From The Ashes: Andy Campolieto on Jo Henley’s latest “Burning Down the Dark”

I was working for an artist management company/recording studio in exchange for studio time a number of years back when I first heard the distinctive voice of Andy Campolieto. As someone who was just working on their first studio effort I heard that voice and immediately thought “here is a guy that knows his sound and owns it”. The confidence and emotion bleed from Andy’s vocal with each breathe, there is a conviction in how he presents the words to his songs that kept with me all the years between then and now. Jo Henley was a band I admired for the jammy quality of their songs but still being able to maintain a sense of “yeah, ok I actually want to listen to this music”. Perfect example is the title track off of the record and first song on the collection. The warmth and “completely surround you with its being” vibe of the tune weaves throughout the rest of the album as well, but its the final minute or so of the tune that sets off on that jam sentiment but still clocks the song in around 4 and a half minutes. A perfect balance of great musicianship without the pretense that comes with some of the stuff people dislike Phish for. It works.

“Burning Down the Dark” is the latest release from the band and is defined by those warm tones and while thematically the songs contained within border on the darker side of human emotion, the overall sound is upbeat and tempered with enough care to make you listen and feel the sound, perhaps nodding your head, tapping your foot and zeroing in on the words, the notes and the feeling that the band is putting forth. I think thats where the album succeeds so well, it really projects the emotion in a way that is tactile, almost like you can reach out and grab it, pull it back in and apply it to yourself. A part of that being interesting and varied arrangements and instrument choices, Campolieto’s soft and expressively melodic voice and the chemistry the band has forged over time that shines through.

Give it a listen for yourself. We were lucky enough to catch up with Andy to talk about the record, 10 years making albums under the band name Jo Henley and the state of Americana. Check it all out.
 

 
RLR: As an artist I have found that I am constantly searching for that someone who I am able to make music with and it just clicks. It seems like you and Ben especially have found that chemistry in creating. What has fostering that relationship been like over the years? Was it a natural thing that just occurred for the two of you that strengthened over time?

AC: In many ways, I see my relationship with Ben as a lot like my relationship with my wife. I have known both for a very long time, and I think that outsiders often see longtime relationships as easy–or at least easier. Perhaps there is some truth in there, but what’s ignored in that viewpoint is that a whole lot of hard work goes into keeping two people together for decades. Ben and I met when we were 18 or 19 years old, almost from day one freshman year of college, and here we are at 40. In that entire time, there has never been a gap when we have not made music together. We have survived all of the ups and downs that life throws at you while simultaneously chasing this shared dream of ours. And because of that longstanding bond, our life circumstances become intertwined with the music. It is impossible to separate the two. I tend to not only write about what is going on in my life, and my family and friends’ lives, but Ben’s too. On a practical level, our relationship works because he doesn’t sing and I don’t play solos. So we more of less make up for the deficiencies in each other.

 

RLR: You have always hit on the solemn parts of songwriting in previous works, but this record in particular takes a focus on the exploration of “dark themes of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness”. Personally, those are the kinds of songs that speak to me most. Is there a catharsis for you in exploring those themes? Better to get it out there, rather than bottle it up? Essentially I am asking “do sad songs make you happy?”

 

AC: Without naming names, this was a very personal album to make because some people very close to me were going through dark times and had been for many years. To watch that cycle perpetuate itself over and over again–hence the ferris wheel imagery–is frustrating. It can be maddening to try to get anyone you love who needs help to go get that help. And at the same time, it’s naive to say to those folks, hey, come on, it’s easy, just make that phone call!. It’s not easy for anyone involved. The idea of burning down the dark is setting fire–quite literally destroying–that darkness, but the welcome byproduct of that fire-setting is light. The last song, “I’m the Light,” is me exploring the concept that we all have all of those elements of light and darkness within us, so–and I don’t want to say it’s as simple as making a choice to be “light” as opposed to “dark”–but it’s a reminder that we have free will to make changes and embrace our inner light. That might sound corny, but one of the benefits of writing songs for as long as I have it that I don’t worry about those things as much as would have when I was younger. I feel comfortable exploring whatever I feel I need to explore. Fortunately,the roots music idiom is notorious for sad songs, and often those sad songs are disguised in major keys and upbeat tempos. Is there a better example of that than bluegrass? Another way we disguise our more personally dark life events is through characters. In some ways I can write more honestly and personally if I give myself the distance. Even if I am writing in first-person, it’s not necessarily me. Then I like to take a character and drop him into other songs on an album. The listener might not pick up on that, but it’s helpful to me to keep a thematic narrative thread going through a record as much as possible.

 

Yes, sad songs make me happy. And happy songs often grate on my nerves, ha!

 

RLR: Something I ask pretty much everyone I interview is about “community” and what that means to them in the context of music or art. Its basically the only reason RLR was started, trying to foster some semblance of a community and a place where folks can go to hear about music they may not have otherwise heard. For you, it seems you guys have tapped into the Plymouth music circuit pretty heavily over time, but also venture out to NY state as well. Care to elaborate on why those two geographical areas have been spots you frequent, or the community you have found within each?

 

AC: The Upstate NY connection is mainly because that’s where I grew up. Ben and I have been living in the Boston area for the past 16+ years, but I still have lots of friends and family back home, and so we have always played there regularly. Everyone back home considers Ben family too–he’s comfortable there. As a writer, where I grew up is far removed from life in Boston, so having that connection to a grittier, more blue-collar locale keeps me grounded and gives me more to write about. The Plymouth connection is just one of those things that organically happened. We are not the best at being small fish in a big pond. We are not movers and shakers who are always out on the town catching different bands every night. We used to do that all the time, but now that I have two kids, I feel less inclined to spend what free time I do have in bars and clubs when I could be home writing or at band rehearsal. For that reason, I think we tend to fly under the radar in Boston/Cambridge proper. But when we find a niche in smaller places, we tend to do well and stick around. We have many, many very good friends down on the South Shore, and Plymouth in particular, and they embrace the style of music we make. So it’s a community that we felt welcomed into, rather than one we felt we needed to ingratiate ourselves into.

 

RLR: You have explored the ins and outs of what Americana music kind of embodies in many ways. Whether people embody that as having mandolins and banjos on their recordings or something far deeper (which I think you are a perfect example of). How have you seen the landscape of roots and americana music change over the decade since you released “Long Way Home” and how do you see it changing in the future?

 

AC: It’s funny–to me, I see our catalog as one big mass of songs on a long continuum, but as a music fan, I know what it’s like to fall in and out of love with a band, or like their earlier sound but not their later sound (or vice versa). So when someone tells me they prefer the early days of the band, with more fiddle and traditional Americana elements, I get that. Others like us more when we embrace our rock side, or our jamband leanings. I get that too. For Ben and me, we love it all. It changes things up. This new record has lots of things we have never done before–noisy feedback, the dreamy sax interludes, some funk (for lack of a better term), but then there is a song like “Caralee” which is our way of reminding our fans that we remain true to that side of us–not only that, but I put “Caralee” up there as maybe the best of any pure roots song we’ve done. But it’s all part of the fabric. I must admit that Ben and I enjoy messing with the Americana genre.

 

Quick aside: I adore Sturgill Simpson, but as a writer I put off listening to this latest record because I did not want it to subconsciously seep into into my own writing. Yesterday I bought it and listened to it for the first time (and 6 times since then). It’s incredible. It is also in many ways a big change from his last two records and I know a lot of his fans gave him shit for it. But what I hear are all the same elements they fell in love with on those other records still present on this one. Sure, there are horns and strings and more r&b, but there’s pedal steel and nylon string guitar, and two-step beats and those chicken-pickin’ Telecaster leads, and of course Sturgill’s voice. To expect an artist to keep making the same record over and over again is unfair. Sturgill knocked it out of the park

 

RLR: ‘Burning Down the Dark’ is an anniversary release of sorts, marking a pretty significant milestone of 10 years making music under the Jo Henley moniker/bandname. What is it about this album that is special to you? Where does this see you as an artist and how have you evolved as one over those 10 years? What do you know now that you wish you could have told yourself way back when?

 

AC: I think a lot about this anniversary. When Ben and I started JH 1.0, if you will, we were excited just to be playing a style of music that felt most natural to us after years of experimenting with a more straight-ahead rock sound from our college days. Long Way Home was recorded because we needed something to send out to booking agents. We needed a demo, basically. We still play most of those songs, so it’s held up over the years. But I am well aware of how far I have come as a songwriter, and how far Ben has come as a guitar player. I might be the one who come up with the bones of our songs, but what Ben adds to them is irreplaceable, as far as melodic lines, riffs, and other signature flourishes. We also always work out the arrangements together. In the course of ten years, I am proud of the fact that we have stuck to honing our craft and see that as an accomplishment in and of itself.

 

RLR:. What does your songwriting process look like?

 

AC: The timing of this question is interesting. I am not sure how comfortable I am in sharing this because it feels premature, but I am in the middle of writing a novel. I love prose writing nearly as much as songwriting, and I decided it was about time that I set out to accomplish this dream of mine. But the musician side of me can’t stick its nose out of writing side, and so I have been toying with the thought of coming up a few solo acoustic songs that would coincide with the novel, or even just instrumentals. Last night I stumbled on one or two potential songs, but while the process was not much different than usual: I find a chord progression or two that fit with the mood I have in mind, then once the melody and cadence establish themselves the lyrics come fairly quickly after that. But last night it occurred to me much responsibility goes into 100% writing and performing a song. It’s not the writing and performing it that is scary, but rather taking full ownership that is. As Jo Henley, I am able to share the burden of a song’s success or failure. There is a built-in safety net in being part of an ensemble.

The short answer is that I tend to always come up with the general melody and structure of the music first, and then Ben gets immediately thereafter. I like to say that I make black-and-white sketches and Ben colors them in. The lyrics more often than not come toward the end. I do like to have a working title early on–I use it to keep the song anchored as it drifts through the writing and editing process–but these days it is rare that I have all the words 100% finished before the music is. Lastly, I cannot emphasize enough the role our bandmates have, and still do, play in the JH sound. Our friend Tony Markellis, for example, has played bass on most of our records, so his musical sensibilities have become ingrained into our sound. When Jordan was a full-time member of the band, his role was very similar to Ben’s in that his fiddle and mandolin parts were noteworthy aspects of the songs, to say nothing of his improvisational skills. I could go through all of our current and former bandmates and cite similar examples of how each have shaped the songs. That said, if Ben and I play with anyone, somehow it ends up sounding like Jo Henley.

 

RLR: Anything else you want to plug?

 

AC: The date isn’t set yet, but our big local CD release show will be at The Fallout Shelter next month, streamed live. We’re going to play the whole album in its entirety. Bill’s also going to shoot a video for the title track in the next week or two. Other than that, we are in the midst of booking a tour out west, maybe some dates down south, plus our other November shows, which will be when we really start promoting this record and seeing how far we can take it.

 

photo by Karen Morse, http://www.tailoredportraits.com/
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