Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Vandaveer and the Murder Ballads – an interview

Vandaveer, the American alt-folk band/project fronted by songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger, first captured our hearts here at TMO with Resurrection Mary, a glorious acoustic turn that’s like a masterclass in how to take some staple elements (acoustic guitar, harmonies, a ghost story) and shake them up into something fresh, charged (sexually and emotionally), and truly memorable.

Since then we’ve found firm favourites amongst Vandaveer’s four different albums, Grace and Speed, Divide and Conquer, Dig Down Deep, and this year’s collection of murder ballads Oh Willie Please. The territory is, as the band maintain on their facebook page ‘folk, folk, folk & a little pop too’, and when folk is played with the confidence, space, and swagger that Vandaveer bring to it, then that’s just fine by us.

Songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger was kind enough to accept our offer of an interview via email:

How would you characterise the differences between the four Vandaveer albums?

I suppose there’s an arc to those albums, not by design, necessarily. My first record wasn’t really going to be a proper album. I was just recording some songs that didn’t fit so well in my previous band. Since then we’ve just been doing what feels appropriate. There’s no grand plan, perhaps to our professional detriment. Album #4 was all traditionals. We’re wrapping up LP #5 right now and it’s quite different in comparison. It’s full of pop and psychedelic atmosphere. I think each record sounds a bit more “grown up” than the previous one. Which makes sense, I suppose. We are ever aging, if nothing else.

culture isn’t a quantifiable thing. A person may not like the culture of Kentucky, but Appalachia has precisely the same amount of culture as New York City

There’s a great book called The Novelist’s Lexicon, where various writers are asked to sum up their work with one word. Let’s steal the concept, and ask you if you had to associate one word with your work what would it be, and why?

I’m always up for stealing good ideas, so I’m game. One word? I’m prone to fits of long-windedness, so this is a tough one… let’s go with “melodious.”

The latest album is a stunning album of murder ballads – let’s talk a bit about why you chose to revisit age old ballads like the banks of the ohio or The Knoxville Girl. Any qualms about the fact that the majority of victims in the murder ballads are women?

Why thank you kindly! We had a lovely time making that record, all things considered. With respect to the victimization of women, unfortunately, that’s been a component of human nature for as long as we’ve been putting pen to paper. These stories are very real things. We’re capable of profound kindness, but human beings – and more specifically, men – also do awful things. The fact that traditional folk music is full of such gruesomeness is important, I think. These songs are cautionary tales. It’s true the women suffer greatly, but the perpetrators are punished severely, either by law, nature or their own hand. We’re just messengers, retelling tales. So, no, no real qualms to speak of. It’s all part of the folk tradition.

How challenging is it to take on standards that have been covered by artists as famous and diverse as Johnny Cash, Joan Baez and Nick Cave? Do you have to consciously avoid their mannerisms and takes on these famous songs?

We honestly didn’t worry too much about that. Some of these tunes have been recorded hundreds of times, so there was no sense in aiming for anything definitive from our perspective. We wanted to treat the source material with reverence and respect. I love so many different versions of these songs. Adding our take to the canon was the general idea. Folk songs are meant to be shared.

You were born in Ohio, raised in Kentucky, and are now ‘camp’d in the nation’s capital’ – how important is place to your songwriting and music? Do your surroundings change how you write, or can you imagine writing similar songs in Washington as Paris?

A person’s surroundings and environment are wholly influential to just about any endeavor, creative or otherwise. I enjoy the nature of that relationship. It’s electric. I’ve written songs in all sorts of places, on the road, and in Paris, too, in fact. The pictures that dance in my head when I sing certain songs remind me of very specific moments in my life – moments that wouldn’t have unfolded as they did anywhere else. But I don’t think any one place has more culture than another – culture isn’t a quantifiable thing. A person may not like the culture of Kentucky, but Appalachia has precisely the same amount of culture as New York City – no more, no less… It’s just packaged and presented differently.

Music, good and bad, gets under your skin like nothing else; If there was one song in the world you could forget, what would it be and why?

That one song by 4 Non Blondes is pretty awful. The one about starting a revolution, I think? Just, wow. Not pleasant.

Let’s playfully imagine that you are forced to choose one Vandaveer song to represent you to new listeners, what would it be and why?

What kind of force are we talking about here? Threatening? Or just friendly cajoling? In any case, I’m gonna go with Dig Down Deep, because it’s a title track, we made a snazzy video for it, and there’s stomping and clapping in the middle. I love songs with stomping and clapping.

Let’s do the dreaded ‘influences’ question – who are some of the artists that have influenced you the most lyrically and musically?

I was a huge Michael Jackson fan as a little kid in the ’80s. Pearl Jam and Nirvana were mighty important in the ’90s. I don’t think I would’ve picked up a guitar without those two, to be honest. Since then I could rattle of a thousand more names, but that seems excessive. These days I mostly listen to music my little boy likes. Children’s songs are incredible. I think I want to write a kid’s record next.

What’s the best musical advice you’ve ever received?

Take your own pillow on the road.

Mike Scott from the Waterboys has written ‘ I figured music wasn’t worth the air it occupied if it didn’t change both its makers and its listeners’; do you agree? Can you tell us how one of your own tracks, or someone else’s has changed you?

I hadn’t heard that quote before. I quite like it. I think I do mostly agree, yes. I’ve always believed that if the music you make isn’t interesting and engaging to you on personal level, then perhaps you shouldn’t bother sharing it with others. There’s a helluva lot of white noise in the world, and adding to that cacophony doesn’t seem like a particularly good use of one’s time. One tune in particular that’s impacted my life is Joe Pug’s Hymn 101. That is a stunning piece of writing, and it levels me every time I hear it.

If you could write/record with any musician – alive or dead – who would it be, and why?

My goodness… these questions trip me up more often than not… honestly, I’m gonna go with my late grandma on this one. She loved to sing, and I’m told she had a stunning soprano in her younger years. She also was ornery and dirty minded for her time. I think we would’ve gotten along quite well in our 20s or 30s together. She would marvel at modern recording technology, too. I would’ve surely loved to hear her sing into a microphone. She was magic.