Vandaveer’s most recent album - Oh, Willie, Please … - saw the band treading down some familiar, while at the same time unfamiliar territory. Familiar in the sense it contained the dark themes and moods they’ve become known for. Unfamiliar in the sense that the album is comprised almost entirely of traditional murder ballads, all of which were hand-picked by the band.
Now releasing an album of covers is one thing, but to release an album consisting of 200-year-old-plus folk ballads riddled with violence and tragedy is another thing all together. It’s not easy to pull off the sincerity necessary to carry songs like these, let alone make a modern audience receptive to them. But Vandaveer’s commitment to - and respect for - the source material comes through in the finished product. They never intended to reinvent these songs, they simply wished to provide their own interpretation, and possibly open the eyes of a new generation to a genre that - while often overlooked - is rich in folk history.
We recently sat down with Mark Charles Heidinger - the main creative force behind Vandaveer’s folk stylings - who was kind enough to give us some insight into the making of Oh, Willie, Please …, their plans for a new album, and his admiration for the folks behind The 78 Project.
CM: If you don’t mind me asking, where are you right now?
Mark Charles Heidinger: I am in the D.C. area.
And that’s where you call home now, right?
Yep, it sure is, man. I grew up in Kentucky not too far away from you guys, but I’ve been here for about nine years.
Read that you were born in Ohio, too. Which of these places do you most consider home?
Kentucky. I was only in Ohio for four years.
How much has being from the Midwest helped shape your music?
Probably completely, whether I know it or not. I suppose wherever you’re from it shapes you completely. I didn’t really grow up with Southern or Country or Kentucky music, per se. But, it’s definitely something that … I wouldn’t say it’s in the water … it’s something that, you’re just around it. And I feel like a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the classic country sounds or what have you, but it feels very familiar even though it wasn’t something that I grew up with as a kid. I was much more a product of MTV growing up in the 80s. Whatever you found on the commercial rock radio stations or MTV, that would probably be more what dictated my early years. I was a Michael Jackson or Madonna kid.
Oh, so literally 80s pop music …
Yeah, and then the whole Seattle 90s thing. I mean that was kind of the trajectory I think most kids growing up in the 80s and 90s, that’s kind of the trajectory we were on.
I’d heard Oh, Willie, Please … was actually recorded in an old farm house in Lexington. Did that help lend a more authentic feel to the recording process?
Yeah, definitely. You know that record is all traditional except for … there’s a Tom Waits song on there. Besides that it’s all traditional folk songs and disaster songs, mostly murder ballads really. We didn’t want to do that album in a traditional studio setting. We don’t really do any of our records in a traditional studio setting but for that one in particular we wanted to go somewhere remote. Initially we thought, “Oh, we’ll find a cabin, or we’ll find a cottage out somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” but the opportunity to record in this beautiful 200 year old farmhouse came up and it was really too pastoral to pass up, you know? The house was as old as the songs, which was something. And you know the great room of that house was the size of (laughs) urban apartments … it was just huge. This open room with these soaring ceilings and 200 year old walls … it kind of became a member of the band really. You hear that house in the record. It’s very creaky and wooden sounding.
As you mentioned, the album is entirely focused on murder ballads, which makes it a very unique listening experience simply due to the history behind each song. Did you have a fascination with songs like this before you became a musician?
Probably more since I’ve become a musician. You know, I picked up a guitar as a teenager and I was definitely not aware of that sub-genre of folk music as a kid. It’s definitely something that more in my adulthood I became aware of. My band mate, Rosie, she grew up in a very folkie family … for lack of a better word. She’s got a true folk pedigree. So she grew up with these songs and they were very much a part of her childhood. But for my part, it’s something I came into more into my twenties. I think a lot of us who learn about different genres of music, you do that through gateway artists. You know, whether it be Dylan, Tom Waits or Nick Cave you start learning about other types of music that you weren’t aware of. Nick Cave put out a murder ballads record called Murder Ballads, I think it came out in the mid-90s. I think that would have been my first exposure to this type of genre, but he definitely did not do it in a traditional sense. We went back to versions that were done by the old folkie type arrangements whether it was done by Blue Sky Boys or Stanley Brothers, you know, that kind of sound. That was the source material, but we weren’t trying to replicate that, we were just sort of … we wanted to start with what we thought were some of the earlier versions of these songs and then take a stab at them, being mindful that a song like “Pretty Polly” has been recorded hundreds of times. You’re not trying to make a definitive version, you’re just trying to make a compelling version of that kind of song.
There are some pretty frightening songs on that album – “Pretty Polly” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” for example. They’re very matter of fact songs that go into detail about rather grisly subjects. Did you pick songs based on how deeply the lyrics and tone affected you, or was it based on which ones were the best source material?
Definitely both. Definitely how they affected us. For me, “The Murder of the Lawson Family” was the most brutal song in that collection. I couldn’t believe how brutal that story was, and it’s a totally true story. And in doing a little research, you kind of learn the back story or the history of some of these songs and you know, that happened in Stokes County, North Carolina in the early 20th century. There is a lot of speculation as to why it happened and what the specifics were, but that version doesn’t really mask or use metaphors, it just tells the story. The juxtaposition of what sounds like the most childlike melody, I think, in terms of just this record. That song marries a very friendly, childlike melody to an incredibly gruesome story and I think that juxtaposition is really, really interesting. So that was very affecting, both melodically and thematically … it was very affecting.
Is there any one song in particular that dates back farther than the rest?
“Pretty Polly” goes back quite far and “Down in the Willow Garden” as well. “Henry Lee” is one of the older ones. A lot of these came over from the British Isles, so maybe they were Irish or English or Scottish folk songs and maybe, well not maybe, but at some point they came over on a boat with the people who knew them. And they kind of got stuck in Appalachia or different versions of those songs and then kind of became offshoots of each other. You know some of these songs almost feel like cousins of each other. A story like “The Knoxville Girl”, “Banks of the Ohio” and “Pretty Polly” kind of tell a similar story. Not identical, but it’s quite similar. Willie, the villain, that name pops up in a handful of murder ballads. But as far as which one is the oldest, probably “Henry Lee” or “Pretty Polly” but I am not entirely sure about that.
Yeah, I did some research myself but assumed I’d end up not finding exactly what I wanted to, so figured maybe you’d be the authority.
(Laughs) Well I did research on all this too, and by research I mean I went to Wikipedia (laughs), which counts as research at this point in my life.
(Laughs) That’s good enough I figure. The songs on your albums often paint vivid pictures through storytelling. When you’re listening to music, are you more of a fan of songs in that same vein, or do you also take pleasure in listening to more abstract songs?
I would say both. Speaking personally, I like variety and I don’t necessarily want to hear some of my favorite artists churn out the same-sounding record every time, or the same thematic ideas every time. I like bands that push themselves and elbow out their parameters a bit. And sometimes I love a great story and other times I love a great mysterious melody. We’re working on a new record right now that sounds absolutely nothing like Oh, Willie, Please ... It’s probably the most pop-oriented record we’ve made in terms of just structure and arrangement and instrumentation. But for me it’s just about maintaining a level of interest. If it’s a good story, that can do it. If it’s a great rhythm, that can do it. If it’s a hook, or a melody … you know … best case scenario you get a lot of those elements working at once and you get something really special.
So there’s a new album in the mix as you just said, wondering how far along in development that is?
We are certainly more than halfway down the road, and we’ll be wrapping it up this fall. We’ve got a pretty lengthy touring schedule coming up this fall.
Yeah, seems like you guys always have a busy touring schedule.
(Laughs) Yeah, we try to keep pretty busy. Sometimes feels like an exercise in self-punishment (laughs). But other times it feels really liberating. But yeah, in between our fall touring we’re going to be wrapping up LP number five, and I can’t see too far into the future, but I feel like it’ll be coming out certainly next year and hopefully the first half of next year.
The band participated in The 78 Project last year. Can you give us a little background on the project and how you guys got involved?
Yeah, The 78 Project really was the catalyst for the murder ballad record. We were asked to participate towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. We got involved with that project … Lavinia … Lavinia Jones Wright is one of the co-creators of The 78 Project. She happens to be a friend of ours and we knew she was, sort of embarking on this ambitious project with a creative partner of hers in New York, but we didn’t know the scope of it. We kind of got in on it on the front end. We did our session in New York City the very tail-end of 2011, and honestly preparation for that session was what sort-of spearheaded the Oh, Willie, Please … record. But, we got in at the nick of time because right after we did our session they started picking up artists like Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright, Rosanne Cash … like totally bona fide artists. (Laughs) We feel like we snuck in right at the right time. But it’s cool, it’s a great project. They have contemporary artists take songs in the public domain and record them in really interesting settings, and they capture all of that on a 78 RPM acetate machine … I mean it’s a Presto and branded … the name of the machine is a Presto 78 RPM acetate record maker or something like that. It’s a little, magical looking device. Well, it’s not little … it’s like the size of a little lawnmower.
Oh wow, I wasn’t thinking it was that big.
Well, like a push mower without the handlebars. It’s big … it’s clunky. And … god, it’s just really cool to watch that whole process. But, not unlike, singing in the can. What’s that Coen Brothers movie where they sing into the can? O Brother, Where Art Though? It’s very much like that. There’s one microphone, everybody kind of sits around the mic, and you play, and then it’s cutting the record as you play… it’s quite cool. So on the A side of the record you do a traditional, and on the B side you do an original. And this project has kind of blossomed into a feature-length film they’re working on right now. They’ve been traveling all of the country for the last year and a half. It’s going to be quite a thing when it’s all said and done.
And that was just a one take scenario, you had one shot at it and that’s it, right?
Yeah, that’s true. No pressure.
Yeah, right (laughs). This thing’s older than dirt … go!
Oh, and temperamental, too. Real temperamental (laughs).
“However Many Takes it Takes” off 2007’s Grace and Speed is truly a fantastic song. Was that song written for anyone in particular?
Thanks, man. Yeah, probably at first, but songs are curious things. You think you’re writing it for one reason or for one person and it turns out it’s not necessarily about that person, or entirely about that person. I wrote that song very, very quickly. The memory is quickly yellowing, and becoming kind of a sepia tone (laughs). That record - Grace and Speed - I wrote it very quickly and recorded it very quickly. It really wasn’t intended to be a proper release. I just wanted to make a recording of songs by myself primarily, as opposed to in a band situation. And, it kind of took off on its own, and kind of sparked a little thing. So … yeah, I think that’s probably more contemplative and less specific than I probably originally thought it was.
It’s funny you saying that it was a quicker album, because it’s a fantastic record and seems like you put a lot into it.
Thanks. Yeah, we put a lot more time into the other one (laughs).
(Laughs) Always the way it works.
Yeah, each go ‘round is a little different.
You’ve toured extensively in the past – is there a city in particular that you like to visit more than any other?
My goodness, it’d be hard to pick just one. I can give you a handful of them. Paris is fabulous. Yeah, Paris is pretty rad. You know, I’m a Kentucky boy so I love going home. I love every time we get a chance to play Louisville or Lexington. I don’t feel like D.C. is home, still feel like Kentucky is home. I mean, it really depends. There are little towns where we just have wonderful experiences. Roanoke, Virginia has always been a really fabulous place just to stop and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense why it is, but it’s just a great … great little town. Avid music lovers … and that makes it really interesting for us. A lot of it comes down to if there’s a good promoter and a small army of real believers and supporters, that turns that city into a special place to play. You know, Boise was an amazing stop on our last tour. I can’t really explain it, but … you know … Boise, Idaho … there you go. Just kind of zig zag across the road, like a pinball a bit, and sometimes it clicks. One of my favorite cities we visited is one of our toughest markets. It doesn’t really have a lot of bearing on … I guess it’s just one sort of long extended crapshoot.
Seeing as you’re a great storyteller, and I know this could require a long answer, but wondering what a few of your favorite books are?
Oh, yeah that could be a long answer.
I know, I feel the same way, but just whatever comes to mind.
I’m reading Blood Meridian right now … Cormac McCarthy. I think he’s probably my favorite living author. I think I’m ready to commit. I haven’t been necessarily ready to commit, but I think I’m ready to commit. He’s my favorite living author.
I read that one a bit ago. That’s a tough little read.
Brutal, yeah. It’s a brutal read (laughs).
I was kind of scared of what I’d read at times throughout that book.
(Laughs) Got a lot of murder ballads in that one. That one gets a little dark.
(Laughs) Yeah, a little beyond that.
(Laughs) Yeah, one of the quotes in that book … the judge, the character the judge, who said that, and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the book in front of me, “War always was … man arrived and … war was waiting for him,” something to that effect just saying, “War is,” and it’s not necessarily a choice or a man-made thing and it’s not a choice that we make, it simply is. And it’s inevitable and it just sort of waits for us to come around to it. That’s kind of the gist I got from that.
I think that pretty much sums it up.
Yeah, and I just hit that page a couple days ago right into the run up of this Syria thing, and there’s so much truth to that. Because I don’t think Obama came into office thinking he would be authorizing military strikes and now he’s out there making cases for just such a thing. And, god, it’s just such a conflicting thing. But yeah, Cormac … that was the answer.
Vandaveer is set to play Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati towards the end of this month – what should fans expect from you guys when you take the stage?
What should they expect … I’m not going to say anything snarky or silly … we’ll hopefully be well rested and we’ll have just returned from a blitzkrieg trip to Paris and back so hopefully we won’t be jet lagged. We’ll be rested and hopefully we’ll find an audience that’s receptive to a batch of murder ballads in an otherwise buoyant music festival.
(Laughs) I think it will help break up the tension.
We’re gonna stick to our guns and play songs from our new record. But we’re going to be mindful that we’re in the middle of a celebratory music festival. I think Midpoint’s become something really special. I remember it ten years ago maybe, and what it is today … it really truly is blossoming.
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