Womad: Channelling the Orient

Abigail Washburn sings in Madarin and English. Photo / Supplied
Abigail Washburn sings in Madarin and English. Photo / Supplied

You can't really blame the bluegrass and folk music faithful for freaking out a little when Abigail Washburn played her old-time sounding songs with, of all things, Chinese lyrics.

Because when you are a petite, curly haired, banjo-playing lass originally from Illinois, with a lovely, slightly husky lilt to your voice, it's the last thing you expect to hear.

"It doesn't seem like an obvious fit, but that's part of the surprise," she says with a laugh on the phone from her adopted hometown of Nashville, ahead of coming to New Zealand to play Womad in New Plymouth next weekend (where she will be six-and-a-half months' pregnant).

And besides, she says, it didn't take long for folk and old-time music fans to come round - even if Americans in general still find her and her music a bit odd.

"The way America is at this moment in this globalising world, they aren't used to Americans singing in different languages, especially a language like Chinese.

And the contrast with the way I look and the fact I'm singing in Chinese, playing the banjo, is a really odd combination at this time in America."

There is no denying the haunting beauty of her Mandarin-language song, The Lost Lamb, from her 2005 debut solo album, Song of the Travelling Daughter.

The song, which she wrote with a Chinese friend ("It's not my poetry, that's poetry from a Chinese mind."), sounds as though it could have been written in a far-flung dynasty of China hundreds of years ago.

Washburn started playing music professionally only in the late 90s, after ditching her dreams of becoming a lawyer.

She developed her obsession with China in 1996, when she spent time in the country after seeing a poster at college that said "spend some time in China", she remembers with a laugh. She didn't like it much the first time because she couldn't speak Chinese and "because I grew up in America's consumer culture and you want things to be pleasing to you".

But, inspired by the negativity towards China that she found when she returned to the United States, she resolved to go back, learn Chinese and immerse herself in the culture. "I fell in love with it, and once I started to learn the language, the people started opening up to me and it's continued to open up like a flower to me, and blossom, as I learned more about the culture."

She has been back many times since, including touring and playing her songs there, and it has changed a lot since her first visit.

"The rich have gotten so rich in China and there is a fixation on wealth, about getting cars, the right husband, and that's not attractive. I have trouble connecting with that," she says.

"But then there's the China that never goes away, this dynastic superpower that's full of culture and a humanity that has a psychological perspective that's really different from the west - and it could probably teach us all a lot."

It's that side of China that Washburn connects with most. And the music, because the banjo is not far from the sound of Chinese instruments such as the lute.

"When I started singing Chinese lyrics on top of the banjo melody, it worked so well I could hardly believe it, and part of that is because there is this symbiotic connection between the pronounciation of a Chinese word and the pluck of a banjo string."

In fact, most of her songs are in English and there are none in Mandarin on 2011's City of Refuge.

In contrast to "the very fluid, trancey, old-time" style of her debut, City of Refuge shows her versatility and at times verges on country folk-pop, which she attributes to her long-time collaboration with singer-songwriter Kai Welch (who plays in her band).

"Something I hear older artists say a lot is that, 'You are basically always the same artist. You basically always write the same songs'.

"Now, I know that my music sounds varied because I'll do a cover of an old black gospel song to something that will sound like a Fleetwood Mac pop song. But at the heart of what my voice is as an artist, I don't think it's changed.

"I've just incorporated the wisdom of collaborators like Kai. So that's affected my musicality, but I don't think my voice has changed."

Who: Abigail Washburn
What: Banjo-playing, bilingual-singing, Nashville-based bluegrass folkie
Listen to: Song of the Travelling Daughter (2005); City of Refuge (2011)

- TimeOut

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