Be The Best Folk Singer You Can Be – Interview

Before we get into it, here’s some thinking:
Just as I have begun to doubt all of this, my speakers need to be calibrated, the recordings were great in the club, and people loved them (like freaking out loved them), I secretly began to suspect that the expense of this 12” may be gratuitous (why not just release it digitally?) and as usual feeling invisible, unlovable and down about my big ideas (because I’m an artist, a Cancerian, a living poem, and kinda stupid) I start getting asked questions.

They may not flower into a garden, result in endless love (let alone barefoot dancing) but they have opened my other eye (and thus my heart). This morning my friend John asked these questions. Irritated, delighted, and a little perplexed, I answered them before I got out of bed to do yoga.
So they are fresh, raw, and right off the top of my head.

Questions from John Topley
Answers from Sunshine Jones

I hope you dig reading them, and mostly I hope they inspire you to sing.

LOVE

THE INTERVIEW:

You said that you would like to be asked a question and previously you have said that no-one ever asks you questions about your art. So here are some questions about the folk singer EP:

Before I answer these, let me say that I adore our dialog. This is important. You ask a lot of questions (and so do I) and that’s not what I meant. I meant that in general people heckle, and assert their opinion and suggestions for additional shopping, but rarely ask a question, or listen. You aren’t “people”. You’re my friend John.

What did you set out to achieve when making this EP?
Did you succeed?

I set out to strip away everything. Down to the bass line, the drums, and explore composition, repetition and sonic architecture. What I found there was the roots of the music I love, and what makes me dance. Acid house, house music. Simple drums, simple melody, and found myself dancing and really feeling pretty euphoric. So I decided to record these little experiments to tape, live, and see what came of it.

I don’t know if it’s been a success or not. A little of both. Mainly because when you’re talking about recorded music, we are talking now about a product. Here’s a record you can buy. It’s not about process or art anymore. And since this is dance music, then it is to be held up against popular tracks, and all that’s come before. So asking if it’s a success is like saying “Have you made a banger?” No. I have not made a “banger”.
But if you’re asking did you successfully record some stripped down framework to tape, lose yourself in the process, and then like what you heard listening back to it the next day, and are able to hear it again without wanting to leave the room or make more edits? Then yes, it’s a success.

Who is this record for?

These are challenging tracks. They are slow, wide, and repetitious.
They are for DJ’s and dancers looking for a way out of the loop of the “festival” and into the basement.
It’s a flier. I am looking for my people.

It’s five years since your last major release, the album HOME.
How do you think your art has developed since then?

It’s been 5 years since ‘HOME’, funny, I thought it was longer. My development has been internal since HOME. I have continued to strip away the trappings of digital art, and return to frequencies, and retrace my steps back to a place of inspiration, and attempt to come forward into a previous vision of the future. That’s what the premise was anyway, but consider that since 2020 we’ve all been through quite a lot. The collective PTSD of the world, the constant barrage of crisis, plus lockdowns, and masks, and no work has left the world in a very different place than it was going in. My art paused from 2020 to 2022. I didn’t produce one thing during that time. I was out in the street helping people. So in 2023 I began to look around, got right back to work, and found that playing that material live and saying whatever I was saying before didn’t feel good to me. So I kind of tried to drop it. That left me wondering about what I might want to say now. Dance floors really wanted a sweet, positive message, and I felt 90’s house making a big comeback, as well as the sounds of 80’s and 90’s house seeping into hiphop, and pop music. But I was angry, and traumatized. I lost 104 people I know in the last 4 years and I still haven’t really begun to unpack that. I’m holding a lot. Too much.

In the last 5 years I’ve written about 45 songs, undertaken and aborted some pretty big projects – the Jupiter 4, 6, 8 love letter (photography completed, soundtrack recorded, essay written and then I decided not to produce it), curating and attempting the recording of my next full length album (struggled with the content, theme and this evolved into wanting to perform theater shows, looking into the practical aspects of this, and deciding the whole idea would actually cost money, wondering if anyone wanted to come to a theater to see me play synthesizer, and then setting the whole project aside and rethinking it) acquired, sold, restored, repaired, and built a decent amount of equipment, I’ve done my best to add new material to my live set and learn about these ideas of analog layers, textures, in a larger sound system without resorting to computers, then taking a complete trip back to computers (the extra hands I was needing) and restored a selection of Macintosh computers. First I got into the macintosh SE and the early versions of Cubase and vision, then I got involved with a Mac G4 Quicksilver and a ProTools system, then I juxtaposed all of that with my MacBook Pro and found myself full circle again. I just don’t like computers, or what they do to me. I feel sad, distracted, and out of the moment when I am working on a computer. So I tossed it all aside, and returned to the basic idea of live performance to tape.

So I guess it’s been a lot of learning, re learning, and editing really. Cutting away things which aren’t important, and looking closely at what is important, how that works, and what that means to me. All of this while being a single father, a hand to mouth artist, and ferrying my son out of high school, though college, and out the other side. It’s been a very busy half decade.

Do you sing on this record?

Not a word.

What is the connection you are drawing between folk music and electronic music?

“Folk” is a genre. It conjured up the mandolin, the violin, the acoustic guitar, a Persian rug etc. That’s not what I mean.

House and hip hop are musical expressions of the late 20th century. The last voice of the century of self. What we call “electronic music” now generally means music made on a computer. It’s a thing. Anyone can get a copy of some software and make music. Its similar in a lot of ways to anyone being able to pick up a guitar and start a band. Yet, I see our art being recycled. People want other people to do vocals rather than getting a mic and singing their own song – they say “I can’t sing”. People use computers and say “I can’t play”. So they are in effect just software operators. The novelty of that has worn off for me. I don’t want you to re edit the breakdown of one of my tracks from the 90’s. I want you to get a drum machine and program it. I want you to get a mic and sing.

This, to my mind, is folk music. People, without training, without anything more than passion and creativity, getting together and letting their song come out. I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. So I felt I would look to those who have truly inspired me and follow, drawing the line between a folk singer, and a person in the world today without a genre, without a template, without a computer, and say yes instead of no. Do what you feel is best with what you have instead of needing to buy something, or learn something more than what you already know.

Folk music in the strictest sense is defined as songs passed down between generations orally. How do you support your assertion that live, improvised electronic music is the last original folk music we have?

I think it’s wise to remember that if we don’t know our history then we can’t be a part of our destiny. You can do whatever you want, but it’s a good idea to know the rules you are going to break. Looking back at house music I see a cannon of amazing, timeless, and totally forgotten music. There will never be an anthology which does it any justice. There will be some great compilations, collections, but the criteria for these is imperialistic. We call a classic track something which sold well, and was popular at one time. We don’t value the moments which changed our lives in anonymous basements, by DJ’s we don’t know, playing records we never knew the name of. To me, those moments have been everything.

Our cultural memory is passed down through samples, loops, three notes and a kick drum. That’s our coal miner’s strike song.

Why are all the dedications on this EP to female folk singers?

Joan Baez began as a church singer from the east coast. A 15 year old wonder who met Martin Luther King Jr. and was invited to sing at his events. She recorded her first album in 1960 and it went gold. The most successful record by a woman ever made (and neither of us have ever even heard it) She gave Bob Dylan his career, introduced him at Carnegie Hall and asked her audience to please listen to her friend Bob. She lost interest in money and fame by the middle 1960’s and opened a school in California to teach peace and non violence. She went to Woodstock to sing, and appeared at rallies and events for causes she believed in and stopped paying any attention to charts. Just Joan. That’s amazing.

Joni Mitchell is a Canadian who started out in music halls in Saskatoon where she wrote ‘Both Sides Now’, ’The Circle Game’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’. A gifted writer, singer, painter, polio survivor, and a uniquely blythe figure. She hit Toronto, New York, and then settled down in Los Angeles in the late 60’s and collaborated with just about everyone interesting at that time. Outspoken about process, art, and technique, Joni is marvelously herself. She got old before our very eyes, and is now doing what she’s always done, singing, into her 80’s.

Carole King wrote ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’. Not much more needs ot be said, but she wrote ‘the Loco-Motion’ for her babysitter (Little Eva) and spent 1958 to 1968 writing ‘Up on the roof’, ‘One fine day’, You make me feel (like a natural woman)’, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, ‘Chains’, ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ and so many more songs before finally stepping into the recording studio to record herself playing her material. She’s changed the world in so many ways, so many times. A woman, a piano, and a voice.

Laura Nyro was born in the Bronx, wrote for Barbara Streisand, the 5th Dimension, Maynard Ferguson, had a three octave mezzo soprano voice. She appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 where she met David Geffen, and began a different kind of career. Wrote ‘Stony End’ and had a hit single singing Carole King’s ‘Up on the roof’ and was an absolute force of nature.

All of these women were at one time relegated to the section of a record store called “Women’s Music”. Set aside from the juggernaut of “rock”, “soul”, “jazz” and “classical” and yet these unique, talented, brilliant, and amazing people shaped the heart and soul of the 20th century (and most of us didn’t know it).

House music has done the very same thing.

So I am making this correlation, and presenting this dedication to not only give credit where credit is due, but more importantly to inspire people to follow their example. Being famous is chump change compared to being inspired.

Will you be performing this EP live? What challenges does that present?

It’s interesting to me how different a 303 and a 909 sound live than they do when recorded. I have a lot to learn about how to bring these fundamental sounds to life in a club without redlining the mixer, or underwhelming the audience. But yes. I think these songs must be played live. And I have a lot more to learn about what live improvised electronic music has to offer, what a song is, and what it means to make dance music.

I played 3 of the 4 recording last weekend. They went over quite well. But I also learned that there’s something wrong with my speakers.
So I may have to repair them, or calibrate them, and then start all over again. I’m not sure right now. I am resting my ears, and enjoying a week to myself right now. I’ll listen again with some friends soon and let you know.

Postscript:
The TUOC 12″ Single Release of ‘Be the best folk singer you can be’ by Sunshine Jones – 4 tracks recorded live to reel to reel tape, pressed to vinyl, and hand stamped labels, signed and limited edition release is in the works. Pre orders are not yet open, and no release date has been set. This is just a piece of a larger project intended to learn and grow from, but most importantly to dance to.

One Comment

  1. Brian Busto:

    Inspiring interview and wonderful music. Thank you for continuing to do and teach after all these years.

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