An exclusive chat with fiddle player Elana James
“We’re not a band that focuses on recording albums,” says Elana James, fiddle player, vocalist and songwriter with the Hot Club of Cowtown. “We’re a rough and ready trio. We always want to go out and tour. Playing live is our natural habitat, but we also understand the need to put out a record every so often.
“Our last three albums were tributes to our influences. On Midnight on the Trail, we played country and swing standards; Crossing the Great Divide was covers of songs by The Band and Rendezvous in Rhythm had tunes associated with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. We knew it was time to step up and do something more unique to us, more personal and more original. So we wrote a bunch of new tunes.”
The Hot Club, which also includes guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Whit Smith and stand up bass player and harmony vocalist Jake Erwin, just finished making Wild Kingdom, an album that includes 11 new songs written by James and Smith. It may be the best record they’ve ever made, with arrangements that stay true to their blend of gypsy jazz and Western swing, with a few musical surprises tossed in to keep things interesting. “Whit and I mostly bring in the songs we write with the arrangements complete, but the band always has some input,” James says. “The writer has veto power, but we’ll tweak a song to bring out its best. Like any music, the more collaborators you have with inventive ideas, the better the final outcome is.”
A few highlights: “My Candy,” a gypsy swing flavored tune by James that uses the names of popular confections like Bit o’ Honey and Good & Plenty to sing the praises of her sweetie. Smith’s “Ways of Escape” is a cool jazz tune in 5/4 that borrows the vamp from the Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck hit “Take Five,” before sliding into a Texas waltz, and “Before the Time of Men,” a song about wild horses that borrows elements of Mongolian folk music to make its impact. “The drone that opens the song was meant to echo the overtone singing of Tuvan performers,” James says. “Jake got it by bowing his bass. I played the violin to pay tribute to the galloping rhythms Mongolian players get on their two stringed horse head fiddle. I love Mongolian folk music and wanted to reference a bit of that sound.”
James, Smith and Erwin produced the record themselves, making sure that the sounds they heard in their heads during the songwriting process were reproduced on the album. “When we’re recording a cover version, we can use past versions of a song for a reference point for an arrangement,” James explains. “These were all created out of whole cloth, so we had nothing to refer to. It can be hard to convey your vision to the other band members. Sometimes they get it, and sometime they don’t, but you go to war with the army you have and the record the songs as they come out.
“I enjoy playing songs live and saying what I have to say in my own way. I came to music because I loved playing songs that already existed, adding my story to the lyrics as I go along. Every time I play a song, you could consider my solo as an aspect of songwriting, but it’s taken a long time to evolve from that idea into creating my own songs.
“A lot of my songs are about God and death. Most people think of us as a happy Western swing trio that plays fiddle tunes for dancing, but it’s the tension between serious words and uplifting music that makes a good song. For me, it’s like the difference between reading a book and writing a book. They’re different experiences, but both are essential to the process.”
VIDEO: Hot Club of Cowtown perform “Before The Time of Men”