For ‘Chambergrass’ Group Crooked Still, Everything Old is New Again

BY Lauren Knapp  June 15, 2011 at 2:40 PM EDT

Art Beat interviewed Crooked Still at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA., in May. Video by Lauren Knapp and Saskia De Melker

Asked to describe their music, Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of Americana quintet Crooked Still, says some have called it ‘chambergrass’ – a combination of chamber music and bluegrass.

“It’s sort of like a string quartet with a banjo,” chimes in bassist Corey DiMario.

“And a female singer,” adds O’Donovan with a laugh.

While a bluegrass band traditionally features a banjo, fiddle, bass, guitar and mandolin, Crooked Still has traded mandolin for cello, and abandoned the guitar on all but a few songs.

And they approach their music with a schooled sensibility. They all read music and understand the theory behind their songs.

But Crooked Still parts ways with the chamber music genre when they start improvising. “A lot of times the improvising is like a jazz solo. Other times it’s like an old fiddle tune,” explains DiMario, who was a jazz major at the New England Conservatory of Music, where O’Donovan also studied.

They’ve released four LPs in their 10 years, most recently “Some Same Country” (2010), although they didn’t hit the national scene until 2004, with “Hop High.”

They have a handful of originals, but the group plays mostly traditional American songs which they rework, changing the key, instrumentation, and even adding lyrics. Their songs hail back several decades, or even a few centuries, to the type of roots music that is the foundation of the contemporary American folk scene. Crooked Still goes back to the source and makes it modern.

“Playing good music is 95 percent about listening to good music,” says DiMario. “You have to listen to a lot of music before you can really do something with it.”

Finding the songs that make up their repertoire involves a lot of searching and listening. Each band member pores through source recordings, archival collections, or friends’ suggestions to find old tunes to share with the group at rehearsals.

The members of Crooked Still are geographically scattered around the country, so their rehearsals are more like retreats, says O’Donovan.

“We’ll get together for one, two, three days, sometimes longer, and cram into somebody’s house and eat a lot of popcorn and listen to these recordings and decide if we like it and go from there.”

There’s a fair amount of composition before it becomes a song the band will perform or record.

“Often the source recording that we’re learning it from, the archival recording, might just be like an a cappella singer, an old scratchy thing that’s not in a meter. Or even the key is flexible sometimes, and the actual melody we can reshape it.”

“And it’s constantly evolving,” says O’Donovan. “All of our songs grow and change every night.”