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Caroline Doctorow

Singer-Songwriter Q&A

How old were you when you started playing guitar?

I started pretty young. I was eight years old.

What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?

My first guitar was a cherry red Guild M-20. Pretty unique. My Dad bought it for me. I still have it. It’s a prized possession.

Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?

My parents had a folk trio with my uncle when I was a kid. It was a fun hobby for them. They would play Pete Seeger songs and emulate The Weavers. And my paternal grandmother was also a very fine pianist and could play any song you asked for. She played mostly by ear. When she was a young girl living in the Bronx, she performed in movie houses to accompany the films in order to earn money for her piano lessons. I have many wonderful memories of singing and playing with her.

What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?

My main guitar is a white Gibson J-200. I think there are only about 200 white ones in existence. It's very sturdy and well built and stays in tune pretty well. I also really love the way it looks. Pete Kennedy wrote a tune about my white guitar called “Gibson Jumbo.” What a fun song.

What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?

I change my strings almost never. Maybe once a year unless one breaks of course. I just don’t have a need for new strings all the time. They’re too hard to keep in tune. And I like how the worn strings sound. For the rhythm style I play, the old strings are just fine. I use a medium gauge of whatever brand is around.

Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?

I play with medium flat picks. But actually I seem to be gravitating to using no pick at all.

We’ll see where that takes me.

Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?

I was interested in using guitar effects at one time, and I had a few of those little electronic boxes – but somewhere along the way I lost interest. I still love to put lots of reverb on my voice though.

Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?

There was a guy in Huntington, New York that I used to use but he moved away. And then for a while my producer would keep my guitars in shape in our studio. I need to find someone new. I don’t know the first thing about it. Once I sent my Gibson back to the factory for an overhaul and they did a great job. It took months to get it back. I played my Taylor while I was waiting.

Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?

Oh dear. I don’t seem to have a favorite, as all the music stores in my town have closed. When I lived in NYC I would haunt Matt Umanov Guitars in Greenwich Village (also now gone). I bought a Martin guitar from him which I later traded in for the Gibson that I now have. Umanov’s was a real institution and many famous musicians would haunt it. The photo collection on its walls were a real who’s who of the music world.

At what age did you start writing songs?

I was a late bloomer when it comes to songwriting. I was more interested in delivering a good performance of a song vocally, rather than having to struggle to write my own. I finally came around and started to write my own songs when I turned 30. Now it’s one of my favorite disciplines.

What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?

I come up with a title, a phrase, or a concept first. I think about “point of view” so much when I’m writing i.e. “who is telling this story?” The melody comes later. I obsess over the lyrics and the story. I struggle with the melody. As a sideline I like to write novelty songs about real things, like my song about The Big Duck (an iconic novelty building in Flanders, NY). The facts of the subjects are often so interesting that those types of songs practically write themselves. I write on my laptop.

Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?

In my formative years it was all the folk icons such as Joan Baez, Donovan, etc. I've never stopped listening to Bob Dylan. And I have seen Emmylou Harris in concert at least 20 times.

If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?

It would be the late folk singer-songwriter Richard Fariña – who many say was the “first” Bob Dylan in regard to “songwriting style. Tragically, Fariña died at age 29 in 1966. He was on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. I hope people look him up. I recorded a whole album of his songs called Another Country which features some amazing guests, including Nanci Griffith, John Sebastian and Happy Traum.

What are your top three “desert island” albums?

Richard and Mimi Fariña - The Complete Vanguard Recordings, The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album because it’s so uplifting - and anything by Pete Seeger.

What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?

Joan Baez at Carnegie Hall. We met her backstage and she gave me a bouquet of yellow daffodils. She probably didn't know what to do with all the flowers in her dressing room! The most recent concert I attended was an Emmylou Harris show here in my area.

The Beatles or the Stones?

The Beatles.

Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?

My first paying gig was in Scarsdale, New York at a WMCA. I probably made about five dollars.

What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?

Having Nanci Griffith sing harmony on my album, Another Country. I just love her songwriting. I also once opened for The Band.

What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).

Hard to choose the worst one. Playing live is always an adventure. There was a gig I played once and I had to use musicians that I had never played with before. It seemed like everything went wrong. We broke a huge glass vase in the venue while we were setting up, the harmonica player was super stoned, the drummer brought along way too much gear for my somewhat quieter folk sound and the guitar player left his guitar behind at the end of the night so we had to drive all the way back to get it. Oh, and it snowed. Heavily.

What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?

I love to play at music festivals. My favorite is the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, OK. I also love playing library concerts. We always have a listening audience at those types of venues. My show is really geared towards that. There’s also a feeling of fellowship at library gigs. The audience always sings along.

How do you work out your set list?

I never write out a proper set list! I have a list of songs that I choose from. I like to “read” the audience along the way to see what should come next. My poor band. I guess they’re used to me by now.

Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?

Music has to be all you really care about. All you want to do. It has to be all consuming. I always say, “don’t let any one person stop you. Just keep plowing ahead.” I would also say, “avoid conflict and avoid criticizing others. Surround yourself with good people who have the same goals and vision as you do.”

Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?

I have found that it’s very helpful to go out and listen to beginners playing at open mics. Sometimes it helps to hear or see what you’re not supposed to do. What doesn’t work. Hearing songs that are not fully formed or complete can be strangely inspiring.

If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?

I really have no idea. Maybe teach Kindergarten. Little kids are just so funny and I would probably laugh a lot doing that.

Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.

Visit Caroline's website to see all of her upcoming shows and to purchase her music.

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