Leading up to LEAF festival, Mountain Xpress is talking to a number of artists from across the country and across musical genres. Abigail Washburn (Uncle Earl, The Sparrow Quartet) recently released the 12-track collection Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn with her husband and fellow banjo player, Béla Fleck (The Fleck Tones, The Sparrow Quartet). They’ll close out the festival on Sunday, at 4:30 p.m., on the Lakeside stage.
Xpress: I thought it was sweet that in the advance press release for your new album you said of Béla, “I feel very lucky that he’s a musical mentor to me. It’s a beautiful part of our connection.” But are there challenges to working with your husband in music? Does pride or ego ever get in the way?
Abigail Washburn: So, the saving grace for Béla and me is that we play different styles of banjo, and we come from different places in terms of what drives us to make and perform music. We’re like very different puzzle pieces that somehow fit. I play old-time claw hammer round peak-driven banjo. Béla comes from a line of Earl Scruggs-inspired modernist pickers and then has taken it to the far reaches of music theory and, literally, the world. The spirit that drives me to make music is one of emotional connection to others through song, a soulfulness that makes people feel identified with and understood. Béla makes music from more of an idealistic and artistic place that thrives on challenges that lead to greater technical understanding and virtuosity.
All that said, we both long to connect with the audience, and we both seek technical ways to grow and blossom musically, so we connect and relate in the big picture. Béla has almost 20 years on me, so the breadth of his experiences musically and in the biz have been an important part of the dialogue in my head that has helped me come to my own decisions. He has also been able to observe my ways of playing, and even though he doesn’t play the same style, he has the musical wisdom to offer techniques that have made ideas in my head easier to play and parts of songs blossom in ways I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I’d call that mentoring.
The decision to limit the instrumentation to banjos might alienate some listeners, but for those who go along with it, it’s remarkable how many tones and textures you achieve — such as on “Ride To U.” Where you ever surprised by the sounds that you and Bela came up with in the recording process?
Staying with the two banjo theme was very important to us. Luckily, we have a banjo collection broad enough that we knew we would have access to banjos in different registers and with different tones and textures that could allow the record to feel like it had a landscape with variation and dimension. We didn’t want the record to sonically punch everyone in the face with machine gun-like Yang energy the whole way through, which perhaps some might fear a double banjo extraordinaire might do. Also, Béla and Richard Battaglia engineered the record and had a cool philosophy on creating a big sound — to have several mics in different positions on the banjos so that when mixing the record there could be a broad field of microphone capture to make a big sonic picture. And I think it worked: The record is warm and inviting and even big sounding at times, especially on the song “Ride to U,” with both the low and high registers covered.
It’s easy to imagine that you and Bela go through life listening to nothing but acoustic music and obscure banjo recordings. What are some of your current favorite songs or albums that might not fit into the roots/folk/old-time genre?
With our little 16 1/2-month-old boy Juno around, and a rediscovered vinyl collection, we’ve been listening to all kinds of great stuff. Today we listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland about four times. Juno really likes the South African choir on “Homeless.” And then we listened to an Amy Grant record from the late ’80s from Béla’s old collection. And a Dadanaan record from the ’70s. And last night I played him James Brown for bath time. James Brown would grunt and then Juno would grunt — wish I got a video.
The last time you played LEAF, you were just about to have a baby. Did becoming a mom impact your music-making life in any unexpected ways? (Is that Juno’s recording debut on the end of “Bye Bye Baby Blues”?)
Yes it is Juno’s debut at the end of Bye Bye Baby Blues. It was a wonderful and also challenging year making both a baby and a record! It was so physically challenging to nurse full-time, day and night, and tour and record. It was all I could do to slip down to the studio for an hour here and there to create and record songs, but we did it. The record came out two days ago. I feel like we made it to the top of a mighty mountain and now get to look back at the ground covered and run downhill for a little while. It’s pretty exhilarating.
You’ve performed at LEAF a number of times — any fun stories you can share of a past show or experience as a listener?
The audience at LEAF seems to be tapped into a higher plane. Like the listening starts at a place of acceptance and love and gratitude that is rare and uplifting. I am thrilled that Béla and I have been invited back.
LEAF was my last show before I gave birth to Juno. Juno came out just a week later, three weeks early. I accepted LEAF a little nervous that I might just give birth on stage there knowing, I would be eight months pregnant, but I figured Juno would just float into the communal hands of a sacred pile of music loving folks. What more could you ask for?
Bonus question: If you could collaborate with or put together a side project with any other LEAF performer, who would it be?
I had the good luck to be at LEAF with Ben Sollee last year. I got to sing on his songs and he played and sang on some of mine, and it was a reminder of how much I love being with Ben and making music with him. We learned the road and life together at the very beginning. We toured together for almost five years between our duo tours and Sparrow Quartet. Perhaps sometime Ben and I could put together a LEAF-specific show.
I would also love to share my beautiful musician friend from China, WuFei, with LEAF. She’ll be moving to the U.S. next year and we’ll be working up some material together. I think LEAF would just love the sound of her magical guzheng playing.