Tree of Life: A Conversation with Patrick Coman and Release Show at The Burren (2/17)

Singer-songwriter Patrick Coman may have made a recent move a bit further south recently, but the man has firmly planted a few of his branches into the ground in New England and Boston. As the curator of the For the Sake of the Song series and WUMB’s Local Folk he touched the far reaches of the folk music community around town and the number of artists that were involved in those live shows he produced or played on air, well thats a whole lot of folks.

On February 23 Coman releases his latest and perhaps most refined and confident project to date. The album doesn’t just play host to a batch of new songs from the musician, but also to a whole slew of some of the finest musicians around the area. In addition to  Coman on vocals and rhythm guitar, Peter Parcek shreds on lead guitar; Marco Giovino adds  drums, percussion and organ, and Joe Klompus on upright and electric bass. The list goes on with Neal Pawley – tuba, trombone, lap steel, baritone guitar, guitar and electric mandolin; “Beehive Queen” Christine Ohlman – vocals (who lends her unmistakable grit to the spirited duet, “Don’t Reach”); Kylie Harris and Abbie Barrett – background vocals; and Tom West (Peter Wolf, Susan Tedeschi) – keys, organ and accordion.

Patrick will be back at The Burren in Davis Square (Somerville, MA) to celebrate the release on February 17th with a few of those musicians joining his and Peter Parcek and his trio opening the evening up. He is also in Providence on Thursday 2/15 as part of the Outlaw Roadshow and in Marblehead for a Tribute to John Prine on Friday 2/16. Check out his tour schedule for more info and ticket links.

I feel truly lucky to catch up with Patrick to talk a bit about the show and this record. Check it out below.



RLR: Tree of Life…take us through the title of the record and what that means to you as an artist and for this specific project. What was your idea around this theme and what stories are embedded in the record as a result?

PC: On a basic level the title track, and much of the album, were written leading up to and right after the birth of my daughter so I knew that track would be at the heart of the project. I was really fascinated by the idea of her life in utero and that bridge she was crossing into our world. On a more personal level, I was going through a lot of changes and doubts about my music and direction in life during that time which is one reason I think the idea of new beginnings resonated so strongly with me. I’ve always been a late bloomer and I spent a longer time than most people developing as a musician and a songwriter, so I felt like I was also coming into my own with a style and approach that felt very authentic and unique to me.  

RLR:You have kind of come through a metamorphosis over the years. From “Let it Ring” being pretty rootsy and songwriter-ish to “Reds and Blues” being a real mix of that earlier aesthetic with some pretty heavy blues influence. Where do you see your music sitting currently in the landscape of music and genre? How do you feel you have changed and evolved over the past 6 or 7 years as not just a musician with a “sound” but also as a writer?

PC: I moved to Boston about eight years ago and spent a lot of that time experimenting with different sounds. I got to learn a lot about bluegrass and old time music from playing with a bunch of great musicians who came out of the Old Time program at Berklee and from running sound at legendary folk music clubs like Passim. That was a great education and there was a lot of that sound that I wanted to be able to incorporate in my music but ultimately I came to feel like I was imitating other people rather than doing what came natural to me. Reds&Blues was an opportunity to reboot and go back to the music at my bedrock because I wrote the songs in the style of some of my favorite artists. Once I started going deeper I felt this connection to the blues and rock n’ roll that reminded me what first inspired me to pick up the guitar. Right around this time I had the great fortune of meeting my friend and mentor Peter Parcek (who co-produced Tree Of Life) and he provided a road map for digging deeper into those styles and the more I learned the more I knew I was on the right path. Listening to and learning about these different styles also taught me a lot about songwriting, although I’m not sure I realized it at the time. Getting older and having more life experience also does wonders for opening up more songwriting possibilities than you ever would have thought when you were younger.

RLR: Take us through your writing process. How does a song typically develop for you? Over time, in one sitting? Do you find you go back through the years of notebooks and phone recordings to revisit stuff or is most of the stuff fresh?

PC: For this album I actually changed my writing process a little bit. I let ideas sit longer on the vine before finishing them up. I have never been a very good editor of my songs, whenever inspiration would strike it always felt like a race against time to get it out before the idea would fade. This time I tried to not force it, I would just write until I felt resistance and then I would stop. What I found is that when I went back to the songs I would have a clearer understanding of the idea at their root. That made it a lot easier to look at each line and think, “does this line advance the root of the song or not?” This also helped me see some old material in a new light. I am a habitual collector of phone recordings and lyric notebooks. I have my last four phones because there are ideas on them still and I have notebooks of lyrics from when I was like fifteen. Actually on this album the main riff of “Heartbeat” was something I wrote when I 17, a big chunk of the chorus for “Chelsea Street” was something I found in an old notebook, and Trouble #2 was an update of a song on Reds & Blues that I was never satisfied with. Once I labored over a few songs like that I found a lot of material started coming fresh. I wrote “Keep My Soul” in the shower in one chunk, “Don’t Reach” came while I was painting the house, and “Dirty Old Bedbug Blues” came out in one sitting.

RLR: Community is a big part of what we are all about and you are heading back to old stomping grounds for this release at the Burren from your new home. What has the greater Boston community meant to you over time and though you haven’t been gone too long, how does it feel to come back every so often?

PC: Boston is where I learned what it means to be a musician in the truest sense. There are so many exceptional artists who create great work not for any financial or career reasons but simply because it is their calling. Honestly as I have traveled around the country one negative thing about Boston is that I don’t feel like there is enough community and audience support compared to the incredible music that is accessible on a nightly basis. Don’t get me wrong there are a number of passionate supporters of local music and those people are a godsend, but the numbers just don’t compare with other cities I’ve played in. The silver lining though is that the musicians in Boston are really great and they are doing it with less ego and less of a weird competitive edge than in places like say Nashville, so the scene has always felt very collaborative and you felt like you were all in the same boat.   



RLR: Another community aspect is that you have some killer musicians adding to them mix on here. In some ways I imagine in playing live with folks like Peter and Marco and also having them in studio, you guys really develop a bond. What is is like playing with folks with such history? Anything specific you learned either on this project or over the years performing alongside them?

PC: Oh my god, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I had the great fortune of playing a ton with Peter and (bassist) Joe Klompus the past few years and they both taught me a ton. Not just in terms of playing or songwriting but also in how to lead a band, how to treat the people you work with, as well as how to approach learning material, and the type of dedication it takes to make the magic happen. One thing I really took away from the recording process with those guys is that the vibe has to be there right from the beginning. Marco really has an ear for creating interesting textures in every track that give your ears something to hang on and he likes to do it in real time rather than adding effects afterward. So we did things like threading a dollar bill through the guitar strings on the acoustic guitar (a la Johnny Cash), or using shakers or maracas or a piece of 2×4 instead of drum sticks. Another thing we did a lot was to put up two vocal mics and one would be standard and the other we would run through a guitar amp with different effects, and the result of having those sounds in the mix as you are tracking is that everyone can play off them and react to them in a way you can’t do if you are just pasting them on at the end.  

RLR: So, you got a cover of Leon Russell’s “Magic Mirror” on the record alongside the remaining original stuff. What was the thought process behind that and what does this song mean to you? Reds and Blues took inspiration from some of your favorite songwriters, but it was more influence in your own artistic audible painting than covering a style or a song. So what is the deeper meaning behind this choice for you?

PC: I’ve been playing that song for a couple of years. It’s a really cool one and it’s kind of buried way back at the end of Leon Russell’s Carney album. I got sort of obsessed with it at a time when people were looking at things like police shootings and drawing completely different conclusions from them and I suppose this song provided some explanation to me for how that could happen (Magic mirror / If we only could / try to see ourselves as others would). 

RLR: Give us the elevator pitch to get people out these release shows. Convince the heck out of us! Go!

PC: People, do you like to music that shakes, shimmies, and slams you in the gut? I do! I wrote an album of music that does just that. We are gonna bring it to you, no half ways. Plus did I mention Peter freakin’ Parcek? Buddy Guy saw him play once (this is a true story) and said “Man, you bad as Clapton. And I know Eric Clapton!” Okay? Peter is going to do a killer set with his trio and then we’re going to get together and play the album in full. We’re gonna leave it on the stage. It’s Boston, that’s all we know how to do.