Memphis-based Reed Turchi, who hails from the misty mountains of Western North Carolina, returns home this weekend to release his latest album, Speaking in Shadows. Since 2012, this 25-year-old has made a handful of records, brought his take on Hill Country blues to Europe on several international tours and picked up some serious press along the way. Mystified by the South and schooled in the history of its music traditions, Reed and his new band The Caterwauls' latest album draws on the American blues, Saharan Tuareg music and rock and roll. We caught up with Reed to learn more about his work and the new record, which drops March 4th.
Want to catch his album release party? You can find him here:
Friday 2/26 The Root Bar, Asheville, NC
Saturday 2/27 The Cave, Chapel Hill, NC
Tell us about where you're from in NC. How has that shaped who you are today?
Well, I grew up in Asheville — or really, just outside in Oteen (this mystical land just east of Asheville but just short of Swannanoa). Though Asheville may be a bit of an outlier — the hole in the Bible belt, some may say — the landscape (cold morning mist on the Blue Ridge, heavy rain drops on leaves in summer thunderstorms, cicadas singing in the night) will always be home to me. To be honest it wasn't until my time at Chapel Hill, and beyond, that I became fully aware of the South and the many layers of South in a broader sense.
We understand you started playing classical music. Tell us about that experience and the transition. How long have you been playing? And how did you get into the blues?
Sounds like I need to clear the air! My mother, a classical viola player, forced me into piano lessons — you know, the standard by-the-book stuff— sometime in middle school (I know she bribed me with cookies n cream milkshakes for a while). I had a stint playing trombone in middle school, but really, it wasn't until high school that I started to connect music I liked to listen to with music I could actually make. And then, well, it was off to the races. Boogie-woogie and Randy Newman were my two biggest early piano influences, but I also remember asking my piano teacher to help me transpose Strokes and Spoon songs... so...
Tell us about your journey to working in the music industry - you've seem to had your hands in several different aspects of it.
Ha! I love to make music. Performing, writing, recording, producing. I am passionate about great music, and when I find it I feel a deep desire to do anything I can to help it see the light of day. I don't really approach it from a "music biz" standpoint (though I've certainly learned a lot) — I approach it from "here's this incredible, important, emotionally significant music — how do we get it into the world? People NEED to hear this." I'm still figuring it out... but hey, who isn't? It's a crazy business.
You've described music before as elastic, and you're current sound is influence by and draws on many different musical traditions. What does that look like in action as you evolve as an artist - does your sound evolve with what's on rotation at home? Do you deliberately seek out new influences?
From what I can tell, what it looks like in action is the people who favorably reviewed the last record getting mad that the new record isn't more of the same! Ah well. I am constantly seeking out new music, and challenging myself to incorporate it. Things I've listened to while I've written this: Tinariwen's new "Live in Paris" album, The Skiffle Players' new album (a side project of Cass McComb), and now a killer podcast a friend of mine just turned me on to called "Sound Contours" (I'm about half way through episode 6, "wild gems," for those of you keeping track at home. Take an artist like JJ Cale — he has an immediately recognizable sound, and something very true to him with almost all things he did, BUT within that he was constantly innovating and climbing to new territories — he was exploring the Rhythm King MRK-II drum machine in 1971 at the same time Sly Stone was. That says something, and is the kind of artistry I admire most.
Do you draw on North Carolina music traditions — even particular players or NC blues traditions — for inspiration? Bonus question: Can you tell us something surprising about the blues in North Carolina?
Hmm... Asheville isn't so big in blues world in the traditional sense, but Piedmont NC blues definitely left its mark. Elizabeth Cotten and Rev. Gary Davis throw some pretty serious weight around. I admire those players and listen to a great deal of their music, but other than some basic finger-picking, that hasn't made a huge impact on the sounds I've chased.
The blues are a big part of African American history. How do you think about this as you approach the genre?
Let's not kid ourselves, blues is black music. We're 100 years or more removed from it in its most foundational form, but, its roots are in slavery, and life at its core — songs about celebrating the simple fact of staying alive, in the face of all odds. This is what makes it universal. My approach isn't genre based, as much as focusing on particular sounds and styles that resonate with ME. As Miles Davis said, sometimes it takes a real long time to sound like yourself.
Tell us about your time at UNC and if and how that shaped what you're doing today?
I owe Bill Ferris just about everything. Without his enthusiasm, support, and connections, there's no telling where I would have ended up, but it most likely wouldn't have been here. My Dad got a text from me freshman year as I was side-stage for an Allman Brothers show (thanks to Bill and Jojo Herman, who was opening for them with Widespread Panic), and my Dad claims to have said "Well, whatever got him there is going to be what he follows." True enough.
What should we know about your latest record, and the band you've made it with?
This album was a test of my abilities to approach songwriting in new ways, even if some of the aesthetic is similar to previous albums (songs like "Looking Up Past Midnight" have a similar sound to those on "Can't bury Your Past") — but then take songs like "Pass Me Over" with Heather Moulder's vocal duet, or the African-styled solo Adriano Viterbini plays on "Juggling Knives," or the total carnival-of-sounds on "Drawn and Quartered" (a satirical blues song if you will — "I went down to the crossroads at midnight but nobody met me there... I couldn't sell my soul if I wanted to..."), and the ending track in its acoustic-guitar simplicity "View From Angels Landing." It's a song showcasing many different moods and styles — which I had never tried before. The new band is incredible: Andrew McNeill (who studied at Stax and Berklee — what a combo!) plays drums, Joey Fletcher is a great slide player from Murfreesboro, TN, with a beautiful, clear, perfectly intonated tone, and Heather Moulder sings, plays bass with her left hand, and plays piano with her right. I just stand in the middle, and, you know, drink a beer or something. It's a great band, and even more importantly, they're great people who I enjoy spending time with.
We understand the album was recorded rather uniquely, via tape. Tell us about that and your decision to go that route. Was it about authenticity? A response to the age of digital music? Given that you have to get the track right, in a single take, how did your band get in the headspace to be ready to press record?
The core parts of the album (bass, drums, guitar, vocal) were recorded direct to tape for the constraints it forces. In the digital age, it's easy to be overwhelmed by infinite options — you could literally record 100 versions of a song and never run out of space, just "eh, we'll piece it together later." Working with a single reel of tape, you have to decide which take is THE take, you simply don't have the space to keep multiple takes. Working like that forces you to really focus, and to commit — something which is always needed in music. If the listener hears hesitation, well, that breaks the groove!!!! The headspace is simple — minimize distractions, make sure everyone is on the same wavelength, play with confidence and play how you mean it.
Life on the road is tough - what do you need with you to stay sane?
Oh I think I left sanity behind quite a few exit-signs ago. The key is enjoying the people your with — if you can't stand living with someone (or many someones) for 24 hours a day, for weeks at a time, well... it's going to fall apart. Due to that, I took many many months to put together this new band, and to make sure everyone got along, on stage and off. And now we're here! It feels good.
You're planning your perfect day in North Carolina and travel / time isn't an issue. Where are you going, what are doing, and where do you eat?
I'm going to wake up in the Swannanoa Valley, go over to this coffee/pastry shop called Filo, wade in the river (which translates to "pig trail," go figure), write some songs, skip some stones, get a pulled-pork-and-sweet-potato burrito from Mamacitas for lunch, and more than likely wind up at The World Famous Root Bar for the night.
How do you stay connected to NC from Memphis?
I still come through NC fairly often — monthly it seems — touring, and I still get to spend a chunk of time in Swannanoa in July and January at the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson. Both my parents taught there as I was growing up, and that community will always be a home for me.