Monday, July 11, 2011

William Elliott Whitmore Talks "Field Songs"

William Elliott Whitmore hails from his farm in Lee County, Iowa. His story begins when he was drawn to the DIY lifestyle and culture of punk rock and hardcore music, and began hitting the road opening up for his friends' bands, armed with his banjo. He soon found himself with a three-record deal from Southern Records, and spent time opening for such eclectic acts as The Pogues, Clutch, Murder By Death, and Converge to name a few.

In 2009, William Elliott Whitmore signed with Anti- Records and released Animals In The Dark. He has also continued to tour, most notably with Chris Cornell on his last sold-out solo acoustic tour.

William Elliott Whitmore drops his highly-anticipated new album, Field Songs on July 12th. Throughout the record, Mr. Whitmore projects his distinctively earthy and powerful vocals to conjure up tales of the American landscape and it's people who work it. His impassioned vocal performance is matched with instrumentation rooted in country, folk, bluegrass, and protest songs.

Banjo and bass drum kicks drive the set, giving Field Songs a casual and intimate feel, allowing the narratives to unravel at their own pace throughout. The result, as commonly found in some of the most timeless folk music around, is a rustic sounding collection of string-driven tunes that never rely on nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, but refreshingly push themselves unflinchingly into our very present times of unease and uncertainty.  

Field Songs offers as much ponderous reflection and observation, as it does carefully crafted attention to its narrative details, deliberate instrumentation, and intimate appeal. It's a rewarding record that fit's well among Mr. Whitmore's previous efforts, and provides a comforting sense of optimism- something we can all use a little bit more of in order to get us all through challenging times. 

William Elliott Whitmore will be touring in support of Field Songs this summer with The Meat Puppets, and then he will join Trampled By Turtles for a string of upcoming dates as well.

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a brief Q and A with Mr. Whitmore before the release of Field Songs. We discussed his own musical history, spanning from his beginnings up to the development of his new album.

Hi William, I’d like to start with some background history, move into your previous albums, and then talk about your new album, Field Songs. My hope is to bring new listeners up to speed on your work, as well as share some details with fans that have been following you since your first album in 2003.

Let's start with what drew you to learning music?

William Elliott Whitmore: I was drawn to music at an early age, as it was an inexpensive form of entertainment and enlightenment. My Dad played the guitar and my Mom played the accordion and piano.   Country music was the type favored by my parents and they had loads of records by artists like Willie Nelson, Hoyt Axton, Johnny Cash, and Roy Clark. Their first date was at the county fair to see Charlie Pride. It was natural for me to learn guitar and emulate the music I heard on those spinning records.

When did you begin writing?

WEW: I always enjoyed writing stories and poems on an old typewriter my mom got at a flea market. As a teenager I started writing songs and putting melodies behind them.  It later became a form of therapy.


Who were some of your early influences as you began composing and writing your own music?

WEW: Early influences, besides the ones mentioned above, were eclectic. I loved the country music of my parents but I also grew to love bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival,  Minor Threat,  The Descendants, The Band, and Public Enemy. I gravitated towards anything new and interesting. 

Could you briefly describe your “trilogy” of previous efforts (Hymns for Hopeless, Ashes to Dust, and Song of the Blackbird)?

WEW: My first three records were pieces of a whole. Hymns for the Hopeless, Ashes to Dust,  and Song of the Blackbird were part of a continuous story, meant to be taken in at once. They were inspired by deaths in the family,  overcoming those tragedies,  life in rural Iowa, and love, among other things.  These were my first steps into a real recording studio. It was a challenge to take these experiences and put them onto tape. It took me years to feel comfortable doing this.

Looking back on your previous discography, how did that lead to the change in your direction, conceptually and sonically, for collaborating with Jenny Holyston on Hallways of Always?

WEW: I'd been collaborating with my friend Jenny Hoyston for years,  even before my first three records. We lived together with a bunch of other folks in a warehouse on Oakland. It was sort of a squat, with people coming and going from all walks of life. At night we would play music. Years later we decided to record our ideas and the band Hallways of Always was born.

What did you take with you, or leave behind, from that collaboration to begin working on Animals in the Dark?

WEW: I started working on Animals in the Dark soon after that. I was working with a new label and it was my chance to try something different both sonically and thematically. I was trying different writing styles, and looking more outward for inspiration.

My cousin Luke and I built a recording studio in his garage and slowly started putting these ideas together. I brought a lot of friends in on the sessions for some different textures. Drums,  organ, bass, accordion, they all went into the mix.

You have described Field Songs as starker and more stripped down to suit the characters and stories of rural life that you are conveying within the songs. Can you discuss your decisions behind the production and arrangements?

WEW: Field Songs is a much more stripped down affair, me being the only person making noise on the whole record. I wanted the songs to stand on their own. The extra audio of natural sounds was gathered on the farm.  The birds, frogs, and insects provide the backdrop for the experience, their song mixed with mine. I want the listener to feel like they're on the porch with me, here in Lee County.

Lyrically, can you talk about your inspiration and influences?

Lyrically I'm inspired by the natural world and the scenery around me. The writing of Mark Twain,  Robert Frost, and Richard Brautigan also became very influential

You have toured with the likes of Clutch, Chris Cornell, and others. In fact, you will be hitting the road this summer with The Meat Puppets, and then with Trampled By Turtles. What would say has been the most enriching or influential aspect of touring with such diverse artists?

I've toured with a lot of different types of bands, and that's how I like it. I like meeting new people. Opening for Chris Cornell was a challenge, as I was added on to the tour at the last minute. No one knew who I was and I had to be constantly proving myself.  It worked out great and the crowds were appreciative.

What albums are most inspiring to you?

WEW: The albums I like the most are the conceptual ones, like Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, and Contemplating the Engine Room by Mike Watt.

What have you been listening to lately?

WEW: These days I still like a diverse palate when it comes to music. The new Lupe Fiasco is good. I also really like that Tune-Yards record and the newest Dead Milkmen album.

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