Our Native Daughters
(L-R) Rhiannon GIddens,Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Newport Folk has always hosted historic musical and cutural moments, but when the roots music supergroup of Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah know as Our Native Daughters close out their debut run of shows, history took center stage.
Best described by Smithsonian Folkways, the album Songs Of Our Native Daughters "shines new light on African-American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope. Pulling from and inspired by 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources, including slave narratives and early minstrelsy, [Giddens, McCalla, Russell and Kiah] reinterpret and create new works from old ones."
"Black women have been makers and markers of social change in the United States for centuries, at this point," McCalla said. "I think this album is a part of that," adding, "We're looking back at the past, but the music is for today."
Just after their landmark first-ever set on the Newport Folk Quad Stage, the Recording Academy sat down with the quartet to hear how the project came together, what tools they used to create it, how they hope it will affect the narrative of history and more.
Why was Newport Folk the right place for Our Native Daughters perform in this brief initial tour?
Giddens: Well it just seemed like the right thing, because Newport folk festival has such a history to it and I know that they've been really trying especially recently to really build on that legacy. In a way, even more than they have in the past. You know, just really make it about the folk music and about what folk music can do. And so when the offer came in, it just made so much sense. If we could build a tour around it and let this be the sort of finale to this part of the tour, it's really amazing.
Obviously, this is a and very historical and research-heavy concept for an album, but the music rings out fresh and very alive. How did you approach the daunting task of balancing the historical elements with the musical elements?
Russell: Well I think we really approached it song by song. I would say Rhiannon was struck with the idea to do something like this when she was given a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture with her daughter. And that's a painful experience for anyone, let alone a descendant of some of the people who were enslaved. And a quote, a William Cowper quote really sparked the idea, and it was a quote to the effect of, "slavery is terrible, but how could we do without our sugar and our rum?" And the correlation to our modern day dependence on technologies that are being supplied by slave labor… that connection really resonated in her mind and she invited all of us to come and join her and sort of explore some of that history.
Initially the project, the idea was to kind of explore some early slave songs and minstrel music and we did a little bit of that with, with her adaptation of 'Better Get Your Learnin'." But we really realized we had a lot, we're all songwriters and we had a lot of feelings to process around all of this painful history, which is so much in evidence that these ghosts have not been laid to rest. Clearly the divisiveness in our country, the kind of outright racist and fascist rhetoric that's coming from the highest offices in our land is indicative of the fact that this history is not sleeping easy. It is affecting our present on all of us directly and all of you, directly. And so we, we felt like we had some things to say.
Giddens: I think it's also just the recognition of the lack of reckoning around the effects of slavery in the United States and the Atlantic Slave Trade. And even though we come from this place of a lot of research and reading and engaging with like academic material, I think that we've been living in our skin our whole life and that's a part of our experience. We've inherited some of this trauma in different ways and we represent different parts of the African diaspora. And so it made sense for us to come together and try to process this together. And honestly we didn't really know what exactly that was going to land us. And, like Alli said, I really think it was song by song. It was like; 'I have this musical idea, I have this musical idea, I have this phrase that has been turning in my mind,' 'Well, oh, I just came up with something that plays off of that.' And it was very collaborative.
2019 ARTIST ANNOUNCEMENT: Please welcome Our Native Daughters (@RhiannonGiddens @jtandalli @LeylaMcCalla @amythystkiah) to this year's Sunday lineup. @newportfestsorg has made a donation on their behalf to @kidz_notes. Learn more: https://t.co/9IjxshNW2W pic.twitter.com/5JCaqe6Qr8
— Newport Folk Fest (@Newportfolkfest) April 10, 2019
Can you tell us more about the instrumentation and the instruments you used?
Kiah: The banjo was the centerpiece, all of the songs in some capacity needed to revolve around the banjo because the banjo is a descendant of the West African loot family. And historically, at least in contemporary music times, it has been very long associated with white male, three finger style bluegrass players. And that history has been sort of muddled and lost because of the segregation of the commercial music industry. There were black banjo players, black fiddlers and once the record executives wanted to market music, they assumed that, 'well only white people are going to listen to string band music,' so black people had to put down their banjos and fiddles and pick up a guitar and play the blues or play jazz if they wanted to make a living making music.
So this was obviously spun from Rhiannon's Inspiration, but her idea to take the banjo and to reclaim it as something that is also part of black culture because all of us in some capacity have lived like on the in-between of you know, not being black enough or not being white enough because of our interests and, even though by default, if someone is moved by music or move by something, they should be able to like it. There shouldn't have to be a birthright to be able to enjoy your love something, but just in case here is the historical backstory this instrument. And so that was really important to have that because that more or less blasts away the myth of like, 'what is blackness?' You know, what it means to be black, it goes to show that we're not a monolith and there's all sorts of ways to express yourself regardless of what your race is. So the banjo was really important. And then we had fiddle, we had drums and really just song by song, we kind of pieced together what instruments would make sense to serve the song. I think that's kind of kind of how we pieced arrangements together.
Giddens: Yeah, we were in Louisiana, we worked with Dirk Powell, who's a got a lovely, very small studio and it's kind of a built out of a very old, one room house that was once owned by a Creole family nearby. And it's just got all this history to it and he was great to work with, in that he was really very much setting up the sounds and then we just got in there and just did our thing… It was a very much a kind of fostering of like; 'I want what you want.' You know? 'I just wanna make it sound really good,' And so that it became a very safe space and it was a space where we all just felt very comfortable to, "oh and let me try this banjo or that or do that." And we weren't afraid to put electric guitar on and we weren't afraid to put modern instruments on it because it's not a historical record. It's something inspired by histories and inspired by these instruments and we wanted to use those sounds just because that's what we play.
Russell: We're all multi-instrumentalists, as well. We all do play banjo, different banjos, each of us. Rhiannon plays a fretless minstrel banjo, I play a five string, gut-string banjo, Leyla plays a tenor banjo, Amythyst plays a steal string. So we all have different banjos, but we also play other things. Amythyst is an incredible guitarist, Leyla is a classically trained phenomenal cellist. I tootle along on the clarinet and plink on the Ukulele [laughs humbly] and Rhiannon plays like eight to 25 instruments as far as I can tell-
Giddens: I play also fiddle [laughs humbly].
Russell: So we all, you know, we were kind of bringing all our little babies into the project as well.
McCalla: I think it's also that the banjo, like despite how much research we've done on the history of the Banjo, the Banjo is a modern instrument and it is relevant to the conversation of, 'what is folk music and what is American music?' I think the banjo is essential to that conversation. We're looking back at the past, but the music is for today.
What types of conversations are you hoping listeners will have from experiencing this album?
Giddens: Well, I'd like to think that maybe people that are possibly on the fence with the whole... I think this will really be helpful for the people that are like, "Well, isn't racism over? We elected a black president. Isn't racism done?" I think this is a record for people that are asking that question and these subjects are difficult to talk about just face to face. You can talk about it academically with other academics but when you talk to a person that doesn't know the history... A lot of people don't necessarily understand it or people get too upset and don't want to talk about it. Like they kind of go into like a bit of an emotional crisis of either not wanting to hear about it or being defensive.
And so music has a way of disarming people. It's like sugar for the medicine, if you will. You know, these are these harsh realities of things that happened. Because these things happened, this is why things have evolved the way they have, socially, in our culture. This is a way to to disarm people and allow them to think and realize, "oh, this is why we still need to talk about this," you know? Because we're all sort of wrapped in this trauma of that part of our history that still affects how we interact with each other and the kind of legislative policies that we make and all those kinds of things that affects that, whether people see it or not. And hopefully with this record, people can maybe start thinking about it and having that conversation.
The album's liner notes serves as an emotional, historical and contextual companion to the album, and the song by song information is very insightful Can you talk about how they support the music?
Giddens: Well, the liners were collaboration. I wrote the essay.
Russell: It's a great essay.
Giddens: I got together the bibliography, I really wanted people- I mean the problem is that people forget that something always comes from something else. So knowledge is always coming from a place and I have such a respect and such a debt to the scholars who really found such amazing, you know, facts and figures and put them all together. And especially nowadays, these incredibly sensitive, like really, really just well done books. And so I wanted people to know where to go, you know and also to say this is where I got my information from, because I'm not making any of it up and I don't want credit for that.
And then I asked the ladies to give what they would want people to know most about each song, and Dirk wrote something. I just think it's important also to acknowledge him, all of the folks at the Smithsonian Folkways, most of which are white dudes. There is a relationship with allies going on here and I think that that's really important because, in this day and age, there's a lot of kind of, us versus them and I'm like, the only way forward really is to accept the platform that's given to you and the help that comes along with that and then you say your thing. It was like we weren't in any way needing anybody to help us say what we wanted to say, we just needed the space to do it.
So it's really important, I think, to acknowledge that, and to say, "This is how we can work together and not by you guys writing our story, but by you guys letting us have the space to write our story." And in this day and age, that's what it takes, and that's okay. You know what I mean? That's the way to turn it around. It's not like, "No, we don't need your help." It's like, "No, actually, because of the behemoth that we're shifting, it's going to take that." It's going to take the handout and then, "thank you. I got it now." You know what I mean? "Thanks for giving us the space." So I just think that's really important to say, and I'm glad that the Smithsonian has the budget to put liner notes in [laughs].
Russell: And I think, something that you said, this idea of allyship and moving forward and we move forward together. It's a family, it might be a dysfunctional, broken family, but it's a family. This country is still very young and its strength is also where the fault lines can, you know, when there's fear-mongering going on, those fault lines can crack and break and people can have the illusion of some sort of inseparable gulf between themselves and someone they perceive as other. But as Rhiannon's other album posits, there is no other and it's a we, you know, it's a we, and we have to figure out how to talk to each other.
And you know, we were talking about so many of these songs, the reason we wrote them and the way that we connect with them emotionally ourselves, it's a lot of them are trying to make things personal. It's personal, it's not academic, it's not dusty, it's not ancient, dead history, it's personal, it's present. Empathy comes from being able to imagine yourself, your child, your family in that situation, in a given situation. And that's what our hope is, that we're building empathy and sharing empathy and being more empathetic ourselves and I think that is the only way forward.
McCalla: I think it's also so important to talk about the strength of black women in this country and worldwide, really. Because a lot of the time we talk about the victimization of black people, and I think that that's certainly part of the story, but it's not the whole story. And black women have been makers and markers of social change in the United States for centuries, at this point. So, I just think this album is a part of that. And I don't see any other completely black groups at the Newport Folk Festival, for example, you know? And so, it's a step forward. You have to start with one foot in front of the other.
Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby & Amanda Shires of The Highwomen
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
The Highwomen stole the show on opening night of Newport Folk Festival 2019. The new supergroup composed of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires have been storming the country world with a powerful and poignant message, and they're having fun doing it.
"Redesigning Women" arrived as an anthem for the modern female—but the single serves to unite, not divide, which was very clear as the group closed out their Newport set with the song. Their second single, "Crowded Table," a siren song for inclusivity, also dropped just ahead of their Newport debut.
We caught up with three-quarters of The Highwomen backstage at Newport Folk to talk about their debut album, due out Sept. 6., about the lack of representation of women in country radio, why they call Carlile the group’s “wide receiver” and more.
Let's start with Newport and the debut last night. How did it feel to finally present this project live? What's special about this festival in particular?
Morris: I mean, it felt amazing. We felt like when we walked on stage that all these people that came to see us were already on our side. It went by too quick. That was my only complaint.
Hemby: Yeah. It went by really fast. I was kind of relieved it was over, but kind of sad that it was over. But it was very electric. It was like everybody was waiting for us and it was just, I felt I was really nervous. This is my first time to Newport and being on stage with the girls. We had been rehearsing and it was kind of emotional because it was all coming to fruition, you know?
Shires: It seemed electric. You know, we walk out there and we're ready to play, they want to hear us. Then we're also at Newport. I've been coming here a long time and I haven't felt a audience as charged as what I felt on that stage last night. I'm not saying I was here when Dylan did his thing, but I'm sure that was almost as electric as what we did.
Highwomen go electric.
You closed the set with "Redesigning Women," a song that makes a bold statement, but it's also a lot of fun. Was the video as fun to make as it looked?
Morris: Yeah. It was the hottest day in Nashville and we were wearing firemen gear.
Hemby: Which is so heavy.
Morris: Then we built a fire. So we were melting by the end of it. But it was so fun. Tanya Tucker and Wynonna Judd came out in support. Yeah, it was probably just the easiest video I've ever done.
Hemby: Yeah. Elizabeth Olmsted did it and she was incredible.
Shires: I think the song though... Natalie, wrote it and as far as I can tell, it's about owning what it is to be a woman.
Shires: And I think making that video and then including all our friends, you know, up and coming and the legends. I think that has a lot to say for the unity of the project.
Hemby: Well, I mean you touched on it perfectly. It's basically, I didn't want to sound preachy writing the song. I wanted it to just be real and be kind of funny. It is the life we lead, we are doing as women now more than ever. We're running businesses and taking care of families and it's a different time we live in and it's just sort of like the hilarity of it all.
Morris: There were dudes singing "Redesigning Women" in the crowd last night. It was awesome.
Shires: I love the evolved ones.
Morris: It's for everybody.
Yeah, everybody was singing last night. Also, the second single came out this week, "Crowded Table." Can you talk about where that song came from?
Hemby: Well I wrote that one, again... I actually wrote these two songs before I actually even joined the band, so I feel like it was sort of my rite of passage to get in the band. I wrote that with Lori McKenna and we sat down at my piano and I told her about what they were looking for for the Highwomen project. I had this title that I wanted to write for a long time called "Crowded Table."
We sat down at a piano and we wrote it literally in 30 minutes and then I took it to Brandi and I was like, is this something that works? And she changed it. Just like a few lines on it and it was just perfect. We just wanted to write a song about women getting pitted against each other. We wanted to write a song about like, "Hey, I've got you." It's not just women, actually. I think men too. Like, I want a big house that has lots of friends and family. Just something sort of heartwarming, you know?
Morris: This motto of the band, it fits so perfectly with that song because I think the message we're trying to get across is like, you can sit with us. This is a very inclusive project.
Shires: We're singing in unison so people can sing along.
Amanda, I read this project came out of noticing a lack of representation at women in radio and country radio specifically. Can you talk about a little bit what you found and how that turned into this project?
Shires: It was something I had noticed before, but I really don't operate in that genre. When the idea really started was after my daughter was born and I was thinking, what if Mercy grows up and decides she wants to be a country artist? Like, what can I do and how can I in any way try and change it or at least make it easier? That's sort of the whole thing for me. And then, you know, as ideas do, they grow and they become something much larger than you ever could even imagine. I feel very lucky that these people wanted to do this with me.
And how have you seen this project already have an impact on the conversation about gender equality so far with these first two singles?
Hemby: Well, I think we just want to shine a light on all different types of artists. It's exactly what Maren said in her video.
Morris: We don't want more than anyone else. We want the same as everyone else.
Hemby: Exactly. I think that's the key to it all. In the Top 50 charts of country music, there's not very many women on it.
Shires: Apparently Maren's number one. Watch out. Fire.
Hemby: She is currently number one. This girl right here. I don't know yet what happened.
Morris: But it is cool. To be at Newport and do the Highwomen debut the same week that "GIRL" went number one. It just feels like, I don't know, I'm pretty superstitious, but sometimes the stars just align and it's just timing.
Hemby: But it didn't use to be an issue of having women on country radio. We used to have Tricia [Yearwood], Shania [Twain], Faith [Hill], all of the them.
Morris: Dixie Chicks.
Hemby: Dixie Chicks. Through the years it's just, it's been so much less inclusive and that's kind of our point. It's not, we don't want more. We want the same opportunities.
Well, what you're doing is incredible. Maybe because she's not here, we can talk about Brandi. What does she bring to the group?
Morris: We have dubbed her the wide receiver.
Hemby: She's the wide receiver. If you have a ball and you want to do something, Brandi will take that ball all the way. She was like, I'm going to catch the ball and we're going to score a touchdown and we're going to win the Superbowl.
Shires: And then she'll run back down and get it again.
Morris: Yeah. She's definitely a doer. Like, she has an idea and she manifests it.
Shires: I think her work ethic matches the power of her voice.
Morris: Unparalleled vocalist.
Shires: The amount of work she can do, the amount of, you know, air she can take.
Hemby: Yes. That powerful voice. That's how she works too. And she's also, she is a very big supporter.
Shires: All we do is hold onto the reins.
Morris: She's really supportive. In our show last night, I was like, Brandi has amazing stage banter. I'm kind of glad I can sit back. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand when she was speaking.
Hemby: She is definitely made for this, for sure.
The album comes out Sept. 6. How in the world did you record this with four very busy schedules?
Hemby: Well, you work. Dave Cobb produced our record and she's worked with Dave several times.
Shires: Yeah, I have worked with Dave a lot. But when I first had the idea for this before it became even this, I told Dave about it and then I told him that I wanted him to produce it. Then he was like, you gotta go meet Brandi. And I met Brandi and then everything started coming together. I mean, we have the songs, we have awesome bands, we have awesome suits.
Morris: I recorded for two days. Well three, I guess with cocktails. What was the life span of the studio time? It was probably-
Shires: It was two weeks. We did a lot of stuff the first week and came back and did it the second week.
Hemby: Yeah, and we tracked a lot of the vocals-
Morris: We were writing in the studio also. Like, on "My Name Can't Be Mama," they wanted me to help write my verse and so it was very collaborative and creative. I love the way Dave operates. He's really into live tracking. So you've got humans around you making music and you can look at each other and you're all on each other's wavelength. I loved recording that way.
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
The spirit and soul of Yola's breakout album Walk Through Fire was nothing if not well-earned. Even the title came from overcoming hardship, as her kitchen literally caught fire before the project, a symbol of the adversity the Bristol-born singer/songwriter faced—and overcame to create her own masterpiece.
Yola graced us with her infectious energy backstage at Newport Folk Fest after her show-stopping set and opened up about her breakout album, working with The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and what it means to be the Queen of Country Soul.
Congratulations on your album, Walk Through Fire. What are you most proud of in how this album came out?
I think how people are connecting with it. One of my specialist subjects is that connecting to what I'm saying. And I hope by doing that then that helps people connect as well with what I mean. And that gives us a relationship across airwaves, across oceans, across an arena.
And so, that's the most important thing, for people to be connecting and for things to be going crazy. We're not into six months yet and things are going super crazy.
But that's not just a hype machine situation. It's so down to people connecting in a real way and I think it's very easy for that to not happen. For people to get swept away with hype.
What can you say about the collaboration with Dan Auerbach? It sounds like you guys wrote a ton of songs together.
Yes, we did.
How was it working with Dan on this album?
He's just a machine. I always thought I was kind of a quick writer once I got into my flow, my flow state, if you will. Yeah, he's a machine and his sonic palette, his kind of delicacy in the mix is unrivaled, it's unbelievable what he can do.
I was actually a fan of his album that came out, his solo album that came out, "Waiting on a Song." When I listened to just all the layers and I was like, "I love this, wouldn't it be amazing if I could do an album like this with him?"
Anyway, that's what Dan and his people bump into me in '17. I must've just put that into the Ether or something, that was serendipitous at the very least.
He's a complete machine and the upside, especially when it comes to things like production means, I could be hands-off. I don't have to be concerned and idea of what you going to come across is going to be turned into something other than something utterly beautiful and so yeah... It's the most relaxing production experience I've ever had because you deliver your vocal and you know everything is going to sound beautiful.
It's in good hands.
Very, very, very capable hands indeed.
"Faraway Look," I think that was the first song that I heard of yours. Can you tell me about how that came together in the studio with Dan?
When we were writing, Dan and I would be in the room and we'd invite a third party, if you will. And that third party would be the spice, so me and Dan had talked about our common ground musically. The things that we loved, even the things that we loathed. So, then that would form the kind of people he would invite.
And Pat McLaughlin is a dreamy kind of guy and so yeah, it became... we had, obviously Pat came in with this song and that we had Dan Penn and Joe Allen and Roger Cook. So, really kind of stellar writers and so the idea was to kind of bring in the spice would occur. And allow me to explore the range of things that I'm into like classic pop music, classic country, classic soul music.
And so, the way that lyrics tend to come with me... and thankfully with both Dan and Pat is, what I like to call the mumble write. Where you're kind of dowsing for the vibe and I think most of the songs came like this.
In this case, maybe Pat is strumming something and going [mumbling] and starting to mumble something and so then out of the mumble... and then you carry on, you pick up that mumble [mumbling], making no sense at all. But trying to decipher a more elegant meaning out of their aesthetic, out of the shapes that are coming to you. And really they're actually batting around the idea in the back of your mind.
And there's some deep meaning there that you're trying to discern through the fog and that's how much the songs came together, it was Dan or Pat strumming of the 30 songs and in some cases, me strumming. And just feeling out what we were doing. And then obviously something salient-like comes forward.
So, in this case it was the chorus melody, that was the first thing to come. And then we're starting to try to figure out where that goes but this whole process was like we were trying to unveil it, more than going in with a preconceived idea of the genre that we are going to have a look at that day or what the whole album was going to be. It was like we were going to write a whole bunch of songs and then we're going to figure out what the hell we'd done.
And see whether there was a sense of continuity through it, which there was. And so, that was the kind of saving grace with the writing of that song. I think of this record it was very open because people have been describing this as a country soul record. But then you listen to "Faraway Look" and it's not country or soul. It's classic pop.
While I think Queen of County Soul is really a perfect moniker for you, it captures a lot of what you do, but there's always so much more. How do you feel about genre today?
It's like you're trying to help people understand something they just need to listen to. And it's feels like we are dissecting to understand like we're in Biology and we're doing the frog dissection. And in that dissecting of the thing where it separating out, all of everything. Putting that over there, that over there, that over there. And they didn't start that way. They all started together.
And we're separating it out to be able understand the constituent parts and so that feels like the opposite of what I'm trying to do with music. I'm trying to find the common ground. I'm trying to bring all those constituent parts and show how they were linked to all the tissue all the fascia. And, so that's what I'm passionate about in music, is that gray area, that's why I love the band, that's why I love Little Feat, that's why I love staple singers, that's why I love Aretha. They didn't stick... that's why I love Elton John. C'mon, right?
There constantly listen to Honky Chateau, right? It's got this and then it's got this. Everyone I love, Bee Gees- Man, that early Bee Gee stuff, that "Run to Me." That's a bowl of soul. And I was thinking disco and I'm like, "Boo, there's more." "Run to Me" is a massive tune.
For sure. So, how does it feel to experience this type of accelerated rise to success, and did you ever think that was possible when you were going through some of the harder times in your life, dealing with homelessness and loss of your mother.
Well when I was four I saw this [passion for music]. I was like, "Yep. This is entirely feasible. Sure, why not? I feel ready. Let's do this." And so I'm kind of my 4-year-old self right now and I went kind of... I grew up and moved away from that person, which was a mistake. 4-year-old me was on point.
Yeah, instincts like that are usually correct.
Yeah. I nailed it, and I just got talked out of being that person. You should be ashamed of your dark skin, you should me ashamed of your natural hair. You should try and sing more R&B. You should drop some weight. All the kind of things that are shaming and the number of times that I get pulled up by women of color, certainly people darker than Oprah kind of, which is the line in the sand.
"Thank you, thank you for being upfront, thank you for not being in the back, thank you for just being, not being apologetic about it or shrinking in some way." And yeah, that's been a journey, that's been a long road to get it to that point.
So, in that process of being talked out of this willingness to just be myself, I went through bad company. And that bad company pushes you into that realm and when I was in that moment of homelessness, the thing that was making me sad was that, the bad company. Was that sense of lack of connection with the people around me, the people I was working with. People that I was social with who were also people I was working with. That's always been the thing, that has been the heartbreaker, as much as the loss of my mother.
That whole sense and period of neglect, so this period is very much been about that rise to accepting yourself and that's been reflected in how quickly this has risen that's what people want to see. They want to see love, love and connection, to people, to the people you're working with, to yourself.
Maybe it took the 30s to get to that, but yeah. It's been unreal and all the sparkly stuff aside, which there's lots of sparkly things. I didn't think I would be playing Bridgestone or Ryman multiple times or whatever. All of this stuff is mind blowing to me but the connection has always been top, that the most self-actualization.
You mention the Bridgestone, Kacey Musgraves, Maggie Rogers gig. Can you talk a little bit about preparing for that big of a show and playing an arena?
When I was early 20s, late teens, I had a little bit of arena experience but as kind of fronting other peoples' outfits. So, I was that fronting gun for hire. And so you'd have to learn to prowl the stage and all your gestures had to be super massive because people might not see you. If you're just doing this, no one is seeing that ten rows back kind of thing.
So, yeah that was one massive thing that I had to pick up that I'm going to be able to draw back on for this show and yeah and we got the full band, so we should be ready to kick booty.
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Bluegrass master Molly Tuttle continues to accumulate accolades. Last year she was named Guitar Player of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards, the first female ever to receive the honor, and just this week she received four nominations for this year's IBMAs, including Female Vocalist, Guitar Player and Song of the Year, all before clearing her first quarter-century. But what's striking about Tuttle, beyond her staggering talents, is her authenticity as an artist and a human being.
Born into a bluegrass family band in Northern California, Tuttle relocated to Nashville not long ago, where she'd write all the songs for her debut LP, When You're Ready. The album blossoms from her deep bluegrass roots and blooms into a sound all her own, with sweet dashes of pop, weeping streaks of Americana and the simple sincererity of country.
Backstage at this year's Newport Folk Festival, we caught up with Tuttle to talk about When You're Ready, working with GRAMMY-winning producer/engineer Ryan Hewitt, what it means to be a strong female role model and much more.
Let's start with Newport Folk Festival. It's your second time here. What do you think makes this festival special?
This festival is so historically incredible. I grew up listening to folk and bluegrass, and so many of my heroes have played on the stages here and have had really historic musical moments. I remember seeing footage of Bob Dylan going electric here for the first time and Pete Seeger, of course, playing here and Joan Baez, and also bluegrass people like Ralph Stanley. So I think the legacy of this festival, it's always been pushing the boundaries and it's always been really inclusive to tons of different styles, which is why I think the audiences here are so incredible, because they get exposed to so many different styles of music. And it just feels like a really welcoming and really special event.
Is there anybody on the bill that you're excited to see?
Today I'm really excited to see Kacey Musgraves. And I just watched part of I'm With Her earlier, they're always incredible. I think Maggie Rogers is playing this weekend; I've never seen her before, so I'm really stoked for her. I haven't downloaded the app yet, I need to do that and really plan out my schedule.
Let's talk about When You're Ready. It's officially your debut album, but as your career and life have been centered around music, and I'm curious how you feel about it now that it's out. Also, what do you think you accomplished with this project?
I think I've just taken my music a step further in the direction of really having it feel genuine to who I am, including all my different influences. I grew up playing bluegrass, but I've always listened to so many different styles of music, and with this record I really just wanted to follow my muse wherever it took me with songwriting and then build the album around the songs. To not try to stay in one particular style of music or keep with one kind of instrumentation, but really just follow what the songs wanted and what I thought would be best. I think I achieved that. I think it's a lot different than all the music I've made in the past, and it's been fun playing the songs on the road with a totally different band, it feels really reenergizing to me.
What was it like working with Ryan Hewitt on the album? He's new to Nashville, and he's done all sorts of rock projects.
It was amazing working with Ryan, we instantly connected. We met at one of my shows in Nashville and talked for only a couple of minutes, and he was telling me about all these bands he'd produced, engineered and mixed. He'd worked with [GRAMMY-winning super-producer] Rick Rubin a lot, with Blink-182 and Red Hot Chili Peppers, also the Avett Brothers. And it felt like he was just naming all these bands that I listened to at different ages of my life, and I was totally fangirling about all of it, like, that's amazing. But beyond that, when we kept talking further, we really just connected about different things we loved about music and about our favorite bands and favorite records. It really flowed well with and we work together really well.
Is there a song on the album, maybe "Million Miles," that you want to talk a bit about how you wrote it?
"Million Miles" is the first track on the record, and that one came about through my friend Steve Poltz, who's a great singer/songwriter and lives in Nashville as well. We were writing together a bunch one summer, the other song we wrote on the album together was "Don't Let Go."
One day we had finished writing a couple of songs, and I had known Steve had written a bunch of incredible songs with Jewel back in the '90s; they wrote "You Were Meant For Me" and a bunch of other really incredible songs that ended up on her records. So we'd finished up the writing session for the day, and he said, "Hey, I just remembered the song that I started writing with Jewel over 20 years ago, and we never finished it." They had a verse and a chorus, and he played that for me, and I recorded it on my phone and he was like, "Maybe you would want to take this and finish it."
So I did. A couple months later I sat down, and the song was kind of haunting me because I instantly really loved the song, and I was a little intimidated to try to write another verse. But I sat down and finished the song and sent it back to him, and he said he really liked it, and I knew I really wanted to record it on the album. I had to get Jewel's permission somehow, but I didn't really know how to get in touch with her, so I asked Steve if he could send my version of the song to her.
He did, and I didn't hear back. She wasn't really responding back to the song. I found out later she had been on a meditation retreat for the whole time we were trying to get in touch with her, so she wasn't checking her phone. Steve actually just decided to tell me it was okay with her, which I found out a year later. He had never heard back, but then months later, she eventually heard it and really liked it. Luckily, it was totally fine with me recording it and we got to play it. The three of us played it at a festival earlier this summer at Telluride Bluegrass Festival. That was really cool and really special.
Talk about a full circle moment.
Yeah, it was cool.
I want to ask you about the IBMAs. First of all, congratulations on the nominations.
And last year you became the first female to win Guitar Player Of The Year. We talk about gender issues a lot within the music industry. I'm curious how it feels for you to have that distinction as the first female guitar player to win that award.
Yeah, it felt really, really important to me. That was probably one of the biggest things that has happened to me in, I guess, my musical life or career. It felt really special to win that award because I've been a part of the bluegrass community and have grown up in that world. So to feel the whole community lifting me up in that way was really special, and it was just really meaningful to me to be a woman playing lead guitar. Sometimes it doesn't really dawn on me that there aren't a lot of other women playing lead guitar. It's always just felt really natural to me to play guitar. It's something that's really important to me to hopefully get more girls playing guitar. I studied guitar in college and I was always the only female in my classes.
I think it's kind of a combo of women who play guitar historically haven't really been recognized in the way that men have, their legacies have kind of been erased in a way. But I also think that there are fewer women playing guitar because we're not encouraging it as much as we encourage boys to pick up a guitar, maybe. I really hope that changes in the coming years and hopefully, if a girl sees me or sees other women playing guitar and being recognized, that'll encourage them to pick up a guitar too.
Thank you so much @intlbluegrass for nominating me for Female Vocalist, Guitar Player, and Song of the Year (Take the Journey), and Collaborative Recording of the Year with Roland White, @hiltnerj, @jonweisberger and @patmcavinue!! see y’all in Raleigh!! pic.twitter.com/EyjURmxsOI
— Molly Tuttle (@molly_tuttle) July 25, 2019
Back to the album; the songs were all written in Nashville, right? What about that city do you think added a specific touch of spice to this record?
Yeah, I think Nashville is just so full of songwriters, and it was fun in the first few years that I lived there. I just would reach out to anyone I knew, really, who I loved their songs or I knew they wrote a bunch of songs, and it was fun getting to meet so many new people through writing songs together. I think I wrote in ways that I wouldn't naturally have written on my own. And it was cool to see how other people worked with songwriting.
Nashville is such a collaborative city. The music community is just so intertwined, and everyone's kind of working with each other and supporting each other, which I felt right away when I moved there, that was really cool. I think this album kind of represents that because I had a lot of friends that I wrote with for it and I brought in a lot of friends living in Nashville to play on it. So yeah, the city definitely influenced the record a lot.
This is an optional question, but I was really touched by your article on No Depression, especially about your history with alopecia.
Oh, thank you. Yeah.
I just really want to point people to that interview, and I would love to know how it felt for you to share that story?
It felt really great. I loved writing about my journey with alopecia and playing at the conference that I went to. It was a conference for all people with alopecia, which is an autoimmune hair loss disease, and it's just something that's been a really big part of my whole life. But I haven't always been open about it with others and with the public and my fans. So it feels really freeing and great to be at a point where I can just share openly with people about it. And it feels like I've let the world see this other part of myself that I used to keep hidden, that I would only share with people I knew really well. But now it feels cool to get to share that with everyone.
That's great. I'm sure it'll inspire a lot of people to be themselves.
Yeah, I hope so.
I want to ask you about a big issue in music and entertainment; mental health. A lot of artists are under a lot of pressure, which can be difficult to cope with. I'm curious what you do to stay grounded and what your processes is for staying mentally healthy.
That's a good question. I think that's something I'm still learning, because it is challenging when you're traveling and you have all the pressure. I felt it a lot with having my first record come out, I was putting all this pressure on myself. But then, as you develop a team of people, you're feeling outside pressure as well. I found that seeing a therapist regularly when I'm off the road is really helpful, and there's a few different groups. There's MusiCares, which helps musicians afford mental health services, and there's other groups that do similar things. I've done meditation, which always helps me stay grounded on the road, if I can make myself get in the routine of doing it, which isn't always easy. Those two things have been big for me.
Do you have any dream co-write collaborators out there? Are there any artists that you'd really like to get in a room with?
I've been working on the crosspicking that he does recently.
I love his playing. That really influenced me as well.
What is next for you? You've got the debut that you're touring on, what else are you looking at down the road?
We have some festivals, we're doing Pilgrimage Festival later this Summer. We're doing a little run in Colorado and we have a couple of festivals and tours in the works for this Fall. Going to IBMA, of course, for the award show, and then I'm playing there [in Raleigh] that weekend. We'll be doing the AmericanaFest, which happens in Nashville every year. it's gonna be a busy Fall full of tours and festivals and different events, but it'll be a lot of fun.