Elizabeth Cotton

Quick Q and A with Naomi Sommers

I distinctly remember first discovering Naomi Sommers about 15 years ago—when she and Lisa Bastoni were playing together as a duo called Gray Sky Girls. I remember digging their name and their homey “slowgrass” vibe in which they incorporated some great songs from yesteryear and their own contemporary themed songs. Then they seemed to disappear from my radar and I wondered what happened to them. Fast forward about a decade and Lisa Bastoni started popping up here and there in the Boston scene and that made me wonder about Naomi Sommers! She’s been making music with family and friends and released a lovely CD called Gentle as the Sun.  I was delighted to run into Naomi in a hallway at the Folk Alliance International conference in New Orleans last January and we had a chance to catch up!

The UK magazine, Maverick, has this to say about Gentle as the Sun: Her [Naomi’s] vocal and delivery (though softer) is reminiscent at times, of one of her declared influences Iris Dement. The musicianship throughout is outstanding and whilst very easy on the ear on the first listen, it becomes compulsive after a few plays.” Easy on the ear is a good way to describe this recording. Give it a listen.

Learn more about Naomi on her website.

Here’s a video of Naomi and Dan Tressler performing “Top of the Hill” at Club Passim.

I’m always impressed when I discover that some musicians have learned how to play multiple instruments and it seems that you’ve had experience with many including flute, banjo, and guitar. Which one of these instruments did you pick up first?  And, let’s say that was some kind of quarantine and you could only bring one with you, which one would it be?

The first instrument I picked up might be the mandolin – I have a photo of myself at age two, playing along with my dad (a mandolin duet).  My parents actually met over the mandolin… my mom had been going to see my dad’s band Apple Country play, and she liked him so much she asked him to give her mandolin lessons!  The first instrument my dad actually taught me, though was guitar, then banjo, then some mandolin.  Then I studied classically on piano and flute.   My favorite quarantine instruments right now is fiddle.  Last summer on a trip to the town in Germany where I lived for 9 years, I brought back a violin made by one of my best friends.  She’s a German “Meister” violin-maker who studied violin-making in Italy, so I am very lucky to have this beautiful instrument, and learning a new instrument now is so much fun!

Tell us about growing up in such a music-loving family.  Did a day go by without making music with each other?

I think I didn’t always appreciate my music-loving family as much as I should have.  My dad tells me he had to bribe me with lollipops to sing parts on his children’s recordings when I was a kid (I did this from age 6 or so, and now am very grateful to have those wonderful records to play for my own kids.).  I have such sweet memories of hearing my dad practice, or being back stage at festivals and concerts he played when he was in the Seldom Scene.  When I was in middle and high school our family band performed regularly, and I also sang with my younger brother, Daniel Rosenthal’s jazz ensembles at gigs around CT. (He started getting paying gigs in middle school!).  I also recorded my first few albums of my own music in my dad’s studio, with him as engineer and co-producer, and my family has been part of almost every musical project I’ve done.  We still play together as a family band and released our “family band” album, “Down The Road” just a couple years ago.

How and when did you first start writing your own songs?

I started writing and performing my own songs in high school, and throughout college, in folk-rock bands, rather than as a solo performer.  I recorded my first solo album with my dad and many long-time family friends just after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 2000.

I first saw you many years ago as part of the Gray Sky Girls.  How did you and Lisa Bastoni become musical partners?  

Lisa and I met at a dive bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, actually!  We were both there playing folk music in a side room, away from the drunken loudness.  We liked each other’s music, then realized we both grew up with traditional folk music, and shared a love of Bob Dylan.  We were kindred spirits in our rather low-key natures and desire to make straight-forward music with harmonies, simple arrangements, and strong lyrics.  So, we formed the Gray Sky Girls, after the gray skies of Boston, and the old harmony duos like the Blue Sky Boys (and the Louvin Brothers).  We recorded an album and traveled around the country playing together for a couple of years – and we still play shows together when we can, and would love to record another album together, maybe a kids album.

Tell us about your newest album Gentle as Sun.  I’m listening to it as I sit and write these questions…and, in a word, it’s seamless.  Each song moves to the next in such a natural and organic manner. It feels like a nice gentle musical hug from you and the sun.  How long did it take you to put this stellar CD together?  And to get Jim Rooney to come out to help produce it! Wow!

Thanks for saying those good things about the album! I am really happy with how it sounds, with the songs, and so grateful that Jim Rooney made it with me. (Albums he produced for Iris Dement, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, were among my favorites growing up.). Putting the album together was actually pretty quick.  I went to Nashville (and had some family and friends from New England come down to add a couple of parts) and spent a week in the studio with a band of awesome musicians that Jim put together (and the following week mixing).  We recorded everything live in the studio, with just a few overdubs.  Jim hardly had to instruct anyone, that’s his skill – putting the right people together and letting each bring his or her own ideas and talents.  The sound we ended up with was Jim’s vision, and I love it!  David Fergusson was the engineer, and he also had much influence on how the album came out.  (Some of the overdubs were recorded in the studio John Prine and Dave Fergusson owned together.)

Getting Jim to produce the album is something I still see as a miracle!  He’d been in retirement from making albums for several years, but my manager at the time convinced him to hear my songs, and Jim wanted to work with me!  One of my big regrets now is that I didn’t do enough to promote the album when it came out.  I turned down a distribution deal with Compass Records because at the time I thought I could distribute it and promote it myself, then I moved to Germany (for love) and didn’t follow through with the connections that had started.  In the last few years, I’ve been writing and playing again (after a few years’ hiatus in Germany when I had kids), and I would like to re-release Gentle As the Sun, perhaps adding a couple of bonus tracks.

Do you have a favorite song on the album? If so, what is it and why do you like it so much?

I’m not usually confident enough to say I love something I’ve done… but with this album, I really am happy with how all the songs came out!  One song I enjoy most is “Top of the Hill” – and that’s because I like the parts that the players came up with: some melodic interludes between the verse/chorus added by Tim Crouch on mandolin, Al Perkins on dobro, and my friend from Boston, Noam Weinstein on electric guitar.

You’re currently planning a new album with Jefferson Hamer.  When I think of Jefferson, I think of his unique and transporting takes on traditional music songs, mostly by British artists.  There’s much more to him than that, but what is it about this upcoming collaboration that makes it most exciting for you?

Actually what made me want to play with Jefferson was hearing him perform original songs from his latest album, Alameda.  Just his solo guitar and vocals create such a rich texture, with his unique cross-picking style, influenced by his Celtic and bluegrass music experience, and his melodies are unusually captivating.  Listening to his recorded music, I discovered that I really like his sensibility in composition, arrangement, and the harmonies he comes up with.  Plus I love his voice and thought we’d sound good together.  I had a vision (and aural vision?) of a pared-down yet transporting music we could create together.  I wanted to record live, two of us in the studio, and add a few other instruments here and there as overdubs.  And we did that – at least the first five tracks of the album – in December, in my father’s Connecticut studio.  These are mostly songs I completed in the past year, since deciding to work Jefferson, and I think it’s going to be a nice album!  Actually right now I am thinking of releasing just the 5 tracks we already recorded as an LP, because I don’t know when I will be able to go into my dad’s studio to record again…. sadly.  (I miss my parents!)

Maybe I rambled – what makes this new album exciting for me is:  It’s my first new release of my own songs in over 10 years… And, it’s different, more spare arrangements, than anything I’ve done before.  And, Jefferson’s sound brings a color and feel that I think is beautiful.  And, I like that all the tracks feature the duo of him and me playing together, some uniformity there.  (And, as an English major, I’ve decided it’s ok to start a sentence with “And”.)

Part of your life as a music-making professional is teaching, especially with children.  As a parent yourself, what advice do you have for other parents who don’t know where to begin in terms of introducing their children to music concepts and appropriate artists to capture their attention?

Nice question!  I have performed and recorded music for kids since I was a child, and now I teach singing and songwriting classes at elementary schools.  It’s a great joy to share music with kids.  And that’s what it really is – sharing – because anyone who plays music with children quickly sees how naturally they respond and want to take part in the music (if you get to them young enough before they are corrupted with self-consciousness!).

My advice to parents is to play your favorite music on the stereo, in the car;  Make up songs as you go about your day.  Making up a song is a good way to remember things, too.  I don’t believe parents should worry about teaching children concepts – very young kids pick up the concepts of music by listening to it.  Like a language, it’s absorbed most easily if you hear it repeatedly, and the younger the better.  In my experience, “folk” music from any culture (songs that have passed from generation to generation) is very appealing to young people, even if they don’t understand the words.  Usually there is a lot of repetition in the melody and lyric, and that makes it easier for kids to grasp and remember.  My classes currently feature American songwriters, such as Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotton, W.C. Handy, Pete Seeger, but I would like to add songs from other languages which are part of our American tradition.  There are also a lot of old songs with unknown authors which are fun for kids to sing, easy to teach/learn, and which have interesting historical scenes and lessons (such as Yankee Doodle, Chickens in the Garden, Paw Paw Patch, Old Dan Tucker). These are the songs that my father, Phil Rosenthal, has spent his career collecting and recording, on his American Melody Recordslabel!