|"There’s a difference between the idea of old and the idea of timeless."|
Two days to go and the jazz hands are starting to stir. Sunday afternoons are traditionally spent snooping through the many open rooms of Cork's various brass-filled hotel lobbies but 2.30pm in the Triskel is where you'll find those who like their swing. U.S. trio Hot Club of Cowtown are in town and singer and fiddler extraordinaire Elana James was available to talk globetrotting, new record Midnight On The Trail, Ol' Blue Eyes and "sitting by a fire on a rainy day".
The G-Man: Where in the world are you right now and how are you feeling?
Elana James: Right now? On a plane flying toward Algeria to play for the US State Department this week in Algiers. I’m really looking forward to it, even though it will only be for two days. We plan to not sleep at all and just explore, eat and experience a completely new culture, and hear some great Algerian music.
Congratulations on your latest record. What does the name of the album signify?
We were aiming to give it a name that was evocative of the old west, something that signified romance and mystery, and also elegance.
Most - if not all of the tracks - are what would normally be considered “covers” or traditional songs. Did you all get to choose a number of songs each or was it all very democratic? Are you a democratic band in general?
We each have different ideas about which songs to record. This record was the last of a trilogy (along with Rendezvous and Rhythm and What Makes Bob Holler) of albums where we recorded collections of older or traditional songs that we have always loved or that have inspired us over the years. Each of them has our own stamp on it - our original interpretations and our own original arrangements. In that sense what we do is much more jazzy and improvised: the songs evolve each time we play them and become something new every night.
Which song on the record is most dear to you and why?
I really like Call of the Canyon, which is a wonderful song that Frank Sinatra recorded with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra back when he was still the contracted vocalist before he went out on his own. I just find it beautiful and romantic, with timeless imagery. It says a great deal in only a very few words and scenes and it has a pastoral, romantic vibe to it.
Would you guys consider yourselves song collectors or crate-diggers?
Not sure what a crate digger is! One thing I would say for sure, though, is that we have always come at these musical styles and collections of songs, whether the American Songbook or traditional cowboy songs, or hot jazz, or Western swing tunes or whatever it may be - we have always started out as players, so there has been that interest in learning these songs, and playing them, and living inside them. The idea of writing songs in that style came along later. So you could say our approach is not as common as, say, a singer-songwriter or a rock band. In our case, we dug in instrumentally as much as anything else, to learn and digest, and that has led us to identify and record songs that may not be as well known, and to be heavily influenced in our own songwriting by this certain genre of instrumental and chordal colors and ideas.
What’s the most exciting part of breathing new life into an old song?
Well, the notion of what’s “old” has gotten increasingly weird. So much of our modern commercial culture is this pre-digested, regurgitated ape-ing to all that came before it cloaked in this simultaneous obsession with newness. There’s a difference between the idea of old and the idea of timeless. When the sun comes up in the morning we don’t think it’s retro - that is what the sun does, and every day is new. When you play songs that have a beautiful structure and bring them into the world each time you play them, that is a brand new experience, both for us and for our audience, just like eating (or serving) a meal. Eating is not retro, even though all creatures do it every day and have since time began. When something has personal significance it is reborn every time it is unleashed and there is nothing retro about it at all. We would never ask about breathing old life into a new day, and songs are no different.
Where are the oddest places in the world that touring has brought you to?
Well, we are headed to Algiers today to play for the ambassador, play with some local Algerian musicians, and represent American music at a huge North African livestock expo, so you could say that’s not exactly our standard touring fare! The great thing about the Hot Club of Cowtown, though, is that we can play a wide swathe of places from bluegrass festivals (we just played a wonderful one in Guthrie, Oklahoma last night) to jazz festivals to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada and all points inbetween. We have been fortunate to tour the UK most of the past several years, and wherever we go we tend to play all kinds of places, from clubs and theaters and folk festivals. It’s the nature of being a touring musician is that if you keep at it long enough, there is no telling where you will end up.
We have had some amazing opportunities and adventures. One of my favorites is, in fact, these US State Department tours where we get to go to places we’d never normally go on tour commercially (the Sultanate of Oman, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia) and we get to interact with local players, local people, kids, do workshops, play in tiny, out-of-the-way communities--I really love that. Also, our upcoming tour of Ireland!
From Dylan to Bryan Ferry, you guys have gone on some eclectic - and big - tours. What does it mean to you - if anything - to play with such high profile names?
It’s always an honour to be invited to open for someone. It’s always a win-win for an opener because you get to play in front of the headliner’s audience and yet the pressure is off. Even though we may only get to play for 23 minutes, it’s always a rush. And it’s a wonderful way to see how different artists do things: what’s the same, what’s different. We’ve been very fortunate to be on tours with people where we get to participate in that highest level of what it means to put on a show, and enjoy that professionalism and graciousness by the staff and the crew, and the artists themselves, to see how things are done at the very highest level. I hope we get to do more of that;it’s one of my favorite ways to tour.
How tough a decision was it to move from classical violin to fiddle?
When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, my mom, who’s a professional classical violinist, used to tell me that I may be actually a “fiddle player” more than a violinist. I didn’t understand what that meant in any kind of positive way, so I used to really not like it when she’d say that, because I didn’t understand what fiddling could be, if you consider people like Stephand Grappelli and Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith “fiddlers.” I hadn’t realized that what the world often considers “fiddling” is mostly anything outside classical music that involves improvisation or folk traditions. I have always been attracted to folk and ethnic music, or just social ways of playing music, sitting down with strangers and communicating through playing together.
So after college, where I played a tonne of chamber music and had considered going into classical music, I just kind of did some soul searching and allowed myself to wander toward what was calling to me. First that meant studying North Indian Classical music in Brindavan, India, and it also meant playing western music in a cowboy band at a ranch in Colorado. I eventually discovered Western swing and hot jazz, have been fortunate to have had some extraordinary mentors, and that really just sealed the deal and I have never, ever looked back.
I read a great quote a few years ago from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: “A violin sings and a fiddle dances.” I really think that is true. It’s not a value judgement, they are just very different in that way.
You guys have played Ireland a few times before if I’m correct. Care to recount some of your favourite experiences?
We’ve had several magical moments in Ireland. Irish audiences are awesome and so vital and enthusiastic. Also, it’s so beautiful in Ireland and I LOVE it when it rains. I guess two things that stand out for me are that we once got to play an impromptu session at a traditional pub in Sligo several years ago with a bunch of wonderful local musicians who were incredibly nice and welcoming to us. When we do things like that it’s almost like living in your own documentary, like, “This is my life,” to get to experience these unique cultural moments that are truly precious.
I also remember when we were on tour in Ireland maybe four or five years ago: one day we had been driving all day and it was - yes! - rainy, and we are always on the move because there is rarely time to linger anywhere. And this day we were in some rural spot and just pulled up to an old inn and there was a fire going in the big stone fireplace and we stayed for really only a little while and I just sat by the fire and had some tea and listened to the few local old-timers at the bar talking about things. Just a wonderful, uniquely Irish moment. I would like more of those.
Although 1,000s of kilometres apart, with Ireland’s folk traditions, what parallels can you draw between Austin and Ireland?
I don’t presume to know almost anything about Ireland, but I feel there is for sure a shared respect for live music, and a pride in keeping those folk and rural or national traditions going on a local and national level because of the pure strength of the national identity, the richness of the heritage, without needing to monetize it. It’s not about commercial success or the business of music so much as the participation and shared community experience of it. That’s what’s great about the music scene in Austin, too - -it’s everywhere and it’s filled with people doing it for the love of it. Ireland has the greatest pride - and rightfully so - in it’s role in world music and it’s own traditions for which it is celebrated the world over. It’s nice to go to a place that appreciates that about itself and promotes that image to the world.
What are you most looking forward to on the upcoming tour?
We are looking forward to playing some killer shows for awesome Irish audiences! AND...sitting by a fire on a rainy day for ten minutes between shows and drinking a cup of tea while listening to locals.
For more on Hot Club of Cowtown visit:
- Hot Club of Cowtown play Triskel as part of Cork Jazz Festival 2016 Sunday 30th October
- Tickets available from triskelartscentre.ie
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