Writing a compelling story is a tricky task. Writing tunes that sound good from the first listen is a huge challenge. Doing both at once is near impossible. Perhaps that’s why there have been so few decent operas in the last century or two.
I caught up with her to pump some more information out of her.
How long have you been playing the ukulele and how did you get started?
In December of 2008 I was recording some of my friends songs down in Los Angeles, and another friend lent me her uke in case we needed to use it on the songs. I had never played, and didn’t know the proper tuning or the chords patterns, but I just tuned it to an open G and wrote my first uke song two days later. (The exact version you hear in the video of “Why Do They Cry?”) It was love at first strum.
Can you tell us a bit about the Folk Opera, the idea behind it and the story.
The Folk Opera is a story about folks, using folk music to tell the story in an operatic form where everything is sung. It is both a comedy, a tragedy and a love story (between two elders). It is mostly a story about loss – of memory, time, people and places – but also contains within it (as all good tragedies do I think) the kernel of its own triumph.
I don’t know why I wrote it. I just decided I was going to write a folk opera while I was traveling – thought I was making the genre up, turns out I was not. But the story came from two disparate experiences from my earlier years that became the plot around which I created characters, relationships, emotions and histories.
I’ve read The Folk Opera was created during a 6-week trip to the Middle East and Southern Africa. How did these places influence its writing?
The two places influenced the writing in that they gave me a place far away from the life I am so entrenched in here at home. Musically, I deliberately rejected any outside influence as I was trying to stay true to the Americana Folk style. But then of course there was the beauty and the stark different-ness of the two places, which always piques and heightens my creativity.
How is the Folk Opera different from your other performances?
My other project – with a band I call the OSHEN – is pretty much rock n roll. There are some folk/Americana influences for sure, but it’s mostly rock. The instrumentation is almost all electric, and I play the guitar. Also the music I write for the OSHEN is typically very personal and reflective on my own life and experiences while the Folk Opera was a world entirely without myself, and entirely acoustic. Right now it’s performed with ukulele, upright acoustic bass, and fiddle with 3 different singers.
In addition to my own projects I sing with the Elationists Centennial Band (www.elationists.org), and with Savannah Jo Lack (www.savannahjolack.com), and I play upright bass with Wolf + Crow (www.myspace.com/wolf.n.crow). In all of these I am a player only and not a songwriter, which provides a nice balance to the other projects.
What was your most unforgettable experience with regards to the Folk Opera?
Two things come to mind:
First, a most memorable morning while I was staying at a friend’s place in northern Namibia in a little cottage on the Teachers’ College campus. Late in the morning I woke up humming melodies and with twitching fingers. I barely had time to get my computer open to record what was coming out. With Africa out my window, three songs (one of which I think is the best song in the Folk Opera) just rushed out in a matter of minutes, as though my fingers knew the chords, and my lips knew the words from a long time ago.
The second was after a performance we did at a little spot in San Francisco. It was not our best show ever – things were loose for sure. But at the end the drummer for the band playing after us came up to me and he had tears streaming down his face and he was just looking at me, like he didn’t even know what to say but felt compelled by the enormity of his emotion to try to say something. My goal with all of my music is to make people feel things (anything) and this was a stunning moment of realizing success in my goal.
What plans have you got for The Folk Opera and for your own music?
For the Folk Opera our plan is to get it on a stage in the next year. There are still a couple of more songs to write to really flesh out the body of it and to bring it to full length. There’s also a lot of orchestration left to get down. I think one of the ideas is to get it on A Prairie Home Companion, a popular radio show here in the States. Ultimately, though, I want to put it down in such a way that anyone anywhere can pick it up and perform the whole thing completely on their own.
As for the OSHEN – I’m just back from a West Coast tour. The plan here is to just keep playing as long as people will keep listening. More recording, touring, writing, performing; lather, rinse and repeat.
If you want to make sure the opera makes it onto vinyl you can pre-order stuff via Kickstarter (I have done so I can wholeheartedly recommend you do to).