TMF meets Abigail Washburn

One thing you can't accuse American folk singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn of is a lack of variety. Content not just with releasing solo efforts (the second of which, City Of Refuge, came out earlier this year), she has also performed and recorded with all-women Americana group Uncle Earl and with acoustic bluegrass outfit The Sparrow Quartet. Notable not just for her expertise with a clawhammer banjo, Abigail also recorded two tracks on her debut solo LP, Songs Of The Traveling Daughter, in Mandarin Chinese which she had learned during her years living in China.

Quite simply, we felt that we had to learn more about her and felt that you should too, so with a trip back to the UK imminent for some live dates, it seemed like the perfect time...

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For our readers that might not have heard of you before, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into music?

I'm a banjo player, singer, songwriter and clogger who sings traditional and original songs in English and Chinese. I never thought I would be this.

As for my story of how I became a touring musician... I always sang in school and community choirs (never chosen for the leads although I would try out) but it wasn't until I had spent several years in China that I realized I wanted to learn a stringed instrument, specifically the banjo because of its ties to traditional US culture. I had spent so much time studying and loving China that one day I woke up and realised that I hardly knew a thing about my own trad cultural roots. The banjo is the perfect window into US roots music because it arrived with the earliest immigrants and evolved into a beloved and statedly "American" sound. Strangely I had a reverse experience from most musicians in terms of my path to the stage and professional musician status and writing. I was literally "chosen".

I was on a "farewell to America" road trip along the east coast (before I moved to Beijing to go to Chinese law school), soaking in the sights and sounds of Appalachia and learning a few banjo tunes along the way. My last stop was Louisville, KY for a Bluegrass convention. I brought in my banjo but spent most of the time listening to other people jam in the hallways of the convention center. After randomly connecting with several young women, we sat down in an elevator lobby and played through the few tunes I knew. An A&R rep from a record company walked by at that moment and asked if I would come to Nashville to cut a demo for their record company! It blew my mind and changed my life forever. I started writing songs and learning how to play music on mic at that point. I really started to become a performer with the band Uncle Earl when I started touring with them six months or so after the star-aligned shift from sinophile to musician. Now I've released two EPs and two records with Uncle Earl, an EP and a record with The Sparrow Quartet, and have released two solo records. I've also toured China, US and Canada. It's all a total surprise!

You worked with Tucker Martine on City Of Refuge. How did that collaboration come about?

I wasn't sure what I was going to do after I had left Uncle Earl and The Sparrow Quartet ended. I knew I wanted to explore a new direction outside of the community of acoustic musicians I had worked with to date and I knew I wanted to find a producer who would help me reach into new parts of my creativity both in song writing and recording. I met with a number of producers, but after a walk along the river with Tucker one summer afternoon in Portland, OR, I knew I'd found a great fit, and I guess he thought so too.

Tucker brought a whole new transformative set of expectations and ideas to my musical orientation and the recording process... he wanted live, intuited beauty to fill the sonic landscape of this record as opposed to music driven by tradition (Uncle Earl) or intentional composed continuity & improvisation (Sparrow Quartet). For the first time I felt a real freedom to base the music on what felt right, what felt beautiful and promising for the hopes of the song itself... it allowed for magic and spontaneity. It also opened the music up to a community of musical contributors. And between Tucker, Kai Welch (co-creator of City Of Refuge) and myself, we amassed a group of musicians that had never met, much less had any chance to know much about the others' music. The players ranged from classic and progressive acoustic string players, traditional Chinese musicians, Mongolian musicians, experimental rockers and choirs of people who didn't even think they could sing. We put each song up on a canvass and added colors and dimension... sonic landscapes unfolded.

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You also worked with a variety of different artists, including The Decemberists’ Chris Funk, on the album as well. On that note, which three artists would compose of your dream recording session?

Depends what moment you ask me. Right now I'd say that i'd need to bring a few back from the grave: Blind Willie Johnson, Zhou Xuan and Louis Armstrong.

Is your solo career now your focus or are there more plans to make new albums with either The Sparrow Project or Uncle Earl?

No plans at the moment to record with Uncle Earl or Sparrow Quartet but I love all those folks and hope I get to make music with all of them for the rest of my days.

You’re set to play the likes of the Cambridge Folk Festival and WOMAD over the summer, any plans for other festival slots?

I've gotten to play Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Telluride Festival so far. Looking forward to Lincoln Center outdoor festival (NY) in August as well as the other UK fests (Southern Fried, Perth and Summertyne, Gateshead).

Not every artist you meet can write songs in Chinese, any other interesting tidbits that our readers should know about you?

I was a lobbyist in state government for 3 years in Montpelier, VT. I've always taught English-as-a-Second-Language off and on. I'm known by friends to do yoga anywhere anytime, even headstands in airports and warrior poses in the middle of airplanes. I worked at an AIDS Hospice for 3 years throughout high school.

And finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2011 and do they include working towards a new album?

Already writing songs and thinking about it all... but eager to keep playing the music from City Of Refuge live for new audiences.

You can catch Abigail Washburn playing at the following events: Summer Tyne Festival - Gateshead (July 23rd); Cargo w/Nathaniel Rateliff - London (July 27th); Womad - Wiltshire (July 29th); Cambridge Folk Festival (July 30th-31st). City Of Refuge is out now on Rounder Records.

Last updated: 18/04/2018 11:50:26

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