In terms of folk artists and acoustic tours, grunge legends are unlikely candidates. Yet times move on, decades pass and even angst subsides enough to make an acoustic guitar palatable.
Behind a shaggy 'do and thick beard is Steve Turner, resident guitarist and distortion specialist for Seattle legends and grunge godfathers, Mudhoney. For now, he has unplugged his amps and left the superfuzz back in the practice room. Turner is touring in support of his just-released acoustic folk album, Searching for Melody.
Turner hasn't abandoned his partners in Mud; he's just pursuing a passion that dates back to his youth.
"I got into music because of punk rock," Turner enthuses while riding his bike through Northern Seattle. "But I've always loved folk music."
On Christmas Day 2001, Turner vowed to learn to sing a song while playing guitar. Four months later, he was laying down 13 songs with producer Johnny Sangster (The Makers, Minus 5) at Egg Studios. A few weeks later, Turner was recording in pal and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard's Studio Litho. After rehearsing only three times, Turner, Gossard, Sangster and Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters recorded what would become the songs on Searching for Melody.
Though the songs are closer to Woodie Guthrie than Joey Ramone, Turner's punk roots spike through on the vocals and in the lyrics.
"[Mudhoney vocalist] Marc Arm has that grisly rock vocal, but mine is cleaner in pitch and more suited for this style of music," Turner explains.
Whether waxing sarcastic about an idiot on "Idiot Blues" or getting a bit biographical on the title track, Turner sings punk-blues for the skate punks who want something mellow after a day of carving pools and ditching patrol cars, yet refuse to dig into their parents' geezer collection.
Successful tours with Sangster accompanying him in England and Spain have given Turner both confidence and a feeling of satisfaction.
"My singing has improved a bunch and I already have another album's worth of songs ready to go," he says, tempering his expectations of the current release. "I'm not expecting anything out of this, except maybe to do some traveling and record another album."
This attitude is similar for Marc Olsen. Some may recognize Olsen and his distinctive guitar playing from the influential northwest trio Sage, or from his work with Sky Cries Mary and supporting fellow troubadour Mark Lanegan on a 1998 tour. With two previous solo efforts under his belt, Olsen is touring in support of his latest, Brighter When.
Recorded in the analog comfort of his brother's Oregon farm/studio, Olsen's sparse fretwork and whiskey-soaked singing create a noir mood that belies the title of the album.
"I tried to make a record that breathed and was unified in spirit," he says, noting that working with his brother is a great partnership because "we don't have to talk much." Plus, when the studio and recording process become frustrating, "there's always a game of whiffle ball waiting outside."
Brighter When plays like the soundtrack to a movie bathed in the shadows of self-examination and cultural ennui. Olsen's vocals are but a hush above the plaintive picking of the reverb-soaked guitar, giving songs like "The Whole Thing Starts" a haunting vibe. Subtle keyboard flourishes and drums bring a hint of the blues to songs like "I Found a Reason." When the song drifts into the gospel-like chant, "coming calling/call to me," you can almost hear the bustle of the bartender as the night grows later. And Neil Young and Nick Cave are the only patrons left, quietly drinking.
Whereas the weight and pressures of being a working musician took their toll on Olsen in the past, Brighter When finds him coming to terms with disillusionment and excited to be creating music.
"I need to do this-it's a part of me," he opines. Successful outings to New York have Olsen jazzed about returning to the Big Apple to win over more fans. "It's a slow process, but I'm up for it."
"One gig at a time" is the modus operandi for both Olsen and Turner. Small hit-and-run tours of the Northwest and East Coast have got the ball rolling for both musicians, as well as for Roslyn Recordings, the start-up Seattle label that put out their releases.
Label owner/publicist Barbara Mitchell and her small roster of musicians are levelheaded when it comes to expectations. Both Olsen and Turner have experienced the ups and downs of the industry-they know that on the other side of any peak is a valley, and vice versa.
More importantly, this tour seems focused on the right thing: the music.