Hot Club of Cowtown
'Next Exit: Cowtown'
It’s not easy creating a modern twist to the sounds of a musical style that predates the rise of 50’s rock ‘n roll; but the Western Swing outfit, Hot Club of Cowtown, with their newest release “Wishful Thinking”, is doing it, and doing it well.
A delightful jazz infused album, “Wishful Thinking” has all the toe-tapping percussion, ditty kindling fiddles and insistent upright bass rhythms you’d expect to hear in dusted off records of yore. An uptempo combination of Dixieland jazz and rural Western folk, Hot Club of Cowtown front-woman Elana James’ soft sepia tones compliment the antiquish quality of vocalist and guitarist Whit Smith’s vocal approach.
Together, Hot Club of Cowtown bridges the gap between past and present and the new release “Wishful Thinking” revives a part of Americana that had long since been shelved.
Exclusive Magazine recently sat down with Hot Club of Cowtown’s Elana James to learn more about the new album, the worldwide tour and HCCT’s unique music style that's creating a buzz in every town they roll through.
Your music has it’s roots in Texas swing and jazz. Who were your musical influences growing up and how many still factor into your music today? "I didn't have any swing musical influences growing up--just Classical music. I was madly in love with Joshua Bell when I was growing up in Kansas City. I had crushes on people like Shostakovitch and the concertmaster of youth symphony."
"The only musical influences I really had were my mom, who's a violinist, and my stepdad at the time, who was an excellent pianist, and live Classical musicians I saw come through town since my mom was in the Kansas City symphony and played a lot of the operas and in the pit orchestras of shows that would come through."
"Hanging around backstage all those years,and having the opportunity and exposure to see all of that close up was hugely important. It gave me a good bullshit detector for music that has very little music in it, and in that way it offered me a compass that has led me to artists who have influenced this second phase of my musical life--Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Louis Tierney, Mildred Bailey, Johnny Gimble, Hugh and Carl Farr, Jack Guthrie, Tommy Jackson...there are so very many. These are peole who worked at something, worried over it, created something timeless and individual. I pray I can contribute to that myself as time goes by."
The Hot Club of Cowtown is set to release 'Wishful Thinking,' your first album since 2003. What can fans expect from the new album? How has your sound grown in the past six years? "We're better players, better performers, better singers, better writers. When this band started out we were like babes in the woods--we were coming at it as instrumentalists who had recently started singing out of necessity. And critics especially jumped down our throats for having weak vocals. Well, considering we had only recently begun to sing--i mean, we had to start somewhere!"
"Nowdays when I see that criticism and it's so old, its like, get over it already! I don't want to sing like anyone on American Idol or country radio. That ship has left the harbor and it's going to sound like 1980s shoulder pads look to us now. We sing the way we feel it. I like straightforward singing--pretense and too much artifice choke out the emotion for me. We try to sing in tune and get the song across, What else is there?"
The new album. WISHFUL THINKING, is a seamless mix of original HCCT music with a few carefully selected standards. How did you decide which songs to include? "Whit and I each bring songs to the table, but the band as a whole can veto things. The final record is always a reflection of the collective tastes and thresholds of what the band both loves and, on a farther end of the spectrum, tolerates. I always want to write new songs for a record because these days that's what people expect of you in this business, which is irritating to me."
"But I do like the challenge of it, too, and I am always very proud of the songs that do make it onto the record, glad I was forced to write them. But some things get vetoed, or they just aren't coming together, so you set them aside and just include the few things that really sparkle."
As a Western swing outfit, Hot Club of Cowtown began in the most unlikely of places, New York’s East Village over a decade ago. Tell us a little about this "Whit and I met through an ad I placed in the music classifieds of the Village Voice. He was starting a western swing band and called me because he was prowling for fiddle players. We met up and just clicked musically, and we also both liked drinking tons of strong coffee and learning and playing fiddle tunes for hours and hours. And, crucially, we--including Jake, who joined us a little later--were compelled to leave our more conventional lives behind and play as much as we could. That's still what we're doing, it's just grown over time."
HCCT is currently on tour throughout the US and abroad. What can fans expect from a live show and what is your favorite part of touring? "Well, having been on tour for most of this year, I can say I love it the most when we are really playing tight, when the fast songs are blazing and effortless and the ballads are lush and collected--when we are really playing as one seamless unit. I love to talk to the audience after a show and see the emotional transformation that takes place from the beginning of the show to the end."
"That's what makes touring worthwhile--you are giving something and it feels good to recognize that people are receiving it and being uplifted by that. Other than that, If it weren't for that I would rather stay home at this point and grow some stuff in the garden."
How easy or hard is it to create a new, vibrant, wanted-by-the-public sound that both builds on and surpasses the musical wonderments and accomplishments that preceded it within the industry? "Well, there are not too many violin, guitar and bass western swing trios touring globally right now. I can't think of any. It's not like the world tour circuit is flooded with people who are trying to out-western swing us. This music has become really marginalized in the USA, beginning with the end of WWII and Elvis, when the swing bands began to be overtaken by rock'n'roll. But elegant things never go out of style."
"The hardest part of all for us is just overcoming the almost total misunderstanding that goes with this kind of music among people our age and younger--it sounds so incredibly uncool and out-of-date. Western swing? It sounds like a mixture of Howdy Doody and early 1970s Lawrence Welk. But it's not!! I always loved Woody Allen movies and the music in them, and this is where it comes from--American jazz age music, what you'd hear in French cafes, a 1937 barn dance in Turkey, Texas."
"We're not trying to ape a tradition, either--we feel we are more like contemporaries of people that were playing and recording at that point in time-, we just happen to be around now. We listen to them, but also to what THEY were listening to, which is so important in any kind of music you get interested in. But of course, we have our own sound and write our own songs now. And that also keeps things very fresh and current--it brings bright energy into the shows and to our recordings."
You’ve made appearances at several mega-festivals across the globe including Byron Bay (Australia), Fuji Rock (Japan) and Glastonbury (UK) as well as performed on television shows such as Jools Holland’s show “Later”. How have these appearances spread the word about your music? "Well, some of those appearances are on youtube now, which in a lot of ways does even more than the shows themselves--the aftereffects, the word-of-mouth, is one thing that we have enjoyed. Plus there's the cache of being included in all these giant festivals, being chosen in a way to represent this rich style of American music--it's a privilege."
We have to know, where exactly did the band’s name, Hot Club of Cowntown, originate? Is there an interesting story behind it? "Whit came up with it. It's a reference to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli who of course started the Quintette of the Hot Club of France."
"There are lots of "Hot Club" bands around the world these days, but we call ourselves the Hot Club of Cowtown because we also love Western swing, hoedowns, Bob Wills, and Texas fiddle tunes--a western element. So the band is a mix of Parisian hot jazz and western influences--that's where it came from, For people who recognize the reference--they appreciate how perfect a name that is for us:)"
If asked to record one for charity, what '80s (and possibly cheesy!) pop/rock song would you love to cover today and why? "I always loved 'Hello' by Lionel Richie."
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive Magazine loves Penguins, do you? "Sure!"
To learn more about Hot Club of Cowtown and to see when they’ll be playing in YOUR city, check them out on the web!
Interviewed by: Erin M. Stranyak
So, if you would like to win a SIGNED copy of Hot Club of Cowtown's new CD, just answer this easy question: Located in rural Salem County, NJ, "Cowtown" is acclaimed for being a highlight on which professional 'circuit'?!
Send us your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these wonderful new CDs! Just send us an e:mail here before December 31st with your answer and the subject title CONTEST: HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN SIGNED CDs to: email@example.com
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