Since its original publication in November 2016 in The Declaration, this interview has been edited for style.
Binghampton New York natives Driftwood are coming to the Southern on November 19th, touring in support of their recently-released fourth album, “City Lights.”
The folk-rock quartet of (singer-guitarist) Dan Forsyth, (singer-percussionist-banjo player) Joe Kollar, (singer-violinist) Claire Byrne, and (bassist) Joey Arcuri is at its best on this record. The mix of bluegrass instrumentation, dynamic pop tunes, and impeccable arrangements make for a fresh and memorable group of songs.
Ahead of the Charlottesville gig, Byrne was available for a brief phone interview with Taylor Ruckle.
Driftwood has the unique situation of three songwriters in one band. Are there idiosyncrasies that come with each of your styles?
There’s definitely different things, and the more you know the music and the band, the more you can totally hear the different songwriting styles and be like, “oh yeah, that’s Dan’s tune, and that’s Joe’s, and Claire’s tune” I definitely gravitate to folk and country styles of songwriting and, you know, melodies and rhythms. Joe’s a little bit poppier. He really likes pop music, so you can hear that in a lot of his songwriting. These are also just my opinions; I think other people would find other things that they think of. Dan’s songwriting, he has a certain style with his lyrics. I mean, everybody does, but Dan’s lyrics really stick out to me. He picks his words really well. He’s very specific, paints a really good picture a lot of the time.
You weren’t in a songwriting position early on with the band, so how has that developed over time?
Well, first of all, I started writing songs. I wasn’t writing songs when I joined the band; I was the fiddle player. I think the desire to sing more drew me to writing more. Also, I just watched what Dan and Joe were doing, and I was like, “jeez, maybe if I could try that and see what comes out.” Gradually, I started bringing the songs to the band. First, you’ve gotta gain enough confidence in your own songwriting to show everybody else, because I will tell you, the first few songs I wrote were just so dumb. Once you gain that confidence, you start bringing them to the group, you receive the positive feedback that you kind of need in order to keep building confidence as a songwriter. That’s a gradual process, especially when you’re out there playing, and I had been focusing on just playing fiddle for so long.
With you coming into more of a songwriting position, and just other things over time, has the band dynamic changed much?
Well, we added a bass player. We had a bass player, but he was working on a PhD, he was getting married, and he lived elsewhere, and then was moving farther away. He was slowly phasing out of the group for a long time, playing less and less, and it just became really difficult for him, so we added a full-time bass player five years ago. That changed the dynamic of the band for the better, for sure. Joey’s a phenomenal bass player, and he’s also a really great guy, which is pretty important when you’re working so closely with just a few other people.
Beyond that, everybody’s slowly grown up a little bit. People’s lives personally have changed. Dan got married, he has a child. I just got married, so we’ve slowly evolved by ourselves, and then of course that comes into the dynamic. But beyond that, we’ve worked pretty well together for a long time. Everybody gets along, respects each other, and works well if we have disagreements, works well if we don’t. It’s been a pretty consistent dynamic.
One thing that seems like a unifying factor on this album is this theme of growing older. How do you deal with that, and does it help to have a song to sing about it?
Oh, of course it helps to have a song to sing about it. I think if I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t be a musician, and definitely not a singer. You know, actually, I will say, I just turned thirty this year too, and getting older is really fun. I look back now, and I’m like, “wow, I was so dumb when I was in my 20’s. I made the stupidest mistakes.”
I had a lot of fun doing it–you know, gone are the days of going out and drinking a few nights in a row, staying up until five in the morning, and playing shows directly after that. I just don’t have the desire to do it anymore, and I feel like crap if I do that. I’m not at that phase where it’s like, “oh, gray hairs, my body hurts,” it’s just, it’s been fun to mature through this process, and I think everybody feels that way. Basically, I feel like the more time passes that you’re doing whatever you’re doing–whatever path you decide to go down, but in this case music–you hone your craft and really figure out the little nuances of the whole thing.
In particular, I was thinking of “The Waves.” Can you tell me the story behind that song?
Yeah, “The Waves” is actually–it’s still kind of an emotional thing for me to think about. I was going through a really rough time, just normal ups and downs of life, and I sat down with a guitar because I felt really lonely in this time, and started singing about, writing about–this is just when life was easier, you know? It was so much easier when you were a kid. You didn’t do crap. Your parents did everything for you, and it was just fun. Just that innocence of it all, and having absolutely no inhibitions yet, not being tainted by the world, and like, “damn man, it was so much easier back then, it’s sucking right now.” And how my family has—you grow up, and you grow apart a little bit, even if it’s just space. You form your own life.
This album was one where you worked out the songs in the studio instead of a live setting. Have you started playing these songs live?
The three songs you’re referring to that we wrote in the studio, we still have not played live yet. We’re waiting for the album to come out officially. Normally, the way we like to do it is bring a song to the table, start working on it, and start playing it immediately live, because we kind of feel like that’s how you really learn a song and figure out what it needs, but we kind of wanted to keep some surprises for our audience on this album, because they always know all the songs on the album. So it was really fun to write in the studio, and we wound up with some different things than we normally would. Now we’re trying to translate them back onto the stage with just the instruments that we have. When we were in the studio, we added drums, a lot more layers, you know, I didn’t have to worry about singing a part and playing the violin at the same time. We had to rearrange a couple of the tunes to make them work live, but it’s been pretty fun, and we’re really excited to play them.
Where has been your favorite city to perform in so far?
Oh my god. Favorite cities to perform in. Nashville’s pretty awesome, Charlottesville is awesome.
I wasn’t fishing for that, I promise!
No, I know that you weren’t, and I don’t feel like I have to throw it in. Charlottesville is a really cool town. But you guys don’t toast your bagels! You’ve got the Bodos Bagels place, and they won’t toast the bagels [laughs].
Let’s see, other places that we like to play. The big cities are always fun, because it’s exciting, but it’s also kind of a pain in the butt because you can’t find anywhere to park your big van. Everything’s expensive. We play in a really cool town in West Virginia called Thomas. It’s really small, but they have a really cool music venue there called the Purple Fiddle. We really like playing there. We like to play in the Triangle area of North Carolina quite a bit. We like to play festivals, definitely–those are fun. Every town has its own thing going on, and that’s always cool.
If you could play any other instrument that you don’t, what would it be?
I’ve always said the trumpet. Because the trumpet is so versatile, you know? I love my instrument, and I love trying to push those boundaries with the instrument, but there are some things you can’t do with a violin. You can’t really be in a reggae band, and I love reggae.
It’s a cool thing to have in your back pocket, just to throw some brass on.
Oh yeah, and people are impressed by it too, if you can pull it out. I always wanted to be in the marching band when I was in high school, and I couldn’t do that. Of course I love jazz, and you can do jazz violin–you know, Stephane Grappelli, and stuff–but I love the trumpet. It’s a very happy instrument, you know?