by Mike Pengra
December 28, 2022
Oregon-based folk duo Fellow Pynins — comprising Dani Aubert and Ian George — released their latest album, Lady Mondegreen, in May of this year. They immediately followed that with a tour of the U.K. and Ireland.
Now touring in the U.S., Fellow Pynins visited Radio Heartland’s Mike Pengra in the studio to play songs and to talk about their unique way of recasting traditional folk songs decades, if not centuries, old. In so doing, Aubert and George also explain how they landed on the album’s title.
Watch and listen to the complete studio session above, and read a transcript below.
Mike Pengra: I'm in the studio with Fellow Pynins. They are Ian George and Dani Aubert. And it's really great to finally get to know you guys and get you the studio. Thanks for coming.
Dani Aubert: Thank you.
Ian George: Pleasure.
Mike Pengra: We just heard a song from your most recent CD, and the song was "Silver Dagger." Your CD came out in May, and then you left and went on a tour of England and Ireland and Scotland.
Dani Aubert: We did.
Mike Pengra: How did that go?
Dani Aubert: Two months with our kids and our touring band. It was great. It was so good. We had what like 40 shows or something?
Ian George: Yeah, 42.
Dani Aubert: A bunch of festivals. And yeah, we were kind of going pretty hard. But we had some time off in between and made sure to have a week in Ireland because we love it there so much and got to have some good sessions.
Mike Pengra: You almost moved there, right? You told me you almost moved there.
Dani Aubert: We kind of thought about it. Yeah, we packed up our stuff at one point and went there with an open-ended ticket. And, you know, didn't know. We ended up traveling around for eight months in a little car, tiny little car.
Ian George: A Honda Jazz.
Dani Aubert: Yeah.
Ian George: They don't make models that small here in the United States.
Mike Pengra: On the left side of the road, too.
Dani Aubert: Yes.
Mike Pengra: Oooh, good for you.
Ian George: Those. roundabouts.
Mike Pengra: I know exactly what you mean.
Dani Aubert: We got good at it, though.
Mike Pengra: I'll bet. I was over there, but I refused to drive. I said, "No"; I saw a roundabouts and said, "I'm not going to do this backwards. It's not going to happen.
Ian George: After being over there, I realized how Americans just don't know how to use roundabout.
Mike Pengra: You're right. We still don't.
Ian George: I think we need training if we're gonna implement them in our road systems, which they are occasionally around.
Mike Pengra: You guys do a lot of old, traditional folk music that goes way back centuries, and some of this stuff has roots in the U.K., where you were at. How does it feel to bring that music that was created there to them from Americans? Was there any kind of, any feelings about that?
Ian George: Yeah, a lot of feelings, actually. I remember we had a conversation, like, a day or two before flying over there this past summer, being like so, "We're gonna sing the songs they've been singing for hundreds of years. And we're Americans. I wonder how it'll go down." And in general, they're just very receptive to the folk tradition. It's very... The folk tradition is alive and well there. Especially in — I mean, in England, all the all the countries: Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland. You know, and I think we definitely have Americanized them with the arrangements, and definitely adventurous arrangements at times. But I think Dani playing the clawhammer banjo, is, I think we get them with that, honestly. They're usually enamored by the clawhammer banjo, and it's not an instrument — usually the banjo that they have on that side of the Atlantic is the tenor banjo, four string, and they play it with a pick, and it's more driving, and they would pick it like a mandolin in sessions. And so the clawhammer, I mean, it's a strange thing, even in the States.
Mike Pengra: It's Appalachian.
Ian George: It's Appalachian. Yeah, there was this time where we showed up to a gig, and it wasn't this tour, but there was like a picture of Dani with a banjo. And it was like, "a real American clawhammer banjo player." And I was like, "Well, we're a folk duo. I feel like I'm at least 40% as important as Dani, and there's no picture of me." So I still, I hold that a little bit when we go over there. But I think, we get — to answer your question — I think they're very receptive to hearing these songs done — again, by Americans — and bringing them back. I think they really are appreciative in general. And since the clawhammer banjo, I think we really get them there, too. Yeah.
Mike Pengra: I'm talking with Fellow Pynins. They are Ian George and Dani Aubert. And their latest album is called Lady Mondegreen. And I had to Google that to find out what Lady Mondegreen meant. And now I know, but I need you to explain it to me.
Dani Aubert: That's all you.
Ian George: That's me. OK.
Dani Aubert: That's totally you. Lady, yeah.
Ian George: Yeah. So we were traveling — actually, we had just returned to the States after our first trip to Europe, where we actually learned a lot of these songs, because this album, Lady Mondegreen, is really, we identify like mainly as songwriters, and somehow these traditional songs crept into our set over the last couple of years, and a lot of people were wondering, "Hey, we'd love to, like get that version." And we never had it, because we never recorded it. We never thought about recording a traditional album. And somehow it, you know, over the years, 20% of our set now is these reworked traditionals.
And so we felt like, before moving on to the next album, we needed to represent this part of who we have become by recording them. And while we were traveling in New England, right after we had come back, we'd gathered these songs, we had met this woman in Vermont who had told us the story of Lady Mondegreen, which is a, I believe the definition of mondegreen is a is a creative mishearing or misinterpreting of specifically a lyric. And I like to think of it as the bigger picture of art in general and the power of art. And in music, specifically, let's say, when you hear a song, there's equal interpretations for as many ears in the room. And I think that's the beauty of it. And when someone asks me usually like, "What is this song about?" I never like to answer it, because it's just what it is to me. And I don't ever want to take someone's interpretation away from them. And when we decided to do this traditional album, you know, it's eight songs that have been played and reinterpreted for hundreds of years. I mean, one of them, "Son David" I believe is one of the oldest ones, the oldest; I believe that first recording, the written-down version is the early 1700s. And I just think, how, how early, I mean, it had probably been sung for hundreds of years before that, and every time, these songs, the transmission from person to person takes place, there's a change. Maybe the new singer can't hit the high notes, so has to change the melody, or maybe forgets the third, fourth, fifth and sixth verses, so just cuts them out, or maybe writes new verses, or forgets a word and changes it, and every time, the song is shifting. And we like to call it, we learned recently the term "drift," when someone takes a new song and learns it, and then changes, it's drift. And depending on the song, of course, there's varying degrees of drift. And these traditional songs, they're like a living, breathing, like tradition that they're always changing and always being interpreted in a new way. And so it felt like for us, especially as Americans to sing these songs that are mainly coming from that part of the world and giving our take in just this moment of time of these ancient songs it's it felt like a mondegreen. Oh, so right! What is mondegreen? So it's a misinterpreted, a creative mishearing of a lyric. So this woman, I don't remember when in the States years ago.
Dani Aubert: We were in Vermont.
Ian George: Yeah, it was a ... she told us a story of where mondegreen came from, and this lady was sung this ballad as a kid. The Duke, what was that? Something Earl, Earl of Murray? Anyways, I forget the song, but the lyric was something "he died and we laid him on the green." And she always thought it was "Lady Mondegreen."
Dani Aubert: "Laid him on the green."
Ian George: "Laid him on the green" — Lady Mondegreen! And I just think that's brilliant.
Mike Pengra: And it's a great title for your album too, because of your reinterpreting. Although, you're not reinterpreting, but you're interpreting old folk songs. It's easy to do that.
Dani Aubert: And this woman who told us the story about Lady Mondegreen, introduced that concept to us, she was such a quirky lady, and we met her —I think we were couchsurfing — so we found her through like the couchsurfing, sleep on someone's couch, like, sit, you know, like, it's like a...
Mike Pengra: There's a network for that?
Dani Aubert: There's like a network where basically—
Ian George: It's an app, right?
Dani Aubert: Yeah, you can, if you don't have a place to stay, there's a whole bunch of people across the country that open their home to you to come and stay, and she was one that we found. And she's an amazing person. And we played music together all night. She loved folk music. And she also is a sculptor, and she sculpts child ballads, which are these old ballads collected by for Sir Francis James' child, she would sculpt the ballads, so she would create an art piece. Based on what she hears. Based on what she heard. So she had all this wisdom, we had no idea; we just found her because we needed a free place the sleep, and it ended up she taught us all this stuff, and, you know, now here we are talking about her, like, eight years later or something.
Mike Pengra: I'm in the studio with Fellow Pynins today. It's such a great pleasure to meet you guys, finally. We heard a song from your new album, Lady Mondegreen, laid him on the green. Now we're gonna hear an original song. Tell me about this one.
Ian George: Yeah, it's a song that I brought to the table, Dani and I each write songs, and usually we'll write the song on our own and bring it to the other, and we'll arrange it and finish it off together. And yeah, it's a song, "The Wild & the Untamed." It's not not the word "and" but an ampersand. We thought that was pretty classy, you know? It's like a novel or something. And, but we just tend to call it "the ballerina song," because it's inspired by a moment Dani and I had years back, where she went out with the girls on a Friday night out into the town. Then I was left home for the first time with our child.
Mike Pengra: OK. New father at the time?
Ian George: New father, and as a responsible new father, I need not receive any instructions on what to do. So...
Mike Pengra: I think I know where this is going!
Ian George: Dani walked through the door around, like, 1 a.m., and not only was child not slept, but child wasn't fed yet. And we were mid-pirouette in the house, blasting what her daughter calls "Cinderella music," which I believe is Vivaldi. And we had turned the record over probably 10 times. We were hours into it. And time had proven elastic. And I couldn't believe it was 1 a.m. Dani walks through the door, and there we are with — all we had on were tutus. And I was cooking dinner at least. So at least I had begun the evening routine, and Dani drops the bag, and she looks at me she goes, "Ian, WTF?"; you know, and it wasn't the acronym. And she was just, I thought I was in trouble for the linear time predicament that I'd created for myself. But she followed up her initial greeting with, "I thought you were supposed to be my burly man." And I was, like, I mean, in retrospect, she totally threw me through an existential crisis. And I laid in bed that night thinking about my life. And I had this brilliant idea to wake up before Dani, which in itself is monumental, and put nothing but the hot pink tutu and chop wood. And she awoke to me in that scene. And you know, the thesis of that action was like, "Look, I can be a pirouetting ballerina boy and like a Viking dude all in the same bod. And that's how that song was written. It was inspired right after — it pretty much was written after that night about accepting each others' quirkinesses in the world. Yeah. So we've carried that song with us for years now.
Dani Aubert: It's an old one.
Ian George: Yeah. I like it. It's Fellow Pynins, and the song is called "The Wild & the Untamed."
Mike Pengra: A song written by my guests in the studio today, Fellow Pynins, they are Ian George and Dani Aubert, and it was called "The Wild & the Untamed." You talked about doing both folk and original music in your sets. What is the percentage of, or is it changing? Is that always ...
Dani Aubert: Well, right now we're sharing a lot of the stuff from Lady Mondegreen, so maybe half and half.
Mike Pengra: And that is mostly old folk tunes, right?
Dani Aubert: The Lady Mondegreen is all traditional songs.
Mike Pengra: Yeah, right.
Dani Aubert: Yep. So the first album that we put out is all original stuff. And then the next one we'll do will probably be all originals and maybe a few traditionals just because folks are enjoying it.
Mike Pengra: Yeah.
Dani Aubert: Yeah.
Mike Pengra: So you guys are living the life of traveling minstrels. You live in a van, right, most of the time, and your kids are with you when you're traveling on the road
Dani Aubert: Well, we have a home base, which is in Oregon. We have a home, and our kids go to school. And so we have pretty grounded life. But we do also get out quite a bit and bring our kids with us most of the time, but the summer is a good time to get out for long chunks.
Mike Pengra: Did you guys meet in the Twin Cities here? And then...
Dani Aubert: No, we met in Oregon, actually.
Mike Pengra: OK. But you lived in the Twin Cities—
Dani Aubert: We did.
Mike Pengra: And then moved back to Oregon.
Ian George: When the virus hit, we moved back to Oregon. We kind of saw the writing on the wall. We had a bunch of shows get canceled, and we just had a feeling it was gonna be a bit. So we moved right back to where we had come from prior to moving to — we lived in St. Paul for the first year, then moved just across the river to Minneapolis — and we put all of our savings into building two tiny houses, which is where we live now, in tiny houses that we built.
Mike Pengra: You built them when you were wearing your tutu as well?
Ian George: Exactly. Well, only in the summer months. Because it does get cold in the mountains, yeah.
Mike Pengra: Right.
Ian George: But if you move quick enough, you can get away with it into the fall.
Mike Pengra: So this next song is an old folk tune that goes way back. Sometimes called a murder ballad would you say?
Dani Aubert: Yeah.
Mike Pengra: Yeah. Is it difficult to sing what they call murder ballads?
Dani Aubert: Well, it's kind of funny because we this one is a... It's not quite a murder ballad because I changed all the lyrics. So no one actually dies in my version.
Mike Pengra: There's nobody being buried and...
Dani Aubert: Well, in the in the original version, Polly and Willie conceive a child and Willie kind of freaks out, takes Polly into the woods, murders pregnant Polly, but then Polly gets revenge. He goes off to sea, and she goes and haunts the ship and drowns everyone on the ship. Yeah, so everyone dies in the story originally, and when I was going to... I was digging into that song, I wasn't feeling inspired about the story. And I was like, "How can I change it? How can I make this my own in some way?" And I had heard, actually found the song through Woody Guthrie's song, "Pastures of Plenty." And I loved that song, and I wasn't really familiar with "Pretty Polly," and I had found that "Pastures of Plenty," I researched it, and found that he took the melody of this ballad, "Pretty Polly." And so that's when I started looking into "Pretty Polly" and I loved those versions; they were very banjo heavy, and I knew I was on the right track with that. And so I decided to take both the lyrics from Woody Guthrie song, which is very, you know, very, like, noble; like, I love his lyrics, they're all about migrant workers and the dignity of working the land and tending the land even though you're not a land owner. And so I kind of took that, like, the dignity of those men and infused it into the Polly story and completely changed the ending.
Mike Pengra: When you find an old folk tune like that, that is, the original version is bloody and something you really don't want to talk about, do you often do that? Take an old folk song and maybe just kind of tweak it a little bit so it's not quite so violent or maybe it fits more into the 21st century?
Dani Aubert: You know, I hadn't really done that before. I guess maybe a little bit here and there, but that was the first time that I really just completely did something different with it. Yeah, it was just a kind of a spontaneous inspiration to do that, because it was really the "Pastures of Plenty" song that I was drawn in by and those lyrics, and but then, you know, I was like, "How can I make this fit into this traditionals album?" And then the kind of the trail of "Pretty Polly" was it, it just made sense.
Mike Pengra: Well, you guys, thank you so much for coming in. Again, it's been a pleasure. This is Fellow Pynins, it's Ian George and Dani Aubert, and we're gonna finish off with "Pretty Polly" right here on Radio Heartland.
00:00:00 Silver Dagger
00:02:33 Interview with host Mike Pengra, part 1
00:14:53 Wild & the Untamed
00:18:35 Interview with host Mike Pengra, part 2
00:23:30 Pretty Polly
Dani Aubert – banjo, vocals
Ian George – guitar, vocals
Guests – Fellow Pynins
Host / Producer – Mike Pengra
Video – Evan Clark
Audio – Eric Xu Romani
Graphics – Natalia Toledo
Digital Producer – Luke Taylor
Fellow Pynins - official site