Getting to Know Michael Braunfeld
Michael Braunfeld is back and he’s got a lot to say. It’s a wonderful thing that someone who has made music, recorded albums, played around a bit can take a decade off and come back even stronger than before. Michael has been chosen as one of the Emerging Artists at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival this year.
Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).* The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
To learn more about Michael Braunfeld here.
Did you have any musical heroes when you were a kid? Do you remember any memorable records or shows that rocked your world?
It all began with Stan Rogers’ Between the Breaks…Live. I was very young and this must have been around the time of his death. That album made me understand that lyrics could be more than just rhymes; they could be poetry. Songs could tell stories in very much a literary fashion, and the incorporation of another art form capable of evoking great emotion – music – to me, meant that great writers and performers could take listeners on journeys and adventures. It was the realization that songs could fill you with joy or break your heart. From that starting point, I discovered Garnet Rogers and Archie Fisher and so many others.
I began to play guitar and write songs at the age of 13. The singer-songwriter boom of the 90’s was just about to explode but I was already well-versed in the roots of that movement. I’ve been blessed to have seen so many wonderful artists – legends – take the stage. There are so many great memories of sets or backstage anecdotes. But there is one show that stands out for me above all others from that era. My father took me to a little bar in who-knows-where, Pennsylvania to see Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen Jr. perform. That rocked my world. That and every single Bill Morrissey show that I had the pleasure of witnessing.
Then the boom came – and with it, too many shows and albums to name. But I’ll never forget attempting to submerge myself in the work of artists like Bill, John Gorka, The Story, David Wilcox, The Kennedys, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin, David Massengill, Chuck Brodsky, Dar Williams and Patty Griffin. Bill Miller was a tremendous influence. Bill was kind enough to take me under his wing and teach me about performing and the realities of the music business. He’s a hero. John Flynn also. Their music and their friendship helped to shape and guide me.
You recorded your first album at age 16. Was that considered a “folk” inspired album or were you into other musical genres back then?
From a young age, I was fortunate to have been exposed to many different genres of music. My father taught me about bluegrass and introduced me to folk, blues, country and singer songwriters. My mother instilled in me a love of great rock and roll. My first guitar was a Fender Stratocaster and I wanted to be Keith Richards … or Slash from Guns N’ Roses. When I began to write songs, however, the imprints left by Stan and Garnet Rogers, Townes, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel were too much to ignore. I picked up an acoustic guitar and went to work. That first album was, honestly, the most “folk” inspired project I’ve done. I explored DADGAD and open tunings and even bottleneck slide guitar; I tackled topical issues as only an adolescent activist could – backed by fiddle, mandolin and Celtic harp – all played more-than-ably by Jay Ansill. It wasn’t until I really discovered my own voice as a writer a few years later that I learned to fuse the edge of rock and roll and the hooks of pop music with the sensibilities of my more “folky” influences.
Now, I’d like to think that I can draw upon all of those diverse influences in my work. That’s probably equal halves of not wanting to be pigeonholed into the genres assigned to artists and the ability, as I’ve gotten older and hopefully better, to give a particular composition what it needs to awaken emotion in an audience.
Your lyrical content has been described as passionate and full of raw emotion. You’ve written songs about homelessness and the environment and other topics close to your heart. Do you have any causes that you are feeling especially drawn to lately? A cause that needs a song to stir people to action perhaps?
For the most part, I’ve traded straight out protest songs for pieces that tell the human side of the story of any given event or cause. “Over There,” a song that means a lot to me and that has opened many doors for me since my return, is about a child growing up without a parent killed in the war. I’ve just written a song about Malala Yousafzai, a brave girl that even the Taliban could not kill. I’ve also got a brand new song that uses Hurricane Sandy as a metaphor for the Great Recession and its effects on a small East Coast Town. As a parent of young children, I spend a lot of time pondering what often appears to be the slow death of the American Dream and the state of affairs in this great land. I worry for my children and wonder what will be left for them. There’s the Civil Rights issue of our day … marriage equality and equal protection under the law for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. I’ve got as many causes as you’d expect from someone who grew up at folk festivals!
Right now, I’m just trying to make people think and feel and not necessarily to stir them to action. I want to tell the stories of seemingly everyday people struggling: what the War on Terror has cost families at home, the grief of loss or catastrophic illness, the toll of alcoholism and addiction, the feeling like you just can’t get as far as you were promised by teachers and Presidents. I don’t think people want, or need, to be lectured. I’m just trying to document or paint a portrait of what is reality for many in my generation.
You pretty much withdrew from the performing end of things for about 10 years. What was it that happened at the Spring Gulch Festival 2011 that reignited your move back to the stage?
Between 2000 and 2011, I wrote two songs. The first was a lullaby for my son. We start most evening concerts with something like our version of an Emerging Artists Showcase: a 15 minute set from someone we think is incredibly talented, but not necessarily ready or big enough for a 45 – 60 minute concert. My son was born on the weekend of Spring Gulch in 2005 and in 2011, the festival began on his birthday. I planned on opening the evening with his song as a special present. I hadn’t performed in years and, prior to the start of the concert, was pacing around the green room nervously with a guitar. Buskin & Batteau were performing that night and Marshal Rosenberg and David Buskin, both of whom I’ve known for years, asked if I was going to play. When I explained that I was thinking of backing out at the last minute, they offered to join me onstage. How can you say no to Buskin & Batteau as your band?
Word somehow spread of this impromptu gig and, a few months later, The Philadelphia Folk Festival invited me to perform at the 50th annual festival in a workshop featuring artists who grew up around the Philadelphia Folksong Society and its events. From there, I was lucky enough to have supportive family, friends and fans that pushed me and helped me find my way back. I began writing again and remembered feeling like I had something to say. I began performing again and remembered that nothing comes close to the feeling of being onstage and connecting with an audience. I used to say that I was a recovering singer-songwriter. I fell off the wagon.
What’s next for Michael Braunfeld?
I’ve been spending time in the studio working on demos for a few different projects. Currently, the plan is a themed EP and a full length release to follow. In the meantime, I’ve been having fun producing limited edition homemade CDs from live performances and acoustic demo tracks. It’s been a great way to get new music out to fans that have waited a long time. I’m booking more and more shows and working on my writing. And, of course, there’s Falcon Ridge!
*The Falcon Ridge judging panel changes year to year. Many thanks to this year’s panel, Carter Smith, producer of Common Ground Community Concerts in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, Dennis O’Brien, talent buyer for the Newtown Theater in Newtown PA and Kathy Sands-Boehmer, booker for the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead MA now in its 43rd year of presenting great acoustic music.