One of the most vibrant and thrilling Americana albums of 2015 came from the New York-based husband-and-wife duo, Mike + Ruthy, with their release, Bright As You Can. The pair pay homage to folk music's finest while imaginatively constructing a path that's uniquely their own. Deeply embedded with roots elements sprinkled with flavors of Motown and R&B, the record offers a robust collection of invigorating and diverse tunes. Ruthy's commanding and distinctive voice and Mike's compelling storytelling create innovative and memorable songs resulting in a chemistry that's undeniable.
In this conversation, the couple discusses their contrasting songwriting techniques, why they include their children in all their artistic endeavors, and whether a song is ever truly finished.
In this conversation, the couple discusses their contrasting songwriting techniques, why they include their children in all their artistic endeavors, and whether a song is ever truly finished.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): Can you describe the best writing dynamic that works for the both of you?
Mike Merenda: Between us as collaborators, or just as individuals?
Songfacts: Both. You can start with either one.
Mike: I'm still doing the same approach to songwriting that I took as a 13-year-old kid, which is finding a place where I'm completely alone and then just fishing songs out of the ether. It's still my favorite way to do it.
I'm stubborn when it comes to actually collaborating with others, and especially in the formative stages of a song when it's just coming together. One of my favorite experiences as a person is just to find the song on my own. But now that we have two kids, it's harder to find that completely separated alone time. I seem to seek it out in little shards and write a song as soon as the opportunity arises.
Once I have my songs, they take a little longer now to finish because I don't always have the time to sit there and get it across the finish line in one sitting, but that's where the collaboration with Ruthy is most valuable. We often help each other get the song from 75 percent to 100 percent done. We're good finishers and sounding boards for the work that we've created on our own. It seems to be how our relationship as songwriters has evolved. We're the finishing touch experts for each other.
Ruthy Ungar: Yeah, that makes sense.
Songfacts: You're the same way, Ruthy?
Ruthy: No [laughs]. Mike, his muse comes when he's by himself, but for some reason songs occur to me in a busy, bustling New York avenue more than when I'm by myself. I've written a lot of songs while walking in the city or while driving with the radio on and NPR news is blaring in my ear. I don't know why, but it just seems I'm stimulated differently to write or to come up with ideas. That's not to say I don't sometimes like to sit down with just me and a piano or a guitar and write something.
But as far as collaboration, I do agree. It's fun when you have a song that you've essentially written but it's not done or it needs a bridge or another verse – that's when it's the most fun to collaborate. I don't think either of us have ever sat down in a room and done the collaborative songwriting thing where it was from zero. But both of us have iPhone voice memos and notebooks filled with pieces of songs that we like or just haven't had the chance or time to finish.
The past couple of years, I've come up with little exercises for writing songs. One of them I invented for a class. I taught a songwriting class at a ukulele weekend where the classes were pretty diverse and all different types of playing the uke. I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to do a songwriting on the uke class?" I just came up with this idea of writing a stream of consciousness using the alphabet. It was some kind of dorky songwriting game that would make you start and come up with ideas. Of course, I tried it and wrote a song that I really like.
What Mike and I do agree on is that the only way to write a song is to write a song. No two songs are necessarily coming from the exact same process. There's no right or wrong way. You just have to be 100 percent flexible to the way it's happening when it's happening. If it's not happening, try something else.
Mike: Yeah, because people do ask us all the time, "How do you write a song?" The only answer is just to do it. Whatever removes the obstacles from it happening is the right path.
It's always for me strumming a guitar, or more recently a banjo, on my own. I just enjoyed that so much as a kid. It was the key to an unknown utopia. Playing an instrument by myself was so unique because I didn't grow up with musicians in the house. So all of a sudden, I went from a kid who listened to the radio to a kid who could access this world that I didn't think was accessible to just normal people. But it turns out it is, and all you need is a couple of chords and there you are.
Songfacts: Let's talk about your latest release, Bright As You Can. The vocals vary on it. Mike, you sing lead on songs such as "Chasin' Gold" and "Cigarette" and then, Ruthy, you sing on other songs such as "Freckled Ocean" and "Goin' Out." And then you both sing simultaneously together on songs such as "What Are We Waiting For" and "The Farmer." How do you decide who sings what vocal parts?
Mike: Generally, the person who wrote the song is going to sing lead. Although, of course, there are exceptions to that.
Ruthy: The only exceptions are ones where Mike writes the song for me to sing. I don't think I've yet written a song for you to sing, have I?
Mike: Yeah, you should do that. It'd be fun.
"Rock on Little Jane" is a good example of something that just came out of the ether that I wrote. It just seemed like it was tailor-made for Ruthy to just go deep with it. She shines in that retro Motown or old country motif. She's just so good at accessing that place with her vocals. I don't know where the song came from - I never do - but I wasn't going to be the R&B singer on it. Ruthy can do that, so it wasn't calculated. It just appeared: Wouldn't this be good for someone who can do something like that? Oh, I happen to be married to that person.
I wrote "Bright As You Can" but then Ruthy helped me. We rewrote it together. I probably had it there and then Ruthy definitely made it better. It's the type of song that's right in her wheelhouse. So those are a couple of examples of something that I generated that just seemed to fit much better for her as a performer.
I would also say Ruthy is a singer, whereas I'm a guy who learned how to sing. So if there's a song that is maybe a little more demanding or can do more in the hands of someone more capable, it's a good idea to create an arrangement where Ruthy can sing the song. She's a powerhouse singer and sometimes that's what you want in your show is those showstoppers. She tends to deliver those much more frequently and more effortlessly than me.
I think where I shine is the guy whispering in the corner a bunch of lyrics that are strung together in a way that is unique. It's always been my forte: "What is that kid saying over there?" Lean in a little closer and like, "Who is that guy?" But I'm not the guy who's ever pointed out as the best singer in the room or the guy who's going to solicit the standing ovation. I'm more of just the shy kid in the corner who has a lot to say [laughs]. That's how I see myself.
Ruthy: I don't know about shy. You're a words guy.
Mike: Yeah, I'm a words guy, she's a chanteuse, and there we are.
Ruthy: And sometimes people compliment me on my "pipes" [laughs].
Songfacts: Well, you do have great pipes.
Mike: People are always asking me, "What does your band sound like? What does your music sound like?" Why is that the hardest question to answer? But I feel it's like Bob Dylan married to Nina Simone, somewhere in there – the guy who strings the words together who takes great pleasure in that and the woman who can just throw her head back and it just mellifluously flows from a place of effortlessness. That's Ruthy.
Songfacts: You already mentioned it, but let's discuss the first song, "Bright as You Can." What inspired that one and why did you name the whole record after it?
Mike: When I'm not just hoisting my antenna and seeing what's up there for writing a song, another thing I've started employing is thinking about the show because we do tour full time. It's our career and it's our livelihood. So sometimes I think, "What is our show missing? What sort of feel, energy, and tempo? What would be fun to be presenting?" I sometimes approach a song that way.
It's such an infectious feel – that fast, driving, fall on the floor – I guess people call it a bluegrass feel. But a rock and roll/bluegrass feel is something our old band, The Mammals – I don't want to say developed because we weren't the first to do it, but playing old-time string band music with a drummer was unique and still is now. It was a sound that we stumbled on with a traditional theme called "Fall on My Knees" that we used to close every concert. I usually don't take such a crass approach like that but my thought was, God, wouldn't it be great if Mike + Ruthy had a song like "Fall on My Knees" that just kicked ass and could close every concert and just stake our ground like that traditional song did for The Mammals.
So I entered the portal via that feeling. I started playing that feel and seeing what I could find in that feel, and it ended up being "Bright As You Can." But in a sense, it was like ripping off ourselves. We used to be known for doing this, so let's do that again [laughs].
Ruthy: I think what Mike's saying is that part of songwriting is the music part. We wanted to have this particular groove and energy. Sometimes Mike writes a song with just that in mind. It's kind of new. He didn't used to do that so much five years ago.
Mike: It's more and more lately. Five years or maybe even more because "Bright As You Can" is probably five years old at this point. Honestly, even though it's on our new record, it was written around 2010. I used to be much more stubborn about just letting the song be what it is, wherever it came from, unadulterated by my concepts of how it'll fit into a setlist or something like that. But anything that brings you to the table to find a song is the way to go. So I've tried to remove the obstacles and barriers as the years have ticked on.
The idea of people in Nashville being like, "Let's get together and write," it used to just make my stomach turn. How could anybody really approach songwriting that way? But why should I cross anything off the list? Any approach is valuable and I'm trying to keep a much more open mind as I get older about it, and file that under the same category.
Songfacts: And why did you decide to name the record after it?
Mike: We did wrestle with that for a long time. We had 20 songs recorded in that session and the record could have gone a few different ways. I guess thematically and feel-wise it could have been a much mellower, late-night sounding record if we chose more of those types of songs. But one of our goals with this record was to keep things festive and celebratory and to create music that would play well on bigger stages, like festival stages.
Our old band, The Mammals, used to clean up at festivals. Since we downsized to a duo, even when we were occasionally doing full band shows and it was called Mike + Ruthy, the perception was that we were smaller and playing more intimate shows. So we found that it was harder to get back on the festival circuit.
We said in a calculated way, "Let's make a record that appeals to the festival scene and a repertoire that is well suited for a big stage." It meant getting the band together and a lot of things, but of the songs that we had to choose from Bright As You Can just seemed to be the through-line. It was the stick-to-iveness. It was the journey. It was the way that it plays against the darker songs like "Cigarette." It just holds that up to any of the songs on the record. "Chasin' Gold," "Golden Eye" - they were all laced with some sort of light that was either being smothered and trying to get through or light that was shining brightly. It just seemed like the perfect header for this body of work.
Songfacts: In "Bright As You Can," the song begins with the lyrics, "Well, my mother, she once told me, you got to be as bright as you can. My father, he once told me, you got to be as strong as you can." And the album ends with the song "When the Sun Comes Around" and it starts with the lyrics, "Don't hold me Momma, don't me scold me Poppa, I'm just a woman with a broken heart."
Mike: Wow. Very astute.
Songfacts: Is there a story or correlation between those two songs and did you place them in those spots on purpose?
Ruthy: Well, in a sense. When they were written there was no correlation or concept. I find the whole mother/father language in songs can be a little overdone and a little bit of a cliché in a way [laughs]. It is very astute that you noticed that.
The way we placed them on the record was definitely purposeful in that having "When the Sun Comes Around" on the record at all was in debate. That one and "Cigarette" seem like they may be from some after party album or some other moody album. But we decided to put them on and I'm so glad we did because those two are both requested at shows. They are a lot of people's favorite songs and do provide a lot of different texture for the record. So I'm glad they're on there.
When we put "When the Sun Comes Around" last, I liked the way that when the record loops back to the top at the end of "When the Sun Comes Around" you hear the beginning of "Bright As You Can," and to me that's how they connect. I love hearing "When the Sun Comes Around," which is at its core supposed to be an uplifting song, but from a depressed place. So here I am in the doldrums knowing that eventually the sun will shine. When you get to the end of that and then immediately hear a pumping energy in "Bright as You Can," which is basically a mantra of staying positive and taking lessons where you can find them.
So I love how they sit together in that order. It makes me want to hear the whole record again because it loops around and then I don't want to turn it off right away because this one's bringing me out of the sadder song. I love that and I never really thought about the mother/father thing being in both of them. It's kind of funny.
We did notice a few other repetitive images but I did not even notice that one.
Mike: Yeah, you're the first one to point that out. It was just simpatico or something. I like that you pointed that out, but it wasn't calculated.
Ruthy: Yeah, it wasn't at all. One of themes that I'm trying to wrestle with and not overdo with our next batch of songs that we've been working on is the theme of death. In bluegrass music and old-time music, there's so many "when I die" kind of songs: "live life to the fullest while we're all still here" or "I'll meet my mother on the other side" kind of songs. That stuff keeps coming up. We just keep writing these songs.
Even on Bright As You Can in "Cigarette" Mike says, "When I'm dead and gone I want to leave something golden behind for you." It's a beautiful tiny little moment that refers to that sentiment. It keeps popping up and I keep writing more and more songs. I'm like, "Oh my god, we can't make an album that's all about how meaningful life is and we have to do it all before we die" [laughs]. I just don't want the whole record to be like that.
It is a universal sentiment that comes out. When you look at the top baby names across the country, why are all these parents from coast to coast naming their girls Emma and their boys Liam? I don't know but it's just universal. So maybe there's something like that going on with what we're thinking about. Why Mike and I are like, "Wait, you wrote a song about that too?" or a lyric about it.
Mike: Yeah, it could just be what's out there. I've been trying to wean myself off the, "This is how I do it and I don't do it the other ways." Generally, I don't sit down like, "Today is the day I write a song about X because that's always been something I've been deadly afraid of and I guess I still stick to that." We just sort of hoist our antennas up and see what comes down and that seems to be what's being transmitted at the moment, without thinking or second guessing it. It's what's falling out of the ether.
Songfacts: Ruthy, you mentioned death and that being on the album. There's a song, "Legends Only Appear in Black and White."
Ruthy: Exactly, and "The Ghost of Richard Manuel."
Songfacts: Yeah, and that one as well.
Ruthy: We have a childhood friend who came to see us a month before she died. She saw us in September and passed away in October. She'd been struggling with cancer for a long time. She was in the audience and it was all I could do to get through some of the songs. I mean, just knowing she was there and that she was going to every live show she could and living her life to the fullest at that moment knowing it wouldn't be much longer.
A song like "Legends," it's supposed to be about the people that we admire, and in a sense the musical legends – the people who've gone before us and showed us the way. And these iconic photos that you think of for Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. We pictured people in black and white that lived their lives in color. But then it could apply in that moment when I was singing it to anybody – our heroes who maybe aren't household names. It was super moving to have that experience. It is powerful content. It's about something and it moves me when I'm singing it.
Songfacts: Mike, how were you feeling when you created that one? Because it was written shortly after losing your friend and mentor, Pete Seeger, who you already mentioned, so I just want to know the process and how you were feeling.
Songfacts: Well, I guess it wasn't coming from some deep, grieving place. The song started with the title "Legends." Just last night we were doing the song in New York City and I started thinking about my grandma who just passed away this week. It felt good to just acknowledge the spirits that are now on the other side, like Ruth said, regardless of whether they're iconic folk singers or mentors in a musical sense, but just the people from all of our lives.
"Legends Only Appear in Black and White" was just a nice, succinct way to acknowledge those presences and it just unfurled from there without too much over-thinking. I think my best songs unfurl that way. You get that little spark of an idea and then just see where it goes.
Ruthy: And don't forget about your motivation when you first sat down with the banjo to write that one.
Mike: Well, sure. I had that title and we were on tour in California. It was April 2014 and our session was booked for May. Right when we got home from that trip, we were going to start working on Bright As You Can. "Legends" was the last song to get finished. I wrote it on tour listening to a radio station that caught my attention because we were there for a few days. I kept tuning in as we drove around Santa Cruz, Monteray, the zone of California, and just thought, "This is a really great radio station. I want to write a song that this station will play." I just kept listening and listening for the feel and energy – that's where it all combined to form that song with that title with that purpose, and that's how that song was born.
I guess it was shortly after Pete had passed on so those ideas were just in my head of being aware of the links in the chain and that we wouldn't probably be here doing what we do if it weren't for key figures in our lives dedicating their lives to the pursuit of their dreams and their ideas. I try not to over-think the content too much and just let it present itself, but I did over-think the crass notion that I want to get this song played on the radio [laughs], and it worked. That station plays the song. It probably helped that we sent the song along with that story. But it was a success in achieving the thing I set out to do.
Songfacts: What's the story happening in "Simple and Sober"?
Ruthy: Well, there are three things that inspired that song. The first one was that I was pregnant so I was making different choices about how I spend my time. It was my second time. The first time around, I was proud of, "Hey, I can do anything still. It's not like I need to lay around and not be included" [laughs].
I can remember being five or six months pregnant on tour in Denmark with The Mammals – that was the first time I was pregnant was with our son, Willy, and The Mammals were still touring. I remember everybody drinking all this Danish beer, staying up late, and me and my mom, who had come on the tour with us because she loves Denmark, we were turning in early and getting to enjoy the beautiful breakfast in our German Bed and Breakfast that we were staying at and everybody else looking groggy, and us being chipper in the morning.
So it was the second time I was pregnant with our daughter and just savoring and appreciating that time when you're not really expected to go out to every party and do everything that everybody's doing. You still can if you want to because you're capable to do what you want – or I was – but you can also just choose to take it easy. I'm a type-A, go-getter type of personality in general, so it's a real novelty to just chill-out. It's just my own experience of sobriety and simplicity from that perspective.
The second thing was that a childhood friend of mine – we go back to elementary school – had recently told me that she was celebrating a year of being clean and sober, which was notable and inspiring. It was neat to see her enter that new chapter of her life and her choices. I was just inspired by that and having known her for a long time, and seeing her transform a little bit in a similar way.
I know the song speaks to a lot of people who are in a program and who are purposely staying sober. After every concert, I have people asking me about it and that's the place they're coming from, and I just think that's great.
The third thing inspiring this song, which made me crystallize the images and the chorus, was my favorite movie when I was a teenager: Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. I don't know why, but it was just a great movie. I loved the characters and everything about it. It was dark but still funny. I just love his style of filmmaking. And in the end of the movie, Matt Dillon has cleaned up his act and he's sober. He receives a visit from his girlfriend who's still high and she just doesn't get it. He's trying to explain his simple existence and how he doesn't need all this drama anymore. He explains that he's got his little apartment, his little job, and his little coffee cup. Everything is pared down to the basics and he's okay with that [laughs]. You can see the look in her eye that she's just not at all grasping where he's coming from. It's a sad scene because they're not on the same page anymore, but he's made peace with that somehow.
So I really love that. For me, he's over all that other stuff and he's fine with things being a little boring. So what a great song to write - a song about making your life more boring [laughs]. I don't know why I would ever set out to do that and it doesn't sound like an interesting song at all, but it is and people love that song. It's fun to sing along with, and the music is repetitive so it's easy to grasp at a first listen.
I joked on stage last night at Rockwood that there are tons of drinking songs out there in the common repertoire and not that many sober songs, so I'm just balancing that out a little bit. I think no matter if you are sober or not, in the literal sense of the term, we all relate to that choice sometimes of, "Maybe I will stay home and be boring and maybe that will be a way to take care of myself." So that's what's going on in the song.
Mike: Well, it's not so much boring but just stepping out of maybe the normal routine. The word "sobering" doesn't always have to do with alcohol.
Ruthy: Well, that's what I was saying. But I think that it can feel boring. The reason why I have at times made more dramatic and sometimes damaging or at least exhausting choices in my life is because I'm trying to be interesting or do something interesting. Sometimes the thing that seems a little boring is actually the best thing to do.
Mike has a lyric in one of our songs from the previous record. The song is "On My Way Home" and the lyric is: "If this world should warm its shoulder, I'm getting simpler as I get older." I mean, that's pretty much it. It's basically simplifying as you go. I look around our house and it's filled with all sorts of stuff. There are kids' toys, plants, knickknacks, unpacked bags, and everything everywhere. So I don't feel like I've honed in on one of those beautiful zen existences, but it's a process.
Mike: It is a good mantra for us. We try to balance it out: making a living doing what we do, having kids, traveling, and working with a band again. Simplifying or just streamlining and making it all work is a job, and often the path of least resistance is the best one.
Just as Ruthy was talking about that, I was thinking about how when I was growing up, I was a young, precocious writer. I always wanted to be right on the cutting edge of culture and what people were doing with art and entertainment, and just being the guy who was the hyper-modern dude. I studied the classics with a smug look on my face like, "I guess I have to learn about Greek Theatre. I guess I have to learn about Shakespeare." But now that I've done all those things, I realize how important it is to have that foundation of what many precocious, young 20-somethings maybe at first see as the boring, simple stuff. It was, "That's so dated, man. I'm more interested in David Mamet and Sam Shepard," or the modern button pushers or Ani DiFranco versus Woody Guthrie.
But you need them all. Again, "Legends Only Appear in Black and White" is a tribute to the people who set the stage, and not just the Petes and the Woodys, but the Greek plays and the Shakespeares. I think that's what we do as folk musicians. The word is roots. It took me a long time to develop an appreciation for the roots of it all and how the roots inform the present and the future. I think the Mike + Ruthy sound is very much that. It's the collision of old foundations with where it can go to talk about where we are now.
So it's all sort of tied up in "Simple and Sober" and simplifying and welcoming all directions into the present moment. As far back as it goes and as far forward as you think you're thinking. You can only be in the moment and look both ways to see where the next moment is going to take you.
Songfacts: You've both already mentioned how you're parents. You don't shy away from it. You write songs about your children. They're in your videos and they go on tour with you. How has being parents influenced or maybe changed your songwriting?
Ruthy: My parents are folk musicians so I grew up immersed in that same world as being on the back on one of my parents' LPs when I was two. I think to not include your kids in your art or life is way more awkward than to include them. I just don't even know how it can be done, but because people comment on it I realize that's a thing. But how would you possibly be like, "Well, this part of my life is completely sequestered from all my creative expression," which would be weird.
But I'm again thinking of that line from "Cigarette" where Mike says, "When I'm dead and gone, I want to leave something golden behind for you." Maybe it won't be a literal stack of gold because it's not that we've chosen necessarily the most financially secure of careers, but it's important to be a role model to our kids just in that all of our hard work is poured into something that we feel is worthwhile. We may not be on the front lines of what some people might perceive as changing the world, but there are a lot of things you can do that change one heart at a time or move one heart at a time, and bring people together and build community.
The Winter and Summer Hoots are annual festivals organized by Mike and Ruthy. They welcome musicians from the Hudson Valley area to perform and include nature activities, dancing, food, and art for people of all ages. The proceeds benefit The Ashokan Center, which provides environmental and outdoor education programs.
We've started a festival called The Hoot. I know that's a part of what makes me feel proud. It is a lot of work to write songs, tour, record, and put on a festival, but it pays off in a lot of different ways. I love that we're connecting across generations and across any other differences that might exist between people and really connecting as human beings.
Mike: I think what Ruthy is getting at is that the example we set for our kids is that you can follow your dream and that it's doable. It doesn't have to be music. I think that is inspiring for a lot of our peers, fans, and friends that the older we get into this career, people are coming out of the woodwork from my past and being like, "I can't believe you guys. You're the only people I know who are actually still doing it. You're still following your dream. You're doing it and succeeding." I guess I always took it for granted. I had the blinders on like, "Well, this is what I was going to do when I was young." But the fact that we're now adults with kids and we're living an artist's life is unique in the culture and is something worth teaching to our kids.
If we had kids and said, "Well, that was fun to write songs for 10/20 years, but now that we have kids we better buckle down and get real jobs," it's not the story we'd want to tell to our kids and to the world at large. It's that you can do the thing you want to do in this life, and that does change hearts and minds one at a time. It's inspiring that you can live your dream and it's something that anyone can do if you put your heart and mind to it.
Ruthy: It's important to mention my dad, Jay Ungar, who's this fiddle player. He wrote this tune when I was about seven, and it's called "Ashokan Farewell." It's a fiddle tune and it has no words so it doesn't communicate through words. But it's one of the most evocative pieces of music I know of and a lot of people want it at their wedding or their funeral or at some other momentous occasion. It was also the theme for the PBS Civil War series by Ken Burns, so some people associate it with that. There was a letter from a soldier that was read over the music so some people associate it with that specific language that went with it.
But I guess what I'm trying to say is that music heals. Music connects people. Music is emotionally evocative. It makes people cry or makes people feel something regardless of if it even has words. Add words on and then there's so much power to music and song. So I grew up with that awareness and I want to pass that on to our kids. People will hear my dad's tune and will hear their grandpa's tune when he is gone. When we're all gone, that tune will still be around and people will still feel something when they hear it. I don't know why, but I'm sure they will.
It's profound to me. I remember him playing it to these people when we visited Mexico as a family when I was a kid. He and my step-mom brought out the fiddle and guitar and played the tune for people we could not communicate with at all. We spoke a little Spanish, and they barely spoke Spanish. They were native Mayan people in the Yucatan. I remember we couldn't really talk to them at all except to buy a hammock, but my dad felt inspired to play them the tune. Tears were streaming down this woman's face because of it. That's what it does. I don't know why.
It's things like that that stick with me. When people come up to us after a show and say, "Oh that song made me cry," whether it's a song we wrote or not, something in our performance made them feel something. So I think kids feel things strongly and adults maybe don't always allow themselves to do that, and especially in public. So I think that makes an impression on kids to see adults feeling something in public and come to an event where that's part of the intention. The theatre masks of comedy and tragedy. People went to the theatre and still do in order to feel something, which is crazy when you think that the normal adult human impulse is to not feel too strongly.
There will always be a need for people like us. For the rest of our lives we're trying to squish the emotions down and make them manageable, so it's good for business, I'll tell ya.
Songfacts: And one of the songs on Bright As You Can, "Rock On Little Jane," was written for your daughter. What was the goal for that song? Was it what you were just saying?
Mike: I think you can file it under what Ruthy was just saying: that your dreams are valuable, worthwhile, and worth pursuing. When you have a baby, just like any parent, you wish the best for their life, and that they are able to pursue the worthwhile things they want to pursue in the world and to do it fearlessly or passionately. Basically, what that song is getting across is that your dreams are worthwhile. I always joke that our daughter's name is not Jane. It's Opal, but as a songwriter, Opal does not seem to rhyme with anything useful so I went with Jane. It made for the path of least resistance. It made for a better song.
I wrote it for her while she was sitting on a blanket in the kitchen at an ungodly early A.M. hour. It was my turn to be up with the baby. It was a quiet time when she was just a baby and just able to sit up by herself and maybe entertain herself with a toy for just two minutes. I took the opportunity to grab my guitar and that's when I wrote it in just 15 minutes or so, and I took it to Ruthy. She said it could use a bridge. What if we did this? And that came together quickly, but I think it's because the inspiration was so palpable in that love and aspiration for our new daughter. It just connected like a hot bolt of lightning.
Songfacts: "Chasin' Gold" took eight years to write, right?
Mike: It did. It took forever.
Songfacts: Can you describe the story and evolution of that tune?
Mike: Yeah. It's a fun song to talk about in this context because it's a hard lesson for me to learn and remember. Ruthy and I are working on compiling the songs for the next record right now. Just yesterday we had a wonderful, long overdue rehearsal with the band. Bright As You Can came out in June and we've just been touring relentlessly since then. We've probably played 100 shows, including radio. In the last six months, it's just been a whirlwind of activity, but not a lot of room for working on new material.
In some of these songs we've got our little shards. What if this was on the new record? Are we really ready to make a new record? This seems a little silly. Maybe we should wait, but while the band is so hot right now let's get them in the studio. I keep thinking in the back of my mind, "'Chasin' Gold' took eight years to really be as good as it could. Maybe I need to wait on this song. Maybe it's going to take eight years until it's ready."
It was a learning experience in that when I was younger if a song didn't get finished quickly I just abandoned it because when I sat down with a guitar next, it was more interesting for me to start fresh and to see what was there in the moment instead of go back and dust off the half-formed bricks of something I was interested in a week, a month, or a year before.
I tell this story in our show about where I was down in West Virginia. It's become a piece in and of itself as we go to "Chasin' Gold." It's this long, rambling, Arlo Guthrie-esque account of a show gone wrong. I was invited somewhere far away to play what I thought was going to be this great opportunity in a college town on a Saturday night, and it ended up being a show in an abandoned house with no electricity. It was like a squatter pad with four people in it and no heat. It was this misadventure.
After that experience, I was like, "Well, this would be a fun thing to write about." It was one of the few times I was like, "This I should try and put in a song," but it just wasn't happening. It was in a major key. It had this chorus that was totally unrelated.
Ruthy: What was that old chorus? Can you remind me of the old chorus? I feel like I remember it but I can't.
Mike: Well, the whole song, it was in a major key. It had this chorus that was like [sings], "I told you once. I told you twice. I love you forever. I just want to play nice." It was this love song chorus about missing the person you're away from on tour.
Songfacts: Oh, that's way different.
Mike: It wasn't a love song. So eight years later the "Chasin' Gold" chorus came or just that line, but the song was still in a major key as [sings], "Chasin' gold." I guess without the chords you can't tell. So then I was like, "Oh, this is the missing piece of that story in 'Chasin' Gold.'" We sang it in a couple of shows but it was too happy sounding because it was in a major key. One night again I was up with Opal at some stupid A.M. hour. I got up with her and I had finally got her back to sleep. But I was now wide awake so I grabbed an instrument and went into the only room in our house where I could play music and not wake the baby up. I started playing the song with minor chords and that's where it all snapped into place. I ended up only keeping the first verse and then rewrote the rest of the song.
I just took a totally new and necessary detour. It just took that long for all those variables to present themselves. The initial kernel held on that long. The ember burned that long for me to sort out all the rest of it to get that story across. It's very satisfying that it actually happened. It's also daunting to think that one of my favorite songs could take almost a decade to reveal itself completely. But that's a tool – the percolation. The germination time is something that needs to be respected. You can't always write something that meets all your criteria in a 24-hour span. It's worth the wait, and even though we probably all suffer from a little bit of instant gratification in wanting, whether as a songwriter or just as any sort of creative person, sometimes it's going to take eight years for the original intent to all the variables to snap into place.
Ruthy: We can relate it easily to other art forms like painting where there's a moment when a painter goes, "Is this done? No, let me keep doing some stuff to it. OK, is it done? No, I'm going to keep putting something over here." And then it's done. It becomes the thing that other people see. So there's that process at all those stages it could have been done or you could have kept going, and that is one of the huge skills to hone as an artist of any sort, which is to know when to just stop [laughs]. Or when you've got to step away and come back.
But there were some pretty decent versions of "Chasin' Gold" along the way, but Mike's just saying, "Wow, thank god I didn't seal it in and lock it in and record it and say it's done too soon." But you never truly know. In this case he does and he feels good, but when you're making that decision and you're putting out the record you're like, "Is this really what we're calling the record? Is this really the sequence of the songs? Is this really the lyrics to that bridge?" There's that moment when you have to kiss it goodbye and say, "Yep, that's what it is."
I think that's a big part of songwriting because some songs come out and they're done. "Simple & Sober" – I didn't do a whole lot of thinking about it or processing it. It was just, "Okay, here's the song." There was a little bit of, "How many times shall we sing the chorus?" But in plenty of other songs, like "Freckled Ocean," there are other verses that didn't make it in. Some songs take a little more time.
I just think making those decisions and deciding when something is done can be where having a band is helpful because they're our sounding board. Mike mentioned just yesterday we had this rehearsal and there were a couple of tunes where I was like, "Is this fun? Is this a good song?" It's really hard to know. Sometimes you know and then sometimes you need some other people to second that emotion.
Mike: Well, even though we're good sounding boards for each other, we can spiral into our own self-doubting negativity easily. Like, do we have enough songs to record in January? Oh, it doesn't feel like we do. Are they as good as the songs on Bright As You Can? Maybe not. You start to get caught up in the doubts.
But we recorded 13 little phone demos just yesterday and I listened to them driving home last night to keep me awake. I was elated. Every single one of them felt and sounded great, and all my worries all of a sudden dissolved. That only would have happened because we got to flesh them out with the guys and hear them be a little more fully realized outside of our own head and that the record doesn't have to be the same as Bright As You Can. In fact, that would probably be detrimental to try and rehash something that seemed to work. It's a living, breathing thing. Every day you just don't know until you try and you learn from each attempt.
Ruthy: Do you know that famous Martha Graham quote about artists?
Songfacts: Hmmm, I'm not sure.
Ruthy: The last part of it is, "No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
Songfacts: That fits.
Ruthy: So what I was getting at is you're never happy with it. You're never going to be happy. You're like, "Oh, it could be better, it could be better. Oh, it shouldn't be in a major key. Oh, wow, that verse isn't quite sitting." If you lose that dissatisfaction, the "blessed unrest" of that creative aahhrrrr, if you lose that you have nothing. But it can be disquieting. It can lead you to aspire into not productive places as well. So you have to hone that energy and take the positive elements of it if you can.
Mike was talking about how some of my friends will say, "Hey, you guys are the only people who are still just pursuing your artistic dream and look at that." I have another friend who is completely in that category. She has a theatre company called Blessed Unrest in New York City. She's the one who hit me to that quote originally. She and her husband have a daughter who's the same age as our son. I just love watching them constantly make new theatre pieces. Their daughter has grown up at the theatre and she hangs out backstage with actors, and it's kind of like how our kids are always on tour. It's inspiring. I love that they use that as the title of their company because change comes through interesting art and positive change comes through inspired art and I love that they champion that, and we try and do that, too.
Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora opened up the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York, allowing musicians to access the thousands of lyrical compositions by Guthrie so they can record their own melodies to them and finish the songs (it's a nice revenue generator for the Guthrie Foundation, since it gets Woody's share of any royalties they generate). The Dropkick Murphy's song "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" came out of the archives, as did the three Mermaid Avenue albums Billy Bragg and Wilco released. Learn more in our chat with Guthrie's granddaughter Anna.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's a great quote. You've mentioned Woody Guthrie a few times and on your previous release The NYC EP there's a song called "My New York City" that his daughter gave you his lyrics for and asked you to finish it. Can you just explain how that all came to be?
Mike: Well, I guess it probably starts with our former band, The Mammals. It was myself, Ruthy, and the third primary founder of that band was Pete Seeger's grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. Working with Tao and traveling with him over the years, we became close with his grandpa, Pete, and grandmother, Toshi, and then by extension the Seegers, who are still close with the Guthrie family. They're sort of far flung, but many of them are living here in the Northeast. Through Tao, we met Sarah Lee Guthrie, who is Woody's granddaughter and a great traveling folk singer with her husband Johnny – you probably know them, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Through Sarah Lee, we ended up meeting Arlo. The Mammals did a tour ten years ago where we supported Arlo and acted as his band for his Alice's Restaurant 40th Anniversary tour – this year was just the 50th.
I think it was playing with Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall – he does an annual Thanksgiving week in Carnegie Hall show – that his sister Nora was in the audience and was really taken with The Mammals that night. I remember her approaching us after the show about doing something with some Woody lyrics from the archives. She planted that seed that she wanted us to work on some lyrics and then The Mammals broke up. I totally forgot about that opportunity or that she made that offer. Nora then asked Ruthy and I to do a Woody Guthrie Huntington's Disease fundraiser awareness concert in New York City, and she brought the lyric thing up again when we reconnected there.
Maybe, Ruthy, you remember more of how that actually transpired.
Ruthy: Well, basically, we just said, "Yes, please," and it took a little while but eventually she sent us something.
Mike: Yeah, eventually it happened. It was because the lyrics that she picked for us were "My New York City." It was earmarked for a New York-specific release that they were working on, which is all Woody's New York City material. She wanted to specifically get artists from New York to finish some of these New York-themed songs, so I think that helped. But the conversation started in The Mammals days. Ruthy and I met in New York City. We're currently living in upstate New York, so it made us contenders again to get some New York Woody lyrics.
That's how the stage was set. I remember when we first read the lyrics that we foolishly thought we weren't taken with it. Like, this one's sort of simple. They say there's thousands of Woody Guthrie unfinished lyrics in the archive. Of course, Wilco and Billy Bragg did three volumes of finishing songs. They say that more artists working today have finished Woody Guthrie songs than Woody finished himself. So you think, "Well, how many 'good ones' can still be left in the archive and did we get a dud?" We sort of got all snotty about it.
Ruthy: Well, I think our reaction was just on paper it read as more of a simple song and we didn't feel the emotion in it until we started playing it.
Mike: And that's when the magic of Woody revealed itself. It's how Woody always wrote, which was just what was right in front of him. The simplicity was where the genius was able to shine. He wrote that song literally riding the subway, looking out the window, and writing down what he saw and then what it triggered in his mind. He just wrote that down simply and accurately, and like Ruthy said, as soon as we started to sing the words instead of just read them, is where it was able to coalesce into what it is now.
One of the highlights of our show is doing that song and the synthesis of us singing Woody's words from 1947 and that it works. People request it every night and people have said nice things about it being one of the best collaborations to come out of the archive, so it's a dream come true.
But Woody did the heavy lifting. We just had to open our mouths and let it be just what it is without too much ornamentation or trying to make it more exciting than it needs to be. It is what it is and that's what the best Woody Guthrie songs are – get out of the way and let the words levitate. That's what it does.
Songfacts: What inspired the idea for the Winter/Summer Hoots?
Ruthy: Well, we were inspired by a place, the Ashokan Center, which is where my dad has run music and dance camps for the past 35-plus years. I've grown up going to those and it's where Mike learned to play the banjo. It's where I absorbed years and years of great music and songs as a kid in the summers. It's also an environmental education center. A lot of what they do there is retreats where people come for a period of time. My dad's thing is where folks will be there for a week studying the fiddle or banjo or kids coming there for a nature program with staying overnight and everything. But there wasn't a whole lot of community involvement with the place so folks would come from far away and spend some time there and then go home.
I realized it's a real jewel of this community. That beautiful site is there and it'd be fun to do an event that was just a festival because we tour the festival scene. We love festivals. We thought, "Well, there's not a festival around here that's a nice, small, down-home folk festival like our favorite ones that we see on tour." So we thought, "Well, this would be the perfect way to connect our local community and the great wealth of local music and food and showcase all of that, and showcase the Ashokan Center and what it's all about."
So that was one inspiration and then the other one, which I alluded to earlier, was just having an event that would be kid friendly, family friendly, and connect people across generations because in my experience growing up as a kid of folkies, I would often be at a festival or coffee house or some other folk event and feel like I was the only kid or teenager there, or maybe to have ever set foot there [laughs]. Just a complete different place and something I would never talk about at school that I did on the weekend. It's true that the folk scene in the Northeast is predominantly people who are closer to my parents' age than even my current age.
I think it's getting better and we're trying to be part of it. We've been on tour in Canada and Michigan and places where for some reason they clued into this sooner. They have great stuff going on for kids, families and even for teens. There are throngs of teenagers at some of these folk festivals. It's not because they marketed folk festivals to teens and the teens said, "Mommy, take me to this." It's because they've been coming since they were kids and they want to see all their festival friends, just like the grown-ups do. They want to hang out. It's a tradition, and they've been coming since they were young.
So that's the way to make it possible and already we're in our fourth year. We have eight year olds who came to their first Hoot when they were five and it's already happening that they wouldn't miss it. They want to see their friends and they want to do the things you do at The Hoot. It's a fun tradition. We're trying to grow basically a crop of Hoot teens and fill in that generation gap that exists at most of the folk festivals.
These days, there are also folk festivals like Newport, which is an amazing festival. It sells out before anyone even knows who's on the lineup and there are young people there. Not so much families with kids, although there are some, but the way they attract the early 20-somethings is actually just by booking music that I don't even consider folk music. So we're going about it a different way by instead of just hiring big name acts that play pop music that is somehow called folk music, we're actually trying to expose people to some rootsy stuff. We're trying to be broad too and book a mixture of music genres. But we're generally not hiring something super poppy to bring in the kids. We're figuring the families and the kids will come for the experience and for the community and enjoy the music, and sometimes come for the bands that they are fans of – we love that.
Mike: As touring artists, we feel like we have a relatively unique advantage on who's doing what in our scene. We only have that from being on the road and visiting these other festivals in other parts of the country. It's just something we want to share with our hometown community.
We'd be in Michigan at this festival called The Harvest Gathering or Oregon at Pickathon or Louisiana at Black Pot or whatever the festival was that totally knocked our socks off and thought, "Maybe we should relocate here to be part of this scene?" And then, of course, it dawned on us that we needed to create that experience and that scene where we live instead of going to one that already existed, and just build it.
That was a big part of starting a small festival, and of course the Hudson Valley is really coming into its own. It's always been a vibrant scene. Pete Seeger lived his whole life here and he played our first Hoot and left his blessing behind. It's fertile ground for this sort of event and we're lucky that we get to curate it.
January 29, 2016
Find out more about Mike + Ruthy by visiting mikeandruthy.com.
Photos: Eric Gerard