AmericanaFest seems to get more diverse and international with every passing year. The robust presence of foreign-born musicians testifies that the reach and impact of American roots music isn’t just something that happened in the 20th century. There wasn’t just one British Invasion. There’s a robust ongoing dialogue that embraces the UK, Australia, Europe and even East Africa with Minnesota-based Kenyan J.S. Ondara. In our musical world at least, open borders is the dominant ethos.
So in this week’s String, the second of two survey episodes from the AMA’s Fall convention, I speak with two artists who were born in the UK but who’s love of music was kindled in large part by roots music from our side of the proverbial pond. Jon Cleary loved New Orleans music so much that he chucked his life in England and, with several moves back and forth, became a permanent resident of and fixture in New Orleans. Foy Vance grew up in little Bangor, Northern Ireland and got well-known out of Belfast and London, his current base, as a soul-roots songwriter touched by the spirit and vocal prowess of Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. But we start this hour with Portland, OR songwriter Anna Tivel. Here are notes on all three.
Tivel hadn’t received much national media attention before this year, but her album The Question snapped listeners and critics to attention coast to coast. Its profound use of language and its lingering, curious gaze on telling details and layered emotional lives led NPR, for one, to call the disc one of the year’s most “ambitious” folk records. It’s ambitious musically too, with a stirring, spacious sound where harmony and dissonance are deployed as refractions of complex truths. The title track is a breathtaking portrait of someone negotiating identity (it’s too rich to give anything away). “Fenceline” packs thousands of stories about immigration and the US border into a jewel of a story. “Worthless” is a hard-grooving, edgy investigation of the cost of being labeled.
Tivel grew up in far northwest Washington State and learned the violin and fiddle as a kid. She says she always wrote poems and stories but in her early twenties she tried songwriting and she says it filled her with a feeling of power and satisfaction she’d not known prior. That said, she has the humility that marks great writers. She’s demanding of her pieces and she throws away most of what she writes as she approaches her targets. She uses rhythm and rhyme and meter with flair, setting herself complex challenges and, in her finished works anyway, exceeding them.
“I think I just get really excited about first verses and first lines and then I’ll go to the ends of the Earth for a freakish amount of hours to follow that thing out. I hear what I want it to be. Often I never get it.”
We at Roots Radio first got to know Foy Vance when Music City Roots made its second trip to Northern Ireland to put the show on at the Empire Theater during the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. He left us slack-jawed for several reasons. His voice mingled elements of a proud Irish folk singer at a pub jam and a Stax Records star of the 1960s. He wrote mesmerizing, inspirational material. And he made common cause it seemed with every individual member of the audience, climaxing in the best sing-along finale I’ve ever seen. The crowd sang his final chorus of “Guiding Light” well after the whole show was over.
This visit to AmericanaFest was to spotlight two connected releases, made in key US locales. From Muscle Shoals is a ten song collection that came out in June. To Memphis had eleven songs and hit in September. They were recorded - at FAME Studio and Sam Phillips Recording respectively - in the space of just a couple of weeks. It was a feat of creativity and collaboration with some of the region’s established studio musicians, in which planned EPs grew into full length albums. The recordings feel of their place without feeling trapped in stylistic retro boxes.
“I was in the booth singing a song called ‘Pain Never Hurt Me Like Love,’ and I was looking at (keyboard veteran) Spooner Oldham through the window. And in that split second I could see that’s the same Spooner Oldham at the same Wurlitzer in the same room where he wrote that riff for ‘I Never Loved A Man’ by Aretha Franklin. And it was a passing moment, but it was a very warm one!”
The allure of American music seems universal. The allure of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues is one highly distilled essence of Americana, and it changed Jon Clearly for life. He was a kid growing up with a proper prep school education in Kent, in the south of England in the 1960s and 70s. And when an uncle from his very musical family brought back some records from New Orleans, he heard a clarion call in the piano of Professor Longhair and the songs of Allen Toussaint. Cleary made his way to a city of small bars and beer joints, street parades and brass bands, and a feeling like nowhere else. He found mentors and ingratiated himself in a singular, somewhat insular community of music. And now he’s an area star, leader of the nationally touring Absolute Monster Gentlemen. We caught up at AmericanaFest about a year after the release of his most recent album Dyna-Mite to talk about the interesting problems and opportunities inherent in leaping from one culture to another.
“I did a lot of listening. I’d spend my money on old records at Jim Russell’s shop on Magazine Street. I would play for hours every night. It was important to me to just live in New Orleans and breathe the air and drink the water and live the life. That music has got to come from different parts of your brain and you have to become a New Orelenian if you’re going to play New Orleans rhythm and blues.”