Lydia Sylvia is one of my oldest friends, as well as one of my biggest musical (and life in general) influences. It’s really exciting that she has finally put out a solo album. I think she did such a great job. Lydia has always been one of my favorite banjo players and singers. I was lucky enough to work on this in depth interview with Lydia and hope you all enjoy!
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): What is your earliest memory of music?
Lydia Sylvia (LS): Lying in bed at night, trying to sing in the dark.
I think some of the criticisms we hear in school or from others can stop us from learning our chosen art forms. It’s important to be allowed to grow and learn without people labelling you or interfering with your growth. Encouragement is important, but too much training can take away a person’s independent path of discovery. I had good and unhelpful teachers. Eventually I figured out how to get past all that. In my opinion, music is about expressing yourself honestly in a way others can enjoy. Some people think of music as a totally private art. I think that viewpoint is important too, but I’m more interested in the communicative aspect at this point.
TWS: Can you think of anything specific that made you want to be a musician, or did it just come on its own?
LS: I’ve always enjoyed music for its own sake, but being inspired to do it at a greater level of commitment definitely came from some of the musicians I’ve met personally. Seeing how more commitment makes more expression possible is definitely inspiring. One of the places I’ve met fantastic players is Common Ground on The Hill. There have been a ton of stellar role models there as far as perfecting your craft and taking it to a level that can unite a community and create social change.
TWS: How do you think your singing and playing styles have changed over the years?
LS: I think my playing style has become more introspective. I’m starting to see things more abstractly. There was a time when I couldn’t improvise. Classical training made me afraid to play notes that I wasn’t told to play. It took a long time to get over it.
TWS: Can you tell the readers why you chose the songs on the album? Do they have any particular significance?
LS: The album was my first solo foray and although I should have stuck with familiar material, I was really driven to try new things. The blues songs are meant to show the banjo’s connection to blues, and the Irish tune is there to connect to those roots. The first song, “Undone in Sorrow”, I just happened to hear sung on a recording by Ola Belle Reed and I liked the motion back and forth between the major and relative minor. It’s something I use a lot, and can be overused, but in this case I liked it. The piece I play on banjo towards the end of the album is one of my favorite little medleys. It starts with a tune I learned from Dwight Diller, and then one I learned from Dave Bing, and finishes up with the first tune I ever learned on banjo, “Jake Gilly”, a great little piece. I still like these best out of all my banjo tunes. I would have liked to add a song with Kentucky style up-picking into this medley, but at the time I didn’t feel ready for that. The song I play on piano and sing with Dirk Powell is one I heard being sung and played on guitar by Jackson Lynch. Very catchy and it got stuck in my head. The Gram Parsons cover is actually, for me, a Whiskeytown cover. I was crazy about their version. “The Cherry River Line” still comes out a little rough when I sing it, but it was one of the songs that really drove me closer to the banjo when I was in college. I remember listening to that song lying on the floor in the dark. Similar to lying there in the dark as a kid, trying to figure out how to whistle or sing.
TWS: Who are the guest artists featured on the CD? What made you want them involved?
LS: There are several guest artists. In fact I’m amazed by the guest artists! At first I thought the album should be totally solo, but somewhere along the line that plan changed.
My brother and sister play on a few tunes, and if you’ve followed my family’s music in the past, you’ll have heard our trio stuff. We didn’t do many together on the album because we’ve already done so much together. It was great to have Claude fiddling on “Jo Bones”. Claude is such a natural, he has a totally unique sound, and his bowing is really powerful. All three of us have a great telepathy when we play. Emily is one of the most sensitive, accomplished mandolin players I know. We have done a lot of duo work in the past and will do more in the future.
I also asked some fantastic Irish players to contribute. Cleek Schrey is someone I’ve known and admired for years. Cleek’s fiddling is super subtle but unerringly solid underneath all the softness and variation that happens. I’d never really experienced the Uillean pipes before I heard Joey Abarta’s playing. He’s just unbelievable! The tune we play has a fun vibe of life and energy that I wanted in tribute to good times in The Catskills. The Catskills is also where I first heard Tony DeMarco. Tony’s playing really stood out to me and I was asking people afterwards who that fiddler was. I was just a kid, and didn’t know anyone of course. His bowing is so bright, and with a rhythm that was flashing all over the place. Like flashing little sparks all over the inside of my head. Later I found out that he actually knew the Hammons Family. I learned from Dwight Diller, so we had that in common. I was really honored to play with him on the album. I actually added the piano later. I studied a little with Felix Dolan, and since we lost him recently, I thought it was nice to include the piano.
There are a couple awesome blues players on this album: Phil Wiggins and Dom Flemons. I met both of these guys at Common Ground. Of course Phil is a legend and it’s amazing to play with him! It sounds funny, but the first time I met him I thought he was just some guy with a harmonica who happened to sound really great and was really chill and easy to play with. We were jamming out to this tune in the key of A, and someone else was playing cigar box guitar. Later in the studio, we played the same tune, but in B flat. I feel like the banjo and harmonica coming together just shows perfectly how blues and old time are two sides of the same coin. That moment really meant a lot to me artistically. Dom Flemons is probably familiar to you as well; he’s been out touring his new solo show after retiring as a founding member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dom is one of the only friends I have who is as much of a geek about this old music as I am. More important, he’s just a blaze of performing energy, and I think it really comes across in his bones playing. There has been some contention over using the electric banjo amp on our tune, and if I release the acoustic version as a special bonus in the future, you all will really be able to hear the interaction between bones and banjo even more.
There’s a single track with percussionist Patrick Ruffner. He’s a phenomenally gifted drummer. Many years ago we created some fusion with old time, bucket drums, even some rap. It was really fun. His playing on this song is very reserved, so you won’t hear all his amazing skills, but the key is that it holds everyone together. Pat is amazingly sensitive to the people around him when he plays. It’s a rare gift and when a drummer or bass player has it, all is well in the world.
Some of the harmony vocals are sung by my very dear friend Colleen May Novosel. Colleen is one of those who was just born with an incredible voice, but what she’s cultivated through experience over the years is a great ability to harmonize in almost any situation. She can lock into a vibe and just go with it, often having no conscious idea of what she’s doing. But later she is able to recreate those harmonies, which must mean she understands it more than I do. I can figure harmonies out with a pen and paper, but I’m coming to realize the value of a harmony that’s felt more than planned. Dirk’s harmonies on “Lonesome Road Blues” are like that too, and so are Claude’s on “Jo Bones”. I didn’t truly write any of the harmonies on this album. The harmonies we use on the Gram Parsons song are probably similar to what Emmylou Harris did, but it was actually Kristin Andreassen who laid them out for us. We had a track that Kristin recorded in Brooklyn. Because of technical problems we couldn’t use the track, but I thought it was super cool that she was willing to be involved. Kristin is a multitalented wonder, and has always been both encouraging and inspiring. Her work on the album “She Waits For Night” was one of the inspirations for me to work with Dirk Powell as a producer.
Besides doing a stellar job mixing so many different pieces, (the album was recorded in three locations in three different studios under very different conditions), Dirk Powell was also a guest artist on the album. I think he’s well known for being able to add the right thing to a song, and it’s a reputation well earned. I’d always wanted to hear more instruments on my original song, 3 A.M., and I was really thrilled with the result, including an electric guitar part I never would have heard on my own. We also play a fiddle and banjo tune, which was really fun.
When I first heard Dirk Powell play it was at the Santa Fe Bluegrass Festival with Riley Baugus, I was just blown away. I’d obviously grown up in music, but these two came closer to my heart than anyone I’d heard on stage before. I loved the spare arrangements, the haunting sound that wasn’t masked by a big thick band and a ton of chords, and just the raw ancient feel they were able to capture. It really resonated with me and gave me hope that the old sound isn’t lost and can still be put up on a stage today for people all over the world to enjoy. I loved the fiddling, but for me as a banjo player, my favorite piece was a song he sang and played on banjo, Dirk told the audience something his grandfather said, about how a simple banjo tune could be so beautiful to listen to.
As I said before, one of my favorite banjo pieces, a Hammons Family version of a tune which I learned from Dwight Diller, (and I believe it’s one of his favorites as well) is “Walkin in the Parlor”. It barely has more than a few notes. It’s a very sparse tune, but it leaves you room to think and to hear all the sympathetic harmonies and the overtones that come out of the banjo. I described them to my students this morning as “ghostly voices” (halfway joking). I think Chopin said, “the spaces between the notes are what matter”….(Was that Chopin?)
In summary, basically what drew me to each of the guest artists was a certain feeling or sound. Most of these people actually drew me to them without me even knowing their names or who they were. It was just a certain sound that stood out to me, or the wonderful energy they put out. They are all great folks and really superlative artists. I just hope the album does them justice and I feel honored that they contributed to it.
TWS: What musicians are your influencers?
LS: Some of my main influences were the people I’ve learned from. Robbie Caruthers is a longtime family influence. Since I was twelve, I’ve realized that Robbie’s bowing contains something very, very important. I was sorry Robbie wasn’t on this album due to time constraints. I will be recording more with him in the future. We recorded some pieces for a Christmas album recently, with great guitarist and sound engineer Zan McLeod. I really enjoy playing with Zan and Robbie and hope that we can play together more in the future. There was also a fiddler named Pete Alexander who was a great help to my family musically and a great influence, who passed away several years ago. My friend Doc I mention in my liner notes. He was a piano player and played country and blues. He also told great stories, and never failed to make people smile. He didn’t play a lot of old time, but he understood what music is all about. Doc and our friend Gary Free endlessly spent time helping me figure that out, besides showing me chords. We played at Beans in the Belfry in Brunswick, MD on Tuesday nights. Of course, I would not be playing banjo if it wasn’t for banjo player and collector Howard Zane. He gave me a gift of a Luscomb banjo on my 16th birthday because he said I was a good guitar player but ought to be playing banjo instead.
My parents and our roots in Southwestern Virginia, where my grandparents lived, are a big influence, obviously. My grandmother’s name is Sylvia, which is where I get my middle name. The Martin guitar I play belonged to my grandfather, Marlin Martin from Hillsville. My maternal grandparents were Irish and Phillipeno, so I have some Irish roots coming from Baltimore and my grandfather on that side also played a Hawaiian lap steel guitar, which was a really nice sound.
I have studied with a lot of great players, like Dwight Diller and Dave Bing. I am inspired by Dave Bass’ fiddling too, though I’ve only been able to play with him a couple of times. I’m really interested in Kentucky style banjo, and my favorite players are George Gibson, Matt Kinman, Brett Ratliff and John Haywood. I love Lee Sexton’s playing on modal tunes. The reason I got into that Kentucky style was by falling in love with Roscoe Holcomb’s playing, thanks to John Cohen’s gorgeous film work. Mike Seeger advised me to travel to Kentucky. Like so many musical odysseys, it was a life changing trip. I’ve taken other great trips, like to Ireland, and down to North Carolina to meet a wonderful Cherokee elder, Walker Calhoun, who played banjo for me. He played in such a subtle way. I met Raymond Fairchild on that trip.
At summer folk gatherings, I’ve heard so much wonderful music over the years: Fode Sissoko playing kora while Scott Ainslie played blues guitar, Scott playing the diddly-bo, Guy Davis, Tommy Peoples, Billy McComiskey, who taught me accordion. Dancers and singers, amateurs playing open mics and kids jamming outside at night. Some people are powerhouses, but anyone can be a channel for greatness. You just need to be in the right place at the right time and be listening.
All the musicians I’ve heard first hand are my influencers. There’s no way to describe them all since I don’t even know all their names. At a certain point you hear so much wonderful traditional music in person, the music starts to introduce itself to you as an entity of its own. “Hello, I am The Music. I am speaking to you today through this person, or this person.” It just starts to seep into your mind. Dwight called it “The Music” quite often, instead of “music.” I used to have a narrow view of “The Music,” but now I’m starting to think all music is “The Music” as long as it moves people towards the greater good. There has to be a positive feeling of connection in there. My brother in law says that for art to be art, it must be uplifting. Whatever it’s expressing, there also has to be a sense of being elevated. I think that’s definitely a true statement. It starts to get really deep when you spend time thinking about it.
TWS: Is there anything music wise you can’t get enough of these days?
LS: There isn’t much on the radio that I listen to. I’ve been working on some lullabies and other things on banjo. What I can play, lately, is about what I listen to. Once in a while I’ll get on youtube and listen to some Tom Waits, Mazzy Star, or some banjo stuff. Lately I heard Cedric Watson’s “Darling Cora”. Someone shared it on a banjo group on facebook. Loved it!!
TWS: Do you have any projects or shows coming up that our readers should know about?
LS: Yes, I’ll be doing a radio show in Charlottesville May 5th and I’ll be in Lexington, Kentucky for Red Barn Radio on May 6th. I’ll be at the Purple Fiddle May 8th and the week after, at SERFA in Asheville, NC.
Check out Lydia’s Website to keep up with her latest news!