Despite their individual musical pedigrees, the seasoned musicians that make up progressive string band Black Prairie aren't moonlighting. The ensemble is pulled together from different corners of Portland, Oregon's remarkably rich music scene, and while the high profile of each musician in the band—which includes three-fifths of the Decemberists—ensures a certain amount of attention, it's clear that Black Prairie are in it for purely musical reasons. They're playing a brand of Americana that defies easy categorization, cross-pollinating a number of different styles while exposing the venerable, forgotten roots of folk and bluegrass.
It all started when Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk wanted to spend more time playing the square-necked Dobro guitar. While on tour with the Decemberists, he and bassist Nate Query hatched the idea to start a primarily instrumental string band during their time off, but it was a couple more years before the Black Prairie lineup solidified. Fellow Decemberist Jenny Conlee brought along her accordion, and prolific Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt (the Woolwines, Bearfoot) and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean)—on violin and guitar, respectively—also joined the ranks.
The group didn't come together immediately; it took a while for the busy musicians to assemble in one place, but when they did in the winter of 2007 it was obvious they were moving in the right direction. "At that time I needed a musical shot in the arm," Funk says, "and I remember driving away from our first practice feeling elated." The group continued to meet at regular intervals as frequently as their schedules would allow, and during an extended period of downtime from the Decemberists in 2008, Black Prairie's sound and repertoire really began to gel. Their unamplified, acoustic instrumentation meant that they didn't need to assemble at grimy practice spaces in industrial sectors of the city, gargling through blown-out PA speakers. Instead, they had the luxury of meeting casually at each other's Portland homes, leavening their living-room sessions with coffee and treats and conversation.
"Once we all play it together, everyone starts throwing ideas in and it takes shape in a very collaborative way," says Query. "We always add one completely out-there, bizarre section to every song. And in one out of every three songs, it actually gets retained. We're trying to really keep the integrity of the acoustic aspect of it—of just five people playing instruments—so we don't really experiment with that. But otherwise, it's no holds barred: With these five instruments, what can we do?"
It's a significant piece of the puzzle that all five members contribute to the songwriting and, a couple of traditional numbers aside, the Black Prairie repertoire contains an unconventional mix of self-penned tunes. "All my weird songs have finally found a home in this group," jokes Neufeld. "I've been waiting to find people crazy enough to play these songs with me!"
Aside from uptempo bluegrass and more familiar string-band sounds, the group commands a firm rein over a near comprehensive cross-section of American musical styles. Conlee's accordion and Tornfelt's violin provide a gypsy element on certain numbers, locating the shared stylistic ground between old-time music and klezmer, and providing a unique twist on the results. Elsewhere, the band cultivates an almost classical approach to composition, with songs containing multiple movements that ebb and flow in a way that differs greatly from traditional pop or bluegrass structure.
Most of Black Prairie's songs are instrumental, in keeping with the band's initial concept. They soon realized, however, it would be a shame not to make use of the rich, untapped vein of Tornfelt's vocal capabilities. "I was surprised when we decided to do it, but I was very excited," she says of her bandmates' decision to have her sing a few numbers. "I think we all want to make sure the instrumental tunes are really the focus, but getting to sing with this awesome backup band—it's the best of all worlds."
This mix of material got unanimous support from the band's record label, legendary roots and bluegrass imprint Sugar Hill Records. The label encountered Black Prairie by way of Sarah Jarosz, a mandolin player and singer whose Sugar Hill debut included a Decemberists cover. When they contacted Funk to let him know about Jarosz's cover, a light bulb clicked. "I thought, this is one of my favorite labels of all time," he says. "I own hundreds of their records, so I just wrote them and said we've got this band; do you want to hear some stuff? They said sure."
Sugar Hill heard the demos and one thing led to another and with freshly inked contract in hand, they had the impetus to hunker down and get to work in the studio. Black Prairie's debut, Feast of the Hunters' Moon, is due to be released on Sugar Hill in April 2010; it was laid to tape throughout 2009 at Portland's legendary Jackpot! Recording Studio with producer Tucker Martine (Bill Frisell, the Decemberists, Laura Veirs) manning the boards.
Tornfelt in particular was an enormous fan of Martine's work on albums by Portland singer/songwriter Laura Veirs and leapt at the chance to work with Martine. "I've been listening to Laura Veirs' records for the past two years straight, so I was like, I get to sing with Tucker Martine producing? It's like my dream."
With a broad stylistic palette at their disposal and a pronounced emphasis on musicianship, Black Prairie is incredibly well poised for a band that, for most listeners, is just starting out. And their accumulated experience in numerous other bands ensures they aren't likely to quickly flame out in a blaze of ego or exhaustion. The band jokes about being in their honeymoon phase right now. "Considering how long it took us to get together, maybe we'll get that seven-year itch real early," laughs Query. "But seriously, this group really had no aspirations other than musical ones. It's just been for fun, and for our own sake."