Sunday, December 2, 2012
Charlie Parr "Barnswallow" Interview
Barnswallow starts and finishes with folk songs made popular in part by Dave Ray and Spider John of Koerner, Ray & Glover. There's a strong folk, blues, and bluegrass tradition in Minnesota that's still thriving today. Do you know how these music forms typically associated with the South and Appalachia took root here? Did it begin with Koerner, Ray & Glover and the Minneapolis folk revivalists of the early 1960's or does it go back earlier than that?
I'm guessing that it goes back to 1952 and Harry Smith's Anthology...but I'm only guessing on that. The folk scene in the Twin Cities and particularly the West Bank and Dinkytown seems to have been really strong for a really long time, but obviously I've only been involved for a very short period of time. I'm definitely grateful for being able to participate the little bit that I have in such an amazing scene.
Where do you see yourself fitting into this tradition? When you were starting out in Minneapolis in the 1990's was there the same level of enthusiasm for folk music as there is today?
I don't know where I really fit in, sometimes I don't feel like I do much at all. The scene in the '90's was real strong but folkie stuff wasn't as popular as it is now, so there were a strong tight-knit group of followers but not huge. All I wanted to do was play and when I wasn't playing I wanted to see Spider John and Dave Ray play...among others. When I started writing songs of my own I felt a little more disconnected from the folkie thing but couldn't play any other way so I hung in there. People have been very good to me, even though I'm not really too traditional.
You mentioned in an interview with Uprooted Music Revue that you would be writing your next album with a unifying theme in mind. Do you feel you accomplished that with Barnswallow?
No. Maybe. Yeah, Maybe. The unifying theme seems to be wrapping up a couple years' worth of depression and stress into ten songs. Not that all of the songs reflect that, just that they represent that to me. I feel like I'm clear of it now, and the songs have kind of captured that bad time and playing them is turning out to be cathartic. I'm not sure that folks will be able to hear what they represent to me, I think it's more of symbolic thing than that, but it's making me feel better to keep singing them so I guess they can't be all bad.
I was particularly struck by the song "Badger." In most of the album's songs there's a lot of movement with the narrators traveling around or trying to escape something. Then there's this wonderful contemplative song right in the middle of the record. Can you talk a little bit about that song?
"Badger" is a kind of true song, it started out as a short story that turned into a poem and then a song. I like the challenge of trying to write a song describing a moment rather than a story. The moment in "Badger" is really several moments that I have in my memory of seeing my Dad at times when he didn't know I was watching. And it's the one song that's really autobiographical, I don't usually go for that kind of song but I suppose I'm getting older and maybe I'm having a mid-life crisis or maybe too many people close to me are sick or dead or depressed and I'm reacting to that. Plus badgers can be pretty nasty.
Henry fits in with a lot of the other characters you've written over the years. The music though for "Henry Goes to the Bank" is a little different than your usual style. Did that arrangement come together in the studio or is that how you originally envisioned the song?
"Henry Goes to the Bank" was a blues song, with different lyrics, and different music. And then when I was about to get going on the record I realized how stupid the song was and decided to toss it. But the first line I thought was ok, and so the rest of the song grew out of that line. The music sounded better on the banjo...then Dave brought out his mandolin...and it changed the song entirely...then Mikkel started playing that weird drum that he has...and it changed the song again...we did 2 takes and the 2nd one was better but we went with the 1st one...it was the one where we didn't know the song yet.
Talk a bit about the other performers that appear on the album and what the recording sessions were like.
Mikkel Beckmen's been one of my closest friends for 15 odd years and we've played music together for nearly that long. He's a great percussionist who's really sensitive about the songs and getting the feel right. Dave Hundreiser's my favorite harmonica player, and he's an outstanding guitarist and plays a mean fingerstyle / bottleneck resonator mandolin. Dave's been my spiritual brother since the day I met him.
How about the title of the album, Barnswallow, where does that come from? Also, tell us about the album artwork and the artists behind that.
There was a song, a banjo instrumental, called "Barnswallow" that ended up on a split for Thrill Jockey with the Black Twig Pickers and Glenn Jones. It wasn't a very good song, and I decided not to include a version of it here, but already had spent the last year thinking of this record as Barnswallow and liked the title too much to change it. Anyway, Jamie Harper from Winona had painted this amazing picture of a barnswallow for the cover and Joe Tadie had created some incredible liner notes about barnswallows already so the song seemed irrelevant. Jamie's art is fantastic - it's alive, moving around, re-animating pieces of doors into living things. And Joe Tadie is my spiritual leader.
Within the past year or so Criminals and Sinners and King Earl were both released on vinyl and 1922 got another cd remaster and release. Did you go back and relisten to those albums during the reissue process? If so, did anything stand out in those recordings that you'd forgotten about?
I did listen again...I shouldn't have, but folks' still seem to like them and so I don't think that my opinion about them counts really. The songs are different now of course - songs are never done and I kind of continue writing them or else I lose what they were and leave them behind altogether. My favorite re-release is King Earl - that session was more like a show, and my favorite time as a musician is playing - the performance, the kind of moment of it, is the art. It goes away as soon as it's made but that's part of the beauty of it. On King Earl though I think we captured the performance.
In 2012 you worked on a variety of collaborative and solo projects. Reflecting on this past year, what have you learned? What would you like to do more of or maybe try a different way?
I'd really like to try some stuff with an accordion player. Also I want to do some more instrumentals. Playing with Jack Klatt's band was wonderful, he's a great player and really good fellow all around. I've been really lucky to have met such great folks and have some really incredible friends. It's been a good year, I had some personal demons needed slaying and they're nearly dead so hopefully I can collect the best of the last year or so and leave the rest behind.
What's ahead for you in 2013?
After Barnswallow's released, it'll be a lot of touring in the US and in Europe and the UK. I've got more than half the next record written, and Chaperone's been talking about releasing a vinyl version of Rooster and a 78 rpm single. Also working on the lyrics page of the new website and keeping on practicing. Plus there's a lot going on at home and such that needs some attention so it'll be a busy year for sure. I'm thinking about building a treehouse, but not sure where yet. Going into the woods up this way means you might get shot unless yr wearing blaze orange, I might head more south near Austin and build it down there. Michael Hall has a shack down near Austin, maybe I'll build my treehouse above his shack...I've already got some pretty good lumber, plywood, a few pallets, a bucket of nails that have been pulled out of other stuff and hammered straight, 2 lawn chairs and a painting of some cows for the wall.