Interview with Donavon Frankenreiter

Pro surfer-turned-musician Donavon Frankenreiter released his third album this year. That groovy, feel-good disc, Pass It Around (Lost Highway) offers up plenty of sunny, beachy sounds underscored by well-written lyrics and surprising musicianship. Guest appearances by Frankenreiter-collaborators and buddies G. Love and Ben Harper are a bonus, though Jack Johnson (who jump-started Frankenreiter’s career) is absent from the credits.

Xpress caught up with Frankenreiter as he prepared for his fall tour.

Xpress: Where are you today?
Donavon Frankenreiter: I just spent day in N.Y. and we’re heading to Philly. Our tour starts in October but I’ve been on the road with [bassist] Matt Grundy playing acoustic and doing promo dates. [All through U.S., New Zealand, London, etc.]

This new album is so consistent. Every song could be a single. How did you accomplish that?
We recorded 15 songs and it was pretty interesting. When we finished them all there was definitely some talk about putting 11 songs or 12 songs or taking two off, putting 13 on… by everybody’s consensus from management to the record company and everybody was like, these 10 songs are the strongest and you don’t want to have something on there that felt like a filler. I knew what they meant because even the first record, the second record, you get to a certain song and it feels like filler. I just wanted to have 10 solid songs and not put 12 on there because there were 12 recorded, or since we recorded 15, put them on all there. It was one of those things where I left it to the record company and management. I was up for anything. But after listening to the 10 songs in order, it feels good and it sounds good with all that is on there. No more, no less. It’s a good-feeling record.

Since CDs came out and provide the possibility to include 18 or 20 tracks, isn’t it rare to limit the number of tracks on an album?
A lot of times people have ruined their records by doing that. People forget with CDs you can fit a lot of music on CDs but back in the day you go and look at some people, some artists from when vinyl records were around and they put four songs on each side. Some of the Van Morrison records have like six tunes. It was a full-length record. A lot of that had to do with the less songs you had on a vinyl record the better the music the sounded when the grooves were wider and bigger. They could only stick so much music on a vinyl record. But with digital it was like, whoa, we can put 20 songs on this CD. So I don’t know, I don’t know but there’s been some instances where people have put out 20 songs and I’ve wondered why they didn’t pick the 10 best tunes and keep the other stuff for later.

You mentioned Van Morrison. Most of his albums have a song about leaving the world or worldliness or fame. Is the track “Come With Me” on this album your song about leaving the world?
Definitely. It’s definitely about taking my family and going somewhere that we’ve never been and trying something new. Leaving what we’ve known so well behind and starting a new journey in a new world. It’s definitely got that vibe. But it’s a beautiful song to me, too, because it’s got the slack key guitar. In every song, we tried to encompass what it was about so I was thinking about all the songs being sung in slack key, and the bridge, and I was thinking there’s got to be a guitar here that’s slack key. It was fun the way it came out. All the instruments really filled the sensation of what the tune was exactly about, too.

On the song “Your heart,” you had originally written harmonica parts. Did it take a lot of trust to allow producer Joe Chiccarelli change the harmonica to Mariachi horns?
For me it’s like all my songs are written on the acoustic guitar and they’re all demoed on the guitar. Sort of like in the beginning of that process, for me, I collaborated with a lot of people. I had so much confidence in Joe that I didn’t really care where he wanted to take it.

I made the first record [2004’s self-titled release] with Jack [Johnson] and Mario Cataldo, Jr., they produced it. The second record [2006’s Move By Yourself] I did on my own, so the third record I wanted someone to take it somewhere else I couldn’t take it.

That’s a good example, that song “Your Heart” because originally I would have had harmonica on it and I would have kept it with harmonica but he threw an element in there that I never thought of and it’s just amazing that he ever thought of it. I don’t know, it’s really great that he could hear that. That’s what I think you’ve got to do with music, though. You’ve either got to produce your own music and do it like that, but I’ve already done that once so I wanted somebody else to take it and do something completely different with it. Songs are songs. They’re for everybody to enjoy and interpret. I’m not one of those people who’s like [nasally voice] “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 me it’s no big deal. The basics of all my songs are on acoustic guitar so it’s wherever you want to take them. It’s wonderful.

Do you believe that art has this final stage where it has to be let loose in the world and subject to the views of an audience?
It could one of two ways. Some songs are better if they’re broken down acoustic, just as they are. They’re very heartfelt that way. Then there’s other things that can happen. I just think every time you go in to make a record,  you’ve got to be very open. You’ve got to have a lot of respect and a lot of confidence in who you’re working with. That’s the beauty of making a record. You can’t go in there with any reservations like “I don’t really want this guy to take my songs and manipulate them.” That’s what making a record’s all about: Taking your songs and changing what you’ve done on previous albums. Just trying something new. It’s all just having a bunch of fun in the studio, trying things you’ve never tried before.

How do you manage to capture that 1970s-sound without being derivative?
I don’t think we’re really trying like, “Okay guys, we need to sound 70s.” A major factor of it is we’re using real gear. We’re all using a real Hammond organ, a real Leslie, a real Wurlitzer, the real guitars and amps, authentic microphones. It is what it is, but it’s definitely got a modern twist to it. I don’t know the reason behind what it is, but I know what instruments I like to hear and what tones I like. I’m really drawn and attracted to the tones of the 60s and 70s, not to say there’s not new stuff coming out now that sounds great, but the basis of music that I listen to has that authentic – I call it a real honest tone. There’s nothing there manipulating it. It’s am amp or a vocal or an instrument with a mic up against it and somebody plays through it. Nothing modified or manipulated inside of a computer.

Well, it was called the Golden age of rock for a reason.
Right. A lot of magic stuff… but I didn’t want to be like, [dorky voice] “Hey guys, let’s hone in on this sound.” Because I’m up for anything. Any sounds or anything thing anyone throws at me. I think it’s wonderful. I would use synthesizers or whatever but it has to make sense in the context of the song you’re recording.

G.Love and Ben Harper both make appearance on this album. I get the ideas there’s a real sense of family among that circle of musicians.
That’s true. All my friends I consider family. Whenever I see Ben Harper or Jack or G. or any of those guys it’s like a family thing. I’m married with two kids and that’s my life. These guys are all just friends and we’re just hanging out. It’s more like the timing was right. Ben Harper playing on the record was definitely about the timing being right. He was home in L.A. and that’s where we recorded the record so he wandered on by. It wasn’t like, [smarmy voice] “Hey Ben, we’re in London and I need you to fly over for two days,” it was kind of one of those things where we happened to be in the right place at the right time, he was available and came on by. Same with G. Love. It’s not like any of these guys I had to fly them in from some other part of the world to do it. It’s like we’ve known each other long enough to be like, “Hey man, have you got time to do this?” If it works it works, if not I’ll get you on the next one. It’s one of those things. It’s not anything was forced. It’s definitely a big family vibe. They treat me like that so I treat them like that. 

Does that mutual support buck the competitiveness of the music business?
I’ve been doing this music thing for a long time and I’ve never felt like it’s a competition because it’s really out of the musicians’ hands. It’s really about fan base. It’s about people who listen to the music and come out and hear live shows. It’s never a contest. 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 ten thousand people every night and they’re f**kin’ miserable and that, to me, is not winning. They’re not the winners of any competition.

Music, to me, is not a competitive thing at all. It’s obviously a thing where you need to be smart about what you do – the money you spend and how you’re going to market it. Especially in this day and age. There are a lot of people hurting, from record companies to f**kin’ studios to producers to mixers. Everybody. Nobody sells records any more. You put out an album and it’s like file-shared a f**kin’ million times and you sell a couple hundred thousand copies. That’s a huge, huge, huge thing, that’s major problem in the music world. The only thing we do have is live shows, you know, really, to make money. That’s all you have to do to make a living. It’s a really hard existence because I’m in the business of making music and I want to sell records but it’s very, very rare this day and age to sell a lot of records. But there’s never a competitiveness to it. You just gotta do what you do.

They definitely helped me out a lot, opening up for Ben Harper, opening up for G. Love, opening up for Jack – that was a great opportunity, especially in the beginning of my career when that happened.

So how did Sara Watkins end up opening for you on this tour?
I’ve heard about her for a long time, but my manager [also manages] Nickel Creek so it was one of those things where she just put out a solo record. I love when people open up for us who are acoustic or at least solo-acoustic and I thought what a great opportunity to be able to get on stage with her and play as well. 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. I hope that’s what happens. The invitation’s open. But it’ll be a great opportunity for us to play with a member of Nickel Creek and for her to play with us. It’s just great. It’s hard to find a great opener. When I heard she was available I was like, “Oh my God, this will be incredible.” Cause that just adds to the show that much more. She’s incredible. I’m really looking forward to some of the Nickel Creek fans coming to our shows and kind of wondering who are these guys, what’s going on? That’s what it’s all about.

One more question. On the song “Mansions On the Sand,” there’s a lyric where you sing, “My heart, she has taken all she can.” To refer to your heart as “she” is an interesting choice. What’s that about?
That thing has a bunch of meanings to me, but on that song, Grant Lee Phillips wrote all the lyrics to it. How you felt is exactly how I felt. That’s something beautiful about how he writes. In that line for me, “heart” means love and “she” means my wife. Know what I’m saying? It’s about my life and how things have changed and how crazy everything has been. But instead of saying that literally I love how he twisted those words.

In other ways I’ve heard people say, “That means this to me and that to me.” It was really beautiful how he wrote those lyrics – it might mean something completely different to him. I never really asked him exact details of what it mean. A lot of people come up to me and explain what a certain song I’ve written might mean to them and if it means something different to me I’m not going to tell them what it means to me. Everybody has that different interpretation of what that one line means to them, and that’s the beauty of it. That’s great.

Donavon Frankenreiter plays The Orange Peel on
Saturday, Oct. 11. Show starts at 9 p.m. $16 advance, $18 doors. 225-5851.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

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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