Channeling the Voice of Anne Briggs: An Interview With Devin Hoff

Photo by Sapir Matmon

There’s a certain magic to the music of Anne Briggs that’s hard to put a pin in. Her talents as a singer and songwriter are immense. Her voice carries so much weight, her songs are emotive and bewitching. When I heard that bassist Devin Hoff had made an album of interpretations of her music, I was intrigued, though a little skeptical. I should have known better, considering his pedigree, and Voices From the Empty Moor is a stunning tribute.

Stripping Briggs’ songs to their core and building them back up, using his bass as a foundation, results in a different kind of magic. Hoff knows this music and the depth of his affection and appreciation for Briggs’ work shines through. Calling on several close friends and new collaborators like Julia Holter, Sharon Van Etten, Jim White, and others, Voices From the Empty Moor is something special, something to be celebrated.

This interview was conducted in early November. Voices From the Empty Moor comes out this Friday, November 12, on Kill Rock Stars. Pre-order HERE.

So what was your first introduction or experience with Anne Briggs’ work?

I first came across Anne Briggs’ music completely by accident; a couple of Briggs’ songs were included on a compilation cd that I happened to check out from the South Pasadena Public Library when I lived nearby. That was about 10 or 11 years ago I think. These tracks really jumped out at me, and I sought out the handful of available related recordings that I could find and spent probably thousands of hours listening to them.

What is it about her songwriting and her singing you find so affecting?

As far singing goes, it is the very creative and seemingly improvisatory approach to embellishment and ornamentation. The melodies are played the way a great jazz musician does, endlessly inventive but adhering to the harmonic and/or modal structures established in the original melody. As a songwriter, Briggs is known for a only handful of tunes, but to my ear, these are ahead of their times both musically and lyrically and sound more like what younger songwriters such as Adrienne Lenker or Angel Olsen might write.

At what point did you start thinking about doing Voices From the Empty Moor and adapting these songs to bass?

I didn’t really plan for this to be a record at first; I had spent years practicing and performing these songs and others from Briggs’ repertoire on solo bass sets, and occasionally would make arrangements for other situations. The first three tracks recorded were the ones with Shannon, Julia, and Sharon, who are all friends I keep in regular touch with, so it made sense to ask them if they wanted to sing on an arrangement here or there. Eventually, I realized it was turning into something of its own, with a definite mood or story to tell. But honestly, it wasn’t until most of the tracks were done that I realized I was making a record, not just making long-distance music with some good friends.

What were some of the biggest challenges with that? I’ve listened to the album quite a bit and I am continually so impressed with how you’ve totally captured the spirit of her work in these interpretations, but they feel like new, different songs in certain ways. 

I really appreciate you spending time with it and I’m really glad if that time has been rewarding. That’s everything to me.

To be honest I just followed my mind’s ear on each track, both in terms of the arrangements themselves and the guests I hoped would sing or play on them. Some songs such as “The Snow It Melts the Soonest,” are fairly literal readings of transcriptions I made of Briggs’ actual recordings, whereas “Go Your Way” is very much based on trying to adapt the guitar part from the original recording on double bass, and “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” and “Willie O’ Winsbury” are through-composed arrangements that are basically new compositions based on the skeleton of the original tune.

There are so many incredible collaborators on the album. What was the process like of figuring out who you wanted to work with? Did you have specific songs in mind for specific artists, or was it more fluid and organic?

I did write the arrangements specifically for the singers/players on each track, so it was a matter of knowing the source material very well, and then writing scores that I thought would reflect both my impressions of the Briggs recordings and my sense of the musician to be featured. I feel very lucky that on every track on this album the people I asked to do specific tracks agreed and delivered amazing performances.

Was everything done remotely or were you able to work in person with some of the others on the album? 

These tracks were all done remotely, though I was recently able to play a show at Zebulon in Los Angeles that Howard, Julia, Emmett, and Shannon all joined me on and we got to play these songs live. Tara Jane Oneil and cellist Chris Votek also played with me and helped flesh out the arrangements.

It’s impossible to pick favorites, but two pieces really stick out for various reasons for me. First is “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” because it takes the sort of ghostly, sorrowful undercurrent of the original and really brings that feeling to the fore. And Julia Holter’s vocal performance is so, so good. What gave you the idea for the bass parts? It caught me off guard when I first heard it (having only ever heard the song a capella), but it couldn’t work better.

I have a deep love for metal, especially the doomier side these days, and had just spent a year and a half on tour with Sharon in which I listened to the first Agrimonia record and Chelsea Wolfe’s Hiss Spun pretty much every day in the bus as part of my daily/nightly self-centering rituals (the importance of which cannot be overstated, haha). So I was very much in that headspace musically when I came up with that arrangement. Also, those lyrics are so profound, so was easy to write to them, and how I imagined Julia might sing them. I have always wanted to hear someone like Boris or Fall of Efrafa cover Julia’s music, so this is close as I could come. I also love the idea of playing very visceral music, such as metal, on the double bass, which is an extremely visceral instrument.

I also love how Julia tweaks the melody throughout, making it fit even better within the musical accompaniment while still being closely reminiscent of Briggs’ original. Were you writing the different vocal melodies and whatnot too, or, and this goes more generally for others too, were your collaborators also bringing in and adding their own ideas?

Julia is a master musician in a very real sense, and everything she sings or writes reflects that. I did send her a chart with the basic melody notated, but I didn’t add any phrasing suggestions or embellishments. That’s all her.

For the middle section, I just left it open to her to do what she felt, and she sent back these layered improvised banshee-wailing type vocal improvisations, with effects already added. So that again is all Julia.

The second one that really got me was the version of “Willie O’ Winsbury” with Jim White. It’s quite a feat to take a song like that with such a spellbinding vocal performance on it and transform it into an instrumental that carries that same punch. What was your thought process like in approaching this song like that? Using the bowed bass in place of the vocal melody is magic. It’s so haunting.

That’s the piece I’m perhaps proudest of on the record, in the sense that it came closest to hitting the emotional mark I was aiming for. I find the cyclical nature of the melody and harmonic rhythm in Briggs’ version mesmerizing, but I find the lyrical content way too much of its patriarchal time and place to be worth repeating. Also, my original fascination with practicing Briggs’ music was to try to learn how to ’sing’ like her on my instrument, so my arrangements always start with playing the melody on the bass. At first, I thought the counter melodies might be on a brass instrument, but I love the way they turned out on double bass. And of course Jim White takes it all to another level…

I’m curious how you ended up working with Jim on that piece? The arrangement lends itself perfectly to his drumming style as the guitar and strings interplay has a bit of a loose, Dirty Three-adjacent feeling to it. It’s really beautiful.

Of all the guests on this record, Jim is the person I’ve spent the least amount of time with, though we have hung a few times and played in person at least once before, and have several mutual friends. We’ve kept in touch and he wrote me out of the blue at one point in the midst of this album being made, saying he was listening to one of my records and enjoying it. And of course, I am a fan of much of the work he has done, so it was just a matter of rolling with the good fortune, and the track came together very easily.

Have you talked to or met Anne Briggs? Do you know if she’s heard the album?

I have not, and have tried to reach out through possible connections to at least send along a record by way of thanks, to no avail as far as I know. But I also very much respect Anne’s privacy so have only tried through channels that seemed appropriately music-world related…This record isn’t an homage to a persona or celebrity; it is intended as a musical tribute to a body of work that I have found resonates with me and others on its own terms. I am very grateful for Anne Briggs’ music, and it is really nice to be able to share my appreciation of it.

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