The world is built on stories and the May North have more than they can contain. They turn them to into songs -- the saddest songs you will ever hear. The quartet brings music from Northern Minnesota and folk and bluegrass figure heavily into their aesthetic. Their new album, By a String, is 100 percent now, and yet it sounds like daring music of the past.
Before their album release at the Turf Club on Saturday, the band spoke with Gimme Noise about their progression since the last album and why they are finally ready to release this set of tunes.
Band Members: George McCorkell (acoustic guitar, vocals), Stephanie McCorkell (fiddle, vocals), Chris O'Brien (dobro, vocals), Jeff Swanner (upright bass), Matthew Byrnes (banjo)
Gimme Noise: You released your last two albums in quick succession of each other, but this one had a two year time window. What was the reasoning behind the wait?
Chris O'Brien: We expanded our range quite a bit during the last couple years by playing in a bunch of new places, so the first two albums were still new to a lot of the folks at those shows. Also, our bass player Jeff Swanner had just joined the band around the time we released our second album. I think we were focused on getting him fully on board with our material before we were ready to head into the studio again.
George McCorkell: After writing and recording the first two albums in such quick succession, we felt that it would be wise to perform shows in support of the records so that audiences could start to get to know those albums better before focusing on yet another record.
Stephanie McCorkell: After finishing the first two albums so quickly, it felt as if there were several interesting, original tunes we had recorded that audiences still hadn't really gotten to know through us performing them. It was like we had written all of these new stories, but they were just sitting on the bookshelf, unopened and untold. Rather than rush into the studio again, I also felt the call to go out and tell the stories rather than start writing another book right away. But now, more and more often, we'll have an audience member approach us and state specifically, "Please play [this original song]," or, "Is [this original song] in the setlist?" which is exciting to me. It tells me that our music is reaching people and it resonates with them.
How do you feel you all have changed in that time?
Chris O'Brien: I think just playing together in a lot of different settings (indoors, outdoors, big stages, tiny clubs) has made the band really comfortable on stage together.
George McCorkell: Musically and personally I think that during that time the band has become more open to talking about the songs more critically. For example, as far as what other people are doing or not doing and in using more constructive criticism with each other..
Stephanie McCorkell: My biggest personal change in the last two years is that I have been more open about my writing. I am very excited that my poem "Savannah" was brought to the band and put to music for this album. It is the first song that I have ever had lead lyric writing credits for, so it gives me courage for other writing and songwriting efforts in the future. I wrote "Savannah" in lieu of my separation from the South where I used to live before moving home to the Midwest. Yes, I moved home to family, which felt good, but I also feel that I left a piece of myself there.
Why was now the time to release this collection of songs?
Chris O'Brien: We recorded the album back in February or March, I think. I know it was freezing cold outside. Then, the mixing and mastering took a little bit of time, and pretty soon we had a busy summer going on. So, here we are in the fall, and it seems like a really good time to release the record. I'd say the timing worked out just about right.
Stephanie McCorkell: The timing of the album release feels right to me because one of the songs being released on the album on November 8, "Tired, Hungry, and Broke," was inspired by my late grandfather, Gordon. Some of his quotes and stories on that track are from when he was alive. He was a sarcastic, yet humorous man whom when asked, "How are you, Grandpa?" -- even though he was surrounded by loving family members -- he'd retort sarcastically with a grin, "Well, I'm tired, hungry, and broke!"
Music was a huge passion in his life and, although he never actually played an instrument, I could always make my him smile with big twinkles in his eyes every time I played my fiddle for him. He would keep time by tapping his feet when I played for him even in his last few years. He was a hard working North Dakota farmer, World War II veteran, and his 95th birthday would have been on Sunday, November 2, the same week as the album release. I'll be thinking of him at the album release show, and I hope he will hear us play his song and will be tapping his feet. [page]
Do you feel By a String was a lot more personal than the other albums? There seems to be a lot more demons that needed to be slayed on this record.
George McCorkell: Well, we have all had things happen in our past that are always with us, whether or not they are currently part of your life. For example, the song "Face Me West" is a nod to almost an entire side of my family that is actually buried on a beautiful bluff top overlooking the river. As Stephanie described earlier, "Tired, Hungry, and Broke" is a song based on the life and stories of her late grandfather. The song "Here and Afar" addresses some frustrations felt about senseless violence.
When I think back on what I wrote about on this album, I'd say that I was just being honest and that is what I wanted to write about at the time. But as dark as some of the songs may sound, I am happily married to the fiddle player.
What does the album title By a String mean?
George McCorkell: By a String is a lyric from the song "Josephine" and I liked the how it sounded. It can mean many things.
Can you tell me about the track "Time on Your Hands"? What 's the story behind it? How was it conceived?
Chris O'Brien: George had this really nice chord progression and melody worked up, and he had a few lines written. We sat down and sort of bounced ideas back and forth to try and fill out the lyrics. The mood of the song and the original lines had references to loss and heartache as far as I could tell. I had been reading some news stories about the silica sand mining along the Mississippi River valley, where they come in with bulldozers and strip the land in the midst of this gorgeous bluff country. That sort of inspired the theme of how something that takes a long time to form can vanish so fast -- whether it's a personal relationship or a piece of the natural world. I imagined the narrator in the song as this old guy who lives in the wilderness, he's lost his woman, and now he's losing his land as well.
What other songs do you connect to on this album?
Chris O'Brien: "Josephine" is one of my favorite tunes that George has ever written. It reminds me of something the Band would do, like a personal story that might have taken place a long time ago. It's kind of a sad song, but also soulful and resilient.
George McCorkell: I agree with Chris that "Josephine" is one of my favorite songs on the album. The finger-picked ballad "Open Road Blues" is also one of my favorites because I like the melody and the chord structure.
Stephanie McCorkell: I connected with the stories on this album through the songs "Tired, Hungry, and Broke" because of my grandfather and "Savannah" as reflecting on a place in my past. I also feel I connected with the edginess the band creates in "Look Again" and "Past the Boulevard," the spirit of adventure in "Four Wheels Down the Mountain," and the timeless nuances I hear in "Josephine" and "Old Oak Tree."
What are you excited to share at the album release show?
Chris O'Brien: It will be the first time we play the song, "Savannah," which is a great ballad that George and Stephanie brought to the band right before we started recording the album. In fact, Jeff and I had only heard it a couple times before playing on it. Another cool thing about the release show is that we'll have our friend Mike Hedding sitting in on banjo. Matthew Byrnes, who played banjo on the album, is in China teaching English. We like to say he's on sabbatical. Anyway, Mike's an incredible player and we're excited to have him at this show.
The May North will release By a String at the Turf Club on Saturday, November 8, 2014 with Horseshoes and Hand Grenades and Tin Can Gin.
21+, $10, 8 pm
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