Hi Rita. How is everything?
Things are going nicely, thanks. I’m excited to be releasing Come Sunrise in the UK, and also about coming there this summer. It will be my first trip there.
Come Sunrise is your third album. Where do you see this musical journey taking you?
Places like the UK! Really though, I never can see exactly where this musical journey is taking me, besides to a place where I am more and more involved in songwriting and music. That looks like a good place, a place where I feel closer and more comfortable with the art, but also a place with a lot of dark alleyways.
Quite a lot of the reviews I've read seem to focus on you being from California the fact that you don't actually sound very Californian. However, do you think this background has some sort of influence on you as a songwriter?
It’s common that folks think of California as in L.A., Hollywood, etc.. I’d never been to any of those places till I was a teenager. We had to move down south to the L.A. area for nearly a year when I was 16, for my father’s job--it was a complete culture shock and we were all miserable. California is a vast state, with incredible physical and cultural diversity. I’m from the Northern California mountains, many hours of driving from any major city. It was a two hour bus ride to my high school.
To me, I sound Californian—we listened to country, and the only live music I experienced as a child was at church, and the old-time musicians that lived in our area. I didn’t even know it was called “old-time” music until as an adult, I went to a bluegrass camp in the Sierra Nevadas and heard an older gentleman and Californian, Kenny Hall, playing. I was so excited and exclaimed—this is the music I heard at home! Then I was told, this is “old-time.” Glory be, now we have a name for it!
When you think about the history of Westward movement in the U.S., you realize that immigrants from the east coast, Midwest, and Appalachia settled here, and brought their culture with them. In rural areas, many of those traditions survived. My paternal grandmother’s family came by covered wagon to southern Oregon—she was named Lois Virginia after her family’s homeland. Sadly, many of the folks who played that old stuff have died away, I don’t think there are many left now, in the area where I grew up, but I could be wrong. But I hear of organizations, and folks like Kenny, who keep it alive in the mountains further south, east of Fresno.
Maybe that’s one reason I took up playing again. They tried to teach us some of it—we had a band when I was young that was an all-girl, old-time band—we were apprentices of sorts to the Mountaineers, a group there. It was led by our school cook, a wonderful, talented and hardworking lady named Pauline. I played washboard and sang a lot.
I don’t expect people to know that about California, but I feel obligated to explain. Heck, England is all about castles, the Beatles, and Princess Di, right?
Well, that and black pudding. How would you characterize rural California when it comes to folk and country music? I've only been to L.A and apart from the Bakersfield-scene, I really have no idea of the musical environment outside of those cities.
Rural California, at least the parts I know of, have a real love for folk and country. Problem with some parts is that they just don’t hear enough of the good stuff nowadays. However, I now see many young people in the more suburban and urban areas getting involved in it. I know of several young people (teens and 20’s) who are learning banjo right now. Well, in Kentucky or North Carolina, you might say, so what? But around here, it’s a real change.
California’s rural areas have been intensively used—heavy agriculture, logging, mining, fishing, we have a fascinating history of diverse cultures.
And so we do have a very valuable inheritance here from country and bluegrass and folk musicians, many who came here during times of major immigration—Gold Rush, the Great Depression, etc… We’ve had/got Buck Owens, Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers, Vern Williams, Merle Haggard, Kate Wolf, Mary McCaslin, Utah Phillips, and many more. With the influence of L.A. in the south, we’ve had these crazy awesome punk-infused country'ish sounds, like the band X, lots of rockabilly, and a Mexican influence.
You recorded the album in Austin, Texas, surrounded by a cast of very talented players. Why did you choose to record the album in Austin and what was the experience like?
I wanted to have an experienced producer for this record—I wanted to see how it would sound if my songs had equal treatment to that of so much good music I hear on the radio. When faced with choices between “music cities,”—L.A. was scratched off first. Austin seemed to be the closest musical cousin to my sound, and Nashville had a reputation for being, well, very competitive and a little stuffy. I was so glad I chose Austin and Rich Brotherton—Austin is the most friendly, musical, supportive, non-competitive community. And Rich Brotherton is a gem among them.
Rich works for Robert Earl Keen, he’s been in his band for over 15 years, now, I think, and he’s produced a couple albums for him, too. The production that caught my ear, though, was Rich’s work on Caroline Herring’s Lantana (as well as Twilight.)
The experience was great—we holed up in Rich’s studio for many hours on end and had a great time. Hearing the tunes unfold as they did was very exciting, and I learned a ton about studio work and studio musicians. He had a trampoline out back that I jumped on when I needed to.
How do you think your ancestry has influenced you as a songwriter?
Well, one has to be careful not to let ancestry become some kind of adolescent-like obsession—I consider my real ancestry to be more my upbringing, my parent’s personalities, and so on. However, I often make some reference to it in my bios, etc.. because it helps make for a good story, and tells something about me and my background. I like to write “family history” songs, and songs with elements of the past, which at times, seems just as relevant as the present or future.
My paternal great grandparents came from Cornwall. Pop, my great-grandpa, was a singer (and drummer in a pipe corps,) and he sang with a group of miners in Grass Valley, CA. They became unifying cultural force for Cornish there, and mining families in general. Shortly before we joined WWII, (and the British were being bombed,) they sang Cornish Carols on national radio from underground in the mines in Grass Valley. We have recordings of that performance as well as others that my father would bring out only at Christmas. He would demand silence, stillness, and reverence for the music from us, as we would listen and he would inevitably get choked up. It was painful and beautifully moving for him, and I learned that. I learned that music and singing hold immense power and dignity. There were other musicians on his mother’s side, too, travelling minstrels and such. He has that in him, but has never had the time to pursue it. Well, maybe now he has time.
My mother is very musically and artistically talented, and was musically active in her youth and at church. I fell asleep many times on the pews while waiting for choir practice to be over. She plays piano or organ and flute, and also has a lovely alto voice. We had an old upright piano in my room for while when I was a child (I guess that’s just where we had space for it,) and sometimes she would play and sing for us at bedtime. She is mixed-blood European and American Indian. I just wrote a song inspired by her called “Indian Giver.”
I think of music often as a form of language that tells an emotional history—it transports memories of feelings, and that can happen over many generations.
I'm having a hard time "labeling" you (it's what writers like me like to do). You're country with a lot of folk, a bit of bluegrass and some old-time thrown in the mix. I may be way off here, but where do you find your voice when it comes to songwriting? How would you label yourself, if I asked you to do so? Which I am...
I’d say you’re right on there—who needs one-word labeling? I think that on my various promo sources I have “country-folk,” “Americana-folk,” “country-folk-grass,” and so on. I don’t like the idea of having to be stuck in the definition of one genre, so maybe that’s why it’s such a slippery task. Though plain old “Americana” has been handy.
Come Sunrise was nominated for best country album at the Independent Music Awards. Congratulations on that. It also got me thinking about the Grammy Awards and how country and folk music seem to be getting more attention today among wider audiences than just ten years ago (before the O'Brother ball got rolling). Do you think that's true? Is the scene for rural American songwriting getting bigger?
Ah yes, speaking of labels earlier, I was pleased to hear that the Grammies were adding on an “Americana” category last year. However, when I went eagerly to apply, I found the definition of the genre category to include a “full electric band.” Now, that’s not how I think of Americana—I find it more encompassing of acoustic or semi-acoustic sounds, too. So there you have it, I had to choose between Americana (no full electric band here,) Country (Toby Keith? I don’t think so,) or Contemporary Folk (Richard Shindell watch out.) Not the best of choices for me, but still an advancement in a positive direction.
I didn’t even know I’d been nominated for the Independent Music Awards “Best Country Album” when the lists came out, because I hadn’t thought to look in that category! I only looked at Americana, folk, alt-country. A fan pointed it out to me. It was of course great, I’m very honored, all the same.
I’m not sure I can make a real educated guess about the size of the songwriting scene over time, it’s still fairly new to me.
Rachel Harrington, another fine singer, once told me this joke. "How do you make 200 dollars in bluegrass? You start out with 400". Aside from being the only bluegrass-joke I've ever heard, is there also some truth to it? Does one have to do this for the love of it and not for the money?
Absolutely there’s truth in that. Just like any business, you have to start out with something to make something back. I’ve invested the whole of my savings in my three records, and I’m hoping to make that back. In the meanwhile, they help generate enough income to pay for groceries and gas money for my family. There are certainly folks out there who are doing well and music is their primary income, providing for their families and living comfortably. They are rare birds in the big sky, though. Something to shoot for. Er, not the birds, the income.
Final question. There's a lot of talented female songwriters out there, wandering the same "musical woods" as you. Does this resurgence in folk music make you more competitive as a songwriter AND a business person?
Agreed, lots of talent, female and male, out there, wandering the same woods. However I rarely if ever meet anyone who is not kind and very supportive of their fellow songwriters. We all know it’s a very tough business, and if anything we need to be there for each other, not get in the way.
I shy away from the idea of competition in music—the song contests I’ve been in have been a bit excruciating, I get completely stressed out, my neck gets stiff, it doesn’t feel good and leaves everyone feeling weird afterwards. We do it because we need the exposure, the prize money, the festival slot, but I’ll wager that not many writers really like doing it.
Becoming a business person via music has been really interesting, and strangely enjoyable to me. Because I’m so motivated, I love learning about it and having some small successes. A lot of that success is about networks, connections—it doesn’t help to alienate your peers. And I’ve gained a lot of respect for booking agents—a very difficult job. My past job was junior high school history teacher, quite a separate world from “moving product” or promoting yourself.
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking too much about those other amazing writers, how many records you haven’t sold yet, why such and such festival booked so and so, etc…, it’s a challenge to have enough time to work on your music. If you don’t have great music, you have no business. It’s quite a balancing act, but I must say I like it better than grading 150 essays!
Rita Hosking’s Come Sunrise is out now. Go to ritahosking.com for more info.