Prittle-Prattle: Brian Gundersdorf, Folk Musician

On the cusp of success.

We’re About 9 is well on its way to success in the world of contemporary folk. The band has just released its second full-length album. They’ve opened for big-name folk acts like The Nields and Ellis Paul, and they have a tour schedule that takes them all over the East Coast. This summer, they played at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, one of the pinnacles of success in the folk world, for a crowd of around 10,000 people. And yet Brian Gundersdorf, the band’s chief songwriter and the catalyst for much of its success, still lives in his parents’ basement.

It’s a strange dichotomy that pervades Brian’s life these days. Some days he is quite well-known, playing for sold-out crowds and signing more CDs than he could possibly remember. Other days, the band’s members find themselves in a new city that’s never heard of them, playing for an audience of seven people, and Brian finds himself counting coins to get coffee.

Success in contemporary folk is a funny thing to define in the first place. Folk music and the folk community exist in a world unto themselves, contiguous with the rest of the music marketing universe but almost blissfully unaware of it. It’s a world marked by sharp songwriting and vivid images. The venues are small and intimate. The audience is middle class, liberal, mostly white, and listens carefully to every note. Names like Eddie From Ohio and Dar Williams open doors here.

Brian agreed to sit down with me at a Starbucks one Saturday and talk to me about the ins and outs of folk music, his songwriting process, and the way that quasi-notoriety has changed his life.

JR: How would you define folk?

BG: Folk music for me has more to do with the audience that comes out to a folk music show, who have a commonality about the way that they want to experience music. Folk music has its own distinct kind of community that’s maybe a little more artsy-fartsy-liberal-open-minded-kinder-gentler than your average audience. They’ll listen to what you would absolutely describe as a rock band, but it’s a folk band once you start listening to it.

JR: So you don’t think there’s anything inherently different in the music itself?

BG: I think that there’s not necessarily. There are lots of things that we associate with folk music. But there are so many outside-of-the-box groups and artists that are lumped into this folk category at this point that it’s sort of beyond defining. And I think it’s always been that way.

I think that for us, Joni Mitchell falls neatly into the category of folk music because we’ve gotten used to putting her there over such a long period of time. She’s part of a generation of folk music that we can point to and say, “These are the major players in the folk music scene of her generation.”

Well, now we have groups like The Nields and Groovelily who don’t even call themselves folk music, but the folk music audience comes out to see them. So now they’re folk music. Because of the way that people listen to them in these listening rooms where they aren’t drinking, smoking, and talking through the whole thing.

JR: Who are your biggest songwriting influences and why?

BG: I would say the obvious one is Richard Shindell. [The first] Richard Shindell song that absolutely roped me in was “Nora.” I thought that was an incredible song. It made me want to listen to it again and again to figure out what in the world it was about. Most of Richard Shindell’s songs, the first time through, I’m not quite sure what they’re about. I want to listen to them again and again and figure out every single detail of it.

I would say that Ray Bradbury is an influence. I would say that … oh, I’m gonna blank out on his name now. I’m really bad with non-contextuals, such as names … There’s an author that I didn’t get into until a couple years ago when somebody compared me to him and now he’s like a huge influence on me … I’m gonna think of his name later, and I’ll give him a shout out.

My friends. After I got out of college, I started this open mic, and I started to meet a lot of people who were doing this. And I would say that groups such as Dihybrid Cross have influenced me. I would say that ilyAIMY has influenced me. I would say that Katie and Pat have certainly influenced me — Katie and Pat of We’re About 9, my folk trio.

JR: Bring me through your songwriting process a little bit.

BG: When I first was getting started, I would have a guitar part that I liked, and I would just sing gibberish over it for hours until I heard something come out of me that I liked. Then I would say, “How do I make that into a song? It feels good to me. It sings well. It comes out of me and it rolls off of my tongue.”

There are certain things that you can sing and the vowels just work right with the instrument. I think a lot of people who are writing songs miss that part of it. They aren’t trying to match what they’re singing with what the instrument is doing. It’s just something for them to put the song on top of. That’s always been a really important thing for me, to sing stuff until I find something that matches the guitar and then branch out from there.

We are sort of passive instruments for songs. We know how to write songs. We listen to songs all our lives. The information about what a song is and the structure is all in there. And if we allow ourselves to be passive instruments to a song, then we know how to do it. The trick is that our songwriting neurons aren’t always firing. You’ve gotta be ready for them when they are firing if you want to catch the good song.

JR: Can someone learn to write a song, or is it inherent?

BG: The song is like a cat. If you’re sitting down and you’re at peace, the cat is going to come to you. If you chase after a cat, you don’t have a chance in hell of catching it. You cannot catch a cat by outrunning it. They’re too fast. A song is the same way. You can’t just go racing after the cat.

You can trick the cat, though. There are tools that you can use to make the cat come to you. So what you can do is learn the tricks that make the cat or the song come to you. You can learn about the form of a song. But for my taste, what makes for a good songwriter is not someone who can write “the best song,” the song that fits perfectly into the sell of what a song should be. It’s the person who can write a song that no one else would be able to write.

JR: Where do irony and humor fit into your music?

BG: What I do a lot of the time is have a very heavy song and add emotional twists. I picture these situations where I’ve got people on my lap crying, and we needed to go back and forth between kind of crying and laughing for a minute in order to get it all out. So I do that in songs. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing. I don’t even necessarily do it intentionally. But it’s part of my process, definitely.

JR: Do you consider your band to be successful?

BG: We’re successful and not successful both. In the folk music world, per the East Coast, we are one of the faster-rising groups out there right now. When I say something like that out loud, I think, “Wow, we’re really successful.” But I also know that we’re nowhere near making a living at this. It’ll be at least a year now of really scraping, living in our parents’ basements, and doing that sort of thing before there’s even a chance that we’re going to make a comfortable living.

And success in folkdom isn’t the same as what you would think of as success in other genres. There are people who we look at as making it in this business who are also still stretching to make their rent. But then again, there are also people who we think of as less successful who monetarily are doing better.

JR: Can you explain that a little more?

BG: Some performers ask for a large bottom line before they’ll take a show. They might ask for a guarantee of $2000, but then they’ll make exceptions for new regions, new venues, the mood they’re in when the offer is made, how good the opportunity is, or whatever. Financially, this business is a trip. For us, there are three of us and our expenses, and the expenses are gimongous. So we each make about 18 percent of what we take in on any given night. You can imagine how much we’d need to make at a show for each of us to make a living, and how many shows we’d need to do per week. I don’t want to discourage people from doing this, but you should definitely have in the back of your mind a formula of how much you’d need to make and how often for this to really work. It’s a long road to get there. And doing it exclusively for fun is a very good option.

JR: Has your life changed since the band started getting better gigs?

BG: I’m at much more of a state of peace, mostly since I decided that this is what I’m sure I’m doing for a living now.

JR: When did you make that decision?

BG: Probably after we got to Falcon Ridge. We were selected for the emerging artist showcase, and that was a huge, huge deal. I found out, and I jumped up and down for three minutes solid and meant it, which is something that I never do. That was a huge milestone. After that, I felt like, well, if these people felt like it was worth it enough to keep at, then probably I should give this a fair shot and devote all my energy to it.

Then we did the showcase and were the top-voted act. I don’t remember how many people voted for us. But that was a lot of folk music fans deciding that this was worth us doing for a living.

JR: What’s it been like opening for big-name folk acts?

BG: In a lot of ways, it’s my favorite thing to do. The more I get confident about what we’re doing, the more I feel confident that we’re going to get in front of a crowd and it’s going to work and people are going to like what we’re doing … Russell Banks.

JR: Huh?

BG: That’s the name of the author I couldn’t think of earlier.

JR: You know I’m going to have to write it like that now.

BG: (laughing)

JR: How do you get these bigger gigs?

BG: Being active in the scene is something I recommend to everybody. When you’re not playing, still be out at shows that are places that might eventually book you. Build up relationships with them, because people are much more likely to book someone that they like personally than someone whose music they like. They like tons of people’s music. But there are only so many people they want to have in their venues because they like them. It’s important to have both, I think.

JR: What do you see when you look into the future of your career?

BG: Each success as you go feels like, “Okay, now we’re on the verge of something.” Even now, I still feel like now we’re on the verge of something. As we’ve gone on, we’ve gradually gotten more interested in the idea that this is what we’re going to make a living with.

I have definitely had it in my head for a long time that this is just about the only thing I can imagine myself doing, long term, for a living. Not necessarily with the group, but increasingly it’s obvious that the group is the way to make a living with this. And it’s a lot of fun.

Article © 2003 by Jonathan Ratican