MAKING THE ALBUM
At long last, Pilgrims, the first full album by FolksTogether, has arrived. It features 15 songs realized at The FolksTogether Workshop in Providence, Rhode Island, and is the culmination of five years of planning, writing, and recording. So why did it take a group of accomplished songwriters -- all experienced studio musicians -- five years to complete a single album? For the answer to that question and others, read on!
Pilgrims is more than just a collection of songs either written or chosen by the group. Producer Rick Bellaire had a conceptual framework in mind from day one. But his original working title, Searching, changed when he introduced the Procol Harum song "Pilgrim's Progress" into the mix. Within weeks, this title seemed to describe more accurately the overarching concept that we are all pilgrims on lifelong journeys to find a place to call "home". The group's mission soon became clear: find or create material to fit Pilgrim's criterion.
As baby-boomers, FolksTogether's
personal journeys were influenced by the tumultuous political
and social events of the late 20th Century, and the dawn of the
new millennium. However, converting their personal experiences
into words and music was not an easy task: by the end of 2004,
the band had recorded more than 25 songs. Many fine tunes and
performances were left on the cutting room floor because ultimately,
they didn't truly reflect the album's concept.
In addition, the recording
process itself made completion of Pilgrims quite a challenge.
In order to find the group's true voice and to present the album's
songs in as intimate a setting as possible, Rick determined that
all instruments -- with the exception of electric bass -- would
be played acoustically, and that each vocal and instrumental track
would be performed by an FT member. This meant that the album
proceeded without the help of any outside studio musicians. Rick
further set down the notion that Pilgrims was to be a "homegrown"
recording, akin to Music From Big Pink and The Basement
FolksTogether began recording rhythm tracks as a group with the goal of concentrating more on "feel" than perfection. If they all agreed that a basic take had the right energy, then it stood as a "keeper". Modern recording techniques allow artists and producers to surgically remove every little squeak and buzz. But editing out ambient studio sounds for the sake of perfection simply wasn't the band's way. What you hear in the final mixes on Pilgrims is the natural give and take of a very live performance.
Luckily, every member of FolksTogether is accomplished both musically and vocally. Vincent Pasternak is known for virtuosity on violin, viola and classical guitar. On Pilgrims, he adds stellar performances on mandolin, dulcimer and all manner of percussion. Rick Bellaire is best known for his work on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. But on this album, he demonstrates that he's equally adept at keyboard instruments such as accordion and Melodica, and has the ability to perform on a variety of percussion instruments. Bassist John Dunn is not only a versatile musician who contributes Dobro, cello, violin, guitar, and drums, he was also the principle recording engineer for the project. Donna Anthony-Olson plays percussion on many of the album's tracks. Most important however, are her lead and backing vocals that add color and diversity to what might otherwise have become a male-dominated sound. Her husband, principal guitarist Jeff Olson, contributed the largest number of appropriate song ideas to Pilgrims, and his finger style guitar continues to be the backbone of the group's trademark sound.
As Pilgrim's liner
notes indicate, almost every original song is a co-write. The
goal was to give the album a true "group" identity.
On previous recordings, FolksTogether tunes were contributed entirely
by the original songwriting teams who make up the group: Bellaire
& Dunn (Rick Bellaire, John Dunn and Rick's wife, Carleen
Machado) Wire & Wood (Jeff and Donna Olson) or solo efforts
by Vincent Pasternak. However, the songwriting on Pilgrims
was a true collaborative effort. For the first time, the group
sat down in various combinations to develop and refine their material
into the songs you hear on this album. But -- unlike past recordings
-- the lead vocals were not automatically assigned to the songwriter(s)
or songwriting team. Most songs were cut with a variety of lead
vocalists, and some were cut as duets in order to determine the
best choices for the material. Donna sings one of Rick's songs,
shares lead vocal on another, and solos on one of Vincent's songs;
Rick, Vincent, and Donna contribute lead vocals on Jeff's contributions.
In addition to their own collaborations, FolksTogether received songwriting help from two world-class collaborators: Pete Anders and the late Ritchie Cordell. They joined Rick in composing "I Know You're Out There Somewhere" and Peter presented the group with a brand new anthem, "All They Needed Was Luck". Rick also collaborated with talented songwriter Larry Lee Clark on the upbeat "I Don't Know About That".
The input of Cordell and Anders was invaluable to the development of the material for Pilgrims. Cordell is best known for writing and producing hits for Tommy James & The Shondells including "Mony, Mony" and "I Think We're Alone Now". Rhode Island native Anders has an impressive resume as a performer, songwriter and producer. With his longtime partner Vini Poncia, Peter scored with "Mister Lonely" by The Vi-Dels and The Tradewinds' "New York's A Lonely Town". Anders & Poncia also composed the bulk of the original material for Phil Spector's masterwork, Presenting The Fabulous RONETTES.
Defining FolksTogether and Pilgrims in terms of genre is difficult. The group has strong roots in '50s and '60s folk, country, and rock 'n' roll. Their new album continues to explore these traditions. In an interview conducted for the release of Pilgrims, Rick Bellaire explains, "We're always looking for those connections. As a 'folk' group, we're limited only by the presentation of the music, but never by the choice of material. New England folk artists have a longstanding tradition of finding material in unusual places. Joan Baez used to sing show tunes at Club 47 and Tom Rush was known for his Bo Diddley covers. Then of course, the legendary Joe Val and his Charles River Valley Boys cut an entire album of Beatles songs back in the 1960s, opening up the folk world to a whole new source for the repertoire. We try to continue in this tradition and hope we're worthy of being included in the line."