Tony Furtado goes for a lucky "Thirteen"

Jason MacNeil, January 2007

Although there is Canadian pop star named Nelly Furtado, you would be hard pressed to find California native Tony Furtado attempting to do the same thing - getting people on the dance floor with a genre-blending blend of pop, disco, hip-hop and rock.

Furtado, who mixes rootsy, old time, folk, swing and jazz styles, comes from a fine line of guitarists who got their start through their guitar playing before realizing they could create songs that were just as fine.

After releasing the critically acclaimed "These Chains" in 2004, Furtado returned with a live album entitled "Bare Bones" in 2005. Now, closing in on almost 2 decades since his 1989 debut "Swamped," the musician and ace banjo player is back with "Thirteen" (Funzalo).

And for Furtado, it just might be that luck is on his side.

"I'm very pleased," Furtado says from the shoulder of some Oregon highway en route to a pre-Christmas gig that evening. "It was definitely a different process for me having so many producers that were playing on it. It went surprisingly well. It was a lot of fun."

Furtado, who lives in Portland, Ore., says that this album was derived from the artist being in a different mindset than his previous studio effort.

"The songs are definitely deeper and from a more personal space than (the songs) on 'These Chains' were," he says. "On 'These Chains,' we kind of touched on that, but I was so new to the songwriting thing that this time I feel like I was able to go deeper."

The album contains a string of originals mixed with a sprinkle of interesting covers. Furtado says between 16 and 17 songs were recorded, but these were eventually pared down to, you guessed it, 13 songs. The recording itself took only four or five days with some tinkering done later on.

As for the originals, there are a few that seem to stand out, including the tender and somewhat bittersweet "California Flood."

"Musically, I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith at the time, and so, I have to think I was influenced a bit by that," Furtado says. "Lyrically, I think I had written a little poem about being a kid and thinking about summers on the California Delta. We had a boat out there. And also some of the different things were intertwined in there, memories of my folks and just some different personal problems - interfamily stuff - that I don't necessarily want to elaborate on. I know it's kind of abstract, but I think they are kind of intertwined."

Although that song is strong, perhaps the highlight of the album is the title track. The song comes from the horrid Sago coal mine explosion in West Virginia in early 2006 that saw 13 miners trapped underground. Initial reports by stated that 12 of the miners were alive and would be rescued. But initial reports were false, with 12 of the miners dead and 1 lone survivor.

Despite the horror of the event, Furtado says actually writing the song was quite easy.

"My manager turned to me one day and asked, 'Do you have any mining songs?'" he says. "I had never written any mining songs. He said, 'Well that Sago mine disaster just happened.' So. I started reading up a bunch about it and realized how tragic and intense it was."

"I had a melody that was sitting around from another song that I had written that just seemed to work," Furtado adds. "So. I took that melody and married it with some verses that I wrote, and I came up with a chorus. It kind of just all fell into place."

The artist says that he finds writing songs that are factual or based in reality easier to write than perhaps a fictional topic, theme or idea.

"Well for me it can be easier writing about something topical," he says. "I'm kind of a history buff. so I love thinking about historical stuff and then regurgitating or coming up with other ways of looking at what happened whether it's abstract or literal. Sometimes with the true stuff, like about myself, I always had a hard time coming up with my own emotional stuff until this album."

"These was one track on 'These Chains' that came out of my father's cancer that he went through that just kind of spilled out," he continues. "But this album, I was able to write songs based more about emotion."

Although the original material is good, perhaps the other sleeper picks on the album were not written at all by Furtado.

Three covers grace "Thirteen," including The Who classic "Won't Get Fooled Again." The two other gems include Elton John's "Take Me To The Pilot" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son."

"I probably wouldn't have said, 'Let's do three cover songs,'" Furtado explains. "I was hoping for just a couple, but that's just kind of what happened. Those songs fell into place with the others. I wasn't the only decision maker on it."

"'Won't Get Fooled Again' just felt great," he adds. "I started doing that one at live shows solo, and it was an easy choice. 'Fortunate Son,' I remembered hearing when I was a kid, my parents had a couple of old Creedence Clearwater Revival albums that I listened to all the time. The Elton John song was suggested by other people, and so I tried it. I'm working on getting comfortable, but it's a fun song."

Furtado says that technology also played a role in the decision to include some cover versions.

"We came up with a big batch of possible covers that I messed around with," he says. "I got an iPod about a year ago, so there's a couple of hundred songs in there. You know, everything from The Box Tops. I was checking out, what's that song.....'Cry Like A Baby.' We almost recorded that. We recorded a basic track for it, but it didn't quite fit on the album. There were a lot of old soul classics I was checking out, but I don't really have a soul voice. Those were just the ones that ended up working the best."

And while some artists have a difficult time trying to inject their own personality into a classic track, Furtado said that for him the opposite was true.

"What I find hard is trying to get close to the original," he says. "A lot of times, that's easiest for me to just grab a cover and put my own spin on it. There's a version of a Tom Petty song I recorded on 'Bare Bones' called 'Runnin' Down A Dream,' and that was fun. I think that's why they wanted me to come up with another one because that one ended up getting a lot of radio play and attention.

"It's always a hit at my shows," he says. "It will perk up their ears. At first, you hear me doing the finger-picking guitar stuff, and then I come in singing it. They're like, 'Oh yeah! This song!'"

Perhaps the only thing that was one-upped by the number of covers was the number of seasoned producers Furtado had to help round out the songs. The producers have worked with Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan to Radiohead and The Pixies.

"That was pretty easy because two of them also work with my manager," Furtado says. "Jim Dickinson, I've known for a few years now, I'm a big fan of his and his work on that early Ry Cooder stuff is great for a guitar freak. I memorized a lot of that stuff, the thought of him possibly being on it. Sean Slade, I never met before, but he worked with my manager too. He worked with Radiohead, The Pixies and Dresden Dolls, so it was cool to me. It was like, 'Wow! This would be a great person to have on board and get his take on some of the stuff. And sure enough he had a lot of great ideas."

"Dusty Wakeman, the bass player, I've worked with him before. He produced 'These Chains,' and I worked with him on a lot of other albums. And Winston Watson, the drummer, who's worked with Dylan and Giant Sand, it was good to have him. He's a really good, strong indie-rock drummer."

Furtado also says that having so many producers around certainly didn't spoil the musical broth. In fact, he helped him focus into each song.

"That's why I always have a producer because it's so easy to just over-try or over-record and try to fix things that don't need to be fixed," he says. "But if you have the right producer and they say no when you've got the feel, and when it's right, you just let go of it."

Like some singer-songwriters, Furtado, who released several albums on Rounder earlier in his career, has to pick and choose when he can write. He says that unlike some artists who end up scribbling lyrics on napkins and pieces of paper, he has to set aside time.

"I'll get ideas randomly and I'll want to try and focus on it," Furtado says. "But right after the album was done, I took a break from writing. I put myself into an intense kind of writing mode. And so I did that for a while, I took some time off the road for writing. I did some weekly gigs and tried out the new songs from week to week. So it's a combination that helped shape what was to come."

When Furtado writes, he doesn't necessarily concentrate primarily on songs. The musician is also completing two books: one of songs he's performed on slide guitar and another book of songs he's performed on banjo.

"Actually my laptop is in my lap right now," Furtado says with a laugh. "I'm gradually putting it together. Well not gradually, frantically putting together the banjo book because I have a lot more old banjo tunes that I want to get tabbed out before my slide guitar stuff. I've had a lot more requests for it so I think it will be a fun, good thing to have."

In the meantime, Furtado will be out on the road with his touring band playing in support of "Thirteen."

"I love playing day to day in different towns, and so, I'm looking forward to getting on stage and playing these songs," he says. "We'll mix up the new stuff as well as a lot of the older stuff which is a little more instrumental based. I like to have a complete stage show and have it be an entertaining, fun time."

Just don't ask him what his plans are for most of 2007.

"I tend to map out less than a year out thinking about what I'm going to do," he says. "I'm thinking about this tour that is coming up, and I'm pretty sure that's going to help focus me and shape what I'm going to do coming up.

"I'm looking forward to sitting down and writing some new songs. I've got some ideas rolling around in my head and I've been actually writing some instrumentals. I wouldn't mind actually recording maybe a partial instrumental album, maybe a little instrumental EP. But we'll see."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •