Joe Purdy & Amber Rubarth of "American Folk"

Q&A: Joe Purdy & Amber Rubarth of Movie ‘American Folk’

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Joe Purdy & Amber Rubarth are continuing their epic road trip and making a pit stop at the Independent in San Francisco at the end of this week. The two will be performing songs from the acclaimed indie film, American Folk, in which both musicians star. The show coincides with the release date for both the film and the soundtrack, which features both classic folk song renditions by Purdy and Rubarth as well as original compositions.

We were curious to learn more about the movie and it’s talented cast so we reached out to them and spoke about how the movie came to be, what they learned from the overall experience and what the selection process was like to narrow down musical selections for the film.

How did this movie come together and how did you become a part of it?

David Heinz, who had never written or directed a movie, had a story that kept coming to him which he felt hadn’t been told. The story was around the fullness of experience in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, specifically around the unity and kindness shown amongst each other that followed the great vulnerability and confusion. David convinced Joe Purdy to play the lead male, and I was invited to audition after David ran across a video on YouTube of us singing the old Carter Family tune “Storms Are On the Ocean” together at a Save the River benefit concert in New York. Joe and I had sung together quite a bit in the past and after reading the script it felt like a natural fit.

Did you both have any acting experience before this?

Neither of us did! In fact, David had never written or directed a film, and Joe and I had never acted before. I think the freshness and naivety of not knowing actually served us because it was supported by an incredible team of experienced producers and crew and other actors around us, and we set out to make something a little different.

What are some differences and similarities between acting and performing music?

It was a lot more similar than I would have expected on the whole. It felt like a challenge of presence and exploration, similar to writing a song where you get to choose one aspect of everything available and swim in that. The biggest difference I felt was that music for me has been more of a solitary process in its creation, whereas acting is all about the relationship and dynamics of the whole ecosystem: the other actors, cinematographer, director, producers, lighting, and even the space.

Can you describe the songwriting process for this soundtrack?

Joe and I each had one original song in the film, mine was “New York,” which I’d already written and David had a particular scene he wanted it in. I wrote one other, “Townes,” the last day in the studio when we were recording, which was honoring the experience we had filming and all the people we met along the way; that’s in the trailer as well. Joe has a beautiful song called “This Old Guitar” he wrote for his character in the film, as well as a duet he also finished the last day we recorded which we recently premiered on Rolling Stone; that one’s called “Someone Singing With Me.” The rest of the soundtrack is filled with folk songs we love and used in the film, as well as a beautiful tune from John Prine and the Elizabeth Cotten song, “Freight Train,” as recorded by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman.

Describe the selection process for picking the songs for this film.

David and Joe and I worked together as a team to come up with which songs would land where. Some were written in the script in advance, others felt right to sing in the moment. We’re all fans of folk music, and it gave us an opportunity to dig deep into the far corners of that world.

Why do you think folk music resonates with people so much?

Folk still holds on to the core of what music has been for thousands of years. Songs belong to everyone, their power is in the raising of voices together. As we were digging in we would find many known songs based around older traditional tunes; this natural fluidity with folk music at its origins gives everything a community ownership that is different from today, where we put our names on everything and claim the rights. Until recorded music, it didn’t matter who wrote what, and communities would alter verses or write new verses or melodies that fit them.

There have been many movies based on self-discovery through road trips. Why do you think audiences respond so well to that concept?

When we shake ourselves loose of everyday routines, journey outward, it always gives a unique opportunity for self-discovery. The road trip theme reaches back endlessly (for instance, Homer’s Odyssey).

There’s a strong theme of mourning in this movie and the power of music to help heal. How can music heal in your opinion?

Music in its essence is so communal and collective and primal, it really does have the power to bring people together and heal and attune us with each other. I can’t tell you why, but I did feel it personally throughout the creation of this film. There were a lot of challenges in embarking on such a huge project, so many unknowns, and I felt very calmed and healed in the moments we got to sink back into music.

What is the message that you hope people will take away from this movie?

I hope everyone takes away whatever is right for them. There’s a great book called “Courage to Create” by Rollo May and he describes how once you’ve created something, you have that initial relationship to the piece of art or music, but then as soon as it’s birthed out into the world, it has its own life and in each new interaction the person interacting becomes the Artist.

You’ll be performing in San Francisco at the Independent on January 27. Have you played here before and what do you like most about this city?

We love San Francisco!!! We truly do. I have always had such special times there. I’ve performed numerous concerts in and around the city, including many beautiful house concerts. I have such a love for the community of people there, it always feels fresh and alive and fascinating and so beautifully interactive, it’s got that ever-present two-way radio vibe that folk music is built upon.

Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth play the Independent in San Francisco on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 // Doors: 8:30 pm / Show: 9:00 pm // $25.00

Photo credit David Whetstone

An avid drummer whose discography includes albums on Digital Nations (a Steve Vai imprint), music critic Louis Raphael has always kept a pulse on the San Francisco music scene. After many years as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he decided to start Music in SF® as a way to showcase what the San Francisco music scene really has to offer.

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