Violinist Jordana Greenberg talks about her band’s ability to blend folk, bluegrass and rock – all from a classical mindset
For someone with a background as a classically trained musician, Jordana Greenberg can play the fiddle with the best of them in the world of folk and bluegrass.
The violinist and vocalist for the Nashville-based folk trio Harpeth Rising, Greenberg and her bandmates Rebecca Reed-Lunn (banjo, vocals) and Maria Di Meglio (cello, vocals) have been bending the official definition of Americana music for five years, fusing newgrass, rock and folk into a genre that feels progressive while still remaining true to its roots. They play everything from their own original music to traditional ballads and even experimenting with the standards of classic rock (check out their renditions of “Stairway to Heaven” and “House of the Rising Sun”).
Born in Canada, Greenberg grew up in southern Indiana, just outside the town of French Lick – the boyhood home of legendary basketball player Larry Bird. (Greenberg says she never got to meet Bird, but she still has an autographed basketball that she got from Bird’s aunt who worked with her mother at a local hospital.) She went on to study classical music at Indiana University where she would eventually meet Reed-Lund and Di Meglio, who were also studying to be classical musicians.
But it was on a chance summer road trip to folk festivals around the country that Greenberg and Reed-Lund discovered a musical connection that extended well beyond their classical backgrounds. With the later addition of Di Meglio into the band, the trio stared working on their impressive harmonies and folk music repertoire.
Harpeth Rising has released four albums, including 2013’s critically acclaimed Tales from Jackson Bridge. They are currently recording their newest album, Shifted, which is scheduled to come out later this year.
Greenberg and her band perform tonight in Lancaster at Chestnut House Concerts. We caught up with her as the three were on the road headed towards West Virginia driving in their brand-new Toyota Prius.
Michael Yoder: How does it feel to be back out on the road after the holidays?
Jordana Greenberg: We had a couple weeks off, which was the first time we’ve had a break in about 12 months [laughs]. We appreciated a little bit of time off, but we’re pretty excited to be back out at it today.
MY: How many shows per year have you been performing?
JG: It’s been building and changing each year, but we played 134 shows in 2014. It was a good number [laughs].
MY: And those shows run the gamut from house shows to festivals?
JG: Absolutely. We like to play a huge variety – festivals and listening rooms and theaters. Very occasionally we’ll play a pub or a bar, but not so often. Those have to be really good ones.
MY: Do you have a preference for a venue to play at?
JG: It sort of depends on the time of year or even the day of the week. There are some days you may catch me saying that house concerts are my absolute favorite, even though they’re small. You really get to connect with every single member of the audience. And then on a different day I’ll tell you that festivals are my favorite because you get to connect with a whole bunch of people at one time. The key for us and why I say the variety is you’re enjoying each one of them because you’re not doing the same thing all the time.
MY: Were you a festival-goer before the summer when you and Rebecca started traveling across the country to play music at different festivals?
JG: Oh, definitely. That was one of the things that made me really want to do this in the first place. I had gone to these folk festivals and bluegrass festivals, and they were the most fun thing I had ever done. I thought, “Really? People can make a living on this? No way!” [laughs]
MY: Did you have any musical discoveries at festivals in 2014?
JG: That’s a good question. We got to share a show in July in Vermont with a band called Le Vent Du Nord. I’m Canadian, and they’re Quebecois. There’s something about the root of the music that just struck a chord with me – no pun intended because that would be a terrible pun. It just really hit me straight in the heart, and they’re brilliant. They’re warm and exciting and wonderful. They were very kind as well – great people to share a show with.
MY: As someone who was born and grew up in Canada, how much did the famous Canadian fiddle player Natalie MacMaster influence you on picking up the violin?
JG: Oh, I had all of her CDs when I was a little girl and listened to them all the time. I wouldn’t say that she was necessarily the impetus for me starting the violin because I started by being really interested in classical music. But when I began playing [fiddle music], that was definitely something I would look back to and went, “Oh, yeah. I used to listen to that all the time my whole childhood.” It kind of embedded itself in my musical subconscious, even if I didn’t use it until later on.
MY: Have you ever seen Natalie play live?
JG: I have. She’s remarkable.
MY: What made you decide to initially pick up the violin?
JG: I saw a string quartet perform when I was really young at something called the Kiwanis Music Festival in Canada. I had been studying the piano at that time, and I enjoyed it. But when I saw someone playing the violin, I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen or heard in my whole life, and I immediately wanted to do it.
MY: Has being a professional musician always been your goal?
JG: It has. There were times when I was really young that I wanted to do other things like being an astronaut [laughs]. But ultimately, pretty strongly from the time I was a little kid I would have said, “Yeah, I want to be a violinist when I grow up.”
MY: When you were studying classical music at Indiana University, did you imagine you would be touring with a folk and bluegrass influenced band?
JG: In some ways, I could have imagined it. Even though I was doing all this very intense classical training, I was always one of those kids who would take [a piece] and improvise all of it. I think that in some ways, I always had a little bit of this in my blood. My dad is a musician, too. He’s never done it professionally, but he’s played my whole life. I always saw him playing guitar and singing. My uncle is a musician and was in this old Canadian rock band in the ’80s. So I saw people making a living off of it. It didn’t seem like something totally insane at the time. It seems more insane now than it did then.
MY: Ho excited are you to play some of the new songs on your upcoming album, Shifted?
JG: We are really excited about all the new music on this album. It feels really organic for us right now – really representative of what we’re doing musically and directing ourselves in every way to make the absolute best sounds. We’re willing to go to any length to do that. We’ve been stretching ourselves lyrically and musically, and it feels great to get out there and play things that really feel like they represent who we are and where we are.
MY: What are some of the biggest similarities or differences between your last album, Tales from Jackson Bridge, to the recording of Shifted?
JG: I think that throughout all of our albums and the five years that we’ve been a band, in some ways we’ve been pairing things down and cutting out anything extraneous. In some ways, these songs are more personal, while at the same time, some of them are about bigger ideas. But there’s a little bit more attention to detail. We really learned more about our strengths and how to build off of those things to create something that is very representative of our sound. I think our sound has become more of itself, in a sense.
MY: Are there more harmonies in your songs?
JG: Definitely – lots of harmonies. We’ve fallen in love with exploring the different possibilities with harmony singing. You’re going to hear a lot of that on the new album.
MY: Was there a moment when the band was first forming that you heard the combination of your harmonies and realized you had a special sound?
JG: I think that especially in the last year, we’ve had some moments where we were writing new music or rehearsing and we’ve gone, “Yeah, we’ve got it. That’s it. That’s what we’ve been looking for for a long time.” You don’t get that all the time. You have to keep working for it, and it runs away from you all the time. You have to keep chasing after it. But when you do have that moment of finding a way to perfectly express what you’re trying to say and doing it in a musical sense, it’s a great feeling.
MY: When did the ideas for Shifted start to take shape?
JG: The songs have been coming for about a year now. I think we realized that we were ready to make a new album when we identified that quite a number of the new songs were related. They were each unique and have their own sound, but there’s something that ties them together – a fuller sound and a fuller concept that weaves itself throughout them. We didn’t have all of them finished when we decided to make an album, but we knew that we would get them there and had enough to start shaping the ideas.
MY: Where do your lyrics come from?
JG: They come from everything. There’s nothing that we won’t write about if it’s something that’s affecting our lives or the lives of people around us. We write a lot about how we see the world and how the world sees us. The songs are more about pictures as a whole rather than individual lyrics.
MY: Is there a method you use to put yourself in the mindset to write a song?
JG: I studied piano for eight years, and I didn’t really want to do it. I wanted to play violin all day, but my parents made me play the piano. In my adult life, it’s something I’ve become so grateful for. And one of those reasons is that in order to get into the head space of really writing for me, what I’ll do is play the piano. You can hear complete harmonic structures. You can do that with a violin, but it’s a little bit tougher when it’s right next to your ear holding it. With a piano, you’re sitting there with your hands and your head is free. I sit down and play and start thinking there.
MY: Have you come up with a name for your new Prius?
JG: Actually, we have. We are calling our new Prius Babe, as in the big blue ox.
MY: How is it touring around the country in a Prius with three people and a cello?
JG: I can tell you at this very moment it feels incredibly spacious because prior to this we were in my regular Prius. This one is a Prius V, so it’s a major space upgrade for us [laughs]. Although most people would look at us and think we’re cramped, we feel like we’re in the Courtyard by Marriott of cars at this moment.