This article originally appeared in Songlines #91 (April/May 2013) p25. Download a pdf here.
‘We’re both Gypsy souls and it’s time for me to roll on.’ So goes the song ‘Be Good Tanya’ by Obo Martin, which became the Canadian trio’s anthem in the early years of their formation and later their namesake. “We’re all kind of Gypsies” band member Frazey Ford tells me over the phone from her Vancouver home. “We’re just following our interests and, you know, it’s fairly organic. There’s nothing really too planned about what we do.”
Ford met Samantha Parton while planting trees in British Columbia and Trish Klein at an open mic night. “Trish and I formed a band, and then Trish formed The Be Good Tanyas as a side project with Jolie Holland and then Sam joined. Eventually I just joined. It’s like we had all these different things that we do and then eventually we just all ended up in The Be Good Tanyas.” Organic indeed.
Formed in 2000, the trio adopted a style of music that is a healthy mix of country, folk, Americana and bluegrass. “We were really into old music – old blues, old gospel… Back then, there was almost nothing in the mainstream that was quiet and subtle. And so we were hearkening back to the 70s, when folk music was huge.”
They successfully situated themselves as one of the first folk-revival bands before it was ‘cool.’ However, they have enjoyed the recent folk trend in mainstream music. “There was a time when there was not a lot of effort going into people finding their own unique sound – everybody started to sound like Nickelback, Nirvana or Ani DiFranco. Now I love that people are really thinking about harmony and there’s a sort of subtlety and beauty going on in the mainstream that there wasn’t for years and years… Younger kids are writing beautiful songs. They’re digging deep and listening to old stuff and I love it.”
It then begs the question, is there still space for folk music to grow or, with this influx of folk revivalists, will the scene become oversaturated? “That’s the point of folk music and that’s why it has lasted,” Ford answers. “The stories are timeless and so you add to them, you make them your own and apply them to your generation. I think that the beautiful songs, the ones that really resonate with people, will be held on to, kept and reinterpreted.”
The Be Good Tanyas have released three albums since their formation – Blue Horse (2001), Chinatown (2003) and Hello Love (2006) – as well as a ‘best of ’ album, A Collection, last year. A Collection is a selection of their favourite recordings from the previous albums with two remixes and two brand new tracks (‘Little Black Bear’ and ‘Gospel Song’).
A series of tours off the back of the latest release were interrupted when band member Samantha Parton was in a car accident this September. “She’s okay but her back is bothering her and so the rigours of travel, which are kind of gruelling anyway, are just sort of the worst thing for her.” Parton made it along for some dates in November, but was unable to continue touring. Ford’s friend and neighbour, Caroline Ballhorn, was asked to help finish the tours. “She’s brand new to performance, she’s literally my lovely neighbour who is a great friend. We had just thrown her into the frying pan. The first night I looked over at her and thought ‘I wonder if she’s absolutely terrified right now?’ But she was amazing.”
In addition to touring Ford is busy finishing up her second solo album. Her debut, 2010’s Obadiah, took its title from Ford’s middle name, which she was given when her parents asked her brothers to choose – Obadiah was the name of their pet cat. Her new album is being recorded with Al Green’s backing band and has a sound much more rooted in soul than her Be Good Tanyas work.
Does a ‘best of’ album and Ford’s solo work mean an end to The Be Good Tanyas? “I don’t think this is it; we all have a lot on the go. I am just finishing my second solo album and, there is definitely talk of more tours and potentially more recording. So we’re just kind of seeing where we’re at but we’ve worked a lot of newer stuff into the show and so there’s a lot of stuff we haven’t recorded yet.” We can only hope that means another album is on the way.