Monday, January 4, 2010

Tomorrow's stars today, Carrie Rodriguez, Ben Sollee co-bill at Iron Horse Wednesday January 20th

Not yet 30, and with a critically-acclaimed solo record and several well-received duet records in her wake, classically trained singer/songwriter Carrie Rodriguez is still figuring out how far her talents will take her. If you're looking for someone playing it safe and sticking to tried-and-true ways of music making, as the title of Rodriguez's daring new album aptly states, She Ain't Me.

Long before Carrie Rodriguez was a fiddle-toting, mandoguitar-slinging Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, she was a junior violin student in Austin, Texas, absorbing the influences of an opera-obsessed mom and folk-singing dad. "In kindergarten, we had a pilot program at my public elementary school to teach five year olds Suzuki violin lessons," Rodriguez recalls. "They would give the lessons during naptime, and I must have gotten out to go to the bathroom. And I remember walking down the hallway and hearing these violins scratching out 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' I was immediately drawn to that and came home and told mom I wanted to take violin lessons." Also," she adds, "I really hated naptime.”

Group lessons soon led to private lessons, which led Carrie to a conservatory program at Oberlin. Enter Lyle Lovett, a family friend, who invited Carrie to sit in with his band at soundcheck in Cleveland, an experience that was both inspiring and frustrating. "My feel was awful and I knew it," she recalls. "But I was mesmerized by [Lovett fiddler] Andrea Zonn. I wanted to do what she was doing."

Rodriguez transferred to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where she found no shortage of resources for transforming "violin" into "fiddle." "Casey Driessen is now one of the greatest American fiddle players on the scene (plays with Bela Fleck, Tim O'Brien), and he was my roommate," Rodriguez recalls. "He taught me one of the first fiddle tunes I ever learned."

Berklee also set the table for a love of collaboration, which led to three duet records (and many touring miles) with singer/songwriter Chip Taylor, who was instrumental in helping Carrie to realize her debut album, Seven Angels On A Bicycle. The Associated Press raved, "...her voice has a character few achieve. Rather than a support player taking a minor turn, she uses her first solo album to mark her ground as a singular talent." For She Ain't Me, Rodriguez knew it was time to form new collaborations and she ended up with an impressive list of co-writers, including Gary Louris (Jayhawks), Dan Wilson (Semisonic), Jim Boquist (Son Volt) and Mary Gauthier.

Lucinda Williams wasn't among the co-writers, but she makes her presence felt, singing backup on "Mask of Moses" while singing Carrie's praises elsewhere. After receiving a copy of Seven Angels On A Bicycle from Chip Taylor, Lucinda told the New York Times "...I have to say I am very impressed. She's got something unique in her voice that's very subtle and a little smoky and sweet. I detect a certain wisdom in her, and yet a sense of wonder as well." Rodriguez recalls, "Lucinda had sent me this beautiful email, saying how much she loved my record, and how she really saw something special there. And if I ever wanted to open up for her, that'd be great. It was like, wow! Merry Christmas!"

Rodriguez subsequently toured with Williams, and also sat in on fiddle during Lucinda's sets. And it was on the heels of a night out with Williams that Rodriguez met Malcolm Burn-whose work she'd admired on Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball and Chris Whitley's Living With The Law for an early chat about her next record. "I was pretty hung-over that morning, in my pajamas, looking like a train wreck," Rodriguez admits. "And Malcolm comes over, looking all dapper in his vintage three-piece suit."

Appearances were quickly dismissed as Malcolm made spot-on suggestions about Carrie's songs, and offered production ideas that made her feel her own project would be a worthy addition to the "desert island discs" Burn has already recorded. "I knew immediately that this was the guy," she recalls. The result is a record that lives up to its name-an expectation-confounding statement, equal parts organic folk and expansive atmosphere, yet one that comes closest to revealing what Carrie Rodriguez is all about.

Born and raised in Kentucky, the young cellist and singer-songwriter Ben Sollee is changing the way people think of the cello. While Ben has studied classically, his voice and style of playing reflect his connection to American roots music. His cello playing is a unique alchemy of fiddling, percussive bow work, and three-finger style plucking. His performances around the world with artists like Abigail Washburn, The Sparrow Quartet, and Otis Taylor reflect his diverse abilities.

There is hardly a need to define Ben Sollee's music; it is, by nature, a fluid and versatile thing. He is just as likely to be found performing with a contemporary dance ensemble as with a bluegrass band. Ben's songs honestly address social issues, faith, and love with a soulful voice that transcends his 23 years. There are hints of influence by Sam Cooke, Paul Simon, maybe Ralph Stanley, but none tie Ben to a singular approach.

In 2006 Ben Sollee performed in China with The Sparrow Quartet, an ensemble featuring vocalist Abigail Washburn, fiddler Casey Driessen, and banjo-master Bela Fleck, and the group became the first-ever Official U.S. Cultural Mission to tour Tibet. In four performances the band played for nearly ten thousand young students.

Ben Sollee's newest album, Learning to Bend, is evidence of his broad musical perspective. With guests such as Rayna Gellert and Bela Fleck, the music sways from a driving, fiddle-fueled song about Americans' infatuation with their cars, to a playful song on growing up as a boy. The title track, Bend, poignantly addresses our need to accept difficult change and features a striking harp accompaniment composed by Ben.

Ben's first independently released solo album, Turn on the Moon, is a collection of original songs with the exception of a singular version of Prince's When Doves Cry. His poetic songwriting addresses everything from Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland, to Americans' infatuation with their cars. Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Sollee perform at the Iron Horse on Wednesday, January 20th at 8PM. Tickets here.

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