Up until now, Devin Hoff could mainly be found in the liner notes of other people’s records: the American double bassist has worked with Yoko Ono, Julia Holter and Sharon Van Etten, among others. The latter two can be heard on Voices From the Empty Moor, the 2021 album with which Hoff puts himself in the spotlight for once. It is worth asking if he really does though: the record is mainly a passionate tribute to English folk singer Anne Briggs, who made waves in the sixties and seventies, but vanished afterwards.
Written by: Dirk Baart
A few days after our conversation, a video appears on Devin Hoff's Instagram page, showing the New York-based double bassist flicking his fingers across the strings of his instrument. When his face occasionally comes into view, it is not quite clear whether his face is showing a smile or a grimace. “Working out some riffs for a Bikini Kill cover”, Hoff writes below the video. Just to indicate, Devin Hoff is not your average double bass player. In fact, in the 1990s, it was Bikini Kill's feminist punk that moved him to pursue a musical career.
Hoff subsequently played on four albums by Julia Holter, several projects by Wilco's star guitarist Nels Cline and the most recent record by Sharon Van Etten. He was also an official member of the experimental Californian formation Xiu Xiu for a while. On the six albums that Hoff has released under his own name over the past twenty years, it’s just as clear that he has a preference for the unusual. On debut Instrumentals (2006), rippling bass arrangements alternate with unruly punk pieces. On Plays Monk (2007), Hoff ventures into inimitable Thelonious Monk arrangements with drummer Scott Amendola and clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Avant-garde pioneer Laurie Anderson Hoffs naming Solo Bass (2008) as one of her five favorite records ever, is telling.
Hoff's new album is also one that only he could have made. On Voices From the Empty Moor, which was released in November 2021 through DIY punk label Kill Rock Stars, Hoff interprets the work of English singer Anne Briggs. In the 1960s and 1970s, she experienced a modest breakthrough with arrangements of traditional folk songs from England and Scotland, especially from the local traveler community. However, Briggs quickly grew tired of her career as an artist: she moved to the Scottish countryside and completely disappeared from the radar. The general public forgot about Briggs, but to this day her music remains an important source of inspiration for musicians with a fascination for traditional folk music. On the moody, at times sinister Voices From the Empty Moor, Hoff shares his passion for Briggs with musical friends. Julia Holter, Sharon Van Etten and Shannon Lay all make an appearance. The dark 'Black Waterside', which Briggs taught the famous Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch, is performed with vocalist Emmett Kelly, and drummer Jim White features on a version of 'Willy of Winsbury', which was recently arranged by Broadside Hacks as well.
Did the people you made the record with all know Anne Briggs' music before you started working on this?
“Shannon Lay did. I think Sharon Van Etten had heard a few songs, but I don't know if she had ever done a deep listening session. Julia and I had already tried to record some of Anne's songs for another project when I was still in Julia's band. That was seven or eight years ago. The instrumentalists on the record didn't know Anne, I think. Emmett does, he knows everything about that period in English folk music. He knows the music better than I do and wasn't too sure of the direction I was going with the record. It was all very friendly, but he knows the pieces so well, their whole history and all the different versions. I often only know Anne's version and do not delve further into the Pentangle version or the Fairport Convention version.”
Do you remember how you got to know Anne's music yourself?
“I think I was looking up something about Irish folk music and came across a compilation. I came across the CD at the South Pasadena Public Library, when I lived in Los Angeles. It had one or two Anne Briggs songs on it. I was especially captivated by her a acappella performances of Irish and English traveler songs. I tried to find as much music from her as possible, but there isn't that much. That helped me focus on some early recordings. There are many versions of some of the songs she has sung. But I learned them through her interpretations. To me, it's like listening to Miles Davis playing ‘My Funny Valentine’. I don't really care that there are other versions of that song. It just became his. That's how I feel about Anne Briggs. It is not so much the compositions that are special, but what she does with them.”
What do you think appealed to you about her work?
“It's always hard to explain. Maybe I recognized something of my own aesthetic, or saw something that I wish was in my own aesthetic. Maybe something I hadn't recognized before. To return to Miles Davis: in his autobiography there is a very nice passage about the first time he heard Charlie Parker. He talks about the moments when you just know that something is meant for you. That feeling you get as a musician or a music lover, or probably an art lover in general, when you hear, read or see something and think, 'Oh, that speaks to me in a very profound way, and I have to follow this path.' Those Anne Briggs songs really opened a door in me. For example, I started to play much more lyrically. The double bass is often seen as an instrument that is not very melodic, but I like it when the double bass is used in a melodic way. Anne Briggs' acapella songs showed me that I could work with those songs on the double bass and that they could then be complete compositions. I started practicing and transcribing them so I could see what was happening in terms of phrasing and structure. I guess I was a bit shy about my love of melody because the music I played wasn't very focused on that, or at least my part wasn't. Anne's music helped me admit that I wanted to focus on melody for years to come.”
How did the idea for this record come about? I can imagine that your love for this music makes you want to do something with it, but it probably also makes it a tense affair to put your own twist on it.
“Yeah, kinda like don't meet your heroes, huh? There have been times when I was nervous about the end result, but otherwise it was a very organic process. I've been playing these songs for twelve years now, so during the first lockdown I managed to make arrangements pretty quickly. I sent the tracks around to friends and said, 'We can't play together right now, but maybe we can record remotely and it still feels a bit like communicating.' I wasn’t calling in favours, I just asked people if they wanted to make a song together. I had no idea it was going to be an album at the time. When I got the songs from Sharon, Shannon and Julia back, I realized that this was becoming something very specific, an album with its own character.”
Some of the performances on the album are instrumental, while Anne Briggs' versions have lyrics. How does such a process work, where you convert vocals into bass melodies?
“I really enjoy doing that. My music often doesn't sound like the music people imagine when they think of a double bass. But you can do so much with those long strings and the rich overtones. It's an interesting challenge to explore how you can translate vocal lines – or a guitar riff, for that matter – without it all sounding clumsy. How do you keep it just as elegant and powerful? I once studied the work of Vladimir Tatlin, a Russian artist who deals with constructivism. He wrote a lot about truth to materials, which I remember very clearly. I want to explore the limits of my instrument, but also honor what the instrument is. It's nice to find a balance in that."
“I only transcribe the lyrics and melodies by ear. I don't go looking for the correct lyrics in some old folk book. Anne has different lyrics and melodies than others. Emmett corrected me at one point when he was recording ‘Black Waterside’. Then I wondered what else I had misunderstood. I actually like that too, the intended and unintended changes that people make when they master a song.”
“I am especially familiar with early twentieth-century American folk music, which later became blues and country. For example, I have an obsession with the Carter Family. In their version of 'Wildwood Flower' they sing about “the pale and the leader” at one point. Makes no sense at all. I think it was Joan Baez who pointed out that the original lyrics were "the Pale Melita," a flower the Carter Family just didn't know. For me, that's the chaos that makes music so magical.”
Keeping that tradition of change in folk music in mind, do you find it difficult to capture the songs on a record after playing them for so long?
“Sure, although I also find it easy to get attached to a certain way of listening to a song. As a bass player you are quite focused on the structure of a song, so discovering and remembering that is easy for me. It's a kind of puzzle that you have to solve, I think that sometimes gets me too excited. On this record, for example, that was the case with 'Black Waterside'. I had become addicted to a version of that song that may have only existed in my head. With Emmett's help, I had to try to keep a healthy distance from that. Although it is of course also special to lose yourself in a piece like this. Musicians like Doc Watson or Sonny Rollins sometimes played the same song for fifty years, and you could hear different versions on different records. You also try to lose yourself a bit in a song, to get deeper and deeper into it.”
Anne Briggs has been off the radar for years, leaving a sort of mystique surrounding her music. I can imagine that makes it special to bring her music to people’s attention. Would you like to know what she thinks of your interpretations?
“Yes, I would love that. Of course I wanted to make a record that is very respectful of her music and her choice not to be part of the music industry. I've been trying to get in touch with her and ask her about her thoughts on the project. So far I haven't been able to do that. Hopefully she would like it. Ultimately, for me, it's not about the mystery or her persona, but about the music she made. We like to get carried away by the spectacle of the music world, but the music is so much more important than our opinions or fantasies about the people who make it. It's so easy these days to learn all about your favorite artists. Sometimes you discover things that are disappointing or upsetting. I really like not knowing so much for once.”