Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have devised a clever game to play when they’re traveling -- something to keep their ears sharp, when they’re away from their home studio outside Washington, D.C. “We’ll go into a room,” says Marxer. “Big room or small, it doesn’t matter. We’ll clap our hands and see if we can figure out what reverb setting we would need to copy that sound. It’s geeky all the way.”
The pair have visited a lot of rooms together over the years. For nearly four decades, they've been playing and recording and touring together: Fink is one of the best banjo players alive, and Marxer plays nearly everything else. They’ve released 45 albums covering a range of styles and set-ups, mostly folk and old-time, bluegrass and children’s tunes. Their latest, Get Up and Do Right, is their first collection of duets for two voices and two acoustic instruments, featuring a handful of originals and covers of songs penned by Alice Gerrard, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan.
Gently political and certainly timely, the album digs into folk’s enormous capacity for dissenting voices combining in beautiful harmony. For Fink and Marxer, making music is a way to get up and do right: an inherently radical act. Their DIY process extends into the studio, where they work as their own producers and, occasionally, their own engineers and mixers. Marxer is the more technical-minded of the two (see below for her favorite piece of equipment), while Fink is the conceptualist -- the one who keeps the big picture in perspective. Together and separately, they have produced roughly 150 records, including Sam Gleaves’ 2015 breakout Ain’t We Brothers and Tom Paxton’s new album, Boat in the Water.
What unites this disparate catalog is a warmth of sound and an idea of music as a communal undertaking, a labor and a joy to be shared. “We both do many things and wear many hats,” says Marxer. “Sometimes we produce together and sometimes separately.” Adds Fink: “Even when we have separate projects, we have an open door with each other for what we call continuous consulting. It’s pretty hard for one of us to get involved in something where the other person doesn’t have some influence to make it better.”
How did you move into the role of producer?
Cathy Fink: We’ve both been playing music professionally since the early 1970s and, in the early days, I had the opportunity to work with some really great producers. Two who were very influential on me were David Essig and Ken Whiteley, both from Canada. Ken has produced probably 2,500 albums over the last 40 years. In both cases, I was a musician who was confident in what I wanted to accomplish, but didn’t feel like I had the knowledge to take my dream and get it on tape. By working with lots of producers I really trusted and whose music I enjoyed, I was able to pay attention to how they accomplished things. After a few projects like that, it was time for a transition, so I did an album where I co-produced. Marcy was involved, along with a lot of other people, and I bounced ideas off them. As we continued working together, we really relied on each other to the point where most of these things became co-productions.
Marcy Marxer: I started out very differently. When I was a kid, my dad used to go to the junkyard and collect wires and speakers and thermostats and things like that. He’d come home and give them to me to take apart and look at. When I was in the eighth grade, I built my first tube amp. That really developed the techno-geek side of my brain. Eventually, I got a job with Macmillan/McGraw-Hill producing 120 songs for an educational project. Since then, Cathy and I have been able to join forces, and it just mushroomed. We push each other to get better. We have a bit of a competitive streak, but it works in our favor.
It sounds like together you cover nearly every aspect of the recording process.
CF: You don’t need to be an engineer to be a good producer, but we found it so helpful to get those skills in order to better speak with the engineers we were working with. It really rounded out our abilities, and I’m in a better position to know what I’m looking for, how I might get it, and whether or not we’re getting it. In turn, we try to pass that along to other people. Our Grammys actually say Artist, Engineer, and Producer.
MM: It’s crucial to know every step, but it’s not crucial to do every step. It’s good to have a bigger team, people you trust, people who are fast at certain things, people who are the house painters of their field or the Rembrandts of their field. If we didn’t play and engineer and produce and mix, I don’t think we could efficiently speak with the other team members.
CF: We do lots of projects that we don’t engineer on. The reason we started engineering really had to do with a combination of convenience and health issues a long time ago. We wanted to do these things at home and at our own convenience. When you’re traveling as much as we do, we would sometimes book a date in the studio, and then the day would come and, oh man, we’re just too tired to do that today. So we learned to do our own tracks and our own overdubs at home. It gives us a whole new way of producing our own projects. Time is a big factor, so if we have two weeks to make an album, we’re not going to sit in the studio with all of the crayons and start creating the painting. We’re going to visualize the painting before we go in, and then we’re going to take the right steps to make it happen. When we do it all at home, we have the opportunity to take out all the crayons and try out different colors. We might do a take with different banjos or different harmonies and decide which one works better for a particular track.
Is that how you made Get Up and Do Right?
CF: Most of it was recorded in our home studio. There were two tracks recorded live at AirShow, and there are two tracks recorded at Jim Robeson’s studio. We wanted to do those tracks live, but didn’t want to have to deal with the mechanics of being engineers at the same time. Everything else was done at home, sometimes live, sometimes overdubbed, but always with the feeling of, "This is what it sounds like when we play together."
MM: The great thing about the studio at home is that all of my instruments are here. When I’m working on other people’s projects, I might be doing some overdubs or filling some holes, and I’ll just fill up the car with instruments and see what I can do to finish it up. If I didn’t bring an instrument with me, then I can’t use it. So it’s much easier having everything in one place.
CF: We don’t have to think ahead to which five guitars we might need. If we’re at home, we can go, "What this song really needs is the electric baritone guitar," and we can run and get it. But if we’re at someone else’s studio, too bad. We recently produced Tom Paxton’s newest album, and we worked with our engineer Jim Robeson at his studio. Tom did all of his tracks there, and a lot of other people came in, but when it came time to do our own tracks, we decided to do them at home. Another example is the project we did called cELLAbration!, which was a tribute to Ella Jenkins that includes an amazing array of artists, including Sweet Honey in the Rock, Red Grammer, and Riders in the Sky. I’d say about 60 percent of that album was done in a variety of commercial studios and about 40 percent was done at home. It’s a really fun way of filling out the whole puzzle.
Something that strikes me about your new album and Paxton’s new album is how rich and complex the instruments sound.
MM: We mic all the instruments in stereo. We almost never single-mic an acoustic instrument because we want it to sound like we’re listening with both of our ears. Both of those albums are so sparse, and you really want to hear all the detail. If something was going to sound really big, we might be inclined to leave it off. We want you to feel like you’re sitting in a living room with us -- a really nice-sounding living room.
CF: We don’t have a giant collection of gear, though. What we’ve found is that we’re very good at using a handful of things, so we stick with a couple of mics that sound fabulous. We know how to deal with them, and sometimes we’ll cart them around, if we go to another studio. What you’re most familiar with is usually what you’re going to sound best with. I just have to give a huge amount of credit to Greg Lukens and Jim Robeson for the incredible tutelage they gave us. There aren’t a lot of female engineers who are well known, and we’ve certainly worked in a lot of studios where it was assumed that we couldn’t possibly know what we were talking about. But Greg and Jim really empowered us to do all of this stuff for ourselves.
MM: Every once in a while, I’ll be working with an engineer that I might not be very familiar with, somebody that I might not have a lot of faith or trust in or just might not know very well. If there’s a man in the room, then all the production questions will be addressed to him instead of me. It seems impossible in this day and age, but it does happen. I’ve stopped working with people like that, people I don’t absolutely trust. I’m not the kind of person who will put my foot down and demand something. Cathy is a little bit better at that, but I just try to avoid those people.
You seem to be at the center of a very large musical community, which reflects in the music itself -- not just who’s on the record, but how those people interact.
CF: It is a very large, very close musical community in the D.C. area. One of the advantages of working in a place like this is that, when people think of where the hotbeds of music are in the United States, they may pinpoint New York or Los Angeles or Nashville. But in D.C., there isn’t such a competitive atmosphere. When I moved to town, I was welcomed into the world of session players and there wasn’t really a hierarchy. Musicians are very supportive of each other, and the engineering world, in particular, is not competitive at all. If one person has a problem, everybody’s going to help them out.
The other thing is, we have a pretty active touring schedule both nationally and internationally, so we’ve had a good time making that community even bigger. Twenty-two years ago, we played at the Auckland Folk Festival in New Zealand, where we met a couple of musicians that we’ve remained friends with all these years. One of them is Chris Newman, and the other one is a traditional harp player named Máire Ní Chathasaigh. We’ve played on their records through the magic of the Internet. And we just got back from a UK tour, where we did 10 days with Tom Paxton and then a week in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Talk about off the beaten track. Our friends Hazel and Jennifer Wrigley have spent 10 or 15 years touring nonstop around the world as a fiddle and guitar duo playing traditional Scottish music. They’re just spectacular. They settled back in their home of Orkney to open up this place called Wrigley and the Reel, which is a music shop, café, venue, and educational facility. We’ve played on their records and, when they come to the States, they stay with us. So the community just gets larger and larger.
MM: We also find that when we meet other producers and engineers, they’re thrilled to discuss equipment and show you their gear. It can get pretty geeky. And if you’re wondering, my favorite preamps are simple and easily accessible. They’re APIs, and we use a full preamp rack mount that would sell online for $2,500 or something like that. They’re absolutely clear, beautiful, pristine sounds.
CF: We do get buried in the geekiness, but we try not to forget that what we’re really doing here is using the medium as a way to share the music that we love. When we produced Get Up and Do Right, we wanted to use all that gear to highlight the music -- the feeling of the music and the message of the music. There is always something to discover and that’s what makes it fun.
MM: I’ll tell you two of my favorite recordings. One is Cowboy Calypso by Russ Barenberg. The vinyl sounds absolutely gorgeous. The other, which was done digitally, is John Fogerty’s Blue Moon Swamp. And anything Gary Paczosa produces always sounds beautiful.
There is something very direct about the music on this album, something very refreshing about its optimism during hard times.
CF: We have to stay optimistic. On our tour of the UK, we played to about 4,500 people, and the song “Get Up and Do Right” was a rabble-rouser every single night. It’s a song we loved, when we heard it two years ago and, when we recorded it, no one thought Donald Trump was going to win the election. We just knew that it was a great daily meditation, but we didn’t realize that it could be this ultimate rallying cry. I just finished a down-and-dirty video for the song that’s based on pictures that people sent us from marches all over the world. We went to a march in Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, a very tiny place, and the first night we’re there, there’s a vigil in front of the local church. We were very welcomed. When we got there, Marcy announces, "We’re Americans and we’re with you!" That got a big cheer, and we made a bunch of friends. It feels like our job every day is to get up and do right. Do the best we can to make the Earth a good place to live. Negativity breeds negativity. Action breeds positivity. Rather than get bogged down in the negative stuff, we’re just going to continue to get up and do right.
MM: Cathy and I are old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement, so we’ve done this before and we’ve come out better than we were for it. My parents went to marches, and it was really the music that kept us moving forward. It was the music that brought everyone together and kept us going. This was back when you used to have to dress up in your Sunday clothes and your Sunday shoes for a march. For a little kid, that’s not easy. But music gave us support and energy. Something happens when everybody is singing at the same time. They all take a breath at the same time, and that’s power. It’s real power.
Can you tell me how that sense of social responsibility informs your children’s music, especially the Children of Selma album from 1988?
CF: Children of Selma is a project that I still deeply love. I was brought to that project by Jane Sapp who was, at the time, working with the Highlander Center. That’s the place where Rosa Parks went for a workshop two weeks before she wouldn’t go to the back of the bus. Jane had met a woman named Rose Sanders who had worked with a group of kids after school in Selma. Rose is a civil rights attorney, but her purpose was to give the kids something useful to do after school. She turned out to be quite a prolific and incredible songwriter. I went down there and we went to an old YMCA or community center, where there was an out-of-tune piano, and Rose gathered the kids around to sing a bunch of these songs. I was blown away by the spirit of these songs and by the magic that happened when she engaged the kids who were singing about their real lives. One of the songs that comes back to me every election is “Vote for Me Until I Can.” That project was a big challenge: I had to go to a location where I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know how to take a group of kids, who had never recorded before, into a studio. But the important part was taking their message to a bigger audience. Even though, commercially, it’s one of the least successful things I’ve done, in my heart, it’s one of the most important projects I’ve ever worked on.
Photo credit: Michael Stewart