• A Foundational Thing: Bluegrass and Beyond with Andrew Collins

    Andrew Collins

    Sixteen years ago I first met Andrew Collins in Toronto through the Mandolin Cafe's list of teachers. He was still in his early twenties and bursting with enthusiasm for the instrument and the music. One of the first things Andrew did was hand me his gorgeous Heiden F5 and say, "Try this." Since then I've seen a remarkably talented young musician grow into a masterful performer and a beautiful composer.

    Andrew established himself locally as the mandolin player for the popular bluegrass band the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and on a larger stage he made a name for himself composing and playing for the new-acoustic group Creaking Tree String Quartet. He made numerous recordings with both bands, as well as doing solo projects and working as a sideman for Annie Lou. He also opened his own recording studio and often teaches at Kaufman Kamp, Nimble Fingers, and elsewhere.

    In more recent days Andrew has been leading his own eclectic group, the Andrew Collins Trio, for which he plays mandolin, mandocello, fiddle, composes and sings. The Trio has twice won Instrumental Group of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. They tour frequently and have also been appearing at Merlefest and other festivals. Not long ago the Trio released twin CDs, the cleverly named Tongue and Groove, with songs on the first and instrumentals on the second.

    About the author: Cary Fagan is a Toronto-based award-winning author of books for both adult and children. He believes that three mandolins are enough.

    Did you start the Trio with the belief that you could express your musical interests more fully in a small ensemble with a clear leader?

    I originally got into playing because of the New Acoustic music. While I absolutely love bluegrass, it really is a foundational thing and starting point for the New Acoustic stuff. When Creaking Tree ended I was left without an outlet to continue exploring and creating in this genre. I had already recorded two solo projects, Little Widgets and Cats & Dogs, but I had never made any effort to tour this material. The Andrew Collins Trio really formed in support of that second album, despite the fact that neither Mike Mezzatesta or James McEleney (the other members) played on the album.

    I wanted this new project to be something that I could build on for the rest of my career. Even if I lost band members (which thankfully hasn't happened) or went solo, I'm building on the name Andrew Collins, and I intend to remain Andrew Collins for the foreseeable future, haha. But now I'm forced to take the good and the bad of leading a band. While Mike and James definitely contribute a lot to the sound and arrangements, I have the luxury (and torment) of selecting and writing the material, make decisions about what the next project will be, how to record, where we're going to tour. On the other side of the coin, I also have to do all of the fund raising, grant writing, and bill paying, which is a lot more work than I ever imagined.

    Despite not really wanting to be a band leader, there is definitely a lot of freedom that comes with it. At Creaking Tree we had a rule that we were going to do only instrumentals. I love singing. James is a great singer. It doesn't make sense to rule out a large component of what we do as musicians. I've slowly come to embrace throwing everything I do into the repertoire. Anything from straight ahead songs to experimental instrumental weirdness are all fair game. Despite the fact that it makes this project harder to classify or describe, I believe it's that eclecticism that makes us stand out as a unique voice.

    One of my favorite tunes on the instrumental album Groove is "Sunlight at Midnight." Can you tell us something about your composition process?

    "Sunlight at Midnight" is quite an old tune that I originally recorded on my first solo album, Little Widgets. It was one of those rare tunes that just kind of popped out. wrote this the very first time I was in the way north. I'd just arrived in Yellowknife, North West Territories, in the middle of the night in summertime, and it was the first time I'd experienced 24 hours of daylight.

    We got in our rooms and I was totally charged by the new experience, I picked up my mandolin and I just started played the intro to this tune. Within 5 minutes I had the melody for the rest of the tune. I must say that this is a very rare experience for me. I played that tune over and over again for another 15 minutes until I felt like I could remember it and then we went out to play a round of golf, teeing off at around 12:30 a.m. It wasn't until I got home and had a guitar in my hand that I had the harmony written for this, which is my favorite aspect of the tune. I don't even quite know how I came up with these chords, as there are some fairly dense voicings happening in there that if I analyze from a harmony theory basis break some rules. But the ear always trumps rules.

    To achieve the dynamics that I wanted playing with the trio, I learned the melody in double stops and wrote a new brief crosspicky interlude/melody variation that is played on the way out. Mike and James came up with a figure to play behind the intro. Mike and James are incredibly talented and smart musicians, so as problems reveal themselves, I definitely look to them for ideas and input.

    Generally speaking, when composing I flesh out ideas with instrument in hand, followed by arranging and harmony writing on the computer in transcription software. But I've written many pieces right on the computer, and also written a handful of tunes in my head. When that happens, I rush to grab an instrument and learn it as quickly as possible so I don't forget it.

    Tongue and Groove - Andrew Collins Trio released May 2018

    Andrew Collins Trio - Tongue and Groove

    You have become especially fond of the mandocello. For example, on your version of the traditional "Popular Bluff" you're happy to hand over the lead mandolin part to the very capable Mike Mezzatesta while you play a growling harmony or brisk twin lead. It's beautiful and rich and the instrument sounds the opposite of ungainly in your hands.

    At shows, I joke (sort of) that I'm on a mission to popularize the mandocello. The truth is that I think it is one of the coolest untapped instruments out there. My first exposure to it was, like many others, through Mike Marshall's 'Gator Strut'. I do love the mandola and octave mandolin as well, but neither has that tonal distinction where you know what it is the second you hear a note. I also love the fact that it is so unused and therefore doesn't really have a tradition or a 'right way' or appropriate setting for it. The first thing I did was learn 'Gator Strut' and then it seemed the repertoire had been tapped. As a result, I was left having to figure it out on my own and fine my own voice. I guess that's something that I really enjoy about it.

    It's really nice of you to say that it doesn't sound ungainly in my hands, though it certainly doesn't feel that way. The mandocello is a beast of an instrument and requires a lot of problem solving for how to finger things. Do you use a ridiculous stretch? Awkward string crossing? Open strings? When it comes to mapping out melodies, it really takes some thought, and still you are always left second guessing.

    "Poplar Bluff" was a tune that Mike taught me last year. He's such a great player, and I think he naturally gravitates more to being in a supportive role than wanting to be in the spotlight, so this one really brings some of his shy talent to the fore. I also think the mandocello is such a great backup instrument, it can really help set the mood. Again, since it's kind of in its own category as an instrument, there's no real precedent for what it should do in an old time tune. Is it a bass? A guitar? A mando? The answer is kind of yes and no to all those questions.

    While we're at it, tell us about your Fletcher Brock mandocello and also your Heiden mandolin.

    I've been playing Heiden mandolins for over 20 years now. It is actually the third Heiden that I've owned and most likely the last. It's a beautiful Engelmann topped mando, which is not always the choice of most mandolinists. I love #89, and Engelmann in general, for its super quick response and shimmery overtones. Michael is one of the true master builders of the mandolin, definitely right up there with Gilchrist and Kemnitzer.

    If these guys' mandolins are the benchmark for mandolins, I would say that Fletcher Brock has set the benchmark for the octave mandolin. While he isn't as well known for his other mandolin family instruments, I would say he is one of the best. I bought my first Brock instrument a couple years after meeting him.

    At the time, I already had a mandocello and mandola, but wasn't in love with the mandola I was playing. It was fine for lead playing, but just had this harshness that made it not well suited for playing chords, which isn't great considering how much you need to play backup.

    I was already a huge fan of Fletch's mandolins, and hadn't had a chance to play any of his other instruments, but I thought why not order a mandola from him. He built me an absolutely beautiful F style mandola that I still have and love. This instrument is so loud, yet velvety sounding. It's really a work of art. Anyhow, I eventually was talking with him about mandocellos. He had built at least one and was game to take this on. He built this incredible instrument for me. It has an arch top guitar body, which I think adds to the bottom-end support due to the greater volume of the cavity (compared to the mando-style body) and really is the nicest mandocello I've ever played. The sound of a mandocello's open C string is always an amazing thing, but often the fretted notes on the bottom string can lack the same power and volume. This instrument is so powerful and balanced. It's truly a masterpiece.

    For many years you had two regular bluegrass gigs a week in Toronto and also toured and recorded with the Foggy Hogtown Boys. These days the Foggies are only playing occasionally, though.

    Yeah, bluegrass has always been an important outlet for me. Since the Foggies have been playing less these days, I really haven't been performing a ton of straight-ahead bluegrass. Thankfully the Trio does get to scratch the itch a little bit as we do play some bluegrass in our sets. Reflecting back on one of your earlier questions, one of the best parts of leading a band, is that I get to do a little bit of everything. In this case, that means we can play a little bluegrass, jazz, swing, experiment, vocals, whatever we can bring to the table. A very eclectic mix.

    You were a self-proclaimed "ski bum" living in British Columbia and didn't take up mandolin until you were twenty-three. But it wasn't too long before you were playing on stage. Can you give the late-starters out there some advice about how to accelerate the learning curve?

    When I teach lessons or workshops, the first rule that I always impart (and live by) is: "Embrace sucking." When you're new to any skill, you aren't going to be good at it. I think the thing that separates those that master anything, is that they don't let the fear of not being very good, stand in the way of practicing those things. I teach a lot of adult students, mostly those who started mandolin later in life. It's uncanny how often they'll tell me what they want to learn and in the same breath give all the reasons/excuses for why they will never be able to do that same thing. As a result, they never practice that thing that they believe they can't do and only practice their strengths. You have to understand that it takes long hours to master any skill, avoiding something that you aren't good at is never going to make you better at it, so you're best to dive in and just start sucking. The sooner you work on it, the sooner you'll get better. I don't think we necessarily learn more easily as children as much as we let our egos stand in the way when we're older. The true shortcut is finding the time to get as many hours in and spend as much time as you can working on your greatest weaknesses. And the metronome doesn't hurt.

    On the CD Tongue you sing Nick Drake, Roger Miller, the jazzy "Just a Gigolo," and your own songs. I've had the pleasure of seeing you grow from a somewhat hesitant singer in the early years to a pleasing and accomplished crooner. How does a mandolin player become a singer?

    Hah. I guess I did exactly what I just described. I embraced sucking. I remember when I first started working on singing, my greatest and first challenge was overcoming the fear of singing out. Before you can develop any singing technique, you have to learn to sing out and overwhelming feeling of being exposed. To overcome that fear, I used to take my dogs out to High Park and would just force myself to sing at full volume even as I passed by other park goers and their quizzical looks. That quickly helped me get over my fear. Then I went to work on the technique, just like the mandolin. Working on repertoire, lots of repetition, breaking down trouble spots.

    I spent months preparing for Tongue. I practiced singing with drones, which really highlights your tuning, looking for all the weak spots, and repeat them over and over for hours on end. I also focused on phrasing, trying to figure out ways to phrase awkward words and notes in a way that would sound appropriate and natural. It really took a lot of work, but through all the problem solving, I came out a little bit stronger and managed to turn some of my weaknesses into strengths. The coolest thing about this process (and ironically the most disheartening) is the infinity of the learning process. With every new skill that you internalize and develop, you discover more weaknesses. You never arrive there, hopefully you just never stop improving.

    From 2016 - The Andrew Collins Trio And It Was Good

    The Andrew Collins Trio

    Andrew Collins

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    Comments 13 Comments
    1. Randi Gormley's Avatar
      Randi Gormley -
      Fascinating and very nicely done. A great read!
    1. Cary Fagan's Avatar
      Cary Fagan -
      I just want to add the website for the Trio:
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      We're long-time fans of Andrews music so happy to see him making an appearance here.

      Shout out to the author Cary Fagan who is a member among us. For those of you that don't know he's a marvelous author, and yes, award winning. Have read two of his books. If you require mandolin content his wonderful Valentine's Fall is a must read.
    1. craigmurray's Avatar
      craigmurray -
      I love the new albums. Great work Andrew!
    1. David Lewis's Avatar
      David Lewis -
      Nice interview. Very interesting player who I've started to check out. Thanks as always for posting.
    1. oldplinker's Avatar
      oldplinker -
      Atta-boy Andrew!! This trio is way beyond good. I will definitely get a copy.
      Oldplinker from Toronto Mandolin Orchestra.
    1. Denman John's Avatar
      Denman John -
      Looking forward to seeing him Saturday night on Vancouver Island. Always a great show and appreciate that he does tour as much as he does and hits the smaller towns. He's also a wonderful teacher and inspiration.
    1. Michael Eck's Avatar
      Michael Eck -
      Cool stuff. Andrew's great. Very nice work, Cary.
    1. EvanElk's Avatar
      EvanElk -
      Well written article Cary. Fun read, great music and media! Firmaments is a beautiful piece.
    1. jasona's Avatar
      jasona -
      Great interview Cary. Nice to hear what Andrew has been up to!
    1. Mike Romkey's Avatar
      Mike Romkey -
      I’ve been a fan going back to “Little Widgets.” His “embrace sucking” advice is completely on target.

      Andrew was in town last year with the trio as visiting artists for a local arts organization. I had the privilege of meeting him — they’re all really nice guys — and hearing them play for an inner city middle school orchestra class. Wonderfully informal and intimate and they connected with the kids, no small feat.

      Their only open-to-the public performance was in a little venue out in the country. I was unable to attend. But to my horror the mandolin player at the same venue the very next night was yours truly. I suppose it was an opportunity to embrace sucking. : ) I survived.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this fine interview with Andrew Collins by one of our favorite authors.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Nothing the anniversary of this feature interview.