Anything goes

“I’m up for anything,” announces pro-surfer-turned-singer/songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter. And though that sentiment echoes Johnny Depp’s portrayal of John Wilmot (“I’m up for it,” he warns), Frankenreiter is the antitheses of the rakish Earl of Rochester. He’s more like a modern-day Musketeer (“One for all, all for one”).

No, for real: Butterfly collar and Wurlitzer organ aside, Frankenreiter’s songs are based on real instruments and real emotions.

The musician’s career was jump-started by that other surfer/singer, Jack Johnson. The two share a brotherhood of laid-back melodies and groovy beats, though Frankenreiter (in faded bell-bottoms and vintage fedoras) is decidedly more tapped into the 1970s. His sound falls within spitting distance of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “If You like Pina Coladas”—with organ strains and crisp guitars intact, but corniness absent.

“I don’t think we’re really trying, like, ‘OK guys, we need to sound ‘70s,’” Frankenreiter says in an interview with Xpress. “A major factor of it is we’re using real gear. We’re using a real Hammond organ, a real Wurlitzer, authentic microphones. It is what it is, but it’s definitely got a modern twist to it.”

Not that he’s turning his back on the golden age of rock: “I’m really drawn and attracted to the tones of the ‘60s and ‘70s; I call it a real honest tone.” Then again, Frankenreiter doesn’t discount other influences—that’s where being “up for anything” plays out, meaning “any sounds or anything anyone throws at me,” he notes. “I would use synthesizers or whatever, but it has to make sense in the context of the song [I’m] recording.”

That’s why, on Frankenreiter’s latest CD, Pass It Around (Lost Highway, 2008), a mariachi band opens the track “Your Heart.” The demo version (like all of Frankenreiter’s songs) featured acoustic guitar with harmonica accents. It was producer Joe Chiccarelli who envisioned Latin horns a la Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

The grass is greener

by A.M.

Sara Watkins makes a move from bluegrass to pop

At just 27, Sara Watkins—the lone female presence in bluegrass trio Nickel Creek—is set to embark on her second career.

Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins in the studio with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

By the time Nickel Creek disbanded earlier this year, a legion of pop-radio-schooled fans had been turned on to the charms of acoustic roots music. But the end of Nickel Creek hardly spells the end for its musicians (Watkins’ older brother Sean and childhood pal Chris Thile rounded out the rest of the trio). Following Thile’s lead, the youngest Watson wrangled a star-studded cast to craft her solo debut. There’s no title yet for the record (slated for release early next year), but much ado is being made of the disc’s producer: Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones.

If squeaky-clean fiddler Watkins seems worlds apart someone whose band was legendary for its debauchery, think again: Aside from bass and keys, Jones is fluent on low-tech instruments such as the koto, autoharp, mandolin, ukulele, sitar and cello. His interest in bluegrass and American roots music dates back to his days on the road with Zeppelin, and in recent years he’s performed with the likes of Ben Harper and Uncle Earl, as well as touring with Mutual Admiration Society—composed of Nickel Creek and Toad the Wet Sprocket members.

So what is Jones’ effect on Watkins’ upcoming release? The fiddle player’s management is pretty hush-hush, though Xpress was told the new music—pop originals penned by Watkins—sounds like “a softer Neko Case” and “much like Alison Krauss’ new album.” Jon Brion, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings make guest appearances on various tracks.

Get a sneak preview when Watkins opens for Donovan Frankenreiter this Saturday. Her solo set promises to include tunes from that much-anticipated album.

“I had so much confidence [in] Joe that I didn’t really care where he wanted to take it,” Frankenreiter admits. “That’s what I think you’ve got to do with music, though. You can produce your own music, but I’ve already done that once [2006’s Move By Yourself] so I wanted somebody else to take it and do something completely different.

“Songs are songs. They’re for everybody to enjoy and interpret. I’m not one of those people who’s like, ‘I wrote this song, it’s my baby, don’t ruin it.’ It’s like, nobody’s going to ruin it, let’s make it better than it would be.”

For many artists, their songs are their babies. But Frankenreiter remains true to his laid-back surfer roots. He’s the guy who sang, “Time told you and you told me/ Nothings gonna get us down can’t you see” on his 2004 single “It Don’t Matter,” and who sums up his most recent recording experience as, “It’s all just having a bunch of fun in the studio.”

That fun entailed high-profile guest appearances from the likes of Ben Harper and G. Love, though even those additions evolved organically. “These guys are all just friends and we’re just hanging out,” Frankenreiter says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey Ben, we’re in London and I need you to fly over for two days’—it was one of those things where we happened to be in the right place at the right time, he was available and he came on by. It’s not anything was forced. Whenever I see Ben Harper or Jack or G. or any of those guys, it’s definitely a big family vibe.”

Then again, Frankenreiter seems to find family wherever he goes. Of his opener for this tour—Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, on the verge of releasing her solo debut (see sidebar for more info)—the songwriter says he picked her for her collaborative potential. “Whoever opens up for us, we end up jamming [together] throughout the night anyway. So, I thought, she plays violin, she plays ukulele, she can sing. She’ll open up for 30 minutes and then end up sitting in with us for the rest of the night. It’ll be a blast.”

That’s pretty much Frankenreiter’s approach to his whole career. “Music, to me, there’s not a competitive thing in it at all,” he explains. “To me, the winner is the one who’s having the most fun. That could be a guy playing in a bar in front of a hundred people. I’ve seen miserable people out there on the road who are playing in front of 10,000 people every night and they’re f**king miserable. That, to me, is not winning.”

At the end of the day, Frankenreiter says, “You just gotta do what you do.” He, it just so happens, is up for anything.

Read the full interview with Donavon Frankenreiter at www.mountainx.com.

who: Donavon Frankenreiter. Sara Watkins opens.
what: Pro surfer turned songwriter
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Oct. 11. 9 p.m. ($16 in advance, $18 at the door. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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