• North Country Primitive

Strawberry Milk and Other Stories: An Interview with Cameron Knowler & Eli Winter

2021 is already shaping up to be the year of the duo. Powers/Rolin continue to go from strength to strength, Andrew Weathers and Hayden Pedigo have teamed up for Big Tex, Here We Come and Rob Noyes and Joseph Allred are due to enter the fray next month with Avoidance Language. One of the most eagerly awaited collaborations, however – at least here at North Country Primitive – is that between flatpicker Cameron Knowler and fingerstylist Eli Winter, whose duo album Anticipation is released by American Dreams Records this week. Both guitarists are responsible for solo releases via Houston’s Blue Hole Recordings that you should make sure to track down: Cameron’s collection of traditional tunes and original compositions New and Old (as well as a rollicking old-time set with the Fossil Lickers) and Eli’s post-Hurricane Harvey epic, The Time To Come. Together, however, they are a unique melding of two contrasting solo guitar worldviews – and to these ears, all the better for it.

Photo of Eli and Cameron by Mark Lewis

Can you begin by telling me how this album came about? I understand you toured together, playing duo sets as part of the show, before recording it.

Eli: My recollection is that Cameron and I began collaborating soon after we met. He recorded the bulk of my first album, The Time To Come, between fall 2017 and spring 2018, and I helped film performance videos for a group he was playing in at the time. We embarked on a couple of difficult tours in 2018 and 2019 - three days between Dallas and Houston, then three weeks, from Houston, up the East Coast to Chicago and back - and realised we connected closely on a lot of things that facilitated touring and close friendship. We had similar temperaments and differing but complementary past experiences and a shared love of West African guitar music, the writing of John Williams and bombastic asides. Somehow, I convinced Cameron to do a tour with me of far west Texas during the 2018 winter holidays, playing solo and duo sets, by which time we’d already written and recorded Strawberry Milk. The record grew out of that tour, where we played some of the songs in duo. Southern Filibuster is the last song from the last show of the tour, a homecoming show in Houston. On that tour we had decided early on to stop at anything that seemed serendipitous, and I think the record came together in a similar way. It brings a host of seemingly disparate influences, approaches, and categories together into a unified whole.

Cameron: This was a record Eli and I both knew we had to do. No matter what the circumstances or outcome, we were going to sit in front of mics and release the end result. Due to our schedules and living in separate cities, we almost threaded the needle several times. However, it serendipitously transpired after our winter 2018 duo tour across Texas. The night before Eli flew out, we locked ourselves in his backhouse, pressed record, and here we are.

What was collaborating like for you?

Cameron: For me, collaborating with Eli is a process which requires complete investment in the moment. Unlike other projects, where my job is largely determined by the arrangement of the song or context of the band, this duo doesn't at all. Meaning, this music exists largely without precedent for me; I am free to respond in ways that do not call heavily on my musical background hitherto. Though our arrangements blend together aspects of rote playing as well as improvisation, I think Eli will agree that an outcome isn't as calculable as in other contexts, due to the nature of our headspaces when approaching this material.

Were you nervous about this project? Intimidated at all by each other's skills and creativity?

Eli: I'm always intimidated by Cameron's playing and creativity. I wouldn't want it any other way. We're both hell-bent on doing whatever we want. If we weren't, our music wouldn't last. I don't remember feeling nervous in broad strokes: I remember egging Cameron on, periodically nudging him to make a record of duets. The main session - January 4 of last year - took a lot of trust falling and problem solving, and occasionally I was nervous we wouldn't have quite enough material to record with. That was silly.

Cameron: I felt that we were both comfortable and confident in proposing and tweaking ideas as we each saw fit. Really, the only intimidation that set in was as a result of the factors I mentioned earlier: being a ‘music school’ musician, I had to reconfigure my lens of success, meaning I had to accept that a measurable outcome was not the goal. Eli and I are such good friends and have played so much together that I don't feel intimidated at all by his incredible ability or creativity. Thankfully, we are both so different in our approaches.

Did your distinctively different styles and influences present any challenges? Did you find yourselves making compromises? Or looking for points of confluence? Aiming to discover something new and separate to what you would create individually?

Cameron: See, that highlights a lot of what I wrestled with on this record. We certainly didn't conspire to make a conceptual record, which meant that our discussions about the music were rather abstract and didn't reflect concrete points of our playing that we could engineer or arrange to make a certain musical product or sound. Furthermore, I think we are both similar in that we are reverently uncompromising people who are totalitarians when it comes to making all things work - or so we try! To that effect, we let the moment take hold and allow our strengths and weaknesses to show. I think a strong point of convergence that took us out of our respective domains of solo guitar music was the exploration of improvised, contrapuntal rhythms, which make themselves known across the record, non-traditionally.

Eli: It goes without saying that we would make something distinct from our solo work. I think our aesthetic visions are rarely dissimilar to the point that we can't find somewhere where they converge, though our toolkits are quite different. Our right hands work entirely differently, and Cameron's left is more limber. Cameron's trained in jazz guitar; I'm a self-taught guitarist and have perfect pitch. One aspect of the excitement of working with Cameron - on anything, finding a restaurant - is figuring out how our toolkits will meet in the middle. But I don't think we're concerned with finding balance. Neither of us is trying to pull the other away from what we know, although we'll guide each other away from it for a time. Putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation is generative. It's hard to trust that you have everything you need to make something meaningful in that position, but you do. This goes for anyone reading this.

Playing this sort of music can, in many ways, be a deeply solitary pursuit, insofar as it's just you and a guitar. And I guess playing in a guitar duo is quite different to playing in a band, in that neither of you are necessarily the rhythm section. Did it require a complete change of mindset to collaborate effectively?

Eli: No. We try to communicate clearly, openly and honestly with each other - it's good practice! What else do you need?

Cameron: For me, it took a loss of a mindset, and most importantly, to trust in both my ability and in Eli's ear. Since I am a flatpicker by background, and Eli is a fingerstylist, it would make most sense if I took the melody or head of a song while he lushly accompanied. However, we didn't approach it this way. Through our pursuit of egalitarianism across the parts, we were treading some hairy waters. For better or for worse, I think this hints at the nature of our collaboration.

In collaborating, there is potentially less space available to fill than playing solo. How did you find the right balance? Did you learn anything new about your own playing?

Cameron: I'm curious how Eli will answer this question. As a flatpicker who uses only a single striking surface - with occasional hybrid picking from my middle and ring fingers - and standard tuning, by anatomy and timbre alone I'm a sparser player than Eli. Furthermore, I was playing a smaller guitar than he was, which made dynamics a factor to explore and contend with. Having said this, I am given the ability to cut through more due to my lack of ubiquitousness. Operating in this paradigm, I had to challenge my sense of rhythm and harmonic vocabulary. How can I exist in between the cracks, while playing runs which carry forward both the melody and the traditions we are speaking through more largely?

Eli: I don't think balance is the operative, as I suggested above, but I see what you mean. I think Cameron and I continue to push each other to new heights: we help each other realise things we knew we'd be capable of doing.

What was the balance of composition to improvisation in making this record? How far did you start the project with a completely blank slate? Are all the pieces co-created, or is it a mix-up of Eli-originated and Cameron-originated pieces?

Cameron: The balance between composition and improvisation, I'd say, is almost a 50/50 split save for Sippin' Amaretto which is fully improvised. I think it is safe to say that we started from a relatively blank slate. I brought the two traditional tracks, Southern Filibuster and Cumberland Application, though Eli's approach changed them significantly. A White Rose for Mark is an example of a piece that I brought to the table that we then collaboratively arranged on the spot. For Parapraxis of a Dragonfly, we took a fully arranged composition from Eli and tacked on a new section which serves as a vamped plane for improvisation. Strawberry Milk is an example of a song which revealed itself over the span of a few minutes, at which point we hit record on Eli's field recorder, which is the cut that made it onto the record. The ability to spontaneously compose is something we both bring to the table individually, where we end up complimenting each other well, I feel.

Eli: For all intents and purposes, everything is co-created. The border between composition and improvisation is porous. A few songs are ones I had originally performed solo: I wrote And So I Did for our tour, and Caddo Lake, which I played at most of my first shows in Houston. Likewise for Cameron with Cumberland Application, which expands outward from Cumberland Gap. Some of the songs we effectively wrote during the main session: A White Rose for Mark, which Cameron brought, and Sippin' Amaretto, which is freely improvised.

Was it case of 'start playing and keep the tape rolling', or was there much preparation for the recording?

Eli: A mix of both. Mental preparation beforehand, then we tightened up - to quote Houstonian Archie Bell - during the session when necessary. My D-18 had suffered hard from the Chicago winter - Jack Furman miraculously restored it to playing condition the afternoon of the session.

Cameron: I think a mix of both. Throughout our duo tour, we played a number of the tunes live night after night - Cumberland and Filibuster, namely - which made playing those rather cozy when we sat down to record. For the others, Eli or I would play something, the other would play along, we'd nod, and then press record. Amaretto is a great example of us messing around between takes.

Listening back to the album after the dust has had a chance to settle, are you happy with how it turned out?

Cameron: Yes, very much so. I am most gratified by its individuality, which I feel is largely due to the trust falling aspect and the uncontrollable factors I've enumerated above.

Eli: I couldn't be happier.

Did it the experience of making this album leave you wanting more? Can you see a second round happening? Or further collaborations with other players?

Cameron: I most certainly see another duo record happening with Eli.

Eli: Yes, yes, yes. We're starting to sketch out a second record of duets for electric guitar. My third solo record - about which I can't say much - will facilitate further collaborations with others, including some dream collaborators. In Chicago I collaborate with a few good friends: Tyler Damon, Ara Hanissian II, Jordan Reyes, Sam Wagster. More will come. Extramusical collaborations, too, with Cameron and others. With Jordan, we made a picture book, How To Arrange A Folk Song, to accompany special editions of the record. I wrote, Cameron illustrated. Neither of us knew what the other would make or what to expect. In some way it was just as we expected.