Aspen Times Q&A: Noam Pikelny
If You Go …
Who: Noam Pikelny
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, March 10, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Noam Pikelny was still a student at the University of Illinois in Chicago 14 years ago, when he got a call from some guys out in Colorado who invited the banjo player to join a band called Leftover Salmon. The 23-year-old Pikelny soon packed up his truck and joined the band in Nederland. He stuck around for less than three years, but here launched what would become a world-renowned and Grammy-nominated career as a solo artist and member of the Punch Brothers.
“In some ways, coming back to Colorado feels like a homecoming to me,” Pikeny, who will play a solo show at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday, said from home in Nashville. “That was my big break. And it was through Leftover Salmon that I was exposed to the world of touring and that I got introduced to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Through all of those connections, all of this happened.”
In fact, it was in a late night jam session with mandolin player Chris Thile backstage at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride that the beginnings of the Punch Brothers took shape.
For this trip back to Colorado, Pikelny is on his own, touring in support of his new solo record “Universal Favorite,“ playing banjo, flat-top guitar, electric guitar and singing. He spoke with the Aspen Times in February before the tour began.
Aspen Times: “Universal Favorite” is a true solo record. Are you all alone in the live show, too?
Noam Pikelny: Yes. The album actually was born out of the live show. I started doing some solo touring about a year ago. I spent most of my musical career on stage with fairly large bands – four- and five-piece bands. In the last year, I finally bit the bullet and booked some solo shows because it’s something I always wanted to do. I loved the process and it really changed the way I approached writing and arranging material. I tried to encapsulate that with the new album.
AT: Collaboration has been a constant through your career. Why did you want to do try going it alone?
NP: There was a bit of personal challenge to make it happen. I’ve always thought that any good musician should be able to hold court before an audience with just their instrument and their voice. But I held myself exempt from that for many years, because it’s easy to get comfortable on stage with other supportive musicians. Especially when you play a decade with guys as talented as the Punch Brothers. I also saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities of the banjo and these other instruments. I feel like the banjo is mostly heard in a group setting. It works so well in the bluegrass band setting. But there are so many other aspects of the instrument that can be exploited when it’s the only thing on stage. The banjo can have a lot of warmth and sustained melancholy.
AT: You also sing on the record – including on a great “Folk Bloodbath” cover. Is that something you’ve been itching to do?
NP: As I started putting together the set list I realized I didn’t want the show to read like a solo instrumental recital. Playing vocal music, supporting a singer, is such a huge part of my musical identity. It’s something I love doing as much as anything. So I didn’t want to shy away from that being part of the record or part of the show, just because I hadn’t established myself as a singer as much as I’d established myself as a banjo player. I’ve always enjoyed singing. I’ve sung harmony in Punch Brothers and in more informal social situations around the campfire and in the living room. I felt like the show needed a vocal element to it, so I figured if I chose material that suited my voice it would make it more personal and more of my own.
AT: Has it made you want to sing more lead vocals in the future?
NP: I’m not angling for the country music male vocalist of the year award. Just hearing bluegrass and folk music sing in a lower register, it’s a re-framing that I find interesting. So I enjoy it. It’s hard to spend your entire life being known as one thing and then all of a sudden build up the confidence to do something completely different. I could spend the rest of my life focused on singing and I would never feel as confident as a singer as I feel as a banjo player, because I have decades of experience and started as a little kid on the banjo.
AT: Does it feel like the music is more personal as you’re going it alone?
NP: It’s so much an expression of your musical being that you’re forced to define yourself. I was compelled to define who I am as a musician and what I have to offer that’s unique. You’re going up there and saying, ‘This is who I am at my core.’ If it’s just coming down to me and I’m writing the material, choosing the material, arranging the material, what’s my argument here? What am I saying about the banjo? What am I saying compositionally? It was actually a very introspective process with a lot of musical soul-searching.
AT: Do you think figuring that out will make you a better team player when you go back to Punch Brothers shows this summer?
NP: That’s been my experience. Everyone in the band has done projects on the side. And I’ve been in other bands where people have been really protective of activity outside the group and I’ve seen what happens when bands get threated by side projects and solo careers. It’s such an unhealthy situation. We’ve avoided that from the very beginning. When we return to each other as a band, after working in other bands and on solo stuff, it adds to the vitality of what happens when the five of us are in the room. It’s a really healthy thing.
AT: What’s unique for you about coming back and playing Colorado?
NP: The bluegrass audience – to use an umbrella term – as it exists in Colorado, is the gold standard. It’s an audience that really respects the tradition of bluegrass but has always encouraged progression and evolution. The tradition in Colorado really encourages a personal artistic statement, as opposed to preservation or reenactment. The success of the bluegrass festivals in Telluride and Lyons, and all the bands that have come out of Colorado, really speaks to that. It feels like some of the most fertile ground to be making music and some of the most friendly audiences.
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The Virtual Aspen Music Festival’s Sunday concerts have been going from strength to strength in a year without audiences in the seats.