Above: James Felice. Photo courtesy of The Felice Brothers Flickr account, by Sarah Marie Meyers
How did growing up in Palenville impact your musical career? I grew up in a similarly rural place not too far from there so I imagine you might have been a little stir crazy.
It was pretty pretty chill out there in the woods just mostly screwing around, playing video games. I had older brothers who were doing other stuff, playing music together. They were the cool teenagers when I was a kid and when I turned 20 we were all at the right age to start playing together. So I was lucky to have cool older brothers.
I’ve read about how you all went to the city to play wherever you could, including train stations. Was it about the adventure or did you imagine it would lead to something bigger?
It was primarily an adventure. We didn’t live there but we’d go down and play to whoever we could. We were collecting more ears, more people to hear us. We’d play Hudson, Rhinebeck, under bridges, in fields, in basements anywhere—anywhere we could. As more people listened we became better songwriters. We were lucky that we had parents who weren’t musicians but who supported us. We didn’t get into that much trouble—or at least the kind we couldn’t get out of.
You’ve played on bills with The David Matthews Band and Old Crow Medicine Show, on Bonnaroo or The Newport Folk Festival. What’s it like having done these things, and played with these groups, that I imagine might have at one point seemed like a dream?
I see it everyday, this incredible gift, this unspeakable amount luck we’ve enjoyed to be able to do what I want to do to make a living for 13 years. To play music I love with the people I love for the people I love. It is an amazing life and I turn 34 next week.
Are you able to stay plugged in to the Hudson Valley music scene while out on tour?
I live in Kingston which is big of enough city for me and my brothers live out in Columbia County. I honestly don’t go out very much when I’m home. We keep to ourselves. I honestly have to train myself to stay up past midnight. I’ve lived in the area my whole life and always will and that is also an incredible gift.
Your new album Undress is out on May 3. What was it like recording the album? What kind of reaction do you expect?
I hope people will like it. I expect them to. This is our eighth record and we made this one close to home. It is absolutely the one I’m happiest with. I think people are going to really enjoy it. There is a more political tone on this album. The way my brother writes music, he conveys these poignant messages with simplicity. I mean these days anyone can pick up their phone and get the big picture, the statistics, the prognostications. But he’s looking at the political questions from the ground level from the perspective of how it impacts a regular person. And that is what folk music is about—these big ideas, but not on a national level, on how they hit home. All those things on the screen don’t speak to the guy who is just looking to get a job, to make ends meet.
The Hudson Valley has this amazingly rich history of folk music. Growing up in the area I imagine you went on a school trip to see the Clearwater which was part of Pete Seeger’s environmental advocacy. The work of some of these artists transcend their music and have become part of our lives here. Did any of that influence your work?
Pete Seeger didn’t come off as the coolest dude in the world when I was in my 20s but the older I get the more I appreciate just how amazing he was. He was simply the most accomplished folk singer ever. He lived into his 90s and was still living by the same code he preached when he was younger. He did so much for the area from the boat to the Clearwater festival. He did these amazing things for the country. He left us all these beautiful things. And you know, you have some folk musicians who put on a hat and vest and come of as cloying, none of it was a put on with him, he was genuine.
So finally, your show on Saturday is in this new mall venue called Skyloft. I have to ask, what do you make of playing the mall?
The industry is such that we really can’t hold our noses. We’ll go anywhere people make good music. And I’ll play music anywhere. We’ve played basements, under bridges, we want our music to reach people and if the mall is where they feel safe, happy and comfortable that is where we’ll play.
The Felice Brothers play The Skyloft in Crossgates mall on Saturday at 8 PM. Tickets are $20-$25.