Meet Abigail Washburn

Global Musician Workshop Faculty Member

January 15, 2016

A singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, Chinese-speaking, clawhammer banjo player, Abigail Washburn is every bit as attuned to the global as she is to the local. Her music “mingles Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” (The New York Times)

Abigail will join the faculty of Silkroad’s Second Annual Global Musician Workshop, to take place June 19-25, 2016. We asked Abigail how she perceives her role as a global artist.

Abigial Washburn

SILKROAD: What does it mean to be a Global Musician?
AW: I think being a global musician is about the person making the music. These questions come to mind: Has another musical culture burrowed its way into the basic makeup of the mind and spirit of the person making the music? Has the person making the music seamlessly folded in the being and expression of those that disseminated the music to them? Is the music they make inevitably emerging from an internal, inseparable amalgam of influences? Is the sound the musician makes unique and authentic, and does it inspire a sense of place and home and longing and journey? Or, is there a disruptive self-consciousness that keeps different cultural sounds and patterns feeling like the “other?”

I think it’s a fluidity of spirit and strength in the vulnerability of entering new musical terrain that create the makings of a global musician. A global musician starts out as a visiting traveler, but irrevocably becomes a member of the community they’ve traveled to.

SILKROAD: What do you look for in an artistic collaborator?
AW: Someone I’m willing to let change the way I make music. Someone that’s willing to let me change the way they make music. I love and hate how collaboration forces me to think outside of “my way.”

SILKROAD: Tell us about one of your most interesting collaborations.
I think the most interesting collaborations are the ones that seem like they’re not working out.

I was doing a tour of the Silk Road through China and Inner Mongolia in 2011 with four wonderful musicians from Nashville. We had toured eight or nine cities when we made our way out to Lanzhou, a city in the far west province of Gansu. I had gotten into the habit of calling ahead to the place we were going to perform and asking if the venue knew of local musicians that might be willing to collaborate with us. Backstage at Lanzhou, we were loading our gear into the venue, when an elder Han Chinese man with a little instrument case and a disapproving frown came into the hall. I got the band together and we sat down in a circle with the elder and the first thing he said was, “中国人和美国人不能一起做音乐” (Chinese and Americans simply cannot make music together.) I had to think for a minute how to go forward, but my instinct was to just ask him, “你介意让我们听一些中国音乐吗?” (Would you mind letting us listen to some of your Chinese music?)

So, he pulled out his erhu and started playing a beautiful melody. The band slowly tuned up their instruments and started droning below his melody, and as he paused the fiddler began playing a beautiful free-time Appalachian melody that complemented the elder’s. Then, I thought of an old Appalachian song that I could sing over the drone, and when I paused between verses, the elder started into the Tibetan melody again. When it was clear that we were ending I saw his frown start to soften ever so slightly.

That night we performed that very creation on stage for 1400 people in the theatre in Lanzhou. At the end of the concert he came up to me and said, “今晚我发现并不是美国人和中国人不能在一起做音乐,音乐是心灵的沟通” (Tonight I discovered it’s not that Americans and Chinese can’t play music together, but that music is the communication of hearts.)

Abigail Washburn’s avant-garde Appalachian-Chinese folk trio, The Wu Force

SILKROAD: What do you struggle with the most as an artist?
Making time to be creative. Especially now that I have a child, I cherish the time with my child too much to replace it with creative pursuits. I get to the basics of assisting my team in running the business of being a career artist, and occasionally exercising and making meals and sleeping… and then I never seem to find the time to make new music.

SILKROAD: When do you feel the most artistically satisfied?
When I’ve first let a new creative thought flow through and out. But if I don’t capture it in some way, like with a voice memo, then I don’t feel satisfied for long. I feel this thrill either alone or while doing it with a collaborator. I feel like I’ve tapped into the limitless and given it form. It’s downright spiritually uplifting.

SILKROAD: What do you see as the greatest strengths and/or weaknesses for the younger generation of musicians?
A weakness is a sense of entitlement to a career in music if strong technique has been cultivated. A career in music has a limited amount to do with music. There must be humility to recognize that it is a privilege given to you by those who support what you do. There must be a drive that allows you to ask for opportunities and then express gratitude for the opportunities by showing up and doing your best and saying thanks. I believe music is a service career based on the integrity of the art being made.

SILKROAD: What are you most excited about for the 2016 Global Musician Workshop?
Diving into a messy and gorgeous pile of collaborations. I plan to feel disarmed and beautiful all at once! __

Check out Abigail’s 2012 TEDTalk, “Building US-China Relations by Banjo”: