Strong Roots (Profiles in Canadian Roots Music): Jim Malmberg, Back Porch Swing

by Krlmagi

I talk to Back Porch Swing's Jim Malmberg about the joys of acoustic music, songwriting inspirations and the passion for music shared by the band.

Back Porch Swing started out when Jim and Penny Malmberg decided to put a band together and make a demo recording to send to folk festivals so that they could get some gigs. Jim says, "We called in Kevin, our bass player, and Cam, our fiddler, to record with us. We asked them to come and play them with us once we’d got some gigs."

Back Porch Swing (L to R): Penny Malmberg, Cam Neufeld, Kevin Jacobson, Jim Malmberg
Back Porch Swing (L to R): Penny Malmberg, Cam Neufeld, Kevin Jacobson, Jim Malmberg

As he was growing up, Jim was surrounded by a wide variety of music. His mother listened to the CKUA Radio Network and Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, but it wasn't until he was 19 years old that he really caught the music bug. He explains, "Someone played me a Doc Watson record and I had never heard anyone play like him before. It blew me away. I had to run out and get a guitar after that!"

He continues, "I listened to bluegrass, swing and blues musicians like Mississippi John Hurt. At that point, I heard David Bromberg's music and I really enjoyed how he played all different styles of music. He played bluegrass stuff, blues stuff and other things as well, so I realized that it could be done. I've always played what I like and what interests me. I like the sounds of different acoustic instruments so I've always kept things that way."

Although there are bluegrass elements in Back Porch Swing's music, Jim doesn't classify the band as bluegrass. He points out, "If you're at a bluegrass festival and you've heard Blue Ridge Mountain Home by three different bands you want to hear something different. We have been an alternate to that since our music is bluegrass-informed. We have song structures similar to bluegrass with instrumental solos and improvisations."

The band balances covers and original tunes in its repertoire. Jim says, "I believe there's lots of great music out there, especially older stuff, that deserves to be heard and if nobody plays it won't get heard, so I like bringing up stuff from the old catalogue. I also like to write music and my wife does as well. We're song writers and we've got more into that over the years. It led us to a project where we're now playing as a duo to showcase our original music as well."

When it comes to song writing,  Jim likes to explore writing in different styles. He explains, "I'll try to write an original song that sounds like a cowboy ballad or a bluegrass song. I want to write timeless songs that are in the traditions of different types of music."

After the songs are written, they are played for the band members. Jim says, "We work it out from there and the songs come together organically."'

One integral part of Back Porch Swing’s lineup has been Jim’s wife Penny. He says, “We’ve been singing together for 20 years. She has a beautiful voice and we blend together so well. She has an amazing talent for connecting with an audience and that’s been a big part of our success as a band.”

Jim has high praise for the other members of the band as well. He says, "They're incredibly talented musicians. I've never wanted to tell them how to play their parts. I let them figure it out and impress me with what they do."

He goes on to say, "I met Kevin when he was playing bass in a folk-rock band called Sticks and Stones in the late '90's. He's also a recording engineer with his own studio which is where we record for Back Porch Swing. We've seen Cam playing around town over the years and he came on board to play fiddle with us. He's a guy who brings a lot of diverse musical tastes and experiences to the band. He's been exploring more Middle Eastern music over the years and spending a fair bit of time traveling in Europe and the Middle East. He brings some of that flavour to the music. He's a fiery instrumental player so he's great to watch on stage."

The roots music market is competitive and there are many talented musicians in the market, but that is an issue for all independent roots bands in Jim's view.  He says, "We have guys in the band who have day jobs and that makes it difficult to schedule tours. Early blues and bluegrass musicians weren't full time players. Many of them had hard jobs doing manual labour and played music when they could get away on weekends and things. It's a very traditional approach."

Generally, Jim feels that the roots music scene is going strong in spite of the overwhelming market share devoted to more popular genres of music. He says, "There always will be people who are interested in acoustic music and making things themselves. There are a lot of great players out there and lots of young people who are playing, writing and learning instruments."

He adds that Alberta specifically has a strong folk scene and says, "Edmonton has a great folk music scene and everyone's very supportive of one another. Calgary has a good folk scene too. Everywhere we go in Alberta, we've had really good experiences."

In the future, Jim says they just want to keep Back Porch Swing rolling. He points out, "We've been playing together for 14 years with the same members, so we're proud of being able to do that and keep it fresh. We want to keep playing some of the songs that people like to hear and introduce some new material as well. We want to keep making music as much as we can, for as long as we can."

Making music is something for which Jim and the other band members have a deep passion. He says, "It just comes from our hearts. We all love music and I think it's really important in our era where people are disconnected and divided into factions, I think music is a unifying force and a way to express love for each other."

For more information on Back Porch Swing, please visit them here.

This interview with Jim Malmberg was conducted and recorded on Nov. 14, 2016.

Updated: 11/21/2016, Krlmagi
 
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