Friday, February 28, 2014

NW Spotlight: Q&A with Jenn & Basho on "Tarantula Arms"

After a year and a halfish of calling Portland, OR my new home, I am now finally connecting with the vibrant music scene here. In an effort to spread the word on some of these exciting artists of the greater Northwest,  I am going to be posting a new series of interviews focusing on their work.

I am thrilled to kick off these regionally-focused features with an interview with Jenn Rawling  & Basho Parks, otherwise known as Jenn & Basho. The duo's third and recently released album, Tarantula Arms has been attracting a lot of national attention their way, and rightfully so. The two have clocked thousands upon thousands of miles on the speedometer- both to explore the country as well as to make art and perform their songs.

Jenn Rawlings is an earthy folk songwriter who handles guitar and lead vocals while string-player and multi-instrumentalist Basho Parks adds the viola, violin, mandolin, ukelele, and harmony vocals to the mix. Together on Tarantula Arms, the two display a fondness for folk, classical, country, bluegrass, and the singer-songwriter genre, and offer listeners songs that fall somewhere on the spectrum between surprisingly familiar and timelessly fresh(Check out Tarantula Arms on their Bandcamp page).

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jenn and Basho about their musical histories, how they connected as Jenn & Basho, and the making of Tarantula Arms. Here's the story:

Can you each discuss your musical history (before getting together), including early experiences, learning to play music, early influences, etc.?

Jenn Rawling: My mom was musical and at home we listened to good country singers like Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams. So al of those great crooners were my earliest influences. In the 80's I listened to rock ballad stuff like Queen, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, and Heart. I took a guitar class in college, which remains my only formal lesson and the rest of my guitar playing has been self taught. I was very focused on visual arts at the time and music remained a casual endeavor until 2003-2006 when I worked in solitude at a fire tower and got more serious about songwriting.

Basho Parks: I'm classically trained in bowed stringed instruments with an emphasis on violin and viola. I grew up playing in symphonies and orchestras, transitioning into celtic/gypsy styles in my late teens. I've played in everything from bluegrass to punk bands and a fair amount in between.

The first time I ever attended a musical event of any magnitude was Joshua Bell at the Lincoln Center. He was fourteen and I was four at the time. That night I started badgering my parents for a violin, and I enrolled in Suzuki method training the following spring.

Could you briefly share some specific artists, recordings, and experiences that you can look back to that seem to connect to your work now?

Basho: Fairport Convention's Liege & Leif, Cat Steven's Tea for the Tillerman, CSNY's De Ja Vu, and The Beatles' White Album served as healthy inspiration for backup harmony. Loreena McKinnett's Mask & Mirror was hugely influential while in my teens and Moondog's The Viking of Sixth Avenue is one of my favorite albums to return to for instrumental light at the end of the tunnel.

Jenn: Townes Van Zandt's High Low And In Between, Joni Mitchell's Blue, The Cowboy Junkies' Caution Horses, and Nick Drake's Pink Moon. The songs on these albums are raw, truthful, and poetic, and these people sing as if they are not afraid to reveal the underside of something. Their vocal quality haunts you a little bit but is also emotional and nurturing.

When and how did you connect and decide to get together as Jenn and Basho?

Jenn & Basho: We met in 2010 while playing together in a couple of other Portland musical projects. It started with batting eyelashes at one another in a dingy basement during band practices. Following a successful release party, we took a long hike in Portland's Forest Park the next day, Jenn identifying all the native flora while Bash rambled on about the fauna. We began to recognize complimentary aspects of each others' character around then.

What drew you to each other most musically?

Jenn & Basho: Our musical relationship started right away and the evolution as a duo happened very organically. We had a bunch of songs we wanted to develop so we broke off from the bands we’d been playing in for a few years to prioritize our duo project. After recording our first album together in 2012 we got some good attention and things started rolling. We packed all our worldly goods into storage, got a van we could live out of, and decided to travel and tour full time. We made our second album together in 2013.

Can you briefly discuss your experiences writing and recording Take The Air?

Jenn & Basho: While we were playing with another band in Portland we continued writing our own material. Eventually the songs stacked up and we realized there was enough good there to make a record. We had just started playing together as a duo and we were still just developing our sound and getting to know each other musically when we went into the studio. There was very little pressure or expectation and we had a lot of fun making Take The Air.

How did the experiences of writing, recording, and touring for Take The Air influence you when you began writing for the next album?

Jenn & Basho: The songs for Tarantula Arms came through rather effortlessly and quickly after we recorded Take The Air. There was a lot of momentum happening on tour and we were inspired. Some songs were written on the road and were influenced by a specific place or energy, and others we developed during our short tour breaks.

Touring gave us more experience playing together and we had a lot of time to develop our strengths musically so we had a better idea of what we wanted this next record to sound like. Tarantula Arms is a more mature recording and the songs are more cohesive.

What did you want to explore further with Tarantula Arms? What did you want to leave behind?

Jenn & Basho: In Tarantula Arms, we were reaching for a sparse and atmospheric quality. Something slightly more artistic and less country or traditional folk sounding. We brought in other artists and wanted to fill the songs and develop them without creating a recording that sounded nothing like what we would sound like as a duo live. We think we found that balance. We gave a lot of attention to detail and did a good amount of violin and vocal layers.

Can you describe your songwriting process, both lyrically and musically for the new album? What was consistent and or even deepened? What was most different from before?

Jenn & Basho: It is best to create the conditions where art and songwriting can happen which for us involves having enough space and privacy to open up and focus. The business of creating something from nothing takes a different form for everyone.

After we made our first album and received good reviews our confidence as songwriters/producers increased, so we took some chances trusting songs that were unusual. Songs like "Buffleheads," "Wyoming" and "Slippery Slope" wouldn't have been on Take The Air because something about them is beautifully weird and slightly more like poems in phrasing.

Was there a song(s) that set the course for the new album?

Basho: "Deadleg" and "Wyoming" were the first songs written for the new album, and may have set a general tonality throughout.

A majority of the music is lyrics driven initially. Adding instrumental melodies comes at a later point most of the time. We pass the song back and forth and collaborate on the structure and changes after we've got the bones of a song down. On the last two albums, we decided together with our sound engineer and co-producer, Skyler Norwood, what the song needs in terms of additional instrumentation and we built it together.

As a follow-up to an earlier question, who are some of your biggest influences (musically and lyrically) now since you have been working together?

Jenn: I like songwriters who find creative ways to say things and I get really bored with lyrics that don't leave anything to your imagination. For example, Townes Van Zandt's lyrics are so incredibly interesting they almost set the world right. There is space for you to make his words your words because his songs are about the human experience and go beyond him as an individual.

I like Samuel Beam's (Iron & Wine) songwriting a lot for the same reasons. Frazey Ford, Patti Griffin, First Aid Kit, and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes are all examples of songwriters and singers that inspire me.

Basho: My approach to music is more Miles Davis than Dizzy Gillespie. I think Diane Cluck's sense of the lyrical aesthetic is sublime, especially on "Oh! Vanille." Thom Yorke and Radiohead's Amnesiac and Kid A blew my mind fifteen years ago, along with Alice In Chains' Jar of Flies twenty years back.

Beethoven's 9th Symphony as performed by John Gardner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire sends chills up my spine every time, while Portishead's Live at the Roseland is also very special. Cruising Maine's backroads while listening to The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and The Doors' Soft Parade seems to stick out in my mind too. Joanna Newsom's Ys album with Van Dyke Parks was kind of a game changer eight years ago.

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

Jenn: I like art and people who make art and I'm super inspired by urban farming. I like growing my own food and turning my compost pile. I've written songs about my flower bed. I like to cook and feed people. I really like being outside and I'd say admiring nature and being around plants, rocks, water, and animals is all very good for my soul.

Basho: I draw inspiration from the extraordinary people we meet while traveling. This world is full of phenomenal human stories, and part of my purpose here is to bear witness. Helen and Scott Nearing's book Living the Good Life continues to be hugely impacting on my personal approach to life. The tenacity of life in its many forms on this planet has me spellbound more than occasionally.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of being based out of the Portland, OR and NW music community?

Basho: Great food and natural scenery to enjoy. There's a thriving musical community in Portland that we've been fortunate enough to tap into over the past few years, providing a wealth of peers and mutually encouraging contemporaries. The rains make for excellent emerald summers all but devoid of bugs. There are places on the Oregon coast where crows are more abundant than gulls, and that makes me smile.

Jenn: We've been touring steadily for the last two years so we haven't been in Portland very much. But I love Portland and it's an inspiring place to live. There's an emphasis on sustainable culture and supporting the arts and local food systems, as well as biking and community building. It is not a very mainstream place and I like that. Portland's also situated close to mountains, the ocean, forests, rivers, alpine lakes, and the desert- so there's a lot to explore.

As a followup, can you tell us about some of your favorite Portland-based/ NW artists that stand out to you?

Jenn: Blind Pilot, Laura Veirs, y La Bamba, Huck Notari, Laura Gibson, Sara Jackson Holman.

Basho: Right now I'm very excited about Huck Notari & the River from Portland, OR. Huck's a good friend of mine, an excellent songwriter and musician. Also from PDX, I love Sara Jackson-Holman's musical direction right now. She's phenomenal. I've also been chomping on the bit to hear the spring 2014 release from soul/R&B sensation Lucky Brown (out of Seattle) as well.

What have you been listening to lately?

Basho: Mavis Staples' One True Vine, Morphine's The Night, Odd Nosdam's Thrift Store Pop Mix, Paper Bird's Rooms, and tUnE yArDs' W H O K I L L.

Jenn: Laura Veirs' July Flame, Huck Notari's Huck Notari & the River, Birds of Chicago's Mountains/Forests, and The Milk Carton Kids' Prolouge.

What is next for you in the new year?

Jenn & Basho: We toured really hard and would like to rest, reflect and create. We’re planning on establishing a base, finding a home where we can get some projects going, and be around inspiring and co-conspiring people. We hope to release a live album in 2014 as well as a slew of new songs and other offerings, mixed with a few concentrated tours or festivals in the summer and fall.

In the meantime, there are plenty of writings and recordings and paintings to make, food stuffs to prepare, gardens to till, coffee to be drunk, and good company to keep. We’ve both got a lot of creative ideas to turn our attention to for the first half of the year!

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