3 Modern Folk Artists on the Diverse Influences and Approaches of Their New Albums

The question of when, how, or why inspiration arises for a musician is not often answered succinctly. Time, place, habits, history—a catalog of factors grows with each subsequent release. The desire to gain insight into the psyche of an artist can be at worst superficial, at best inspiriting. If knowledge is power, it's clear that even the smallest glimpse into the recording techniques, rituals, and decision-making processes can be monumental to an aspiring songwriter or fan. Your best gateway in? Ask them about the albums they can't stop spinning.

Today, three musicians are walking us through three albums that were on repeat during the creation of their most recent LPs. We went deep with Sam Evian, Phil Cook, and Jess Williamson to uncover how these records impacted their work, their individual history with each, and new risks and strategies they implemented throughout their writing and recording processes.

Sam Evian

Sam Evian is the project of New York-based musician, songwriter, and producer Sam Owens. Following a stint of tours in support of his Saddle Creek debut, Premium Owens has just released sophomore effort You, Forever, a remarkably warm, honest, and romantic record fit for long summer drives.

List three albums that were on heavy rotation while making You, Forever.

  • Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
  • John Lennon - Imagine
  • Neil Young - Harvest Moon

Are there common themes, sounds, or patterns between the three LPs? Do any of these apply or connect to You, Forever?

I work as an engineer/producer out of a studio in Brooklyn called Figure 8. One night after a session, I noticed that some anonymous donor had left a folder on my desktop called "classic sessions." It was an easter egg of a folder that totally changed my outlook on recording music. When I opened it, I found stems to a handful of classic records. What's Going On and Imagine were there, as well as records from Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, etc.

The James Jamerson basslines are a pretty popular destination for us all, but this folder contained digitized files from the 4-, 8-, or 16-track multitracks. I opened up What's Going On, set it up to play on 16 channels of the Neve, and spent the rest of the night with that song. Later in the week I went back and did the same with Imagine, Innervisions, Sgt. Peppers, and a number of others.

I came away feeling that I needed to totally re-educate myself in regards to my work in the studio. Something that was shocking at first was how strange and objectively "bad" (from a modern gear studio person perspective) a lot of the sounds are when you listen to them alone. They're dry and thin and sometimes distorted in weird ways. Sometimes the bass is murky and swampy and completely rolled off. Other times there is no low-end to speak of, but when you pull all of these elements together, they create a complete and perfect vision. Motown, The Beatles, Stevie, Joni—they all worked like this.

So for You, Forever, I made some rules that were inspired from my time with the "classic sessions" folder:

  1. Break the routine of recording in Brooklyn. I brought everyone to a small house in the woods outside Woodstock, New York.
  2. Record to tape.
  3. Keep only one take per song. No splicing. Only punch in if you really mean it.
  4. No tuning pedals. Tune and listen to each other.
  5. Learn the song directly before recording it. All arrangements had to be on the spot.
  6. Overdubs happen all together when possible, to save space on tape and facilitate more vibe. No going or looking back.

What is a risk you took or new strategy you implemented while making You, Forever? Did it pay off?

The risks were directly related to these rules. I got extremely lucky with the power situation at the house. It was just a simple A-frame with a few outlets, but no one got electrocuted! Then there was the risk that the Tascam would fail, or that my Apollo-to-Tascam system wouldn't work. I was constantly stopping the machine to clean the heads, or futz with the tape path. Also, I only brought two reels of tape to enforce the one-take-per-song rule. That meant that once something was gone, it was gone forever.

I hope it did pay off. My bandmates are super proud of what we accomplished. We worked so very hard to get the songs down in this way… it was 85/90 degrees in that house, and we had no AC. Also no privacy, one car, and one grocery store that was 10 miles away. It was extreme compared to working in Brooklyn. Those guys were so patient and thoughtful despite the torture chamber that I set up. I can't thank them enough!

Phil Cook

North Carolina musician Phil Cook is making some of the most exciting sounds in folk, gospel, and blues today. Having clocked time with Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and DeYarmond Edison, Cook set out on his own with 2015's Southland Mission. He returns with the new People Are My Drug, a record that honors the musical, spiritual, and personal mentors who have shaped Cook's community-driven approach.

List the albums that were on heavy rotation while making People Are My Drug.

  • Cory Henry - The Revival
  • The Angelic Gospel Singers - Don't Stop Praying
  • The Sensational Nightingales - You Know Not The Hour
  • Brother Theotis Taylor - Something Within Me

Where were you/who were you with the first time you heard each one?

My journey in the last five years digging into Quartet Gospel music has been largely on my own. I still think that is the most important way to discover music. American music is one giant beautiful tree. You gotta get up in there and climb around. I've spent most of my life exploring its various roots and limbs, along with my close friends. Friends are the second-most important source of musical discovery. I share albums with people like I share memories. Certain records bring me right back to a time and place with someone.

Nobody has influenced me more in recent history than MC Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger. MC introduced me to Ronnie Lane, Joe Higgs, Terry Reid, and so many more. My friends are deep heads with deep record collections. The type whose collections are a meditation of love and appreciation for the human spirit. Egoless record collectors are the best kind. Their finds are not about them—they are about the music.

I heard about The Angelic Gospel Singers and The Sensational Nightingales from my touring with The Blind Boys of Alabama. Each of those singers is a library of stories and experience. When I get to hang with them these days, I always bring a list of people to ask them about. They're pretty used to all my questions and they are always gracious with their time, and that is far better than looking on blogs or Discogs or Spotify.

I think that Cory Henry's The Revival record is my most listened to music of the last two years for sure. I don't know how I found that, but almost every week I spend a little time with it. If you haven't heard it yet or aren't familiar with Cory, he's one of our country's greatest contemporary musical exports. A true virtuoso and child prodigy on the Hammond B3 and other keyboards, but with all the wisdom, space, taste, and patience of a master more than twice his age. There's a gospel current in all that he does. He's a humanist. What he's able to say and accomplish with that instrument makes my gut clench and my heart leap.

Are there common themes, sounds, or patterns between the three LPs? Do any of these apply to People Are My Drug? How so?

Stylistically, I'm a fingerpicker who enjoys playing an electric guitar tuned to open chords. That's the thread that most ties the records together. I'm not a big effects person, though I've explored those territories many times. Reverb and tremolo will get you a long ways. I think exploring how fingerpicking works within the context of a band is great. It can stand alone just fine, but the rhythmic possibilities when paired with a swinging rhythm section are endless. I also enjoy blending a more soulful and tight rhythm section with more traditional acoustic instruments on top, like fiddle and mandolin. That's a common thread in my music as well.

What is a risk you took or new strategy you implemented while making People Are My Drug? Did it pay off?

It was basically a group trust fall. We planned to start and finish the entire project, mixing and mastering included, in just 10 days. This meant we had to work fast and trust our collective and individual instincts.

We set up in a circle in the studio and committed to our parts with no plan of replacing anything. All for one, one for all. Once we got comfortable, we started running tunes—not playing any of them more than two or three times—and then moving on. After two days we had tracked 15 different songs and never once did the band step into the control room to hear a take or check a sound. I can't recommend this enough to musicians. If you trust your team, it's the ultimate recognition of that trust. It felt liberating to make those commitments in the tracking room together. It did wonders for the vibe of the record. I can feel all of us laughing and hear us smiling in there and that's what this band is ultimately about.

Review People Are My Drug in three words.

Trust Your Friends.

Jess Williamson

In 2016, Austin native Jess Williamson made a series of life transitions that would shape Cosmic Wink, her third LP and first for Mexican Summer, released in May.

Inspired by a new landscape, a new love, and a new approach to songwriting, Williamson holed up in the back house of a friend in LA to write an immensely joyful record that floats between psych-folk and new-age country. Backed with a supreme cast of musicians, each track further illuminates Williamson's penchant for tackling the hardest, darkest subjects with never-ending light and love.

List three albums that were on heavy rotation while making Cosmic Wink.

  • Pep Laguarda & Tapineria - Brossa D'ahir
  • Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou - Ethiopiques, Vol. 21: Piano Solo
  • Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

Are there common themes, sounds, or patterns between the three LPs? Do any of these apply/connect to Cosmic Wink? How so?

There is a warmth to Brossa D'Ahir and Emahoy, and also a mystery. This is a rare combo. It feels like this music exists in another time and place. It's a dreamlike feeling I can access when I listen to those albums. I wanted to tap into that feeling with Cosmic Wink.

Rumours stands apart from the other two. Listening to that record helped me realize that pop music can have depth, and that's something I hoped to accomplish with Cosmic Wink.

If you were introducing someone to these records for the first time, which tracks would you play first and why?

On Brossa D'Ahir, "Alceu-vos, Xe, Que Ja és de Dia / Sent." This was the first song I heard and it's the first song on the record. It feels like morning light filling an airy room with all the windows open.

Emahoy's "Homelessness." This one sounds like night falling peacefully on a room where you feel really safe and have nothing you have to do. It sounds like staying in at night and enjoying your house. I adore this song. This album has gotten me through some of the hardest times in my life, and it's also what I want to listen to during happy times.

On Rumours, "Dreams." Just one of the greatest pop songs ever written! I would show this song to someone and say, "Just listen to the words and the way she sings." It's so powerful.

What is a risk you took or new strategy you implemented while making Cosmic Wink? Did it pay off?

I wanted to make a record that would be fun, something you could dance and sing along to. I wanted to explore certain pop sensibilities that in the past I'd entirely avoided. It was a risk, but I knew it was the right move.

Review Cosmic Wink in three words.

Folk 4 Freakz.

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