Learning to play the guitar by watching TV with Laura Weber.
The Roches carved out their own niche in music from the late ‘70s to the ‘90s and while they were marketed as a folk act the three sisters, Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy, always managed to bring their own twist to their music. An example of this is that while they wrote from a female perspective they didn’t toe the feminist line and their eponymous 1979 debut album was produced by non-other than Robert Fripp. When the Roches ground to a halt in the ‘90s the sisters continued their careers in various combinations and projects, with Suzzy being part of the Wainwright family. What some listeners may have forgotten, or missed, is that Maggie and Terre recorded a duet album in 1973, ‘Seductive Reasoning’, which was recorded in various locations including London and Muscle Shoals and featured The Muscle Shoals Swampers, Paul Simon and the Yardbirds’ Ian Samwell-Smith. The two sisters didn’t promote the album and it didn’t set the charts alight.
The Roches story is getting an update in 2023 with the release of previously unreleased Maggie and Terre live duet recordings from the early ‘70s the turn of the 21st Century, made all the more poignant by Maggie’s passing in 2017. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Terre Roche in The Virgin Islands over Zoom to discuss ‘Kin Ya See That Sun’. This is not a standard album release as it is also a book that has memorabilia, lyrics, photographs, and illustrations drawn by Terri and includes a QR code for the reader to access each song while reading the lyrics. She explains that she had to leave high school to join her sister Maggie on a tour of a different America in 1970, and the pleasure of being able to share that experience more than fifty years later. The book also allowed Terre to revisit ‘Seductive Reasoning’ with the people involved with its production and close the circle on why she and Maggie didn’t want to promote the album. Finally, while always taking a feminine line, Terre recounts her shock at being harangued in German by a bunch of German feminists at a Roches’ gig in Berlin.
You have had a varied 50-year-long career, what was it like going back to year zero with ‘Kin Ya See That Sun’?
Somebody sent me these live recordings of my sister Maggie and me when we were on tour all over the United States in 1970. Maggie had written all these songs and we had been given the opportunity to tour all over the country, and I had to leave high school to go on the tour. It was very unusual because went to all these States, and there were no red States or blue States, and it wasn’t the divided country we have now. When I was sent these recordings I didn’t have any recordings of us from that time period because a lot of the songs we were doing eventually came out on a record we did in 1975 called ‘Seductive Reasoning’ . That record was very produced, Paul Simon produced part of it and as did Paul Samwell-Smith from The Yardbirds, and we did those tracks in London, and that is all I had from that time period, and I loved that record, but now I was hearing these live recordings straight off the board in front of an audience, just me and Maggie on our guitars and I thought this music deserves to be released, it deserves a life and for people to be able to hear it.
I then got the idea of tracking down all these people who had worked with us and might remember us, and interviewing them. The interviews are where the quotations in the book came from, and the picture on the front cover is the publicity picture the coffeehouse circuit used for us. They would book us into a college and send the publicity photograph, and one of the interviews I did for the book was with the very first person, who was a student at a college in the mid-west, who had picked this up at an airport on our very first gig on that tour, and he had saved the photograph and even framed it. So now he is in his eighties, and he still has the picture in his house, and I thought well that is the cover of the book. I wanted the book to present these songs featuring the lyrics in a very dignified way. So I drew pictures around the lyrics to present them in large enough print, and opposite the lyric page there is a graphic that includes a QR code in the corner, and that will play that particular song. So you can hang out with each individual song, you can read the lyrics and through the QR code you can listen to that song, it is such fun because you don’t have to find that song or sift through the album. You can just hang out with the song, read the lyrics and look at the drawings themselves, in some cases there is text.
At the beginning of the book, there are all these old clippings I found. There is a picture of us singing for the governor and a senator of our State of New Jersey, because that is how we got started, singing campaign songs for local Democratic candidates. There is also a review of us from one of the colleges with a picture. It’s kind of funny because the review isn’t completely positive and complementary. It is not a scathing review, it is more that these people were rather awkward and we didn’t know what to make of them and some people in the audience really liked them and others didn’t like them. The interesting thing for me was how different it was going to these States in those days because there was no internet, so someone in Wisconsin or in Idaho had maybe never met someone from New Jersey. We were like the old-fashioned troubadours coming through your town with news from other places because it wasn’t this global world where people have friends all over the world. When I heard the songs Maggie had written out of that experience I realised they really are folk music, because it was just the two of us travelling around, there was nobody else, there was no band, and we had all day long in these college campuses to write songs and rehearse and stuff, and then we would have these long drives across say Nebraska. It was a very fresh experience for us because we had never travelled anywhere until this experience.
So it felt to me like I would love to put this out, and at first, I was just going to stick the whole thing on YouTube and tell everyone to check it out, but then Michael Tannen, who is the Executive Producer of this project, he was Paul Simon’s business partner and managed us when we were teenagers and when we made that record, said he thought we should make a project of it. And that is how it kind of became a release.
The book is a very interesting concept, it is like an old-style album cover updated for the 21st century, you can have an end-to-end experience around the basic listening experience with the ease of just dipping in and out. It will be interesting to see if other artists pick up on the concept.
I have a feeling they will. It will depend on the kind of music because this kind of music transfers very well to an iPhone with a QR code, I don’t know whether you would want to enjoy some very lushly produced music this way. This is just the two of us and our guitars, and it comes across beautifully on the QR code and comes out of your phone in a surprising way. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people, everything from younger people who think the QR concept is really cool, but I’ve also had people of my generation, my own friends, who are mystified about how it works. I have one friend who wrote to me to say she was having a nervous breakdown trying to listen to my new record, and I said you don’t have to use the QR code, take the link and go on Spotify, go to YouTube, it is all on YouTube. It has been an interesting thing because as you observed, it is very modern in its use of technology but it is also very similar to all those big album covers we used to pour over and look at all the pictures, and I wanted to take that to yet another level with the presentation of the lyrics. Even on the LPs, the lyrics were these little pieces of information, and I was like, no, let’s show the lyrics in a big way and tell the story of what this was. People told me I should release vinyl because everyone is listening to vinyl, but I thought everyone except me.
What did you learn from this project, going back fifty years to a younger self?
I did have a lot of insight, largely provided by the other people and their memories. I would say one of the main things coming out of this book for me was when Maggie and I got signed by Columbia Records and we put out ‘Seductive Reasoning’ in 1975 it took us a year and a half to make, and they sent us to London for three or four months and we lived there, then they sent us down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to cut the tracks. The whole thing was how do we get this music on the radio because in those days there was no YouTube and no alternative ways of releasing something. A lot of it was done in New York with different producers, and the experience of working with all these people for Maggie and me was challenging because we had never had a music lesson, and we didn’t come from a family where everyone was singing songs.
We had learnt to play the guitar from watching a TV show called ‘Folk Guitar With Laura Weber’ coming out of San Francisco, and my parents had given Maggie a little nylon stringed guitar for Christmas in 1964, and everyone was like guitars, the Beatles, and everyone want to play guitar, and that’s how we learned, off that TV show. Maggie immediately started to write her own songs, so now we were writing and I was figuring out what I could play on guitar in this song. So we were very much self-taught and in the studio with session musicians who played on hit records and we got very badly intimidated by all of this and we started to feel we didn’t belong in the position we were in so we decided to quit.
We walked out on our contract with Columbia Records and we moved down to Louisiana to a town called Hammond where a friend of ours, who we’d met on this touring, had started a Kung Fu Temple in an abandoned building, and he had out of the blue sent this letter saying you guys should come down here, we are in this Kung Fu thing. It was a very makeshift communal living kind of thing, so we gave up our apartment in New York, and we went down to this town Hammond and walked out on the record contract. So one of the things I learned from doing this project with the book was that all of the producers involved were mystified about what happened and that they felt they had done a bad job. So in their minds, the Maggie and Terre record ‘Seductive Reasoning’ was a failure, and we thought of it as a failure, everyone thought it was a failure. Over the years that record has developed a cult following. I get lots of messages and letters from people who have found that record saying oh my God, what a great record it is, but because we ran out and didn’t promote it and we sort of just escaped from the situation, it didn’t get a lot of attention. So it was really nice for me to be able to speak in person to the producers and let them know that they did a great job, that wasn’t the problem, it wasn’t that they didn’t do a good job. That was a great feeling fifty years later to put that idea to rest with the people who thought they had failed.
You don’t often get chances like that in life.
No. The whole thing was so cathartic, going full circle and going back to a situation where you had felt a failure and realising the music itself, at least to me, is glorious. When I think of these two teenagers wandering about by themselves all over the United States, today our parents would get arrested for letting us do that.
What do you think Maggie would have thought of the project?
I think about that a lot, and I think she would love it. You have to remember these arrangements we were playing were before Lilith Fair, it was before women were playing their own music instrumentally. You had people like Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, but if you listen to those records a lot of the players were men, not that there is anything wrong with playing with men, one the things about us was that we played and sang the whole thing ourselves, but that was the problem when it came to signing with a label for a major deal because they had to take these people into the studio and have the studio cats play on these songs and have the girls sing over the top. We said we didn’t know how to do that, all we know how to do is play these songs together with this intricate accompaniment. So to allow that basic sound to come out, I think Maggie would be just thrilled that this was released without being changed into something, or edited or auto-tuned or anything like that. In fact, in 2000 we did a short tour playing these songs, it was roughly a two-week tour where Maggie and I did these arrangements, and part of that tour was recorded beautifully at one of the gigs, and half of this release is from those gigs, and the other half is from the 1970s. It is all like direct-to-tape and I think it all sounds fantastic. It is almost as if the world has come around to listening to this.
The Roches sang about matters from a female perspective but you weren’t overtly feminist, what do you think your legacy is for today?
I’m very proud of it. My work with the Roches, and also my work with another trio, Afro-Jersey, which was a whole different kind of project, and all the other things I’ve done, I did the singing on one of Robert Fripp’s records after he did some work with the Roches. But I’m very proud of the Roches’ records. Some people say oh I can’t listen to my old records, but I love listening to the old Roches’ records, and I’m amazed that we were making our way through the professional music business at a time when it was very male-dominated, it was not like it is now.
Believe it or not, we took a lot of flack from the feminists when we came out as the Roches, I remember playing in Berlin and in the middle of the show a group of women stood up and started screaming at us in German in the middle of my song, I have a song on the first Roches record called ‘Mr Sellack’. It is about a waitress job I had and there is a line in there about wanting to go back to your job after you quit it because you don’t have any money, and I say I will clean the tables, I will be nice to the customers, I will get down on my knees and scrub behind the steam table. These women were so offended at the image of getting down on your knees and scrubbing behind the steam table, meanwhile, in America, this song was considered funny. These women came backstage and I wound up in tears trying to explain this was not meant to put women in a degrading position. So it was interesting because I thought, look, you have a group of three women playing their instruments, and they are writing about married men. Yes these songs have men in them but they are three women playing their own instruments, and that wasn’t being done in 1979, now it is commonplace.
The Roches were classed as a folk group but your influences were a lot more eclectic than that, is that true?
I think that’s right because when we were growing up we were all in the choir in a Catholic school, so we had that experience of singing in the choir, we listened to the AM radio in the 1960s which was very diverse, you would have Louis Armstrong and The Beatles on the same channel. Also, because we were making stuff up rather than listening to a lot of things I’m not that educated about folk music, I learned off the TV a bunch of Phil Ochs songs, some ‘Red River Valley’ and things. I didn’t grow up in a family where we were fed any of this stuff, it was more we developed an interest in everything we were hearing, we would listen to something and then start copying it. Everyone wants to know what you would call your music so I say folk music, Suzzy used to say to people Roche music or homemade music because it doesn’t really fall into folk music, but sometimes it does sound like a folk song. But I think you are absolutely right, it is not really americana or roots music, on the one hand, it is bigger than that but it is also three girls from New Jersey making up their own songs so in that sense, it is folk music. I’m sure someone somewhere wrote ‘Red River Valley’, Mr Celac was a real guy when I had a waitress job
Your family have links to the Wainwright dynasty.
The Wainwrights and the McGarrigles, the McGarrigles’ first record came out six months after ‘Seductive Reasoning’, and they had a completely different experience because they did promote their record and it did get on the radio and stuff. So a lot of the time people will confuse the Roches and the McGarrigles, but in my mind and to my ears you couldn’t find two more opposite groups, and I appreciate very much what they do. What they do, and also what the Wainwrights do, is very much based on traditional folk music, and all of them seem to have a lot of knowledge about folk music. I noticed on the Americana UK website that Rufus was putting out this album with all these people from folk music, and I thought that is perfect because he was steeped in music on both sides of his family. I used to spend a lot of time with the Wainwright family when he was a little kid growing up, and that is my main impression of Rufus as a kid, just marinated in this musical family. Then my sister Suzzy and Loudon’s daughter Lucy pulled Suzzy more into the Wainwright family, but I’m not really part of that family. I’m definitely related to and associated with them, but they do lots of projects together, Lucy and Suzzy are very involved in projects and tours with the Wainwrights, but I’m not. I’m more of an outsider in the whole thing
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
The first thing I have to say is that this week I watched for the first time the movie ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’, I’ve now watched the movie three times and I’ve gone deeply into the soundtrack of that movie and what the writer of that soundtrack, Carter Burwell, did. I’m mesmerised by the whole thing, the movie itself, the acting obviously which is talked about, but the music as well. That is the number one thing I’m listening to this week. Another thing which you will probably know about is Iris DeMent’s latest record, ‘Workin’ On A World’, I was very inspired by what she is writing about and how she sounds, and the instrumentation of that. The other thing is going back in time, I’m sort of auditing a blues class that my partner, Garry Dial, who is a jazz pianist and is taking this blues class at a university in New Jersey and he sends me the weekly assignments and I try and keep up with the assignments, but one thing I find myself really taken with is just going back and listening to these older people, jazz people, who were doing things before I was born. I found myself particularly interested in Count Basie And His Orchestra and I really listened, and I felt for the first time in my life that I understood what people meant by swinging. I was like, OK, I get it, this band really swings and that is different. There is so much music available, but you asked what have I listened to recently and I would say those three things I mentioned are in the past two weeks for me.
I teach guitar and songwriting, though I don’t think you can teach songwriting, but people ask me so I will be a sounding board, but what I find is that the young people who are in college are so busy looking at what is coming out now, they are not going back in most cases. I didn’t either when I was twenty, I was busy listening to what I was doing, so I will get a student now and she will tell me about a chord progression she feels she invented, and meanwhile, I’m like we were using that chording fifty years ago, but I hold myself back because I remember the feeling of older people being a combination of angry and envious that I was getting so much attention when I was twenty, and I didn’t know anything. So I don’t want to do that to somebody who is young, but at the same time the perspective when you look at someone who thinks they invented it, there is almost something charming about it.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I would just have to say a lot of the folk and americana music comes from the British tradition, a lot of the songs when you research where did this and that song come from, you find they came from Great Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and I feel a connection with that part of the world. I hope I get to come and do some form of touring. I’ve sort of let my professional associations go, I’m not with a label, I’m not with a management company or anything like that, but if an opportunity that made sense came up I would definitely come over. I’m just glad that you are doing this interview with me, and that people in the UK may still be interested in me at this point in my project. I’ve got a bunch of new songs and I’m going to think about what I will do with them, who may want to play on them, and what the arrangements may be. I’ve got eight songs I really like but I’m out of the performing thing, I did a show in New York at the City Winery in October and it was a great audience and it made me realise I miss performing. When you write something you want it to connect, and that happened at that show, so I’m like, OK I have something to say. So, I should put my attention to that, especially having come full circle with this project.
Terre and Maggie Roche’s ‘Kin Ya See That Sun’ is available now on all usual digital platforms as an independent release and the book with QR links to all songs is available only here.
Loved the “The Roches” album when released in ’79. Still sounds great.
Yes Chris, it is very honest music.