Kristin Andreassen Makes It On Her Own
I first came to roots songwriter Kristin Andreassen’s music through Uncle Earl, a seminal alt-country stringband that reinvigorated my interest in the tradition. Their albums on Rounder in the early aughts were must-haves in the community, and they brought a bit of rockin’ irreverence to the traditions they knew so well (check out their insane kung fu clogging video for proof). By the time Uncle Earl released their last album, Waterloo, Tennessee, in 2007, Andreassen was writing pretty adventurous songs for the band. “One True” from that album may open with mandolin and clawhammer banjo and have old-time fiddle breaks between verses, but its structure is more experimental than one would expect, and “Easy in the Early” melds Andreassen’s love of Bessie Jones’ inspired gospel shouts with a more pop construction.
Three years before Uncle Earl would break up, in 2007, Andreassen released a solo album of original songs, including the hit “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color For Your Eyes.” The video for that song always reminded me of the best parts of Sesame Street’s New York setting, so it wasn’t a surprise to me that her 2015 solo album, Gondolier, would also remind of New York. I was surprised, though, by how diverse the songs were on the new album. Of course she draws from old-time traditions, like in the gorgeous “How the Water Walks,” which pairs soft, subtle body percussion rhythms from Andreassen’s background in Appalachian footwork with a lilting, rhythmic song melody, or “’Simmon,” which draws from Cajun roots and old-time lyrics. But she’s also tapping into soul, pop, and rock songwriting just as easily as folk. It’s the kind of album that feels natural but takes a huge knowledge of craft to create.
I wrote about Andreassen’s album earlier this year, but when she told me that her vinyl release of Gondolier would be different from the CD release, I was intrigued. She sent me the vinyl and it had an entirely different feel that made me want to learn more. So I reached out to her to find out more about her vinyl restructuring of her album and her longtime interest in the roots of American music.
Devon Leger: What were some of the influences behind your new album? It sounds so cosmopolitan, like very New York. Has the city been a big influence on your art?
Kristin Andreassen: I love New York. I lived in Brooklyn for six years and this album is definitely a “record” of that time. One thing about a city that big is you can always find a critical mass of people who share whatever tiny fringe interest you might have, so I did seem to find a lot of folk musicians there. Most of the musicians on this album are people who cross over between the folk and pop scenes in some way. They might show up at the old time jam on Monday night and then go on tour with Sufjan Stevens for the rest of the year, for instance. (That’s my friend Dawn Landes. She had a little writing studio in DUMBO that I shared for a while).
For me, the song “‘Simmon” is a direct homage to every old-time tune about possums and crawdads (e.g., Buddy Thomas’ “Possum up a ‘Simmon Tree”). But when you add a rock drummer, a jazz pianist and arranged harmony lines for clarinet and fiddle, the fruit is going to land pretty far from the old-time stringband tree.
I’d love to hear more about how you restructured the album for the vinyl. There are really different vibes for the A and B side now. B seems a lot folkier, and A is like a gorgeous pop-soul album…
KA: The vinyl version is my “director’s cut” sequence. It’s the order in which I would play these songs for a friend who’s really in it for the journey. (As opposed the way you might play a record for a busy radio person who’s listening to it in the background and just wants to know if it has a beat).
Side A starts with the longest, weirdest song [“The Boat Song (Gondolier)”]. I’m playing two layers of Wurlitzer and Rhodes keyboard parts as I introduce myself: “When I was a girl / I wished I was a boy / I had a dog / I wished it was a horse.” I’m saying, “Here’s me. I’m going to be very honest with you. And if you think you know where this is going, you don’t quite yet.” Track 2 is “The Fish & The Sea,” so we’re still in the water. Track 3 is “The New Ground” where we step onto land for the first time, and we start to simplify the metaphors and make small concrete choices like you do as you become an adult. That much was driven by the content of the lyrics as much as the music.
The rest of the sequence is mostly determined by how one song sounds and feels going into another. I bet you’re right that one side is a little more folk than the other, but that would be an accident. What I obsess about is varying the keys, time signatures, and tempos. That’s a super unproductive approach if you’re trying to make an album of “pop” music (where most people would tell you to just list the songs in order of potential popularity). But having accepted that my music is “unpop,” I’m allowed to take these esoteric considerations into account.
Side B ends with “The Apple Song,” in which our narrator has arrived at adulthood. Now, instead of innocently wishing her dog was a horse, she’s begging forgiveness for every moment of ingratitude. The last lines of the album are “Could you spare her one more rhyme? Would you let her fall in love one more time?”. I admit I hope someone might catch that and flip the record to play it one more time.
Are you a big vinyl fan? I imagine since you came out of a hardcore old-time background, you must have collected a lot of old vinyl as source material. Tell me more! What are your favorite vinyls? What are you listening to now on vinyl?
KA: When I discovered Hank Wiliams’ “Please Don’t Let Me Love You” while playing through a box of 45s I bought for pennies each at a clogging convention, I felt like I’d won the lottery. I still sing that one. I never really got deep into collecting old stringband records because they’re heavy, and by the time I was into it, I was moving around a lot and really great stuff was becoming available digitally. My LP collection now seems to fall into two categories – records purchased by parents and things my friends have recently released. Of the latter, Mike + Ruthy and Breathe Owl Breathe stay on top of the pile. I’m excited to get Caitlin Canty’s Reckless Skyline on vinyl because that album was recorded really well so I think it’ll sound even better on vinyl. I do think LPs can sound richer and deeper, especially when the music was recorded in an analog way and mixed with vinyl in mind.
My ideal record player is one of those old machines with an internal speaker (and possibly a stamp of the name of the elementary school it was stolen from). For me, it’s all about that tactile experience of turning the power knob till it clicks, dropping the needle, and then the subtle encouragement to listen and not get too deep into some other project because it’s going to start cackling at you if you don’t flip the side in 20 minutes.
One summer in college I was staying at a friend’s family beach house on Cape Breton Island. I bought an old record player like that and a stack of about ten albums for as many Canadian dollars. Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, some Gordon Lightfoot record. In September this year, I went back to visit for the first time in over a decade and I found they were still playing those same records on that thing whenever company comes over. I slipped a vinyl copy of Gondolier into that stack feeling certain I was giving it immortality.
Where did you write the songs for the new album? What were you listening to at the time and what were some of your interpretations?
KA: I wrote most of the songs on an island in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. I go on a writing retreat there every June, and this album took two writing retreats to finish. I was listening to Paul Simon and Jeffrey Lewis, whose wordiness influenced the title track “Gondolier.” I was listening to a lot of WNYC talk radio, and “The Fish & The Sea” was written because the scientists discovered dark matter. (“If I was a fish in the sea / How could I see the sea?”). “How the Water Walks” was aiming for the soulfulness of my favorite old-time singers — Ginny Hawker, Washington Phillips, Roscoe Holcomb. And I am always going back to Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. That’s definitely where “The New Ground” comes from.
You’re from Portland, Oregon originally. Did you come to old-time from the thriving scene there, or did you come another way? How did you connect up with Uncle Earl?
KA: I wasn’t aware of a Portland old-time scene when I was growing up. But I probably just wasn’t cool enough. My family played piano and harmonica, sang churchy songs and listened to plenty of Willie and Dolly, so music came naturally to me when I played. But in high school I was focused on the college thing — good grades and many busy part-time jobs. It really wasn’t till I started at university that I found the kind of free time you need to really fall in love with traditional music. I feel like those who love it have taken the time to go deep at some point, and for me that was an era during and right after university when I was circling through music scenes in Montreal, Cape Breton, and Maryland. I was living cheap and grabbing every informal opportunity to learn — first square dances and stepdancing, then clogging, then fiddle and eventually, guitar.
One summer, I went to West Virginia specifically to study clogging with Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. I had seen Footworks perform at a festival in Nova Scotia and just followed them back down south as though I knew it was now time to learn more about my own American culture. I met KC Groves (who founded Uncle Earl soon after) and she brought me to Clifftop [for the Appalachian String Band Festival]. I realized at some point that Clifftop is just a few miles from where my great-great-grandparents on my mom’s side were from before they moved to Oregon. I saw a road on the map bearing their last name, and I thought I should dig into this more. Old-time music just moves my spirit like nothing else when it’s good, so I’ve pretty much stayed with the American traditions since then.
A few years later, there was an opening in the lineup of Uncle Earl and KC called me. That was right after Abby and Rayna joined the band, so I think it felt like a new beginning, and we were a pretty solid foursome for a few years after that.
Now that you’re working more in a solo realm, how does this feel different from your work with Uncle Earl? Advantages? Disadvantages?
KA: I’m definitely at my most creative and expressive when I’m alone, so in a way it’s overdue for me to be pursuing my “solo career,” as they say. I’ve only rarely co-written with other musicians, and I have lots of strong opinions when it comes to writing and recording, so I think there are risks and extremities of ideas on Gondolier that wouldn’t have survived if the process were more collaborative. On the other hand, I’ve long felt the opposite way about live performance. I like working as a team on stage, and even as an audience member I’m more interested in ensembles. I resisted playing solo until very recently. My friend Aoife O’Donovan asked me to open a tour for her and then after playing a whole string of solo nights in a row, I finally started to dip into that well of liberation on stage that I have when I’m home alone. Feeling that freedom has helped me appreciate that offering in other solo performers. As for Uncle Earl, I think what I truly miss about that band – besides just spending time with some of my best friends — is playing music that isn’t demanding rapt attention. Just rocking out on a fiddle tune while people dance out front – that for me remains the pinnacle of musical purpose. But … come to think of it … I just might get to do that a couple of times with Uncle Earl in 2016! Shh. Did I say that?
I love love love “How the Water Walks”! Tell me more about that song. How did you get the inspiration behind that great line “the wind is just the air falling down”?
KA: I love love love that you pulled that line out, because it’s been following me around since junior high. Not kidding. Mr. Hamm, my 8th grade science teacher, explained that air under high pressure will always seek an area of low pressure, thus creating wind. I wrote on a 3×5 study card “wind = air falling down” and ever since, I say this to myself in any big windstorm. I think I might have constructed this entire song to get that thought out of my head and into a lyric.
What are you working on now?
KA: I’m recording some new songs right after Christmas! I won’t call it an album yet. Let’s not jinx it.
You can pick up Gondolier on high-quality vinyl from Kristin Andreassen directly HERE.
Big thanks to Kristin for the interview!