Folk troubadour Vandaveer is a bit of a dark horse, and as might be expected of any folky dark horse, murder ballads are very appealing to him. Vandaveer has an amazing new video for his version of the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” one song from Oh Willie Please, a full album of his renditions of traditional murder ballads. Vandaveer sat down with Order Member Megan Rosenbloom to discuss shooting this video and his fondness for the macabre.
How did you come up with the idea of doing a full album of murder ballads?
This was actually J. Tom Hnatow’s idea — he of These United States and Mynabirds infamy. We were rehearsing for our contribution to The 78 Project late last year, and we were having a helluva time whittling down our list of candidates to just one for the session. Tom was on the road with us at the time… at one point he said, “you should just make a whole record of these songs.” Immediately after, he threatened legal action if we didn’t include him in the record. We wisely obliged. That man can flat out pick a dobro.
What do you think murder ballads tell us about the culture from which they come, or more generally about the human condition?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to speak to either of those questions, profound as they are… but I do think we humanfolk have long been fascinated by the darker, gruesome aspects of the human condition. It’s the same reason shows like CSI or those real-life crime documentaries are popular today. People are strangely attracted to acts of evil. It’s a form a voyeurism on some level. For my part, I wanted to participate in the process of continuing the life of these songs. They all come from the public domain. They belong to all of us, and so I think it’s important to revisit, to reinterpret, to engage with them as living artifacts of our collective experience.
Is there a particular story in one of the ballads that moves you more than others?
Mary Of The Wild Moor is probably the most tragic tune on this record. It’s not a murder ballad, really. More of a tragic tale of ruin that ends in cold death. So dark, so very sad. Like an Edward Gorey story for really sad grown ups.
The concept behind your Pledge Music rewards for this record was very interesting. Besides the usual CDs or vinyl, you offered a lot of handmade or one-of-a-kind items. How does this approach jibe with the feelings your project is trying to evoke?
We felt that asking people to jump on board and participate in a glorified, protracted pre-sale endeavor was okay so long as we offered up enough interesting and unique items to personalize the process. I was a bit uneasy about the whole thing, but the response was very positive. We’re still trying to think of new one-of-a-kind things we can offer up to keep that spirit as the project progresses.
How did you come up with the vision for the Pretty Polly video shoot, and what was the shooting like?
The vision for the Pretty Polly video belongs to Jared Varava . That man has titanic creative spirit. We’ve worked together before, and I’d been keen to work specifically with him on a video for this song. He responded quickly and with a jarring, striking script/idea. So excited to see this clip finished. The shoot itself was remarkable. We hiked our way north of Bakersfield, CA to an old ghost town called Silver City. The place was stunning. And Jared had organized a lovely crew to pull the whole thing off. So many kind souls all working toward a common goal — it’s really what makes this endeavor worthwhile.
Was it odd for you to have a famous musician, David Yow, starring as an actor in your music video?
Not odd so much, but initially I was a little unsure how we’d get on. He always seemed like a dangerous character to me. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, so The Jesus Lizard was very cutting edge. We joked about it on the set a little bit. He’s such a sweet, affable guy. And he was terrific as Willie. David’s got a great portrait project thing going these days called Get Faced, btw. He showed me some of his work and it’s really quite good. Very David Yow. I’m going to have him work up a piece for Vandaveer one of these days.
For an in-depth look at murder ballads, their history and implications for modern musicians, visit Murder Ballad Monday.