Casey Driessen Connects Man and Machine on Singularity

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Casey Driessen’s The Singularity spotlights an unparalleled fiddler in peak form. High watermarks include sharp originals (“Heartbeat Kid”) and adventurous covers (“Billie Jean”).

“The whole concept has been developing for at least 10 years since when I got my first pedal to do looping,” he says. “It’s its own record and solo show now, but it’s been a long time in the making.”

CMT Edge: Explain the album title.

Driessen: The concept started as a live show, really, so I could go out and play by myself. I remember driving and brainstorming. How can I describe the fact that it’s one guy creating all the sounds with one instrument? Also, it’s the combination of man and technology. All that reminded me of the technological “singularity” definition, which is when man and machine come together, which is predicted in the future at some point. Nobody knows what will end up happening.

Tell the story behind writing “Heartbeat Kid.”

My wife and I were going to have our first child, and we went in at 20 weeks to hear the ultrasound. I didn’t have any expectations of what the heartbeat would sound like, so I thought, “Well, I might as well bring in some gear and record.” It was just to keep for my wife and me, but it had a real solid, steady rhythm to it. I took this recording home and found what I thought was the grooviest little section, and I looped that and I ended up sitting down and writing the melody that day.

Then I forgot about the tune for a couple of years. I was on the road with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. Béla and I would sit in the back of the bus and play banjo and fiddle tunes and occasionally play tunes we’d written. I remembered that I’d written “The Heartbeat Kid,” but all it was was that melody. Well, on that same tour, Hurricane Irene hit, and we were on the East Coast and we were supposed to play a gig in New York City when it was supposed to make landfall.

Yeah, I was curious why you thanked Hurricane Irene in the liner notes.

Yeah, I know it was a traumatic experience for a lot of folks. There was a lot of damage, but I wasn’t on that side. Instead, I was given four days of unexpected time. The Flecktones took cover up in Burlington, Vt., which seemed like a good idea, but that ended up being where the hurricane went for the next four days.

I was stranded in my hotel room, so I dragged all my gear into my room and set up the mobile fiddle lab. Imagine if somebody said, “OK, you have the next four days off,” but you’re stranded where you can’t do any of the normal things you would have at home. You’re like, “Wow, I have this gift of time.” I was able to work on this tune, and this is what came out of it. I’m certainly thankful for it.

There must be challenges in writing a listenable song without vocals.

Yeah, that’s tricky. How do you make it listenable to folks who normally gravitate toward vocal material? I think it requires variation, certainly if it’s a solo guy, like in my case. I have to find ways to be creative so that the material changes throughout the show and it takes you on a ride. It’s like sequencing a vocal record. You have to think that way instrumentally. You’re changing keys, tempos, times. Yeah, it’s tricky.

How did “Gaptooth” come to you?

I would call that a cover of my own song. I put that on my first record [2006’s 3D], but that has a whole band on it. When I started working with all this technology, one thing I would do is retrofit material of mine that fans might be aware of and figure out — can I reform this tune to the technology? “Gaptooth” originally came from listening to a guy named Riley Baugus, an old Appalachian claw tooth banjo player.

I heard a tune of his called “Cumberland Gap,” and I was also familiar with the bluegrass world’s “Cumberland Gap.” I was wondering, “Do they have some shared history? What if I took this ‘Cumberland Gap’ and give it a flair as if it comes from the Scots-Irish background?” And there’s a good chance it may have. I turned it into a jig and turned the chord changes around. Pretty soon, it’s not really “Cumberland Gap” anymore, but I wanted to leave part of that in the title.

Describe working with [“Gaptooth” co-writer] Béla Fleck.

It’s great. It can be very intense musically but in a very positive way. I’ve had four distinct groups with him and they’re all very different musically, which is a really wonderful thing about him. He really stretches and tries to put the banjo in all these different situations. He’s very thoughtful about the music and pushed everybody to be their best and challenges folks. I think he has a great grasp of where people’s strengths and weaknesses are and to maximize who they are as a person and as a musician. Béla’s trying to exhaust the banjo in every possible musical situation.

So, what lead you to “Billie Jean”?

Right. (laughs) I grew up playing bluegrass fiddle, and I paid hardly any attention to pop music. I was more interested in bluegrass and bebop, but I was definitely familiar with Michael Jackson. I was teaching at Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp outside Nashville during the time Michael Jackson passed away. A friend suggested I should do one of his tunes as a tribute, and he suggested “Billie Jean” because it has a very identifiable string part.

The crowd at last year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival went wild for that song.

You know, it seems to be almost like a free pass. You were asking earlier about instrumental music and how you almost get away with it. You know, I’m playing a lot of new material that’s not tested on folks, and by playing “Billie Jean,” I’ve found it really pulls people back into something that they know and appreciate and grasp very easily. It’s easy to stick your hand out and grab that tune, and I feel like I can get away with anything musically once I’ve given them that. It’s been a lot of fun.

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