The unofficial theme of this year’s Folk Festival could be youth, mused Tuesday night host Jim Grammel after an ebullient performance by the Alaskan Travelers -- a group of high schoolers who are already Folk Fest regulars at this point in their young lives. The next act, true to Grammel’s words, was Myron Welling, joined onstage by his 6-year-old daughter, Amy, in the second father-and-young-daughter pairing of the evening. Monday’s performances also featured many young musicians, including young fiddle students led by Guo Hua Xia, and McKenna McNutt and Naara Conlon of The Forget-Me-Not Girls.
The mix of old and young and in between has always been one of Folk Festival’s strengths -- it truly is the community’s stage, with experienced musicians and novices trading off 15-minute blocks all week long. And those of us who’ve lived here a decade or more have the fun of seeing some of the youngest performers turn into accomplished musicians almost before our eyes, giving us an opportunity to watch the passion for music move from one generation to the next. In this way, Folk Fest is almost an audible representation of some of the links that run through our arts community, with family members, friends and neighbors inspiring one another to play and create more music.
Irene Muller is among the most well-known of the young musicians who have grown up in the Folk Fest community. Now in her early 20s, and about to release her first album, “Victory,” with her band, Muller says her early exposure to local musicians at Centennial Hall was an integral part of her progression as a songwriter.
“I almost hear their voices sometimes when I’m writing,” she said of her Folk Fest mentors. “It’s kind of my musical context. When I get into my music space, that part of my brain, they’re all in there -- that’s where I got my musical habits and my interests.”
Muller’s first appearance on the Centennial Hall stage was at age 4, as part of a Juneau Coop Preschool performance. But the year she really considers her debut was in the late 1990s, when she played her own set as a 7-year-old, accompanied by a family friend on the piano. She continued to perform every year, often with J. Althea, one of her music teachers, throughout her childhood, even after she relocated to Seattle with her mother when she was 10. She made it back to Juneau to visit her dad during every festival but one (somewhere in her teen years, for a reason she can’t recall), and kept performing, transitioning to singing with a guitar at age 14.
Now, having moved back to Juneau to attend UAS, she’s still passionately involved, and no doubt has already begun to inspire the young preschoolers who are watching her up on stage.
The list of local musicians who made an impact on Muller over the years is too long to print, but includes Buddy Tabor, Pat Henry, Katie Henry, Haley Nelson, Annie Bartholomew, Michael Truax, Barb Kalen, J. Althea, John Lager and John Ingalls. And, this being Juneau, she was able to seek out some of these people for advice when she began to write her own songs.
“I got a lot of feedback, at least artistically, when I started playing my own songs in public. It was nice because I had enough professional musicians of varying ages and genres that I knew well enough and trusted enough to get constructive criticism from. So at a really early age I was having my music critiqued.”
Muller’s been spending a lot of time with her mentors lately, even those who are now present only in memory. As part of a research project for UAS class in anthropology, she’s been digitizing the old Folk Fest reel-to-reel tapes from the 1970s and 1980s at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections. On Wednesday, she gave a presentation about the project, performing some folk festival classics such as John Prine’s “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round,” as well as her own songs.
Muller said the tapes span from 1978 to 1987, and contain the entire week of performances. She started with 1982, because she wanted to sort the unlabeled tapes first, and once that was complete went back to the beginning, to 1978, where she is now.
“It’s basically like I’ve been going to Folk Fest two days a week all semester,” she said. “It’s great.”
The project is slow going, she said -- there are more than 160 tapes, adding up to more than 500 hours of music -- but as she listens to the performances in real time, she often gets caught up in the energy of the familiar voices and songs.
“There are definitely moments where I’ll be sitting there listening, doing homework or something else, and I’ll get wrapped up in it and forget that I’m not in Centennial Hall. Like (on Monday I heard) Jeff Brown’s set in 1978 -- that was fun. And Buddy Tabor did a gospel set that opened the 1978 festival, which was awesome.”
Though she probably won’t have time to get through more than a few years of tape, she’s paved the way for others to get involved in the digitization project in the future.
The Folk Fest project has been squeezed into Muller’s already busy schedule, which includes part-time classes at UAS, where she is pursuing a degree in marine biology, and a nearly full-time job at the humane society, as well as time with her boyfriend, and the recording project at Studio A, where her album now in its final stages. She hopes to release it this spring.
The album’s 10 tracks are all originals, and span the time from when she was 15 up to the present. Seven tracks feature her band -- Sammy Burrous on guitar, Dale McFarlin on drums and Simon Taylor on bass -- one features just her and Burrous, and two are solo performances.
Muller said in some ways the songs make up a kind of scrapbook of her adolescence -- a rough time for her in more ways than one.
“It was this huge period of growth for me,” she said. “A bunch of horrible things happened, a bunch of great things happened. I wrote about all of it.”
One of the experiences she wrote about is when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Muller was a sophomore in high school (her mother is now OK).
“They are all personal in different ways,” she said. “There’s one song, ‘The Way God Made Me’ that’s really political, it’s about love and politics basically and how they don’t really fit together. There’s a song I wrote for my mom on Mother’s Day, the year she was diagnosed with cancer. There’s a song about growing up in Juneau. There’s songs about falling out of love falling in love, wishing you were or weren’t in love. ... And there’s a song ‘All There Is,’ I wrote the day I found out Buddy Tabor was going into hospice care. and that one was, ‘Really I cant talk about this, I can’t even really cry, there’s too much.’’’
Though all the songs are born out of her interest in folk music, she struggles with whether or not to call herself a folk musician, and with assigning a genre to the new cd.
“I don’t know if I’ll be a folk musician for ever, I’m already heading away from it a little bit. But it’s always going to be my context, my roots, so to speak. It’s what it all comes back to.”
Find out more about Muller at irenemusic.com or soundcloud.com/irene-muller.