Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pharis & Jason Romero on "Long Gone Out West Blues"

The last time I spoke with Pharis and Jason Romero was when they released their last studio album A Passing Glimpse. As an admirer of their banjo-making company, J Romero Banjos, it was exciting to learn the behind-the scenes details of their passion for building instruments and making music. Since our chat last time, A Passing Glimpse has brought international acclaim to the duo, including landing them spots in some high-profile festivals, as well as earning them the Canadian Folk Music Award for best "New/ Emerging Artist of the Year".


The duo's new album, Long Gone Out West Blues is out now, and has been receiving a ton of praise from fans and critics alike. There is no denying that the word is out (and I mean in a BIG way) on these incredible musicians and songwriters! I recently had the opportunity to interview Pharis and Jason again, picking up where we left off last time to discuss the making of their new record.

Hi Pharis and Jason. It's good to talk to you again. First, I'd like to congratulate you both on winning the Canadian Folk Music award for "New/ Emerging Artist of the Year" with A Passing Glimpse.

Pharis & Jason Romero: Thank you Chris! We were about to play a hometown gig, and two minutes before we went on stage a friend texted us that we had won. It was brilliant, we got to share the news with the audience while we were still on the rush from the award.

The last time we spoke was when A Passing Glimpse was released. Can you briefly discuss how making that record, and your experiences since, have further fused your songwriting together?

Pharis & Jason: We really do spent close to 24-7 together: working, practicing, getting outside, and enjoying wherever we might be up to currently, including maybe building a greenhouse or a gourd banjo.

We learned a lot in making our last record, for example: about working together through the whole production process, our quirks and idiosyncrasies, and letting each other play to our own strengths in the studio while having patience with our quirks. We are writing some more together, though in most cases we still bring a mostly finished tune to the other, then finish it together. We seem to trust each other musically more all the time.


What do you feel you have accomplished behind the scenes regarding A Passing Glimpse, and how did that record influence you as you began thinking about the next album?

Pharis & Jason: We both felt like we'd established our own duet sound with the first record, but no matter what you do if you keep playing together that sound is going to grow and change, and we were both curious to see where the duet was evolving to.

Turns out it is the same general idea (we haven't added electric guitars or tape delay or anything, though we both love that), but an idea with a bit more age behind it. Making the new record was an instant impulse as soon as A Passing Glimpse was released. We wanted to kick our own asses a bit more as we pushed for new material.

When did you begin working on material for the new record?

Pharis & Jason: We started writing, arranging and learning music for Long Gone Out West Blues as soon as A Passing Glimpse was released. We couldn't help it. We knew we wanted to have more original music on the next record, including banjo tunes.

How did the new album take shape?

Pharis: The album naturally framed itself into a continuation of A Passing Glimpse. It is an all-acoustic duet, probably because that's what we do when we sit down to play music together and that seems most natural to us. We toyed with the ideas of bringing in other folks, using some more studio magic effects, but decided that it's not our time to do that yet.

Where our string band recordings are very traditional, these last two duet records, and especially the new one, Long Gone Out West Blues, have a greater sense of space and time, of location, as we let ourselves go a bit more in aesthetics that are more of a stranger to us. Jason also wanted a greater variety in his lead playing, so he's playing banjo, acoustic guitar, and resophonic guitar almost evenly throughout the new record. For us, as a duet, we like to break up the sound from song to song.

We had a general outline for the album months before, but knew there were some audio, tonal, and feeling gaps, so wrote and arranged quite a few songs in the months before we recorded.

Can you describe how a couple of tunes came together (maybe a couple that came together in unexpected/ surprising ways)?

Jason: "It Just Suits Me" started out as an a cappella  song that Pharis arranged for a vocal class she was teaching at the Portland Old Time Gathering. We never thought about it for us, until very late one night she pulled it out at a jam, and it clicked. It had to have banjo on it, it had to have two voices, and from there, we experimented. A lot.

Pharis: "The Little Things" was a surprise. In the middle of recording, the engineer was doing a bit of pre-mixing one morning and a looped chord progression kicked in an instant melody for me. All morning, I'd also been thinking about my cousin who had died early. It took about ten minutes to write, a few minutes to teach to Jason, and we recorded it the next day. When songs like that come along you don't look a gift horse in the face, you take it and say thank you.

I am curious: as listeners, artists, and instrument builders, how do you differentiate between these modes while working in any given direction?

Jason: As a builder, I've spent thousands of hours studying the early makers, the early aesthetic, the history, and how all of that relates to the dawn of the recording industry and the future of recording. The listener, player, and builder parts are totally intertwined. I am always listening to tones of instruments in recordings, always interested in how a song is arranged or sung or played, always wondering how that particular tone came out in a recording.

It seems, in retrospect, that we don't differentiate much at all. The tone of an instrument that I've built will inform how we go about playing that song, while listening to an old recording can influence the tone of the instrument I'm going to build. I started building wood-bodied resophonic guitars because I was looking for that warm but punchy sound, not quite as punchy as a metal-bodied guitar, that I hear in my head that I wanted in a new instrument for our duet.

We often listen to old music while we're building, and I'll build a banjo specifically for a sound that I hear in a song. I guess in short, each aspect of what we do strengthens the other parts, kind of like rope.

You are artists who seem comfortable composing albums of traditional along with your own songs. Can you discuss some of the field recordings and rare tunes you have chosen for this album, and offer some insights as to why you were compelled to include them?

Pharis: One of the most important things for us in this duet, with traditional tunes and songs, is that we're not trying to be purists, playing the music exactly as someone else had. Often we like the early tunes that haven't been done as frequently because it gives us more room to have our own take on the tunes, maybe even only influenced by the original early recording and the tastes we've both developed over years of listening and playing to traditional music.

Jason: All that said though, for me, "Wild Bill Jones" was irresistible. I've heard that song played forever, and have always loved the tune. After finding a banjo tuning and a key that I liked, I made it my own the best I could. Phar's guitar chord choices definitely changed the tune as well.

Even though it's inspired by Dock Boggs, it's a far cry from his original 1927 version. "Sally Goodin" is also not a rare or unusual tune by any means, but I like taking a well-known tune and changing the approach without losing the essence of a tune. I wanted to take it from a ripping fiddle tune to a more beautiful spacious tune. A new banjo tuning for it definitely did that as well.

How do these connect to your own songs that you have written and inform the new record overall?

Pharis & Jason: Any music that you're playing is going to influence the music that you're writing. At least that's how we feel. So a lot of time spent playing these traditional tunes and songs has an influence on the music we're writing, but then so does the other music we're listening to. That includes strange early vaudeville recordings, modern recordings with huge productions, and things in between.

There's a beautiful sense of place in a lot of early traditional music, and that might be one of the things that comes through most in our own writing; that and a particular sense of harmony and chord choice. This record, overall, is a spectrum of us: from sad and lonesome to pissed off and murderous. It is all us. Just to make sure though, we are really happy people....

Taking a variety of songs and ways of interpreting, from writing an original to taking an old tune and doing it our way, gives the album variety and scope, and gives the listener a bigger sense of who we are musically, as individuals and as the duet. But that sense needs to include a feeling of cohesion, and through all the different songs and tunes, the common thread is that it's just the two of us.

What were you listening to during this time?

Pharis & Jason: Merle Haggard, a lot of Riley Puckett, the Milk Carton Kids, Kitty Wells, Adam Hurt's beautiful banjo album Earth Tones, Tim O'Brien, the Fleet Foxes, Mollie O'Brien & Rich Moore, Bach's Brandenberg Concerto, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms' new record, Hank Williams, oh…. a lot.

What were the similarities, as well as the significant differences, between the writing of the new material?

Pharis: I do most of the writing, and the more time we have spent playing together, the more I feel like I can write songs with us playing them in mind. I've never been much of a "write now!" songwriter, but I did sit down intentionally to write some new music for this new album, and that was a whole other experience. As we mentioned earlier, as we get to know each other more (married over 5 years now), we trust each other musically more, using each other as a sounding board for early versions of songs.

In the past, I would have been wary bringing an unfinished song to anyone. This writing on this album is definitely more of a collaborative effort. And Jason's banjo tune, that he wrote for our lost dog Lula, is a beautiful piece of music - one of his first original banjo tunes, and I love it. He has impeccable taste, and his filter for what will be a long-lasting song or tune, versus something that might just sound good right now, is bang on. It's a really good thing.

Can you talk about the recording process of the record?

Pharis: We try to keep the process as live as possible, which is limited by a few factors including microphones, but in the end we mostly did the instruments tracked together first, then the vocals together. These were separated because we had one or two microphones that we all seemed to love, and wanted to use on everything.

Can you talk about your inner-dynamics and your relationship as a husband-wife collaborative duo? How do you see these connections surfacing in your work?

Jason & Pharis: This is a funny question… Because we spend so much time together we have a pretty good understanding of what each other can do musically, our thought processes, powers and limits, all that. Scratch that, we THINK we have a pretty good understanding, but the brilliant part is that we're always surprising each other.

We're both attracted to how things sound, but Pharis can always get sucked into a great lyric, while if it doesn't sound good it doesn't catch Jason. Pharis is most often an extrovert, Jason an introvert, and as far as surfacing in our work goes, Jason's sense of overall sound will definitely change how an original song Pharis brought in started out.

There are some chord changes that you will never hear on one of our records. Pharis' inner singer-songwriter is toned down by Jason's classic bluegrass and old-timist, and vice versa, which is a good thing for both of us.

What's next for you this year?

Pharis & Jason: We have really fun gigs and music camps this summer, including our perennial favorites Voiceworks and the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes (both in Port Townsend, WA), Pickathon, and some others we're not allowed to advertise yet. We're booking into 2014. And we're already thinking about the next record.

We'll both probably get new tattoos in the next few months, we have to build a cabin and a walkway through a wetlands this summer, and try to keep up with the 2 1/2 years of banjo and guitar orders we have on wait.

I am really excited to see you perform at (my 1st) Pickathon festival this year.

Pharis & Jason: We can't wait for Pickathon. Everything we've heard says that it's one of the best. We were asked to come last year, but were already booked at this delightful festival in BC called ArtsWells. So this will be our first year. A lot of friends are playing there and one of the best part of summer festivals and camps is hanging out with old and new friends from across the continent. We're looking forward to meeting you there.

What have you been inspired by lately?

Pharis & Jason: We cross-country ski every day in the winter, and that's an inspiring and exhilarating experience daily. In the last year we've listened to a lot of classic country, and the tones of electric arch top guitars and the look of vintage amps are freaking us out right now.

We both got new to us guitars last year, 1937 and 1941 Martin 00-18s, and they just make you want to play them. Jason has a wandering eye when it comes to vintage guitars…

Lastly, how does your local community of Horsefly and your teaching experiences filter into your work?

Pharis & Jason: We love it here. We're involved with the local music festival, Pharis teaches music in the school, and the folks who live here are amazing. Jason always says that the town is a perfect cross between the Andy Griffiths Show and Northern Exposure.

Teaching at music camps, and the people we meet at them, is just great. On our long drives home from camps and festival we often don't talk for hours, just thinking about the amazing sessions we had, people we met, real connections we made.

We're always recharged and inspired by the property we live on - we feel like we have a real slice of heaven up here. Jason's an avid flyfisher, and you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a lake or river full of trout (and no one else is fishing).

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, very interesting as I go back and listen to Long Gone Out West Blues. A little scared as I see this crazy talk about electric instruments and studio effects, but I trust to follow where you lead...