Category: Dawn Landes

Folk Couples, Covered:
Sproule & Curreri, Schmidt & Elkin, and Ritter & Landes

June 27th, 2010 — 11:52 am

There’s a long tradition of singer-songwriter couples in folk music, especially in those pockets of history where you find movements and schools forming. From June Carter and Johnny Cash in the second-generation countryfolk days, Buddy and Julie Miller at the forefront of the modern Americana movement, and Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst’s marriage in the wake of their work with folk supergroup Redbird, to the doomed-but-productive pairings of James Taylor and Carly Simon in the singer-songwriter seventies and Maria and Geoff Muldaur in the Greenwich Village and Woodstock jugband era, not to mention the quirky songs of the Wainwright/McGarrigle/Roche dynasty, it seems there’s something about the excitement of new folkforms and foundations being built and nurtured which lends itself to other, more intimate collaborations.

It’s heartening, then, to find a small set of relative newlyweds and young couples in several pockets of the modern folkworld. It validates the vibrancy of the genre, and its various communities, to see rising stars pair off, living together, producing each other’s records, sharing studios and songwriting credits, and backing each other on record and on tour. Today, we take a look at three such post-millennial couples, with best wishes for their continued success.

I’d seen Devon Sproule as an opening act before, and enjoyed her slippery, fragile dustbowl twang; hadn’t heard much of her husband and occasional performing partner Paul Curreri, except his collaborative work with spouse Devon on their once-annual Valentines Duets series, but my initial impression of his work had been generally positive, if peripheral.

But Tuesday’s Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule show at Club Passim was a revelation. Both performers have a presence that belies their shy, fumbling demeanor – Curreri loose and potent, heavy on the roots and americana, with elements of Harry Nilsson’s lyrical playfulness, Sam Beam’s craft and bearded looks, and Jeff Lang’s bluesy, bold guitar style; the waif-thin Sproule as a more southern indiefolk-oriented vocalist and songwriter, with hints of Patty Griffin, Sarah Harmer, Lucinda and Victoria Williams in her voice and her nuanced stringwork. And as a show-ending duo, a third sound emerged, warm, intimate and rich with harmonies and psychic connection, that didn’t so much transcend their solo work as reinforce their prowess as performers and songsmiths, able to make the most of their respective instruments in a variety of settings.

As writers, there’s a vast difference in style: Curreri’s lyrics are concrete and often silly, full of real-world imagery, while Sproule tends more towards the confessional narrative, channeling a wide range of emotion through inner-voiced relationship stories and loving characterizations; both performers have some exquisite solo work on their MySpace pages which speaks well towards their body of recordings. (If you go, be sure to check out Sproule’s Plea For A Goodnight Rest, which is utterly stunning in both live and studio versions.) Put ‘em together, in coverage or in rare collaboration, and the best of both worlds comes forth – for example, the anti-lullaby One Eye Open and the Hank Williams cover below were delicious live, and their work together on reggae classic Sponji Reggae on Sproule’s 2010 release Don’t Hurry For Heaven is amazing.

I’d recommend a show to anyone, but whether you’re on or off the beaten tour track – the couple continues to be a cornerstone of the Charlottesville scene, but they’re on the road plenty these days – for more of Devon and Curreri, definitely pick up their respective new albums via their websites, and then head over to Paul’s site for five years worth of collaborative album-length cover sets.

When Austin-based musician Danny Schmidt – himself a contemporary and one-time collaborator with both Curreri and Sproule, as explored in a recent interview from the UK-based blog Backroads – kicked off our on-again off-again house concert series last fall, I had only heard a few songs, and had never seen him in person: all I knew about him was that the 2007 Kerrville winner was a rising star, well-recommended by a number of folkwatching friends. As I wrote at the time, his gentle grace and gravity were stunning in person, and delving deep into his catalog since, I have found his work rich and soul-touching, full of mystery and melody, a perfect soundtrack to a grateful life.

These days, according to his and hers facebook updates, Danny’s been spending much of his time focusing on production for his partner Carrie Elkin, another Kerrville alum whose newest album is due to drop pretty soon. Carrie’s a sunny, smiling sort in photographs – the fan-fueled microfinance structure she’s been using to raise money for the album’s mixing and production promises daisies, fresh eggs, and home-cooked meals along with the usual CD and house concert to those who help support her – and her voice, while often softly haunting, lyrically raw, and delicate, is ultimately no less optimistic and powerful, making her music a perfect compliment to Danny’s socially conscious, life-affirming introspection.

Elkin recorded a few covers on her 2001 self-released Live at the Front Room, which is sadly out of print; if anyone’s got a copy, I’d aching to hear her take on Angel From Montgomery and Amazing Grace. But the exclusive Townes Van Zandt cover below – a tasty tidbit from an upcoming 20+ track Townes tribute and benefit CD currently being finished across the pond, which will also feature Devon Sproule’s take on Townes rarity Turnstyled, Junkpiled – shows that the pair have little difficulty bringing just the right balance of broken hope and wistful depression to the dustbowl troubadour blues, too.

We’ve written about Josh Ritter here before several times, most recently in this year’s birthday coverfolk post. And as a bigger name than the other artists featured here, Ritter needs little introduction. His spouse Dawn Landes, meanwhile, is slightly lesser known, though not in my house: her 2008 release Fireproof, for example, is a haunting, well-worn journey through quirky singer-songwritery popfolk a la eighties Suzanne Vega, while her recent appearance on last year’s indiefolk Nilsson tribute Songs From The Point reveals a knack for atmospheric nufolk as well.

But Ritter’s 2009 marriage to Dawn Landes is notable, in part, because it may prove a test-case for the ways in which partnership on or off stage can help leverage and focus a deserving artist’s career through appeal to a particular audience. Though Landes’ most recent release, last year’s Sweetheart Rodeo, is an exceptionally strong and critically celebrated work that calls to the modern americana-laden trend, given the size of his audience, if her work garners any new exposure from here on out, it will be as impossible to divorce that success from her association with Ritter as it is her work with indie group Hem, an increasingly vast body of work on television soundtracks, and opening act slots for Vega, Jose Gonzales, Justin Townes Earle, and others.

Which is to say that Ritter is currently on tour with Landes as an opener – a touring strategy that will have inevitable fanbase ramifications, though it also surely allows them some rare time together in the midst of two very successful solo careers. And that’s a good thing, I suspect, given how Landes’ ability to sustain attention and grow her fanbase from album to album has been complicated by diversity – that is, by production strategies and songsmithing that yaw wider than most. Here’s hoping it also grants the consistent elements of her craft – that sweet and aching voice, that ability to find just the right sonic core to best lay out a lyric – the exposure they deserve.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

1,380 comments » | Carrie Elkin, Danny Schmidt, Dawn Landes, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri

(Re)Covered, XIII:
An interview and exclusive live tracks from Caroline Herring
plus live Chris Smither, and more of the year’s best tribute albums

November 15th, 2009 — 04:26 pm

Regular readers may recall that I first fell in love with the powerful, confessional Americana folk of Signature Sounds artist Caroline Herring after last year’s Lantana, a tour de force concept album of sorts which evoked a broad set of southern women’s voices struggling with their own claims to power and the lack thereof. As we wrote last month on the cusp of its release, Herring’s newest album, Golden Apples of the Sun, is a stunner, too, and I’m happy to report that it’s garnering the attention it deserves, climbing the Folk and Americana charts and finding placement on this year’s upcoming Oxford American Southern Music Sampler.

Last weekend I had a rare opportunity to sit down with Caroline before her opening set to a packed house at local folk-haunt the Iron Horse. Unsurprisingly, the Southern singer-songwriter was charming and articulate, both onstage and off; I appreciated the shout-out to Cover Lay Down during her set, and appreciate, as well, her willingness to share some thoughts on her own history and experience with coverage for the benefit of our readers.

Interestingly, as she noted at the outset of our interview, Caroline stayed away from covers for most of the last decade, having burned out on them early in her career in her work with Thacker Mountain Radio, a Southern music and literature radio show she helped found down in Oxford, Mississippi:

I used to do all covers, when I started playing with the Sincere Ramblers. We were the house band for a live audience radio show for two and a half years, and every week, we put out four new covertunes, and they were all of country blues, gospel, bluegrass, classic country…so we covered the canon. And so by the time I finished that, I was really tired of covers. I had learned a tremendous amount, but I just was so hungry to write my own songs and play my own songs and so I got in that habit.

But of course I know so many. And with this album, I first thought I would do an album of covers. And I was still not ready to do that. I don’t know why…I still have that Sincere Ramblers…that cover-mania was still with me…

The journey which brought her to include five songs originally penned and performed by others on her most recent release is deliberate and deep, as much a result of a pent-up sense of influence as it is a result of trying to craft a comprehensive vision in the studio. As Caroline describes it, under the guidance of producer and sideman David “Goody” Goodrich, she ended up with an album that seamlessly intertwines typically strong, poignant originals like The Dozens and Tales of the Islander with a series of songs reclaimed from her past and her culture.

In conversation, as in the music itself, it is obvious that the process by which Caroline has come to make songs her own, both lyrically and artistically, stems from to the way in which she connects her own artistic center with others – performers, producers, and songwriters alike. And listening to her music shows continued evolution of that process. Though the two covers on Lantana were recognizable from their first measures, here, Caroline doesn’t so much interpret songs as she does find her own voice in them, an approach which very often means a comprehensive reinvention of the familiar. Her LP selections – standards Long Black Veil and See See Rider, a resetting of the sixties folktune granted to Yeats poem Song of the Wandering Aengus, and startlingly transformative covers of both True Colors and Joni Mitchell’s Cactus Tree – are rewritten gems, with new tunes and tunings breathing new life and new intimacy into the texts. Here’s how that happens:

I had always loved the song of Wandering Aengus – Judy Collins’ version. I’ve listened to it for ten years, loved it. And I listened to her growing up. But I would play it, and sing it, and I thought “well, I wonder how other people do this.” And then lo and behold I listened to other people, and everybody has a different tune. And so I thought well, maybe I could do a different tune. And so I did. And then…that just spread.

And I’ve played Long Black Veil 500 times. You know, with a bluegrass band. And as a folk singer, perhaps it’s effective. But I loved playing with it. The song was definitely morose, but I played it very folkily. And in the studio, Goody – who was an integral part in the playing of this record – he played with it, and said “make it more urgent sounding”. And I got mad at him for saying it was urgent. And that was the take we took. And of course, he was right, and it was just wonderful, and I was just being diva-like…

As Caroline goes on to describe the way each covered song came to her, a two-part trend becomes clear: first, Caroline finds a song that she loves, and that speaks to her emotionally, and then, she rejects the melody and delivery of the versions she has heard from others in order to rebuild the songs as her own, whether in response to an inner desire or to the push of the producer and partner. In True Colors, which Goody brings to the table, she finds deep meaning in the sentiment of the song, but transforms the melody to make it a vehicle for her own sense of that sentiment. Similarly, Caroline describes feeling “standoffish from” blues, not feeling like she has a “right” to sing them, so although her version of See See Rider reflects both an appreciation of and a reverence for Ma Rainey and Big Bill Broonzy, she ends up remaking the song “in a way that [she] can sing it,” so that it has meaning for her.

In the end, it’s clear that, as Caroline herself notes, “I don’t seem to make an effective song if I’m not emotionally a part of it”. And this extraordinarily unusual, highly sensitive approach to coverage is consistent with her songwriting and performing process, too. Caroline’s originals show rare empathy, and the combination of intimately reforged familiarity and strong new songcraft is a great part of what makes Golden Apples of the Sun and its companion EP Silver Apples of the Moon – which also includes a few wonderful covers, most notably Kate Wolf’s Here in California, and a duet with Cary Hudson – such powerful works, universal and intimate all at once, worth buying from the source, and worth gifting as the holidays approach.

Here’s more from our evening with Caroline, in her own words and music: the full recorded interview, complete with chat about family and kidsong, and a few live tracks recorded by yours truly at the venue, on my trusty iPod voice recorder.

Bonus: Caroline’s new video for Tales of the Islander is now available at YouTube. Songs:illinois, who doesn’t usually post videos, says it “does justice to Caroline’s beautiful song as well as showing her beautifully serene and peaceful personality.” Having met her in person, I’d have to agree.

Caroline’s too-short set was followed by a rare treat: labelmate Chris Smither performing songs from his new album Time Stands Still with support from The Motivators (drummer Zak Trojano and guitarist David Goodrich, whose subtle strains also can be heard in the latter tracks from Caroline Herring above). Smither, who has recently moved into the area, only gets better with each passing year, his wry, gentle manner mellowing even deeper with age, and the band brought a fullness to his songs which was previously only available in studio recordings.

Unusually, Smither’s Saturday set was comprised of almost all new material, but he did offer this stunning cover of Dave Carter’s Crocodile Man. Though I’m still gathering in a few last tunes for an upcoming feature on Carter’s songbook, this bootleg track is just to good to hold back.

Finally, before you head off to buy your own copies of Golden Apples of the Sun, Silver Apples of the Moon, and Time Stands Still, a quick mention of three new and upcoming albums we missed in last week’s feature on recent Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations:

First, and most relevant to our recent foray into the world of folk tributes: a debt of thanks to delicate folkwatcher Slowcoustic and his own source the Common Folk Meadow blog for raising consciousness this week on The Wanderer, a new all-covers release from Berliner singer-songwriter Laurence Collyer performing as The Diamond Family Archive. The album, which features typically lo-fi bedroom covers of Sam Cooke, Eddie Cochrain, John Lee Hooker, and others, is comprised of quiet, often somber “acoustic landscapes”; in keeping with the organic sound and production value, the CD includes a handdrawn booklet, photographs, and “objects of affection”, and the whole thing comes across like a true collector’s item waiting to happen.

Slowcoustic has rehosted a wonderful free show from TDFA, just one of many available at label Woodland Archives, which includes the following live version of the title track from The Wanderer; the entire show includes some startlingly amazing covers, most notably absolutely mystical banjo-and-voice breakdowns of Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again and Islands in the Stream, and serves as a great introduction to the strong subtleties of Collyer’s work. Also included: two lovely late-night covers of Dire Straits classics, one from the covers album, the other from The Diamond Family Archive webpage. Gorgeous stuff, all ’round.

Second, this Harry Nilsson cover from Dawn Landes has been making the blogrounds, reminding both that a) we did a Nilsson feature way back when, and b) the pop-slash-indie-grown tribute album Songs from the Point!, while not folk, contains some delicate takes on Nilsson’s playful, poignant, well-crafted songs, the best of which come across as strong contenders for permanent earworms.

And finally, looking forward, the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street this week brought exciting news of an upcoming Muppets tribute album featuring the likes of Weezer, my Morning Jacket, and Andrew Bird. Like Songs From the Point, the upcoming tribute features several artists who claim folk music in their blood and musical origins; Andrew Bird, who will appear on each, recently released his torchy, francophilic take on Bein’ Green, and though it’s not clear if Joshua Radin’s version of the Sesame Street theme song, originally recorded for Scrubs, will make it to the 2010 album, it’s certainly in the same vein.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and songsets every Sunday and Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. We’re not known for brevity, but people seem to like what we’ve got to offer; if you do, too, please help support our mission by purchasing albums direct from the artists from the links above, and – if you’re up for it – perhaps consider donating a bit to help keep operating costs low.

983 comments » | (Re)Covered, Caroline Herring, Chris Smither, Dawn Landes