The Ballad Of Black Prairie
For a moment, Chris Funk ponders the satirical version of Portland, Oregon. I ask Funk of any similarities between the real Portland in which he resides and the Portland depicted in Portlandia, the humorous and at times, whimsically realistic depiction of Portland by comics Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in the hit sketch comedy series on IFC.
“Well, I mean, obviously, the shrinking down of Japanese tourists,” Funk laughs, speaking by phone in late August at his Portland-area home. “I guess that’s hyper-reality, or fantasy. The aggressive bicyclists are pretty spot on. The women’s bookstore, which is actually a real women’s bookstore here, called ‘In Other Words’…I don’t think those characters are like those people, but the sentiment of those characters comes from somewhere. So yeah, some reality in that. The whole farm-to-table thing is out of control out here, so, there’s a lot of truth in it.”
We share a laugh when I mention his fellow Black Prairie and Decemberist bandmate Jenny Conlee’s role as a member of “Sparkle Pony” during an episode in the show’s first season. Funk, mainly known as the multi-instrumentalist (guitar, pedal steel, banjo, mandolin) with Portland indie rock veterans The Decemberists before starting string band Black Prairie, adds a final thought on the comedy which salutes and satirizes the City of Roses.
“As confounded as the show is in modern realities, it’s a psychedelic TV show at this point.”
As Portlandia has roots in commonplace truths of Portland, and continues branching onwards and upwards and outwards, there is a connecting similarity in the music of Black Prairie, its intentions and origin once firmly set in instrumentals, since evolving to include lyrics accompanying the music, and from musical weekend warriors in the Pacific Northwest to touring around the country.
While touring with The Decemberists, Funk began planning an instrumental string band with Nate Query, the group’s bassist. Funk needed an outlet for the dobro, and began assembling with other notable Portland musicians. In late 2007, accordionist and fellow Decemberist Jenny Conlee joined the action, with violinist-vocalist Annalisa Tornfelt (The Woolwines and Bearfoot) and guitarist-violinist Jon Neufield (Dolorean and Jackstraw) rounding out the lineup. Another Decemberist, John Moen, sits in, bringing his drumsticks.
Portland’s music scene has long been known as a haven for artists to hone their craft, often in open collaborations, and unlikely pairings, according to Funk.
“It’s really wide open, which is cool,” Funk says. “There’s a long history of indie rock here, pre-indie rock I guess you could call it, too, the era of when grunge was happening in Seattle, but also there’s a long history of oddly enough, old-time music here, there’s a lot of bluegrass here, and all those worlds here, and freak folk, or kind of hippy folk, and all those worlds oddly all kind of intertangling…and people from those walks of life doing shows together. I look at an old Fillmore West, or Fillmore East poster, and you see Miles Davis opening for the Dead, or something like that. It’s not that unusual to see an acoustic band opening up for a hard rock band.”
“You know it’s really supportive of different kinds of music,” he continues, discussing Portland’s musical environment, “and supportive in the sense of I think people recognize that they’re all trying to do a similar thing. I also think you can be really reclusive, and not divided, but it’s like you might not even see certain people that live here, for a town of this size, which I think that is people kind of burrowing down, doing music. So when I think people think of a scene, I think they think people at bars partying all night, and high-fiving each other from a big guitar solo,” he laughs. “I think here it’s more of a place to write and a place to work — try to make a living. You can actually make a living doing music and not have to be a studio/session player.”
The following year, while The Decemberists were on a break from touring, the side project Funk hatched with Query began coming to fruition in Portland. The musicians met more frequently, practicing in each other’s homes in the city, finding their exploratory sound, a whirlwind of folk, bluegrass, gypsy, old-time and klezmer.
“At the time it was more modern bluegrass,” Funk says, of his inspirations in starting Black Prairie, “or the newgrass stuff, like Strength in Numbers, everything that Jerry Douglas does, speaking specific to the (dobro) instrument. People like John Fahey, who are kind of like American primitive songwriters, using that mindset, at least, you can write, that comes from the traditions of American music and it doesn’t have to be a concerto. Slightly more primitive and that kind of evokes a vibe. The band Tin Hat Trio was a big inspiration and influence. Two of the members of that band now live in Portland,” he says, laughing. “That’s really cool.”
Funk mentions other notable progressive bluegrass musicians also laid the groundwork for Black Prairie. “People like John Hartford, like New Grass Revival. We don’t blaze like those guys do, which the channel’s been pressed, been passed down to maybe the Punch Brothers now. But just having that mindset as a writer, and also, things like a primitive quartet, and traditionalists, I think of them as really more progressive writers. But kind of using those instruments in that setting to write music without words, basically. That’s where it started, but it’s kind of departed from that at this point.”
Where the quartet started was an instrumentally-focused sound, the vocals belonging to Alaska native Tornfelt have figuratively — and literally — given the group a voice. As their music continues taking on an open, collaborative style, the songwriting is a team effort shared by all members. Funk says Tornfelt is the primary lyricist, though he has worked with her on song lyrics, as has the rest of Black Prairie.
“Annalisa, has kind of, in a further experiment,” Funk adds, “I think just pushed us all to more in the direction of songwriters. But it’s one of the more open platforms for a group, for songwriting I’ve ever been in. And the vocal songs, there’s lots of where Annalisa might bring a gem of an idea, the way it ends up is completely different. And add-in parts, we’ll fit in. ‘Hey, you gotta write in another verse,’ or ‘let’s write another verse’ It’s hard to remember how they all happen exactly, but songs like “Nowhere Massachusetts”, she had that pre- well written. But we need a bridge, ‘so write a bridge’. And just sort of ‘have a double outro, and on the double outro, you know, sing your ass off’,” Funk says, laughing.
“So, something like that. And then, like Jenny’s instrumental song “Dirty River Stomp”, that was very much an accordion piece that’s like a polka, then the middle part just got put through the Black Prairie filter, and it’s crazy. You can build tension with it. You got a song, like the John Hartford song, which is basically a fiddle song, you know how he can have solos, so trying to write…potentially it’s just jamming.”
For their first studio album, Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, released in April 2010, Black Prairie worked with producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, R.E.M., Tift Merritt, Laura Viers), the album released under famed roots music label Sugar Hill Records. Their genre-defying sound ranged emotions from merriment to solitude, infusing old-time string band, Eastern European and bluegrass music, with Tornfelt’s vocals on several tracks.
In April 2012, the group contributed the score for the production of The Storm in the Barn by the Oregon Children’s Theatre. Black Prairie again worked with Martine in September 2012, releasing their second studio album, A Tear In the Eye Is A Wound In the Heart, also on Sugar Hill Records. The album, the title excerpted from a Romani proverb, was also their largest work to date, comprising sixteen tracks, many showcasing Tornfelt’s hauntingly resonant vocals.
“Yeah, I think our philosophy for the last record that was released was ‘not have a philosophy’ and ‘record as much as possible’ all on one record. It’s a long record. We just put everything to be recorded on the record, and trying to figure out how. When we were in with Tucker, I think he was trying to figure out how to sequence it, and I’m like, just using some logic, and I was like ‘there’s really no logic in sequencing this record, (laughing) in my opinion. It’s just, kind of, you’re just going to have a few songs butted up against a folk ballad. And that’s just how it is.”
New York Times staff writer and author Jon Moollaem listened to Black Prairie while writing Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, his humorous yet rational view on wildlife and humanity’s impact on the environment, inviting Funk and the group to write the musical accompaniment for the book. Thus Black Prairie Performs Wild Ones: A Musical Score For the Things That You Might See In Your Head When You Reflect On Certain Characters and Incidents That You Read About in The Book was created, and has since led to a touring run with Mooallem.
“Jon is an old friend of mine,” says Funk, “he’s a New York Times staff writer and obviously, author. He was listening to our music when he was writing his book, and just said we want to make some music up to go along with the book. Not so much a soundtrack as its kind of like music inspired by some characters here and there, and it was really fun. It felt really collaborative. I was like, ‘send us something we can grab onto’ cause I hadn’t read the book at the time, and he started sending ideas of these people out of the world. The book is like half-humor and half-sobering reality on the environmental state of the world, a lot of the characters are really easy to grab onto, they’re really funny personalities, or particular personalities, and it was strange, people had ideas laying around here and there from this and that.”
“People wrote stuff from the ground up,” Funk says, further discussing Black Prairie’s work on Wild Ones, “like the one vocal song on there (“Dear Sir Most Sincerely William Temple Hornaday”), so that song was written by using the words of William Temple Hornaday from a letter he’d written, kind of to the greater world at large, and environmental world. So yeah, it was great. We just started sending him music, and he’d be like, ‘I think that song sounds more like the butterflies’, and we’d be ‘Okay!'” — Funk laughs — “So sort of renaming, and repurposing them, shape shifting the approach then, too. It was interesting to work with somebody who, he has played music before, but not currently active in music, as a collaboration. And then live, we kind of re-appropriated the music. Live, it’s more like a soundtrack, sort of like a radio show. We’ll play underneath him, and it kind of goes nonstop.”
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