Hey Mavis: Evolve is what they did
On their third album, What I Did, Hey Mavis continues to redefine their version of Americana music while adding a few new flavors and creating a bigger sound. Known for moving lyrics and amazing musicianship, husband and wife team Eddie and Laurie Michelle Caner, along with bassist Bryan Thomas, recorded the CD with the help of a few old friends and some new ones. Produced by Adam Aijala of Yonder Mountain String Band and engineered by Don Dixon, the new album will be released on March 15. Laurie talked with us about making the new CD, getting out of her comfort zone, and life as a “banjo babe.”
I’ve seen your music labeled as Appalachian Americana. Is that a good description? Can you explain what that term means to you?
I’ve always struggled with how to describe our music and how to put it into a category. The Appalachian Americana label I kind of came up with when we put out our last album. Americana has turned into such a broad term that encompasses so many different approaches to music. It felt like we needed another descriptive word in there. I guess it’s our instrumentation—with a banjo, a fiddle and an upright bass—and the fact that the topics of a lot of our songs aren’t always happy. Often we sing about the trials of life that we go through. That’s the reference to Appalachian. We’re trying to narrow it down a little for people, give people a little bit more of an idea of what we do because the Americana term is kind of a catch-all right now.
What’s it like being married, and in a band with your husband? Does that make things harder or easier?
Both. You know, there’s definitely times when it’s easier, but we have three kids together. That presents a challenge because I can’t just say, “Hey, I have to go play a gig tonight,” and he stays home with the kids. We have to figure out how we’re going to take them with us or how we’re going to leave them at home. I think one of the greatest challenges for us has been defining new roles, for ourselves and for our bandmates’ sake. It’s taken us several years to figure that out and allow each other to play a little bit of a different role when we’re out playing gigs. It’s okay if we step out of those marital roles when we go out, within reason of course. It has its challenges but it also has some really wonderful things because we’re sharing one of the most wonderful things we love to do. We’re sharing it together. I have seen other marriages and relationships go through difficulties because one spouse is at home with the kids and doing housework, and the other spouse is out having this really wonderful experience of playing music for people. That can be difficult. So, it’s wonderful that we do get to share that experience together. That’s one of the big bonuses.
Do your kids enjoy the music?
They do. We’re actually trying to bring them on board a little bit more with the music. We have taken them with us when we travel, but that poses challenges. I’ve recently told them that if they want to start doing more traveling with us, then they have to play a greater role in the music. I actually bought my oldest, an 11-year-old, a penny whistle a couple of weeks ago. I’m playing a show in Columbus on Wednesday. It’s not a Hey Mavis show. It’s part of this project that I’m involved in, a Banjo Babes compilation CD and calendar. We’ve booked a few shows, so we’re going to be playing Columbus this Wednesday and my 11-year-old is going to be coming with me and playing penny whistle on a couple of songs and singing on a couple of songs. So that’s something that we’re trying to start up a little bit, having them join us onstage. We told them if they want to come, they have to earn their keep.
Can you talk a little more about the Banjo Babes project?
It was just about a year ago, the last time we played at The Purple Fiddle, and I looked up on the wall and there was a calendar filled with female banjo players. I was getting ready to turn 40, so I was starting to feel that midlife thing. So I said, “I want to be in this calendar.” I thought it would be a fun project to be part of. When I got home, I shot an email out to Hey Mavis fans and some other friends and said, “Hey, I’d like to be part of this project. If you don’t mind taking the time to send a message.” Basically, I asked them to nominate me to be part of the project. [Banjo Babes] contacted me saying they had received some requests. The theme of the calendar was “The Future,” so I got together some of my cool, creative friends in the area at a cool place in Akron called The Bomb Shelter, which is this huge crazy warehouse just filled with interesting vintage stuff, everything from jewelry to clothing to furniture to a Cyclops alien with tentacles. We decided that it would be the perfect place for the photo shoot. There’s a gentleman in the area by the name of Damon Drummond. He spends his days in junkyards collecting odd metal pieces. He creates these really wonderful sculptures out of all these old metal pieces, most of them having a futuristic theme. He let me borrow one of his futuristic ray guns and a friend of mine, Jenn Kidd, did my hair and makeup. We went to The Bomb Shelter and they helped us drag this Cyclops alien thing out into the main section and that’s where Shane Wynn took the photographs. I sent it in and they said, “Great, you’re in the calendar.” It was a lot of fun. The woman who put the project together, Erin Inglish, contacted me to see if I would help put together a few shows. So there’s a Banjo Babes tour going on right now and they are headed toward Ohio. I’m going to be participating in two of those shows. One in Columbus on Wednesday at Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza, and then Friday at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula. It will be me, Erin Inglish, who’s a banjo player based in California, and Kendl Winter who is part of a duo called The Lowest Pair. It will be the three of us on those two shows. Different women are joining the tour on different parts of the tour, depending on the location.
How did you get started playing banjo?
I was in college studying metal-smithing and a friend of mine had some CDs. One was Michelle Shocked and another was Bela Fleck. I just kind of fell in love with that sound, that banjo sound. Whether it’s more bluegrass or it’s more minstrel or virtuoso, I just love the sound of it. I took three lessons and just started adapting kind of a weird hybrid style of playing it that’s not quite bluegrass and not quite claw hammer. I do most of my writing on banjo. It all comes together at once. What I’m playing on the banjo, what I’m singing, lyrics, melody, it all rears its ugly head at the same time. Whatever needs to happen on the banjo to express that is how I play it.
So you write all of your songs on banjo?
Then you present them to the rest of the band and they add their parts?
They do. That’s how it works. I pretty much do most of the writing by myself. Although, with our new album, I actually did a lot of co-writing, which was a new world for me. Typically I like to hole up in a room by myself where nobody can hear or see me and then I write. With the new album, I did some co-writing with a friend of mine, Brent Kirby, who was in Hey Mavis for a couple of years. We co-wrote four songs on the album. My friend, Chuck Auerbach, gave me some of his lyrics to see if I could do anything with them, so I took a song from that called “What I Did” and wrote a melody. One of the songs, “Honey on the Hill,” was actually written in the studio with Adam Aijala from Yonder Mountain String Band. I had some lyrics and a melody and a banjo part and it needed to be filled out in to a full song. I feel very lucky to have such wonderful musicians in the band with me. I can bring a song to them and they elevate it to such great heights. It’s amazing what they do. Our bass player, Bryan Thomas is fantastic. He comes up with some really great parts. My husband, Eddie, has done most of the orchestrating for the string parts. They work beautifully together. It’s a beautiful process to witness, to see a song lift off. They really give a song its wings. It turns it into something that I know I wouldn’t be able to achieve just on my own. It’s a really beautiful collaboration that I’m very thankful for.
Sounds similar to raising kids.
You’re right. I’ve never really thought about it that way but it’s very similar in that everybody has their role and sometimes we have to swap roles, but we all bring our own special sauce to the table. It’s a wonderful collaboration. That’s a great analogy.
Is “Hairbrush” about raising a son?
Yeah. Brent Kirby had come to me with the seed of that song. He tells a great story about it. He was traveling with a band he was in and they stopped at a rest stop. There was a mom working the counter and at one point somebody came in, like a grandmother, with this woman’s son. She just looked at him and shook her head and was like, “Get that boy a hairbrush.” She asked, “Did he take his medication?” Those two lines and the scene itself struck Brent as really interesting. Just the viewpoint of a mom who’s working hard and thankfully has someone else taking care of her son while she’s working, but there’s always going to be that motherly thing that comes out of, “Oh, you let him out of the house without brushing his hair? Did he take his vitamins?” Even when he’s got someone watching him, you still have to mother that kid. Brent sent me an email that night with the first two lines of the song and we went back and forth by email. That’s the first time I’ve written a song via email. It was strange, but it was very freeing, too, because we were just kind of throwing lines back and forth at each other. He would write two lines, send it to me and I would write two more lines and send it back to him. It was a very interesting way to write a song. I tend to get attached to the things I create, like many artists do, and almost see them as an extension of myself, like another child. But, in writing that song in that way I wasn’t worried about anything. I wasn’t attached to anything. It was almost like playing a game. When he got home, he took all of the lines and put them to some music. It’s a really fun song. Can I really explain what it’s about? I don’t know. I guess it’s the storyline that was created in the process of this back and forth, line by line. It’s a story of a young kid, a young man who maybe lost his way a little bit, and we have to help him get back on the righteous path. It evolved into a rather simple storyline, but one that probably resonates with a lot of people.
This album is Adam Aijala’s first as a producer. How was it working with him?
We learned as we went along. He’s a very sweet guy. We have different approaches to songwriting, so it was really good. Once again, it kind of pushed me outside of my comfort zone a little bit. I had to take a couple of steps back and look at things. I think any time you have to do that, it can be a very positive thing. He was great. He’s a laid-back, easygoing guy. He was excited about the songs, so it was a good experience over all to work with him in the producer role. He played guitar on several of the songs which was fantastic because he is an amazing guitar player. It’s not in my comfy place to talk to somebody about lyrics or about where a song should go next. I like what came out of it. I like “Honey on the Hill.” I think it’s got some great energy. Don Dixon was in the studio with us, too, which is wonderful because he’s been with us for all three albums. He’s just a gem. How lucky we were to have both of those fine gentlemen in the studio with us.
Did you record live in the studio?
We did. On some of the songs we were all in a room together, so we were all playing at the same time. We could all see each other. We were at The Bath Church in Bath, Ohio which is a wonderful, wide open space. It was so easy to sing there. Just wonderful acoustics in that place. Fantastic. We all got set up to where we could see each other and we could nod and have that feeling that we’re all here together.
And you used vintage gear. Is that a personal preference, or something that Don likes to do?
That’s all Don. It’s great. It’s funny because Eddie is very much the Pro Tools, everything on the computer, wants to see everything type. Don is completely opposite. He’s got his old gear. That’s what he’s comfortable with and he does a great job.
The CD Release is at Happy Days Lodge. What’s your connection with the Cuyahoga Valley and that area?
Maybe six years ago, Eddie worked as the artist-in-residence in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. That lasted about a year-and-a-half. He also runs a house concert series in the park where, once a month, he invites a guest musician to come and perform and he’ll play fiddle with them. We’ve always maintained a great relationship with the Park. We’ll play for their fundraisers sometimes. We released Honey Man at Happy Days two years ago and it went really well. It’s a good fit for us. We’re very thankful to have that opportunity. It’s a great little place.
How does the new CD differ from the last, Honey Man?
I think, as a band, we’re just starting to gel. We’re at a place where we know each other’s strengths and everybody has a very strong part of the collaboration. That’s a big difference. I love Honey Man. I love the songs on Honey Man and I still love playing them out, but it just feels like with What I Did the approach was much more like we are in it together. Everybody’s input counted. Everybody’s input was important. It’s more of a band, I guess. I think there’s a difference, too, with the co-writing happening. With What I Did, there’s a lot of co-writing going on. It just felt like everybody had more of a role in the songs themselves. There’s some rockin’ songs in there, too. We’ve got this great new drummer who’s playing with us, Anthony Taddeo. We just played Mountain Stage in West Virginia last Sunday and God bless him, he drove all of the way from New York to play the show. He came back to West Virginia last night. So I think we’re getting to this place where we want drums. When we started out, we didn’t. We weren’t even thinking about drums. There’s an evolution happening and it’s starting to look like we’re filling out a little bit.
Any different influences on this album?
No, not really. Definitely there were some changes going on in my personal life when we moved, we pulled our kids out of school and decided to start homeschooling them. Brent Kirby was in the band for two years and this summer he decided to leave the band. That was hard on me. He’s a very busy guy and he’s a wonderful guy, very talented. I’m very thankful for the two years he played with us. But, when he decided to leave, for me personally, it was rough. I think all of those things kind of worked their way into the music, even if they’re not necessarily directly referenced within the lyrics of a song. I’m influenced by things that are happening around me, things that are happening to me and decisions that I’ve made in my life. If anything, that’s the place from which the songs came . . . that place of change. Longing for the Past was a direct offshoot of that. Of, “Hang on, how many changes can I really handle at one time?” I just want to crawl back into that place three months ago when I was set with how everything was happening. Now here I am and I don’t know what’s going to happen with this. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. I don’t know what this is going to look like.
What are your touring plans for the album?
We’re really trying to focus on regional right now. That’s what we know that we can do. We know that we can hop in a car and drive five hours and play a show. We know we can drive out to Buffalo and play a show. For the time being, it’s where we need to be. But we’d like to get back out west, too. We went out to Telluride right after our first CD was released. We have a totally different line-up now and I think we’re kind of a completely different band than we were three years ago. We’re looking at the map. We’re looking at festivals. We’re trying to figure out what’s financially feasible too. Driving five hours to West Virginia is a lot different than driving all the way out to Colorado. We’d like to head back out west, but we’re trying to be rather strategic about it and trying to really focus on building a good audience, a good fan base regionally. Then, once we feel like we’ve got that going pretty well, expanding out a little bit at a time. Our home life and family life is really important to all of us. We all are trying to find that balance between providing a stable, nurturing environment for our kids at home and also trying to honor our artistic passion of wanting to get out there and play music for people. We’re always trying to strike that balance.
Is there a story behind the album cover?
My background is in visual arts, so when it came time to think about the artwork for the CD, I wanted to try to have what’s happening on the outside of the CD be part of the story of the music, part of the story of the songs. I took it on as my role to try to figure that out. I got on the Library of Congress website and just started looking through photographs. When that picture came up, it really hit me as to just the story behind the photograph. What’s going on with this woman? Who is she waving to? What’s she doing? And the imagery of her lace dress and the movement was just very striking. The title of the album, What I Did, has some mystery to it and I think this photograph really enhanced the story behind some of the songs. For me, album cover artwork is important. I always enjoy the visual aspect of an album along with the musical aspect of it.
Hey Mavis is releasing their new CD, What I Did at Happy Days Lodge in the Cuyahoga Valley on March 15th. For the rest of the band’s tour schedule, click here.
(Band photo by Jerry Mann, jerrymann.com)