Folk Uke’s L.A. Premiere Aims to Comfort The Disturbed and Disturb the Comfortable
By Terry Roland (Originally published at FolkWorks)
If you’re a fan of folk, country or Americana, you probably know their famous dads, legendary country singer, Willie Nelson and humorist storytelling folk singer, Arlo Guthrie. But, Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie found in the midst of their friendship they could write some funny attention-grabbing songs while playing ukulele and singing some sweet country harmonies. Over the last few years they’ve written and recorded such classics as Shit Makes The Flowers Grow, and Knock Me Up. With tongue planted firmly in cheek and fingers struming along on their ukes, they have just released their latest toe-tapping opus, Reincarnation. While it doesn’t have nearly enough swearing for their loyal fans, the album is a consistent batch of songs that will entertain and could even send you to thinking, if you don’t think too hard. Most notably the song, I Miss My Boyfriend, tackles the issue of domestic violence in their own unique satirical way with dramatic help from Shooter Jennings on narration. While their past inspirations managed to get our attention with the clever use of lyrical vulgarities of the garden variety(literally), this one digs a little deeper and the results are funny and disturbing. These two girls, with their ukulele chops and sweet vocal harmonies are in this just for fun, but songs like I Miss My Boyfriend, may end up accidently putting them on the topical folk music map-in their own Randy Newman-esque way. They’ll be appearing at L.A.’s Cinema Bar for their southland premeire on Friday 12/9 and Saturday 12/10. They’ve requested a loud Los Angeles audience for their debut gig and would prefer heckling to silence. In the interview that follows, it may be advisable not to take some of their comments too seriously. I’ll let you figure out which ones.
TR: Well, your dads have been life-long inspirations for me….
Amy: Yeah, Cathy’s dad used to steal all my dad’s girl friends.
Cathy: No. We gotta stop telling total lies during interviews. Well, except for the one where my dad made me try cocaine when I was a kid(laughs).
Amy: Glad you’re not hooking anymore, Cathy.
Cathy: Yeah, instead we took up the ukulele. Amy was trying to steal my corner!
Amy: Well, we did meet on a magic corner. I was working in San Diego. We met when we were having dinner right before I was going to work there. My Mom and Cathy’s mom were friends. She used to say, you’ve gotta meet Cathy, you’re going to love her! I’d say, yeah, yeah..My mom exaggerates! What it really meant is Amy needs a friend! I wonder Cathy, how is it to be my only friend?
Cathy:(laughs) We also realized our parents had been friends. After we became friends we found we had been to opposite Farm Aids for years. We know now that if we’d met too early, we’d been too good. We realize a lot of our charm is that we mess up on stage. But, you know that can be inspiring. If you’re too good, you intimidate people, but us, well, we leave people thinking, if they can do it, i can. We’ve been together way longer than we’re comfortable saying to be still playing like we did when we first got together.
Amy: We thought once we put a tour together with all these dates we’d be so much better, but that didn’t prove to be true. But, at least we don’t make the same mistakes twice. Then, if it gets too rough, we just stop the show and start telling a story.
TR: Isn’t that the Arlo Guthrie technique for covering mistakes?
Cathy: But Dad doesn’t do it because of mistakes. It’s more because he has thoughts that invade his head and he’s got to stop and share these passing thoughts, then he forgets where he was in the song.
TR: What about your Dad, Amy? You know there’s all the stories of smoking grass and all.
Amy: Yeah, you wouldn’t believe how many guys show up at shows just so they can smoke with him. They think he’s got this cloud of marijuana that just follows him. But, he’s really more into vaporizing now. He’s got a vaporizer he’s promoting.
Cathy: Me and Amy are really into heroin. We’re gonna do this whole ukulele Velvet Underground thing.
TR: Tell me about the new album, Reincarnation. Is there a concept here? Are you getting serious on us?
Cathy: Not really. We had a bunch more songs but these felt like they told a story and went well together. Maybe not as explicitly as on the first one. There are more implicit lyrics on this album. It’s been criticized because some think we go over the kid’s heads on these songs, but we hope we do. I guess we came up with an accidental concept album.
Amy: Some of the songs were started over a decade ago. I started one(Reincarnation) 12 years ago and then Cathy and I finished it in the studio. For some reason they all started to make sense together.
TR: I know you have some special guests on this album, as you did on your first one, but there’s one very special guest….
Cathy: Shooter(Jennings)? He was so brave to associate with us! And he played the part of the abusive male so convincingly. He really did put a lot of work into just how he was going to say it.
TR: Yeah, that song (I Miss My Boyfriend), is probably the most provocative on the album dealing with a serious issue. Let’s talk about satirical comedy as a vehicle for the song message.
Amy: We get mixed reactions from that song. Some people gasp, others laugh. You can tell your audience by the different looks we get while we’re singing the song. Some just stare like they’re staring at a hole. It comes across differently to some people. There are those who just don’t get it. We know domestic violence is no laughing matter. We hope they don’t think we’re serious. Some people just don’t understand irony and sarcasm.
TR: They’re the ones who think Randy Newman really does hate short people and would love to ‘drop the big one.’
Amy: (Laughs) I thought he DID want to drop the big one! I think today things are so heavy already, if you address it all as heavy, it all just stays and hangs there. You gotta lighten things up.
TR: Tell me about some specific reactions to that song about domestic violence and abuse.
Cathy: We had one friend who went through a very public break-up from a violent relationship. She got up and sang that song. She said it felt cool and empowering. She showed the best way to take the power from a bully is to laugh at them.
TR: You have some fairly solid sounding roots in your music. How did you develop your style?
Amy: I think we never intended on even having a style. We’re 90% accidental. There was really no intention of becoming any kind of musicians. We probably just started imitating, but any style that came about was more subconscious.
Cathy: We both love the same kind of music. We originally wanted to play all John Prine songs. But, we were told to stop.
TR: Did he send out an injunction?
Cathy: Eventually we started writing. I brought the music I grew up with, folk music, and Amy brought in the country side. And we’re just inspired by our family and friends.
TR: So, what’s in the future for Folk Uke?
Amy: A trip to the groceries today. I don’t know…heaven, hell, purgatory….well, that could be the same as the groceries depending on what aisle you end up in! For Folk Uke, we have no idea! We’re going to perform at Folk Alliance.
Cathy: We’ve got these shows at The Cinema Bar in Los Angeles this week. It’ll be our premire performance in L.A. It’ll be nice to be near the beach. The beach is so dramatic. We can have dramatic conversations with someone with the wind blowing through our hair.
Amy: We’re trying to get more shows together to promote the new album.
TR: How has the response been from your fan-base.
Amy: A lot of people are disappointed because there’s not enough swearing. So, we’re gonna have to write a ‘fucking, fucking, fuck song.’ We’re hoping in L.A. people won’t be too quiet.
Cathy: Actually, we’re hoping for hecklers. L.A. audiences are so silent. I think we’ll say, ‘if you’re not going to clap, just heckle us.
Amy: Or maybe we’ll heckle the audience! We’ll start calling people out.
TR: Sounds a little Kaufman-esque!
Amy: Andy Kaufman, I can really relate to him! Cathy and i had some stage fright early on. We had so many bad shows. We got over it because we found the people in the crowd were so much more uncomfortable than we were. Andy made people uncomfortable. Once we played, “Knock Me Up,” at a WoodyFest. We were going to do a tame set, but Cathy’s dad said, ‘no, you gotta do some good ones.’ So we did Shit Makes The Flowers Grow, and Knock Me Up.We got to the part where Cathy says, give me your love injection, and we started to hear snickers.
Cathy: It was so silent. The silence was deafening.
Amy: That was the beginning. It seems you either get a good story or a good show, either way, its okay. But, it reminded me when we get nervous, we really should do these songs.
Cathy: It reminds us of my grandfather, Woody, who used to say, the job of the artist is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. We know some people come to see us because of our dads and have no idea our songs have this content, but, we get empowered.
TR: Well, I guess you could say, I’m very comforted by your music.
(we all laugh)