How Laura Baird blends elements of the past with music of the present

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Laura Baird | photo via laurabaird.com
Laura Baird | photo via laurabaird.com

History runs deep in Old City. It’s evident from the cobblestones, the 17th century buildings, and the re-enactors dressed in colonial garb.

This Thursday, Old City Coffee will be host to a night of music that is reflective of a multitude of histories. An outdoor concert will be held featuring Laura Baird and Ember Schrag as part of the Night Market.

It is more than fitting for Baird, a musician with a rich history of her own, to be playing in this part of the city with the banjo. The building where Old City Coffee sits was once a prosperous banjo factory and helped popularize the instrument.

From 1886 to 1899, 219 – 221 Church Street was The S.S. Stewart Banjo Factory, according to Mira Treatman, marketing manager at Old City Coffee; the business made banjos, guitars, mandolins, and published an accompanying trade magazine.

“It was the cat’s meow at the time in the burgeoning pop music world,” said Treatman.

For Baird, music runs in the family. It’s even documented in the Library of Congress. Her great-great-uncle, I.G. Greer, is the first person to be recorded playing Appalachian music. Greer was from a town called Zion in North Carolina. He taught at Appalachian State College in nearby Boone. Baird traveled down there once to see a collection of his writings and compositions at the college. She also wrote to Library of Congress and attained a copy of Grier’s LP recording.

For years Laura performed with her younger sister, Meg Baird (of Espers). The Baird Sisters are well known in the folk community and have released several albums, the most recent being Until You Find Your Green in 2012 on Grapefruit Records. Despite an established association with this genre, Laura Baird actually didn’t like folk music until high school. “There was a folk show on XPN. I started listening to it and recorded on tapes. Then I took some of those tapes to college and really started to get into the genre,” she said.

Laura grew up in Burlington County, New Jersey where there was always a presence of music around the home. She took piano lessons from an early age until college. Over time she’s learned to play the trombone, sousaphone, flute, guitar, and banjo. Elements of the past definitely work their way into the songs.

“I play a lot of traditional songs. It’s always a part of my set,” she said. Her influences include medieval music, Celtic traditional folk music, and the Methodist Hymnal.

“We would go to church sometimes, and there is a real simplicity in the songs that I love,” she said.

Baird didn’t start composing her own music until college. She went to Duke University for electrical engineering and graduated in 1986. There she played in the orchestra and “hung around the music buildings,” she said.

It was also at Duke that she was exposed to more banjo music through a unique job.

“I had a work study thing where I listened to someone singing ballads that lived in North Carolina, and I’d transpose them for the psychology department because they were studying memory,” Baird said. “It was the best job ever. Sheila K. Adams. I always admired her work.”

Ember Schrag, an artist originally from Nebraska and now based in Brooklyn, recommended Baird for the performance, having played with her before and being a fan of her work.

“I first saw her play in a Quaker chapel in New Jersey where they were having a bat count for naturalistic reasons,” said Schrag. “As the sun was going down, everyone was watching and counting the bats. Then we went inside, and Laura played by candlelight. It was very enchanting.”

Schrag plays an acoustic set at Old City this Thursday as well. Like Baird, she uses old texts within in her songwriting and is inspired by traditional compositions. “Their styles really compliment each other,” Treatman said.

Treatman booked the show with the history of the S.S Stewart Banjo Factory in mind. “Ember and Laura both play those stringed instruments [banjo, mandolin, guitar], so it’s extra special and poetic to me to almost bring those instruments back ‘home.’”

Baird’s current projects include playing flute in the Ruins of Friendship. “It’s more free form. Electronic ambient,” she said. She’s been experimenting with looping instruments. Overlapping loops and incorporating field recordings is something she interested in pursuing more in her future songwriting. She’s also working on her own solo material, including an all-banjo record.

The concert is a joint collaboration between the Food Trust, Old City District, and Old City Coffee. The outdoor show will be part of the night market, which includes a plethora of vendors and food truck. The performances begin at 6 p.m. with two sets from each artist. More information on the show can be found here.

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