For the past year, Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright have led The 78 Project, a New York-based operation that aims to create an archive of the whole of contemporary American folk music using 1930s-era recording equipment. Inspired by the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Steyermark and Jones Wright use Presto machines that directly transcribe the recordings onto an acetate disc—it’s a one-take, one-track recording technique. These sessions, which so far have included such musicians as Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson, and Loudon Wainwright III, are also filmed and posted online as part of a web series. The two recently completed a recording circuit in the South, and they’re currently in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $60,000 for a documentary film and to help continue their project for the long term. I went to high school with Jones Wright, a music journalist who has previously worked with ASCAP, and was interested to hear more about the project. So I connected with her and Steyermark, known for his film music supervision and directing such films as Prey For Rock & Roll, by email to talk about 78 Project’s mission and the processes involved in recreating the sound and mood of those earlier field recordings.
Tom Keiser: You make a point in showing your gratitude to the legacy of Alan Lomax. What place does field recording still have in an age where it’s so easy to release one’s music into the world?
Lavinia Jones Wright: We like to say that what Alan Lomax was doing with his field recording work was capturing the American cultural identity. Music is one of the most universal ways of connecting with each other, and the performance contained in each recording is truly human, something we can all relate to because each of us strives for self-expression in some way. Lomax showed post-Depression Americans what was beautiful and distinctive about their own culture. And now, we are looking to connect with that cultural legacy again, to see what it means to people to be American today, to find out how we relate to that canon of songs that belongs to us! We’re not as far removed from it as we might think. Everyone has heard this music, and has a feeling for it. We want to know, just as Lomax did, what that feeling is. Where each person learned the music and how it makes them feel to belong to such a long, deep history.
Alex Steyermark: Field recording in the way that we do it remains relevant because of the sense of purpose it provides to the song and the performer. Because it is a one-take recording with a time limit, it really captures a moment. You can hear the room and everything that happened in it during those three minutes of recording. It’s an experience that can’t be had any other way than if someone shows up on your doorstep with recording equipment, loads it into your kitchen, and tells you, you have one shot and three minutes to sing them a song from the past.
One of the things that we’ve come to fully appreciate on our road trip is that, in order for us to have that experience, we do need to be physically present in a very real way. We need to drive hundreds or thousands of miles to a particular location, lug out our equipment (the Presto weighs 50 pounds), find electricity, feel the sweltering heat of Mississippi in the summer, even fend off red ants! We’re always struck by the sheer physical effort that goes into making an acetate. It’s the ultimate analog experience in a very digital world.
How was The 78 Project established? Was the web series always going to be a part of it?
AS: The 78 Project was originally conceived as a web series. We started out last summer by choosing some artists in and around New York City to work with on the first episodes, and then we expanded it from there.
LW: We always wanted to take the project out on the road, and the documentary film seemed like the perfect way to bring what we had learned from making the first web series to exciting new places and new people.
AS: We plan to keep doing the web series indefinitely, even after we finish the film. The 78 Project is constantly evolving, and we’re always curious to see where it takes us.
LW: One of the most interesting parts of working on The 78 Project for us has been to see the response from the artists. Some of the folks we have worked with have been recorded hundreds of times before in so many different formats, it’s so incredible to us to see how moving they find their 78 Project experience to be. Many artists find the risks inherent in this one-take, acoustic recording thrilling, and find that the process is engaging in a really satisfying way.
AS: People cry when they hear their records played back, they feel that they are a part of history, that the past has come to meet them. Everyone seems to understand the process inherently, and to find a sense of purpose in the immediacy of it. Then there’s a huge sense of relief when it’s finished! The record is done right away, and you never have to worry about making changes or having to do anything more to it! It’s already perfect.
LW: We have a long list of artists we’d love to work with, and that list really runs the full range of genres and generations. Anyone who is interested in the challenge is interesting to us! Strong performers who can do a song in one take, and curious people who are excited about digging into the public domain to find interesting songs. We have a lot of wonderful recordings ahead..
How many Presto machines do you have? Are the machines and acetate disks hard to procure, relative to other vintage recording media? What are the challenges and benefits of recording on a one-track system that only allows for three minutes a side?
AS: We have a few Prestos, but not because we collect them, mainly just to have spare parts and backups so that we can have two that work really well. We only travel with two. The Prestos themselves are out there, but I’ve developed a good eye for whether or not a Presto we happen to come across is in good shape. The acetate discs come from a great company out in Palm Desert [California] called Apollo Masters. They also make our ruby-tipped cutting needles. If they ever stopped making 78 acetates and cutting styli, we’d be in trouble!
LW: The challenges to recording this way all involve being able to perform and capture the song so simply and succinctly. If the song is too long, we could lose some part of it at the end. I don’t have a choice but to stop the record when the needle reaches the center! And everything needs to be played into one mic, so the more people and instruments there are, the more care needs to go into positioning musicians around the mic. This also gets tricky because we’re filming everything, and want to make sure we can cover it all. Some instruments do lend themselves better to the recording process, and there are definitely limits to how loud the performance can be before it surpasses the limits of what’s possible.
AS: We’ve also had problems from sub-sonic vibrations of passing subway trains and overly loud stomping of feet. Lomax himself had many anecdotes about recordings that got ruined when large vocal groups simply got too swept away and too loud. We’ve come to view some of the flaws that might appear in a recording as part of its charm and an important part of the story of that recording. Still, it’s almost a miracle that there are so many great sounding acetate field recordings from that earlier era.
LW: But the benefits are amazing. The limitations allow for perfect focus. Everything unnecessary gets stripped away, and what is left is the song, the voice, the instruments and the room, everything you need.
How does using vintage equipment differ from, say, people using pseudo-retro filters to make things look or sound old (Instagram comes to mind)? Is there a risk that what you are doing will be lumped together with those sorts of technologies? Will we soon see The 78 Project partner with Taco Bell?
LW: Making something on vintage equipment takes time, energy and careful thought. You have to learn to use the gear, find the supplies, and plan extensively to produce the result. Filters and effects make for a beautiful product, but vintage equipment makes for a fulfilling experience and a unique, unpredictable outcome. It would be difficult to actually lump The 78 Project together with a specific nostalgic movement, although we do live in the same world. We use Instagram!
AS: And we are using iPhones to communicate and Canon DSLRs to shoot our films and all kinds of digital media to produce the project. It’s the place where all of that meets that we want to explore, how do all of the new media technologies relate to the antique technology? We love watching people take pictures of the Presto on their iPhones, we do it, too!
LW: There are certain brands and types of digital media and technology that have authenticity, that really are intuitive to the way that people live. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t want to partner with [Taco Bell]! In fact, we partner with Stumptown Coffee out of Portland, and we love and respect what they do for the same reasons they love and respect what we do. It’s people making wonderful things with care and sincerity.
You’re currently involved in a Kickstarter program to turn The 78 Project into a documentary. How will the film differ from the web series? Does the future of The 78 Project rest on this Kickstarter, and will you continue the project itself if plans for the documentary fall through?
LW: The 78 Project documentary is truly a grassroots undertaking. Which is why a grassroots method of funding—a community driven campaign like Kickstarter—makes the most sense. We launched the Kickstarter while we were in Tennessee, right at the end of our first month-long road trip to shoot the film, and it all felt really right. We had just visited dozens of wonderful people all through the South, they had invited us into their homes with our cameras and our recording equipment, and we felt like they were all a part of The 78 Project.
AS: We feel the same way about our fans and supporters. They are the project, we make it for them as much as for ourselves. So it makes sense that we find a way to fund the project that includes everybody.
LW: When people donate through the Kickstarter they get their names in the credits, they get beautiful gifts and unique experiences, and they get regular updates as we continue shooting the movie. I can say with the utmost assuredness that it would take a seismic shift of epic proportions to in any way reroute our plans to make this film. We can’t not make it, it’s too incredible.
Tom Keiser lives in New Jersey and has also written for Network Awesome, Fruitless Pursuits, and The Classical. Photos courtesy of The 78 Project.