Songs of Faith and Struggle: An Interview with Wovenhand
Wovenhand's David Eugene Edwards tells PopMatters about his bleak view of humanity, his love of outsized percussion, his fascination with traditional music, and the difficulties of being a devout Christian in the rock world.
With Wovenhand, as with 16 Horsepower, David Eugene Edwards balances two worlds. He leads the itinerant life of a working musician, traveling from town to town, writing and playing his own intense blend of Americana and incantatory, drum-pounding rock music. Yet, in a music world that is often hostile to religion, he also lives as a committed Christian, measuring himself against strict standards for compassion, forgiveness, and faith. Remarkably, he sees those two worlds as not in conflict but essentially interconnected. "I have to be open to what God is leading me to do," he says at one point, when asked if he felt he knew what God wanted of him. "At the moment, that's trying to be a good father and a husband, making music and singing about what I believe."
The grandson of a Nazarene preacher on one side and a traveling Native American animal trainer on the other, Edwards makes music that feels deeply connected to the past, whether he is borrowing a medieval melody (as on his new album's "Swedish Purse"), picking up antique instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, or paying homage to the percussion driven rituals of American Indian culture. Yet he is equally drawn to some surprisingly contemporary influences -- the industrial rhythms of Einstürzende Neubauten and the despair-infused theatrics of Joy Division, for instance.
Edwards started playing the drums as a young boy, developing a lifelong interest in the possibilities of percussion, but never, he says, becoming really skilled at drumming. "I never really became a drummer, if you know what I mean. I never really stuck with it," he admits. "But I have that mentality of rhythm. The instruments that I play, I play in a rhythmic way. The banjo or the guitar or whatever. I play more like a drummer than a guitar player." He picked up the guitar as a teenager, starting by imitating folk heroes like Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie, and later discovering heavy metal and punk rock. His first band, started in 1984, was a punk outfit called RMC, or Restless Middle Class.
Edwards hooked up with Slim Cessna, front man for the other Denver alt.country powerhouse, in the mid-1980s in a band called Bloodflower, moving from Colorado to Boston and back then to Los Angeles, before finally coming home to Denver for good in 1992. 16 Horsepower started in that same year; after a single and an EP, its first full-length Sackcloth 'N' Ashes came out in 1996. A series of haunting, traditionally-instrumented but rock-leaning albums followed: Low Estate in 1997, Secret South in 2000, Folklore in 2002, and Olden in 2003.
Wovenhand shares much with 16 Horsepower: its bleak and biblical outlook, its harrowing intensity and pounding rhythms, its close but twisted ties to Folkways Americana, and its use of traditional instruments. Essentially a solo project for Edwards, Wovenhand started in 2001 during a break from 16 Horsepower. To date, there have been four Wovenhand albums, including Blush Music, a set of compositions for a Belgian dance company, and three free-standing albums. 16 Horsepower ended in 2005, and Mosaic is Edwards's first album since the break-up. As an album, it is many things -- dramatic, propulsive, exciting, often beautiful -- but it is not an upbeat listen.
A struggle for faith
From the first crystalline tones of "Breathing Bull" the instrumental that starts Mosaic, through the mutter-y self-loathing of "Elktooth" ("A double-minded man / A double-minded man / A double-minded man / In all ways unstable"), and on to the tormented "Dirty Blue", this is a lacerating, downbeat vision of faith, struggle, and failure. Is it a little darker than Consider the Birds, from 2004? "I don't think it's any darker. I think that maybe some of the sounds are a little more sinister, but it's not necessarily darker," says Edwards.
Maybe not, but "Dirty Blue", arguably the best song on Mosaic, swirls inky eddies of sound around strident beats, drums, strings, and guitars pounding in a rhythmic rush. Above it all, Edwards's voice careens through darkness, keening a shattering refrain of "There is sorrow to be desired / To be sorrow's desire."
"Basically what it means is that there's no way out of sorrow," says Edwards. "Christ is sorrow. To be desired by him is a sorrowful thing. It's a sorrowful thing that we are the way we are, and that God had to send Christ, his only son, to provide redemption for us, because of what we are. That's a sad thing. But it's a sadder thing still to reject that and to not accept it and to alienate yourself from God. Either way, it's a sorrow."
That's the key to the most powerful image of the song, an individual wrapped in the self and denying the power of God. The verse says, "You're curled up warm / In your own corner of Sodom / Did you agree to believe / This fall has no bottom" and Edwards says that it is about mankind in general, but also his own self.
"I have a very bleak view of humanity," Edwards explains. "I think all you have to do is look around. Look at yourself. That's what I do. I can look at myself and have a bleak view of humanity, just from my own selfishness, my own lack of concern and compassion for other people, and you take that and multiply it by millions of people."
The themes of struggle and doubt reverberate through Mosaic, but there are moments of relief. The gorgeous "Swedish Purse", all cathedral organ trills and metronome-steady banjo, celebrates the rest that Edwards finds in family life. "Falling from her braided hair / New Morning on the stereo," it begins, creating an oasis of calm in this very stormy album. Later, the instrumental "Bible and Bird" is even more striking, its light and breezy guitars wedged between "Elktooth" and "Dirty Blue". It's a sudden shaft of sunlight in dark woods, a deep gulp of air for the drowning, and Edwards says that he intended the song to provide just that sort of restful contrast.
"That's why I didn't put any words on it," he explains. "I wanted it to be really a rest. Because even when I do make a happy song, if I end up singing on it, [laughs] it's going to end up with a little twist to it, not matter what. So I just really wanted to keep it pure in that sense, in the sense of being a chance for people to take a break."
The pull of traditional music
Edwards is fascinated with the music of traditional societies -- a medieval tune, for instance, formed the basis for "Swedish Purse"'s melody. With Mosaic, he admits somewhat reluctantly that Native American music was a prime influence.
"I feel like an idiot even talking about it," he says, choosing his words even more carefully than usual. "In some respects, I don't feel I have any right to talk about it. It's just an interest, something that I've...it's been a part of my life since I was a kid. It's so mistreated and hoked up and new-aged out most of the time. People don't even want to touch it."
Growing up in Colorado, Edwards was surrounded by Native American culture, traveling through huge swaths of reservation land, interacting with tribe members on a regular basis, and attending powwows as often as rodeos.
And while one of Edwards's grandfathers helped shape his Christian outlook, the other one may have been responsible for his love of native culture. "My mother's father was really into Native American things and was part ... I think he actually received money for being an American Indian," says Edwards. "He lived an amazing life. He was a hobo for a while and he had a pet bear that he taught tricks and he would drive the bear around in a car and take him out and earn money with this bear. And it got too big and he had to give it away to the zoo, and it got killed by a mountain lion the day he gave it to the zoo."
Edwards says he loves the simplicity of traditional society's music, its almost childlike innocence, and he's quoted on a recent 16 Horsepower DVD saying that he likes almost all old things -- clothes, houses, and music. But ask him if he'd rather live in the past, and he doesn't hesitate at all. "No. I have romantic views of it," he says. "But it's like people who are like, 'oh, the farm life looks great'. But if you actually go do it, you'd be like, 'what the heck am I doing here?'"
Big drums and unusual instruments
Mosaic feels fuller, more intricate, more orchestrated than Consider the Birds, so it's a surprise to look at the liner notes and realize how few instruments are actually in play on any given track. "I used a lot of drums which take up a lot of room," says Edwards about the apparent contradiction. "Also sometimes just one instrument, like the hurdy gurdy or organ, something where there's a lot of drone, will really take up a lot of space. And kind of creates a lot of space as well. But there were definitely more instruments used on Consider the Birds."
Drums are one big factor in the album's sound, played here by longtime Wovenhand collaborator Ordy Garrison. Edwards explains that the two of them have an unusual partnership in creating the percussive backdrop for his songs. "I come at drums from a different viewpoint than a normal drummer would, and he likes that," says Edwards. "Drums are really important to me and I always have a lot of ideas about the drums, but they're from the standpoint of somebody who doesn't really play the drums."
He adds, "Maybe I don't know the logistics of getting these beats to work together when you're actually playing them. And so I come up with these beats that are really quite odd and not natural for a drummer to do. But he enjoys the challenge, to work and be able to play it live and make it work. It forces him to play differently than he normally would, which he enjoys."
There are also a variety of stringed instruments on Mosaic, all performed by Elin Palmer, who once taught violin to Edwards's daughter. She plays violin on "Dirty Blue", for instance, and an unusual instrument called the nickel harp on "Slota Prow".
"A nickel harp is a cross between a hurdy gurdy and a violin," says Edwards. "It's shaped like a violin but it has buttons instead of a fret board, where you would put your fingers. So you use a bow but it has this kind of clacky, hollow sound to it, and I love it. I try to have her play it as much as possible."
With a few keyboard parts thrown in by Daniel MacMahon, that's the extent of Mosaic's orchestration, and yet it feels like a dark orchestra moving slowly through somber songs.
Wovenhand hits the road
Edwards is preparing for a fall tour through the US and Europe when I speak to him, working with his traveling band, which includes 16 HP veteran Pascal Humbert on bass, to strip down the songs for the tour and eliminate the strings and keyboards that won't be making the trip.
So, for a few months, Edwards will living in a very secular environment, playing on stages in theaters and nightclubs, moving from foreign town to foreign town, meeting strangers most of whom may not share his belief in God. He's not a fanatic. He will play shows on Sundays, for instance, and he though tries, doesn't always insist on attending church while on tour.
"It depends on where I'm at and how I feel," he says. "I've gone to church in England and Scotland...certain countries are more difficult. If you're going to go to church in France, you're not going to understand anything.... You can find some American churches here and there, but it's not that easy, especially when you're just blowing through town. But yeah, if I'm in any one place for any amount of time, yeah, I do go to church."
Fall dates are with Norwegian shoegazers Sereena Maneesh, a band that Edwards says he met while on tour in Europe and with whom he shares musical and spiritual values. "We had a common belief as far as our Christian belief as well as being musicians, you know, in this world that we work in, which is not so receptive to that idea."