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Exclusive Q and A: Sarah Lee Guthrie Talks Woody, Rock and the Guthrie Family Legacy

OurStage Exclusive InterviewsTalking to Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, you’d never know she is folk music royalty. Even though her relatives have created some of the most enduring songs in the American music catalog—everything from “This Land is Your Land” (written by Woody in 1940) to “Alice’s Restaurant” (released by Arlo in 1967)—Guthrie seems perfectly comfortable embracing her own rock style of music while honoring her folk legacy.

Although Guthrie and her musical partner and husband, Johnny Irion, are in the midst of creating their next album, the two have halted work to join Arlo and the rest of the Guthrie family on the “Guthrie Family Reunion” tour that will wind its way to a dozen venues and music festivals. To honor what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday on July 14, the family will perform sets that include Woody’s songs, Arlo’s songs, and new material written by the Guthrie family. Sarah Lee and Johnny will sing their original songs as well as “Airliner” by Wilco, whose members Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone are producing the duo’s latest album due in 2013.

Sarah Lee Guthrie took some time out to talk about her family, her music and why she thinks her 9-year old daughter Olivia Nora Irion—known to the family as ONI—may well contribute to the family’s music catalog.

OS: Your own personal music—which you make with Johnny—is more rock than folk. Yet you also embrace your folk heritage. How do you balance the two formats?

SLG: It just comes naturally, really. Johnny and I love all kinds of music and we always put them all into the show. Johnny loves to rock but we also love to tip our hat to history. That is so important. But really, we just love experimenting and finding new voices. That is what [our career together] has uncovered. We really have a good time doing that and can’t wait to create more. It is very exciting for us.

OS: A lot of second- or third-generation artists talk a lot about the fans that come to their shows. Some find it frustrating that the fans are there more to embrace the past than to listen to the newer music. You’ve never really voiced displeasure about any of that.

SLG: I have to say that for the most part, actually the whole part, the fan interactions I’ve had have been very positive. They always talk about how much Woody’s music meant to them growing up and how much Arlo’s songs have changed their lives. There are moments where it worries me and I wonder what they expect of me. But they’ve been very positive and very gracious. It’s really been a great thing to have fans embrace the legacy.

Continue reading ‘Exclusive Q and A: Sarah Lee Guthrie Talks Woody, Rock and the Guthrie Family Legacy’

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Going Country in the New Year

Thanksgiving came a bit late this year to the home of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion.

That’s because the husband-wife duo, who are ready to release their first alt country-rock album in February, spent the holiday in New York. The occasion was the famous Macy’s Day Parade where the duo and their 8-year-old daughter Olivia joined Sarah Lee’s dad, Arlo Guthrie, on a float. Crowds screamed and cheered as some of the folk legend’s well-known songs—including “Alice’s Restaurant,”—played.

“It was a little crazy and very exciting,” said Sarah Lee Guthrie who noted Olivia was the toast of her school because of the event. “We saw a lot of familiar faces in the crowd, people who have been coming to our concerts for years. It was a fun way…to celebrate family and share it with other people.”

Chances are good that there will be plenty more celebrations ahead especially after February 22nd when Sarah Lee and Johnny release their second full-length album Bright Examples.

Written primarily by Johnny with two songs by Sarah and another the result of a collaboration, the February 22nd release is a musical step away from the more folk-tinged sound fans have come to know. Although Sarah Lee is obviously the product of folk and honors her heritage, she grew up on rock, as did Johnny whose past musical groups include Queen Sarah Saturday.

“Neither of us came from folk background influences,” said Sarah Lee, whose grandfather was the legendary Woody Guthrie. “As a kid I loved rock ‘n’ roll and I love pop music. Johnny has always had a pop sense. We embraced a lot of folk….but that was to spring off like a diving board. We are entering a new realm of exciting music.”

And then some.

The album, produced by Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and Thom Monahan, known for his work with Vetiver, Devendra Banhart and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes (who introduced Guthrie and Irion), are filled with an electric country rock sound that’s part psych-rock thanks to plenty of guitars, part alt country as evidenced by pedal steel guitar, part folk and pop—especially in the lyrics— and indie rock.

“I’m very rooted in the indie rock world,” said Irion. “This was definitely a move to create a sound scape for Sarah Lee’s and my vocals.”

Although U2′s The Edge was originally interested in producing the album, Irion thinks that Cabic and Monahan brought out points in the song that wouldn’t have come out with other producers.

“It’s a culmination of folk, indie rock, classic pop, alt country, all the worlds coming together,” he said. Some producers aren’t players and have a hard time and just stay on the knobs. With Sarah Lee and I, we need to sit down with guitars and play. It’s all very organic. I’m glad [it didn't work out with] The Edge. Tom Monahan has the best ears in business right now and made all kinds of great stuff.”

What really impressed Irion was that Tom didn’t back down on the sound he wanted from each song.

“I called him Captain Monahan because trying to change his mind, well, it wasn’t going to happen,” said Irion. “If I said, ‘I thought this one would rock,’ he’d say ‘No, you have to lay back. Then it will be better.’ [The music came about because of] a solid team that just all pulled together.”

That’s also obvious on Sarah Lee’s song “Butterflies” that the duo originally worked up as a bluegrass-flavored song. The producers changed elements of the song so it’s not what Irion describes as “ethereal and floating.”

“When we started doing it [his way] we really liked it,” said Irion. “It works and it makes the record come together. It makes the record a piece of art.”

For more about Sarah Lee and Johnny, check their site.

By Nancy Dunham

Nancy Dunham writes about music for Country Weekly, AOL Music’s site The Boot, The Washington Post, Relix and other publications.

 


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