Music is usually thought of and listened to in the moment and in one particular place in time. But more often than not, travel actually has more to do with the development of music, taking us on a historical and philosophical journey. On Saturday, local music lovers will have an opportunity to take this journey into the past, when folk singer and songwriter Tim Eriksen and the Trio de Pumpkintown perform at the Center for Well Being in Lemont.
As an accomplished musician and composer, Eriksen has entertained audiences with his unique blend of traditional folk, shape-note gospel and dance tunes from New England and the Southern Appalachia. His latest album, “Josh Billings Voyage,” tells the story of the 18th century fictional New England village of Pumpkintown, from which Eriksen draws from a lifetime of singing deeply rooted and emotional traditional folk ballads.
“Part of the point of the album is getting at some of the deep cultural influences on New England culture, but even more broadly on American culture in general,” Eriksen said. Joining him on the album are Peter Irvine on percussion and Zoe Darrow on fiddle.
Coming from a family with a musical background, Eriksen had varied musical styles to choose from and experiment with, along with a number of instruments such as the acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle. “I got started in music through singing with my family,” he said. “My parents were avid singers and I started playing hardcore punk-rock with my brother when we were kids. I was also tremendously influenced by South Indian music; that’s what I went to school for. I studied South Indian classical music. So there were many wonderful musicians in that tradition that had an impact on my music.”
Also featured on the album is an instrument that has intrigued the Massachusetts native for many years. Almost 10 years ago, Eriksen took up the bajo sexto, a 12-stringed acoustic bass guitar popularly used in Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona. Even though the guitar has been extremely difficult to play for him, Eriksen said the experience has been more than rewarding. “It’s a very, very challenging instrument; physically very daunting,” he said. “The strings are extremely thick, and it takes a lot of energy to play it. But I figured out my own way of tuning it and my own way of playing it, and adapted it to these New England folk songs, as well as original music of my own. It’s also helped me come up with a sound that I couldn’t have come up with otherwise.”
Pumpkintown is an imaginary town in New England, whose diverse inhabitants include Yankees, Africans, American Indians, Irish, Scots and Germans. “It’s New England music but it’s not from any one particular place in the real world,” Eriksen said. “Often times I think Americans and New Englanders in particular, when they want to tell the truth they’ll set something in a fictional village. There are things you can say about life and the culture in a fictional village that you might not be able to say about an actual place.”
One of Eriksen’s original compositions on the album, “The Mice,” tells a tale about living in a 1740s house in an actual village in southern New Hampshire near the imaginary village of Pumpkintown. While living in the 18th century house, Eriksen had several peculiar run-ins with mice that were continuously inhabiting in very strange places. “We just had so many mice in that house, and it’s kind of about this moment when I actually believed for a few seconds that the mice were singing,” he said. “The song kind of explains how that came to be, but it really struck me how strange it is the things that people believe and how hard it can be to figure out what’s actually going on a lot of the time. Maybe it relates to Pumpkintown because it’s kind of on that razor’s edge between truth and fiction; and a lot of uncertainty sometimes about what is real.”
Eriksen, 47, said he has always been fascinated by the past, not only historically but also in a philosophical sense. “This particular project is really more of an outlet for all of our different musical experiences, and trying to find a coherent way to tell a bigger story, create a bigger picture for music,” he said. “So it is about New England, but it’s really more of a way of using this fictional village to tell our best version of the truth about something that’s more about the personal experiences of life.
As a composer, Eriksen was a contributor to Anthony Minghella’s 2004 Oscar-winning film “Cold Mountain,” and received two Grammy nominations for his 2009 album “Across the Divide” with Afro-Cuban world-jazz pianist Omar Sosa. Aside from being a musician and composer, Eriksen is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, and has served as a visiting music professor at Dartmouth College, Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Minnesota. Among Eriksen’s varied performances are the Basketball Hall of Fame, Grand Central Station, and the Academy Awards.
One of the things that Eriksen has enjoyed in his career is the wide range of people whom he has played for. “What’s really been a lot of fun for me is the diversity of the audiences; the coming together of different groups of people who don’t normally go to the same thing,” he said. “I really love addressing a kind of mixed age audience, a mixed culture audience. It’s been really gratifying. People have been extremely enthusiastic about the trio.”
As far as personal and professional goals, Eriksen said he doesn’t concern himself with creating a legacy of any kind, but just simply to put his music out there so people know it exists. “I think my goal at the moment is simply communication, because we have something really wonderful,” he said. “And I basically just want to communicate it to people; I want people to know about it. I’ve just had so many serendipitous, fascinating twists and turns in my life and I just expect that it will continue to happen.”