Eighteen months is not, these days, very long to wait for any artist’s new album, but there is still something very satisfying about that sense of impatience you start to feel when you know there’s something shifting in the undergrowth, but it’s going to be a little while longer before it is revealed.
Fans of Minneapolis singer Ellie Bryan know what I mean. It was back in July 2012... yes, all that time ago!... that her debut album Am I Born To Die was released by the local Old-Fashioned label, and introduced us to one of the most dynamic and adventurous voices on the US folk scene today.
A collection of traditional ballads, performed with one eye on those glorious old Buffy St Marie albums of which we should all own a few, but reaching out from there to gnaw on a host of later influences, Am I Born To Die sets Bryan’s deliciously pristine vocals against a soundtrack that is “folk” in the same way that the likes of Anaïs Mitchell and Linda Thompson are folk. You know it’s the root, and you know it’s in the air. But to focus on that is to overlook so much more, and the fact that the backing is so dramatically sparse just adds further weight to its complexity.
A musical background as a child did not necessarily prepare Bryan for her career; she admits that her high school years saw her “focusing very intensely on various mediums of visual art... I was creating very little musically. Singing was something I always did in the privacy of my room where no one could hear.”
Her musical tastes changed as she passed through her teens. “I went from enjoying pop (or pretty much whatever was playing on the radio) as a child, to heavy metal in middle and high school as an angsty teenager.” Then a cousin introduced her to Buffy’s Its My Way, “and it essentially played on repeat in both of our stereos, computers, and cars for a year.”
Still a staggering album from start to finish, It’s My Way (followed by a slew of its successors) did more than introduce Bryan to folk. It also introduced her to the instrument that is among the most haunting centerpieces of Am I Born To Die, the Mouth Bow: “a twangy single-note drone instrument that resonated similarly to a jaw harp (which at the time I hadn't heard of either).
“I was intrigued and interested in this instrument that looked like a hunting bow but seemed both very easy to play and make. As an artist working in ceramics and photography at the time, instrument making was something completely different that I had no experience in (but a mild interest), so I though I would experiment with this simple instrument to see what I could come up with.”
Her first efforts, utilizing sticks and guitar strings, failed. “But through trial and error, I was able to come up with a decent bow and began to learn how to play it. After a few months of practice (and looking kind of like a crazy person holding a stick up to their face) I had it down, and began singing.”
She started out “with a few songs from Buffy's repertoire such as ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘Waly Waly,’ and from there began to do research to find new songs. The next few years were a bit of a whirlwind; while attending college for ceramic arts, I spent most of my free time in my bedroom researching songs on Youtube and educating myself on old time traditional folk and other folk instruments. By the time I was twenty I owned an Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, and by twenty-one, I bought my first banjo.”
Am I Born To Die is a magnificent achievement, not only as a performance but also via Bryan’s ability to breathe an entire new life force into traditional songs that, let’s face it, have been performed and recorded by more or less every folk singer on both sides of the Atlantic for ... well, hundreds of years, to be honest, but let’s just stick to the eight decades or so that people have been recording them. Skip down Bryan’s track listing, and she reaches deep into that heritage. And then, it seems, overlooks every lesson taught by past masters, and offers up her an interpretation that is uniquely her own.
“Bawbee Allen,” for example. “Throughout my years of experimenting with old folk songs... the endless googling of ‘public domain folk songs’... the ones that tell stories had always appealed to me the most.” “Bawbee Allen” is “a tragic love story that spoke to me, and learning that the somewhat modern and well known folk song ‘Barbara Allen’ was based on it added to the appeal of it. When I perform ‘Bawbee Allen,’ I like to introduce it as an older version of ‘a song you probably know,’ how the story developed over time in Europe as opposed to its interpretation in America.”
“Waly Waly,” “Peggy Gordon,” “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Wayfaring Stranger”... there are so many drop-dead gorgeous highlights across the album; Bryan herself describes “Sheath and Knife” as “one of the most emotionally charged ballads I have ever performed or recorded”; it is also, of course, one of the so-called Child Ballds, collected by (and named for) the 19th century American folklorist James Child, and Bryan admits to being spellbound by that catalog.
“Child Ballads have always had a certain something to them that I haven't quite felt when researching other traditional songs. An ancient, raw, emotional quality that takes me back in time, transports me, to think of who these stories are about, and what happened to them. Something just different, spiritual perhaps, but certainly emotional, heavy, and ancient.”
She’s not alone in that belief, either; earlier this year, Jefferson Hamer and Anaïs Mitchell dedicated an entire album to the Child Ballads, and they too shifted what could have been a heap of hoary fossils into a brand new, wholly modern, focus. It was, Hamer told Goldmine earlier this year, probably just a one-off; they have no plans to revisit the songbook again, and Ellie Bryan says the same thing.
“For now there are no specific plans to record more Child Ballads, but I like to follow my musical endeavors to where ever they take me. Perhaps in a year's time I'll be back on Youtube looking for material for another traditional album, perhaps I'll be writing more of my own. We'll see.”
In the meantime, there is a new album to await... the evocatively titled Crow Call, “my original songs written on the banjo but heavily influenced by story telling, traditional folk, pagan spirituality... and metal.” It should be out this summer, but if you want to help hurry things along, here's how you do it.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com