Some talk, some laughs and some music: Signature Sounds introduces new online interview series

  • Colorado musician, DJ, and festival orgnizer Brian Eyster will interview bluegrass legend Larry Sparks for “The Backstage Sessions.”  Renee Ramge/Signature Sounds

  • Singer-songwriter and Grammy/Tony winner Anais Mitchell is interviewed Jan. 17 for “The Backstage Sessions.” Photos courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Ruth Ungar Merenda, from the acoustic groups The Mammals and Mike & Ruthy, interviews Anais Mitchell on Jan. 17.

  • Rising singer-songwriter Courtney Hartman is on tap for a Jan. 31 interview by podcast host and musician Joe Pug.

  • Singer-songwriter and folk podcast host Joe Pug will interview fellow songwriter Courtney Hartman Jan. 31.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2021 1:05:44 PM

Last March, a few weeks after the pandemic arrived, Signature Sounds responded to the shutdown of its small but popular performing space, The Parlor Room, by starting a virtual music series, the “Parlor Room Home Sessions,” that since has hosted dozens and dozens of musicians and bands in mostly livestreamed shows.

Now the Northampton record label has added a new wrinkle to its online repertoire. “The Backstage Sessions” is an interview series that brings together music writers, promoters, festival organizers and others with musicians for the kind of informal talk that’s long been a component of live concerts, music tours, radio interviews and the like — an aspect that’s pretty much been lost in online shows.

“We’ve all felt that one of the best aspects of the Green River Festival is having the opportunity to see and hear artists talking with each other backstage,” said Lynne Bertrand, who works in artist development and special projects for Signature.

“I know I’ve always lingered around the buffet table to eavesdrop on those kinds of conversations.”

“To see the [alt-bluegrass band] Punch Brothers kind of holding court backstage, and all these other mandolin players and roots musicians coming up to talk to them, that’s a lot of fun,” Bertrand added.

To recreate something of that vibe, “The Backstage Sessions” pairs an interviewer with a different musician each week on Sunday at 8 p.m. for about an hour and a half (some interviewers are also musicians). The talks are designed to be informal, Bertrand says, though the musicians and interviewers can check in with each other ahead of time to prepare some basic framework for the talk.

“They’re kind of designed along the lines of a radio interview,” Bertrand said, adding that the series is scheduled to run through March (Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 7 excepted).

The series began Jan. 10 with longtime music writer Peter Guralnick — he’s the author of several acclaimed books, including a two-volume biography of Elvis Presley — talking with rootsy guitarist and songwriter Colin Linden of Nashville, Tennessee, who in addition to his own music has worked with players such as Bruce Cockburn, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, and Keb’ Mo’ (he also produced albums for former Valley artists Salamander Crossing and Brooks Williams).

That show set up a template for future ones, with Linden and Guralnick, from their homes, talking about their mutual interest in roots and blues music and players such as Howlin’ Wolf, Lighting Hopkins and Rev. Gary Davis. Guralnick quizzed Linden on how he became a musician and how he adapts to playing with different artists, and Linden played some songs on his acoustic guitar.

Though Bertrand has arranged all the interviews for “The Backstage Sessions,” she says the whole “Signature team” has helped put the series together. Moreover, it’s designed in part to make up for live events Signature has held during the past several winters: the Back Porch Festival in late February/early March, as well as the “Parlor Sessions,” which combined small shows with jam sessions and music workshops.

“We knew we weren’t going to be able to do any of that this year, so we were looking around for some kind of replacement,” Bertrand said.

Another inspiration for the new series came last spring, when slide guitarist Sonny Landreth played in the Parlor Room Home Sessions and was joined by Tom Mouton, a music writer and concert and radio show producer in Louisiana.

“Tom was kind of an MC for the show, and we were thinking ‘This is a really interesting idea, it has legs,’” Bertrand said.

She and other staff at Signature also see “The Backstage Sessions” as a good vehicle for touching base with festival organizers, radio and podcast hosts, and others in the music business that the label has gotten to know over the years.

“We’ve built up relationships with a lot of different people, and we miss seeing them and hearing from them,” Bertrand said. “This is one way we can reconnect.”

Indeed, “The Backstage Sessions” has been designed with those people in mind. Bertrand first enlisted the interviewers for the series, then told them to chose an artist they wanted to talk to. So far, she says, almost everyone on both ends who’s been asked to participate has agreed to take part.

On Jan. 17, Ruth Ungar Merenda, a festival organizer as well as a member of the acoustic groups Mike & Ruthy and The Mammals, interviews Anais Mitchell, the singer-songwriter and Vermont native who won Tony and Grammy awards a few years ago for creating the book, music and lyrics for the Broadway musical “Hadestown.”

On Jan. 24, multi-instrumentalist, DJ and festival organizer Brian Eyster of Colorado will interview Larry Sparks, 73, who Signature calls the “King of Bluegrass Soul”; he’s twice been named Male Vocalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, among other accomplishments.

And on Jan. 31, singer-songwriter Joe Pug, who also hosts “The Working Songwriter” podcast, will talk with Courtney Hartman, another singer-songwriter who Bertrand says “played an absolutely amazing set” at the Parlor Room a few years ago.

Signature is encouraging donations for this free series to help cover production costs and provide some funding for musicians and their interviewers. The Parlor Room Home Sessions raised over $100,000 in donations in 2020 for participating musicians, Signature says.

More information for all of these programs is available at signaturesounds.com/homesessions.

Steve Pfarrer  can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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