What is your songwriting process like, and how much of it is improvisation?
I usually start out with a melody line fairly firmly entrenched in my head. I have a tendency to develop the outlines in my thoughts for the basic structure of the material. I work out the basic melody lines, rhythms, what instrument I plan on using for the focus inside first. When I sit down and begin recording I really think the music takes over in a sense. I begin following a path that I've mentally laid out but often times that amazing mistake happens which leads me into a whole new direction. All of my lead work surrounding a melody is improvised, and I basically work something over until the improvisation forms a whole.
When I'm recording I don't use virtual tracks. I've never had any luck in using parts of different solo's on a piece patched together. I may break the piece into sections and work that section until I have what I want and move on to the next segment or I run my solo work straight through the entire piece until it's what I want. I do quite a bit of my backgrounds on the fly---I'll try this instrument or that one until I get the sound that I want. I guess I have a tendency to go with what sounds right for the piece, what fits, as compared to what is musically correct.
The last cut on The Properties of Mercy--- Playing without a Net was under consideration for a while by Kathi Blackie Productions in Hollywood for a soundtrack. They were looking for a, this is no joke, new age striptease number, as they described it. That piece was totally improvised. I had no idea what I was going to do when I sat down and I think I did it all in a single day. For a piece that was totally improvised that's not bad. But on the other hand there are pieces I write that are for the most part completely written in my head before I sit down to do them---One Tango, No Dancing is off Cultivation is an example of me laying out the complete piece inside. For the most part I feel like I know what I want to play. It's a matter of finding the right instrument, the right feeling and joining the music together.
Explain the connection between Robert Johnson and medieval dance music.
Robert Johnson's Alman which I recorded on The Cultivation of Grace I originally used as a practice piece and then started putting it into my solo work. Robert Johnson was a 15th Century English Composer who traveled between aristocratic holdings in England performing and composing for his living. The Alman was sort of a generic term for this style of music which could be played solo or as with an ensemble and was designed for dancing in the styles of the times. Since upper class dancing was serene, delicate and a group endeavor, fashionable at the time, the music apparently needed to last for awhile. These types of pieces were constructed almost as a "round" so that the basic structure of the song remained the same but almost unlimited repeats could be run by the musicians. I'd read where musicians of the time improvised over the basic structure and the combination of a repeating structure, improvisation, musicians on the road and last but not least the name of Robert Johnson reminded me immediately of the blues.
I really like the nature and simplicity of the piece and since it was originally written for the lute it has an unusual flavor when done on the guitar. I somehow managed to include on each of my cd's a small classical piece that is used primarily as a practice exercise or study tool for classical guitar students. I seem to have developed my own semi-classical styling and I think that many of these kind of pieces which ardent often considered by "real" classical guitarists to be played on recordings are extremely beautiful. On The Properties of Mercy I used a little piece by Fernando Sor an Etude that is considered an exercise. These types of pieces are just beautiful and I like to put them out so that people can hear them without the stigma of "classical" attached to them.
Tell us about your many different instruments.
I love to talk about instruments. The guitar is always first for me. I am insane about guitar tone---I play 12 strings, resonators, classical, flamenco, steel string acoustic electrics, and regular electric. Each type of guitar requires a different technique and styling to get the most out of it. The guitar is absolutely my first love and I can never have too many guitars. The guitar is my absolute favorite instrument. I've been playing a pair of Rick Turner Renaissance guitars in both nylon and steel string versions for awhile now and am hooked on them. When I play live with Local Fourcast I keep a rack of guitars onstage. I am a fanatic about finding the right guitar and the right tone for a song. I'm also a very percussive guitar player, I have a tendency to really drive rhythms especially so live. A guitar has to be able to stand up to me when I play live.
Because I record by myself I cannot do what I do without Roland's GR system of guitar synthesizers. On a guitar with them I can do any almost any instrument, or a background sweep pad and provide depth and texture to my live work and especially my recordings and still be a guitarist. I've played the mandolin and the octave mandolin for a couple of years now and am playing it more and more in my band since the mandolin adds a melody and a flavor that nothing else can approach so the mandolin is third. I like the way you can go from an Americana sound to an Arabic flavor with the mandolin at the drop of a hat.
I just got a Chapman Stick and have begun working with it and I think the stick has amazing potential for me as a background instrument. I can't see me using is as a solo instrument but I already have two pieces written in my head that I plan on doing the background bass/rhythm lines with it on the new cd.