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Abigail Washburn

A Conversation with Abigail Washburn (continued)

PM: And you were playing in a clawhammer style, or also in a bluegrass style?

AW: It was a frailing style. It was clawhammer. I didn't do much drop-thumb, I just didn't know about it at the time. But over the past two years I've tried really hard to study up and learn a lot.

PM: Yeah, you're playing pretty dang good clawhammer now.

AW: It's coming, coming along. Long ways to go, but I've had some great people to study with. So I just had a lot of really great fortune.

I actually would say that the label came before the idea of the record, because I was not thinking I wanted to do music. So, Nettwerk Records... I was lucky enough to be in a coffee shop, and this woman told me she liked my shirt, and we started talking. She ended up being A&R for Nettwerk. And I didn't have a demo at that point, but I had recorded three songs. And she said I seemed like a musician, because when she asked me what I did, I said, "Well, I work for a biotech company." And I said, "Well, I also play some music." She was like, "I like your vibe. If you ever want to send me some of your stuff..." She gave me her card. And it sort of became the impetus for actually putting together a viable EP.

PM: And who was the Nettwerk person, the A&R person?

AW: Her name is Janet Weir. She's still at Nettwerk. She also manages.

PM: And what coffee shop did she find you in?

AW: Fido.

PM: In Fido, wow. ["The office," as some of us call it.]

AW: Yeah. And we had some connections through bands that I knew and stuff like that, so there were some things to talk about. But yeah, so that basically made me buckle down and finish up an EP. I sent her some tracks before the EP was done. And I never heard from her. So I just kind of figured, oh well. But then I finished the EP, and I gave it Sugar Hill, and they liked it. And so I said, "Well, I guess I'll send it to that woman at Nettwerk again." And this time it had graphics and everything, and more songs. And I heard back from her immediately. She called and she said, "Get a lawyer. We want to sign you."

PM: Wow.

AW: Yeah!

PM: You must have flipped out.

AW: I totally did. I was still working at the biotech company, sort of trying to figure things out, and thinking, "Oh, any day I could drop it and go back to China." That was sort of in my mind. I wasn't terribly attached to it, which I think actually freed me up to be very open to whatever happened.

PM: Right. And it kind of eliminated any desperation factor that can get your antennae on the wrong way.

AW: How very true! I was making decisions purely on what felt good and right, and if at any time it wasn't panning out, I was ready to do some other stuff. So at that point I had cut an EP and I started having some ideas about what direction I wanted to go in musically. At first I was very much in the old-time vein. But I was trying to write songs at the same time. My voice was starting to come out.

And then there was a bit of negotiating that happened between Sugar Hill and Nettwerk, and I ended up on Nettwerk, and suddenly I had a bunch of money. I've seen a lot of people make albums that are either hard to perform live or that they have to hire session musicians to perform live. And I really didn't want to be in that situation. I wanted every song to be about who I am and what I'm capable of doing, alone or in a group. That became the core of the album: these songs that I wrote, and arrangements that I can execute. Some of the sparseness and the simplicity of it literally have to do with where I am musically.

I felt the important thing would be the team that worked on the album. Because I've been in organizations, I've worked for businesses, and I had a sense of organizational structure and dynamics. Especially when you're doing something so emotional and creative, for me the team had to be a nucleus, sort of a family of people that I really believed in and trusted, and that every sound that came out of them I was going to like. The people were there to serve the music. But it was pretty easy, because I had met just the right people all along to ask to come be a part of it.

PM: Do you recall who you met first that actually became part of the record?

AW: Well, that one night at IBMA, I met Casey Driessen, Amanda Kowalski, and Megan Gregory, and they're all on the album.

PM: And what an amazing trio to have met.

AW: Yeah, they're incredible. Megan did a bunch of the vocals. Amanda plays bass, and Casey is the fiddler.

PM: And he's just one of the best guys to pick up a bow in any state.

AW: He's so great. Yeah, so they became my first friends, and the musicians that I thought of to be a part of it. Then I had the really good fortune of meeting The Duhks, at the first Uncle Earl festival we ever played together. And I totally fell for that band. They're so talented--I especially fell in love with the playing of Jordan McConnell, the guitar player.

PM: He's really something.

AW: Oh yeah. And plus, we just became such good friends. He's a wonderful person. So I wanted him and his sound to be on the record. And truthfully, we sat down and did pre-production one time. He happened to be in town with The Ducks recording their record, and Ben had a free weekend. I thought the record would basically be the three of us, if things worked out well with Ben. And that is really the idea, the core of it: the cello, guitar, and banjo sound.

Everything else would sort of be a texture or something that was added. But I was very skeptical of bringing anybody in that I didn't know personally and didn't really love and believe in. Even if you hear great things about some player or something like that, I was like, "I need to know this is a person I love."

PM: That's a very interesting instinct.

AW: Yeah. And I think that's going to stick. It's a very strong one.

PM: Well, it seems to have worked, doesn't it?

AW: It's a beautiful thing. It's got to be a lot about love, and you can feel that energy on any recording.

PM: That's how I've become about songwriting. If they're not a friend of mine, I don't want to just get together and write a song.

AW: Yeah. And music is very much a heart thing.

PM: Yes, incredibly personal.

AW: Yeah.   continue

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