Dom Flemons On 'Prospect Hill'
September 5, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Many people know Dom Flemons as one-third of the original membership of groundbreaking revivalist stringband Carolina Chocolate Drops. Indeed, with the CCDs, Flemons achieved international acclaim and earned award nominations from organizations like the Americana Music Association and the Grammys. But, before the Chocolate Drops made their debut, he was a performing songster and songwriter, covering the entire scope of what constitutes American folk and roots music - not just the stringband, Carolina-based stuff that would eventually make him folk-famous.
Now, Flemons has ventured out on his own again, with a "debut" solo album of sorts (he's released two recordings outside of the Chocolate Drops before, but seems to view this one as more of a definitive debut effort). 'Prospect Hill' is a collection of blues and ragtime, folk and bluegrass tunes. It's quick and simple, to-the-point, and wholly digestible. It's timely and timeless, and everything you might hope a good folk album would be.
I hopped on the phone recently with Flemons to talk about the genesis of this album, among other things:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start by talking about 'Prospect Hill' and where this album came from for you. You delve into a lot of different styles than you did with the Chocolate Drops. Where did this start? Was it with a song?
Dom Flemons: There's always a song, to start. When I started making this record, my full intention was to make a record that I felt would be good enough that I could make another record. I have a lot of ideas for songs and working with different material, whether it's original material or traditional material... This is my first solo record outside of the Carolina Chocolate Drops - I did two recordings before that were just me solo or a little bit of accompaniment with me. This one, I decided I wanted to have a small ensemble with me on each of the songs and I wanted to delve into the different [kinds of] songs I'm interested in, in one way or another, and kind of do some of the things I started doing with the CCDs.
The Chocolate Drops were very specific about the kind of material we wanted to put out there - North Carolina black stringband music or stringband music with our own sort of edge that we...researched specifically in that flavor. That was the goal. But all of us always studied different kinds of music. I'd been playing solo for five or six years before I started the Chocolate Drops with Rhiannon and Justin, so I wanted to re-introduce the other styles I've been into the last 15 years with this record, and just give a broad cannon of stuff so people could hear: Oh, he doesn't just do that one thing. He does a bunch of different things.
I tried to be specific in how I put the record together. I tried to make it a quick record that you could have a really good time listening to without having to invest too much time. It's a nice one to listen to in the car or blast out of the speakers, and it repeats really easily too. I tried to do a couple of things like that in my sequencing and how I recorded things.
KR: When you're coming from so many different traditions and styles, how do you choose what songs you're going to do?
DF: I recorded about 30 songs altogether. I whittled it down into a nice 14-song album. I made it about 39 minutes to the dot. That's how I chose the songs.
I wanted every song to be a song that really showcased what I do as a musician. I didn't stay emotionally invested with any of the songs that I picked. They were all songs I've been playing for 10 years so, so I invested in the way I enjoy the songs. Some of the songs I wrote on the album, I wrote in the last three or four years. I picked out the best of those songs and decided to put them out. I tried to work the best of both sides of what I've been doing the past 15 years as a musician.
As a member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, I got a great fan base through that. But there's a whole big world of people that are interested in a lot of different types of music. There's a new generation of younger people who are getting into the music in a big way. When I got into the music, there were still all the people who had established the music in the past 50 or 60 years, who were still very active members of the community. Now that they're not there, there's a whole generation of people that are my peers or a few years or older [than me] - I'm 32 years old - that are being pushed into a higher status spot. We have different ideas and different ways to define the music we're doing.
I notice that the demographic is growing of people who have no idea what the standards are. Just because, in general, with the post-digital revolution, anybody can learn anything they want to, but it's a matter of how much the things that need to be learned get exposed to these people. That's what I felt like on this record. When I was growing up, it was 1950s and 60s music all the time on the oldies station. That's not what's happening now. It's 1980s...the 80s has kind of even fallen off the mark to the 90s, 2000s, 2010. That's what kids can hear on the radio if they just turn the radio on. Also LPs. People are getting more interested in LPs. That's not going to grow too huge, but I think it's getting to be how it used to be, where if you really wanted an LP and the artwork and the product...people love stuff.
I thought of all these things when I made the record. The songs themselves were songs I thought pushed the concepts that I wanted to get out there, without me having to explain it. You just put the record on and you say, "Oh I like this record, I like how it sounds and I like the songs that are on it." I made sure it had songs I thought people might want to sing. I tried to make it very simple and short, so it was easy to listen to.
In the industry, I feel like there's a lot of music that's really long. We have a lot of emotional arcs in the music that comes out. I tried to cut that out. A lot of the old recordings I like are so straight to the point. I wanted to make a straight-to-the-point record. I'm so glad that people have been enjoying it so far. I wanted to have a particular sound and a certain urgency to it. I feel like I was able to make that come off.
KR: In the folk world, there's the singer-songwriters following the Woody and Bob tradition, then there are the stringbands like the CCDs, then there are guys like you who are very steeped in tradition but are doing it in an interesting, contemporary way without being gimmicky about it. I always wonder how you keep in mind honoring tradition and moving it forward without losing touch of the tradition?
DF: I don't even bother with what's popular. I mean, I keep an eye out for what's new. If I go to the airport, I'll buy a copy of Rolling Stone, or I'll buy something that shows popular music. I'll actually actively seek out stuff if it looks interesting to me. But I don't just go out of my way to buy stuff that's not in my realm. That, for me, helps me stay contemporary, to keep my mind in a contemporary setting, because I can't help but be living right now.
That's a thing that some people tend to get a little bit confused about. They present a certain image and they want to be that old thing and make references to that old thing. I used to do that myself. It's a strong way to develop, learning a style note for note. It's a very good way to become an excellent musician - to learn a style, learn something you want to and be that. Then, after a while - this is something Mike Seeger said in every video he ever made: "You can't help but be yourself in the end." So you know, all you have to do as a person is interpret the music and immerse yourself in it, and eventually your own style will come out. Even if you do something note for note, after a certain point, when you become a real musician who's mastered their craft, you're going to put your own stamp on it.
It's always going to be personal. That's the hangup I think that's been there for a long time, especially when it comes to original music and interpretations of songs - what people call covers. It sets things off-kilter in a way to where people have hangups about it. For me, I've been a fan of music for a long enough period, I've scrutinized albums professionally and even before I was professional in a way, that I've tried to not have that hang-up.
I'm ok with presenting what I'm good at, and not needing to present 100% of my being in an album. Some musicians get caught up in that. There are a lot of weird egos and rock star culture that feeds into that. I have no desire to do that. Even with writing songs, I've tried to downplay it. I don't want to be a songwriter full-time. I'd rather be a performer and, if I write songs, great. That's why I'm an "American songster" instead of "American singer-songwriter" or "folksinger," or something like that. Songster can cover both of those realms. That's something I've developed over 10 years of performing. It's nice to be able to get out there and honor the old people who've influenced me, but it's also nice to give a shout out for all those old people to the young folks who don't know [about them]. Say, "Come on you cats, get hip. Go to the library. Figure out what this stuff's all about."
Posted by Linda Fahey at September 5, 2014 3:56 PM
I tried to do that with the music I put out there. That's always been a trajectory for me personally. This album, in my own mind, is kind of conservative in a way, because I try to reach out to the communities I've been to before, in the introduction, to say, "I'm out here and this is just the beginning."