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Elijah McLaughlin performs two superb fingerstyle tracks | Acoustic guitar sessions in place | Acoustic guitar

The Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble has been described as a blend of primitive American guitar, jazz and classical. The description that came to mind while listening? Avant-folk shredding. Whatever you call it, the trio’s music is bigger and more expansive than the sum of its parts. The three members – McLaughlin, Jason Toth (bass) and Joel Styzens (hammered dulcimer) – fire on all cylinders technically and creatively. The new record, Eljiah McLaughlin II Set, explores a wide range of sonic and emotional territories; sometimes harmonious and soaring, sometimes frenetic and dissonant. This is an album that is not only heard, but felt.

For this AG Sessions video, McLaughlin and Toth perform the songs “Effigy” and “Viroqua” from the new album. I caught up with McLaughlin on Zoom to talk composition, improvisation, and his CF Martin & Co. OMC-15E. -Joey Lusterman

Can you tell me a bit about how you composed this first track, “Effigy”?
It started with tuning. I was listening to a D minor chord to learn this Skip James song, “Killing Floor Blues.” I was fascinated by the tonality achieved through tuning. I started experimenting with a riff, and from there developed the song just through improvisation. Then I took it to Jason and we worked out the arrangement. A lot of the methodology behind our recording is this: things get written down and we’ll record them when they’re fresh.

Do you improvise while recording and performing the piece, or just in the writing process?
Both really. It depends on the song, but usually I have an arrangement or chord progression, and within that setting of the arrangement, it’s good to keep things very loose and free. All the solos we recorded for “Effigy” for example, were different. If you were to listen to all the takes again, of which there are four or five, the solos are different. Generally the same atmosphere, but different.

One thing I noticed was the dynamic range in terms of composition and actual playing.
Certainly a big part of any song’s arc. The solo section of this particular song has been structured to be as intense as possible. We get stronger, we pick up the pace, we push the pace a bit, and then we come out of that arc and cool things down a bit. Tension and relaxation.

What guitar are you playing in the video?
A Martin OMC-15E. It’s a great guitar, I got it 12 years ago. I wanted a small body acoustic model for orchestra, I wanted a Martin, but I couldn’t really afford one. Came across this one on craigslist. The guy was selling it for very cheap because it had a top that lifted off the body and the bridge barely held on. But I looked at it and thought, “this could be fixed.” It was damaged, but there were no major structural cracks in the guitar. I decided to take a chance and bought it.

When I took it to a luthier in Chicago, he was like, “Hey man, has this guitar been underwater? But he was able to glue the top back on and reinstall the bridge, and he did his magic and it plays really well now. I love this guitar; it’s an easy to play guitar and I like the comfort of the small body.

It has a very even tone. I’ve played dreadnoughts and other guitars that sound much fatter and boomier, but I like this guitar for fingerpicking and it does everything well. When I lower the setting, it sounds good. When I want the low registers they are there, but they are not punchy or too loud.

How about the second song, “Viroquoa”?
This is a small town in Wisconsin, sort of near the Mississippi River. I started going to this area with my father a few years ago. Every summer we would go out there and fly fish the creeks that are offshoots of the Mississippi. It is a very beautiful place. We would rent this cabin in the middle of nowhere. It was nice and secluded, and it had this big porch that overlooked a creek. I wrote the riff to this song on this porch. I have many fond memories of the family being there.


This session was captured live at the Fine Arts Building Studio, Chicago.
Video: Jeff Perlman Audio: Caleb Willitz

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