Tim Eriksen on Gospel, Punk, Ethnomusicology and The MIM

To call balladeer Tim Eriksen's career varied would be a colossal understatement. Few artists can claim such expansive work: He's shared stages from CBGB to Carnegie Hall with Nirvana, Weezer, Jack White, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson, playing punk, jazz, world music, folk and gospel. He also appeared on A Prairie Home Companion, worked with producers Steve Albini, T-Bone Burnett and Joe Boyd, supervised the Cold Mountain soundtrack, been nominated for a GRAMMY for his work with Omar Sosa, and taught classes at  Dartmouth, Amherst and Wesleyan University. 

Along the way, Eriksen has earned a reputation as an expert on "Sacred Harp" and "shape-note" music, haunting variations of gospel music originating in the American south. He plays the Musical Instrument Museum Sunday, February 27th, which will serve as a sort of homecoming for Eriksen, who helped cultivate instruments as a curator for the museum.

Up on the Sun spoke with Eriksen about his job as an musicologist, Arcade Fire, and the peculiar aspects of performing harmony-based social singing all your lonesome.

UOTS: I wanted to start off by asking a very general question. You have spent your career exploring differing styles of music, from punk rock to shape note singing, to folk and jazz. Is there a connecting thread to the kinds of music that you play?

TE: That's a really good question. That is a question I have asked myself many times, looking for that golden thread that ties all of these experiences together. One literal, musical thing is my voice, and the vocal style that draws from all these different kind of music, but is also very natural to all of them. That's one thing.

Curiosity is another thing; in all of these forms of music there is a lot to explore and a lot of connections to be found. That is always a source of enjoyment and really gets the work going.

UOTS: So you define that connection thread as a sense of curiosity or exploration. Does that tie into your religious beliefs? Do you have any particular beliefs?

TE: Well, I am a Christian, so it may be unusual to have spent so much time playing Hindu songs or whatever, but it just doesn't bother me. I really enjoy it.

UOTS: I see. I was curious because I first became aware of your work through the Awake My Soul soundtrack, which featured you along side Woven Hand, Danielson and others, who are identified as of part of the artistically left of center Christian culture.

TE: That's all sacred music, of course. There are some very interesting things going over the last ten years or so, where the American pop Christian music scene used to be all about imitation of popular styles [but there has been] a growth where people are interested in exploring their religion, but also, exploring musically.

I've enjoyed those kinds of connections, but I've enjoyed collaborating in other directions as well. My collaboration with Omar Sosa was Afro-Cuban music, so, I do kind of a mixture of sacred music and secular music.

UOTS: One of the things I noted with that particular soundtrack was a connecting theme, but that not all of the artists identified as Christians, even though the theme was southern-Christian spirituals.

TE: Oh yeah. There was a real mix of people on there. I am always interested in finding common ground with whoever is hit it off with, who ever I resonate with musically or in terms of ideas.

UOTS: You don't have to be of any religious stripe to hear that kind of music and be struck by the beauty, and kind of- I want to find the right word, here- not unusual, exactly, but kind of haunting.

TE: There's an intensity to Sacred Harp singing that is part of what I am talking about when I talk about the thread that ties all of my music together. There's a presence, it's not soft-pedaled, it's very vibrant, living music, that is for some people is more intense than what they are used to, but for others is really exciting.

In acoustic music there's a lot to be said for music that is kind of soothing, and relaxing, and I like to be soothed and relaxed, but the music that most often hits me is more often vibrant and intense. There is a long history of beautiful intensity in singing traditions I participate in: traditional American music forms like shaped note singing and East Coast Anglo-Celtic music, as well.

UOTS: I think Christian music, as it was broadly defined, meant Amy Grant or an artist like her, which is fine, but certainly not as visceral as something like Sacred Harp.

TE: For sure, yeah. It's very stirring. One of the interesting and cool things about the singing is that its set up to be very accessible to people of different backgrounds, and that when you come to sing, you leave any political or denominational baggage at the door, and you just come to sing. So, you find a really wide and interesting set of people.

UOTS: You've spent a time at Sacred Harp church services?

TE: Well, it's mostly not practiced during church. Very rarely is it practiced during services, it's most at social events. It's social singing, and that's by design. There are only about give individual congregations that sing it during church. They have it during times where services are not being held, or in courthouses, or other places. So even though most of the singers are Christians, it's social singing, very definitely.

UOTS: That openness is very evident in the music, and it's sort of jarring to listen to. It's a kick in the teeth.

TE: And there are people looking for that, are looking for more joy, more beauty, more mourning, because that's what they need, and a little less of the soothing, elevator music approach. That's one of things that carries over for me from Sacred Harp singing and performing, because [when it's practiced in groups] it's about sharing, there is no audience, but when I perform solo, it's very different, but I enjoy the feeling of sharing, not being the star on the stage, but another participant in something. It is different, but the thing that ties it together is a sense of sharing with other people.

UOTS: A sense of community.

TE: Yeah, that's a more succinct way of putting it. It's a way to enjoy the music, even though I am the guy on stage, as opposed to someone sitting on the bench singing with others.

UOTS: The story about your most recent recording, Soul of the January Hills (a collection of A cappella recordings), is really fascinating. Would you share a little more about that?

TE: Well, for years I have wanted to make a CD of solo, unaccompanied voice. I was playing at an early-music festival in southeastern Poland, and having a wonderful time, it was just an amazing time. The night before, I had played in this huge church, with no electrical amplification, and no electrical light, just candles, and I played for about a thousand people.

The next day I was really on fire to record. I had this little Marantz professional digital recorder with, but I needed a good place to record and an extension cord. My wife actually, she was the one who pushed me, she was just like "we have to make it happen today," because I was just really on fire to sing.

We tried a bunch of different places in this monastery where we were staying. One room was too noisy, or one was too reverberant, or didn't have an outlet.

We finally got the keys to this tower on the peripheral wall around the abbey, and it kind of looked like a scary witch's tower or something (laughs), with the stairs around the outside going around were falling off and, we got up there and opened the door, and there was this beautiful little room. All that was in there was a comfortable couch, a fireplace, and an extension cord hanging on the wall.

UOTS: Really?

TE: Yeah, it was built in the 1500s, but at some point they had run electricity up there, so I plugged in my machine, did a little sound-check, then I sang for an hour. That's the record. I didn't do any overdubs or fix anything, I just sang straight and that's what's on there.

UOTS: That's remarkable. It just sounds like it came about so serendipitously.

TE: I wanted to do it for aesthetic reasons. Things sound really different when you start second guessing, like, oh, this verse should have been better, so you start editing and you loose your train of thought. Whereas when you sing one song, and then you go right into another, it has a natural flow that you can't achieve any other way. So I wanted to do it for aesthetic reasons, and to prove to myself that I could do it that way, and be an encouragement to other people to say, you can do something with just one voice that has scope, and depth.

UOTS: You've taught at Dartmouth, Amherst, University of Minnesota and other places. How do you approach the art of teaching? I know it depends on the subject, and you've covered the wide range of subjects, but how do you view your position? Do you feel the need to impart certain things to your students, or preserve certain traditions?

TE: I'm not really interested in preservation so much as I am encouraging students to get excited about their locality, their environment, their elders, their peers and looking into things- going into places they would never go. [Like] going into a church you've never gone into and hearing what kind of music they are singing, or going to a punk rock club.

One of the assignments I give students is to name one kind of music that they either hate or is completely not their music, and go to that event. So if they are into black metal or something, they might be opposed to Christian music or country, or whatever, and go to something like that, or whatever you are afraid of, and use that as a site for exploration and communicating with those people.

I love these older styles of music that I perform most of the time, but part of what I love about them is that they provide scope for investigation for new ideas, and new people, as much as they do for valuing something old.

UOTS: You're described as an ethnomusicologist, which sounds so scholarly, and I think comes with a lot of associations. I used the term "preserving" because I think that's the first thing that comes to mind when hearing a term like that.

TE: Yeah, you are absolutely right to ask that question. What I should say it that there are something things I am very interested in- I wouldn't say preserving- but maintaining.

I'm a very big advocate for Sacred Harp singing because I think it's brilliant. I'm not interested in maintaining it because it's ancient, but because it's brilliantly conceived as a way of making it possible for people to get together and make music, even if they don't have any musical training or have the same ideas about things.

UOTS: That sounds incredibly punk rock.

TE: Absolutely. It opens doors to people who would never have had those doors opened to them otherwise.

UOTS: That was the original spirit of punk rock. The idea of punk as a genre is one thing, but they idea of it as an attitude or philosophy is something else entirely, and not exactly a recent phenomenon.

TE: Yeah. I did a record, gosh, it must have been 1997, it was all acoustic instruments and harmony singing, no overdubs, and we recorded it with Steve Albini. It was actually the first entirely acoustic record he had done. Magnet Magazine said it was the only real punk rock record of 1997 (laughs.)

UOTS: What contemporary artists interest you?

TE: Well everybody likes Arcade Fire, and I really like them.

UOTS: Well, not everybody.

TE: Not everybody?

UOTS: Since the GRAMMYs there has been a bunch Eminem fans who are pissed off he didn't win Album of the Year creating anti-Arcade Fire sites.

TE: Who won? Did Arcade Fire win?

UOTS: Yeah, Arcade Fire won.

TE: See, I wasn't really paying attention to the Grammys.

UOTS: I'm looking forward to seeing you at The MIM. Have you been?

TE: I haven't been, but I worked for a year as a consultant for the museum. So I am interested in seeing which of my ideas they implemented, if any. I was involved in the very beginning stages, right up to them actually buying the land, and was there for the first bits of acquisitions of instruments. It will be neat to see regardless, and it's a really exciting thing, a really cool place.

Tim Eriksen plays The MIM, February 27th, in Phoenix, at 2:30 p.m.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.