Interview with Elana James

Hot Club of Cowtown return to Ireland for an eleven date tour kicking off at The Sugar Club Dublin on 25th October and finishing at The Black Box Belfast on November 6th. In between they will be appearing at Letterkenny, Newbridge, Drogheda, Cork, Clifden, Dun Laoire, Antrim, Bangor and Castlebar. The trio consisting of Elana James on fiddle, Whit Smith on guitar and Jake Erwin on bass have been enthralling audiences for two decades with their unique take on western swing, gypsy jazz with a little bit of country thrown in the mix. They are without doubt one of the most exciting and entertaining live acts around as punters that attended their shows at Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2010 will testify. Technically superb, stylish, humorous and genuinely delightful people their shows will no doubt brighten up those dark, gloomy autumn evenings!

Delighted to see you back touring Ireland in October and November. It’s been too long since your last visit in 2010.

Thank you! It has been too long!

What influenced you personally to switch from Classical music to more traditional and folk?

I pretty consistently played Classical music from age 4 up until I was 21, playing violin (and later viola) in orchestras, chamber music and stuff like that. Even so, I never had a traditional approach to Classical music in a way, though-like I wasn’t big on practicing or self-discipline. I was always behind, always wanted to do things besides practice (like run around on my horse in the countryside), even though I was passionate about playing. My mom was a professional Classical violinist (and still is) and I think that growing up watching her get dressed in her black velvet and go to gigs all the time and play shows in the Kansas City Symphony or pit orchestras and traveling shows and the ballet. I saw what it was like and the mystery or allure of it for me maybe was lessened. The idea of going off into the blue yonder of folk music started out really as a kind of compulsion: by the time I was in high school I had started taking my violin into the hip, bohemian part of Kansas City and playing fiddle tunes for tips on weekends, sometimes totally by myself or with my sister on flute or a friend on tambourine. I was also drawn to central Asian and North Indian Classical music in college, as well cowboy songs when I began playing in a band on a ranch in Colorado for a few summers around the same time. So in these ways, I started to creep away from Classical music without really realizing it.

One of the most influential things that happened to steer me toward American traditional music and stop considering whether or not I should go into Classical music was going to India right after college to study an esoteric style of North Indian Classical music called Dhrupad with my late, wonderful teacher, Vidur Malik. He would take his handful of students, maybe five of us, on these adventures in the rural countryside of North India and we would play at festivals, at a local temple, for Hindu renunicates living in the forest, or really just anywhere. And when we would go on these journeys, especially when we were floating down the Yamuna River every so often at sunset, he would be singing and playing his harmonium and I would be playing along on my viola and at some point he would always stop and say, “American Geet!!” (which means American music) with overwhelming enthusiasm, and would have me play a hoedown of some kind and he absolutely loved it. I think that that single experience of his enthusiasm was very powerful for me because it showed me that we think something is exotic when it comes from somewhere else, but the very thing we know and love and may take for granted that is truly and uniquely ours, is deeply thrilling and exotic to someone else. So his enthusiasm helped me see the legitimacy and honour in pursuing my own folk music, and I soon went back to the United States and found my way to fiddling and hot jazz and never looked back.

Did Hot Club of Cowtown target a particular audience for your music style when formed back in 1996?

I think the audience that we targeted was ourselves! When Whit and I started playing together at first it was just this thrilling way to learn songs together that we loved. I can be impatient about playing out--once we had a few songs together it was like, let’s go play these for people! But it’s really been the joy of just playing that led the way to playing in front of anyone, and then forming a trio, meeting up with Jake so many years ago and solidifying this trio as we three. If we had been aiming for commercial success I guess it’s unlikely that we would have formed a Western swing trio. And yet, the impossible has been possible in that we have continued to play together for almost 20 years and make a living doing it. Kind of insane.

How challenging has it been to continually record new material two decades later given that you have remained loyal to the musical genre you represent?

There is an endless trove of songs from the nineteen teens through the 1940s, folk music from the American west, jazz standards, traditional gypsy tunes--an endless source of material. It seems that if a vocalist records American Songbook standards it’s considered jazz, but when a band does it, it somehow becomes a retro or revival act. We approach these songs the way any artist today may be looking for new material--we pick songs that are utterly vital and relevant, in some cases more than ever, but they happen to have been written a little longer ago, and then we sing and play them as modern, living people for other living people who come out to our shows. So it is very contemporary in that way, and there is always something new each night even in just the improvisation and spontaneity of the set.

Your live performances always seem to be driven by a particular bond and chemistry with your audience. Is it difficult to maintain that level of enthusiasm and intensity given the constant touring?

I do sometimes feel like when I am home and rested I would sing and play twice as well as I do when we are on the road. But the truth is, touring, through its gruelling nature, instils a kind of grit and depth into any band that, to my mind, cannot be achieved by just staying in one place the whole time. It gives you that patina of wear, that bittersweet authenticity that’s hard-won and can’t be faked. Also our audience has taught us so much through its energy about songs, what works, what needs work. So even though I think sometimes I could do certain things better, I would rather play imperfectly in front of a live audience who is sharing something with us in real time, participating in something ephemeral with us, however raw it may be, than just at home playing in my living room.

It’s refreshing that you have steadfastly remained loyal to what you do so well. Has there been any temptation to conform to a more mainstream style given the surge in interest in Americana in more recent years?

I have said many times I am ready to sell out but no one has made an offer!

Despite a few brief periods when Hot Club took time out you seem to be constantly on the road or recording. Are the rewards worth the sacrifices?

The truth is, you have to do something in this life, devote yourself to something, and it may as well be music--you’re lucky to have a choice and to even be able to choose music, or to have music choose you, and if you are going to be a successful band, you have to tour. Isaac Stern has a great quote that sums it up, which was in his obituary in the New York Times from 2001: “I have been very fortunate in 60 years of performance,'' he said in 1995, ''to have learned what it means to be an eternal student, an eternal optimist ... because you hope the next time will always be a little better - and eternally in love with music. Also, as I said to a young player the other day, you have no idea of what you don't know. Now it's time that you begin to learn. And you should get up every morning and say thank God, thank the Lord, thank whomever you want, thank you, thank you, for making me a musician."

You played in Bob Dylan’s backing band for a period. Did that create any appetite to work as a backing musician rather than a leading role in your own combo?

Yes, I loved touring with Bob. The thing about working for someone else, though, is that, at least for me, what may be my own natural impulse in my own band may not be the thing that’s needed in someone else’s band, to get their songs across in the way that they intend. So there is this aspect of filtering what I would normally play and vetting it, is this appropriate? Is this what will get the song across best? When you have your own band you answer those questions yourself and play accordingly. Working with and for someone else, whether in a live show or on a session, it’s a responsibility to let your own ideas out but also shape them to what the artist you’re working with is going for, and I enjoy that collaboration and that challenge because it pushes me to try new things that I may not be used to doing. I do love doing session work and I love playing with other people when we are not on tour, it’s just that we’ve been a tad busy lately so not a lot of time for that right now.

Many thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Hot Club of Cowtown were voted not only the finest but also the happiest bunch of musicians at your appearances at Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival in 2010. Lonesome Highway look forward to more of the same at your Dublin shows.

Thank you so much! We are thrilled to be embarking on a genuine tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland--it’s really the first time we have done this many shows in a row, to really settle in for a few weeks over on your beautiful island. We are very much looking forward to it.

Interview by Declan Culliton  -  Photograph courtesy of Hot Club of Cowtown by Valerie Fremin.