Chinatown Original Band Biography - 2003
"One thing we've always had in common is that we play music for the sake of playing music" says Frazey Ford of The Be Good Tanyas -- herself, Samantha Parton, and Trish Klein. "We all love music and tried for years to find ways to keep playing – to work part time, or do whatever it took. To us, that was success."
These days, the Vancouver-based trio is finding success on a grander scale, but the deep-rooted integrity and honesty with which the Tanyas approach their music – an intoxicating mix of old-time country and blues, folk, bluegrass, and gospel – is still in full effect.
On "Chinatown," their second album (following the widely acclaimed "Blue Horse"), the Tanyas write songs about savoring life's sweet moments and facing its tougher challenges head-on. They also breathe life into a handful of traditional folk songs including "House of the Rising Sun" and "In My Time of Dying" as well as more recent classics by the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Peter Rowan.
"My favorite thing is to go walking in the woods," Ford says. "I'll just go and sing. Something will pop into my head and if I start singing and I have a really strong feeling for the song, that's the key. It's more about feeling than imitating someone else. If it's meaningful to you, if it feels good, then it'll probably feel good to other people. A song changes when it passes through you. That, to me, is what folk music and blues is all about. You can hear a million versions of a song, but they'll all have validity if they have feeling, if they have soul."
The Be Good Tanyas story starts in early-to-mid '90s in the Kootenay Mountains outside of British Columbia, where caravans of tree planters toil each year to replenish the rich Canadian forests that suffer abuse by the lumber industry. Ford and Parton lived the vagabond lifestyle and made a rudimentary living as tree planters during the summer months and doing other odd jobs or traveling during the winters. When they met at a tree planters' camp, they discovered a mutual love of music, but ultimately went their separate ways.
Klein and Ford hooked up a few years later when both were attending music school in Nelson, British Columbia. By day they were studious and serious about their art, but at night they took part in the local scene's open mic shows. "The first time I saw her, Frazey was singing an a cappella version of Jimi Hendrix' "Manic Depression," Klein says with a laugh.
For a time, the three of them headed in different directions: Ford went to Montreal and then Guatemala, Klein to Vancouver, and Parton traveled south through America with her dog Sherpa by her side, eventually settling in New Orleans. Chance brought the trio back together in Vancouver in the winter of 1999. By this time, each had been experimenting with many different styles of music – Ford was in a trip hop band in Montreal, Klein and Ford later formed the soul/folk band Saltwater June in Vancouver, and Parton had been touring the back roads of America with spoken word punk poet Chris Chandler as well as her country-duo side project, The Illegitimate Daughters of Johnny Cash.
In Vancouver they met Texan songwriter, and fellow vagabond, Jolie Holland. Together they began to play a series of loose living room jam sessions. Holland introduced them to the song, "Be Good Tanya," written by her friend Obo Martin, and thus the band name was christened. More and more they honed in on old country, country blues and gospel. "It's just more interesting to us to cover traditional songs than something from the '80s," Klein says. It was this amalgamation of musical ideas that sparked their sound, and resulted in their luminous debut, "Blue Horse," named on of 2002's Top 50 albums by Britain's Q Magazine (who went on to insist that if their readers "buy one country album this year" it should be "Blue Horse"). The debut also received praise from publications as various as Mojo, Uncut, Froots, Rolling Stone, CMJ New Music Monthly and Country Music Magazine.
The album also became a popular favorite across their native Canada thanks to touring (Frazey borrowed money from her mom to finance their first tour), word of mouth and support from the CBC and its national radio programs like Sheila Rogers' "This Morning" and Bill Richardson's "Roundup."
The Tanyas signed to Nettwerk and released "Blue Horse" in the States, where the album received important support from National Public Radio and was championed by online retailer Amazon (continually landing in their Top 15). Then the group became the toast of England – noted deejay Whispering Bob Harris, while visiting Nashville, bought a copy of "Blue Horse" because he liked the back cover photograph. He liked the CD even more. Upon Harris' return to England, he spun it on his show and the results were a sold out Be Good Tanyas tour before the women, or their album, had even landed on UK soil. When the album was released, it hit the Top 10 on the country chart. Their second UK tour, which included appearances at the Glastonbury and Cambridge festivals, was interrupted for two weeks as the band flew to Australia to tour with renowned Aussie songwriter Paul Kelly.
When it came time to record "Chinatown," which the group decided to self-produce, they approached the task with a newfound sense of gravitas. "We grew up a lot," Klein says. "We have a much clearer grasp of our ideas when we're working in the studio, exactly what to do and how to get it done. Before, we were very green. We didn't have the technically savvy that we do now. I wouldn’t say we're totally slick studio cats now, but we know what we need to do."
The album was record in various studios around Vancouver between tour breaks. Because they were producing the album themselves, the Tanyas allowed themselves the luxury of experimenting and making sure that the final version of each song met their expectations. Ford wrote four of the original songs appearing on "Chinatown," including "It's Not Happening" and "Junkie Song," the latter a slice of life reflecting Vancouver's unseen drug problem.
"Vancouver is a beautiful city," she says, "but it's got this terrible heroin problem. You don't see it all the time. A friend of mind came from Montreal and wanted to go out late at night. Vancouver's not a real late night city. We went to see a band and ended up walking around my neighborhood at 2 a.m., and the only people that were out were drug dealers and junkies. It just really struck me that it’s right outside my door and we live with this everyday. I was no longer able to not see it."
Parton is more circumspect as to the origin of "Lonesome Blues," but allows that "Dogsong 2" is about the death of her beloved Labrador, Sherpa. "He was the most beautiful dog in the world, really," she says.
Of the traditional songs on the album, the Tanyas are unafraid to tackle popular favorites, like "House of the Rising Sun" and "In My Time of Dying," both known in popular versions by The Animals and Led Zeppelin, respectively. "None of them are wildly obscure," Parton says with a laugh. "They all just happen to be what we’re playing."
And as part of the true folk tradition, they often don't learn those songs from records, but rather pick them up from friends. Of "I Wish My Baby Was Born," Parton says, "Jolie (Holland) and I were playing songs in my living room, and she played me that one. I picked up on it and began singing it now and then. Later, I heard the Uncle Tupelo version, and later still I heard Jolie sing it again. As it turned out, I'd gotten the chords wrong, and the melody and lyrics weren't quite right, but I guess the song had morphed into my own version."
Regardless of where "Chinatown" will take the Tanyas, it seems certain that they'll stay well grounded and remain true to their artistic vision. "The most important thing – and this is where I think all three of us really connect," Parton says, "is that we're all interested in living a rich life more than getting rich. That's what keeps us together and headed in the right direction."