Lui Collins is a much beloved New England folk singer, someone who came into the musical scene in the 1970’s and made a distinct impression and indelible mark in the hearts and minds of music fans. Listening to Lui is like wrapping yourself up in your most comfortable quilt before a dancing fire — her music is lilting and evocative and, most of all, inviting. It’s like being in the room with a good friend who just happens to be musical — someone who reminds you about what it’s like to be human and to be very much in the moment. Lui’s folk concerts may not be as numerous as they once were but she’s still making a huge impact on the lives of children and parents in New England and beyond. This interview sheds light on her recording career and concert tours, as well as her passion for children’s music and how she’s spread the Lui Collins magic into an amazing music curriculum.
To learn more about Lui Collins, visit her website. Here’s a video of Lui Collins singing Julie Snow’s “Baptism of Fire.” And here’s a video of Lui’s beautiful rendition of “The Ballad of the White Seal Maid.”
- You began your music career in the 1970’s. How would you compare the scene then with what’s happening these days?
- That’s a big question, a lot has happened since the 1970’s! Hmm . . . a nutshell view? First of all, with the technology being so different now, it’s a whole new ballgame. When I started, the medium was vinyl and you needed a professional recording studio to record on the 2″ analog tape that was used in those days. Having a record label backing you was pretty much a necessity. And you had to work for a few years to build a strong enough repertoire and audience to attract the interest of a record label. But a lot was happening then. There were new folk clubs opening up. A bunch of small folk labels were founded in the 1970’s, including Rounder, Philo, Innisfree, which became Green Linnet, Flying Fish, Shanachie, Alcazar. Some of the labels had their own studios. They had distribution to get albums into stores, and connections to get airplay on the vast network of folk radio shows across the country.
- Many of those radio shows have since disappeared, some with the commercialization of public radio stations, and most of the stores are gone. Some of the labels have gone out of business or merged with others. But then along came Red House in 1981, and Waterbug and Signature Sounds in the 90’s. Folk networks emerged, the short-lived Hey Rube! in the early 80’s, the Boston-based Folk Arts Network, and then the Folk Alliance was born. The first international Folk Alliance conference I went to — the 4th year it was held — was in Calgary in 1992, and there were about 500 of us there. The last one I attended, six years later in Memphis, had grown to 2000 attendees. We now have CD Baby, and we have YouTube and iTunes and Spotify and Pandora. You can create your own recording studio in your home. You can release a CD on your own and promote it on the internet. And this growth has happened fast.
- From the audience member’s point of view, everything was expanding back in the 70’s. Traditional music was exploding, exciting new artists coming along, like Stan Rogers (with Garnet, and David Alan Eadie), who’d just blow your socks off. There were the British Isles bands — Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, the Bothy Band, Silly Wizard — all blurring the line between folk and rock, and making what was simply great music. Over the past few decades the folk world has continued to embrace new sounds, from Ani DiFranco to Anais Mitchell to Antje Duvekot. New labels, Red House, Waterbug, Signature Sounds, have emerged.
- One of the things I’ve always loved about the folk world is that most of the people who are involved in it are there because they love the music. This was true in the 70’s and, as much as I live on the outskirts of what you might call the “scene” now, I believe this is still true. They may be musicians, presenters, booking agents, radio programmers, small labels, producers, recording and sound engineers, writers, reviewers, or audience members, but they’re all there for the music. As passionate as the musicians are about their music, so are the rest of the people who make it possible for them to continue doing the work they love. I think that whatever your part is in this intricate web — and every element had its challenges in the 1970’s and has them now — if you survive for the long term, it is because you find a way to keep that deep love of the music alive.
- When you first started singing in college, did you play all cover tunes? Which songwriters did you play during that time?
- I started out in high school playing Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel etc., and by college had added Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, James Taylor, and others to my list of covers. Joni Mitchell was probably the most influential writer for me. I discovered her the day I returned from a year in Brazil as an exchange student, and still remember sitting down and listening straight through her first album following along with the lyrics on the back of the album jacket. I sang a lot of her songs — mostly the unknown ones, but some of her big hits too. I learned to use open tunings from listening to her albums and tweaking my strings to match what I was hearing. I spent hours poring over her guitar parts and recreating them.
- Tell us what led you to gain the confidence to write your own songs?
- I didn’t really begin writing myself until the last year I was in college, after I’d abandoned my serious classical music theory major to study sociology. And perhaps because of that, who knows? But also, I think my playing-by-ear approach to the open tunings helped get me writing. I’d just sit and mess around with the tunings, finding chords that I liked the sound of, or taking a Joni Mitchell chord and putting it in a different setting — I think all of that put me into an intuitive place with music that hadn’t existed in my classical music world, and that must have helped with the writing. The first song I wrote that I actually dared to play for other people was my song “The Mushy One,” that I wrote in the spring of 1973. I was so shy about singing it for people that I would apologize for it by calling it “the mushy one,” and the name stuck. I think putting a disclaimer on it helped me get past myself to share my writing with others, but then the feedback was great, and I’m sure that helped give me courage to continue writing, as well as sharing my original writings with others.
- I’ve always felt that I wasn’t a serious songwriter. I’m not disciplined about it. I’ve always written when the mood struck me — unlike serious writers like Jack Hardy, who sat down and wrote a song every day. During some of my more unhappy years I wrote more than at other times. In recent years I’ve written a lot, but almost entirely for my music curriculum. Nothing like a deadline for spurring motivation — more about that later.
- Your early albums deal with a lot of natural themes revolving around life in New England. As your songwriting got stronger, did you feel that you had more to share with your fans?
- Interesting question. In the summer of 1986, when my son was almost a year old and was needing surgery, I was finding it incredibly hard to gather energy for concerts. The stress on the family since Tim had been born with club feet was great, and it made sense that my attention was elsewhere. But I saw it as a sign that I needed to stop performing. I decided to honor my commitments through the fall, but decided I needed to do something to motivate myself to play the remaining booked concerts. I did two things: 1) I set aside all concert income that fall to buy a grand piano, and 2) I began singing only my own songs in concert. I ended up, oddly enough, loving my remaining concerts that fall. Tim’s surgery came right after the last one. I announced my retirement, ignoring everyone’s advice to just take a sabbatical, and thought I was done with music forever. I never was sure if the reason I enjoyed those last concerts so much was because I knew I was stopping, or because I was singing my own songs. It’s interesting to consider this in light of your question, did I feel I had more to share because I was singing my own songs? Quite possibly. At any rate, forever lasted for a year and a half, and then I was back on stage, writing, and recording again.
- Johnny Cunningham produced your album, “There’s a Light.” He was quite a character from what I’ve been told. Do you have any memorable Johnny stories?
- Yes, Johnny was definitely a character, and a dear man. I loved working with him, both in the studio and in concert; he was brilliant, and he was funny. Wendy Newton, at Green Linnet Records, had recommended him to me as a producer. I still remember Johnny saying, in our first phone conversation, something like: “I think you’ll find that in the studio, less is more.” And then I said something to the effect of: “Great, you’re hired, when do we start?” And indeed, he did have a light touch in the studio and was a joy to work with. He’d come up with some far-flung idea and I’d look at him like he was crazy (think electric guitar power chords on the traditional shape note song “Ecstasy”) and he’d say, “Trust me,” and promise me that if I didn’t like the result, we’d pull it. And he was always right on, all of his seemingly weird ideas were perfect. I’m very happy with the arrangements on that album. All were guided by his intuition for the individual song, so some songs are produced very sparsely and others are lush and thick. It was a joy co-writing the horn and trumpet parts on “Ecstasy” and the oboe descant on “There’s a Light” with him.
- It was easy to see Johnny as his public persona, as he was on stage with Silly Wizard, with his fast fiddling and his rapid-fire sense of humor, and the way he and brother Phil would play off each other. And he lived hard and fast in a lot of respects. But underneath all that, he was a dear man, kind and generous and insightful. One interesting story about Johnny that I think shows this lesser-known side of him happened shortly after we completed recording “There’s a Light.” We were both at a Green Linnet party given by Wendy at her home. Johnny and I were talking, and out of the blue — for me anyway — Johnny asked, “Where is your anger in your writing? Why don’t you write about your anger?” I was quite taken aback. At that point in my life I never would have said I was angry. I remember being stunned by his question, and thinking to myself, “What does this man — who has just worked very intimately with me on a big project — what does this man know about me that I don’t know about myself?” I sat down in in a window seat nearby and somewhere found a piece of paper and began writing down whatever came into my head. “I am a river, you’ve dammed me, my world flows politely, so shallow. . .” My only memory of the rest of the party was of sitting in that window seat writing, letting my thoughts pour out of me onto the paper, in what was to become my song “Invocation.” I wrote down the words like taking dictation, having no idea where they came from, and no idea what they meant. That song, that question of Johnny’s, opened the floodgates. I continued to write over the next several months, the songs that would make up my darkest, most introspective, most serious, most personal of all my recordings, before or since, “Moondancer.” Where was my anger, indeed.
- I loved the upbeat, fast paced, funny Johnny. I love the beautiful music that came out of his fiddle and out of his soul. But the gentle, intuitive and insightful friend is the Johnny I sorely miss, and the Johnny without whom the world will never be the same.
- I’m interested in your working relationship with children’s book author, Jane Yolen. How did that come about?
- Back in the early 80’s, an audience member brought me a typed out copy of Jane’s poem “Ballad of the White Seal Maid,” and gave it to me after a concert I gave in the Mystic, CT area. I took the poem home and set it on my desk without reading it. The next morning when I got up, I picked it up, and as I read it for the first time, I heard the melody, fully shaped, in my head. It was as if the words dictated what the melody should be. There was publishing information at the bottom of the page, and I called the publisher in New York to locate Jane. The person I spoke with didn’t know Jane and asked if the poem might be from a children’s book, since that was an entirely separate part of this enormous publishing company. Amusingly enough, I said no — it didn’t occur to me that Jane might have written such a beautifully complex poem for children. I started singing the song in concert though, as I’d fallen in love with the poem and loved singing it, and of course I credited Jane for the lyrics whenever I sang it. One night after I sang it at the Camden Harbor Inn, in Camden, Maine, Gordon Bok came up to say hi, and told me, “That book was dedicated to me!” I was thrilled that he knew Jane, and he gave me her phone number. I called her, and we got together. Fortunately, Jane loved my version of her poem, and gave me permission to record it.
- We became friends, and I came home from each visit to her with a pile of books for my children. I would read them Jane’s stories and poems at bedtime, and very often the poems grew melodies. While I was putting together the songs for my children’s album “North of Mars” (title from one of her poems, by the way), Jane sent me a collection of some of her new water poems — two of them came together into one song for the album, “Two Stones, One River/Reflection.” It’s a very pensive song. I remember sitting at the piano working on it one day, wondering if such an introspective, quiet song would really work for children. I got up from the piano thinking about that. As I walked from the living room toward the back of our house, I passed through three rooms. In each room I walked through was one of my children, and as I passed them, I heard each one of them humming the song. Yup, I thought, that’ll do.
- And I think that’s one of the things I have learned from Jane. Not to underestimate what children think about, what they understand, what they are capable of. All these years later, my three children treasure their collections of Jane’s books, which we read over and over. Jane’s poems can be found on three of my albums, only one of which is geared toward children. We’ve also done concerts together, alternating poems and songs, and that is a great joy.
- Did your work with Jane pave the road to your current work with children? Tell us about Upside Up Music!
- My friendship and work with Jane certainly informed my ideas about children’s music, but it was a long and winding road before I came to teaching. It was the fall of 2002, and I was single parenting my younger daughter, who was in high school at the time, and my traveling for concerts was hard on both of us. Vic Lally, a concert presenter and Music Together teacher, invited me to visit his classes, as he thought it’d be a good match for me. On my way out to watch him teach, I listened to a tape he’d sent me. I was immediately struck by the unusual tonalities and meters, the breadth and overall quality of the music, and thought, “They’re doing this for babies? I could teach this!” What I saw in Vic’s classes just confirmed what I’d heard on the tape, and I was convinced this was right for me. Within three weeks I had completed the initial training, and I had begun teaching by the following spring. I’ve found that I love teaching both the little ones and their parents — I think having that combination is what makes it perfect for me. I teach in three small hilltowns near my home in western Massachusetts, and I’ve established a scholarship program to make my classes available to all families who want to share music with their children.
- I’d been teaching Music Together for five years when a few of my families approached me. Their children had aged out of Music Together, and they wondered if I would continue teaching them music. I agreed to try it out that summer of 2008 to see how it would go. I had a blast working with those “big” kids, and that fall I plunged into researching and developing my Kids’ Jam Family Music Workshop curriculum. Over the next three years I researched and wrote songs, arranged and recorded them, and made songbooks to go with them for eight seasonal collections of Kids’ Jam songs. After the first year, I brought Anand Nayak on board to help with the recordings. Anand is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and the guitar (etc.) player for Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem. He had produced my album “Closer” and had been a joy to work with. I was thrilled that he wanted to collaborate again on the Kids’ Jam recordings. We recorded everything with the two of us playing live in the studio. Over a period of two years, we recorded eight albums of 15-18 songs each, and it was sheer delight throughout.
- I am now in the midst of adapting the Kids’ Jam collections, to create a 3-level homeschool curriculum. It’s called Upside-Up’s Music at Home. I have a handful of “guinea pig” families doing Level 1 this year, as I create it. It’s a challenge keeping up with writing the lesson plans and making support videos on top of my teaching schedule, but I’m loving the work. And actually it’s nothing next to the deadlines I faced in the early stages of creating Kids’ Jam. Now that was crazy!
- The great thing about all the teaching and curriculum development I’m doing is that I have such a sense of rightness doing this work. The teaching itself is tremendously satisfying. I treasure the relationships I develop with families over a period of years as their children move up through my classes. But I think what it comes down to, for me, has to do with my own relationship with music. I’ve always loved it. I think it’s magic. I think it touches our deepest core in ways we can only begin to understand. I see the effect music has on children. To nurture music in the children in my classes is a joy. And to nurture it in their parents, regardless of their past experience with music, is an added bonus that feels very right and good.
Overboard has a musical energy that can’t be beat. The harmonies and jaw-dropping amazingly brilliant music that emerges from this group is indeed incomparable. Audiences from all across the country are continually awestruck by the talent they witness when they attend a show by Overboard.
Caleb Whelden took some time to answer some questions about the group.
For more information about Overboard, visit their website. Here is a video that gives you a great idea about what a live Overboard show is like!
- Overboard has been around since 2006. Has your repertoire changed a lot since you started?
- Overboard’s repertoire is constantly changing for many reasons. In order to stay relevant with younger audiences, we have to continue to cover modern day music. Additionally, as the group has gone through membership changes over the years, we’ve had to find and establish a new “identity” for the group. Recently, the group has been doing quite a few corporate gigs. Our clients choose specific songs/styles for us to perform in and we have to arrange new material for those specific gigs. Often times we continue to keep those songs in our repertoire.
- You’ve recently added two new members, Sam Fischer and Tracy Robertson, both Berklee grads. How did you discover them and what persuaded you to ask them to join the group?
- Sam and Tracy were on our radar the moment we began looking for new members. They were both members of Berklee’s “Pitch Slapped,” which is one of Boston’s premiere college a cappella groups. We auditioned and accepted them a month (or so) before Pitch Slapped won ICCA (very popular college a cappella competition) finals last year. Tracy was awarded best Vocal Percussion and Sam was awarded best solo. It was evident at that point we had made the right decision in bringing them into the group.
- Word has it that you’ll be recording a new EP. Any big surprises on it or do you want to keep the song titles a secret?
- We’re planning on releasing this month (January). There are four tracks to the EP. Three covers and one original. I suppose I shouldn’t release track titles before I check with the other members.
- Your bio states that Overboard was on “American Idol.” Were you competing or did you participate as guest stars?
- We actually were featured performers at American Idol summer camp, which if I remember was a FOX-sponsored camp for kids who wanted to sing. We never actually performed on the show.
- Are you still involved with doing production work for other a accapella groups? Is it challenging to take unknown (to you) musicians and know how best to highlight the strengths of the group or do they have a general feel for how each song should sound before you even arrive to help?
- There was a time when four of the members of Overboard did a cappella production. Now, none of us currently do it for a living. We still get many inquiries for production work and we forward the inquiries on to those former members.
- The list of awards for Overboard is quite impressive. Are there any that are more memorable than others?
- I think winning Harmony Sweepstakes was something we’ll never forget. We received runner-up the year before. I think it meant a lot to us that we were able to finally overcome the challenge. The trip to San Francisco that year was a whole lot of fun. We met many amazing people and groups out there.
None of the Above is an exceptionally talented eight — yes count ’em — member a cappella group. They tackle songs from a wide range of musical genres. Fans of pop, gospel, American songbook standards, folk, etc. will find something to enjoy when watching one of their shows.
To learn more about None of the Above, visit their website. Here’s a video of the group singing at last summer’s “All You Need is Love” benefit.
And a really fun video that you may recognize.
- Explain the group’s name!
- There used to be a website called the Boston A cappella Scene. On it you could post audition notices or upcoming gigs and news. When Matt was in the process of starting the group, he used this site to try to find some members. On the audition form, there was an option for the type of your group: Rock, Pop, Soul, Barbershop, Classical, etc. . . and it would only let you pick one. At the bottom of the form, it asked what the name of the group was. Seeing as we didn’t fit into any of the pre-defined categories, Matt entered “None of the Above” . . . it stuck. Although in retrospect, All of the Above, might have been a better choice!
- You’ve been singing together for ten years. Have you altered your repertoire to include different types of music — some that you may have never imagined that you’d be singing?
- Oh definitely. It’s tough for a new group starting out, with new members coming and going. We were much more of a small choral group back then, singing purchased arrangements. As the group solidified, we chose music that showed off our strengths. Over time we started pushing our own boundaries: 6, 7 and 8 part arrangements, arrangements written either for us or by us, avant garde academic music, and nearly impossible Gene Puerling arrangements of jazz standards. We’re uniquely blessed to have 3 arrangers in the group and two good friends that have also written for us. Matt also draws upon his prior choral directing experience to bring not often heard academic music to our audiences.
- Tell us about your annual event, Spring Fev-ah. What is it all about and how did it come about?
- Even though we would rehearse year ’round, in the beginning we acted very much like an academic group, with a September to June schedule. So we wanted to have a “year end” concert that showed off what we had done for the previous nine months. One of the songs in our repertoire at the time was the jazz standard “Fever” and that’s how the concert got its name. NOTA sang solo in the first Spring Fev-ah but has invited guest groups ever since, from high school to semi pro. It’s become a well recognized a cappella staple in the Boston area. One very memorable SF was our first in our current Wellesley location — it was 102 degrees that afternoon and a large, very forgiving audience showed up in an un-air conditioned church to hear us sing. It could have been called Sweatin’ to A cappella! Overboard was one of our guests a few years ago as well!
- What was it like recording your CD? Did the recording take place over a period of time? Did you record it live or did you multi-track?
- Seeing as we didn’t have a ton of money to go to a recording studio and the fact we had all our own recording equipment and enough knowledge to be dangerous, we chose to do the entire CD ourselves — recording, editing, mastering, graphics. We scheduled several recording sessions over the course of nine months — mostly at one of our member’s house! We did record with 8 separate tracks but not the way most a cappella groups record — we didn’t layer or punch in track over track. We sang each of our songs two or three times per session and if there was a take we liked, we went with it. We didn’t want our CD to sound overly manufactured or processed — we wanted it to sound as if you came to hear us live. Sure, we did edit the balance and added some reverb and some correction here and there, but for the most part, what you hear on the recording is just us as if it were live. It seemed like the whole process took forever, but it was very rewarding when we finally released ‘multiple choice’ in April 2012.
- You’ve just been chosen to appear on “Sing that Thing” a series on WGBH-TV. What’s the format of the show and when will it air?
- As you know, Boston is a hot bed of choirs and a cappella groups. There’s something for every taste and niche. Based off the popularity of recent singing competitions, WGBH is launching a new series that will feature the best choral groups in the greater Boston area. There are four ‘divisions’: high school, college, adult small ensemble and adult large ensemble. From the 1000s of singers that auditioned, only 6 groups from each division were chosen. There will be three rounds of competition: everyone gets a couple minutes to show what they’ve got in the first round. The top two groups from each division move on to the semi-finals, and finally the top group in each division go head to head in the final round. It will premiere on WGBH channel 2, on Friday, April 17th at 8pm. We’re beyond excited to have been selected!
- Who does the practice scheduling? With an octet, it must be pretty challenging to get everyone in the same room together!
- In general we meet once a week on Monday nights. Despite all of our hectic lives, NOTA rehearsal is a welcome respite from everything else that life brings! Even with business travel and family commitments. more often than not, we have all 8 of us in rehearsal.
- Do you all pitch in ideas for new songs or is there a group leader who has a sense of the group’s taste and abilities?
- While Matt is the music director of the group, we all pitch in with ideas for new material. As previously mentioned, having three members of the group with arranging abilities is a huge plus for us. We like to perform unique arrangements of songs familiar to our audiences as well as pieces they may never have heard before. Our eclectic mix of academic, pop, jazz, spirituals, folk and world music offers something for every taste — and keeps us on our toes at the same time!