Parsonsfield brings the best of the past into the present

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WNYC radio says, "the quintet Parsonsfield is based in western Massachusetts, but their music draws on the string bands of Appalachia. At least in part. They also like to crank up the amps and pin your ears to the wall.”  Parsonsfield play the Southern on April 5. WNYC radio says, “the quintet Parsonsfield is based in western Massachusetts, but their music draws on the string bands of Appalachia. At least in part. They also like to crank up the amps and pin your ears to the wall.” Parsonsfield play the Southern on April 5.

Named after a town in Maine, folk quintet Parsonsfield formed by happenstance at the University of Connecticut around 2009.

“I was beginning college and I really wanted to meet some people that had an interest in old songs like I did,” says member Chris Freeman.  “I was playing guitar and discovering music from all eras that really had a profound effect on me. I found a small group called the UConn Folk Music Society and went to the first meeting and there met Antonio [Alcorn]. He was playing mandolin with an ease that had me transfixed, so we played together in weekly jam sessions for years until this club was mistaken for a band and asked to play at a rock club in New Haven, Connecticut, called Toad’s Place.”

The crew played a 20-minute set and secured more gigs from there. Since that first booking, the western Massachusetts band has built a name for itself with energetic live sets and boundary-pushing roots music. In 2015, the group was offered the opportunity to score and perform in a theater production of The Heart of Robin Hood.

The Heart of Robin Hood was a play that retold the traditional story of Robin Hood to show how he became a benevolent thief from his beginnings as a violent gangster.  We were asked to write music and perform onstage and in costume for about 300 shows in the U.S. and Canada,” Freeman says. “Creatively, it was a very interesting experience because we had never had to work within someone else’s parameters before. We had a creative team who already had a vision for this show and we had to figure out how to maintain our own creativity while working within this fictional world. We had to use the story to inform our own musical ideas to better express what was happening onstage, so that creative process of writing was really gratifying.”

Although a vastly different experience from life on the road, the grind was no less demanding. Parsonsfield did eight shows per week and had to work to stay fresh while performing the same music night after night.

“It’s the ability to change on the fly and improvise that I missed most about tour life while performing within the more rigid confines of the theater,” says Freeman. “I think we learned a lot about how to work together and where each others strengths are.  It also stretched us to do more than just write three- or four-minute folk songs.  We learned we could do more and we had the power to make music in different contexts.”

Coming off of its theater run, the band partnered with Sam Kassirer (who’s produced records for Josh Ritter and Lake Street Dive, among others) to produce Blooming Through the Black, released in September. In search of the perfect recording environment to serve as a conduit for their brand of Americana, they landed on an old axe factory in Connecticut and set about converting it into a studio.

“We spent the first few days sweeping and coughing to rid the area of dust, but the axe factory had this incredible sound that was completely different from the theatre’s that we had been performing Robin Hood in,” Freeman says. “Instruments took on different qualities and all the sounds became one as it bounced from wall to wall. …We had to build baffling using scrap wood that was left from carpenters and artists that had occupied the surrounding spaces. I think a thing that drew us to the space was just wanting a spot that was nothing but a creative space. There was no internet connection and few neighbors.”

But the space was not without its logistical issues.

“It was never quite quiet enough during the day so a lot of recording had to happen at night. The daytime takes that did make the album feature some noise of a bike going over a loose board on a bridge above the factory or the barking of Jake, a Border Collie that took his job as a guard dog far too seriously. Antonio and him really hit it off though, so there’s a happy ending,” Freeman says. “Another difficult part of the studio was the inability to record live takes together. There is so much bleed in a room like that.”

So they went to Parsonsfield, Maine, to capture some live takes in the farmhouse studio where they recorded their first record.

“We took those takes and brought them back to the factory to re-amp and use the sound of the room to color them,” Freeman explains.

The result is a vibrant expanse of Rust Belt roots that draws on a lineage of tradition and adapts it into the present.

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