Fiddlin’ Around with Sarah Wilfong

by | Jan 8, 2013 | Interviews and Features

Nashville Violinist on Recording String Sections & Managing A DIY Career

Nashville-by-way-of-Chicago’s Sarah Wilfong is a world-class violinist and one helluva fiddler, having toured the world with the country band Mustang Sally, performing over 200 dates a year for nearly a decade, and even making it all the way to the Carnegie Hall. Wilfong is poised to release her latest full-length solo record, and we got the chance to speak with her about how to properly mic a string section and the struggles of managing a DIY career. 

For lay people like me who just bang on guitars all day, what is the difference between a fiddle player and a violinist? Is it technique, are there differences in the approach to playing, or the instrument itself and how it’s set up?

There’s no real difference to the instrument itself.  I like to joke that the difference between a fiddle and a violin is about $30,000. But there’s no real structural difference, it’s all about style and technical approach.

What would you say are the main, or most recognizable differences between someone who plays violin and a fiddle player?

Fiddle players will often use less vibrato. Specifically in Irish music, you don’t hear a lot of vibrato at all. And you can tell the people who are the classical crossovers, who haven’t quite picked up the types of ornamentations that vary within different fiddle idioms. There are very specific roles, and crans and cuts used with Irish music that are different from more improvisational elements used with bluegrass or old-time music.

Is there a particular style of music that you enjoy playing more than another?

I probably have the deepest roots with Irish fiddle stuff. In the last several years I’ve taken to playing more bluegrass, and a little bit of gypsy jazz just to keep things interesting.

After 20 years of playing, do you still maintain a regular practice schedule? Or at this point is it more maintenance?

I’m definitely still learning all the time. My practicing is completely harum-scarum and based on what my schedule is that week, and what gigs I have, and what material I have to learn. And sometimes I go through phases where I am really dedicated about it and…

And phases where you’re not so much.

Haha, yeah.

I know that you went to Berklee, and left, as many Berklee students do, because you actually found a career. You joined a national touring band that had a fairly hectic schedule. Maybe you could tell us about your time at Berklee and how that transitioned to a national touring gig that lasted 8 years?

Well, my time at Berklee was fantastic. I would say probably the biggest thing I got out of Berklee was my connections to other people. I still maintain very strong relationships with a lot of the people I went to school with, professionally and otherwise.

How did the band come about?

The band found me. Weirdly. The girl who was the bass player for the band at the time, Mustang Sally, she had been a former Berklee student, as well.  So she knew who I was, even though I hadn’t really known who she was. And she recommended me. And then Lisa Romeo, the bandleader, contacted the chair of the string department [at Berklee] to scope me out. Then I got this really random e-mail asking if I wanted to join this country rock band out of Nashville.

So they were doing some reconnaissance work at Berklee?

Yes! And at first I was kind of like, “Why would I want to do that?” but after listening to some of the material it actually sounded like fun. And looking at their tour schedule, they typically played about 200 dates a year, and did a lot of international travel and military stuff, and it just looked like it would be a lot of fun. So I packed up my bags, and flew to Nashville to meet a group of people I had only talked to on the phone. I think my parents should have been a lot more nervous about this than they actually were. And I’ve been living in Nashville ever since.

So eight years on the road, almost 200 dates a year – you probably have some good advice for staying sane.

Bring books. Invest in a Kindle. It’s really worthwhile. Keep your sense of humor and just remember that everyone had bus breakdowns, or van breakdowns, or plane delays, and that you just have to laugh about it and keep going. Maybe not everyone deals with playing gigs in Chinese restaurants with men dressed in big chicken suits, but you keep your humor about that, too.

So needless to say, some gigs are more prestigious than others, but you take what you can get. Especially when routing permits and you’re getting paid.

That was the typical swing of things. We’d play an awesome festival for 50,000 people, and then the next night we would play some little pit in Georgia, where there’s the man in the front row who comes up and bites my leg in the middle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

What would you say are the key differences, stylistically, between your previous solo work, and the new record, Facets?

It’s not even that there is probably a pronounced difference. It’s just that I think my writing has developed in the past couple of years. I released Fiddle Soup in 2007, and have done a lot of growing, musically, since then.

How do you approach songwriting? I would assume it’s primarily instrumentally based. Do you write certain parts on the violin and add things later in the arrangement phase?

If I’m writing a fiddle tune that seems to me to be much more of an Irish tune or and old-time tune, I’ll write the melody and not really worry about the instrumentation until later. And then I’ll decide on an arrangement, and players, and instruments and such. For certain things, though, I go in with a very specific idea. If I have this Irish tune that I want to arrange as a string quartet, I’ll go sit down and write a string quartet with very specific parts. It’s more of a classical mode of composition than just scribbling down a tune and figuring out a few chords. So it can really go either way. There are a couple of tunes on the album, one in particular called “Sketchbook Waltz” that kind of just went off the deep end, and we ended up with all sorts of crazy stuff on it. So my score is ridiculously huge. That one started out as a fiddle tune idea that got a little bit Frankenstein.

How do you approach the studio? Do you find it’s an issue for people not knowing how to properly mic a violin or a string section?

I’ve had experiences all over the map with that. Some people have very specific ideas about what they like and what they don’t like. I am always willing to listen to their ideas first in the off chance that they do something different than what I have seen before, and it works really, really well. But generally, I have a set-up that I like and tend to suggest, and most people are willing to work with me on that.

What do you recommend?

If I’m miking myself, I like to have the mic about 12-15 inches away from the f-hole of the violin, and have it positioned from the front. Some people like to come around over the back, and I find that I bow the mic with my bow that way. Which is not helpful!

Probably not the best way to record.

Well, it adds some interesting percussion elements…

How about miking a string section?

Rehearsing your string section always seems to solve most problems.

So just going into the studio knowing what you’re going to do?

Yes. Once you have that, you can work based on your budget and space allotments, and how many players you have. With this album, I think the maximum number of string players I had at one time was four. So we were very comfortable to each be miked individually. And we played in the live room together, which potentially made editing more challenging. But since we’d rehearsed, it actually was very, very easy.

You’ve also done a little bit of film scoring. How does that compare with writing and recording your own music?

I have to get into a different headspace to work with that. My inclination is that I kind of want to write all over the scene, which is not helpful. So learning how to dial it back a little has been good.

I know that you are pretty much DIY with the writing, recording, producing of your music. Where do you see your musical future leading? Do you want to be on a label at some point? I know you’ve had some dealings with labels that maybe we can’t get into, with Mustang Sally.

Lets just say we had a record deal, the record label went under and it took a while to extricate ourselves from that situation, which was a bit unpleasant. As for myself, if the right label offered me something, I’d probably say yes because there are certainly things that labels have to offer that I can’t do on my own, logistically. So sure, I’d be interested. But I would want to make sure that I wasn’t sacrificing any creative control in any way. That’s the other piece of it – working with a country band where there is a very specific sound that we were going for, didn’t allow me personally a whole lot of creative space.

Right, because that’s what the label wanted to put out.

Exactly. That’s what they wanted to put out so that’s what they were interested in having. So I want to have a place where I release albums where I can have a swing tune, an Irish tune, and a French-café sounding mazurka next to each other on the same record.

Because why not?

Exactly! Why not? There’s room for everything!

Do you see yourself going on the road fulltime again?

I could see myself going back on the road if I was in the position to set my own ground rules for how long I wanted to be out, and what type of gigs I wanted to take.

I guess that’s the other thing, you were kind of at the mercy of the band’s juggernaut.

Right, and we worked with a fantastic booking agency that kept us really, really busy. And that was great! It was a great way to make a living exclusively through making music, which is really special. I don’t necessarily need to tour every honky tonk between Louisiana and Mississippi at this point, though. Kind of been there, done that. But I’d be up for doing folk festivals and things that cater to my interests, musically. So yes, I would happily go back on the road if I had the ability to say “no.”

A lot of artists aren’t in the position to do that. I think you are lucky in that respect. Any final words?

I think one of the things that I have realized is that a lot of other violinists and fiddle players, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

To really be perfect – and there’s so much technique involved in playing the violin as an instrument, that you can spend a lifetime picking over it and being incredibly critical of yourself.

And it has been the most freeing and liberating realization – that I am not the best violinist or fiddle player out there, and I never will be. And I’m okay with that. It’s a really good place to be. So I’m just going to write stuff that I like, and hopefully other people will like it too.

photos by Ben Grimes