I’ve been an admirer of Jeff Black’s music since the very first time I heard his music on the radio about ten years ago. Then I had the joy of digging into the back catalog of his music and discovering his early material. One of the most wonderful things about finding a new artist is that you get to play “connect the dots” and see who that artist has played with, been covered by, or any other number of cool tidbits of information. I got to learn more about Sam Bush, Waylon Jennings, Dierks Bentley, and Jerry Douglas through Jeff Black. They all covered his songs.
There’s a lot to learn about Jeff Black by visiting his website. In addition to reading all about him, you can also listen to a number of podcasts in which he shares some rare recordings of his music. Here’s a good example of Jeff Black in concert in Nashville — playing one of his signature songs, “Gold Heart Locket.”
- If you had to describe your music in one sentence, what would you say?
- Urban dirt road folk and roots for the traveling social romantic.
- Who were your early influences? Who inspired you as far as songwriting is concerned? Do you any guitar (banjo, piano, etc.) heroes?
- My earliest influence was of course the transistor radio. Big on the list was my brother’s record collection which included imports from his time in Okinawa — Guy Clark, Billy Callery, the lyrics of Bernie Taupin. I can’t exclude a powerful influence my sister had by her mail order Reader’s Digest purchases of albums “great country ballads by great country stars”
- Artists like George Morgan, Little Jimmy Dickens, and a parade of Nashville icons. I was influenced by the great songwriting and production skills on an album that I still have in heavy rotation —Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits—. After I read Bound for Glory, we got Woody and all of the satellite artists around him — Leadbelly Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott etc. were explored and put into the library as well.
- The music business is filled with ups and downs. Can you recall the first real “UP” that you had — when you were buoyed and fulfilled so much that you knew that you had made the right choice to follow your dream of being a singer-songwriter?
- Byron Jones was a local Opry star in the Kansas City area — and through a songwriter’s night I met him. He invited me to come and play with his band at the famous Possum trot down in the Kansas City stockyards. When I was about 14, it looked like there were at least 10,000 people there although I’m sure those numbers are inaccurate :)
- There is an epiphany that happens when you start connecting with people through music, conversation, art and actions — I played a show with Nanci Griffith at the Folly Theatre in Kansas City and not long after that opened a show for Guy Clark right before I moved to Nashville and it was like the universe was giving me the green light. I am a very fortunate man.
- You’ve also talked about the life of a traveling musician and how difficult it can be. How do you keep a sense of humor about the crazy music business?
- My mantra is: “I love to go, I hate to be gone.”
- If I don’t perform my songs live, if I don’t get a chance to play my guitar and try to make that connection on a regular basis, something feels wrong inside. The crazy music business is just that — an infinite learning process particularly for independents and I found the best way to deal with the crazy music business is to learn how to operate as an independent as successfully as you can. It’s much different now than it was before the Internet. That’s the only way to deal — empower yourself.
- I’ve heard some songwriters tell tales about writing a song in a very short period of time — 10 minutes or so. Have you ever had the experience of a song popping out of you extremely fast? Were you ready to catch it or were you driving down the highway and missed it?
- Yes I’ve been lucky like that a few times — I would say the “Carnival Song” that I had written for my great old friend Jack Banister after he passed away. Waylon Jennings recorded that song many years later and it changed my life.
- The liner notes for your last recording, Folklore, are quite poignant. I love how you talk about some of your family history and describe the photo of the two young boys and the dog that your grandmother took circa 1930 that appears on the cover of the CD. The composition of these liner notes reveals a lot about you and how you approach your art. How did your love of music and writing get instilled in you at an early age? How did you realize that art was not something to take for granted?
- The gift of music was instilled in me by my father. And not from a first-hand lesson, but rather the stories he told about my grandmother playing piano in church and his experience is playing tenor banjo with my uncle while they were working to survive as young boys during the depression.
- I spent a long time this week listening to your Black Tuesday podcasts and enjoyed them tremendously. Tell us about them and how they came about.
- The podcasts were started with the need for me to create an outlet for my writing which seems to run a little faster than the machinery of releasing a traditional album. They were also created as a format to stay connected in between traditional releases and allowed a stage for me to experiment and share new songs and song demos — even with shaky legs. . . .
- Do you have any musical career aspirations that you have yet to achieve?
- I’m not sure — I think I’m getting better at measuring success and that’s a big one in our society. My son is a super bad a&%! bass clarinet player and my daughter Zuzu wrote a song the other day that blows a lot of mine out of the water — that’s what every parent hopes for. So, to answer your question, I guess there’s not a musical career aspiration that’s going unfulfilled — except for I am thinking about learning to play the fiddle and I’d like to keep working on being a better songwriter.
Molly Pinto Madigan is quite an extraordinary young woman. She’s a veritable whirlwind of creativity. If she’s not performing a show, she’s writing a book. If she’s not writing a book, she’s helping to produce a concert series at the local library or giving a workshop on music to students at her alma mater. Molly clearly has music in her soul; she weaves musical tales of love and love lost with a charming, clear voice that is reminiscent of Sandy Denny.
To learn more about Molly, check out her website. Here’s a video of Molly singing her song “The Storm.”
- Has music always been an important part of your life? What are your earliest recollections of hearing or playing music?
- Music has definitely always been a big part of my life. My parents have always been music-lovers, and some of my earliest musical memories were me and my mom dancing around the house to her Beatles CDs. Because of her, I still know the lyrics to just about every Beatles song, and they’re still my favorite band of all time. (That’s why I was so psyched to be a part of the “All You Need is Love” benefit at the me & thee this year!) The Beatles, The Smiths, The Cranberries, Roxy Music, Queen: my mom’s favorite bands became mine, too. I also was enchanted by lullabies — all the traditional ones that are kind of spooky and melancholy and tender and mysterious all at once. I remember being three and four and really thinking hard about specific songs. The first part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was one. I remember that really clearly, imagining the narrator, feeling his heartache. It was beautiful and sad and my little child-self almost couldn’t handle it. “Molly Malone” was another one in the so-sad-it-hurts-but-I-also-can’t-get-enough-of-it-what-is-this-beautiful-pain kind of way. And “Yesterday” by The Beatles. I still like songs like that.
- My first performance was when I sang “Tainted Love” (my favorite song at the time) in front of a crowd with a karaoke mic. Yep, my music career pretty much peaked at age six.
- Tell us about your time with Jaded Mandolin. How long did you play together?
- Jaded Mandolin was a bluegrass band that came into being when I was probably fourteen or fifteen, but Eric, Michael, Adrian, and I had played together under different band names for a couple of years before that, and we’d been friends for longer still. We were all home-schooled and were in the same home-schooling group. We played music together until I was 17 and people started going to college. Being in Jaded Mandolin really opened me up to traditional music and gave me a taste of the Boston folk scene — we headlined at Club Passim, opened for Claire Lynch, and recorded our first CD together. We grew as musicians together, and I’m the performer I am today because of Jaded Mandolin. (I got the only-wearing-pajamas-onstage thing out of my system.)
- Did it take a lot of adjustment when you first started playing solo?
- I think you’re forgetting my “Tainted Love” karaoke stint; I was already a pro.
- No, in reality, there’s a certain comfort in having a band behind you. At first, it was lonely onstage. If you mess up as a solo artist, it’s all on you. It’s harder to hide, and I liked the support being in a band offered. There’s also a certain energy that a band brings, and you have to adjust to that when you’re on the stage yourself. But I’ve really learned to enjoy performing solo. I love being in control, artistically. I love the freedom being a solo artist brings. I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with myself and my songwriting, but I am.
- You won a songwriting competition sponsored by WUMB when you were a teenager. What was the song that you sang that night and do you still perform it?
- The song was called “I’m Bound Away.” I dropped the “I’m” so now it’s just “Bound Away,” and it’s on my first solo album, Outshine the Dusk. My first instrument was piano, so that’s what I wrote it for, and when there’s a piano onstage, I’ll play it from time to time. I also play it on guitar occasionally, but it’s not the same. That song was really inspired by traditional balladry, European and American, and the ballads are still a huge influence on my songwriting today. I recently wrote a song called “Pomeroy,” which is a song based on a short story I wrote, which was based on the traditional “Reynardine” (a.k.a. “The Mountains of Pomeroy). I think “Bound Away” really marked the beginning of me finding my voice as a songwriter. It was the first song I wrote that I really liked.
- Is it true that you studied both English and Music in college? Did the study of literature help sharpen your songwriting skills?
- I graduated from Salem State with a BA in Music and a minor in English, but I’ve always been a big reader. And writer. The study of literature and poetry exposed me to a lot of different voices and styles. That definitely influenced my own songwriting. I took a lot of creative writing classes at Salem State, and I was fortunate enough to have professors in both English and music who really supported me, creatively.
- Your style is quite reminiscent of Celtic / British folk from years past. What is it about that kind of music that captures your imagination?
- Well, my grandmother was from Belfast, so my dad’s side of the family really identifies with Irish culture. I had a brief stint with Irish Stepdancing around the same time as my “Tainted Love” period, so I suppose that was my first exposure to Irish traditional music. My dad and I always listen to a lot of Celtic music when we’re in the car together. I don’t know, though, it’s always just struck a chord with me (pun fully intended). Especially vocal music. Sean-nos, Gaelic laments — I love the love, the heartbreak, the story each song tells. I’m a weird hybrid of Celtic and American influences. I love the warmth and fullness of Americana, the colors, and I love the mystery, the honesty, the trembling ornamentation of Celtic music. You can hear both currents in my own music.
- I understand that plans are starting to take place about a second recording. How will this next project differ from your first solo CD?
- I had recorded a CD with Jaded Mandolin, but Outshine the Dusk was my first solo album. Most of the songs were on the old side, because I hadn’t been writing that much music when I recorded it, but since last October, I’ve written 17 new songs. So, this new album is going to be fresh and exciting. I recorded the first one during my last semester at Salem State, so I was stressed out and rushed, and I’m going to be more relaxed about this one. I’m going to take my time and make sure it gets done right. Outshine the Dusk was just me. Voice, guitar, piano: only me. For this album, it’s going to have fuller instrumentation. I’m scheduled to go into the studio in the beginning of November to record at Dirt Floor. I’m a huge fan of the music that’s been coming out of Eric Lichter’s studio, which is basically this amazing log cabin in the wilds of Connecticut. Ian Fitzgerald, Wise Old Moon, Kerri Powers, Hannah Fair, Jonah Tolchin: they’ve all come out with incredible albums from Dirt Floor — vibrant and singing and alive with Eric Lichter’s guidance.
- Please tell us about your fiction writing. You’ve written short stories as well as a young adult novel. What drives you to write?
- What drives me to write? Good question. I’ve always had an overactive imagination, so I come up with these stories and I write because I feel compelled to get them out. Even when I was little, I’d come up with these stories and screenplays and songs that I’d try to write down. My best friend learned to read before I did, so I’d dictate stories and she’d write them down for me. When she complained that she was tired and it wasn’t fun for her anymore, I’d have my mom pen them. I was a workaholic at age five. Not much has changed. (I finally did learn how to read, though.)
- So, my first full-length book (I had a two-part novella about an Egyptologist who just-so-happened to have brown, curly hair and eyes that shifted between green and blue and gray [me]) was a collection of fairy-tale retellings. Short stories and poems. I wrote it during a directed study at Salem State with a magical professor who loved fairy tales as much as I did (she still loves them in chilly Minnesota). Then, the summer before my senior year, I wrote my first novel. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it, but I gave myself three months to do it, and I had it done before classes started in September. It’s 330 pages long, and it’s a retelling of the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin,” set in modern-day Salem during the month of October. I won’t give too much away, but think folksongs, faeries, and a seedy rock club in the heart of downtown Salem. I signed with my agent last November, and I’m almost done writing the third novel in the trilogy. It’s actually considered ‘New Adult,’ because the protagonist is a Salem State student. A Salem State student with brown, curly hair and eyes that shift between green and blue and gray. Some things never change.
- What are your long-term goals?
- I want to keep writing music and books and growing as an artist. I want to keep feeding my overactive imagination and being creative and finding inspiration in the world around me. A little money would be nice somewhere in the future, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I’d like to get my novels published, I’d like to make some beautiful CDs, and I’d like to be able to play shows to audiences that aren’t entirely comprised of blood relations. That’s not a deal-breaker either, though. And while I’d like to be able to sell out places like Club Passim and the me & thee coffeehouse, I hope my parents and my sister are always there in the audience to cheer me on.
The sound of stars rising — Mandolin Orange! This dynamic duo from North Carolina has been described as the contemporary version of Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris or maybe even Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. National Public Radio chose their latest CD, This Side of Jordan, as one of the Top 10 Folk / Americana albums of 2013. Mandolin Orange played at the legendary Newport Folk Festival this summer and has been keeping up a relentless touring schedule.
To learn more about Mandolin Orange, visit their website. Here’s a lovely video of “There Was a Time.”
- One music critic has cited that your music is a mixture of folk, bluegrass and pop. Another music writer says that it’s a mix of bluegrass, rock, and country. If you had to divide your ‘sound’ up like a pie, how would you slice it?
- It probably depends on the era. We definitely went through a Mandolin Orange rock phase, but it was pretty short-lived. We’re feeling pretty grounded in more of the old- time music lately, so I’d say the pie is currently 50% singer-songwriter (less genre-oriented), 18% bluegrass, 17% old-time, 10% country and 5% rock.
- Has your music evolved in any noticeable ways since you first started playing together?
- It’s kind of a constant evolution. We go through phases of what kinds of sounds we want to make (see first question) but I think it’s all still rooted in the same place. We’re always going to be singing harmonies, and playing acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin. The details come and go but those are the constants.
- Do you have any mutual musical heroes? Anyone who we’d be surprised by?
- We spend almost all of our time either playing together or listening to the same music in the car, so most of our heroes and influences are mutual at this point. They’re usually instrument specific — for fiddle it has always been Stuart Duncan, for mandolin, Mike Compton and Tim O’Brien. Acoustic guitar would be the obvious Tony Rice and Norman Blake, but a less obvious choice would be Neil Young — his solo acoustic guitar style is a huge influence of mine (Emily). The songwriting influences are a lot more wide-reaching. John Hartford, Paul Simon, Eddie Vedder, Cass McCombs, Doug Paisley, the list goes one. We picked up a copy of Pantera Far Beyond Driven the other day in a record store. . . . it probably won’t get as much airplay as the other stuff in the van but it’s a good throwback.
- You met each other at a music jam in 2009. Had you both been into music for a while prior to that fateful meeting?
- Andrew had been songwriting since he first picked up the guitar, but was just learning mandolin. I had played fiddle throughout middle and high school but hadn’t been playing for the several years leading up to our meeting, so it really was by chance that we both ended up at that jam!
- Were you surrounded by the sounds of Appalachian music when you were young? Was it cool to like it or were all your friends into heavy metal or rap or other types of music?
- I think we were both more aware of that kind of folk music than we would have been had we grown up somewhere else. That said, neither of us got super into it until we were older. There was a lot more heavy metal and bad pop country playing in our cars as 16-year-olds.
- Tell us about your first attempts at playing together. Could you sense that it was a good fit?
- It was really natural from the start. It was super easy to sing together, maybe because we both have pretty straight-ahead voices.
- How long did it take before you both agreed that this was a musical venture to put time and energy into?
- Not very long — after the first night we played together we were constantly making more plans. We played around in local bars a lot during those first few months. It kind of developed naturally and took a while before we consciously decided to be a “band”.
- You’ve had some amazing opportunities to play all over the country. You’ve probably played in all kinds of places — big and small. Do any stand out in any memorable ways or do they all tend to blur together?
2014 has been a bit of a blur. We’ve played more shows this year and covered more miles than ever before. But each show is unique and we remember places pretty well so far. We love big and small shows — it really just depends on the energy we get from a crowd and how interactive we’re able to be. We like to be conversational as much as possible.
- Is there a new recording in the works any time soon? What’s in store for 2015?
- Yes! We’ve been working on some new stuff that we’re really excited about! I don’t have many details to share yet but there will definitely be new tunes out there in 2015.