A Little Pain, A Little Hope, A Lot of Heart: An Interview with Spirit Family Reunion

Spirit Family Reunion is a band from Brooklyn, New York that includes Nick Panken, Maggie Carson, Mat “Twain” Davidson, Ken Woodward, Peter Pezzimenti and Stephen Weinheimer. For the month of January they are in residence at The Living Room. You can find them here and here.


UFR: First of all, a question you might get all the time: what’s the story behind the name of your band, Spirit Family Reunion?


Spirit Family Reunion: There is not much of a story. The name simply found us.


UFR: In a recent interview, you say that you play “secular gospel music,” and also that “all good music is protest music.” Can you talk about what you mean by that a little more?


Spirit Family Reunion: Well our music is all about getting to a better place. Improving this situation that we’re in, where it is that we’re singing from. That’s the basic notion behind all that gospel music that feels so good to sing. And isn’t that what feels so good about whatever you’re singing? It’s either, “I’m going there!” or “I got there!” In my mind gospel music is protest music and vice versa.


UFR: Without a doubt, your music instills community and really, sheer warmth. For you, how important is this idea of community?


Spirit Family Reunion: Yes, community is what it’s all about. The family that sings together stays together.


UFR: What kind of music did you grow up listening to? In other words, what are some of your influences? When did you start going down the path you’re currently on?


Spirit Family Reunion: Our main influences are old traditional blues, country, folk, Cajun, and gospel mostly. We all have our own identities, but that’s our overlap, our common ground. We didn’t set out to sound this certain way. We had some songs and some ideas, but everyone grabbed a part of the rope and pulled it in their own way. And here we are.


UFR: What was the point of no return? When did you decide you would make music a big part of your life? Why have you dedicated yourself to it?


Spirit Family Reunion: I don’t know if there was a decision point. But we all fell in love with each other when we first played together. What is the return policy on love? I don’t know if there are any returns allowed.


UFR: Something so remarkable about your music, I think, is its ability to make you forget — even for a few minutes — that there’s any other kind out there. Of course, there is other music out there. A lot. And it’s amazing to think that musicians like you and say, Lady Gaga are making music at the same time, in the same place. All of this to say: With your band having such a rustic vibe, do you listen to other genres such as contemporary pop, or whatever’s on the Billboard Top 100, etc.? If not, why not? If so, does that kind of music have any kind influence on your own music?


Spirit Family Reunion: That is the strength of traditional American music. We are not strictly traditional, but as you lump us in with that sound I think about how old recordings by Dock Boggs or Uncle Dave Macon or Robert Johnson sound so relevant even today. That people are choosing to listen to these recordings while the Billboard Top 100 is being spoon-fed is amazing.

American music will be forever because it doesn’t rely on anything but a little pain, a little hope, a lot of heart and maybe something to pluck on your knee. And good stuff shows up on the charts every now and then. The Black Keys, Gillian Welch, the White Stripes. In years past: The Band, the Stones, Creedence, Springsteen. The Beatles! But when this contemporary pop is on in the supermarket or something, it doesn’t feel that relevant to my life. Sometimes it’s good.


UFR: Do you consider yourselves successful musicians? Either way, what’s your definition of success?


Spirit Family Reunion: Well we are very happy to be playing music together, and to have kind people like yourself be moved to listen or sing along. Just about every time we play for people we receive some kind of reaffirmation that our music is moving or meaningful in some way. But by the measure of most other professionals, we are currently quite unsuccessful.


UFR: As a band, what’s been your biggest obstacle?


Spirit Family Reunion: Living in New York City can be really costly and overwhelming.


UFR: I’m wondering about your writing process. When you’re first drafting a song, are you concerned with both the text and the song itself? How do you negotiate between the two? Does the melody and texture influence the text or does the text influence the melody and texture?


Spirit Family Reunion: We like our songs to be easy for anyone to sing. The words and rhythms and melodies like to all fit hand in hand in hand. It’s gotta’ feel right, and if the words are great or the melody is sweet but when it’s all together if it don’t feel right then it don’t get sung.


UFR: What does your revision process look like?


Spirit Family Reunion: Sing it a couple of times, if it doesn’t stick then do something else. If it is a meaningful song it will return. At least the meaningful parts will. If you got a good line or a good melody, just keep singing it ‘til you find what else it wants.


UFR: Where do you find inspiration? How would you describe your work? What do you aim to achieve?


Spirit Family Reunion: These are very big questions and I’m afraid I might not have any good answers. Inspiration can come from anything that offers more than what everything else is offering. On a small scale we’re trying to get people to sing together. On a big scale we’re going for world peace.


UFR: What is it that keeps you going?


Spirit Family Reunion: For the most part the other options out there really suck.


UFR: This question might be similar to one I asked earlier, but do you think you’ve “made it”? For anyone trying to “make it” in the world of music, what advice would you give them? Have you done anything that you look back on and wish you did differently?


Spirit Family Reunion: We have a lot more singing left to do. No one can measure your success except you. Maybe you have an idea of what you want to do and it feels impossible. Maybe you’ll kick the idea around for a really long time and get frustrated that it doesn’t bloom. But I believe that if you really hold the idea in the right way in your mind it will no longer be just an idea. You will make it. As one of our newer songs says, “Fix your mind on something fine, what your heart is after, and in good health you’ll find yourself laying in that pasture.”


UFR: As musicians, where do you want to go? What’s next?


Spirit Family Reunion: There are a lot of places in this country, and in this world that we haven’t been to yet. We’d like to go there as musicians.


UFR; Finally, if you were to talk to someone who didn’t know what music was, had never even heard of the stuff, what song would you play to make him or her understand?


Spirit Family Reunion: Probably some classical piece would be appropriate. Or some early Sun records.



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