INTERVIEW WITH AARON O’ROURKE
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 27th, 2016
Once you hear Aaron O’Rourke play Hi Mom or Spoon on the mountain dulcimer, your past concepts of what a dulcimer sounds like will change forever. His melodies, rhythms, playfulness, and exceptional finger technique bend your recollection of the sound of the mountain dulcimer into a new shape. Take a listen and judge for yourself.
JL: What I try to do in these interviews, Aaron, is trace the musical path that led you to the mountain dulcimer and formed your style. What was the very first music you remember hearing?
AO’R: Classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. In elementary school I would fall asleep to Bach with a cassette tape in my little Walkman.
JL: Where did these tapes come from?
AO’R: I assume my parents. Apparently classical music helped me fall sleep in the car. My father told me that when I was in the car seat, out of nowhere, even before I could talk, I made these little da - tada - da da da da da da noises that sounded like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Because I made noises that resembled classical music that I’d heard, they tried to feed me more of that.
Actually, the thing that made me want to play music early on was a haunting violin theme that popped up in this vampire hunting video game I liked. That made me want to play the violin but I never got one. We grew up pretty poor without the money for an instrument. Eventually one of my aunts gifted me a nylon string guitar in maybe 3rd or 4th grade. I tried learning it then, again in middle school and again in early high school, but I failed miserably every time. I decided there was not a musical bone in my body. And so I made the conscious decision that I just wasn’t meant to play music.
It wasn’t until high school when my best friend, who played drums, told me he was starting a punk band and pretty much demanded I figure out a way to play in it. He handed me a bass and told me to follow along. I had no idea what I was doing and was horrible at it. But he, being my best friend, was encouraging but dishonest. He said: “You’re getting it, stick with it, it sounds good”. His encouragement created a certain pressure to not let him down. So I stuck with it.
Working with other people in a band was good for me, even though we were screaming about topics that we were horribly uninformed on, and that we really had no business singing about! There was something really positive about being part of a musical form that was nothing but angst filled raw emotion. In some of the musical circles I run in now, the music is driven by the mental process of music and theory. I think having a musical experience in my formative years that was totally raw with a real absence of any kind of musical refinement, was a really positive thing. I tend to go back to that. If I’m playing a piece that’s mentally and technically challenging, I still want it to be just as impactful as screaming over a bunch of power chords when I was 16.
JL: So that takes us to High School? What were you listening to then?
AO’R: Pretty much just punk rock: Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Misfits, the Sex Pistols. I also listened to local bands in my home town of Tallahassee, FL that were playing $3 shows and recording on little 4 track recorders.
JL: When did your musical field enlarge?
AO’R: The shift came in two parts. One night, after a gig in Tallahassee, we went to this total dive called the Warehouse to shoot pool. I stumbled onto a traditional Irish session happening in the back room. I was totally mesmerized and hooked by the sound of traditional Irish music.
It was obvious they weren’t a band. At times there were people in the circle that didn’t know a song but seemed capable of picking it up halfway through. There seemed to be a sense of community. The music was their common bond. Between songs they would talk about work, have a little gripe session, catch up; there was something about it. I wanted that.
The second part came one day at band practice. My friend’s father was playing a mountain dulcimer on the front porch. “Hey, what is that thing?” I asked. He says: “Mountain dulcimer...here, try it out.” I was immediately hooked by the sound of the drones. It just so happened that there was a lady at one of the Irish sessions who played dulcimer and knew a lot of the songs. She told me she had a dulcimer I could borrow. She’d be happy to give me lessons in exchange for helping her do some cleaning and random odd jobs. Truthfully I don’t think my cleaning skills were really up to par. It was really just generous on her part.
JL: That’s really a sweet story. So now you are playing both the bass and mountain dulcimer?
AO’R: Yes and out of playing dulcimer came playing mandolin and eventually guitar. I started playing with a local band that did Irish and traditional old time music as well. When we started playing shows around Tallahassee it was kind of funny because you had the regular folk crowd but there were also kids showing up with mohawks, leather jackets and spikes. I loved seeing that type of social integration from the two worlds I felt very much a part of.
JL: So are you now in high school or have you graduated?
AO’R: That was all high school. The Irish and old time continued past high school. The punk band had a tragic end. I received a youth scholarship to attend my first week long dulcimer camp in North Carolina the summer after high school. While I was gone, my friends went to a show in central Florida. On the way back they were in a car accident. Derek, my best friend who played drums and told me to play bass and kept telling me I was getting it, unfortunately, was killed. That was the end of the band. I probably would have been with them if I hadn’t been at the dulcimer camp in NC.
JL: What a huge loss. Have you written any music having to do with feelings having to do with that loss?
AO’R: I was 18 at the time. Then at 25, I lost my little sister. I’ve revisited both of those losses with music a number of times but to some extent it comes out in everything. One of my favorite quotes with regards to closure and losing someone is: “The idea of closure itself is a bit of a myth. And if it were readily available, why would you want it? Because it would just mean some very important part of you has gone numb.” So, in that sense, I don’t think there’s ever really closure from losing anyone. In this case I think of Derek every time I have work because I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now had it not been for him. I don’t think I would have met my wife, who I met while I was teaching dulcimer, or many of my close friends, who I’ve met as the direct result of playing music. If there was any single person who impacted the course of my life, it was probably him.
JL: What life changing events! How did that week long dulcimer festival impact you? Was that Dulcimerville?
AO’R: No. It was the Western Carolina University Dulcimer Week, when Lois Hornbostel was running it. I took workshops from Robert Force plus electives. I had Robert Force in the morning and Bill Taylor, Gary Gallier and Bob Hutchinson. I think those were the four teachers I experienced while I was there.
JL: How did they affect the direction of your music?
AO’R: Everyone was hugely influential because I was still figuring out what I wanted to do. However I’d like to slip back before the youth scholarship for a moment. The first actual dulcimer concert I went to featured Don Pedi. Naturally I wanted to play like him: fast fiddle tune stuff. I wanted to play like him so I played with the dulcimer flat on my lap just using 3 fingers, nothing like how I play now. Not long after that I heard Maddie McNiel and Steve Siefert. Those three influenced me the most early on before I attended Dulcimer U week in NC.
I remember a few techniques and absolutely no songs from the week, but something special happened in Robert Force’s class. It was a good class for me to have at that exact time because I was so in my shell. His whole thing was getting you out of your shell. I broke through a lot of fears that are kind of natural to have when we’re learning a new instrument and we tend to play tentatively for fear of hitting a wrong note or just doing something embarrassing. That week I felt a shift away from playing with fear and hesitation. I began playing with a sense of purpose.
JL: So what happened next?
AO’R: Well back in Tallahassee I started making friends with people in the bluegrass crowd. I got to be good friends with a guy named Mickey Abraham who was an incredible guitar and mandolin player. He had a similar background in punk rock but was very well-versed in bluegrass and jazz. Luckily when he heard me playing dulcimer he was intrigued and curious as to what else could be done. When there were complex 4 or 5 note chords in a song, we would figure what would be the best way to put them on dulcimer since the dulcimer only has 3 strings. I learned a lot of theory from him and it forced me to re-examine my technique as a result of playing some more complex music.
JL: At what point did you start getting hired to teach?
AO’R: I taught my first festival workshop when I was 19. I’d given some private lessons before then but I have to say I had no idea what I was doing. I learned that not everyone learns the same way as me.
JL: You learn to teach at festivals by doing them. Once you do them, you learn how to do them.
JL: So all of a sudden you’re teaching and you’re going to festivals. Is there a certain point where you started taking yourself more seriously as a musician and gave up the idea that “There was not a musical bone in my body”?
AO’R: I don’t think it happened suddenly when I started getting hired. If anything it made me spend more time focusing on playing and coming up with new material.
I had a day job when I started getting hired at festivals. I worked for a legal publication in Florida. I started in the mail room and eventually worked my way up to having more responsibilities than I was qualified for. It was a small company and the owners knew that I had a passion for playing music. They let me work extra hours here and there to pad my time off so I could go to festivals. That was incredibly kind of them and made the transition to doing music full time much less painful than it could have been if I just had to make the choice to jump off and suddenly do it full time.
JL: I, for one, am extremely grateful you had the opportunity to devote yourself to the dulcimer full time. You’ve already made an enormous contribution to the evolution of the dulcimer. While listening to your CD Unaccompanied, I was wondering how to characterize your style? You play jazz rhythms and chords, flamenco-like riffs when you do the fast repetitive phrases and, of course, the Irish and old time influence. Then there’s your own personal whimsy, your sense of delicate flowing melody and beautiful harmonic structure. How you would describe your own style?
AO’R: That’s such a good question and I have such a hard time talking about it in a concise way. I heard Edgar Meyer use the term: “genre proof” when the Goat Rodeo sessions were going around with Chris Thile, Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.
I think more and more music is not easily classifiable. It pulls from multiple sources of inspiration that cross genres. What excites me the most, musically, is taking a melody and breaking it down to its most simple form, looking at that structure and then going, okay, how many ways can I change the chords over this simple melody so that it will yield something different every time it comes around? Simply by manipulating the harmonic structure of a simple melody, different melodic variations and ideas come out.
I was inspired by listening to Irish rhythm players. There used to be songs that I thought I didn’t like. I thought some of those simple jigs or reels sounded so cheesy. But then I heard the same melody played with a different style of accompaniment and it could become one of my favorite things in the world. That was probably the biggest musical lightbulb moment in my life, seeing how changing the harmonic structure and the accompaniment behind a melody can be so impactful without doing anything to the melody at all.
JL: How about tunings. Do you play in more than one tuning.
AO’R: I’m primarily a DAD player. Once in a blue moon I’ll tune to something different if I’m playing with a singer songwriter and I just need to. But I’m not the most exciting person when it comes to tunings.
JL: What about extra frets?
AO’R: I use the 6+ which seems more or less standard now, along with the 1+ and 8+. Being able to play the minor third and flatted seventh in first position without bending the string really opens up some possibilities.
JL: I noticed you’ve really embraced Patreon.
AO’R: For me, Patreon has been amazing. It’s similar but different from Kickstarter where people are trying to raise funds for a big project. Patreon is geared for artists looking to fund a steady stream of their work. Instead of contributing $20 or $30 on Kickstarter, people signing up may contribute $1 for every time I release a new mp3. And for me, having that regularity has been great. When I’m on the road doing festivals or a whole bunch of concerts; coming home I tend to think I’m going to work on this project and inevitably I just hit a wall and get depressed. But knowing that there’s a community of supportive people saying: “Hey we’re waiting for your music and we’re going to support whatever you come up with. Since it’s not a huge financial burden at the $1, $2, or $3 level, I get to bounce ideas off patrons while I’m formulating the composition. I get to say “Hey this is what I’m working on. It’s not totally polished yet and hope you like it.”
To me, that work is a lot more fulfilling than some of the other gigs that we might take just ‘cause we know we have to pay the bills.
JL: Do you do your own recording or do you go into a studio with an engineer?
AO’R: Both. All my CDs were done in a studio but I do all my own recording now. However the next album I’m recording will most likely be my duet CD with Dan Landrum and we’ll be using his studio for it.
JL: So moving to Signal Mountain, TN and getting married have been some big changes for you in 2016?
AO’R: Oh yeah. Since getting married I find I watch a lot more HGTV (home and garden shows!) and I’ve become oddly convinced I can do all that home improvement stuff.
JL: What made you decide to move to Signal Mountain?
AO’R: I was born in Schenectady, NY but grew up in Florida. I moved there with my family when I was pretty young but I’d never really acclimated to the heat. Moving to TN where we get all four seasons and it doesn’t get as hot for as long has been great for me. Also much of the dulcimer community is in KY, NC, TN, and OH. It’s a long haul from FL. Especially being married, I don’t want to be away from my wife as much for so long. Living in TN, everything is closer and more accessible.
JL: What about DulcimerSchool.com? Are you involved with that?
AO’R: I actually just became involved with that recently. A lot of it is just teaching playing skills. But to me some of the things we’ve put up recently have been a lot of fun. We did a video of me teaching Dan Landrum, an accomplished hammer dulcimer player (FYI: and with his wife Angie, the editor of the Dulcimer Players News), mountain dulcimer and one of me taking hammer dulcimer lessons from him.
People hear what you’ve put lots of hours into, and it seems like magic to them. They might say: “Of course you can do it!” They’re under the impression that you have some ability they don’t when the truth is they didn’t get to see you struggle. We thought it would be fun to do videos of us teaching the other person the instrument they don’t play. People actually get to see us struggle. We do struggle.
JL: It sounds like you mostly play your David Beede dulcimer?
AO’R: Yes. Many of the design features on the David Beede dulcimer were inspired by the practice of sitting down at the dulcimer, looking at the fretboard and thinking: “Okay, what do my fingers not want to play? In what way have my fingers not moved on this instrument before?” Inevitably something would catch my ear because it was something new that I hadn’t played. I found that the reason my fingers didn’t naturally play these things was that they were hard and I started just looking at the dulcimer and thinking: “If this dulcimer were different, how could it be easier for me?” I thought about the guitars, mandolins and banjos that I have found easiest to play and what features they had that didn’t seem available on most dulcimers. I decided I wanted to explore a radius fretboard and jumbo frets to give a scalloped feel to the fretboard. Then making a 25 inch string length made a lot of what I was trying to do more accessible. The downside to it is they’re a lot of dulcimers that I like the sound of that have a flat fretboard. It takes some time to get reacquainted.
JL: That’s your main dulcimer, the David Beede one? Is there any other dulcimer that you like to play?
AO’R: Oh yeah, there’s a whole bunch. In addition to that dulcimer probably the second thing that I play the most would be the banjammer. For so long I would see people playing banjo/dulcimer hybrids and thought: “That’s the most obnoxious thing in the world”. Then I heard Steve Seifert playing it in a way I hadn’t heard before and thought, “That’s pretty cool.” So I bought one from Mike Clemmer and just started experimenting and a whole lot of fun stuff popped out of it. Now I really love it. I keep one set up with nylon strings and one set up with steel. They obviously have a different tone. I find I mostly play the one that has nylon strings on it.
JL: Before we end, is there anything that you would like to say or what you are hoping to do in the future?
AO’R: Well when it comes to the dulcimer, I think it was really interesting going to the EMP (Experience the Music Project) Museum (ed: Now named MoPOP) in Seattle and seeing the evolution of the guitar. The guitar started as this small quiet and somewhat difficult to play instrument. Then there was the need for volume and playability and different design changes took place. The violin went through a similar thing as audiences got bigger and the music being played on it got more difficult, the instrument itself evolved. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence. We’re at this really interesting place with the mountain dulcimer. Just in the short period of time I’ve been playing dulcimer, I’ve seen evolution both in playing and design. There are so many different voices and styles coming out. It’s really exciting. I think one of the beautiful things about dulcimer is its accessibility to people who don’t have any musical experience at all, don’t necessarily have the time to put in a lot of hours to learn an instrument from the ground up. But they’re able to get music they enjoy out of the dulcimer. And I think one of the really great things about this instrument is that as we see it progress, and as we see the music getting potentially more difficult and challenging, there’s still room for someone to come to it in a traditional way and get some enjoyment without feeling that they needed to start doing this when they were 9 years old. That’s something I hope it never loses. There’s ample room for all of it in the dulcimer world.
A true creative maverick in the mountain dulcimer world, Joellen Lapidus both embraces the deep rich traditions of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, and creates new traditions. One of the pioneers of an equally rich California Mountain Dulcimer tradition, her rhythmic playing style and elegant shapes and inlaid dulcimers have influenced generations of players and builders. Joellen teaches at McCabes Guitar Shop and dulcimer festivals from coast to coast. (this last sentence is optional, depending on how much room you have.) www.lapidusmusic.com