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El Cantador, a folk-rock group from Mobile, Ala., will be making the short drive to Gulf Shores later this month to play the Hangout Music Fest. This year’s lineup features everyone from John Legend to Trey Anastasio, in what will be the first major festival of the summer. Tickets for the May 14-16 festival are available online at www.hangoutmusicfest.com. Ticket prices are $159 for a three-day pass and limited $79 day passes are now available. American Songwriter spoke with El Cantador lead singer Heath Underwood about the festival.
How does it feel to be sharing a bill with the Black Crowes and Trey Anastasio?
Feels good. We were pleasantly surprised to be asked to play this festival. It’s a big step forward for our little part of the world to have a three-day event that hosts great live and recording acts. And to be a part of that is something we’ve worked hard for. To feature good local and regional acts alongside more popular touring bands is a reminder to musicians of where you come from and where you want to be.
Any acts you’re particularly excited about seeing at the Hangout Festival?
Yep. I really admire A.A Bondy and Neko Case’s songwriting. They are keeping the form fresh and alive. “When The Devil’s Loose” and “Middle Cyclone” are two great releases. We’re curious to see what Wild Sweet Orange has been up to and we’ve heard good things for awhile about The Whigs. Alison Krauss will be a real treat on Friday.
How did the band arrive at the name “El Cantador”?
When Sean (Sean Murphy: drummer/audio engineer) and myself started recording some of my songs for our first EP, I started a MySpace page to get the music out into the public. I jokingly posted a drawing by Jose Guadalupe Posada of a folk singer on a bench. It had the word ‘Cantador’ written on the bottom. It stuck. We started playing our first shows in early 2007 and we kept the name. But we haven’t entered the wonderful world of Spanish music yet.
How would you describe the sound of El Cantador, if pressed by a music journalist?
I’d say our music is definitely expanding from what people might expect from our previous EP’s or our live shows. We’re getting bolder with textures and sounds on the songs. Harmonies are coming into play and there is an energy we haven’t had before in our experimenting. Playing live has made us more conscience of a bigger sound and the new material reflects this. Whereas we might have had a more folk-rock lean in our beginnings three years ago, I’d say we’re constructing and deconstructing to better find our own sound between the styles and genres we gravitate to. It might be easier to say we’re listening to groups like Broken Social Scene, The Helio Sequence, Spoon, Animal Collective, and Wolf Parade (to simply name a few) for inspiration on soundscapes. And there is always Pet Sounds and Sgt.Pepper’s…always.
How does the songwriting process work for you guys?
Typically, I present the band with material I’ve been working on in my “top secret” notebooks (insert laughter) and we work together from there. I’ll have most of the lyrics, the song’s basic structure, and melodies ready to go and Alex (Alex Scharr: bass/keys), Sean, and myself will play through it and then pick it apart to get rid of obvious movements and, in turn, play with the song’s timing or insert musical parts. Sean is an incrediblly talented musician all around. He comes from two respectable bluegrass musicians. He hears parts that should be present or be taken out of a song for maximum impact. Alex is our newest member and we immediately felt comfortable and in synch with his talent. We’re noticing that we can take each other’s criticism better than with previous line-ups and we’re not afraid to speak up if something isn’t working. It can be foolhardy to be married to a guitar part that you come up with that could sound better as a synth run or not be in the song at all. We’re learning a lot this year and it’s scary and exciting to see where it’ll go.
“O’ Captain” is probably my favorite El Cantador song. Can you tell me how that one came about?
That one was written just before the band began. It represents a specific time and place and someone I was with when I wrote it. It’s a favorite of mine too. It came like lightning if I remember correctly. I was reading a lot more than I was living and it shows up in the songs frequently then, I think. The title is an obvious nod to Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” about President Lincoln’s death. I love Whitman. I used to carry a copy of Leaves of Grass with me every time I went on a long trip somewhere. I used the first half of that poem’s first line and added “your men have failed”. It’s sets the tone for the song. It’s a calling out to someone or something bigger than you for answers I think. But the presence of that being feels dead. “Your men have failed, the war we thought we’d won is for sale”. There is some double meaning working with that about our president and the state of the world at war when I wrote it in 2006 ,but also the war inside of us to be good and to do the opposite in a blink. Whitman encompassed his world when he wrote. I haven’t reached out as far as he does, but I’d like see our planet through his eyes most days.
How’s the music scene in Mobile these days, and have you guys ever thought about setting up shop in another city?
Well, if you have to ask that question we have a lot more work to do down here. Mobile is hungry right now for change in terms of artistic freedom and expression. It’s happening; maybe not on the same timeline as the rest of you guys, but it’s moving forward in little interesting steps. The Hangout Festival will help. I’d say that over the past few years we’ve seen growth in the scene that hasn’t existed here, maybe ever. New venues have sprung up that allow both touring bands and local acts to reach out to new crowds. I’ve noticed how a lot of out-of-town bands have been surprised by how friendly most people are in this town (at least to your face) and there’s a unique energy in the South. Maybe it’s because we are somewhat of the eternal underdog to the rest of states. Jenny Lewis and her band looked to be having a great time last year at th Music Box. That being said, it’s our band’s hometown and it can get a little too familiar and comfortable. I think everyone should spend considerable time away from where they’re from to gain the distance you need to write or create in art. For an outsider the Gulf Coast is probably rich with material. For an insider, well, he wants a change of scenery sometimes. But that’s everywhere you go.
Moving our band to another city is a topic that has come up frequently since our inception, but right now our focus is in the studio here in Mobile and doing what we can to collaborate with other bands we’ve become friends with. Right now we are wrapping up recordings for a split EP with the band Johnny Apple-Eyes (Pensacola,FL) that we’ll be premiering and selling at the Hangout Festival. They are a talented bunch and the the split will be released under Friends Fight Records, both of our bands very own label. And El Cantador is getting ready to self-release our first full-length here in June or July. After that we’ll hit the road in the Southeast, try to get into more festivals, and just see where it takes us. I think it all depends on our commitment to the quality of the songs.