“I work on the farm 60 hours a week between March and October. An average week during the busy season has two harvest days, one market day, and three days of weeding, planting, and everything else.” It’s a busy life for singer-songwriter and farmer NATHANIEL TALBOT, who runs an organic vegetable farm on Whidbey Island, in Washington State’s Puget Sound. In addition to farming, he’s just released his fourth album, SWAMP ROSE & HONEYSUCKLE VINE on Portland, Oregon’s Fluff & Gravy Records. The album marks the harvest of a different sort for Talbot, who has also spent over two decades tending to the crafts of songwriting and guitar playing. His songs on the new album are intimately tied to the lush farmland and windswept vistas of Whidbey Island, deeply rooted in the earth and American traditionalism.
“The folk music and big trees that surrounded my childhood were hugely impactful,” says songwriter and farmer Nathaniel Talbot of his upbringing just a few hundred miles south of his farm in the foothills just southeast of Portland, Oregon. “I spent most of my free time running around the forest and making up adventures with the neighbor kids,” he says. “The natural setting certainly imprinted on my sense of self and how I make music.” Raised on the music of Paul Simon and Eric Clapton, Talbot began playing music at a young age, learning piano at seven and turning to guitar around thirteen, later steeping himself in the sounds of local artists like Soundgarden, Elliot Smith, and Kelly Joe Phelps. Produced by Talbot along with Rob Stroup, Swamp Rose & Honeysuckle Vine marks a big step forward in Talbot’s evolution as a lyricist and a storyteller. “If you listen to my previous albums, there’s a lot of songs of logging, botany, and even soil erosion, photosynthesis and the deep beauty of hiking at night,” says Talbot. But upon becoming a farmer, he began to dig deep into our most human trait – storytelling. “There was all of a sudden all this raw, untapped material to write about. Stuff that people used to sing about – stories about farmers wrestling the landscape, loving it, abusing it, old tractors getting stuck in the wetland, kids leaving the farm, soil blowing away in the wind, long hard days of work and the amazing sense of reward and connection with the land.”
Swamp Rose & Honeysuckle Vine captures the raw, live energy of Talbot’s guitar playing, and has a more stripped-down approach than his previous albums – no drums, fewer string arrangements, and sparse vocal harmonies. Tracking guitar and vocals live and solo, usually in just one or two takes, Talbot then brought in his quartet of Portland all-stars, Anna Tivel (violin, vocals), Sam Howard (double bass) and Lincoln Crockett (mandolin) and Benji Nagel (dobro), whose auxiliary instrumentation is used intentionally and sparingly to great effect, filling in and conversing with the core of Talbot’s playing and singing. “Challenging what folk music is capable of,” says Seattle Weekly, “Talbot’s powerful, uplifting voice harnesses a country twang complemented by lush acoustic finger-picking and a violin that feels like it was birthed next to a babbling brook in the mountains.” Channeling the lyrical prowess and gritty charm of Anais Mitchell on tracks like “As the Way,” and the concrete characterization in the work of Elliott Smith on tracks like “Able Man,” Talbot stands on the shoulders of generations of folk musicians and Americana singer-songwriters before him. His approach to music feels like that of someone who treats it as a craft handed down and honed, like the tilling of soil or the carving of wood.
Nathaniel Talbot’s music has dirt under its fingernails, the product of decades of hard work and crafting – retuning, replanting, and retelling. The result is true American roots music, combining the soulful edge of tradition with the Pacific Northwest’s legacy of freedom and innovation.
About “Here in the Fields” (2013):
The band’s latest release, “Here in the Fields”, undoubtedly represents Talbot’s strongest song-writing to date. The acoustic bass (Sam Howard), violin (Anna Tivel) and percussion (Russ Kleiner) arrangements are works of musical craftsmanship, helping lift these ten songs to out of the speakers to create a harmonic tapestry seldom heard in the traditional singer-songwriter genre. Expect compositions brimming with lush vocal harmonies, haunting string arrangements, and sparse, textured rhythms sections, while at the same time never straying too far from their anchor: Talbot’s powerful vocal melodies and finger-style guitar work.
From the eerie, minor ballads of “Jamestown” and “Edison” to the more vibey, soul-filled “Tug of War” and “Throw the Light” to the flitting, textural guitar scrambles of “Sound and Skin,” this album packs a wide-spread of musical information into a modest 43-minute listen.
What truly separate this album from its chamber-folk kin are the lyrics. The narratives of “Here in the Fields” are dark and bucolic, taking the listener along the overlooks and through the underbellies of various Pacific Northwest landscapes and rural communities. In essence, the album represents a culmination of two-years of songwriting directly inspired from the agrarian landscape that surrounds his daily work as a farmer. It’s evident that living among the forest and waters of Puget Sound have sculpted the content of these tunes and helped Talbot develop a sense of storytelling that many urban songsters lack.
“My songs have always been a reflection of my landscape, both wild and urban”, says Talbot. “It seems natural to now be weaving the images and stories of farmers and their fields into the music. Also, the activity of hoeing, harvesting, and evening driving a tractor creates a meditative space for my mind to arrange and rearrange new musical ideas, play with lyrics, and if nobody’s around, sing aloud to myself.”
His freshman solo album, “Music Box,” was written and recorded in 2007 while living in a tiny cabin located in the heart of Oregon’s Opal Creek Wilderness. Featuring little more than a voice and guitar, the album highlights Nathaniel’s work in it’s most distilled form. Live sounds of creaking old-growth trees and leaky cabin faucets are sampled throughout these eight tracks, steeping the listener deep in the environs from which the songs were inspired.