What a wonderful sound, when two beautiful voices converge in harmony to form a melody that is so pleasant you feel as if you could reach out and touch it. It may actually surprise you, when you first hear the crystal clear vocals of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion on their new record, Bright Examples
, because there is so little “noise”. You know, all that in-studio acrobatics that can sometimes wipe out a pristine moment in order to create a so-called fuller sound. It’s just these intimate moments that make an album like Bright Examples
stand out from the crowd. And what they have captured while recording in an old converted church in Woodstock, New York, is something quite pure and old fashioned: music as music.
Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband and musical partner Johnny Irion are back with a wonderful CD of folkish tunes that tell stories of love, spirit, home and inspiration from the world around them. Taking some time to talk to Glide
on a winter morning that saw three feet of snow at their home in Massachusetts, they shared with us how the new CD was created, their life in the music business, and how a punk chick and a rock dude became two of the best vocalists in the world of Folk and Americana music.Hi Johnny, I saw that you guys were really getting pounded up there where you live.
JI: We’re totally snowed in here. We got about three feet of snow last night … But, you know, we’re pretty snug, just hanging out with the kids and getting ready to build a snowman.
SG: It’s really awesome actually. I’m enjoying it. First storm of the year is always exciting.So why don’t you tell us what is going on in the world of Johnny and Sarah Lee.
JI: Well, we’re just kind of gearing up to actually support the new CD. It’s been about a year since we made it and it took awhile to find a home for it and now we’re, you know, trying to … you know, its fun making the art but now its time to go to the art gallery and actually stand beside it and smile and play the songs and do all that kind of stuff (laughs). So we’re just really gearing up for the process of actually what it takes for us these days to get on the road, to be away from home, schedule stuff. Of course, we have an eight year old and a three year old, so you have to be strategic about when we go on the road and how long we’re gone. So things are a little different this time around but it’s all in a good reason. So we’re just kind of gearing up doing that. You had your first collaboration come out in 2005 called Exploration. Then Johnny did the solo project and then there was a children’s album and now this one.
JI: With a DVD in between as well. A live show in California. And the question is why so long? (laughs) EXPLORATION came out on a different label. We left that label right after EXPLORATION. There was also stuff we wanted to do and that was the kids record and I needed to make a solo record cause I had all those songs that just needed to be done and put out so I could move on. Who knows if it was the right decision or not but after that it just took us awhile to basically … We actually went in to record the BRIGHT EXAMPLES record but it wasn’t BRIGHT EXAMPLES and we actually halted the production half way through in Los Angeles. We just pulled the plug on the whole project. So it just took us awhile to find the right players, the right band, and Vetiver was definitely a godsend. We had had that one experience where we stopped and after that I was like, golly, do we really even need to make, I mean, what is going on, this business is just weird and who cares (laughs). And then there was a point where we started getting these songs and I was seeing this record kind of coming together in my head. And then we met Vetiver and their records actually inspired us to want to record. Their records sound amazing. Thom Monahan is responsible for the way BRIGHT EXAMPLES sounds. He produced all the Vetiver records and it just had a certain sound that I got really excited and that’s how we just did this record. For us to put our energy together as a husband and wife team, we just don’t go in the studio just to go in the studio. When we go in it’s, alright, we’re making this freaking record and hopefully it’s awesome. It’s a little bit different ball of wax when you work as a husband and wife as far as I’m concerned. Is that what was wrong with the original material? The vibe just wasn’t right?
JI: It just wasn’t the recording process we were looking at. I won’t say who we were working with but we just, it didn’t feel right. If you’re going to bed at night going, “Ugh, oh I don’t know”, and you’re not sleeping then it’s like, we got to stop.It takes a lot of guts to do that.
JI: Yeah and after talking to a few friends who were in bands who had been there and had gone on and made that record and hate the record, I’m glad we did what we did and glad that we ended up with BRIGHT EXAMPLES. It was a little bit of a long road but it was worth it.Johnny, you said that you recorded this new CD live with like everyone in the studio at the same time. That’s not how people record nowadays. It’s like you went back to the old school way of recording.
JI: It’s an organic record, that’s for sure. We had eight people on the floor. You know we recorded it in Woodstock, New York, at a place called Dreamland, which is an old church. So where the pews might have been and the altar might have been, that’s all open, so there’s eight of us on the floor and it was interesting … We had a great crew of people that just kind of really … Vetiver was there with their band and then Sarah Lee and I brought in a few of our friends, Charlie Rose and Rad Lorkovic on piano and Charlie was on steel. And then we brought in a friend of mine, Neal Casal, who was Ryan Adams guitar player for several years, and everybody just kind of migrated. There were all these instruments kind of just set up, you know. Like you’d have a guitar here and a piano there and then everybody would just kind of like morph into positions. Nobody was really, there wasn’t like a thought like you go play guitar. It was just kind of everybody just kind of went to where they thought they might should be and if you didn’t get pulled off the floor then it was kind of cool (laughs). Thom Monohan, who produced the record, would be like, “Ah, I think you should come in,” so a lot of times we’d be out there tracking when I would have the guitar and be like, “God, is he going to pull me in off the floor? Am I going to get fired?” (laughs). So it was a lot of just everybody kind of playing, just playing organically and it was like sea monkeys, just kind of add water (laughs).
SG: It’s a really cool thing because we really didn’t have outside life. It was like we were secluded in this little place in the Catskills and nobody went anywhere (laughs). It was really great cause Thom Monahan and Andy Cabic and all of that crew and a lot of the guys from Vetiver came in and we were just meeting a lot of these guys for the first time and then we kind of brought in our crew, Rad Lorkovic and Charlie Rose from Boston. Rad actually used to play with Odetta, played with her for the last couple of years of her life and he’s one of these guys that has so much soul. So everybody just kind of fed on each other’s vibe and, yeah, we went in, eleven people sometimes tracking at once … You get the experience that this is it, we don’t have much time, it’s going to be out there forever so you really get the sense like, you know, it had to happen now and with all these people it’s going to happen. I really enjoyed doing it that way. We’ve always made records that way actually and I don’t know a different way to do it … We started a record almost two years ago, almost three or four years ago, but it was in between EXPLORATION and this one and it was like where you were doing tracks one by one and we went into this room and it was just me and Johnny in there playing songs and it didn’t feel right. And so we actually stopped recording, stopped the whole idea. We had in like five days and went, this is no fun. And we needed people to feed off of. I think that’s how to make a great record. When you’ve got a lot of different energies and you put them together in a common song we all kind of give to and I think that’s how you make a good product. So I’m really glad we stopped that process and ended up going in a completely different direction, all at once, right now, this vocals a keeper, better be good (laughs).Sounded like it was a lot of fun.
JI: It was a lot of fun and it should be fun making records. I mean, you’re spending money and you might as well have fun spending money (laughs).One of my favorite tracks on the new CD is the title track. It’s very surreal sounding. Can you tell me a little about that song? And why did you choose this particular song to be the title of the album? Did it have a special meaning?
JI: I think that song encompasses a lot of what Sarah Lee and I might have been trying to say on other projects. It’s basically a peace song without being too teachy-preachy, you know what I mean. There’s certain layers poetically within the song so I hope that comes off. As far as that particular track, I was very inspired by a friend of mine, his name is Jonathan Wilson. He’s a great guitar player, played with Elvis Costello and put out several records on his own. And that song was pretty much inspired by his solo album and then as far as the title track goes, we just thought it might be, it just kind of worked out to where it was the last song on the record and Sarah Lee did a little searching online. She’s like, “I don’t see anything with Bright Examples” … just seemed to work, which is good.That title makes the CD sound like it would be full of hope and positivity.
JI: I like the way the words kind of work together as far as the wordplay so you know it just worked, which is good. Sometimes you know you go round and round, like what is the name of this freaking record? (laughs). If there is a title already on there it makes it a lot easier so you just move on to the next obstacle (laughs). “Ahead Of Myself” is about you and Sarah Lee falling in love, correct?
JI: Yeah, I kind of went back in my mind to when we were meeting. It’s like songs that I should have written then and that’s kind of one of those. It’s always good to kind of go back and rekindle an emotion and draw from that and from that era when Sarah Lee and I first met in Los Angeles.Do you find it, as a songwriter, that it’s easy being that open and honest in a song?
JI: No (laughs). No I don’t. I mean, hey, you’re putting yourself out there already so it doesn’t matter, might as well just go for it. I just tend to, I’m pretty picky about lyrics. I might start a song and lay it all on the line and then listen back and be like, well, that’s nice, but how many times has that been freaking used? (laughs). Is there another way to say that? Something that I would like to hear, something that doesn’t drive me nuts.Do you prefer to tell a story, have it go from beginning to end?
JI: Definitely there’s certain things that promote a certain idea. And if you can intertwine a story with that idea, which BRIGHT EXAMPLES is kind of a mini. You know what a short is correct? You know, it’s the twenty-eight minute movies. Instead it’s a four minute movie and its also, hopefully, the music is just as enthralling as the words so it all kind of comes together as a piece of art. I don’t know if that answered your question(laughs).Is it easier for you to write or is it easier for Sarah Lee to write? Who comes up with the most songs where it’s like boom done?
JI: I would say it’s not easy for either one of us, I think. Writing is just a job. You have to make time for that so both of us need the time. She’s been Mom a lot so default I end up having a little bit more time where I end up making more time. But that’s not to say, I don’t know, I think normally my output is more but I’ve got a good nine years on Sarah Lee as well as far as just age. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the amount of stuff but that doesn’t mean that whatever she might write two songs and I might write ten and her two are better than my ten, you know what I mean (laughs). There’s no rhyme nor reason to who is most prolific. We just hopefully at the end of the day somebody is being creative in the family.The song “Cry Quieter” has such a pretty melody but it has a serious subject matter.
SG: Johnny actually wrote it and it was very influenced by a book that we both read called “The Translator”. It’s written by Daoud Hari and he was a guy who would bring the reporters into Chad and Darfur. We both really just felt a strong connection to him and at the time we had met this photographer who was going over there a lot and he’s in Washington DC and became a good friend, so he goes over and films this stuff and brings it back to try and raise money for it. Really interesting and heartfelt things going on over there. We kind of sunk ourselves into that mode ...That song came out of that time frame. Johnny came up with almost all of it; I just kind of sang (laughs). But that happens a lot where we collectively experience something and he gets a song out of it and I feel just as engaged or connected to the song as if I had wrote it. It helps to deliver it as well.Another song that I loved that you sang is “Seven Sisters”. Your voice is so crystal clear and so beautiful on it.
SG: Oh thank you. I wish I could hear it like that (laughs). You know what I mean? Sometimes it’s so hard to hear it like that. I’m listening and going, “I could have done that better”. When you’re the creator, it’s hard to appreciate it so I’m glad to hear that you liked it. But that is a song that I did write. Back story to that, was I used to call that song “Oh Odetta”. I’m sure you’re familiar with Odetta. She had created the feeling for that song when I’d met her, or met up with her. I’d met her a few times in my life, but I met up with her in Maine one time and we were just so road weary and when you’re like that and you’re in this daze and then someone like Odetta walks in and says things to you that are so powerful and moving and I just went, whoa. And that is sort of the inspiration for that song. I read that the song “Butterflies” was actually inspired by butterflies and that you actually saw the butterfly that inspired it … (laughs)
SG: I really did (laughs). We have a lot of songs about this area. When we lived in Columbia, South Carolina, we wrote about songs down there and stuff we saw down there but up here its like, well, look, there’s a butterfly (laughs). There’s not a lot going on up here (laughs) but that’s part of the beauty of this song. It’s a very soundscape kind of record and it’s kind of mirroring our lives up here in the Berkshires, our new life. We just moved up here about three years ago and so most of the songs on the album are inspired by that and building a house and of course the kids.Are you happy with the move?
SG: Massachusetts is so beautiful, in other ways too. But I miss the south, I miss the people and I miss a lot of things about South Carolina. It’s just different but we travel down there a lot and Johnny’s family is there, so we see them quite a bit. And who knows, we built this thinking we were going to have a summer cabin in the woods somewhere and ended up building like a real house so we stayed. It’s gorgeous, even though we’re under about three feet of snow (laughs). I’m happy, it’s my roots, so I’m happy to be up here … We came up here first after we got married and we moved up here for about a year and that was it. Johnny was like, “Alright, how about South Carolina now” (laughs). Which is great cause I love to dive into different cultures. You know that’s what I love about what we do. And our kids, especially Olivia who is eight and has been into all these different areas, she just said to me the other day, “Mom, I can’t wait till I can move to Italy” (laughs) but I think we’re lucky to be in Massachusetts but can get out of Massachusetts when we need to.So you’re glad you’re not in the middle of all that hustle and bustle.
SG: Yes, I am. And we don’t need to be. There is no reason for it. We kind of started there. You know, Johnny and I met in LA and we were both kind of doing it. Well, he at the time, was really trying to do it in music and I was really young, just eighteen, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. But it never seemed to pay off like we thought so we skipped that whole idea that the industry and the music business and all of it’s charm and allure was not really going to pay the bills. And so we went and decided to get a band and tour and play secondary markets all over the country and that’s what we did for the last ten years. Even now, I mean, we do dive into the music business but there’s nothing we can’t do. We go to LA and do our business and then we come home. Go to New York, which is just a train ride, two and half hours to New York City, so we feel like we kind of got the best of both worlds … And with all of the internet, we do our business in email, everything is email, but then you can actually walk outside, your neighbors are like a half a mile away, a good walk (laughs). I don’t know, for me, especially living in a small town, it kind of keeps me grounded. It keeps me knowing what’s important. And all that hustle and bustle, it is important to an extent, but having small town folks around me, having my friends that I’ve grown up with and don’t really care if I’m in music or have a record deal or they don’t really care who I know or anything like that. And you can walk outside with unbrushed hair (laughs).
SG: Exactly (laughs). I can go to my store in my pajamas (laughs). Everybody knows me and it keeps me real, keeps me grounded, keeps me down to earth; of things that are important; so I like the contrast to that, to be a healthier way to live.Is that perhaps a reason why you did the children’s album? Its so much fun that I think everyone can listen to it, very family oriented.
SG: It was just a natural progression with our daughter Olivia, who is now eight but at the time she was six, and she still writes songs and actually they’ve become even more elaborate and she’s really like coming into her own now. But it was mostly due to her and her involvement in our careers as far as like we just had the Guthrie Family tour, which was my Dad, and me, and my two sisters and my brother and all of our kids. And Olivia is the star of the show (laughs). She gets out and sings and she sings loud and has no problem and that was, we saw that and we went, we have to capture that. And it was great for me because it actually allowed me to go and visit my roots and with children’s music you are absolutely right, there’s something [for] everybody even though they don’t realize it, especially classics. I get into a room of kids and parents sometimes and I see the parents singing loud and it’s so much fun and they’re encouraging their kids and its like, wow, we forgot that music can do this too. So it’s nice to kind of dive into a different reason for music but also be like involving everybody. It allowed me to ask my Dad to come play and sing on my record. Pete Seeger, people who I might not actually ask to come sing on my Americana record, I was able to work with on that project. So there are a lot of different reasons for GO WAGGALOO. I’m really glad and would actually love to do another one.When you were that young, were you as confident as Olivia is onstage?
SG: No. It took me a long time. I was confident like on stage doing plays and stuff. I was into that with the drama aspect of it when I was a kid but my Dad didn’t play like that. He didn’t ask us to join him when we were five or three or all of the things we’ve kind of asked Olivia to do. I didn’t grow up like that. And besides, I was like the youngest of my family so it didn’t occur to me that I would even be in this music business. It kind of hit me, sideswiped me, when I met Johnny.Even with your dad being Arlo Guthrie, you didn’t think you would be a musician?
SG: No, I really didn’t. I wanted to be as normal as possible. We were like the Addams Family in our small town (laughs). I just wanted to be normal. I went to LA and got a job at the department store. I was just thinking, not music at all. And then I realized that I was just magnified by it. Not magnified, but like a magnet to me. It was like, oh I don’t want to hang out with them, I want to hang out with the musicians (laughs) cause that was normal.When did you realize that you could sing and that you had a beautiful voice?
SG: I’m getting there (laughs). I got thrown into the fire when I was fourteen years old and had to sing back up with my Dad and he asked me to sing a solo song that night in front of like seven thousand people. I had the guts to do it and I did it, so here I am fourteen, fifteen, a lot later than say Olivia. At that point I might have had a little spark (laughs) but I didn’t notice it. But I was into punk rock music. I was not going to be singing folk rock music (laughs).Yeah, how in the world did you go from there to here? Johnny was a rock dude and you were a punk chick with a Mohawk.
SG: I have no idea really, the leap happened. It went from like punk rock to country. I don’t know how (laughs). Like it just switched. Then I met Johnny and he’s entirely into the Black Crowes, even though they were singing rock & roll, they were listening to SWEETHEARTS OF THE RODEO too and so I was really turned on at that point. So yeah, I went straight to country and not just like country, I’m thinking like George Jones, Patsy Cline and a lot of that kind of country. And when I found all that stuff I really figured out what it was all about, cause I was trying to find it, I suppose. Punk rock was just sort of a way of expressing myself as a teenager but certainly when I started to hear that stuff and I was like, this is just so good and then that really kind of led me to other, like the country of the day. And Johnny was playing all these great blues records for me that I had never heard and my roommate was playing the Rolling Stones for me and I was like, whoa, and Johnny was playing the Beach Boys. And I was like, I get it now, I know what this whole music thing stuff and I know why, so it was a sort of natural progression, I suppose.
JI: I had two Aunts and one was always kind of pushing The Beatles on me and one was pushing the Beach Boys on me and I used to play air guitar to The Beatles all the time and I was like six or seven years old. There was always a drum kit around. I don’t know exactly when I caught the bug but I think my parents took me to a few folk festivals early on and something happened when I was about seven or eight and I didn’t start actually playing bass until I was about sixteen; no, I think I was about fifteen. Started a punk rock band and from there trying to hang in there. It’s hard and it can be, there’s a lot of great musicians in the world and they continue to inspire me to be better, so God bless them (laughs).Do you have a favorite musician that you still go back to for inspiration?
JI: I think definitely its some of the sixties pop stuff from the Buffalo Springfield to The Beatles and the Beach Boys and just when there was an electricity in the air that took songs into a different realm. I definitely get inspired when I get back and listen to that stuff, it gets my blood moving. I’ve read that Gram Parsons was an influence on you and Sarah Lee. What is it about him and his music that still keeps influencing young musicians today? He was so pure.
JI: He holds up. To me, if you take a track like “Brass Buttons” and you put it on and if you like country music or roots music, I think that’s where he fills a void is when people hear Gram they’re getting an Americana, they’re getting that country, they’re getting pop, they’re getting a sense of songwriting and they might be getting Emmylou [Harris] on some tracks too (laughs). I think Gram is a gateway to American Roots music, if you haven’t listened to Flatt and Scruggs or you didn’t know about Elizabeth Cotton. It’s a gateway that opens up other doors where like you might if you’d listened to Reverend Gary Davis before you heard Gram Parsons, you’d be like, “what the hell is that?” (laughs). And then you listen to Gram and then you’re like, “Oh ok” and it kind of, it’s like eating sushi. He’s the ginger that is a gateway is all. To me, he opened up a lot of doors to where I could, for some reason I was really into George Jones more and then I was into Merle Haggard or whatever. If I’d listened to George kind of first I might have been like, “Oh this is a little too country”, you know what I mean? And I think that goes for a lot of people, me in particular, but those songs, his voice is, he just has a golden voice, he had a golden voice, and he holds up. Sarah Lee, you’ve said that you wrote poetry when you were young. Is that how you write your songs today, they start off as poems? Or does the music come first?
SG: No, I do both and hopefully I get lucky and one goes with another. I tend to just write and I have this collection of journals and books and things and then I also just tend to sit at the piano and come up with things there and one day I’ll decide to try it together and hopefully things turn out where I find a line or something that works in a poem and I’ll just destroy the poem (laughs). It’s all about the song, really. I feel if I wrote one good line in five pages I’ll steal that and, my main effort is to just keep writing, cause that’s sort of my talent and getting better at my instrument as well. I actually try to balance it and do both and hopefully come up with that something that I feel good about.Do you have any advice for anyone who is writing poetry or lyrics in a notebook and maybe dreaming of being on a stage one day?
SG: It would be the same thing that people have always told me which is to keep writing, keep trying and keep working and keep doing it. It’s actually a craft and it may seem magical but I think hard work pays off also. And that’s something that I’ve learned throughout the years is that you can’t just sit down and wait for inspiration. We kind of treat it around here as a job and we work at it and keep working at it and there’s always something to learn.And do you think that twenty or thirty years down the line you’re still going to be doing this?
SG: Oh I don’t know, I dream about my second life (laughs). I love doing this and I think I always will because I have so many reasons to. And even if my dreams come true and I get to be a country girl and garden and make pottery, that I will still write and give the gift of song. You know, I found myself here, I think I belong here, and I was just reading something the other day that it’s a gift and you have to give it back so I give it to people who would appreciate it. So I’m spreading the love and I feel like I will continue to do so.