Turn it Down: Loud dispatches from Lansing’s music scene

Life Changing Albums: Jen Sygit talks “Real Time” by Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott

Lansing folk fixture tells how a ‘field recording’-style LP inspired her music

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Over the course of four albums, and countless shows, Jen Sygit has become a beloved fixture in the Michigan folk scene.

With a distinct Americana sound that’s rooted in tradition, but funneled through her own contemporary style, the Lansing-based troubadour’s songs always paint a vivid sonic picture. Her latest release, 2018’s “It’s About Time,” won Best Americana Song at the Independent Music Awards that year in New York City. Beyond that, Sygit also performs with the all-female string band Stella!, which is releasing its second album in February. 

Here, Sygit talks up Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott’s “Real Time” LP. She discovered the 2005 album when it was first issued, back when she was 26-years old. Here’s what she had to say.

How would you describe “Real Time” to someone who has never heard it before?

Jen Sygit: It’s two lesser-known heavy hitters of the folk-Americana-bluegrass world who made a stripped-down live album that’s packed with soulful harmony, hot licks and interesting, complex arrangements. I’ve been lucky enough to meet both Darrell and Tim at various festivals over the years.  Darrell has a couple of my records.

What initially lead you to “Real Time”? 

I discovered this album during my stint as an employee at Elderly Instruments. Back in the day, staff was allowed to “check out” used and promotional CDs from the books and records department.  This was a pretty amazing resource for a budding songwriter like myself to have access to — a perk which I, of course, exploited to the best of my ability. I probably borrowed the promotional copy of “Real Time” every night for a month before eventually purchasing my own copy. The audiophile in me reveled at having instant, and sometimes even advanced, access to the latest folk roots and niche genre releases: Bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, old time, Delta blues, Western swing, and all that. Part of why I love “Real Time” is that it successfully draws inspiration from a diverse range of regional influences.

So, is it safe to say the album had an immediate impact on you?

Yes, this album had a large and fairly immediate impact on me. I was already aware of Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien as solo artists. Both had performed occasional free “in-store” concerts from the showroom of Elderly and both blew me away with their writing, singing and musicianship. Needless to say, I was stoked to hear a release featuring the two luminaries together.  

What aspect of the album touches you the most? The Lyrics? Instrumentation? 

There isn’t an aspect of this album I find lacking. Both Scott and O’Brien are quadruple threats in the music biz. They perform, sing, write and record with the best in the industry. O’Brien has two Grammys under his belt. Scott won Americana Music Association’s “Song of the Year” in 2007, and recently was a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Just a sampling of the artists who have covered Scott’s and O’Brien’s tunes over the years include: Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Keb Mo, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Guy Clark, Alan Jackson, and The Dixie Chicks.  The Dixie Chicks actually cover two songs from “Real Time” on their 2002 release “Home.”

Aside from the songs, what do you think about the production of “Real Time”?

While the songwriting on the record is certainly strong, perhaps the most impressive feature of the recording is the fact that the aptly named “Real Time” was recorded “field recording” style. It was recorded live in Darrell Scott’s living room. Stripped down arrangements. No overdubs. No pitch correction. No other musicians.  Just two amazing artists making music in a room and the mastery they demonstrate across a wide array of instruments is certainly impressive. If you listen closely, you can actually hear them set down and pick up different instruments on the lighthearted closing track “Second Mouse.” 

Hearing the click of the instruments being picked up and set down is about as close to a mistake as the album offers. Despite being a raw recording, there is no imperfection to be found here — even to a discerning ear. Their harmonies are tight, pitch-perfect and seamlessly weave in and out of each other in a complex and interesting way. 

In what way has this album directly affected your life, or musical style?

I definitely took away a love of the raw, live recording from listening to this album. It requires a certain amount of skill to be able to put several humans in a room and record a tune live without fixes. I feel very lucky to work with musicians of the caliber needed to achieve this.  My third album “So Long Pollyanna” was recorded live “field recording style” in two different living rooms. We used pillows and tipped over furniture for sound baffling. A couple layers were added via overdubs, but the main tracks were largely untouched. We recorded that album in three days. I was proud of that.

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