July 31st, 2022 7pm Stage 2
Tall Tall Trees
Tall Tall Trees is the pseudonym of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Savino. Moving to New York in the early aughts with aspirations of being a bassist in the city’s vibrant jazz and experimental music scene, Savino soon switched his focus to banjo and writing songs, resulting in the eponymous 2009 debut, Tall Tall Trees. In the decade since, Savino has toured non-stop, pioneering a world of psychedelic electric banjo music, captivating audiences with his loop-based one man shows, as well as alongside frequent collaborator, Kishi Bashi.
A Wave of Golden Things, his fourth studio album, opens with the distant crow of a rooster and takes off in a dust cloud of swirling banjo, drums and bass. The lead off track, “The Wind, She Whispers,” quickly evolves from a droning mountain melody into full-blown banjo funk, setting the precedent for an album of unexpected turns. Though the banjo is heavily featured, the influence of Pink Floyd, and Cat Stevens can be felt as much as banjo mavericks Earl Scruggs, and Bela Fleck.
Savino, who self-records and produces his music, abandoned the heavily-layered textures of 2017’s Freedays for a more organic, stripped-down approach, leaving his distinct voice and thoughtful lyrics as the centerpiece. Despite the sparse arrangements, Savino still manages to evoke the sonic imagery and pastoral landscapes that have often been hallmarks of Tall Tall Trees albums. Each of the eight songs that make up A Wave of Golden Things suggest a world unto itself, from the cosmic country-tinged, “Ask Me Again,” to the sprawling underwater lullaby “Deep Feels.”
Opting for an immersive experience over a traditional studio, Savino set up residence and a mobile recording rig on a hemp farm in the Appalachian mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina, where he now resides. Recorded in just under three weeks, with much of it arranged on the spot, the album maintains a sense of immediacy, celebrating raw performance over perfection. “I’m giving up on my expectations, let them go and see where it takes us,” Savino sings on “Expectations,” almost seeming to revel in this experimental process.
Savino’s voice, left unadorned, can be simultaneously gentle and strong, at times sage-like in delivery. On the album’s closing title track “A Wave of Golden Things,” his soft spoken meditations on mental health reflect a new maturity in his song craft and singing. As the song develops, Savino’s voice gains confidence and his whisper becomes a fragile cry, neither full-throated nor fully secure, but at home in a warm bed of upright piano and echoing tape delay. “We all need a little peace and love right now,” he sings as if he’s at the end of his breath.
Reflective of the dark and challenging times of today, Savino’s message is ultimately one of hope and finding peace of mind in the chatter of the modern world. The last chorus reaches towards a transcendent beauty in the darkness, and makes a promise: “a wave of golden things, it waits for you.”
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”.