Interview with The Kennedys by Paul McGee



Thanks for taking the time to talk with Lonesome Highway and your fans. May I start by asking how you reacted to the recent Ireland/UK tour which saw you play a punishing schedule of 24 dates in just 30 days?

Maura: We love to play, so a gig every night would be ideal! This was our first UK tour without the benefit of Nanci Griffith's crew and bus, so it was a challenge, but an enjoyable one, to get ourselves around "low to the ground". We loved it.

What were the highlights of the recent tour – people, places, reflections?

Pete: Driving all the way west in Ireland and playing Listowell as the first show of the tour was a quick plunge into the real culture, distinct from American influence, although our presenter there loved to shout "rock'n'roll" in an Elvis Presley voice, so we felt somewhat at home! After the show, we went down to the John B Keane and were treated to an informal session that covered everything from traditional songs to Tom Waits, many of them sung by random patrons.

You’re presently based in New York and I wanted to ask how easy it is for you to run your affairs from a big city, as opposed to being based in a more rural setting, where your music is not swallowed in the daily rush.

Maura: In New York City, especially where we live in the Village, you're constantly aware that Dylan, Kerouac, Guthrie, Holly, Coltrane, Miles, Ellington, Armstrong, Holiday, Leadbelly, et al, walked the same sidewalks, and did much of their greatest work right here.

The new album is your first in four years. Can you fill us in on what caused the break in momentum that had seen, pretty much, ten releases in the previous twelve years?

Pete: Maura cared for an ill family member (who is now totally recovered), and produced a solo CD, and that was quickly followed by our reunion of sorts with Nanci Griffith, which involved many trips around the US, Ireland and the UK, as well as the production of Nanci's CD, Intersections, which we handled, so all of that was time consuming, albeit in a creative way.

Your first release in 1995 ‘River of Fallen Stars’ was partly written while touring with Nanci Griffith in Ireland. How big an influence was she in getting you the initial recognition that your career needed?

Maura: We credit Nanci for getting us started, because you can't just say, "we write songs, and we're great". If you are coming out of Nanci's band, you have her imprimatur, so to speak, because she will only work with people in whom she strongly believes, so that's the foundation of the whole thing. Working with her was also a chance to work on various occasions with Dylan, Emmylou, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Prine, Lyle Lovett…the list goes on and on, so watching those people up close was like getting an advanced degree in contemporary folk.

Can you talk about your early musical influences and what it was that got you started on this road in the first place?

Pete: I grew up partly in New York and partly as a "townie" or native of Arlington Va., just outside of Washington DC. The townies don't participate in national government, and we had our own music scene that was drawn from a cultural diaspora from the deep South to DC, where there was work. The migrants in the 1940's brought with them blues, gospel, jazz, honky tonk country and bluegrass, so I heard all of those things every day when I was growing up.

Pete, can you tell the readers a little about your guitar technique; when did you begin to include classical pieces into your playing and was there a specific player that influenced your unique playing style on the fret board.          

Pete: I never fancied having one style, because the players I liked; Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, and local guys like Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, all combined different styles in a way that kept the music interesting and fresh. Gatton was my roots music mentor, but I also learned to read music after hearing Segovia play "Bouree".  I figured out the first half, and realized that I would have to learn how to read (music)and understand theory to play the second half! So that set me on my way.  Reading (music) enabled me to do gigs with artists like Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Byrd and Burt Bacharach; something that never would have happened if I hadn't kept exploring and learning.

Maura, were you always drawn to singing. Did you learn guitar as a natural extension to your joy of singing?

Maura: I've always sung, and I've always had an ability to absorb lyrics and melodies, especially from my idols growing up; Sandy Denny, Patsy Cline, Emmylou and Nanci, too. Learning their phrasing and melodic sense was the foundation of my own vocal style. My goal on guitar is to be a great rhythm guitarist!

Is your time spent in the studio the key to on-going creativity between you both?

Maura: We not only spend time in the studio; we have literally lived there for two decades, since we set up our first home studio back in 1994, before Pro Tools etc., when that was considered very pioneering. We record as soon as we get the inspiration for a song, so it's a different energy than "formal" recording.

Does the live experience give you a new energy or do you question the treadmill of touring; another town, another sound check, another travel commitment?

Pete: Bruce Springsteen said, "It's the OTHER twenty-two hours that are hard!", and he's right, that the travel and logistics are tiring, but the energy of playing for a great audience really sustains you. No plans to ever retire!

Can you tell us about playing in the White House in front of the President of the USA twice!?

Maura: We were hoping that Clinton would sit in and play some sax, but I think he was a bit busy being feted at his inaugurations! He has great taste in music, so were on a long bill that included Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Aretha, Dylan, Al Green…wonderful to be lost in that shuffle!

What are the key lessons that you’ve learned over the years of being professional musicians?

Pete: Tell you own story through the music and support others when they tell theirs. That makes the whole experience sort of a village culture in which you are constantly interacting with friends, both on stage and in the audience. That's paramount, more important than having a great voice or instrumental technique. Dylan tells his story in a different voice than he did in 1963, but it's still a great story...

Has the business side of being a musician changed so much with the Internet and free downloads, that it is easier to reach your fan base than before, but more difficult to earn a proper living with music treated as a commodity?

Maura: You have to adapt to a paradigm shift just as musicians in the 1920s had to adapt to radio and recording. The notion of selling discs will probably die out with our generation, but the notion of promoting your music around the world with the touch of a button was unknown just a short while ago so there is a certain freedom in no longer needing corporate entities to market you, but as with all freedoms it comes at a price.

You have always been generous in your recognition and support of other artists. Many cover versions of songs appear in your live shows and on disc. Can you discuss what moves you to pick one particular song?

Pete: When I was a kid, I saw Hendrix. He opened with "Sgt. Pepper" and closed with "Wild Thing". When I saw The Beatles, they opened with "Rock'n'Roll Music" and closed with "Long Tall Sally". So there is merit in honoring your influences. Shakespeare's plays were based on earlier plays and stories, so we all take part in "the folk process" and we love to acknowledge our sources, rather than try to conceal them. It's a celebration, so to speak.

What are your plans for the immediate future?

Maura: We will be playing a special Nanci tribute show, with a full set of her songs, in Southport, England on 22 September, followed by another of the same show at the Greeen Note in Camden Town, London, on 24 September. 

Is Life still Large?

Pete: We get to live our dream. It doesn't get much larger than that!

Photograph by Ronnie Norton