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Black Prairie “Red Rocking Chair” (Influenza)

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

Comprised of Portland-based musicians Annalisa Tornfelt and John Neufeld along with Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, and Nate Query of the Decemberists, Black Prairie found its beginnings in 2007 but it wasn’t until this year that the band released any material. The group’s debut, Feast of the Hunters’ Moon (Sugar Hill Records), is nothing if not a wide-reaching approach to a traditional sound; one which NPR‘s Elena See described as “quietly creepy,” “cheerful,” and “quiet.” And while The Guardian‘s Neil Spencer suggested that “The album’s unhurried rhythms and graceful playing evoke big skies and tumbleweed,” it’s a sound much different than all of those descriptions that resonates with Black Prairie’s eerie interpretation of “Red Rocking Chair.” Led by Tornfelt’s ominous vocals, the song maintains an sense of both danger and safety with its dark, looming guitar, violin, and accordion. In this edition of Influenza, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Annalisa Tornfelt and Nate Query discuss the track and how it evolved from “a scratchy batch of lo-fi computer room recordings” to a song that slowly creeps along while seducing the listener with its haunting backwoods mystique.


Jenny Conlee: I think this track stands out because it was the first, or one of the first, vocal tunes we decided to do. We painstakingly tried to figure out how to approach it and figured out that tacking it on to one of Annalisa’s instrumental numbers fit the best. I love the sound of it coming out of the chaos of the instrumental track, it is like a breath of fresh air.

Chris Funk: When Black Prairie was getting ready to record, and we decided to implore Annalisa for some vocal songs, she sent over a scratchy batch of lo-fi computer room recordings, complete with her bird Hank chirping away in the background. I was immediately drawn to her version of the traditional “Red Rocking Chair,” though I found it almost unrecognizable, to the point where I think she even had to remind me that it was indeed the same song I had heard so many times.

Annalisa Tornfelt: I found the words to “Red Rocking Chair” while flipping through an old bluegrass songbook. At the time I was messing around with a classical guitar in dropped D. I was looking for lyrics to pull from but found that if I just dropped some words, the song easily fit into what I wanted to convey. Earlier that day I was spending time with a good friend who was mourning a miscarriage. In the evening the song seemed to present itself.

Chris Funk: In her form of it (as it’s usually sung pretty spirited around the campfire) the lyrics really grabbed our heartstrings as we realized it was truly a song of loss, and that her arrangement of it as a tragic ballad was more fitting somehow.

Nate Query: For a mostly instrumental band, this song ends up being a very sparse and stripped down song where the point is really creating sort of a moody soundscape. The process of developing and recording this song really kind of solidified our tendencies to do that. I think we probably talked about and practiced this one less than most of the others, it was really about matching the mood of Annalisa’s interpretation of the song.

Chris Funk: Recording it, we had hardly rehearsed it. We only knew it was to begin from a segue after “Across the Black Prairie.” We tracked it with Annalisa singing, and me playing the Weissenborn as other players just found their spots. At the top of the song, around 43 seconds in was to be my solo, but we just left it open as it seemed more stark. You can also hear either myself or Jon say “yea” during this part as the arrangement was unfolding in front of us, and that just got left in there for some reason.

Nate Query: I do have to say, though, that the end of Jon’s guitar solo makes me laugh every time I hear it, and even though he never plays it the same, he almost always ends with some sort of little tongue in cheek diminished riff.