There’s a difference between a band and a musical collective. On one hand, a band is usually led by one or two musicians dictating the direction of the songwriting. On the other hand, a collective is more democratic with everyone involved usually lending one of their songs to the repertoire of the group with it making for an interesting listening experience. Session Americana based out of Boston utilizes the latter approach and they’ll be taking the stage at Askew on 150 Chestnut Street on July 31st. Local singer-songwriter Lauren King will be opening up the show at 8pm.
I recently had a talk with Billy Beard from the collective about how it all started, touring Europe, putting out a mixtape on a sticker and the spontaneity that comes with a live show.
Rob Duguay: How did Session Americana start as a musical collective? I know you guys began at the venue Toad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but was it during an open mic or anything like that? Was it just mutual friends getting together to play songs?
Billy Beard: It was specifically designed not to be an open mic. It was a very happenstance circumstance that had happened when I was playing in a band with one of the band members, Ryan Cavanaugh, we had finished a set and we were waiting for the next act to show up and they never showed. Ryan then jumped up on stage, pulled three microphones off the stands, duck taped them to a tabletop and we just sat around this little table, started to sing, play songs and eventually people joined in. Then he and I decided that we would just put a band together and play every Sunday night. We started off with that sort of humble beginning with a bunch of covers that we were doing, then we started to introduce original songs and that went on for a couple years.
Then we moved down the street to the Lizard Lounge when it got too crowded for another couple of years on Tuesday nights. Then we decided that it was going really well and we figured out that we could probably tour with this band. Then we started playing Europe and we’ve expanded every year so it’s just sort of grown steadily since the beginning. As far as the collective goes, it’s always been the ethos of the band. There are core members and we invite guests to either tour with us or play with us on specific gigs.
It changes from time to time and that’s kind of the excitement of it. You sort of never really know what’s going to happen, who’s going to be there and how it’s gonna go.
RD: It’s awesome to have that spontaneous vibe going on, that’s great.
BB: Yeah, it’s sort of been the lifeblood of the band since the beginning.
RD: Very cool. When did you start going over to Europe and touring there?
BB: One of the band members moved to Ireland a number of years ago, so just for a year we decided to go over and sort of dip our toes in the water over there and it went well. We’ve been back ever since so it’s been at least eight to 10 years that we’ve been playing in Europe.
RD: What’s it like performing over there for an American band? Do audiences in Europe gravitate differently to American folk music than we do in the United States?
BB: I’d say it’s been hard won but it’s been great. This last trip especially, we did five weeks in seven countries over 7,000 miles and I think we benefitted somewhat from the pandemic with people coming out for the first time. The crowds were all good and super enthusiastic and I think like any touring act you’ve got your hotspots. For us, Italy has always been fantastic. We had an amazing run in Spain this year, it’s still a work in progress in some ways for people to feel comfortable with going back out again and it changes from country to country.
RD: Recently the band released the Session Americana Mix Tape with various recordings from the past 15 years. How did you go about curating this unique record? Do you have a vault full of recordings and you picked the best ones?
BB: The way that this is presented is it’s a sticker that you can buy at the show or if you buy some other merch we’ll often put it on with it. It also has a little QR code on it but the graphic design looks like an old cassette tape. When you scan the QR code it’ll take you to a vault where there’s 20 songs or so. I can’t remember what we got in there now but that one was designed specifically for this last tour we did in Europe so it included songs by Ali McGuirk who was touring with us. That will continue to sort of evolve, we’ll come up with new ideas and the songs in that will change a bit so it usually reflects the live show that we’re doing at the time.
RD: Speaking of evolving, do you plan on having it be a series of mixtapes where there’s a different sticker for each one or do you just plan on having it be the same code where you’ll just put more songs in it as time goes along?
BB: If we list the songs on the sticker, which we did this time around, we’d have to do a new sticker for each one. Yeah, for sure.
RD: That makes sense. You’ve mentioned how there’s a spontaneous nature to a Session Americana show, so can people expect that at the upcoming show at Askew and more? What are the other selling points to your show that makes it unique?
BB: Much of the material that we’re delivering now is based on a collaborative record that we did, which is our last release called North East. The idea behind that was to feature songwriters playing songs by James Taylor, Carly Simon, Patty Griffin, Mark Sandman from Morphine and others. We have guests all in on that but basically the core band is drawing a lot from those songs and as far as a collaborative thing, you never know. Sometimes it’s spontaneous and sometimes it’s arranged ahead of time but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we had somebody on that gig.
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