Deciphering Culture

Finding a Voice (Interview of Tim Eriksen)

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Earlier I posted a quote from my December 2009 interview of singer Tim Eriksen on Transgressions. That selection described his strategic definition of the Anglo-American repertoire he performs as a solo artist as “Northern Roots” (he also performed with punk rock band Cordelia’s Dad and Bosnian pop band Zabe i Babe). Eriksen’s passion (and meal ticket), Northern Roots is dark and brooding music that seems drawn from another time. Eriksen explained that it is not, however, sacrosanct traditional material but a “post-modern” pastiche of Anglo-American songs from the Southeast and New England, with an occasional Irish tune thrown in. The components that make up Northern Roots are more akin to flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the beaches of Eriksen’s native New England than musical artifacts or relics he has painstakingly collected. At the start of the interview (posted below), I posed three questions: (1) what distinguishes Northern Roots music, (2) how he developed his distinctive musical approach, and (3) what ties his eclectic musical work together. These questions set the framework for a fascinating conversation that delved into Eriksen’s approach to musicmaking as a calling and as a business and touched on the bigger question of how one finds a “voice” and creates a life of ones own.

Tim Eriksen

* * *

Tim Eriksen: … all three of those things are things that I think about a lot. Let’s see how articulate I can be about them. I think about it from a couple of different perspectives: I’m interested in those kind of issues in my scholarship [Eriksen is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology] and I’m also just interested in understanding my own life and what draws me to certain things. I have an underlying sense that all the music I do is on some level the same even though it runs through a bunch of different genres. I’m still trying to identify what the golden thread is other than just that it’s my own particular tastes and experiences.


Well, I’ll start with the Northern Roots thing with an observation my friend [music producer] Joe Boyd made several years ago in an article in Pitchfork. He was asked if there was any traditional music that he was excited about and he mentioned me and said something to the effect that when people use the term “roots music” or “American roots music” or “Americana” they are usually talking about strictly Southern American traditions. And he singled me out for being unusual because of my interest in music from the Northeast. So for me, it is kind of a pragmatic thing, just a way of trying to identify what it is for people, to give a one or two word answer which is what venues are looking for, what magazines are often looking for, just to try and get a handle on it. So even if it’s not 100% true, it gets you a little way in the right direction (or in some kind of useful direction). Then you can complicate it and qualify it after that. So the way that I’m thinking about it is that I’m from the Northeast and I’m interested in my surroundings. I’m interested in little bits and pieces – culturally, physically, the natural environment, history. And my eye has always gravitated toward things that aren’t supposed to be there, like old gravestones, things that were not a part of … my supposed popular culture (even though I’ve always participated in that in a million different ways).

Flotsam & Jetsam

I’ve always been interested in things that aren’t supposed to be there. I grew up on saltwater and I think that had something to do with it—that things just kind of washed up and imagining something about their trajectory, about their history, number one. And number two, I just got in the habit of things washing up and then finding things to do with them that were useful. Like one time, a coconut washed up on the beach. I don’t know where on earth it came from and how it got all the way up to New England but I cut it up and used it for a cup. And I got so much pleasure out of using that cup. I mention this because I think it’s somewhat related to the way that I’ve dealt with some of the older (and kind of liminal) New England musical traditions, if you want to call them that. The kind of marginal, liminal presence of things like these old ballads was always attractive to me in the way that junk in a dumpster was attractive, in the way that flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the beach was attractive, and they had the additional interest of having what I consider to be really good tunes and interesting stories. So that’s partly how I became interested in that part of the repertoire. So when I use the term “Northern Roots,” I have a number of little quips to describe it. I’ve been saying, “New England music of life and death, not bed & breakfast.” It gives you a little sense that New England now throughout much of the country is identified by one little part of it’s identity, which is sort of the Yale Club as if we’re all having tea at Harvard twenty-four hours a day and going to bed & breakfasts. The representations of New England up until the time of the Civil War were really quite different. In New England culture, there was the city up on the hill but there wasd also the recognition of the hardship that was so built into living in a cold climate, especially for people that didn’t know anything… some of the first white people who came over here, they didn’t know anything about what they were doing and that kind of hardship is inscribed in the cultural history here but it’s just been eclipsed by that other side….

Jeffrey Callen: So in some ways, you’re in the artistic tradition of using found objects?

TE: Yeah, when I was a kid (14 or 15), I was playing hardcore punk—it was right when hardcore punk was starting—but beside that the things that really hit me was stuff like these field recordings of ballad singing and some of the New World recordings that came out around the time of the Bicentennial and thereafter. There was one that had John Cage on one side and Harry Partch on the other side that made a huge impression on me. Harry Partch is using sawed in half jugs and things and making wonderful music and then Cage is just all over the place with musical curiosity about the things around him and his engagement with all kinds of different ideas. It was kind of a combination of the popular culture… basically end-times punk—like the world was going to end; it was the Reagan era and between the science fiction movies and the Christianity that was in popular culture… so I think the things, in that context, that were of interest to me were the things that were made out of junk, out of what was left over; things that washed up on the beach and stuff that was thrown away. I know that you’re an ethnomusicologist so I’m giving you my slightly over-the-top philosophical reading of this. But I think, to put it more simply, I was really interested in my physical and cultural surroundings and gravitated toward things that were portable and responded to my natural environment. I was playing hardcore punk but we were all wondering what would happen when there was no more electricity. What are we going to play? So a bunch of us got interested in things like unaccompanied singing.

JC: It makes perfect sense but there is still a contradiction between a bricolage of what you’re finding and a going back to roots (a discovery or re-discovery of traditional music). It fits together but still there is a kind of tension there.


TE: There is but on the other hand, these things came to me as revelations as well as filling in gaps. I remember asking my parents what the white notes on the piano were for. And so hearing that pentatonicism, just to pick on one little element that runs throughout all metal and punk; to hear that in unaccompanied singing was not so much a going back as an innovation. It was like what are we going to do after electricity? Oh wow, here’s this great thing, you can do this and it’s got musical characteristics I like and you don’t need to plug in. So it was a going back but for me it wasn’t a going back because it was only peripherally a part of what I grew up with.

JC: So there is no family history or that kind of thing?

TE: Well, the thing that is in my family history is unaccompanied singing and just singing in general. So that part for me would be a going back except I never left it. It was kind of a finding of some of these traditions, like ballad singing or shape note singing, as innovations—to me anyway—and grafting them onto what for me was a real family thing, which was just singing in general.

The Punk / Traditional Music Connection

JC: In American punk there was an always strong and sometimes unnoticed connection with country music and traditional music. I’m thinking of X or the Ramones or Social Distortion who used a lot of country material. Was that any inspiration to…

TE: That’s really interesting. The punk/traditional thing, it is only now that anyone is able to see that. Maybe it just takes a certain perspective. At the time, in the early ‘80s, they were seen as so diametrically opposed, which was partly a generational thing because it was the dystopianism of punk against the utopianism of the hippies even though politically they were so closely aligned by in large. I certainly was not aware of any… I knew X and the Ramones and I knew unaccompanied ballads through these records but the connection I made was really a personal, aesthetic one if that makes sense?

JC: It kind of occurred to me that the same phenomenon you see with others… like John Doe’s work since X is very much country music…

TE: Yeah, but I think that some of that stuff did come a little bit later. I’m doing a little bit of self-history here because I remember, in the mid-90s, we did two records with [musician, producer, journalist] Steve Albini, the recording guy in one summer and one was what one might expect from Albini (noisy, guitar-driven stuff). But while we were out recording that I had my banjo because it was another dimension of what I did and he heard me playing and mentioned that he would love to record that sometime because he hadn’t heard anything like that and thought it was interesting. So we did what I think was the first time he did an all-acoustic recording: a record by my band Cordelia’s Dad. And I bring that up because I think at that point he was kind of savvy enough and had broad enough ears to see a kind of connection but it was not something that was broadly drawn at that time. I think now a lot of people who are playing in banjo/fiddle groups—the Carolina Chocolate Drops and others—they all have the Ramones and Ralph Stanley on their I-pods but that’s new. Have you run into the Carolina Chocolate Drops?

JC: No, I haven’t.

TE: They’re a pretty straight-forward string band; African American kids looking into Virginia traditions of African American string bands so they are definitely very far in the acoustic direction.


A Postmodern View of New England Culture

JC: I want to back up a little and talk about Northern Roots music. The repertoire seems to come more from the South and Appalachia than from the Northeast. I’m thinking of the Sacred Harp and the Shape Note tradition, which I think of as from the Southeast.

TE: I do a lot of stuff from various parts of the Southeast and I’ve also recently begun to claim some of the Irish repertoire that I was not comfortable singing for a long time but now I feel like I can do it justice. So, Northern Roots is based in the New England repertoire including some of the early Shape Note stuff, which has come to the attention of the people in the Northeast through the Sacred Harp, which is a Georgia imprint. So it’s a postmodern view of New England culture that is profoundly influence by some of the recent popular culture movements but also older things, like the Sacred Harp tradition. I’m kind of asserting a regional thing without giving it a whole lot of weight. It’s kind of a way in to a repertoire that I see as being connected by the centrality of a certain way of singing, which in part is my own personal way of singing but there are aspects of it that run through the ballads, Sacred Harp singing and punk to a certain degree in terms of voice production.


JC: Let’s use that to move on to the second question, which is how your musical approach was formed. And one thing I find very interesting in looking at your press is that people tend to hear what they project…

TE: That is really interesting and so right. It’s been a source of frustration but also pragmatically I’ve had to learn to…. That is part of why I came up with this term Northern Roots: to try to give people a handle. Because I think that my own musical trajectory is pretty hard to follow and nobody’s got the time. I barely have the time to think about it let alone anybody else.

JC: There are some connections I noticed—for me the projection was Bobby Dorough, the jazz singer, because I heard you with [jazz musician] Omar Sosa, which is very different from the list I got off your MySpace page, which covers an amazing amount of territory. For one thing, you have very clear diction when you’re singing, your phrasing is very distinct…

TE: You know what is interesting about that? When I sing the first song on Across the Divide [Omar Sosa’s Grammy-nominated album], people ask me what language I’m singing in at almost every gig. I think what, really? I think I’m singing that so clearly.

JC: That track is a little harder to understand but it fit the aesthetic they were going for.

TE: Well, it could partly be because it’s so slow. I think that’s part of what it is and also because it’s an unfamiliar sound to a lot of people and they assume it must be… people usually say Middle Eastern or Native American. Which is interesting: to hear how people hear things. I have a lot of experience thinking about these things from teaching. I’ve taught these big courses, at Dartmouth and other places, and hearing what the students hear is really, really interesting. It’s the kind of projections that I suppose we all make. Although after you get a little more perspective, you realize what you’re projecting. It’s really interesting to me that that’s the case that people hear all kinds of stuff in what I’m singing.

JC: But it’s always your voice. You work in a lot of different styles but your voice maintains that singular identity.

TE: I appreciate that observation because what matter to me is that I… The idea of authenticity is so vexed and the idea of finding my own voice is such a cliché but it has been part of the quest. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve felt really comfortable in my own skin in a way—where I can say, I think that’s how that ought to sound.

JC: It’s kind of fascinating your timbre is kind of rough but there is a smoothness to it at the same time. Something I can’t quite put a handle on.

Traces from the Past

TE: That’s interesting. I can identify some of the places where it came from; the effects that various people and experiences have had on me both in terms of the sound and also in terms of how I think about it. But I can’t quite put a finger on it either. The only formal study of music that I’ve done is Carnatic music and I went to great efforts to hide that for a long time and to not let that come through at all but I think that it is definitely there. Less in the sound of my voice than in the way I use my ears; what I learned from that study is how to use my ears (a way of listening). And Sacred Harp and particular singers, just sitting next to them has had an impact that I hadn’t intended. I didn’t set out to sound like anybody but in that context of social singing there is a power that is exerted over ones voice. I find that experience has a power over my voice that kind of takes over. Or maybe I go to some lengths to try to fit in and in the process get into certain singing habits.

I’ll just tell a brief anecdote—for better or worse. This is something I tell a lot when I teach Sacred Harp singing schools. I was teaching out in Portland a long time ago and in the midst of teaching a song I heard a voice come from behind me (from the altos) that was unmistakably the voice of a friend of mine who had died a couple of months before. And, there was nothing mystical about it. I turned around and it was someone I didn’t know but in talking to her I realized that she had learned to sing from somebody who had learned to sing from this friend of mine. So this isn’t some deep history; this is popular culture. Within a couple of years, the sheer physical effect of being next to somebody and singing with them… But it was a real moment for me because it made me wonder, if this sound could be coming out of this person’s voice without them being aware of it, what was coming out of my head—what voices were present, what sounds were present in my voice. Other than our face, the voice is what we consider our hallmark, the thing that identifies us most clearly.


JC: And to go back to the metaphor you started with, it’s a place where things wash up and are left behind.

TE: I hadn’t even made that connection but that is really true and I think that might be part of what Omar hears and he very much about the ancestors as a Santero. Also I think his aesthetic sense seems to be very much those kinds of liminal presences and their power whether you think of them as literal spiritual presences or physical aesthetic effects that things have on each other—bits of residue. I suspect that that’s why we worked so well together.

JC: Scott Price, Omar’s manager, told me you had some hesitation about the project [Across the Divide], feeling you might not fit in musically.

TE: Well, I think we both did. Did Scott tell you about how we met.

JC: It was a week-long workshop, Omar was in residency at Dartmouth.

TE: It was amazing. I’m not given to epiphanies, but this was definitely one. I didn’t know his music at all and he didn’t know me from a hole in the wall but he came into this big world music survey class I was teaching at Dartmouth and I always start the classes by singing that great song “Oh Guide Me, Oh Great Jehovah” and getting the class to do a drone—because it’s like seventy-five hockey players at ten in the morning. So it’s just something to get everybody focused and introduce ideas of singing for non-music majors. The only thing I did before that was find Omar’s house on Google Earth. So, I started singing and got the class to do a drone because that is what I do at the beginning of class. Omar kind of pricked up his ears and sat down at the piano and started playing and his band started playing. It was just one of those moments of electricity so I dimmed the lights and we went for 8 or 10 minutes without exchanging a word and it was just beautiful; what happened the next night that was even better. He asked me up on stage at the end of his show. I said what should I do and he said, “I don’t know, man, just sing.” So I just started singing and we went for like 10 minutes and it was really unreal, just incredible. It just felt like we were speaking the same language even though in musical terms we weren’t genre-wise.

JC: Genre-wise, no but there is a common foundation to a lot of it in the African base even in Appalachian music.

TE: Yeah, I think that was a lot of what it is. And that’s what wound up being the framing mechanism for the record. It’s curious, it’s a complex thing and there’s a lot to be analyzed there but in terms of that moment it was clear that there was something very deeply shared going on. It seemed natural from that standpoint to do the recording. It was just a question of whether we’d be able to make something out of it that wasn’t just inter-genre, hyphenated crosstalk that is so common in World Music….


JC: If I could run a couple of things by you as far as your musical approach that I hear and I’d like to get your reaction to. One is that the use of the drone seems to be something that runs throughout your music in the use of instruments and in the vocals. And I’m wondering how much that comes from your South Indian training and the Anglo-American tradition. The other thing that strikes me is that your music quite often has… the phrase that kept coming into my mind was “wall of sound.” It fills the aural space.

TE: Yeah, man, those are both so spot on, it’s amazing. I’ve been trying to find ways of opening that space up a little bit. That wall of sound thing is one of the things that is a challenge for pop music ears. It’s not a challenge if you’re used to listening to hardcore punk or Mahler.

JC: That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of texture in what you do and layers of sound. It’s not an overwhelming onslaught.

TE: I know exactly what you’re saying. It doesn’t work as background music because it does want to fill the aural space. It doesn’t want to be furniture. So, I guess what I was saying was that I want, à la Satie and others, one of these days, I’d like to make some music that functions as furniture of a mood builder. But the stuff that I gravitate to is stuff that kind of grabs you by the throat either gently or kind of roughly. So that is one of the common things in that MySpace list of favorite singers. [Balkan singer] Esma Redzepova she opens her mouth and bang! You’re either with or you gotta leave—it’s not going on someplace else.

JC: Both those characteristics (use of a drone and a “wall of sound”) seem to run throughout your work. With [punk band] Cordelia’s Dad, I don’t think you get the drone effect but you have the wall of sound sometimes.

TE: It depends on which Cordelia’s Dad because I think the drone was often implicit and, certainly, with the more punksy-influence stuff, it was very Ramones-ish in that way. Even though there were chords, it never got too far away from I (the one chord or tonic of a key). We did have a lot of songs that only had one chord or maybe two. For me, that goes way back and I can’t say why or where it came from but I can remember being like 4 years old asking my parents what the white keys are for; just feeling that there was something missing in most of the music that I was hearing. I didn’t get the way that harmony was being used; it didn’t make sense to me and I gravitated toward stuff with a drone from really early on. And stuff like singing into fans. I was much more musically satisfied singing into a fan than I was listening to most records.

JC: That makes me think of you singing through the back of the banjo resonator.

TE: That’s exactly where that comes from. It’s the same as me singing into fans when I was 4 years old and it’s stuff I never used to do on stage because I found it embarrassing. Then I did that banjo thing on stage one time and people loved it.

JC: It works great. When you played with Omar in San Francisco, it was the first time I saw anybody do that.

TE: I love sitting around the house doing stuff like that but it’s only recently I started doing it on stage; the same with overtone singing. It’s something I did for ages and ages just for fun but I was kind of embarrassed to put it in my music.

JC: It’s one of those surprising things where it works perfectly and then it’s “well of course” it works perfectly.

TE: Yeah! I’m not hyper-focused on public perception but some of that stuff it took seeing that it actually resonated with people for me to do more of it. I think that was another thing that got Omar exited because he uses some [Tuvan throat singers]Hur-Hurtu samples—incidentally, he uses samples better than just about anybody I know. So, in that concert, when I came up, I threw in some overtone singing and he didn’t know I could do it. He flipped, he jumped off the piano in his Omaresque way. I can’t remember if I did any on that record. There might be a tiny bit on one song where I’m sampled. It might be the last or second to last song on there.


JC: I noticed when I-tunes loads stuff from the new album [Live at Namest], it puts it in the Alternative category.

TE: I’m in so many different categories and I’m not clear who establishes that. As dumb as that category is, I’m a little more comfortable there than I am in Folk and stuff like that but then, who cares, and I don’t know how much it has to do with the search. Pragmatically, I guess it only matters if people are searching within a certain genre. So genre has really been part of my problem. My problem has really been my… It’s been a problem and a blessing. The blessing is that I’ve been able to do a lot of things without being stuck with a one or two word genre. The problem is that for pragmatic reasons, people need a one or two word genre to know what to do with an artist.

JC: It’s a financial and artistic necessity sometimes.

TE: Aesthetically, it’s been fantastic for me not to have such a tight stricture around what I do. Although, you’ll notice I do keep things a little bit separate in terms of the genres. I guess I’d say it’s kind of strategic. Sometimes I find it important to separate things. Like with Sacred Harp, there’s a very clear genre and behavior boundary around that so I’d never bring my banjo to a Sacred Harp singing because it doesn’t contribute to the experience for anybody. But then in my thinking about music and in my interest in other ways, I feel that if I can do it in a way that I think does justice to it, I don’t care too much what it is.  So trying to put a name to that has been a challenge.

JC: I can see that. Have you had any critique from traditionalists?

TE: I don’t know if I believe that there are such people. Usually, people who position themselves that way just haven’t thought about things very much.

JC: It’s usually not people from the tradition I’ve noticed.

Sacred Harp Singing

TE: Yeah, it’s people who are more Catholic than the Pope. Within Sacred Harp, there are very clear boundaries around the tradition and it’s contested and that contestation is part of the tradition trying to figure out what it is. That is kind of built in there; there is an ongoing dialogue within that tradition and I’m pretty clear about where I place myself in that. I realize it’s a dialogue and sometimes I do things that might not be 100% customary (within the context of the singing) but it’s always with the intention of adapting to new circumstances. There are some things about how we sing Sacred Harp here that… For example, we need to have committees for everything up here because we lack the traditional family and church structures that are in place in some of the Southern communities. So, we have to have a food committee for example when we have our big singings. That’s an adaptation to get the good out of what we recognize in that practice. When I do Sacred Harp songs outside of that context, it’s really different but I’m very indebted to my singing friends so I can’t do things—even for my own self-interest—that will alienate them nor do I want to. But I do things like singing into the back of the banjo at the end of a Sacred Harp song or even using instrumental accompaniment (even a punk rock band) that are not at all part of the tradition. There are Sacred Harp singers who think that’s great and there are those that don’t like it but I don’t think it transgresses the boundaries of the singing itself.

JC: So the Sacred Harp singing you’re doing is always outside of a church context?

TE: Sacred Harp singing in general is social singing of sacred music that make take place in a church building or a school or a courthouse or some other building but it very rarely takes place during a church service. The people who sing may be very religious people and it may be a very deeply spiritual practice for them but it is a social singing tradition.


JC: It didn’t seem in left field to me at all. I like the idea of things washing up….  You find things and make use of them and you take things and integrate them into your life and other things you walk by.

TE: This was something that came to me about two years ago when I finally realized that it was a metaphor but it’s not just a metaphor. It’s how I grew up. Things would wash up on the beach and I’d see them. And they wash up in all these other spheres. So that’s my central metaphor of the moment.

JC: It’s a good metaphor. For me it wouldn’t be the beach, it would be the woods. I was always wandering the woods and bringing things home…

TE: Yeah, me too. The woods too, because there’d be mushrooms there that weren’t there the day before.

JC: There’s stuff and you bring it home and do things with it.

TE: Most kids have that inclination and it’s discouraged out of them. Most kids have a box of feathers, a box of rocks and all this stuff you’ve dragged home that seems like it must be useful somehow or has some kind of significance. And my room has always been awash with this kind of junk and I think that my mind is probably similarly inclined.


JC: I need to let you go but I was wondering do you project yourself continuing with a segmented career? You’re doing shape note singing, Northern Roots, a little punk rock, some Bosnian music…

TE: Yeah, yeah. It keeps me going and there are times when they come together. When you go see most Roma musicians from the former Yugoslavia, they’ll play a Serbian song and then a Bulgarian song and then they’ll do “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” or whatever. That kind of professional musicianship where they bring in all these different things into their style… I think one day—maybe even soon—I might have the confidence to that even more. Where I might find me singing some old Macedonian songs along with Irish songs without it trying to be a hyphenated thing.

JC: Then you’ll need a new genre label.

TE: Yeah, but if you have a name you don’t need a label. In a way, it’s weird because it means you have to be in some way famous which has always kind of freaked me out. But the new Bob Dylan record is the new Bob Dylan record. It can be Klezmer or whatever but it’s ooh, the new Bob Dylan record.

JC: You said you were just beginning to be comfortable doing the Irish songs. What was the discomfort in approaching that repertoire?

TE: I felt I was trying to be all Irishy and it sounded lame. It was like ooh, he’s singing Irish music now. The simple thing to say is that I wasn’t doing it well enough, it seemed phony, and now I’ve got it under my thumb so to say. I won’t say I can sing all Irish music but that old Sean Nos way of singing (of course not in the Irish language), it feels right in my mouth now. Not coincidentally, it happened when I was in Ireland a couple of years ago. I was hanging out there with some great singers and it started to feel real comfortable…. I’ve recorded me singing stuff that is further afield—the Bosnian stuff—but that was in the context of a Bosnian band. Maybe someday that will find it’s way into the mix as well.

* * *

Our conversation ended with my collecting some details regarding Eriksen’s upcoming appearance at the Freight & Salvage coffeehouse in Berkeley. It was a concert I enjoyed but not as much as our conversation that touched upon questions I care about more deeply than the questions I posed as a framing device at the start of our conversation. Eriksen’s description of his approach to defining Northern Roots music as driven more by metaphor than by tradition expresses a phenomenological truth: we live our lives as they occur, shaped by the things we encounter. As John Lennon phrased it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

* * *

A YouTube video of Tim Eriksen with Omar Sosa (“Promised Land” from the Grammy-nominated album Across the Divide)


Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 22, 2010 at 5:23 pm

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