True North Music favourites Cahalen Morrison & Eli West have been visiting the UK regularly since 2011 and winning new fans with their soulful brand of roots music. Influenced by elements of old-time and bluegrass, and featuring harmony singing as well as mandolin, guitar and clawhammer banjo picking. They’re back in the UK next week for a few concerts in Scotland and England as well as a visit to the Shetland Folk Festival. I talked to them back in January when we hosted their concert at Sheffield Greystones.
Tell us a bit about your earliest introduction to old time music.
My earliest introduction to these kinds of music were Norman Blake, then Hot Rize, then Doc Watson…none of those are hardcore old time music, I guess, but those were my influences! I started on guitar then I began to play the banjo around 2008 when my aunt’s partner gave me a banjo. The headstock said Conqueror on it, which was pretty awesome. I took the resonator off and started messing with it. As far as influences go, Dirk Powell is an obvious choice; he has the sweetest kind of touch. Bruce Molsky’s playing is cool too, a little more aggressive style. My dad had Dirk’s record Hand Me Down and the playing on that was an influence for me.
I started on the fiddle but didn’t play fiddle tunes per se, though. My introduction to old time was non-old time bands playing old time tunes. Philips Grier & Flinner was the trio that got me hooked. They would do this really cool heavy version of Old Joe Clark. It was fun to learn that way.
You’re heading up to Glasgow this week after your appearance on BBC Radio 2’s Folk Show…what are you up to at Celtic Connections?
We’re collaborating with Kris Drever for a BBC Alba taping on Thursday. We first met Kris at Celtic Connections a few years ago. I’d sent him an email because I like his stuff, then we saw him in the lobby of the hotel, and he ended up playing a bunch of tunes with us. He plays mandolin and bouzouki as well as guitar. Then we’ll be playing a double bill concert with Pharis and Jason Romero on Friday. It’ll be two separate sets but I imagine we’ll probably do something together in one set or other.
What other projects are you working on as well as the duo?
I have my country band, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer. That’s louder and rockier, honky tonk style with electric guitar and drums, pedal steel.
I’m going to Sweden in May to maybe record with this guy Daniel Ek who’s a fantastic Swedish guitar player. Mostly I am involved in this thing called the Lomax Project, with Brittany Haas, Jayme Stone and Margaret Glaspy. Tim O’Brien and Bruce Molsky are involved intermittently. That’s been fun. There’s a record coming out early March, and we’ve been touring it a bit too. I’ve also been playing with the Pine Siskins, with John Reischman. It’s instrumental original bluegrass music that John’s written. And then I’m doing some solo shows too.
How did you find working with Tim O’Brien who co-produced the latest album?
I had a good time. We enjoyed working with Tim, he’s a fun guy to be around and he’s been a champion of our stuff for a while, which is really helpful. He also invited us to open two shows for Hot Rize in Seattle and Portland, and we sat in as honorary members of Red Knuckles too.
Your latest release features some guest musicians in addition to the duo….do you have any plans to tour with a full band?
Yeah, we had Brittany Haas and Ryan Drickey on fiddle, Erin Youngberg on bass (wife of Aaron Youngberg) and then Tim played a bit on it too. We were just talking last night about the possibility of touring the band, it would be great to do that if the tour would support it. We did something similar in Alaska with Eric Thorin and Ryan Drickey. It was a hoot.
What gigs and festivals do you have coming up in 2015?
We’ll be back in the UK in late April to play at the Shetland Folk Festival. That came about after I met [the late] Davie Henderson a few years ago and gave him our CD, and then our agent followed it up. We have a few more dates in Scotland and England either side of Shetland too. At the end of next month we’ve got Wintergrass, then Merlefest in April before we come back over for Shetland. In July we’re playing the Red Wing Roots festival in Mount Solon, VA.
How about teaching, will you be teaching at any camps this year?
I’m teaching at Rockygrass and at Targhee, Voiceworks, two camps up in Alaska, possibly Mount Shasta. I’ll be teaching singing at some and guitar at the others. At Voiceworks it will be about tracking versions of songs, kind of in a Lomax field recording way.
I’m just doing one – I’m teaching songwriting at Nimblefingers in Canada.
The harmony singing is a really special part of what you do as a duo – could you explain a little about how the process works?
Well, what we do together is really amorphous and breaks every rule – it’s hard to describe. I think we could both describe harmony singing in a very basic sense but what we do is really weird! Our voices blend so well, and most of the time that’s what people want. There was a guy last night who said he closed his eyes and his goal was to really be stumped as to who was singing what…which is really cool.
Is there anything you can tell us about how you work when songwriting? Can you give me any hints as an aspiring songwriter?
Not really! I mean it’s just all over the place. I have a little notebook of ideas, word and phrase ideas. That’s the best way to do it. I have one of those going all the time and then I have the recorder on my phone that I can sing little ditties into. I constantly go through them both and sometimes things work well together. So it’s usually kind of a double seated thing.
Are there any plans for recording another album?
Yeah, we’ve just been talking about it on this tour. We have some new material and it feels like there’s momentum again. It usually kind of plateaus after you make a record and you get all tired of writing and singing the songs, but we have momentum again now. It will probably be 2016 by the time that comes out.
Thanks, guys. See you in the spring!
For more information about Cahalen and Eli’s tour dates, recordings and more, visit www.cahalenandeli.com