Until recently, we have known Noam Pikelny as one of the crew. Whether he was knocking us out as part of his Punch Brothers posse, sending us reeling with Leftover Salmon, or throwing it down with fellow young bluegrass all-stars, he has always been a palpable, invaluable part of the pack. With Universal Favorite, his latest album, however, it is just Noam. Noam alone. Every note Noam. No one but Noam. And, it is astounding.
Noam has always been deservedly held in high regard. There is a reason he was the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. There is a reason he has multiple Grammy nominations under his belt. There is a reason he has won IBMA Banjo Player of the Year and Album of the Year. This record gives us another reason to elevate our view of him. The bar was already high, but he beat it.
The Universal Favorite show is super impressive. Noam is outstanding alone. He stands on stage surrounded only by his four instruments: his Gibson banjo, his resophonic guitar, his telecaster, and his flat-top. All vintage. One-by-one he picks them up and presents us with engaging and enjoyable tunes, displaying throughout his picking proficiency and, come to find out, captivating vocals. It is a musical experience like no other. The spare nature of the show, just one man on stage, belies the complex music offered. And, while the intimacy of the show pulls us in, what unfolds blows us away. Noam treats us to his blistering and beautiful banjo playing, shows off his flat-picking skills, and lays down soulful and spot-on singing. Our jaws ache from having hit the floor every single song and from laughing at Noam’s arid wit and hilarious stories. What a fabulous couple of concert hours. We might enter thinking we know Noam, but leave stunned, realizing what we knew was just a fraction of his immense talent.
His Universal Favorite songs and tunes speak for themselves. The record starts with Waveland, an original that is pure sophistication and grace. That flutter, those rolls, the waves flowing in. Yes, that is only Noam. Wow. Just from the first few measures of Old Banjo we know that his true voice coupled with his lightning quick picking has already won us over. His rendition of Folk Bloodbath has our mouths agape and lungs breathless as we sit stone still and listen. The gorgeous opening, the tempo, the tenor of his voice, the elegant playing: Noam completely lays us away with this song. Sugar Maple and Hen of the Woods, Pikelny originals, inform us that the banjo is a lot more than we think it is. These tunes show off Noam’s infinite capabilities with the instrument. And, Noam’s version of My Tears Don’t Show has us smiling through western swing. Each of the offerings on Universal Favorite provides us another glimpse into Pikelny: his talent, his taste, his musicianship, and all that shines through in this singular work is superb.
Noam was nice enough to talk with us about the record, things that came before, and how things came to be.
JH: How did banjo become your instrument?
NP: I did not have the crystallized moment that all my heroes had. Once I started playing banjo, I read all these interviews or talked to my favorite players and they would always say, “Well, I heard the banjo on the radio or it was the Beverly Hillbillies” or there was this crystallized moment where they heard this sound and that is when they knew they had to learn the instrument. I never had that.
I was 9 years old and my brother was taking mandolin lessons. He had that moment. He saw a bluegrass band at his school and heard a mandolin and said, “I want to learn that thing.” I eventually got jealous that he was taking lessons and I thought it would be fun to learn an instrument. My parents said, “Sure, we’ll go rent an instrument. How about the banjo?” And, I was like, “Sure. Whatever. That would be fine.” I had no real gravitation toward any instrument. They thought that my brother and I could play music together if I learned the banjo as opposed to the trombone or something. So, we rented a banjo and then I started falling in love with it.
JH: When did you know banjo was going to be your career?
NP: I think there was always this underlying desire to try to make a life in music, but also this underlying sense that it is really hard to do. Also, it is so foreign as far as the line of work I was familiar with in my upbringing. Everyone in my family is either a teacher or an engineer of some sort. I didn’t know anybody in my family who played music for a living. It was never explicitly communicated to me that it was a hard path by my family. They were always really supportive, but, I think, it just seemed to be a tall order, especially being a banjo player. I wanted to be a musician, but I thought it was not necessarily the safest path so I started by studying computer engineering in college. I studied in Champaign, Illinois. I went there for their engineering program. It was kind of this conscious decision of, okay, well, music will be something I do on the side and it will be a hobby. So, I am not going to go to Berklee College of Music which was another place I was considering. I’m going to go to Illinois and study computers.
But, after a couple of years of that I was really missing playing all the time. And, through the music scene there I started playing a lot more banjo, and that kind of catapulted me to Colorado. I switched over to music and eventually moved out to Colorado to play with Leftover Salmon. It was kind of a winding path that brought me to that stage. It was the opposite of what I had thought I was subscribing to, where music would be more of a hobby. But, because I went to that certain place with those musicians there, it came together.
JH: Was Champaign a hotbed for progressive bluegrass?
NP: It wasn’t a hotbed like Nashville or DC. There just happened to be six or seven people there that were like-minded musicians who liked staying up late and playing music. The connections to Colorado were through a few of the guys in Yonder Mountain String Band, who had just left Illinois prior to then. They were the ones who kind of got me connected out there.
JH: How did you end up with Leftover Salmon? Did you actually finish school first?
NP: No. I left with a year left, which at the time seemed like an eternity. I could not see passing up the opportunity to go on the road with Leftover Salmon. They invited me to join the band about a week before the Fall semester was starting in my last year. It was a last minute decision to put that life on hold and move to Colorado and start playing music.
JH: Looking back on Leftover Salmon, how do you describe that experience and its influence on your early career?
NP: It was an amazing introduction into the world of professional music. To go from playing for tips at a local college bar to all of a sudden touring around the country with an established and successful band was an incredible contrast. I think what is really profound about their situation is the community they have built and how infectious their musical spirit is. Vince Herman was just a wizard in front of an audience. I felt like I was on stage with a magician, just the way he could rile up audiences. I still think he is one of the great entertainers. I was paying attention a lot to that and just looking around and seeing this grassroots fan base that they had built just by chasing their musical ideas and not being afraid to be totally wild and insane. It was a pretty fun experience.
JH: Do you ever get a chance to play with them anymore?
NP: I see them every now and then. Usually, we cross paths in Colorado at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I have sat in with them a couple of times over the last few years, but, it is not as much as I would like to see them.
JH: As far as Telluride goes, I had heard that there was a chance meeting with Chris Thile there and that formed the idea to become the Punch Brothers. How did that all go down?
NP: We were both at the Sheridan Opera House for a late night Yonder show. I had met Chris before at Rocky Grass. I think we had even played a song together, but he didn’t really remember. That was like a jam session with about 20 people on it backstage. That was years prior to that Telluride encounter. We had a chance to actually play backstage at the Sheridan in Telluride; I think that was the first time that actually counted. We hit it off musically and I think that kind of planted the seed or, at least, Chris now had a banjo player in mind for this project he was dreaming up. I think his project was coming into focus, and as he met Critter and me, he was starting to see that it would manifest itself as a five-piece bluegrass band not playing anything remotely related to bluegrass at the beginning. Well, maybe that is not fair; it was remotely related. But, The Blind Leaving the Blind was a fairly visionary piece of music. Chris incorporated the bluegrass improvisation into it and the idiomatic playing, but it was radically progressive.
JH: Turning to leading up to Universal Favorite: you actually have four solo albums. Can you fill us in on each of the others a little bit?
NP: In The Maze was the first one from 2004 then there was Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail and then the Kenny Baker album [Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe]. The Kenny Baker album was really the most traditional thing I have ever done. Beat The Devil was a collection of original instrumentals I had written that were on the more progressive side of bluegrass banjo, along with some covers for which I had guest singers. I had Tim O’Brien sing one and Aoife O’Donovan sang a Tom Waits song on there. So, I would say Beat The Devil was my brand of bluegrass and I guess people would say it was progressive or on the fringes or downright blasphemy, depending on who you ask.
But, the Kenny Baker record is a real labor of love and a tribute to this music that I really adore. That is by far the most traditional set of material that I have ever recorded. But, my approach to playing banjo on those songs is really no different than how I approach playing banjo on the Punch Brothers’ Blind Leaving the Blind or anything progressive in Punch Brothers. I think because I had a bit of a different approach on banjo that was essentially fueled or informed by my Punch Brothers’ experience I actually had justification to make that Kenny Baker record: I could make this sound different on the banjo because of all this other stuff I had done before.
JH: How would you describe your new album, Universal Favorite?
NP: It is the most direct musical offering I could put forward. It is just me. There is no band. It is a combination of originals that I have written for the banjo and songs that I am singing. I am singing for the first time on this record. It essentially encapsulates this one man show that I started doing last year. I set out to offer a glimpse of the banjo in real intimate detail that could only really happen in a solo setting. There are subtleties of all the bluegrass instruments that really do not come across in a band setting because everything is competing for sonic real estate. I wanted to showcase the banjo in this real extreme detail and write music that would stand alone. The banjo can be warm, and the banjo can have sustain when there aren’t four other instruments fighting for sound territory. So, that is how it started. I started writing the instrumentals like Waveland and Hen of the Woods. I was writing these tunes to start putting together a solo set last year and I realized really quickly that it was running the risk of being a banjo recital, a purely instrumental show. I love that type of thing, but it didn’t feel like what I wanted to be doing on stage. It did not feel like that was the moment I arrived at.
I love playing songs and I have been lucky to be on stage and in the studio with such great singers. There has been no reason to ever elbow my way in to try to sing when I am on stage next to John Cowan or Chris Thile. But, this set needed songs. If there weren’t songs in the set, there would have been a real spot in this whole concept. Playing songs and supporting to serve the song is such a huge part of my musical fabric that I decided that songs just needed to be part of the set and part of the record. It was actually a unique opportunity to curate material and pull songs out of my back pocket that I have had for years like Old Banjo or something like the Josh Ritter song [Folk Bloodbath] or Ray Acuff’s My Tears Don’t Show that I sought out specifically for this record.
JH: How did you choose the covers you did for this record? There must have been something about each one of them that spoke to you or you knew that you could put them out there in a way that had not been heard before.
NP: I think the latter is essentially the key. There is such great material out there. When I listen to a song and I hear it and love it that is not enough for me to justify playing it. I think the only reason to cover something is if you see a way to make it your own. All the covers on this record are done drastically differently from the original version. I thought I could maybe shed a different light on these songs through my treatment of them. So, it is a combination of yes, absolutely having to love the song, but also having a justification to put it on the record. The third part of that is trying to find songs that help complete the set. You know, “What is missing here?” When I set out to make this record, it was not on Day One that I thought I am going to record Sweet Sunny South, and play it on guitar and sing it. That decision came once everything was really coming into focus and I was seeing what was missing. I had all this other material and was asking what does the record need in this spot, in this sequence? Well, I’m not really flat-picking anything on this record, and that is something I really enjoy doing, and Sweet Sunny South is as good of a song as ever written. So, I thought this would be a nice moment even though it is something really familiar to people. It was that three-pronged approach: being infatuated with the music; having justification for doing it; and whether it helps complete the arc of the record.
JH: Do you have a certain approach to songwriting? Do you sit down and play, having something in your head that you just have to get out? Or, do you actually pen and paper it out?
NP: Everything on this record was done by ear. The only kind of note-taking that existed was through voice memos on my phone. I did not score anything out on the computer or on paper.
The process is different for each song. A lot of times, I’ll be sitting with the instrument and playing and exploring an idea and a certain melody will emerge or a certain harmonic change will emerge that I feel is interesting, then I start just mining what the possibilities are out of some little kernel, and then it starts to come into focus of what the nature of the song is. It really is just a process of developing through experimentation a lot of the times for me. I will have a seed and I will just start snow-balling the idea and seeing where it is headed. I will make voice memos of these things, especially for writing solo music that is not going to be expanded upon by a band. It can just start with an idea and I will experiment with that and record a couple different options as far as: is this going to be a song that is kind of repetitive, like a fiddle tune format where there is improvisation on it, or is it something that is going to be more through-composed? So, it is fairly mercurial with each song. Each song has its own process.
Sometimes it is more of an idea conceptually then I pick up the instrument. Hen of the Woods started as an idea of what would happen if I wrote a song on the banjo where the melody was just on one string and as the song develops I keep adding in other harmony notes on the other strings and just try to get to the point where that is maxed out, like to kind of explode the melody over the course of a song. There is no improvisation in there; it is just an addition process and then an exploding process. I think that started more as a conceptual idea and then I picked up the instrument and started searching for a melody that I thought would be a good launching point.
For a lot of the others, really, I’ll be sitting there playing and searching for melodies and something will pop out that I think is interesting or surprises me. I think that is when I turn on the tape recorder: when I can get a rise out of myself, which isn’t easy. There are probably a lot of things I will stumble upon that just get lost because I am not catching them as I am playing. That is the beauty of playing with a band or co-writing with a band: to be sitting around working on music and you will play something and someone will be like, “Hey, what was that? Do that again.” And, I am like, “What did I do?” That happens all the time with the Punch Brothers. But, alone, I am listening and seeking out springboards for music and then it is just a process of development. I have found that actually recording these ideas as I am going along and then listening back I am able to judge them more fairly than I am in real time when it is a solo setting.
JH: After you record your songs, is there actual written music for what you are doing?
NP: No. I will come up with a form and then just practice it and it will all be memorized. It is never music from the page.
Playing banjo and coming out of the bluegrass tradition, it is such an oral tradition, that it is much more natural for me to learn something by ear off of a record or from another musician than for someone to hand me written music. That is something we do and I do. There is so much incredible music on the page and we have done that, and I have had to teach myself to take solo violin music and find a way to take it from the page and arrange it for banjo. That is a really fun thing and it is something I do a lot in more of a practice room setting. But, for this type of stuff, it is almost always by ear. There is very little music, even with the Punch Brothers, that has ever been put on the page except for Blind Leaving the Blind.
JH: Is there anything in particular that you are hoping the listener takes away from Universal Favorite, whether it is about the banjo and its capabilities or about Noam Pikelny, himself, as a musician?
NP: I was just really trying to make good music. I think there was this initial justification that it would be so cool to show what the banjo sounds like in this solo setting or just exploit some of the warmth of the instrument. That was the initial justification, but then it was just about writing music that was appealing to me and, hopefully, appealing to other people.
I have always loved solo albums and solo shows. I always feel like it really brings people closer to the artists. I never saw John Hartford play his solo shows live. I saw him live in other contexts. But, the recordings of him playing solo are such a huge inspiration. It just feels like you are right there with him. It is almost like it is a private show and you’re in someone’s living room. That intimacy is really appealing to me.
I felt like it was important to throw my hat into the ring on a solo set. I would hate to forecast what the idealized reaction is. If some people listen to it and are mesmerized by something on the banjo that they had not heard before, great. If somebody listens on a more holistic level and is moved by the music, that is fine as well.
Again, I have always loved solo albums, and it felt like it was almost required of me. Not every record you make feels like it had to be done. With the Kenny Baker record, I stumbled upon that concept through the word play of the title. I never thought I had to make a traditional banjo album or re-make an entire bluegrass record. I was joking about whether I could make a record called Noam Pikelny plays Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe. Just as a joke. And, then, I started thinking about it and I thought, actually, this would be really fun, and there is a reason to do this.
Many of my favorite artists have done solo shows or have a solo album or a sort of very sparse album that, in some ways, I felt like that it was required of me: like, making a project in that vein was a prerequisite for getting to do this for a living. It felt like if I didn’t do it now, it was something I was going to have to do at some point in my life. I will have to do this someday because it is important to me, and it seemed like the right time because it provided a ton of contrast to what my last record was. The last record was the Kenny Baker record where there is a five-piece band and some of the best bluegrass players you could find, all of my favorite players and heroes. The idea of following up that record with another full band record but of my own material seemed so daunting (laughs). I did not want to follow that up with: I am going to go from playing the most adored material in bluegrass music with a five-piece band to my new originals with a five-piece band! I wanted to do something completely different.
JH: It takes a lot to go out there alone on stage. Do you enjoy it?
NP: I do. It is a thrill doing this, and I really enjoy what this show allows. I can tell stories on stage, which I enjoy, and I really do enjoy singing as well. It is fun for me. And, I feel like there is this kind of a living room nature to it. It is so sparse. Even though it is a one-sided conversation, I feel like I am that much closer to the audience in this context. That is appealing to me.
It is appealing to us too, Noam! Noam’s solo show hits the road again this September and has dates running through mid-November. Check here for the shows. As Noam explained, making Universal Favorite was something he felt had to be done. Similarly, going to Noam’s show and owning his new album is something that has to be done by anyone who loves music.