Forrest Van Tuyl (aka An American Forrest) spends six months of the year working as a cowboy on the trails of some of the remotest wilderness areas of Oregon and the other six months writing and playing music. A singer-songwriter for over a decade, his latest album ‘O Bronder, Donder Yonder?’ (Hearth Music) reviewed earlier this year by AUK, draws deeply on his outdoor life, and, amongst other genres, is inspired by a mixture of folk, Outlaw country and traditional American music. Above all, it feels like it’s modern American frontier music of the deepest kind – about living in one of the last parts of the North American wilderness in the 21st century. We talked to Forrest Van Tuyl about how he came to be writing, singing and playing music like this.
Your music and lyrics always feel very strongly linked to particular outdoor, rural places. Can you give us a couple of indications as to how your life in rural Washington and now in Oregon has influenced your music?
In the simplest sense, it’s a matter of using what tools are nearest at hand – I need scenery and detail in my songs, and the material I’m surrounded by is what is easiest to use. I think especially in the case of a really personal record like ‘O Bronder, Donder Yonder?’ there’s not much of a choice because the stories happened in those places. As far as being in rural areas, away from bigger music scenes, I think it keeps us weird. Ourselves. I spend a lot of time with a small group of musicians in the town I live in, and we all have very unique voices and styles despite living in the same place, but being in the middle of nowhere gives me a certain freedom in being “an other.” Like, it’s okay to take the risk of calling my record ‘O Bronder, Donder Yonder?’ because who the fuck cares ? Where the fuck is Powatke, Oregon? Do cowboys even exist anymore? We don’t have to follow trends, or even be aware of them.
Are there other parts of the world that also have a big ‘hold’ on your music and/or lyrics?
It all varies by time and by album. I travelled a lot in my mid-twenties, so my earliest EP, like ‘Salvation Rose’, was all over the place. I worked on it like in like eight different countries or something absurd like that. Just bumming around Europe, the Balkans, and Morocco, trying not to overstay my Schengen visa or run out of money. And then I narrowed my focus for ‘Kamiak Rose’. It’s literally just one butte [an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top – Ed.] in Eastern Washington. ‘Rosas y Mesteños’ was a fantastic trip from Idaho to New Mexico. And then on Bronder, I tightened up the focus again. Only Northeastern Oregon. No state names. Just the names of rivers, local features, names no-one who hadn’t ridden that country horseback would recognize. I like that. Words that carry a lot of weight but the listener doesn’t know why. It’s something I picked up from [singer-songwriter] Ian Tyson, using a very specific vocabulary to replicate the effects of Dylan’s surrealism.
Listening to your earliest albums like ‘The Small Night’, would it be correct to say that you initially seemed to be more influenced by folk than country?
Haha, sorry you had to listen to that one. I honestly don’t even know where to draw the line. I mean, Woody Guthrie wrote ‘Oklahoma Hills’ which was a country hit in its day, is technically a western song, but was written by the greatest folk balladeer in American history. I can tell you I thought I was writing country songs in those early days (Texas, Bakersfield, etc.), and that especially on ‘Rosas y Mestenos’, I was using a more ‘folk’ instrumentation (no electric instruments). Now, however, I feel like I’m writing ‘folk songs’ in the some sense, which are songs more deeply rooted in an older tradition – even though, musically, the sound has become more ‘Country.’ I’ve been listening to Country since before I was born, though. Lots of it. I think working horseback was a huge influence on the sound. The songs really move in a horselike way, especially ‘Yonder Mountain’ and ‘Dark To Dark.’
What was the first time you picked up a musical instrument and seriously decided you wanted to try to play it?
I got into guitar when I was about 16, mainly as a vehicle to write songs. Then I got into Bob Dylan and got an acoustic, and it was all over. Badly strummed G chords for years. But I was writing songs, and that was the important thing. My family is not musical at all. I knew I had to do it from the time I was 16, and had a friend when I was about 18 who ended up making it really big really quick, so there was that like, possibility, I guess. I just had to go to college and do a lot of other stuff before I really laid into it.
Maybe it’s an overly sweeping question, but does your work/life as a cowboy drive your life/work as a musician or is it more vice versa or kind of both?
Working with horses didn’t start til I was 25. And when it did, it changed my entire perspective on songwriting and music. Working horseback became just as exciting, interesting, stimulating, and creative, and took the pressure off of music to be the primary focus of my life. That really allowed me to loosen up, take bigger risks, put less weight in my failures, and overall just be more purposeful in my approach. It also gave me way cooler shit to write about.
One of the more intriguing inspirations you mention on your website are ‘anarcho-christian banjo players’… is there a band/player in particular and what is the influence they have on your music?
Seth Martin is the man. Seth Martin and the Menders. I don’t know if he still considers himself an anarcho-christian, but I always thought it had a nice ring to it. Me and Seth grew up in neighboring towns and became friends when we were around 18. He did a lot of Pete Seeger/Utah Phillips-style tours, writing his own great songs, and reviving traditional folk songs, singing for homeless shelters, communes, and reservations, as well as teaching English in Korea. Which is where he is now, singing Korean folk songs with his banjo, protesting [against] US Military base construction, and spreading word, mostly via Facebook, of the huge peaceful protest that replaced the country’s corrupt leadership with a more pacifist, open-minded leader (who was responsible for the thawing in North Korea’s relationship, like having an Olympic team together). Seriously powerful stuff.
And the Canadian cowboys and buddhist hermits you also mention as influences?
Ian Tyson wrote ‘MC Horses’, the greatest song ever written. He’s one of the best damn songwriters in the world, and his core audience is cowboys. Yeah I don’t know any real buddhist hermits. Maybe someday I’ll meet Gary Snyder. I do really relate to their poetry though. themes of isolation, casting away of material goals like money, living in rugged, but beautiful places, chasing freedom, really overlap a lot with cowboy poetry.
I’ve noticed that some of the songs on ‘O Bronder, Donder Yonder?’ have re-appeared on your previous album ‘Ol’ Yonder’ – ‘Rawhide’, ‘Yonder Mountain’ and (as ‘A Quarter Til Tomorrow’), ‘Burnin’ Starlight’. Were there any reasons in particular why these songs have appeared a second time around?
From its inception, ‘Ol’ Yonder’ was an experiment with the tape machine (actually a 1-track!) my then girlfriend brought home from a junk store. I plugged an SM57 into the 1/8″ input jack and sat three feet away from it. I knew the songs I was recording weren’t complete, but then, the recordings were of such low fidelity that I knew I was at little risk of actually releasing them. The joke was on me. I guess the reason I re-recorded them is that the songs weren’t lyrically complete yet, and they were definitely meant to be bigger arrangements. In fact, I recorded ‘O Bronder’ about 2 months before I released ‘Ol’ Yonder’, so as far as I was concerned, the cassette demos were just that – demos. I released them as a way to buy time before the release of Bronder.
You also mention ‘Pendleton Overcoat’ as your oldest song in the repertoire, and that you’ve wanted to record it for a long time – was there any reason why you wanted it on this particular album or is it that recording it was long overdue full stop?
‘Pendleton.’ I love that song. I have actually recorded that song in a different arrangement almost every year in the nine years since I wrote it. This felt like the right time put it down properly for a couple reasons – it does fit a larger theme of finding a more harmonious relationship with another human and nature, and it also makes a nice sonic break from the big band arrangements. it’s a song to sing to your lover in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and this arrangement is reflective of that.
Having a music video shot from horseback like in ‘Yonder Mountain’ is very unusual but (I think) fits really well with the idea of movement and the whole sound of the song…what was the idea behind that particular video and can you tell us a bit about the ‘making of’?
That was a really lucky accident. I take those short video clips on a lot of my rides, eventually to put them on Instagram or some shit, but really they just look cool. Those are days where I’m horseback for like eight hours, so if things are going smooth, I’ll just take one of those little videos to have some record of the day. The camera on my phone got all screwed up when it fell out of my truck and laid in the road for a few days last summer, so that really adds to the “lo-fi” ambience. I needed a video for promoting the album, but it was the middle of winter so I couldn’t like go make a music video at the ranch, and I kind of hate music videos anyway, so I just kind of dumped all those shots into iMovie and said “well, here goes.” As soon as I put the music to it, I knew it was working. Took me like maybe an hour, all told. I really like how it turned out. It’s like there’s so much “wrong” with it that it really makes a statement – like the shots are vertical, not horizontal, so most of the screen is blank, the resolution is terrible, but then there’s this rhythm of the mules heads bobbing and the mountains that make it all seem really intentional. Which, coming back to the question about how my work with horses influenced the sound of the record, makes a lot of sense.
You’ve quoted some Gillian Welch in one song and I’ve listened to (and liked) your own version of her ‘Hard Times’ on the previous album. Is she a particularly important influence?
GILLIAN. I was late to the Gillian & Dave [Rawlings – Gillian Welch musical partner – Ed.] train. When I did find their music, I was unemployed in the middle of a harsh winter (jan. 2018, when I recorded ‘Ol’ Yonder’), so I did nothing but sit in my kitchen watching all their live videos on Youtube for about three months. I covered ‘Hard Times’ after I had been through some hard times, and the fact that a mule is the main character in the song only makes it resonate more with me (I call out a few mules and horses of my own in that version). [The lyrics] “Wheel inside a wheel on fire” comes up in [O, Bronder, Donder Yonder? song] ‘Lady Godiva’ because… I was listening to ‘Revelator’ and ‘The Basement Tapes’ and reading King Lear and Zen poetry all at the same time. There’s a lot of wheels in there. Gill is herself an influence, and also a contemporary with similar influences to me – so when i wanted to make a record using ‘Harvest’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’ as a skeleton, I was able to look ‘Soul Journey’ for encouragement and further inspiration. We tend to steal from a lot of the same places. Dave, as well – ‘Nashville Obsolete’ is (like ‘Harvest’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘Soul Journey’) another experiment with half-time tempos and minimal overdubs. Dave’s production (similar to Dave Cobb and Bob Dylan, who “didn’t know overdubbing existed until ’78”) methods include: no headphones, live tracking, tape, minimal overdubs, and no listening to playback. Also an SM57 on the snare. A quiet drummer is crucial. I used all of these. I didn’t even listen to the playback until we had half of the tracks recorded. My guitarist, Ben Walden, is a huge devotee of Welch/Rawlings as well, so that allowed me to turn him loose with his parts.
Listening to what’s come before in your albums, would you feel it’s fair to say that ‘O Bronder, Donder Yonder?’ is not a huge, sudden break with the past and what you’ve done before, but kind of developing out of that?
Fair. I keep trying to write the same thing and end up getting closer and closer to the truth. The last thing I write will be a poem of one true word growing into the bark of a ponderosa (or a juniper? or a rock? or the hair of an elk?) deep in the wilderness.
‘O Bronder, Donder Yonder’ is out now on Hearth Music