Monica Rizzio: A Washashore Cowgirl on Cape Cod
Monica Rizzio is a Washashore. Not only is she a Washashore, but she’s most definitely a Washashore Cowgirl. For those of you not “in the know,” a washashore is what born and bred Cape Codders call those who move there from anyplace beyond the Bourne Bridge, the bridge that connects the Cape to the rest of the state of Massachusetts. Monica’s roots are in Texas and was very much a cowgirl so it seems only natural that her upcoming debut solo album be calledWashashore Cowgirl. She’s a most talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter; she’s on a journey to spread her music far and wide and may be washing ashore at a town near you any day now.
Your musical path has been an interesting one. How did an East Texas young woman end up pulling up stakes and making a home on Cape Cod?
When I lived in Nashville in the early 2000’s after graduating from Belmont University I met Demetrius Becrelis and we began songwriting and performing. He was from Cape Cod and had a brother that lived there who played mandolin. He moved back, I followed, and we formed a band, Tripping Lily. Cape Cod became our base as we toured the folk circuit for the better part of 10 years. I ended up starting West Bend Music in 2008, a roots based music school on Cape, and solidified my own roots here.
When I first came to know your music, I knew you as a violinist (or did you call yourself a fiddler), and then I saw you play the uke on occasion and now you’re playing guitar. Tell us about how you started your musical education and how it evolved.
My music education started at home listening to old Jazz and country standards with my Dad. I would sing all those classics to pass away those hot Texas summer nights. The only instrument I really played growing up was the flute and it wasn’t until I studied music at Belmont that I started playing piano and guitar. I pretty much am self-taught in regards to the fiddle & ukulele as those were my primary instruments with Tripping Lily and am now playing guitar again. Thru it all I have always been a singer and really get to showcase my voice as the songs are my own, my own story, my own words.
Your musical weapon of choice these days is a 1956 Martin O-18. How did this particular guitar come your way and why did you name it Bo?
I had left the band Tripping Lily at the end of 2012 and needed to take a break from music. I still loved music but needed some time for me. I was at the FreshGrass Music Festival, as a listener, the following summer, trying to find some inspiration, and I stumbled upon a luthier with the 56’ Martin O-18. For someone my size it is hard to find a neck that fits my small hands. Not only was the guitar so comfortable it had such a rich, present sound. Story short, it came home with me and I named it after my childhood horse, Bo.
After you left Tripping Lily, and in your own words “started playing with a bunch of salty, accomplished Cape Cod musicians.” I’m especially intrigued by the “salty” part of that description. So what did you learn from these old salts and how did it change your approach to music?
With Tripping Lily, we played around a condenser microphone, our sound was centered around harmony and strategic placement of instrumentation. It was very orchestrated. Even though the sound was beautiful, there was very little variation to how the songs were played. So one could imagine after so many years of playing the same song, the same way, without innovation that it became a drain on my creativity. During my hiatus from music I started hanging around O’Shea’s Olde Inn on the Cape and just watched the local musicians. I remember one winter night listening to Sean Brennan, the best songwriter you never heard of, sing a song called “Texarkana.” It had been a long time since I saw somebody just lose it on a song, from the way he hammered the guitar like he was pounding away the pain to the sound of his voice which was harmonized by his heart. There were maybe 8 people there. He didn’t care. It was the best performance I had ever seen. But the point is “Texarkana” was just east of where I grew up in Texas and here was this guy on Cape Cod singing about it. Everything started to come together from then on. I started sitting in with Sean and his bands the Skiffs. I would borrow his Martin and play plugged in with the drummer and lead guitar player. There was so much energy and passion when I played with the Skiffs that winter, and it helped re-ignite the musical within me. They would play to have fun, experiment in the middle of songs, and it wouldn’t matter if it was just a few of us there or the place was packed, they always put the heart into it. With Tripping Lily there was an internal band mantra to strive for absolute perfection in our performances and by playing with these “salty” musicians I learned that the perfection is in the imperfection.
Likewise, what did you learn about playing in a band while working with Tripping Lily?
I learned a lot from Tripping Lily. They were my first musical family. My first band. I learned how to rehearse, and man did we rehearse. We basically lived together, toured together, worked together for the better part of 10 years. I also learned about the role of different instruments in a band setting. How the fiddle would interact with the vocals or how the mandolin would respond to a lyric.
What can we expect to hear on your upcoming CD Washshore Cowgirl? Are you doing all original songs or are you including a couple of covers that we might know?
Washashore Cowgirl is an extremely autobiographical album set to outlaw country music with some singer songwriter tendencies. There are some wide open energy songs, such as “You & Me,” where the lyrics are like gasoline on a fire. I really focused on instrumentation throughout the album, and the song that best embodies that is “Buttercups” a modern day autobiographical twist of The Scarlet Letter. The pedal steel makes the song. I did cover Sean Brennan’s “Texarkana.” A song as good as that needs to be heard outside of our little pub. I also covered an old country song that when you hear it you will know it instantly even though you never hear it anymore.
You’ve got a lot of special guests on this CD. Quite impressive! Can you tell us a bit about who is playing what on the CD?
I am very fortunate to have so many friends that are also amazing musicians but more importantly amazing people. Mark Erelli, who I have known for years, summers on Cape Cod, and we would get together, share a bottle of wine, and write songs together. We co-wrote “On My Way,” and he plays guitar and sings on that. I am not sure how he found the time but Charlie Rose played pedal steel on the album and am beyond thrilled to say that he will be accompanying me at Me & Thee!!! When I first moved up north, Sierra Hull and I would hang out, two southern belles freezing our butts off. She played mandolin on the album and her banjo player Justin Moses was kind enough to play as well. Last winter I played in Tom Rush’s band at Symphony Hall along with Red Molly. I absolutely adore Molly Venter’s voice and Abbie Gardner’s dobro playing and a country album without a dobro is not a country album, and they fit right in. Laney Jones is a great friend and regular house guest of ours and she played some banjo. Tim Chaisson from Canada has the sweetest male voice ever and he sang harmony with me. Another salty character from Plymouth, Jake Hill, sang some vocals on a few tracks. That guy is one helluva knife-wielding song making machine. Finally, my producer Jon Evans, also played bass on all the tracks. He is the longtime bass player for Tori Amos.
You’re a busy woman. Not only do you teach music, but you’ve got a non-profit music production company called Vinegrass. Can you tell us a bit about that?
When I grew up in Texas we were hit extremely hard in the early 90’s recession. We almost lost it all and if it was not for the kindness of our community I never could have afforded to go to music camp. As a music teacher, I saw a need on Cape Cod for kids whose families were struggling with payment for lessons, affording instruments, and just overall general support of a young music scene. There was also a major void in affordable year round live music on Cape Cod. Most artists in the Roots Americana genre never even thought about playing on the Cape. So we created Vinegrass to bring affordable live music productions in order to raise money for grants, instruments, and scholarships. We have produced shows with Mandolin Orange, Slaid Cleaves, Jeffrey Foucault, Mark Erelli, Parsonsfield, and many more and have also hosted two major music festivals.
Here’s a video of Monica and Old King’s Highway singing “The Best I Can.”