Catherine Bowness of Mile Twelve: “There’s a commitment to the band that runs pretty deep”

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Mile Twelve: It’s a mile marker on the southern border of Boston, Massachusetts, on Route 93. It’s also the name of the award-winning band that got its start in 2014 when a group of regulars at the Tuesday night bluegrass jams at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge combined their talents to form their own group.

Mile Twelve is Evan Murphy – guitar/lead vocals, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes – fiddle, Catherine Bowness – banjo, Nate Sabat – bass/lead vocals, and David Benedict – mandolin.  They released a self-titled EP in 2015, a full-length debut, Onwards, in 2017, and have won multiple Momentum Awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).

For their latest album, City on a Hill, they partnered with virtuoso bluegrass guitarist and producer Bryan Sutton, a working relationship that brought yet another dimension to the band’s creative process.

Catherine Bowness was born and raised in Koitiata, New Zealand, and began playing banjo at age 12. In 2006, she won the Frank Winter Memorial Award, presented to young performers by the Auckland Folk Festival to help them pursue their musical education and goals. She was able to travel to the U.S., where she attended bluegrass festivals and studied with Tony Trischka, Alan Munde and Noam Pikelny.

Bowness earned her bachelors degree in Jazz Performance from the New Zealand School of Music in 2011, as the first banjo player to complete the program. She relocated to Boston, where she quickly made a name for herself as a performer and educator. She was preparing for the annual MidWest Banjo Camp when she connected with Guitar Girl. 

City on a Hill was produced by Bryan Sutton, who was a Mile Twelve fan since Onwards. How did he help take the band to the next level? 

I think it’s just his experience as a musician and in the studio himself. He must be on thousands of records, so the amount of hours he has was really helpful to us as a young band to spend the time in the studio with him and be in that environment. He was very helpful with specifics and feedback on solos, but mostly it was his overall guidance for each song. And we recorded some songs differently with him. “Jericho” was recorded together in one room, which was really fun, and something we’d not done before. On the last album, we recorded separately, where this time we had the bass, mandolin, and guitar in one room and the fiddle and banjo off to the side, so it felt more live than our other album.

Storytelling is the backbone of bluegrass songwriting. What is that process like for Mile Twelve? 

Evan and Nate come in with fully written songs or drafts, and we all sit together and talk about the story, where we want it to go, things we like and don’t like. It’s very collaborative. But the songs themselves, the ideas and melodies and lyrics, come from them. It was similar on our last album, but I think we took more time on this one and made sure we were happy with each of the songs before we started arranging them.

How has the process grown and developed in the four years that you’ve been together?

We’ve grown up a lot musically, and otherwise, we’ve gotten incredibly comfortable with each other. We know that we’re not going to offend someone if we point out a change in a lyric we’d like to hear or something that maybe we don’t like. There’s a commitment to the band that runs pretty deep after playing four years worth of gigs and traveling all over the world together. And I think there’s a shift in the music that is a little unexplainable. It’s a tightness that can be heard from the 300-plus gigs we’ve played in a relatively short space of time.

Can you walk us through the recording of one track from City on a Hill?

It’s a long process for most of the songs. For instance, “Jericho” went through the most changes. It’s an entirely different melody and different chord changes from its beginning, and a different story too. We had maybe three renditions of that song before we came to the final version, and we arranged it two or three times as well.

We were in the studio for nine days making this album. We put up the mics and played through the songs five or six times, and then Bryan took the reins. We were happy to let him take the lead as producer on choosing the best of each take and then just showing us a take of a song after he’d done that editing. It was helpful for us to have someone we trusted to do that.

But for “Jericho,” we recorded it a few different times, the last of which was all in the same room with no isolation or ability to tweak anything. Because the arrangement of that song is so improvised, we really wanted to capture the best version of the five of us playing together. Once the recording was finished, the track goes to mixing and then to mastering and then we are finally ready to release. So yeah, it was a long process from the first time Evan came to rehearsal with the seeds of the song to what you hear on the album. 

Where does the banjo sit in the mix for you, both onstage and in the studio? 

The banjo, to me, is almost equivalent to drums in a rock band, though the other instruments in a bluegrass band all form some part of that rhythmic grid. The banjo is the driving, relentless 8th-note machine that I like to be pretty hot in the mix for the music we play. There’s a cool sound that comes from having the banjo and the other lead instrument mics pretty hot onstage and being able to ride in and out for solos and fills. Just like in the past when bands would play all around a single mic, there’s a wave effect that happens. You can hear the instruments fading in and out as they move closer to the mic or further away. I love that sound and think we try to capture that in our live set and in the studio to an extent.

The website Grass Country described your style as playing the banjo “with controlled abandon.” Would you say that’s accurate? Have you ever lost control and just gone full-on “abandoned”? 

Oh yeah, definitely — on every gig, I would say! I’m pretty comfortable playing with the band — sometimes too comfortable — and I just go for it. We really try to have fun with the music and not take it too seriously all the time. It’s exciting for us to hear a bandmate play something new on a song we’ve played hundreds of times. It really keeps the music fresh.

You are teaching at the MidWest Banjo Camp in Olivet, Michigan, this month. This is your first time there, but not your first time teaching. How did that part of your career come about and what does it entail?

I’ve been lucky enough to teach at a few camps so far: Banjo Camp North, The Banjo Summit, and assisting at Bela Fleck’s new camp, Blue Ridge Banjo Camp. They’ve all been such incredible opportunities to connect with many other banjo players. It’s a full weekend immersion into banjo, down to discussing bridge heights and string gauges at dinner. The banjo community isn’t huge; a lot of the same students will attend different camps, and some of the same teachers too, so you really get to know the community. I think that’s part of the magic of banjo camp. I’ll always leave camp with a bunch more friends and a lot of inspiration to practice.

Some of what you teach is the importance of timing, tone, and listening deeply when playing music with others. Can we look into those topics just a bit? 

I teach a lot in Boston, privately, and it’s really a hard thing to teach. If you don’t have the understanding of timing, it’s a hard thing to talk about. The main thing I do is try to get my students out into the world and playing with other people, because no matter how comfortable you are playing your songs by yourself, it’s an entirely different experience to go out and play with others. You’re all of a sudden in a whole other world, and by doing that, you are listening to them, and so timing and listening are entwined. Tone is an interesting one because there are so many tones you can go for. That’s a taste thing for what you like on your instrument, whereas timing — you either are in time or you’re not, so it’s a little more black and white.

Are you seeing an increase in numbers as far as people taking up the banjo?

I think so. So many amazing players have devoted their entire lives to getting so technically good at the instrument that I think there’s more “Wow” to it, and that’s exciting. A huge number of fans are also great pickers, and that’s something so unique to bluegrass. You don’t go to a jazz or classical concert and find that everyone in the audience plays, but with bluegrass, people come up and ask, “What picks do you use?” and “Have you tried this bridge?” 

Speaking of, we know you use Scorpion bridges, GHS strings, and play a Robin Smith Heartland banjo. Why those choices?

I’ve used GHS for years. I like the gauge, they sound really good, and they last a good amount of time, so I’ve stuck with them. A friend recommended them and I got hooked. In the banjo world, everyone is talking about what’s the best stuff to use. I’d heard about Scorpion bridges for a while, and they’re incredible. They make the instrument sound really good. I have one banjo that I play, and I’ve had it since I was 15. I didn’t have the option of playing a lot of banjos. I had an Ibanez that I played for a couple of years, and then I went on eBay and got this one shipped secondhand to New Zealand. I didn’t know anything about the banjo, I had never played it, but I liked the look of it and it was a lucky thing that it worked out. It has some little quirks, but because I’ve had it for so long and spent so much time with it, I know how to get around them. 

Endless hours of woodshedding go into mastering the instrument. What does your practice consist of?

It can be all-consuming if you want it to be that way. There’s no end to the practice hours you could be doing. Right now, practice time on the road is limited — if we get half an hour or an hour to ourselves, that’s a good day. We have time off, windows of a week or two, or even more, with nothing on the calendar, and I love those times to reflect on what has been happening on the gigs, and on things I like that I’m playing or don’t want to be playing. You get better by playing live, but it’s dangerous because you can get into habits you don’t want, but you fall into them because you do the same songs night after night. So it’s good to have time off to balance yourself out. We record a lot of the gigs, and that’s a really helpful thing because there are things you wouldn’t notice while you’re doing the show. In the off times, I do three or four hours a day of practicing. It varies. It depends on what I want to be working on at that time.

Are you optimistic about the bluegrass genre? It doesn’t rely on radio hits, the festival circuit is strong, and as you said, there’s the “Wow” factor. 

I think it’s growing hugely. In our modern day, with everyone constantly staring at screens, I think people have a craving for something that’s back to basics — you can step up to a microphone onstage and everything you hear comes out of these instruments — fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. It’s exciting, and I love going to see it because it feels authentic. There’s a lot of amazing music, and I think bluegrass is something people don’t always realize they like. They may hear it on the radio, but that’s different. You have to experience it live before you can really decide if you’re a fan or not. It’s so unique and special that I think it’s always going to last.

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