The Duhks may have faltered but their ethos is alive and well and they may make a comeback.
Leonard Podolak is an Old-Time banjo player who was founder and leader of Canadian band The Duhks, He’s now also the Executive Director of Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous, an innovative organisation working to improve infrastructure and opportunity for Canadian roots musicians. Leonard has always been an extremely creative musician, bringing a wide range of influences, including gospel, afro-carribean, rock and blues, to his playing of traditional music from Appalachia, Ireland, Scotland, England, Quebec, and Louisiana.
Though The Duhks are currently inactive Leonard himself is as busy as ever, both with performing and with the running of a very active arts organisation. A Grammy and Juno award winner, he found time in a very busy schedule to share a few thoughts with Americana UK’s Rick Bayles.
Leonard, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. What’s a Grammy award-winning, Old-Time banjo player doing with his life these days?
Because of the pandemic, I’m not playing much music with anybody right now. I am working; I’m part of an organisation called ‘Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous’, which helps people host home concerts. During the pandemic, we’ve been organising a lot of online shows. A lot has changed in the last few years – I have two daughters that arrived since the last Duhks appearances. It’s amazing how quickly that time goes by – they’re five and two now and are both doing great.
So are you in Lockdown right now (May 2021)?
We are but the messaging is confusing. Here in Canada, it works province by province. Typically, the more conservative the local government the less the lockdown measures they want to put forward. The more they try to push the importance of keeping the economy going. We always end up paying for it. Winnipeg has 700,000 people and there were 300 cases yesterday and again today. The messaging right now is really confusing and it’s beginning to annoy people. You can’t have anyone over to visit, not even out in your garden but you can go to a restaurant and have people from four different households sitting on the patio – and it’s just really bizarre. I’m not an economist and I don’t know how it all works but I don’t understand why everyone’s supposed to take a hit apart from the banks, I guess.
Mixed messaging never helps.
Well, the health systems here are all run provincially so there’s no central messaging.
Let’s talk a bit about The Duhks. As you know, we featured the band in our “Whatever Happened To…” series and we got a lot of response to it. It seems there’s a lot of people out there who remember the band really fondly. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because we loved being where we were. We loved being in the moment. We loved festivals and we loved meeting people. We’d go to a festival and we’d do our show, we’d do that whole thing but then, well, we’re also music fans so we’d want to see the other bands. Yeah, there’s a lot of schmoozing and fun hanging out backstage and we’d do that too but we’d be at a festival and we’d be just as likely to be out there with the rest of the crowd and be a part of the event. I also think we gave a lot of who we were on stage. We spent a lot of time trying to destroy that fourth wall and we weren’t always trying to wow them with our amazing chops. For me, it was a real pleasure to play with the band, Jordan and Tania especially, as far as stringed instruments go. It was a real pleasure to play with them all and a real challenge to keep up but that was never the point of it. The point of it was the feeling and the vibe that everybody had, including the audiences. We were creating together, and I think that’s why we registered with people.
The band was an interesting mix; you all brought some very different things to the unit as a whole. Was that something you set out to do when you put the band together or did it come about by accident?
Sort of both, in a way. For one thing; I grew up in the Folk music business. My folks were heavily involved in gigs and starting festivals; I grew up with music and musicians all around me. As a kid, more of my friends weren’t into folk, dance and fiddle and all these things that may exist on the east coast of Canada or over in England, Scotland and Ireland but in Manitoba, it was more about bands like Aerosmith! The folk festival was like a party for folks. My Dad did a survey one year to see what sort of people were coming – was it 50% folkies, 10% the party crowd plus assorted fringe music fans? They found out it was 3% folk music fans and 97% partyers coming to the event! But that was OK because, if it was successful, those partyers would discover Folk music and it would become a lasting event in the town – and that’s exactly what happened. Growing up in that I didn’t really know the difference myself until I started playing and delving into the music. I didn’t know that Johnnie Cunningham and Kevin Burke played different fiddle traditions – Scottish and Irish sounded kind of the same to me then, but it was all good. And Blues and Old Time and Cajun…all those things; it was just music and that’s the feeling I grew up with. Jessee Havey and Jordan McConnell also spent a great deal of time at the Winnipeg folk festival and in and around this scene discovering music and we never had that closed attitude that we’re learning this one thing – we were learning music. Jordan was heavily into Irish guitar playing and I bought a bouzouki, though I never really got that good at it, but I thought that kind of guitar playing would sound great with old-time banjo and fiddle and so I was looking for that sound. I was in a group called Scruj MacDuhk before The Duhks and The Duhks were, sort of, the honing of that idea but, really, it was more to do with the fact that I couldn’t put together a straight Old Time band and I couldn’t put together a straight Irish band. I sucked at playing Irish instruments but I could play the banjo really well so why not play Irish tunes on it?! Now, since the last Duhks album, I’ve developed this style of playing Irish tunes on the banjo that I hadn’t even approached in The Duhks. They were Irish tunes but I was playing them like it was straight-up clawhammer – playing them with an Old Time technique.
But, to a large extent, that was the appeal of The Duhks. With that eclectic mix of styles you didn’t sound like other bands.
I’ve been telling myself I wish I could re-record all those albums now I know how to play triplets and a lot of the gateways to that music are open to me now. One of the things when you get on the road; you establish a repertoire, build your show. You get on the road and do it for ten months and the show gets really slick and the creativity switches from being within the arrangements themselves to how it all fits together and how it’s presented and we hone that every night but, as far as getting better on your instrument, well…
It was sort of a double-edged sword because it wasn’t just the gigs we were doing, it was the radio and the promotions and the travel and the late nights and the socialising and all of that. In a lot of ways, for all of us, the time off from the road over the last four or five years has been a good, creative time for each of us but, the reality is, that we miss each other – so, when articles like yours come out we start to scratch our heads and go “Gee whiz, was it really all that bad?” We’re all busy now but, man, I haven’t played music with anybody in over a year; and Jordan McConnell literally lives down the street. On the same road!
I’ve been always having little schemes in my head – how can we make the band work? One of the problems with our reality was that we were in Canada, but our fan base was really in the States and, at the time, we couldn’t really get funding for touring to the States because we’d signed with an American record company and our Masters were owned in America. We took a gamble and, in some ways, it paid off but in other ways it didn’t – we cut ourselves off from a lot of potential Canadian funding.
Can you tell me what really happened with The Duhks? Did the band run out of steam? Did it stop being fun? Do you think you guys would ever work together again as a band?
That’s a good way to describe it; we ran out of steam. The work/home ratio wasn’t good enough and the conditions on the road could be tough. We had so much respect in the business from our colleagues and our peers and we did make a very good mix as a folk band, but we did not hit where, say, Sarah Jarosz is now; we definitely didn’t hit where Billy Strings is now – and that’s cool; I’m so happy for that guy; we met him when he was just going with his pals, Don Julin and William McAustell, we met them on the street in Traverse City, Michigan. What a guy – and I’m a Doc Watson fanatic! It’s so refreshing to see a young player like him doing so well; but The Duhks never hit it in that way, a way that we could sustain it all financially. None of us were songwriters at the time. Jess was starting to write songs and she’s written a whole bunch since then, but none of us were really songwriters at that time, that wasn’t what we did. Without that income stream and with high logistical expenses, plus we had a manager, and a road manager, a business manager, lawyers, booking agent, publicist – all that in combination with the extremely high touring expenses…I don’t want to say what our annual income was in The Duhks but it wasn’t much. It all just got to the point where it was too much for different people at different times. And, we all had other things. The summer before we started the band, Jordan’s father had asked him if he’d be interested in taking a guitar building course. He really liked the idea and while he was away on the course, his Dad re-tooled the shed and turned it into a terrific guitar building and maintenance workshop. It was a small space but really well laid out – he made it really nice. Jordan came back from the course, with a guitar he’d built, to his own guitar-making workshop in his own backyard! He started making beautiful guitars almost straight away. Noel Ryan from the band Danu picked one up right away and it started to happen for Jordan immediately. And then The Duhks started to happen. I said “Jordan, here’s the thing, guitar building is your whole life but rock ‘n’ roll is right now!” and I talked him into it – he bought that and it was true but, at that point, he was starting to build a reputation as a luthier. And this was just Jordan; we had all kinds of things going on. That isn’t what split the band but it’s an example of the different things that were going on. I would’ve slept on couches and played in sheds my whole life but other things were happening. Scott Senior had a kid early on and that had an effect and the touring schedule, without financial benefit, just got too much.
We had so many great experiences. When I think about what it was to be a Duhk and what I would have to go through to start a new band and get all that again…we took it so much for granted, we had no idea, but now what’s great is that we have other priorities and, in answer to your original question, the original band are now talking together about the future. Having been a part of the Home Routes team and a part of doing house concerts across the country and creating an online programme and putting on online shows and seeing how that works, I’ve started to embrace the idea that The Duhks could definitely exist and we could work remotely and put music together. Four of us live in the same town and Tania has as much talent in one fingernail in one day as I will ever have in my whole life in my whole body – she can do anything. I have a full-time job, Jordan has a full-time job, Tania is mostly with The Avetts, Jess is real busy but, yes, the original band, Scott Senior, the ‘Migrations’ and ‘The Duhks’ band, we’re talking. We’re in the early stages and it’s no small thanks to your article. Honestly; those are the sort of things that make us realise there are thousands of people who love our music. We do make good music and we can still do something.
There’s no question you guys made great music and there’s definitely still an audience for you out there.
I’ve had a conversation with Jordan and Jessee over the last couple of days and we talked about the possibilities. Just before the pandemic hit we had both the reunion concerts scheduled, at the Suwannee Spring Fest and Live Oak, Florida, which is the place that kind of made our career, in a way. Back then the guy called us two weeks before his festival and said, “Leonard, I don’t know what to say or do. There’s no money and no space but don’t go too far from your phone” and then, a couple of days later, he called me and said we’re going to fly you down. There was no fee but he was going to fly us down, rent a car for us and put us up in a hotel which, in reality, was like a 7500 dollar fee – “and you close Saturday night. What do you say?” And I was like, yeah, we’re there!”. No fee, so we didn’t do visas, we just said we were going to hang out and we got away with it – and that’s where Holly Lowman from Sugar Hill saw us. She sent her report in to A&R and we got the phone call. One thing led to another and the next thing you know we’re making a record in Nashville with Bela Fleck and Gary Paczosa and the whole thing just started off and that’s why it paid off. Financially The Duhks wasn’t a success but experience-wise, playing music and learning music and being part of this community – if you look at who produced The Duhks records in the States it’s like, “Are you kidding me?!” Working with Bela and Gary, working with Tim O’Brien….so, all of us have the understanding that we’re not 18 to 26 anymore, we’re 38 and 40 and 45 and we have kids and other responsibilities and way more perspective and we believe a whole lot less of our own BS about how great we think we are. We know what parts are great and we know what parts need improvement and I do think a lot of us have improved, I know that I have. It’s a journey to become better people and become more understanding and more compassionate – but I think we do all want to play together again and next year’s the 20th anniversary of the band and I said to Jess & Jordan, “You know and I know we’re not going to go on the road again for ten months of the year but what do you say we apply for some funding and try to figure out a 20th anniversary recording?” and Jordan said, “20 years, 20 songs” and I just got this big smile on my face. Who knows if it’ll be that ambitious but I have an idea that, maybe, we’ll call up some old pals and make a series of recordings and put them online. I’m not in a big rush to jump into bed with a record label again. There’s a whole bunch of things that those things bring.
And there’s a different way to do things now. The recording world has moved on – you don’t have to get a record company involved if you don’t want to; you can handle the recording yourselves and reach the audience you want to reach.
That’s what I think. The point of doing it wouldn’t be to get rich or to re-ignite & re-start the machine, if you know what I mean. Artistically – that’s the thing. We love the idea of making music together again, being creative together. A funny thing happened in my life during the final attempt of The Duhks, during the making of ‘Beyond the Blue’. I got hooked up with this guy Neil Pearson, who used to run the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and who runs all these song projects and I became part of the Cecil Sharp Project in 2011, with Steve Knightley, Andy Cutting and a whole bunch from the UK folk scene. At the same time, I started this duo with Matty Gordon, an Old Time fiddler and clogger so, after we did the Cecil Sharp Project, Steve asks me to open up for Show of Hands and Matty and I came and did two months playing all around the UK. The whole tour was absolutely insane. Matty and I came to an agreement for our duo together. I really enjoy every gig we’ve done together over the last ten years and our agreement has always been that it has to be fun and it has to make us money. That’s the two rules. Last time we played together we were part of the show with Show of Hands at the Albert Hall and that was great. Now I try to take that approach with everything I do. With The Duhks my biggest mistake was trying to take over the world and trying to change the world and trying to make things happen rather than just letting them happen.
But that’s what happens with young bands. You need that fire in your belly and the belief you’re meant for great things. It’s only as you get older that you realise other things are often more important. It becomes more about the art and less about being stars.
We didn’t set out to be stars. I didn’t know it was possible to have the sort of success we had in The Duhks playing folk music. At the time, I just didn’t get it – and then, very soon, we did get it and we did want to be stars. And that’s where it starts to go wrong. We fired our manager and he was our friend. He didn’t have as many contacts and, while it might still have happened with him it might not have happened so quickly and we did all these things for success. We got some guys from New York who had a big, fancy office in Manhattan, staring at the Empire State Building, we sent them a whack of dough and got nothing really to show for it. The people who signed us at Sugar Hill, that was a strange dynamic too. They got bought by the Welk Music Group – Lawrence Welk’s family. They ran the company that had three or four different record labels, and Sugar Hill was one, from their L.A. office. There was also a Nashville office of Sugar Hill and the original Durham office in North Carolina. The people who signed the band and were passionate about The Duhks were in the Durham and Nashville offices. I wish I could turn back the clocks and do it all again with those people because every band should have the experience of working with a team who truly believe in you and are going to set out as many opportunities as they can and use their resources to the best of their ability, passion and heart. But, unfortunately, Welk bought that company from Barry Poss and they had an agreement that he couldn’t fire any of the staff for eight years after the sale – and eight years and three months later, bang, just like that they were all gone; and that happened between ‘Migrations’ and ‘Fast Paced World’.
Let’s talk about what you are doing now. Let’s talk about Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous.
The founding of Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous was inspired, believe it or not, by The Duhks. My parents started it. They had founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival and my Dad started the Stan Fest Festival and a bunch of other things across Canada and then went on into theatre and artist management for a while. Then, at one point, at the height of our success, when we were Grammy winners and Juno nominees & CAA is our agency – he saw us drive from Marquette, Michigan to Edmonton Alberta with a week off and no gigs along the route and he thought that was crazy – how could that be?! He felt that there had to be more infrastructure for folk music in Canada. So, with the help of the Canada Council & the CBC, he animated about 80 people to sign up for 6 house concerts a year and he created small tours, little routes, so that six times a year one house would do a concert and that house would be in a network with 11 other homes. An artist could do a tour of house concerts and each one of those tours would happen with 6 artists, 6 times a year. And then there was an article in the Readers’ Digest about it and the whole thing just exploded across the country with 16 different routes and they’ve maintained it and seen it change with people coming and going but it has continued to grow and develop. When things were winding down with The Duhks my wife got pregnant and then my Dad gets sick and can’t work so much and then the band ended and I was thinking about starting something new when my Dad asked me if I wanted to come into the organisation and take his place. So, I stepped into my Dad’s shoes as Executive Director and worked with the Artistic Director and General Manager, who’s my mother, Ava Kobrinsky. I stepped into that role and we started a festival called The Winnipeg Crankie Festival (a Crankie festival combines visual art, music and the written word in performances geared towards family and audience participation). I was really inspired by Anna and Elizabeth who brought Crankie visual musical moving panoramas into Old-Time music and as the son of a Festival Director, running a non-profit arts organisation I thought these were amazing because we could bring together music, visual art and storytelling and make a festival involving every artist in town and get them all working together – it would be a cohesive thing. So, that’s what we did. We just did our third anniversary online but the first two were in a church and we turned this big United Church into a festival site. The sanctuary’s the main stage and there’s a theatre upstairs and a gym downstairs and there’s offices and a boardroom – it’s like The Hogwarts of folk music!
Then, with all that happening, Covid hit. That had a big effect on Home Routes, so we asked the 50 or so artists that we had to cancel in one day if they would be interested in doing a live stream and that we wouldn’t just share our log-in to our Facebook page, and, at the time, we had three thousand followers because Home Routes digital media is the opposite of how Home Routes was founded in the first place. Our job was to get people to agree to do the home concerts and to line up the artists and put them together and schedule them but, as far as spreading the word it was up to the hosts to get the word out there, usually by word of mouth. That’s what my Dad thought was cool. I came into the organisation going “No way, man!”. I know what it is to promote a show and promote a tour. I mean, it is cool if a host can get 40 people everytime but, if they can’t, they can’t and so I hired a publicist and started trying to bring them into a more modern approach.
Anyway, the pandemic hit and we did 80 streams in two and a half months between March and May 2020 and then that three thousand followers on Facebook went to eight thousand and then, as an organisation, we said, it’s cool, artists are making between 300 and 1,000 bucks for these shows but we have to do more. So now we’re using our social media to advertise and to market our ticketed shows, which we do on Zoom, and they’re really, really fun. We work with a guy called Graham Lindsey at Wavelength PDF. It’s a four-person production crew. Graham’s driving the video editing, so to speak, on Zoom. We have a ticketing system that’s secure and runs through our website. It’s really slick. With Zoom we can run workshops, virtually in the round. You can have two people in North Carolina and somebody in the Yukon and if you have somebody moderating it and editing it we get together with the artists and we do technical support, set them up with the right microphones, take them through the settings, getting everything right, we do soundchecks we, literally, do everything that happens at a show and now, instead of being word of mouth, we tell our hosts about the events and ask them to share them but we are marketing directly on-line.
Obviously, the pandemic has been bad, no doubt about it, but some good things have come out of it and what you’ve done is a great example of that. You’d have gone on doing your house concerts and small tours for a long time before you looked to change things without the changes forced by COVID. Organisations like yours need to re-invent themselves from time to time to stay relevant and, when you’re forced to do something, good organisations show how creative and innovative they can be. Now, I guess, your challenge is what you do when we come out of the pandemic.
That’s exactly the discussions we’re having right now. It could be that, in a year or so, it’ll all be fine but we’re still getting 300 or more cases a day and, even with the vaccine, are you going to be ready to have 40 people in your homes and, even if you are, is it the right thing to do? So we’re talking about a number of ideas. One has come from Steve Knightly, actually, called ‘Build Your Own Gig’. He gave his fans a kit, a tool kit for how to structure a Steve Knightly concert at your village hall and got his fans to create a tour for him. That’s one way we see our relationship with our hosts changing. Let’s not do tour concerts in your home now, let’s find a public space and run an event there but like a home concert, so you keep the sense of intimacy. If we have to pay 50 bucks for somewhere like a library let’s do it. We want to get into more public spaces. Our mandate as an organisation is to create more infrastructure, more places to play and more opportunities for acoustic musicians.
What I love about what you’re saying is that this, to me, is folk music in action. It’s a living example of what roots music is all about – sharing experiences and culture and it seems like Home Routes is doing a great job.
My favourite thing to do is to hire a Quebecois artist and send them on a tour of Alberta – because there’s a huge cultural difference but, when they get together they find out that, while they speak a different language they have the same concerns and the same things they hold dear and that are important to them.
We’re also thinking that, now, Home Routes tours are going to be a more dynamic experience for artists because now that we’ve built this online presence we’re going to use it as a means to spread the word about an artist and use it to create online content; do an on-line show a couple of weeks before you tour. Not only will you make your gas money for the tour but you’re going to give a sense of who you are to the communities you’re going to visit. We’ll be directly creating that bridge between the artist and the communities before they tour. You know, maybe that’s one of the reasons why The Duhks didn’t last. We operated on the lines of “You want us? Sure, we’ll come and play”. We were never very skilled negotiators. It was all about the music and community but you need the infrastructure to support that. It has been a lot of joy. Honestly, there was a time, after The Duhks finished, when I was pulling my hair out, wondering what went wrong and why is my life so different now, but the last year or so has been a wonderful kind of a shakeup – I’ve realised I’ve got so much going for me. My daughters are both princesses and I’m part of this thing that’s really powerful, that’s doing a lot. We did a show a couple of weeks ago and sold ten thousand dollars worth of tickets and three different artists made nearly 2500 dollars for pretty much the same amount of effort that has gone into doing this online interview. I mean, I’m not rehearsed (laughs), but otherwise….they’re not leaving their house and they’re still able to make money. It’s a wonderful thing.
What’s impressed me a lot with some of the online concerts I’ve seen is the way the artists can still connect with the audience. You’d think they’d struggle to create connections over the internet but that’s not been the case in my experience.
Well, that’s the thing. Artists, musicians, we’re always trying to break down the barriers anyway. When you’re on stage, with the lights in your eyes, you often can’t see the audience anyway but you still have to connect with them, so you do. Now we’re all using platforms like Zoom every day so that ability to make distant connections becomes even more important. I got asked to be part of something called The Quarantine Happy Hour on Facebook. It’s out of Oregon and they’ve been running Old Time music streams every day for a year. They don’t do it like we do – they just give the artist a standard handout on how to do these things on Facebook and there’s another Facebook page for how to troubleshoot any problems and there’s a Quarantine Happy Hour page for soundchecks and it’s hilarious; real do it yourself stuff. But I did one and having the number 82 in the corner was a big thing. There were 82 people watching me at that time and I saw the number go up as I was performing and I thought “there’s a little sense of anticipation for a Leonard Podolak show after all. Cool!” So I just got into it and just started doing exactly what I’ve always done; talking to them like they’re just on the other side of the mic and, when the show ended and I hit the off button I felt like I’d just got off the stage at Cambridge, if you know what I mean. I was like, wow, I haven’t had this feeling in so long! And then the donations came in and I was thinking, this is amazing! I do think a lot of artists are starting to see that now. A lot of people are realising it’s very do-able. Some artists are doing it all the time but there are some who have been very hesitant to get involved and those are the people we really like working with. A good example would be Old Man Luedecke, an Old Time banjo player. He hadn’t done a show in so long but he’s doing one with us next week. It’s going to be amazing.
What’s driving you now? What are you looking forward to over the next few months?
I’m looking forward to making the digital integration and making a strategic plan that brings together the digital programming with the live programming, when we can, and creating what I like to say is a multi-platform opportunity for artists to create and disseminate content as they go and to tell the story on-line about what artists are doing on the road and combine that with record releases and whatever.
And I want to re-integrate The Duhks into my life. Your article – it was so crazy to read my life like that and it lit a fire under my ass! (laughs)
Since this interview was conducted, The Duhks have now confirmed that they will be reuniting in 2022 to mark the band’s 20th anniversary. An appearance at Wintergrass 2022 is already confirmed, with other Festival appearances in the pipeline. And there’s still that tantalising chance of a new recording…
You can find out more about Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous at homeroutes.ca
Leonard Podolak’s website is at leonardpodolak.com