What do a wandering minstrel who toured Europe three times last year, a Boston folk trio, an Australian ragtime and blues singer, a London blues rocker and a larger than life rock band from Louisiana have in common? They are among the melting pot of artists asked to play this year’s Newport Folk Festival. Dig Boston sat down with these five very different artists; Christopher Paul Stelling, The Ballroom Thieves, C.W. Stoneking, L.A. Salami and The Seratones to find out about their road to the most elite festival in the music industry (think the Olympiad of music festivals), what if feels like to play music in front of thousands of fans and to find out who we should be listening to that we probably are not. We discovered that although their paths to this career milestone were all very different, they all share a singular passion for storytelling through song.
Dig Boston: What does it mean for festivals such as Newport to still exist in a time when funding for the arts is in critical danger in the US?
C.W. Stoneking : It is hard to say what it means. I am glad that it still exists, it has been going on for a long time.
Ballroom Thieves: It is essential to keeping the artistic community inspired. A festival such as this it is so family oriented you are not just touching one generation…you can touch the youth, the parents, the grandparents. It really is such a special place where all of that comes together and all of the energy of the arts is appreciated so genuinely.
The Seratones: People are going to put the money behind what they want. Culture will still exist if they make it exist. The government didn’t put that much money into NPR in the first place. This is one of the best curated fests in the world. It is amazing when you have a festival like this and can have a complete guitar meltdown and strings breaking off of a guitar and people still appreciate it because it is music.
L.A. Salami: It is really important. Newport Folk Festival is a legendary festival and with that there is a wealth of culture that comes along with it.
Christopher Paul Stelling: I travel all over the world. One of the great things about what we have here in America is that the lack of funding for arts makes us tough. Overfunding breeds a sense of complancey. No one is in this because it is easy. Obviously, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts needs funding….Newport is the only festival like Newport. It is the original festival. It carries me through the whole year. It would be great if the U.S. could take that funding and give it to refugees.
One of the beautiful things about NFF is the wide range of storytelling across genres that listeners experience. What messages do you think or hope your music gets across? What stories do they tell?
C.W. Stoneking: I am not sure really, I think it could mean a variety of things…the story could tell a hundred different things to every person in the joint. I let them take it for exactly what it means to them.
Ballroom Thieves: We would love it if our music made our people feel something.
L.A. Salami: I don’t intend for it to give a single message. I don’t know? “Be ok.”
Christopher Paul Stelling: Tom Waits said this beautiful thing, “if you are going to call it anything, call it folk music.” ….This festival defined what it means to be american music. It brought together Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Merle Haggard under one flag…It is music by people and for people. That is it.
How would you describe your music to listeners that are not familiar with it?
C.W. Stoneking: My influences are a blend of blues from ’20s to the ’50s. It is an earlier style…’30s early rock and roll.
Ballroom Thieves: At its core? Folk rock. But we also go much sweeter and simpler and at times more louder and raucous. We also cross a lot of lines genre wise. We have a no rules policy, we will try anything.
The Seratones: Rock and roll! Crunchy nonsense -we want to do it to you in your earhole. Floamy. (This is when you put Floam from Nickelodeon into a blender and the blender is trash but the floam still exists. The Seratones are the floam.)
L.A. Salami: Post-modern blues is the name I have come up with for it.
Who should I be listening to that I probably am not?
C.W. Stoneking: I couldn’t really say. I like old calypso singers and I like Kanye West as well. I also really enjoy gospel singers. There is not one in particular off the top of my head.
Ballroom Thieves: Answers from all three of the bandmates-(Callie) Joe Purdy, his new album is so political and spot on. (Martin) Tall Heights, (Devlin) The Western Den, an up and coming band out of Boston. They are hauntingly beautiful and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them grace the stages of the Newport Folk Fest some day.
The Seratones: L.A. Salami, Wand, Meatbodies, Satan’s Pilgrims
L.A. Salami: Francobollo. They are my backup band when they can be but they are a band in their own right. They are like the new Beatles.
Christopher Paul Stelling: Geeshie Wiley. (Stelling explained that he likes to dig through old music for rare recordings.) For newer artists: Ian Fitzgerald, Jonah Tolchin and Julie Rhodes. Listen to the up and comers.
Using only one word, describe the feeling you get when you first take the stage before a live audience.
C.W. Stoneking: Busy and normal. Sometimes apprehensive. Myself.
Ballroom Thieves: (Callie) Relief. (Martin) Calm before the storm. (Devlin.) Bubble Guts.
The Seratones: Juicy.
L.A. Salami: Correct. It is a lousy word, but business like.
Christopher Paul Stelling: I am not sure. After the mechanics are all set and I know that the sound is going to be good, I remind myself to “be present.” Because playing songs for me is like closing your eyes and seeing a film you have directed. Today, before my set, I reminded myself “open your eyes, you are at Newport, you are going to want to see this.”
What advice do you have for musicians who aspire to play Newport Folk Fest?
C.W. Stoneking: I don’t really know how I got the gig. If you have an interest, follow after things that are exciting for you. Find interesting ways to solve the problem in songs and make songs catchy and maybe you will be there.
Ballroom Thieves: It is just a lot of hard work and a little luck. Make sure your name is out there, network, show up, work hard and be kind. This was a dream of ours and we are fortunate to be here.
Christopher Paul Stelling: Two words- patience and passion-in that order. Be who you are and it is going to work out.
O’Hearn is a freelance music writer, yoga teacher and mom. Her work has also appeared in Grateful Web, Sound of Boston, Hello Giggles and Glide Magazine. Music has always been a family affair for the O’Hearn’s. She was supposed to be named Prudence and her parents took her to first Bangles concert at age seven. Through pop- quizzes in the front seat of her dad’s jeep, she came to know the names of everyone in Van Halen and U2 by the time she was 5. For this, she is eternally grateful.