Artist In Focus: Tall Tall Trees

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Welcome back, Festers! As the days get warmer and Spring is finally underway, we’re excited to debut even more performers in our Artist In Focus series! Mike Savino, known as Tall Tall Trees, took some time out of his busy rehearsing and performing schedule to chat with us about his music and the Folk Fest! Be sure to come watch his performance on Friday, April 24th at the Pembroke Field House!

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Tell us about yourself! How did you get started in music? How did Tall Tall Trees start?

I’ve been involved in music for a really long time, and I started performing as Tall Tall Trees in 2010 or so. Tall Tall Trees started as a four-piece band, and has kind of evolved into a one-man band thing using a lot of leaps and technology to expand the range of banjo in modern music!

I picked up saxophone in fourth grade, and I’ve really been playing music since then. I started in the public school system playing in band, and I just stuck with it the whole time! I’ve played everything from saxophone to bass to double bass, and now I play banjo mostly. Someone gave me a banjo when I was in college, and I had always loved the sound of a banjo. So I started to mess with it in my early 20s, but I got really serious about it in about 2005, when I was like, “Wow. I want to write songs and play banjo.” So I’ve been playing that long, developing my own style!

Where did the name Tall Tall Trees come from?

Tall Tall Trees was the name of an old country song (that someone would say Alan Jackson wrote, but that’s not true). It was famously covered by Alan Jackson, but it was written by George Jones and Roger Miller, who are two country singer/songwriters who I love. I love the visual of Tall Tall Trees — being from the city it gives me hope that I will one day have tall tall trees of my own.

How would you describe your sound to a new listener?

I would say it’s psychadellic banjo music. It’s definitely, at the moment, loop-based and percussive, but also keeping pop song sensibilities in a way.

How does playing live work, with a more loop and technology-based banjo sound?

Things have been evolving around here, because it’s only been working as a solo performance for the past two or three years, so my recording techniques are changing in regards to that. My recordings now are definitely coming from my live approach, which is more wild and adventurous than my previous albums that I’ve made. Even though they’re pretty adventurous, I think now that I’ve been working with hyper-extended banjo techniques, I’m using that method to make more records than ever before. It’s more banjo focused right now.

After your first two albums, how would you say your sound has evolved?

It’s definitely evolved a lot! I think there are certain things that tie them all together, mainly my outlook and lyrical viewpoints. And my banjo has always been a very consistent thread throughout everything I have recorded, because it’s what I love to play. I would say that, with my new EP and this next record that I’m working on right now, it’s definitely evolving to something as concise as I’ve ever done. Basically, I’m using a banjo as many different things on the record. There’s little else except for banjo. I’m using it as a drum and I’m using it as an organ and all different sounds that I can coax out of it. I’m having fun exploring how much I can do with a banjo on record! It’s definitely evolved into something weirder on record.

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What does your writing process look like?

There’s never an exact way for me! A lot of times it will start with me just creating and improvising something — a chord progression, a loop, or a beat or something — which will inspire me to write about it. Sometimes it’s a sentence that comes to me when I’m driving (and probably shouldn’t be texting it into my phone), or sometimes it’s when I go for a walk and listen to what is gong around me, and something will come to me. But I do need to be mentally free; it’s hard for me to write on the road because I get distracted by what’s going on. But when I get home, or to a comfortable quiet place, that’s when writing usually comes to me.

We learned that your last album was inspired by the Alaskan wilderness! How would you say that inspiration manifested itself in your sound?

That was in about 2011 or so, when I still had a four-piece band. We went on a two-week kayaking and sea kayaking camping trip through Alaska. And really it was something great for us as friends and the band to experience together. You can’t really ever describe how beautiful something can be. So it was really fun for all of us to have this collective memory to kind of springboard off into an album. I wrote one of the songs in a kayak as I was floating on the fjord, and I was drumming on the kayak and came up with this Alaska song, which kin of started into this album of songs all about this moment. It’s even called “Moment” because we were sitting on a beach at the end of our trip, and half of us had left. We were on this beach and we felt like it was right on our head, we could touch it it was so big and close. We were so tired we couldn’t speak, and someone just said: “moment.” It was very profound to experience that together.

Now I’m really focused on my best work so far, and things are coming that will be even grander.

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Could you tell us what the experience was like making an album through a Kickstarter campaign? How has crowdsourcing affected the way you produce an album and interact with your listeners?

It’s a great way to connect with your fans. I’ve used Kickstarter for “Moment” and I used PledgeMusic to fund the one that I’m working on right now. It’s an amazing tool — it’s getting a little oversaturated because everyone is using it now, but rightfully so. It really brings people along on the process. I’m really extra gracious with my pledgers and Kickstarters, always letting them know where I’m going, and if they want to come I’ll put them on my guest list. It’s really fun for me to meet these people in my travels. So many times I’ll be in a random town or random place, and somebody told me they contributed to my album. It feels like a family to me, really. It’s really humbling because people from all walks of your life will come to support you — someone from your Kindergarten class to a stranger on the street. It’s an overwhelming and beautiful experience, really.

What other artists are you listening to these days?

I’m constantly mining for gold. I’ve been listening to Jesse Harris’ new album, who’s a great songwriter. And I have so many friends on the road who are doing such great music. Luscious, Pearl in the Beard, these are friends who are doing great things. Of Montreal I love, Shakey Graves I’m really into these days.

Do you have any advice for new musicians?

One of the things that you have to do is you have to learn how to do everything yourself. You need to learn how to book, manage, do publicity, how to make your music. These are the tools now. he more you know about your business, the better you are. It’s a pretty great experience, from making t-shirts to printing records and vinyl. There’s a million jobs, and you need to learn them all before you expect someone else to do them for you. Some people get lucky, but most of the people I know and consider friends worked their butt off for ten years before people even knew about them. You know, no rest for the wicked.

Be honest with your music, and treat music as a journey and discovering yourself as an artist, and without endpoints because there’s always going to be another endpoint. So don’t give up.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, Mike! Check out Tall Tall Trees online, and make sure to stop by the Pembroke Field House on Friday, April 24th to hear him play live!

PS. Keep checking in for another Artist In Focus soon — plus, ticketing info for the Friday night event! Folk yeah!