Gondolier was born in isolation – a solitary flintspark nurtured into lantern light. Given life by a community of musicians committed to translating traditional music's lasting lessons into indefinable new truths, the result is beguiling, enticing. It’s an album that asks but only sometimes answers – and, for that reason, is all the more moving and uplifting.
At the back of the craft, her hand on the rémo, is Kristin Andreassen. She says her feet were her first instrument – and her years as a professional clogger lend an undeniable rhythmic undercurrent to her music. On her debut album, 2007's Kiss Me Hello, that rhythm bounced and swayed. Gondolier's pulse is more of a heartbeat: consistent, comforting, almost tidal – in keeping with the thematic elements that bind its songs. “Most of these were written on a quiet island in New Hampshire,” she explains. “So the lake itself shows up everywhere — rainstorms, boats, fish — submersive sounds and layers in the lyrics and the music.” Throughout Gondolier, rural and urban play against each other, in parallel to Andreassen’s explorations of the lines dividing fantasy from reality. “For some reason my dreams are all about water,” she sings in the title track “The Boat Song.” “It replaces the concrete, I can breathe it like air.”
These songs coalesced over a period of years – years in which Andreassen was performing and recording as a supporting musician and harmony singer with Aoife O'Donovan, Sufjan Stevens and Jeffrey Lewis, among others. She hosted a weekly old time session in Brooklyn, called square dances, founded a popular week-long music camp for adults, and occasionally performed her own music for a range of audiences. Over time, the sum of these experiences progressed into a sound both grounded and ethereal, brought to life by a unique ecosystem of performers and writers. “I feel very lucky to be a part of this community where many of us have some background in traditional music,” Andreassen says. “When we write songs, I think we're choosing what to carry with us from the folk music we know, and we’re asking what newness we have to offer from our own modern experience.”
Gondolier entered the water when producer and percussionist Robin MacMillan invited her to record a few songs in his home studio in Williamsburg, just for fun. “Robin is one of the purest artists I’ve ever encountered,” she says of MacMillan, who has performed and recorded with Aoife O'Donovan, Mike + Ruthy (aka Michael Merenda and Ruth Ungar of The Mammals), and Christina Courtin. “He wants to make beautiful sounds and serve the song, and he doesn’t care how long it takes. He’ll try any number of different things before settling on one approach. That was great for me, because it got me off the obvious path. I could have made a record more quickly with strumming guitars, fiddles, and banjos, but we chose to do something else.”
That “something else” is as difficult to describe as it is to resist. Beds of circular finger-picked figures blur the boundary between organic and mechanical; wood-toned clarinets give the sensation of breath; percussion alternately laps like waves and rolls like thunder. While every element is identifiable, the ensembles are arrayed and arranged in intriguing, counter-intuitive ways that beautifully illuminate Andreassen's observations and ruminations.
The musical approach, deriving from hours of experimentation, is decades away from the “old time” sound that Andreassen was known for in her time touring with the clogging company Footworks or with her stringband Uncle Earl, or even from the friendly kitchen folk sound of Kiss Me Hello. “With these new songs traditional music seeps in through the lyrics above all,” she says. The song “‘Simmon” self-consciously steals verses wholesale from the folksy standard “The Crawdad Song,” while the choruses pay back the theft with a poetic nod to nostalgia itself, and the way human memory is the traveling companion of any old song.
Other fragments of traditional songs appear like trail markers, carefully placed throughout Gondolier to guide the listener. “The Boat Song” echoes an ageless children's round while reflecting on choices one makes from childhood to the present day. “That's the most autobiographical song on the record,” Andreassen says. “The first verse is completely true: If you ask my parents, they'll say all I ever did as a kid was daydream and bounce a ball against the garage door.” Twin organ parts recall aging fairground calliopes, as Andreassen's observations spiral outward from childhood dreams to adult consequences – searching for the wonder and truth in both.
The gently swinging “Azalea” emerged from a specific moment – a chilly, early spring wedding in Louisiana. “I started writing it the day of the wedding,” Andreassen says. “These friends of mine got married in their backyard. It was cold and grey, and they built a big fire. It started raining, and we ended up dancing a big hole in the lawn.” Embroidered by lightly twanging guitars and accented by harmonizing clarinet and flute, “Azalea” becomes a meditation on commitment and change. “As I get older,” she continues, “these are questions that I'm asking myself now. How do you stay with the people you love? How do you grow and change but still be in that relationship?” The answer comes to her in this song, as she realizes that, to keep time and love in balance, she must “change like a tree, slow and even…”.
Gondolier's original sessions with MacMillan at the helm were subsequently complimented with three songs recorded with percussionist Lawson White acting as producer. These recordings share the same spirit of adventure and experimentation, while adding a bracing dose of immediacy. “Some Do” was recorded live on the studio floor with Andreassen on tenor guitar and harmonica, White on percussion, and Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers on acoustic guitar. Other accompanists heard throughout Gondolier include bassist Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), multi-woodwind player Alec Spiegelman (Cuddle Magic), cellist Rushad Eggleston (Crooked Still), former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone (heard here on clattering banjo bass), guitarist Jefferson Hamer, fiddler Stephanie Coleman (who has played alongside Andreassen in Uncle Earl and with whom she co-hosts a popular weekly old time jam session), and vocalists Aoife O'Donovan, Ruth Ungar (The Mammals, Mike + Ruthy), and Cassandra Jenkins (Eleanor Friedberger).
A native of Portland, Oregon, Andreassen's own roots as a performer stretch back to her early years touring as a featured dancer in the Maryland-based Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. In 2003 she joined Uncle Earl, a pioneering all-g'Earl stringband that blended traditional and modern influences. With Uncle Earl, she toured the world, appearing on such festival stages as Bonnaroo, Telluride, and Celtic Connections, and released two well-received albums for Rounder Records, including the acclaimed Waterloo, Tennessee, produced by former Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones. Andreassen's debut record, Kiss Me Hello, was released in 2007 and featured her song “Crayola Doesn't Make a Color for Your Eyes” – co-written with fellow dancer Megan Downes and winner of the children's music category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. She also recorded two albums with Sometymes Why, the irreverent and evocative trio she formed with Ruth Merenda and Aoife O'Donovan.
Constantly on the road, Andreassen only put down roots in Brooklyn a few years ago, where she quickly integrated herself into the vibrant avant-roots scene that helped bring Gondolier into the world. Depending on the night, she can be found driving fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar, adding bells, ukulele, or harmonica to an indie-folk outfit, or performing her own songs on her own. It's the latter that intrigues her most these days. “I feel like I've gone in reverse,” she says. “I started with full bands playing old time tunes, but lately I've been dialing it back to just me, a guitar, and a song…I like the freedom of being able to interpret my own song on the spot.”
From its most orchestrated moments to its smallest gestures, that conversational intimacy and willingness to take changes enriches every aspect of Gondolier. “We took our time making this record,” Andreassen concludes. “Looking back, I can still feel how the quiet space of being on that island informs these songs. They are thoughtful and more philosophical than I've been in the past. I can't shake the idea that, when you chose to do something, you close off a door to something else. I wanted to pay respect to the various dreams that we've all had but chosen not to pursue: Those dreams have a certain untapped power that, if we let them, can inspire us while telling us more about who we are…”.