“Dangerously sparing and utterly compelling . . . a balladeer of the best kind”
– Folk Roots
“Startling conviction . . . absurdly good”
If aliens from outer space ever want to learn about the music of our planet, Tim Eriksen is the guy they’re going to beam up. He has performed, recorded, studied and/or taught musical styles encompassing hardcore punk, historic American Sacred Harp (a.k.a. shape-note) singing, traditional and “alternative” US folk, ethnic or classical music from Bosnia, the Balkans, Ethiopia, and South India, and the experimental “electro-acoustic” genre. Solo artist and bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist (Boston Herald: “a haunting, cutting voice”), Tim also writes and plays what he describes as “Northern Roots” songs: “New England music of life and death, not bed and breakfast.”
Tim’s first CD for Appleseed was as the frontman for Cordelia’s Dad, a Massachusetts band that evolved from playing electric “folk/noise” to an more organic acoustic ensemble performing energetic versions of traditional regional American music, “revitalizing these songs of love and death with passion, taste and talent,” to quote National Public Radio (NPR). Their Appleseed CD, Spine (1998), was recorded by unconventional musician/producer Steve Albini, known for his work with Nirvana, PJ Harvey and Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, among others. Starting his solo career as Cordelia’s Dad drifted apart, Tim’s subsequent two albums to date (Tim Eriksen, 2001, and Every Sound Below, 2004, both on Appleseed) are literally solo: just Tim on vocals and alternating between guitar, fiddle, and banjo, recorded “live” in the studio with no overdubs. Both CDs emphasize the American traditional music that he is best known for, mixing songs from past centuries with authentic-sounding Eriksen originals in the Northern Roots style. About as far from “trendy” as you can get, Tim has nonetheless established an ever-increasing following for his globe-spanning musical interests: he’s performed at Lincoln Center, the Newport Folk Festival, on an Academy Awards telecast, and in December 2007 started a series of appearances with the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra performing “The Old Burying Ground,” symphonic settings of New Hampshire gravestone texts, that performed in Carnegie Hall in late February 2008.
Tim’s musical peers, as well as the media and fans of the current “old weird folk” movement, have taken notice of his unique and varied talents. Describing him as “an outstanding young singer,” renowned roots music performer and record and movie soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett drafted Tim to teach shape-note singing to the White Stripes’ Jack White, Nicole Kidman and other members of the cast of the “Cold Mountain” movie (in which he also supplied the off-screen singing voice for actor Brendan Gleeson’s character). Another legendary album producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake) recently responded to a Pitchfork Media website interviewer’s question about “anyone out there that you think is doing something interesting with traditional music” with the reply, “I like Tim Eriksen a lot. . . . He’s an ex-punk who loves American traditions, particularly traditions from the Northeast, which is strange because most American traditional music is considered...well, if it's not from the South, then it's like it doesn't count. He’s pretty interesting.” Eriksen and Boyd are currently discussing the possibility of the latter producing a Northern Roots CD. The iconic traditional British folk singer-guitarist Martin Carthy may have pegged Tim’s essence most vividly: “The watchword is Passion. And he does not lose sight of the fact that all this constitutes having a good time."
Tim’s involvement in “Cold Mountain” led to his participation in 2004’s national “Great High Mountain Tour,” a traveling revue of musicians, including Ralph Stanley and Allison Krauss, who had been involved in the movie or its stylistic predecessor, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which spun off a bluegrass-oriented best-selling soundtrack and helped revive interest in old-time American music. When the Academy Awards needed a shape-note choir to back Krauss on a Grammy-nominated song, they called Tim to lead the singers.
Based on his musical activities, Tim could have been born in a splintery wooden crib during the Revolutionary War, a backwoods North Carolina church, a hut along the Ganges, or even the CBGB’s bathroom. In reality, Eriksen was born in Massachusetts and grew up surrounded by the sound of his parents singing and by “natural sounds,” says Tim. “I always loved listening to bugs and wind and water and stuff.” While absorbing a love of America’s history and early music from his New England surroundings, the sounds of The Beatles, Kiss, and Motorhead were mingling with his family’s voices. When the Eriksens moved to Long Island, the punk-rock roar of the Ramones reached Tim’s ears. He was soon involved in hardcore/punk/garage bands like The Lobster Men, which gradually evolved into Cordelia’s Dad, which released six albums and built a strong European following before lapsing into current but possibly impermanent retirement. England’s Mojo magazine lauded the band for “examining the full, rich depth of the American folk tradition with startling conviction.” Even when Tim was thundering along as a bass-playing teenage rocker in pre-Cordelia’s Dad days, he was also tuning in to Indian classical music (and subsequently studied the seven-string vina for ten years, during and after college), the challenging 20th Century composers Edgar Varese, George Crumb, Harry Partch and Krzystof Penderecki, and the blues of Mississippi Fred MacDowell. The source of these enthusiasms: parents, concerts, and “a lot of weird friends.”
During Tim’s four years of vina studies at Amherst College in western Massachusetts, he and some of his “weird friends” started singing together, often in the traditional “shape note” style encoded in the 1844 “Sacred Harp” songbook. Shape note singing uses printed geometric shapes – triangles, circles, squares – to help untrained vocalists perform choral hymns.
Tim continued absorbing different musical influences. During the 1987-88 period when he spent months in India and England studying the vina and the connections between the two countries’ music, Tim also heard a cassette of the archival recordings of traditional American songs collected by Frank and Anne Warner on the eastern seaboard of the US between 1940 and 1966 – bedrock Americana like “Tom Dooley” and “Deep Elm Blues” that helped trigger the folk revival of the late 1950s. Tim was instrumental in the first commercial release of two volumes of these recordings in 2000 as Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still and Nothing Seems Better to Me on Appleseed. After his studies overseas, Tim’s return to the US led to membership in the Northampton Harmony quartet with his friends, the resurrection of Cordelia’s Dad, and more Indian music studies at Wesleyan University, where Tim met his future wife and fellow ethnomusicology student, teacher and writer Minja Lausevic and formed the Bosnian/Balkan band Zabe I Babe with her. (Tragically, Minja passed away in July 2007, leaving behind Tim and their two young children.)Tim spent the early ’90s in graduate school, touring the U.S., England, and Europe with Northampton Harmony and Cordelia’s Dad, and recording with those groups and Zabe I Babe. The various bands appeared on MTV, the BBC, CBC, Belgian National Television, All India Radio, and America’s syndicated “Mountain Stage” live performance radio and television program.
The most recent decade of Tim’s career has been occupied by work with his many bands (all currently on hiatus, although Cordelia’s Dad played a 20th Anniversary show in 2007 that was recorded for release and the band may reassemble for additional concerts), forming new musical alliances, starting his own career as a solo musician, serving as visiting professor of American Music at Dartmouth, Hampshire, and Amherst Colleges and the University of Minnesota, conducting ethnomusicological research in the US and abroad, and immersing himself in the Sacred Harp community that exists in unexpected pockets around the country. He and Minja were also involved in the ongoing establishment of MIM: “The World's First Global Musical Instrument Museum. If there’s a modern musician who embodies Appleseed Recordings’ mission of exploring the roots and branches of folk and world music, it is Tim Eriksen. He’s like no one else.
To hear Tim and David Ivey discuss Sacred Harp/shape note singing and its place in the “Cold Mountain” movie, please follow this link to the Alabama Public Radio websiteand scroll down to the 3/2/04 program listing.
To hear Tim perform two songs on the syndicated “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show in 2005, please follow this link.
Tim’s rendition of “Leave Your Light On” from Tim Eriksen can also be found on our various artists’ Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary 2-CD set.