Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West Discuss "I'll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands"

Although not quite household names (yet!) and often referred to as "musician's musicians", Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have returned with their magnificent, third full length album called I'll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands, which is sure to be making quite an impression. The duo have been making quite a name for themselves over the years, playing every kind of venue including small intimate clubs, opening up for some of roots music's biggest artists, as well as appearing at well-respected festivals.

Their three studio albums and incredible live performances fuse the appeal of the bluegrass, folk, country, and singer-songwriter genres into a sound all their own. Hard to classify, but easy to play repeatedly, Morrison and West are putting out some of the best records around. The duo is easily one of the best live acts and songwriters working today (seriously, poll artists you respect and you will be shocked how many often name drop these guys!).

The last time I spoke to Cahalen and Eli it was regarding their last album, Lady of the Tall Trees. I am honored and grateful to duo for allowing me the opportunity to interview them again, this time digging deeper into their process, partnership, how the new record came together.

This is your first full length recording since Lady of the Tall Trees. Can you briefly describe your experiences since then and what led up to beginning work on the new material, that would ultimately become I'll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands?

Cahalen Morrison: Bringing in new material is always an ongoing thing for us. Since we're on the road so much, we're constantly trying to change our shows up, and bring in some fresh stuff. So we're always on the hunt for new tunes, and I write a steady stream of songs regardless. So, about a year and a half of playin' on the last record, and we've got an albums worth of good new tunes that are pretty much worked up from playing them out.

Eli West: Our Lady of the Tall Trees had the responsibility of any sophomore album, to solidify our sound, by way of either consistency or contrast to the first record. The third record seems to not have such responsibility, and we both felt free to not follow any suit or sound. We have both grown apart since the last record, pursuing other musical outlets, and so it felt good to squeeze the sponge yet again for a third record, borrowing equally from our established sound and new musical trajectories.

Which songs came together first and how did those shape the development of the rest of the album?

Cahalen: I think that "Fiddlehead Fern" and "James is Out" kind of set the tone for the record. I wrote those last year, and I feel like the ended up as a signifying sound for the rest. Instead of the sagas and the seriousness of the last record, this one ended up balancing between playful and sad songs. It is an interesting balance, but I think it works nicely. 

Eli: I remember Cahalen starting in with "Fiddlehead Fern" at a friend’s house near Portland, Maine. I could tell straight away that a new season for our sound was starting. As I heard my parts and the instrumental options emerging in my head, they felt different than previous approaches.

Did you have a pre-conceived vision for the record you wanted to make?

Cahalen: I didn't, necessarily. I think we both keep a pretty open mind to what will happen in the studio. Because we have all the tunes in our pocket, pretty much. But then when we have the pressure of the little red button, and having all the other folks playing on it, I am definitely always excited to get things going on that I couldn't even foresee happening! And honestly, I think that choosing Tim as a producer is a pretty strong signal of what kind of record we were tying to make.

Eli: Our Lady of the Tall Trees was the bare truth of our live show (being just the two of us). That made sense for that record, though for the new one it seemed exciting to employ twin fiddles. My initial idea was for arranging in the song "Natural Thing To Do", yet I’m thrilled that Cahalen was open to double fiddle arrangements on the rest of the record. Beyond that, I’m not a big "concept record" person, but more pursuant to each song’s identity.

What kinds of musical boundaries were you looking to challenge (both inwardly and outwardly)?

Cahalen: I always really enjoy having other folks on a record. It really allows me to play more relaxed, without having to hold up a whole half of what's going on. I always seem to be much more creative when there's a safety net of other things happening, musically. And likewise, having the other folks on the album really inspired me as well. So it was fun to see what happened to my playing and singing, being surrounded by such brilliant musicians.

Eli: I’ve historically felt most control in blending when finding harmony lines, but it felt nice to stretch out into lead singing a bit more on this record. Instrumentally, I wanted to further exploit a kind of tightly wound and aggressive left hand approach to my instruments. I am proud of how that it showed through, particularly with guitar work on "Living in America" and "Anxious Rows". Working with Tim O’Brien was a great way to stretch myself as well.

What did you want to dig deeper into this time around and/ or explore further than your previous work?

Cahalen: I'm always striving for a more creative and grounded playing. I feel like I am much more of a singer and a writer than an instrumentalist, so I am always trying to play catch-up, and stay somewhere near Eli in ability and creativity (which is damn difficult). And honestly, I don't feel like I want to leave anything behind, I quite like what we've constructed, as a whole. I enjoy the weird, wonky stuff, and the idiosyncrasies. I think that really defines what we are.

Eli: Our setup is so basic and our sound checks take 15 minutes. We fit into a small rental car. I love how light weight we have kept our approach, and therefore there isn’t much to shed. As for digging deeper, I wanted to further employ the "leaning in" and "pulling" tensions that are used in singing, and subsequently instruments as well.

Can you describe your inspiration and songwriting process (specifically, lyrically)?

Cahalen: The writing on this one was really directed at my home, in northern New Mexico. I'm a permanent Northwesterner now, just cemented by the wife and house thing, so I think a lot of these tunes were in response to the longing for my true home, and being stuck in a different place. "James is Out", "Livin' in America", "Anxious Rows", "Lonesome Draw", and "Off The Chama" all have big elements of home, for me. But, they all maintain another life outside of that too, because most of them were written on the road, so there's definitely a lot of outward influence as well.

"Anxious Rows" was written in Germany, "Off The Chama" in Seattle, and "Livin' in America" in Scotland. And as half-written songs, they get carried around with me on tour, so they pick up little pieces from all over. It's a really fun aspect of writing and traveling for me. It really takes the place of taking photographs for me, because I keep all sorts of snapshots that flash in my head while I'm singing these songs, of exact moments where I was when a certain line came to me, and why.

How would you say your relationship together has grown and deepened over the years, and especially moving into the new record?

Cahalen: Definitely in the natural way, with comfort deepening, and a real understanding of what the other person is getting at, musically. So that feels like a really natural progression in our relationship. But, recently we've been playing a lot of music with other folks outside our duo, in all sorts of capacities, so that has really livened up the music, and things are becoming a little unexpected too, not just the same comfortable thing we've been doing, so that is a really fun and refreshing thing.

Eli: Musicality is so rooted in one’s own identity and even ego, for better or worse. Going from friends to brothers to business partners to occasional adversaries hasn’t been without its growing pains, and we are in fact quite different people.

That said, we have from the start built a large and wonderful well of musical intuition. We both can pull more fully from said well with each subsequent show and record.  As to the new record, there was so much that was understood without even rehearsals going into the studio, that we just had to do our thing to make it happen.

What comes first, lyrics or music? And/ or how do they steer each other in the process?

Cahalen: Generally, a line will come about, and a little melodic fragment, then a song gets built from the two together. So really not one or the other, necessarily, but every combination happens, for sure. For instance, I had the progression and the basic melodic layout of "Fiddlehead Fern" for ages. I wrote that in England, on a day off, and just played around with it for months, then finally worked out some words when we were up in Maine at a friends house.

"Off The Chama" was a really fun one to write as well, because I got to basically completely ignore any rules about songwriting that there are. Again, I wrote that one with the first couple lines, and just built straight out from there, adding extra phrases and chords as I needed them. A really refreshing thing, for sure!

Overall, how collaborative is the songwriting and recording process? ( and how you work out the arrangements- could you give some examples?)

Cahalen: I write on my own, but when it comes down to harmonizing and really working up the songs, the tunes really take shape. So, working our two parts together is incredible collaborative. And I feel like we quietly collaborate every time we play them, as they're always changing and progressing. And the studio is maybe a little less collaborative because I feel like we really do all our work beforehand.

Eli: Cahalen is a prolific writer, and yet our sound has been determined by the understanding to collectively evolve songs from their impetus. It is always fascinating for me to listen to early recordings of songs, because like a frog boiling in water, I can sometimes not recognize how much vocal inflections, words and even chords change throughout a song's maturing.

Can you share some of what were you listening to that inspired you throughout the writing and recording processes?

Cahalen: I really like Robbie Fulks' new record Gone Away Backward, Redwood Catherdral by Dick Gaughan, and Borders y Bailes by Los Texmaniacs. Those are probably the three that I listened to most leading up to the recording, that contributed.

Eli: I have mostly been listening to music outside of our corner, out of curiosity and attempting to avoid the problem of judging what I’m listening to. For me, intellectual acoustic groups like This is How We Fly, Rydvall Mjelva, Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, and other fiddlers, such as Martin Hayes and Lisa Ornstein have been really fascinating to listen to. Listening to other instruments has been a useful way to examine my own guitar playing.

As two artists who work together as a duo, as well as each collaborate with others, how do these two uniquely different experiences funnel into your own work?

Cahalen: We've had such an intense relationship, that it has really cemented us together as a duo. It is a remarkably comfortable place to be. I think we really trust each other, and we know what the other's response and reaction to things will be, musically. So that is a great foundation to have.

Playing out with other folks, and getting inspiration from other sources has been really good for our sound as well. It really freshens things and excites things up when we come back together after having played in different settings.

Eli: This duo has been my first jump into professional music. The musical progress of my few years as a professional has been so satisfying, especially in regard to the learning curve for my singing.  I have been spoiled in the duo with having lots of room to stretch out, step on toes, test thresholds and experiment with minimal damage.

In larger settings, such as playing with John Reischman, Tony Furtado, or sitting in on pedal steel with Aoife O'Donovan, I've realized the need to reign it in and play a specific role. In the duo I can wear many hats, and even switch them in the middle of the song. It has been a good lesson to identify holes in a full band arrangement and try to not overfill them.

I'd like to ask you specifically about your ongoing musical exploration:

First, could you share some of the artists and/ or albums that inspired you each of you (early on) to learn and then develop further as writers and collaborators?

Cahalen: My two biggest musical icons were definitely Tim O'Brien and Kelly Joe Phelps, which kind of boggles my mind, as I've gotten to work with musically, and have friendships with both of them. I definitely never saw that coming. I grew up on Hot Rize, Norman Blake, Rory Block, Doc Watson, and country radio, which all melded in to one big ol' stew.

I've gone through all sorts of stages, trying to sound like all of them, and others, and I think I've finally wound up in a place where I sound like myself, which is a good place to be. I feel like my writing has found a spot, where I have my own voice, and they sound like my songs, not anybody else's.

Eli: I've bounced between the standards, like Tony Rice's Manzanita, and some outliers, like Pat Metheny's One Quiet Night. Daniel Lanois, Bruce Cockburn, John Scofield and John Doyle (mostly with Solas) crept into my ears and clung to my musical thoughts. More particular to our brand of music, Tim O’Brien, Matt Flinner, and David Grier have inspired my sound.

Cahalen, as a multi-instrumentalist, could you describe when you began playing your first instrument and how you began/ what led you to learning/ playing each additional one?

Cahalen: As far as instruments go, I started playing guitar when I was about 9. My dad plays guitar and fiddle, so he taught me some chords I could back him up on fiddle, and we could play some together. Then at about 11 I got a drum set, which is really my true love, much to my folks' chagrin, I'm sure. At 13 or so I picked up the mandolin. My dad had an old Weymann mandolute, and he taught me some chords and fiddle tunes on that.

In high school I heard Kelly Joe Phelps for the first time. And he changed my projection as a guitarist, and I started playing lap slide. During all of this I was playing drums and singing in a band. We played country and New Mexican dance music all around the region, for dances, family reunions and weddings. I started writing songs in high school, when I met my good friend, Juan Holladay who was a songwriter. He basically made me realize that it can be done. I honestly just had no idea beforehand.

Then I went on to study jazz drums in college, and continued to play in bands throughout college, and solo. After I left school, I toured around solo for a handful of years, along the way picking up the banjo. As my career has been turning a little back toward country music, I've been playing some straight steel as well.

Over the years, what have been "the constants" for you- whether it is artists you listen to/ collaborate with, stylistic songs/material that is your "go-to", and/ or new places you seek to push yourself into?

Cahalen: As I said, Tim O'Brien and Kelly Joe Phelps have been constants. I'm always excited when they make new records, in whatever direction they go. Especially the past two by KJP, Western Bell, and Brother Sinner. So wildly different, and so incredibly brilliant. And, obviously roots music  of all kinds has always been a constant too. I feel like I'm constantly tumbling through folk, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, old-time and celtic music, and mashing them all together.

I've recently been writing for three distinctive projects, which is fun. Writing the bluegrass and old-time kind of stuff for Eli and I, straight ahead country for my country band, Country Hammer, and some fairly wacky fingerstyle guitar stuff for some shows I've been doing with the brilliant fiddler, Greg Spatz. It's been fun to have to stay in certain boundaries for certain projects.

Eli: Paul Simon has honestly been the biggest musical constant for me. His sense of rhythm can always pull me out of the worst of moods, and the familiarity of his catalogue can always call on low hanging nostalgia and want. Otherwise, folks like Paul Brady and Tim O'Brien, and Joni Mitchell own large tracts of my musical memory.

What would you say have been your most recent discoveries?

Cahalen: I've been really getting back in to Mexican music. I really love NorteƱo, Ranchero music, and New Mexican music. Like Al Hurricaine and Los Tigres Del Norte.

Eli: I've been more recently inspired by a lot of Scandinavian guitar players like Roger Tallroth and Mattias Perez, particularly because they are inventing a guitar style in a folk tradition that has no expectations. Swedish polskas have been very fiddle centric, and these guys are inventing rhythms around the melody.

How do you challenge each other and push each other into new places?

Cahalen: I think playing in other capacities has really done an amazing job at that. It really allows us to open up when we're playing together.

Eli: To share so much musical and creative overlap and then also deal with very different styles around business and communication can wear us both a bit thin. Leaving room and not drawing conclusions has been my challenge, but all in the name of maximizing time for music and creativity.  I have often been reminded to pursue what I’m good at and not try to be everything, musically speaking.

As a new volume in your discography, now that I'll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands is finished, how would you say it connects to and/ or distinguishes itself most from your previous work?

Cahalen: I feel like it is extremely connected to the rest of the records, and feels like a natural step, but I think it definitely pushes our sound in a good and slightly different direction. The twin fiddle sound was really fun to have, and gave a nice dynamic, and Tim O'Brien was amazing to work with, I think he had a big hand in shaping our sound a little differently than it was prior.

Eli: This vantage point might not have enough distance on the new record, being as that we are still breathing and wrestling the process of getting it out in the world. I haven’t listened to it in a few weeks, but from what I remember, I am thrilled with the balance of equal parts borrowing from our sound and yet also not pretending to be our previous work.

What are some of your biggest non-musical sources of inspiration?

Cahalen: I read a lot, and get mountains of inspiration from it. Both fiction and nonfiction, and poetry. Geography and landscape have a big impact on me, as well as cultural relationships between and among people and places.

Eli: I have been a visual artist since college, spending 7 years as an interaction designer in Seattle. I have returned to acrylic painting recently, with two portraits of my grandfathers. I continually find visual communication, particularly curated sets of journalistic photography (like daily doses of BBC’s In Pictures and The Atlantic’s In Focus) as big sources of inspiration. As an extension of that, travel is always an inspiration for me. I am excited to spend some time in North Africa this Spring before our UK tour. I also find a lot of inspiration in the built environment, and am working towards building a timber frame post and beam structure in the next few years.  

What have you been listening to lately?

Cahalen: The new Vince Gill and Paul Franklin record!

Eli: I’ve been falling back on Bill Frisell’s catalogue, particularly Look Out For Hope, and a Norwegian minimalist organ and harmonium player named Sigbjorn Apeland.

What is next for you? (I am eager to see you perform at Alberta Rose in Portland, OR). Can you share what the year holds for you both?

Cahalen: We've got pretty heavy schedules comin' up, touring on this record. We're doing a California run, Mountain Stage in West Virginia, a big UK and Ireland tour, and then loads of festivals over the summer.

Eli: It is exciting to play shows based on the new record, and Alberta Rose will be a blast.  We will be joined by the Ruth Moody band, which will be fantastic. I’m joining a great roster of musician’s for Jayme Stone’s Lomax project, which includes (in different combinations) Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smily, Brittany Haas and myself.

I also play with mandolin great John Reischman, and am sitting in with electric guitar and pedal steel in a few different configurations. I am also playing some solo shows and will be teaching camps in Alaska, Maine, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho this summer.

Cahalen, last thing: when will the debut album by your country band, Country Hammer, be coming out? Can you tell us about the band, the album, and what is coming up for the band?

Cahalen: I am hoping for a late summer or early fall release. The band is called Country Hammer, and the record is called The Flower of Muscle Shoals. It is twelve original songs, I sing and play guitar and drums on it, Jim Miller plays tele and acoustic and sings, Rob Adesso plays acoustic guitar and sings, Dave Harmonson plays pedal steel, Mary Maas plays fiddle, and Michael Connolly plays bass and accordion, and he engineered it at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle. The touring band will change a little regionally, but it'll be great no matter who it is!

We've got some shows coming up around the Northwest for the spring, including a couple double bills with Caleb Klauder Country Band, so that'll be a great time. Then we're doing the San Juan De Fuca Festival in Port Angeles, Folklife in Seattle, and Pickathon in Portland. In the fall and winter we'll be hitting the road nationally, so keep your eyes peeled!

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