Artist Spotlight: Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero have been steadily building a loyal following in the folk world in recent years, thanks to a thoughtful, refreshing approach to traditional songs alongside Pharis’s intelligent, articulate, emotionally poignant songwriting. Their last two albums—Bet on Love (2020) and Sweet Old Religion (2018)—were heavy on new compositions that the pair sought to add to the folk canon.

Now, on their new album, Tell ‘Em You Were Gold (due June 17 on Smithsonian Folkways), the husband and wife duo from Horsefly, British Columbia, delivers a set that is equal parts traditional and original. The record was made in their barn and the warmth of its wood, the sense of community, and the strong sense of family stretch across its 22 tracks. There is always a feeling of welcome in Pharis and Jason Romero’s music, but this album somehow feels even more like home.

To boot, it is remarkable how seamlessly the duo shifts from old trad tune to something they made up themselves. But then, this is a couple who met at a banjo camp and honed their collaboration in a tight-knit old-time community. As Pharis mentioned in our recent conversation, the traditional songs are so deep in their bones at this point, they have become central to the musical language they speak.

Tell ‘Em You Were Gold also features a handful of Jason’s handmade banjos. In the liners, each is named, photographed, and featured as though it is an equal bandmate to the humans who play it on the recording. In many ways, an album based around their homemade instruments was inevitable.

The way it came to be is precisely where we started our discussion. Highlights—edited for length and clarity—are below.

Kim Ruehl: It seems that an album like this is a long time coming for you guys.

Jason: I think it was an unspoken inevitability. It’s been the last couple of years that I’ve been making banjos and not sending them out into the world, just so I have a bit more variety of what we do here on hand for the recording, so we could do it all at once instead of kind of [approaching it like], “Oh I have this banjo, let’s record and then I’ll send it off or sell it.” It took a couple years just to do that.

So the pandemic—staying home, being careful—really contributed to you having the instruments you

Jason: It definitely helped. In 2019, we said yes to everything as an experiment, so we were gone a lot. We did a lot more away from home. So being home during the pandemic, for us, in all honesty, was pretty wonderful. We’re pretty isolated up here. We were able to refocus on the banjos, which has been a main part of our life [since] early on and then it became more of a balance in the middle there. It’s nice to come back and just not have gigs and just kind of be at home with the kids, building banjos, and maybe writing tunes.

Do you feel like it reset you in a way? I’ve talked with a lot of musicians who’ve said they have a new relationship with songwriting, or they’ve found a new relationship with music that’s separate from the grind of it all. Do you feel that as well?

Jason: I definitely did. I think Pharis did too. The road is pretty rough for me because we’re always taking the whole situation: Two kids and a nanny, and me and Pharis. [We’re] trying to drive, not fly as much. Even before the pandemic, we’d said, “OK … Let’s figure out more of a balance.” Between home life and raising the kids and touring, we’re constantly trying to figure out what that balance is.

It’s weird to say what was great about the pandemic, but what was great for us is that it immediately took the decision-making out. It was just like, we’re not doing any of that and it’s got nothing to do with our decisions. We were able to circle the wagons and enjoy all the other parts of life.

We still garden when we’re touring, we still do all the things, but you have to set certain things aside if you want to try to squeeze in summertime festivals and stuff like that. It was really great. I came to realize that there’s a difference between a person who’s a musician and a person who is a performer. I realized over the last lot of touring that I really enjoy being a musician more than I do performing. There is a difference. I like performing but I don’t do it for that. I don’t crave the stage. I just want to play music with people.

I wonder about your process of choosing which songs to record. How does your writing process go? And how do you decide what traditional songs to record alongside your originals?

Jason: We wanted to have a balance. We’ve been really trying to lean into Pharis’s songwriting and our collaboration with songwriting, and [at the same time,] have our feet firmly in traditional music, which is where we both came from. [We’re] trying to add to that songbook. The last couple of albums have been all originals. With the banjo album, one of the early ideas was that we know all these songs that are trads, that we probably won’t ever record just because we’re trying to put into the world new stuff. When it came time for this, I think we wanted a balance, to have some traditionals and then let’s also put in some originals. After playing a bunch of what the possibilities would be in terms of traditional tunes, I think we ended up with what we ended up with.

Pharis: I would say the traditionals we do have, that ended up being on there, are ones we’ve played a long time. One was a song we were playing when Jason and I met. One we’ve played in our live shows pretty much since we started playing. We’ve played “Been All Around This World” and “Train on the Island” and “Rolling Mills” for years.

They came out of Jason’s experimentation with old tunings. He takes old songs and starts experimenting with potential tunings and potential banjo sounds that can go with the songs. That’s been a move that he’s done on earlier records—things like “Cumberland Gap” and “Sally Goodin” and “Out on the Western Plains.” He’s really taken those songs and made them his own through experimenting with the tunings, changing the banjo sounds, and experimenting with the approach.

It’s years of trying different things on the tunes. We’ve played all of those in different keys and different tunings and different approaches, and then they seem to settle into where they are on the record—for now. Everything is a moment in time.

Jason: I feel like it’s OK to do that too, for some reason. There’s a lot of things that are like, “Oh the traditionalists are not going to like this.” I was one of them for a while. I feel like I’m a reformed old-time [music] policeman. But I’m glad there’s people that want to just replicate and play the old stuff they way it was recorded. There’s a tradition with banjo tunings. There are so many.

Pharis: There’s a tradition with innovation. That’s a huge part of the tradition.

Jason: Yeah. I really enjoy that. I like taking a song like an old chestnut, that I might have 50 version of on my iPod. I’ll be like, “Well, let’s come up with another one while trying to keep the essence of the song or the tune.” I feel like that’s legit in the tradition.

Pharis: It’s also just really fun.

I like that you include the tunings in the liner notes.

Jason: Yeah, we were talking about whether we should do that or not.

Pharis: We really went back and forth. There’s a certain level of mystery around a lot of this old music. There’s a lot of people in the middle generations who learned from the original recording artists, who were very clear that no one ever slowed down the tunes for them. No one ever showed them the tunings. No one ever sat there and handed them exactly how to do it. They learned through listening and experimentation and just being there.

We have friends who were like, “Ugh, don’t put the tunings in! People have to do some work here. People have to figure this stuff out.”

Jason: Yeah, all the information shouldn’t be just right there for you. But I’m a banjo player and I loved it back when I would get a CD and run home and consume the entire thing down to [the copyright]. I love all that information, so I was doing it for my fellow banjo nerds.

Pharis: We also love learning as much as we possibly can, about pretty much every element of everything in our life. The more information I have at hand to really immerse myself in the experience of the moment, enhances it.

Jason: I was also picturing 100 emails from people saying, “Can you tell me what tuning that song was?” So [I thought,] let’s just head this one off.

You’re not giving them tabs, though. They still need to figure it out.

Pharis: You know, we get a lot of requests for tabs. Part of us is like, man, maybe we should do a tab book. But tab is not a big part of our life at all.

Jason: It was when I started.

Pharis: But at this point it’s not. How much mystery is essential to the process of learning? How much of your own getting into it and really having to sit with it is really important to making music your own? I think it’s something every instrumentalist does at some point: Sit down with the recording and your instrument, try to figure it out. Even once you get it, there’s always the impulse to add something else.

Jason: That’s the process.

Pharis: When the vinyl edition of this record comes out, on the B side we’re releasing some of our early banjo releases as part of it, which is really exciting. One of them is a tune called “Lost Lula,” Which is this epic tune that Jason wrote years ago. We’ve never put out a tab for it. People barely know what the tuning is, and we have gotten so many people sending us their version of “Lost Lula,” how they interpreted it through sitting and learning it. That’s been a magical experience.

Jason: It’s pretty neat. It’s weird to see a banjo tune with I don’t know how many millions of listens on Spotify. I thought about putting that on tab, or a video tutorial or something. But it’s neat seeing all the attempts.

I want to go back to the songwriting process, though, because when you have an album like this that
has traditional and originals on it, how are you making that work so that it flows well? Are you trying to match the originals to the traditionals? Or are these traditionals, that you’ve been playing for years, so ingrained in you that it just … works?

Pharis: I think it’s the latter. I’m almost a haphazard songwriter, in some ways. It’s like, the rhythm of my windshield wipers right now really makes me feel a certain way and then a song will come out of that. I’m not kidding.

Jason will take banjos and the first thing he’ll do when he makes a new banjo is put it in whatever tuning the strings are closest to, until he finds a tuning that sounds nice with all the strings. Then he sits and noodles and tinkers away and finds all these great melodies and rhythms. Sometimes he’ll come to me with one of those and say, “Hey, I’ve got this. Can you write something to go with it?” And it’ll just sit in the back of my head until something shows up to match with it. Or sometimes I’ll have a series of lyrics and a melody or a pulse or an idea and I’ll hand it to him.

I think it’s because we’ve spent so many years listening to and playing traditional music across the board, that’s just a part of our musical DNA, the musical language that’s going to come out as the influence in the songwriting.

I envy people who sit down and are formulaic songwriters, who know exactly how to do that. I think at some point in my life, I look forward to learning more about that and cultivating more of that as a skill. But at this point in my life, my songwriting skillset is a little bit more in-the-moment, more intuitive.

Tell ‘Em You Were Gold, out June 17, is available HERE.


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