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Interview with Bearfoot

Bearfoot lead singer Odessa Jorgenson on the band's new album




© Daniel Meigs
Bearfoot has been making progressive bluegrass music for nearly a decade, churning out an average of one album every three years. With the departure of long-time lead singer Analisa Tornfelt in late 2008, the band brought in Odessa Jorgenson, who had been performing with the Biscuit Burners, inked a deal with Compass Records, and went to work on album number four, Doors and Windows. In the wake of that disc’s release, Jorgenson was kind enough to chat with me about filling Tornfelt’s shoes and the new album.

Tell me about your new record and how that came to be?
We started talking about a record right after we signed with Compass in September last year. The material for the album – I had just joined the band so everything we were playing was really new. It was sort of an open book. We had literally been playing together about a month, not even a month. A few weeks on the road. I had original material I was working on, not necessarily for Bearfoot but I just happened to be working on some stuff. We all had been really busy – I was with the Biscuit Burners at the time. I had just been in Denmark for almost a month and [jumped] straight on the road with Bearfoot so there wasn’t really any downtime to compile material together, so we had a really busy tour schedule until we wanted to record.

We decided to rent a house in Netherlands, Colo. It was up in the mountains, completely disconnected from everything. It was a small town there without very many distractions. That was exactly what we wanted. We wanted to really focus and delve in. So we had some Mac laptops and basically asked a lot of our friends who are songwriters and a producer and whoever else thought they had good songs for the album to send us stuff. I brought a lot of my original material. While we were there, Angela wrote a tune and I collaborated on one. It just all fell together because we were all in one place concentrating on creating. It was about seven days of that. Every day we would go through the material and pick a couple of tunes to focus on what we liked...by the end of the week we had 99 percent of the material.

Right after that we went out on tour for a few weeks and then immediately into the studio. We didn't tour with the material that was on the record. We came up with a lot of the arrangements in the studio, which was a different experience for me because a lot of times you work on the material a lot, get it down pat, then go in and record. So we took the opposite approach. But it worked great – it brought out a lot of spontaneity and different ways of going about playing things, just because it was on the spot. That's how we came up with the material and we spent 10 days in the studio in Nashville at Compass records. We had a great experience there. That's pretty much the album in a nutshell.

Your music isn't always totally traditional bluegrass. "Single Girl" (purchase/download) is in there, but it's more bluegrass informed. How would you categorize it?
That's such a hard question because it's really hard to put it in a spot. When people ask me I call it Americana, because it's really not bluegrass and it's not old time, it's not traditional but there are elements of all of those things in the music. Also it's a lot of original material so it's very much our own thing.

I think a lot of bands that are up and coming – Bearfoot's been around for a while – but are starting to get known, are infusing a lot of different elements of Americana all together and making different genres out of it. It seems like a trend, or where folk music is...
It's like any other music. You look back at Bill Monroe and those guys who were the founders of bluegrass. They got their ideas from jazz and blues and it was...bluegrass is a melting pot of all those ideas. I feel like that's what we're doing now with each generation – taking bluegrass ideas and weaving them all together, making this new thing out of it. That's what we're all doing. A lot of that is original ideas and I didn't grow up playing bluegrass music at all. I just got into it a few years ago, but I was always in bands all through high school. We did mostly original music. We're really into creating our own thing.

There's an element of the Bluegrass community that's full of hard-core traditionalists who aren't super keen on embracing progressive elements. Do you feel that when you're on the road or at festivals or do you feel like even the traditionalists embrace you guys with an open mind?
We honestly don't really play those festivals. There are those festivals that are very traditional and everybody knows the songbook. That's great and people really enjoy that. We don't play those kinds of festivals because...I guess we have. I definitely have felt a little bit from the audience like, what’s going on here? This isn't what we expected. But we tend to play more [places] like Rockygrass where it's a folk and bluegrass festival. Most people are just there to intake music and appreciate it. I feel like that's most of our crowd.

What was it like for you coming into this well-established band from another well-established band. Do you think you've had a lot of influence on how they do things, or is it vice-versa?
Definitely. You bring a new person into anything and you'll have different ideas. I'm coming from a different place. I think Bearfoot's music has changed a lot. Analisa was a big part of their creative core and she and I are good friends. I love her material. We definitely have different ways of expressing ourselves musically. It definitely changed things.

What are you up to this summer? Are you hitting all the festivals?
We're doing Rockygrass, California World Fest, Strawberry – I'm really excited about that one. I grew up in California so that's my home turf. I'm terrible about keeping all these things in my mind. Right now I'm on the top of a mountain in Juneau. I just climbed Mount Roberts and I'm about to take a tram down. We're playing Juneau on Friday and we'll be in Alaska the next two weeks.

For Bearfoot's full tour schedule and other information, visit their Web site.

Interview conducted June 10, 2009

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