April 3rd, 2022 7pm Stage 2
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With her 2017 debut Shame, Americana songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Baiman emerged as a fearless voice of the American female experience. “Shame” was featured on NPR’s “Songs We Love”, called a “Rootsy Wake-up Call” by Folk Alley, and described by Vice’s “Noisey” as “flipping off authority one song at a time.” On her new full-length album Cycles, Baiman has found a grittier musical medium for her signature unabashed and defiant songwriting, employing a majority-female team including co-producer Olivia Hally, known as the front woman of Indie-pop band Oh Pep!
Cycles is a collection of songs encompassing the many ways that we destroy and rebuild as people, as families, and as a country. Songs about the cycle of life inspired by the birth of a nephew and the loss of a grandmother, songs about internal mental cycles of ambition and self-doubt, the cycle of progress and regression in our country’s political journey, and the cycles of growth and reinvention that relationships take on. At times heartbreaking, at times celebratory, the album is a reflection of a lot of life experienced in a relatively short amount of time, a desire to hold fast to the people we love in the wake of so much uncertainty, and an exploration of the immense and unique strength of women in the face of adversity.
Originally from Chicago, Baiman moved to Nashville at eighteen, and has spent the last decade working as a musician in a wide variety of roles, from session musician (Molly Tuttle, Kelsey Waldon, Caroline Spence), to live sidewoman (Kacey Musgraves, Amy Ray), to bandmate and producer. Fiddle music was her first love, and she is known in the bluegrass and old time world for her work with progressive acoustic duo 10 String Symphony with fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer. Her first solo album Shame, was produced by Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, and established her role as part of a new generation of political songwriters. Since 2017, Baiman has toured her solo project internationally with appearances at the Kilkenny Roots Festival in Ireland, the Mullum Music Festival in Australia, and the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage in Washington, DC. She has also released a variety of small scale projects; her 2018 Free Dirt EP Thanksgiving, which read as a sort of epilogue to Shame, a duet project with singer Mike Wheeler, which is a more stripped down nod to her acoustic roots, and a 2020 single, Wrong Way Round, which shows more sonic experimentation and hints at musical direction of Cycles.
Inspired by the burgeoning grunge rock scene in Melbourne, Cycles was recorded in Australia in the glorified storage unit known as Purple Wayne Studios (Big Smoke) with engineer Alex O’Gorman (Angie McMahon). In addition to Hally on bass, piano and guitar, and Baiman on guitar, strings and banjo, other musicians include Melbourne drummer Bree Hartley, guitar players Cy Winstanley (Brandy Clarke) and Josh Oliver (Mandolin Orange), and guest vocalists Dan Parsons, Dan Watkins and Maggie Rigby (The Maes). The album was mixed by GRAMMY winning engineer Shani Gandhi, who is based in Nashville but originally from Australia as well.
Growing up in Vancouver, BC with his father, Taylor Ashton was always playing with words. “My dad and his friends loved making up little jokes and verses, and they always encouraged me to write. I think my dad was surprised that he had made this little person who was now making things of his own, and his encouragement made me believe I was some kind of poetic genius,” laughs Ashton.
While his childhood poems may have left something to be desired, Ashton’s debut solo album The Romantic, which came out in 2020 on Signature Sounds Recordings, thrilled fans with its satisfyingly clever, yet confessional and intimate songwriting. Ashton primarily accompanies himself on the banjo, and the production on The Romantic is full and lush, and easily at home in the folk-pop world. On his new EP Romanticize, however, the Brooklyn based musician presents re-imaginings of songs from his solo debut, with everything from orchestral inspired string arrangements, to club dance beats and stripped down solo performances, giving us a window into the many avenues of his creativity, and the potential of his songs to transcend the boundaries of genre.
Ashton spent most of late teens and 20s as the frontman of Vancouver-based five-piece Fish & Bird, releasing four albums of heady progressive folk and gracing stages like the Winnipeg Folk fest, the Vancouver Folk Fest, and Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival. But as a Canadian, he felt somewhat trapped by geographical borders. “There is an insane amount of talent in Canada, but I was really excited about all the music happening in the states, and I was frustrated not to be participating”, he explains. After saving up money and going through the complicated Visa process, he made the move to New York City five years ago. “New York was everything I hoped it would be. I was going to mind-blowing shows every night, and meeting all kinds of people who were on missions to make cool music”. One of those people was Grammy-nominated songwriter and guitarist Courtney Hartman, with whom he released a 2018 duo album Been On Your Side. The album is an acoustic, stripped-down affair, which Rolling Stone had to admit, "packs a punch in today's mainstream".
The various collaborative production experiments on Ashton’s new EP Romanticize pay homage to his desire to constantly push boundaries musically and find new possibilities for his songs, as well as referencing some of the older musical chapters in his musical journey. For example, the remix of “Nicole” by Pittsburgh based artist LiteShado finds Ashton’s vocals completely at home in a lo-fi hip-hop context, as his banjo rolls against crunchy synth pads and electronic drum tracks. Yet his new version of “F.L.Y.”, which is stripped down to just vocals and banjo, hearkens back more to his intimate duo project with Hartman. Nonetheless, the two tracks live comfortably side by side, revealing the vast and varied, and yet intrinsically connected potential of Ashton’s music.
Additionally, the EP contains two new songs, “Skeletons by the Sea”, and “Alex”, both of which feature vocals from his wife, Rachael Price, best known as the front woman for Lake Street Dive. “Singing and playing with Rachael has been one of the strange blessings of this pandemic,” says Ashton. “I feel like both of our musical worlds are complete without one another, but since we’ve been stuck at home we’ve been enjoying the opportunity to collaborate and sing together.”
Collaboration is a running theme for the new EP, on which Ashton sent his songs to remix artists Thom Gill, mmeadows, and LiteShado, as well as string arranger Kat McLevey to see what possibilities they might imagine for them. “It was really inspiring to send these tracks out and say ‘what does this make you think of?’” he explains. “It can change the way you see your own songs, because they can mean something completely different to somebody else’s ears”.
It is a testament to both Ashton’s songwriting and his vocal abilities that his initial recordings can live many different lives, and Romanticize demonstrates this wholly and without argument. “From a songwriting perspective, I’m only trying to write something that sounds like me” he says, “but in my mind I’m often hearing a song in a lot of different contexts. Maybe it’s a disco song, maybe it’s a country waltz. This EP is a chance for these songs to live in different spaces, and see what happens”.