Building Things With Jacken Elswyth

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Few albums stuck with me last year as much as Jacken Elswyth’s Banjo With the Sound of Its Own Making. The concept, of course, caught my attention first (the concept being exactly what the title says it is), but Elswyth’s approach to the instrument is where the staying power lies. She’s an emotive player with high technical ability. Further, she builds banjos and other instruments, and that intimate knowledge of the bones and fibers holding everything together means that her playing has very few cracks. 

In addition to making instruments and releasing excellent solo albums, Elswyth is a member of the folk music group Shovel Dance Collective and folk trio Sullow. She also runs the excellent Betwixt & Between Tapes. This interview was done in the early part of 2022. Jacken can be reached via her website.

To begin, what are some of your earliest memories of music and sound that got you interested in it as a medium?

I suppose my interest in music must have been from early enough age that I wasn’t particularly considering it an artform among artforms, just as a natural presence. I certainly have my parents to thank for that – they’re now stalwarts of the Weirdshire scene in Hereford, and were making music throughout my childhood.

From there, then, where did your interest in the banjo specifically come from?

That I also have my parents to thank for! The first banjo I played was my mum’s – she started playing one when I was in my late teens / early 20s. I sometimes feel it’s a bit of an accident that the banjo has ended up as my instrument? I had played guitar and mandola but hadn’t really progressed beyond basic competency in either, so was restless and looking for another instrument. The strangeness (to my unfamiliar ears) of the skin-head plunk and the droning 5th string on the banjo just captivated me. It could well have been a passing obsession, but for some reason, it stuck.

I think that’s mostly down to the drone string. I already had an abiding interest in drones in music and had modified electric guitars and (crudely) built a couple of instruments to incorporate additional drones into my music-making. But the problem with invented instruments is that they’re often difficult to play! Or at least, limited in their range of possible playing techniques. The banjo was an instrument with a built-in drone and also a rich history of styles, techniques, and traditions exploiting that droning quality, ready for me to dive into.

I think the thing I find most appealing about the little furrow I’m making myself at the moment is this relationship between more traditional technique and less traditional outcome.

I think a lot of people probably connect banjos with more traditional folk music (or Bluegrass here in the States), which makes sense, of course, but when I hear your playing, while those connections are there, it seems like you’re trying to take some of those more traditional songs, or the ideas in them, and find new ones to approach and play them. Can you talk a little about the influence of traditional folk music has on your playing and what you try to do with it?

I certainly think of myself as a folk musician. I was already playing a lot of folk music before I started playing banjo, and for the first few years of my banjo playing, I exclusively played Appalachian banjo and fiddle tunes in clawhammer or two-finger styles. It was when I started to think about recording and performing more publicly that I began to wonder about stretching that. I spent maybe a year making lots of recordings of improvisations approaching the banjo in different ways – amplified via contact mics, or bowed, or playing the skin with brushes, or just practicing breaking out of the strictures of the tunes I’d been playing while sticking to those traditional picking techniques. I also built a pedal for my shruti box so I could lend some extra weight to the drone, whether I was playing folk or something else.

That exploration helped me define the territory that I’m interested in: one that acknowledges and approaches the banjo as a folk instrument even when putting it to non-folk uses. I think that’s most obvious on Six Static Scenes, the lockdown album I recorded for TakuRoku. The closest that album gets to a trad tune is an approximation of Dink Robert’s Fox Chase – and that’s more of a basis for improvisation than a tune proper, hence its inclusion. Most of the tracks are dedicated to a banjo player and rooted in one of their tunes but take them as a seed from which to grow something else.

I’m a huge fan of the banjo and the tonal qualities of them, though I don’t know how good I am at actually playing the banjo (I’ve got a tenor banjo and guess I can do just fine, but my technique is, I’m sure, awful!), but I really love hearing banjo in more experimental contexts – so many possibilities with drones, I think. What is it about those styles or contexts that you find particularly appealing within your own practice?

I think the thing I find most appealing about the little furrow I’m making myself at the moment is this relationship between more traditional technique and less traditional outcome. Clawhammer picking, especially, is quite restrictive as a playing technique: when played straight it locks you into a particular rhythmic pattern and keeps you coming back to that drone string. I really enjoy the feeling of pushing that outside of its comfortable setting, trying to fit other things into it – that actually applies just as much to playing some English, Scottish, and Irish folk tunes in clawhammer as it does to freer playing.

I’ve also been playing a lot of mountain banjo for the last couple of years, which means playing fretless. I love the looseness of sliding into notes, wobbling around a note rather than trying to hit it directly and letting my intonation be kinda inaccurate. Again, those are all elements of a playing style that feels very well framed by more restrictive picking techniques.

Who are some banjo players you like that play in interesting ways? Or albums that have a surprising approach to banjo music?

I actually don’t feel like I listen to that many ‘experimental’ banjo players – if I’m listening to people play the banjo I’m generally after something that sounds fairly trad! Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of contemporary players who are exploring older banjos styles: mountain banjos, tack-head banjos, gourd banjos, etc. People like Nora Brown, Blind Boy Paxton, Noah Cline, Jake Blount, and Rhiannon Giddens.

That said, Daniel Higgs’ weird banjo ramblings and Nathan Bowles’ dronier solo work were both significant influences in my first steps away from just playing trad tunes. Those ‘American primitive’ type guitar pickers that also dabble in banjo were an influence too, demonstrating some of what can be translated from Fahey or Basho onto banjo – here I’m thinking of Gwennifer Raymond, Daniel Bachman, Alex Archibald.

And ‘translating onto banjo’ is a thing I think about a lot in general. In terms of improvisation I know I have a range of touch-stone artists who have been a big influence on the sound that I want to achieve, despite vastly different playing techniques and instruments – Michael Flower’s amplified nagoya, Rhodri Davies’ various harps, Laura Cannell’s overbowed violin, Bill Orcutt and Marisa Anderson’s guitar playing.

And you don’t just play, of course, you are also an instrument builder. How did that start for you and what is it about being able to build an instrument from scratch that is so interesting and inspiring to you?

I think I have a naturally DIY approach to a lot of what I do, so the thing that got me building banjos was just wanting a slightly unusual instrument and figuring that the easiest way to get hold of one would be to make it. That was the same when I was building 36-stringed drone instruments in my early 20s too… The first banjo I built was a gourd banjo, created with a very limited selection of tools and mostly figured out from YouTube videos.

I think it was realizing that even with that limited set-up that it’s possible to build a perfectly playable – and beautiful – instrument that made me want to continue. Especially because I felt that building banjos in this way, with hand tools and self-taught or freely shared technique, was true to the instrument’s folk history – the right way to make them.

I first became aware of your work because of last year’s incredible Banjo With The Sound Of Its Own Making. It’s the most original album, and one of my favorites, I heard last year. Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea came from to make such a record?

I knew from the start of that banjo build (my third, although it was started before the second was finished) that I wanted to do something with the audio of the build – though I wasn’t sure what. I’d fallen in love with field recording artist Tim Shaw’s album Split Frequencies and was looking for locations to explore some field recording of my own when I realized that I had all these great sonic textures right at my workbench.

What was the biggest challenge involved with the album?

Possibly the thing that I spent longest on turned out to be quite a minor aspect of the album’s final sound. I was initially convinced that it’d be interesting if the raw workshop sounds gave way to more manipulated samples – to provide a smoother ambient backdrop to the improvisations. I spent a long time fiddling around with different ways to manipulate those recordings, feeding them through an array of effects pedals borrowed off housemates, downloading extra VST patches for Cubase, etc. I was still intending to revisit that when I played a draft to Graham (Dunning, who runs Fractal Meat Cuts) and he said that he felt that layering the raw recordings was more interesting than obscuring them – so there are places with some delay or reverb, and tracks where I’ve used granular synthesis to create additional hissing undertows, but in the end, the field recordings are mostly just grouped, organized, and layered together.

What surprised you the most about it?

I think some of that initial desire to transform the raw recordings was spurred by a concern that it would end up being quite harsh – an interesting sonic experiment, but something that’s taxing to listen to. I’ve been very surprised by how easy a listen it seems to be, even with most of the workshop sounds left raw! In the end, I was very careful not to shy away from leaving the sawing sounds as prominent as the more musical sounds of the finished banjo, but that seems to have been less of a barrier to casual listening than I thought it might be.

You’ve also got this new project, Sullow with Daniel S. Evans and Joshua Barfoot. You all play together as part of the Shovel Dance Collective, but why did you all decide to form this project on the side?

The spur for that was really the Betwixt & Between series itself. Having done the first six as solo EPs paired with another contributing artist, I felt like I’d kinda reached the end of the line for solo work in that short format. The seventh was the first group collaboration on my side of the tape, featuring Shovel Dance Collective’s first proper full-band recordings. For the eighth, I wanted to do something smaller and less immediately folky – and the idea of trio improvisations presented itself quite organically just through conversations with Josh and Dan. It’s been great to take ourselves out of the Shovel Dance context to do something almost diametrically opposed: quickfire rather than epic and sprawling, instantaneous rather than a measured arrangement of pre-existing material.

There’s this fantastic new split between Sullow and The Silver Field out now on Betwixt & Between Tapes, but what else are you working on right now and might we see a new solo album this year?

So in late spring, we’re due to see the physical release of Six Static Scenes on Neolithic Recordings. I’m really excited about that since the sheer volume of wonderful TakuRoku releases got a bit overwhelming as it went on! I’m looking forward to pulling that album out from the pile and sharing it a bit more widely. I’m also really hoping to record another solo album – perhaps with some help from friends – before the end of the year, but I suppose that’s unlikely to be out until 2023 really… And then there’s new Shovel Dance Collective material in the works too, and we’re talking about what the next Sullow thing might be. Lots going on!

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