The music of Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt is steeped in tradition and infused with the energy of melody and exploration. Fixtures of the Kansas City folk music community, Betse and Clarke describe their approach to songwriting and performing as "adventures in music," which based on their recently released "Bird Notes" EP is fitting. In this interview with Betse & Ellis, we learn about the duo's deep love of traditional folk music, their collaborative approach to songwriting and what they love most about the Kansas City music community.
Introduce yourselves. Where do you live and work?
I’m Betse Ellis, writing for Betse & Clarke — my folk duo with my partner Clarke Wyatt. We recently relocated to Prairie Village, KS, and it’s lovely here, but with long histories of living in Kansas City, Missouri, we tend to identify ourselves as being from KCMO. We are full-time musicians and work in the metro area, and all over the country, playing concerts, festivals, and teaching at music camps. Both of us, in our former bands, continuously did our part to help people understand there are two Kansas Cities… it’s amazing how many people still don’t understand that!
Tell us about your recently released Bird Notes EP. Where was it recorded? What did you learn from this experience that you’ll take to future recording projects?
We formed our duo in late 2014. By early 2015, we already had many opportunities to travel and perform, and every touring band needs an album for their fans. So, we needed to get something recorded, and fast. We made “Bird Notes” at home; Clarke has years of experience engineering and producing recordings and we enjoyed the opportunity to explore sounds in our new space. Every time a musician records, hopefully there are many lessons in the experience.
Here are a few of our lessons. Our home needed more acoustic treatments for future recordings, which we have now done. Mostly it’s about getting rid of hard angles and smooth surfaces; well really, it’s about a lot more than that, like microphone placement and proximity, ceiling height and flooring… maybe even sock color. Clarke is so knowledgeable about room acoustics, and how microphones capture sound, and how to place them properly and how certain mics work better with certain instruments. Lucky me. I just situate myself where he tells me to, and do my best to play my fiddle with all my heart and to sing truthfully and in tune. Oh, lessons. We learned more about how we work together in a recording scenario. We also got a great reminder about making music that we enjoy, that challenges us and frees us, and not overthinking what we imagine others might want or expect of us. This, I believe, is one of the most important lessons in our pursuit of this aspect of our creativity.
Describe your creative process with songwriting, especially in light of your musical partnership and the traditional grounding of your music. What songs are you most proud of?
We do love to create music; our current primary focus is to study and celebrate traditional music of the southern mountain states. So first, we learn a tune or a song, going deeply into the process of study - early recorded sources, any history or perspective on the provenance and family of the piece (both human and cultural)… where the music comes from is part of what makes it sound the way it does. Some pieces give us the opportunity to learn a new technique element. Others require a diligent subtle touch. Each tune or song is a treasure and it’s our calling to explore it and see how it relates to us. Our one-liner is “Adventures in Music”, and so sometimes a tune may allow for a creative infusion, either in the form of improvisation, or a new section that we may compose, or a lyrical treatment. Other tunes or songs may need to be nested carefully in a very simple setting so that they can be appreciated for the natural beauty they possess. It’s truly an honor to learn these beautiful pieces that have been passed down in the generations, through time, place, and setting. I began playing the violin 40 years ago; this ongoing study has taken me to a multitude of inner landscapes (and physical places). Each chapter of my musical life has meaning. Finding old time music more than 20 years ago set me on a path that continues to bring illumination and challenge. That’s maybe not the same as pride but it’s meaningful.
Oh, and we love to compose; these things come in phases for us and we both think melody and harmony and rhythm before words. I’ve written a handful of songs, but lately it’s been about melody for me; instrumental music is its own language and I almost constantly have melody in my mind’s ear. I know that Clarke is this way as well. He’s always humming or singing, except when he has a banjo in his hands, which is much of the time. His dedication to growing his already considerable musical landscape is inspiring.
Tell us about the fellowship you received through Artist, INC. What has this fellowship enabled you to accomplish?
We each applied for and were accepted into the Artist, INC program, spring 2015. It was both perfect timing and a perfect storm, coming at the same time that we were newly developing our duo, and discovering what this next chapter of our lives looked like. It was a great and challenging time to be in the program. We worked on our writing and communication skills, and broadened our understanding of professionalism in the arts. Working towards some of our goals in tandem with other artists, we felt more like part of a community as opposed to working secluded on our duo at home. The Artist, INC program helped us to be more clear with our goals and to think through the steps needed to achieve them. We are continuing the work we started when we went through the program. I think we’ll continue to learn more about ourselves as we keep doing the work that it takes every day to be working artists.
What inspires you the most about the Kansas City music scene?
I love that we have so many different styles of musicians here. Looking at the heritage of jazz and blues represented by older masters — not to mention the ones already passed on — and young preservationists, to a seriously committed rock and punk rock scene, and resurgence of country music over the last fifteen years or so, and ongoing strong songwriters older and younger, not to mention experimental music a-plenty, and an ever-strengthening folk scene largely in thanks to Folk Alliance International moving here… and then the classical and arts music abounding as it has for so long… looking at all this and then whatever else pops up on the horizon, I’m impressed by our city and region’s talent and conviction. I’ve had a foot in several of these communities during my now 30-year residence in Kansas City… and even now I plant myself in the midst of a variety of collaborations as opportunities and time allow. It’s also exciting that KC hosts concerts by many amazing touring artists thanks to venues and audiences supportive of such a variety. Here’s the thing. A music (or art, or theatre, or any creative endeavor) scene takes at least four components to thrive. Artists. Venues. Media. Audiences. I believe we have that, and I also believe we can do more to gain more traction with audiences. I want to be a part of the process and maybe encourage regular “think tank” gatherings to look at how the creative artists in Kansas City can be creative in getting the word out to larger audiences, by working in new ways with venues, media, fans, and each other.
Betse’s recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner
Ozarks Fiddle Music by Drew Beisswenger
WISH LIST: I am a particular fan of William Golding, especially The Inheritors and The Spire. I discovered these books in charity shops while on tour in the UK. I wish The Inheritors would be required reading for every single person. I think it would help the human race. Why is Lord of the Flies the only book of Golding’s most people seem to know?
Aereo-plain/Morning Bugle : the Complete Warner Bros. Recordings by John Hartford
Smooth Sailing by Howard Iceberg
The Clash by The Clash
50 Years: Where Do You Come From? Where Do You Go? by New Lost City Ramblers
Chamber Works for Violin, Volume 3 by Bela Bartok
The Gloaming by The Gloaming