Ana´s Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads w/ special guests Robert Sarazin Blake (4/16) & Eamon O'Leary (4/17)
Picture this American scene: two friends rolling down I-40 somewhere outside
Nashville, singing out the open window. The backseat is a jumble of guitars, boots,
takeaway plates from a roadside BBQ, and paperback books. But the song? The song
goes like this: “As I walked out over London Bridge, on a misty morning early…”
And the books? A five-volume set of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads—the
Child Ballads (For the uninitiated, these aren’t kids’ songs—they’re a nineteenth
century anthology named after their collector, Sir Francis James Child).
The friends are Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, two songwriters who coarranged
a selection of epic old folk songs from across the Atlantic for their current
release Child Ballads. For Mitchell, this recording comes on the heels of 2010’s
Hadestown and 2012’s Young Man in America. Both albums are big on story; the first
is a folk opera, while the second was described by the Independent on Sunday as ‘an
epic tale of American becoming’. Hamer began his career with the Colorado roots
rock band Great American Taxi, but moved to New York in 2008 to pursue
songwriting and a passion for Irish traditional music.
Mitchell and Hamer quickly discovered their shared love of Celtic and British Isles
ballads, especially the classic folk albums of the 1970s – Martin Carthy’s Crown of
Horn, Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady - and made a plan to
arrange and record some of their favorites together. But what began as a whimsical
side project evolved into a serious collaborative endeavor spanning several years,
three separate recording attempts, and a whole lot of cutting room floor as the pair
navigated their way through a centuries old tradition.
The resulting album was recorded by producer/engineer Gary Paczosa (Alison
Krauss, Dolly Parton) at his Minutia Studio in Nashville in early 2012. The
production is minimal, and the songs are driven by two-guitar arrangements and the
kind of close harmonies that call to mind Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris or an
acoustic Fleetwood Mac. “We kept thinking back to those records we loved so much,”
says Mitchell, “and finally decided that what the songs wanted was to be presented as
simply as possible; melody, harmony, acoustic instruments, live taping—the stories
really out front.”
There is something about the trans-Atlantic conversation—Americans tackling Celtic
and British music and vice-versa—that is perennially inspiring to artists on both sides
of the pond. The Child Ballads enjoyed a brief renaissance in the states in the early
sixties when artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed and recorded them—and
Dylan’s early songwriting, of course, bears the mark of that era. More recently, indie
rock outfits like the Decemberists and the Fleet Foxes have taken their hand to the
“The language, and the music, is both familiar and exotic at the same time,”
says Mitchell. “It’s inspiring, and it’s a rabbit-hole. It’s no wonder it took us so long.”
“I’m not sorry it did,” Hamer reflects. “I’d say the songs worked on us as
much as we worked on them.”
In 1997, Robert Sarazin Blake dropped out of college and hit the road. The folk music of his father's house had combined with the DIY punk ethos of the day and produced his first batch of songs, Another Irrelevant Year. On the heels of Richard Manning, Billy Bragg, and Ani Difranco, Blake's 18-year-old release is an early document of the folk-punk movement. On his first US tour, Blake played 30 shows around the US planting seeds as he developed touring, not as an economic model, but as a lifestyle. He hasn't stopped. Ten full length albums into his career, he's continued to write pulling from folk roots, his travels, his contemporaries, and the quiet spot in the back of his mind. The writing has evolved, mellowing with experience and expanding with reference, but the essence of the work has remained the same-strong narratives solidly built on the folk foundation and fully in the immediacy of the now.
The touring and performing has become an art in itself. Performing 200 shows a year, Blake is a world class performer in a neighborhood venue. The show is a combination of songs and rambles landing somewhere between a concert and a theatrical instillation. The neighborhoods have been all over Ireland and the US and occasionally in Canada, Scotland, England, Norway, Denmark, Germany and France. The shows are booked, managed, and driven to by Blake- a one man cottage industry existing underneath and outside the main-streams of the music business.
His songs continue to be influenced by Bob Dylan, John Prine, Shel Silverstein, Christy Moore, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell- his stories and stage banter by Arlo Guthrie, Garrison Keillor, Spalding Gray, his outlook by Naomi Kline, Jim Page, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, and his essence by James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Jeannette Winterson, John Steinbeck, and Philip Roth. His contemporaries, Anais Mitchell, Louis Ledford, Hamell on Trial, The Heligoats, CR Avery, Jeffrey Lewis, and Jinx Lennon, continue to influence and inspire.
From his home in Bellingham (WA), Blake started his own record labelSameRoomRecords, "recordings of songs and musicians in the same room and the same time" -- an oddly unique idea in an era of digitally manipulated sounds -- and has sold over 10,000 albums from his suitcase.
This philosophy reflects Blake's dedication to the moment, to the connection within live performance. There is always a moment in a Blake show where the room pulls together and the space between the singer, the song, and the listener disappears.