Sixteen-time Grammy Award winner Bèla Fleck speaks with The Echo about everything banjo in the leadup to his gig in Bangalow this week.
What does the banjo bring to a song that another instrument may not?
Banjo can bring an authenticity that is hard to explain. Even modern music sounds ancient and wise when a banjo is played properly.
What about two banjos?
Twice as authentic. Double authenticity, which is impossible with any other set of two instruments.
What is the key to mastering a duet? How do the voices need to work together?
Listening to each other is the big thing; also finding the shared musical language between the two players, and then knowing how much each of the two can push the other outside of their own language. Everyone should be some combination of totally comfortable and a little nervous! That brings the necessary tension to keep it from being too smooth.
As a couple how do you manage your personal relationship alongside a musical one? Is it hard not to take disagreements to the stage?
Stage can be a great balm to the relationship in our case. With our three-year-old in tow, sometimes the stage is the only place we get to spend time as a couple.
A romantic moment for just the two of us – and 500 of our closest friends. Sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less!
But we do tend to get along very well, and troubles are rare.
That’s why it’s okay for us to work together; obviously not all couples should.
What is it about the old-time music do you think that has captured people’s imagination again?
It’s so timeless. Some music outdates very quickly, but old-time and bluegrass have this potential to be made new over and over.
I would stress that what we play is not traditional old-time music, but the roots are deep and evident in what we do together.
For instance, three-finger-style banjo and clawhammer banjo have never made up a touring duet that we know of.
So the very basis of what we do, while sounding traditional notes, is very unusual.
Also, I play in a very modern (three-finger) style, which began with Earl Scruggs, while Abby plays in the older (clawhammer) style, which dates banjo to the slaves who brought the banjo from West Africa to the Americas.
I am fascinated about how China has influenced Abigail’s work. What unique sounds or chord progressions has it introduced to her (your) music?
It brings a sensibility, and highlights the commonalities between music of many lands. Banjos sound perfect playing Chinese mountain music, and we’ll surely do at least one of these songs in our set. Abby is a fluent Mandarin speaker, and her time in China has given her fresh elements to give her music an unusual aspect.
What do you think is the essence of a great song?
It’s got to be personal, and go directly from the singer to the listener with very little brain in the way. A great song goes directly to your heart.
What are the mistakes that you need to avoid in songwriting… and in taking a great song into the studio?
One mistake is to confuse a good performance with a good song. Just ’cause you did it well doesn’t mean it’s a great song. Another issue can be that the song is great but it’s not the right one for this artist to do. Some songs that Abby or I have written just don’t suit the duo; they don’t present properly coming from the two of us. Luckily we’re been pretty good at figuring out together what makes sense to come from the two of us.
And what should we expect for your show at the Bangalow A&I Hall?
It’s a very warm and sweet night. Abby is a wonderful singer and a great performer, who truly loves to connect with the crowd.
Sometimes the gigs can be very funny, if you guys like our sense of humour.
Folks tell us it’s like being in someone’s living room hearing a private show, kind of intimate.
And of course we’ll attempt to play the tar out of our banjos.
Bèla Fleck and Abigail Washburn at the Bangalow A&I Hall on Wednesday at 8pm.
All tickets and booking info: www.redsquaremusic.com.au.