Philadelphia – Ann Arbor: about 770 kilometers in distance. Comparable to the distance between Milan and Bari; in other words the vertical extent of a huge area of Italy. Actually, in the United States distances as well as the time needed to cover them seem to magically shorten, at least from a subjective point of view.
Moreover, if together with the geographical distances the human ones seem to be reduced, that’s how dialogue, collaboration and maybe also friendship become possible.“Folk Music For The End Of The World”: this is the compilation released by Yer Bird Records where Chris Bathgate and Hezekiah Jones's artistic pathways crossed. And this title can also summarize the path of the two songwriters who, despite the geographical latitude, seem to live in a common musical land made of deep but still intimately contemporary roots.
Hezekiah Jones, moniker of the Pennsylvania songwriter Raphael Cutrufello, debuted in 2006 with the album “Hezekiah Says You’re A-Ok”, recently followed by the release of the EP titled “Come To Our Pool Party”. Chris Bathgate, who just recently graduated at the University of Michigan, has an artistic background made up of a bunch of self-released albums and EPs, crowned with “Throat/Sleep”, and in 2007 he put out “A Cork Tale Wake”, his first release by a true and proper label. Both songwriters drew general attention through the web and they both seem to be translating into their personal language the most traditional among music patterns.
We asked Raphael and Chris to answer to the same questions, in a mirror game where each of them two reflects into the other one’s image: a double interview representing an immersion in the present-day’s American songwriting.
Pre-war folk, freak-folk, folktronics: is there any room left, today, for a “classic” songwriter?
Raphael: I don’t think a good song is genre specific. I feel that if a songwriter is good enough the song should be able to translate to anyone regardless of what the exact musical vehicle is. I think there are those kinds of songwriters out there but they lack the general recognition that may have come in earlier years due to a lot of the changes that have taken place in the last couple of decades in the music industry. The general market for music needs things watered down to a degree, I think some of the better songwriter’s are unwilling to do that.
Chris: Yes, in all genres, today and for all time. I think nostalgia will insure that. There will always be people longing to write perfect archetypes.
Today, in the so-called “indie music” field, it almost seems that simplicity is a burden one should get rid of as soon as he can, in the name of an intellectualism which often is an end in itself. What do you think about it?
Raphael: I’m not sure that simplicity is a burden. I still appreciate the simple, and try and keep things so as much as I can. I think simplicity is liberating, it’s easier to get close to something that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. I like short songs that are simple and to the point. Last year we were fortunate to have an Andrew Wyeth exhibit come through the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Here is a man that paints possibly the most overlooked scenes in America and points them out while extracting the absolute beauty in simplicity. A painting of a farmhouse, or a bird in the sky, or a window. I feel as far as intellectualism is concerned, there is not much more appealing to me than the ability to convey a complex idea or notion, and breaking it down into a concise comprehensible way of “simplicity”.
Chris: I disagree. I think simplicity in “indie music” is very prevalent and not seen as a burden at all. Spoon would be a good example, as well as Cat Power. Some of their songs are incredible simple, and loved just as much as any of their more lush and complex arrangements. Songwriting in general for me is about choices. Sometimes a voice and guitar are enough to express the idea; sometimes you need fifteen guitar tracks. I think we might perceive simplicity to be a burden, or find people making songs lush out of fear. We may be scrutinized for writing a song with three chords and repetitive melody. In the end though it’s a songwriter’s choice, and if a songwriter is changing their craft or methods or ideas out of fear of scrutiny, well… maybe they should grow some plums.
Does a balance exist between basing someone’s own musical roots on tradition and trying to go beyond it?
Raphael: I think a balance does exist for most musicians in this sense. I think it is something that is relatively innate for most people. I think any musician starts out trying to imitate a sound, or artist. Somewhere along the line their personality starts creeping in. Maybe right away or maybe a few years along. There would be no progression if one was just satisfied with his roots. The idea of going beyond that is why most people pick up an instrument to begin with. But it is in going beyond that one is just building on what came before them.
Chris: I think a balance exists. Other than my songwriting efforts I play a great deal of fiddle music, which mostly comes from Europe. Some of the songs are contemporary but most are very old and have been played for many years. In this day in age there are plenty of formats and devices that preserve these songs. Though, there is something to be said about subtle variation, and different takes on older music. Before we had the capability to record it was just passed ear to ear, changing with each player over time. I think a lot of the music has still maintained a trajectory of change, despite purists. New fiddle tunes are being written all the time, some have new takes, but most stay true to the format. So as far as going beyond tradition, well you need to be versed in it to go beyond it. Perhaps that’s where the balance is.
What is the meaning you give to “good vibrations”?
Raphael: That’s an interesting question. Not sure if this is what you actually mean or if it translated differently. So I’m just going to answer it like this. I like to think that “good vibrations” is something one is creating within them. And I like to believe that we all have at least some control over our general vibrations. So I guess a “good vibration” is one that has the strength and ability to transform darker vibrations. Does that make any sense?
Chris: a. an oscillation around an equilibrium point, specifically one that is pleasing
b. “Come To Our Pool Party” by Hezekiah Jones
c. what Brian Wilson picks up on a good acid trip
Make a wish: what would you choose between writing a line comparable to Dylan’s ones or a tune that also the Beatles would envy?
Raphael: It depends on the time of day. Before breakfast, after I’ve been drinking, during a nap. Who wouldn’t want to write just one song that is as good or better than a Dylan tune or a Beatles song? I think I appreciate Dylan’s song writing more. But the production on The Beatles albums are just so perfect and the songs all work together so well. Both of them have just a huge archive of hits. It must be nice.
Chris: I would rather write a song that made the Beatles envious.
What does it take for a song to reach your soul?
Raphael: The first thing a song needs to do is to be honest to have any chance at burrowing in me. Songs that really reach me I listen to over and over again. Not quite sure about the reason for them reaching me the way they do. They could be folk songs or metal, it doesn’t matter to me. I guess I like universal themes hidden behind minute details and specific topics that might seem trivial on first listen. Will Oldham always had a way of reaching me, and this guy out of Ohio who plays under the name Nostra Nova, he’s got some great songs. Good, smart lyrics seem to help as well.
Chris: Aspects that I can empathize or identify with. More times than not it’s lyrics that get the job done, but not in every case. A few years ago Ross Huff (he plays trumpet for me quite a bit) played this melody for me that reached my soul. I wish I could remember who wrote it, but I think it was called “Ghost”.
In a well-known statement the american writer T.S. Eliot said: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” How much of you is there in the imagery of your songs? And do you agree with Eliot?
Raphael: I guess there is a lot of me in some of the songs. Except the fiction that is. I would think that most people are getting there material from their lives or the people around them. A lot of my songs are little stories of events from my life, or ideas I feel need expressing. I agree with Eliot. I feel like formula is important when trying to get a point across or make sense to someone else. You want something that’s going to translate to the listeners’ set of feelings and ideas, and that’s hard if you’re jumping all over the place.
Chris: I’d say that I am a product of my experiences and thoughts, and so are my songs. I agree with Eliot. To express emotion we rely on devices that bring about the emotion rather than the emotion itself.
What would you never like to be said about your music?
Raphael: Boring, inconsequential, songs all sound the same, that kind of stuff. I’ve heard a lot of the stuff I never really wanted to hear, but on the other hand I hear some nice things too. I try not to worry too much about the good or bad stuff said. It tends to be distracting either way. I prefer a handful of people I trust with critiques after shows. I’ve got some people who are very honest with me after performances, and I appreciate that.
Is it more difficult to find the inspiration to write a song or the bravery to face an audience?
Raphael: I’m finding it harder getting songs done. I’ve been playing out a lot more in the past year in this capacity. For the past number of years of I was playing keyboards in StillWillis, and this is my first jaunt into playing guitar live and kind of fronting a band. So that has taken a lot of energy for me. I haven’t really been finding the time to put songs to bed; I have a lot of half songs right now. Some of them might stay that way. I perform one of these half songs sometimes (“Toronto”); it lasts all of thirty seconds. I think it surprises people when it ends. Pretty much before it starts. I like it that way, sometimes.
Chris: I’d say that it is more difficult to find inspiration. Inspiration makes the work easy. Writing when you’re not feeling inspired and the words aren’t flowing, that’s more difficult than either.
Which fingerpicker impressed you most during a live exhibition?
Raphael: I saw Paul Curreri play in Philadelphia not too long ago. I was hypnotized by him. I was blown away with his picking, and tunings, and songs, and just over all presence. He really is an impressive guy to go see. Also Tommy Emanuel. I used to work at a venue outside of Philadelphia, as a cook, and I’d see some great shows. Tommy Emanuel, from Australia, is one of those great shows. A real showman. You should YouTube him.
Chris: Matt Jones. He is a friend of mine and fortunately for me the best songwriter I’ve met to date. He studied ragtime piano as a kid, and still plays it now and again if I bug him enough. Imagine if Doc Watson was a ragtime nut, and make his fingerpicking style twice as thoughtful and strange. Go see Matt Jones live, you’ll see.
Taking part to a compilation, apart from being a way of allowing each artist’s audience to get wider, may also represent a good chance to know other artists and to eventually begin new collaborations. How much do you agree with this statement?
Raphael: Yes, of course I agree. I was lucky enough to meet a few of the artists from Yer Bird’s “Folk Music For The End Of The World” compilation. I also had the chance to play some shows with O’Death, Chris Bathgate, and Sarah White, which probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the compilation. It’s good meeting artist from around the country and/or globe. I like getting an idea of what’s going on everywhere. I do a lot of shows in Philadelphia with many bands I’m friendly with. It’s good to expand the friendships beyond my area code.
Chris: I agree, I really enjoy the comps I’ve been on, and have met and listened to a good portion of the artists that were on them. Raph and I are doing a spit vinyl this summer.
And in this regard, your respective musical paths already crossed sometimes. What’s your opinion about your “interview fellow”, from a musical as well as from a human point of view?
Raphael: I’ve been able to do some shows and spend some time with Chris over the past several months. I’m a huge fan of Chris’ music. Yer Bird had sent me “Throat/Sleep” a while back. It was one of those CD’s that didn’t leave my player for a few weeks. I liked it enough to lend it to my brother whom I thought would like it, and never saw it again. As a person Chris is a real genuine guy, like his music. He was a generous host for the few days I spent in Michigan doing shows with him. I think we get along well, and we have plans for more shows together in the future. Should be a good year.
Chris: Musically, I think Raph is amazing. I have a deep respect and reverence for his songwriting and am slightly envious of how capable and solid he is live. Personally he is equally outstanding. Raph also has a great laugh: you should call him and tell him a joke just to hear it.
MySpace and similar stuff: resources able to overturn the traditional dynamics of the music scene or just a exhibitionism melting pot from which it gets harder and harder to emerge?
Raphael: MySpace obviously has its strengths and weaknesses. The musicians utilizing MySpace can benefit from reaching people that they would not ordinarily connect with, including listeners and labels. If it were not for MySpace, I personally would not have connected with Yer Bird, the label that has taken me on. I have also become exposed to music and friends through the wonders of MySpace, which I really value. However, there is a lot of music to weed through, a lot of weirdos to weed through, and a lot of Macy’s credit card advertisements, and pornography, which serves as a constant reminder why I don’t’ necessarily agree with much of popular culture and as major media networks today. Like I said, strengths and weaknesses.
Chris: I think that MySpace is a great tool for many musicians; I don’t think it is a passing trend though. I think it will be around for long time. The strange thing about MySpace is how everything is so intermixed: film, music, comedy, porn, spammers, everybody is all in there together. The business and personal sides of correspondence come together in a very strange way. I don’t think there is really any emerging happening in the MySpace world, though. It seems that it works both ways. Underdogs have MySpace pages, so do nationally known major label artists. No one ever emerges from MySpace, it does help a lot of people get the music out there, and people are looking on MySpace.
In the mp3s era the vinyl market is strongly regaining favour. A passing trend, one of the many signs of intolerance to modern times, a conscious nostalgic awakening, or…?
Raphael: Probably a conscious nostalgic awakening. I would hope. I like records. The future is coming at us faster than ever. Maybe it’s a chance for people to reconnect with the past before it’s all lost. The future of music is microchips in the brain (if Robot-God has it’s way). Record players will probably go the way of the Dodo bird and dinosaur in the next four to six months.
Chris: I think that the vinyl market’s rise has a lot to do with mp3’s and the current value held on a compact disc. I think purchasing and listening to vinyl, new vinyl specifically, helps regain some lost faith in albums as actual artifacts. Nostalgia has a lot to do with it as well I feel, but from a artists standpoint, you can insure the experience will be the same every time. You know people will most likely be listening to your music at home, and they will actually have to look at the artwork, and open it, pause to flip it over, etc. That type of information is valuable from a songwriter’s perspective, so I can see why people may be releasing new music exclusively on vinyl. It’s also a way to get cheap older music, though: I know quite a few people who have enormous vinyl collections, mostly because they can get a lot of the older music they want at extremely low costs.
The record that changed your life.
Raphael: “Days In The Wake” by Palace Brothers. I never would have picked up a guitar if it weren’t for that album. That album gave me the luxury of not feeling like I needed to wow people with my skill. For I have little. But it opened my eyes to the beauty of raw performance. And the “less is more” mentality. And also the idea of a good song trumping all else.
Chris: “Being There” by Wilco.
If you were old Hezekiah Jones, the main character of the poem called “Black Cross”, what would you sacrifice your life for?
Raphael: I guess it would be the typical answer. Family and loved ones. I wouldn’t die for beliefs, because I don’t believe in beliefs. Maybe I would for books. I do love books, just like ol’ Hezekiah, but I don’t refer to them as my “Rainy Season”. Although I might start. If these were the last books on earth and contained some really great fiction or something equally important, I would consider dying for them. If it would guaranteed their future existence.
Chris: Well, I’m not sure Hezekiah sacrificed his life in that poem at all. It seems he was hung unjustly for his beliefs, a martyr for thought, not an offering. If you are asking me what cause or values I would die for, I’d say very few, and I’ll leave it at that.
Drawing on a song by Chris: suppose you have to undergo a resetting of your memory and you can only keep the memory of one of your songs, recovering it once you wake up (“Save One For The Morning”). Which song would you choose and why?
Raphael: If it has to be one of my songs, I guess it would be “Circumstance”, in the hopes it would jog my memory and the rest would come back to me. I guess I’d have to start writing a lot again. Or maybe just change profession. I think I’d make a great sandwich maker. Avocado and swiss with bacon on wheat. Doesn’t that sound good?
Chris: “Coda”. The memories that song evokes are very important to me.
Quoting a song by Raphael: which side are you on? (politic......cough cough, free interpretation.)
Raphael: Hmmmm, how to answer…. I don’t like discussing politics, so I will try and make this brief. I am a registered independent. I don’t have any faith in the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. I don’t vote for the lesser of two evils. I vote for the Green Party every election, in hopes it gets its 5% of the popular vote, thus guaranteeing it federal funding in coming elections. It has yet to happen. But there is always the future. The war(s) are very unpopular in the United States right now among the general public. The government was high jacked long ago by big business and war is a great business. As W. Bush would say, “Money Trumps Peace”.
Chris: I assure you I am on the good side.
Say something to your interview fellow.
Raphael: Hello Chris. Thanks for letting me sleep on your couch for a few days. I now understand the importance of the “spreader gun” and the “Robot-God”. Thank you for that. Don’t forget to bring “Highlander” when you come back to Philadelphia, and maybe some donuts and jerky.
Chris: Hey Raph, can’t wait for our late June tour all over the east coast and back to Michigan. Also, when is The Super Humble Country Band going to buy a school bus and go on tour?
And something to your interviewers.
Raphael: These questions were difficult to answer. Thank you for the opportunity to write like I was in college again. I did the best I could. I hope all is well on your fine continent and would love to visit as soon as I can. So make room on your sofa or floor.
Chris: Thanks for all the interesting questions. Sorry it took me so long to finish them.