This is a good time for folk music. The Bluegrass Situation recently published an extensive story on roots musicians who protested presidential nominee Donald Trump through song. Former Ashevillean Christopher Paul Stelling had a huge year — named “Best Folk Artist” by Village Voice and a “new artist you need to know” by Rolling Stone plus playing at the Newport Folk Festival — following the release of his 2015 album, Labor Against Waste. And now local singer-songwriter Matt Townsend is poised to reach a similar fan base with his heartfelt and no-BS EP, The Drifter and the Dream. Townsend will release the record with a show at The Mothlight on Friday, Nov. 11.
“I didn’t have a plan that I was going to write political songs, but the songs occurred out of the unavoidable situation we’ve been in,” Townsend says. “It’s always a tenuous line to walk: music, politics, that kind of thing.” At the same time, he says he’s always loved folk music’s capacity for political commentary and the way so many protest songs from past decades remain compelling and relevant.
“Though you kind of hope at some point they won’t,” he deadpans.
The Drifter and the Dream, produced by Michael Selverne of Welcome to Mars and recorded by Julian Dreyer at Echo Mountain Studios, is part of a two-EP series. It leads with “The Great American Madness,” which, though pointed (“The great American madness claims its hatred as the cure / yes, it builds a brand new enemy to sell the same old war”), is also dynamic and has a very cool electric guitar solo halfway through.
Townsend contributed a track to The Asheville Symphony Sessions, a collaboration between the local orchestra and area singer-songwriters and bands, also produced by Selverne. “We had crossed paths; we had these conversations going on,” Townsend says of how he came to work with the producer. Part of the agreement with musicians who participated in the symphony project is that they can include their track from The Asheville Symphony Sessions on their own album a year after the release. Townsend’s song from that project, “For Now, We Are,” might feature on the second in his EP series, due out next year.
Though The Drifter and the Dream isn’t backed by an orchestra, it does includes contributions from Asheville Symphony cellist Franklin Keel as well as Rodney Easter Jr. (bass), Jackson Dulaney (lap steel), Carly Taich and Kat Williams (vocals), Adam Bonomo (piano and organ), Charles Gately (synthesizer), Ryan Burns (organ), River Guerguerian (percussion) and Selverne (acoustic guitar). The guest artist list also includes drummer Bill Berg, who played on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (Dylan’s influence is palpable throughout Townsend’s work) and has worked with Leo Kottke, The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens and others.
There’s also an element of surprise to the album. “The funny thing about these songs, with the exception of ‘Roaming Twilight’ is [they’re] very new,” says Townsend. “We recorded in April, and I wrote these in January or February.” Those tracks are underscored by darkness and immediacy, but there’s a deft touch that keeps the songs from feeling heavy. The cello is a moody swoon, while the drums bristle on “Came Down From the Mountain.” On the lilting chorus, Townsend sings, “Hey, gotta find a way / to make an honest place in the masquerade.”
“Freedom Is Calling Again,” the most Dylan-esque of the EP’s offerings, asks, “who would poison all your waters / sell your children to the jails?” Here, the organ adds a leaping emotionalism while backup vocals underscore Townsend’s own insistent call to the masses to rise up against injustice. It’s a heady moment.
“I’d been playing a lot of other songs on the road for the last year or two,” the singer-songwriter says. “It was nerve-wracking because I hadn’t really performed [these songs], and they came together in the studio.” But the immediacy is palpable, and the risk paid off.
If Townsend expresses a level of discomfort with releasing untested songs and political sentiment, he isn’t backing down from personal challenge. Touring presents its own array of trials, from logistics to cost. To address those issues, Townsend has taken the unique approach of putting spontaneous bands together in various towns on his tour route. “I’ve even done that just putting an ad on Craigslist, like, ‘Anybody want to come play percussion tonight?’” he says. “I’ve met somebody five minutes before a show, and it went well, so that’s exciting.” The approach has only brought positive results so far.
“On the Chitlin circuit, that’s what you did, back in the day,” he points out.
In another twist, Townsend will launch a post-record release Kickstarter campaign as a means of selling the EPs and recouping some of the costs of recording, printing and pressing. Those who contribute in advance of The Mothlight show can pick up their copy at the venue. “It’s a lot more satisfying, because [the album] is already done,” the musician says. “No waiting for a year to maybe get it.”
WHO: Matt Townsend with Ten Cent Poetry
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 11, 9 p.m. $7 advance/$10 at the door