Ahead of his show at the Castle Hotel on 16 February, Hey! Manchester catches up with Portland guitarist and composer Ryan Francesconi to discuss his guitar style, Joanna Newsom and what we’ll be ordering for him at the bar…
Hey Ryan, how’s your year going so far?
Well, so far it’s great. All 11 days of it. This tour is the kick off event of the year! I’m replying to your questions here on United flight 928 en route to Europe from Portland. [We should add that this epic response was written via iPhone… Ryan joked of getting ‘touchscreen tendinitis’ and having to cancel the tour.]
Is this upcoming tour your first solo visit to Europe? Are you looking forward to any cities or venues in particular (you don’t have to say Manchester!)?
No, I’ve done some one off things and smaller runs – but this is the first proper tour doing the solo guitar Parables music in Europe. I’m happy with all of the events and cities – in particular, getting to spend a bit of time in cobbled Flandrian Belgium is always something to look forward to. Aside from a tiny house show in Ghent (I love that sort of thing) and a great show at the AB in Brussels, I get to be in the holy land of bike-racing shortly before the spring classics season begins. I’m there just a tad early to catch any races unfortunately!
To begin the tour, my girlfriend and I will take the train from Budapest and head west. That will be a magical snowy old-world adventure of sorts. Or… a suitcase dragging over icy cobbles, trudging through freezing rain, lugging a too heavy guitar case on my back, getting lost in southern Bohemia. I’ll let you know which happened when I see you.
You’re also joining Joanna Newsom for her continental Europe tour this month. How did you come to work with her?
We’ve been collaborating since 2006. We’re both from northern California and had met previously at a folk music camp in 2005. I was really impressed by her improvisation ideas over a few jams we had. I hadn’t heard her songs before, but they later became the soundtrack of that summer. We kept in touch, then the following summer she had an idea for a folk band ensemble to perform the material from Ys. It was the first time she had decided to put together a band and she wasn’t expecting anyone to play the Van Dyke scores… but that seemed like a fun idea to me, so we gave it a go. I kind of by default ended up the caretaker of complicated challenges after that. And there have been many! I’ve kept rearranging all the scores and writing new ones since depending on the touring lineup.
For the uninitiated, can you explain your guitar-playing style?
Hmmm, ideally, I want to play solo compositions with the structure of a Weiss lute sonata and the fire of a Balkan folk musician. Ideally. Ideals are good to have I think? Exploring the guitar as a solo instrument is my best chance at this realisation at the moment. Firstly, I am a composer; second, an instrumentalist. I think that distinction lends itself to a different type of sound and intention – one that perhaps could be perceived as a performer who puts the composition first over being impressive. The likely result is that you are neither impressive nor play a good composition. But I’m fully responsible at least, in that I can shape the pieces to suit the types of ornaments and techniques that are a part of me as a player.
Who would you consider contemporaries or inspirations?
I seem to be getting a lot of comparisons to Toumani Diabaté’s solo kora playing at the moment. I wouldn’t say that is accurate as a direct influence, but I do love the kora. I’m more influenced by my friend Kane Mathis from Seattle, who is an incredible kora player. His kora playing is something I listened to constantly in 2008. Granted, this was the case as we were housemates and I had little choice but to listen to it, but regardless there are a few koraisms that I have adopted, namely polyrhythmic patterns with bass variation. Actually, I was doing these types of things many years before hearing a kora – but hearing it done properly always sorts you out and gives you new ideas.
And some other inspirations you know already: Robin Pecknold – I wouldn’t need to play fancy guitar pieces if I could sing like Robin; Joanna – despite being heavily involved with shaping her music, I’m still a fan, and she has plenty of soul and power without all these fancy pants violin parts we gunk up her songs with! I think she’s an important ear-opener in this musical era.
You recorded your latest album, Parables, completely live with no over-dubs. Was this a reaction to over-complication elsewhere, or you wanting the live experience to be in line with the record, or neither of the above?
Both those things are true. I also wanted to set a few limitations for myself to distill what my capabilities are. Writing ensemble music is easy by comparison. I went overboard with using computers to make music from 2002 until 2006 and left that music with a hollow feeling. I wanted a music of my own derived in physical reality. There are no tricks, no loops, nothing to rely on, nothing to bail me out when things don’t work. ‘Geez, sounds grim!’ However, I think the reward is inherent in those limitations. If you can make music (however humble) under these limitations then I would say you are able to approach something that has the bare minimum required for a timeless statement. In short, as a musician I enjoy getting my ass kicked. Rehearsals are easy to schedule as well.
Your music incorporates elements of your interests: bluegrass, Baroque lute music, jazz improvisation, and Bulgarian folk music. What drew you to study the latter?
Well, simply put music from the Balkans (not just Bulgaria) is amazing. I’ve been playing this music since 1993 – so it predates most of my other influences as this point. In particular my guitar style is hugely based on my Bulgarian tambura playing. The primary difference is that with the guitar I play fingerstyle in order to have counterpoint. The tambura is played with a pick. There is very little counterpoint in East European instrumental folk music. The reason that Baroque music comes up for me is that the structural skill required to write successful counterpoint is a rarity these days. I hazard to say a lost skill – but it’s a sound and compositional device I’ve been in love with since my student years. I also have a number of Balkan-genre albums out there. Just in October I released an album of tambura and oud duets with Kane called “Songs From The Cedar House”.
A recent four-star review in Uncut compared one of Parables’ tracks to something by Toumani Diabaté. Is African music also a major influence for you?
Oh, it looks like I answered that already! I seem to have a harp thing these days. Actually that relates. Joanna partly inspired me to find ways to keep the strings ringing, so it does sound a bit harplike when I play melodies. I guess comparison with kora is pretty accurate.
Until I met Kane my main association with african music was being a very white feeling, shy 18 year old, awkward haircut having first year guitar major being forced to African drum, sing and dance by intimidating Ghanian men at CalArts where I went to college. So in general, no, African music is not a major influence. Closer touchstones are Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and Baroque. Even Balinese gamelan is actually a bigger influence on my playing than African. One review said I copied a Michael Hedges song. I loved him when I was in high school actually, but it had never occurred to me that anything I play is derivative of him. I wonder…
In Manchester you’ll be playing at the Castle Hotel, which has been beautifully refurbished and is proving to be popular with music fans and ale drinkers alike. What will be your tipple of choice?
I’d be up for a proper small batch English ale after I play! Something dark perhaps. I rarely drink though. Never before playing. Unless I’m playing Rembetica, and then it must be Ouzo on the rocks. Lion’s milk.
Ryan Francesconi plays at the Castle Hotel on Wednesday 16 February. Toulouse’s Birdengine supports. More information at heymanchester.com.
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