Thursday, November 1, 2007

Po'Girl: Roaming Through Songs & Towns

Awna Teixeira, Allison Russell, and Diona Davies:

3 of 4 Po'Girls.

The road is still filled with them: wandering musicians who tear through and linger in venues and towns sprinkled across the map. They may have itineraries that are posted in newspapers, or on fliers and web sites. For those of us not on the road, the lists read like an alphabet soup of locales. The constellations musicians come up with for traversing states, countries, even continents, make some of us curious and long to travel, if not ramble along with them. When their maps include our towns (or nearby destinations), we have the chance to (if the stars are right) bask in their live tunes and tones. To make up for not dropping everything and following them to the next few shows, we concede and wait until the next time they come by, making it our beeswax to see them again (and again).

Po'Girl sauntered into Cambridge a couple weeks ago, and I did in fact make sure I saw them live (again). This is because, last February, on one of the iciest days in a sincerely cold week, they wandered into town and played Club Passim, warming up the room with a singular, stirring, hip-swaying music. I went to that show because I had yet had the chance to see The Be Good Tanyas, and at the time, their singer-guitarist Trish Klein, was a Po'Girl, too. More than that, the first Po'Girl album (which I knew from my record store clerk-and-curator days) suggests that the songs may play more poignantly live. Seeing them the first time, I was taken by each phrase, instrument change, and twist and tone of the show. The second time proved to be a refreshing reminder: the popular blues-folk-roots-jazz hybrid (add/alter as many appropriate hyphens) can blossom in earnest and evolve (even within a band), although it is being commodified, hip-ified, and de-sinceritized these days.

Outside the venue and after the show, we spoke about musicians we can't stop listening to, instruments we can't live without, and a few other things that get them through, on the road.

* Po'Girl's tour schedule can be found at their official site, or on their myspace page. Some dates include: Nov. 2, Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, AZ; Nov. 8, Gig Artspace in Santa Fe, NM; Nov. 10, Lobo Theater in Albequerque, NM; Nov. 14, Cerritos Centre for the Performing Arts in Cerritos, CA; Nov. 17, The Mobius in Ashland, OR; Nov. 21-22, The Dream Cafe in Penticton, BC; Nov. 22, The Royal in Nelson, BC.

Roll Call/ Playtime

CE: One thing I’m going to ask of you all is to re-iterate your first name before you talk, because I am not used to your intonations.
Right, to know who it is [speaking].
CE: Right, right. Okay, so hello’s around the room. This is outside of Club Passim, October 16, 2007. Tuesday night. Talking with Po’Girl. My second time seeing them. Great show. Over a dozen songs. Then, two encores, blah, blah, blah. Okay.

[All laugh.]
CE: And your names?
Allison: Hello, I’m Allison Russell, from Po’Girl. It’s the second day of the tour. We’re getting ready to do a night drive, to get us as close to Philadelphia as we can tonight, before we all get too tired.
Awna: Hi, I’m Awna Teixeira.
Diona: And I’m Diona Davies.
Benny: And I’m Benny Sidelinger, the happy boy. [All laugh.]
CE: And Benny’s the newest official edition to the band. Benny, you started when?
Benny: Ah, in August.
CE: In August of 2007, shortly before the JT & the Clouds tour.
Allison: That’s right. That was a different band, though, that went on tour with JT & the Clouds. That was Sofia, Awna's and my side project.
CE: Right, right.
Allison: Yeah.

CE: Let’s start with the way you guys play on stage. I have some questions about that, then I have questions about how it compares to the way you play off stage.

So, I noticed that you guys do a lot of playing when you’re performing on stage. Everybody seems like they’re “playing” and enjoying it. There is a melding of sounds going on, and a melding of voice: “this is when this person jumps in, this is when that person jumps in.” It seems to be an ordered sense of play, though. I was wondering how you guys came to that way of working together. You know, how that evolved.

Allison: Yeah, I think it has evolved. It just comes from playing together a lot. And we’re all primarily ear-taught musicians. I play just off what I’m hearing, and listening to what other people are doing, getting inspired by that, and reacting, so. There definitely is a lot of spontaneous, improvisational stuff that goes on; of course, it’s within the structure of a song that we’ve, you know, hopefully run over at least once or twice before we [laughs] unleash it on an audience.
Diona: Sometimes. These days, sometimes not.
Allison: It comes just from playing for a few years, all together. Particularly, Awna and Diona go back about seven or eight years, maybe more than that. And we’ve all known Benny for the last, almost five years. Even though Benny is new to this project, we’ve played with him and his other project, The Shiftless Rounders, many times. So, I think what you are hearing is a level of comfort and familiarity that we have with each other.

CE: Definitely, definitely. And when you write the music in the studio, does it have that kind of melding feel, too?
Diona: Yeah. Usually we start--seems to me--we introduce a song on the road, learn it, and kind of hash it out. Then we have this little package of songs that we go in the studio with, and arrange them more in there.
Awna: A lot of stuff happens in the studio, too. I think that’s because everyone is... like, we’re there: we’re in the studio, there is not a whole lot of outside influence. Most studios don’t have windows, and you kind of don’t know the time of day. We get to focus even more on the songs than we ever have, really. You’ll get in the studio and you’ll record, and then, afterwards, you’re like: “Damn, this harmony would have sounded good!” After the recording happens, then all these things change or flourish with the song.
Allison: Hmm mhmmm.
Awna: You’re just focusing so hard on it for a really long time. In my opinion, the best thing any musician can do for themselves is to record. It betters you.
Allison: You learn a lot.
Awna: Yeah.

I Want to Play Double Fiddles!

CE: And yeah, there is a knowing between you guys. Even though it comes out playfully, it is not a loose playfulness, in the sense, “What’s going to happen next?” It seems like the snapping and the “this instrument comes in at this time” quality occur naturally, with an understanding of the way it all works together, the way you guys work together, and this whole thing.

Speaking of instruments, y’all each play a bunch of different ones. I had a few questions about that:

A) Do you guys teach each other some of the instruments?

B) Are there instruments that you are working to include?

C) It seems like you enjoy hearing each other play the various instruments. When you watch each other perform, it looks like you’re thinking “Hey, wow! Wow!” Are there any songs in which you look forward to hearing each other play the other instruments? For example, when Allison plays the guitar, or Diona plays the glockenspiel.

All: Yeah, yeah.
Diona: I hadn’t played the glockenspiel for a while. Whoo! That was exciting!
Allison: I think we definitely do encourage each other. For example, I keep hinting to Benny that I was up for him to give me some guitar lessons. Broadly hinting, you know. And I’ve been getting into playing keys more, which has been a fun thing. I haven’t done that on stage yet. I’ve done it on recording. But yeah, we do encourage each other to try new things. Diona started playing accordion a little bit, because Awna has one. And then with certain songs, there’s definitely a push and pull, and people going out of their comfort zones, and you come up with a different sound. Sometimes, it’s great to have someone who’s less proficient trying the instrument, and they come up with something entirely different, and maybe that fits really well into the song. Or, even though I will never be the virtuoso guitar master that Benny is, sometimes I can hack something out, and then he’s free to play dobro, and that’s beautiful, or banjo, and he’s a wonderful banjo player. You know, this kind of thing.
Awna: And there’s this the whole world of Benny. He has a huge repertoire of old time banjo songs, and different kinds of stuff that we need to explore. He plays fiddle, too. That’s another element that we, I mean, I would like to hear...
Diona, Allison, Awna: Yeah.
Benny: I want to play double fiddles!

Benny Sidelinger: Guitar Luthier, Guitar Slinger.
[Also, the fourth Po'Girl.]

Diona: Yeah, yeah.
Benny: I almost brought my fiddle onto this tour, but then I chickened out.
Allison: Aw.
Benny: I didn’t, because the back of the car is so crowded.
Allison: We need a tickle truck that travels behind us, that has a bigger inside than outside, that will magically transport us, without having to take airplanes and dealing with that.
CE: Or, people that are willing to let your borrow instruments in various towns. Something like: “We need your violin tonight.”
Benny: That gets tricky, when you start using other people’s instruments. It can be hard, especially with wind instruments. Allie had to borrow a clarinet last night. You know, it’s just not, --especially a clarinet--it’s the type of instrument that, you just—it’s in your mouth. It’s such an intimate thing to be acquainted with. I think it’s tricky, to play other instruments.

It took me a while to get used to playing the banjo these girls had, because… my banjo is quite a bit different.

Allison: Better. Your banjo’s better. [Laughs].

Benny: Their banjo has a decent pick-up in it, and I’ve been sticking with that, because they’re used to that. It would be tricky to just grab someone else’s banjo. Banjo is another one that’s sensitive.
CE: And the violin, too.
Allison: Are you a violin player?
CE: Yeah. I’ve been playing for the last 15 years. But the last couple years, I haven’t had a working one. People say, “Oh you should get this kind of violin, or that kind of violin.” I don’t have enough extra money to get a new one, yet I don’t need more than a piece that sounds like I need it to sound. Something that feels right, but something that I can mess with, because I’ll do off things, like use soft branches, instead of a bow. I pluck a lot. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to keep my parents awake, so I started plucking a lot. I realized I plucked 80 percent of the time, and bowed 20 percent of the time. I’m almost uncomfortable with bowing. You could do a lot of other stuff without the bow.
Awna: Right.
CE: But yeah, it’s so singular.
Benny: So, the fiddle. Actually, I picked up a fiddle yesterday, that-- once in a while you pick up a fiddle that just feels right. You’ve never played it before, but everything there just fits you. I had that experience with my friend’s fiddle. I wish I could have acquired that, somehow.
Awna: You weren’t speaking so broadly.
Benny: I know. “I really, really, really, really like this fiddle! How many fiddles do you have?” Of course, the guy’s got five fiddles. He could have four fiddles, you know?

Awna: It’s almost like they choose you, sometimes. That’s the way it was with my accordion. I found it at Value Village one time, for forty bucks and I lost my mind. I started screaming in the Value Village because I was like, it just felt, everything felt right and I felt like I could play it instantly, even though I had never played accordion before. But I only had twenty bucks, and it was 40 dollars. This lady was like, “Oh my god, you really have to have that thing,” and gave me 20 dollars. That’s how I got the thing.

And it was just like, I put it on, and it suctioned itself to my body.

Allison: They haven’t separated ever since. [Smiles all around.]
CE: What’s Value Village, by the way?
Allison: Oh, it’s a chain of thrift stores across Canada. It didn’t realize that you guys don’t have it. It’s like a Sally Anne’s, basically.
Benny: Or Goodwill.
Allison: Exactly the same thing.
CE: Do you remember which city the Value Village was in?
Awna: Yeah, in Victoria, BC.

Po'Girl Covers: Maps and Songs

CE: Diona was explaining what parts of the map you folks are from… If you would, just restate it for the interview.
Benny: I’m from Maine, originally, and I live in Olympia, Washington now.
Allison: I’m from Montreal, Quebec, born and raised. I did about a seven year stint on the west coast of Vancouver, where I met all these guys initially. But now, I haven’t lived anywhere since December, because I’m just on the road all the time. Although, I do have a storage locker in Vancouver. I also have a bedroom at my friend’s house in Montreal. So, I don’t know what that means. I, I’m in between.
Awna: And I’m from Toronto, originally. I have stuff in the same locker with Allie, in Vancouver, and then I have stuff in boxes in Toronto. So…
Diona: I’m from BC and I live on an island in the middle of the water called Galiano.

CE: Nice. You were talking about mixing instruments around. I’m excited about your covers. When a band you’re into covers a song, it's great when they put the song in their sound, or they push their sound with it. And I hear that from you guys, from the couple times I’ve seen you perform “The Partisan,” which I knew, coming from Leonard Cohen.
Allie: Yeah, we do too. We learned it from him, originally. Not directly from him—I wish—but yeah, from his recording.
CE: And the Bessie Smith song from tonight, the way you guys made it your own.
Allie: Yeah.

CE: I was wondering:

How does a cover come into the repertoire? How does it go from being introduced as a possibility, to getting played on stage? Are there any covers that you want to do later on?

Allison: We’re always thinking about different songs we want to do, particularly from other songwriter friends whom we adore, like Carolyn Mark, Chris Brown, Kate Fenner, and Jeremy Lindsay (who was with Po’Girl last time we were here). There are a lot of people whose songs we love to play. And then, certainly, classic, older songs and jazz tunes that really resonate. Certain songs resonate with you. And then you bring it to the group, and if it resonates with everybody, then it gets played. Ultimately, what decides it, often, is audience reaction. If we play a song a few times, and people just aren’t that into it, we kind of get demoralized with it, with that song, and you give up on it.
Benny: You can’t get too attached, I think, to even your own songs. In the end, you gotta just go with what works.
Diona: Sometimes, it doesn’t. We played a song once, for a whole room full of people, and no one even clapped.
CE: Was it in Boston, because they can be that way?
Diona: No, it wasn’t. It was [somewhere else].

CE: Speaking of audience responses: when I hear “Home to You” and a couple songs from the first album, I connect with them quite a bit. I was wondering, would you share some stories about people coming up to you and saying, “I connect with this song, because…”? You know, that kind of thing. [Lyrics to Po'Girl songs available under the music section here.]
Awna: Lots of different things. We’ve had people follow us around. Like, they just happen at one show on a tour, and find out about the rest of the shows on the tour, and just decide on a whim, after that one show, to come to six or seven shows. That’s wild. That is like, you’ve just decided, last minute, to take time out of your week and drive around the country to come see us, again and again and again. Then, some will request certain songs, or do research on the history of the different things we’re talking about. There are lots of incredible things that happen. I think, as the music’s coming out of you, sometimes you forget that it’s actually affecting people to do stuff like that. It’s an amazing thing to do, to affect people like that.
Allison: A few times, we’ve had come up to us about certain songs, particularly when they’re dealing with the death of someone close to them.
CE: Which songs inspire this?
Allison: Well there was one woman, on the last UK tour. She loved “To the Angry Evangelist,” because it reminded her of this person she had lost recently. And, “’Til It’s Gone” is another one.” And “Drive All Night,” too.
Benny: “Prairie Girl Gone.” A lot of people write to us about that song.
Allison: That’s right. It’s a song that I wrote about my grandma, who now is dead from Alzheimer’s, but at the time, she was living with Alzheimer’s. You know, it was really awful to watch someone ---a very cerebral woman-- have her mind taken from her. I sing that song and, of course, for me it’s deeply personal; but, I’ve had a lot of people come up to me about the song, particularly people who’ve been touched by it, and had people in their lives that they loved lost to Alzheimer’s. Hmmm.

Pizza! Dobro! Jamborees!

CE: Hmmm. I don’t want to hold you up too much, maybe a couple more?
All: Sure, sure.

CE: By the way, there’s a place, right by where Peet’s Coffee is, if you guys are starving and need amazing Sicilian pizza. It’s two slices for four dollars. It’s called Pinocchio's. It’s world famous, but it’s just right there.
Awna: Sicilian pizza is a whole other story than just regular pizza.
CE: Yeah, and they make tomato and basil.
Awna: Sicilians make the best pizza. Seriously.
Allison: We love Sicily. Awna and I went there with our Sofia project and had a great time.
Awna: We basically lived off wine and pizza.
Allison: For ten days, all we could afford!

CE: Tell me about some bands with whom you like performing. Obviously, with JT and the Clouds. Jeremy and I have actually been emailing back and forth, and we’ll be having a conversation soon enough. That last album, The City’s Hot, Yeah the City’s Hot, when I first got it, it’s all I listened to. For four months. I still can’t get over it.
Allison: I know, I obsessively listened to that album.
Awna: Yeah, do you have a copy?
Allison: No, I don’t have a copy.
Awna: They kept having to take it back to sell it. They were selling out of it. They would say, “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta sell it!”
Allison: Ah, and now I don’t have one! Ah, how could I have left Chicago without getting one from Drew. That album kills me. It just… the new one is going to be just as good, if not better.
CE: So, as Sofia, you guys were recording with JT &
the Clouds?
Allison: We did, we did. We recorded four tracks with the Clouds while we were in Chicago, and that was so much fun. We want to do more. We’re going to do a tour together in January, on the west coast. It’s always a pleasure to get to play with them, to get to play with The Shiftless Rounders, Carolyn Mark, and last night, Luther Wright and the Wrongs.

CE: You must play a lot of folk festivals, with a range of folk acts?
Allison: Have you been to any Canadian Folk Fests?
CE: No, no.
Allison: You would love it. The concerts always have great lineups, but my favorite part are the workshops, which aren’t workshops in the way maybe people think about them in festivals here, where someone teaches you guitar. They just throw people together from various bands, and give you some ridiculous topic, and then you just play music together and see what happens. Sometimes people are afraid to extemporize a little bit, so they turn it into a songwriters in the round, which can be beautiful, too. But, a lot of the times, it turns into a jamboree, by the end of it!
Benny: Hillside Gospel Jam! Best workshop ever! It was at this festival called Hillside.
CE: In what town?
Benny: In Guelph, Ontario.
CE: Oh, yeah. Guelph. Great music scene there. I have some friends playing music out there.
Allison: You should go. It’s in the third week in July, or something.
Benny: Yeah, it’s so fun. The Shiftless Rounders, Po’Girl, and The Be Good Tanyas. All of us knew each other’s songs-- we had already collaborated. And Josh Ritter, he was the host of it. He kind of led it. And then Paul Reddick, he’s a very famous blues harmonica player.
Allison: He was amazing.
Benny: He was into the dobro: he would take a harmonica solo, then yell, “Dobro!” every other time around. He just kept making me take solos. We have a great recording of that. The nicest letter we’ve ever gotten was from the guy who recorded it. He was just so into it. He gave us some of The Shiftless Rounders tracks, and then some of the tracks from Paul Reddick. We have it on our web site now, with the letter. The only mp3’s we have up are those tracks that everyone was playing on, all the girls singing and everything, I put the letter on there too, because it’s such a cool letter. I think that was one of my favorite musical experiences of my life.
Diona: That was a really, really great time.

CE Speaking of the road, any rituals you guys have?
Allison: We have a group hug before every show. And I use a lot of essential oils. And I do a lot of calisthenics in hotel rooms, while watching mindless television.
Awna: We always try to make sure that we stop to enjoy stuff around us, rather than just driving to a show and playing, driving to a show and playing. Like…
Diona: Hot springs.
Awna: Hot springs. In the summer, swimming holes. We make sure that we are enjoying, as we go.
Allison: And I like running. I go running in every new town we go to.
Benny: Also, we like meeting locals. All of us are big on meeting people in the community, and taking time after the show, when we can, to hang out with some of the local people, and absorb the culture of the places we’re in.

Allison: And pay attention…
Awna: …to what’s going on. Because, it can get, it feels almost strange sometimes, when you’re moving so quickly, in a plane, in a car, you’re doing a little show, and you have your little group of friends you do it with. And you move around. You can get really lost in that. Sometimes, if we get in a cycle—I know we’ve done stints where we’re on our seventh show in a row, or eleventh show in a row, and you’re just trying to make it to the next place. And you’re there, and then you forget, and then all of a sudden you start feeling lonely. "Oh, right. What are we doing?" We’re good at keeping in check.
Allison: We try to.
Awna: Yeah, yeah.

CE: Have you guys been to Philly before?
Awna: Yeah, yeah.
CE: Do you know about Gianna’s?
Awna: No, no.
CE: I’ll write down a few places. And are you going to Baltimore?
Allison: Driving through.
CE: There’s a great, tiny folk instrument shop to visit, if you’re driving through.
Home To You (the album), and at a
venue nearby (hopefully).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice article
but whats happend to Trish :(