Britt Arnesen plays an album release show at Break Espresso Fri., June 8, at 7 PM, with guests J.W. Teller and Jack Mauer. All ages. Free.
When Britt Arnesen followed Kim Rice, a woman she barely knew, down to her basement to look at an old guitar, she had no idea what she was in for. Rice’s grandfather had left her the instrument, and she hadn’t opened the coffin-shaped case in 50 years. She asked Arnesen to give it a look-see, maybe tell her something about it. As the Missoula musician scrutinized the old Martin with a mirror and flashlight, Rice swapped winks with her husband. They’d taken a shine to the young visitor and her music, and decided then and there that Arnesen would be a worthy custodian to the precious guitar.
“It’s an incredible instrument,” Arnesen says of the 1891 Martin Model 17. “It’s so fragile. It’s kind of scary to even hold it, frankly. It’s kind of like a talisman. I mean, what do you do with something like that, this priceless piece of American history?” She would receive an answer to that question soon enough.
Arnesen has been in Missoula since 2010, having moved with her young son, Canyon, from Juneau, Alaska, where she’d already established a solo career as 907Britt. Dream in Blue is the first album to be released under her real name, a signal that she’s cut musical ties with her homeland. It’s also her first solo release since 2011, although she’s been plenty busy playing bluegrass with Pinegrass and the Acousticals and with Richie Reinholdt in their Americana duo, Britchy. She’d been kicking around the idea of a solo album for quite some time, she says, but as she traveled and kept meeting more talented musicians, her vision for the project took on a paralyzing grandiosity.
“I really wanted to do something epic, like go to San Francisco and hire people to back me up,” she says. “I kept ratcheting up my expectations and then I realized that I was letting the perfect be the enemy of the practical. As a consequence of waiting so long for this perfect situation, I was not doing anything.”
And then she got the Martin. “I realized that I needed to totally change perspective, and that I needed to make something simple, rather than something complex,” she says. “The guitar was the perfect vehicle.”
The song arrangements presented a special challenge due to the quirky nature of the Martin, which isn’t just old-school, it’s pre-old-school. Its gut strings are meant to be plucked, without a pick. Also, as with all classical guitars, the fretboard is completely flat, where a steel string acoustic has a slight arc to it to facilitate easier chording. This meant Arnesen had to nix the capo, a device that clamps across the fretboard to change the key of the guitar, something many singers do to place the guitar into a range that fits their vocal sweet spot. She had to find new ways to present familiar material. As she got used to the demands of the Martin, her songs began to take on a new feel. The instrument became a collaborator, she says, inspiring her to fit the lyrics to its own era. She wound up not only retooling her music to suit the guitar, but she jettisoned any modern references in her songs. “There’s no trucks or stuff like that,” she says. “One of my favorite songs that I would have loved to do talks about the freeway. There was no freeway in 1891, so…”
As the album began to take shape, Arnesen decided to incorporate some imagery that would signify her new relationship with the old guitar, which she calls Bartholomew. She commissioned a painting from Bayla Arietta, whose watercolor work she’d seen at a First Friday show in Missoula. When she received the artwork in January, it knocked her out. The painting depicts Arnesen standing in a wheat field at twilight, sharing an intimate gaze with a gray cat in her arms (also named Bartholomew), the cat’s long tail wrapped around her in an embrace. She fancies the two of them telling each other sad stories. “[Arietta] just knocked it out of the park,” Arnesen says. “It’s beautiful. It’s kind of dark and sad. It’s so striking and moody, and I had to make sure the music matched it.”
Although she was offered the services of several of her musical compatriots to contribute to the album, Arnesen declined.
“There’s no clutter of other musicians,” she says. “I love all my friends that I play with, but my fans were looking for something that was just me.”
She spent January and February recording in her living room, with the painting there to provide inspiration. The tracks were captured live with no overdubs, save for some judicious harmony here and there, and occasional upright bass. The sound is clean and warm, and you can hear her fingers squeaking on the strings, knuckles tapping against the guitar body, and even the gut strings creaking back and forth across the steel frets — the same noises you’d hear if you were sitting in a parlor at the end of the 19th century, listening to a troubadour singing about love and loss and the wide open skies of the American West.
Arnesen’s vocal wheelhouse resides in the same high-register territory as Alison Krauss and Nancy Griffith, and she sings with a measure of restraint that pulls the listener further in. She credits a recent move to veganism for making her a better singer, but she knows it’s the magic contained within that 127-year-old Martin that led her into this distinct experience.
“It wasn’t like one of those ‘right place at the right time’ luck kind of things,” she says about receiving the guitar. “It actually happened because of who I am, and the way that I approach people and music and instruments.” Dream in Blue, she says, is the best way she could thank Kim Rice. “It’s my best work.”
Both Bartholomews would probably agree.