Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert, Jordan Tice and Dominick Leslie have performed, recorded and toured with bluegrass superstars like David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Punch Brothers. As Hawktail, this fearsome foursome combines a level of instrumental dexterity and forward-thinking exploration that's rare in the Americana sphere. With their debut album set to drop in May and their first East Coast tour locked and loaded, Folio Weekly spoke with Haas about instrumental music, special loyalty and historical reinterpretation.
Folio Weekly: Hawktail debuted its first song, "Abbzug," in January and just announced debut album Unless last week. Tell us how you got here.
Brittany Haas: Our first album, released when we were still a trio known as Haas Kowert Tice, resulted from us all bringing separate ideas to the table. For Unless, we all moved to Nashville with the idea of playing more music together and really being a band. The writing process took a long time, but it was cool to just be present and have our ideas come together naturally. We recorded Unless as a trio a couple of times, but it kept feeling like something was missing from the finished product.
What was missing?
It dawned on us that what we really needed to do was hire a fourth person to be in our band, so we started doing a residency in Nashville at the venue Station Inn, where we tested out different instruments: cello, banjo, drums, mandolin. We decided that mandolin was perfect, and that Dominick Leslie was the perfect person to play it. We've known him for a long time actually-we all go back 10 years of hanging out and jamming in different contexts-but we finally figured out we loved him and loved his playing. So we made the record again!
How does Hawktail differ from your respective side projects? Is it a way to have fun in no-pressure environment, or is it something bigger?
A bit of both. The one thing that sets us apart is all of our music is instrumental. It's not like that's never existed before, but a lot of the music we've grown up loving and being inspired by-this amazing Swedish band Väsen, along with Edgar Meyer, a huge hero of ours-is about strength in numbers. We wanted to focus on writing and performing instrumental music in an age when that's unusual. Also, developing our musical friendship and using what each of us have to offer allows us to write and play the best music we can. So, yes, it's fun, but there are definitely ambitions involved. It's an extension of the creative process that maybe we don't really get as deep into with our other bands.
Are you all still active with those other bands or is Hawktail the primary focus now?
We have a special loyalty to this project because we've put so much time and energy into it. Yes, it's another side project, but it's one we all care deeply about. We're trying to figure out that balance-it's a constant question of, "How are we going to make time for the all the different things we're doing?"
You've been hailed as a fiddle prodigy since you were a teenager. Has that been limiting? Has your relationship with the fiddle changed over the years?
That's a really interesting question. We grow and change all the time as people, so it's parallel to that journey through life, where you're re-evaluating all the time: "Wait, what am I doing? How am I doing it?" The music world is so full of wonderful things around every corner, and so many people are making tons of beautiful new stuff. There's tons of beautiful old stuff, too, that you can find if you look hard enough. There's all this forward movement and creativity with my peers and my mentors-people like Darol Anger and Bruce Molsky that I've been obsessed with since I was 10. But they've also paved a road of never-ending discovery for me. The more I get into the scene of music historians delving into the past, the more I'm inspired. It's like, "People already did this-there's nothing new." But if you learn about the amazing old stuff, you can incorporate that into your own blend that has some of you and some of history.
Is that sense of tradition mixed with experimentation the reason you and the rest of the band moved to Nashville?
That wasn't necessarily what brought me here initially, but it is behind the reason that we were all drawn here-it's founded on so much history yet it's still alive and has a magnetic pull that sucks people in. Paul moved here first to play with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, then Jordan and I said, "Let's move there, too" from New York and Boston [respectively].
Has Hawktail toured in Florida?
We did a West Coast tour together in November, and we've all played there with different musicians in the past; I recently toured in Florida with Tony Trischka. But this will be the first time Hawktail [is in] Florida. We're really excited about our two shows in North Florida. We relish the opportunity to play in places like Café Eleven and Blue Jay Listening Room. When we know that our music sounds good and people are hearing everything they should be, it has a great effect on what we're able to accomplish.