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Furtado looks to the guitar for inspiration.
Ty Downing

String Theory

Tony Furtado talks strumming and songwriting

April 9, 2013, 12:00 am

Tony Furtado is a sculptor working in ceramics and chainmail; a ceaselessly touring singer, songwriter, guitarist and slide guitarist; not to mention one of the best five-string banjo players alive.

He is also the father of a six-month-old baby.

Despite all this, he had a few minutes to talk to SFR late Easter night, a few days before embarking on his latest tour, which brings him to Santa Fe on April 13.

Because Furtado is a two-time National Bluegrass Banjo Champion (his first win coming at age 19), the conversation opened with whether he considers the five-string banjo his main instrument.

“It was my first instrument—kind of my gateway drug,” he says. “When I write songs, who knows. I just pick up whatever’s closest. It’s most likely that when I’m singing I’ll have the guitar in my hands.”

As a musician, he falls in the Miles Davis category: an artist who is never content to stay in one place, despite (or maybe because of) past successes; and like Davis, his prodigious instrumental skill is only one facet of his musical approach, which is important mainly in the way it opens up his work to new creativity.

“You gotta grow with your own music,” Furtado says. Then, laughing, he coins a phrase that encapsulates his career: “Grow your own music.”

Furtado’s evolution is evident in his discography as well as his collaborative history, which spans from projects with bluegrass and country all-stars—like Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien and Billy Ray Cyrus (with whom Furtado recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno)—to touring with the younger batch of indie players in his native Portland who form his current backing band.

“There are so many songwriters out here—so many good bands,” he says. “I’ve always got my ears wide open.”

His open ears naturally inspire his songwriting. When it comes to his most recent studio album, 2011’s Golden, he remembers: “I was listening to a lot of Sigur Rós, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Elliott Smith.”

Not that Furtado’s own music is just a collage of current influences.

 “I can’t point to any one song and say, that’s me trying to be them,” he says. “But I hear little things that might remind me of [one of those bands].”

Furtado also reimagines his own music depending on the situation in which he’s playing. His 16th album, a DVD/CD combo titled Live at Mississippi Studios, largely featured songs from Golden and past compositions, performed in a raucous full-band setting.

In his solo Santa Fe appearance, on the other hand, Furtado says he will “be playing a fair few from Golden,” but “I’ll also pull out whatever banjo songs I can.”

“Like most touring musicians,” he continues, “I’ll get bored sometimes and bring out something from the past and see if I can remember the words.”

And Santa Feans take note: “Sometimes, if I’m in a town where people know my music, I like to take requests.”

Besides offering an intimate opportunity to request Furtado favorites, the show is also a good chance to experience the Music Room at Garrett’s Desert Inn. The newly revamped space seems likely to become the semi-permanent home of the itinerant Santa Fe Performance Exchange.

SFPX, in conjunction with Southwest Roots Music, has already brought several other big names to the space this year, including Greg Brown and Peter Mulvey. Whether it can continue doing so is largely a matter of audience attendance.

“Artists that normally draw [an audience of] 150 are dropping by like a third,” SFPX Board President Rick Adesso tells SFR. “It’s because of the economy. And those extra 50 tickets are generally coming out of the promoter’s funds.”

His monetary complaint is not personal. “We are a nonprofit, and we don’t get paid,” he explains. “None of us. We try to pay the sound guys, and the musicians get paid, but the rest of us do it just because we love music.”

Whether SFPX can continue to bring musicians of Furtado’s stature to Santa Fe puts the familiar complaint about a lack of quality music in town to the test: The (all-ages) venue is there. So is the performer. How about the audience? 


Tony Furtado
7:30 pm Saturday, April 13. $15-$20.
Garrett’s Desert Inn
311 Old Santa Fe Trail, 266-6966

 

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