In 2007, during some downtime, three members of Portland-based band The Decemberists (Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk and Nate Query) wanted to experiment with a new, acoustic sound. To round out their newly created band they enlisted Annalisa Tornfelt (The Woolwines and Bearfoot) and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw and Dolorean). With these five band members in place, Black Prairie was brought to life in Portland, Oregon.
In 2010, Black Prairie released its debut album Feast of the Hunter’s Moon followed by an album commissioned by the Oregon Children Theatre to write accompanying music for their performance of Eric Coble’s The Storm in the Barn based on the book “The Storm in the Barn” by Matt Phelan. Since then Black Prairie has recorded two more albums, begun incorporating more of Annalisa’s vocals and has added John Moen (also from The Decemberists) to their lineup.
Black Prairie’s debut album, Feast of the Hunter’s Moon was released in 2010, but the band was conceived three years prior. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for the band’s formation?
It really came from Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee and I wanting to play more acoustic and instrumental music sort of inspired by some of the Nashville stuff like Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. So, we thought it would be fun to try and do more of that, and the best way to start seemed like it would be to get some actual, bona fide bad-ass acoustic musicians. So, we asked John Neufeld and Annalisa Tornfelt if they were interested and wanted to do it. I didn’t know Annalisa at all, but Chris did. He didn’t know her well, and he only knew she was a good fiddler. He didn’t know what a good singer she was. I knew John Neufeld for twenty years.
We basically just started out in my living room and were like “okay, now what?” From the beginning, we kind of all just created song ideas and started working them out together. We’d meet every Tuesday at 10 a.m. for a few hours, and have coffee and pastries. I mean, acoustic rehearsal is so civilized, you can just do it in a living room. You don’t need soundproofing or a PA or anything. So, that was the original concept, and it kind of grew. We made our first demo recording in 2008 or 2009 and that was just done at my house. We just spread ourselves out through the house, set up some mics and started demoing, and that’s the stuff we sent to Sugar Hill on a whim because we knew somebody there.
They were excited, so we decided to make a record. We released that record before we had ever played a show, which is just bizarre these days. But this band really formed as a collective labor of love, like an instrumental acoustic version of a book club.
As an artist with so much music under your belt, where do you continue to find new inspiration to work on new music? Is it easier to for you to create music on your own and then bring it to the band, or do you all kind of round-table ideas together?
For me personally, it’s really both. The time I spend by myself trying to hone in on an idea and trying to refine it is really helpful. The way I almost always bring things to the band is sort of a like a sketched out idea. I play it with the band and get everyone’s input. Sometimes it changes a lot from that point, and sometimes I’ll just take it home again and refine it, given everyone’s input and how it sounded in the band context.
It sort of varies between both extremes in Black Prairie. We’ve done a lot of stuff that we wrote completely together with all of us in a room. There is also a bunch of songs written almost entirely by one person and it didn’t change much at all from what it was before the band got a hold of it until after.
So, there is room for all that stuff in this band. The band is really good at working together at writing, which can be a tricky thing. “Too many cooks in the kitchen” is a really easy thing to have happen. But, for whatever reason, we’re on a roll. The more we write together, the more fun we have doing it.
Around the time that you were recording The King is Dead with The Decemberists, you were quoted as saying that you preferred working with the upright bass as opposed to the electric. Can you explain the reasoning behind that?
That is what I said. There is a thing that has happened with The Decemberists many, many times where for the practicality of recording, where we are doing it live in a room, recording the upright bass in the same room with the drums is almost impossible. So, what we do is I record with an electric bass with the intention of overdubbing with the upright later. Well, it has happened that a lot of times when I do that, everyone says “wow, that sounds great! Let’s just leave it on electric.” I don’t get bent out of shape about it, but it’s happened a bunch of times. It happened with “Yankee Bayonet,” “Rox in the Box” and a couple of other King is Dead songs.
Part of forming Black Prairie was because I wanted to play upright more and I really enjoy playing upright all of the time, even when we’re rocking out more on tour. I mean, it’s kind of hard playing Led Zepplin on upright, but it’s fun. And of course, the only performing I’m doing right now is for Black Prairie, so I am starting to miss playing the electric bass.
With the availability and popularization of portable devices like the iPad, smart phones and even the Garage Band, do you find yourself using them to help you create your music?
I use an iPhone to record ideas all the time and I just use it as a recorder. I have had many different recorders over the years. I used to use a handheld cassette recorder, then a mini-disc recorder and then I had a little mic that plugged into an iPod. But now, the recording sounds so good just with the iPhone that I just do that. It is great for recording ideas and whatever.
For writing, I will use Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools. I am used to working with more pro stuff in the studios, so it is actually harder for me to use Garage Band than it is to use Logic or Pro Tools. So, I use those two for demoing ideas and laying down multi-track stuff. Or sometimes in Black Prairie, I’ll record my part and send it, then Chris will compile with the other stuff.
In Black Prairie, there are a few of us that use Sibelius a lot. We started using it when we wrote The Storm in the Barn because we had to have a printable score that could be given to the other musicians performing it. I found that to be an incredibly useful tool because I am comfortable with written music and it’s a great way to tweak things. It’s gotten to the point where you can listen back and the sounds are great. One of the songs I wrote for A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart, “Evil Leaves,” I wrote it all on Sibelius. I just wrote a bass line into it to hear what it sounded like, then dumped it into Logic and recorded a guitar part. Between using all of those things and getting comfortable with them, it has made it really helpful when trying out an idea by yourself. Mostly I rely on my band-mates, my memory and to a lesser degree, writing stuff down. But, being able to do this stuff at home, on my own is quite useful.
How do you feel that social media contributes to success in the music business?
Almost the entirety of the music business and promoting and trying to sell your music, I approach reluctantly. Using Facebook, and Twitter and such isn’t really any more annoying than in the 90s, hiring an intern to call record stores to see if they’ll put your CD in a place, or begging the clubs your playing to put up posters. I mean, literally in the 90s, this band I was in had a mailing list of thousands of people, so it cost an unbelievable amount of money to send out a mailing list. We sent these little postcards out with all of our tour dates packed into it so we’d get the bulk rate. I am so glad those days are gone. So, having an email mailing list is just fantastic, and while I know it’s daunting that there are so many outlets, being able to sell your music online is really nice.
It’s better to be worried about making the quality of your music better and better than to worry about the business stuff, but it is important to have the business stuff together a little bit.
Regarding in Portland, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems as if there is a community of musicians that really enjoy collaborations. Do you think there is any truth to that observation, or is it just a cliché?
In any music scene, if you really look carefully at it there is a lot of crossover, but it is certainly true that without knowing any other music scene very well, I do think that Portland is a really community minded group. The music scene is not a competitive thing, which I know is true in some cities to a certain degree. Musicians in Portland don’t necessarily expect to be paid every time they do anything with their music, and they tend to say yes to things based on whether it sounds fun or not, or whether they’re excited about it or not. It’s usually not so much about whether it’s something that would be better for their career, or if it will make money for them. It’s usually about fun and creative reasons. Partly because it’s a relatively cheap place to live, and there is not a lot of hustle and bustle, so people tend to have time to do that stuff, which ends up fostering a lot of interesting collaborations.
Portland definitely is a little bit special, because some of the clichés about Portland are true about coming here to retire and whatnot. People take it pretty easy and are happy to do weird collaborations just for the hell of it.
The Decemberists have a huge fan-base, so I think I would be remiss if I did not ask about future plans for the band.
We’re going to get some work done this winter. So, yeah, things are happening. Things are bubbling.
Have you ever considered doing a Black Prairie/The Decemberists concert tour?
Yeah… no, I don’t think so. I think that would be way too much work. It’s nice to be able to do one thing at a time and give that your all. Doing a show with either band takes a lot out of me, so doing one with both on the same day would be a bummer.