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Photo: Patti Perret
No. For a bunch of years now, I’ve been doing the same thing, which is using really thick fake nails. There’s one brand called Nailene that’s ridiculously thick—so thick that I don’t see how any woman would use them as fashion nails. They’re twice or three times the thickness of a regular human nail, so they’re just these wedges of plastic that you super-glue on. I also use electrical tape down to my second knuckle to give added reinforcement to the nail. If it pops off, live, at least it won’t go flying and I can glue it real quick between songs—we have this super-fast-setting super glue—and the tape also protects my skin.
What kind of glue do you use?
It varies. I’ll use the Nailene glue or just straight-up super glue or whatever’s available.
Let’s move on to playing and songwriting. What’s the biggest mistake made by guitar junkies who’re also singer-songwriters?
I started out very much as a songwriter with stuff I wanted to say, and the guitar was the vehicle to say it with, as opposed to the other way around. So I became a guitar player second. But there are many ways to skin a cat. For any artist—and any person, really—it’s more about knowing yourself and accepting your strengths and weaknesses and working with them instead of trying to work against them or trying to be something you’re not.
Even though you started out as a songwriter, you pursued more esoteric guitar directions than most singer-songwriters do: You play nonstandard tunings and use a lot of hammer-ons and tapping techniques. Why do you think that is?
Well, freedom was a big factor for me in a lot of ways—and one of the ways is just freedom from knowledge [laughs]. Y’know, ignorance is liberating. I took some guitar lessons when I was very young, and that gave me a pretty cool basis, I think, but I didn’t take it very far. So most of the way that I play just comes from my own sense of invention and expression. I think if I’d known a few more of the rules along the way, then maybe I would’ve been caught between whether to follow them or not. Somebody showed me DADGAD when I was a young girl, but that was sort of the one tiny little introduction I had to open tunings, and from there I just invented them all by myself. When you spend so much time with an instrument, the curiosity of turning the pegs is inescapable. It was like, “If this is your palette of colors, what kinds of shapes does your hand make and what kinds of voicings and chord flavors naturally happen?” Open tunings were just something I pursued out of my own creative drive. And the sort of percussive attack with which I play just came out of years of playing in bars and being my own rhythm section.
What excited you most about recording your new album, ¿Which Side Are You On?
I guess taking my time, which is a new thing for me. I mean, I’ve made 20-some records—and most of them very quickly. I’ve been in a big hurry my whole life—it was always, “Get it out there, and keep going, and make a new record, and change, and reinvent yourself ….” That’s just sort of my personality—to plow forth. About five years ago, I had a baby, and that—and, I guess, just getting older in general—changed the whole pace of my life. I don’t move at quite the clip that I used to. So this new record I spent over two years working on, and I think it shows. In the past, I’ve been too willing to just hit record and move on. Now I make a recording and then, six months or a year later, I might say, “That’s too slow” or too this or too that. My husband is very helpful for me in that area, because he doesn’t settle. A lot of what I do these days is, I’ll take my usual guitar and plug it into my usual amps and stand there and go, “Okay, I’m ready.” But he’ll say, “Mmm, yeah, that’s not the best sound.” He slows me down and helps me pursue better sounds, better performances, and better production. So it’s been really cool at this point in my life to have hit a whole new stride in the studio, where I’m making better representations of my songs for posterity. Which makes me feel good, because I’ve always loved my songs along the way—they’ve always been this incredibly powerful presence in my life that has connected me to so many people—but I’ve always hated my recordings, because they were always haphazard and not enough of them were successful representations. So I feel like I’m upping my average of successful recordings, and that feels good.
It sounds like you used standard tuning quite a bit more this time around?
Yeah, that’s been happening. The economic recession is affecting all of us in our own way, so I’ve been doing a lot of downscaling with my touring operation. I’ve been travelling solo for the last year, actually, with a crew of four people—whereas at one point I might’ve had 12 people. So that makes me instinctually want to be self-sufficient, in case I have to be. Maybe someday I’m going to be touring alone again, or with one person, or no guitar tech. So the tactical side of my nature that has guided me through my whole career has been steering me back toward standard tuning, just in case I’m also my own guitar tech again someday. I had a little exercise last year. I got a local gig at this bar in New Orleans, where I live, every couple of weeks for a few months. It was something I hadn’t done in a long time, and it got me back to basics. It was just me and my husband showing up for the gig. I was huffing my stuff in, doing shows with three guitars. I was tuning my guitars and setting my stuff up—just to prove to myself that I can still do it. So my drifting back toward standard tuning is all about self-sufficiency—or making sure that’s possible again, at least.
Do you miss playing in all the altered tunings?
Yeah, I love altered tunings. But they really do set you up for failure onstage. You’ve got to be good at tuning, and you’ve got to be quick if you want to do it without a guitar tech. And being able to talk and tune at the same time is helpful—that’s more difficult than it should be, because I have lots of tunings. I’ll discover a tuning I like, and then I’ll write a handful of songs either in that tuning or in that tuning family—with slight variations on this string or that string—so it’s hard to even remember what the hell they are, especially when you’re alone onstage and confronted with an audience. So it’s a bit of a brain twister that I’m sure people without guitar techs could do without.
Have you had to drastically modify your set list around that, or have you tried to adapt some of your songs to standard tuning?
Well, the set list evolves organically. I always want to play the new stuff, because that’s where my heart and spleen are these days, and then I sprinkle in the old stuff—which could be two years old or 20 years old. At this point, I’ve been writing since I was 19, and I’m 41. So I know that if I just generate more songs in standard tuning, then the set list will be steered in that direction, and then it’ll be less wrenching the guitars around all night long. But when I play live with my guitar tech these days, I’m still all over the place.
Tell me about having Pete Seeger in the studio for “¿Which Side Are You On?”
That was a song I learned to play for his 90th birthday celebration, which was this big party/benefit at Madison Square Garden a few years back. So I got the job of playing “¿Which Side Are You On?” with Bruce Cockburn, and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” with Kris Kristofferson. On [the new version of] “¿Which Side,” I couldn’t help but update the verses a little—or a lot, as it were, because that’s the folk process, and I’m a folk singer. Ever since that event, I’ve been including that song in my shows. Since I essentially rewrote the song, it’s become sort of my standard rabble-rousing show closer of late. Over the years of making this record, it just kind of sifted its way to the top and became the title because it evolved into a very political record. It’s a very poignant political time that we’re living in, and that’s just the direction this record went in. Having Pete join me on the recording was kind of a full-circle experience for my relationship with this song.
How did you approach him about it?
I called him up and said, “Pete, I’m recording this song that you recorded, y’know, back in 1953. Would you please join me on it?” He immediately says, “Hang on,” and he puts the phone down and jumps up and goes and grabs his banjo. He comes back to the phone and he’s so full of energy and passion, and he’s like, “So are you doing the this version or that version … ” and he’s sending me various versions of the lyrics and this and that, and really getting involved as only Pete will do. Anyway, we ended up rendezvousing in Hudson, New York, at the Beacon Sloop Club there on the Hudson River, which is sort of the gathering place of the Clearwater [environmental advocacy] organization. We rode up one afternoon with some remote recording gear, and he rode up alone in his car—he’s 91 or 92 at this point. He drives up, pulls his banjo out of the back—“No, thank you, don’t need help carrying it—no one touches my banjo!”—strolls on in, and, basically, in about two takes, recorded the intro to the song. It’s pretty similar to his 1953 recording. We got him playing and singing all the way through, and we had about five or 10 minutes to do this session before an unannounced children’s singing group that does progressive folk songs comes in to do their rehearsals. So, next thing you know, that’s happening and Pete is joining in with them and leading them. We ended up recording all the kids on the chorus, as well, and then we were out of there.