Let's clear up a matter of some confusion. Black Prairie is not a bluegrass band. Neither are Mumford and Sons or the Lumineers or any other group that just happens to have a banjo and just happens to play songs that echo folk melodies and images. What Black Prairie is is a collaborative off-shoot of the Decemberists (definitely not a bluegrass band), featuring that Portland, Oregon group's multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, accordion player Jenny Conlee and drummer John Moen, and singer and violinist Annalisa Tornfelt of Bearfoot and the Woolwines, as well as guitarist Jon Neufeld of Dolorean and Jackstraw.
The music the sextet makes together slips and scrapes in and out of traditional forms, from gospel to blues to jazz to klezmer and gypsy music. All six are accomplished on a variety of acoustic instruments, but, again, that doesn't mean they're following in Ralph Stanley's footsteps. One listen to the eclectic albums A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart or the new release Wild Ones (a score to a book by Jon Mooallem) should be enough to dispel any lingering stereotypes.
As Black Prairie made its way to St. Louis for its first show in town (Friday night at Off Broadway), I spoke with co-founder Chris Funk about the evolution of the group and its relationship to his other band, the Decemberists.
Roy Kasten: Tell me about the origin of the name Black Prairie.
Chris Funk: It doesn't really mean anything. We were trying to think of a name that evoked something Americana but something with a somber tone. We started the band trying to write instrumental music, music we perceived as darker sounding or more challenging. I came up with the name "Slow Prairie Death." Annalisa, our violin player and singer, was like, "Noooo. What about Black Prairie?" We were like, "Great." As if the world needs another "black dot dot dot" band.
At least she didn't propose Black Wolf Prairie.
We should have put an animal in there. Owl Prairie Parade Collective.
When I think of the Northwest the last thing I think of is prairies.
You're correct. In fact, we were on a Canadian folk-festival workshop stage, and they based the entire theme around prairies because we were there. The prairie is a very real thing in Canada; there are songs about it. They thought we would have songs about the prairie, and we had none. So, we went down the line with a bunch of Canadian singer-songwriters, and they'd say, "This is a song from my grandfather about the prairie in Canada." And then they got to us, and it was like, "Hi, we're Black Prairie. Here's a song."
What was it like working with Annalisa on her songs and working that into the band?
We started out as a collaborative, instrumental band, and we slowly encouraged her to sing. She didn't really care to. The songs she'd bring in were pretty fleshed out, but maybe we'd add an instrumental bridge. It varied. We're starting work on a new album that will be a mainly vocal record, just to try that out for kicks. She's the most open-minded, easy vocalist, songwriter I've ever worked with. She's really into collaboration. She's not too precious about anything, which is awesome.
One of the things I like about A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart is how consciously you pay homage to those who've come before you: Elvis Presley, Rick Danko and John Hartford, and I'm sure others I don't recognize. It seems like a nice way to tell stories, to ground a song.
We are the sum of our influences and we have our heroes. Putting them out front there is a cool thing to think about when you're trying to write. We will write with the frame of mind of "Let's do something that sounds like this or that." Fiddle tunes come from somewhere. So we wear our influences on our sleeves in a way.
Do you think of tradition as something conservative or more progressive?
When we take a fiddle song we try to turn it on its ass. We're not really a traditional band. We've had press that's said that we're a bluegrass band. And we're not. We love that music and we love to play it passionately. We might have a bit of an identity problem in terms of finding an audience. But maybe we're finding an audience by having an identity problem. Someone might have a vast record collection, someone who likes accordions and banjos and fiddles. We're not trying to preserve anything. We'd rather tweak it around a bit.
Am I right about your interest in musical collage?
Definitely. The band was started not as a reaction to the Decemberists but as sort of a platform to go further, to be free of the confines of pop music. The Decemberists do that as well. That band has never really followed anything. The Hazards of Love was a rock opera, which could be the nail in the coffin of your career. But this band was something liberating, maybe just to do something new. So there was never any pressure from a label, and there still isn't. We weren't touring at the time or thinking about making money in this band or our career. So we just wrote all over the place and continue to do so.
The latest record, Wild Ones, is a soundtrack to a book by Jon Mooallem. How did that come about?
Jon is a friend and was listening to our album called The Storm in the Barn, which is a soundtrack to a play that the Oregon Children's Theatre commissioned us to write. He was listening to it while he was writing his book, and he asked us to make a companion piece. We were a perfect band for it in the sense that we're up for anything and have this instrumental side to us. He sent us an outline of characters that he wanted us to write about. We'd send back music and say, "This is the butterfly song," and he'd say, "No, that's the crane song. It sounds like a whooping crane." It was a fun collaboration. He just left tour with us. We did about five shows together where it was like a radio show; he would read and we'd do the underscore for it. We enjoy doing those kinds of projects. As we work on this new, more song-based record, it will be fun to have those projects on the side, to let the strange music be really strange.
Do you feel like there's cross-pollination between Black Prairie and the Decemberists? Does one inspire the other? Will things you're doing in this band show up on a Decemberists record?
It's hard to say. We are all that band, so probably, but really we just play what we play, meaning, our personalities come through in our music. It's not like suddenly for the Decemberists I would just up-trade my banjo for a synthesizer. I play the same instruments in both bands. But Colin is the primary songwriter in the Decemberists, and in this band we're all songwriters, so it's going to sound different. The last album with the Decemberists, The King Is Dead, is much more American sounding. Prior to that Colin was more focused on the British canon of folk, and then The Hazards of Love was all about Fairport Convention and Black Sabbath and the influence of that. And previous to that he was influenced by Robyn Hitchcock and that era of music. So it was just a timing thing where we decided to do a more Americana band, and he decided to do the more American side of folk music. I don't think he's really influenced by this band. I don't think he looks at us and thinks the Decemberists should have more banjo. It's probably the opposite, I'd imagine.