Being the only Canadian act signed to U.S. roots imprint Sugar Hill is an impressive endorsement. Even better is that the Duhks' North Carolina connections have led to their new CD, Migrations, being coproduced by Americana legend Tim O'Brien. The singer, multi-instrumentalist, and former Hot Rize bandleader is comfortable in everything from pedal-to-the-metal rockabilly to delicate Celtic balladry, and thus he seems the perfect candidate to buff up the wildly eclectic Winnipeg quintet.
Duhks founder Leonard Podolak agrees. "We've sort of been adopted by the old-timey and bluegrass and new-acoustic-music scene down in the United States," he says, checking in on his manager's cellphone from the hills of Northern California. "So having Tim produce was just sort of an extension of being a part of his scene. We'd played a bunch of festivals where he was on the same bill, so when he found out we were interested in having him work on the record, he was jumping up and down about it-and that was a huge thrill. I mean, he's certainly someone that we all look up to quite a bit, so it was a really fun project."
O'Brien's contributions were many, from finding the infectious album opener "(Mama Gonna Bargain With the) Ol' Cook Pot" to suggesting the Georgia Sea Island spiritual "Turtle Dove" as the disc's finale. He also contributes harmony vocals and plays mandolin, bouzouki, and electric guitar. But according to Podolak, where O'Brien really excelled was in finding a way to get the Duhks' live energy onto tape.
"It was mostly about vibe, I think, about keeping a loose and groovy kind of vibe in the studio," says the claw-hammer banjo virtuoso. "And he was right with us in the goal of trying to capture the live feel of the band. We certainly didn't want to go in there and put everything under the microscope-even though that's sort of unavoidable when you're in the studio."
Migrations is a breakthrough in another sense: it features the first song ever written by Duhks singer Jessee Havey. Although Podolak, fiddler Tania Elizabeth, guitarist Jordan McConnell, and percussionist Scott Senior have penned some durable instrumental numbers, most of their vocal numbers are either traditional or written by friends. More originals might be in the cards when the band decides to go into the studio again.
"Absolutely," Podolak concurs. "It's hard, because there are already so many great songs that you want to do and put your stamp on. But now that we've gone around for almost five years, we're starting to get some experience under our belt-and, having seen the world, we have some stuff to write about!"
Even if that stuff includes love and politics, two topics Podolak once vowed to avoid. "But what else is there?" he says, laughing. "Love is so much a part of life. So is politics, and any time I do write something, it either has this airy-fairy aspect to it or else it's this really hard-edged thing. But I've started to write songs, Tania writes songs, and Jessee is starting to write too, so that's definitely the wave of the future."