Koda Kerl of Chamomile and Whiskey on Mixing a Cocktail of Influences

Earlier this month, we reviewed “Sweet Afton,” the solid second album by Irish-Americana band Chamomile and Whiskey. Packed with fiddle hooks and flute solos, it’s a diverse folk-rock record from a band of skilled and maturing musicians.

The group has been away touring the East Coast, but they return to their home turf in central Virginia this week for a release show at the Southern Cafe and Music Hall. That show will also feature local acts Red and the RomanticsSally Rose, and Erin Lunsford.

Ahead of the event, singer/guitarist Koda Kerl spoke to The All Scene Eye about the making of the record and the unique personalities that make Chamomile and Whiskey who they are.

How did you mark the album release, and what’s next tour-wise?

We kicked things off down in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area that Friday night, which was the night the album came out. Then we had a show in Richmond. It was good to be in Virginia for the first weekend of the record being out. So far, the response has been good.

The tour is broken up into different legs. For the Fall, we’ve been focusing on the East Coast. We’re went up toward Philly, DC, and New York, and we’re going down to Charlotte. We’re going to lay low a little bit in the winter and get ready to head out on a West Coast run in the Spring. 

What was it like working with producer Rob Evans? How was his presence borne out in the final product?

We love working with Rob. He’s been a friend of ours ever since we started working with County Line, our record label. He produced our last record as well, but when we made that one, we didn’t have a full-length record yet, and we wanted to record the songs the way we played them live, to give everybody an example of what we were about.

For this album, we decided we were going to take a lot more time, put more instrumentation on it, and produce it more. Part of that was that we wanted Rob to be more vocal about his opinions, and be harder on us to get everything just right. He’s a really easygoing, laid-back kind of guy, so it’s fun working with him. You don’t feel too much pressure.

We were recording for a little over a year, slowly. We would work on some songs, then we’d take a couple weeks off and we’d all listen back. Then we’d come back in. We’ve had to really take our time and distill the whole thing to get it right. We figured it made more sense to be patient than to try to bang it out as soon as possible.

On the first record, we would overdub solos or vocals, but a lot of it was live, which is really cool. On this album, there’s still a lot of live rhythm tracks, but we brought in some friends to work with us. We tried to focus on each song individually, making it the best it could be, as opposed to giving the whole process of it a vibe. Which, I think it can go both ways. I’ve heard records where they sound like everyone is set up and recorded in one space, and it sounds great, but I think on this one we wanted to go with focusing on each song and fleshing them out individually.

Who are some of those folks you brought in?

A lot of local people that we play shows with, and who are friends of ours. On “Sleepless Nights,” we have Lauren Hoffman. She’s a singer-songwriter from here in Charlottesville, and she added some really cool vocals. We also brought in Kai Crowe-Getty from the band Lord Nelson, and we had our friend Eric Smith on pedal steel.

Fiona Balestrieri, who’s part of the family of the band, is all over the record. She plays the Irish flute and the tin whistle, and sings. She’s toured with us some, and she’s on almost every song on the record, but she’s got a lot going on in her life, so she’s not a full-time road member.

Her and Marie, our fiddle player, were in a band in high school together. For a while, they were teaching at an Irish music school together, too. They’ve got this great connection, so when they start playing, they’re able to harmonize the fiddle and the flute, and go off each other. Just watching the two of them work together was inspiring.

We like a fun vibe in the studio, so it’s nice to bring friends in when you can. I feel pretty fortunate to have so many awesome people who I enjoy having a beer with, but who also happen to be really talented musicians.

That’s the ideal setup to have in a music scene.

That’s been my goal with songwriting from day one: to find cool people who are way better at their instruments than I am, who play my songs with me. It’s worked out so far. [laughs]

So, Chamomile and Whiskey started out as a duo, and the band name comes from Marie making chamomile tea, and you adding Evan Williams. With the other players you’ve added over the years, what kind of drinks are they bringing to the table?

I would say when we brought in Lavin, our banjo player from Ireland, he took it from a single chamomile and whiskey to a double. He probably just added another straight shot of whiskey, and probably a pint of Guinness also. [laughs] The personnel has changed over the years, but I think we always have that balance. Lavin gave us a lot more energy when he came along. The three of us, Marie, Lavin, and I, have been the core since the very beginning.

Maybe our newer drummer, Stuart Gunter, would bring something something like an old, fine wine. He’s a little older than us, and he’s been playing music for a long time. He brings a mellow, calming wisdom to the group.

Marsh, our bass player, has been with us full time for two or three years, and he’s along the same line. He’s got a nice, easygoing, vibe. Me and Lavin are pretty volatile, loud characters, so it’s nice to have people to even things out.

Our new guitar player, Drew, is the newest member; he’s been touring with us for a little under a year. He’s the wild card, like that shot you order at a bar that’s just in a brown bag, and you don’t know what you’re going to get. He’s a surprise cocktail. He’s out-there, but he’s a great player. He’s played in so many different types of bands over the years that he can throw all these different influences on top of songs. He’s the secret ingredient.

When I’m looking at a band with than one singer and songwriter, I wonder, is the person singing generally the person who wrote the song?

So far, it’s worked that way for us. When we started playing, Lavin and I already had a lot of songs, and then over the years we’ve been writing as well. The process has always been that Lavin and I will write songs individually, and then bring them to the group, and the group helps mold it into what it becomes for Chamomile and Whiskey. Everyone is really involved.

It’s a very collaborative arrangement process, but the way things have played out, we haven’t done a lot of co-writing together yet. I hope at some point we’ll get more involved with all of us working together. We always love stories of The Band, for example, putting together these crazy songs, with the whole band writing together. It just hasn’t happened for us much.

I wrote a song recently that Marie actually added a verse onto, which is cool. So far, whoever is singing the main part is probably the person who wrote it, but when you start doing this professionally, you’re always looking to add more tools to your belt. 

Something for the next record, maybe?

Yeah, exactly. I think we like the idea of getting more collaborative from the beginning. Part of it is that me and Lavin both write a lot. I play a lot of solo shows where I do a whole different catalog of material. Between the two of us, we have so many songs that we haven’t had a necessity of writing. I know some bands who record a lot, they’ll be writing on tour as a group, because they’re trying to add to their catalog, but we already have a lot of songs. We’ve never felt pressure to be like, “oh, we need to get three more songs for the record.”

As we move forward, I think we’re all very open to that idea, because we all do work well together, in terms of arranging songs. We even have a couple in the works right now–one we started writing as a joke once, at a gig. It was one of those gigs where the promoter didn’t have their stuff together, and it was a small crowd, and we had this idea of everyone in the band putting a verse onto it. Maybe we’ll flesh that out in the next few months, but we’ll see. [laughs]

The first single from this record is “Gone,” which is about your father. Do you mind if I ask about the kind of background and influence he brought to your music?

My dad was a songwriter himself. He had a few points in his life where he played out publicly and put bands together, but he didn’t push hard on that angle. He wrote all the time, so I grew up with a piano in the house and guitars laying around, but really, when I think about it now, his biggest influence on me as a songwriter is more just playing good music for me since I was a kid. I’ve been listening to John Prine since I was four years old.

I think everyone kind of hits that point in their life, for me it was the beginning of high school, where music takes on this whole new meaning to you. It breaks through a little bit. For me, I would just listen to music all night until four in the morning, and not get enough sleep before school. I think a lot of that was I would hear a Bob Dylan song, or a John Prine song, or a Tom Petty song that I always liked, but suddenly I realized what they were actually saying. A big thing I’ll always owe to him is having really good songwriters on all the time in my childhood. That might have given me a leg up; maybe I was being influenced by good songwriters in the beginning.

Another thing I think he instilled in me, a valuable lesson for me moving forward, was how he didn’t take the professional side of things too seriously, and he didn’t have a lot of drive to book shows and get his music out there. He told me to not be afraid, because you don’t want to wind up later in life wishing, “oh man, I wish I had seen what would have happened if I had tried to get myself out there more.”

It helped me have a good work ethic, since the band started, of booking shows and working hard to understand the business side of things. That’s something he never had any interest in. It’s a complete necessity–if you actually want to do this for a living, you have to understand that there’s a whole different side that has little to do with how great your song is, and a lot to do with how you organize the band and the business. That’s a lesson I keep in mind a lot, as far as the things he imparted before he passed away.

When you’re playing as a band, as opposed to performing as a solo artist, it seems there might be more opportunities to delegate things, since there are more people in the mix.

Yeah, I think you have to allocate the personnel you have. For our band, I’ve always had a knack for booking. I’ve taken that over since the very beginning. In a way, I think it’s worked better for us to have one organizational leader. Friends’ bands broke up or had problems a lot of times because there were people butting heads on who was going to do what. The nice thing about my band is everyone understands, and they’re generally pretty grateful for the fact that I’ll take on the brunt of the booking and the time-consuming work.

But everyone chips in different ways. Marie does a ton with the merchandise, which is something I’m not great at. She handles all of that. Lavin is a wonderful painter, and he’s done some really cool artwork for posters and stuff. The nice thing about my band is we all get along really well, so I know if I need help with something, or I need someone to handle something for me, everyone is ready to do it.

Maybe it’s just my limited experience, but I think for most bands, it’s probably better to have at least one person, whether it’s a separate manager, or someone in the band, who’s the point man on the booking and managerial side. I’ve seen it with other bands where it’s just people trying to assume the same responsibilities, and then not seeing eye-to-eye and causing a lot of strife behind the scenes. And that’s always hard. You’re going to have problems, no matter what band you’re in, but we try to keep things relatively light, and avoid serious conflict when possible.

You mention these great singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and John Prine. What about the Irish folk influence?

That’s an interesting mix of Lavin and Marie, because Lavin grew up in Galway Ireland, and he’s got this great knowledge of Irish music, but he really plays the banjo like a blues guitar. He’s not properly Irish-trained. Marie grew up playing Irish music, she’s been to Ireland, and she teaches at an Irish music school. She and Fiona have this great knowledge of Irish tunes, old Irish songs, and then Lavin brought in a lot of like, The Waterboys, Van Morrison, The Pogues–some of those bands that we might have known or liked before–and some of that Irish songwriting style

Some of his songs have a unique style that I think is really cool. We showed up to a venue once, and on the marquee it said “Chamomile and Whiskey: rowdy Irish-Americana.” We always thought that was the best. We’ve never known exactly how to describe ourselves. No band wants to be pigeonholed, but I think for us, we like “Irish-Americana.” We’ve always viewed it as mixing the Blue Ridge Mountain sound we grew up with–Americana, old-time fiddle tunes, and southern rock–and the Irish influence we have.

It’s interesting, because Lavin being the Irish band member, he’s actually not the one who plays the most Irish music. His influence is more in the way he writes songs. When you have two songwriters in a band, I think it’s nice that they’re complementary and not too similar. We’re not writing the exact same song every time. For me, that keeps it more interesting. A lot of bands I listen to nowadays that have multiple songwriters, and I always enjoy that.

You notice that with Lavin on a song like “Thalia.” It’s not just the accent, and it’s not even just the instrumental elements that make it sound Irish.

I think that’s really what he’s tapped into. It’s kind of mystical. I wish I had a better way of verbalizing it, and maybe he would. When you think about how small the country of Ireland is, and how many great writers have come out of Ireland, it’s kind of staggering. There are only three and a half million people in Ireland, and some of the best authors, poets, and songwriters come out of there.

There’s a real, palpable love of language there, and I think Lavin’s definitely got that. I would say it’s one of the big strengths that he brings to the band. We were recording “Thalia,” which is probably one of the more Irish-sounding songs on the record, and when he laid that down, just him and the guitar, it had an Irish sound. Then when Fiona started singing and adding the flute, the fiddle, and the drums, I think the band took that cue and made the entire thing sound even more Irish. He’s got people around him who are familiar with that kind of music. hey can accentuate what he’s already working with, which is a lot of fun for us. 

One of yours I was interested in is “Trapeze Artist.” The lyrics go, “I’m just a trapeze artist / and the circus is in town / the show must go on / even when there’s blood on the ground.”

I wrote that song when I first quit my day job and started playing music full time. We started when we were pretty young–I was 21 when Chamomile and Whiskey formed. We probably started touring when I was 23 or 24, and I had this idea of the correlation between a travelling circus and being in a band. The lifestyle is adventurous and awesome, but also really difficult.

My mom told me a story once about watching a trapeze artist fall at a circus when she was a little girl, and realizing immediately that you’ve watched this person fall to their death, and it’s all their family who are up there with them. Often with trapeze artists, the whole troupe would be related. As soon as this happens, the lights go down, and these clowns come out and distract you from it. The show is going to go on. For me, it was this dark metaphor of the music world. I’ve always liked the darker side of things in writing. Something stuck in my head when she told me that story, and it was a song I wrote really quickly.

The song about the self-destructive touring lifestyle is a cliche, but you take it and put it in this different light. I think it’s a cool metaphor.

That’s the thing, when we play the kind of music that we do–and we’re lucky that it’s more popular than it was at one point. There are a lot of tropes you hear over and over again, and I can see why. You get influenced by the road, you get influenced by touring, but you don’t want to write the same song that Guy Clark wrote 30 years ago, and way better than you. [laughs]

When I wrote “Nelson County,” I wanted to write the theme song for me and my friends’ youth. I wanted to be more direct. With “Trapeze Artist,” that’s not one I’m expecting to get played on the radio as much. I think it’s more of a deep cut. It’s a little more out-there, the lyrics are a little bit weirder, but I like having different types of songs on a record.


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