Interview With Kathleen Parks of Progressive Roots Trio Twisted Pine: “We’re Just Here to Make Music Together.”

Acclaimed young string band Twisted Pine will bring their unique take on pop and roots music to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York on Friday, December 6th. The evening begins at 7:30 pm.  The concert is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.  More information can be found on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website. Tickets are $25 General Admission, $21 for SFMS Members, and $10 for students (ages 3-22).  Tickets will be available at the door or online.

Earlier this week, fiddler and vocalist Kathleen Parks chatted with SFMS staff writer Peter Winter about five string fiddle, breaking down genre barriers in 2019, and the magnificence that is Blondie.

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What was your journey to roots music? Both with your instrument and this music in general, how did this all begin?

I guess when I started playing the violin I was learning Suzuki method and classical music, but at the same time I was studying Irish step dancing.  Dance has always been my second love, I kind of had to choose eventually you know? But the Irish step dancing got me into wanting to learn how to play fiddle, and actually I took to playing fiddle music a little bit more and wanted to practice a lot more once I started learning Irish fiddle! So I guess that didn’t happen till I was about nine, but that was what kind of got me started in a traditional type of roots music.

Eventually I wanted to journey outside of that a little bit and learn how to improvise, and always being a little bit of a daredevil on the traditional side of Irish music and wanting to improvise on the melodies a little bit, I learned how to play jazz from my father. He was a trumpet player and so he me started on improvising and learning how to swing a bit on notes and rhythms. 

When I decided to go to Berklee, I was able to get into the roots program there and really start working on bluegrass and swing music and all different types of roots music. Really, they bring it all there! Country, blues, old-time, everything!  It’s a really cool place in the string department and how they have that roots program, they bring in so many terrific artists from all around the world, you just never know who’s going to be there!

So you play the five string fiddle!

Yes!

How did that come about? That’s certainly less common than the four string!

Yeah! the person who got me, well actually just handed me a five string, the five string I actually play now, own, was my teacher at the time Darol Anger.

The Master!

Yeah I got to study with him! It was my second semester studying with him, and he had just gotten this fiddle in to have students try, and he said, “Have you ever played a five string?” because that’s like his main instrument, and I was like, “No actually I haven’t even given it a thought!” I didn’t know where to get one to even try it out! He was like, “Why don’t you take this for the next month?” The next month turned into the next seven years! I’m actually still playing that fiddle that he gave me to try out!

What about the five string connected with you?

That extra string! That low C, it gives such a rich sound to the fiddle! I always went for a deeper sound. I like a darker sounding fiddle to begin with, so having the viola/violin aspect helps you continue that flavor; that chocolatey sound! It just makes playing behind other instruments so much fun, ‘cause you have more of that darker and deeper sound like a guitar might have.

How did Twisted Pine begin?

Well, all of us had studied music in school (different schools) and we all came to Boston for different reasons of studying.  I think all of us…kind of got to know each other through different friend groups, we would go to parties, and eventually we all wound up meeting and starting to play together and eventually getting a residency at the Cantab Lounge.  It’s this bar and every Tuesday night they have Bluegrass night, and it’s been going since I believe the 90s! Every Tuesday this guy Geoff Bartley (he kind of got it started) he bring in bands that are traveling through Boston.  It’s really funny cause it’s this dive bar, but it’s such a great place! The music there is so rich. It’s kind of like one those classic places, like that little hole in the wall in like New Orleans or New York City. It’s like that for Boston and roots music.

You released your self-titled debut album in 2017.  The record gets a lot of good press, and then just the very next year, you release the “Dreams” EP. It’s interesting to me in two regards: first, because it was striking to me so soon after that first album you were releasing new music, and secondly the decision to release not only covers but covers that would probably surprise some people. I wonder if you could go into what went into that EP?

Yeah! I guess we started learning those songs because they were just songs that we heard and liked a long time! For “Lucy In The Sky,” me and Dan were just jamming in Philly one night in the green room before our set and he just started putting this slightly different beat to it, just this slower jam beat. We would just start singing a lot of covers.  Some of them came out super spontaneous, just because you were warming up before a show or whatnot, and other covers were songs that we thought (for instance the Blondie cover) that one we just thought was such an interesting song and the sounds on the original track…they’re just so different! It’s the kind of song that just keeps like propelling forward, even though maybe the textures don’t always change too, too much.  Like the same instruments are playing. The kind of disco drum kit sound and all the synths and Debbie’s just doing her thing singing.  We just thought it was such a good track that we wanted to just give it a try and just learn it for learning. Like, “Yeah we could probably just learn a lot from all of these songs.” It almost started as just a practice thing for us. “We should practice learning these songs and maybe it will help our songwriting.” And it’s funny because like, because of that EP, it has changed how we all play music, and how we write.  What we eventually will come out with will be more like that EP because it just propelled our own original sound. It’s just a classic case of “who influenced who?” and how this thing came to be. You know how you hear with different genres.  And then we were like, “We should just make it an album! We love playing these songs, let’s just go in the studio and record them! Break out some new music and something different for people to listen to and maybe they’ll enjoy it! Maybe they won’t, but that’s ok!”

I’m glad you brought up genre, cause I wanted to ask you about that! What Nickel Creek did circa two decades ago, covering artists like Pavement and what bands like you guys have done with the Dreams EP, and what Chris Thile is doing on Live from Here, it seems that artists these days feel less restricted by genre then artists have in the past. Especially in traditional music there was once this idea that, “Oh we’re a bluegrass band we can’t cover Blondie or Vulfpeck.” But I feel like our generation is really breaking that down a little bit more and we don’t feel those restrictions. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that? How do you approach genre and what you feel you can and can’t do?

That’s interesting! It’s funny cause as a band, Twisted Pine, we’re constantly trying to figure out what our genre actually is!  It’s funny because not that we would ever want to narrow ourselves or like pigeon hole ourselves, but we want people to feel like they can relate to our sound. But at the same time, there is so much access to all different kinds of music now that artists in the past didn’t have, so I guess because of that roots musicians really can come up with an entirely new thing altogether, because we’re all listening to different stuff!

Why do you like playing in Twisted Pine?

That’s a good one! Why do I like playing in Twisted Pine? We get along like really well. It’s so much fun playing with Dan, Chris, and now Ahn Phung who has been sitting in with us. Chris and Dan, they’re so incredible; they’re just incredible people and incredible musicians, and they work really hard at what they do. And because of that, it’s really fun to create with them, because they’re always coming up with some really cool new thing. I think especially the three of us as the core of the band for the past, I don’t know, four or five years, I think we just continue to feed off each other. And our personalities along with the music, keep helping to propel us.  It’s very easy for a band to be brought down, because of the struggles of being on the road at times, so I think we’ve learned over the years how to work things out together, how to communicate really well.  We’ve figured that out to a point that we’re just all really good friends and we’ve all got each other’s back, and we’re just here to make music together. I think that’s what I love. And the energy on stage just keeps you going. Any bad day? If we hang out and I get to play music with them, it turns into a good day.

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Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg where he writes, teaches music, plays in the Celtic group Seasons, DJs, runs half of the record label His & Hers Records and serves on the board of the SFMS. He is on instagram

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