Odetta Hartman (Photo courtesy the artist)
Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region invites you to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on Saturday, May 4 at a family-friendly music event on the banks of the Anacostia River. The festival will feature an incredible roster of musical talent from throughout the city and surrounding regions, representing diverse backgrounds, cultures, genders, and ages covering bluegrass, folk, and Americana with headliners Dustbowl Revival, The Ballroom Thieves, Hackensaw Boys, and more.
Experimental country/folk artist Odetta Hartman also will perform, and Parklife DC’s Mark Engleson chatted with the New York City singer prior to the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival. For more information, including the full lineup and ticket information, visit the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folks Festival website.
Mark Engleson: For people who might not be familiar with Old Rockhounds Never Die, how would you describe the album?
Odetta Hartman: How would I describe the album? It’s an adventure, a journey, through mythological stories. I would just call it an experimental adventure. In terms of genre, I think somebody coined “future folk.” In think that fits pretty well, futuristic folk music. But as an album, I think it’s really just a journey.
ME: I’ve been playing around with a term that I call “weird country.”
OH: I like that, “weird country.”
ME: I heard your album around the same time I heard Anna St. Louis’s album. I don’t want to turn this into me talking too much, but I think also this guy Daniel Romano, I feel like you guys are all doing experimental stuff that brings in a little bit of psychedelic?
ME: And elements of art music.
OH: Maybe it’s like avant country.
ME: Yeah, that’s a way of putting it, too.
OH: Or avant-Americana, or something. I used to call it cowboy soul. That was sort of before the beats came in. I had a friend make a joke, a little pun, and call it country club. I thought that was pretty funny. It’s ever-evolving. I just finished another Euro tour, and the experience of taking it on the road for 5 weeks through 12 different countries, definitely it has evolved. The live set has evolved. It’s never static.
Stream Old Rockhounds Never Die by Odetta Hartman on Bandcamp:
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ME: In terms of production of an album like that, there’s a lot going on on there that can’t quite be duplicated in a live performance.
OH: Yes and no. Did you see any of the DC shows?
ME: I did not see them last year. I found out about the album late in the year. I’m going to be seeing you for the first time at the festival.
OH: Great, well, you’ve got some treats in store. I have been playing with my friend Alex Freedom, whose a percussionist, and he is so versatile and amazing. It’s been really to translate the record into a live performance with him. Each of us has an acoustic setup, so I play violin, banjo, guitar. He has a bunch of hand percussion: Brazilian pandeiros, tambourines, wind chimes, all kinds of weird trash can lids and things that we scavenged around.
We each have these very acoustic components, and then to complement it we also our digital counterparts. I’m running Ableton with backing tracks, which has been a major development. But I only have two arms and two hands, and can’t play everything, as much as I wish I could. That has been a way to clone myself. Alex is using a drum kit that is actually electronic. It’s two snares and a miniature bass drum with mesh heads. He uses a system called Sunhouse Sensory Percussion. It’s really fascinating, it’s new software. Basically, it can read the vibration of his attack and it will trigger based on the mapping of the drum. It’ll trigger just a sample. He can have hundreds and hundreds of sounds just in his little tiny kit and, going from song to song, change those sets. That’s been a really amazing new tool.
ME: And it’s responsive to his drumming?
OH: It looks like he’s playing the drums. He’s got two drumsticks and he’s sitting at a drum throne. Instead of a snare, the middle of the snare head can actually trigger a sub, or can trigger backup vocals, or the sound of chains dragging on the floor. It’s really fascinating. It’s digitally mapped, so based on whether you hit the rim or middle, it’s going to trigger something different, also depending on the velocity. Your attack, your speed, your dynamics, can trigger different things. It’s very cool.
ME: It sounds like this type of drum machine might sound more organic.
OH: Yeah! It’s a total necessity, there are so many sounds on the record, and to bring every object that made those sounds would be…we’d have two suitcases full of stuff. We’re still carrying like three hundred pounds of gear everywhere. We try to keep it as compact as we can. But it ends up looking like a magic trick. It’s kind of like an optical illusion, you can see that he’s playing with drumsticks, yet it’s playing string, sampled strings. It’s just opened up such an amazing new wave of form. We’re still learning the technology. We’re now starting to compose for the software, whereas we were retrofitting the album to make it fit for the stage. Now, we’re ahead it. We’re able to write more of the instruments that we have. Very exciting.
Watch the official music video for “You You” by Odetta Hartman on YouTube:
ME: Speaking of the sounds on the album, you have field recordings. One thing to explain to people about the album is that field recording can mean a couple of different things. Could you talk about what field recording means in the context of your album?
OH: Sure! There are all different kinds of field recordings on the record. The two main ways that they were implemented, first of all, was to build the beats. I made a record with Jack Ainsley and we didn’t have a drummer that we were working with. Out of necessity, we don’t have any drums, how can we make the drum sounds? We started fooling around in the kitchen and sampling salt shakers and pepper grinders and faucets.
There’s actually, at the beginning of a song, the ocean. There’s a little crackle, and it’s rice that I had to wash three times for a very complicated recipe. It started glistening and making this very cool sound, so naturally we had to record that. They’re also implement as ? so you can hear Icelandic seagulls on some of the songs. At the end of “Widow’s Peak,” I incorporated a prayer call from a mosque in Morocco that fit in with the outro. You can hear street sounds and donkeys coughing through the Medina. Those are two main ways. It’s just kind of become a really fun way to incorporate sonic souvenirs. It takes me back to my journeys and my adventures. They’re sort of these little Easter Eggs, treasure hunts, hidden within the songs that help set the place and time.
ME: Do you come from a musical family?
OH: I do. My older brother and my younger sister are musicians. Both of my parents are avid musical supporters. My sister and I actually just put out a song together in January, I think. That was our first time releasing something together like that. That’s very exciting. Hopefully we can continue to put out some more stuff. I played strings on her…I’m in the car with my mom, there’s all these deer coming out. I do live in New York City, but the country sound is not put on. Very much living the country life right now.
ME: When did you get interested in country music?
OH: My mom raised us on it. I have these very early memories of my mom dancing around listening to Loretta Lynn on the radio. She grew up in West Virginia, so that kind of coal miner-sistery music is in the blood. We used to go on trips to West Virginia every summer. I used to listen to Irish tunes as a kid, and I joined a folk band in college. I love the aesthetic, I love the sound of good old traditional country music. It’s cool to see it having a little bit of a renaissance now…I’m into it.
ME: Who do you think are some underrecognized musicians?
OH: Living, current?
ME: Could be current or past.
OH: One of my big influences is a woman named Karen Dalton, and I don’t feel like people know her name, but she is just remarkable. She’s a contemporary of Bob Dylan, and she played banjo and guitar. She’s such a badass girl. I think she only put out two or three records, no original music, all covers, but her voice is so incredible. I definitely feel like she’s one of my top influences. Underrated artists…I want to give a shout-out to my friends in the District: Jack Kilby, who’s a jazz drummer in Alexandria, he’s always so supportive and amazing. I’ve been able to play with him in an Americana band called Peyote Pilgrim. I don’t know if they’re still playing anymore.
But I’ve got to a shout-out to homies, local homies…Underrated musicians…I feel like everyone is kind of getting their due right now. I’ve been listening to Empress Of a lot. She’s not underrated, she’s definitely hitting the big time. Oh, Water Water, kind of like a secret awesome musician that my drummer and I listen to on the road. I want to give a shout-out to another homie, Strainer, who is like a pop punk band. There you go, in that little nugget, there’s my taste; it varies. Let me also give a shout out to my friends The Landing. My friend, John Bell, he’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met. He’s the main producer and composer for a few different projects.
Thanks to Odetta Hartman for taking the time to talk to me and ParklifeDC! Odetta will perform at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival.
Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival
w/ Dustbowl Revival, The Ballroom Thieves, Hackensaw Boys
Saturday, May 4
Show @ 12-8pm
$35 GA/$100 VIP