BISS List Interview with Leonard Podolak of the Duhks (5.20.15)

By BissList Contributing Editor, Josh Danson

I recently spoke with Leonard Podolak, the founder and banjo player of the Canadian alt-folk outfit, The Duhks, in advance of their upcoming swing through Northern California. The Duhks play in a wide range of styles and draw inspiration from a number of sources – from old-time Appalachian to Bluegrass, from Celtic to Cajun, from Blues to Rock – but to them, it’s all “Folk” music.

Podolak told me about his and lead singer Jessee Havey’s unique background growing up around the Winnipeg Folk Festival (Podolak’s father, Mitch, was one of the festival’s founders and continues to be a major player in the Canadian folk music scene) and how that background, along with the harsh climate of the Canadian plains, helped to shape who they are as musicians. We discussed the Duhks most recent album, “Beyond the Blue,” along with some matters political, and others strictly musical.

The Duhks are playing at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley this Thursday (05/21). If you like good music, for folks, do yourself a favor and check them out.

BissList: Let me start by saying what a pleasure it was for me to go back and explore some of your earlier recordings in preparing for this interview. And I have to tell you of a somewhat crazy coincidence… I’m listening to your first album, “Your Daughters and Your Sons,” when track four comes on, a beautiful ballad, and Jessee starts singing about the title character, ‘Annabel’. Well, that just happens to be my 8 year old daughter’s name – spelled the same and everything. So then I listened to it again a second time and understood that it was about a dearly-departed Annabel, and then when she started singing about being ‘lost without you Annabel’… Well, let’s just say I can’t listen to it with a dry eye anymore. Beautiful, beautiful song though.

Leonard Podolak: Yeah, that was written about the writer’s grandmother. We made that record about 3 or 4 month after we first started jamming together back in 2002 and this great singer-songwriter who was living in Winnipeg at the time named James Keelaghan knew that we were looking for material and he’s… I grew up in this business, my dad’s a big acoustic promoter, so I knew him and he was a good friend of the family and he had kind of followed my previous career and was always happy to lend a hand. So he heard Kat Goldman sing that song at a folk festival and he just thought it would be perfect for this band and so he suggested it to us. And it was just one of those things where we barely even arranged that, it just kind of arranged itself while we were playing. We used a couple little tricks to give it some shape, but it was one of those ones where that shape occurred about three or four times into jamming it for the first time because it’s such a simple little plaintive song that you don’t really need to do that much with it. And yeah – it’s a beautiful song.

BL: Beautiful, beautiful song. And it will always be special to me now, with that obvious personal connection.

So… The Duhks are from Winnipeg, your hometown. Tell me a little bit about growing up in Winnipeg. Is there a vibrant music scene there, or did you have to make your own scene? Is there anything intrinsically ‘Winnipegan’? Manitoban? About your music?

LP: Yeah, there sure is, actually. There’s a very vibrant music scene there. The Winnipeg Folk Festival has been very influential on a lot musicians there. We don’t come from a place where there’s a lot of perennial, indigenous, traditional music that’s in the mainstream. There’s the Metis tradition – which is an aboriginal fiddle tradition – and Metis is a derivative of the word moitie, which means half-and-half, which was derogatory, actually. Because the Metis people were half aboriginal and half French or Scottish, so there’s a whole culture of people from Manitoba and the Canadian prairies in general who are not 100% aboriginal but they have a very strong fiddle tradition that was brought over from Europe. But the music is really crooked and it hasn’t hit the mainstream one bit. It’s sort of hard to describe, but… aside from that, if you’re talking about Blues, or Old-Time Appalachian or French Canadian or Irish music, it’s the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Or even Metis music, really! It’s the Winnipeg Folk Festival where people would discover that, you know?

We have a very harsh climate for half the year. For literally six months it’s wintertime and for four of those six months it’s like really cold. So that, in combination with the Folk Festival and a plethora of amazing music venues, the city itself has nurtured this amazing culture of musicians. And it’s a lot of singer-songwriters. A lot of folks, actually, really influenced by Texas songwriters, believe it or not. It’s strange, but we’re sort of the ‘Austin of the North,’ I think. Anyway, Winnipeg is famous in Canada for its music scene and we are certainly products of that – the two Winnipeggers in the band, that is.

BL: So I’m hearing that for six months of the year you’ve basically got nothing better to do than sit together in a room with a bunch of friends and jam out. So that kind of explains it.  

LP: Yeah, and play music because it’s cold!

BL: That’s interesting about the Texas connection, because maybe it was in a similar fashion as to how The Hawks and Ronnie Hawkins and those other guys from the south used to come up and barnstorm through Canada, straight up from the Delta to Ontario. So maybe there’s that same sort of connection between Texas and Winnipeg.

LP: Yeah, well I think so. I mean, I’m not really sure how it’s happened but there’s a whole bunch of people like Scott Nolan and Romi Mayes who recorded a record with Gurf Morlix as producer, and he’s an amazing guitar player and really well-known down there in Austin. So I don’t know what it is, but…

BL: Probably just following those old North-South highways!

LP: Yeah, the music just follows the bed of the ancient Lake Agassiz that is now the plains. Winnipeg is at the top end… well it’s sort of the Eastern edge of the Canadian prairie, but it’s at the Northern edge of the Great Plains. You know, it’s a big prairie that goes from Texas to Manitoba as well. So I guess, as far as the music and cultural scene in Winnipeg, that could have had something to do with it. I don’t know. I could be talking out my ass here.

BL: [Laughs] Well, we’ll go with it! When you were first getting into playing music, did you do the standard garage band thing in your teens, or have you always played mostly acoustic music?

LP: Well, speaking for myself – I mean everyone’s done all kinds of crazy projects – but when I was fourteen I played synthesizer in a Guns N’ Roses cover band called “Visions of Insanity”. It was originally called “Apathy” but we changed it. We were 13 years old and 14 years old and we never played any gigs and we never left the basement. It was just a jamming thing. But meanwhile my dad had been trying to get me to learn old-time banjo since I was six and he bought me a very small, minstrel-style, S.S. Stewart banjo. But I thought that the brackets hurt my legs too much and I wasn’t interested. But then when I was sixteen I saw Bela Fleck play and I was like, “OK Pa, you can teach me that old-time stuff. And then when I get a bit of technique on the instrument I’ll be able to transfer over to bluegrass and then ‘Newgrass’.” But then in learning the banjo, and specifically clawhammer banjo – which is what my dad could teach me – I started listening to people like Doc Watson and Mike Seeger and I just fell in love with old-time music. And sort of around the same time I had the same kind of reaction with Irish music, so then I started trying to play reels and polkas and jigs and stuff like that, and not just stick with that traditional Appalachian repertoire. Then I took an Irish fiddle class with a woman named Eileen Ivers, who’s a very well-known Irish fiddle player, and she said, “Tunes are just a series of notes in a certain order, in a certain time signature, at a certain tempo. And you have all those notes and all the strings, so you can make up all sorts of different tunes and you can play whatever you want!” And I was like, “Yeah! Yeah, I can play whatever I want, to the best of my ability.” So I never let the fact that I play clawhammer banjo prevent me from playing any other kind of music that I want.

BL: Well that’s very cool and it actually brings me to the second part of my question, which was – Have you always played the more traditional "frailing" style of banjo, or did you experiment with different styles before settling on the claw-hammer style?

LP: Well, yeah, It’s all frailing, it’s all clawhammer. Everything I do is played in a traditional technique, but what isn’t traditional are the melodies and the repertoire that I choose to play on it.

Like, I try to imitate a triangle if I’m playing Cajun music and I try to imitate an electric guitar if I’m playing rock n roll. You know what I mean? And if I’m playing Irish music I try to be the fiddle. And if I’m playing old-time music I play more percussively.

BL: Right, like you can hear that on a track on your first album, “Crusty Rolls and Chili,” which is certainly not what you would think of as your traditional clawhammer style, it’s just ripping.

LP: Yeah, you know. There’s just so much I want to do. I wish I could play the button accordion really well and all these things, so I’ve always seen it as very important to have a fiddle player in The Duhks to bounce off of. But really, I just try to rock out on whatever it is I want to do.

BL: Who were some of your early musical influences? You mentioned Doc Watson and Mike Seeger, who else?

LP: Also a band from England called the Oysterband who were very influential on me. They’re sort of like an English folk-rock band. They started off as a traditional “Ceilidh” [Cay-lee] band playing accordion and fiddle music for dances, but they always had this kind of rock n’ roll side to them, and as time went on they focused more on the rock. You should check them out. Some people hate them because Celtic rock, it can be kind of a slippery slope, because it’s pretty easy to venture into cheese. But I think that their harmonies are amazing and their songwriting is amazing, they don’t always venture into cheese and they actually do a lot of cool cutting edge stuff that I think is amazing. And I want to talk about them because I feel like, now being back on the American festival scene, that they all have very similar lineups and the lineups are mostly artists based in the United States, with very few exceptions. You know there’s a couple of festivals that include music from around the world, but I’m finding that what’s really getting the publicity and getting the “juice” and getting all the attention at festivals are bands that are from here. And that’s just how it is. But what was amazing about the Festival growing up in Winnipeg was how much focus there was on artists from abroad and it wasn’t just about picking out who was on tour. It was more a focus on actually bringing people in to expose the crowd to music they’d never heard before.

There weren’t “headliners” when I was growing up on the Canadian festival scene. The festival was the headliner and people came because they didn’t want to hear what they could hear on the radio all the time, they wanted to come to the folk festival to hear something they couldn’t hear on the radio all the time. But the culture has kind of transformed to being more of a typical situation… But that’s what inspired all of us, all of the amazing music we saw growing up. Jesse and I in particular, as Winnipeggers, The Winnipeg Folk Festival exposed us to so much that we never would have seen.

BL: Yeah, that’s great. I just got back from Jazz Fest and people always ask, “Who are you excited to see?” And I’m like, “Well, not really any of the headliners.” I’m more interested to see all the bands that I don’t know, like the random Cajun band from Thibodeaux, Louisiana…

LP: That’s right. Yeah. That’s what’s so great about festivals. It’s just a constant discovery. Or at least it should be. I was just at the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina and that’s a very worldly festival and they were an exception. They had a lot of world music and it was really exciting because the Americana stuff fit in as part of the mosaic. You know? But I think that’s why our music is the way that it is, because we’re influenced by so much and we just want to play the music that we like. And that’s all it is really, we’re just playing the music we like.

BL: What’s the difference between the Canadian folk tradition and the Appalachian folk tradition? There’s obviously a very strong tradition there, both in the Maritimes and in Ontario and Manitoba, are there certain musical qualities or themes that are distinctly Canadian? Or is it all part of that broader folk tradition that has its roots in the Scots-Irish folk tradition?

LP: Well really there’s many different folk traditions in Canada. One is the Ottawa Valley fiddle style, which reminds me most of its English sibling, because it’s very clear-sounding, there’s not too much ornamentation, it’s very rhythmic and very showy. Whereas the Cape Breton tradition is more rooted in Scotland and it sounds a little bit dirtier. Then there’s the Quebecois tradition, which sometimes sounds like Irish music and sometimes sounds like Appalachian music. But I actually don’t think there’s really that much difference. I mean, there’s obviously differences in the styles, but the social phenomenon is exactly the same. They’re based on oral traditions that have been created through their experiences and are passed down from generation to generation, orally. And none of them come from the radio and none of them have made it into the mainstream. I mean, Celtic music had a little bit of a heyday in the 90’s with “Riverdance” and old-time music with “O’ Brother” about 10 or 12 years later. But generally speaking, the people who are in the trenches playing old-time music and playing Irish music and playing all these traditional styles, they’re all people who never set out to be famous. And mostly, if they are making a career out of it, think it’s the luckiest thing and flukiest thing in the world, you know? And bands like us who have actually enjoyed a fair amount of success, it’s like, “Wow, who would believe it when that happened?”

So these styles of music come from the heart and come from the traditions and the movement of the people, and they got created by the movement of the people over the course of history and it’s all born through struggle. And I think that’s why it’s so powerful musically and also why it’s stood the test of time.

BL: Tell me about why you chose to record Caroline Herring’s song, “Black Mountain Lullaby,” for this album? It has such a timeless quality to it, but if you read between the lines it’s about the horrible practice of mountaintop removal mining that is literally destroying mountains and whole communities in Appalachia. Do you guys have strong political leanings that often come out in your music, or is this something of a departure for you… or did you just think it was a pretty song?

LP: Yeah, well that was a fluke. I was on a project with Caroline in the U.K., called the Cecil Sharp Project, which was put together by this festival called the Shrewsbury Festival. They got six people from the U.K., mostly from England, and Caroline and me, of all people, to come there and we lived in a mansion in Shropshire for a week and a half and we basically workshopped and created and wrote a whole project about the collecting, in Appalachia, of Cecil Sharp between 1913-1915. He spent those two years roaming through the hills and hollers of Appalachia collecting songs that we now know, in the English traditional repertoire and the old-time repertoire and the bluegrass repertoire. A lot of these songs, like “Old Groundhog” – which was the first tune that I learned on the banjo – was collected by Cecil Sharp. As was “Molly Bond,” one of the great British murder ballads.

So anyway, Caroline decided to write a song about contemporary Appalachia and she heard about that story [The sad but true story of three year-old Jeremy Davidson who was killed in his own bed in Inman, VA, when a half-ton boulder – dislodged by workers cutting an illegal road at 2:30 AM on an MTR site – crashed through the wall of the Davidson trailer and came to rest on Jeremy's bed] and in her research she found the chorus to that lullaby, “Bye-bye baby, bye,” it’s actually a traditional chorus. And so she took that traditional lullaby chorus and decided to write that song about Jeremy Davidson and the whole thing that happened in Wise County when the mountaintop came down on the kid’s trailer. And I was there when she was finishing writing it and it was just really powerful. And that happened when the band was still on hiatus, before we’d put the whole thing back together. So then when we did get back together and we were coming up with repertoire, I just thought that would be a perfect song and would sort of pull some of the same emotional string as “Annabel,” believe it or not. And when we played it, we were like, “This is the new ‘Annabel’!” But we still play “Annabel” all the time because it’s a hit now and it can’t be replaced.

But “Black Mountain,” it’s a protest song. And it is about the process of mountain-top removal and about how dangerous that is. And then we can talk about fracking too at the same time. The more we mess with the planet… I mean, the evidence is there. It isn’t a theory. It’s not speculation and it’s very tangible. There’s that expression, you know, you don’t use the washroom where you sleep (that’s the clean version), but you know what I mean. But stuff like filling the ground full of chemicals to extract gas and cutting the tops of mountains off… mountains?!

BL: Yeah and then dumping it in the streams and valleys…

LP: Yeah. I mean who would think of such a thing besides some profiteer who cares nothing for anything or anyone but their profit? And I want to be very clear about why we sing that song, which is also to raise awareness of… traditional livelihoods. You know, I believe that environmentalists and workers are all on the same team. The propaganda that exists that tries to pit those people against each other ends up making them work against their own interests… So what we’re arguing is that those people need to be supported and lifted up. However, that technology [coal power] was created 200 years ago and we have done so much to move forward since then. So why can’t we educate people, slowly and gradually, we don’t expect it to happen overnight, but start the process of re-thinking how we derive energy and come up with a better way to think of things... Take that traditional lifestyle and focus that energy into another way of creating better, cleaner energy. You know? The same people that work in the coal pits could be operating all kinds of different things.

We’re in a time where we’re burning a hole in the ozone layer that protects us from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. You know? People get cancer just from walking around. We put chemicals in our food. Teenagers develop much faster than when I was a kid. It’s really bizarre. So… I’m sort of going off on a tangent and maybe into left field a little bit – but the fact of the matter is that workers and people who care about the environment are on the same team and are both victims of globalization and greedy free enterprise.

BL: No worries, I’m with you man.

There are some great rhythmic elements on your latest album, “Beyond the Blue,” which come from the interplay between your banjo and Kevin Garcia’s percussion work. What do Kevin and the rest of the new players add to the Duhks sound, or do you perceive it as just being more of the same and maintaining a continuity of sound?

LP: Well, it’s funny… We now have Jessee Havey back, who was our original singer. And Kevin, in particular, came in with this amazing spirit of respect for the history of the band and for what we’ve done. And what a player, gee whiz! With tons of great ideas. And he actually, really did embrace the rhythm of the banjo. You’re the first to ever mention that, to actually notice that. He pays a lot attention to what I do without me even knowing it. Every now and again he’ll come up with a new shot on stage that’s matching what I’m doing and I’m like, “Wow! I didn’t even know I was doing that.”

And the original guitar player in the band, Jordan McConnell, he incorporated another pickup in his guitar to highlight the bass. And now Colin [current Duhks guitar player, Colin Savoie-Levac] took that idea and extended it one step further so that he has three pickups in his guitar and he has an electric pickup that goes into an amp, he has a bass pickup that goes into an amp that picks up the two low strings, and then he plays through the DI, which is just the acoustic sound and he has three volume pedals and it’s amazing how he can control the blend of any one of those sounds at any time. So these guys have really embraced the history and the spirit of the band, however they are also carrying it forward and we are extremely excited to start working on our next project together. We’ve got a couple months off at the end of the year and I think that’s going to turn into pre-production for our next project which is actually going to be the first real record for this new band. “Beyond the Blue” was a beautiful series of happy accidents all happening together. We needed to have something and we sort of put it out maybe a bit quicker than I would’ve liked to. But on the drive I just took alone from Cincinnati to Atlanta, I listened to it for the first time in a long time and it’s actually really eclectic and I think it stands up with the rest of them.

BL: Yeah, there’s some real traditional sounding acoustic songs on there and then you’ve got some real rockers where you can’t really tell who’s plugged in and who’s not. And I’m wondering how that works out in your live show. Maybe you could describe to someone who hasn’t seen you guys live how that works. Are you mostly playing acoustic, or some acoustic and some electric?

LP: Yeah, well basically, Kevin has a setup that’s half drum kit and half percussion kit. And Colin, even though he’s playing an acoustic guitar, like I said before, he can switch seamlessly between sounds. And with Jess’ vocals, she’s inspired by both folk music and pop and Rock n’ Roll. So she brings this attitude where she can sing a folk song with a Rock n’ Roll vibe that people are really enthralled by. She’s an extremely engaging performer and her voice is very unique in a very good way. And the thing about Rock n’ Roll is, it’s a descendent of traditional blues and folk music and there is no actual, classical definition of what makes a folk song. You know Pete Seeger famously said, ‘Every song’s a folk song. I never heard a horse sing.’ And to us, what makes folk music is music that’s from the heart, and it doesn’t have to be traditional and it doesn’t have to be acoustic. It just has to be heartfelt and you mean it. And there’s a reason why you wrote it other than hoping to get a hit out of it. To me that’s what makes a folk song.

You know the song, “Harder Than You Think,” by Public Enemy? That’s one of my favorite folk songs. Wow! I wanted to join the revolution after I hear that. I even e-mailed and told them. [laughs] I was like, “I’m in a little folk band in Canada. You’ve never heard of us and you never will, but you guys are awesome!”

BL: Well, it all springs from the same place and you can tell when it really resonates and when it’s heartfelt – that’s what it’s all about.

LP: That’s the trick. That’s the trick. And that’s what we try to convey onstage. Really what we try to convey onstage is a good time. When we sing “Black Mountain Lullaby” we tell the story in a very non-judgmental way and it’s just a song about a sad thing that happened to a kid. We don’t get on a big soapbox while we’re doing our gig. We want everybody to enjoy a Duhks concert. People who don’t agree with us politically, maybe they’ll like the music and maybe they’ll have something to think about that they can respect, or disrespect, afterwards. But at least they’ve thought about it. They don’t have to agree. And that’s what makes the world great. There’s so many different opinions that keep this whole crazy thing rolling along.

BL: For the new album, you also welcomed back original Duhks lead singer Jessee Havey. What’s it been like having Jessee back and coming full-circle in some ways.

LP: Well, great. I mean honestly, it’s rare in this business for that to happen. But the fact is she joined the band right out of high school and she was in it for five years and she was just feeling like there were some experiences in life that she needed to have that weren’t on the road. And lo and behold, the people who replaced her and Scott Senior – who was also in the band at the outset – Sarah and Christian Dugas, an amazing brother and sister duo from Winnipeg, you know we gave it a shot. But we were on a different page and that’s fine, that’s what happens. And we got into some of the typical Rock N’ Roll issues with management and who thought who was what, and blah di blah. But they got into an incredible situation with Zak Brown and Southern Grounds Studios and worked with him for a few years and made a record and that’s coming out soon. But those guys leaving created the opportunity for Jess to come back.
And when she got the call, she was really excited, because in the back of her mind, rejoining the band was an option she was always open to. So she was really delighted, and of course the fans were really delighted. And now we have a brand new fiddle player named Anna Lindblad and… It’s been a real journey putting this current band together, because we’ve been working on it for four years, trying to find a solid lineup, and now we finally have five people that want to be Duhks, full-time and permanently.

BL: So tell me about the new fiddler, Anna Lindblad. She’s got a gorgeous tone and a really wide range.

LP: Yeah, she’s joined us from Sweden. And I started seeing her on the festival scene in Canada and in Europe and each festival she’d be in the fiddle jams back-stage rocking either an old-time tune or a Cajun tune or an Irish tune. And so when Rosie Newton [the Duhks temporary fiddle player in 2014] decided she wanted to focus on playing with Richie Stearns I was like, ‘Who am I going to call?’ And a friend of mine suggested Anna. But I was like, “But she lives in Sweden!” But then when you think about it, flights from Sweden to the U.S. are only a couple hundred bucks more than flights from Canada. So we’re going through some growing pains making this whole thing work, with people touring at different times and coming from different places, but everyone believes in it. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep this thing rocking because it’s too good to let it go and now we have the team spirit.

BL: You guys have played Hardly Strictly Bluegrass before, if I’m not mistaken. What was that experience like?

LP: Yeah, that was in 2009, I think? And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, we’re only playing on this little acoustic stage? That’s kind of a bummer.” But then when we went on there were like 15,000 people jammed in front of the stage. So yeah, it was amazing. We played right after Natalie McMaster. And of course, Warren Hellman, the founder of the festival was there and before he passed away we were lucky to make a vibe with him. I gave him a banjo lesson at the Strawberry Festival last time we were there and then he hired us to play his daughter’s wedding and then he got us hired at the festival.

In the meantime, we always love coming to the Freight and Salvage. And of course the Strawberry Festival is one of my favorite festivals on the whole scene, so… California, can’t wait!!

BL: Well, on that note I’ll let you go, but thanks so much for your time and I hope to see you on Thursday night over in Berkeley.

LP: Thanks. Hope to see you there!

The Duhks will be playing The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on Thursday, May 21st at 8:00 P.M/Doors 7:00 (Buy Tickets). They will also be playing the Strawberry Festival in Grass Valley on Sunday 5/24 at 6:30 P.M.