Rayna Gellert is a North Carolina-based fiddle player who comes from a musical family and has been continuing to grow an extended family of her own over the years, including some really incredible songwriters, musicians, artists, and collaborators. She has a rich history studying and playing rural stringband music, timeless gospel songs, and rich traditional tunes. She was a member of the band Uncle Earl and has worked with such respected musicians as Robyn Hitchcock, Tyler Ramsey, Sara Watkins, Loudon Wainwright III, John Paul Jones, and Abigail Washburn.
For her new album, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone By Worlds, Rayna was joined by guitarist/ archivist/ and record collector Nathan Salsburg (read my interview with Nathan here), as well as Abigail Washburn, producer/ songwriter Scott Miller (who she also plays with as a duo called CoDependents), and the legendary Alice Gerrard among others. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rayna regarding her musical trajectory, including her years with Uncle Earl, her previous solo work, and the making of Old Light.
Hi Rayna, I'd like to start with a quote I read in the press release for Old Light: "I was raised in a household where traditional music was an obsession". Can you describe your experiences growing up, and how they led to learning, playing, and performing music?
Rayna Gellert: Hey, Chris! Thanks for doing this! I grew up hearing all kinds of music, but mostly traditional music. My folks are musicians, and played a lot around the house when I was a kid. We also listened to lots of recordings of old time and blues stuff.
Can you tell us about your fiddle and the instrument's family lineage?
Rayna: The fiddle I play the most was my great-grandfather George Steiner's instrument. He was my dad's mom's dad. He was a Hungarian concert violinist and composer who came to the US as a young man.
You recorded your first album of fiddle tunes at 24, toured the globe, and played many well-respected festivals (including Telluride, RockyGrass, Bonnaroo, Philly Folk Festival, Lotus Fest, and Smithsonian Folklife Festival). Can you describe your experiences making that album and how your subsequent touring influenced you?
Rayna: That first album, Ways of the World, was something I made mainly because my friend John Herrmann said, "It's time for you to make an album." I didn't have any money, much less a clue, but he and a lot of other dear musician pals were really generous with me and helped out. It was such a good thing for me to do at that point in my life, and definitely set in motion a lot of musical adventures I couldn't have predicted!
There are only a couple original tunes on that project, and they were both things that just kind of popped out. The traditional tunes were a mix of my current favorites at the time. Paul Brown came to town with a mobile recording setup, we did all the recording in a weekend, and then I mixed it with my stepdad (who's an audio engineer). It was bare-bones, but I knew what I wanted to hear, and I had great people around to give me feedback.
How would you describe your experiences with Uncle Earl?
Rayna: My time in Uncle Earl is something I'll always treasure. I truly loved being part of that tribe, and I learned incredible amounts from my amazing bandmates. We shared so much and supported each other, but also worked our tails off. That band had a workaholic culture that I didn't recognize for a long time. I took it for granted being perpetually busy and sleep-deprived.
But we really shared the work and cheered each other on, and it was genuinely magical much of the time. So part of the experience was an education in being a working musician and how to negotiate the business aspects of that life.
How did those times influence your development as a collaborator and ultimately, as a solo artist?
Rayna: It was the first time I was really a creative member of a working band, and I learned a lot about collaboration and finding common ground. There was a lot of give-and-take. There had to be, because we all came from different musical backgrounds.
It was really good for me, because I had very set ideas about old-time music and what it should sound like, and I had to let go. That band challenged me to be less rigid or contained in my musical thinking, which has certainly rippled out into my musical life beyond the band.
What would say are some of your most lasting and rewarding memories from Uncle Earl?
Rayna: There are so many memorable experiences I had with Uncle Earl, I can't narrow it down to "most memorable". Playing great festival stages was always amazing (Telluride was my favorite), and we got to interact with so many inspiring characters because of those kinds of gigs.
Traveling with such smart, funny, creative women was a constant adventure, and there was a lot of laughter. Working with John Paul Jones was profoundly cool, and the bigger musical world he connected us to has changed my creative landscape, for sure.
Did you have a set vision for the material that would shape Old Light?
Rayna: I started out with the vision of making an album of my favorite and/ or the most traumatic traditional songs that I recall from my early childhood. But once the project was underway, it took off in a different direction.
What were you listening to during this time that was significantly inspirational?
Rayna: I remember that in the very earliest stages of thinking about what eventually became this album, years ago now, I was listening to Ragpicker's Dream by Mark Knopfler and Mule Variations by Tom Waits. Those guys are two favorites of mine. But I've been on a huge Uncle Dave Macon kick the past few years, and also started working with Scott Miller while this album was in process. So those are some other folks I've had in my ears while this album was being made.
How about your non-musical sources of inspiration?
Rayna: Books. Dreams. Friends. Some of the songs on Old Light were really directly influenced by stuff I'd been reading (Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and the The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel Schacter).
My friend David MacLean had a crazy experience with amnesia, and he has been writing his memoir about that at the same time I've been working on my album. He shared his early drafts with me (that book is called The Answer to the Riddle is Me, and will be out in 2013). Even though only one song on the album is specifically about him ("The Platform"), his writing definitely influenced the project.
How does living and working out of Asheville inspire you?
Rayna: It's a beautiful place, and it's great to be able to come home off the road to such a peaceful place. But as far as my music-making, this place has been huge in my life because of the folks I've connected with here.
When I first moved to the area, I got hooked up with a whole world of amazing string band musicians. Most of the folks who played on Ways of the World, for instance. There's such a strong sense of community among old-time musicians, and when I was a young person in that scene I felt so looked after. Though the connecting thread may be music, it goes way beyond music.
I became friends with Phil Jamison (who's a musician and dancer and dance caller) and his family because of music, but then they ended up renting me their old house for crazy-cheap for many years, which allowed me to keep my living expenses low enough to get by playing music full time. That's huge! And I feel like my life is full of experiences like that which have sprung out of being based in this area.
Another special Asheville connection is Steven Heller. Recording with him has been really important for me, because he's not only a great engineer (and producer), but he's also such a dear friend that it makes for a real intimacy and openness in the studio. I feel like he has encouraged me creatively in ways that have changed my music.
The whole Heller family is fantastic. Steven's son Andrew (who plays with Toubab Krewe) is one of my dearest friends, too, and he and I have been been playing music together for years now in different contexts. He has been playing with me when I perform the "Old Light" material live, which is really exciting.
Can you describe your songwriting processes?
Rayna: Songwriting is still new for me, so I don't think I have enough distance from it to get into a deep discussion about my process. Usually something comes to me (frequently when I'm driving), sometimes when I'm noodling around on guitar, and I'll find it compelling enough to want to follow it. The words and music always come at the same time, but then I might go back and tweak one or the other.
As an artist who may have previously been seen primarily as an instrumentalist, can you discuss your approach to singing on Old Light?
Rayna: When I'm asked about singing, I want to say, "I'm not a singer", which is something I'm trying to work on. Dick Connette runs the label I'm on and is an old friend of mine and is a zero-bullshit kind of guy. He was like, "You just put out a whole album of your singing. You're a singer. Get over it." But I've seen myself as an instrumentalist for so long that it's hard to shift my perspective.
I'd love to hear about your specific influences pertaining to singing.
Rayna: As far as influences, there are so many! I think because of growing up with traditional music, I am most moved by very unaffected singers who convey emotion in subtle ways. Susie Goehring (with whom I recorded Starch & Iron) is one of my favorite singers of all time, and she's a big musical influence in my life.
All the folks who sang harmonies on my album are beloved singing friends and influences, with Scott Miller looming particularly large lately because of all the performing we do together. I think he's a truly great singer.
Please describe your processes of re-arranging and interpreting the traditional tunes?
Rayna: The traditional songs were all ones burned into my brain in my early childhood. My goal in interpreting those songs was to find ways to make them as evocative of my emotional memory of them as possible.
Nathan Salsburg was my collaborator in arranging almost everything on the album, so we would throw ideas back and forth. He's a monster guitarist, so he has access to a whole world of musical color that I don't. I was always looking for certain feelings in the songs, and he got that. It was just a matter of deciding how best to get there.
You have some incredibly talented guests joining you on Old Light, such as Alice Gerrard, Scott Miller, Nathan Salsburg, and Abigail Washburn.
Rayna: Everyone who played and sang on this album is someone I love. I don't want to get painfully gushy or cheesy about that, but it definitely makes the project have a deeper resonance for me. In arranging the songs, these are the folks I could hear in my head. And I love what each of them brought to the project.
Alice is an incredible human on so many levels. I admire her singing and songwriting, and she has always been a supportive musical friend. I've already raved about Scott (though I could rave more). Abigail is one of my very closest people, and I was touring as a member of her band during some of the time I was working on this. She was such a great supporter and sounding board during the whole process. Nathan is a special case, because he was my main collaborator on the album, and this project wouldn't exist without him.
How and when did you connect with Scott Miller?
Rayna: We met at Mountain Stage in West Virginia two years ago. He was there performing solo, and I was there accompanying Abigail Washburn. I was floored by his set, and thought he was a delightful character. He was living in Knoxville at the time, so I dropped him a line and said he should holler at me if he ever needed a fiddler for anything. For the first year or so it was maybe one gig every several weeks. Now we're playing together pretty consistently.
The artwork for Old Light is just beautiful. Can you please talk about the artwork and how it all came together?
Rayna: I'm delighted to talk about the artwork! My brother Jonah did all of that. He was actually the one who first pushed me to make this album, so he was in on it from the get-go. Our shared memories, and his intimacy with the complicated process of getting this album done, gave him a depth of understanding that informed his design. We both envisioned it as an LP from very early on. The CD version is gorgeous, too, but the vinyl is how it was meant to be seen (and heard).
The elements he used in designing the project are deeply tied to the music, but I feel the same way about the package design as I do about the songs: I want you to have your own experience of it, so don't want to give you too much information. I'll give you this much, though: the image on the cover is a moth. Jonah started working with that image after hearing about a study that has proven that moths can remember what they learned as caterpillars, even though metamorphosis changes everything about them. Cool, eh?
Having really enjoyed Old Light, I then discovered that you and Scott Miller recorded an EP called CoDependents.
Rayna: The CoDependents EP was a kind of "let's-make-an-album" manic spaz-out. We did the entire thing in two days: recording, mixing, and photos. We were just trying to capture a bit of what we were doing as a duo, and have something representative to share with audiences. Of course I think we sound loads better now, but it was a snapshot. Our duo is really Scott being Scott and me reacting to that. I find it endlessly entertaining.
My work with Scott is different from anything else I've done. I have a great deal of freedom, and he's trusting me with his songs. Obviously I have a musical vocabulary that's based in old-time fiddling, but there's room for me to stretch out in fresh ways. It's its own animal.
Will you be touring nationally for Old Light?
Rayna: I am touring behind it, but it has been limited so far because I'm doing everything myself. When left to my own devices, I'm definitely not a workaholic. Any interested booking agents should holler at me!
What have you been listening to lately?
Rayna: I really love Nathan Salsburg's recent guitar projects. His solo album, Affirmed, as well as his duo album with James Elkington, Avos. Like I said, there has been a lot of Uncle Dave Macon in my life lately. I can't get enough of him. I dig Sara Watkins' recent album, Sun Midnight Sun. The latest album from James Bryan & Carl Jones, Cricket's Lullaby, is just lovely. And I love my "Mark Knopfler" Pandora station. Highly recommended!
What's coming up next for you?
Rayna: The vinyl version of my album is now available, which is a thrill, and I've got a music video coming out soon! In addition to shows with Scott Miller, I've got some dates of my own (which I'm doing with Andrew Heller and Jamie Dick). After all the busyness of getting the album finished and out into the world, I'm excited to turn my focus back toward actually playing music.