Fellow Pynins Lady Mondegreen album art is by Hieronymus Bosch with photo by Justin Gordon
Fellow Pynins interview
By Edd Hurt
At this late date in pop history, folk music has become a malleable form that lends itself to any number of interpretations, arrangements and shifts in ideology. What’s remarkable about Lady Mondegreen, the new album by Oregon folk-Americana duo Fellow Pynins, is the way Ian George and Dani Aubert create new versions of some of the most well-known folk tunes in the repertoire. Produced by Fellow Pynins, Lady Mondegreen—the duo plays a showcase at Folk Alliance International in Kansas City, Mo., to mark the May 20 release of the album—is notable for its arrangements, which take off from George and Aubert’s guitars, mandolins and banjos and include droning horns and violins that suggest the seething, timeless world of the past these songs emerge from. Far from a revisionist exercise—easy to pull off if you simply plug into the songs and don’t bother to rethink their themes—Lady Mondegreen adds juice, soul and empathy to what you might call the great folk tradition, trans-Atlantic version.
The latest single from Lady Mondegreen, “Silver Dagger,” dates back to at least 1817, and it’s been reworked as the folk-bluegrass standard “Katie Dear.” Distributed to musicians via broadsides—themselves simply printed pieces that contained an entire song on one side—songs like “Silver Dagger” were passed from performer to performer, each of whom added subtle variations in melody and lyric that accrued over time. As are all the songs on Lady Mondegreen, “Silver Dagger” is recast as modern folk music, but its theme is as old as humanity itself.
Lady Mondegreen takes its title from a word, coined in 1954 by writer Sylvia Wright, that denotes a creative mishearing of song lyrics. When she was a child, Wright had listened to her mother read the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray,” and had heard the phrase “layd him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen.” Fellow Pynins follow a route that’s similar to Wright’s, and it’s also a strategy familiar to adepts of folk music and rock ‘n’ roll, both of which thrive on reinterpretations, adjustments and borrowings from all parts of their respective traditions.
With George and Aubert laying down the folkish basics for each song, Lady Mondegreen modernizes its sources via the duo’s use of violins, trumpet and trombone. George plays piano on “Bonny at Morn,” a song that dates from around 1800, popular in the north of England and Scotland. Meanwhile, “The Road and the Miles to Dundee” is a Scottish ballad dating to around 1900, and a tune that’s been interpreted many times by the likes of Bert Jansch, Ian Campbell and Fred Jordan. The version of “Pretty Polly” included on Lady Mondegreen was substantially modified from its original version. The song started off life as what we now call a murder ballad, morphed into a banjo tune in the United States in the 1920s through the work of Dock Boggs, and remains a standard to this day. George and Aubert rework it into a tune that takes off from Woody Guthrie’s version, titled “Pastures of Plenty.”
The songs have rich histories, and Lady Mondegreen tips its hat to those histories without being overly tied to them. George and Aubert achieve a uniquely gentle sound throughout the album, which floats through the folk timespace with all the previous associations intact. Still, the album has its politics—it’s very much of the moment, and you come away from Lady Mondegreen with a sense of how malleable folk tunes are, and how changeable the human experience is, even given the eternal verities of human nature. The record drones, sings and reaches out to a new audience.
Americana Highways caught up with Dani Aubert of Fellow Pynins at the southwest Oregon home she shares with Ian George and their two children. After meeting at a jam, where their musical approaches proved compatible, George and Aubert became a duo whose personal and professional lives intertwined. They’ve been playing as Fellow Pynins since 2016, and Aubert says they’ve started to look ahead to their next record, which will be composed of their original tunes. For a pair of very sharp, very self-aware musicians, Lady Mondegreen’s foray into the mists of the folk-music past gave them the opportunity to explore one source of their style. As Aubert says, their take on songwriting and record-making involves a careful assessment of how the songs sound—the arrangements. The core of their art remains their fluidity as a duo, but they’re ambitious. They know that the so-called tradition doesn’t exist without constant updating, and that makes them exemplary modern folk musicians.
Americana Highways: Like the other songs on Lady Mondegreen, “Silver Dagger” has a long, complex history. How did you approach doing material that is so well known?
Dani Aubert: A lot of the songs that we put on the album are fairly well known. We felt like it’s kind of cool to be able to put out songs that folks already know and not hit up the really obscure ones—which is cool too. These are just songs that kind of popped out at us, and they all have their own story and reason why we picked them, and how they came into our life. I love that they’ve taken on a journey and a story of their own. Every time [a song] gets redone it’s somewhat different. The words change a little bit. The feeling changes, and the accessibility changes. That was the whole point for us. This music is so much of what’s informed our songwriting, because we’re songwriters. We felt like we wanted to do an ode to the music that really inspires our writing before we put out another album.
AH: It sounds like you’re a student of songwriting of all kinds.
DA: I feel like I’m just open to everything, musically. I take it all in. It really doesn’t matter what it is. I’ll listen to anything I can find, and I’m always seeking new music in different genres. I was drawn to some jazz stuff at first, and a lot of folk singer-songwriters these days. I like really accessible music and I like really obscure music—the whole thing. I especially have a fondness for really obscure music.
AH: How did you and Ian meet? It seems like such a great partnership.
DA: Ian and I met a little over a decade ago, and we met playing music. We were both invited to this jam, and we played music for hours. We never actually talked or hung out. We just got right to it. We sat next to each other the whole time we were playing. It was music the entire night, and there wasn’t really chit-chatting going on. That was our first connection. That was in Eugene, Oregon. I’m from Pennsylvania, so I grew up on the East Coast. Ian is from Minneapolis. He relocated to Oregon and I was just traveling through. I didn’t actually live there yet. We met there, and we had three chance encounters. Every time I drove through [Oregon], when I stopped in Eugene, I ran into him, every single time. It was so bizarre, and by the third time, we were like, we gotta hang out. We ended up hanging out, and it was very musically oriented, our connection. Then we fell in love and had children and stuff, so that happened. We have two kids. But music is the thing that brought us together. He was in a bluegrass band at the time; he played mandolin. He dropped out of the bluegrass band and went traveling with me. Right from that time we started a six-piece band, and so we traveled with a six-piece band for years. After that we decided to go with a duo, which is a lot easier.
AH: You’ve done several tours in the U.K. and will be back there this summer in support of the new album. How do European audiences respond to your takes on traditional songs?
DA: Bringing the banjo overseas is always just a winner. People love clawhammer banjo in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It’s fun, and they really appreciate what we do with their music: bring their songs back with our American influences. We have such a good response there. This will be our fourth tour over there. There are so many more places to play where people really want to hear everything. They want to hear the lyrics, and they want the intimacy of the music. The audiences there, they’ll come back to me and repeat a lyric back to me. In America it feels less common that people really pick up on the lyrics. But there, we get more feedback from folks who really appreciate the lyricism of the songs.
AH: Were there songs slated for Lady Mondegreen that you ended up not using, given the vast number of folk tunes out there?
DA: Well, [Ian and I] have a love in common for Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, some of the really folky Grateful Dead stuff. We’ve been working on “Rubin and Cherise” for years. We just love that song, and we love Robert Hunter, his lyrics. Ian and I bonded over that when we first met. That song specifically, we just haven’t done it justice yet. [The Dead] made old songs accessible to an audience that maybe would have never tapped into folk music.
AH: How did you view doing these folk tunes in the current cultural climate?
DA: “Pretty Polly,” for instance, I loved the melody of “Pretty Polly.” Some of these songs, the stories are tragic and I can’t always relate to some of them. “Polly,” specifically, the story is basically this couple get pregnant, and the man is like, “I can’t do this,” and he takes her into the woods and kills her. She follows him out to sea and haunts him. There are so many versions, and they’re all kind of different. Why does the woman always get screwed over? I realized Woody Guthrie did “Pastures of Plenty” to the same melody [as “Pretty Polly”], and I love the energy of that song and the message of that song. And so I thought, “Hey, what if I take Woody Guthrie’s message and then fused it into the Polly story.” I took a little bit of his lyrics and a little bit of the Polly lyrics and then made a couple of my own. Instead of murdering her, he realizes in that moment, “Hey, I can take another turn, and we can do this together, and we could actually own this life.”
Find more information on the Fellow Pynins here: http://www.fellowpynins.com
And their music, here: linktr.ee/FellowPynins
Fellow Pynins will be performing their Official Artist Showcase, at Folk Alliance International on May 20 from 4:45PM to 5:15PM in Pershing East/West Kansas City at the Westin Crown Center Hotel.