Music: An Interview with Vance Gilbert

This interview also appeared in the Local Music Collective Newsletter.

I’ve been a fan of Vance Gilbert‘s for years.  I know, readers, I know.  You’re probably thinking, wait, didn’t she just talk to some metal guy and now she’s interviewing a folkie?  Does this woman have psychotic taste in music?   A bipolar aural disorder?  You can’t just go from blistering metal to one-guy-one-guitar in the same body and not expect to explode, can you?

To answer these questions:

Yes, no, no, and you might not explode but you do have to GET OVER YOURSELVES.

Don’t pigeonhole, people.  It only leads to tears.

So yes, Vance Gilbert, fixture on the folk-music scene for twenty years, recently came to Lewisburg, guest-lectured in a class about “Jazz and Social Responsibility” and performed at the Campus Theatre, thanks to the efforts of Bucknell University, and I went and talked to him.  I interviewed him on the behalf of the Local Music Collective, a groovy group of also-folkies who have been hosting house jams and celebrating local musicianship at small venues for about thirty years.  What other company could I have been in where I could hear Adele’s “Someone Like You” played on the ukelele?  Live, and not as some sort of YouTube novelty.  And believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Adele’s “Someone Like You” played live on a the ukulele, but I’m digressing.  Anyway.

In the pursuit of my constant attempts to always present you all with the truth, I tell you this now: because I am a complete spaz (but an honest one) I confess, I forgot my camera.

So I grabbed this picture off the internet. Many thanks to Lehigh Valley Live.  Who I think got this from Vance.  Thanks, Vance.

For the record, he?  One of the nicest guys in the world.  Funny.  Gregarious.  And not afraid to ask for assistance… 🙂  Here’s the story: when he agreed to the interview, I sent Vance all my contact information so he could determine the easiest way to get in touch with me and then make use of it.  He emailed once he got to town and we set up a meeting time.  About fifteen minutes after the final email, maybe twenty, my phone rang.

“Is this Terri?  Hi, it’s Vance!” I heard.


“So I was hoping you could help me solve a problem.  I was changing my guitar strings and…” as I am not a gearhead–or any type of musical instrument savvy sort of person–my brain shut down.  He said something about a shim, something about things disappearing into the black hole of an unfamiliar hotel room.  Somewhere around the point when I realized he was not trying to discuss quantum physics and event horizons but rather, was asking about replacing a part on his guitar I gave up all pretense of any ability to be helpful and handed the phone over to George, who has been playing guitar for a thousand years and knew exactly what he needed.

The upside: I now know what a bridge pin is.  Every day is for learning.

For the want of a nail.

And so we went, replacement bridge pins in hand (courtesy of Music ‘n More in downtown the ‘burg, which happened to be open while the owner gave lessons, hurrah!), had some dinner and a bit of a chat.  Here it is.  And thank you, Vance.

VG:  What is this group called?  The Local Music Collective?  What are they about?

BP:  [Provides, with the boyfriend, a brief history of the Local Music Collective]

VG: Why does such a small area like this have such a vibrant music scene?  In Harrisburg, there’s nothing, the music scene is dead.

BP:  I don’t know.  Why don’t other places?  You’re in the business, you see more places than I do.  What’s lacking in Harrisburg?

VG:  Man, life’s hard there.  The poverty is so extreme…not a lot of room for music, you know?  And the people who run the Midtown Scholar Bookstore (a venue he’s played at before, located on 3rd St. near the Broad St. Market) are so positive it’s going to turn around.  I hope they’re right.  I wish them well.

BP: So do you think there’s an organic root to music?  That it has to grow out of its community?

VG:  People can learn from each other, they can borrow from each other.  My godson can take one of my albums and lift a sample from it, set it to some beats and it’s a whole different animal.  It’s become both our music, even though I’m folk and he’s rap.  And don’t discount rap as a form of local music—that’s its origin.

BP:  So is there such a thing as social responsibility and jazz?

VG:  It can be difficult to determine.  Jazz has come to mean different things to different people.  Would you hold Kenny G to the same standards as ColtraneGrover Washington?  They’re all “jazz”, but they’re all different.

As Vance Gilbert is a tremendously talented singer-songwriter with a gift for topical lyrics, I asked him about his approach to songwriting:

BP: Can you write a song about anything?

VG:  Absolutely, yes.  I have a friend that I don’t collaborate with, in the strictest sense of the word.  But we’ll occasionally pick a topic and spend some time working, independently, on songs about the same topic.  The stuff we write doesn’t always “work” but we get to challenge each other and push each other to think about familiar topics in unfamiliar ways, look inside a topic, get a new perspective.  That’s always worthwhile.

BP:  Is there anything you gravitate towards?

VG:  Not really.  But I tend to stay away from anthemic songs.  I tell my students (he has taught songwriting for the past year), “There are maybe ten people in the world who can write a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  You’re not one of them.”  I like to take the big topics and make them personal, because that’s where you find the poetry.

BP:  What is it about the anthemic song that can be so hard to achieve?

VG:  It’s easy to cross the line and become bombastic.  As a performer, I try to cultivate my idea of a consummate presence, which means being musically grounded and clear.

BP:  What helps you get to that space?

VG:  Live performance.  It’s the cornerstone of my editing process.  It really helps me break a song down, and then I can see what works and what doesn’t.

BP:  Why does going live matter so much?

VG:  Because then it becomes all about the music.  You get the human out of the way so the thing can happen.

BP:  So it’s about letting go of your own ego?

VG:  It’s like the Superbowl of de-ego-fying.  It can be tricky and you put yourself out there, but you’ve gotta do it.

Visit Vance at

For fun, here are a few videos.  I can’t decide which one I like better so I’m posting two.  WOODBRIDGE PEOPLE: He’s played in Woodbridge before; this particular video was filmed just this past March at the Barron Arts Center.  FYI, that building used to haunt my sleep and I would often dream that I was trapped in it and had to escape from vampires…so long as I wasn’t distracted by the (dream) bowling alley in the basement…but that’s another story for another day.  For now, enjoy “Goodbye, Pluto”.

It’s difficult for me to find a more beautiful song than “Unfamiliar Moon.”  But once again, this particular video was filmed in beautiful downtown Woodbridge, NJ.  Their old arts series used to be held in the Methodist church, the one all the way at the bottom of Main St.; apparently it’s fairly recently that they’ve moved it to the Arts Center, and I will contain my snark because I’m kind of warm & fuzzy right now.  Even though it’s killing me a little to not toss out that one line…

Oh, OK, I’ll do it.  YEAH, because you don’t want your arts series to be hosted at the Arts Center.  Where’s the logic in that?

Now I feel better.

And so.  Enjoy “Unfamiliar Moon.”  And go see Vance when he’s in town.

The pseudo-porn music all-it-lacks-is-some-gnarly-bass intro to this video cracks me up, so thanks for that, Woodbridge Arts Council.


2 responses to Music: An Interview with Vance Gilbert

  1. Garzilla

    I loved this on many levels… the Barron Arts Center? You’re right, that is a whole other story entirely in itself. Seeing those windows again is beyond surreal.

    Despite what a greedy and increasingly evil industry would have us believe about quantity sold = quality, live performance is the ultimate “proof of the pudding” for music and songwriting. I’ve never liked the “singer-songwriter” label (or labeling, in general) and with Vance it’s not a label, but an accurate definition, and that is meant as a compliment of the highest order. Very few can do both that well *again, we can refer to Bob Dylan* 😉 and it’s why his live performance method works so very, very well. I thoroughly enjoyed his insights on local music and its importance. I can vouch for what he says about Harrisburg, having looked into it quite a bit when we were pondering a move to the area. If not quite dead, it appears terminal, and I’m thrilled that the ‘burg is vibrant. I can think of a few of your local musicians that are responsible for raising the bar. 🙂

    Finally… the pseudo-porn intro music. Yeah, the bass is weak. While I’m not particularly proud of my musical vocabulary in this genre, it could be lucrative. They should have called.


    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Yeah, the Barron Arts Center. Weird, huh? We actually talked a bit about his shows in Hoodbridge. :). And yeah, you could earn a slappy bass porn intro. LOL


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