Festival Heartstrings Interview

INTERVIEW: Ian Fitzgerald at Newport Folk Festival 2016

Newport Folk Festival‘s Harbor Stage is known for having the best view, artist discoveries and unforgettable moments (in 2015, Christopher Paul Stelling got down on one knee during his set). And for these very reasons, this stage is where many choose to begin, spend and end their day at Newport Folk Festival, despite what may be transpiring throughout the rest of Fort Adams State Park. On Sunday, July 24 at 11 am, you will find Ian Fitzgerald, along with Smith&Weeden, opening the day on this stage, with his heart as open as the view in front of him. The image of the harbor, the Narragansett Bay, the iconic Newport Bridge and boats in the distance is just about as breathtaking and powerful as the talent Ian brings to every performance. Though it’s Ian’s first official lineup slot, it certainly isn’t his first visit to the festival. Ian performed on the Museum Stage at last year’s festival, as part of the Wildwood Revival showcase, and as you will discover through our interview, Newport Folk Festival has been a part of his life long before he was invited to play. Ian was born and raised in New England. He remembers commercials for the festival on television and throughout his interview, while reflecting on memorable past performances, he lets us know that he’s been in attendance for at least 7 years (though it’s safe to assume many more).

He has independently released four albums and is scheduled to release another this fall, entitled You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone. The music he has offered to the world has earned him quite the reputation and admiration over the course of his career. Ian Fitzgerald is the name I kept running into during the last few years. His was the name recommended by artists after all the formal questions had been asked and the recorder was set aside following an interview. And his is the name you should pay attention to as we inch closer to entering the festival gates at Fort Adams State Park.

What is your earliest memory of music?

Ian Fitzgerald: There was always music of some kind around my house: my Dad played drums and guitar, and both my parents sang.  The earliest clear memory of music I have, though, is when I joined the children’s choir at church in second grade.  Mrs. Mitchell was the choir director, and the first song she taught us was “This Land Is Your Land.”

What influence has Newport Folk Festival had on you thus far as a New England artist?

As a New England native, I’ve been aware of the Newport Folk Festival since I was a kid; I remember seeing commercials for it on local television. When my interest in folk music began to develop, learning more about the festival was essential and unavoidable because of the role it’s played for more than half a century. Most influential on a personal level, though, was seeing Brown Bird perform on the Harbor Stage at the Festival in 2011. I knew Dave Lamb and MorganEve Swain, and to see them up on stage at the Newport Folk Festival had a pretty dramatic effect on my idea of how far I might be able to take my own music.

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Photo by Giles Clement, Newport Folk Festival 2015

What are some of the thoughts crossing your mind as we approach Newport Folk Festival, at which you will be performing for the first time? 

I’m excited and honored to have been invited to perform. I’m trying to make sure that the most important people in my life are there with me to share the moment. And I’m doing all I can with Ollie, Jesse, Seamus, and Dylan from Smith&Weeden to make sure we play the best set possible for everyone who decides to come hear us.

Can you tell me more about your collaboration with Smith&Weeden?

I first played on a bill with Smith&Weeden in Connecticut on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, 2014. The next month, we played a house show together at the home of our friend Shawn Schillberg in Providence. After that first show, I listened to their record a lot and began covering one of their songs, “Sunshine.” They heard about that and were generous enough to invite me up during our second show together to sing a verse of that with them. After the show that night, out in front of Shawn’s house, I asked if they’d be interested in joining me at Dirt Floor in Connecticut to record some new songs I had. I had been thinking about trying to put some kind of band together to pursue a different sound for my next record, and playing with them made me realize that they were the band I wanted. We went to the studio the following month and began recording.

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Smith&Weeden

What do you enjoy most about performing? Which songs do you enjoy performing most and why?

Being on stage is the most in control and natural that I feel.

It’s also scary and unnatural. As much as I’m singing my songs for the strangers, and sometimes friends and family, who make up the audiences, I’m also singing them for myself. If I’ve done it right, I continue to experience the songs in new ways and hear things that I didn’t know were there or maybe that weren’t there before, even after playing them countless times. I play most of my shows solo, and I’ve been enjoying playing songs lately like “The One On The Black Horse” and “Monroe” which can be opened up in new ways dynamically without any changes to the structures. Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of opportunities to perform duets with a wonderful singer-songwriter named Riley Pinkerton; on nights when I know we’ll be singing songs like “The Devil You Know” and “Galveston” together or songs of hers like “We’re All Wild” and “Where I Began,” I really look forward to those. My Newport set with Smith&Weeden will be something else altogether, and of course I’m looking forward to the songs we’ll be playing together there.

So far we’ve heard “When All Else Fails” (via The Bluegrass Situation) and we couldn’t be more excited to hear the rest of You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone. Can you tell us more about the album and the songs within?

Thank you. That was the last song we recorded. The album has ten songs that I wrote in the couple of years after releasing my last album, No Time To Be Tender. It’s very unlike that album in a lot of ways. There were only four people present for the making of No Time To Be Tender, and we recorded and mixed it in four days. The sessions for You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone spanned thirteen months. We weren’t at it every day or even close to it, but we did take a lot of detours during which different musicians came in to try songs in a lot of different ways. But whether we had one version of a song or two or three, I knew when we got what we needed. I’m very happy to have worked again with Eric Lichter at Dirt Floor and very proud to call all of the musicians who worked on the album friends.

What was your favorite or most memorable experience while creating You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone

The writing of some of these songs happened in a way that was unique for me. After the initial sessions with Smith&Weeden in November 2014, they started to ask when we’d be going back to do more work. When I initially invited them to try some recording, I hadn’t considered the next step; the idea of them joining me to record more hadn’t even occurred to me. I was thrilled by their willingness to play more with me, though, and I knew that what had come out of the first session was a good start but was not close to being a whole record. So we set a date to all go back to Dirt Floor together. The problem was that I didn’t have any more songs for them to play at that point. Luckily, that was during the first few months of 2015;

I was living just outside Boston at the time, and I wound up being snowed in thanks to a few blizzards.  I had a notebook and several loose pieces of paper on my bed and different tables around my apartment, and I wound up writing “Monroe,” “Forget The Address,” and “Kingdom Come” more or less simultaneously.

I was lucky that the band provided the impetus I needed to get to work.

What are your plans following the release of You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone?

I’m on the road as much as possible, so I’ll keep touring. If enough people are interested and I can get some folks to join me, I’d love to bring a band with me for some shows; I’ve never done that before.

Can you name some of the artists you are most excited to see and be sharing the stage with at NFF this year?

There are a lot, but I’ll name some of them. Father John Misty has been a favorite of mine for a few years; I loved his Newport set in 2013, and I’ve seen him play solo before and loved that. I’m a big Elvis Costello fan; I saw him at Newport in 2011 when he was advertised as playing solo but wound up bringing The Imposters with him. Whether he delivers on the promise of playing solo this time or not, I’m eager to see him. I’m also excited to hear what Ryan Adams sounds like with The Infamous Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm. Ryan’s songs seem so malleable that I can imagine many of them transitioning to bluegrass seamlessly and beautifully. I’m also really looking forward to seeing Margo Price and JP Harris, with whom I shared the Museum Stage last year. Following their careers has been heartening and gratifying in a lot of ways. I’m very glad they’ll be at the Fort this summer. And, of course, I’m sure I’ll walk away from the Festival having heard a bunch of new favorites.

What do you do when you are not playing music?

I work on ways to play more music. I book my own shows, which takes up an inordinate amount of my waking hours, including many when I should not be awake. Given how much of my time and energy that has taken up in the first half of this year, I’m trying to strike a better balance between that and other things like writing and keeping my life in order. And, of course, I’m trying to get this new record out to people.

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Photo by Riley Pinkerton

What is your songwriting process? How does a song take shape?

Usually a line or an idea for a line will come to me, and it will be apparent to me if that’s the first line of a song or if I have to go back and figure out what comes before that. The shape of that line sort of sets the framework that I’ll be writing in for the rest of that song. At some point, I’ll kind of recognize what I’m writing about, and I’ll try to allow that to guide me in a certain direction without becoming so fixated on one idea that I don’t allow others in. I used to write songs in one sitting, but I travel with them now; I keep them with me and work on them over time so the ideas have an opportunity to develop. I edit a lot as I go: sometimes changing a word here or there, sometimes striking entire verses if I realize they don’t work for whatever reason.

The music comes in all different ways, at all different points of the process. Sometimes, the lyrics have a certain mood that dictates the feel of the music that they need.

Sometimes that mood seems apparent at first but not as clear once I’ve lived with it for a while. And sometimes, I just have to sit with the lyrics and a guitar and go hunting.

If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

Hold on to your loved ones, and work every moment to make sure they feel loved.

 

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