We’ve just added a whole new collection of royalty free tunes by Gayle Ellett and Todd Montgomery, so it seemed like a good time for us to conduct an interview with this rather special musical duo. Through their “Fernwood” music project, Todd & Gayle writes and plays instrumental music 100% by hand – exclusively on instruments made out of wood!
As you can imagine, this gives their music a very “earthly” tone. It has something of the ancient, of the mysterious, of the true, natural and homely about it – that you could probably never reproduce with more modern instruments or electronics.
We are happy to be able to offer 9 brand new tracks by Gayle Ellett & Todd Montgomery (aka Fernwood) on our site this week, so we decided to speak to them about their music and their methods:
Can you tell us a little bit about your musical backgrounds? And how the two of you got together?
(Gayle): I started with piano lessons when I was about 5 years old, and then I learned electric guitar and joined a band when I was 13. For the past 35 years I’ve been playing and composing music for bands and ensembles, TV and film, corporate applications, and other uses. I met Todd a few years ago when we were in a 10-piece improvisational psychedelic band here in Topanga. Todd played sitar, and I played monophonic analog synth. Then the band imploded. But Todd and I remained friends, and awhile ago we started working together, and we formed Fernwood.
(Todd): I began with guitar lessons at age nine learning radio rock tunes of the 70’s. When I got an electric guitar I started performing in a band at school functions around age 12. In High School my focus drifted toward playing psychedelic rock covering songs by Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. My musical direction changed in college when I first came into contact with a mandolin. This began a long journey in which new instruments pulled me along into learning various cultural styles. The mandolin led me to bluegrass, the Irish bouzouki led me to traditional Irish music, and the sitar led me to classical Indian music. I wanted to work more with Gayle when I realized how much he was helping our large improvisational band by playing a supportive role on the synth- gluing all the chaos together. And then I learned that he had already recorded and released 16 or 17 records with another band. (At that point I didn’t even know he was a guitar hero!) I had never met another musician who was able to see so many projects through to the end. We were lucky because we both like to work hard. We both can play lots of instruments. And we enjoy hanging out and creating cool tunes!
How did you get the idea to license your music through Shockwave-Sound.com as stock music?
(Gayle): I’ve been composing traditional World music, and licensing it through Shockwave-Sound.com for many years. So it seemed like a great idea to submit it to Shockwave-Sound and see if it was right for the royalty-free music collection.
(Todd): I didn’t know anything about Shockwave-Sound or any other music libraries until I met Gayle!
The concept of playing only by hand on instruments made out of wood, is an original and interesting one. Are really all the instruments you use on all your recordings entirely made of wood?
(Gayle): Its not really an “original” idea, it’s more of a “tradtional” idea. For me, it is about coming full-circle, from learning on acoustic piano as a kid, then spending decades playing electrified music like Rock, Jazz and Electronic styles, and now finally coming back to our roots, with a huge appreciation of the natural goodness and warm sounds of real acoustic instruments. I believe that using modern technology to help you make better recordings is a great idea. But I think that using technology, such as computers and samplers, to play your music, is a bad idea. And no, not all of the instruments are made entirely out of wood…some have strings made of steel! Just kidding. Basically they are all made out of wood, except the Indian jaltarag which is a set of small clay bowls that are filled with water to tune, and then struck with felt-covered sticks. And there is a small amount of rhodes piano and B3 organ on some of the tunes (but even these have cabinets made out of wood!)
(Todd): My tenor banjo and Gayle’s dilruba also have goat skin, but otherwise everything I play is made of wood. In Fernwood, we are trying to stay out of the way of the instruments. We often let notes and strums ring for a long time in order allow the beautiful tones to shine. It’s a natural sound. Nature is good. This is the main pleasure for me with Fernwood. Listening to how all the various tones merge, meld and harmonize.
Where do you get all these cool instruments, and who made them? Do you actually make some instruments yourselves, or make modifications to them?
(Gayle): I’ve been composing and performing traditional World music for many decades. My brother gave me my Japanese koto thirty years ago. When we formed Fernwood, I knew I’d need a few more instruments to help fully realize our compositions, so I used the internet to help me find luthiers from around the world. My Indian dilruba was made for me by a nice guy in New Delhi, and then shipped to me here. I don’t make any of them, and I only rarely modify them.
(Todd): I had my Irish bouzouki made for me by an excellent maker from Canada named Lawrence Nyberg. My mandolin is an old Martin from 1922. My sitar was made by Hiren Roy who was during his lifetime (or so I hear) the best sitar maker in India. I am presently trying to make my first instrument, which will combine elements of an African Gimbri, banjo, and have sympathetic strings like a sarod.
I notice a lot of location names in your track titles. Are these track titles mostly “random” or are the tracks actually written specifically for that location, i.e. “Helen Island”, “McKenna Beach”, etc?
(Todd): When I make up a new tune it’s often out somewhere either around my house in Malibu or while on a trip. For example, Makena was created when I was at Makena beach in Maui using a Hawaiian tuning on my guitar. Sometimes I feel like the tune came out of how I was feeling while being in these beautiful places. Other times we listen to how a tune sounds when it’s finished and then find a place or image that seems to match. Although, we must admit that a few titles are random.
Do you guys play this stuff live? And if so, how do you manage to cope with all these different instruments on stage, changing instruments all the time? It must be difficult if it’s only the two of you up there on stage?
(Gayle): When we play live, we perform as a 7-piece. I’d be even happier if we could perform as a 10 or 12 piece ensemble. Our first Fernwood release, “Almeria”, was the “#4 album of the year” on John Diliberto’s Echoes Radio, and we did a special performance for his show.
(Todd): Gayle lives in Topanga which is a town full of musicians, and we are lucky because many of our friends are excellent musicians. So, on the rare occasion when we do play live we gratefully get the help of our talented friends.
(Gayle): Not for me. My method is very deliberate. Before I start I usually think about what qualities I want the composition to have, what instruments will play, what key and rhythm I’ll use. And there are things I am trying to avoid in Fernwood, like playing fast solos over everything, or playing in too much of a Pop or Blues style. I try to write only about one half of a composition, so that there is room for Todd to contribute to the composition and arrangements. That way, we can work together to make music that is much better then we could write on our own.
(Todd): One of us will start a tune with a foundational picking or chord pattern, and then we build upon it. The only improvisational aspect is that I don’t know what Gayle is going to add, or how it will change through the recording process. However, our tunes always come out much better than I imagine they will be at the beginning. It’s also really fun to know that whatever part I come up with Gayle is going to add something amazing that I wouldn’t think of myself. The whole of Fernwood is greater than its parts.
What would you say is your most “different” or “unusual” instrument that you have in your arsenal?
(Gayle): My Indian dilruba is a very unusual instrument. It is somewhat like a sitar, but it is bowed like a cello, not plucked. The bulbul tarang is an odd little instrument, somewhat like a weird autoharp. And the jaltarang is also rather unusual. Basically, the Indians make a lot of unusual and interestin instruments!
(Todd): I would say that my sitar is the most unusual instrument that I have only because it’s rare. We can all identify it, but it’s hard to find a sitar player if you need one! In Fernwood, the way our instruments blend it can often sound like we are using a new and unidentifiable instrument, but it really is the result of layering sometimes up to 20 instruments at one time!
Are any of them particularly difficult to play?
(Gayle): The dilruba is, for me, a very difficult instrument to play. All of the rest are fairly easy.
(Todd): The sitar is by far the hardest to play for me due to the practice it takes to bend the string accurately to pitch and to play ornaments that are semi-authentic to the classical Indian style. Not to mention, it’s really hard to sit on the floor for long periods of time with your legs folded under you!
You are both still involved with other musical acts, besides Fernwood?
(Gayle): Yes, I just got back from performing in France with my progressive rock group Djam Karet where I played organ and synths. I also play electric guitar in a blues band, piano in an improvised jazz ensemble, Greek bouzouki in a Americana bluegrass band, and electric guitar & keyboards in an Electronic synth band.
(Todd): Other than Fernwood, I am often recording and arranging traditional Irish music in new ways.
What is your best selling track through Shockwave-Sound.com? Or do you even keep track of that kind of stuff?
(Gayle): I don’t follow it too closely. But I also think that, oddly, it changes over time.
(Todd): I don’t know, but I probably should pay more attention to that!
And with that, we thank this authentically acoustic musical duo for their time and recommend you all have a listen to some of their tunes! The best selling tracks here at Shockwave-Sound.com are probably McKenna Beach and Crane, whilst their 9 brand new tracks they have just added to our catalog are: