How Do You Ruin Me?: An Interview with Black Prairie

Black Prairie
A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart
Sugar Hill

When three members of The Decemberists (guitarist/dobro player Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, and accordion player Jenny Conlee) combine forces with two other venerable musicians (violinist-vocalist Annalisa Tornfelt and guitarist Jon Neufeld), magical things happen — and magic is exactly what permeates the second proper release of the folkloric collective known as Black Prairie, A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart, out now on folk mainstay Sugar Hill Records. With each member contributing songwriting duties and the impressive array of instrumentation on board, it’s no wonder the record is receiving high marks. Folk Alley’s Linda Fahey wrote: “It’s an album which speaks for the ever-evolving face of the Portland, Oregon, music scene. In addition to the rawness of the bluegrass influence, the disc is heavy on piano, accordion, dobro, and percussion. There are Vaudeville moments and others which transport you straight to the heart of Appalachia.” Indeed, there are bittersweet ballads like “What You Gave Me” and the stomping lead single “How Do You Ruin Me?” alike.

Initially conceived of by Funk, Black Prairie has quickly been evolving into its own presence, but the band is careful to keep the pressure light and the fun hard. With the songwriting task divided among all five members, the albums feature a diverse array of sound, though violinist-vocalist Annalisa Tornfelt contributes most of the lyrics. “Ninety-five percent of the lyrics AnnaAnnalisa [Tornfelt] wrote,” Funk tells us, “and for some of the lyrics in ‘What You Gave’ me I was a cowriter. On this record, it was kind of who had what songs ready to go at the time of recording. The opennness of the band, what songs were ready to go.” Naturally, with so many creators working together, certain songs get left behind. “There was one song that I wrote that didn’t end up on the record due to time. There should be a couple more. It seems like a band always has a song laying around, so if we wanted to put it out tomorrow, we probably could. That’s kind of a cool thing about five writers. If we decide to make a record, we can quickly do an assignment of two songs each and have a record,” Funk adds, although, at 16 tracks, A Tear in the Eye is plenty substantial.

One unlikely influence that has crept into Funk’s palate is that of Romani (Gypsy) music. The album takes its title from a Romani proverb, and the song “Taraf” has a definitive Gypsy feel. Asked about his love of Romani music, Funk responds, “I don’t know where I first heard it. Maybe in Europe, and not realizing I heard it, or not knowing what it was. Then I saw the movie Latcho Drom which is a French documentary which is sort of a journey through the different cultures of the Roma people, starting in India and then winding through Romania and all those places, and then winding up in Spain. I was just blown away by the instruments used in that music and the speed at which that music was played. It seemed like people were dedicating their lives to music in this impoverished lifestyle. It was first traveling, I think through Italy, a lot of street musicians playing that were people of Roma. Then that movie sealed the deal.”

As to how that influence manifests on A Tear in the Eye, Funk says “The song ‘Taraf’ starts with a cimbalom player, our friend Paul Beck, that instrument is part of the embodiment of Romani music. It’s in there, and I think that’s really the only place it is. The title isn’t meant to encapsulate the spirit of the Romani people or anything; I just thought it was a cool album title. I think long titles are kind of cool. I like John Fahee; he always has really long album titles for instrumental songs that don’t mean anything. That title certainly means something to somebody. I don’t even know what it means.”

Though A Tear in the Eye is the band’s second proper release, Funk also says that there was an intermittent piece written. In April 2012, the band contributed a score to the Oregon Children’s Theatre production of the Storm in the Barn. “It was conceived and put on by the Oregon Children’s Theatre, and based on a book about the same title about the 1937 Dust Bowl. It was great. It was cool. People onstage actually walked around and played our instruments onstage and interacted, so it was like watching ourselves,” Funk laughs.

The band has evolved from what Funk probably first envisioned. At first, he thought there would be no lyrics to accompany the music. After their first record, 2010’s Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, Black Prairie only played a single show. Now, for A Tear in the Eye the band has played dates in their native Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and on the East Coast. That change has meant more hard work on the part of the band: “We started playing in 2008, so we played for a few years before. Then we were like, ‘Oh, we should do a show one day or put out an album maybe.’ Looking back, it didn’t seem conceivable, but now the band has written so much music from this play we did, or we’re just a high-functioning writing unit and arranging unit. It seems crazy now looking back to think we could never put out a record. It was kind of a cool process for me. It was literally people showing up and not having songs. Annalisa didn’t have songs; she didn’t want to sing at the time. She just wanted to play violin and fiddle. We have a record deal and radio promotion. Going on the road is really difficult and always promoting this thing, this album, so I think we’re really mindful of doing it at our own pace, and all the people that are in the Decemberists have gone down this path before and Annalisa has been in a very ambitious touring band from Alasksa named Bearfoot since she was, like, 16, so she’s really hit the road hard. It’s hard to do the touring, as much fun as it may appear.”

Funk rethinks this statement. “Black Prairie has a blast while touring! Just because we keep it short, like a surgical strike. Let’s only play on the weekends, like why play the middle of America on Monday night because you have to? We just go out and eat well and drink well and try to make it fun. The writing process is that way as well. The notion of a band — that thing has a shelf life. The less we treat it like a band and the more we keep it on our terms and keep it fun, then it’ll be something that we’re drawn to create all the time, rather than this livelihood or commitment. It’s kind of a lesson for all of us who are in bands that it’s hard to do. We’re used to being in the Decemberists, for example, and we’re used to just touring and touring and promoting. I think we’re getting better in that realm as well, pacing ourselves.”

Given that the band contains three standing members of the Decemberists, it seems natural to expect that the majority of Black Prairie’s audience is comprised of Decemberists fans. Funk says their crowds are “the NPR set. Very similar audience to what the Decemberists now draw. Maybe a little bit heavier on the folk-nerd side. We’ve played two bluegrass festivals, and I think we did well there. But there’s still those guys there with their matching shirts and moustaches and banjos and you kind of feel like you don’t belong there, which is silly. It’s a smattering of curious Decemberists fans who may or may not get it. It seems like it’s taken on its own life. On the front cover of the record, it says ‘featuring members of the Decemberists!’; People aren’t going to buy a record just because it says that. At least, they’re not, currently. I think it just sort of finds its own way. I think the fact that we’re on Sugar Hill, which has been a folk [label] for a long time, is a large part of that. Not very many rap fans there [at our shows].”

Indeed, being on Sugar Hill has done a lot for Black Prairie, both in terms of helping them diverge their audience from that of the members’ main bands and in terms of providing good label support. “I probably should be harder on the label or something or ‘why isn’t this charting?’ But I just feel honored that they want to put out our music and we don’t have to pay for our record and they’re actually a great label, competent people, and we get royalty statements, and they make an effort and give us money to make a record,” Funk says gratefully.

He does admit that it was the record label who chose “How Do Your Ruin Me?” as the opening single: “They picked it. I wanted to pick ‘Nowhere, Massachusetts’. That’s the most obvious, straight-ahead sounding Fleetwood Mac folk song. For us, I don’t know how much that even matters. The radio person at the label is totally smart, and he gets it. I also don’t really care. ‘Cause we’re not out hitting all the radio stations. It’s not something I think about in the morning, how’s the album charting. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever said that,” Funk laughs.