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RETRO: Quick Q and A with Debra Cowan

It’s definitely time to revisit the music of Debra Cowan!  You need not go any further to find one of the finest voices to ever interpret the traditional songs of yore.  Debra sings with loving appreciation of time-honored ballads and has an amazing ability to bring history, culture, and humor to her audiences.

Since I interviewed Debra in 2007, she has been pretty darn busy making magic happen with her music. As the one and only Roseanne Cash says, “Debra has a voice which beautifully combines Celtic and Appalachian sensibilities…deeply satisfying, lyrical and musically elegant.”  I can’t argue with that!

Debra has released five recordings since I interviewed her. Fond Desire Farewell is a highly acclaimed album released in 2009; it was arranged and produced by Dave Mattacks, best known for his work with the English folk-rock band, Fairport Convention. Among Friends is a live album that was recorded at the Bacca Pipes Folk Club in Keighley, West Yorkshire in the UK.  Ballads Long and Short is a collaborative project with John Roberts. Greening the Dark is another album in which Debra worked with Dave Mattacks. Finally, Women and the Sea is a concept album which includes songs from Debra’s research and lectures about that fascinating topic.

You can take a tour through Debra’s music by visiting her website.

One of my favorite cover songs that Debra makes her own is ‘Alcohol” by Ray Davies (The Kinks).

Debra does a lot of important work for the American Federal of Musicians Local 1000. She is a fount of knowledge and has devoted a lot time and energy to help fellow touring musicians.

Here’s another video showing Debra in her element singing and sharing songs with a loving audience.

To learn more about Debra Cowan, visit her website.

Here’s a look back at my interview with Debra from 2007.

You are called a song “interpreter,” meaning, I suppose that you are not a songwriter. Have you ever written songs?

I wrote one song in 1993 for the 20th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade but have not written anything before or since. I set the bar very high on songwriting and I feel that I just don’t possess that particular talent. Besides, there are SO many great songs out there and someone has to sing them.

If you could choose one song and say you wrote it, which song would it be. . . and why?

Wow. That’s a hard question. After having a heavy think on this one, I would have to say “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics added four years later by Michael Parish. It was composed in 1927 by Carmichael and I do believe it is one that has withstood the test of time. It’s a beautiful melody along with some of most wonderful imagery in the lyrics.

When did you first pick up a guitar? Was it love at first sight?

I was 7 years old and I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. Her older sister had a guitar and showed me two chords and how to play the song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but I was certainly intrigued. I don’t really consider myself a guitar player. I only play guitar because I have to, and I am always on the lookout for a guitar player who can do a much better job than I at that particular job.

Tell us about all the research that you did for “Dad’s Dinner Pail and Other Songs” What attracted you to the songs of Helen Hartness Flanders?

First off, the fact that the Flanders Collection is specifically American and the songs are from my adopted region, New England, were the main reasons this collection interested me. I have looked at collections from the British Isles and was always amazed to find versions of the same songs on both sides of the Atlantic. I was also interested in hearing these singers that had been recorded between 1930 and 1950. I did find a few songs that are native New England songs and I included one on the CD, “Schooner EA Horton” that comes out of Gloucester, MA.
I was able to listen to the source recordings at the Library of Congress and at Middlebury College in Vermont. I was also allowed access to the many items in the Collection at Middlebury. Much of my information also came from Nancy-Jean Ballard, Mrs. Flanders’ granddaughter. Nancy-Jean was also the person who first approached me with the idea of doing a recording of Flanders Songs.

What an honor to be selected as an artist on the Richard Thompson box set! How did that come about?

Yes, I am very proud of that one. One of the movers behind Free-Reed Records (who put out the RT Box) is Nigel Schofield, a friend and a fan. He knew that I sang a number of Thompson songs and asked me specifically if I did anything from “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.” There was originally going to be a CD of other artists’ version of songs from this particular recording. I gave Nigel a list of songs and he chose “Has He Got a Friend” and scheduled some studio time in Yorkshire for me to record it.