Into The Light: An Interview With Bobby Britt
There are players who are all about what they bring to the table. All about the hustle and the spotlight. And then there are players who just naturally shine. Those that lend their talents to help others stand in that light for just a moment with their songs and Bobby Britt is one of those musicians.
Britt’s debut “Alaya” is a brilliant mix of influence, inspiration and experience from a seasoned player.
A player who has supported so many and waited for the opportune moment to strike out on his own, culminating in a collaborative effort that shines as a community oriented project highlighting the specific aesthetic and style of the individual artist who’s name is on that front cover.
We caught up with Bobby to talk about the record, his community and a whole lot more. Check it out below.
RLR: Give us a little of your history. When did you pick up and instrument and was there a point in time where you realized this was something that needed to be in your life?
BB: It’s interesting, originally I didn’t really have a choice. This is the story I was told, when my mom was pregnant she would play Mozart over and over constantly. She wanted me to be a musician. Then I started taking classical Suzuki lessons and did that, begrudgingly, until I was about 14. I did not appreciate it at the time, but I am really grateful to my mom, Robin, for putting me on the musical path, and my first teacher, Dr Mary Boyce.
I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is an interesting scenario because you have got University of North Carolina (UNC) nearby, classical music and a music school. Then in the surrounding areas there is a rich culture of bluegrass and old time music. When I was about 14 I started to get introduced to that side of things and realized I could take what I learned on the violin with the classical stuff and be a part of this much bigger, more exciting social community. People playing music late at night for dances. It just felt more alive to me, so thats when I started. It was no longer a begrudging relationship with violin.
RLR: So how long after that until Town Mountain kind of took shape and you started with band?
BB: That was a little bit further along. I was actually home schooled up until high school. That can create a little bit of an insular social environment. It was around 14 I found the roots music in the surrounding area and also when I was in high school. I don’t think Town Mountain was a band at that point. In high school I got into a whole other level of music that was from a whole other planet from where I was sitting. The Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, indie rock. A lot of of that, actually. That was a huge influence on me. I played in bands influenced by acts like Joan of Arc, Owls throughout high school.
RLR: And was that as a violin player or were you playing other instruments in those bands as well?
BB: That was as a violin player. Then around age 18 I saw an ad in the paper for a bluegrass band needing a fiddle player. I responded to the ad, auditioned, got the gig and that band had a connection to a band out in Colorado called “Open Road”. They are a super traditional, suits and hats, old school band. They were on Rounder, this was in 2002. Went and traveled the whole country at age 18 and learned a whole lot from that experience. Went to Telluride with them. I was super young at that point and it was a wild ride.
So I still haven’t even gotten to Town Mountain. So, then I came back to Chapel Hill and Town Mountain, we all ran in the same circle. There was Big Fat Gap, that was a local Chapel Hill bluegrass band that spawned Andy Thorn, Jon Stickley and also Andrew and Emily (Mandolin Orange). I was a part of that. So Town Mountain was looking for a fiddle player, I auditioned and I have been with them for the past 8 or 9 years, I believe.
RLR: You mention that this record took 30 some odd years to come to fruition. Yet, you have been a player for a long while. What was it that took until now to really hunker down and focus on putting songs on a record of your own? Was there a certain life event or a trigger that made you say “this record needs to be out in the world”?
BB: That’s a great question and I think the reason it took me until now to do it was, initially, growing up I was hyper, hyper directed towards the violin and music over everything else. I got really good at fiddle at the expense of a lot of other things. Once I kind of left the classical world and started playing out, there was a high demand for fiddle players. So from the get go, it felt like I was supporting other people’s music as a career, very early on. I have been fortunate to get to play and support a lot of artist’s that I love and appreciate. But I have been so busy, I haven’t had the time to make a solo record. Which is positive and I want to frame that positively. From the start I always thought of myself as a supporting role and had an opportunity to support Town Mountain, Phil Cook, Hiss Golden Messenger either on stage or in recordings. Lets see, Leftover Salmon, I sat in with them a few times. Also Alice Gerard, a legend who I really look up to. It was and honor to play on her Grammy nominated “Follow the Music”
So that and also I was born with a cleft lip and palette and getting squared away with that has taken a long, long time and a lot of medical challenges have made it tough to do everything that I want to do when I want to do it. Now I feel in a really solid place and am so grateful I have this community of people that I can look to for inspiration and guidance.
Thats a real beautiful part of the making of this album. We recorded it last April at Jerry Brown’s Rubber Room Studios in Chapel Hill, and I was coming off of some challenging medical procedures. I was all set to go in on scholarship to the Master’s program that Berklee has in Valencia. A short time before I was set to leave, I had to have a medical procedure. There were complications and I had to be in the hospital for almost a month, and wasn’t able to do the Master’s program.
So I wasn’t having a whole lot of faith in the universe then Andrew (Marlin) called me up, and he is one of my best friends. He was like ‘Bobby, lets make your solo record. We have been talking about it forever. Let’s do it. Now is the time.” And I didn’t think I had it in me but he wouldn’t take that for an answer. Set the whole thing up down in Chapel Hill. Said “lets get Allison (deGroot) down here” because she is someone who we value so much as a talent and as a person. We set the time and the date and booked the studio and set up a show one of the nights of the recording to help support the recording.
RLR: Wow, thats a great friend
RLR: I mean, based on all of that, this record is obviously very heavy handed on the aspect of community. You tapped a lot of your contemporaries and friends to fill out the sound and arrangements. Community is really the reason that RLR came to be, so we are big on records like this that are made with friends and artists you love. What does that community within roots and folk and bluegrass music mean to you as a player and more broadly, just as a human look to make connections with other folks? Specifically having these people on this recording?
BB: That Phil Cook community vibe and attitude towards music. I had privilege of recording a track on his upcoming Thirty Tigers Psychic Hotline Release “People are my Drug”. The name of the album pretty much says it all right there. So many great artists he pulls together to make his joyous deep brand of music.
Andrew really helped push me to do this. Once I made the commitment Emily (Frantz) was a great counsel to me regarding the sometimes complicated process of creating and distributing an album.. Emily is one of my favorite traditional rhythm guitar players, and she has an extremely intuitive sense of rhythm. She is such a gifted natural and expressive fiddler, twin fiddling on the album with her was such a joy.
Josh Oliver is a huge musical inspiration. So in touch with his emotions,and he channels them through his music. singing and rhythm really pulls my heart strings especially on “When I Die”.
Allison makes everybody sound better with her energy and groove, she supports the song perfectly every time, with soulful tone and groove.
The American Roots program at Berklee had a big influence on me. Matt Glaser instilled an overall holistic deeper understanding/appreciation of music. Bruce Molsky is a musical hero and introduced me to many great old time sounds and tunes. Darol Anger has instilled paramount importance and beautiful nuance of the groove/rhythmic feel of the song and introduced me to Vasen, a huge influence on me. Maeve Gilchrest is a big Celtic influence; turned me on to my hero Tommy People’s who wrote The Fairest Rose (on this album)David Wallace is the head of string department and gave me all around guidance and served masterful counsel.
Sylvan Esso is one of my favorite current bands, and is a huge influence on me. The way they tastefully combine electronic music with grounded, rooted, emotionally deep melodies and organic vocals. They have that ability(that you asked me about with my songwriting)
To conjure up on command a specific feeling and emotion.
And also, the Joe Walsh Grant Gordy collaboration, they both have been big influences on me. And the Walsh/Woodsmith quartet is a great side project that Joe, Celia, Zoe and I have going – in what little spare time we have.
Last but not least, I want to add that Town Mountain are like brothers to me. We have an album coming out in the fall that I think is our best yet. Produced by Caleb Klauder, and recorded at Echo Mtn AVL. Timmy Childers makes cameo on Record, along with Miles Miller.
I am also appreciative of my wife, Emily, for her support through this whole process. Amazing woman.
RLR: Knowing you history as a player and someone supporting others on fiddle I was listening to this record and then all of a sudden heard Josh singing, then Andrew and Emily’s harmonies. It made me real excited to hear that dynamic. First thing, obviously I am into roots and bluegrass music so I am real into instrumental music and picking fiddle tunes around circles with folks. I feel like you are really good at evoking a feeling or a place. I love hearing folks original songs, I love playing traditional and fiddle tunes with other pickers, but I find it difficult, myself, to really sit down and write one that is captivating enough to put out there. You don’t seem to suffer from that at all. How do you elicit such a feeling of place and time or a specific thing in them? With songs with lyrics, it can be kind of obvious. Like, the hook of the chorus is XYZ so the song is called XYZ, but it is a bit more difficult to use only instrumental notes and still successfully create a feeling and mood that a title like “Out of the Woods” fits so perfectly. You can visualize it. Its like painting with your bow almost. Do you find that you music is heavily influenced by landscape or your immediate surroundings?
BB: Another outstanding question. The way music works for me is I have always felt that I can express myself more easily through my fiddle than through words. Different musical notes are my alphabet, scales my grammar, tunes my forum for conversation/communication. As such, I think every sound that fiddle can possibly make, (that I have learned how to make) I am more deeply connected emotionally with these tones, and can communicate more accurately with these sounds.
Here’s the way that my process of writing tunes works, if I am feeling a certain way for example… Most of the time I wont write a song unless a large chunk of it comes to me instantly. Case in point, “Out of the Woods” was written right around the time when I was feeling down, but hopeful. I think I had just talked to Andrew about doing this record, so I had something to fight for and get back on the horse. The melody of that tune came to me, kind of instantly. Usually just the first half of the A part will materialize. then I try to emote the feeling I have at that moment in time with the B part, but as a response, or answer to the A part. I feel like the type of chords that I use are a big part, e The harmonic rhythm is of great importance of musical expression for me.ng. On the completely obvious level, if you’ve got major chords that evokes a positive atmosphere usually. Minor chords are more dark. , I feel like I have a connection emotionally for a chord or melody that fits with how I feel. That is when I know to put it down.
RLR: You have a lot of voices on this record. Whether its Andrew producing with you or all the voices (instrumentally or vocal). Especially with Andrew and Emily, their style and their voices are just so “them”. Mandolin Orange is a sound, it could be its own singular style of music. The warmness and everything. In that way, it could be really easy for your music to become overwhelmed by that. In many cases I would imagine that it would be, but you have done such a fantastic job here of not allowing that to happen. It doesn’t feel like a Mandolin Orange record, or a Josh Oliver record or Allison, or any of the players on the album, it still sounds so uniquely “Bobby Britt”. The fiddle is the main point of focus throughout, even when it is not in the front of the mix or someone else is singing or playing.
BB: Thank you. That is what I think we were going for, it being my record, but also highlighting the beauty of what everyone else brings to the table. .
RLR: This sounds like YOU. Its your record. On the flip side of that, given that you did put a lot of trust and faith into these players and singers here on the record. Did you find it challenging, particularly when you have someone sing…I guess because I find in the general population people react more to a song with words and a vocal for whatever reason…but was it at all difficult or challenging for you to hand off or allow other artists to imprint their own voicing and style onto the songs? Or is there a kind of catharsis in allowing these people that you trust so much infuse themselves into your music here?
BB: As you said, the message is, it doesn’t get much better than those vocalists and I feel so fortunate and grateful to have some catharsis through their voices and having them sing for me in lieu of me singing.
Also part of the reason why the record “sounds like me” is Andrew and I both wanted to be really tasteful and considerate and make this about “you” and try to keep it that way. I told Andrew that I would love to have a few singing tunes and in the relatively obscure old school vein. Same with Josh. And they brought a few different tunes. Pretty much instantly when I heard “When I Die” I knew that was what I wanted. Thats kind of the theme, for me, that represents a lot of the album, that the past few years of just having a lot of loss of old, go to places of security. It felt sometimes like all was lost and then waking up on the other side of that to a new day and sense of hope Much better, more fulfilling.
Andrew and I co-produced the album. So I think that played a part as well.
RLR: If there is any sort of inspiration or something that people take away from this record, what do you hope it is?
BB: I mean, this is a lofty hope, but I think to me what it represents is imperfection and…lets see. There is a feeling to a lot of the tunes of joy, but a hard found and hard won joy. That is kind of the message I am hoping to get across. Even with a lot of darkness happening right now in the world and on a collective level, or an individual level, whatever people are struggling with, it is still possible, from my experience, to take that challenge and difficulty and create something meaningful and joyous out of it. I didn’t believe that for a while.
I feel like the album art represents that. Its this kind of jagged collage broomed together, but then all these beautiful colors and it comes together to create a cohesive statement. So that kind of chaos within a really angled, exact executed box, allowing the space for chaos and to be ok with that. To see that it can come out beautiful. Sarah Bronstein did an unbelievable job on the art. It is as important to me as the music in a different way; it’s a package deal.
RLR: In terms of what you draw inspiration from yourself, or what you hope comes across in your own music. What kind of approach you take to try and impart your art in the most effective way possible to an audience? Be it on stage or off?
BB: My approach to music has some resonance with that of Jerry Garcia- a deep love, study and respect of all the different streams that make up American roots music (Blues, Jazz, Old Time, Bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun)
I like to get to the heart of those styles at the point where they resonate with me emotionally. Then I want to create something all my own from those “colors” or sounds, that is about experimentation and exploring the sonic space with whoever I am playing with. This is done with the melody as a grounding focal point, but we are all “improvising” as one collective unit, subtly playing off each other’s musical expressions in the moment. This is an exercise in listening, trusting and surrendering to the group sound and consciousness.
Music for me is about exploration of emotion, and being willing to go to uncharted sometimes dark territory in search of the light. My ideal show is one where people are both dancing and feeling the music like a Grateful Dead show, but also the music can stand on its own, listing in the car on a long drive…a succinct musical statement that can also be drawn out for an out there live experience.
RLR: How about the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots fest, give us the quick story of how you first got to know the folks behind the scenes?
BB: Jill and John are amazingly kind and special people. They have outstanding musical taste, and a community centered vibe Town Mountain played a bar that they were booking at one point. That is how I initially met them.
This festival is absolutely unbelievable. The line up is just some of my favorite people and musicians. It is just really outstanding.
RLR: What are you most excited for that weekend? What happens on stage, or what happens off?
BB: Thats a tough question, especially since its my first ever solo festival performance ever. A lot of times playing on stage I can get out of the moment and it’s not quite as fun. Off stage there is less pressure, so that’s always more fun. With this crew off stage and on stage are kind of a moot point. There is just an awesome energy dwelling. So I am excited about my first ever festival set. I think we are all going to be there the whole weekend. Hang and play music.
RLR: Anything else you want to say or plug here?
BB: I have got the album release show, the first one, May 16th at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Thank you!