PARSONSFIELD: ‘Scampering Around’, ‘Making a Joyful Noise’
Where's a good place to record your new album? How about an abandoned axe factory?
Small wonder the Toronto Star calls the band Parsonsfield "out of left field," and adds that they're "an eclectic American band which happily mingles Bluegrass, folk, jazz and anything else that comes to mind. Not only does their sound make that biblical 'joyful noise,' but the musicians themselves scamper around as though they were part of the cast of the Appalachian production of 'Lord of the Rings'."
But back to the axe factory. Though studios typically design their recording spaces to be "sonically dead," Parsonsfield decided to try just the opposite approach. The cavernous metal building that the band calls "a reverberant, reactive space" first had some quirks to overcome: like a half-inch of aged sawdust that required members to buy respirators and spend a whole day vacuuming and sweeping before making joyful noise with their instruments.
The formation of the band was from left field as well. It was put together only a week in advance of a show at a folk music club.
“I think we were really in an amazing state of wonder over folk music," says vocalist and banjoist (and founder) Chris Freeman, "and had so much fun playing together that we may have naively wanted to become the characters and folk singers we were singing about.” They list their main influences as traditional Bluegrass, Pete Seeger, the Band, and the Avett Brothers."
Parsonsfield's array of instrumentation is a show in itself. The drum set, for instance, has a bicycle wheel mounted atop it. Drummer Eric Hischmann often plays with only one drumstick, using--as the mood strikes him--a brush, maraca, or tambourine in the other hand.
Though some traditional drummers look askance at him, he shrugs it off. “It’s really not that hard," he says. "You just find different sh*t to hit the drums with.” The group's other instruments include a bow saw, a xylophone, a vibe, a pump organ, and sound effects that range from crickets to the creaking of an old screen door.
Their theatrical approach (at one point they performed six months in an original musical in Canada) gains excited plaudits from reviewers. Such as a critic from the influential online magazine No Depression, who says "On stage, Parsonsfield will give you rich five-part harmonies one minute, sound like bluegrass on steroids the next, and then rock you over the head with unbearably cool and raucous Celtic rhythms. All with taste and class.”
No less a forum than The New York Times calls them "boisterously youthful yet deftly sentimental...I fully expect to hear more from this band as the years go on." Another reviewer wrote "Catch Parsonsfield onstage any night and the band's joy is palpable. They trade instruments, share microphones, and shoot each other big grins. They sing in tight multi-part harmonies, their voices blending like they've been doing this together all their lives. That's because Parsonsfield is a family band, not by birth but by choice. And with an album this thrilling, it's only a matter of time before you share their same enthusiasm."
Banjoist Freeman says the group, though haphazardly put together, has deepened their offstage bonds in the years since. "We've gone through countless struggles and triumphs, and we've learned to work through them together."
The title song of their newest album is a metaphor for that growth:
"She's blooming through the black / born of destruction / burned but she's coming back / bending towards the sun / she don't care about fitting in or falling out / she's just been waiting for the sun to come out / good things come slowly / carrying a little pain in tow / good things come slowly / got to have a little room to grow..."