Tony Cummings charts the history and the comeback of Brooklyn's folk rock band BURLAP TO CASHMERE
The return to the scene of Burlap To Cashmere after a hiatus of a decade will be great news not only to long-in-the-tooth music buffs who remember the Brooklyn-based band's classic recordings for A&M and Squint Entertainment but will also be of interest for those who've longed for quality acoustic folk rock imbued with Christian faith. As newspaper The Tennessean summarised the situation with a recent news story, "In the time the band has been away, a similar blend of worldly folk has made stars out of acts such as Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes. With its new self-titled album - set for a July 19 release on Jive/Essential Records - Burlap To Cashmere looks to reclaim that turf in top form, with an inspired blend of Mediterranean rhythms, rootsy textures and tight-knit harmonies, which lend the unmistakable air of folk-rock greats Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens."
In 2010, Burlap To Cashmere headed into the studio with acclaimed producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney) to begin work on new material. His rules were simple: "There would be no nudging and no Auto-Tuning. We're going into this to capture everything that's organic about the band."
Froom continued, "For me, Burlap To Cashmere is a classic band in the best sense of the word. From the great songwriting and singing, to the deep and accomplished musicianship, they are absolutely a distinctive band. This is particularly apparent in the songs that incorporate their unique approach to traditional Greek rhythms. All you have to do is listen once to 'Don't Forget To Write', and it's abundantly clear - you've never heard anything quite like it. We also set out to make a record that put musical feeling and performance at a premium - live singing and playing, no click tracks, etc. Developing this kind of hybrid sound in the studio was a big challenge for everyone involved, but ultimately, what else do you hope for?"
Brooklyn-born, Greek Orthodox singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos spoke to the website goarch.org about his early musical influences. "Growing up in Brooklyn, what was around was like Z100, disco and pop - a more diluted form of Britney Spears. One day my aunt and uncle from New Jersey gave me a three or four disk Bruce Springsteen collection, then I picked up Simon & Garfunkle's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', and it took over my existence - I found my essence in these songs. Harry Chapin really got me excited about music. When I got into high school is when I really found my voice, my clique. My acting teacher played folk music and I just fell in love with what this guy was playing. Because I went to a performing arts high school, for me, theatre and folk music really went hand in hand. Folk music really turned me into a writer. I started to listen to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, and I just became enthralled. I just fell in love, from listening, soaking it in like a sponge, I just wanted to write and emulate them. Van Morrison is just divine. Really he's the Robert Frost of folk pop. He can create a melody, a rock sound, it makes you want to stamp your feet, and you just get into the music, but what he's saying is literally divine. You get the feeling that he's constantly trying to tap into something beyond his human talents. He's really trying to tap into God. You hear stories about him that he's just a crazy man, not a nice man. Like, Cat Stevens was a grumpy Greek guy. These men were sort of like the Old Testament prophets where they were eccentric, crazy men who were probably not the greatest humans, yet God used them in an amazing way. Something about that paradox that is created is fascinating to me."
Delopoulos told the Phantom Tollbooth ezine how Burlap To Cashmere evolved. "I was at Marymount Manhattan College and had done a lot of songwriting already. I wanted to put a show together there at school. I asked my cousin [John Philippidis] to join me, as well as a number of other people. It wound up being a real good show; the house was packed the second night. I wanted to keep it going, so we started playing different clubs in Manhattan. That was a period in my life when I really wanted to go the mainstream Christian route, but my cousin wanted to play blues, so we stopped playing together for a while. Every once in a while though, we'd get back together and jam; you know, when you're cousins. One night we played at this coffeehouse and a friend of Johnny's, Jamison Ernest, was there. He was actually modelling but quit because he got discouraged by a lot of things in the business. While he was modelling, however, he made a lot of connections in the music business. When he saw us, he made it clear that he really wanted to be our manager, to get us going. I was mostly excited because I wanted to play with my cousin full time. I have the highest respect for my cousin's guitar playing."
Delopoulos continued, "In 1995, Jay got us started, playing at this Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. We would play there about two nights a week, making $100 a night. It was from there that things started progressing, and the band began to come together. I found our percussion player [Scott Barksdale] through a classified ad. It was really interesting, because the way I described the band to him, it wasn't. But that's how I thought it was. He was wanting to be in a band like what ours was. I just didn't know my own band. Talk about God and perfect timing! He came one night and I showed him all the songs, and he said, "Wow, great songs, but you guys are a little immature. Scott came from the big-time to us two little kids in Brooklyn. We were saying, 'Yeah, we got good songs, and we're gonna be huge!' He kind of giggled and thought, 'Ok, I'll play with these dummies for a little while,' but he was just trying to start his career in the city (what people from the outer boroughs call Manhattan).
"On and off, as we were playing at the Italian restaurant, Jay Ernest's brother Mike would come play bass with us. Mike was in a band called Flood No 9, a project that he and Teddy Pagano, who became our drummer, did together. Mike would do it just to get free food; at the time I think that was why we all were doing it, really. There wasn't much money involved, but he got a big kick out of it. After that we started playing a lot at The Bitter End (in the Village). It was really Jay's idea to get us playing there. He's the mastermind, getting the record companies out to see us, generating the hype, all that stuff."
As the band played more and more clubs in the North East, bass player Roby Guarnera, drummer Theodore Pagano, guitarist Mike Ernest and keyboardist Josh Zandman joined Burlap To Cashmere. Consistently compelling gigs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut landed the band a deal with mainstream giant A&M Records. A&M initially released the EP 'Live At The Bitter End' which, with its raw, abrasive passion and finely crafted songs like "Basic Instructions", caught the ears of the critics. Cross Rhythms claimed their music was "like a cross between Paul Simon and the Gypsy Kings" while other critics praised the Spanish flamenco elements of "Basic Instructions" and the unmistakably Arabic runs of "Divorce". Top producer Jay Healy (Paul Simon, REM) was drafted in to record the band's full length album 'Anybody Out There?'.
But there were problems with A&M Records. Delopoulos told Phantom Tollbooth, "A&M heard the album and said, 'Great album, but these are Christian lyrics! Go over to Nashville, get big over there, and then do a crossover.' But [manager] Jay said, 'No, it'll put a name on us. We don't want to be categorized as a complete Christian band. We don't want to do that because we don't want to sing just to the choir. We want to sing to everyone.' It's a shame that nowadays you get judged like blue jeans - you're a Christian band, you're a secular band, you're a blues band. It really restrains you from where you want to go. But I know, in my heart, that I have a relationship with God, and I don't have to prove anything to the world."
Despite the protests of Burlap To Cashmere's manager, A&M got
their way and the group hooked up with a Christian label. At the time
A&M had a distribution deal with Christian label Word Records and
with Word having recently set up a new imprint with Christian music
renaissance man Steve Taylor, Squint Entertainment, the wheels were
soon in motion for Squint to release 'Anybody Out There?'.
Taylor spoke to CCM magazine about the group linking up with Squint. "The guys really wanted to be here [with Squint]. They like the deeper sense of family and support they get from fellow Christians. A&M signed them because they make great music. I wanted to work with them because the lyrics to this great music glorify God, and their musical excellence is so undeniable that it'll get them heard in places where Christianity isn't even on the radar."
'Anybody Out There?' featured re-recordings of the five songs first heard on 'Live At The Bitter End' as well as fine new songs like "Treasures In Heaven" ("He said follow me/Strive to make my convictions right/Oh my pride is hammering me down") and a boisterous Greek dance tune on "Digee Dime". The album produced three Christian radio hits in "Basic Instructions", "Treasures In Heaven" and "Anybody Out There?" and the album was named, a little inaccurately, Rock Album Of The Year.
In 1999 Burlap To Cashmere had the track "From Above" on the various artists album 'Streams' which picked up a Dove Award and the following year were one of the acts featured on the 'Roaring Lambs' album, which was tied in with the Bob Briner book which encouraged Christian musicians to become "culture-shaping influences in society at large". At the time of 'Roaring Lambs' release in 2000 Delopoulos explained how the group's "Daisies And Roses" came to be on the album. "Steve Taylor asked us if we would be involved in the project. Until then we had never heard of or were familiar with Briner's book. When Steve Taylor explained it to us we were very honoured to be a part of it. The Roaring Lamb model that Briner sets up is what we hope to achieve one day. ['Daisies And Roses'] is about how we felt when we went to Saudi Arabia to play for the soldiers. The whole trip was a challenge because we were in a country where you couldn't speak about your faith. We had to sign death-penalty notices before entering the country stating we would not bring in any kind of Christianity. Guess you could say that we had to tell a white lie because all we sang about was God."
But below the surface all was not well with the and. In his Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music music historian Mark Allan Powell wrote, "Rumours flew around Nashville concerning lifestyle issues regarding certain members. The Christian focus of the group's songs seemed to stem primarily from Delopoulos's convictions. Was Burlap To Cashmere really a Christian band or just a secular band with a Christian songwriter?"
Not fitting the expectations of Nashville CCM industry was one problem. The fact that Steve Taylor's Squint Entertainment imploded was another. For quite a while Burlap To Cashmere toughed it out on the road. But that brought difficulties too. As Delopoulos told CCM magazine in 2002, "Boy, did we have tension. It sprang from being on the road non-stop. We toured so hard. I mean, if we got 25 cents to play in a barn in Montana, we'd be there. Living in knapsacks and trying to sleep in a bus after awhile will take a toll on you. But 99 per cent of the time there was laughter. We laughed so hard. That's why we had great shows, because we were so close. So I don't want to give you the wrong impression. There was tension, but that's not why we left. We left just because you grow up and do other things."
And one by one, members did leave - to pursue family or career. By the time Burlap whittled down to a four-piece, Delopoulos decided his time was up. "I counselled a lot with my pastor. And everyone who knew me really well saw that I wasn't happy and said, 'Steve, you need to make this change, as hard as it is.' And it's been such a good move for me spiritually, emotionally. I just feel like I'm starting over."
In 2003, Delopoulos released the solo album 'Me Died Blue' and subsequently 1000 copies of a live recording titled 'Live At The Bluebird', released exclusively at tour shows. He released a second solo album in the autumn of 2007, originally titled 'As If Love Were A Sword' but changed to 'Straightjacket' before release. Philippidis (as "Johnny Philippidis") toured with the band Tamarama. But then in 2005, tragedy struck when he was beaten and left for dead after a road rage incident near his home in Brooklyn. An extended hospital visit, which included a full month in a coma and radical facial reconstructive surgery, ultimately sparked a band reunion.
In 2007, Burlap To Cashmere was billed on tour dates for Jars Of Clay and Needtobreathe, with Delopoulos and Philippidis performing an acoustic set as a duo. Then in 2010 with drummer Theodor pagano back with the band, Burlap To Cashmere returned to the studio with producer Mitchell Froom to begin work on their eponymous album. It soon became clear that the band have lost none of their old sparkle. Enthused Delopoulos, "There's something about family and people you've known forever that makes the chemistry happen. There's a sense of honesty and trust. That's Burlap To Cashmere."
Released by Jive/Essential on 19th July, 'Burlap To Cashmere' draws from all the influences that made it a touchstone band - Mediterranean and Greek rhythms, flamenco and classic American folk and wild flights of bazouki style rock - to create a rich body of work that embraces the past while crystallizing its new creative vision. The album's first single "Build A Wall" is already creating a buzz.
A few years back Delopoulos was asked what can listeners take from the music of Burlap To Cashmere. His response is still relevant today. "Hopefully I can inspire people the way I've been inspired by other musicians and songwriters, and pass down a passion or desire to do music and theatre and surround themselves with the arts. Not everyone is going to exceed at math and science; if I didn't have arts in my youth, I wouldn't have made it out of high school. I needed that outlet. Hopefully I can connect with people who like music. My music isn't for everybody but the people that do connect with it and get it and can find a voice, that's good. But that's in God's hands too; I have no control over what effect I have on people. Charlie Kaufman says, 'Make every piece you do with everything you got as if it was your last piece of work.' I don't want to just make a commercial record to sell records and see money and be famous. I have to be inspired first and I hope that what pours out of me, people can hear it and present it and capture it and hopefully it has a movement and it has it's own thing and they think, 'Oh well I can listen to this and get therapy back into myself and it's going to help me become a better person.'"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.