For Wovenhand’s David Eugene Edwards, it’s all about the experience. Where some prefer to sit and mull over time signatures and key changes, Edwards—formerly of folk revivalists 16 Horsepower and native to Denver, Colorado—prefers to find an instrument, pick it up and revel in the sounds he and it can make together. As Wovenhand’s principal songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, he brings a range of influences to the band’s latest album, The Threshingfloor.
His roots firmly planted in a variety of folk musics, Edwards explores an array of sounds Eastern and Western, managing to keep a flow between them that could only be described as American. In a way, The Threshingfloor is uniting cultures across different world musics. In a way, it’s just Edwards writing and arranging beautiful songs. You can basically take your pick of how you want to look at it.
Ever-vigilant with songs of emotional weight and spiritual depth and unafraid to let loose with a brasher side of their sound in the live arena, Wovenhand’s latest US tour in support of The Threshingfloor brings them to Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory on Oct. 4. Edwards recently took time out for the following Q&A.
Next year is 10 years of Wovenhand. How do you feel about the way the project has grown in that time?
It’s been real up in the air. I just meet people that I end up playing with. The instrumentation and the different moods of the music have a lot to do with my travels, more than previous recordings. It involves more people and more subject matter, lyrically and musically. It’s evolved in that way. It’s less insular, I guess.
How do you mean?
The music of the early Wovenhand and 16 Horsepower was very much protected—not contrived, but we had an idea of what we wanted to do and we did it and we didn’t listen to anybody else or think about anything else other than what we were doing, which I thought was good. The music now is not so focused like that. It’s more open.
Has your approach to writing actually changed, in terms of how you construct the songs?
No. I only know one way to do it, and I kind of do it the same way every time I do it, musically and lyrically. But as far as putting it together and arranging it and letting other people into it, [that’s] newer to me.
Which generally comes first for you, the skeleton idea for a song or the arrangement?
It’s the skeleton idea, a skeleton idea of everything. I think the end result is still a skeleton idea [laughs] of what I had intended. I’m not a good musician. I’m all self-taught, and poorly self-taught. I can only do so much, physically, with my instrument and with my voice, and so I try to get close to what I hear in my head, which is never possible, so of course I’m never happy with anything I do.
The track “Orchard Gate” stands out on The Threshingfloor, being the longest track and having that expansive feel at the end. How did it all come together?
We did a tour last year. We went to Turkey, and I bought a lute in Turkey in a shop. I was just playing it in the shop, and that’s the song that I started playing when we were in the shop. I bought the instrument, and when I came home, I just kept playing it. When I bought it, it was in some crazy tuning and I jest left it that way because I liked the way it sounded. So I made a song in that tuning and that’s the one that came out.
Lyrically, it’s like most of the songs, which one to the next, are two different worlds, but I put them together anyway. It’s my favorite song on the album. It has a lot of depth. It’s probably the deepest song I’ve ever written, sonically. I like it a lot. It goes into a folk-inspired ending. It’s just the music that I listen to, from everywhere. A lot of Middle Eastern music, and of course it has that tone to it as well, that Middle Eastern tone.
I notice the first thing you went to there was the travel and the experience of finding the instrument. How much of Wovenhand’s material is tied to the experience of creating it?
That’s always been how I’ve made music. It was the same in 16 Horsepower when I bought the accordion or I found a banjo in the trash and I played “Black Soul Choir” on it; that was the first thing I played, the first thing I made up on the instrument. That’s how I make music, in that sense, rather than, “Okay, I know this chord and that chord and I’m going to put them together,” because I don’t even know the chords I’m playing, I just play it however I’ve figured out how to play it and make myself happy with the sounds that come out. It’s less about the skill and more about the experience, yeah. I don’t think it’s a better way to make music, I just think it’s my way (laughs).
Is that part of why you travel? Do you go somewhere at this point and look for inspiration as part of the going?
Always, but there’s many reasons that I go. Primarily because if I don’t, then I don’t have anything to eat (laughs), and my family goes hungry. I have to tour. We don’t sell a lot of records, but we have a great live audience. We have to tour, and so I have to like it (laughs).
Has the experience of touring changed? The appeal of playing live?
Yes. Many different aspects of it change. Some things that I enjoyed before now I don’t, and vice versa. There’s so many different sides to it and there’s so many people involved that the relationships become more important than other things, than being happy with the sound on stage or with what’s happening. You build a relationship with people all around the world and it’s an interesting life.
Do you think of folk as the root for what you do and expand on that, or does genre not even enter into it?
For the most part, that’s the only music that I’ve played my whole career, even since I was a kid. I’ve played a little bit of rock and roll here and there, but it’s always been some sort of folk music. To me, it’s just the most interesting music. It was when I was younger, and I was only listening to American traditional music. Then I heard everybody else’s, I liked it too (laughs).
You play a little bit of rock and roll on this album too.
Of course. I like heavy music. I don’t necessarily like rock and roll, but I like heavy music, and that can mean listening to somebody like some Mongolian band. That can be just as heavy as listening to High On Fire or something like that. The heaviness does not necessarily depend on the volume or the instruments. I just want music that is heavy with something that interests me.
On the album I don’t worry about it so much, because I’m more interested in the instruments that I’m playing and just doing something that I want to do, and then when we play live, of course I don’t bring all these instruments, I just bring electric guitars and drums and bass and we play everything twice as heavy and twice as loud as it would have been on the record. A lot of times people are surprised at how heavy it is. I guess I’m just exploring both sides of what we are in my mind.
What inspired “Terre Haute?”
It’s a Native American idea, I guess. Terre Haute, Indiana, was settled all by Hungarian people at the time, when it was first set up, which I didn’t know and I just learned on my last trip. We toured with these friends of ours, Muzsikas, who are from Budapest and are the main traditional band of the country. We’ve toured with them on and off for eight years or something. Peter [Eri], one of the players, he’s the one who plays the Hungarian shepherd’s flute on that song, and it’s just an interesting connection because their language, the language of the Hungarian people, is a mix of the Finnish language and American Indian.
It’s very similar to an American Indian language, which is quite odd. The meaning of the name—“the highland”—is what the song’s about, basically. It’s got things from my own family history, just direct factual history, and ideas thrown around that. It’s an interesting piece of music [laughs].
Hungarian is also reputed to be the hardest language to learn.
Right. And they don’t know where they came from, as a people. There’s different theories. Their culture is very similar to American Indian culture and similar to Mongolian culture in a lot of ways. It must be all connected somehow.
The Threshingfloor is out now on Sounds Familyre. Wovenhand hit the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on Oct. 4. Info at myspace.com/wovenhand.
Yes, JJ Koczan changed the name of his column after six-plus years. He’s the editor; he’s allowed to make stupid decisions like that. firstname.lastname@example.org.