Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny has already released three albums under his own name, but in many ways, Universal Favorite is his true solo debut. Recording his fourth LP on the heels of last year’s “one man show,” Pikelny plays all the instruments on Universal Favorite himself and even shows off his skills as a guitarist and lead vocalist. Pikelny recorded Universal Favorite with Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher, who has produced his last few solo records, and will support the project during another run on his own. While driving between Pennsylvania and New York during a March tour, Pikelny spoke about his decision to pick up an electric guitar, Punch Brothers’ summer plans and how he proved one particular Funny or Die video very wrong.
Your new album Universal Favorite is a true solo album, based around just you and the banjo. After playing with Punch Brothers for so many years and leading your own ensemble, what led you to this one-man approach?
Around February of 2016, I booked a solo tour—a couple weeks of dates around the country—just to essentially work up the idea of the one-man solo show. I spent most of my career on stage with a much larger ensemble, four- and five-piece bands, and I always thought that any good musician should be able to play solo—that they should be able to do their thing with just their instrument and their voice. I kept myself exempt from that idea for whatever reason, maybe out of the comfort of playing in bands. But playing solo is something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time.
I finally bit the bullet and put some shows on the calendar last February. It started as a little bit as a personal challenge, but I also saw it as an opportunity to showcase the banjo in such an intimate setting. The banjo is capable of a lot of different sounds and, surprisingly, a lot of different sounds that don’t always translate very well in a larger band setting. So when the banjo gets to take up the full frequency spectrum, there are all these possibilities. That was the initial conception of it, and I wanted to write music that would stand alone as a solo performance, live or on a record. I started writing instrumentals back then, but I quickly saw that it was running the risk of becoming a purely instrumental recital. I didn’t really want the record or show to be that; I wanted it to be a more accurate representation of where I’m at musically.
I love playing songs. I love playing with great singers, and it’s so satisfying as a musician to play in support of a good song. That’s such a huge part of my musical fabric that I didn’t want there to be a blind spot on this record, in that area, just because I’m not known first and foremost as a singer. I felt like there was an opportunity to gather material and to show another side of my musicianship and make it a more honest and direct setlist of what I do and what I like.
The album also marks your proper debut as a lead singer. You joked about your voice when you made your “Bluegrass Diva” Funny or Die video around 2011’s Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, but you sound great on the new album. Have you been taking vocal lessons?
When I made the Funny or Die video, that wasn’t part of some elaborate plan to lower expectations—five years in advance of this record. It was just a silly idea—I’ve always enjoyed singing harmony on stage. I sing harmony with the Punch Brothers sometimes. I’m always eager to sing songs in a jam session in the living room or around a campfire. It’s always something I’m down with, just not something I’ve been featured as—justifiably, when I’m on stage with world-class singers, whether it’s a guy like John Cowan, who I’ve played with for a number of years, or Chris Thile, or some of the stuff on the side I’ve done with Tim O’ Brien. I’m not really trying to elbow my way in to sing lead. I felt like it was really necessary as far as the setlist on this record and that I could maybe shed some light on these songs with the way I sing them. I sing them in a much lower register than most bluegrass singers would sing. The classic bluegrass sound, being the high and lonesome sound—we’ve removed the high from it. As far as preparing for it, I’ve been singing for most of my career, just not in a lead situation. The tour that I did last year was exploratory; it was my boot camp for getting my half in order on the vocal front.
In addition to the new, original material, you mentioned that you “searched for some covers” for this new record. You found a mix of traditional bluegrass music and some unexpected choices, like Elliott Smith’s overlooked “Bye.” What was the process of choosing these covers like?
I was just looking for material that I thought was worthwhile musically, but something that I could make my own. There’s this song “Tears Don’t Show” on there, which I’m actually playing electric guitar on, an old Telecaster. I first heard that on a John Hartford record. When I first heard it, I thought, “God damnit, he’s done it again. It’s another quintessential Hartford song.” It’s kind of quirky and [it has] a really twisty melody, and rhythmically it is kind of crooked. I said, “It’s just another great Hartford song.” Then I became aware of the fact that, no, it’s not a John Hartford song; it’s actually a song that Roy Acuff recorded first in the 1960s. John Hartford had reinvented that song with this completely different groove, approach and delivery. He made it his own, to the extent that I assumed it had been an original song. That’s the model for me. I was inspired by how he did that with that song, and I thought it was a pretty worthy song to cover. I thought if I were going to try my hand at this, to make it my own, how would I reframe it? I did—I found different instrumentation and a different tempo and feel, and I think that was the guiding force of doing a cover. It’s like, what’s the point in doing it if you’re just going to by copying the initial version, if you’re not casting it in a new method? If you’re not shining a different light on it, then there’s no point. You’re always just going to want to hear the original.
“Once I Had an Old Banjo” is a folk song that had been played by my teacher in Chicago. He told me to check out the version he first heard, where he first learned it—from a Chicago folk singer named Flemming Brown. He had an album called _Little Rosewood Casket and Other Songs of Joy_—I still love that title. But each one of these guys played it in their own way. They were both folk banjo players, and I saw this song as a springboard for playing it in a bluegrass style. It was a song that was ripe for improvisation, and I could tell by the tempo, faster than those guys did it, and it just felt right to me. It felt like the right material for me and it felt proper, because I was the third Chicago banjo player to be putting his own spin on this song. I think the key for picking these covers is figuring out what the justifications are. Of course it has to be good music, but then what justifies re-doing it? I’ve always loved “Sweet Sunny South.” I think it’s one of the great melodies and I see that song almost as a duet. It’s a duet between the guitar and the vocals, just as much as a guitar treatment as that song is a vocal delivery and that felt like that aspect of my guitar playing felt like it was missing. Without that song there was just blind spots as far as my approach on guitar [goes].
Each cover had a different justification, and what’s great about doing covers like that is that you can make them your own. There’s no reason to shy away from great songs, even if they have been done a million times—they’re great songs for a reason. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings still play “I’ll Fly Away” in their setlist and that’s something that’s been done a million times, but it’s their version when they do it, and it’s just an inarguably great song. I got to pick their brains a little bit about some of the material for some of this show, and they stressed that, “If something is a great song, and you do your own version of it, don’t shy away from it just because a lot of other people have done it before.” I really feel like “Sweet Sunny South” falls into that category for me. It’s like, “Well yeah, this song has been recorded so many times, but for good reason, and here’s my take on it.”
Your last album, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, was a recreation of Baker’s classic 1970s tribute to Monroe. What did that recording process teach you about reinterpreting other people’s material?
The last album was focused more around my voice on the banjo, my actual sound and technical approach, and those Kenny Baker arrangements of the classical material provided a jumping-off point to make a banjo thesis. This is how I play the banjo. This is how I interpret this music, the kind of style of banjo that I’ve put together. I feel like the covers on this record might be more visceral, more of the over-arching picture of who am I as a musician, an opportunity to curate a set of music—those covers came in to round-out the picture. It was different from a Kenny Baker record and being more focused specifically on the banjo. I saw it as a chance to curate music, to create a story and give a glimpse of where I’ve come from musically, or what I appreciate the most.