(extended article originally published in Star News, additional Q&A follows)
By Brian Tucker
Reed Turchi & His Kudzu Choir will perform a fully fleshed-out version of their new album Just a Little More Faith at Satellite Bar & Lounge. The venue’s setting will in part reflect the way the blues-gospel-roots album was made as a full band playing live together in a large room. Its a style of recording the singer-guitarist has always loved and used when working with other artists.
“The playing live-in-the-room, and trying to really highlight the feeling of the room,” Turchi says of its sound from his Nashville home. “There’s nothing added in, or sweetened up. We mixed it the next day. All the decisions for how to make the mix sound were based on how it felt sitting in the room playing. The sound you hear is the sound of the room that day, everyone’s attitude and character comes right through.”
Turchi added, “I was singing live so no one could play really loud that they would blast my vocals out. So that was a reference point for volume. We were all in the same room, not separated into vocals booths with baffles or anything, that speaks to both musicians and engineer’s ability to make that work.”
The album has a smoldering quality across original songs (and a fresh arrangement of “Will the Circle be Unbroken”) that echo Turchi’s love for blues pioneer Mississippi Fred McDowell and The Staple Singers. Songs slowly simmer (the lovely “Patricia” or the Ronnie Lane-flavored “The More I Think”), or boil, like “Honey Honey” which never boils over.
“That’s another thing that comes from the way it’s played and recorded; there aren’t necessarily big fireworks. We didn’t put in massive, thematic guitar solos. So it is a little more subtle, which speaks to that smoldering energy. Lester Wallace is such a great drummer. He really sits in a groove and it just builds and builds because it starts feeling better and better.”
Turchi also cites Andrija Tokic’s recording abilities, who also did Alabama Shakes’ first album (and great artists like The Ettes, Hurray for the Riff Raff) at his Bomb Shelter Studio in Nashville. Just a Little More Faith is warm and welcoming, and whose sonic persona puts you in the room with the band. The band recorded three takes for songs at most, and most on the album are first or second takes.
“That’s an aesthetic I really believe in as one of the most powerful things music can do – the sound of people playing together or off each other whether they realize it or not. We didn’t use any headphones or monitors while we recorded. We did all the singing live, all the recording in a day. I was singing live so no one could play really loud that they would blast my vocals out. We were all in the same room, not separated into vocal booths with baffles or anything. That speaks to both musicians and engineer’s ability to make that work.”
The band he made the new album with came together in a surprisingly serendipitous way. Heather Moulder (keys) discovered Turchi after meeting an Italian man who played Turchi’s music heavily on his radio shows overseas. And Moulder lives three houses down from Turchi. Lester was walking in the neighborhood, having moved in the house directly across the street. Turchi knew him from North Mississippi years ago (he recorded blues musicians there and did archival work on Fred McDowell’s recordings by Bill Ferris from 1967).
“It really is a neighborhood band, which is a nice way to keep the stress levels down and keep everyone friends, not just a band assembled to be a band. I’ve gotten to go (to Italy) four or five times and meet musicians. That might be the single most randomly fortuitous thing in my career, to suddenly have a following in Italy and get to go tour.”
Additional Q&A with Reed Turchi
Are from North Carolina? You played Wilmington a lot.
I’m originally from Swannanoa, which is right outside of Asheville, on I-40. My whole life has been roaming on I-40. I have played Wilmington a bunch. The first couple of years I had that studio gig in Memphis I didn’t live anywhere. Almost every tour would start and end in Wilmington because Cameron Weeks lived there.
I’d drive out here and spend a few days and we’d always start with some four hour romp at Lagerhead’s on the beach. That was always kind of beating the rust off and beating the drunks off kind of gig. But hey, it got us in shape, that’s for sure. Even though the crowd could get a little funky (they) were always good to us. I would happily play there again just for kicks.
From 2012 to 2016 I bounced in and out of Memphis, related to a recording studio, and then I lived there a year and half. In 2016 I started my slow gravitational pull back on I-40 and back to Nashville. It’s been great to have so many musicians around and some interesting have collaborations come up. It’s a blossoming town in a lot of ways and people are looking to do interesting things. It’s been good.
Things are pretty interesting now, I tour solo, and sometimes I tour with various versions of bands. Sometimes I have my enormous national based Kudzu Orchestra which has about 25 people in it. It sort of alternates. I’m touring now behind an album that’s a five piece with electric piano, slide guitar, bass, drums. I’ve never done anything before with multiple singers. That’s something I’ve been looking forward for some time.
Was Memphis productive for you?
The couple of Memphis pals I have are amazing musicians and great folks. I got to work on my studio chops a lot because I still produce albums. From a performing musician side, I find Memphis difficult and a lot people there do too. There aren’t a lot of venues and a lot of the venues there are cemented in playing Memphis music. Which is some of my favorite music in the world but I don’t think a lot of bands grow out of Memphis.
Memphis is pretty cynical, likes to eat its own which van be a negative rap. The people that strive there I have a lot of respect for and I love a lot of the people there playing. But maybe I felt too much of the history to really be comfortable trying to do my own thing. It wasn’t a place where I thrived as a performer that’s for sure.
The Satellite Bar & Lounge show. Is it a stripped down version of the album?
It’s a fully fleshed out version of Just a Little More Faith, it’ll be a lot of the material form that album plus my older material. It’ll be a full band and a good time. I really like playing at Satellite, the guy that books here has been good to me over the years. It’s always comfortable to play there. People are there to have a good time which is always my favorite kind of crowd to play for.
It feels like I’m in the room with you.
Good, that’s the goal. I’m glad because that’s an aesthetic I really believe in. One of the most powerful things music can do is the sound of people playing together or off each other whether they realize it or not. Not to go too far down a negative worm hole, but nine out of ten records come out today, here’s a hundred takes on a guitar solo and let’s take one note from each one to make something perfect. I understand if you’re trying to appeal to a certain audience or sell a certain type of record you might to do that, but I don’t think there’s any life in it.
The more music is made that way the more people find music irrelevant in their lives. There’s no emotion here, okay, everything is technically perfect and this is incredibly boring. I would much rather have the hiccups and the oddities. We didn’t use any headphones or monitors while we recorded and there’s certainly things with my own singing that I hear, well, if I’d known that it sounded like that I would have done it differently. I’m glad its how it is. I think people lose sight of what a recording is which is a document of a particular place and particular time. That’s what existence is
Who did you record in Mississippi?
There was stretch in 2010 – 2014 where I recorded and put out albums by Kenny Brown who was RL Burnside’s long time slide player. A guy named “Little Joe” Ayers who Junior Kimbrough’s bass player and co-songwriter. I put out a couple of compilations from a festival down there, North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic.
And an archival album which was recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell made by Bill Ferris, he lives in NC now, just retired from UNC. It was pretty specific what I was doing with that label, Devil Down Records, and it was pretty insane but educational to spend time down there. I think some of those albums are still available on Spotify. As that phased out I passed on the rights to the various artists.
Why the Bomb Shelter, where you recorded?
It’s my favorite studio in Nashville, it’s actually in a converted small house. It’s almost all analog. The guy that recorded the album owns the studio – Andrija Tokic. He did the first Alabama Shakes albums and Hurray for the Riff Raff and a bunch of more not quite all the way garage-y but more lo-fi sounding Nashville area bands and from other places. It’s a really comfortable spot, feels more like you’re playing in a living room or in an informal location and the sound is fantastic.
That’s where I’ve been producing some records too. It feels good – no one gets too nervous. Even though the gear is good enough you should get nervous, I’ve never seen any artist get too nervous in there. That’s one thing I learned to be more sensitive about working at Ardent in Memphis which is a massive facility with amazing gear and really nicely showcased to the point that people get worried about leaving heir cookie wrapper on the table or something, sometimes a little too tight.
The pressure doing a record like this. Were you relaxed from rehearsing so much?
Almost all of the band had rehearsed. It was really cold. We just had a couple of dinners where the band came over and we played through stuff. I had been pretty focused, some might say obsessed, with the album and the idea I had for it. So while we were recording I mostly felt relief that it was turning out so well. Everyone showed up, in a god zone. I don’t think we really stumbled over any songs.
Andrija did a great job of dialing in the sounds really quickly, it’s like, well, this is it. I’d come to peace with that. I’ve made records in a bunch of different ways but I knew with this one there was no going back and toying with it so once it was off to a good start and rolling. Well, this is it, might as well enjoy it.
You’ve been busy the last few years, what do you attribute to keeping busy?
I think the real answer is an unhealthy fear of failure. I had a mentor early on say it’s hard to hit a moving target. So I’m trying to stay a step ahead. If I’m not playing or practicing, working on an album or working on someone else’s album I very quickly get dangerously bored and worried that I’m stalling out and will be forced to go mow lawns or something. I enjoy mowing our lawn I don’t want to mow everyone else’s lawn.
Is Kathleen your wife on the record?
She’s a real singer, trained at Chapel Hill. Living with her, or maybe more importantly, her having to put up living with me, has had a good effect on my vocal practicing. She has a really strong relative pitch, and a very clear singer that hears all the harmonies. She’s on there and helped me figure out pre-band rehearsal how things could sound. I have no vocabulary for describing vocal harmony stuff. She sings on there. Heather the keyboard player also sings and the bass player Lee sings as well. They all three grew up singing in church, and singing regularly, which I did not.
This band came together from people you met in Nashville or somewhere else?
It’s a mix. The bass player I met in Nashville. The Keyboard player found out about me because she met an Italian guy who played me on his Italian radio show. I had to go around the world and back. She lives about three houses away from me. The drummer is someone I knew in North Mississippi a long time ago and then all of a sudden one day I saw him walking down the street. He had moved into the house directly across from me. It really is a neighborhood band, which is a really nice way to keep the stress levels down and keep everyone friends and acquaintances, not just a band assembled to be band.
Will the Circle is the only cover and “Wallerin” is written by Heather Moulder.
That’s her song (a nod to Fats Waller). She’s a hoot, she never stopped playing piano, even when we took a couple of breaks she kept playing. She played and played.
I like the arrangement for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
I had fallen in love with the Pop Staples version which we ended up using his chord progression. Everyone was very hesitant about doing it because it’s been done so many times. At the last minute, as we were getting ready to do it in the studio, Lee had the idea to slow it down with that bouncy bass line. Once he found that and Wallace locked in with him on that, its sort of a half time from where we were originally doing it.
Once that came together everyone agreed that it felt fresh, it didn’t just feel like going through someone else’s voices. I really wanted it on there to highlight everyone’s unique voice because everyone gets a verse. You can hear that because there’s one duet with Kathleen and I and one with Heather and I but I really one song where everyone got a verse to shine, because, I really like everybody’s singing.
Do you feel like you challenged yourself and something different came about?
Yeah, I definitely challenged myself. It was probably the first time I really got to write a lot of the original tunes that have that Fred McDowell feel, who’s my first guitar hero and influenced me to play guitar. “Honey Honey” and “Crave” and “Patricia,” a bunch of those are in his style. Working harder on my own singing as well as having real singers around me was a new challenge too. In the past I more grunted my way through vocals, which can work, but I didn’t want to play cover-up this time.
McDowell, his style is very unique, the way he plays with his thumb and finger, the rhythms he gets out of the guitar while also singing while also playing lead lines is I think unmatched. I don’t know anyone else who can play that way or do that, it’s mesmerizing, he plays with so much force, with so many little subtleties and how he breaks up the rhythm or how he alternated thumb and finger patterns. He uses open tunings and it doesn’t look like what he’s doing is tricky, he doesn’t even play any chords, there are no chording or really tricky walk-ups with a thumb or anything. He just makes the whole thing sing. It’s always grabbed my attention.
Of all the songs, “Honey Honey” is the closest to a Fred knock-off. It’s an open tuning and using finger pick on the thumb and index finger and really getting into it. If you just did that you’d get a bunch of mush and so he does some interesting things with palm muting with both hands when you need to move it form really loud to staccato sounding. I’ve been practicing, what can I say, I try.
You re-worked “My Time Ain’t Now” for this record. Did it fit better here than on your 10-incher vinyl?
I think that 10-incher got a little lost because of the format, so I don’t want to make that mistake again. I wanted to pick out a couple of songs where everyone could shine. That’s a song that Heather always enjoys playing live, one I thought could be a barrel-house song to go out on. Some of the songs on the album are pretty sincere and so I wanted to have a goofy one.
“The More I Think” is a great song.
Thanks, that’s a song that came off a collaboration I did with an Italian guitarist, an album we did together called Scrapyard. I wrote it for that record but thought I could do it better with a band as opposed to just another guitar. Its one where I definitely spent some time trying to find where I really want my vocals to sit because they’re so exposed on that one. It’s a song I’ve had with me for maybe four years or five years now. It’s slowly changed over time in way that only something can when you perform it a lot and perform it in a lot of different moods.
I’ll find that I’ll write a song in one mood and then after playing it in different situations – once in some rowdy bar, once in some quiet gig, play it solo, play it with a band, and then it starts to reveals what it is at its best which might have very little to do with what I thought it would be good for. It’s like, find different points of emphasis in the song and find different moods within it.
What’s been the biggest change in your career over time – touring less, settling down, more studio work?
I think when I left Ardent in the spring of 2016 I had toured 2012 to 2016 all part time or fitting in dates. But I was still driving around a bunch and doing the thing in Memphis. Then I left. I had a band, a big band, five-piece, with a booking agent and a lot of dates and went out and did them. That material and the way the band played it live probably didn’t quite play to my strengths and the band broke up and the booking agent dumped me. The van ended up with some insane problems that cost me more money than I had.
That’s was a pretty dark couple of months. It was about eight months of, I’ve waste my life, look at this path I’ve gone down, how did I end up here, why didn’t I do something meaningful. All of that. Thankfully the conversation with my grandmother (see “Patricia”), and my wife who I was really getting to know then, really important people in my life who respected what I was trying to do, and seeing them have some faith in me led me to really double down and buckle down on it and do it a lot better than I have been doing and with a lot more intention.