In the Deep End With … Pharis and Jason Romero
Photo by Patrick King
No one knows their way around a banjo quite like Jason Romero. He knows how to play them, of course, but also, through building them for J. Romero Banjos, he intrinsically understands what they’re made of, in terms of both materials and how they sing and what they have to say.
That’s why the seven banjos (plus one gourd banjo guitar) played on Pharis and Jason Romero’s new album, Tell ’Em You Were Gold, get a photo spread and credited by name (Papillon, Big Blue, Clara, Birdie, Mother, Bella, Gourdo, and The Beast) in the liner notes, and why each was carefully chosen for the song on which it’s played.
Likewise, Pharis Romero, who creates inlays for Romero banjos, builds songs from the ground up, peering hard at a feeling, an object, or a phrase until a picture comes into view and a story takes shape.
Reflecting how the married duo celebrates tradition while making music mindful of the modern world, many of the 16 songs on Tell ’Em You Were Gold are from the public domain, well-traveled classics like “Been All Around This World” and “Going Across the Sea” as well as lesser-known banjo tunes. Those nestle in nicely right beside the duo’s originals, which celebrate nature, family, and finding what’s beautiful in the world.
A common thread through these songs is a feeling of warmth, like pulling a chair up to a hearth and letting the music melt the day away. Sonically speaking, that’s largely thanks to the Romeros’ recent restoration of an old barn on their homestead in Horsefly, British Columbia. Heated by a wood stove and neighboring the Little Horsefly River, the barn now serves as a recording studio and musical gathering space, a place for connection and celebration.
As summer blooms in Horsefly, we asked Pharis and Jason Romero to tell us more about the barn, the banjos, and the beauty of their songs for our “In the Deep End With …” series. Like a river reaching for the sea, the questions start in the shallows but then carve down a little deeper.
Tell ’Em You Were Gold was recorded in a barn you recently restored on your land in Horsefly. Tell us about the barn and why you wanted to create a place you could record there.
We spent months (years) slowly chipping away at renovating the barn — going from a leaking, rotting, windowless, cow-manure-filled two-story space to a solid, warm, acoustically baffled and open room. The barn sits alongside the Little Horsefly River, a very short river that connects Horsefly Lake and Horsefly River. Salmon spawn up the river in the fall, and most of the property here is ancient riverbed. The barn was built in the ’60s from spruce and fir milled on the property, insulated with sawdust, sitting on 2 x 6s resting on the dirt. We know every corner intimately: the corners we jacked up with a tractor and bottle jacks, the pads of acoustic batting we hid in between the studs and covered in the cheapest thing we could find (landscape cloth — turns out it’s acoustically fantastic), the new posts and beams we milled from spruce on the property and Jason put in all by his superhero self, the floorboards that we kept as many of as we could because they’re beautiful and they have decades of hoof scouring and animal wear.
It’s all wood, so the sound is warm and rich and lovely. High ceilings give a wonderful natural reverb. We rebuilt the old doors and covered them in curtains to help insulate the building and baffle the sound, and stuffed every crack we could find with insulation bits. With the bones of the reno finished, we put a lot of good-feeling stuff in the barn: an old canoe with a hole where an anvil fell through it, a grey whale scapula a friend sent us in the mail, a weighted river-fishing net that was used on our river before we moved here, the keel of a sailing dinghy Pharis’ extra dad built — all things that tell a story and give a sense of place.
It’s right here at home, and we could be with the kids, go for walks, eat meals, be on an open schedule, and be fully comfortable and present when we walked in the barn door and hit record. Nearly everyone working on the record was staying here on the property too (some were sleeping in the barn). It was a retreat, a bunch of old friends, and a creative joy to have such a good space to work in. We moved to this place in 2010 and knew from day one that we wanted to turn the barn into a music space for dances, concerts, and recording (and for kids to practice drums in). It took us over a decade to do it, and it got to the point where it was either put a new roof on it or tear it down. We had some wonderful friends help along the way and that made the end project feel even warmer. It feels so good to use it, knowing this old building just got a new lease on life.
This is the fourth record we’ve made here at home. The last three were recorded in the banjo shop (one pre-fire, two post-fire). The shop is a great space, but it was days of work to clean it out enough so that wood dust wasn’t flying at every ribbon mic in the room.
Each banjo you play on this album has a name and gets a credit in the liner notes (along with tuning info). How do you name them? Do you see personality traits in them as you’re building and playing them?
Most of them are named for some part of the banjo’s construction. Some are for the wood: Clara is made from Claro walnut, Birdie from birdseye maple, Gourdo is made from a gourd (and it represents as the most Canadian of names, ha ha ha). Some are for the hardware: Bella has one of our custom tone rings called the Belle Rose tone ring, Papillon has our butterfly-shaped papillon L-shoes, Big Blue has blue heron-shaped L-shoes. Mother is a bit different: It’s the only banjo that we had left after our 2016 shop fire (the rest burned to the ground, but we forgot we’d brought Mother to a party the night before and got very excited when we found her in the back of the truck), and it feels like she’s the holder of many strong experiences and ideas. The Beast was the hardest to name, but in the end that was the only thing that seemed to suit the massive gourd and guitar neck, and how you feel about it when you’re playing it. It’s a beast in your lap, and it’s hard to tame … and it makes you do things.
Each of the banjos seemed right for particular songs — the tone, the feel of the neck, the scale length (and tension of the strings) all made each banjo feel right for different sounds. That said, Jason probably could have happily played most of the songs on the gourd banjo; it’s the banjo he reaches for most often at home, and the banjo he writes most of his tunes on.
Is putting together a banjo akin to putting together a song in any way? Do you see parallels?
There are definitely parallels. Probably the biggest is the amount of time each of those things occupies in our brains. When Pharis is in song mode or Jason in tune mode, they roll around pretty steadily in our heads and our hands until they’re ready to come out as something that has some form and function. Then new things take the brain space that song or tune was occupying. The same thing happens with banjos: When Jason has a new banjo idea he is super focused on working it through in his head, teasing apart all the elements that need to come together to bring the idea into a tangible object. And then once it’s out, new ideas start taking form.
We both definitely have a constantly revolving door of new melodies, rhythms, phrases, inlay patterns, and construction possibilities. As far as the physical process of putting a banjo or song together goes, a banjo is a fairly predictable being during the process of putting it together. Jason has put together 500 of his own now and has it down to a fine art. The songs and tunes are a little less predictable, and it’s always interesting to see what path they lead us down. The banjo also has a more-or-less final resting state of completion (with some tweaking occasionally); even on songs that feel finished, we’re often trying out new things — changing keys and arrangements, changing tunings, and occasionally rewriting lyrics. “Souvenir” is a great example of that — we rehearsed a bunch, and thought we had the tune done and ready to lay down. When we played it in the studio it didn’t feel right, so we changed how both the guitar and banjo were playing, sang it differently, and a couple takes in laid down what you hear on the record.
How/when/where do songs happen for you? Do you set aside time for writing and crafting the melodies and choosing the tunings together? Or do those things end up being discussed while you’re cooking dinner, or driving to town, etc.?
For Jason the most common time that tunes come is when he’s just finished a new banjo. He often sits down and tunes it to the closest tuning that feels like something that makes sense to the banjo, to his ears, and under his fingers. Sometimes it’s a tuning he’s used before, and sometimes it’s new. And then he starts exploring — finding riffs, figuring out where the chords are, letting the tone of the banjo lead him to sound ideas. He sometimes sits down and learns beloved old tunes because it feels good and it’s a good grounding place. He usually then goes about figuring them out in a few different tunings to see where the melodies might lead him.
Pharis is a bit of an all-over-the-place songwriter. Something will usually trigger her and start the process. A phrase on the radio (our song “Souvenir” started from a radio interview of someone talking about people being souvenirs of time. Pharis was listening while doing a banjo inlay project, and jotted a quick note on a scrap of paper a year before she wrote the lyrics). Or humming along to a rhythmic pulse (canoeing, and the sound and rhythm of the paddle, was the start of “Cannot Change It All.” The words “man is best when he does not know the riches at his feet” just popped in her head with the rhythms). Sometimes she sits down with the intention to write a song about a specific topic, but more often it’s impulsive. She keeps random notes all over the place with phrases scrawled down, and a there’s lot of voice memos on the phone.
There’s a meeting ground that then happens once we each have the start of a song, and we make time — as and when the moment feels good — to sit down and work it out. Sometimes it’s right after the kids go to school, sometimes late at night. We’ve stalled in the middle of cooking dinner because we got excited about trying something out. For “Tell ’Em You Were Gold” it usually started with a banjo idea from Jason and words and chords from Phar, and then we would start playing: figuring out the way we most liked the guitar chords to complement the banjo melodies, starting to create the arrangements. And then one of the funnest parts of writing songs together is figuring out how we want to sing them, and how our voices will work together in the finished song. Jason is an instinctive singer, and often goes for really interesting notes that are different from what Pharis hears. We experiment a lot, changing keys, rhythms, and parts until we love it.
Visual art plays into your creative lives as well, from rustic elements and inlays (and onlays) on the banjos to Pharis’ jewelry and even the design of the liner notes for this album, which you did yourselves. Even your lyrics contain some vivid scenes that you can really just see as you listen. How does the visual world connect with your musical work?
We both are really drawn to natural tones, symmetry, and good textures. When Jason sees Arts and Crafts furniture he sees it as the embodiment of a really good banjo melody — it has a look of something that is part of the earth but also manmade, and you can feel the work that went into design and all the skill it took to make. We both love handmade art and good cloth, like the olive-green velvet of an old Gibson case. There’s something about the depth and layers that makes us both want to play music, to feel how the sound and feel of your hands on an instrument or of your voice making sounds can find that depth and texture.
This makes a lot of sense for how Jason especially approaches music: He is very much a sound person (he doesn’t really listen to words), he has very little storytelling drive, but he has a very strong personal sense for tonal aesthetics and the overall sounds he’s making or hearing. He has the same kind of strong aesthetic sense when he’s planning the elements of a banjo build, and this shows in the earthy and warm visuals of the banjos. When Pharis writes the words they have to sound right and need to have the right texture. She’ll often start writing with a single visual in mind (sometimes it’s just words that sound good together), then she’ll start just freeform writing, and eventually the song subject will make itself known. Sometimes it’s a bit more purposeful than that, but the sensory feeling of the words together — the color, the pattern, the grain — needs to be right and seems to have a similar warm and earthy quality to the banjos.
Jason always pictures the geography of where we live, visualizing where we are on the planet, and that makes him feel a certain way — a sense of place, a sense of home, a texture in the landscape — that crosses over into the music we play. Where we live is a pretty special spot, and it feeds both of our desires to be outside and connected to the natural world. The whole front of our house is windows, and we’re surrounded by trees, water, meadowland, and large stretches of forest. It’s visually very striking, and constantly changing through the seasons. In winter we feel a bit darker and quiet, and different songs come out then (the stillness of the snow, the rhythm of cross-country skiing) than the songs that come out in the brighter, livelier summer (being in moving water, growing plants, bare feet in the grass). Spring is so suddenly green, the birds return and these incredible life-filling spring winds come, and we just want to sit on the porch playing happy tunes. Fall is more inward and rooted feeling, and seems to be a good time for writing songs about gentle thoughts and banjo tunes that have a lot of open space.
“Souvenir,” the song that gives this album its title, talks about things that are timeless — time well spent, a rock, the setting sun that will come ’round again. What in our world feels timeless to you? What are the things that might get left behind?
Rocks. They definitely feel timeless. Sounds cheeky, but we spend a lot of time looking at rocks. Seasons. Family, both chosen and blood. Clouds. Smells. Dragonflies emerging, snow falling. Waterways carving away at the landscape. BC is an incredible landscape of water modification, and we marvel at it constantly, imagining changes over millennia. Taking time to be still, or doing things without a final goal, feels timeless.
Every memory and every moment gets left behind the minute it happens, and that feels hard sometimes. The human joy in being a loving and beloved part of the ecosystem feels like it’s ebbing away, but hopefully humans are just at a low spot. We both really think about living in the now, and being present in the moments in our bodies and our minds. It’s a dance of remembering, with planning shows in 2024 and banjo builds in 2028, but we’re doing our best.
Tell ’Em You Were Gold was released June 17 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.