How old were you when you started playing guitar?
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
An EKO steel string. My folks bought it for me after I returned from day camp one lunchtime asking for a guitar. I still own it.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
Both folks played recorder; Dad also played piano. In his 60’s he began taking half-days off work to resume lessons he’d begun as a boy. I got to hear him at his recital: he was a remarkably emotional player. I don’t remember playing with them, but we may have performed simple chamber music together at a music camp we attended as a family for several years.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
Over several decades I’ve acquired a number of instruments of which I’m quite fond. My first “good” guitar was a J-50 I bought around the age of 15. Decades later, I had the goofy adjustable saddle changed out for a proper one and wept on first strum, hearing her sing the way she’d always wanted to. That guitar remains a frequent songwriting partner, and often gets played on recordings. Great rhythm sound! My main stage guitar is a very responsive Collings OM2H. We’re fast pals and she wears the grime and scars of my extreme enthusiasm for music. I’m also quite fond of a Tele Thinline I bought in my early 20’s. Beautiful to look at, and a real fast neck. And others...
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
Mostly D’Addario, for no particular reason. I prefer mediums (0.13’s) for their weight and dynamic range. Ordinarily I change strings when they break, but for a bigger show or when recording a new record I’ll change the set. They go on about a day or so before I have to play.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
I’m primarily a finger-style player, but for situations that call for a flatpick I use Dunlop Ultex 1.14’s (with the rhinoceros on them). Their thickness gives me control over dynamics, and they are equilateral triangles, so every corner works equally well...
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
I have many! They are my velvet coaches and private jets to fantasy islands of sonic possibility. I use them most often when hired as an accompanist/guitarist. Solo I primarily count on the sounds my guitar can make (along with a GE-7). Favourites: Tube Screamer, RAT, Boss PN2, Boss DD-3, Strymon Flint, Analogman King of Tone. Love ‘em!
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?
All my acoustic work is done by Tony Duggan-Smith in Toronto. He is a superb luthier, repairman, writer, raconteur. A genius in many ways.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
I’m fond of Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville. The owners are personable and knowledgeable, and they have a great selection of instruments. I’m also excitedly planning a visit to Elderly in Lansing soon.
At what age did you start writing songs?
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first?
As an inveterate scribbler and noodler, I’m blessed with a mighty collection of lyric and musical ideas, some of which have grown or will grow into full pieces. Most often I’ve found the songs that get finished and prove most successful are the ones that start with a riff, then a phrase, line, or couplet, then a more elaborate riff, followed by tons of other words that are subsequently edited. The craft process is long and enjoyable. I recently noticed it feels like getting to know someone a little shy. Gentle, persistent, time is what it takes.
Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
All three! “Wha?” All three: paper, electronically...and typewriter. 1) Since the age of 17 I’ve written regularly in notebooks, chronicling actions, encounters, joys, sorrows, triumphs, and, increasingly through the years, one-liners, rudimentary drawings, lyric ideas, couplets, verses, quatrains: raw material for all that reaches the world...and 144 times more that no one will ever see. 2) If a particular piece is interesting, it’s transcribed, then batted back and forth between screen and sheet—re-writes and corrections in the margin—in a lengthy and generally enjoyable process of revision...’til it’s “done.” 3) Between paper and laptop is the bridge: the mechanical typewriter. Before PC’s (yes, there was such a time...) my small ‘Facit’ was driven at all hours of the day and night. From paper to typer, typer to paper went the poems. Taking advantage of the freedom to position the page, I also wrote a great deal of concrete poetry: words and letters as graphic art.
More recently, on an antique ‘Underwood,’ I wrote “slowwords” each time I went to the cabin. Composed directly on this heavy machine, the genuine effort required to move the keys forced me to “think before I spoke” which, to my ears, produced pieces with a gravitas I don’t think they’d have had, had they been otherwise composed. A manuscript is well underway!
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
Fahey, Bromberg, Jansch were my three earliest influences. If I can sneak in a few more: Dylan, Patrick Sky. Mississippi John Hurt.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Would have to be Dylan.
What are your top three "desert island" albums?
Blonde on Blonde, Kind of Blue, and either Van Ronk’s Folksinger or Bromberg’s eponymous solo debut. I’d also attempt smuggling in Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame.
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
Best I can recall, the first was Ian & Sylvia (might have been Gordon Lightfoot) at Place des Arts in Montreal with the parents. I would have been about eight years old. Most recent was Alejandro Escovedo at The Ark in Ann Arbor.
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
Hotel Sonesta or Beth Zion Synagogue in Montreal, age 13, playing rhythm guitar for “a grownup” singer. 20 bucks.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
I play every day and always seem to find a combination of notes I’ve never played before. In this way, each day—each eureka—is a highlight. It still amazes, and I pray it never stops... One show that stands out is a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Yellow Door Coffee House, a Montreal institution which was “my elementary and high school of performance.” Returning home to play (well, I’m happy to add) before an audience of a few hundred was so very sweet.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don't have to name names).
Would have to be a songwriting competition (already a poor premise for a gig!) I attended shortly after my dad’s passing. I thought I was ready, but results indicated otherwise: I was eliminated in the first round. Good thing it only took 12 arduous hours of air and ground travel to get there. Even the less successful or less musical gigs have taught me something, but this one was just a mistake. Perhaps the lesson was “tu modo homini”—you’re only human.
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)?
Happily, of these there are many. Any room where folks have come to hear the music, and where monitor sound is as good as FOH—and both are clear and full—is for me. Any room where I can be with lovers of music.
How do you work out your setlist?
I start with a list of a couple dozen songs I can play without worrying too much about blanking on lyrics. My intention is to take my listeners on a trip, so I try to vibe out whether to start with a jolt or a caress. Then I carry on, mixing tempi, varying emotional content, moving through the human range of rueful, humorous, and hopeful.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Take the long view; play in as many situations and with as many other folks as you can; invest in yourself as a musician; recognize the importance of this mighty art.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Capo higher. Detune a string. Try a different instrument and listen to the sounds it wants to make. Take a walk and hum. Listen to ambient sounds. Listen to unfamiliar work. Read a book. Get in touch! I love talking about this stuff! We’ll work it out!
If you weren't a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
Session guitarist/sideman? Teacher? Naturalist?
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
Please visit noahsong.com. Find my schedule; listen to recordings; sign up for a monthly newsletter in which I share the latest goings-on, photos, and lyrics. I’m very excited about my 9th CD which will be released in early ’23. It’s a collection of some of the songs I most commonly perform, and features great guest artists and a wide range of approaches, from solo to full ensemble pieces. Noahsong.com for info on the official release.