INTERVIEW: Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables on parenthood, witchcraft, and extreme sports!

It’s hard to summarize the music of Faun Fables. Superficially, there is a singer/songwriter folk thing going on, but that really does a disservice to the depth of their sonic palette and the kind of mystical nature that imbues their music with a magical touch. You put this on when to get mild at Stone Henge, to think about life and the experience of living, to tune out the bullshit of the modern world. Spoiler alert: you could probably listen to this a lot given those qualifiers, but that’s an easy thing to do. The brain child of Dawn McCarthy, joined almost from the beginning by Nils Frykdahl, formerly of the amazing Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the pair create a compelling and engaging experience that is just beautiful and entrancing. You can listen to their music below and catch them tonight outside at the Mammoth with Paul Fonfara and Ohlm. We caught up with McCarthy to ask about parenthood, witchcraft, and extreme sports!

Never Nervous: Did you grow up with music? Was it around as a kid to play or just listen to? How did were you shaped by your childhood to be an artist?

Dawn McCarthy: Both my parents were piano players/teachers. The music that haunted me the most they played was Bartok, Debussy, Griffes… the impressionistic music especially. And they had some eclectic recordings in their collection like Yma Sumac and Carl Orff that all us kids especially loved. I am number five out of seven children. I heard a lot of heavy rock n’ roll and psychedelic music growing up from my older siblings. All us kids learned to play piano with our parents when we were little. Two other siblings of mine went on to have lives shaped by music.

NN: What’s your musical background? I could hit up the internet, but I know that’s not always a complete picture. What was your first band and what did you learn from that experience?

DM: I was brought into a very fun, experimental band with my oldest sister, Sheila Bosco (who just released a record of music she’s composed for theater and dance over the years) about twenty-six years ago, freestyle dancing and singing my heart out. It was called BOMBAZINE. My sister was always very encouraging of me, and tended to have musical projects that focused on a spirit of playfulness.

NN: How did Faun Fables start?

DM: After leaving NYC about 19 years ago and the bands I had established, I wanted to create an act that I had total freedom to be whatever I needed to be.. musically, theatrically, whatever needed to come out. And to use a name that had significance to the core of who I am, based on a childhood nickname. Going by my own name felt like it would be too limiting, and too plain. Also, I knew I likely didn’t want to do it alone, but didn’t want to be trapped into any arrangement, I wanted to keep it flexible. And I did have various versions of Faun Fables. But it always settled back into Nils being my main collaborator. And now I bow to the truth of what Faun Fables has mostly been and what it has naturally settled into.. a duo working with Nils. And I am happy about that. Now I consider doing something under my own name, or enjoy the idea of other collaborations. I don’t feel I need to keep all my eggs in the one basket like my instinct was earlier.

NN: What’s in a name?

DM: A name can conjure things, a name can be powerful. Initially ‘Fawn’s Fables’ was a series I wanted to develop of comic books, when I was studying Illustration, before I wanted to focus on music mostly.

NN: For the most part, I’ve lived in Louisville, KY, but in the times that I’ve traveled or in my brief stays elsewhere, the sociological aspects of my environment became crystal clear. As someone who has lived in more than one major city and traveled plenty of the country, how has your environment influenced your work?

DM: There was a time and a place for living in big cultural areas, when I needed to set my sails within a big artist community and put my stuff out there, build my first artistic community. Then I needed to not be in the shuffle all the time, and enjoy the support and calm of a good home life. Sometimes I’ve lived in a place where I couldn’t do anything, but just experience the time, only later can I open that treasure chest and write about it. I’ve begun doing that with The Country House Waits and Outing In the County on our last album. All about the place and time we came to when we were beginning the change of becoming parents.

“Sometimes I’ve lived in a place where I couldn’t do anything, but just experience the time, only later can I open that treasure chest and write about it.”

NN: Relative to that, are there places in the country where you are better received than others?

DM: Louisville has always been a good one, for some mysterious reason. NYC is good, Chicago, Austin, Portland and Seattle. But in general, the grass roots is like a fire you have to tend, it’s a lot of work. In other countries it’s a different story. Many experimental acts have the same situation. Israel, for example, is one of our strongest audiences, though we’ve only been there once.

NN: What constitutes a good show and why? How do you turn around a crowd that may not be on board or do you even sweat what they’re about?

DM: The late and great Daevid Allen of Gong gave me some really good advice.. when I asked him about playing for audiences that are not with you, and perhaps against you, and how to you survive it and even still thrive within it, (since he was so uncompromisingly himself for many many years, and had different chapters of fame and relative obscurity) he said “play to the inner circle.” This is not just people you know love what you do, it’s spirit realm, as well.

I am very deliberate in my beliefs of how an audience should be dealt with. You go out there ready to spar, to see where your opponent is coming from and be ready to kick back if necessary. And that might be to smite them with bliss and gorgeous music.

Nils, who I’ve considered one of the most charged and enthralling live performers I’ve witnessed, gave me another good bit I followed . . when I asked him how he did what he did with the audience and if it was deliberate when we first met, and how much consideration to give the audience . . he said he always reaches out and grabs the audience, he meets them more than half way. He is not passive or withdrawn. So early on, we made that a big part of our work together, just the art of performing itself, making any situation and room bend to us, sports screen or no. It was hard work! And so rewarding when it succeeded.

Some energy, heckling and rough, is better than no energy. Because the big energy gives you something to wrestle with, to interact with.

NN: How do you balance music/art with parenthood?

DM: Not very much. I am a sworn full-time mom down to the core, even if I could choose to do it differently. I indulged in about 18 years of doing it full time before shifting gears and giving myself to Motherhood. And I’ve always had a wholistic approach, that one would blend with the other. Children are such fertility in and of themselves, that in a way it’s silly to try to take on a separate creative focus. So, I’m constantly meeting limitations in what I can do as an artist. I’m at the point now, however, that I can see on the horizon how parenthood will be such an amazing wellspring to draw from. It’s a rite of passage I wanted to have in this life, I wouldn’t have been content without it. It is beyond career.

“I’m constantly meeting limitations in what I can do as an artist.”

NN: Relative to that, how have children impacted your songwriting, if at all?

DM: I love to write about the realm of childhood that they are gifting me, second time around. Although I’m someone that has never felt childhood was separate from me. I plan to use the opportunity of having this outlet of music and story-making to sing many songs as a Mother, and record the wisdoms I am seeing. And record our story, essentially.

NN: I understand you identify as a witch. What can you tell us about that?

DM: Interesting that would be common knowledge, although I guess I realize it’s pretty much all throughout me and my work. . but still, it’s nice to have it actually be called out.

A witch as it relates to me, is someone connected and aligned with an elemental layer of the natural world, the old world, where energies are unbridled potentially, and not shaped by the rules of modern culture or trends. It’s an affinity and fetish with folklore and ways that work directly with the elements; cooking is a good example of it.

NN: As a musician myself, when I play it’s the only thing I can be completely in the moment on. What puts you totally in the moment, in the present?

DM: Music-making and children. . and cooking. And physical activities, bless their hearts!

NN: Do you think you would ever “retire”? What would that even look like for someone ostensibly looking to just let art out into the world?

DM: You know, I guess that is about right. I certainly went at it as a viable career. But no, there will be no retiring from this. Another livelihood, perhaps. But this work has remained primarily a walk of life, my songliness, my spiritual work so to speak. It does require time to keep it going out into the world, however, and I have been haunted by other creative projects now. The thing I can’t give up, however, is the great great satisfaction and endless fantastical realms of singing itself. The thing I’d be sad to give up would be the community I’ve made in various towns on the road. And how it has been a way to travel. I’d have to find another way to do that, I’m equal parts nomadic spirt and house wench.

“There will be no retiring from this.”

NN: What is your relationship to extreme sports?

DM: They obviously become a religion for the folks that do them.

NN: What non-musical things have you fired up lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth mentioning?

DM: Recently hearing Tale Spinners’ version of Rip Van Winkle, which I grew up with. I began a new Willa Cather book, she’s intoxicating, to say the least (‘Violet‘ on Light of a Vaster Dark LP is set entirely within ‘My Antonia‘). The original Dr. Doolittle film is a delight. One of my daughters was in a theater workshop based on the songs from Music Man, which I didn’t grow up with, believe it or not. Meredith Wilson is a genius of musical theater writing.

NN: What are your top three desert island albums and why?

DM:

  1. Leitze Tage, Letize Nachte/Last Days, Last Nights by Popul Vuh. It makes one soar to hear it.. expansive music and production, opens up glorious celestial realms.
  2. Paix by Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes. She is the most powerful singer I’ve heard, and on this album it as if she rides a horse, and the horse is pointed toward the golden sunrise, destined to burn or not, it doesn’t matter.
  3. Ewa Demarczyk – The Black Angel of Polish Song. So interesting. The writing, the vocal delivery. A big cornerstone of my singing/creative influences, this album.

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