Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ready for Takeoff: Rick & Aireene's Ten Ton Feather

Composing and performing on guitar and ukulele, Rick di Dia and Aireene Espiritu 's songwriting is a prime example of good music finding it's way to appreciative ears by virtue of its integrity. After beginning to collaborate onstage and off a couple in 2006, the duo have steadily become Bay Area favorites, performing their original folk/blues to a widening circle of fans at increasingly bigger venues. The duo recently played to a packed house for the reopening of the Freight & Salvage and have completed a long run in the recording studio. With their first full-length CD, "The Ten Ton Feather," nearly ready for public consumption, the two Oakland artists reflected on their creative process thus far.
DC When did you first pick up the ukulele? Was that a pivotal moment in your singing and writing career?
AE My first time picking up the ukulele and becoming obsessed with it was in 2002, after watching the movie, The Jerk, when Steve Martin played, "Tonight You Belong To Me" to Bernadette Peters. Thought I'd get me a uke and learn the song, just for kicks. I found a used Airline soprano, the kind they used to sell at Montgomery Wards, [and] got excited that I could actually play it with less effort than the guitar, and then the songwriting started to come back again.
I had stopped writing songs and playing guitar for almost 10 years before that, frustrated with my guitar playing, not being able to play what's in my head. My fingers were too short for the neck and couldn't press hard enough to sound right. So I got lazy, my guitar collected dust in the corner. I sang for other people's bands, singing other people's songs, and listened to a lot of music.
The door of ukulele playing opened further when Rick got us tickets to see Bill Tapia, who's still performing and 101 years old, by the way, and I was exposed to the possibilities of playing jazz on the ukulele. But the soprano sound didn't quite fit my voice. It was when I got my hands on the tenor ukulele that really changed everything, when more words and sounds came out, naturally.
Truthfully, "career" hasn't been a term I've used for writing music and playing out. Mostly, I think of it more of something I do because and I can't imagine not doing it.
DC You've incorporated many different influences and cultures into your work—was your family musical? Do you ever travel back to the Philippines and play or would you like to?
AE My family is very musical. My uncles are always playing guitar in the house, singing the same old Filipino and American folk songs to this day. And during the holidays, group singing in the living room is encouraged, one of the uncles played guitar, young and old would be dancing in the middle of the room, and [there's always] lots of laughter.
I haven't traveled back to the Philippines to play and would definitely like to, but I do wonder how they would like the type of music I play. I have noticed that the older generation appreciates my playing more than the younger folks. But I definitely wouldn't mind exploring the possibility.
DC You and Rick were working solo? How did you decide to officially collaborate? Has that changed your writing?
AE Rick had a couple of tunes he thought we could do together so we tried them out and got great response from the audience. Seemed they listened more when we sang together than when we were solo. So it just stuck. Working with Rick has definitely affected my writing. He's shown me how to be a better storyteller. Rick is a really good writer, storyteller, and jokester.
RD When Aireene and I met again after not seeing each other for almost seven years, I had just started writing with the intention of performing live again. I don't think Aireene had ideas of playing before we met, but she eventually started writing and put out a self titled CD with her and her ukulele. So I started booking shows and we would play separately but on the same bill. However, the time we decided "to officially collaborate" together became pretty evident to me one night when we had just started performing again. We had two gigs in one night; at the Nomad Cafe, and at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. These venues were right down the street from each other, and when we finished playing at the "Nomad," we ran down the street to the "Plough" for our sets there.
While writing new material for these shows, I wrote two songs that Aireene could sing with me on stage. And the one thing I remember clearly from that night was that at both of these places, when Aireene came up to join me on stage, the people REALLY started paying attention. The difference was like night and day. There was something that Aireene and I had together that neither of us had when we played alone. After years of performing as a solo songwriter, I had always wanted to share these musical moments with someone. Luckily, our musical styles and voices blended well. Since it just naturally kind of worked for the both of us, we decided to write some more songs together. A few more songs later, then a few more, and then before we knew it we were performing exclusively as a duo.
For the most part, I still go about writing songs the same way, only now Aireene is incorporated much earlier into the process. When we first began, I would bring in my songs virtually all finished. I would hear Aireene's part in my head and have it all ready for her. Now, I bring the songs in maybe only half done. I seem to always have parts of songs in various stages of completion with new ones popping up all the time. Mostly, I'll have the words and the chord changes, but it’s choreographing all the nuances in between the chord changes and words where the real collaboration happens. I'll go through a few of these songs with Aireene and which ever ones seem to resonate the best with the both of us, we'll go ahead and flush them out together. We'll throw ideas around and try new things as we go, and it has now become more of a dual process. Aireene is really good about picking out little parts and emphasizing them in subtle and unique ways that I never could have imagined. Sometimes 'happy accidents' happen while learning a song together, and we can incorporate those into the song, as well. I've also noticed, for better or for worse, her presence has had a softening affect on my writing. It’s not as one dimensional, it’s become more layered and nuanced.

DC: What's motivates you to keep writing? Do you have any mentors/main influences?
AE: Hearing people's stories and always listening to good music with well crafted lyrics motivates me to write. There's too many influences to list here, but let's just say it all started with Alan and John Lomax's field recordings of folk music from all over the world, the people's heartfelt voices that touches you and takes you back in time, and emotions conveyed by the powerful and penetrating voices of Odetta, Etta James, and Nina Simone.
DC You've a new Cd coming? How has this process compared with your other recording projects? Where would you like to see it go?
AE There were definitely lots of challenges, lots of give and take, lessons learned and growth. [All] good things. Past projects involved working with other peoples' music and not my own, so i pretty much did what they wanted me to do for the most part. And my solo CD was easy because it was just me and my uke. But with this project, there were more layers of instrumentation added, parts that were not predefined before going into the studio, hiring session musicians to fill in sections, and lots of decisions to be made. Rick and I didn't agree on some of them so at times it took some time to process things, get mad, make up, and let go. In the end, we were happy with all the parts and very proud of the finished product. It was a year long process, we worked really hard all the way through and we made it still breathing.
We'd like for our current audience to see where our music can go beyond our ukulele and guitar, as some of our songs just called for additional instrumentation. And we'd like a little memento of our music together as we haven't really done an official full length recording of our stuff, aside from our raw short demo CD. Lastly, we hope to reach new listeners by putting some of our best work out into the world.
RD I could easily say "The Ten Ton Feather" was my first 'true' recording project. I had done a solo record the year before called "A Killer in the Grass," and I don't want to take anything away from that experience because I'm real proud of the CD. But the scope of that CD was minimal in production, and it was meant to be real direct and raw. Just me and a guitar, my slide and a harmonica. I knew what the songs were, and how they were to be played. On "The Ten Ton Feather," we wanted to expand on what we normally do live; which is perform as an acoustic duo, and create something larger for our listeners. In this respect, we had to create a vision for the CD that represented our music with a band that we never had. Which means there was a lot of soul searching, guessing, trial and error, second and third guessing, AND compromise.
Admittedly, the task was a little daunting. We knew what we sounded like and we wanted to stay true to who we were. But we also had to create our new sound as we recorded without ever working with a band before. There was definitely instrumentation we always heard that we wanted to include, but we also had to build other songs step by step and hope the song would call out its own answers to us. And they did.
We also had a great group of experienced musicians with national credits helping us out. In addition, we had pre-production help from a veteran producer. This project was something we took very seriously, and we wanted to make sure we put our best foot forward before we even went into the studio. Judging from the final outcome it seems that we achieved what we wanted to do: Which was to dress up our songs without burying them, and have it still sound like us.
I think we have a good mix of folk, bluegrass, a little rock oriented material, some songwriter stuff, and gospel and blues - plus a few 'odd' things that stand out as well. Some loud, some soft. In the end, however, it paints a nice picture of what we do and feels like it all comes from the same vein. It was a great, challenging, soul-searching experience, and we came out the better for it. We also became better musicians, as well.
Sure, we put a lot of work and time into it, but we never did this to get anywhere. We're going to put it out there, play shows and let it do what its going to do. I just want to do the best I can to honor this recording and all of the heart that we put into it. It deserves a good life, and I want to treat it with the respect it deserves.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey great interview with Rick and Aireene! You can check out an audio interview I just did with as part of Music Life Radio with them over at http://musicliferadio.com/