Cincinnati Folksinger and The Uptown Band are just two guys, a guitar and an upright bass. Michael Hoffman plays guitar and harmonica and sings, and good friend Elia Burkhart plays upright bass and also sings. They are releasing a much anticipated first album cleverly named Cincinnati Folksinger and The Uptown Band. I have had the pleasure of having many a conversation with Mike and he is sharp as a tack and quick as a whip, but one of the funniest and carefree guys I know. Maybe not carefree, because we all have our cares but he comes quick with the wittiness. The first time I saw Mike was about a year ago at The Crow’s Nest, and was impressed by the songwriting. The true form of folk music, and the keeping things simple on stage were refreshing. Most recently however I asked Michael a few questions and his answers are just far too great for me to simply write a review. So I’ll let Cincinnati Folksinger and The Uptown Band, Michael Hoffman take it from here.
Moose: What is your earliest musical memory?
MH: The songwriting escapades have only been (within) the last few years. I played clarinet when I was 10 years told. Actually, everyone else began a year later when the middle school band started. I think my mom wanted to get me private lessons a year before my peers started playing because I'm a slow learner or am dumb or something. That's at least when I started playing music. I picked up the guitar when I was about 14 years old. By time I was 16 I actually started taking it more seriously. So seriously in fact that I had tossed the clarinet out of a car window on the highway at a semi-truck and never looked back. Still pickin' guitar. Kind of wished I had a clarinet actually, but oh well. I didn't think that one over too much. Probably more of an impulsive act of disestablishmentarianism against the administration of middle/high school band institutions. You can’t teach someone how to play an instrument in a classroom. I mean, you can, but I had rather taught myself guitar at that time.
Moose: How did you get your start playin’ music?
MH: I was playing in jam bands for years. We did some of the festivals around Cincinnati and went out of town occasionally. I got more interested in songwriting a few years ago. I have always been listening to singer/songwriter/folksigner-type-stuff, shout out to my boy Townes Van Zandt. I moved to Asheville, NC when my bass player was moving to Boston, and that was the end of our jam band. In Asheville I was surrounded by remarkable folk music and lyricists. I still like jammin’ in my kitchen with friends on those beery Saturday nights, so I get to use both the songwriting and jammin’ parts of my brain now. A lot of what Cincinnati Folksinger and the Uptown Band do on stage is actually improvised jams too, but with some solid songwriting behind it. I was hoping that using both parts of my brain would make me smarter but I still am always misplacing stuff. One time I turned the stove on to make coffee and left the house, but then I remembered that I didn’t have any coffee and went back about 30 minutes later and the stove was still on and my tea kettle was charred blacker than midnight, the house was burning and smelled really gross for a while. How dumb is that? Am I ranting? Anyways, I get to live the best of both- worlds, improvising and writing. And, I’ll never leave the stove on again. I still do misplace my car keys a lot though. What was the question?
Moose: Whom has been your biggest supporter, advocate, or inspiration musically or artistically? (Non-famous like a family member, best friend, or the like)
MH: Not the venture capitalists. They never return our emails or text messages. We thought it'd be cool to get sponsored by like, US Bank or something. Cincinnati has a great music community, and a lot of the musicians in that community have been the biggest supporter. We have countless venues, seems like new ones are sprouting daily, and an infinite number of bands. It's hard to see everyone's shows and own everyone’s albums. Some of the bands and venues have been exceptionally vocal about giving us an opening set, residencies or monthly gigs, and that's helped us build a fan base within, especially the folk, music community. That's something that I don't see in other cities when we are on the road. People hear us on WNKU now, so we have some radio that supports local folk bands. I host a lot of out of town bands, and my number one goal is to make sure they understand how much Cincinnati appreciates local music and treats their musicians appropriately. Out of town musicians I host are always impressed. So, the Cincinnati music community has definitely been our biggest supporter, advocate and inspiration. We even put Cincinnati in our band name because we just love this city so much it hurts sometimes. The Reds have room for improvement, but the local folk music community is impeccable, one of the best I’ve seen.
Moose: What has the songwriting process been like?
MH: I've got songs that I work on for months and after finishing writing them, finally play through them the first time, I realize they are garbage. I've got stuff that I start writing on restaurant napkins frantically and impulsively, but then keep going until I've got a bundle of scrap paper with lyrics to folk ballads clogging my pockets in less than 5 minutes and some of those have been my best songs. I like the spontaneous writing, it doesn't always work. You need to have a really good idea. Starting the song is always the toughest part. Once I get going, the second challenge is putting the pen down. I still will work on songs for months at a time and they can turn out. The songs I'm most proud of are the spontaneous ones. Some of those on the album are “Roy”, “Simple Life”, “West Price Hill”.
Moose: With this being your first album, how does it feel?
MH: Guud. I've been asked to put albums out by fans for a while, which is reassuring when people want to buy your music after a show. It means we didn’t totally blow it, and they like us enough to spend some money. I finally had a collection of songs that worked really well together. Elia Burkhart, my bassist, helped a lot to push me into actually getting the recording process going. We met Josh Wickizer, he ran our sound at Foxfire Freedom Fest and he was accommodating in producing the album. Everything was coming together at the same time, so it felt right to get the ball rolling. Those venture capitalists are going to be coming to us soon.
Moose: The songs seem to be a bit mysterious, but with humor as a sidekick, which i enjoy so where do you find inspiration?
MH: I'm a psycho. I'm mysterious too woooooooooo ... (waving hands in the air trying to be mysterious...). Folk music is full of murder ballads and really dismal themes. Listen to Doc Boggs’ “Oh Death”. He’s just pleading for death to not take him away for one more year. Ballads were kind of a way to warn people about kidnaps and murders before we had social media posting videos of police brutality on our feeds every morning. Playing folk music, I wanted to continue that tradition, but we play a lot of bars on weekends when people are trying to relax and party so I throw some humor in there to loosen a portion of the weight that the heavier traditional ballads carry. One writing style I admire and attempt on this album is to keep positive-bluegrass-upbeat-sounding-songs, but have those be about traditional folk/Americana themes. The song “Blood, Pt. II” on the album is an example of that writing style on the album.
Moose: Who plays with you on the album?
MH: Elia Burkhart is on upright bass and backing vocals. He sings his original song "Take Me To the Station", one of my favorite songs on the album. Andrew Wood wrote "Further On Down the Road" and wrote the chorus to "Blood, Pt. II". We were in a band when I first started writing lyrics. He has been really inspirational and a great co-writer to work with so I wanted to put some of his work on my album. Otherwise, it's just us. Josh Wickizer from Poor Indiana Man Productions was great! He produced and Mixed/Mastered the thing with Elia. We toss more people in the band sometimes, and we'll have a really good line-up of guests at our CD Release Show on May 29 at Southgate House Revival to share the stage.
Moose: How did y'all meet?
MH: I met Elia, bassist, at a house show at his place. He was hosting touring bands in the DIY scene. I was in college and a mutual friend forced me to stop doing calculus homework and just go for 5 minutes to check it out. Elia offered to join a bluegrass band I was playing banjo with that was looking for an upright bassist. He played upright bass in that seven piece bluegrass band, The Possum Bottom Minstrels Bluegrass Band. I kept playing with them for a while, but also started playing with their washboarder Greg Zoller, who happens to be an upright bassist and great songwriter, to do a two piece project focused on songwriting. We added Elia on drums occasionally. When Greg moved to Peru last summer, Elia got promoted from the drums to upright bass. That's how the current band got going.
Moose: What is next now that the album is done and finished, now what?
MH: We will be releasing the CD Friday, May 29 at Southgate House Revival in the lounge, free show. We play all night, about 10pm-1am. We are hitting the road this summer. We've got a lot of regional shows. We'll be in Lexington, Louisville, Berea KY, Blooming IN a few times, Athens, OH just to name a few. We are starting to do really well on the road, so we are going to spread our album and love for Cincinnati across the Midwest and Southeast. Of course, we’ll be playing around Cincinnati too.
Moose: Lastly, why music? Of all jobs to pursue, or creative ways to explore, why this medium, why music?
MH: Oh. That’s a good question. I mean, I can tell you why folk music. I’m not going to be selling out Taft Theater or Riverbend Music Center playing folk music. I started playing electric guitar and thought I’d be shredding some fresh gnar-gnar. That didn’t end up happening. Folk music is simplistic. There are folks (no pun intended, I swear) that play all over the fretboard in an elegant and complex frenzy and I tip my hat to them, but I feel most comfortable with acoustic guitar and upright bass, keeping things simple. Our band can focus on the songs as songs, no wild instrumentation or midi-multi-tracking distracting listeners from the actual song. We don’t have Lil’ John yelling, “YYEAAHHH!!!! WWHAAATT!!!! OKKAAYYY!!!!,” in the background because folk music doesn’t really need a hype-man. Folk music doesn’t need the “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solos. Breaking away from the distractions is difficult because you have to have a song people want to hear, and they are often for their first time listening to it performed live while getting hammered at happy hour watching the Reds lose or on WNKU during a hectic commute. Folk music provides that challenge, keeping it interesting enough to pursue as a “job” or whatever you want to call it.
Cincinnati Folksinger and the Uptown Band are releasing their debut album in The Lounge at the Southgate House Revival in Newport on Friday May 29th. The album resonates with Cincinnati themes, and both Michael Hoffman and Elia Burkhart have put together an album’s worth of songs that just make you want to drive around Cincinnati or any city. You can feel the way the city breathes. The way the city smells, and the way it sounds. Michael, while as humorous as he can be, still took Cincinnati with this album and gave it a life. He makes it breathe. The joy of folk music is too share your song with anyone, no-one, or everyone and these songs are most definitely worthy of that.