BY NATHAN RIZZO
One of the country’s foremost banjo virtuosos – as well as an adept songwriter and slide guitarist – Portland-native Tony Furtado is a consummate multi-instrumental talent whose stylistically variegated discography is a testament to his artistic singularity.
Interviewed in advance of the release of The Bell, his 17th studio album, Furtado speaks to the origins of his passion for the banjo and his recent re-discovery of the instrument. Furtado also delves into the creative mechanics and broader inspiration underpinning the articulate songwriting and emotive depth showcased on The Bell. Addressing post-album efforts, Furtado ponders the viability of successive ideas before closing with an announcement of a May 16 record release event at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater (Doors 7:00 PM, Show 8:00 PM, Tickets $15).
What’s your first musical memory or recollection that comes to mind? It could be a song, a part, a sound, or even an image.
Well, I can tell you what my earliest favorite song was. Actually, there were two of them. I remember being four years-old and people would ask me what my favorite song was. But it really had to do with what I was hearing on the radio at the time, which was the early 70s. So I remember being able to sing the chorus of Delta Dawn by Tanya Tucker.
I remember Delta Dawn, and I also remember a song called The Devil Woman, but I can’t remember the guy’s name. And it just kind of went [sings] “Beware the devil woman with evil on her mind.”
Oh, no kidding! [laughs]
I would tell people that’s my favorite song. I was just a little squirt, you know? That’s what I remember.
The first album I ever bought with my own money was Eagles Live because I was probably ten years-old and it had that songSeven Bridges Road on it. I remember hearing that on the radio in the 70s and I just loved it. I remember asking some of my friends, “What’s that song? I keep hearing it.” I kind of hummed it and I said, “I think it’s got something called harmony on it.” [laughs] My friends said, “I think that’s the Eagles.” So I went out and got that.
And then my very first actual concert happened after I started playing music when I was 12 years-old. I went to the local county fair and I remember going to see Doug Kershaw, “The Ragin’ Cajun.” I went with the absolute intention to see this guy, and he was just crazy!
He played the fiddle and would just burn through the bows, you know? Literally – he had an umbrella case full of bows and he went through his whole umbrella case full of bows. And so I remember riding home in the back of my dad’s truck going, “I want to do that! I want to entertain people. I want to be a musician and be on stage.”
So that’s what inspired you, then?
That was what inspired me to go, “You know, I think I can do that. I want to be up on stage.” I had started playing banjo just five months before, or something like that.
Do you come from a pretty musical family?
No – not a bit! Not musical at all. I remember my mom told me that she took fiddle lessons, or violin lessons when she was a little girl, but she only lasted a couple of lessons. And my brother took some drum lessons, but that was it. He kind of quit right off the bat.
I was just always interested in instruments and in music. It was something fascinating for me. The main reason I got into it, though, was I took an intro to music class, and you had to make a little instrument out of household items and do a report on that instrument.
At the time, I was really into making the balsa wood airplanes, and I made a little banjo out of a pie tin and paper that I stretched over the top of it. I put a stick on it, and rubber bands for frets, and nylon fishing string. I was like, “Wow, that was fun! Now what’s the banjo about?”
I read that it came from Africa, and that you could play all kinds of music on it from jazz to celtic music, to something called bluegrass. So I finally said, “I want to take lessons on this instrument,” and that’s what I ended up diving into.
That was actually going to be my next question. Not a lot of people – kids especially – start out on the banjo.
And that was it! I think it’s a really cool thing for a kid – before they actually take lessons in something – to do a little research on it, get inspired about it and find out where it comes from.
Right – so that the inspiration is organic. It’s not just something your parents are making you do.
When I was in high school and I was getting really into it, I was practicing hours and hours a day – sometimes six or eight hours a day. For my parents, the only thing was, they said, “Keep your grades up and you can practice as much as you want.”
So I did! And I was trying to really get into music in general as well. I was studying theory on my own. I was trying to teach myself any kind of theory. I was transcribing Charlie Parker heads and working out to play bebop on the banjo.
That’s tough, man! [laughs]
I had a buddy – a teacher – who I was taking lessons from when I was 17, and he had gone through trying to figure out how to do that stuff on a five-string banjo.
The four-string and five-string are totally different instruments. Four-string is played with a plectrum and it’s tuned in fifths, just like a violin. And so, with a five-string banjo, it’s tuned in thirds –
Oh, I didn’t know that.
And you’ve got this fifth string up at the top – a high drone, basically. And you’ve got to figure out what to do with that. So in folk and bluegrass and old-timey music, it works out great. But once you try to play other types of music on it, you’ve got these incredible stretches and it’s a little wacky to say the least. [laughs]
But I dove in and was figuring it out, and then heard of a guy named Béla Fleck who was about ten years older than me, and who was working on stuff like that. I looked to him for inspiration a lot when I was a kid. I was also studying Celtic music on the banjo, and whatever else I could.
I went to Cal State Hayward, which is now called something else, but there was a jazz teacher there named Dave Eshelman. I was enrolled as an art major, because back then, you couldn’t be a music major or minor and just be studying the banjo.
And at this point, I’m serious. I’m really into music and I know it’s going to be my career. I had just been picked up by a touring folk band, and I’m 19 or 20 years old. I was either going to quit college and join the band, or I was going to stay in college and really study music.
And so I remember going to the dean of the school of music, and I explained my situation. I had been sneaking into some of these classes – music for majors and theory for the majors as well as jazz theory.
Again, Dave Eshelman was the main jazz instructor there. I went up to him and asked him if I could take his class. I said, “I’m a five-string banjo player and I know that this is a lot, but I can follow along?” And he said, “Well, can you read music?” I said, “Well, I’m a little slow.” He said, “Can you read a chart?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m good with charts” and I told him everything I was studying on the instrument. And he said, “Yeah! Come on in, but I have to give precedence to the music majors.”
I went in and I totally held my own and learned a lot from being in that class. I wanted to take it to the next step and maybe carve out my own major or even a minor in music, but with the banjo.
So I went to the dean and I told him what I wanted to do, and he basically laughed at me! And I felt extremely insulted. I was like, “Come on! I’m dead serious. I’ve got a guy who can teach me this.” And he was like, “You cannot study counterpoint on a five-string banjo.” And I’m like, “Actually, you can. And I’ve got a guy who did it, and was is into being my tutor!”
He just said, “No, I’m not going to let this happen.” And I said, “Ok. I’m out of here!” That’s when I quit college and hit the road with that band. I got myself a record deal with Rounder Records to start recording in the early 90s, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
I’m about to release my 17th album in a 27-year career!
That’s really impressive.
And I didn’t just stick with the banjo, either. I ended up moving on to slide guitar and singing and songwriting, and kind of mixing up different influences from everything from the old-timey stuff I was studying to celtic and indie rock and indie folk – whatever they call it. [laughs] All kinds of influences.
The last time I saw you was in January when you were playing with David Lindley. He had called me out of the blue for an interview on New Year’s Eve and I ended up talking to him for an hour and a half. It was just amazing.
He’s great! He’s wacky, he’s awesome – just a great guy.
He’s totally great. You guys seem similar in terms of the breadth of what you’re able to perform – both stylistically and instrumentally. It’s a really rare thing. I was impressed!
Well, thanks! I appreciate it. I relate to him because one of his early instruments was the banjo, and you can hear it in his playing. You can hear the classical – I think he said he his first serious instrument was classical guitar – and you can hear the banjo. So, I relate on that level.
Have you had many opportunities to play with him?
Yeah, the first time I opened for him would have been 17 years ago, maybe. I had just started playing slide guitar just a few years before that. I had a band with me, and I was in Chico, California. I’ll never forget – I was backstage with him and he goes, “I like you, man – you take chances!” And I was like, “Can I use that as a quote?” [laughs]
And I did!
Then there were a couple times later on that I did some openings for him, and he has me sit in every once in a while. It’s cool.
That’s so cool. Are there any facets of your musical career that people might not otherwise know about? Have you done session playing or worked as a sideman for various people?
Yeah! You know who Allison Krauss is?
We’re friends from way, way back – back before she was famous. We were on the same record label and I was kind of in that bluegrass genre, so I had her sing a song on my second album. I was only playing banjo back then.
I had her sing a Beatles song on my album. We were on the same label, and Rounder [Records] was making a compilation album of stuff that she had done on other people’s albums. So she lifted it from my album and put it on hers, and I think that album sold a couple million!
That’s always a plus. [laughs]
Yeah, I mean a lot of people heard that track and they didn’t realize it was first on my album. Then I had her sing it on mine. So that’s kind of an interesting one.
A few years ago, I was traveling through L.A. and I got a call from a buddy of mine who is a great bass player named Dusty Wakeman – and he also produced a couple of my albums – and he said, “Hey, I got this session I’m doing and they’re looking for a banjo player. I know you’re coming through L.A.”
And I said, “Ok!” And he said, “It’s for Billy Ray Cyrus.”
No way! [laughs] Whatever, man – if it’s there…
“Ok…!” [laughs] Then he goes, “You know, it’s probably going to pay pretty good.” So, “Alright..”
So I went in, and it turns out that Billy Ray Cyrus is one of the sweetest guys you would ever meet! Overflowing – just a nice, nice, nice guy. And the producer was really spot-on, so it was fun.
I just went in there with my banjo and played a bunch of banjo for a whole day. I went in there and played on a whole bunch of tracks. And then I remember texting back and forth with Billy Ray Cyrus a few times. So a couple times, I remember being around some friends and going, “Hey, watch this! I’m going to text Billy Ray Cyrus.” And I texted him, and he wrote wrote right back, like, “Hey, buddy! How you doing?”
That’s awesome. [laughs]
Then he ended up having me fly down to play on the Tonight Show – the Jay Leno show – with him. There aren’t many opportunities to get to play on the Tonight Show if you do what I do. So that was pretty cool, you know? That was a pretty cool session to be on.
Also early in my career, I remember touring in the U.K. playing with a couple guys. And we were playing in some pub, and the pub was packed. I remember being outside and the guy that promoted the show telling me [with English accent]- “Yeah, I was over at my friend Bob Plant’s house the other day and I played him your first banjo album and he really liked it. He really likes banjo music.”
And I was like, “Who the fuck is Bob Plant?” [laughs]
I was going to say the same thing. [laughs] Who calls him Bob?
And then he said, “Yeah, he said he might come down tonight.” And then he said, “I don’t know – he’s not here yet.” Then he said, “Speak of the devil!”
I look downstairs and here comes fucking Robert Plant up the stairs!
No kidding! That’s insane!
And it was just outside of Birmingham, where he lives part of the time. I guess he lives in Nashville and in Birmingham.
Yeah, I’ve heard he lives in Nashville.
And he came up, watched the show, and came up afterwards and I was chatting with him! He bought the two had albums that I had with me at the time, and bought the albums made by the other guys in the band, too. Just the nicest guy, you know?
The funny thing about it was, as I remember it now, that one of those albums had Allison Krauss singing on it and she wasn’t famous yet. So I like to think back, like, “I wonder if that’s the first time he ever heard her!” [laughs]. Because then they went on to work together.
That’s amazing! So what led you to Portland? I feel like the city gets attention for its alternative music scene. But there are also a number of really high-level musicians and songwriters, and I’m always interested in what draws them here.
Over the years, whenever I toured through Portland, it was one of those places where I’d come and I felt like I was coming home. It’s not something I can explain.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, so I guess you can attribute it to me being really comfortable with foggy days. [laughs]
I’ve always just really loved it. About 13 years ago, I was living in Boulder, Colorado and felt like I needed a big change. I was pretty much done with the snow and being up at high altitude. I’m not really a sun person – I don’t like a lot of sun. The sun in Colorado is really intense. Some people love it, but I didn’t.
I liked it here [Portland], so I said, “You know? I think my change is going to be to Portland.” And I had some friends over here, so I came out and it just felt really good. It felt really comfortable. I like coming home to here.
So it’s not so much about any scene – it’s not so much about this or that. It just feels like home to me. I mean, I like the music scene and I like the arts scene, I like the fact that there are bicycle lanes here and that there’s a good green-conscious thing going on here. There’s a lot of things I like about it.
But, ultimately, it just feels good?
Yeah, it feels good.
Let’s get to the album [The Bell]. I was dealing with some stuff at the time I was listening to them and that line, “Don’t waste your hammer on a broken bell” just kept playing over and over in my head. I was like, “This is so appropriate right now.” [laughs]
Can you talk about the record at all?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s influenced by several things. One is the death of my father.
There’s a number of those songs that are directly me thinking about my dad passing. There’s a song on there called “Lie Alone,” which is basically me thinking about my mom and what she was going through right after my dad died. It was me putting myself in these different narratives to process through.
There’s also a song on there called “Ashes of a Man,” and that’s that’s my own narrative – it’s me relating what I was feeling when my dad passed. The song “Tall Grass” is about when I was a little boy. Whenever my mom was needing space from the boys, my dad would take me and my brother and our dog out in the hills that surrounded Pleasanton [California], where I grew up, and we’d go for these nice walks. It was kind of my happy place in my head.
And this is wrapped up with this complicated thing in my head now that I’ve got a son. He’s two and-a-half. My wife is Stephanie Schneiderman, and she’s also a musician here in town.
Oh, yeah. I know who she is.
Yeah, we had him two and-a-half years ago. And my dad died three and-a-half years ago. So there are these complicated emotions in my head. I’m thinking about times when he goes to another level of being a little guy. And I think back, “Wow, I wonder if this is what my dad felt when I was his age?” Or, “What was it like for my dad?”
I start to understand my dad and the way he was with me. My dad was a really loving, and genuine, and generous guy. He was tormented by demons, because he was also an alcoholic and he had a lot of shit going on. But he was really warm – just a wonderful father. And I had to process this. So these songs kind of came out with these different narratives, and that was my way of working through it.
So there’s that, and there’s also having this new little kid. There’s one song on there called, “Star,” which is just a nice, little happy song with me seeing the days just whipping through while dealing with my fast business stuff. And I see the little guy, and he’s got this new word. He says, “Star!”
I think, “Oh, shit! Why don’t I slow things down here?” You get down to the level of a little guy, and the whole world just strips away. It’s like, all that’s important is being there with him, and that’s one thing he’s done for me. That’s kind of where that song came from.
That’s interesting. You get an opposing perspective on being.
The other thing that the album sprang from was my own rebirth and my independence from a lot of the shit in the music business.
I went through a pretty tricky relationship with a label and management company for about ten years. We parted ways just a few years ago. And there’s some songs that came from that – from feeling small. It came from feeling like I had no control over what I was doing. That’s where the where Broken Bell comes from. And so that line, “Don’t waste your hammer on a broken bell” – I was feeling like a broken bell, you know? Trying to regain my strength.
That song deals with complicated emotions, too – feeling like I’ve been rung so many times I’m broken. But, you know what? I can still ring, but I’m not going to do it for you. I’m controlling my own thing now. You can’t chain my mind.
The banjo seems to feature pretty prominently on a number of songs.
Yeah, there are some banjo tunes, too. One thing about this album, is that I let the banjo come back quite a bit. I had left the banjo on the back burner for years because I felt like I was supposed to. I felt like it was a move I needed to do because I kept hearing that “I need to get on the radio. I need to get on the radio. The banjo is not radio-friendly.” And I was like, “Alright” So I just kind of let it slip away.
And now, I don’t want to! Now, I want the music to sound the way I want it to be.
I’ve got this instrument on there called a cello banjo, which is basically an octave below where the banjo normally is. And there’s a lot of tunes on the album where the cello banjo is shadowing the regular banjo, or shadowing my baritone ukelele, which I’m playing a lot on the album, too.
And the two together create this really cool sound. It’s almost like a harpsichord or a rhythmic instrument.
It’s good you feel more in touch with that. More than anything – and perhaps somewhat ironically – sounding like yourself is ultimately what engenders success.
People relate to it.
Yeah, very true! On several albums that I recorded in the past 12 years, I felt like I was being nudged in a direction and I didn’t feel like it was me. I felt like even when we were putting it down – you can hear it my voice when I was singing – it doesn’t sound like me.
But on this album, I feel like it sounds like me! It’s not perfect, but it sounds like me. And I’m very happy about that.
The best albums out there aren’t perfect. The human character of those imperfections is such a special thing.
Exactly. I agree.
To that end, the production and the arrangements on the album really struck me. Are you familiar with Jason Isbell? Just an amazing songwriter.
Oh, yeah! He’s awesome.
His last album, Southeastern, had a similar vibe to it with the nuanced, somewhat-ambient background textures. I noticed that a lot on The Bell. Did you do a lot of the production and the arrangements yourself? Or were you working with somebody?
Yeah, most of it was me. I also worked with Rob Stroup, to whom I gave co-producer credits because he’s always such a solid set of ears and ideas. We have a good symbiosis going on. But yeah, I definitely took more of the reins than I ever had before.
It took a lot of trying this and trying that, too, because I had kind of let things flip for the last three or four years on any new studio albums. The last one that came out was Golden, and I think that came out in 2011. That was the last studio album that I put out, just because I was in kind of a dark place artistically. I needed things to change.
Once they did, the songs started coming again. Since I had been out of the studio for a while, I had to remember how to hear things in the studio. So it took some restarts to figure out which instruments were going to sound right with which songs, and how the arrangements should go. I think we ended up in a nice place on it.
I was also pleasantly surprised by your vocals and your songwriting. Pieces like that aren’t always the strong suit of instrumentalists, yet I thought that they were some of the best elements of the album.
I started writing lyrics and singing vocally 15 years ago or so. But I’ve become much better and much more in tune with vocal songwriting over the past five or six years. For a while, I had to treat it like learning an instrument. That was the only way I could do it. I knew it was in me, and I knew I wanted to do it –
You have to develop it!
You have to develop it. You have to find a way to tell your stories. At first it was more like an exercise. It was more like, “Rhyme this with that.”
And I was like, “You know what? You don’t have to rhyme.” And if you think less about the rhyme, the more the rhyme comes, you know what I mean?
If you’re not thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to make this rhyme.” Sometimes it just rhymes anyway. Sometimes it doesn’t rhyme and it paints a better picture. It’s more about the textures of the word that you pick.
Also, it took me a while to figure out how to process emotions and feelings through writing a song, too.
Are there songwriters whose material you find yourself always coming back to?
Oh, sure – Dylan. I definitely listen to a lot of Tom Petty and Tom Waits. That guy Jason Isbell’s great –
Oh, he’s incredible.
I like to listen to that album [Southeastern]. Then there’s some of the new indie folk guys that I was listening to for a little while, then fell away from listening to, like José Gonzalez, and BonIver.
There’s Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Gregory Alan Isakov – He’s amazing. He’s a young guy. He’s a really amazing writer and singer. Iron and Wine. You know, a lot of the things that a lot of people listen to.
There’s also some traditional singers – English traditional. There’s this guy named Nic Jones. I just absolutely love that guy’s stuff. He hasn’t recorded since the late 70s or early 80s when he had a car wreck. Now he can’t do what he used to do. That guy was definitely an influence.
Generally speaking, what’s your writing process like? Are you someone who can write in bits and pieces? Or do you really have to sit down, isolate yourself and focus on writing?
I really have to kind of focus on it – at least to get the process going. And then I have to get into a routine. If I’m going to the well every day, then they come. If i’m not – if I’m not focusing on it and working on it – they don’t tend to come.
The same goes for instrumentals. I need to be going to the instrument, and then they start coming to me. I don’t like to try to force it, either.
Right. Musically, what’s been really capturing your attention right now? Given your background, have you been exploring things like harmony or composition, or playing with meter and time?
Messing with meter and time – that’s an interesting thing. A lot of times, I write these tunes where it just kind of gets to the outside listener or to someone trying to learn some of my tunes – my banjo tunes especially. I usually have a drummer, so they’re the ones who are usually figuring out, “Oh, you’ve got a measure of five, and a measure of three or four over here.”
“Wait a minute. Really?” I’m always baffled! I’m writing to a melody. I’m creating melody, but then I realize, “Oh, it’s a little screwed up, isn’t it?” You find that a lot in old-time mountain music, where there’s an extra beat added here and an extra beat added there. It kind of skips.
But as long as you don’t try to fit a tune into a box, and force it, saying, “Ok, it’s got to be eight measures here, and eight measures here. It’s got to be this. The chorus has got to be here.” You just let it go and create what you’re hearing, and so what if it kind of does that? I also know guys who will kind of force that in. It’s like, “Oh, let’s make it cool and pop in a – ”
“Put a bar of seven in here”
Yeah, “A bar of seven in here.” Exactly.
But when I write – if they get wacky, they get wacky because that’s what I’m hearing –
Right. It’s not contrived.
The next thing I want to do is an album where I’m just playing banjo with a band. I want to explore that again – just do it.
I also would like to do an album – and now that I have my own record label, I can do this – but I also have an idea to really explore work music. On a lot of my albums, I include at least one chain gang song. So there was a time when I was really listening to a lot of field recordings of old chain gang music. Just because it’s really intense, and it’s really soulful. It’s kind of where the blues began, you know?
It’s really interesting stuff to listen to. I’ve thought of doing a lot of that stuff and having 12 cuts that were all different takes on some of those old songs.
I’ve never heard anyone talk about doing something like that before. I’ll have to get ahold of some of those recordings.
Yeah, it should be done, you know? I’d like to do it – because it’s something that influenced me – and do it in an interesting way where there’s an interesting sounding band for each track.
I think that would be great. Otherwise, what else do you have going on? Are you currently on the road or going to be playing in town anytime soon?
I have my record release show on May 16th. We’re going to be up at the Alberta Rose Theater on May 16. I don’t know who the opener is going to be, but I’ll have my full band with me.
Before we wrap up, can you relate a story or poignant moment from your life in music?
Oh, god! [laughs]
I’d have to say – maybe it’s not the most poignant or the most moving – but what comes to mind is when I was living in Virginia. I was there for a few years, and towards the end of my stay there, I met an older gentleman. He was an old Piedmont-style blues musician namedJohn Jackson.
He’s one of the old guard – one of the old real deal. One of his old jobs was a grave-digger. He played slide guitar and banjo, and he played slide guitar with a knife!
That’s outrageous! [laughs]
I met him, and we got to talking – I think was 24 at time time, or 25. And we hit it off somehow at this gathering. It was a banjo gathering with about 200 instructors, including myself and a bunch of other people. Béla [Fleck] was there.
I remember chatting with him [Jackson], and asking him if I could keep in touch. He said, “Yeah, that’d be fine.” He was an old guy at the time.
I remember calling him or his manager at the time and asked if he would join me on some show that I was doing. And they said, “Yes, he would love to.” She [manager] said that, “You know, this is really special, because he never does that. It must mean he really likes you.”
And I was like, “Wow!” Then I asked him to be on one of my albums – to record a song just as a duo. Me and him. His manager said, “He never does that!”
I ended up having him sing on my third album called Third Circle. I was just playing banjo, and he was playing guitar – Piedmont-style fingerpicking. He was the one – I would have to say – that inspired me to start playing some blues and looking into playing slide guitar.
He died just a few years after that. But he was just one of the most wonderful, sweet-spirited old blues guys. And that was poignant for me. That’s what led me down the path of checking out Ry Cooder and David Lindley.
I don’t know if I’ll ever try playing slide guitar with a knife – I’m already bad enough at it as it is. That could be bad news. [laughs]
[Laughs] He played with the handle of a butter knife, basically.
That’s so rock n’ roll – I love it. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk. I’ll be sure to drop by the Alberta Rose Theater on May 16th.
Hey, my pleasure!