Saturday, December 15, 2007

Play That Folky Music

“Above this snowy grid, the land turns cracked and broken, so much like my resolve to keep you far from me/Like each river and each creek that snakes a path beneath, you are water in a rock determined to break free…”

So goes “Mind’s Eye,” an impressively haunting, poetic masterpiece by the guitar-and-mandolin-wielding duo Folk By Association—Karen and Jill to those of us who know them. These ladies have carved an underground niche for themselves in the Mid-Atlantic United States and beyond, doing it all through their own hard work and persistence, and with no record label or outside management. No image consultants, either: Karen and Jill are all about the music. With a basis in folk and an openness to elements of other genres, their sound truly is “Folk By Association,” and one listen to their current album As We Travel will prove that in spades. True, the deliberately-strummed mandolin and airy flutes of “Seconds Soaring” could have been borrowed from Ye Olde Renaissance Faire. But the playful “Letter To Myself” evokes images of a casual jam session at a jazz club, while “Mind’s Eye” keeps one foot dipped in indie folk-rock and the other in pure pop sensibility. “I’m Not Sorry” is prime Lilith Fair material—albeit nearly ten years too late!—tinged with alt-rock motifs and set apart by its sharp-tounged lyrics: “Now you’re on the phone/And suddenly I remember why I want to be alone […] I won’t say I’m sorry, I’m not sorry that you’re gone!” As is the case with their live performances, the duo’s harmonies on As We Travel are impeccable, two soaring voices sounding as if they were plucked from the highest mountain range. Though there is still room for growth and development, the best offerings on the album have an effect that is powerful yet understated, low-key and at the same time compelling. If Karen and Jill continue to build on their strengths and embrace a diverse array of influences, they will just get better and better as time marches on.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the ladies about their music and career. Upon careful consideration of their responses, I found them to be two intelligent, determined individuals whose story holds much insight and many lessons for everyone in (or interested in) the music industry. The highlights are published below:

SJ: Explain the name "Folk By Association."

Karen: We had been looking for a name for a little while, and I was discussing this problem with a friend of mine. I was thinking out loud about how I thought it was surprising that the style that seemed to manifest between Jill and me was much different than my solo work’s style. The phrase “folk by association” slipped out, and initially reflected the nature of our partnership. However, since our sound was definitely not strictly folk, we both felt that an added second bonus of the name was that it was a good catch-all. We are influenced by many different genres, but accept that most would likely refer to us as folk artists.

Jill: "Folk By Association" was supposed to be rather self-explanatory. It also has the added benefit that if someone searches "folk" on say, MySpace, our name comes up pretty close to the top of the list. Unplanned, but useful.

SJ: The songs are mostly written by Karen, while the vocal arrangements are mostly by Jill. Is this a deliberate division of labor or did it just come about naturally?

Karen: Well, Jill typically does the harmony-arrangement, meaning that I often will have a song basically finished and will bring it to the table to see what she can “hear” as her part. Every now and then I’ll have some concept or vague outline of what I might like her to do, but by and large she’ll listen to what I’ve composed and find the harmony that’s to her liking. This does seem to be the natural way of our collaboration, though we do write together on occasion.

Jill: Karen is a very prolific songwriter so from day one she brought a lot of material to the table, although I also write separately and we will sometimes write together. I ended up doing a lot of the vocal arrangements because it's really easy for me to hear harmonies. We don't really have set jobs. That's just how things usually go down.

SJ: How did the songs evolve from the acoustic duo arrangements to the full-band arrangements on As We Travel? Have you ever played live with a full band?

Karen: The arrangements were challenging. While some songs had a clearer picture of where they needed to go, others were really more like fumbling down a dark hallway. We put in a lot a time with our two percussionists before going into the studio to record, just trying things out and seeing what felt right.

We did two CD release parties with the line-up from the CD, but due to financial and logistical restrictions, we’re really only able to perform as a duo right now.

Jill: We had been playing most of the songs on As We Travel out for some time before they found their way into the studio, so it was logistically and artistically challenging to alter them while keeping their basic feel intact. “Mind's Eye” REALLY did not want to be put to a steady beat of any kind. We played it to a click and it didn't even sound like the same song. The bass tracks had to be recorded at a different studio and then brought back and tacked on to the existing songs. The sax track on “Letter to Myself” is actually a combination of four different tracks pieced together because we only had Jon [Thompson] in the studio for one day. He played over the song four times and we took what we liked best.

For me the best part of the recording process was finally getting to add third and fourth harmonies to the songs. […] I had a great time taking the two main vocals home on a disc and adding all sorts of additional parts.

SJ: Talk a bit about your home base and primary markets. Where did you start out and how did you branch out into other territories?

Karen: It’s been a slow, painful process! We’ve put in over seven years now, and feel like, if nothing else, we’ve certainly paid our dues. We started around the Jersey Shore, and gradually shifted west as we both separately relocated multiple times. We always intended to be more than a local act. We occasionally traveled out of the area for gigs from early on, but we both had day jobs and were still finding our footing as performers. At about the five-year point, I “hit the wall,” quit my other jobs, decided that I would seriously manage us, and dove into researching and contacting places for gigs. I was tired of having the same conversation over and over with Jill that “wouldn’t it be great if someone would…” and “we need someone to…” It’s not like there’s any easy path to sustainability. We just play a lot—some shows are great, but others can be demoralizing. It’s really hard, but we need to do this and the progress is there.

It’s funny how other artists often ask us how to book shows and what the “trick” is. The “trick” is spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy and still only getting about 10% of what you go after. After a while you start to know your targets a bit better, so you can avoid some dead ends. Nowadays we are fortunate that venues and people that want to hire us sometimes approach us, but it’s mostly about being proactive.

Oh, and go on tour to places where you have friends and family to crash with!

Jill: We are lucky in that we seem to have fans across a broad range of ages, genders and walks of life, but marketing ourselves has always been a bit of a conundrum for that very reason. We don't have a demographic, or even an easily defined genre. We're folky but we don't play traditional folk songs. We use bluegrass instruments, but we aren't bluegrass. We are singer/songwriters but most singer/songwriters are solo performers. We aren't, but we aren't a full band either. That is one of the reasons that self-management is a good fit for us. I don't know that even a well-intentioned outsider [would] be able to anticipate our needs artistically or on the business end better than we do ourselves because we don't fit neatly into any of the existing categories. We're always metaphorically checking the "other" box, and the way things are progressing I think we'll be getting more "other" in the future rather than less.

SJ: Your MySpace contains the following statement: “We strongly admire independent musicians, especially women, who creatively and boldly redefine success in this industry as not necessarily having anything to do with major labels, mass-media, and the lowest common denominator.” I wonder if you could elaborate on the sentiments behind that statement.

Karen: It’s not that we set out to be guerilla musicians! Mostly it just was the available path—do it yourself or nothing gets done. But there’s a great freedom in that, too, and after a while you see a lot of the upsides. But Jill and I did have in common from the beginning that we didn’t like the ideas of Image and Brand, and also had a great deal of stage fright and camera-shyness. The thought of mass media terrified us. We agreed from day one that we just wanted to make a living doing what we loved. These days there are more possibilities outside the mainstream than ever.

Jill: I know a fair number of musicians who have relationships with labels, production companies, and outside booking and management. There are a lot of horror stories. In order for us to trust our "baby" as it were to anyone else, they would have to be pretty spectacular, and we aren't going to sit around waiting for them to ride up on a white horse. I also know that neither one of us could tolerate being told what to write or what to wear or that we have to fix our teeth or something. That isn't acceptable.

SJ: You obviously feel strongly about being independent artists and operating outside of the established infrastructure of the music industry. But do [you] ever wonder whether this is truly the right approach? For example, do you ever think, "If we sold our music through iTunes or if we had outside management, we might be doing better?"

Karen: Honestly, we just haven’t gotten around to iTunes! Sad, right? And if someone else can get us more and better gigs, they can go right ahead. But they better not try and tell us what to do.

Jill: There's always a lot more to do, and we are open to getting help, but only if we can maintain control of our own destiny.

Many thanks to Karen and Jill for the interview and for jumping over the logistical hurdles with me!

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Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.