Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ida: The Well-Rounded Radio Interview

I first discovered the music of the band Ida in kind of a backward way. As a dad with crazy snobby tastes in kid’s music, I had discovered Dan Zanes’ music about seven years ago when my daughter was born. As a fan of his from The Del Fuegos, I got the chance to interview him for Well-Rounded Radio in 2004. When I asked him about other artists playing "good" family music, Elizabeth Mitchell’s name rose to the top (as did Ella Jenkins, who has also become a favorite of my clan).

Not long after I saw Mitchell and Littleton perform a terrific concert at FirstNight Boston in a cavernous convention room and picked up her first two CDs, You Are My Flower and You Are My Sunshine. Any band that plays Velvet Underground covers is alright with me. I was hooked. Digging a bit, I discovered that Mitchell and husband, Daniel Littleton, actually got started out playing music in the slow core band Ida, so I picked up a bunch of their earlier CDs and was equally blown away. I’ll attribute the fact that I was living on the west coast for the latter part of the 90s for why this Brooklyn-based band wasn’t on my radar sooner, but Ida has an impressive catalogue.

Mitchell started out making music at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island (at the same time as Lisa Loeb, who she later collaborated with) and then relocated to New York City. Littleton played in a number of Annapolis, Maryland bands in the late 80s, including the punk band The Hated and played in a number of bands in the early '90s, including Three Shades of Dirty, Choke, and Slack (with Jenny Toomey, who Well-Rounded Radio interviewed a few months back).

Ida was formed in 1992 by Mitchell and Littleton as a duo in New York City. The band is named for Ida Machado Schafer, the grandmother of Mitchell's old friend, the artist and playwright Erin Courtney. Schafer was 92 years old at the time Mitchell and Littleton formed the group.

The band's discography includes Tales of Brave Ida (Simple Machines, 1994), I Know About YouSimple Machines, 1996), Ten Small Paces Simple Machines, 1997), Will You Find Me (Tiger Style, 2000), Tour Support (2000), The Braille Night (Tiger Style Records, 2001), Shhh... (Time Stereo, 2002), Heart Like a River ( Polyvinyl, 2005), and The Bottom of the Hill (a live 2-CD set, Last Affair Records, 2005).

Their latest, Lovers Prayers was produced and mixed by Warn Defever (His Name is Alive) and Ida and released by Polyvinyl Records in late January 2008. The current line-up includes Jean Cook on violin, Ruth Keating, on drums, Daniel Littleton on guitar and vocals, Elizabeth Mitchell on guitar, harmonium, and vocals, and Karla Schickele on bass, piano, and vocals. The album was recorded at Levon Helm Studios, a studio owned by Levon Helm of The Band in Woodstock, New York and we talk about the place and the process in our interview.

In addition to collaborating with Levon Helm on the album, other contributors included singer-songwriter Michael Hurley, cellist Jane Scarpantoni (Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright), guitarist and drummer Tara Jane O'Neil ( TJO, Rodan, Papa M), pedal steel player Matt Sutton (The Malarkies).

Ida's music makes me think of what Neil Young would sound like if he fronted Luna and invited over Richard and Linda Thompson to sit in. Fans of Idaho, Low, Mojave 3, or any of the music from Mark Kozelek would also not be disappointed. At times, Mitchell’s voice reminds me of Aimee Mann and Karen Carpenter.

Mitchell’s family CDs include You Are My Flower (1998), You Are My Sunshine (2002), and You Are My Little Bird (2006). Mitchell and Lisa Loeb also recorded a children’s album in 2004 entitled Catch the Moon.

Mitchell’s children’s CDs are simple, homespun affairs that my children love. And I love them for teaching traditional songs and providing my little ones with singalongs. They have a wonderful calming effect and I’ve found them perfect for getting my guys going in the morning and for calming them down at bedtime. Littleton also released a solo album with Nobody's Fault But Mine/Down by the Riverside in 2002 that explored his more experimental side, with tape loops and such.

I recently met with Littleton after a recording session at Excello Recording (who were gracious enough to let me record the interview in their great studio) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to discuss:

* recording Lovers Prayers at Helm’s historic studio
* how the band worked up new material for the album
* how he and Mitchell switch gears between their various musical lives

Daniel recommends Moondog's album for children and Milton Graves.

Well-Rounded Radio recommends a new business model for financing music: Tune Your World.

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