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Mama’s Broke – Artist of the Month Interview

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Folk duo Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler, AKA Mama’s Broke, are talking live and direct from Canada via Zoom to Folk Radio ahead of their second album ‘Narrow Line’ (reviewed here and out 13th May on Free Dirt Records). Having been bowled over three years ago upon hearing their debut album ‘Count The Wicked,’ I jumped at the opportunity for a lengthy chat with these two artists, especially now that their new record is proving definitively that the musical talent evidenced in 2019 continues to evolve into something truly special today. But what kind of people are they going to be in the flesh? Can they really be as dark and brooding as those deep lyrical meditations suggest, or is there a lighter side to Mama’s Broke? Well, unsurprisingly, for people with such vital music pumping through their veins, they turned out to be equally engaging in conversation. Before I dived deeper into the music, however, I opened the chat with an enquiry about the worrying news that the band had been involved in a road collision back in December?

Amy Lou Keeler: Yeah, it wasn’t really a collision, but somebody collided into my van while it was parked.

Lisa Maria: Luckily, we weren’t in the vehicle, it was in the middle of the night, but we were able to hear it from inside the house.

ALK: Normally, I do sleep in my van when travelling, so the night before, I had slept in it, then that night I decided not to. Oh yeah, there was somebody looking out for me that day.

I have seen Mama’s Broke described as ‘folk without borders’…

ALK: I think that’s just because we have travelled around a lot and both of us really love traditional music from everywhere, so that bleeds into it. I’d say that 95% of our fans or people who listen to our music are people who have seen us at some show around the world, so it’s like a personable interactive thing.

What were both of your gateways into knowing, loving and playing traditional music?

LM: I think it’s something that’s always been with me. I was really fortunate to grow up being taken to a lot of different folk music and world music festivals as a kid. Just hearing music from a wide variety of backgrounds growing up so it’s just something that always intrigued me. As I got older and started finding what really jumped out at me, it would just send me down a rabbit hole because I would always want to know the source of where these musicians got their inspiration and going further and further back into the original source material, it would take me to music from all over the world. So, there was never a particular tipping point; it’s just always been with me.

ALK: My Dad’s a musician, he’s a guitar player, he’s like electric blues, so he grew up with Howlin’ Wolf and all that kind of shit in the fifties and sixties, so that’s what I grew up listening to. Also, being from Nova Scotia, it’s like very much fiddle music is around a lot; ceilidhs and stuff like that were happening a lot when I was growing up. But I wasn’t interested until much later in life; for me, the first time was a Ralph Stanley recording; I remember the exact moment I was like, “oh, that is what I am looking for.” It was super stripped-down; I think it was him and his banjo, and then there was some a cappella stuff like ‘O Death’ or whatever, that led me to Dock Boggs, and that led me to this whole Appalachian wormhole, and that led me back to British Isles stuff and balladry. Just like simplify, simplify, simplify, which is so interesting, like similar to what Lisa said it was let’s go to the very source, then go behind that and see what it’s all about.

And what about anything less detectable in your music DNA?

ALK: Oh yeah, all of it, as we say that it is all part and parcel of so many genres. I played in a psych-punk band when I was like twenty or whatever; Lisa’s played in a ton of shit…

LM: … yeah, a doom metal band…

ALK: So many of those scales; we were talking about doom metal recently; it’s so ballad based. Like so much of the same modal scales but just layered in different ways, spoken through a different medium.

LM: There can be a lot of crossovers for some of the messages for that kind of music lyrically, bringing it back to the kind of songs of protest; there’s a lot of crossovers there.

You seem very engaged with the idea of protest and topical subject matter in folk song; there’s still a place for that today, is there?

LM: I definitely feel there is a place for it, just like there always has been in a lot of folk music, but not even just restricted to the folk genre. I think it’s a very natural thing to be portrayed through music.

ALK: I think to value that is really important; the stuff that’s going to sell isn’t normally the most protesting, aggressive opinionated shit, you know? I think that people play it safe. With funding, you’re kind of like, “this is what I want to say,” but there are definitely a lot of funding bodies all over the world that are like, “let’s keep it mild, let’s play it safe, let’s not offend anybody” so I think that’s super unfortunate. It’s going to get out no matter what; it’s just a matter of who is going to hear it?

So, if you had a song idea, for example, about Putin, you wouldn’t stop yourselves from writing it?

ALK: I think with my own and our songwriting style, it wouldn’t be so obvious; we would just sneak it in, maybe allude to it. I think that a thing that I don’t really love is when things are super heavy-handed because I think it should be something that…

LM: …anyone from any part of the world would be able to relate to…

ALK: …sometimes it can be heavy-handed, and sometimes it’s not, I don’t know, there are no rules (laughs)

Photo by Blanca Chavez

Watching and listening to you across two albums now and viewing a bit of online film footage etc., it seems to be that music flows out of you fairly naturally as if it were part of your DNA. Is that how it feels to you two?

ALK: Yeah, you know, probably yeah! For me, I have been singing since I could talk. So, it’s in there; it’s ingrained.

And how about lyric writing; is that a joint endeavour?

ALK: Yeah, it is; it’s become more and more of a joint endeavour over time. When we first got together…

LM: … we both brought a handful of songs…

ALK: …yeah, and Lisa already had a bunch of instrumental stuff, so for a while, Lisa was like the instrumental half, and I was the lyrical half, but over time, we started collaborating more and more on both, so the Venn diagram got closer and closer. We still have some songs that are all Lisa and some that are all me and then arranged together, but this record is a majority collaborative effort on all fronts.

Often doing interviews around an album release, artists have told me that it’s only then that they start to work out what the songs are about. I sense with you that you know what you want to say from an early stage?

LM: It can be a mix; I feel like sometimes lyrics will slightly evolve over time to mean a different thing, personally.

ALK: Yeah, exactly; I think they can take on a new meaning, especially when more people hear it; I mean, we’ve been playing these songs out for a little longer; some of them we’ve been playing longer than the recordings have existed. So, if somebody’s reaction is a certain way, then maybe that will make me think of it in a different way, because somebody’s like, “oh, this made me think about this struggle in my life” or whatever, and I’m like, well I hadn’t thought about it like that, cool. That’s just as valid as the idea I had when I started writing it.

On a song like ‘How It Ends’, it jumped out at me as being a very personal song (shrieks of laughter from ALK). Am I right then? Is that a personal song, and how do you feel in general about personal lyrical content?

ALK: That one is really particular because I think that most of them are more metaphorical, and that one is just, really straightforward, a break-up song. Err yeah… It’s very obvious. That was a really interesting thing for me to do because I started writing this song after a break-up, obviously, and I was like, “oh god, am I going to write a break-up song? This is so embarrassing; can’t I write something more metaphorical with imagery and something about the ocean?” I don’t know, but then I was like, “fuck it, I’m just going to do it.”

Was there any discussion between the two of you about whether you should do that, could there be any comeback etc.?

ALK: There’s always a discussion, always, you know, “Is this too cheesy?”

LM: Oh definitely, that song, in particular, took on a lot of different forms like its initial raw thing was more Carter Family style. Then I was trying to work out a mandolin part for it, and then we completely re-changed it. We probably had at least three or four different choruses before we settled on one, then it really morphed into like this old-time tune.

ALK: Yeah, it didn’t even have a chorus when I first wrote it and then I brought it to you and then we wrote the chorus together then totally re-arranged. There were so many different forms in how that one evolved.

LM: It wasn’t until we were in the studio, and it was kind of like an afterthought, that Amy was just, “huh, I wonder if I should see how a guitar would sound on this song?”

Well, thank you for your honesty there; I am feeling overall in listening to this new album that it is like a dark gothic lament for our times.

ALK: I feel like a few times in the studio, I was like, “this is pretty upbeat, this could have some summer hits”, but then we’re like, wait, no. 70% of this is like super fucking dark and intense. It’s funny because we’re both pretty silly people, really. So that’s a fair assessment, I’d say.

It doesn’t really just apply to this album either because the dark stuff (gallows, alcohol dependency etc.) were all featured heavily in your first album. I have to ask, do people find you quite hard work to be around? Are they always telling you to lighten up?

(Both laugh; fortunately)

LM: We’re both very silly; I think Amy could have a career as a comedian.

ALK: No, I’m like one of the friggin’ goofiest people around. I have actually acted in sitcoms; I love sitcoms. I think in every other aspect of life, I am the opposite… (Sarcastically) Yeah, we’re really hard work. We do have resting bitch faces; maybe it comes off that way (laughs).

The opening track, ‘Just Pick One,’ seems to be saying engage, take risks, accept pain is a temporary thing?

ALK: Yeah, maybe not temporary, but constant and OK. Pain is a guarantee, but so is joy, that kind of thing.

LM: There is going to be inevitable outcomes for any choice that you need to make in life, so to constantly just stew in your head with “what maybe?” you’re not going to get that far, at the end of the day you’ve got to just pick a path forward.

Then you have ‘Oh Sun’ followed by a couple of reels, you seem to be bathing in acceptance of those choices, and I’d say that still, with the reels, it comes out as quite uplifting.

ALK: See, that’s nice because I wouldn’t have pegged it as that, to be honest.

But something I wrote about the first album seems to be happening again here, in that some songs seem to be sequenced in response to the song that went before. Is that a deliberate choice?

ALK: Yes, with the flow, we are super deliberate about placement and order. I mean, arguably, that took just as much time as mixing a song. We spent a really long time doing different orders.

LM: On the first album, some of the songs we just had set in stone the order that we wanted. With this one, we played around with it a little more, but yes, it was very much important to have an overall arching kind of narrative.

ALK: Whether one song answers another song lyrically is less important than just overall mood and vibe, for lack of a better word.

That’s something important to me as someone who still buys records and CDs, the construction of an album where every aspect, from running order to artwork, is paid attention to. Is that still important to you?

LM: One of my favourite things is just getting a new record, and the first thing I’d do is, put it on from start to finish and do nothing but listen. I mean, no multi-tasking, just letting the whole album wash over me. It’s something I’ve always highly valued, and in this day and age, it’s interesting because the music industry is so focused on a single, a lot of people are starting to not even bother with albums anymore. That kind of makes me sad because one of my favourite parts about music is to have this full album experience.

ALK: It goes back to what I was saying about funding and what gets platformed over other things. I don’t want to throw music in Nova Scotia under the bus, but for this one time, I am going to. There was this one conference that I went to where it was specifically to learn how to get funding, and the person who was developing the workshop specifically said, to everybody that was in that room, that “the album is dead.” And I was like (tentatively holds up hand), “I don’t think it is.” Yes, as long as we’re still making music, it’s always going to be something that we value. It was so wrong because so many people are buying vinyl, and going back to that; it is important to a lot of people who really care about music.

On the new album track, ‘Between The Briar And The Rose,’ what is the missed opportunity that turns the fire back to stone?

ALK: Name it… timing… incompatibility. Timing, I think, is really it, timing and emotional maturity.

The title track ‘Narrow Line’ seems to say we should focus on smaller, attainable goals in the face of humanity’s massive challenges that lie ahead.

ALK: I think that’s definitely one thread of like the braid of that song. It’s funny because I think originally, the chorus of that song was less hopeful and like, we are forced to just walk a really narrow path by all the things that are kind of shoving us on either side. But then it’s flipped a bit where it’s become a double thing, in that you can take solace in keeping that simplicity.

LM: I think it’s taken on a new meaning. Do what you will with what you can, what you have, what you can hold.

The video to that song (below), with its blackbird and barbed wire images, is very hypnotic. Were you involved in the creation of that?

LM: Yes, very much; I loved writing that piece, in particular working out a banjo solo. I just had a very strong imagery in my mind and was kind of daydreaming about how nice it would be to make a video but not knowing the right kind of medium or avenue to go down. Some of that imagery, I think, would be impossible for us to capture in a tasteful way if it was done by actors or something. Then, initially, the animation popped up in our heads, but part of that combo was it worked perfect during the pandemic because we couldn’t even get photos taken because everything was shut down. The idea of working with an animator remotely kind of ended up being the perfect fit.

ALK: Even though we did it remotely, we ended up with somebody who was in Montreal anyway. We’ve never met him, though.

LM: We still did all of our communications over the phone. We wrote out our storyboard, wrote out the imagery we wanted for different lines.

ALK: Everything we have in the video is something that Lisa or I had envisioned, but there are some other bits, too; it was a collaborative effort.

LM: It was amazing to see some of that imagery come to life

‘October’s Lament’ seems to hang suspended in the moments between a suicidal jump and impact?

ALK: That’s the way our producer Bill interpreted it, and originally that was not what inspired it. The jump is kind of jumping into the unknown. For me, that song is specifically for me about the month that I got sober. It’s more like realising that there are no final outcomes to everything; there is no endgame, you know?

LM: (Hippy voice) It’s the journey, not the destination.

ALK: So interestingly enough, I have shown that song to many friends over the years before it got recorded who were like, “wow, that’s so depressing”, and I’m like, this is the most hopeful song for me. The most positive, transformative song, that’s why there is no accounting for interpretation of songs. Multiple people have had the same reaction [to you], which is fine because there was a lot of shit like that going on in my mind at that time too. Mental health was very much at the top of my mind and a lot of people’s minds at that time. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing, death and renewal and change.

An instrumental follows that song, and I just wanted to ask you about your putting musical notation in the liner notes. Audience participation is a big part of the folk tradition, and you seem especially keen on encouraging this.

ALK: Definitely, I think it’s just as important as lyrics. It doesn’t get as much attention but is just as connected and can bring out many emotions.

Are there any musicians or artists you would like to work with or collaborate with?

ALK: We’re good friends with Ye Vagabonds, so I slipped in talk of a potential collaboration, we’re waiting on that, and obviously, we love Lankum; Cinder Well is another good friend, and also, she’s on the same label, which is cool, that’s somebody that I’d love to sing with… oh there’s loads.

Is there any music that you just do not get along with, that you hate?

ALK: EDM.

LM: I have a hard time with a lot of industrial dub stuff, but some of it is stuff that I’ve not given enough of a chance to.

ALK: I think anything that’s not like melodic based I have a really hard time with. Unless it’s an interesting rhythm, but to sit down and listen if there’s not a melody sinking through there, I’m like…(nah).

How do you describe the music of Mama’s Broke to the uninformed?

ALK: Everything is weighted; the word folk in different places it means different things. “I grew up in folk music” meant a particular style of music that I didn’t actually connect to, yet it is probably the best way to describe our music by default, but at the same time, it’s not really enough. (Reading from a friend’s description of their music) “Your music is rooted in balladry and the North American folk tradition as well as several European traddy vibes. It’s played with a virtuosic, almost proggy edge to it” (I think the Prog thing is crucial that we never mentioned) [continues reading] “but has that very essential focus on less being more that comes out more in the holistic sense rather than focusing on how many layers there are.”

LM: I definitely went through a huge Prog Rock phase in my early teens, which lends into my arranging for sure.

What are you listening to right now?

LM: Listening to a lot of Greek rebetiko music, at least that’s what I was doing when I woke up this morning

ALK: I’ve been listening to a playlist of Soundcloud rappers, I’m roommates with a friend of mine who used to play in a band called Blackbird Raum, also very dark folk, and he gave me this playlist. It’s like ahead of the curve in a way that I am not. I am not that cool, but just like very experimental Hip-Hop, which is a new thing for me, but I’m enjoying it.

What’s the secret to sticking together as a duo?

LM: I think just good communication, that’s what it comes down to in any kind of relationship in your life.

ALK: Also, space. Lisa and I, in particular, we come together, and we do music intensives, we go on tour, and we’re in the same vehicle for weeks and weeks. Then we don’t see each other for like three or four months, I love her to death, but I think that that’s really important. And to pursue other things, other passions and have other things going on. Other musical projects, too, to not start getting overwhelmed.

Can you both pick a personal Mama’s Broke highlight from the past few years?

LM: I’ve been personally thinking about Indonesia recently and how wild of a time that was. It was pretty much like every night, a new show in a new place, and it was just amazing on so many levels. The people, the food, the fun…

ALK:  …Yeah, it was kind of an amazing experience, and I don’t think I was emotionally equipped to handle that level of intensity at the time, but now, a few years later, I’m like, wow, I’m so grateful for that experience.

Back to the new album, the question that pops into my head having listened to ‘God’s Little Boy’ is, are either of you religious? Although I think I know the answer

LM: Not in the traditional sense.

ALK: I wouldn’t say religious, no. I have some spirituality but religious? No

“Poison hides in the sweetest lines” from the song The Wreckage Done, reads to me like a perfect tagline for the whole album?

ALK: (When she’s finally stopped laughing) It’s like a blurb (movie thriller voice) coming this summer, poison hidden in the sweetest lines.

Then you’ve got ‘The One That I Love’, which seems to definitively lay down your beliefs of valuing friends and relations over financial reward.

ALK: Yeah, we realised that we specifically need to write a song that’s about love. In the most plain way, like what we value in a positive way as opposed to what we don’t want.

LM: But that song is also a bit of a thank you to all the people who have gotten us to where we are now.

Listening to closing track ‘Windows’ makes me wonder, is the attraction of travel indelibly ingrained in you?

ALK: Yes, definitely, I think it was always there, and you’re right to kind of point that out in a way. [That final song] was written about being a kid in a really rural place for me, always looking outwards for the next thing and that yearning for the next exciting thing. But it kind of leads you down a garden path sometimes of getting into trouble, so the verses are about having that constant urge and how it can land you in some sticky situations.

I’ve lived in the same place for six years. Does that idea horrify you?

ALK: No, not anymore; it used to; I used to be really scared. I remember thinking about going back to Nova Scotia for a couple of months; this was like six or seven years ago. And going for two months, I was like, “I can’t, what am I going to do from morning until night, how am I going to survive this?” And now I own a little cabin and spent the majority of the last two years there, so I know that I have the ability to do that, but I think that the only way I could is if I know that a good portion of the year I will be travelling, then I can go back and recharge. Lisa’s still travelling, though.

LM: I’ve not been able to find that balance quite yet. I’m still on the search for a home. The idea gets more and more appealing to me as I get older, the idea of having somewhere to go back to, but for now, I’m still living out of a backpack.

So, it’s safe to assume that your musical plans going forward involve a lot of travel?

ALK: As long as people will have us, that’s how I want to spend the majority of my time. We’ll do this for as long as we can. We are going to be in the UK for most of June. We’re playing in London actually with this band, a really amazing new thing which is Rufous Nightjar. Anna Mieke is really amazing, and then there’s our friend Branwen Kavanagh, who used to be in a band with her twin sister called Twin Headed Wolf; they’re all the best singers I know, so there’s three of them, and they do three-part harmony original arrangements of songs and its mind-blowing. So, we’re playing a show in London with them on the 15th of June as part of the tour.


Narrow Line is released on 13th May via Free Dirt Records. Pre-order here: 

Mama’s Broke are on tour in the UK and Ireland June/July 2022.

Mama’s Broke – UK and Ireland Tour Dates

Thursday, June 2 – The Lost ARC, Rhayader
Friday, June 3 – The Art Shop & Chapel, Abergavenny
Wednesday, June 8 – Temperance, Leamington Spa
Thursday, June 9 – The Globe, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Friday, June 10 – Horse & Bamboo Theatre, Waterfoot
Monday, June 13 – Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham
Tuesday, June 14 – Dartford Folk Club, Dartford
Wednesday, June 15 – Paper Dress Vintage, London
Thursday, June 16 – The Greystones, Sheffield
Friday, June 17 – Renfrew Town Hall & Museum, Renfrew
Sunday, June 19 – The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol
Wednesday, June 22 – Fulacht Fiadh Cafe, Manorhamilton #
Thursday, June 23 – The Duncairn, Belfast #
Friday, June 24 – Coughlan’s, Cork #
Sunday, June 26 – Connolly’s of Leap, Co. Cork #
Thursday, June 30 – Waterville #
Thursday, June 30 – Waterville #
Friday, July 1 – The Attic, Hotel Doolin, Doolin #
Saturday, July 2 – Church of Ireland, Mountshannon Arts Festival #

-# and Rufous Nightjar

Ticket links and more details can be found here: 

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