Interview: Earthwork

We all should by now know that our survival is irrevocably contingent on responsible attitudes and actions. But there’s no need for the human race to throw up its hands in despair and decide to go out in a blaze of self-destructive glory; amazing things are now being done by small groups of friends working together, having fun together, creating together, and together slowly righting the economic, social, and environmental imbalances created by globalization.

I’ve mentioned these groups in other articles (notably my review of McKibben’s Deep Economics), but this week I’d like you to pay heed to Earthwork, a musicians’ collective in Michigan. Aside from producing numerous excellent recordings and charitable events, in 2005 the collective put out the trail-blazing CD Something Fresh, a compilation striking in its synthesis of brilliantly clever musical creations and a complex of urgent social messages about the sustainable production and consumption of food.

The following interview is with two Earthwork members, Susan Fawcett and a gal by the name of Darlene, granted in 2007.

Describe the origin and structure of the organization.

SUSAN: Just as a little background—Earthwork Music is a collective of musicians, and we do a lot of benefit concerts and organize a few annual events, namely The Family Weekend (we offer classes for kids and their parents in the arts and sustainability), and the Water Festival a travelling music festival geared toward education. We are a very community-oriented group, and work largely in the independent festival circuit.

We are first and foremost a group of friends, and have been playing music together for years. We had an identity long before any sort of infrastructure. The name Earthwork came from the Earthwork farm where founding member Seth Bernard grew up. The name is a good representation of the kind of community we all want to be a part of. We’re now operating as a DBA, and looking to become a limited liability corporation.

John Lindenmayer said: “I might instead highlight the ‘structure’ in a way that talks about how we all bring different skills, ideas, and contacts to the table, how well we collaborate together as musicians and visual artists, as well as our collaborations with the non-profit world. Maybe how we work together as true peers and how we don’t have a traditional hierarchal structure of leadership.”

DARLENE: As a group, we all have important life/earth issues burning in our hearts. Where there is a window of opportunity to create productive solutions or to bring awareness to the general public, we as a group try to use our talents and networks to make it happen.

How often do your members meet?

SUSAN: In an official way? We shoot for twice a year or so. Many of us play together and see each other a lot, but not often all of us at once.

DARLENE: The beautiful thing about a collective is that any of us can gather together in any number and make something happen. As we are a community, we love to meet as often as possible. It may be for a formal event or benefit, a business discussion or simply to uplift one another, as we all need to be fuelled now and again.

Describe a typical meeting.

SUSAN: We all bring something to run through the juicer and then drink a lot of juice. We talk about our goals as an organization, performance opportunities, and organizing events and festivals. At the last meeting we all drew each other’s names to give each other song assignments for a children’s album we’re hoping to record in January. Then we ordered pizza.

Do you also socialize together? If so, what do you do?

SUSAN: We play music, listen to music, cook food, and play basketball.

DARLENE: In addition we watch movies and try to make our own; we laugh and cry; we help each other out with life’s difficult challenges; we encourage each other and try not to take ourselves too seriously.

What kind of musical background is typical of an Earthwork recording artist?

SUSAN: Most of us grew up going to community music festivals in Michigan, or have been for a number of years. This is where many of us met for the first time. I think only one member of the collective has a bachelor’s degree in music, though many of us have some classical training.

DARLENE: A lot of our learning comes from that internal drive that causes you to seek out what you desire to know. We all have a lot of musical influences in our lives, and any artist is constantly expanding to include new and old forms. We have a good amount of styles amongst us from blues-gospel-country-gypsy-classical-folk to the unexplainable.

As a cooperative, do you share studio space, recording equipment, and technical expertise?

The unofficial official studio of Earthwork is the Heart Center Studio in May’s hometown of Big Rapids. It was jointly invested in by her family, Fox on a Hill Productions, members of the collective, and some other friends. The space is open to members of the collective for a nominal fee. We’ve got a great space, and some nice gear, but no live-in engineer. Our musicians have worked with lots of people over the years, but it seems Ian Gorman is a recurring favourite. Whenever possible we work with Ian for mixing and mastering, and Glen Brown for post-production if we can afford it.

What, for you, are the right conditions for artistic creation?

Some of us are ’on’ all the time. (Micah from Breathe Owl Breathe is constantly creating new things). Others of us do better with time off, time alone, sometimes working with each other.

What impact, if any, does your social activism have on your bursts of creativity, or even on the honing and refining process? And, vice versa, what impact does your art have on your social concern?

This article came out today and is a pretty good example.

May wrote the song in response to the ending of the public comment period after the hearings on the mine application. She wanted to have the song ready in time for the Bioneers event last month, and again to play it for an audience of several thousand (including the governor of Michigan) last Saturday night. Once we’ve placed ourselves in the position of environmental advocates, we have a certain responsibility that perhaps we didn’t previously.

How does the label market and distribute recordings?

This aspect is still developing. Previously, it was handled entirely by the artists individually (though we did help one another out here and there). Now, Fox on a Hill Productions, LLC does a lot of radio and press promotion, as well as distributing to retailers, and selling directly from its own website as well as earthworkmusic.

What do most of you have in common?

SUSAN: A love for music, and a desire to change the world for the better. Most of us are from Michigan, and have a deep appreciation for folk and roots music.

DARLENE: I would have to use the EW Mission statement here: The Earthwork Music collective believes in the intrinsic and historical power of music (and the arts) to raise both community and self-awareness.

We are also lovers of Life.

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