Home > Interviews > Abigail Washburn Interview July 2011

Abigail Washburn Interview July 2011

Catherine May


With a recent UK tour and album release, we caught up with Abigail Washburn to learn more about her music, Nashville and her album artwork…

MTTM: Did you enjoy your recent UK tour?

Abigail Washburn: Yes. This time I came over with just one musician, Kai Welch. Kai is the pop-rock/indie-rock musician that I connected with about 2 years ago and it decidedly changed the direction I’ve gone with my music. Rather than feeling estranged by our musical differences we got excited when the other played something new.

Although Kai and I wrote and recorded the bulk of the songs on City of Refuge we haven’t made music just the two of us since we made the record. But on this past UK tour we came over as a duo. The first night in London was electric for us because we weren’t sure how we were gonna manage all the material but it came out naturally and we were inspired to play new things being out of the 5 person band we’ve been playing with for the past year. From London to Edinburgh to Leeds and so on we kept growing our duo show. I’m excited to be coming back to the UK for the festivals again as a duo. But don’t be surprised if a couple of friends come and sit in with us!

MTTM: And how are you feeling about returning for some festivals?

AW: I’ve heard amazing things about all the festivals we’re headed to… great audiences eager to learn about new music, open to something different and super friendly. And I can’t wait to see all the other bands on the festivals!

MTTM: What was the inspiration behind Chains?

AW: Kai and his friend Tommy Hans wrote Chains. When Kai first played it for me I knew it was a song I could inhabit. It’s about their experiences moving to Nashville and trying to make it in music, and the way the town’s apathy eats up dreams. This song is a plea for keeping the dreams and not letting the town chain your spirit down

MTTM: You’ve been heaped with great praise from the likes of The NY Times, The Telegraph and Newsweek. Do you feel extra pressure because of this or does it spur you on to succeed?

AW: It feels like encouragement, a vote of coincidence. When anyone says the music is meaningful to them it makes me feel like what I’m creating in my mind & heart has a place in the world. It makes me feel relief and excitement.

MTTM: As you’re based in Nashville, do you feel living in such a musical environment has had a great influence on your sound?

AW: I’m not sure what kind of impact Nashville has had on my music. In some ways it’s more like Nashville has taught me what I don’t want to sound like more than anything. The pop, Christian and country music industries are based in Nashville. There is a pile of music and people that float around those industry machines that make me wonder what connection all of it has to the beauty of art and the artist. I feel isolated and weird in Nashville most of the time, that fact, more than anything, probably inspires me to push and be more unique in myself than I might in a town where I easily fit. I suppose a slight element of rebellion and a necessary self-possession that might be different if I was somewhere else.

Nashville has a deep connection to the roots of country music and there are corners of Nashville where authentic swing, country, blues and rockabilly are happening on a regular basis… that stuff floats my boat!

MTTM: What made you learn the clawhammer banjo?

AW: It wasn’t until I had spent several years in China that I realised I wanted to learn a string instrument, specifically the banjo because of its ties to traditional US culture.  I had spent so much time studying and loving China that one day I woke up and realized that I hardly knew a thing about my own cultural roots. It was when I heard Doc Watson playing and singing Shady Grove off an old LP that I knew I needed to buy a banjo and learn that song- it was just so primal and rooted and powerful, familiar and yet ancient. Little did I know the banjo is the perfect window into US roots music because it arrived with the earliest immigrants and evolved into a beloved and statedly “American” sound. Strangely I had a reverse experience from most musicians in terms of my path to the stage and professional musician status and writing. It felt like music and the banjo chose me.

MTTM: City of Refuge is your third album. How do you think it compares to the previous two?

AW: I didn’t know what I was going to do musically after Sparrow Quartet disbanded and I parted ways with Uncle Earl. My instinct was two-fold: take time alone to right and reflect and open to the possibility of a new sound and open my heart to the possibility of new collaborators. And, luckily, with the help of a committed heart and mind the right collaborators, often people I met in the period of searching, fell into line like a perfect constellation floating in the heavens! City of Refuge sounds the way it does hugely due to the fact that everything filtered through him as well.

Working with the producer, Tucker Martine, was a very different experience from my past record-making forays. Tucker brought a whole new transformative set of expectations and ideas to my musical orientation. For the first time I felt a real freedom to base the music on what felt right, what felt beautiful and promising for the hopes of the song itself… it allowed for magic and spontaneity. It also opened the music up to a community of musical contributors. And between Tucker, Kai Welch and myself we amassed a group of musicians that had never met much less had any chance to know much about the others music. Possibility, hard work and an open heart, on the parts of many great musicians, made this record what it is.

MTTM: Can you tell us a bit about the amazing album artwork?

AW: I met the artist, Erica Harris, at her own going-away party in Brooklyn, NY, before she moved to Cambodia to make art and teach soap making. A friend brought me to her party and as soon as I stepped in her apartment I spotted amazing pieces hanging on the wall. They were part collage, part painting. I asked Erica about them and she said, “Oh, that’s what I do”. I immediately asked if she’d ever consider working with musicians. I ogled over her pieces for a year online and finally decided to commission her to make a piece entitled “East Meets West Falling Into the Great Sea”. As soon as I saw the piece I dropped a tear knowing that I’d definitely found the artwork for the new record. We’ve been working closely on coming up with more ideas in the future for graphics and merchandise and maybe even shadow puppets!

MTTM: Any plans to come back to the UK?

AW: I would love to be able to come back to the UK regularly and share all the phases of music I’m involved in. I hope this will be the year that makes that possible!