Korby Lenker – Thousand Springs

For many artists, stepping into a studio to record an album can be challenging enough. But when East Nashvillian Korby Lenker began working on his seventh album, Thousand Springs, he decided to skip the studio altogether and head to his home state of Idaho to record in places that held particular meaning for him. Venturing forth with his guitar, some recording gear and a tent, he captured his vocal and guitar parts in more than a dozen locales, including the edge of the Snake River Canyon, a cabin north of Sun Valley and his undertaker father’s mortuary.

Then he spent months driving around the country to collect vocal and instrumental contributions from nearly 30 of today’s finest folk talents, among them Nora Jane Struthers, Anthony Da Costa, Carrie Elkin, Amy Speace, Molly Tuttle, Kai Welch, Angel Snow, Becky Warren and the Punch Brothers’ Chris “Critter” Eldridge. In Madison, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin and Nashville, he recorded their work in backyards, hotel rooms and even a bookstore, then went home to edit them into Thousand Springs.

Lenker plotted his plan for Thousand Springs after Nashville-based Turner Publishing Co. released his first collection of short stories, Medium Hero, in December 2015 – an experience that, he says, helped him find his “true voice” (and earned him high praise not only from book-world luminaries including Kirkus Reviews and National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, but Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak).

“For me, the two most important qualities of good art are originality and meaning,” Lenker explains. “You’ve got to tell your own story and not try to borrow someone else’s.”

When he moved to Nashville, he quickly discovered singer-songwriters were about as common as pickup trucks. And most of them were about as original.

“It forced me to really dig in and figure out what I did that was different than what everyone else was doing,” he says. “I spent my first three years in town parking cars at a hotel and taking a bunch of chances, creatively speaking. No one really cared about me, which turned out to be very freeing.”

During that period, he wrote many of the stories in Medium Hero, and focused on writing songs that meant something to him rather than worrying about hit potential.

“Along the way, I discovered there was an audience for this approach to telling my story,” he says. It was a thrilling, and empowering, revelation.

In the years since, he’s played everywhere from small listening rooms to Seattle’s world-renowned Bumbershoot festival, delivering what American Songwriter magazine called “huggable folk-pop” on stages shared with artists from Willie Nelson, Keith Urban and Chris Isaak to Susan Tedeschi, Amy Grant and Nickel Creek. Along the way, he’s earned nearly a dozen songwriting awards, including first-place wins at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, 2012’s Kerrville Folk Festival and 2006’s Merlefest. He also placed second in the 2017 Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest for ‘Friend and A Friend’, a beguiling Thousand Springs track co-written with Molly Tuttle, who sings harmony. Allowing life to imitate art, Lenker also has been conducting a one-man campaign of sorts, engaging strangers for conversation and shared selfies in an Instagram-hosted exercise he calls #MakeAmericaFriendsAgain. (He also touches on that subject in a new song titled ‘Let’s Just Have Supper’. Written and performed with Struthers, it’s not on this album, but the NPR-premiered video, is worth checking out.)

Ironically, while recording Thousand Springs (and making friends), Lenker lost his voice for nearly two months.

Addressing the loss of a dear family member, Lenker wrote the affecting song ‘Wherever You Are’ while his voice was gone. He also visited the Vanderbilt Voice Center, where doctors immediately started him on physical therapy. Soon, he was recording again. He did ‘Wherever You Are’ solo, in one take. It’s one of five songs he penned alone; the other seven are collaborations with a variety of musical friends including Speace, Tuttle, Robby Hecht, Jon Weisberger and Liz Longley.

Coincidentally, the song that precedes it, ‘Mermaids’, has an understated lightheartedness, almost a softer ‘Magical Mystery Tour’/’Yellow Submarine’ vibe, that would easily appeal to kids. Throughout the album, Lenker deftly shifts through a wide range of moods. He captures his love of literature with charming playfulness in ‘Book Nerd’. The opener, “Northern Lights,” is a spare, contemplative tune containing just a couple of verses, but Lenker’s vivid imagery and forlorn voice are all he needs to speak volumes about lost love.

There’s a delicacy to most of these songs, due in part to Lenker’s gentle delivery; in ‘Nothing Really Matters’, he sounds as if he’s whispering in your ear – in a voice that somehow suggests both James Taylor and Michael Franks, delivered in an Afro-bluegrass style. Driven by Jon Reischman’s outstanding mandolin, it’s reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland; Lenker cites both the artist and the album as major influences.

The hardest-rocking track, ‘Last Man Standing’, was written about Chief Sitting Bull after Lenker read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He recorded parts of it at Standing Rock, near Sitting Bull’s grave, a month before the Dakota-Access Pipeline protests began. Musically, the song more or less references his own roots; Lenker started studying piano at age 7 and picked up guitar in his early teens, playing a lot of Neil Young and similar artists before joining the obligatory high-school rock band (his was Clockwork Orange).

“There weren’t a lot of people around me making music,” he says about growing up in Idaho’s isolation. “I had to go out and find it.” His search included attending college in Bellingham, Washington, where he studied music theory – and Phish. Reading about jazz led him to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller – and to an understanding that, as he puts it, “music had a story, a thread that went from musician to musician, through time.” “The idea of finding my place in that timeline has become more and more important to me,” he notes, adding, “Every time I play a show, I think of it as an audition for the next show. Everything for me is a slow build.”

That might explain another of the album’s delights: ‘Late Bloomers’, in which he sings, Here’s to the late bloomers/Holding on till their time arrives/Some people might have gotten there sooner/But for us, it’s gonna be right on time … No matter how hard the path was/We always knew/No dream can outlast us/When it’s coming true.

For Lenker, as for any of us, some dreams come true and some don’t. That’s just life. But on Thousand Springs, he shares those highs and lows as only an artist with a “true voice” can. And that voice, he’ll never lose.

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+ Saturday August 18 Purbeck Valley Folk Festival

Artist’s website links:

www.facebook.com/KorbyLenker

Carrie Elkin announces new solo album

Carrie Elkin

The Penny Collector is Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Carrie Elkin’s long-awaited new solo album. After touring extensively as a featured vocalist with the Sam Baker Trio and as a duo performer with her husband Danny Schmidt, this is Elkin’s highly anticipated return to her solo work.

Written in a year that was bookended by the birth of Elkin’s first child and the process of caretaking her father through the dying process, The Penny Collector is a poet’s momentous stroll full circle around the human lifecycle in one single year. It’s a journey that is beautifully told, fragile and heartbreaking at times, joyous and raucous in others.

And Elkin once again delivers the powerhouse vocal performance that people have come to expect, with delicate waves of intimacy that build to astonishing crests and crashes of intensity.

It’s hard to pigeonhole The Penny Collector, stylistically. It lives in a similar musical realm as Patty Griffin and Brandi Carlile, straddling the Americana/Roots, Folk, and Indie Rock worlds where meaningful songs meet the fierce-yet-fragile voices of powerful women. Producer Neilson Hubbard (Garrison Starr, Glen Phillips, Ben Glover, Ryan Culwell) beautifully captured that power without losing the delicacy and nuance, draping Elkin’s vocal performances in swathes of expressionistic electric guitars, velvety strings, and primal percussive heart beats, always leaving the focus on the story and the story teller.

The Penny Collector is about ushering in new life and honouring old life. It’s about standing in that sacred space where the celebration of life meets at both ends. In June of 2015, Elkin learned of her father’s terminal condition with pancreatic cancer, cancelled her tour schedule, and went to Atlanta to be with him through the last month of his life. Caring for someone that close with you, holding their hand through the exposure of that final phase of life, was an incredibly powerful experience, heart wrenching, but also precious and beautiful in its connection. And it was magnified all the more by the fact that Elkin was simultaneously going through the fertility process, and preparing the emotional fields for planting new seeds.

“I can hear the heartbeat in everything around me”. The song ‘New Mexico’ opens the album and speaks to the heightened perception we have in times of grief, for all the tiny givings of life that more usually go unnoticed and unappreciated. ‘And Then The Birds Came’ wishes her father a final goodbye and a prayer to the world that it might more completely understand what a gift it had been given with that life. “The birds they wanted him. They knew he’d help them fly.”

The title, The Penny Collector, was chosen in honour of Richard Elkin (1942-2015). As Elkin says in the liner notes:

“My dad was a lifelong penny collector. Not just the ‘collectible’ pennies, but rather every penny he could get his hands on. In the process of cleaning out his basement we discovered that, in his lifetime, he had collected approximately 600,000 special little pennies, neatly rolled and lovingly kept. My dad had a way of finding value and delight in the tiny things that other people might walk right past.”

The Penny Collector is Elkin’s sixth solo album, and the first she’s released independently since her two critically acclaimed Red House Records releases. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Elkin’s career has taken her near and far, from sharing the court with Michael Jordan for the national anthem, to sharing the Ryman Auditorium stage with Emmylou Harris, to sharing two tours with the hit podcast Welcome To Night Vale as their special musical guest. Now Elkin is settled down in Austin, TX with her husband, fellow songwriter Danny Schmidt, and their beautiful newborn daughter, Maizy Rae Schmidt.

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Artist’s website: http://www.carrieelkin.com/

‘The Pueblo’ live:

CARRIE ELKIN & DANNY SCHMIDT – For Keeps (Red House, RHR 278)

carrie elkinAlready well established individually, Elkin and Schmidt bring their personal and professional lives together, their October wedding preceded by their debut duo album. The writing evenly shared with five tracks each, alternating on lead vocals (though not always on their own material) while the other provides harmonies, the songs inevitably focus on respective perspectives on life and love, on friendship, communication, tough and tender times and, on the Schmidt sung opening twang pop ‘Two White Clouds’, metaphors of marriage and future family. Confirming a deep romantic streak, tender ballad ‘Kiss Me Now’ was actually his proposal song.

Sandwiched between and reminding why she’s often likened to Iris Dement, Elkin takes over for her own ‘Echo In The Hills’, a slow, percussion rumbling meditation on retaining a sense of self in the coming together of two individuals, while, penned by Schmidt, the gradual gathering ‘Company Of Friends’ has a warbling Emmylou air to its country hymnal affirmation of belief in everything from inspiration and procreation to ink on paper and that all hearts will mend.

Elsewhere, the uptempo, bluesy ‘Sky Picked Blue’ celebrates the irresistible force of love, a jangly ‘Took It Like A Man’ finds Elkin singing of placing trust in commitment, while, on ‘Swing From A Note’, Schmidt brings a waltzing folksy air to Elkin’s lines about how “trust is not something to which I’ve grown accustomed” and, striking a somewhat different chord, the aching ‘Longing Moves The Ocean’ finds her addressing the mourning process.

The album closes with ‘Girl In The Woods’ Colin Brooks providing dobro behind Elkin’s simple personal affirmation that “I’m not afraid of the world, with you by my side.” If the life they make together is as well tuned as the music, then this is indeed a marriage for keeps.

Mike Davies

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Artist websites: www.dannyschmidt.com & www.carrieelkin.com