead and be sure to get there next year.
November 16, 2014 marks the THIRD ANNUAL GUITAR MASH BENEFIT CONCERT + JAM + AUCTION at City Winery NYC! Along with Music Director, MARK STEWART and Artist Chairs, TOM COLICCHIO (Top Chef) and CHAD SMITH (Red Hot Chili Peppers), the concert will feature performances by DAVID BROMBERG, CHRIS “CRITTER” ELDRIDGE (Punch Brothers), VALERIE JUNE, ROBERT RANDOLPH, DUKE ROBILLARD, SCOTT SHARRARD, NANO STERN and QUINN SULLIVAN.
Guitar Mash is a movement. From metal shredders to acoustic aficionados, Guitar Mash uses live events and social media to create opportunities for amateur and professional guitarists to play together.
Guitar Mash was founded in 2012 with the goal of creating opportunities for people to be actively involved in music, and to make music with other people. It was founded on understanding the guitar to be The Great Connector, that which gathers people around the proverbial campfire. What began as an untested experiment in communal music-making grew with the beautiful leadership of our musical director Mark Stewart into the acclaimed Inaugural Benefit Event at City Winery November 2012, and a series of “Campfire Jams” around the New York area, as well as stints at events like Make Music NY.
In addition to connecting amateur and professional musicians, Guitar Mash has helped people rediscover their potential to create, and has inspired many to reacquaint themselves with their guitars.
In anticipation of this year’s GUITAR MASH event, HEARTSTRINGS MAGAZINE interviewed Mark Stewart. In addition to being the Music Director for GUITAR MASH, the rather accomplished Mr. Stewart also hails as music director/instrumentalist for Paul Simon, founding member of Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Polygraph Lounge, and has performed with musicians including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, Edie Brickell, James Taylor, The Everly Brothers and many, many more. During our conversation we discussed topics as varied as, touring with Paul Simon, his childhood family-band, Stony Brook University and didgeridoos…oh yes, and of course…Guitar Mash.
Lauren Jahoda: You were born and raised in Wisconsin — how did you end up in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Mark Stewart: Well, New York is one of the centers of the cultural universe and I completed my graduate studies on the cello at SUNY Stony Brook (Long Island). I chose Stony Brook for two reasons — it had a world class faculty and also because of its proximity to New York City. So I thought when I was done with my studies, I would have at least some knowledge and also some gigs going on already in town and would start my professional life in what really is the most vibrant of American cities, culturally and musically. And so, that’s precisely what I did. That is, in a nutshell, how I ended up in New York.
So while you were in graduate school, you were gigging in NYC and the Long Island area?
Yeah, I was gigging in town and my name was starting to get around, but it was as a cellist. Also when I finished my doctoral studies in ’89, I got a gig as a college professor at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania. So 3 days per week I was out in Pennsylvania teaching at Mansfield and the other 4 days I was gigging with different groups.
Were you strictly playing cello at that time?
I was doing both (guitar and cello) by then, but I was known as a cellist in New York.
When did your career as a professional musician begin taking shape?
The first thing that changed things for me was that I got a call from Bang on a Can. They were putting together Bang on a Can Allstars, and they called me and asked if I was interested in being their guitarist. That was in 1992. Of course, I was thrilled to get that call and I started doing that. But that was only one music scene in NY. The second was two years later, when I resigned my college job and moved into town full-time. I got a call from the lead guitarist for the Broadway production of Tommy. He was having a hard time finding a sub and the problem was finding a real rock and roller who could follow a stick, a conductor. And he was speaking to a cellist friend of his and his cellist said, well I know a cellist who’s a real rock and roller and he gave him my number. So I got the call and I worked my ass off for a month to learn that book, and went in and succeeded and overnight I had a reputation as a guitarist. It was a strange fluke. You spend a long time working your way up, which I was prepared to do on the cello and was involved in doing just that. But with the guitar, it was overnight, just because of my strange skill set — a rock and roller who could follow a stick.
How did you become the Music Director for Paul Simon, and eventually for Guitar Mash as well?
I was suddenly in the Broadway world, and I did that for about 5 years and one night I was playing the opening night at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center and Paul Simon was there that night. I was the head musician and at the reception at Tavern on the Green, he had a lot of questions for me, and the last one was, “Can I get your phone number ?”(laughs). So he came over just a couple of days later and we had a great afternoon together. A month later, I joined his band. I’ve been playing with Paul since ’98. And yeah, I get to play everything with Paul — guitar, cello, wind instruments, banjo…it’s just a lovely gig.
As for Guitar Mash, I grew up with a father and mother who led everything in song, so that was always very natural. We sang at home and we also had a family band called the Stewart Family Troubadours. 15-20 concerts per year. Medieval, Renaissance vocal music and instrumental music, and American folk music. We played from when I was 6, until I was 16. My two siblings– my older brother and younger sister– and my parents. So when I say “led in song”, my dad was an Episcopal priest and a very vibrant celebrant, he would get the entire congregation to sing and he would improvise call and response things. So I grew up seeing a lot of joy in music together. So Rebecca Weller (Founder/Producer of Guitar Mash) called me a couple of years ago with this idea and said people tell me you’re my man. That’s the short story.
That’s an incredible story. When did you begin creating music?
My earliest memories include music. I was probably singing at the same time I was beginning to talk. My parents were singing so much in the house. It was just a part of life. We love to crack each other up with songs. We love to pull up a song that someone hasn’t thought of in a long time. And when I was young, my parents were just so involved in music, not only in the church but they were involved in a concert in Milwaukee called the Milwaukee Pro Musica, and so they were in a professional group singing early music — music from the early 13′, 14′, 1500s. It was modeled after the New York Pro Musica, and it was led by Noah Greenberg in the 50s in NY. When they would come over, those remarkable musicians, that’s where I learned to play the cello. They would let me bounce the bow on the string. I wouldn’t use the word “create” music, I would say my earliest memories are always accompanied or led by music. A composer Charles Warnen says an interesting thing — when people ask him about creating music he says, “Humans do not create. Humans organize.” (laughs).
When asked what kind of music you play, in the past you’ve answered: “Well, I play a little bit of popular music, quite a bit of semi-popular music and an enormous amount of unpopular music.” I love your use of the word “unpopular” to describe experimental music — how did this reference come about?
I guess it was born out of a frustration with standard labels of music, but it was also an attempt to genuinely describe what I do in a succinct fashion. What I realized, looking at the way music is categorized, was that this was the most succinct way I could describe what it is that I do. I felt like it kept the standard labels out of it. There’s a reason we have names for things. There’s a reason the blues are called the blues, there’s a reason that techno is called techno, jazz is called jazz, classical is called classical…there are all sorts of reasons and there are all sorts of music in between and so many people who live in between those words or above them or with them. That’s one of the great things about NYC. Frank Sinatra kind of had it backwards when he sang, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…actually in NY, you can make it in a way that you can’t make it anywhere else. The reason being that there are so many communities, cultural communities, in the city and so for me, that’s why I love NY. All the things that are going on here. All the different communities, all the different music, all the different schools of thought and schools of openness. This is the place.
I watched the fascinating video that Q2 Spaces (New York Public Radio) shot about your instrument lab, while inside your home. When did you start bringing life to instruments that were left behind?
Yeah. It started early. The seeds of it began in my family’s home. We had a music room and it was filled with sound makers of all different kinds, some of them fairly recognizable — old piano and a beautiful pump organ, a harmonium — and then of course, all the instruments the kids were practicing — violin, french horn, cello, flute, those kinds of things. Then there were also instruments my mom used when she was teaching public school — xylophones, kettle drums, tambourines and glockenspiels. It was a place where music would emerge no matter who was in there. My friends would come over and they wouldn’t be kids who were taking music lessons but they always had a great time in that room. I think that was my initial inspiration for what would then come to flower later in my life. But it was when I joined Paul’s band–when you’re on a pop tour, you’ve got some free time because you have a great community of people helping you out. I’m not carrying stuff and I’m not responsible for getting myself to the airport. What I’m responsible for is being in the lobby when I’m told and playing really well every night. So I had a lot of free time and, right away, I realized that I wanted to work on projects, and something that occurred to me immediately was that I wanted to play wind instruments. I had always played stringed instruments. So when we were in San Francisco, I wandered down to this wonderful store called Lark in the Morning and found a beautiful cheap didgeridoo, and I bought that and started playing wind instruments and discovered that every single cardboard tube or metal tube was a didgeridoo waiting to happen. When I discovered that, I realized there were a lot of simple sound-makers around us, just walking through the world. I just started making instruments of all different kinds and keeping my eyes open for those instruments that have been left or neglected in the dust bin of history. I think I said something recently that they used for a title — “The Island of Misfit Toys” (below) — I think I’ll stand by that analogy.
We have these wonderful instruments, pianos, saxophones, guitars, that do everything very well. You can transpose and play in all these different keys, we have this equal tempered scale…they do that very well, but I am being attracted to instruments these days that do one thing. They don’t do a million things. They do one thing and they do it really well. If you find a great lamppost that you whack and it rings in a beautiful way — ah! (laughs) There it is! It’s a perfect example — and you get your ear right in there and listen to all those overtones. You’re not going to be able to make an instrument that does that, but you can find an instrument that does that and because you just found that lamppost, you’re there! And if you’ve got a buddy with you, you can just say “lean in, listen to this…” and there’s an audience of two. And then you move on and that lamppost says “Finally, finally somebody realized.” That’s kind of what I’m into these days (laughs).
Mark’s involvement with GUITAR MASH has been equally as hands-on and community-building, as is his continuing request that we simply lean in and join him to experience the music that is there waiting to be discovered and realized in the world around us. So grab your guitar and lean in to the City Winery on Sunday, November 16, 2014, for GUITAR MASH and the music-led life movement that awaits you there.
Despite the relentless downpour taking place outside City Winery NYC on Wednesday night, Joe Purdy fans, as usual, packed the house for this sold-out show. It was the perfect setting for the crowd to sing along to Joe’s 2004 “I Love the Rain the Most,” which we were all secretly hoping would make it onto his set list (and, of course, it did). Some sat on stools at the bar and along the windows, while others sat at the small, candle-lit tables surrounding the stage. I sat at one of those tables beside Joe’s manager, Brian, and his parents who came in from Connecticut that night to see Joe play. They were as enthusiastic about the performance as the other Purdy followers in attendance. I heard Brian’s dad singing along to Joe’s songs as we sipped our waiter’s wine recommendations, which included a homemade specialty of the night. The label on the bottle simply stated, “Joe Purdy Wine.”
I last spoke with Joe in September (My Hillbilly Confidence: An Interview with Joe Purdy), just prior to his AmericanaFest performance in Nashville. After spending an hour or so on the phone with him, it was clear that Joe had discovered early on that, creating music is what he always wanted to do, and that, driven by his passion to pursue it at all costs, Joe was able to avoid doing what others might think he would otherwise have to do. With that ethic, Joe has tirelessly made his music available to us — from the self-titled Joe Purdy (2001) to Eagle Rock Fire (2014) – straight from his heartstrings to ours.
Joe follows his own simple formula– he says what he wants to say and does so with an inspiring mix of raw talent, authenticity and humor — which sometimes takes the form of witty annotation during his live performance. At City Winery, Joe repeatedly interrupted himself mid-song to say …”true story”… (using humor to accomplish light, yet unmistakable reinforcement of the thought he just sang). When he pauses during the performance of his songs, and uses his humble, confiding voice to speak directly to and personally with his audience, it is a mellifluous gift that Joe Purdy brings. The result is that each participant in his diverse and international fan base, is engrossed and united by that overwhelmingly warm sound and honesty.
Joe began his set with several songs off of Eagle Rock Fire (2014), followed by “Sinkin’ Low” from Take My Blanket and Go (2007). He then put down his acoustic guitar and walked over to the piano, to give us a unique performance since, as Joe pointed out, it’s unusual that he has a piano available to him on stage. There, he played one of my all time favorite Purdy tracks, “Been Up So Long” (piano) from Last Clock On the Wall (2009), among others. He subsequently played a series of what he calls “short songs,” including “River Boat Captain.” The short songs resemble sonnets — brief, organized and powerful. Each lasted no longer than a minute. As Joe pulls you in, ever-so-quickly on each short adventure, and then releases you seconds later, you can’t help but feel the astounding fleeting embrace.
The newest song in this evening’s performance is what I like to call the “Emmett Till” of songs. For those who do not know the reference, Emmett Till is a young boy, whose murder became the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Within this song, Joe collects and brings forth the unsettling injustices of our history into one palpable composition:
My brother was killed by a policeman.
My brother was only 19.
My brother was shot by a sniper.
My brother, he died on the street.
My brother was beat by policemen,
and he died on the prison floor.
My brother, he fought in Vietnam.
My brother was killed on the front of war,
My brother, he died in his hometown…
We wear stars and stripes in the broken heart of the country…
Joe and I had scheduled to meet after the show, as a follow-up to our last interview. Prior to our meeting, I watched Joe come up the basement stairs to personally greet and meet with his fans in the main room. Although more than half of the capacity crowd remained (waiting), Joe spoke at length with every single one of them. But there weren’t just the usual, “great show!” and, “thank you’s!” exchanged. The coolest part was that, as I watched, I saw Joe glad, even eager to directly connect with each one of his fans. Joe’s willingness to make himself accessible to his listeners, both through his music and personally, is just who Joe Purdy is. It can all be summed up in what Joe told me about his experience at AmericanaFest–how he had missed most of the festival’s events because he chose to spend time caring for a friend who had become ill. We see it in his recorded music and live performances, in his post-performances and in the decisions he has made along the way (which are all his own). This night was no different and only increased the appreciation I have for Joe Purdy the musician and for Joe Purdy the man. They are genuinely one and the same. True story.