• Evie Ladin: Dancing With Others

    Interview by Paul Kotapish.

    Evie Ladin
    Photo credit: Mike Melnyk
    Evie Ladin is a triple — make that quintuple — threat: She's a killer clawhammer banjo player, a breathtaking percussive dancer and body-rhythm machine, a crowd-moving dance caller, an inspiring songwriter, and a lovely singer. She's also a fine guitarist, and, increasingly, an in-demand teacher of all the above.

    Whether she's performing solo, with her musical partner and husband, (percussionist, dancer, composer) Keith Terry, or with the Evie Ladin Band (Keith Terry on bass and percussion and Erik Pearson on guitar), she's an engaging entertainer with a keen sense of how to deliver her thoughtful songs and sparkling music in the context of well-crafted show.

    Evie grew up with a banjo in her hands and dancing in her feet, and I first met her in New York City when I played a gig there back in the early '90s. At the time she was deeply immersed in tap and jazz dancing, training that served her well in the subsequent decade or so when she performed and toured with Rhythm In Shoes, a music and dance ensemble comprising some of the finest step dancers and musicians in the country. It wasn't until she moved to the Bay Area in 2000 or so that I became aware of her banjo playing in the context of her work with the Stairwell Sisters, an all-gal old-time string band, where Evie's rhythmic drive and deep groove on the banjo anchored the group admirably.

    It's been inspiring to watch her continue to evolve as a player, dancer, and most recently, as a songwriter with an original approach and charming delivery.

    In parallel development with her growth as an old-time musician and songwriter is Evie's work with Keith Terry in Crosspulse, a nonprofit group "dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of rhythm-based, intercultural music and dance." Under that rubric they perform in a variety of formats and ensembles, from large groups to a stripped-down duo, from urban funk and beatbox to rural hambone and step dancing to Indonesian kecak. In 2008 Evie helped Keith found and host the first International Body Music Festival, which has taken on a life of its own with subsequent festivals in Italy, Turkey, Brazil, and Bali. As I type, Evie and Keith are packing for this year's event in Paris, October 17–23. No surprise, with such a broad interest in so many kinds of music, Evie has a unique approach to the old five-string.

    Evie recently inaugurated a series of classes for Peghead Nation, a terrific new online instruction resource featuring lessons with some of the best roots musicians in the country, and I've been hearing great things about her banjo instruction. This past summer we taught in back-to-back weeks at the wonderful California Coast Music Camp — summer fun for musical adults. Evie had been teaching banjo there the week before mine, and the folks staying over for the second week were still talking about her classes. At the big participants' concert at the end of the week, a bunch of her students performed a bang-up, all-banjo version of "Red Rocking Chair" that would have made any teacher proud. I caught up with Evie recently and recounted that tale, and that's where we started our conversation.

    Author Paul Kotapish plays mandolin and guitar with Bay Area bands Wake the Dead, Euphonia, and the Hillbillies from Mars. Over the years he has also toured and recorded with Kevin Burke’s Open House, the Hurricane Ridgerunners, the Rodney Miller Band, and many others. Paul’s playing is rooted in the vintage rural music traditions of Appalachia, Ireland and beyond, but it also embraces pop idioms like rock and country. By day, Paul is managing editor for the San Francisco Classic Voice, and he is a former editor and writer for Acoustic Guitar and Strings magazines. Learn more at guitarfish.net.

    I had so much fun seeing your students channel your banjo groove at CCMC. Tell me about teaching there.

    I had a banjo class and a dance class. The dance class I taught was "Dancing with Others," and it actually informed the banjo class, too. It was not culture specific, but it applied to a lot of cultures that fit into the "roots" category. I realized that I've seen over my lifetime in the folk community, music and dance become more separated so that people don't know how to dance together anymore. Part of that was the '60s and rock 'n' roll and everybody being free to express themselves as individuals, but throughout the history of time, people danced together and got into a pulse together. Huge communities do this, and it's one of the healing, nonverbal properties of community that make people feel together, and I believe our loss of this in our society is a huge part of why we now feel disconnected in this America today.

    Part of it is about feeling the music in your body, and also sharing weight with other people, whether it's partner dancing or circle dancing or contact improvisation or whatever. Not every culture has the contact, but many do.

    I did a whole weight-sharing awareness thing and got people to feel the basic rhythm in their feet — kind of demystifying the two-step. And it's the two-step that helps them start feeling pulses on different beats. I might have them do one-two-three-pause. But then I might have them try one-pause-three-four. I just try to get them to feel the different rhythmic possibilities in their bodies, and get them to use the physicality of the rhythm in their music making — playing the guitar or banjo or mandolin.

    Evie Ladin Band

    L-R: The Evie Ladin Band is Erik Pearson, Evie Ladin and Keith Terry.

    Evie Ladin Band
    Photo credit: Gudmundor Vigfusson, styled by Namita Kapoor

    I heard you had an interesting approach to teaching banjo this summer.

    How's that?

    Your students said you didn't actually play the banjo in their classes.

    Oh, right! That's funny that it's considered an interesting approach, but it's something I'm doing more and more. They were all intermediate players who had mastered the basics and were ready to learn repertoire. I feel like in the old-time tradition, you can learn tunes and you can have tabs up the wazoo, but the real trick is to pick up tunes in the moment. And so I mostly played the fiddle — that's my secret to practicing the fiddle. So they listen to the tune and they identify the parts, and see what repeats, and the goal is to make the leap to being able to hear it all on a different instrument from the one you are playing and then translate it to your own. If you work within a key, you start to get all this positive transfer of melodic information from one to another. And I felt that they were all absolutely ready to be pushed into doing this. It was interesting that one of the best musicians in the group had the hardest time, and he thanked me later for pushing him in that way.

    I had a similar experience in one of my classes where one guy, who clearly knew about music, just couldn't pick up the tunes on the mandolin by ear. But when I'd see him at night, he could play just great on a variety of instruments. He'd just learned them all a very different way.

    I've been teaching six-week classes with lots of students at the Freight & Salvage, and it's fun to watch the progression of my own teaching. It's become really apparent that people need to play in time and they need to learn how to hear. Those are really the skills that help you as a musician, because then you can play anything. I had one student who came with a giant book of tablature. She could actually play a lot of tunes, but she played them all one time through, and that was her experience of music. She wanted to play with other people, so we went back to those basics. I've seen people really struggle with the ear training — and get it! People thank me for forcing them to learn through the folk process.

    Evie Ladin Band

    Evie Ladin Band performs "Ease on Down" in the Peghead Nation Studios.

    How would you characterize what you are trying to impart specifically on the banjo?

    Well that's about it, really — playing in time and listening. I once told my intermediate students, "If you are playing in time and your instrument is in tune, you can play along with anything, especially on the banjo." If you aren't playing in time, you can't play with other people, and so I realized that in my classes, that might be the only time in the week that they actually are forced to play in time. Because the classes usually include a range of abilities, I make sure that every person has something to do, even if it's just droning along. I insist that there's no shame in just playing the rhythm. You're in the room, you're listening to the tune, you're playing, and you're activated. That's the path. Immersion is the path. You can talk about it, you can break it down, you can give people the tab they think they want and talk your way through it, but I think repetition at a slow speed — pushing and then coming back — is the key.

    I am not opposed to people using the instrument for whatever music inspires them — but there's so much rich material in the tradition, and really understanding the repertoire and how it relates to the instrument, and the history of the instrument, and knowing what it's been through is essential. With the banjo, especially, what a story!

    Especially how it's become an American instrument. It's an intense tale that people are not necessarily aware of. I've experience several waves of banjo popularity over the years, and I've realized that the more popular it becomes, the less people know coming in the room for lessons. "Someone gave me a banjo so I thought I'd learn it." Some folks come in because they heard Sufjan Stevens or Taylor Swift or someone who is using a banjo just for the sound but isn't really playing the instrument. But some of those folks get totally entranced in the traditional side, too. In American culture when you grow up only exposed to pop music and not to any traditional, cultural music, people have that "aha" moment when the music speaks to them. I have a bunch of ex students now who have "graduated" and the off in the scene going to music camps, playing for fun with others, they're including music as a part of their lives and they are feeling more confident about it.

    It's funny. There have been some articles about me that portray me as very folksy because I talk a lot about community and the experience, but I feel so strongly about it. If you look at the state of our country and state of our culture and the gun violence and I just keep coming back to the disconnectedness of the culture — medicated disconnectedness. But I see again and again music and dance has the power to heal that.

    Keith Terry and Evie Ladin Duo

    Keith Terry and Evie Ladin Duo
    Photo credit: Marvan Kwan

    We've allowed music to become something that's a focal point for an audience — not something that's part of everyone's lives in an active way. People don't think they are entitled to actually sing or play because they aren't professionals.

    One of the things I've seen in schools with cuts to the arts in education is that people don't grow up with the experience of doing music and art with their peers, and there's this idea of "I can't." But this is what people have always done — make music and dance. So making it as accessible as possible and creating community is why my job description is really varied. I teach banjo and I play old-time banjo, and I call square dances and I write contemporary songs, and do clogging and traditional dance, but I also do creative interpretations with body music and layered rhythmic stuff. I just keep exploring the possibilities of what these roots in American folk music have given me.

    I grew up — like most Americans of my age and background — with the idea that music is something other people do, but you grew up playing music for fun from a very early age. Tell me about your early music experiences.

    It's funny, because it's not like my family plays music, but my parents both dance, and my mom was an international-folk-dance teacher and my dad just was really drawn to music. I think it was his salvation from a little bit of an oppressively religious family. Music was something he turned to and he fell in love with American roots music in NYC in the 50s and was there during the whole folk revival and opened up our house to people traveling through. They just took us to music events, dance events, and places where people were participating in music and dance. My mom led a bunch of folk-dance groups and I saw a lot of that. So the idea that this was something to participate in was there, and my dad got us banjo lessons when we were 8 years old. This is an old story, but I remember John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers sleeping on our couch in New Jersey and saying, "You girls should play the banjo." So we got lessons from a banjo player who lived nearby, banjo phenom Bob Carlin.

    He was in his early 20s trying to figure out how he was going to make a life out of loving the banjo. So we had lessons with him for a couple of years. My sister and I also picked up clogging. My mom took a workshop at Wolf Trap with the Bannerman Family. We were standing behind her and picked up the basics and we started dancing together and bugged other cloggers we'd see to show us more. There were a lot of clogging groups around on the East Coast. Not just Green Grass Cloggers, but Cole Mountain, Mill Creek — we were around all those people and picked up a lot from them.

    Photo credit: Mike Melnyk

    At festivals?

    Festivals, concerts, events, parties. I remember my dad driving us to a party in North Carolina, where there was a square dance in the kitchen, there was playing everywhere, and there were no other kids.

    Did you mind being the only kids in that scene?

    When I was younger I was dancing and playing, but it was just what was around. I wouldn't say I was a committed musician — I was more of a dancer for a long time. Actually until I came to California.

    When we first met in New York City, you were decidedly associated with the dance scene.

    Dance was what I pursued and studied and music was just something I did for fun.

    How did you decide to pursue the banjo with more focus.

    I had put the banjo down in high school except for going to Mt. Airy, but when I went to Brown there was an old-time music ensemble class. I went and it was terrible — at least in those early days. But it did get me playing again. When I was touring with Rhythm and Shoes in my 20s, I'd play for fun at parties and festival jam sessions. A lot of my technique comes from having played so much at jam sessions — so it's not very delicate. When I'm playing at rowdy sessions, I'm playing to be heard, I'm playing a mix of melody, harmony, and rhythm — a lot of rhythm — and I'm generalizing the melody but hitting key points. I'm not a super melodic player.

    Keith Terry and Evie Ladin Duo

    Keith Terry and Evie Ladin
    Photo credit: Marvan Kwan

    You weren't sitting on the back porch working out elaborate arrangements?

    No. I never did that. Now I'm doing that, but I never did it before. So, mostly dancing through my 20s, but when I met Keith Terry and moved to California, I couldn't find a level of percussive dance that included me. Within a couple of months of looking I had met through the community the musicians who became the Stairwell Sisters, and that's when I started paying much more professional attention to my music — in the context of that group. That was in 2000. Because I wasn't finding that level of dance — other than the body-rhythm stuff with Keith — but it's funny, you know how if you live long enough the things you think you are done with come back around again? It turns out that a big part of my relationship to the banjo has to do with being introduced to the African element when I was a teenager.

    You went to Africa to study dance, right?

    I did, but it was actually Stefan Senders, who went to Ghana and studied Ghanaian drumming as part of his graduate work ethnomusicology degree. Then he came to Ashokan and taught all these African rhythms and a light bulb went off. And Cindy Gregory was there teaching West African dance and it just all blew my mind. If felt like growing up with folk music and dancing and playing banjo — Africa was the missing piece. The reality is that we lived in Baltimore and there it was mostly an African-American environment. The funk side of things and the fact that I came of age when Hip-Hop was invented — all that stuff plays into how I hear the instrument and how I play it as well. That experience at Ashokan opened the door to me jumping into studying all thing African and ultimately going there. Again, I was paying more attention to the dance. I wish I'd paid more attention to the instrumental music during that time, but I wasn't disassociated from it. The music and dance were all of a piece.

    This was Nigeria?
    Evie Ladin and Keith Terry
    Photo credit: Mike Melnyk

    I worked with several different cultures in Eastern Nigeria. The style that spoke to me the most was the music of the Tiv people. Most people have never heard of this group, and yet I swear, the way they feel their music and the way they played was like Zydeco. I really tapped into this internal thing that was very familiar to me from being around Louisiana musicians. I loved it. And I did come across someone playing banjo in Nigeria. He was Jukun.

    I'm wondering if you hear anything in your own music now that you can identify as coming from your African sojourn that is different, say, from what someone who grew up in Round Peak would play. Do you know what I mean?

    I do know what you mean. I think that plays into my playing, but I also feel that in a lot of ways that the rhythms that the Round Peak players have are so heavily by African rhythm that to me it's kind of all of a piece. Clawhammer banjo by it's nature doesn't have quite the rhythmic flexibility that a fingerpicked style might in terms of the mechanics of it and the number of notes you can get. You can get some of that with more melodic stuff, more left-hand stuff, but the right hand as a certain kind of thing it does, and there are lots of variations therein, but it has a certain kind of limitation that some other styles don't have. But that's part of the beauty of it — you keep finding depths within the style.

    Are you aware of a different approach on the banjo when you are playing tunes versus when you are playing your original songs?

    When I'm playing my own songs, we put together music that supports the vibe of the song, which is a different approach to playing tunes. I think my contemporary sensibility helps determine whether I'm playing over the head, whether I have the thump in the music or am playing more melodically.

    When I'm playing tunes, I'm completely listening to the fiddle and thinking of the banjo as the accompaniment and the marriage of the fiddle and banjo. I was thinking about putting out a solo banjo record because I realized I've never recorded traditional music, partly because I think "why do we need more records of trad tunes?" I recently thought that it would be great to play tracks with a whole bunch of different fiddlers and explore how you adapt to the fiddle, which to me is so much a part of the juice of the instrument.

    What I'm doing solo is trying to break out of my pattern. From all teaching over the years I've uncovered to myself how I actually play the banjo and... I'm ready to find some other tricks up my sleeve and other approaches.

    I've made my list of fiddlers — players I've enjoyed really locking in with over the years. That's the key. I'm really curious to hear how my playing changes with different fiddlers — or if it even does. Maybe I play the same with everyone. They should all play the same tune!

    With fiddlers it may be more obvious that there are very specific settings of tunes, and you might in fact get five fiddlers who all learned the same tune for the same setting. Because of the greater awareness of sources and "original" settings, fiddlers can learn very specific versions of things, whereas in the past, people might have...

    Do you ever learn stuff note-for-note?

    Oh yeah, oh yeah.

    On the banjo?

    Oh, no. The only tune I can think of where I learned it note-for-note on the banjo was "Cuckoo," listening to Clarence Ashley and changing the way I was playing it to match his. And I learned "Ducks on the Millpond" from Brad Leftwich note-for-note the way Tommy Jarrell played it. But aside from that, I don't break down banjo recordings. I do it on the fiddle. The amazing thing about playing the fiddle, you learn all the notes — not just the general banjo version. I learn the fiddle tunes on the fiddle and when I come back to banjo I hear it differently.

    Would you recommend that banjo players pick up the fiddle?

    Sure, why not? But you don't want to play banjo like a fiddle player. It doesn't serve the instrument to try to get all the notes that the fiddle gets. You can do that, and it can be very pretty and for playing by yourself or with one other person. But for playing with a group of people in a session, a simpler approach is better. I have students come to me who have learned these beautiful, intricate settings of tunes, but they can't play them in time and they can't play them with other people. But to me, the real job of teaching in the tradition is to give them the experience of actually playing it — giving them the tools to play with other people. Maybe that's asserting my own agenda too much. There is something nice about playing a pretty piece of music on its own, but...


    Photo credit: courtesy Crosspulse

    That ties in with your basic philosophy.

    I guess it's almost a socialist approach to the music. It is folksy, but it's also edgy and hip. The Oakland square dance is a totally mixed scene — most new and really diverse — and everyone is having a great time altogether. I will say that in my banjo teaching, my dance calling, my life in general, I employ a certain amount of chaos, and I like it. I really enjoy nonverbal communication, and feel like that's another aspect that gets lost in our culture — we're very word oriented.

    I'm trying to get people to bypass the words and learn by doing. That's in the tradition. You play a 32-bar tune and it just loops. You play in time, you figure out the key, you get the changes, and then you start filling in the details. It's nonlinear. If you approach old-time music in a linear way, you'll always be a little bit behind and trying to catch up.

    Even when I try to teach specific tunes with tablature, at the beginning I tell people that we're going to play through it, and if it's too fast and you can't get the tune, just play in time and see if there's any part of it you can grab. Even if you can only get two notes, get them every time around, maybe the fifth time you'll get a third one. When you have this experience of being in the moment and figuring it out as you go — everything falls into place. You're not thinking about it, you are just doing it. Anyone at any level can get that. The rest is detail.

    Do you think that having banjo as your primary instrument informed the way you write songs. As opposed to, say, being a piano player?

    Sometimes songs come from riffs on the banjo. Sometimes the songs are mashups that have old-time tunes inside them. A lot of my songs reference the experience I've been talking about of moving to music and participating in dance, life, music, love, community. I don't think I write a lot of songs that sound very old-timey. I've noticed a lot of acts out there writing in the style of various roots traditions, but the funny thing is that I hear a lot of songs that do have an old-time feeling about them. I don't think I have that with my songs. This last record was reviewed by a lot of Indie outfits as "a record that harkens back to earlier times of simpler sounds and Appalachian-tinged sound." But in the trad world they won't touch it because it's too contemporary.

    In the bluegrass world, everyone is writing new songs, playing '80s covers, just using the format using the instrumentation and maybe some of the harmonic structures, and writing contemporary songs. Not that many people are doing that in the old-time vein, and the people who are sound more old-timey than what I do. I feel what I'm doing — it's funny to categorize it — to me it sounds very contemporary, but to the contemporary world it sounds old. Maybe just because it's the banjo.

    And maybe because it's stripped down — no synth pads, no beat box.

    Yes, but I feel all that stuff in my music: urban rhythms, pop music. I've always lived in cities and urban areas.

    Tell me about your stuff. Who made your banjo?

    It's a mutt. It was for many years I had no idea who made it. I bought it from Sam Bartlett for $150 when I was in my 20s. I figured I'd get a better one when I got better, but the better I got, the better it sounded to me, and I've been playing it ever since. I've had other banjos, but I don't end up playing them. About 15 years ago the dowel broke and we found a stamp on the inside. It was M.C. De Fosche, and his sister got in touch with me and said, "I think my brother made you banjo." Because Mike does not engage with the internet, I wrote him a physical letter and a copy our CD and asked if he could have been the maker. He told me the reason he put his stamp on the inside of the dowel was because he only made the neck — not the pot. Someone had brought him the pot and he made the neck. He's in Tennessee, I think. He played with Clyde Davenport.

    For strings I play GHS J.D. Crowe extra light. I realized several years ago that extra-lights meant less effort and more sound. When I put heavier strings on I feel it in my index joints. I've heard other people play my banjo who have bigger hands and a heavier style and it sounds too floppy, but for me it means a lighter touch and that mean longevity.

    I use a fake fingernail on my index. They chip and fall off, but I pretty much always play with one. I get a stronger tone and louder sound. I started out using my middle finger, but I feel that the index finger is stronger. I use both, almost entirely lead with my index and occasionally — and randomly — the middle one.

    Photo credit: Gudmundor Vigfusson, styled by Namita Kapoor

    I'm not much about gear.

    Has your approach to the banjo changed from what you were doing with the Stairwell Sisters in comparison of what you are doing with your trio?

    The Stairwell Sisters were based in old-time music. 2000 was the first time I thought about putting the banjo in front of an audience. I started listening to my instrument more, and thinking about arrangements, but it was the old-time string-band format. With the trio, it's more about musical conversations. We play with more rhythmic ideas and explore the sonic potential of the instruments. There are some riffs that I do that sound electronic to me, and that takes it to a whole different sonic realm. Sometimes I'm doing just more percussive strums and trying a range of what I can do and how that interfaces with the other instruments. Sometimes it takes a real background role.

    One thing I like about your concerts it that you present a full experience rather than just a collection of songs with conventional patter. There's a real flow and a shape to the evening.

    I'm very conscious of the arc of a performance. Over the years we've tried to play more and talk less, and the talking has been honed to be more concise. You want your audience to go on an adventure with you. Not to go for a journey for one song, but for the whole show. Of course I have the added issue of having to make sure that the tuning makes sense in the flow of the show. Because I do use different tunings, I construct the set in a way that is bound to the tuning. There are some songs I never play because it's a pain to get to the special tuning and back, but I work some of it.

    What are your most common tunings?

    I joke that I play in all the keys: G, C, A, and D. Then I capo where I need to — Bb, Eb — to match my voice. Sometimes I drop the 5th string down to the third, which gives it a different sound. I use lots of modal tunings and I sometimes put the seventh in the fifth string rather than the tonic. It's that balance between the limits of the instrument and the cool sounds you can get.

    You have a clawhammer-banjo instruction course with our friends over at Peghead Nation. They are doing great work. How's that going?

    I am honored to be a part of the Peghead Nation team, and have gotten great feedback from students all over the country. I had been frustrated trying to learn other practical skills through online videos myself — I think mostly because they don't allow for steady practice with the teacher, which, as we discussed, is an element I think is really important to getting people playing in time and crucial for playing with others. People tell me my online teaching is really effective, and am thrilled that there's an outlet I can use to teach anyone, anywhere It's also been a great resource for my live students, as backup and practice support.


    What's coming up for you?

    I'm combining Appalachian songs and sound with body percussion and African-rooted rhythm systems. I'm also looking at some pieces and scoring them for choir. I've created vocal arrangements and some body-rhythm arrangements that can be simplified so that any choir can do them. I've listening to some songs that I worked on but that didn't make it onto the newest record, and I want to go back and find those songs and develop them more. I'm really working on my musicianship, trying to understand the guitar.

    I know the latest record was a big project. It's terrific.

    The record got really great reviews and the live show has been getting raves, and I want to tour the band and the duo and to play more festivals. I know that audiences really respond to the music. I know what we do is unusual in the world of acoustic music. I can't figure out why, because it's just what I do, but I know we have something to offer. When we played Wintergrass this past year, a lot of folks said we were their favorite act at the festival because we were different. It's not a flurry of notes. We do not play hypervirtuosic solos. We go for depth and the communication between our instruments and for space — I really like open space in music — and for the music to take you where the lyrics take you. So were not a frenzy band, but we seem to really get people to feel things. So I'm excited about the impact the new music has been having. I feel like this is the best music I've made. The live performance feels great. I love it 100%.

    Evie Ladin Discography
    Young Evie Ladin

    Evie Ladin Band

    Stairwell Sisters


    Additional Information