An Interview with Amber Rubarth: No More One-Way Radios

Two musicians find themselves stranded in California on 9/11. Planes are grounded and they both need to get back to New York. This is the premise for David Heinz’s latest film, American Folk, starring two honest-to-goodness folk artists, Amber Rubarth and Joe Purdy. I got a chance to listen to the soundtrack and it’s a gem. It includes some of the essential standards of American folk music, like, “Red River Valley,” while also featuring some of Purdy and Rubarth’s originals. The pair sing together like they were always meant to, and the soundtrack is a welcome addition to the catalogue of reinterpretation and stretching of folk songs, stretching back to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Amber and Joe are taking the show on the road, and they start their tour this week. Amber and I got to catch up about the creative process for the film, digging in deep to folk archives, and learning life lessons from her character in the film.

RLR: If I’ve got this right, you and Joe had a lot of latitude from writer/director David Heinz to pick the songs for this film. What was that process like for you both and what were you listening for to know if a song was a good fit?

AR: We did get to collaborate a lot and it really felt like a team. All three of us are already avid folk fans, but this project gave us a chance to dig in even deeper to the history of the songs. Toward the beginning we all three watched a Pete Seeger documentary called The Power of Song and it was a huge inspiration — both around the songs as well as this idea of community

Seeger really carried that tradition of the shared experience of folk, this fluidity of even the writing that a song would be passed on and changed and added to, really becoming something new that fit each place it landed. That feeling is what was at the heart of the film as well, and the songs we ended up choosing were built out of that curiosity of which songs we could connect with for ourselves and with each other, mixed with what resonated with the storyline.

RLR: In talking with folks over the years, I find that some people have been steeped in folk music since birth and others come to it later in life. What was it like for you?

AR: I was definitely the “later in life” person. We didn’t really have much music around the house when I grew up. I think I first heard folk music when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I didn’t get into it much at that point. I started writing music before I started listening to a lot of music. My entrance was more about expressing, because I was terrible at talking, so I found that as an outlet. It’s been nice, doing the movie was this great opportunity for really digging in and being exposed to a lot more. And having people like David and Joe who are steeped in it, and have been; I know Joe, at least, he grew up with it and it’s just in his blood. He is through and through folk; he really knows it and loves it and has a beautiful relationship with it. So it was fun for me to dig into that environment and also have a freshness with it. And once you dig in, it’s endless.  I still have so much to learn.


RLR: I think you wrote “Townes” for this film–did knowing that the song would be in this film impact your approach at all to writing?

AR: I wrote that after we were done filming, actually in the last couple of hours of being in the studio. It was the last song we did–we had maybe two hours left to record and I was scribbling the final lyrics up until five minutes before that. I was so moved by these experiences we had while filming of coming together with people, these themes in the script really lifted off the page and happened in real life during our process. It wasn’t just making a movie about community, it really infused all of our experiences. Writing is always a nice way to distill something you’ve experienced and put it in a form, and that was what that song was for me.  

RLR: There’s a line that stands out to me from “Townes.” It’s: “Since you been round, these roads have all changed, these songs sound new again.” It feels like it’s really getting at that community spirit of performing songs with others than just being an individual.

AR: Yes, absolutely, and I felt that more deeply than I ever have, collaboratively, as far as creating something together. I’ve mostly done a lot of solo touring, and I’ve done some collaborative projects, but making a movie, there’s so many people involved and so many moving parts. It was a beautiful lesson for me to learn what a community collaboration is. In music, even when you have a band or are making an album, it’s still kind of a small team. And with a movie, you just can’t do that; it’s like a whole ecosystem you’re creating with, and it lends a totally different joy.  


RLR: Your character’s name is Joni, spelled the way Joni Mitchell spells her name. What is Joni like?

AR: When I first went to audition, David said to me something that ends up being the most important character trait for her. He said: “The only thing you have to do for Joni is don’t squash her light.” On a separate level, it felt like a life lesson that I needed to learn, and maybe everybody needs to learn but it was kind of a fun turn of events that I had to act it. Her character is really open and friendly, shining and connective, generative and community-oriented. She is a relationship type of person. David really helped and he was very open to us putting some of our real traits into the characters, marrying what he wrote with who we are as people, or what we wanted or felt about the characters. For Joe and I both, we were able to take a facet of our real selves and amplify it in these characters. It’s a huge learning experience. I have such respect for actors. Neither of us had done any acting before, so it was a new world for both us.

RLR: And it’s a very different form of performance and I wonder if any aspects of your live performance might end up influenced by this experience of performing in a very different way.

AR: Absolutely, that shared experience of singing is totally different than solo performance with performer and audience. One of the biggest things I’ve felt has changed already is not thinking of things as a one-way radio anymore and really thinking of everything as a collaboration. There are certain limits when you think of a performance as “performer / audience.” It’s a division.  This project really helped me to try and think more like we’re all sitting around a campfire and everybody sharing something. Just that reframing is huge. I feel like I see things differently doing that, and it opened my eyes to a more enjoyable back and forth relationship with it. In our world now especially, we’re all on our phones or computers–more than ever, it’s nice to have a mutual expectation that everyone will be engaged.

RLR: The context for this film is that two musicians are in California and are grounded there after 9/11. Can you talk a bit about your own experience of that time immediately following 9/11 and how much you were drawing on that as you approached this role?

AR: Even though I had never been to New York when 9/11 happened, the whole country definitely felt the intensity and confusion around that day. It’s such an enormous thing to try and take in. David wanted to honor different people’s experiences around the country, not focus on just the tragedy, but more so how in the wake of the tragedy, people came together. Right now is a really interesting time, comparatively, because we are all experiencing a national trauma and divisiveness that is also very deep. What David brought into the story was [a question of whether] we need another tragedy like this to shake us up, or can we just be reminded of it, reminded of a time when we found it and let that bring back the sharing and community and kindness.


You can be a part of this community at Brighton Music Hall on Thursday, February 1! Get out there, folk family. Sing along! Remember, as Glen Hansard says, “If you sing from the heart, you’re always in tune.”


Photo credit: David Whetstone