Thursday, April 19, 2012


Sage Harrington CD release show
w/Squash Blossom Boys
Saturday April 21, 2012
 Il Vicino Canteen
2381 Aztec Rd. NE
7 pm
no cover

Sage Harrington discusses her music.
And Refrigerator Lights.

Americana is the new punk rock. Like the early eighties when any yob with a snarl and electric guitar called themselves punk, anyone today that has a thrift store banjo and namedrops The Carter family thinks they are folk musicians, deserving of serious listening and dollar per song downloads. Wrong.

Why are so many of those old punk outfits unlistenable? The same reason that many new Americana acts are also unlistenable: they really aren’t very good.

Decades ago, front porch pickers didn’t have to be all that great to carry on the folk  tradition. Folks songs were of and by the people. The musicians that “made it” on WSA-FM’s Old Barn Dance radio show or cut 78 rpm sides for RCA Victor were the ones that captured the public’s attention with accomplished performances and appealing onstage personalities.

Sage Harrington fits the latter just fine. She’s comfortable on Caoineadh-type Irish laments sung ar sean nós (unaccompanied ) or playfully picking a ukulele with any number of Squash Blossom Boys behind her.

photo by Claude Stephenson

After a recent show, I posed some questions to Harrington, starting with what her instruments.

Which instruments do you play and how long have you played each?

The only instrument you'll hear me playing on "Maybe" is the ukulele, and that's a relatively new addition to my ever-growing family of instruments. I've been playing my little concert uke for a couple years now. I don't play fiddle on the CD-that's Ezra Bussmann-but that's something I've really been focusing on lately, learning a lot of Bluegrass and Irish tunes from friends by ear. The fiddle is so much fun and so much of a challenge. I feel like such a beginner at it, mostly because I am after only about two years of playing, but I really feel like a beginner at pretty much everything in music. That probably has something to do with how much I've jumped around from instrument to instrument. Now that I think about it, I actually wrote the songs on "Maybe" on four different instruments. I wrote the song "Maybe" on piano, "Show Me, Please," and "You Have Weird Hair" on the guitar, "You Are a Terrible Person" on bass, of all things, and "Big Goat, Little Goat," on the uke.

So, now I feel like I'm bragging, but I promise I'm not just trying to show off. Some of this is just that I moved to Albuquerque two years ago, and I didn't bring a piano or a bass with me. I would totally love to be playing piano and bass every day, it's just that I don't have those here. I have a fiddle and a uke. I also have a guitar and an accordion, but I haven't been able to focus on those because I've been playing the fiddle so much. There's just so much to learn! There is definitely something to be said for completely immersing yourself in one thing and that's something that I'm apparently incapable of doing.

Do you come from a musical family? Are there any Harringtons from the old country that were musicians?

Yeah, my parents are musicians, and my grandparents, too. Since I've become so interested in Irish music I asked my family over Christmas about our Irish heritage, and I guess my grandfather's grandmother imigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. I would love to know what songs she sang, if any. I have this impression that everybody in Ireland back in those days sang or played fiddle or whatnot as a part of their daily life and I'd like to know if that's a correct impression.

Also, my parents met while my dad was being a rock star in Austin by night and trimming trees by day. A couple choice dad-band names: "Bronx Irish Catholics" and "Very Tall Children."

Do you recall the first record you owned that was your choice and not just one for kids? 
Yes! Well, sort of: I remember two. I believe the first CD I actually bought on my own was either a Martina McBride "Greatest Hits" or Don McLean's "American Pie." I don't really know what that says about me. The Martina McBride explanation is this: I grew up in Ohio, and for some reason my Mom and sister and I were really into Top 40-style country for a while when my sister and I were kids. The only reason I think that's strange is that my Mom was never into country music before my sister and I reached the age of eleven or so, and then it was like the thing we were all into. The Don McLean explanation? I was in ballet and jazz dance as a kid, and we would have recitals every year. One year the advanced jazz class, which I was too young to have been in, did their choreography to "American Pie" and I became completely obsessed. They were beautiful, the older girls, with their huge swirling skirts in red, white, and blue.

Back to this country thing: I guess all of that country radio must have had some sort of influence on me, but if you were to ask me which artists were really, really important during my formative years my answer would be very different. What I'd really like to be telling you about is Alison Krauss, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles. I can't tell you how many times my family listened to those songs. I just can't even find words to describe how dreamy and nostalgic I'm getting. All the same, the one pop-country band I will never deny loving with my entire fourteen-year-old soul is Rascal Flatts. I still have a deep, abiding love for early, early Rascal Flatts music. They are Ohio boys. I am an Ohio girl. We are of the same earth. Plus, they do really awesome three-part harmonies on their first CD. My mom was the one who learned about them and fell in love with them a little, at which point I fell in love with them a lot.

Have you played in any other projects besides what you’re doing now? Any screaming punk rock roots?

There are definitely no screaming punk roots. I'm trying to think of the most badass thing I've been involved with. So, when I started singing at the age of sixteen, I was involved with this nine-person vocal jazz ensemble called "State of the Art." This was all happening at a community college in Fremont, Ohio. So, for one show we did Ease on Down the Road, which is from The Wiz. It's a funky musical retelling of The Wizard of Oz that was written in the 70s. And when I say "funky" I don't mean "weird," I mean Funk. Like, Da Funk. But in broadway musical form, of course.

Squash Blossom Boy Dustin Orbesen understands Americana as evidenced by his clean flatpick guitar work and vocal harmonies with you, two facets of folk music often overlooked by the new crop of “y’allternative” bands.

You and he have some nice harmonies, an integral part of the folk tradition that’s too often overlooked in the “Americana” revival. How easy (or difficult) is it to find someone that you can harmonize with as opposed to just, sort of, singing together?

I think the most important thing is just finding someone you're willing to work with, someone you like. The thing about singing with Dustin is that he's the lead singer of the Squash Blossom Boys, which is a rockin' bluegrass band. And, before they were a rocking bluegrass band, they were a rocking metal band, then a rocking reggae band. So his vocal style as the lead singer of his band is kind of raucous, kind of wild, kind of whiskey-soaked. That's why Albuquerque loves the Squashies. The focus I have is more on pretty melodies and vocal tone. The perspective is just different. So when we sing together it's kind of like we have to readjust and realize what it is we're trying to do. Dustin settles down a little bit and I've been noticing in my own voice, especially recently, that somehow there's some twang in there when it needs to be.

I'm not so sure about "finding" people to sing with. Maybe it's just that outside of a school context I haven't had much experience singing with people. Dustin's the one I've actually worked with most. The duo I have with Dustin-it's really the first band I've been in. Going back to what you asked before, I was never in a screaming punk rock band. I was homeschooled as a kid, and started going to community college at the age of fifteen. So, in some ways I may have been kind of isolated, but I was involved in pep band, concert band, and a bunch of different choirs. Very Suzie High School type of stuff, although I didn't go to high school, ironically enough.

When Celtic music is mentioned these days , it brings to mind women gliding around the stage in chiffon and too much makeup for PBS specials . Its notable that although you’re a fiddler  you sing traditional songs, unaccompanied. Was that a conscious choice or is it a function of the song style which--- from what I’ve seen--- appear to be mostly laments ?

There are a couple reasons I sing Irish songs a cappella. The first is that I've heard some of them performed that way, so I feel like it's okay for me to do it that way, too. The second reason I sing Irish songs unaccompanied is much more mundane and practical. I don't have an Irish band. Dustin is an amazing bluegrass musician, but that doesn't mean he can automatically switch to playing in an Irish style, nor does that mean that I can, either. As for me? I should learn the bouzouki or the bodhrán or just more Irish fiddle, pick up a few more musicians and start me up an Irish band.
Here are some Irish singers I've fallen in love with recently. There's Nell Ní Chróinín, who's twenty-three, or something, and just won a bunch of "Singer of the Year" awards. She's got a couple of YouTube videos. See "An Lacha Bacha" for a song about a lame duck, and "Na Táilliúirí" for a pub song about a pub fight. There's also Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, the lead singer of Danú, who does "An Seanduine," a song about a young woman marrying an old man. Hopefully there's not too much chiffon or lamenting there for you.

Tell us a bit about the recording process of your new CD Maybe. Did you do many takes or many dubs? How long did it take to lay down the actual tracks?

So, we went up to Frogville Studio in Santa Fe and recorded all the tracks with the band in one session, I think it took about four hours or so for that first session. We couldn't squeeze all the songs in on that one day, so Dustin and I went back a couple days later so I could record some of the songs that I do solo, and he could lay his dobro track over what we had already recorded. Because, as amazing as he is, he still hasn't mastered playing the guitar and the dobro at the same time.

We did a few takes of each song, some more than others, but there aren't any over-dubs or anything like that. We played the songs and that was it. There are definitely areas I would have liked to have done over again, but with the way that we recorded it, all of us standing there in a circle, all the mics open and catching everything, playing the songs live, that just wasn't possible.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Fun fact: I have my bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature, and, yes, I'm totally bragging now, I graduated summa cum laude. I don't know if that explains anything.

 I don't know if I should make the distinction between what I do as "Ms. Sage and Her Dusty Britches," and what I do as "Sage Harrington." I wrote all the songs on this CD, and some of them do have a bluegrassy flavor because I basically hijacked half the Squash Blossom Boys and made them play my songs. At the same time, though, they are the fun indie-folk songs that come from a heavily-Regina-Spektor -influenced place. Here's a line I use in my bio: It's like Regina Spektor's music, if Regina Spektor wrote about things like refrigerator lights and washing cheese graters in a timely fashion. So, I guess we could call my CD indiegrass. Let's call it indiegrass.


this appeared in a much edited form here: 

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