New Album Coming From Apocalyptic String-Band Duo Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves
By Devon Leger.
Traditional music is not static; it shifts with the times, uncovering new meanings in old words, new ways of talking about the communal pathways that led us to where we are today. For master musicians Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, traditional string-band music is a way to interpret our uncertain times, to draw artistic inspiration and power from the sources of meaning in their lives. History, family, literature, live performance, and environmental instability all manifest in the sounds, feelings, and sensations that permeate their new album, Hurricane Clarice (coming March 25 from Free Dirt Records).
Recording last year in the midst of a global pandemic and during an unprecedented heat wave that saw the city of Portland, Oregon burning under 120 degree heat, these two master musicians found themselves turning to their own communities, to their families, to bring that support into the music. In fact, it was producer Phil Cook (Megafaun, Hiss Golden Messenger) who suggested the two weave their own family histories into the project by including audio recordings of each of their own grandmothers. The album became a direct infusion of centuries of matrilineal folk wisdom, a fiery breath of apocalyptic grandmother energy. And yet the beauty of Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves’ music is that they’re using these old sounds to speak to something new, to speak to a dying world.
If Hurricane Clarice has the incendiary fire of a red hot live performance, that was very much the plan for de Groot, Hargreaves, and Cook. “We love performing live together so much,” says de Groot. “We were talking to Phil about that, how do you capture that energy and intimacy of a performance without being too aware that you’re recording in a studio? Phil’s idea was to just play it like it’s a show.”
They worked out the innovative idea of rehearsing and recording the music as performance “sets” about one hour long, rather than going over and over each track in the studio. “We had two sets and we would play them front to back and back to front,” says Hargreaves. “We did that for four days in the studio and never listened back to any of the recordings until the last day.”
This creative method enabled de Groot & Hargreaves to capture some of that rare lightning that you hear at the duo’s concerts. Ultimately, only a few overdubs were needed with both agreeing they didn’t want it to get overly polished. “We aren't perfect and we don't want our album to sound perfect,” says Hargreaves.
In juxtaposition to these live, unedited recordings, sound engineer Adam McDaniel ofDrop of Sun Studios brought the idea of sending sampled fragments of the duo’s banjo and fiddle through filters, sprinkling sonic interludes and overlays throughout the album. Still, it’s the ferocious performance energy that stands out the most from the album. Stringband music is fueled by all-night jam session marathons or three-hour long square dances, but playing full sets in a recording studio still took a lot of work and focus. “It felt really demanding and different from any studio experience I’d ever had,” says Hargreaves.
Musically, both artists are at the absolute top of their game. In addition to the recording innovations, the duo have worked tirelessly to build on their already impressive technique and to find new ways to play live together. In stringband music, nearly every song or tune necessitates a complete retuning of the fiddle and banjo, so set lists have to be carefully built and the best artists develop an intricate knowledge of alternate tunings and modalities. For de Groot & Hargreaves, they wanted their set list to build a narrative that flowed easily and that showcased their abilities as consummate artisans. You can hear this work on the album as they twist and turn in tandem through intricately woven fiddle lines pulsing with circular rhythms, the clawhammer banjo pulsing beneath, matching the speed and ferocity of the fiddle with uncommon grace. At times they push so hard that they near escape velocity. All the same, both bristle at the idea that they’re moving the old-time tradition further or breaking new ground. “I’m tired of the perceived goal being to push the music forward,” de Groot says. “I don’t think that means that much and it’s a capitalist idea; a desired goal but not necessarily a positive thing.” Instead, de Groot & Hargreaves looked to foreground ideals of community and family, filling their recording space with feelings of home, family and community.
The repertoire on Hurricane Clarice comes from rare field recordings, old hymns, and dusty LPs, but it also comes from modern literary sources and original compositions from the two, a delightful mix of the old and the new. Both de Groot and Hargreaves are avid readers, so the Hargreaves-penned title track delves into the surreal world of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector while the Canadian ballad “The Banks of the Miramichi” references the “before times” of a polluted river used as a case study in the environmentalist classic Silent Spring. Hargreaves in particular has worked to incorporate literary traditions and storytelling into the music. Hargreaves in particular has a great love for literary traditions and storytelling. “I feel like playing traditional music is similar to reading science fiction or magical realism.” Hargreaves explains, “We’re taking these traditional components that we’ve learned from a lineage of people passing it down orally. It always changes, someone exaggerates it in a way that fits their storytelling or playing style. It keeps getting weirder and weirder with each telling to match who’s telling it.” Other tunes come from deep dive sources, like Black fiddler Butch James Cage (“Dead and Gone”), or the tune “Nancy Blevins” from fiddler Albert Hash (on further research, the “real” Blevins may have been involved in witchcraft).
Unlike many songs from the bluegrass and old-time traditions, the songs on Hurricane Clarice are not concerned with love. They do wryly tackle topics like seasonal depression (“Each Season Changes You”) and the absurdity of touring (“The Road That’s Walked by Fools”) but if anything was on the duo’s minds while recording it was likely family, either the kind you’re born to or the kind you make yourself. So much of this music is made with intent and meaning without needing words–just swirling dance melodies designed to be played all night–that it seems likely that both Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves were both unknowingly crafting an ode to family as a source of hope in a time of dying.