Breaking out of a silo is empowering: An interview with Rootless
Rootless, the alter-ego of musician Jeremy Hurewitz, is one of the most consistently innovative guitarists working in the US underground scene right now. A self-confessed semi-outsider, its not so much that he has thrown the guitar soli rulebook out of the window, rather he seems to have refused to admit it ever existed in the first place. Stirring generous helpings of ambient music, organic new age sounds, exploratory jazz and middle eastern motifs into his almighty pot and bringing on board a range of sympathetic collaborators, one can never be entirely sure quite what his next project will sound like. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that his new release, Places Remember Us, via the wonderful Aural Canyon label is near enough a guitar soli album, a set of meditative fingerstyle pieces augmented only by field recordings and a sparing smattering of flute. It has an almost European feel running through it, and would sit as neatly alongside albums by Conrado Isasa and Xisco Rojo as it would those of his US compatriots. We are very pleased to share this extensive interview with Jeremy with you .
Photo by Brian Bowman
Can we start by talking about the new album? It's quite a departure from your last two releases, Docile Cobras, which felt like standalone project with quite a specific intent, and Emptied Spaces, which developed the more exploratory jazz/ambient/cosmic elements of All That's Left is a Desert. Is the more stripped-down approach something you were consciously choosing to explore or a consequence of circumstances?
Yes, “Places Remember Us” was envisioned from the start as something more stripped down than the last couple of releases. Matt from Aural Canyon asked me to do another album and he suggested something raw, fully acoustic, and for the most part just acoustic guitar. That worked well for me because I had been playing some shows with just acoustic guitar, which I was really enjoying - very liberating to not be lugging around pedal boards, cables and so on. Matt knew that and so it made sense to make an album with that approach.
I started thinking about it in the winter of 2020. Then the pandemic hit and things got very dark in New York, where my wife and I were living after returning from LA not all that long before. We went up to Vermont, where I have a family cabin, and thought we’d be there for a few weeks. We wound up living there till October.
So, I recorded the album up there, and I think the experience is present in the music. The first track – “the owls are not what they seem” - sets the tone. It was pretty late one night not long into the pandemic when we heard an owl right behind our house. I couldn’t see it, but it was so loud, and it must’ve been in a tree just outside, where there is a pretty deep forest. But I grabbed my Tascam and got a good recording of it, along with the sounds of the wind, and I played guitar with it. “Earthseed” features a field recording of a stream not far from the cabin - and the title references the Octavia Butler novel, “Parable of the Sower,” essential pandemic reading. Just a couple of examples of how Vermont locates the spirit of the album.
“Nothing is everything” and “Self improvement” are also important tracks to me because of the path I’m on. Both showcase some of the directions I’m going with some more experimental improvisations - I’m working on another album specifically focused on more songs like that. John Also Bennet of the band Forma contributed flute to three tracks and his playing is so beautiful and perfect for the album, I’m so lucky to have had him on there. I am excited to explore more collaborations like that.
Can you talk a little about your personal musical prehistory, influences and what conspired to create Rootless?
I went abroad right after college and spent a decade living in Prague and Shanghai as a journalist. Those were really important years for me – I got to live through the end of the amazing post-Communist moment in the Czech Republic - and I get pretty nostalgic when I think about how strange and crazy that time was. I travelled constantly, and to some really far-flung places, and had all sort of wild adventures and odd things happen to me.
I had played in bands in college and continued to play throughout my time overseas, but more singer-songwriter stuff, and the music ultimately became secondary to my writing. I published stories and poems – in addition to a lot of straight journalism – and wrote a couple of bad novels that didn’t get published.
I moved back to New York, where I’m from, and started to get back into focusing on music. I had always played in alternative tunings and I wanted to dig more into that. I played in a few bands, but ultimately wanted to do something on my own, frustrated with interpersonal issues and coordinating schedules with flaky musicians.
Playing on my own has been liberating and rewarding, and I can dip into collaborations on my own terms and not get frustrated with band dynamics. But maybe because of spending my 20s overseas and not developing the connections in NY, I’ve felt like a bit of an outsider. Having a demanding day-job that didn’t allow me to tour much or be out at shows every night also contributed to that. But I think that experience has allowed me to focus pretty specifically on what I have wanted to do, and I think the experiences I’ve had in different backgrounds has shaped my music in some ways.
It does occur to me that your journey is somewhat different to many of the people playing acoustic fingerstyle guitar, in that the usual route appears to be to start with guitar soli releases, then explore collaborations with other musicians and adding other instruments or electronics. Your trajectory has been almost the exact opposite of this: starting with a trio release, then solo records with guest musicians and a fairly broad sonic palette, until finally arriving at an (almost) guitar soli release. Has there been any deliberate path followed here, or have you simply gone where your muse has taken you at any particular time?
Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I suppose I am just following my path. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately because the pandemic has reshaped how I feel about being a musician but making a living doing something else. I used to feel insecure about that; that I was somehow less legitimate because I wasn’t exclusively a musician. I talk a lot about this with Will Sol (Prana Crafter) and that conversation has helped shape my views of late. Because I realize now that it has given me a level of freedom to do what I want that is unencumbered by financial considerations and other factors. I just focus on making the music I want to make. I’m incredibly thrilled that anyone pays attention and labels that I love release my work.
The album “Sculptures Deep Within the Cave” was also a revelation for me. I had some time off and I went up to Vermont with just a few guitars and some recording equipment and made it in just a few days. I did what I had been doing for years: sitting on the porch of the cabin and playing acoustic guitar in a variety of tunings. I recorded some of it when it was raining and improvised against those sounds and the birds and other things. There is a purity to it, a searching, and I had no idea if it would be an album or what. You’re right that the previous Rootless albums had a lot more instruments and elements, and I honestly had no idea whether anyone would be interested in me playing solo acoustic guitar. The fact that Jordan from Cabin Floor Esoterica wanted to release it – and the beautiful, unique release he did – gave me a huge boost of confidence to continue exploring that. And that resulted in “all that’s left is a desert” and much of the acoustic guitar-focused releases since and still to come.
Was the Rootless Trio always envisaged as a one-off project or had you originally intended to carry on with this? And is there any particular reason your solo releases are as Rootless rather than Jeremy Hurewitz? Is Rootless a catch-all for you and whoever you happen to be collaborating with, rather than just a nom-de-guerre for you? Is there any particular story behind the name? I'm thinking here that it has a variety of both musical and cultural connotations and resonances.
Rootless Trio was a result of a desire to play music that was a bit closer to jazz. I’m not a particularly well-trained musician – I can’t sight-read for example – so that felt like a challenge for me. But I’m a big jazz head and the music I was composing felt more like jazz, maybe the Chicago jazz of Isotope 217 and all that. I grew so much in that project – and got to do a bunch of shows with the amazing Daniel Carter - but the interpersonal drama was just too much so it was another push to keep it solo.
Rootless started off as an online handle when I was still overseas. I was drawn to the phrase Rootless Cosmopolitan when I was abroad. It comes from the Soviet Union in the 1950s when Stalin was attacking the Jews as rootless (not truly part of any nation-state) and cosmopolitan city dwellers at a time when the agrarian ideal of the peasant was lionized. As a Jewish city-dweller living overseas and constantly travelling, it resonated with me, and Marc Ribot used the full term for a band, and I’m a fan. When I started playing solo it felt like a natural title for the project, especially as I first conceived of it as a way to remember, process and utilize - in the form of using my writing for spoken word contributions and general inspiration - that decade abroad.
I’d be open to collaborating under a different name, but I feel like Rootless can be a catch-all. I’m a pretty eclectic dude and I feel like the Rootless project can be a home to many different styles that I want to explore.
I do have an album wrapping up with a band called Monastics that I was in for a bunch of years with some good friends after returning to the U.S. We made it passing WAV files back and forth during the pandemic and I’m pretty stoked about it.
Could you talk a little about your musical influences and interests? Thinking back to All that's Left is a Desert, I recall thinking at the time that as well as the guitar soli aspect of your work, there were hints of the more inventive and organic end of early new age music, and aspects of contemporary jazz/improvised music - I stand by my comment that the album would not sound out of place as part of the International Anthems catalogue...
I’m so glad you connected with that record, that’s a special one for me. I was so lucky to have Kevin Shea on there; he’s one of the most original drummers around and one of my personal favorites. Matt Nelson is also amazing too. So much came together just right for that one. And I’m glad you pointed out the jazz aspects; someone wrote at the time that it was the best jazz album of 2018 and I was really taken aback by that, but it was obviously really nice to hear.
Influences… I mean, where to begin? Most days I’m listening to a lot of blissed-out ambient music as I’m working and just going through my day. A lot of jazz gets played in my household as well. I come back to the Miles quintet of the ‘60s as some of my all-time favourite music. The compositions are amazing, the playing unparalleled, and the feel of each album just so cool. You’d also hear a good bit of classical if you spent a week as a guest at my place, but smaller groups, chamber music rather than orchestras. And of course, acoustic / folk stuff for sure.
For guitar players, I’m really partial to innovators rather than someone who can just pick well. So that means Bill Orcutt, Sir Richard Bishop, Richard Dietrick, Jack Rose, Robbie Basho, Bill Frissell and Jeff Parker. I’m also really into what Joseph Allred, Isasa, Sarah Louise, Matthew Rolin, Shane Parish, Wendy Eisenberg and Prana Crafter have put out in the last few years.
Could you tell me how you approach collaborating with other musicians? You've worked as a member of a trio and had a variety of musicians contribute to your solo albums: do you take a consistent approach to collaborating or does this vary depending on the needs of the piece of music or the album? Do you have any further collaborations planned, and if so, is there anything you can share with us about them?
A lot of the collaboration in recent years has been about how to add a certain element to specific tracks. So having Kevin and Matt on certain tracks for “all that’s left is a desert”; having John Also Bennet play flute on 3 tracks for “places remember us.” But Docile Cobras was a bit more involved. I had mentioned to Byron Westbrook that I was looking for a musician or musicians who could add woodwinds and some light percussion to a collaborative album and that was how I got introduced to Jesse Peterson, who brought in Luís Pérez Ixoneztli. Once Luís Pérez got involved it became less of me adding someone to put the finishing touches on a few tracks and more of a true collaboration with someone who deeply shaped the music and overall album.
I’m still open to both approaches, but after more than a year of being fairly isolated I’m finding myself thinking about jamming with more people and doing some more in-depth collaboration. At the moment I’m focused on an album I’m working on with Brendan Anderegg on. I’m a huge fan of his band Mountains and Brendan and I have collaborated for a while now and become good friends. He’s not only an amazing engineer through his work at Telescope Audio, but he’s just got a fantastic ear and gives me great thoughts on directions to go. The album we’re working on has a lot more vocals and instrumentation and I’m really lucky to have him in the mix on it.
I’m also excited to share that a Starbirthed / Rootless collaborative double-album is in the works. We recorded it before the pandemic when Ash and Matt came to Vermont for a visit and magic happened. We got a ton of material in just one night and we’re so excited to share it with the world, hopefully later this year.
You've self-released (I think) and worked with a number of great labels that seem to really care about what goes out in their name: Aural Canyon, Cabin Floor Esoterica, Flower Room. Can you talk about your relationships with these labels? Are they ongoing or do you (and the label) approach each album discretely as a standalone occurrence? Are there benefits in having multiple potential outlets for your work?
No self-releases, unless you include Rootless Trio, but that feels like a long time ago. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really cool labels who have become good friends. I mentioned how important the CFE release was to the directions I ultimately went from there. The relationship with AC has been an awesome one; Matt & Gina (and their daughters) are such awesome people and I love how AC has grown. AC is a place I could see hopefully releasing albums for years to come. Also, a lot of love for Garden Portal / Null Zones and Hypnic Jerk (now EEG).
The release with Flower Room Records was really special. Ash and Matt are also just two extraordinary people that I’m so lucky to know. I love how they live their values and their art through their music, the label, and their day-to-day lives. They are just two of the most authentic and sincere people I’ve encountered in music. The care they put into the release of Docile Cobras just blows me away, everything from how they’ve talked and written about it, to the different formats and the amazing art edition. As Matt notes in the album essay, I was telling them about it during the sound check of the second night of the Starbirthed / Rootless tour and they were intrigued. I felt that it had a Flower Room Records vibe to it, and I’m so glad they did as well. What an honour to be the first release of theirs that wasn’t something they played on.
I'm interested in the process of how you create music: both the writing of individual pieces and whether you have an overarching concept when approaching a new project. What is the balance of composition and improvisation in your work? Do you have a structured method? How do you approach the guitar? Do you tend to use standard tunings or a variety of different tunings? Are you influenced by non-western musical forms? What is your approach to the use of electronics in your music - your interest in ambient music is apparent - could you conceive of a Rootless album with no guitars, or at least guitars that are processed and manipulated beyond recognition? Would you see yourself as a guitarist who also uses electronics or do you give an equal weight to the different sounds in your arsenal? And will you sing again if the mood takes you or the song requires it?
It's evolved a bit over time. With the first records I was just recording songs that I had put together over a period of time, or just improvised. But as time has gone on the albums have become a bit more planned in terms of concept and approach. The two albums I’m working on now are very different but have a somewhat clear vision of what I want them to be. One is a more experimental acoustic guitar album with “free” playing that I’ve been doing for years on my own. The other is the one I mentioned with Brendan, which will have a lot more musical elements and vocals.
It’s definitely been interesting to bring vocals and lyrics back into it. When I was in college and during my time abroad, I was focused on singing as much as guitar. And after I moved back to NY I had a duo with a woman who sang, and we did vocal harmonies, originals and covers, which was a lot of fun. But I’ve been focused on instrumental music for a while and didn’t really plan to get back into singing. But I decided to record “Lakeside” for Emptied Spaces, which is a song I actually wrote when I was eighteen and I always wanted to properly record. And the reception was great, so it got me thinking. And now I’m really enjoying writing songs with lyrics again, and like a lot of things, a long break from it makes coming back to it better (I have this Eno-like oblique strategy – one way to get better at something is to not do it for a while). I think I’m a better lyricist than I was in the past; I don’t wallow in abstraction as much, and I’m pushing myself to crystallize what I’m trying to say. In terms of vocal style, Brendan is pushing me in different directions and that is helping.
In terms of tunings, I tend to keep my guitars in variations of open C and open D, and I utilize capos and partial capos a lot to find different voicings. I’m definitely influenced by non-western musical forms, which was one of my favourite things about all the traveling I’ve been fortunate enough to do. I’ve been to Indonesia a bunch of times and the music there is mind-blowing. I love flamenco music, Indian classical, and music made from the cross-roads of the Middle East and Africa, like the Ethiopiques albums.
It’s funny you ask about electronics and an ambient record. I recently acquired a Moog Voyager through some unique circumstances and I’m so excited to dig in. I’ve been doing more and with synthesizers and I could totally see doing an album of mostly electronic music. I’m not sure that I would want to say “no guitars” on such a record, because what I’m currently feeling is that some acoustic guitar within a deeply electronic sound can really ground it and warm it up. We’ll see where it goes.
I definitely think about myself as a guitar-player first and foremost. But as I’ve grown musically, I’ve started to realize that there are no rules and exploration and experimentation can lead to the most exciting breakthroughs. Breaking out of a label or silo is empowering.