Roads On the Horizon: An Interview With Eli Winter

Eli Winter’s guitar records are like a cold, clear spring, fueled as much by the feeling behind them as the dexterity in his fingers. The depth to Winter’s playing and songwriting style belies his age with his songs imbued with a range of experiences and hard-earned, well-worn truths. A timelessness pervades his work as he creates and explores new worlds. 

Winter’s most recent offering is the stellar collaborative album, Anticipation, with Cameron Knowler. The duo creates their own musical language while creating music that, again, could be of any era all the while finding new ground. Eli and I chatted through email during May and in our conversation, I found a kindred spirit who has brighter stars ahead. Anticipation is out now on American Dreams

To start, what are some of your earliest memories with music and sound? Whether it’s certain albums or songs or even environmental sounds from when you were young, but things that left a mark. And then building on that, when did you first get interested in learning to play and create your own music, and what inspired you to pick up a guitar?

I remember dancing with my family in our small living room to, of all things, a CD of music by the Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius. The music stood out, but I couldn’t tell you why—I’ve lost track of the CD. More than I remember specific albums or songs or sounds from that time, I remember how I engaged with music: I’d listen to the same song over and over again, or play songs back in my head to while away boredom, or even write them there. I grew up in a musical household, and my immediate family always encouraged (even required) making and thinking about music. Music feels like my first language, cheesy as it is to say. I’ve just always been thinking about it, and I have perfect pitch, which facilitates that thought. I had some formal training: I sang before elementary school, and I studied piano and clarinet before high school. I loved my teachers, but I didn’t like classical training. I had a restrictive, rather than expansive, sense of the instruments I was learning; I felt hyperaware of their, and my, limitations, and I didn’t know how to break out of that mindset, didn’t know that technical perfection isn’t a means to an end. I guess I felt like teaching myself would be more generative, especially teaching myself guitar: a polyphonic instrument with a steep learning curve and countless permutations of how a person might play it. My dad had a couple of old guitars lying around, and he taught himself how to play cowboy chords. I was lucky to have that model. I didn’t know many people my age who shared my interest until I moved away.

Where does your interest in experimental folk music come from?

From an interest in music, ultimately: the tools are often similar. I also think there’s a similar ethical perspective. I’m thinking of Calvin and Hobbes. When I was a kid I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, and I read as many comic strips and related collections as I could find. As it turns out, I hate drawing, but I remember being inspired by the things that animated Bill Watterson as an artist working within his chosen medium—refusal to compromise or make his work palatable for industry suits—and I think I would find resonances between that and lots of music that moves me, including the above.

How do you meet and get to know Cameron Knowler?

I don’t actually remember how Cameron and I met! But I remember that we met in June 2017 and that we started working together pretty closely soon after. He recorded most of my first album, The Time To Come, in Houston; we did the first sessions right after Hurricane Harvey left town. And we embarked on two summer tours—one after those aforementioned sessions, one in 2018—that were so tough I wondered if touring could ever be fun. Somehow I convinced Cameron to tour Texas with me that winter, which effectively planted the seeds for Anticipation. I think we realized, as we got to know each other, that even though we come from quite different musical and other backgrounds, we have similar sensibilities about music, writing, and making work, similar mindsets about what being a working artist and good person might entail, and about what it means to be good, and where that label might fall short. So our divergences often complement one another.

I found it so interesting that Cameron said the collaboration “seemed insurmountable conceptually.” To me, that’s a fantastic place to start if you want to create something memorable. Can you tell me a bit about how you all worked through those obstacles and developed the musical language heard on Anticipation?

Thanks! From my perspective, they didn’t feel like obstacles. That must be part of it. Cameron comes from musical idioms that, to my understanding, encourage rigidity in how you play and conceptualize your playing: old-time, bluegrass, jazz through the lens of music school. The places I’m coming from as a musician encourage pretty much the opposite. It’s pretty much a forty-minute-long trust fall.

How did you hook up with the American Dreams label?

I’ve been lucky to play a number of shows with Mute Duo, the best band in Chicago—every show is a life-changer. When I saw that American Dreams was releasing their album Lapse in Passage, I wrote Jordan, almost literally immediately, to say, isn’t Mute Duo just the best band?? How could he disagree? At the time, my album Unbecoming, which features Sam Wagster of Mute Duo, had just been mixed, and it was very hard not to mention this. The short version is: I got lucky.

I can heavily relate to not knowing people around my age with similar interests growing up. I often think about how that was an influence on my artistic vision and the way I interacted with and understood art, music, etc. How did that affect you and do you still see that impact woven into your work? 

I want to make those interests legible for people with a different frame of reference than my own. It’s good practice. It’s also tiring! And a bit lonely. At the same time, it seems a bit better than the alternative. It’s hard enough to contend with the narcissism of small differences now—but in high school? Come on. It seems helpful, or even freeing, to pursue those interests without worrying what someone might make of it. I try to maintain the rigor with which I pursued them earlier without making that rigor into an academic exercise. And I generally like the challenge of making what I, and others, do for people who don’t know where we’re coming from. I want to try to meet them where they’re at.

Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes – that’s amazing! I remember reading some commencement speech Watterson gave back in the ’90s and still think about what he said about creating a life that reflects your values. I’m not even sure I have a question here, but I love that you mentioned Watterson. I guess, are the decisions you make – whether it’s who you work with or where you gear your support – always guided by this refusal to compromise? 

Thanks! He’s a legend. Yes, I think, inasmuch as you’re asking about creative vision. Compromise is inevitable! But maintaining artistic integrity is paramount. If someone doesn’t get it or take it in good faith, that’s their problem.

Let’s talk about the album with Cameron a bit more… what was the most difficult part of the marathon session you all did down in Houston? And what surprised you the most?

I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough material for an album. That was silly. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. That whole session astonished me.

And what was the process like generally from idea to composing the piece and recording it? It blows my mind that “Strawberry Milk,” for instance, is the first take.

I think this was more straightforward than it might seem. One person starts playing—an idea or an improvisation—and the other listens and responds. I hardly remember how it happened from song to song, though I generally remember who brought which song (“Strawberry Milk” excepted!).

You also released a record at the tail end of 2020, The Time to Come on Worried Songs. How did that project come together with them?

That album had initially been released on cassette in 2019. Right as lockdown started, Worried Songs wrote me to say: I was about to buy this on vinyl, but realized it’s not available on LP. Want to change that? I couldn’t say no.

I was struck by what you said about the title track and the passing of your friend, especially over the past year… “How can you maintain hope in the face of grief?” I ask myself that at least once a week. Hell, maybe it daily – at least it feels like that. But I do think the album – and that piece of music in particular – do an amazing job of navigating that sonically. It’s music that is melancholy, but not oppressively so. There’s a sort of matter-of-fact-ness to it and a determination to feel it, but not be defined by it. Anyway – I wonder how you’ve maintained hope over the past 15 months or so and what keeps you moving forward?

Thanks so much! It means a lot that you have that sense of the music. That’s how I feel about it, and others. I think there’s something to be said for hope as a choice, and, having chosen it, the necessity of carrying it out to the extent possible. It feels slippery, but it helps sometimes. At the same time, a lot of it boils down to luck and privilege. This time last year, I was afraid to go outside and lived largely alone in an apartment with little-to-no natural light. Right now I have most of my basic needs met and no one I know has died recently. That makes everything easier.

Got heavy there for a minute, sorry. Let’s close up on a lighter note… what are you working on these days? What’s next?

No need to apologize! I have a few pokers in the fire: records to prepare, tours to book… I love touring, and I can’t wait to make up for lost time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to cover a lot of ground next year.

What are some of your favorite records from the past year?

One of my favorites comes out in July: Places of Consequence by Cameron Knowler. I think about Daniel Bachman’s Axacan, Ryley Walker’s Course in Fable, Sam Wagster’s The Sun Return a lot. More recently, Johnny Dyani (African bass solo concert: Live at Willisau 1978; also African Bass), Don Cherry (El Corazón with Ed Blackwell). Superwolves. I’ve been thinking about Tara Jane O’Neil’s record In Circles for literal years.

I could go on forever.

Eli Winter can be reached through his website and his music found on his bandcamp page.

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