Old Man Luedecke is the musical moniker of Canadian Chris Luedecke, who is currently touring Australia. Old Man Luedecke’s latest album, Tender is the Night, is a collection of gently rambunctious folk/country tunes that draw on a rich musical heritage, as he and I discussed when we spoke recently.
There’s a lot of awareness in Canada of the East Coast musical traditions obviously coming out of Irish and Scottish communities in the Maritime Provinces. These are really proud, well-established traditions and it sounds like you certainly have some influences from those, but I just wondered what your musical background is?
I grew up with an older dad who loved classical and opera music. I sort of discovered folk music – you know, when you’re young and all that stuff and followed it back to the stuff that I ended up loving. In university I got into The Carter Family. And then, of course, I loved Stan Rogers … loved that, sort of, in the late-’90s, the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music that really kind of came out just as I was learning to play the banjo and that really kind of gave mesome way that I could find myself all this beautiful music from 1920s that’s recorded, hillbilly music, blues, gospel, cajun and all that stuff. Do you know that anthology?
It sounds, therefore, that your influences are very American or traditional country blues folk American more than Canadian.
Yeah, well the thing is I grew up in Toronto, [then] I moved to Nova Scotia. My wife went to Art College out here. But I started playing music out here and that [traditional] music was huge in the ’90s, it was a really big deal you know and actually not unlike your bush music. Kind of similar tradition, right. And I knew so little about it, that it seemed like I could find myself in it without any of the sort of baggage of it. I mean ,well, a 30 or 40 year history. I didn’t grow up with folk music, so I never got tired of it; it just seemed like something that was special that not a lot of people that I knew where interested in.
What I observed in Canada, and still observe, is that because there’s such a really strong tradition of musicians and a lot of communities where it’s quite accepted to play music in families as recreation, that the standard is really high. I guess it’s that thing about people being competitive with each other in a performance space. With Canadian musicians, there’s definitely a very high calibre of performing, particularly on instruments like the fiddle and the banjo. Moving to Nova Scotia – given that Halifax produced and probably continues to produce several good bands and great songwriters – is there a sense of vibrancy there?
You know, to be honest, I moved to the country about an hour from Halifax almost 10 years ago and I really have sort of done what I’ve done. There’s wonderful songwriters and stuff and I almost never see them in Halifax … there’s a few sort of round-up conferences that we have every year when I get to hang out with people. And I used to see people more often but I’ve really been noting lately that most of the people I know, there’s my friends and stuff like that, I never get to see them at all anymore. I’m constantly travelling, which is a great, beautiful thing. It means that we’re all quite successful, I guess. And I also have a young family. [So] I don’t tend to have much of a musical community. So your imagination of my circumstances, may be a little disappointing. The reality of it is disappointing [laughs].
I’m always interested in cultures around creative work and I think the culture of Canadian music is strong and it certainly seems to me that the national culture around creative arts in Canada and the government are supportive of artists and for Canadian cultural consumers that has created an embarrassment of riches, almost.
Yeah, there’s just a lot of great people making all kinds of wonderful stuff in this country. Of course it’s hard for me to say whether it’s better now than it was, or what have you, or if I get to look around, I feel pretty proud of a lot of the music that comes out of here. It’s pretty great.
Having said all of that and me just gushing about Canada, you actually recorded this album in Nashville. Hearing your musical background that sounds like a more natural fit to go to Nashville to record.
Yeah. I mean I’ve always written contemporary songs, but I’ve always played the banjo in an old time style. It’s always been a source of a bit of tension and creativity in my music is that I’ve sort of largely drawn on pretty arcane, old sort of non-commercial folk music. But then rather than delve into that and reproduce that kind of music, a lot of them do, sort of, revival of stuff. I just use that music as a sort of key to unlocking my own ability to express my own sort of contemporary reality. That’s kind of been where I’ve been coming from, from the beginning. So, yeah, Nashville was the choice of place, not in any way for its city, but for the producer I worked with, Tim O’Brien, who’s a friend and an absolute hero. More than he’s a friend, he’s a hero [laughs]. He’s just a brilliant bluegrass musician and folk musician and interpreter of songs old and new. He’s a master of four or five instruments. Any instrument he touched I guess he would be pretty capable at. He’s an absolute ace on the fiddle and the mandolin and stuff like that. So I just really wanted to make a record with him and it turns out he was in Nashville. And he has been for a long time. I mean, I knew that and so if he wanted to make the record here, I would have said yes, and if he said where, that would have been great too. But the Nashville dimension of things is timely, I guess, in a way because there’s a lot of attention on that city right now, but it’s also the place where a lot of – that has been the centre of maybe the peripheral type of American music that I love. I
And reading about this album it seems like the musicians who play on it, it was the the first time you’ve recorded with them. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. One of the things about the band that I worked with in Nashville, it was really Tim, myself and a bass player for three days and then we had a percussionist for another day and we made the CD in four five days … When you work with guys like that, I mean, they’re excellent. They make you better; they make you play better than if you sit up straighter. And Mike, the bass player, was incredible. And just as important as the musicians was … the engineer.
That kind of recording pace suggests that you came into that recording process with the songs pretty much fully formed in terms of your song riting process, so are you a songwriter who likes to polish, polish, polish until you have a draft that you think is pretty solid?
I think basically I’m looking for something that I can do with complete and utter conviction. Something that will trump all of the doubts, and thank goodness I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to make almost five records, but I’m always looking for every fun way to come at that. And I think the reason is that I’ve played by myself for so long that I kind of assume that if a song makes people – you know if people enjoy the song in the kitchen and they enjoy it in the concert hall and they enjoy it in the studio the other day, you know, it might be good to go. I’m not completely reliant on the band in the studio to make the songs live and breathe, you know what I mean? If they’re good songs they exist under themselves in maybe a variety of contexts before they enter into the studio. I’ve played them in front of people before or you could generally – I’ve been lucky. Until quite recently, I always had a beautiful blend – I was quite lucky with being able to travel enough to make a living and if I ever got excited about a song, I could just go play it right away. I could run down the street and just play it for people. Now I travel quite a lot and I’ve got a family at home. I’ve had fewer eureka momentsbut maybe I’ll get a bunch of them in Australia next month [laughs].
And the reason for our conversation that you’re coming out here on what is quite an extensive tour. You’re going not just to capital cities, but you’re playing in some regional towns and also playing at the Mullum Folk Festival. Given that you have a young family, I guess it’s quite a proposition to leave for so long.
I try not to go away for that long, but of course you’re so far away – or I’m so far away from you – that that’s sort of the reality of touring there. It probably makes sense for me to come a little longer, especially given the difficulty of getting there, it’s better to do more at once. But I went to the UK a year ago in the summer and Northern Ireland but I was gone for five weeks. I came back and we had another baby [laughs]. I shouldn’t try to stay away for too long. You never know what’s going to happen. I mean, it hasn’t made leaving for a month any easier, having a third child. I’ve got twins that are two years old and then a four-month-old baby.
I guess the disadvantages of their father being away for so long are possibly offset by the advantages of him being able to sing them really good bedtime songs.
You know, I’m lucky that they tolerate it and they ask for it when I’m gone. You know what I mean? Those kids have nothing to prove. Obviously they like me [laughs]. They don’t have to, I guess, but yeah it’s nice that they’re actually fans of the music too. I guess it’s something about the banjo that connects with children.
The banjo is obviously your primary instrument. Did it call to you from a young age? Because it’s a really difficult instrument, from what I understand.
Well, it’s only difficult in that most of us don’t know what to do with it. You know, because we don’t hear all that much banjo music anymore, but we do now. I guess there’s a lot more banjo in the world, but when I took it up there was not much of a revival going on. I always loved the tone and the texture of it. I liked it and all the clichéd application. I liked it in Bugs Bunny and I liked it in TV commercials. I did truly; it just felt like an exciting thing. I didn’t play the banjo until guess I was not quite 22. I had been living up in the Yukon for summer, which is a northern territory in Canada, in Dawson City. I was at a campfire and somebody had one of those things and they were playing it terribly – miserably playing and it was terribly out of tune, but I just found it so fascinating. It occupied its own space, it cuts through everything else and it just seemed like it’s got so much rhythm; it seemed like a really good sort of storyteller’s instrument. It seemed like a really magical place for poems and lyrics and, you know, it is. It truly is. It’s underused as a lyrical device. And in the old-time folk music, there were often solo banjo players, so I recorded lots of solo banjo players who sang songs. It’s a good instrument for a lone wolf to play. You know, if you talk to me in person, wolf would be the last word you’d use to describe me.
Lone squirrel [laughs].
Well, on that note I hope you and your banjo have very safe travels when you’re here and I’m sure you will be very well received.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I look forward to it.
Old Man Luedecke is touring Australia – for tour dates please visit his website at oldmanluedecke.ca. Tender is the Night is out now.