A Morning with Abigail Washburn
By Sophie Goodman
Climb up to the tree top, I'll be on the mountain top
Looking for you across the valley
First word you heard, oh, the sky is on fire
Crying for the dying daylight...
I have seen Abigail Washburn in concert, but it was not until May of this past year that I had the opportunity to speak to her in person. Though some may argue that we were not conversing, that instead Abigail was speaking not to me, but to the crowd, what I know is that in some engaged and collaborative act of speaking and listening we were communicating. As a graduate of the Colorado College class of 2012, I was honored to have Abigail as my commencement speaker (Abigail herself was a graduate of Colorado College in 1999). On that morning Abigail spoke to me and my classmates under an unrelenting sun and merciless temperatures. Abigail sang and laughed and shared stories of her humbling journey to becoming the brilliant banjo troubadour that she is today. She spoke of her childhood days singing Whitney Houston into an imaginary microphone and of her very first banjo performance in which her nerves led her to pee down her leg. Despite lack of sleep and the sweat that inevitably dripped beneath my gown, I was captivated by Abigail's raw, informal presence and her wisdom that seemed to come from far beyond her years.
I had the opportunity to speak to Abigail again this morning. We spoke about her unique sound, her affinity for Asian culture, and her upcoming performance in Telluride this month.
Through the eyes of Abigail Washburn Telluride, Colorado is, "the most beautiful place on the planet." Abigail is no stranger to our remote mountain village stashed deep in the heart of a towering box canyon. She has both attended and performed at Telluride's world renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival and opened for Mumford & Sons in 2011 at the historic Sheridan Opera House. Abigail will be returning to play at the Sheridan Opera House in downtown Telluride on October 25th with fellow musician, Kai Welch. Her most recent album, City of Refuge, was an extraordinary collaboration between the two, and they have since been working on a handful of new songs, four of which they hope to debut in Telluride this month.
Abigail sings and speaks from a place of unassuming curiosity and heroic honesty. As she spoke to us this morning of her search for human connectivity through music, I was assured that her unique sound and incredible propensity for storytelling make her a force to be reckoned with as she continues to rise on the musical scene.
Sophie: Hi, Abigail. How are you?
Abigail: I’m good. How’s it up in Telluride? That’s, like, the most beautiful place on the planet.
Sophie: It’s gorgeous here today. So you have been to Telluride before?
Abigail: I’ve been lucky to be there for several Telluride Bluegrass Festivals. I think it’s one of the most special musical weekends around. Between the scenery, how well it’s curated, how beautiful the musician hang is, how wonderful the audience is, it’s one of the best weekends of the year. I mean, the musicians look out at the waterfall and the amazing mountains, best view ever from a stage anywhere.
Sophie: So I have here with me, Maggie Edmunds, one of my co-workers at Telluride Alpine Lodging, and we both just graduated from Colorado College this past May and had the honor of hearing you speak. How was it being back there for graduation and delivering the commencement speech?
Abigail: I performed twice at Colorado College over the years, and it was really fun both times. When you go back to a place that was so important to whom you’ve become, it’s like a real flashback: you think about what you’ve done, it’s cathartic. It feels like every single decision you make has a really big impact on how your life unfolds.
Maggie: I actually got to go to one of those shows where you performed songs off of your City of Refuge album along with other collaborations.
Sophie: Speaking of City of Refuge, I read a review of the album in the New York Times that described the progression of the tracks as a journey: “Eventually, the route leads home: to a mountain gospel hymn.” Do you feel that’s accurate? Do you feel at home in the mountains?
Abigail: I think that’s really accurate actually because my biggest inspiration is mountain music. And I think that gospel music is what drives me most strongly to traditional music. So I think that’s really accurate.
Sophie: Did love of the mountains start when you came out to Colorado College? Did you grow up in the mountains? How did you first find this affiliation?
Abigail: No, I grew up in suburban Minnesota and Maryland mostly, and it was because I didn’t really understand what American culture was that I began to ask [what it meant to be American], especially when I came out to college. I started being curious, especially [when I started to study] China, so I went looking. I was always attracted to mountains, especially Colorado mountains, which is why I went to school out there. I was always attracted to that landscape and the way it makes you feel to work hard walking up the mountain. You put one foot in front of the other and eventually you get somewhere great with a wonderful view. And that’s how I’ve approached my whole career, one step after the next and you keep getting a better and better view. And it’s a wonderful thing to learn about being human, how to persevere and endure and the value of hard work. The mountains have taught me a lot about that.
[My music] is really a cultural music from Appalachia, and I’m drawn to those mountains for similar reasons. But the Eastern seaboard, Appalachian culture is very particular because of immigration and slavery. And that’s why we have this American music because of what happened to those folks as they found their freedom in the mountains of Appalachia and how they taught each other their traditions. That’s Appalachian music: a combination of West African music, particularly Gambian, Malian, and Senegalese, with Irish and Scottish music. And you know that the banjo is African. So it’s this amazing bit of American history that’s had this amazing impact on music around the world: blues started in America, jazz started in America, and as a result as well, rock music developed. I’m incredibly proud that [this phenomenon is] American. So, it’s a different relationship with the mountains that brought me to [traditional Appalachian folk music].
Sophie: I know you’ve always been interested in music, but you didn’t always know you wanted to be a professional musician. It seems like you have made a rather large change since graduating from Colorado College. When you left campus you were thinking you were going to law school in Beijing focusing on US/China political relations. Then you picked up the banjo, scraped law school, and decided to pursue a career in music. That’s a pretty large jump. Now, as a folk artist, you’re looking to bridge cultural gaps. What are the major areas of opportunity in terms of similarities between, on the surface, two very disparate cultures?
Abigail: I’ve chosen music because I think it’s one of the areas where the shared search for aesthetic beauty is the common language. It’s the bedrock upon which people forge out and create their art. It’s an inside-out coming together. When I sit down with a Chinese musician to play for them or with them, it’s like I don’t even need to speak Chinese honestly. All of the sudden, we’re playing something that sounds beautiful together, and it’s really that simple.
That’s the thing that amazes me about this current state of nationalistic pride and the tendency to rely on politics to be our connecting point as nations. I just think it’s really outdated, an old mentality of hegemonic forces trying to find a way to exist in a power struggle. And I think the real human desire is really to bust out beyond what our nationalistic association can do for us. Because of our ability to connect through the Internet, we want to feel a real deep and interesting connection to people around the world. And I think there’s less of a focus on which country is more powerful and which economy is kicking ass; I think there’s a desire for humans to understand humans and find a beauty together. There are too many areas of human beauty we could focus on outside of [political and economic differences]. Anything cultural allows for that [connection], anything that doesn’t emphasize a power struggle, anything that emphasizes a common search for beauty. That includes music, visual arts; anywhere there’s a personal expression that’s being shared. Food is a great way to connect. I think we need to focus on the common search for beauty instead of these violent nationalistic dialogues.
Sophie: I’ve a lot of reviews about your sound and how other people are describing your music and what you’re doing with your music, how would you describe your own music and your own musical drive?
Abigail: My music and what I’m doing is a continuation of a desire for connection. I think it started with China, with wanting to feel connected with Chinese people I was meeting. [The process of] wanting to feel connected and in [coming to] understand what it means to connect with somebody, it became clear that you have to have a strong sense of self in order to have anything [for the other person] to connect to. So part of the reason that I was drawn to the banjo was that it gave me something American to share with my Chinese friends. [The banjo] gave me this window into American history and culture that I could share with them. And so my music continues to be this extenuation of this desire to connect, not just with Chinese friends but also all these people that I’ve built my musical career with and have gotten to play for. You could call them fans or people who have an affinity for the kind of art I’m creating and feel like they have a place within it. As I travel and learn and meet people and get to perform, I feel so alive, and I feel centered more and more, and I feel like I get to be part of a community that lives for searching for beauty and get to live within that beauty. I live the life that I believe in by getting to be a musician.
It’s a real holistic perspective: I want to be me, and learn more and more what it means to be me. I want to connect with people who are also in that search for themselves in the sense that they are in the search for a broader scope of humanity that can transform the way we function [as a society] in a new global understanding. My music is an effort to continue living in that search for that transformation that I think will make our world a more beautiful and wonderful place to live in. And I feel like I find that every night.
For example, when I come to Telluride and get to play at the Sheridan Opera House: I’ll be sitting backstage, I’m so excited to share these songs that are a representation of what I care about, and then I’ll get up there, and I’ll share it, and I’ll be storytelling, and at the end of the show, I’ll come out and we’ll get to talk, and hang out and connect. It’s pretty magical, those moments on stage in the Sheridan Opera House; it’s a moment when we’re not focusing on those things that can be harmful for us. I love to live in that moment.
Sophie: Speaking of the musical artist community, how did you and Kai Welch end up collaborating?
Abigail: I finished with the Sparrow Quartet and I was trying to figure out what to do next and the first thing I did was head to Sichuan, China, after the devastating earthquake in 2009. I figured out pretty quickly that the kids in the disaster zone loved pop and electronic music and didn’t like folk music; it was not the cool thing. So I immediately started working with this electronic pop producer named the Shanghai Restoration Project, and he and I made [Afterquake] with the kids together. That’s when I learned about electronic music and beats and conceptual electronic arrangements and songs. And it totally took me out of my acoustic string band world and introduced me to a new world of thinking about music and editing music and thinking about using the computer more than anything else.
Before I knew it, my mind was really open. So I did this thing that took me really far from acoustic music and I really wanted to explore musically. So I decided to open my heart and see what would happen. One night I went to a rock club where this band called Tommy and the Whale was playing, and there was this guy on stage who was playing keyboards, playing bass on the keys; he would stand up lead a whole horn section, he would sing these gorgeous harmonies, then he would pick up an accordion and start playing. I was just blown away, and that looked like fun, I wanted to have fun like that. So I approached him, and it took awhile for us to connect because I’m like banjo folk girl and he’s like indie pop rock hipster guy. So it took awhile to make sense of it, but we found a moment to sit down and play together. It felt really special for both of us, and we kept playing together, and I asked him to part of shows and part of my record, and before you knew, it we were really central collaborators. And we’ve learned a ton from each other. This is our last real run of dates in the States for City of Refuge. We’re really excited about it. We’ve recently worked on six new songs that we’re rehearsing so we can share them during the show.
Sophie: So what are your hopes and expectations for this last run with Kai?
Abigail: During this process of writing this new batch of songs, we realized how much we’ve grown together as collaborators these past few years. I think we’re both really excited to incorporate this new material with this new maturity to our collaboration and see how it impacts the material we’ve been playing a lot in the past few years. I think it will translate in a new kind of excitement and new kind of connection with the audience because of the freshness of what we’re bringing. And you know, Telluride is such a special place. One of the things that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I played as Abigail Washburn and the Village (a 7 piece band) that Kai was a part of as well, and we got to open for Mumford & Sons at the Sheridan Opera House. As a result of that night, I got to meet all those guys for the first time, and we became good friends almost instantly, and as a result, I’ve got to open for them a bunch. We were a part of their Gentlemen of The Road tour this past summer (Click here to listen to Abigail's beautiful collaborations with Mumford & Sons!). So for me, a return to the Sheridan Opera House will be a return to that night when I got to meet these guys who became really special friends and musical peers in a lot of ways.
Sophie: So I think Maggie had a couple of questions if that’s okay.
Maggie: Hi, Abigail.
Abigail: Hi, Maggie. You know there’s this wonderful traditional song called “Little Maggie.” It goes like this. [Then she sang for us!] Isn’t that great? She’s like this total rebel. And this man who’s singing about her is so mad that he can’t get his arms around her. Do you relate to that at all?
Maggie: Maybe a little. [Laughs] If you’re willing, I was wondering if you would give us a little taste of some of your new songs?
Abigail: One is a two-finger picking style on the banjo and has a real trancy vibe to it. It’s about having to make choices. There’s this time in your late 20s and early 30s when you’re really struggling with [the question of], especially if you’re a woman, what am I going to do with my life? I need to really dig in, and if I want to have kids, I need to think about doing that etcetera. This is a medium tempo song that really asks that question: which way will you choose? I turned it into a bit of a love song listening to a boyfriend or lover struggle with what to do. She doesn’t know what she should do with her life and turns the question back onto herself. A pretty universal struggle, I think.
Maggie: I think that will definitely speak to a lot of people in Telluride.
Abigail: There will probably be 4 songs that we’ll be adding. Another one is about the frustration with how people disappear into their electronic devices and how it becomes such an important interaction with the screen rather than basic human interaction. And then another song about sleeplessness and having trouble sleeping and all those things that come to you when you’re trying to sleep like anxiety, struggle.
Maggie: I’m looking forward to hearing them. One more question: I know you have an affinity for Telluride, and obviously Sophie and I do too, so do you have anything on your Telluride bucket list?
Abigail: I would love to go for a big hike, but that won’t be hard to find.
Sophie: Thank you so much, Abigail. We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.
Abigail: Thanks, Sophie. Thanks, Maggie. I’ll see you soon.