In sixth grade, Tony Furtado made a banjo out of a pie tin for a music-class project. He glued some paper to the pie tin, painted the makeshift instrument with latex paint, and then strung it up with nylon fishing string and tuned it all to one note because he didn't know any better.
"It worked out pretty cool," Furtado recalls. "I really gained an immense fascination with the banjo from what I was reading about it — how it came from Africa and how all these different types of music used it, everything from blues and bluegrass and old-time mountain music to classical music, Irish music.... It just seemed different and interesting to me, and I didn't know anyone in Pleasanton, California, where I grew up, who was playing one."
That fascination carried over into his adolescence. During his teenage years, Furtado spent six to eight hours a day practicing banjo, studying everything from jazz improvisation to classical theory — everything that would make him a better, more meticulous, more exact player — and he eventually went on to win first place, twice, at the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship. But as proficient as he became as an adult, after recording a number of albums and listening to them, Furtado felt they could have been a little more loose. "I could feel on some of the older recordings — I could feel myself constricting myself," he explains.
So on 2011's Golden, the first album Furtado produced himself, he finally relaxed and just let things happen. As a result, his voice loosened up. "I could hear the freedom in it," he says. The same thing happened on his most recent effort, the outstanding Live at Mississippi Studios, which was recorded live in November 2011 and released last year on Tucson-based Funzalo Records.
"I can just feel myself loosening up and letting the music happen rather than forcing it to happen," he says now. "I'm not as worried about the exact notes that get played, but rather I'm more interested in getting the right feel, the right vibe, the right emotion across. It's okay if there are some missed notes or a flatted note here and there; that's okay. You want to get the music to sound emotional and have an intensity. Also, the whole sound is totally different, too. That was a different time for me — playing banjo and writing instrumentals. I like to think I'm a bit more grounded [as a] musician at this point and able to draw from deeper emotional depths when I'm writing."
By the time Furtado moved to Boulder, where he lived from 1996 to 2002, he'd immersed himself in slide guitar. When he was growing up, his ears would perk up whenever he heard slide — but when he first heard Ry Cooder's Paradise and Lunch, it was truly a religious experience for him, one that inspired him to buy every Cooder album he could find. "I borrowed a Yamaha acoustic guitar and just sat down with a wine-bottle neck and started woodshedding, learning every lick and every possible tune I could with a slide guitar," he recalls.
Furtado says his time in Boulder was a pivotal period for him. "I had just left doing freelance work to kind of focus on my own thing at that point in my career," he says. "So I ended up hiring just about every local musician in the Denver/Boulder area to hit the road with me at different times.
"When I moved to Boulder, in 1996," he goes on, "I had just shifted direction in the sound of what I was doing. I came from kind of a bluegrass-scene background, because that's what you do when you just play banjo. But I wasn't really hearing bluegrass in my head, and it wasn't necessarily exactly what I was listening to — although it was a big influence on what I was doing. But that was right around the time I shifted gears and started learning slide guitar and working on singing and writing new songs and just really digging in."
Back then, Furtado toured with folks like Motet drummer Dave Watts and eTown house drummer Christian Teele, as well as local bassist Billy Rich, who had played with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles and Taj Mahal. He later hired musicians from around the country — guys like drummer Tom Breckline, who had worked with Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter, and former Santana bassist Myron Dove — for a band he called the American Gypsies. "It was a bit more intense and experimental, a bit more of an explosion, sonically," says Furtado. "It made me gradually morph my sound. But then the shift came to more of a focus on songwriting, doing the singer-songwriter thing."
Looking for a big change in his life, Furtado moved to Portland just over a decade ago, and the move affected his music, among other things in his life. "Anytime you do something as drastic as change your location and you have to find new friends and new surroundings, it's going to do something," he points out. "So one thing it did, it just kind of changed my whole paradigm.
"I started focusing on a lot of literature — poetry, more word-based stuff," he continues. "I was doing a lot of studying on my own time of song forms...and whenever I learn something new, I really kind of go over the deep end. That's what I did with the banjo as a kid. That's what I did with slide guitar, because I really want to understand it fully and get a good grasp on it before I try to make art out of it and try to express myself.
"Once I started feeling like I was understanding — you know, crafting songs as well as getting a better feel for using words, like colors — it just all started to sink in better," he remembers. "And that's kind of where I feel I am at this point. I feel I've got a good grasp on my instruments, my words and my melodies, and I'm still always trying to stretch. I feel like I'm in a good stride now. I've got control of my voice, and I'm singing the way I want to. It feels really good and solid, and I think the next album is going to be a lot of fun."
Furtado is currently at work on his next album. Scheduled for release later this year, it will be more banjo-driven than recent efforts, but it will still be similar to what he's been doing, he says, describing it as having a sort of indie-folk-meets-Americana vibe.
"But the banjo is going to be a driving force," he emphasizes. "I have this really cool instrument called a cello banjo, which is basically an octave below the banjo. I'm having a lot of fun doing some songwriting with it. I've got this vision of what I want the sound to be — with the two banjos kind of going with each other, playing riffs."