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SXSW Interview: The Mastersons

Chris and Eleanor Masterson, playing 11 gigs in Austin this week.

We first saw Chris Masterson in the late 1980s at a place called Blythe Spirits in Houston. His dad would bring him and his guitar to open mic night on Sundays because he was too young to get in. He had loads of talent and you tell by watching him that college and a 9-to-5 job were not in his future.

His future wife Eleanor Whitmore also started playing at a very young age. She picked up the fiddle at age 4 and hasn’t put it down since. We had a chance to chat with the pair about how they got started, working with Steve Earle, playing 11 gigs at SXSW, and their new CD Birds Fly South, set for release April 10 on New West Records.

Popdose: What made you guys want to become musicians?

Eleanor Whitmore: My mom is an opera singer and my dad is a folk singer, so I didn’t have much of a choice about being a musician. I started at age 4 1/2 on violin, you know, I grew up playing with my dad and I am also classically trained. I have a music degree and played in bands in high school and college and it’s kind of what I’ve always done.

Chris Masterson: I basically grew up with a guitar in my hands. I think I was 8 years old when I could finally get my hands around a guitar neck. You know I grew up in Houston and I saw Johnny Winter at that time at Rockefeller’s and I’ve had the instrument in my hands ever since. I’m a product of going to folk shows and blues jams.

Popdose: How did you two get together?

Chris Masterson: We met at a festival about six years ago in Colorado. I was playing with Jack Ingram and Eleanor was playing with Susan Gibson. We sort of wound up at this after-party cowering in the corner. It was a big, fat drunken after-party and we both met each other cowering in the corner.

Eleanor Whitmore: We were both kind of hanging out being quiet and the guitar passed around and we got to play together a little bit and hit it off.

Chris Masterson: We started talking, but then she picked up the fiddle and I was enamored by her playing. For a minute the musician in me took over and I thought to myself I need to play music with this person. It was that as much as any physical attraction that drew me to her.

Popdose: What’s it like being husband and wife and having a band together?

Chris Masterson: F**king insane. With that level of intimacy, the professionalism goes out the window. I think sometimes we’re hard on each other when we are working stuff out. There is a certain level of diplomacy you have like if you were talking with other band members and we try to keep it together so we don’t stress out our other band members.

Popdose: Tell me about your new CD, Birds Fly South.

Chris Masterson: We’ve been living in Brooklyn for the past four years and our families are still in Texas. We just started to realize driving south and leaving the snow behind, we started thinking about migrating birds and how they had the right idea. A year-and-a-half ago we were sitting in my parent’s house in the Hill Country watching a blizzard hit New York and had our housemates send us pictures of the snow drifts on the street as I was sitting in shorts and a t-shirt in Texas. We went out on the porch and wrote the song “Birds Fly South” in about 20 minutes.

Eleanor Whitmore: We were lucky because it was a couple of days before we started recording and we came up with the title track quickly.

Popdose: Why was it important for you to come back to Texas to record the CD?

Chris Masterson: We had a great network of friends and musicians down in Texas and people that we wanted to work with. Making a record in Texas you can stretch out a small budget even further. We had a great time. We would play a song or two and all eat and it was really a family vibe, which is I think what we needed.

Eleanor Whitmore: We have a great network up in New York too, but we have made a few recordings with Steve Christensen (who won a Grammy for engineering Steve Earle’s Townes), George Reiff on bass and Falcon Valdez on drums and you know its kind of always been an all-star team for us. George has really expanded his studio at his house in Austin and we kind of always come back to Texas during the holidays anyway, so it just seemed to make sense economically.

Popdose: What is the style of music you play?

Chris Masterson: We get compared to the Jayhawks quite a bit because of our harmonies, but we are still working on the right way to describe our music at this point.

Popdose: You guys are set to play 11 shows in four days at SXSW. How important is a conference like SXSW to a new band trying to find an audience?

Chris Masterson: I think releasing a new album on the heels of it is important. It’s good for us to be around and omnipresent. You’ll see promoters and press people. I’ve been going to SXSW for years being a Texan. I’ve seen it grow from a small conference to what it is now and I think it definitely helps. I try to go into things with little expectations. You go out and sing your songs and hope people come out and enjoy it. Both of us have played with other artists and independent artists and now we’re coming in with a great record label, New West, and we’ve had some great experiences over the years.

Popdose: How is it being on an independent label like New West Records?

On tour with Steve Earle, left.

Chris Masterson: There is a lot of freedom. They are basically releasing a record we made untouched. It’s quite a compliment for us and we have worked with them every step of the way and have been very supportive.

Popdose: You both played with Steve Earle on his last tour and you will be his opening act when he hits the road in a few weeks. How did you guys get involved with him?

Chris Masterson: I met Steve about 11 years ago at a festival in Australia. He had Eric Ambel playing guitar for him at the time and then he went off to do a couple of solo records, but I knew if he would ever fire up the band again that I would have the gig. We have been friends ever since.

Eleanor Whitmore: I played with Allison Moorer (Earle’s wife) for a few years since we’ve been in New York and I think she was instrumental in getting me in the band.

Chris Masterson: It was a great honor to get the gig, but where he really blew us away was asking Eleanor to come out too and then featuring us in the show. He’s been one of our biggest supporters. A huge champion.

Popdose: There have been a few successful husband/wife teams in musical history; George Jones and Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash and June Carter to name a couple. Do you think you guys will reach that type of success?

Chris Masterson: I don’t know. It remains to be seen. We haven’t really given it that much thought. Everything has just felt so natural and organic. We’ve just made this record and plan to go play our songs and see what happens. You know our side gigs, me with Steve Earle, Son Volt and Jack Ingram and Eleanor with Regina Spektor and Bruce (Robison) and Kelly (Willis) have given us the chance to do some pretty cool gigs and travel pretty comfortably and then we go out and make this record and it’s kind of like starting from the ground up. We are going to get in our van with our dog and go sing for whoever will listen.

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