On Cultivating Creativity, Canada, Winning the Juno, and returning home to play Woodstock Town Hall Theater:
Cellist Eric Wright, now based in Toronto, returns to his hometown of North Pomfret this October with his Juno-award-winning band the Fretless. If you can catch them at Pentangle in Woodstock on Sunday, October 29th at 4 PM, you will not regret it. The Fretless is a string quartet pushing the boundaries of traditional folk music with their genre-bending "rad trad." Comprised of 3 highly skilled fiddlers and Wright on cello, their most recent album Bird's Nest won a Juno Award (equivalent of a Grammy in Canada) for best instrumental album this year. Their music ranges from intricate original compositions like the title track of their award winning album Bird's Nest to a crazy good cover of Radiohead's Airbag. Did I mention they are soooo good.
Eric and I go way back. He is one of my first friends, and early musical inspirations. I reached out for an interview in anticipation of his visit, and he generously obliged, taking the time from his tour to thoughtfully answer some of my questions.
I guess I’ve been drawn to artists as my friends since the early days, and Eric sweetly refers to me as his “first best friend.” In reality, we didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter-- as babies in Barnard, we were neighbors and thus we were among each other's first playmates. My parents ran a t-shirt shop next to his father’s recording studio, Rooster Records. As we grew up we were no longer neighbors and I later began to cross paths with Eric again at Suzuki recitals. How could one kid be so much better than the others? It didn’t seem fair. Maybe he practiced a bit more than I did. My mother explained to me that growing up in a musical household with Will Wright as his dad was also a factor. Could this be it? Was it in his blood or a matter of exposure and access? Perhaps both? I wanted to ask Eric what he thought about the age-old question, of nature or nurture?
Growing up you were always among the best players at the recitals, and I told my mom I wanted to switch from violin to cello because the cellists got to sit down, but in retrospect, I’m pretty sure it was because you actually made the instrument sound pretty good, which couldn’t be said for all of the others. Who or what do you credit?
Well, I’m blushing over your compliments of 10-year-old me! I still remember walking into that school auditorium near silver lake and being nervous every single time – and intimidated! Vermont has a magical way of creating some pretty special artists, you included. (Now I'm blushing.) You’re right though, having Will Wright as your father is by far the best way to stack your deck if you’re an aspiring musician. I remember being completely enamored by his guitar playing, comforted by his singing, and amazed when he and his best friend, Jim Reiman, would play tunes together. I can’t recall a single day of my life without incredible music coming from some corner of the house. He is my musical mentor, my inspiration, and my favorite musician of all time.
All of that being said, I couldn’t have accomplished anything musically if it weren’t for my mother [Dana Wright]. She has always been my biggest fan and support. She reinforced the importance of art and music in my life from a very young age, and taught me to pursue the happiness and fulfillment music always brought me. I can’t believe how many lessons, ensembles, and orchestras she drove me to and sat through (and, despite your kind words, my early cello playing was not exactly kind to the ears…). She didn’t let me quit and she always pushed me (very positively) to be better and to not give up. When you’re little, it’s hard to understand that you can create the foundation for the rest of your life if you just put a little effort into something. She recognized my affinity towards music very early on, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her encouragement.
Where did you have to go to get lessons once you surpassed your first teacher?
I ended up bouncing around teachers in the upper valley for a few years until I was recommended to John Dunlop in Richmond. Every Sunday, my parents would take turns (my mom took me most of the time, but my dad will beg to differ) leaving around 7:45am, drive an hour and 15 minutes to my hour-long private lesson, and then drive me directly to orchestra in Colchester for a 3+ hour rehearsal. We wouldn’t get back home until 8pm most of the time. Sundays weren’t a weekend for me, but it just seemed normal. It was what I had to do in order to grow as a musician, and I never once questioned the importance of traveling for my lessons. I think we had this schedule for around 6 years, starting in middle-school.
The Fretless winners of the 2017 Juno Award for Best Instrumental Album: left to right, Trent Freeman, Ben Plotnick, Eric Wright and Karrnnel Sawitsky
Your band has received a lot of support from the government. Why do you think the Canadian government invests so much in artists?
We’re so thankful for all of the support that the Canada Council for the Arts has given us. As a US citizen, it’s incredible to see an entire country put so much weight and worth into its culture and nurturing of its artists. Vermont is very supportive of its artists, but as a whole, the US doesn’t think of art as a priority. Somewhere down the line, the inability for politicians to recognize the worth and evolution of creativity (and it’s lasting effects on the rest of the world) has driven the US into a state of cultural panic, and the only things that seem to be of any sort of significance are the ones that make people money. Canada has done an amazing job recognizing that, at the end of the day, banks and money and capitalism aren’t the most important. What is important is the longevity of music, art, history, and heritage.
Why do I think the government invests so much in artists? I guess the Canadian people just manage to elect officials that believe in promoting and supporting their culture. We could learn a thing or two from them!
I feel like I rambled on this one, but it’s a hard thing to quantify!
What was it like winning the Juno?
It was probably the most exciting moment of my life. We truly had no expectations of winning. There were so many incredible artists nominated and we were just happy to be at the awards (which sounds like a cliché, but I couldn’t be more sincere). It was an incredible feeling being among so many of our mentors and heroes – we felt like the ride of being there was enough for us! When Tom Powers called our name I literally knocked my chair on the floor from standing up so quickly in surprise, and the rest is a blur of joy. I can say that it was a moment that I never thought I’d get to experience, and I’m just so thankful and humbled to have those memories as a part of my life.
So what’s it like coming home to play at Pentangle?
Another dream come true! It may sound funny, but we’ve played some pretty incredible venues all around the world and I may be the most excitedly nervous for this show. I grew up going to Pentangle performances, and they are my first memories of professional musicians. The feeling I got when walking into the foyer, the excitement of finding my seat, the buzz of the crowd, the dimming of the lights just before the bands came out… I never thought I would ever get to play the stage at the town hall and be among all of those incredible musicians. I am so honored to be a part of the history that seemed bigger than life when I was a kid. I’ll have a hard time keeping a grin off my face.
When can I book the Fretless at Feast and Field?
We’re coming next year and there’s nothing you can do to stop us!
I'm looking forward to that!
If you have the chance, check out the Fretless on Sunday, October 29th at 4 PM at Pentangle . Suggested donations of $15 are graciously accepted.