This blog is mainly devoted to Australian country and country-esque music, because that’s the music I love. Every now and then, however, there’s someone from the northern hemisphere who captures my attention or whose music I already love (Ryan Adams, Madison Violet) and they warrant some closer attention on this blog. One such person is Al Scorch, a singer-songwriter from Chicago with some great bluesy, swampy, country songs and a new album: Tired Ghostly Town. Recently I spoke to Al just as he was about to embark on a tour.
Thank you for talking to me. I know it’s about six o’clock at night where you are.
Yeah, it is. It’s evening here.
Then it’s probably beer o’clock, as we like to say here.
Oh, yeah. I’m actually drinking beer right now.
There we go. So I just wanted to start off talking about your music because I know you’re a fourth-generation Chicagoan but your music sounds kind of swampy and Southern gothic, in a way. Where those influences come from? I’m not American but to me it sounds like a lot of that Southern country rootsy music.
Absolutely. Well, my mom is from the South – she’s from Missouri, which is kind of like the midwestern South – Southern midwest. So growing up with, her she has an accent. She says things like ‘halp’ instead of ‘help’, things like that. And she wasn’t a banjo player but there was one always around the house and she would kind of pick it up and put it down and kind of come back to it kind of thing. So there’s that and there’s also the fact Chicago has a lot of – a lot of Southern immigrants in it as well. There’s a big Southern influence too up here, just from people moving up here during the Great Depression for work. It really kicked in the ’40s, from World War II and that kind of thing. And then into the ’70s and ’80s there was a huge migration from Appalachia and Mississippi and Alabama and all those kind of places, so there’s a lot of Southern notes and flavours in Chicago.
The Chicago music scene has been hugely fertile over the last few decades – there’s jazz but also independent music – I’m thinking of the Liz Phair era of indie music and Urge Overkill, people like that, and Brad Wood. So I’m wondering if for you as a musician it’s been really fertile, as well having all those influences and people to collaborate with?
Yeah, well there’s tons of musicians get in town here, just loads – loads of people to play with. And there’s just tons of studios and tons of clubs and bars that have live music all the time and people really enjoy it here. Like there’s something that a lot of people from all walks of life come out to here in the city, so that – it is really supportive in that way. And then from touring around the country and stuff we got – also meet a lot of musicians that way for I play with people from New York City and Georgia, Cincinnati, Ohio and San Francisco and things like that so.
So as you tour you kind of play with local musicians that you meet in that area or you’ve actually picked up people in your touring band from around the country?
Well not so much literally as like play a show with them and then they get in the van but …
There’s actually people [I’ve met] on the road who I stay in touch with and who I just made really good friendships with and musical friendships as well, musical partnerships. And then people come through Chicago – it’s a big town for bands to tour through, so there’s that as well.
It would be probably quite convenient to just put people in a van after a gig and have them continue with you though.
It certainly is. And I’ve done that myself actually, when I was 18 and started touring. I was playing solo, played solo banjo and I opened up for this punk band in Chicago and from there I toured from Chattanooga, Tennessee and they were like, ‘Hey, man, you’re awesome, get in the van’. And I was, like, ‘Oh ,right. Eighteen-year-old kid with shit to do, you know.’ So there you have it. Here I am, I guess.
So you were a banjo player in a punk band?
A banjo player opening for punk bands.
Well, I think banjo is pretty punk actually, if you think of the ethos of punk.
Oh, yes, it can be fast and aggressive and it is kind of an odd instrument out sometimes. So it kind of fitted and there’s a certain intensity and a lyrical content, I guess, that fits in well in that circle.
And you’ve got a five-string banjo. From what I understand, a four-string banjo is hard enough to play. So how do five strings work? I suppose you’ve been doing it for a while though.
Well, the fifth string is the thumb string or the drum string and that’s the little short one up on the very top and it’s got the tuning peg about halfway up the neck. So that gives the banjo its ring and if you hear the banjo ring, that’s the fifth string sound. And it kind of fills in between all the other notes and makes it sound twice as fast. And you can also use it to play melody too. It’s an interesting thing, and so there’s a bit of history online and stuff.
Did you pick up the banjo because your mother was playing it around the house or was there a separate reason?
More so there was just always one around and there was a piano, guitar and banjo in the house and music was always encouraged. So my dad plays piano, he’s a great pianist. And my sister’s a singer and my brother started playing guitar maybe when he was 14 or 15 or something, and I was, like, that’s pretty cool playing the guitar. When he started, I was, like, that’s pretty cool. And then there’s this banjo and no one’s playing this banjo and I want to play this thing – this thing’s cool and weird. And then it’s a lot of music too in the house that was kind of [folky] and so I listened to a lot of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. And lots of Irish music too as well, like Clancy Brothers kind of traditional Irish songs as well as some traditional Irish fiddle things like dance music too. So I grew up with that as well.
Chicago’s got quite an Irish population; is that correct?
Oh, there’s loads of them here. The same in Australia there’s – they’re just everywhere.
The great migrating nation, I guess, Ireland. It just populated half the planet it seems.
There’s more, I think there’s more Irish people in the world then there is in Ireland.
[Laughs] I thought most of them were in Boston to be honest but it sounds like a few of them come to Chicago.
Oh, yeah, well, it’s Boston – Boston and Chicago where they’re all at. Flights from Boston and Chicago to Dublin are about the same price too.
Right. [Laughs] You’ve got all these musical influences around you but it also sounds like that feeds into your openness as a storyteller, as well, because it seems like you just take stories as they come to you and tell a wide range of stories. So do you kind of feel that you’re really open to all sorts of experiences around music?
Oh, absolutely. Different musical instruments, different musical styles and influences and stuff you get a different voice to your story or communicate a different feeling. And so I am – I am very open to different musical styles. And I enjoy a lot of the jazz lately with just some friends and stuff playing jazz charts and standards and things like that. So getting into that and kind of the swing jazz. And I like gypsy jazz quite a bit and (gypsy music as well as Celtic music, country music, and all types of string band music and bluegrass music and all that stuff.
I read in your bio about how you come up with stories to tell, basically by looking at the world around you and wondering about people. And it sounds like having that range of musicality at your disposal means that you can find the best way to tell the story, if that makes sense?
I think there’s some truth to what you’re saying. And it’s a pretty ordinary process of just kind of sitting down and maybe having an idea to start with and then just sitting down and playing and improvising and telling the story to myself, basically. And then refining it and getting it to be the best that it can be. So I would say that a lot of the stories also come from things that I’m feeling personally as well. But, nobody – I personally don’t want to hear someone whine while they’re playing acoustic guitar and singing about themselves. Nobody wants that. To make a difference, to make something appealing, you have to get outside of yourself and kind of find something in yourself that’s common to everyone and we’re all in this together, really. You know what I mean?
I think that your reluctance to whine is going to mean that you’re never going to be a female folksinger, just quietly.
[Laughs] Well, you never know. I have been to Switzerland and I hear that surgeries there are very, very good.
When you were talking about the banjo it actually made me think of Ani di Franco talking about the acoustic guitar because she – well, before she got RSI, she seemed to really feel like that acoustic guitar was this organic developing thing in her hands. It’s just interesting how you can have this organic relationship with an instrument and feel your experience with the instrument changing over time.
When you find [the right] instrument it really does become your voice, whether it’s acoustic guitar and banjo. And I feel really lucky that I have both of those voices to use and I play certainly less guitar than banjo but I also really like guitar – playing the guitar quite a bit.
Okay. And so, therefore, a six-string guitar or a twelve-string guitar?
Okay. I just thought since you had another string on your banjo maybe you’d go the whole hog of the acoustic guitar.
Part II of this interview will be published shortly.