Interview: Noam Pikelny Gets Musically Honest on ‘Universal Favorite’
"I've always believed that any good musician should be able to put on a performance if they found themselves in a room with just themselves there ... [that] any good musician should be able to hold court with just his instrument and his voice," Noam Pikelny says. "That's long been my belief, but I guess I held myself exempt from that belief for many years."
As a banjo player and harmony singer, Pikelny has performed as part of various bands -- most famously, the Punch Brothers -- for more than a decade and a half. Pikelny has also released four solo albums, but only with his most recent record, and its supporting tour, did he begin to hold himself to that standard. It's on Universal Favorite (released on March 3) that fans (finally) get to hear Pikelny sing lead.
"I didn't want the [live] set or the record to be a banjo recital ... I wanted this set to really be a reflection of what I hold dear about music," Pikelny tells The Boot. That meant a few covers -- Elliot Smith's "Old Banjo;" Josh Ritter's "Folk Bloodbath;" Roy Acuff's "My Tears Don't Show;" Roger Miller's “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone)” -- and that meant that there would have to be some singing.
"It just kind of seemed like a necessity," Pikelny adds, explaining how each cover offers listeners something further about his influences: He enjoys Miller's humor and levity; was inspired by Acuff's guitar-playing; wanted to try Smith's "ambitious" harmonies; and simply loves "everything" about that Ritter tune. Later, Pikely calls Universal Favorite as a whole "an honest expression of who I am as a musician."
"I know that may sound kind of lofty ...," he admits, "but I really feel like it was really just [me] trying to be honest with myself about what I can offer to the world and not showing any hesitation to do something that I feel like is an expression of my musical aesthetic."
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Still, the banjo is at the forefront of Universal Favorite. As much as he wanted to stretch his own musical muscles, Pikelny also wanted to show just what a skilled banjo player can do with his instrument.
"The banjo is thought of as such a staccato or tinny instrument at times, and it works well in a band setting with that kind of timbre ... but there can be a lot of warmth that the banjo can actually display," says Pikelny, the 2010 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. "I've been kind of jonesing for this opportunity to write some music on the banjo that would showcase those elements of it."
Fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher, once again, helmed Universal Favorite. He's produced three of Pikelny's four solo albums; Pikelny calls Witcher "a great enabler."
"I really trust Gabe's ears and his process, and I think one of the real advantages that I have working with him is that he probably knows better than anybody ... when I'm playing something that's average and when I'm playing something that's a little bit above average or when I'm playing something that special or when I'm playing something that's mediocre," Pikelny shares. "He has a sense of what I'm capable of and what we should be striving for."
With Universal Favorite out in the world, Pikelny's on the road for solo shows through early April, and with the Punch Brothers, he'll be playing a number of festival dates throughout the summer. The band, he says, is "looking forward to finding the time to do another record;" by the end of their last tour, Pikelny confesses, their soundchecks had turned into writing sessions.
"To me, the multitude of side projects, or just projects, that everybody has going on right now, that's kind of what adds to the vitality of Punch Brothers," he muses. "When we come back to the band with the five of us there, it's really special, and I think everybody is in a position to contribute even more when they're cultivating musical experiences outside of the band."
Universal Favorite is available via Pikelny's official website.
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