Interview | Hanging Out with Tucson Folk Artist, Don Armstrong

Love, Rebirth, & Studio Recording

JF: Let’s talk some about the album, Mother, Don’t Give Up On Me Now. How did the process of piecing it all together start?

DA: I figured I had to get a band that wasn’t just a jam band. I got Mike Markowitz on mandolin. I talked to Nick Coventry and he said yes, and Gary Mackender, too. Gary was a last-minute addition, but I had to have him there, at our debut Hotel Congress show a few years back. I gave him my pay that night because I wanted him there that much.

Then we have Petie, who plays bass almost like George Harrison at times.

JF: Yeah, he’s a very melodic bassist. He plays almost like he’s playing a guitar lead. Him and Sabra Faulk.

DA: I had never heard him play until he backed up Sabra at the Tucson Folk Festival a couple of years ago actually. His fingers were bleeding on the upright. He put in the work and did a beautiful job.

That was a heck of a Folk Festival. Nick & Luke did a great job, too.

JF: I think that Nick & Luke have been really encouraged by working with you, too. Their favorite memories made here must have been when they were playing with you.

DA: I’m glad you filled me in on them. They were so good. When they played Caffe Lena with me, they stayed up late on the top floor playing music. Then Nick would just start playing piano first thing in the morning, and they were swapping ideas. It reminded me so much of being their age again, and knowing music was all you wanted to do. You were always writing down lines and trying to do something as soon as it came to your head.

The studio is still a good opportunity to do that. I remember Papa Mike saying to me that one good thing you’ll be able to do in the studio is not worrying about watching the clock. I was watching the clock with this record because I was afraid of wasting Petie’s time, but he really taught me how to relax in the studio over time.

JF: What is a memorable moment that you’d shared in the studio while recording Mother?

DA: I had Bekah Rolland and Sabra over for dinner the night before the session that we did the title track and ‘How ‘Bout You?’ When we practiced that night, they kicked ‘Mother’ up just beautifully. I had a good idea of what I wanted to do with it and they fit the parts well. Bekah came up with something slightly different, and it sounded good.

We went into the studio the next night and ‘Mother’ came up so beautifully, again. You could tell right off on Petie’s face that something was wrong, and he came over and said, ‘Is this really what you want to do with this song?’

I was like, ‘Oh, God. Okay, here we go. I’m supposed to be prepared.’ I stopped and asked the girls to go back to the original plan. I felt horrible having to teach them these parts, like a director. All of a sudden, Petie’s sitting at the console and I’m thinking, ‘He’s probably really pissed.’

But, there he is taking pictures of us while I’m acting as band leader, and then he’s taking another photo of me listening to them while they’re singing it. Just then, I realized that it wasn’t bad as I thought it was. This was the studio process.

I learned a lot from Petie in the studio.

JF: And with ‘How ‘Bout You?’, it turned out a lot more contemporary than I expected it to based on past arrangements of the song. It’s neat.

DA: Maybe it’s because of the piano.

JF: There’s that, and there’s also a bit of a pronounced backbeat to it that livens it up.

DA: That came about a couple of days before the session was over, with Gary. That was one of the songs that changed the whole direction of the record from being a melancholy, retrospective thing to being more of a step forward into the sunlight.

Petie hadn’t heard the song before, but I thought he would be really impressed with it. On the day we laid it down, it was kind of like the first time you heard it. He was so taken with it that he put the percussion track right on there after we left. It was just great, even on the first mix.

Of course, the piano was way too loud on the first mix. I was just way too excited. I was sending it to everybody.

JF: Hey, that first mix was good! It’s always carried a good melody.

DA: Yeah, it does have a good melody to it. It’s just such a nice, playful rhythm because the guitar’s got that backbeat, too. I expected the vocals to be more like Detroit Motown, but it came off more like the Hot Licks, which is just as beautiful. It’s a soft style, especially with Bekah’s voice, that just gives it this magnificent touch.

I will add that Bekah was the first person, after Victoria died, where I thought, ‘I could sing with her.’ Her voice reminds me of Victoria’s a little bit.

JF: She has one of the clearest tones out of any singer that I’ve ever heard, period. I know a lot of that was probably taught in bluegrass bootcamps growing up, but a lot of that can’t be taught. Her and her husband Matt are always so enthused to play with you, too. I know they had a blast on this record.

DA: Matt was so tuned-in to what we were doing. With ‘Hey, Little Bird’ and ‘Break By the River’, he knew just what he had to do. He brought a mandolin in for a second part on ‘River’, too. I wanted it to sound like someone’s front porch. He and Bekah really captured that.

JF: Side note, but what he does on ‘Canadian Moon’ when he’s playing live with Petie is really something, too. His solo on that tune is always a highlight for me.

It’s really something when you have both a master fiddler in Matt, as well as a master violinist in Nick Coventry, on the same record. Nick brings in a beauty and finesse with his playstyle. It fits a song like ‘Going to Paris’ perfectly.

DA: And ‘Gone On You’, as well. Very, very much so. With this record, I really did say, ‘Why not both?’ I’m so glad they both agreed.

Since the pandemic has lightened up a little bit, we’ve had a lot more chances to play music together. Gary and Nick have learned to work off of each other beautifully, and to the point where they want to be together on stage. Especially on our softer songs, it’s almost like having chamber music behind you, or like an orchestra.

JF: Let’s take it from the top. Mother starts out with ‘Young Birds’. What’s the story here?

DA: I remember sitting out back one summer afternoon, maybe in July, and just writing what words came to me. It was something like, ‘I was just a young bird learning how to fly / You had command of the sky.’ I forgot about it for a while, but a couple of months later, I found myself needing to write something.

I looked at what I had written down in my notebook and knew that this needed to become something. I realized it was about me and Victoria, so it became the ideal song for me to offer as a tribute. ‘Hold You to the End of Time’ is the other one. It’s a loving tribute, but also it was just letting everyone know that everything’s fine and we’re moving forward.

It’s about being grateful for the magic of what we had, and of our getting together and how earth-shattering that was. It was like she tore the old world apart and cast us into a new one.

JF: Now, it’s sort of like you’re having to do that again.

DA: Right, right.

I remember Petie hearing ‘Young Birds’ for the first time. I was at Monterey Court and he was sitting next to our dear friend, Aspen Green, and he asked whose song it was. She told him that it was mine while he was frantically trying to Google it. [Laughs]

That was the song that really got Petie excited about making a record. He came up to me and said, ‘We have a hidden gem in our hands. I want to sing this, too.’

It was the second song that we recorded, with Bryan Matyjasik playing drums. You know, with drums—I’m a folk singer. I wanted to tell Petie, ‘You hear drums on that, is it? Yeah, okay, I’m not freaking out.’

When Bryan started playing ‘Young Birds’, he wasn’t playing at all what I expected him to play. I really liked what he was doing, and I couldn’t hear the song without it. It’s such a good part to the song. I love watching him play because he really gets it. My son, who’s a drummer, was really impressed.

JF: Bryan has an unusual way about his drumkit, too. Sometimes he’ll break his brushes out on it, too, or hit his cajon with the backend of a stick. It’s something to see.

DA: I really, really enjoy watching him, yeah. Just knowing that him and Petie have a history going back to the punk days, too.

JF: How many years did you and Victoria have together, by the way?

DA: 42.

JF: Wow. That’s no small feat. You know, I’ve been studying some Buddhist texts and, besides the traditional idea of reincarnation, there’s this postulation that we go through multiple lives and deaths in one lifetime. It was a rebirth when you met Victoria, and now you’re starting over again in your years without her.

DA: You know, that’s something that I realized very early in my life. I remember in third grade, I was called up by my teacher to do a math problem. A simple one, but for me, it was hard. I remember standing up at the blackboard and crying and she kind of scolded me for it before walking me through the process to understand.

When I was done, I felt a certain part of me had died and was reborn, right? I thought the same thing watching my kids learn to walk. The kid who can only crawl dies so that the kid who walks can become the kid who’s a drummer. I know Victoria and I had felt we’d both been together many times before, too.

I know I’ve worked with Petie before—and parents, friends, people that you meet that you feel like you know them right away.

JF: Even you and me.

DA: Yes, even you and me.

ON PAGE 5: ‘On Music & Fatherhood’