Interview with Catherine BB Bowness
" I've found that no matter how hard I try to sound like someone else who I admire, it'll always still come out a little bit like me."
Born in New Zealand, Catherine BB Bowness is a great example of how the banjo is an instrument that has the potential to overcome the barriers of its own origins and go beyond the North American lands. And not only that, she shows us that it is possible to play banjo and bluegrass (from traditional to contemporary) with excellence regardless of your country. Established in the USA a few years ago, she is part of the progressive bluegrass band Mile Twelve and was the winner of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize in 2020. Catherine BB Bowness manages to integrate the best of each banjo technique, bringing us a very skillful and contemporary style to play an instrument that is in constant development.
First of all I would like to thank you for your kindness in agreeing to do this interview with us. I'm glad you accepted! 1. Let's start at the beginning. You are from a small town in New Zealand, right? What sparked your interest in the banjo and what challenges did you encounter in learning this instrument so far from its origins?
I met my banjo teacher, Mark Warren, by a happy coincidence while painting his house in Marton, New Zealand. I had just started taking guitar lessons when he played me a tune on the banjo. I was instantly hooked and took weekly lessons for the next few years. The hardest part was not having too many people to play with but luckily I got some great help along the way.
2. Well, you are the first person in your country to play the banjo graduated from a jazz university, am I right? How do you think learning jazz has helped your ability to play and improvise banjo in bluegrass? Yes, and I believe it's helped me have a solid knowledge of the fretboard, music theory and also helped for ear training.. all of which are valuable for playing bluegrass too!
3. When I hear you play, I notice a very interesting quirk in the way you sound the banjo. Your playing seems to sound so polite and introspective, but at the same time with a great freedom and enthusiasm that seems to have no barriers. I don't know if you would agree with what I just said, but if you could talk a little more about “the search for one's own sound and identity” on the instrument, that would be really cool! Well, thanks so much! And yes, I think as musicians, we're always searching for a sound we like. Usually by trying to learn how other people play and taking the things we like from others. I've found that no matter how hard I try to sound like someone else who I admire, it'll always still come out a little bit like me. And that's because my set of limitations as a musician are unique to me and also what I'm drawn to in music is uniquely my taste. So, I'd say, keep that in mind when learning to transcribe and imitate others, there'll be a part of the sound that's always you.
4. Many contemporary banjoists today mix different styles of banjo (Scruggs, Single string, Melodic...) into their playing and this is something you seem to incorporate very easily. Do you think that, technically and in terms of playing styles, the banjo still has many paths to discover? How do you see the development of the way of playing the instrument as a whole?
Yeah, I think there will be more developments for banjo styles and techniques. It's so exciting to listen to players like Greg Liszt, Noam Pikelny, Adam Larrabee, Ben Krakauer, Wes Corbett (I could go on...!) all of whom have such different approaches to playing music on the banjo. I can't wait to hear new developments in technique, compositional styles etc in the years ahead. 5. You are part of Mile Twelve, a band that plays progressive bluegrass in a very cohesive and virtuous way. How is your creative process when composing for the banjo in the song arrangements? Is it very different from when you guys play traditional music?
The process is different for traditional songs vs original music that's composed for the band. We really try and arrange pretty minimally for bluegrass and just do our best to play it well but for originals, it's all about the story of the song. Some songs just need simple arrangements and others need a little more going on to paint the picture. We generally all arrange together by suggesting different ideas, trying them, ditching them, trying something else until we have a first draft. Then, performing the song is a great way to test the arrangement. For some songs, we tweak them a bunch of times and others tend to feel good right away. 6. I met you through a youtube video. I was in front of the computer one more afternoon when someone sent me a video of you playing a Tony Rice solo on the banjo. Well, I have to say that I was so excited about it that I immediately picked up my banjo and tried to do the same with the exact same solo. Do you usually transcribe a lot of solos from other instruments? How do you think this might add to the banjo study?
Learning from other instruments is a wonderful way to expand your imagination of what can be done on your instrument. Always keep in mind the things that actually feel good and that you like, because those are the ideas that tend to stick. A lot of times, I transcribe a mandolin or fiddle solo and maybe one or two ideas from the solo translate for me and stay around. Regardless, it's great fun to see what's out there on other instruments and what might work for you.
7. Finally, could you give some advice to Brazilians who are starting to learn banjo?
I would say, get a music buddy to jam and practice with. It keeps you motivated to learn music and to stick with it through those periods when you're a little less inspired. Learning music is a long term project and just like learning a language, it's more fun to have someone to talk with!