This weekend, Spring Gulch Folk Festival enters its 33rd year of kicking off the summer festival season for the singer-songwriter community, and one artist in particular is taking the stage in a sort of homecoming.
Tomorrow, Michael Braunfeld will perform Spring Gulch with his band The Boneyard Hounds. He’s intimately involved in the event — his family has been going for three decades, his father Andy is a former MC, and he and his dad have been booking and managing the event for the past 18 years.
Braunfeld, 44, made his live debut at the festival in 1990 at age 15, and recorded his debut album the following year at age 16. He spent the 90s and very early thousands as a touring artist in the folk circuit, releasing live albums and paying gigs around the country. After taking a decade-plus break, he re-emerged on the scene at the 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival (another event he grew up at) and this year released his first studio album since the 90s, Driver. It’s a stirring selection of contemplative roots and Americana songwriting, some of a more of a delicate John Prine style of observational folk, some (like the powerful “Washed Away” and the rousing “Breathe”) of anthemic, Springsteen-esque quality.
We caught up with Braunfeld over the phone to talk about growing up a folkie, running Spring Gulch, taking time off, and the statements he wanted to make upon his return.
The Key: What was it like growing up with this work of folk festivals as the sort of backdrop to your life?
Michael Braunfeld: When I was much younger, the Folksong Society also had a Bluegrass Festival, which was pretty much my father’s baby. He was a bluegrass nut, and would run that whole thing, and it used to be the Plymouth Whitemarsh High School for many years, and then kind of turned into like a spring festival for the Folksong Society. But yeah, when I grew up, my father was volunteering with the Society and acting as their counsel in the early 70s. He had been going since the very first Philadelphia Folk Festival as an audience member and then became involved few years before I was born. So yeah, I grew up at monthly meetings and their concert down at Penn’s Landing, at Philly Folk Festival I pretty much grew up backstage. And you couldn’t ask for a better education! Anytime I wanted to see anybody that I was crazy about, any of my influences, most of them if not all I got to watch from the side of the stage and examine their finger work if it was a guitarist, or just soak in every single lyric if it was a songwriter. It was a wonderful education.
TK: How do you feel Spring Gulch distinguishes itself from Philly Folk Fest? Quite a few people I knew growing up went to both.
MB: The biggest difference overall is just the size and the scope, since Spring Gulch is what they call a resort campground — trailers, RVs, tent camping, and they have some cabins that they rent out — but it’s pretty much self-contained in a beautiful natural amphitheater and a beautiful setting with the lake. And so it’s a much smaller event that is probably anywhere from a thousand to twelve hundred people in the audience, as opposed to the massive size that Philly is. And it’s just a little bit more laid back. With the size being so much smaller, we can afford to put on pretty much whatever we want, as long as it’s really good. I think the audience by now knows that anybody who’s going to be up on that stage deserves it, whether they’re familiar with the name or not. So we get to do pretty much what we want, and I think the audience trusts us by now. And it’s again as opposed to Philly, as much as I love it and I did grow up there and I take my kids there now, it’s one of the only place that, since my kids have been young, that I feel safe just taking the leash off and say yeah just meet up with me in a couple hours and let me know you’re alive.
TK: What led you from a music festival participant to somebody who makes their own music? Was that it an easy journey for you to make?
MB: I think it was it was unavoidable. My dad had already always been involved in, not only promoting music, but I mean there was never a time where there wasn’t really amazing songwriting or bluegrass music being played in my house. My mom was a rock and roller of the first-degree, right? She would take me to Rolling Stones shows, Aeromith, Eric Clapton, you name it. And so when I started playing guitar, it was very electric. You know, I wanted to be Keith Richards, I wanted to be Slash, and things were very very loud. But I think just having grown up the way that I did, from playing guitar to the next couple years of, you know, very beginning songwriting, it just came naturally to me to pick up an acoustic and try and emulate my real heroes, not not just what was popular on the radio. So I started writing songs, and at first it was It was kind of weird to me, because despite, you know, ripped jeans and long hair and a bunch of earrings in my ear, it was all very much influenced by what I grew up with, whether that was Townes Van Zandt or Simon and Garfunkel or Dylan. My earlier stuff was much more traditional folk — or, you know, 60s folk let’s say — compared what I do now. I think over the years I’ve got a little bit better at combining all of my influences and calling on whatever musical backdrop is called for in the composition to match the lyrics.
TK: You took a long break from music: 2001 to 2013. Why did you leave, and what brought you back?
MB: In the late 90s, I was in a situation where everything is really going well. I put out three albums, I had a little bit of industry interest from agents who were keeping an eye on me. And at the time, this style I was playing was very popular on the radio. I mean, this was the height of Counting Crows and Wallflowers, Edwin McCain and Jeffrey Gaines. And so everything looked really good. And I met my wife, and I realized I literally knew guys that were on the road close to 300 days a year and that was the only way that they could put food on the table and a roof over their heads. A I just remember thinking, when I when I met my wife and things started getting serious, that seems like an adventure for another couple years and I saw it getting old really quickly. And having a family with something that really meant a lot to me and I wanted to be there as a husband and a father when that time came. And so I thought it was time to throw it all away.
TK: So was it simply a matter of, okay, that was like a 12-year window, the family is getting old enough now…I can venture into music again?
MB: At the time, I don’t think it was ever anything that I saw happening again. But the Philadelphia Folk Festival asked me to be at their 50th Anniversary, they asked me to participate in a workshop with performers who grew up around the festival and went on to music careers. I did that, and I had written a couple new songs it, for which were the first songs I had written. During that entire time when I wasn’t playing, the guitars were in the closet. I wasn’t writing. I if I pulled out a guitar once a year, that was a lot. But I decided I was going to get up on stage, I might as well have something new. So I tried it and, you know, the new material went over really well and a couple people reached out and said “Hey, you did this. Will you come play my venue?”
It took a lot of arm-twisting, and I took a couple, and you know, I took one too many I think. I used to tell people that I was recovering singer-songwriter, and after one too many shows, I just fell off the wagon. This was probably in mid-2013 after a couple of really good shows. And only then did I think, all right, how is this going to affect my family now? Because there was a reason I gave it up. And I I really just had this vision of my kids going into the attic one day when I was gone, finding a bunch of really old CDs and press clippings and posters, and being like “what the hell is this? Who was he?” And I thought that if there was a way to go after this a little bit more and show them, now that they’re old enough, that it’s okay to follow your dream to follow your calling and your passion, then I didn’t want to discourage them from that. I wanted to encourage them as much as possible. You know, I really feared that one day the lesson that they learn from me would be put your passion away. Put your heart away. Go slave to the grind and do what you have to do. Just suck it up. And you know, I had done that and realized how it affected me, and that’s certainly not what I wanted for them. So I decided to take another go.
TK: So much of your music that is out there available for streaming are live recordings; Driver is the first full length studio album you’ve done in a very long time. Can you contrast studio craft and stage craft for me, and why you chose to go the studio route with this batch of songs?
MB: The very first album I ever did was 1991, that’s one when I was 16. And that was the first and, up until Driver, the last of the studio productions. In the 90s it was just a question of economics. It was still a period where, unlike now, it costs a lot of money to make records and you couldn’t just go into your bathroom with a computer. Though, that’s not what we did with Driver. [laughs] But it was it was still a period where to do it independently, without a major label behind you, without major label money behind you, it was was pretty tough. And I was writing a lot and changing a lot from a 16 year old to 20 year old to a 25 year old. And the music was changing with that, so just to get the new stuff out and keep my fan base happy, we need to put stuff. And I think one of the things that it separated me from from other songwriters in a lot of other aspects of my life was I was always a strong performer. I thrive being on stage, it’s my favorite place to be, that’s that’s my comfort zone. So we always had good tapes to work off of when I came back from tour.
Kyle Swartzwelder who co-produced Driver and I started working together and we started recording demos and his home studio back in 2013, and we had a show lined up. The Full Circle album came about where we had to show lined up and they were going to record it at Burlap and Bean. And when we listen to what we had, they were all songs that I planned on getting to a studio record, but I knew that I needed to get something out and we really loved what we had, we thought we captured something really special so we went for it.
In terms of the differences, I absolutely love being on stage and you know I’m happy to put out live records, as much as I can, whether it’s new or old stuff as long as it’s something different, as long as it’s something exciting. Going back in Morning Star for Driver was, you know, after so long away from the studio, it certainly it took a lot of getting used to. I was very intimidated at first, and and that’s one of the reasons that I used Morning Star, because I had worked with Glenn [Barrett] on a couple other projects for for other artists, and he was incredible to work with. He and Kyle had worked together a bunch before, and I knew that I’d have a good team with me.
And I loved being in the studio. And as the record progress, and we kept working on it, I certainly found a comfort zone within it but it’s more, as much as I enjoy it, it’s just different. Nothing comes close to the rush of being on stage, but it certainly allows me to get the music out and have it match what I hear in my head when I write it. So while there are still some songs that are on the more folky side side that I hear with just an acoustic guitar or maybe a mandolin or a dobro behind me, if I’m out without the band, I can’t really produce a rock and roll song or a great Americana saw the way I want without the electric guitar and the amp turned up to 11. And so going in the Morning Star and doing it in the studio allowed me to finally get that done.
TK: “Washed Away” is specifically about Sandy, but the story as you’re telling could also apply to Katrina, or anywhere affected by a natural disaster. And it could also work on the level of metaphor where you’re not talking about the specific natural disaster but more a tone or mood or a spirt of a time in place. Which did you have in mind?
MB: I think when I started writing “Washed Away,” it was very much about Hurricane Sandy. Other other than the fact that in my head it’s taking place at the Jersey Shore, you’re right, it could have applied it to New Orleans in ’05, it could have been Houston in ’17. Any of those cities, but I think once I started writing it, it turned into more of the economic superstorm that was already taking place, Just a general sense of it’s getting really tough in this country to make it as far as people may have promised you when you were growing up. Thinking about people working two jobs, three jobs, just trying to get by in it in a town or in a country that they thought, like I said ,would have been easier. And the more I started writing, it really turned into, for me anyway, that metaphor using the hurricane as a metaphor for what was really happening, and what was really ruining the towns and the people people’s lives.
TB: Finally, what’s your favorite of the new songs to play, and what’s your favorite to listen to?
MB: I hate to give that standard songwriting answer your they’re all your babies. But they’re also they are all so different and there were written over such a long period of time. Take a song like “Washed Away,” or there’s another song with similar themes called “This Town” on the record, which were also on the live album Full Circle, which was released in ’15. And so getting to hear those in the context of — like we were talking about, Driver actually sounds like, when I wrote that song in 2014, it finally sounds like it was supposed to all along. And they’re fun to play on an acoustic guitar and rock out, because it’s something that, you know, often times not even people who really really follow me would expect that one guy with an acoustic guitar to be making that much noise. Listening to it fully realized is really exciting and just fulfilling. The most fun to play out when I’m with the Boneyard Hounds is probably “Breathe.” It’s just got this like really rocking heavy crescendo at the end, and if I’m solo, probably probably “40 Below.”
The Spring Gulch Folk Festival takes place tonight through Sunday, May 19th; Michael Braunfeld and the Boneyard Hounds perform on Saturday, May 18th. Tickets and more information can be found at the Festival website.