Downwind with Trish Klein
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2004, Volume 11, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
It’s a hot, early autumn afternoon in East Vancouver. The sun is pouring down as we’re sitting out on the deck, enjoying the view of the garden and back lane. It would be idyllic if not for the wind reminding us of what’s going on at the nearby chicken rendering factory. Trish Klein is doing her best to answer my questions and follow the threads of our conversation, but she’s clearly distracted. Twice she gets up and lights joss sticks. "Damn chickens. It’s partly why I’m a vegetarian. My incense bill is out of this world living here." She laughs, and we move inside.
Klein has spent the last four years touring and recording with the Canadian alt-country trio The Be Good Tanyas, and we’ve gotten together to discuss her other band Po’ Girl, just as the group is preparing to embark on a North American tour. Begun as a side project to fill time during the BGT’s maternity leave — co-lead singer Frazey Ford has just given birth to a baby girl — Po’ Girl has definitely taken on a life of its own. A short summer tour coinciding with the release of the group’s debut earned her and partner Allison Russell rave reviews all across Canada. Klein seems taken by surprise and is in a reflective mood when I ask her about Po’ Girl’s success and the future of The Be Good Tanyas.
DH: Did Nettwerk, The Be Good Tanyas’ label, have a reaction to your wanting to work and tour with a different band?
TK: We gave them the opportunity to make us an offer on the CD and they did, but we decided it would be nice to be on a smaller label. Nettwerk was preoccupied by their bigger acts. With Sarah McLachlan putting out a new album now, they seemed ambivalent about us, and we thought it would be nice to be more of a focus for the company representing us. Jack Schuller’s label (Jericho Beach) was really excited, and they wanted us right away. It’s nice to be able to call someone up when you need to work on something. They’re local and easy to reach.
DH: Is Po’Girl you and Allison, or do you have a band?
TK: There’s a third member now. Her name’s Fiona, and she’s amazing. She’s played fiddle since she was three. She’s not on the CD, but I met her in Santa Cruz several years ago. She was playing with a jug band. I’d seen her playing in other bands and thought she was really amazing, and I’d always wanted to play with her. It turned out that she always wanted to play with me, but neither of us knew each other. I managed to get her email, and I was talking to Allison about her as if I knew her really well, and said "wouldn’t it be nice if we could meet another girl to play some of the other instruments?"
I wrote to Fiona and thought maybe she might want to tour with us, and because we were planning to go to America, I needed to know for the visa. I wrote her and told her who I was and that we’d met a bunch of times and that I was wondering if she wanted to tour with us, and I asked her to send me all of her information so I could apply for a visa. So, she wrote back and said, "ok" — even though we’d never even hung out — and she asked how to join the union. Yeah, we’re used to doing this all the time. So much of music is paperwork — especially if you want to play in the States. There’s this big intimidating American flag on all the paperwork.
DH: So, is it just the three of you who travel together?
TK: We also have a rhythm section — bass and drums. Sometimes, we can’t even afford a bass player. The three of us have been rehearsing a lot. We haven’t been able to rehearse with the drummer much because he plays in this hardcore political band that’s always out on the road. He’s an amazing drummer — an old-school, anarchist punk.
DH: I see you wrote a lot of songs on the CD yourself. How do you feel about having someone else sing them?
TK: We write together collaboratively, where I write music and [Allison] writes lyrics. But, I also write lyrics. Usually, she sings lyrics she’s written. The songs that are just credited to me, I’m singing them.
DH: Have you thought about putting out a solo CD?
TK: Maybe one day. Since we’ve put out the album, we’ve written a lot more songs, and we’ve done a lot more collaborations where I’ll write a song and have Allison write a verse. She’ll just sing a verse in my song, or a bridge. It’s been very interesting, having her spontaneously sing a different section. We’ve just written a song where we trade verses and we’re singing two different perspectives of the same situation, and that’s really interesting.
DH: When you’re writing a song, can you tell what’s for The Be Good Tanyas and what’s for Po’ Girl?
TK: Well, I don’t write for BGT. I do more arrangement and musical accompaniment. I think that I was really repressed in that band, in terms of whether it was okay to contribute. There was Frazey and Sam [Parton], who were much more confident in their songwriting. I wrote songs, but I always felt like I couldn’t share them with the band because I didn’t feel like they saw me as a songwriter. They just saw me as a multi-instrumentalist. That was more my role because they could only play guitar and sing, whereas I developed the texture and the solos. I was just content to do that, but I felt like I wanted to write more. I got a lot out of helping bring songs to formation. If Frazey had a song, but it was not completely flushed out, I would really get into adding the other instruments. I contributed ideas to all of the songs on some level, by coming up with how the banjo and guitar could work together, for example. I figured out where the harmonies came in. I can’t think of anything specific. For traditional songs, like Rain and Snow, I was the one who decided to move it into a reggae direction. I came up with a bass line to give the bass player. I put a reggae-esque groove on the banjo. I gave the drummer breaks and pauses, but mixed a folk-y groove into it, too. I came up with the ideas on how to reshape a traditional song so it’d be ours.
DH: The first BGT CD is very different in feel from the second one. I find that Chinatown lacks a lot of the freshness and spontaneity of Blue Horse.
TK: What happened was we toured so much that we didn’t have time to work together very much. Me and Frazey were doing a lot more collaborating and working on songs than Sam and I, or Frazey and Sam. The album is dominantly Frazey’s vocals because we worked on more of her songs. So I think this album wasn’t as balanced as Blue Horse was because we weren’t working together as a group.
DH: I think the second CD has very good songs, but it doesn’t flow in the same way.
TK: Yeah, well, me and Frazey worked separately from Sam. So, Sam’s songs are really Sam, and the other songs are me and Frazey. There’s not the cohesion of the three of us. I was working a lot on the musical aspects of those songs, and I think I did a lot of work that I’m proud of — instrumental work — but I think the whole thing is mixed too low.
DH: I agree. I always have to turn it up, because I can feel sounds that are hinted at, but…
TK: I know! You can just hear the singers! I thought we’d have a chance to remix, but because we did it to analog, we couldn’t just go back and change it easily. We’d have to take a whole day to remix and change the volume of one thing. Before I knew it, the whole thing was printed. When I listened to it after that, I said, "you know it’s too low," but I didn’t think that it was a big deal and thought we’d have a few days to finalize things, but we couldn’t remix anything. So, yeah, I feel like the whole album is badly mixed.
DH: Maybe one day we’ll get to hear the remixed version.
TK: No, I doubt it. It costs a thousand dollars a day to rent those remixing studios, and you have to pay the engineer. Then, you remaster it…huh.
DH: If you get really famous, maybe it’ll be a lost classic and...
TK: No, oh well, though. Yeah, it wasn’t just the sound. The whole thing wasn’t as much of a group effort. The dynamic of the band had changed so much.
DH: You did play one show together this summer. Did you rehearse for that? How did it feel to play together again after all the stress of the last tour?
TK: We had one rehearsal. It was fun. It was fun to play because I realized after I’d been away for a while that the songs are actually very good. It is good to play music that’s inspiring. I thought it was really beautiful music that we made together. It wasn’t all fraught with emotion and being on tour and being frazzled. It’s like being in a marriage. There is a lot of expectation.
DH: Do you have a vision of what you want the band to be?
TK: Yeah! I guess so. I’m not sure what everybody else’s vision is. I always thought I wanted the band to be a real collaborative, creative, fun thing, and, probably, everybody else started off wanting the same thing.
DH: Did you ever think the band would go as far as it has?
TK: No, not at all. I think that we always just thought that the best we could do was get into some Canadian folk festivals. That was our goal. Then, we did England and kept on touring. I guess its been a lot more successful than any of us thought it would be.
DH: Did Nettwerk’s involvement change things?
TK: Well there was a lot of momentum for the band anyway. We were already selling out shows and seeing line-ups of people down the block. There were a few other labels bidding on us and wanting to take on the band. One way or another, things were moving that way. There was a real sense that it was supposed to happen. So much was going on to make it move rapidly. It was definitely a rush. Suddenly, we were on tour in unexpected places, getting all this attention. People were showing up at shows and saying things like, "I produced an album with Tom Waits, and I want to produce your next album."
There was all this attention from industry people, and when you first get that, it’s really surprising to realize that people like the music you play.
DH: How do you account for your good fortune?
TK: It was a lot of things. We were locked in with the alt-country phenomenon. We got in with that thing. It was a bit of a wave that we rolled on. There were a lot of good musicians and …. I met Gillian Welch in Nashville, and she was amazing. Her voice is so unique. She’s friends with the Old Crow Medicine Show who we toured with on the West Coast. She and David Rawlings are producing their album. The two of them went and bought this famous, old studio in Nashville where Hank Williams recorded. They’re such a cute couple in their folk-country, geek-cool way. They buy extra seats in the plane for their vintage guitars because they can’t bear to be separated from them.
DH: How long is Po’ Girl going out on tour this time?
TK: Six weeks. We’re playing New York at the Bottom Line and in Brooklyn. There are very few places in North America that have the multi-cultural, cosmopolitan vibe that New York has. Art, music, everything — it’s all packed into this space, and it’s all very dense. It’s the opposite of LA, which is so sprawling. New York is all packed in and condensed into these micro-communities that may be only a block long but are very intense. The Bottom Line is an awesome club, and the audiences are great. They are listening audiences who come to hear music. The people who come to your shows have already heard your music.
DH: They know your music in the States?
TK: Yeah, there are some obsessed Tanyas fans who have been known to drive 19 hours to come and see us. There is this one fan who shows up at every show in North America. We see him in every city.
Douglas Heselgrave is a freelance writer, living in Vancouver.
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