Dirk Powell (from the album “When I Wait for You” available on )
Interview and review by Joe Burcaw
Whenever I am given the task of reviewing or interviewing a musician ensconced in the Celtic tradition my eyes automatically light up! Dirk Powell, a highly achieved and legendary songwriter, fiddler, and sideman of the Folk/Roots music scene has delivered an album deserving of praise and kudos for its fresh perspective. When I Wait for You is one of those records that commands the listener to sit back and enjoy the listening experience in its entirety from start to finish. Think Norah Jones’ album Come Away with Me or Tom Petty’s Wildflowers as reference points. Dirk Powell has created a body of work that resonates deeply on a cerebral level weaving traditional nuances into a contemporary feel. He feels ‘my hope is that the phrase ‘When I Wait for You’ feels personal to whoever listens to the record, that this is the music I write and create in those moments, and wish for the listener to feel that phrase addressing them personally’. That statement is a spot-on account of how I felt while road-testing all thirteen songs, which unfortunately rarely happens to me anymore. I was taken on a journey addressing love, relationship dynamics, and the age of innocence that over time still lurks within our hearts.
The lead single, “Olivia”, has an incredibly catchy hook that stays engraved in your head for days, leaving you wanting the song to never come to an end. Another standout track is the traditional “Silk Merchant’s Daughter”, fusing the eerie tones of whistles and flutes with the somberness of a foreboding fiddle. A sailor is faced with the decision to either let his love perish with a sinking ship or spare her by allowing usage of a tiny life-boat, fortunately the tale takes a turn for the better ending with both of them being saved and married off into the sunset. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame has a guest vocal appearance on the ballad “The Little Things”. A perfect choice for co-sing; romanticized lyrics dealing with couples not letting the little things in relationships die, but cherishing them as they will eventually shape our lives in the end. Beautifully crafted words that makes one appreciate having a partner who can affect us so profoundly, straight to the core.
My conversation with Dirk led me to delve deep into the YouTube rabbit hole to check out his studio work and live performances from the past with the likes of Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, and Rhiannon Giddens just to name a few. We had a great chat and I learned a lot about what exactly goes into his craftsmanship, and his desire to meld Cajun and Celtic music using musicians from all walks of life to assist in the process.
Joe: Hey Dirk, how are you?
Dirk: I’m good man, how are you doing?
Joe: Doing well, glad we're able to connect this time around since we missed each other last Friday.
Dirk: Yeah, it's been a bit of a crazy time down here.
Joe: Did you get hit with a storm?
Dirk: Yes, the last one kind of went towards New Orleans so it wasn't too bad here. The one before that was a direct hit. But you know, given all that we've been through we’re still pretty lucky here in Lafayette. It's been a while since we had a real bad run. There are trees down all over the place, but most of the buildings are luckily intact.
Joe: Good! Up here in Hartford, Connecticut we received a few inches of snow which has now all melted away. So, here we are. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. I have to tell you, my wife and I absolutely love When I Wait For You. We’ve been listening to it for the past few weeks, and it's a record that we put on at night because it puts us into this state of solace, it does something to you chemically where it just puts you at ease and calms the soul. It kind of reminds me of Neil Young's Harvest Moon, it embodies this atmosphere of cohesion from start to finish. In your press release you state, and I quote: ‘my hope is that the phrase when I wait for you feels personal to whoever listens to the record-that this is the music I write and create in those moments, I want the listener to feel that phrase addresses them personally’. Can you expound on that statement?
Dirk: Yes, what you just described is exactly what I was hoping to convey, kind of that night energy when things get intimate and the way music gets made during that time. Not so much in the sense that you're longing for someone (which you may very well be) but even if you’re in acceptance of that feeling, it’s kind of a positive thing in itself. So much creativity flows in those moments and that's what I was trying to achieve. In a way it was that mood that you just described, which is something that feels welcoming by exploring all these aspects of love from an intimate place. It's all gonna be okay, so for you to describe what you just did,
especially being with your wife together really means a lot to me. There's so much of that energy that doesn't necessarily have to be male or female. In my case, it’s energy and that sense of warmth set in the interior of a home at night. The way those things feel is what I was trying to capture.
Joe: Yes, and you also create imagery, I love how music is able to make the listener create that. I wanted to ask, when you were first demoing and starting out the writing process for this particular album, did you have the intention of making it a specific mood from start to finish? Or, did you say to yourself let's just see where the songs take me and see what happens? Did you have a general idea of where you wanted to go stylistically?
Dirk: Well, both of those things interestingly enough. As a creative person you mainly hope to get out of the way of something if it has its own energy, it may have its own desire to fulfill itself. I think with this one it didn't necessarily start out with exactly that vision, but once that came into focus it became clear that the rest of the process was going to be building and maintaining that, and allowing it to reach that place. So, it had something different in the beginning, there were more instrumental tunes combining Celtic players with Louisiana elements but as it really started to assert itself, the title’s theme evolved.
Joe: Tell me about the Celtic influence, I know you brought over some players from Scotland and Ireland, is that correct? How did that all come together, adding this Celtic flavor to the soundtrack you were trying to create?
Dirk: Well, I've known those guys (Mike McGoldrick & James Mackintosh) for quite a while. In the transatlantic sessions, a project that's been going on 20 years now, is an attempt to kind of reunite players from either side of the Atlantic because they're not very distant cousins in a lot of ways. Some of the musical things, especially Appalachian music (which is where my roots are), and in Celtic music the threads are very similar. Those guys are just old friends and they're such deep players, the thing I love most about them regardless of their style or genre is their service to the music at all times. Even when that means stepping forward and doing something extra knowing when that is and still servicing the song. Some people like to be in the spotlight, and probably everybody on this
record is willing to be in the spotlight if that's where they’re at bringing it through their performances. It's also fine to not be in the spotlight if that's what everybody is feeling. Desiring a common goal, that is exactly what those guys bring to the table.
Joe: I am sure there are moments of brilliance where you're thinking someone was going to take a piece one way but it went completely opposite of your expectation due to improvisation. Are you more of an improvisational player or do you chart out everything for your musicians when they come in to record?
Dirk: Actually, for most of the stuff I've done it kind of just opens itself to the flow of improvisation. I find that if you let people feel what they're feeling and embrace that and encourage that, you may not get the results you thought you were going to get but something better. This will lead to a different place allowing things to blossom differently. I'm not producing opera records that are some kind of project where it's like, okay it needs to go to this preconceived vision 100% without veering away from the vision.
Joe: It's definitely no easy feat being a producer and trying to get everybody charged up and all on the same page. You’re dealing with a lot of different personalities and it's sometimes like pulling teeth to get people to resonate with each other. Let’s discuss your latest single “Olivia”, what a catchy hook to the chorus. I was saying this to my wife the other day, the melody stays in your head for days.
Dirk: That’s great, and exactly what I was hoping to hear.
Joe: It's such a great tune, my favorite off the record. I found it very interesting because when watching the video compared to the lyrics, you’re led to believe the main focus is on kids, but in actuality it’s not, correct?
Dirk: Yes, you're correct. The video was just an idea for us to make something with our neighbors and use the kids to explore the vision, that’s just one element of what forms the song. But yeah, the real aspect of the song is a love relationship. It was inspired by seeing Polaroid photos of Olivia from the early 70’s. Those shots have a certain quality when seeing photos of her during childhood, and seeing how she’s still that person as a grown adult. I see
all of those things yet still want her. That was the real part of it for me, testing to see the love is still there. Children know that time isn't real and that time is just a construct. They know we just invented it and sometimes adults forget that.
Joe: The video shows an age of innocence with them frolicking around in the yard and in the field.
Dirk: Yes, absolutely.
Joe: Was that your idea conceptually for the video or did somebody come in with an idea or storyboard, how did that all pan out?
Dirk: Well, that was kind of my idea mainly. If it had been a major video with a big budget, we would have developed it more within the video and carried it through, but it was more of me capturing some of the elements of the song in that childhood joy. The beginning of the song almost in a way doesn't necessarily go to the fullest of places, but some of those elements are in there like the timelessness of a sunrise and sunset. It says that in the bridge, ‘time will pass but time will never tell’, so in the end you will never get an answer.
Joe: As far as the songwriting is concerned for “Olivia”, how did it all begin? Did you have the lyrics and some chords, how did you put everything together for this particular song?
Dirk: It didn’t take too long for this one, I guess it was back in 2018 for the initial beginning of the writing process. Then we recorded it in 2019, I just kind of picked up a guitar, it was really interesting because sometimes lyrics will come first, and other times melodies will come first. The guitar line came first and it was something that just flowed right in and then the word Olivia kind of sat right on top of those notes.
Joe: Isn't it amazing as a writer how you get these bursts of creativity that come out of the ether? I know for me, during the witching hours between 1AM and 4AM I will get these melodic ideas that will pop inside of my head. I’ll have to go downstairs and grab my iPad and record into quick voice or any other recording gear I have lying around at that moment in time. It’s like a message is being sent down from the musical gods, I know that sounds bizarre.
Dirk: I don't think it’s bizarre. I mean, that's why the Muses are called the Muses because they speak music and they give you those gifts. I really think if you open those channels, they will flow things into them. I think that time of night is exactly what my record is about, or when I would have written several of those songs when the Muses were ready to bring their gifts.
Joe: It’s very intriguing how the creative process works for each individual.
Dirk: Yeah, it sure is!
Joe: Let’s move forward and discuss the song “The Silk Merchant’s Daughter”. I know that's a traditional arrangement that you enhanced with your own little twist. Where did the arrangement come from?
Dirk: That’s from The Hammonds family of West Virginia. Of course, it probably
goes back to Ireland, England or Scotland, I don't know exactly but it most likely goes back to those roots. The story always moves me when the captain says, ‘you know how to hold onto humanity, but there are very few people who would die for a friend’, that just touches me so deeply. The fact that this young sailor is going to give his life for the woman he loves even though she didn't know that until right then. He says, ‘before I would kill you my heart it would burst, before I would kill you my love I’d die first’. That always touches me so much to think of the empathy bringing out the best in human beings willing to sacrifice love for each other. In this day and age in there's such a lack of empathy, and so many people need to be reminded of that level of love and compassion.
Joe: It’s almost as though the human condition has been suppressed for the last 50 years. I definitely get what you're saying for sure. Words can truly touch you on a deep cerebral level. Have you been able to road test any of the new songs pre-COVID?
Dirk: Just a little bit, right before COVID I played a couple concerts in Glasgow with the Folk Alliance, and performed some of the newer material, but not as much as I would have liked to.
Joe: It's such a shame, we've got to get everybody out on the road sooner than later, that’s for sure! When you were tracking “The Silk Merchant’s Daughter”, was everybody in the same room or did you have to overdub parts? How did that process work?
Dirk: That was a lot of over dubbing. We did the bass, drums and guitar live but the vocals were then built up from there and layered on top.
Joe: Was it difficult recording this track, or was it an easy process?
Dirk: It was interesting because something I wanted to do which I hadn't really done much of was having different characters come in and speak their parts, so when the sailor is talking there's English voices in there, and when the damsel is talking (who was my daughter Amelia) her voice then takes focus. I am narrating floating in and out while people recite their character lines. Yeah, so that was kind of a different thing that was a bit more involved, but it was really satisfying in the end to have those characters be a part of it.
Joe: What was it like working with your daughter? Was that the first time you've ever had her in a studio with you, or have you done this before?
Dirk: No, we used both my daughters Amelia and Sophie on a lot of background parts on the record, like on “Olivia” and “Bright Light of Day”. They’ve actually kind of grown up in the studio so it's really cool to see them at a point now where they're just doing these great things that I love as parts. It's not a matter of, oh I'm gonna get my daughter's on this, it's a matter of oh they're gonna bring the most they can to the project.
Joe: Do they have a penchant for music, or is that kind of hard to foresee at this point?
Dirk: Well, Amelia who is my eldest is at Loyola in New Orleans studying music. Sophie, she's 16 and loves it too, she just started writing songs. I don't know, it’s hard to say exactly where it'll all go for them, but it'll always be a part of their lives.
Joe: I love to hear that. I have an eight-month-old and I'm trying to influence her by playing all sorts of music in and around the house.
Dirk: That’s wonderful man, congratulations!
Joe: Thanks so much, we’re very proud parents right now. Anyway, tell me about the song “The Bright Light of Day”. I know I'm stating the obvious when I say this, but were you purposely trying to conjure the spirit of Levon Helm from The Band, because I felt as though I was listening to a leftover track from "The Last Waltz”.
Dirk: Definitely, kind of a mix of The Band’s music with the bridge being brutally
obvious. It’s definitely a tribute to that kind of stuff with Levon specifically. In the song, my character is basically saying, ‘well, I thought I needed to leave home to the big city and now I'm realizing I need to go back and mend these bridges that I burned’. You know deep down that you can't really leave this place, you learned how to love, you learned what love is like, and maybe that love always stays with you. So, I definitely had that sense too, the feel of The Band. I was lucky enough to play with Levon a few times and that always stuck with me.
Joe: His place up in Woodstock New York is magical, if the walls could only speak…….
Dirk: Ohh yeah for sure, it's just a brilliant place.
Joe: Regarding the rhythmic feel of the drums, I love drumming that is behind the beat echoing that swampy laidback feel. Was that intentional and did you say to the drummer to accent the off beats, what were you kind envisioning when you were dictating to the rhythm section?
Dirk: Well, Jamie (the drummer on that track) knew instinctively what to play. He knew what I wanted and where the accents should sit. The whole feel for it was that exact placement on the offbeat of the back end, it’s just a language of knowing how to let it feel that way. So yeah, there would have been some drummers I didn't know well, and they would have needed some direction, but Jamie knew instantly where to going. That's the one thing I feel like I
learned the most from playing with Levon, you know how far back you can place that sexy pocket, all the way back there, man.
Joe: I think a lot of people don't realize that you can have deep rooted pockets without playing on top of the beat. You hear a lot of the Motown stuff and it's way on top of the beat with James Jamerson leading the pack. There is a misconception that playing behind is going to be messy and chaotic, which is further from the truth. It's a matter of having the awareness to play that type of music which calls for a bit of restraint.
Dirk: Absolutely! I had a really cool experience recording with Levon in the barn where I tracked a song with electric guitar, then I overdubbed bass. We just didn't have many people available so I was like, okay I'm gonna just be me and add some bass. When I was tracking, I was mainly emphasizing the offbeats. I could feel it a little bit behind, like it followed him to that perfect spot. Then when I went to overdub the bass, the bass drum was a little bit up on the front and I was thinking this is amazing. The tension and release on his own playing just
within himself, the downbeat a little up on the front end and then he threw a little bit back. I would have never learned that if I hadn't literally played the guitar and then overdubbed the bass. I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity. The fact that I was able to feel that made me thankful to have been given the chance to seal it in exactly that way.
Joe: Were you weaving in and out of the kick drum pattern? As a result, how were you approaching the bass line that you ended up recording?
Dirk: I was just laying it down with the kick, and just staying on it, but then following the offbeat which felt so good. It was really interesting, man, it was just self-contained yet the groove was spot on. Those elements were a little bit of the formula. You could have taken away every other instrument and it would have still felt so good. It didn't need anything else, it was its own thing. It wasn't just like, okay here's a four/four beat or something, It just swung. It was really cool, he was well known for that.
Joe: It's eye opening when you can isolate a track and really dissect what the player is doing. It can end up sounding much more complicated than originally thought of when buried within the mix.
Dirk: Yeah, but it's all just feel. This is Levon’s feel and how he interprets it when performing. Again, it’s that tension and release relationship, a band that feels really good will play that way instinctively. So that was a really cool thing to learn and very helpful.
Joe: Was this a solo record or another project?
Dirk: That was a Martha Scanlan record, it came out back in 2008.
Joe: I'm sure you must have been pinching yourself the whole time you were tracking?
Dirk: Yeah, it really was amazing, and I felt so lucky!
Joe: I wanted to also talk to you about being a sideman as well as a bandleader, producer, and engineer. How do you juggle wearing so many different hats, and do you like to encompass everything together or is there one facet you prefer more than the other?
Dirk: It's kind of been like that and has worked well because they all
complement each other. The live energy is so rewarding in an instant way, you do it and let it go, it’s so spontaneous. Then the studio deals with finely crafting stuff really getting it all the way in when trying to push things a certain way. You know, going as far as you can with something, they all kind of inform each other and of course that balance is really something I thrived on. With all of the live stuff gone this year it's been a little more studio focused, which is cool. I’m kind -of enjoying the chance to just really be in there and work on shaping things.
Joe: Do you feel as an engineer that you're at a point where you feel good about editing and running your signal flow sufficiently, or do you feel as though you still have a little more homework to figure out in the shed? How would you rate yourself as an engineer at this point in the game?
Dirk: I'm feeling good about it, I feel like I have my gear where I want it. The microphones, preamps and all are pretty crucial in getting certain things. It's kind of like one of those things where maybe you can get close with some things, but certain sounds that you want to get are hard to recreate without the right equipment. So, I feel like I'm able to get what I want. I've been doing it long enough to know how to properly place my microphones in ways that I feel good about. Mixing has been something that always intrigues me because you know
there are many ways to do it as there are people trying to do it. I guess I feel like I could always learn more about the mixing process.
Joe: Mixing is an art upon itself.
Dirk: For sure! Hopefully you would never think you've learned everything there is to know, because you haven’t. I'm sure the greatest mix engineers believe they still have more to learn. How could you not since it’s such an ever-changing part of making music? Any new recording information that I get would just go into mastering the mix. So, all information is welcome.
Joe: Are you running both analog and digital?
Dirk: I use Pro Tools and then coming out mixing analog and then going back in digitally. I have some tape options but you know, the problem is these days (at least down here) keeping those kinds of machines maintained is challenging. If I were in Nashville, I could probably do more tape sessions if I knew the machines would be repaired properly, but that isn’t the case where I am unfortunately.
Joe: Hey, thank goodness we're not working on those VCR DAT machines. We used to have to daisy chain all of the tapes together in order to hear the mixes.
Dirk: Ohh my god, that was a nite-mare!
Joe: Very much so, and I am glad those days are far behind us! Back to your record. I wish to discuss one of the ballads, “The Little Things” with Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek. Have you performed with her in the past through your collective?
Dirk: Yeah, I met Sara and her brother Sean when they were probably teenagers. I haven't really done that much with them over the years, but our paths have crossed on various things. Sara was part of transatlantic sessions one year when I was doing it, and we've just been part of a circle where I've known them long enough to say, look I'd really love to have you do this, and I think you're perfect for it. As it turned out she really was perfect for that song. I just knew her voice and her playing would be the right thing. So that was really cool.
Joe: Yes, her fiddle playing is amazing on top of the strong vocals. Speaking of
vocals and lyrics, did you have everything laid out and then have her sing the lines you wanted a woman's voice on? Or, did she add a little bit of her lyricism to it as well?
Dirk: She didn't add any lyrical content, but she interpreted the words herself
singing it in her own way. You know, that was a song that was important to me
too. I realized a lot talking about love relationships, and some of the other themes on the record. It’s the little things that you could never explain to somebody that your loved one does that makes you so crazy about them. I remember something that actually happened to me with somebody I'm not with anymore. We were playing croquet and she decided to not take her time with each game and just play in a speedy way on her own accord. She decided to hit the ball really fast one right after the other and it was a completely odd thing to do looking back on
it. But it made me love her so much, and I could never tell you why in a million years I felt this way. By doing that I was like, ‘I'm so in love with you but why in the world did you do that?’ But oh my god she blew me away.
Joe: You know I love the way you swing that mallet baby!
Dirk: Haha… exactly, that's it. If somebody else could see that they would think what is happening here, and that aspect really made you fall in love with her? I wanted to write that song from a place of literally loving the way you drive, and loving the way you hold the steering wheel which makes me love you even more.
Joe: Serious question now pertaining to love songs in particular. I know this is
going to sound a little ‘off the cuff’ but does it seem strange when you're singing a ballad with a woman that you're not romantically linked to? Are you looking at her and thinking of your partner simultaneously? I never understood how love songs work when a man and woman look into each other’s eyes sharing deep and personal words with each other. What is the process and what goes through your mind?
Dirk: I think it may be similar to actors who have to play the part. There is
a way to acknowledge that level of feeling within yourself and how you feel that emotion for someone even though it's not directed towards them. You have to recognize in them the potentiality of conveying love. It's almost like you honoring that in them and see that and go, ‘oh yeah, I feel that even though it's not directed towards me’. You both remember the feeling even if you’re not the objects of love to each other. I felt that with people, we're both feeling this and that's great. It doesn't have to be us forgetting about our partners.
Joe: I always go back to my childhood for popular love songs and think of "Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing like they’re totally in love with each other. As you recently mentioned, they were acting and did a great job acting the part.
Dirk: Yes, but I think it's not so much acting but more of recognizing the lover and knowing that it’s so real and so legitimate even if it's not towards me, but I see those qualities in you and I am responding toit. So, I think there are elements there and you can embody that habitat even if that person isn't your lover.
Joe: Yes, it’s a very interesting approach to singing in this style. How did you track vocals with Sara, were you both in the studio together?
Dirk: No, she recorded her parts remotely?
Joe: Is that due to our friend Mr. COVID?
Dirk: Yes, that is exactly why.
Joe: Are you planning on releasing another single off of the album or is “Olivia" the only song getting rotation for the time being?
Dirk: I'm not really sure. “Say Old Playmate” is a song that I might make a video for with Rhiannon (Giddens) because the song is about people of different races. It's about my dad when he was young being told he couldn't be friends with his best friend because he was African American, that is the general theme.
Joe: That surely speaks of the times we're living in now. I know you have produced a few of her records in the past, right?
Dirk: Yeah yeah, we're good friends and collaborators, I'm really grateful having her in my life.
Joe: I came across a really great video on YouTube that you were part of, Rhiannon and an ensemble of musicians were singing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.
Dirk: Oh man, that was great fun and a great performance! It was cool paying tribute to him after his passing.
Joe: Looking ahead, what are your plans now that everybody's hunkering down at home? Are you looking to do some livestreaming, and what’s it looking like for touring next year?
Dirk: Well, I've done a little bit of livestreaming and I'm sure I'll do some more. But it's kind of over saturated right now. Every single gig I had booked for this year has been canceled, so I have no idea what’s in store.
Joe: It's a very scary situation because I not only worry about my musician friends, I worry about all of the music venues closing at a high rate.
Dirk: I know, one of the main places we’ve played at here in Lafayette just closed. I now drive past for sale signs out front, it’s very sad.
Joe: Fingers crossed things take a turn for the better once 2021 kicks into gear. Before we depart, where can the people hear you, and give us a little rundown of where to find you online?
Dirk: Of course, my website and people can track me down on all of the social media platforms.
Joe: Thank you so much for your time, and thank you for creating such a wonderful body of work. I look forward to you getting back out on the road, and when you come to the northeast let’s meet up for a pint.
Dirk: Man, that sounds great I'd love to meet up! Good luck with everything and best of luck with your young daughter, that's a magical time, trust me.
Joe: Thanks man, blessings to you and your family.
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