Posted On 31 Oct 2016
Earlier this month, the Switzerland-based indie folk duo, Famous October (American Sarah Bowman and Swiss Rene Coal Burrell), released their 13-track album, “One Day Baby.”
Though both artists are from different hemispheres, it was their individual fervent pursuit of their music that inevitably brought them together. Burrell grew up in a peaceful small Swiss town at the foot of the Alps while Bowman grew up in a high crime and economically depressed neighborhood in racially tense Davenport, Iowa. By age 19, Burrell had achieved national recognition in his native Switzerland as a BMG alt-country artist, having been nominated for a Swiss PRIX WALO award and opening for Neil Young, ZZ Top and Amy Winehouse. Enamored with Americana music, Burrell stumbled upon a show in Luzern featuring the twin sister duo, The Bowmans, who had been touring internationally for four years.
On the other side of the world, Bowman had been raised on her Bronx born mother’s collection of 60s protest songs and her Detroit native father’s classical music. She studied cello, piano and vocal performance as well as music education, graduating with Honors from Duquesne University and Notre Dame of Maryland University. She sang as a soprano with the Baltimore Symphony Choir and worked with Yuri Temirkonov and Bobby McFerrin. Bowman and her twin sister, Claire, began singing together at coffee shops since they were 14, and eventually grew up together touring through the U.S. and Europe. Individually, Bowman and Burrell had released 4 or 5 acclaimed albums and had developed thousands of fans internationally before joining together as a duo. Their individual success set the stage for the duo’s success to come.
Since officially coming together as Famous October in 2012, Bowman and Burrell have amassed an international following with their initial tours through Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. In their first collaborative year, they won a number of prestigious Swiss music awards and were commissioned to compose an embodiment of the 300th anniversary of the great “Stans Brandnacht 1713,” an excerpt of which appears on their upcoming debut album. In addition, the duo run their business, Pillow Song, which started off as listening room for touring musicians in their rehearsal space in Stans and has grown into an international music community in which artists support one another. Pillow Song also acts as the label and management for Famous October.
Learn even more about Famous October in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! Now that we are well into the fall of 2016, what are some words you would use to describe this year? What have been some of the highlights for the band?
2016 just might be the most incredible year to date in our combined histories. We are watching our beautiful daughter learn everything from cooing and laughing to walking, waving, grooving and talking. We made an incredible album that we are running around the globe promoting through performances for wonderful audiences in unique spaces. We’re bringing artists from the US, Canada and Europe to our humble venue in Switzerland, and collaborating with our musical guests to introduce new sounds to Swiss audiences. We’re releasing our record to the world, which contains stories that could put our small medieval town on the map, and introduce a new sound to listeners everywhere who are looking for something a little different.
Growing up, did you both always want to be musicians? Can you recall your earliest musical memories? How did Famous October first come together? How did you come up with your band name?
I remember telling my mom as a small child that I wanted to be the youngest singer in show business. She said that Shirley Temple had already achieved that, but that being the youngest wasn’t so important after all. Our family attended musical gatherings and concerts of Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie and many others so songwriting was already a big part of my personal landscape. There was a church up the street where I could hear the Gospel Choir rehearse. I wanted to sing like that some day.
One time we were at a festival on a farm in Iowa and it rained for days. To keep the kids entertained, a friend of my parents’ invited us into her tent and played songs on the guitar. I will never forget the feeling of certainty I had that day, that I wanted to spend my rainy days doing just that. Rene’s earliest music memory is watching his oldest brother play the electric guitar at home while his middle brother was playing along on the recorder. Rene was impressed by the power of the thing, and had always looked up to his brother who is 9 years older than him.
Famous October started as naturally as our relationship did, I think. I was touring with my twin sister, and Rene was touring with his band. When we first met in Luzern at a concert of mine, we had both already been making music for several years. We started appearing as guests in each other’s concerts both in the U.S. and in Switzerland, and eventually moved to Stans. When we arrived the Kultur Kommision Stans asked us to write a major musical work to commemorate the great fire that burned the town down 300 years prior. We were kind of thrown into a co-writing project on a large scale, so writing songs together afterwards seemed easy as pie. It wasn’t, always, because we each have a very distinct musical sense going in – but we learn so much from each other, and the process gets easier with each new song.
October is the month we both cherish the most on the calendar, because it is the month that everything slowly goes through a process of wondrous and beautiful change. We feel that represents what we are doing with our music by working together.
How do you think being from two very different parts of the world has influenced your sound and really how you make music together?
We both have a great respect and love for the music from one anothers native land. We criss-cross in this way, because Rene went to America to absorb American roots music in Nashville and Austin. I grew up learning the music of the great European composers. When you run your own music through the filter of a foreign hand, something entirely new emerges.
You just wrapped a 30+ date US tour in support of your forthcoming album. What was that like? What were some favorite shows? What do you think makes a perfect show for you two? What was it like bringing your daughter along for the tour?
It was amazing. It was intense. It was reaffirming. We came through it feeling like we’re this powerful, unstoppable team. The hardships of a tour like that didn’t get us down. Our daughter was a trooper! She was a constant reminder to focus on the important things, and to carry on with a smile like she did.
It’s always hard to pinpoint a favorite show, but we really loved pairing up with our friend Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket) in Santa Barbara and visit with him and friends there. There was sort of a magical unplugged house concert in Boulder, Colorado that my sister Emily helped put together. We amazed ourselves at the Tosco Music Party in Charlotte, where we had had a tough night before a long drive, then performed before a couple thousand people on the Charlotte Symphony’s stage. The other concerts that warm our hearts are the unique ones that my dad put together for us in Delaware – because you can’t get a warmer audience than the one we had that night, and the final concert in my hometown where we played outside to a lot more people than we expected, and a lot more spiders too!
The perfect show is any show where people are listening and enjoying, no matter the number or the stage. We love to share our songs and stories with people. We love to play, and we are at home when we are performing.
Cecilia was the best traveler of all! She complained the least, and kept her schedule regardless of traveling hours or time zone changes. We frequently had 8 hour drives, and she was along for the ride. Her attitude about everything reminded us that each day is an adventure.
What was the inspiration for your recently released album, “One Day Baby”? How are these songs different than anything else you two have released as solo artists?
Imagine two people writing songs during the course of their new marriage and the anticipation of becoming parents for the first time. These songs capture the greatest excitement either of us have ever known. I was 7 months pregnant when we recorded. Cecilia was literally between me and my instruments for much of the writing process.
Who are some of your favorite artists and what bands continue to inspire you and your music?
Bob Dylan has an equal share of mine and Rene’s musical blood, I would say. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon was our wedding song, and we felt very connected to the American and Canadian singer songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s. Joni Mitchell’s Blue album gets a lot of wear, as do some newer artists’ albums such as Anais Mitchell, Gregory Alan Isakov, and many others we are so lucky to call friends.
Who would you still love to work with in the future?
We’d love to work with Jeff Tweedy based on his amazing musical talent that is transparent in the musical production of the Mavis Staples records. T-Bone Burnett is of course the man when it comes to capturing acoustic performances that have an extra edge. Todd Sickafooose is also a monumental talent, and although he’s not yet as well known, we know he will be; and we would easily work with him again and again.
When you aren’t performing, or working in the studio, what do you like to do for fun? How do you unwind from it all?
Our spare time is spent either enjoying moments with our daughter; making each other laugh, and dancing to great music – or running Pillow Song, which is our music venue. Pillow Song is a labor of love as well. I can’t say that we really ever unwind these days, but we are endlessly enjoying the fullness of our lives.
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope listeners take away from your songs?
I think the best answer comes from Archishop Desmond Tutu, who’s birthday is the same day as our release: “We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew… Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful… and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourself or your music?
We’re going to continue to tour and perform for whoever will listen. We’re hoping some good people will jump on board and help us to keep this ship sailing.