Andy Furgeson is better known to many in the kindie scene as Red Yarn. (Even I still need to consciously address him as Andy rather than Red when communicating with him.) That speaks well to what he's done over the past few years with his deeply rootsy (but modern) folk sound on his two albums The Deep Woods and Deep Woods Revival.
The Portland, Oregon musician has just released his third album, Wake Up & Sing, which is a slight departure in that, while it still plumbs deep the depths of America's folk music tradition, it's a little lighter, springier, and features kindie uber-producer Dean Jones helping out.
In this interview, conducted over the past several weeks (it started out in late April the day after Prince's death), Furgeson talks about his various types of musical lessons, the differences between his first two albums and the new one, and why he also got into the business of promoting shows.
Zooglobble: OK, I'll start off with a slightly different question than one I normally lead off with, and that's what are your memories of Prince?
Andy Furgeson: Such devastating news yesterday. I grew up on the oldies station (back when oldies meant '50s & '60s) and didn't have MTV, so I didn't really discover Prince till my teenage years. Of course, he was so deeply woven into the musical fabric of the '80s and '90s that I was vaguely aware of him, but it was a honky-tonk cover of "Raspberry Beret" that turned me into a fan. When I was 14 and learning to play country licks on my Telecaster, a great Austin band called the Derailers released a two-steppin' cover of the song that sent me digging for the source. I immediately appreciated the breadth of Prince's talent and vision. Since then, he's been one of the magical bonuses of life. Most recently, the Rainy Day Family - an ongoing collaboration with Portland kindie pals Pointed Man Band, the Alphabeticians, Tallulah's Daddy & Penny's Puppets - covered "Purple Rain" for a room full of kids & families, changing the lyrics to "Portland rain," naturally. RIP, Prince!
Yeah, most of my early Prince memories were MTV-based, so I probably had a Prince upbringing that more closely matched that of the general public. (I had a family friend who was _deeply_ into The Time as well.) So besides the oldies station (or including the oldies station), what _were_ your first musical memories?
A few of my early musical memories... My uncle had an amazing party trick of playing Jerry Lee Lewis' wild boogie woogie songs on piano, which made a lasting impression. I grew up going to a funky Presbyterian church in downtown Austin, and singing in the congregation was always my favorite part. I distinctly remember dancing around the living room with my dad listening to Rolling Stones records. (Interesting side note: my parents' vinyl collection was almost entirely in generic paper sleeves, as they lost their first house and most of their possessions in a giant flood when my older brother was a baby. They recovered their records, but all of the album covers were ruined.) On family road trips we mostly listened to two cassettes: the Beatles' Greatest Hits and Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits.
I took the obligatory piano lessons in 1st and 2nd grade, but was later inspired to pick up violin by an amazing renaissance man who played Scrooge to my Tiny Tim in a citywide production of "The Christmas Carol." Finally, I remember the night I decided to play guitar, while listening to a top 40 mixtape on my Walkman in the back of the minivan. The intro to Everclear's "Santa Monica" came on and I thought, "I could do that." When we got home I dug out my mom's classical guitar and picked out the chords.
So when did you start guitar lessons (and drop violin lessons)?
I started playing guitar at age 13 and was mostly self-taught. With violin instruction through my middle school, I had built up enough finger strength and music theory to teach myself the basic guitar chords. Then I worked my way through a Beatles and a CCR songbook, which was an excellent education in pop and roots song structures. Under the guidance of Nirvana's Unplugged album and a few more talented friends, I learned power chords and some simple riffs. My 8th grade English teacher was a blues enthusiast and a great guitar player, so he showed me some more tricks. I attended a blues guitar camp the following summer, where I mostly just mimicked John Fogerty solos.
From there, it was a self-education that roughly followed the evolution of rock'n'roll - from blues to rockabilly to the British Invasion and southern rock, from surf rock and psych to punk, then back again to folk and country and bluegrass. I kept on playing violin (poorly) all through high school, and gradually picked up some mandolin, banjo, pedal steel, and other strings along the way. These days it's mostly just guitar, now that I have access to a community of musicians who can play all of those other instruments much better than I can!
That's great! (As a violinist myself who's developed rudimentary uke knowledge and would love to pick up mandolin and/or banjo someday, that's a musical path I can definitely admire!)
How do you go about choosing musicians (or puppeteers, or [insert name of artistic endeavor here]) you want to work with?
Cool! I didn't know you played violin! I'll have to get you to play on the next Red Yarn album [grin].
Ha! My violin is passable, but probably not of recording quality. [grin]
Most of my collaborating musicians, puppeteers and visual artists are old friends or friends of friends. Portland is awesome in this way - it's a small enough city and scene that, if you put yourself out there, you can find incredible artists who are eager to collaborate. I moved here about 11 years ago and started a band right away, and all of the guys from that first band play on my Red Yarn albums and at our full band shows. I've also roped in musicians from bands we used to share bills with. The local kindie community is very supportive and collaborative, so we're often singing back-up on each other's projects. Of course, my primary collaborator is my wife Jessie - she's my singing and touring partner and helps with a lot of behind-the-scenes decision-making.
As soon as I started working with puppets, I discovered that Portland has a thriving puppetry scene, and found lots of skilled puppeteers who were excited to bring my Deep Woods Critters to life. I now have a loyal crew of puppeteers who have naturally paired up with certain puppets, so it's like a repertory cast I can choose from depending on the project.
Wake Up & Sing was a bit different because I recorded it in Rosendale, New York with Dean Jones, while I was on a solo trip without any bandmates. Luckily, he's a brilliant multi-instrumentalist so he was able to play a lot of the parts. He called in a great fiddler and bassist named Jed Greenberg, who helped fill out the sound. It was a cool experience working with new musicians and being open to how they might add to my sound.
Speaking of Wake Up & Sing, I understand that it wasn't necessarily completely planned, or at least, the album wasn't your next step? How do *you* hear Wake Up & Sing as being different from your first two _Deep Woods_ albums?
Yeah, Wake Up & Sing was a bit unplanned. I had been corresponding with Dean about the possibility of recording together, and at one point we even talked about recording Deep Woods Revival with him. But I decided I wanted to use my local community of musicians for that record, so instead I scheduled a couple of days with him when I'd be on the East Coast for KindieComm.
I had some leftover songs that didn't fit on Revival that I thought would make a nice six-song EP. Six songs in two days seemed like a good goal. But Dean is a fast worker, so we got through those six songs quickly and he kept coaxing out more songs that I didn't intend to record. Rhymes I'd written when my son was born, animal folksongs that hadn't found their way on a Deep Woods album, etc. We ended up recording at least the skeletons of 12 songs, 11 of which made the final cut (after months of passing tracks back and forth to add layers and ideas).
Unlike the Deep Woods albums, which are part of this ongoing project I've been working on for 8+ years, this album feels a lot more spontaneous. Dean's additions were unexpected and delightful, and he challenged me to include songs that weren't part of my grand vision. That translates to a more light-hearted and playful album, still with a few moments of darkness. I give a lot of credit to Dean for drawing out this particular set of songs and for encouraging me to give them all a fair chance. And for filling the album with so many sweet and surprising sounds.
Any particular favorites, or songs whose final product surprised you (e.g., because of their final production)?
"Molly Cottontail" was a surprise. We recorded guitar, vocals, upright bass, and some light percussion live. While I loved the recording, I thought I'd save the song for the next Deep Woods record and give it an epic Springsteen treatment. Dean added the balafon - or whatever that mallet instrument is he plays - and it just blew me away. It amped up the quiet intensity of the track and made it a keeper.
"Wake Up" is another favorite. We started with just the guitar, lead vocal, and rhythm section. Dean added some layers to help with the gradual crescendo. I can't even identify all the layers - vocoder beatboxing? synth bass? one of his dinky keyboards? Finally, Dean came up with the brilliant echo vocals and we invited Morgan Taylor to join the gang. The finished product is so much richer and more dynamic than the original live track!
"Wake Up" is great - so much energy! What's it like to have a producer suggest different production approaches than you might be used to (or most comfortable with)? "I Had a Rooster" also has, to my ears, a more "modern" sound than most of the "Deep Woods" tracks.
It was exciting to work with a producer like Dean, who takes a very active approach in shaping the sound of the recordings. I had to open myself up to new possibilities and let go of my sense of control over the sound. Fortunately, I approached this project without strong expectations about the finished product - I just brought a handful of stripped-down songs and an openness to where they might go.
Songs like "I Had a Rooster" evolved quite a bit during the recording process. We recorded one version of "Rooster" on our first day together, just guitar and vocals, with the idea that Dean would add some weird percussion layers. But my timing was off - I kept rushing every time I barked like a dog. So I suggested that we try it again on the second day when Jed the bass player was there. We jammed on the song for a while and Jed came up with that sweet bass line, which gave the song its defining groove. Dean polished it up with more percussion and funky keyboard sounds and it became the catchiest song on the album.
How do you integrate these songs into your regular shows? Now that you've recorded them, do you integrate them differently?
Several of the songs on the new album - "Wake Up," "I Had a Rooster," "Hop Little Squirrel," "Clap Your Hands" - were already staples of my live shows, so I've continued to perform them frequently, whether solo, in a duo with my wife Jessie, or with the band. Several evolved through the recording process, so I've updated my live versions to try to match the energy of the recordings.
But some songs work better as recordings than live - particularly songs that don't have obvious interactive elements. While I love the recordings of "Hound Dog Song," "Fourth Day of July" and "By the Light," I haven't found a great way to work them into my live show. I often end my shows with a lullaby, so "Welcome to the World" and "Sleepy Song" have filled that spot nicely.
This album has allowed me to venture out of the Deep Woods for my live shows. While I used to start every show with the Deep Woods magic spell and theme song, now I start more shows with my wake up songs. I commissioned a beautiful new fabric backdrop that echoes the new album cover - a farmland scene with a sun rising on the horizon.
Finally, what's coming up for you?
We have a busy summer coming up! Next week I head into a studio here in Portland to begin work on the third (and final?) Deep Woods album. I've written a lot of original material, though some of it is darker and more adult, so it's going to take some finesse to make this a totally family-friendly album. I'm excited to see how this batch of songs evolves. My wife and I (and our 2-year-old roadie) are doing a weeklong east coast tour in early July, with shows at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, SiriusXM, in Boston and outside of Philly. We'll also stop by Dean's studio for a day to so he can add his magic to the new recordings.
The rest of the summer I'll be traveling around Oregon and Washington, playing at libraries, music festivals and summer fairs. In the fall I'll dig back into my regular show schedule in Portland, and plan to continue the Fambly Ramble kindie concert series I launched this spring. My wife and I are expecting baby #2 in October, so of course that will be an exciting new adventure!
Congratulations on the upcoming baby! Your answer reminded me that I wanted to ask what your inspiration was for the Fambly Ramble and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
The Fambly Ramble came about after several national kindie acts contacted me hoping to set up Portland shows, but weren't having any luck finding a venue. Portland has an awesome scene for local acts who can do weekly shows, build up a big fanbase, then call on that base for bigger events. I've found families here to be super supportive of family music artists. But we don't really have bigger venues with a built-in audience for touring acts. Village Ballroom is the one exception, but only books weekend shows once a month or less during the school year.
I found myself with three great acts - Harmonica Pocket, Gustafer Yellowgold & Tim Kubart - who wanted to come through in March, April & May, so I turned it into a series. Each show had a local opener and went splendidly. I hope to continue the series in the fall, though I discovered that organizing and promoting a monthly show where I'm not necessarily performing is a big task, so it might be quarterly from now on. But I'd love to continue to expose Portland audiences to some of the amazing family music being made around the country, and to let more artists experience the enthusiasm and openness of Portland crowds.
Photo credit: Aaron Hewitt