This is a difficult time for a lot of folks. The restaurant industry and tipped workers are being hit especially hard, along with people in the arts. Concerts and performances have all been canceled, and most artists are not salaried, counting on shows for income. While we hope that the virus begins to “flatten” soon (stay inside people!), there’s no definitive time table. Events like the rescheduled Women’s Film Festival are expected to start mid-June, and The Philadelphia Folk Festival is scheduled for August, but it may not be feasible to have large gatherings by then. In the meantime, the Folk Fest is giving us a live sneak peek at some artists expected to perform this summer.
Through its digital concert venue series — #KeeptheMusicPlaying and #SecuretheFutureofFolk — the Philadelphia Folksong Society is providing two services: Concertgoers get to see a live performance with some of the most talented folk performers on the continent and artists get paid for their performances. Tickets range from $5-$20 for artists such as this week’s portrait Gareth Auden-Hole aka Jack Pine. Calling us from his home in Canada, we spoke to Pine, who has been described as a hippy, cowboy, minstrel, rock star and preacher.
It’s going to be fun to see you perform virtually and get a taste of what we hope will come this summer.
Yes, I’m excited about the opportunity. Both online and in-person, I’d love to be able to perform in the Philadelphia area — I’ve never been there. In fact, I’ve never been to the States at all.
Yeah, it’s really hard to get a performing visa to get into the States, and it’s kind of expensive too. It’s about $600-700 just for the visa, and then they make you jump through hoops to get it. It can take up to six months to go through, at least that’s what I’ve heard. It’s easier for us to go to Europe, which doesn’t cost anything, then get into the U.S.
We’re such bastards, aren’t we?
[Laughing] You said it, not me!
Not that you’d want to come here right now anyway, with people protesting end the distancing precautions. But back to you, when did you first get interested in music? Who got you started?
My mother was always supportive; she’s the one who insisted I learned an instrument as a young kid. I think I had about a year in pre-school learning to play the recorder. Then I took piano lessons, and my teacher taught by ear, so I quickly got bored with that. My mom then got me a “learn guitar in a day” one-day workshop session, and that’s the only “formal” training I’ve ever had.
What did you study in college?
I started out studying humanities, but about two years into it, I decided that I didn’t really care about school. I did finish and get my B.A. or whatever, just because my parents were footing most of the bill, so I owed them that much. But I was getting more and more involved with music. Not as a musician but as an audio engineer. I’d written some songs and done some performing, but was definitely not thinking of being a musician as a career; I thought I’d be on the technical end of things.
When was your first time performing?
When I was in university, I did a lot of open mics — that was back in the early 2000s. I was in a band, and we were a bunch of stoners playing weird folk music. After that, I hitchhiked across the country, and since a guitar was too cumbersome to carry, I taught myself to play the mandolin, which was easier to travel with. I took that time to start writing some songs as well.
When did your band, Jack Pine and the Fire, get started?
We just celebrated eight years together. We’ve done two albums and some singles together. We are dropping a new single tonight as a matter of fact. I’ve done some solo work as Jack Pine as well. Luckily I’ve been able to make a living at it the past few years. Let’s hope that keeps up after all this.
Hopefully, this digital concert will help. Where did the name come from?
Jack Pine is actually a type of tree. It’s a ragged little tree, but a unique feature is that its seeds are only sown through intense fire heat, so it survives by facing devastation and rebirth. I use Jack Pine as my stage name. My real name is Gareth Auden-Hole.
Did I read something about you doing a mustache-themed single for charity?
Oh, I did that for Movember in 2012. My dad had colorectal cancer. He survived, but I wanted to do something to support the cause, so I wrote a silly song about a mustache. It’s gone on to become a fan favorite! [Laughing] I can’t get away from it.
I understand that there was another song that you’ve done to raise money based on a very personal experience.
Yes, “The Only Thing” was written in 2015 when I stumbled across the scene of a drive-by shooting. I was on my way back to the hotel where I was staying in Toronto when I saw a man bleeding in the street. I called an ambulance and turned to see another man dead at the wheel of a bullet-riddled SUV behind me. It was really surreal, and I had to do a show later that night. I wrote “The Only Thing” and dedicated it to the man in the street, the man in the SUV, and everyone affected by gun violence. The proceeds of the video went to a youth anti-violence organization LOVE: Leave Out Violence Everywhere.
That’s intense. And I guess thankfully rare in Canada where gun laws are different than they are here and treated with more respect. Who were some of your musical influences?
I was mostly influenced by three Toms — Waits, [Thom] Yorke and Petty. Tom Waits was always my idol. I’ve been a fan of his since I was 8 years old, and that fact was on his Facebook page. The question, “How old were you when you discovered Tom Waits?” was posed, and I think 8 was the youngest response.
And how old were you when you came out?
It was fairly late. I was 28 when I came out to my family, and not long before that was when I’d acknowledged it to myself.
Were you in the band before you came out?
Yes, actually, it was around the time we started. I was out to some people, but I hadn’t told the band. And one of our first shows was a pride festival that I’d booked for us. They asked, “So, why are we playing here?” and I just said, “I don’t know, why not?” because I still wasn’t comfortable enough to come out to them. It was a little awkward, but eventually, I opened up.
That you did. I watched your video, “You’ll Find Me Waiting,” which has a very melancholic feel to it and has a fella missing his male lover.
Yes, the song was loosely inspired by my grandparents. Growing up, we spent summers at a cabin built by my grandfather on Lake Nipigon, Ontario. It was on a small island, and I’d hear stories about how he would take the boat, leaving my grandmother and the three girls by themselves while he went to work as a lumberjack. I used the themes of love and loneliness for my song as it kind of reminded me of what it’s like for my partner when I leave to go on the road to perform — being left behind when your lover goes away. I wrote most of the album on the island, and there was one line that I kept getting caught up on, “I want to hear your voice to replace the tone of a man alone” I kept flip-flopping as to whether I should change it to “a woman alone,” and make it my grandmother’s voice or keep it my voice singing about a man, basically outing myself. When it came to making the video, I decided to embrace the homosexuality in the tone of the song. I was looking for actors to cast, and then my real-life partner expressed interest in doing it, so we went with him, which was perfect! It also became my public coming out anthem because it forced me to talk about my sexuality during interviews and things.
That’s great! Tell me about the new single coming out tonight?
Sure, it’s called “Rich In Time,” and it’s about the value in doing things you love — juxtaposing the things that you do for monetary gain versus the things that you do that bring you joy but are not necessarily financially enriching, which I think is a concept followed more by recent generations who want to follow their dreams and be their own bosses, as opposed to older generations who would look to get a good union job and then hold it until they retired. It pokes a little fun at both mindsets. Being free to do what you love is great, but sometimes, as a musician, the idea of having a regular paycheck that comes on the same day and knowing exactly what it is going to be from week to week can sound like a magical dream! But then I think that doing what I do, I’m still able to pay the bills, and I am doing things on my own terms. I wrote “Rich In Time” to keep me going when I was feeling insecure.
You have the online concert coming up with the Philadelphian Folksong Society, but what’s it like in Canada right now?
We’re under lockdown as well. I’m in Quebec, which has been the hardest hit with the virus, so we’ve had some of the most stringent regulations around. Yesterday I had to go to Ottawa, which is just across the river in Ontario, and there were provincial guards at the border stopping people just crossing towns to tell them to go home unless they had a good reason for being out. So yeah, they’re taking it seriously. [Laughing] But grocery stores, liquor and weed are still allowed. It’s funny, weed was illegal a year ago, and now it’s considered essential!
Moving to some offbeat questions, what’s a silly item you still have from childhood?
I have all sorts of little knick-knacks that I’ve collected over time. I have a lot of little wooden figurines from my trips to the cabin each summer. It’s a 16-hour drive from Ottawa where I grew up, and I’d pick up souvenirs. I also have some clay body parts that I made as a child. I made clay hands and feet, though I accidentally made two left feet! And I have a little clay heart with curly hair and a smile.
So do you dance, or do you have two left feet?
Hmm. I try to move when I’m playing. It’s folk music, so we’re not getting down too hard, but we have a few danceable tunes that we try to rock out on.
What was your wildest moment when you traveled around the country?
I’m a pretty mellow guy, so nothing too wild, but I did a lot of hitchhiking. It seemed pretty safe back then, 15 years ago. I hitchhiked out to Victoria and stayed with a girlfriend and then hitched back with her. We were out in the rain with our thumbs out in this small fishing town, and we got picked up by this guy in a giant fishing or seafaring suit, a big one-piece, who offered us a ride. He was Vietnamese and barely spoke any English. He kept saying, “You come sleep my boat. You sleep my boat.” We had no idea who he was, and it was a weird situation, but it was raining really hard. We were extremely wet, and it was getting dark, so we went with him. There were eagles flying all around his boat, and he brought out a handful of news clippings, and they were about him. He’d become somewhat famous for protesting the fishing regulations by doing very long fasts. The last article was about him taking his van, driving it onto the steps of Vancouver City Hall and setting it on fire! He stood there, handing out pamphlets while it burned! It was interesting to hear his stories.
Do you write most of the music and lyrics for your band’s songs?
Yes, I’d say about 80%. I don’t bring the music to the band until I’m pretty confident about the song, and then we’ll work from there. Some of the best parts of the song come from the collaborative work. My strategy is always to try to work with musicians that are better than me!
It’s worked so far!