A Story of South Jersey hope, Philly soul sound, and Seattle fresh starts
Interview by Elaina Ellis – Empty Sea Communications Coordinator
During a short break in recording, Joe McKinstry, Matt Berger, and Michael Connolly joined me over pizza, to talk about place and sound.
McKinstry was hard at work on his first solo recording, a rock album called Route 70. Berger — who has played with Portland Cello Project, Laura Gibson, and Musee Mecanique — came to Empty Sea Studios to lay percussion tracks for the album. Connolly, of course, runs Empty Sea. I asked this talented crew to tell me more about the project at hand.
So, what are you doing here at Empty Sea Studios?
Joe: I’m recording my solo record, with Michael producing, and engineering, and — well (laughs) — doing everything.
Tell me about Route 70. What are you working on?
Joe: Well, it’s semi auto-biographical. It’s got a sense of place. I come from the Pine Barrens in South Jersey…. the landscape is not something people think about when they think of New Jersey — they think about an industrial corridor – but the land is very well-conserved there. Of course there aren’t a lot of jobs, so there’s not a lot of money. There’s less hope there, I think…which made its way into our lives, and the lives of our parents, and their parents. As a result, it was hard to grow up there, and grow up there gay, which I am. It made it difficult, in a lot of ways. This [album] is kind of my story, but it’s also the story of people who were growing up there in our time, and in our parents’ time. It ends up on a hopeful note, because it’s not all bad.
So that story, about South Jersey and that particular struggle, shows up lyrically. Does it show up in the sound as well?
Joe: I think so. As a singer, you’re a product of all your influences, and I’d be lying to you if I said that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t a big influence. But we were also [near to] Philadelphia, so that Philly soul sound was very important growing up. That’s probably the most marked effect on my voice – I’m very East coast in that way.
And how’d you end up in Seattle?
Joe: I was in the military and I came up here to visit people who were stationed in Fort Lewis. I came up to Seattle, and it was a revelation. I knew I need to make big changes in my life, come out of my closet, all of that. I felt like a physical difference would make a big impact, and it did, but now it’s time to go back and explore those things that made me run in the first place. That’s what this record is about.
Matt, what are you doing on this album?
Joe: Matt is helping to lay a backbone, filling out the rhythm sections on the record.
Matt: I came up to Seattle last spring to play on another album. I’m from Portland. It went well… I got invited back!
Michael: Matt is what you really want from a session drummer, because you can throw a whole album of stylistically different songs one after another that he hasn’t heard before, and just have him deliver really consistently — all I can do myself is say, “this should reference a certain style, or something should change here,” but I don’t really speak drum.
Which is – maybe – the only language you don’t speak, musically.
Matt: Right, I’m just a translator.
Michael: When you find someone who does that well, you want to keep that phone number.
Why choose Empty Sea as a recording studio?
Joe: In today’s music world, there’s a lot of electronic stuff going on, and it can kind of lose its soul. This stuff was all written on acoustic guitar. To have someone listen to the real soulfulness of acoustic music is very, very important.
Earlier this year, stringband The Blackberry Bushes recorded a full album project, Little Bit of Grace here at Empty Sea. I engineered the album and co-produced the album with Matt Sirceley. Since then, the album is in its second pressing and climbing the roots and bluegrass charts due to extensive radio play.
I had brunch with Jes Raymond and Jakob Breitbach from the Bushes to see what they’re up to, and over some delicious green chile eggs at the Four Spoons Cafe, they told me what they were up to.
So, in March of this year, you guys recorded an album with me called Little Bit of Grace . That album is now released to the world and doing pretty well – tell me what’s going on with it.
JES: Well, we’ve been touring that album and doing pretty well with it at shows, and we also did a radio promotional campaign with Hearth Music which has caused us to move up the charts in the last three weeks. We started out at #54 on the FolkDJ-List chart, and then we appeared on the Roots Music Report chart the next week at #36 on the bluegrass chart – pretty exciting because that’s an international chart. And then this past week we moved up to #19 on that chart – we beat out Rhonda Vincent, that’s our claim to fame. We’re also #1 on that chart in the state of Washington.
That’s really awesome. Where have you been traveling on tour?
JES: This spring we went down to Telluride, Colorado, then we did a loop back and around up the coast. We’ve been out to the Midwest, the Mississippi River Valley, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Now we’re about to leave for the East Coast – we’re going to tour our through the Midwest again, then take ourselves from New England down to the Southeast and back.
So from your most recent tour, what were your most favorite and least favorite gigs?
JAKOB: Oof! That’s easy. (laughs)
JES: On our last tour, we did a really wonderful small festival called the Boats and Bluegrass Festival that was right on the Mississppi River in Winona, Minnesota. There were some really great bands – I was really impressed with them. The people that put on the festival did a really good job for a startup festival of making it have the right energy!
JAKOB: You know a festival organizer spends time at the festival when he makes sure that the porta-potties are lit at night – and there was an exciting undercurrent to the whole festival because the river was rising one inch per hour – so two days after the festival finished the entire campgrounds were under about two feet of water.
JES: So there was kind of a feeling of commitment for the people who were there.
JAKOB: Impending doom.
JES: Many of the artists camped, and we stayed up all night and created some memories we’ll keep, which was really great.
JAKOB: And the low point of the last tour was a no-turnout show in Des Moines, Iowa at 11 on a Sunday night.
JES: Well, it would have been zero which we were thinking would be kind of cool, because we had a video camera. There was a nice stage, a good sound system, and we thought, “we’ll get a good video of this.” But then these four kids who’d seen the poster came in – they thought we looked cool, and they wanted to see the show. They stood right up front and we played to them! But then when we looked back at the video it made it very obvious that there were four people watching us.
Four people clapping in an empty room. (laughs)
JES: It was a low point without being a bummer.
JAKOB: We set ourselves up to have low expectations.
JES: There was a pool in the hotel.
So do you have future album plans? Are you going to ride this one for a while?
JES: Really, we’ve already got enough tunes for another album, and our plan right now is to start working the songs that we’d like on our next album into our live set, and start playing with those in performance and see what happens by next spring.
There’s always that debate between recording fresh songs versus songs that you’ve polished up on tour.
JAKOB: We definitely did the unproven route on this last record. It was good in a lot of ways.
JES: I like that in some ways. I like the process of discovering in the studio. But [the next record] is a different one and we’ll try it a different way this time.
JAKOB: I think everyone’s a little more ready to go in and lay it down this time – to be more polished and prepared from the get-go.
JES: Really, [Little Bit of Grace] is what’s brought us into this fulltime touring mode I feel like we grew so much in the studio creating this album, and then since then as we’ve taken it out, we’re really on a learning curve as a group of musicians still. I feel like we’re almost a new band in the way we approach things. The process of recording this last album really influenced the way we approach our stage show and rehearsal.
Thanks guys. Have fun out there on the road!
JES: Thanks Michael.