It’s been a momentous 2016 for Pharis and Jason Romero, and that’s for a year that they decided to take off.
It was only in early June that a fire wiped out the studio of the renowned Traditional folk duo, all their instruments, and Jason Romero’s banjo-building shop — including those banjos finished and ready to be delivered to clients. But three months later, while talking to the Townsman, Pharis Romero says they’re not only putting their professional lives back together, but they’re eager to hit the road on their first tour back from that original one-year hiatus. One of the stops on that tour includes Cranbrook’s Key City Theatre.
“You can hear construction in the background” Pharis said, on the phone from Horsefly, B.C., where she and Jason live with their two young children. “The shop is up, the walls are up, the roof is on. We’re putting the metal on next week, and we’re moving forward. I’m hoping we’re going to be in the shop by October. Jason’s probably more realistic, he’s saying November.
“We’re doing okay, it’s chaos and a crazy learning curve with insurance. But we’ve had the most incredible support from all the people around us that we could have ever asked for.
“The things we lost — the tools, the collections of wood we’ve been accruing, all the handmade jigs, for neck angles and shapes, all these little specialty things made by hand that you can’t buy anywhere. Jason’s wrapping his mind around how to build all that stuff.”
“It won’t be terribly painless, but the great thing about him doing everything by hand is that he knows what a neck should feel like, so he’ll be able to get back into the swing of things fairly quickly.”
As traumatic as the experience of the fire was, and the efforts of the rebuilding process, the Romeros are already looking forward to hitting the road again. They appear in Cranbrook on April 5, 2017.
“We’ve talking to quite a few folks in Cranbrook,” Pharis said. “We want to come play the Key City Theatre, we’re excited about being in that part of the world. We’ve been in towns nearby, but we’ve never played in Cranbrook. A lot of people in that area have written us, saying please come and play here.
“This will be our first tour back on the road since the fire. We’d taken 2016 off on purpose, because we knew we were building a house, and having a baby. Our last gig was in February. We though we’d just stop so we could enjoy our first year with our second kid, enjoy building our house, and get caught up on banjos. Ironically, that was one of the reasons we took the year off. We have about a four year waiting period for banjos right now, we have so many orders.”
Pharis and Jason Romero were just coming off a break-out moment in their recording and performing career as singer-songwriters in the folk music tradition, with stellar notices in national press, and rave reviews in the U.K and U.S. Their most recent album, “A Wanderer I’ll Stay,” won the Juno Award for best traditional album.
“It’s quite hilarious that the year we took off was the year we won the Juno Award,” Pharis said. “We never made that conscious decision —’okay, everybody’s noticed us, now we can take a break.’ But we also didn’t feel like ‘Oh God, we have to stay on the road to keep ourselves in the public eye!’ We don’t think like that. We play music because we love playing it.”
The Romeros’ music reflects their deep immersion in folk, music, bluegrass, Blues and early 20th century American. Their original songs capture the spirit of these traditions, with a capital T, while their covers and interpretations give new electricity to old forms.
And yet, their music becomes something that is uniquely themselves. Their vocal harmonies, for example, are matchless.
“We really lucked out when we met,” Pharis said. “We just started singing together, and some voices have a familial quality to them. You might not be related, but somehow or another you’ve got some similar tone or a way of approaching singing, or thinking about it, a way of making the sounds come out of your mouth that matches well with another human — a way of intuitively going where someone you’re singing with is going. We’re both lucky that way.”
Both Pharis and Jason adhere to the credo that you have to listen as much as you play, if not more. “Just to get it into your blood, whatever the music is,” Pharis says.
“You want it to feel that it’s so much a part of you that you’re not trying to push it to create something new, it’s just what naturally is going to happen. But you’re also just not regurgitating what someone else has done.
“Because we’ve both listened to so much traditional music, I think we both have a similar way of approaching the songs that we write, and the old music we interpret as well.”
The touring life the Romeros are about to resume can be pretty intense, especially with two young children. But travelling the world, playing traditional music, is all part of the richness of life.
“I think it’s great for us to be out in the world and get the pulse of the rest of the world, and come home to the quiet life we have here,” Pharis said.
“We both love cities, we just don’t want to live in them all the time. But I want my kids to be out experiencing that too. Our daughter came on our first tour when she were three months old.”
And so finish rebuilding the banjo shop, take a breath, and hit the road again. Pharis says the Cranbrook concert is going to reflect the joy of having come through such a tumultuous 2016.
“We’re going to be so happy to be back out on the road. We’re going to be doing stuff from our whole catalogue, including the album we won the Juno for, and we’re going to be doing a whole bunch of new material as well. I’m writing a lot.”