Without doubt, Tim Eriksen is one of the most original American singers working today. Once you hear his voice, it is impossible to forget; its richness and intensity seem hauntingly appropriate whether he is performing New England murder ballads, Bosnian pop songs, or punk rock. Yet, it is always distinctly his voice, the product of a wide-ranging set of musical experiences. Eriksen’s musical career began as the front-man for Massachusetts punk band Cordelia’s Dad in the Eighties and along the way to becoming a leading expert on Shape Note and Sacred Harp singing, he studied South Indian Carnatic music and fronted the Bosnian pop group Zabe i Babe. It is somehow not surprising that he may be the only musician to have shared a stage with Kurt Cobain and Doc Watson. Eriksen continues to perform in a diverse collection of genres, including punk and Bosnian pop, but his primary musical calling is a sub-set of Anglo-American traditional music that he calls “Northern Roots” music that he will be performing Wednesday, January 6, at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.
“Northern Roots” is a label Eriksen created to describe the collection of Anglo-American music he performs: songs from New England and the Southeastern United States, with a few Irish numbers thrown in. For Eriksen, a New England native, the label describes the musical interconnections that exist between different sections of the US from a New Englander’s perspective. As he explained during a recent phone interview, “It’s a postmodern view of New England culture … a way into a repertoire that I see as being connected by the centrality of a certain way of singing, which in part is my own personal way of singing. But there are aspects of it that run through the ballads, Sacred Harp singing, and punk to a certain degree in terms of voice production.” Northern Roots is also a product of Eriksen’s personal journey to traditional vocal music that began when he was playing “end-times punk” during the Reagan era, when a feeling of impending disaster hung in the air. “I was playing hardcore punk but we were all wondering what would happen when there was no more electricity. What are we going to play? So a bunch of us got interested in things like unaccompanied singing.” He soon began to notice that a collection of musical characteristics was shared by the music he was drawn to — pentatonic melodies, the use of a drone, and a filling of the aural space (the music he was drawn to demanded that it occupy the foreground, none of it was suited to be background music). The Northern Roots label was also a pragmatic choice, “a one- or two-word answer, which is what venues are looking for, what magazines are often looking for, just to try and get a handle on it. So even if it’s not 100 percent true, it gets you a little way in the right direction … then you can complicate it and qualify it after that.”
Eriksen regularly receives superlative reviews for his performances of Anglo-American traditional music and has been hailed as the “best traditional American ballad singer of his generation.” However, he does not approach roots material with the rigid reverence of a traditionalist — he’s not sure if such people (“more Catholic than the Pope”) really exist — but incorporates whatever he feels is appropriate from his diverse set of musical experiences. He has deep respect for the musical traditions he draws from but does not approach them as fragile relics or museum pieces. This is particularly true for Sacred Harp songs, which occupy a prominent place in the Northern Roots repertoire. He described his approach to Sacred Harp songs (a tradition of Christian social singing that developed in the Southeastern United States during the mid-1800s): “Within Sacred Harp, there are very clear boundaries around the tradition and it’s contested, and that contestation is part of the tradition trying to figure out what it is. … But I do things like singing into the back of the banjo at the end of a Sacred Harp song or using instrumental accompaniment (even a punk rock band) that are not at all part of the tradition. There are Sacred Harp singers who think that’s great and there are those that don’t like it, but I don’t think it transgresses the boundaries of the singing itself.” Eriksen approaches other portions of his Northern Roots repertoire with the same attitude of thoughtful respect. He has been delving into Irish music for a few years but was not ready to add Irish songs to his performances until he felt he could do them well enough that they stopped sounding “all Irishy” and phony.
As complicated and polysemic as Northern Roots music might be on the conceptual level, Eriksen’s performances are truly satisfying musical experiences. His new album, Northern Roots Live in Namest (Indies Scope 2009), recorded at a folk festival in the Czech Republic, provides a virtual experience of the power of this music in concert. At Freight & Salvage, you’ll get the real thing: Tim Eriksen singing and accompanying himself on banjo, fiddle, guitar, and bajo sexto (a lot of bajo sexto). Unexpectedly, but in keeping with its post-modern inclination, the bajo sexto — a relative of the guitar used in Norteño and Conjunto music of northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States — has become the signature instrument of Northern Roots music. It is, after all, roots music of the Northeast from the perspective of one contemporary New Englander who was enraptured by the sound of the bajo sexto during a visit to the Southwest.