Portland’s Black Prairie Share Their Fortune

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When the members of Oregon folk collective Black Prairie entered the studio to record their third album, Fortune, they brought along an unlikely mascot — an 8-foot-tall abominable snowman with white fur, huge fangs, working arms and red, menacing eyes.

It’s a figure more fitting of a hedonistic ‘70s metal band than an acoustic string group that started life as a Decemberists side project. But Black Prairie aren’t your typical acoustic string band. These Portlanders are all fans of hard rock who routinely cover Led Zeppelin and have been known to play the occasional show dressed as Vikings.

That sense of playfulness extends to Fortune, which alternates between heavy and catchy, pop-oriented and eerily ambient. CMT Edge spoke to accordion player Jenny Conlee and singer-violinist Annalisa Tornfelt about the band’s literary inspirations, experimental sound and unusual recording practices.

CMT Edge: What’s the origin story of the abominable snowman?

Conlee: Our drummer John Moen made her. Black Prairie has an alter ego called White Tundra. We played a gig six months ago that was all electric, and we all dressed in white and wore Viking helmets. We covered “Lord of This World” by Black Sabbath and “Carry on My Wayward Son.” John made her for that show. She’s an inspiration.

Tornfelt: We brought it into the studio for vibe, and it helped out. I think it was a dream come true for John. It’s very impressive — very Iron Maiden. We all played around it in the studio. It was a fun recording experience.

It sounds like an unusual atmosphere in the studio, almost like a horror film.

Tornfelt: One time, [producer] Vance Powell asked me to scream. He wanted to record a scream. So we turned all the lights off so that those red eyes were flashing back and forth. It was spooky. I ran around screaming, which is something I’d never done before. As I was leaving the studio, which is also a CD-manufacturing plant, the guy who owns it was at the front desk and gave me a card for a voice teacher. I wonder how much he heard.

Did the song “The White Tundra” grow out of your Viking alter egos?

Conlee: I was reading a book by A.S. Byatt called Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, which is a retelling of the Nordic myth of the fall of the gods. We’re not mythology scholars or anything, but it was an inspiration, for sure.

Tornfelt: It’s about the end of the world. A blind, deformed man kills his beautiful brother, and his mother grieves. Winter covers the world, and the tree of life dies. It’s such a tragedy.

There are relatively heavy moments on Fortune. Are you all fans of that music?

Conlee: Yes, we all are. Annalisa is funnily. … I don’t know if that’s the right word, but she’s from Alaska. She came from a sheltered background, so most of this music is new to her. But her voice tends to get right up there in Robert Plant’s range. We’re all rockers, even [guitarist] Jon Neufeld, who’s our bluegrass player. Actually, I think most bluegrass musicians tend to be heavy metal fans because there’s a similar energy. Lots of fast solos.

And there’s certainly an emphasis on instrumental pyrotechnics although I don’t think Earl Scruggs ever set his banjo on fire.

Conlee: Right. On our last tour, we were covering [Led Zeppelin’s] “The Song Remains the Same” and having a lot of fun with it. Oh, acoustic music can be riffy rock music. So, on this record, our songwriting tended to go there. Vance Powell is all about that. He was running everything through amps, even if an instrument didn’t use the amp signals. So the Dobro and bouzouki were going to an amp through a distortion pedal. You can hear that at the beginning of “Let It Out.”

One of the standouts on Fortune is “Trask,” who was a real frontiersman in the 1800s. How did you come across him?

Conlee: Elbridge Trask was a tracker and the first white settler in the Tillamook Valley. There’s a book from the 1950s by Don Barry that recounts his spirit journey. Trask was accepted by the Indians, whose chief sends him on a spirit quest to see if he is worthy of living in their area.

Tornfelt: Jenny was reading the book while we were on the road, and she would read out loud while we were going to sleep in the hotel room. It’s a very haunting story — a little spooky to fall asleep to. But it’s a special event. This is the first song Jenny has written words to and had released.

Conlee: I have written vocal songs before, but none that the band has ever played. Mostly, I write a lot of instrumental music. “Trask” was originally a piano song with no vocals, but then [Dobro player] Chris Funk said we should make this an all-vocal record. I was bummed because that’s not what I do. But I gave it a shot, and people seemed to like it.

Tornfelt: She brought the song in toward the end of the writing process and surprised us all.

Conlee: I love songs based in history. I love The Band, and even though it’s fiction, I could listen to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” all the time. I love singing about the Civil War. I don’t know why.

Will you be writing any more songs for future Black Prairie albums?

Conlee: I don’t know. Honestly, I do like having instrumental tunes in our sets. They’re fun to play onstage. I grew up playing classical, so I really appreciate instrumentals in a set list. I love Annalisa’s voice, but it’s nice to hear the instruments take charge. So who knows what the next record will entail?

Tornfelt: We’ve all been writing together for seven years now, and everyone is so open and supportive of each other. It’s safe. You can be vulnerable and show something that’s not quite finished, but you know they’ll turn it into something greater than you could create by yourself.

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