Character Study: A Talk With Todd Burge< < Back to
2012 was a busy year for Todd Burge.
In addition to co-producing a project with fellow area musician John Walsh, the Parkersburg, W.Va., native has been hard at work composing songs for an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost and is currently preparing for upcoming dates with rockabilly guitar-slinger Bill Kirchen.
However, the bulk of his year was devoted to the recording and release of two of his own albums: Character Building, a collection of songs for children and grownups, written by Burge and his children; and its companion CD, Building Characters, recorded with Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien (Hot Rize, Mark Knopfler), session drummer Kenny Malone (Alison Krauss, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett) and renowned producer Don Dixon (R.E.M., The Smithereens).
When I last spoke with Burge, he was in the middle of recording the two albums. We recently touched base to talk about Building Characters and the inspiration for his songs, filled with stories about sharks, squirrels, Jesus night lights and one woman’s unique approach to gardening.
BG: Tell me about the characters on Building Characters. Where did these folks come from? Personal encounters or news stories?
TB: All of the above I suppose. I mean, I’d like to say that there is very little of “me” in these twisted and mostly dark characters, but the fact is, all of the stories are informed by my biases and life experiences. That’s just the nature of songwriting or writing fiction. A bit of the writer is always there, just a bit or more.
BG: I was particularly struck by “Grow Up.” It’s a toe-tapper, but the subject matter might take some folks by surprise.
TB: I got the idea from a real story about a woman who killed her husband and planted him in her garden. He was missing for years and when she passed away, alone in her home, the neighbors where curious about how she took special care of her garden. Sad story really, but it makes for fine folk music fodder.
BG: You tend to tackle heavy topics, but blanket them in pretty melodies. Is that deliberate, or do the songs just come out that way?
TB: I can’t say it’s deliberate. Nothing is really deliberate when it comes to me writing a tune, but I can say I always like sad topics put to upbeat music.
BG: The album was recorded by Don Dixon at Tim O’Brien’s house and has a very “live” feel to it. Were you more relaxed recording in a home environment as opposed to a regular studio?
TB: Dixon is an expert at going “mobile” with his gear and recorded many of the tracks with the band sitting in a circle, playing live. It’s a very natural and comfortable way to record. Of course, much of it depends on the musicians and these cats are all top notch. It has to be well-rehearsed, but the end result is more real to me. We blocked a week, learned the songs, discussed the stories behind each one, sat in a circle and played them out.
BG: Don Dixon has a pretty big track record. How was it working with him?
TB: I had worked with Don back in 2007 when he co-produced (with Tim O’Brien and Michael Lipton) the tribute CD for Blind Alfred Reed, Always Lift Him Up, released by The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. I had a tune on there called “The Telephone Girl.” I later went to Don’s studio in Canton, Ohio, and he added a couple instruments and mixed it while I stared at his gold records on the wall (laughs). Don is a master of getting just what I want to hear out of a tune and it seems effortless. He is a monster bass player and singer-songwriter, too.
BG: How has the album been received?
TB: Reception has been really great. I’ve been playing the songs most of this year at shows while on the road and find it interesting how people interpret the music. For example, some view “Joseph’s Prayer to his Baby Son” as a very spiritual number and others think it’s comedy. I love that. The music as a whole fits nicely into one set as it follows a theme and this seems to keep their attention. It’s also climbing the international Folk DJ Chart rather nicely. I’m pleased.
For more information about Todd Burge, visit www.toddburge.blogspot.com.