Dawn McCarthy on Faun Fables' next move and her Madison connections
The expansive folk duo plays Friday, July 17 at Mother Fool's.
Dawn McCarthy launched her project Faun Fables in the Bay Area during the late ’90s, and since then has created one of the most ambitious, absorbing bodies of work of just about any contemporary artist to experiment with folk music. McCarthy and partner Nils Frykdahl, both of them multi-instrumentalists and singers, put out the most recent Faun Fables album, Light Of A Vaster Dark, in 2010, and since then have focused on touring and raising their young family. They’re currently at work on a new record and their current tour will bring them to Mother Fool’s on Friday, July 17. McCarthy has also been putting together a limited release compiling some of her early, pre-Faun Fables solo work, which will be available at upcoming shows. In 2013, McCarthy and Bonnie "Prince" Billy released the collaborative Everly Brothers tribute album What The Brothers Sang. Frykdahl, perhaps best known for his marvelous vocals in the now-defunct prog-metal band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, has been doing voice work for a new animated character named Tigtone and playing with other former SGM members in Free Salamander Exhibit.
On recent tours, McCarthy and Frykdahl have been performing as an instrument-switching duo, evoking some of the layered heft of their albums with an assortment of stringed instruments flute, and percussion, but perhaps most importantly the chemistry between McCarthy’s rich mid-range voice and Frykdahl’s cavernous bass voice. They’ve been putting out records since 2001, but Light Of A Vaster Dark might be the best introduction to their work–songs like “O Mary” and “Violet” showcase McCarthy’s gift for stately, patiently unwinding melodies, and they come interspersed with brief, loosely structured instrumentals. Faun Fables also have used their recordings to explore deeper themes and narratives, including domestic life on 2008’s A Table Forgotten EP and the strange world of subways on2006’s The Transit Rider (which began as a theater piece). On this tour, McCarthy says audiences can expect about half the set to be comprised of new material, and the pair recently released a new song and video, "O My Stars." McCarthy talked with me last month from her home in Sonoma County, California while getting ready to vacuum out the tour van.
Tone Madison: I did see you play Madison a couple years ago, but other than that I don't really know what you've been up to recently.
Dawn McCarthy: The last few years we'd decided to not do a national tour. We've been doing annual national tour since having kids. And then last summer, my baby was six months old, and we did a couple short trips with her on the west coast, worked on a project at Joshua Tree with Melora Creager from Rasputina, and it was really neat. It should be coming out soon. We went up to the northwest and it didn't quite work, with the dynamic with the two older kids and the baby. So we decided to not do one last summer. But yeah, and then kind of focused on moving up north, out of the city again. I've been just writing and taking care of other things, and starting to do some tracking and gathering various things we've worked on the last five years for a recording. We've been in the process of that more intensely in the last three months, and we were hoping to get some little EP or something together for the tour, but decided to just push on and make it a full-length. So at some point in fall or winter time, we'll have a full-length record out. Just writing and doing that kind of stuff and taking care of the home and the kids.
Tone Madison: What's the project with Melora Creager like?
Dawn McCarthy: It's called The Governesses. We did it last year and it was based on nursery rhymes and it was an environmental angle. We felt we were kind of assigned to think of something we felt like that the modern world was lacking and kind of needed a cautionary tale of, and using animals as the subjects, kind of doing a fables, nursery-rhyme kind of thing. We got together in a studio there out in the desert and wrote songs and recorded on each other's material. And I think that she is aiming to release that pretty soon. We've toured a lot with Rasputina over the years. I knew Melora from Brooklyn when I lived there. I grew up in the Northwest but I spent a good chunk of years in New York City. I think it was about 20 years ago that we both were playing in the same lofts and performance spaces in Brooklyn, and then we kind of hooked up some years later. It was a really nice fit and we've always wanted to collaborate.
Tone Madison: Is the touring setup still just you and Nils?
Dawn McCarthy: Yeah, so far since traveling with kids, we've kept it to the duo. Part of it's just practical, what we can fit in the tour van, and we have to have a nanny on board too, so it's the nanny and the kids and then us. That's been working really nice, actually. When we focus in on that, there's a nice strength. There's a couple singers I might start adding to the shows, but probably just California shows. If we moved toward having an RV again, which we used to have, or with Nils' rock band, where they had an old city bus, then I think it would be fun to bring the kids and other people.
Tone Madison: What are some of the ideas driving the new Faun Fables recordings? Can you talk at this point about how it'll be different from previous releases?
Dawn McCarthy: We've done a lot of touring since having a family. That'll be about seven years now. There's a lot of covering traditionals and interesting obscure cover songs and writing a song here, a song there, and there were some musical-theater projects we did, There's this arts-academy high school in Southern California that we worked with to do some rock musicals with the kids. There's just little bits and pieces that we realized we hadn't brought forth, but there were some basic tracks recorded, and we've been kind of revisiting the material. This record is going to have kind of the stuff from those bits of time—it's very interesting to try to write and create with also having little ones, and nursing babies, but the focus of it is pretty amazing. One of the working titles we had was Some Ungodly Hour, because it's all this music that had been put together at some ungodly hour. This is how you have to do it, you're parents, you have to squeeze it in in the craziest of places, and me and Nils are pretty well-trained with sleep deprivation. I would say maybe a third of it is gonna be that stuff, and then there are things from the last few years. We've toured and performed this material and it felt really strong, and people kept requesting it—"Oh, what album is that song on?" and it wasn't on an album yet. And then there's a chunk of new stuff—I just started writing again about a year ago, just taking in all the life changes and we've spent some time out on this remote ranch for a while, this kind of forgotten ranch, and it just all started opening up as something to write about, and motherhood, so I've been digging into that in the last year. It's a slow process, but I'm really determined to get it on the new record. For us, it's been almost five years since there's been a record, and I want to get some new writing into the mix.
As far as how it's different from the other things, it's hard for me to say. I'm also going to work on a solo project, where I want to take a perspective especially from being a mother, like a sacred-mama perspective, a Mother Nature kind of place. I'm probably going to do a residency for that. It's going to be a different process and it will probably be a year from now that I'll be working on that and recording it.
Tone Madison: And you've had a lot of themes about domestic life in your work, even before you had a family, and on the A Table Forgotten EP and some songs on Light Of A Vaster Dark. How has your thinking about those things evolved over the past few years?
Dawn McCarthy: I've always been kind of a kitchen witch of sorts and have drawn a lot of my strength and calm and focus from the home, even though the other half of me is that gypsy spirit and loves traveling, but when I'm home I really dig into home. Those songs, it's interesting, because I felt like I was kind of ramping up to this change. I knew it was on the horizon, that I would probably have children. So when I hear that material now, like "Housekeeper" and "Sweeping Spell," it feels like they're these really charged anthems, like, "Yeah, you can do it! Alright! Here it goes!" Just the other day I was kind of thinking about "Housekeeper" and kind of feeling crazy and stretched too thin, and I heard some of "Housekeeper" and I was like "Yeah! House-keep-er!" So it'll be interesting to see what I write about it now. I have some things that are just more about the experience of being pregnant and more of that internal experience, and the heart of the mother. I just told Nils, "I think I really do need to sing 'Housekeeper' again and 'Sweeping Spell,' I think I need those domestic-empowerment marches.”
Tone Madison: It's a combination of stress relief but also putting perspective on all the challenges that come with family life, maybe.
Dawn McCarthy: Yeah, before I was coming at this housework and seeing it as almost a way of life, looking at the day to day and having the gift of being able to choose now. Women, mostly, we can choose how domestic we want to be, and we don't have to fight the women's-lib fight. Now we're at a place where we can kind of go either direction. I definitely just found myself really gravitating toward a certain strength in being connected to the home, and just a joy in it. Definitely no one is putting this upon me, it's just something I'm feeling naturally acclimated towards. I think at first even more than thinking of it towards moms specifically—those songs aren't really about moms specifically, they're more just about working in the home. So I think it was more just a general trumpeting the path of getting into your home and what you can do with that and saluting the people who are often the unsung heroines and heroes, who are really making what your home is and the food and all that preparation that really makes a big difference in someone's life.
Tone Madison: When you referred to your family on your website recently, you said the next record would be your first since your "progeny became a brood" or something like that.
Dawn McCarthy: [Laughs] Right! Yeah, I'm just gonna write exactly what my life is like right now. I'm glad you read that.
Tone Madison: You're also doing a tour-only release that collects some of your pre-Faun Fables material.
Dawn McCarthy: Yes, so there was a very transitional time which was a real huge shift in my life. I'd been living in New York and I was working on various things. I was going to school for sequential art and I had a lot of band stuff happening and I was doing some circus-y things. I felt the need to break away from what I had been doing in music and go down a rabbit hole for a while and just be able to find my own voice. I traveled overseas and got a special EuroRail pass and brought my guitar and went around and just sang. This recording, it has some from that period. I did a little recording in someone's home studio in London in 1997. Then there was some recording I did once I had moved to California and met Nils, but I hadn't really started working with him yet. There's one that's this live show that really to me are some of the best versions of that material, material that was on Early Song and some of the Mother Twilight songs. I had run into it again and it was just on this little cassette, and when I heard it recently, I thought, "I should really press this." I just thought people that are into what I do would find some worth in it.
Tone Madison: Has all of this touring as a relatively compact band changed your approach to writing and arranging?
Dawn McCarthy: I always write from a stripped-down perspective with basic accompaniment and the voice and the lyric and the main melody. And then there's just kind of a feel and a pulse and the rhythm. And as it gets more developed, we add more to it, and that's where Nils has been great to work with—if you're going to have one other person to have in your band, he's a very good person to have. He can play a lot of different instruments. And then recording is a whole other thing in itself. I know such a widespread community of musicians to draw upon that would be happy to come in and track on a record. When the actual recording itself happens, it feels like it's all open, "How many instruments do we want?" It's really just, what will tell the song best, whether that's still keeping it really sparse or is it adding strings and drum kit? I'm not a drum kit player, but I have been really enjoying percussion.
Tone Madison: The last album had a few of these short instrumental interludes that seemed a bit more experimental and free-form, like "Bells For Ura."
Dawn McCarthy: I want to do more of that, because sometimes I can get a little too focused on the song and the lyrics, song to song to song, but I feel like when you're listening to a recording, a thing that can really make a place that you can go into can be that instrumental music, stuff that isn't the words. That stuff, like "Bells For Ura," with the flute, I've been getting into doing these flute choruses—that's so beautiful for me, and I love the pantheistic quality of it. Having children and really digging into fairy tales and nursery rhymes and the world of nature and fairies, that's such a wonderful place to be and it's so much where we live anyways. But for this next record, I'm really encouraging a lot of that kind of stuff. I want a lot of flutes and in-betweens.
Tone Madison: And especially on records that have a thematic arc, as a lot of yours do, it's nice to have those almost meditative moments to let things sink in and add some breathing room.
Dawn McCarthy: Yeah, and sometimes there's fragments of music that you get that don't really find a song with a structure, like when you really commit to, "OK, this is a song." There's fragments that will just happen that will be really potent, but if they have to be made into a song with lyrics, they lose some of that. It's the kind of stuff that when you're sitting around and improvising, there will be those moments where you go, "Oh, what's that? Roll the tape!"
Tone Madison: Did you live in Madison at some point? The last time you played here you seemed to know a lot of people really well, and you had Stephanie Rearick and Bucky Pope on that show too.
Dawn McCarthy: Yes, I love Madison. I actually was born not far from Madison. We lived in Whitewater—well, we lived in a little farming community called Lima Center that was by Whitewater, and I was born at Fort Atkinson Hospital, and my parents both grew up in Chicago. We've had connections to the Midwest and my dad lived in Wisconsin for a while, and then at some point my older sister, who I did my early music stuff with Sheila Bosco, formerly Sheila McCarthy, she lived in Madison for years and was in a band called Cattle Prod. She was in with Tar Babies and Poopshovel and The Gomers, that was her whole community. We would visit as teenagers in the summertime and really fell in love with Madison, so that was the first place to move to from your hometown, like Madison was the first on the list for all the kids in my family. I lived in Madison when I was 19, 20, 21, and then moved to New York City. Every kid in my family spent a chunk of years in Madison in their late teens or early 20s, and it was just a really wonderful place to go to, just so positive and wonderful. If Nils had some kind of connection to Madison, I would consider Madison as one of the places to raise kids and so forth.
Tone Madison: All those bands you mentioned were before my time, but a lot of the people from those bands are still around.
Dawn McCarthy: The last show we did there, we were surprised with [former Tar Babies guitarist/vocalist Bucky Pope] doing an opening set. The teenager in me was like, "Oh my god!" because I was such a huge Tar Babies fan.