Rank #1: Folk Alley Sessions at 30A: Gretchen Peters
For Gretchen Peters, good music is all about creating compelling characters and telling a good story. That’s how she approaches her music and that’s how, she says, she was finally able to take on some of her chaotic and confusing feelings from the past couple of years and translate them into new songs.
By focusing on creating and then giving voices to compelling characters, mostly women, Peters is able to tackle challenging and often heartbreaking subjects and ideas – political frustrations, concerns about the environment, dismay with and distrust of public power figures – and turn them into personal and meaningful reflections, reflections that we can all, somehow, understand and appreciate.
From the fears and concerns of a young girl, to the hopelessness of unrelenting poverty, to the laissez-faire attitude of a woman in the twilight of her life, Gretchen Peters creates characters that everyone can relate to. That’s a gift and it’s one displayed most prominently on her new album, Dancing with the Beast. She shared thoughts about the record and music from it during her exclusive session at this year’s 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
Rank #2: Folk Alley Sessions: Ana Egge
The rain was coming down hard one day in April in Upper Jay, New York. And that’s the day Ana Egge, along with Alec Spiegelman (keyboards, bass clarinet) and Dave Cole (drums) showed up at the pop-up studio our friends at Beehive Productions Studio set up at The Recovery Lounge.
Egge, whose husky voice floats between a true-blue alto and the lowest possible soprano, was there to share some thoughts about her new album, White Tiger. She also shared some songs from it: the title track, a song she says she loves to sing; “Girls, Girls, Girls,” which is all about being young and single and free to live your life as you see fit, and the apocalyptic love song she wrote with her partner of 15 years in mind, “Be With You.”
Rank #3: Folk Alley Sessions at 30A: Mary Bragg
Nashville-based musician Mary Bragg describes herself as “annoyingly optimistic.” Now, everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion, of course, but truthfully, there’s nothing annoying about the intimate truths and experiences she shares in her music. And, not all of those truths and experiences are optimistic, either. Indeed, each of the songs on Bragg’s 2019 release Violets as Camouflage had some element of masking: either fooling someone or being fooled yourself. Bragg says she wanted to call attention to that theme – the theme that something important needs to be revealed – in each track on the album. It’s the first record she has produced entirely by herself and while the process was time-consuming, demanding, and soul-searching, she says Violets as Camouflage is the album she’s most proud of to date.
Mary Bragg joined Folk Alley for a conversation and performance in our pop-up beach house studio at the 2019 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
Rank #4: Folk Alley Sessions: Lula Wiles
In a world increasingly filled with uncertainty, tension, fear, and anger, how in the world are you supposed to get through each day, doing the best that you can do? That’s the conundrum the trio Lula Wiles ponders, analyzes, argues about, and tries to answer on their new album, What Will We Do. Mali Obomsawin, Ellie Buckland, and Isa Burke, friends for years in their native Maine before coming together, officially, in 2016 in Boston, are three musicians who believe that music has the power to bring out the humanity in all of us. They gathered together at the Upper Jay Arts Center’s Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay, New York to talk about their new album (and their first one, too, on the Smithsonian Folkways label), how they approach making music, and, of course, how they came up with their name.
Rank #5: 2017 30A Songwriters Festival: John Gorka
From New Jersey, folk legend John Gorka got his start living in a music club’s basement and acting as resident MC and sound man. His exposure to folk troubadours inspired him, and before long he was performing his own songs – mostly as an opener for visiting acts. Soon he started traveling to New York City and folk meccas like Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival (where he won the New Folk Award in 1984) and Boston where his stunningly soulful baritone voice and original songwriting began turning heads.
In 1987, the Minnesota-based Red House Records caught wind of John’s talents and released his first album. He moved to Windham Hill/High Street before returning to his musical roots at Red House.
Over the years of his rich career, Gorka has established himself as one of folk music’s most respected and beloved singer/songwriters, representing the bridge generation between the Folk Revival and the rise of Americana. Folk Alley caught up with John at the 2017 30A Songwriters Festival where his performances of songs and stories from his long and successful career (plus a beautiful Prince cover) were captured by BeeHive Productions.
Rank #6: Folk Alley Sessions: Mipso
“At this point, we are wide open, I think.”
That’s how the band Mipso talks about the evolution of their sound. Starting as a tried-and-true string band at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill several years ago, the band, earlier this year, released their fourth album, Edges Run. And it was with this album that they decided they no longer wanted to limit themselves to, as they say, “just strings.” Edges Run is a record that lets this group of talented young musicians experiment and push the boundaries of their sound. And, during the exclusive session they did for Folk Alley at Beehive Productions Studios in Saranac Lake, New York, this group eloquently talks about how and why they decided to push those musical boundaries in the first place.
Rank #7: Folk Alley Sessions at 30A: Amythyst Kiah
There are hundreds and thousands of great musicians out there today, making music, giving concerts, tuning guitars and writing the lyrical poetry that becomes memorable songs. You have to wonder: how do they ever even get started with a life in music? Tennessee native Amythyst Kiah credits her parents for getting her to fall in love with music when she was just a kid. She’s got a powerhouse of a voice, guitar and banjo chops to put anyone to shame…and a unique musical worldview, informed by a love of classic rock and MTV. After getting her first instrument at 13, Kiah spent the next decade or so honing that musical worldview and coming up with a sound that defies traditional categorization – it’s bluesy, folky, country rock, and gospel soul, all mixed together.
In 2013, she was able to create her first full length studio album, Dig, and in 2018 she joined forces with Allison Russell, Rhiannon Giddens, and Leyla McCalla as part of a collaboration called Our Native Daughters. They’ve since released an album on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Songs of Our Native Daughters. Later in 2019, Kiah releases another new solo album, Weary and Strange, and she shared some of her extraordinary history with us at this year’s 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
Rank #8: Folk Alley Sessions at 30A: Ruthie Foster
Ruthie Foster is an extraordinary musician who has lived an extraordinary life. She started making music when she was just a kid, singing in Baptist churches around her home in Texas. It was gospel music all the time…until Ruthie Foster discovered the blues. But then, her life took a turn. She enlisted in the military and ended up in San Diego where she worked as a helicopter mechanic. Foster was destined for a life in music, however, and eventually made her way to New York City where she honed the craft of songwriting.
She joined us in Florida at the 30A Songwriter’s Festival to share some thoughts about what making music for an audience means to her; that process, she says, lets her “channel the good stuff” in the world and it’s an experience she never wants to give up.
Rank #9: Folk Alley Sessions at 30A: Steve Poltz
Isn’t it funny how life never seems to turn out quite the way you expect? Steve Poltz is a Canadian native, one who lived in San Diego for years and years. He’s had success in the past as a singer’s songwriter, penning hits for other musicians, including, most famously, Jewel.
One thing he’d never do, he vowed, was move to Nashville, Tennessee. And yet…that’s exactly what he did, just over a year ago now. He couldn’t resist the pull of this magical, musical town, he says, and it turned out to be a good move. Songs are everywhere, he says, just floating in the air and waiting for you to reach out and grab them.
One of those guys who can talk for hours about anything and everything, Poltz shared the stories behind some of the songs on his newest recording, Shine On, during an exclusive session we recorded at the 2019 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
Rank #10: 30A Songwriters Festival: Mary Gauthier
(Session originally published in January, 2018)
You know, songwriters, the really good ones, have this ability to twist a phrase or choose a word that somehow is exactly right. It's a real gift. But the truth is - everyone, songwriter or not, has a story to share. Not all of us, however, know how to share it.
The desire to discover the stories we don't normally get to hear is what inspired Mary Gauthier to start working alongside combat veterans and the SongwritingWith:Soldiers organization a few years back. "We listen to their stories," she says, "And we turn their experiences into songs...We take an experience and turn it into something tangible, something that people everywhere can empathize with."
It's an extraordinary project that's turned into a new album for Gauthier, 'Rifles and Rosary Beads,' and she shared a little bit about this remarkable group and the men and women who participate during her exclusive Folk Alley Session with us at this year's 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
Rank #11: Folk Alley Sessions: Maya de Vitry
Sometimes even the very best laid plans go a bit awry. And singer/songwriter Maya de Vitry knows that firsthand. A talented fiddler who spent her childhood writing stories and poems, she always figured she’d participate in music in the background. As she got older, however, she realized a whole new world was wide open to her – the world of a singer and songwriter. While that discovery was truly magical, she says, she put it on the back burner for several years to participate in the renowned band The Stray Birds. But now, she’s front and center once again, ready to embrace her voice, her vision, her…SELF.
Maya de Vitry joined us in the studio to share some eye-opening thoughts about what it really took to put together her debut solo album, Adaptations, during a recent session in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rank #12: Folk Alley Sessions: Kaia Kater
(Session originally published in September, 2015)
Born in Quebec of mixed Afro-Caribbean ancestry, Kaia Kater, resides in Toronto and spends extensive time in West Virginia, where she ardently studies balladry and traditional dance. As an original songwriter, she works to incorporate her perspective as one of the few people of color in roots music into the complex racial history of the traditions themselves. Her music combines beautifully subtle old-time banjo with soft sensibilities, mixing elements of both Canadian and American historical traditions with a decidedly modern sound.
Kaia was born into the folk music scene. Her mother is a festival director and she learned to play clawhammer banjo at age 11 from Mitch Podolak (founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival). Now, the Canadian native is studying the Appalachian folk traditions in West Virginia and connecting with the work of a range of artists - from old-time musician Dom Flemons to hitmaker Kendrick Lemar. A star in the making, Kaia stopped by the studios of Beehive Productions in Saranac Lake, New York to play a few songs from her debut release, 'Sorrow Bound.'
Rank #13: Folk Alley Sessions at 30A: Lilly Winwood
There was never a definitive moment when Lilly Winwood decided to become a musician, rather, she says, it was something that was always a part of her - part of the person she knew she always wanted to be. It probably helped that she grew up surrounded by music - her mother is from Nashville and her father, Steve Winwood, is known for his work with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, etc. And Lilly says, she was the odd one out in her group of friends - the one who always listened to Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, and Led Zeppelin. Through those experiences she has developed a sound that is wholly her own.
Lilly Winwood describes her 2017 debut EP, ‘Silver Stage' as her “coming of age album,” and tells us about it in an exclusive Folk Alley Session performance recorded at the 2018 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
Rank #14: 2017 30A Songwriters Festival: Sarah Lee Guthrie
As Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie's lineage is undeniable. But if you close your eyes and forget that her last name is synonymous with the river-legacy of a widening current of American folk music, you'd still be drawn to the clarity and soul behind her voice. There is a gentle urgency to her interpretations of the songs she sings and the classic music of her heritage.
Over the last two decades on the road and in the studio, she and her husband Johnny Irion have created a signature pop-fused folk-rock sound that is appealing and engaging. Now, she's out solo for the first time, giving full and glorious attention to the folk music that is her birthright, and traveling with the Hoping Machine, singing the songs that have empowered people during trying times.
Sarah Lee sat down with Folk Alley at the 2017 30A Songwriters Festival to play some songs and talk about this exciting new turn in her life.