Bringing Bluegrass Home: Portland's Tony Furtado on Leaving the Labels Behind

Banjo and slide guitar player Tony Furtado brings his Americana-meets-indie-rock sound to his newest release, The Bell.

By Jayce Wagner May 14, 2015

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Local bluegrass legend Tony Furtado is a longtime staple in the Portland roots music scene. After releasing 16 albums in 25 years, he’s set to release his 17th this week, this time on his own label. We caught up with Furtado to talk about loss, labels, and roots-friendly Portland.

We read some of your personal experiences over the last couple years really shaped the music that went into 'The Bell'. . .

This particular album was driven by a few different things. I lost my father a few years ago. Around the same time, I parted ways with my old label and management and my wife [singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman] and I had a baby.  Once I started writing again I started processing all of those things—a bit of rebirth and independence is all wrapped up in the album. 

When did you decide you wanted this album to be released independently?

It was kind of a gradual process. That was the only way I could do it. I started working on it in early 2014, to get my feet wet again. Once I started getting things going, I said "Okay this can become an album now."

Then I started thinking of ways to release it. One thought was to do it all myself and license it to a label. To do that I realized that I was going to need some more funding, so I went back to Kickstarter. But after talking to a few labels, I started realizing that I would probably be better off doing it myself and retaining complete control and complete ownership.

Are you done with big labels now?

Maybe! The same question of funding is there. I think if I do [leave them behind], at this point I'm much more informed. Ask me that same question in six months!

Do you think this album has a different sound as a result?

It’s definitely the most personal album I've put together, the least inhibited I've felt putting an album together.  I put songs on there that were super personal. I felt the freedom to do it as I wished, and I feel like it comes across that way. 

On your website, you mention that some of the best recordings of you are from bootleggers—why do you think that is?

At that point, some of my best sounding stuff was at live shows because that's what I love doing the most, being on stage. Part of the problem with some of my studio recordings up until that point was that I was putting a lot of control in someone else's hands. At the time I wasn't feeling that comfortable with the result.

Now that I've got that much more control I was able to capture as much vibe in studio as I can get on stage. It feels good. It was a necessary thing too.

You've traveled extensively in your career—any favorite venues over the years? 

My favorite venues are wherever people show up and listen to the music. I've been touring so long it's not about geography anymore, it's just about which venues feel like home. 

Speaking of home, what made you decide to move to Portland after being on the road for so many years?

I lived in Colorado for six years before Portland, but I'm not a snow person, and I'm not good at high-altitude.  That and the changing music and art scene here always felt vibrant. Coming to Portland always felt like I was coming home. 

As a multi-genre musician, how would you characterize the Portland music scene?

I've always felt like it was a really good scene that was good about not being super genre-divided. A lot of musicians and artists in Portland are good at supporting each other. Portland is a very roots-friendly city, it's a very friendly toward this kind of music. Mountain music, blues, bluegrass, Irish music, jazz and indie rock are all very present in Portland. It makes it easy for me to fit in.

Tony Furtado plays his hometown, record-release show at the
Alberta Rose Theater on Saturday, May 16.

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