Rock Me Mama (and Papa) Like a Wagon Wheel
Rock Me Mama (and Papa) Like a Wagon Wheel
A Q&A with Conor Brendan
Of Conor & the Wild Hunt
By Geoff Gehman
“Put my ashes in an urn of seeds so I’ll grow into a tree./In the gloom of the spring you will hear my spirit sing.”
So goes a lyrical lyric in Conor Brendan’s song “I’m Not Afraid,” which was fertilized by his magical serenity after a death-defying encounter with a hopped freight train. It exemplifies how the Maryland native turns his wild adventures into musical myths; it also exemplifies the revisionary vision of his band Conor & the Wild Hunt. The group combines gleaming vocals, percolating instrumentals and radiating grooves that work well in Brendan’s favorite theatrical theaters.
One of those atmospheric venues is the Mauch Chunk Opera House, which on Oct. 18 will host Brendan and his Wild Hunt comrades, the singing drummer Chris Elvidge and the singing bassist Lena Traynham, They’ll sample their first joint record “You’re Not Alone” (CD Baby), which includes the wave-washing, star-dusting “I’m Not Afraid” and a smiling, cleansing version of “Wagon Wheel,” a hitch-hiking singalong hit completed by Ketch Secor, leader of Old Crow Medicine Show, from a chorus and melody that Bob Dylan wrote while recording the soundtrack to “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
In the email conversation below Brendan, who lives on a permaculture farm in Ellicott City, Md., discusses being inspired by everyone from Jonsi to The Tallest Man on Earth; climbing physical and emotional mountains around the globe, and the nirvana of losing time, space and self.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that knocked you out stone cold?
A: When I was younger, while I was familiar with a wide array of music, I was saturated in hip-hop, rock, and niche metal genres. Then at 12 years old I saw the movie “Once,” created by the Irish band the Frames, starring [Frames leader] Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The most powerful song was “Say It to Me Now,” but the song that stuck with me at the time was “Falling Slowly.” The music in the film inspired me so deeply that I began writing folk music and had an album of material written and recorded by age 13 (unreleased).
Q: What was the first song that convinced you that making music absolutely, positively had to be your calling?
A: I grew up in a musically saturated environment, homeschooled by a mom who was a professional singer/musician/bandleader in her pre-parental life, and a dad who was/is, among other things, a professional recording engineer. At 11 years old my mom was recording Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with my dad in the studio, and I asked if I could give it a shot. I had a knack for it and my parents took me seriously, giving me freedom to pursue that path from a young age. Before that day I was set on being a filmmaker, and now that day feels like a marker for when I decided music was my calling.
Q: Who was/is your main musical mentor, and what’s the best lesson he or she imparted to you?
A: I’ve had various mentors, but my dad imbued some of the main songwriting concepts that have stuck with me, such as writing about interesting people, telling stories. and making emotionally genuine music that people can believe. I’ve had a wild life so far with vast emotional mountainscapes, and those songwriting elements have helped me process much of it.
Q: Why did you add “The Wild Hunt” to the name of the band? Were any other names seriously in the running?
A: The first band I ever formed in 2011 was named The Wild Hunt, inspired by the beautiful song by The Tallest Man on Earth. I went through various musical names through the years, but The Wild Hunt revolved back around and deeply resonated with me. It’s also a mythology with roots in cultures around the world: all involving a spectral leader, a following train of spirits, the howling of hounds, flashes of lightning, and a mystery born from ties to folk magic and paganism, plus reported sightings. This combination of myth and truth is somewhat parallel to our music, in how I take inspiration from my life and turn it into mythology.
Q: You’ve said that “I’m Not Afraid” was triggered by a close call while hopping freight trains with a friend. What year did you have your revelation outside Philadelphia? Why were you train hopping? What other old-fashioned, hobo-esque, picaresque adventures have you enjoyed? And have any of them blossomed into songs?
A: It was 2015, in the days following Halloween. We hopped trains mostly for the adventure. I’ve also hitch-hiked 800 miles down the Midwest in three days (out of necessity), traveled around the U.S. living in a car with a blown head gasket and a cat I accidentally adopted at a laundromat in Northern California, backpacked around Greek islands, and swam across the Aegean Sea to a distant island on a whim. I remember some of the places like they were lucid dreams, like the sky of more stars than dark in the Mora mountains in N.M., the twilight in the Montana mountains, hearing hundreds of people wail “We love youuu!” In unison from the other side of the mountain, and falling asleep on a hidden beach in Greece, feeling my body sway with the waves even though I wasn’t in the water. Some of these have made it into songs, including a few songs on the debut record we just released.
Q: How has making music with Chris and Lena changed you as a musician and, maybe just maybe, as a person?
A: I’ve been playing with Chris for about two years, and Lena for one. The amount of effort and care these two put into this endeavor is humbling. When I’m in the audience and see people on stage engulfed in the music and communicating with dedication to a shared vision, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy, and I’m blessed to be entwined in such relationships.
Q: Have you discovered something recently—as a guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, a public performer—that has made making music easier and more rewarding, something that qualifies as a long, hard-earned epiphany?
A: I recently had an epiphany, something I’d already known but only recently fully clicked. The sound of a singer’s voice is mostly breath control and the vowel shapes one creates with the mouth: the position of the tongue, the vertical space between the tongue and the soft palate. I’ve always had a knack for doing impressions, and it recently hit me that I can embrace whatever characteristics I want. I’m sure I’ll always be working to hone my voice. It’s truly freeing.
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: I ‘m always working to improve my techniques. I’m currently working on belting with a growl, fluid soloing, and composing more intricate orchestral arrangements.
Q: What song do you return to, again and again and again, for an instant dose of inspiration?
A: There’s this state of mind called flow state. It’s when one is so fully immersed in an activity that you lose sense of time and space, and even self. Some ambient music really puts me in that zone. Once I was free climbing a cliff while listening to a collection of beautiful ambient compositions, and every move upwards was clear, till there was a long silence in a track. For minutes I couldn’t figure out where to grasp to ascend, and I couldn’t climb down without falling a far distance. All of a sudden the music returned and every hand and foot placement upwards was obvious.
Ambient music can move me to that flow state of mind, which is profoundly beneficial for songwriting. “Ævin Endar” by Jonsi is one song I can count on for that. The [Jonsi & Alex] album “Riceboy Sleeps” is emotionally powerful and also puts me in that space.
Q: What are your favorite venues, and why?
A: I’m somewhat obsessed with stage aesthetic, specifically stage drapes and balconies. Regarding venues we play: our favorite one in Baltimore is the 8×10 (balconies and supportive culture), in NYC Rockwood Music Hall (stage drapes, balconies, and very supportive), and I presume Mauch Chunk Opera House will remain on our favorites list. It seems to have all three of those elements, and we certainly hope to return after this concert.
Q: Is there a talisman, a notion and/or a potion that keeps you happier and saner on the road?
A: I have a piece of jade that my partner gave me seven years ago, a moon that represents me and her. It’s also tattooed on my arm, but I hold it often on the road.
Q: So, Conor, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from touring the world to world peace.
A: A couple main things are performing at Red Rocks and a ship tour around the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. And Medicare for all would be nice.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A: Ending imprisonment for low-level nonviolent crimes. And no more ticks.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He and his dog Jake hate ticks, too. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org