Tim Eriksen – Everything new is old again
The story of the twentysomething rocker who discovers traditional music (be it folk, country, old-time or bluegrass), becomes obsessed, and rarely looks back has become an archetype if not a cliche. But no young punk has undergone so thorough and convincing a transformation as Tim Eriksen.
A founding member of Cordelia’s Dad, the Massachusetts-based noise-rock band that, in the early ’90s, evolved into Amherst’s answer to Uncle Tupelo, Eriksen has since thrown himself into 18th- and-19th-century Anglo-American folk music, found via songbooks and violin primers in junk shops, and, most notably, into the Sacred Harp singing style recently given mainstream airing by the Cold Mountain film and soundtrack.
Eriksen, who was introduced to Cold Mountain musical producer T Bone Burnett via the renowned folk song collector John Cohen, arranged and choreographed the Sacred Harp scenes on location in Romania and later led the soundtrack recordings in Alabama. He doesn’t appear in the film (though his son gets a cameo as Jack White and Renee Zellweger’s child), but his version of “Am I Born To Die?”, later reprised in a choral setting as “Idumea”, is the soundtrack’s most haunting, even defining sound. Eriksen has studied the tricky shape note modulations, but his singing never betrays his obsessive tutorials. Like the movie itself, his voice is a beautiful fiction born from craft and subtle risks.
On his second solo album, Every Sound Below (released in May by Appleseed Recordings), Eriksen brings the same sense of discovery to his banjo, fiddle, guitar and voice on Civil War ballads, an elegant 19th-century Christmas carol, the classic murder ballad “Omie Wise”, and three original songs — including the title track, in which “the fairest sounds” cast memories the way a new moon “casts only shadow.” From Eriksen’s earliest song searches, a serendipitous connection to the ghosts of the past have been as mysterious as they are visceral.
“There’s such an obsession with dead people there,” Eriksen says of the New England region where he was raised. “I remember going to graveyards in nursery schools, doing rubbings. People would always be telling you about whaling and the Revolution. There’s also a thin line between history and religion in New England culture. Things with historical value are perceived to have this metaphysical value. I also spent a good deal of time growing up in Long Island. I’d find all this weird stuff washed up on the beach — arrowheads, coconuts, or a 17th-century bottle.”
That fascination with unexpected discoveries is evident in Eriksen’s spartan recording techniques — Every Sound Below was tracked live with a single microphone — as well as his arrangements, whether it’s adding the Theremin-like whir of harmonic or “throat” singing to a horse-riding preacher’s hymn, or echoing the melody of “Fair And Tender Maidens” during an epic tale two gun ships.
“I’m fascinated by those connections and the pathways that open when you chase songs down,” Eriksen says. “I’ve always felt part of a community that goes beyond the people I know, including people who are dead. Singing these old songs, you wind up with connections and debts that you wouldn’t expect.”
In 1999, Eriksen moved from New England to Minneapolis, where his wife, Mirjana Lausevic, a Bosnian-born ethnomusicologist, teaches at the University of Minnesota, and where his folk interests led him into unexpected international waters. He sings with Lausevic in the Bosnian folk band Zabe I Babe, has nearly mastered the saraswati vina (a smaller version of the sitar), and has begun working with Oromo singers from Ethiopia.
“Minneapolis has the largest population of Hmung and Somalias, the second largest Tibetan [population] outside of New York,” he says. “It’s amazing. There’s something like 30,000 Ethiopians in the area. Coming from the northeast, we had this opinion that Minnesota was really, well, boring.”
Though now thoroughly immersed in traditional music communities, Eriksen hasn’t completely closed the door on Cordelia’s Dad. In 2002, the band released its first CD in five years, the full-bore electric disc What It Is, which drew on late ’90s tracks recorded with Steve Albini.
“We don’t really play now, but we never broke up either,” Eriksen says. “We’ve spent more time in limbo than anywhere else. I’d say in the next couple of years we’ll probably do something.”
The sound of Cordelia’s Dad may be light years from his current explorations, but the spirit isn’t. Tradition isn’t a matter of preservation to Eriksen; it’s a matter of being open to the complex, always unwinding roots any song might reveal.
“Just because a song is old doesn’t mean it expresses more tradition than something that’s new,” Eriksen stresses. “You listen to Britney Spears, and any given element you can trace back hundreds of years. I happen to like the old songs better, but I think there’s a place for all of them. Very small aspects of arrangement or style can make a difference. The punk thing, you add distortion or speed it up a little, and it becomes a punk song. There’s not that big a difference between the Monkees and Minor Threat.”