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Interview Mon Jun 17 2013

Interview: Harmonizing with John C. Reilly at the Old Town School of Folk Music


Left to right: Becky Stark, Tom Brosseau, and John C. Reilly

Anyone who has followed actor John C. Reilly's career up to this point shouldn't have a hard time discovering his musical talents. In addition to roles alongside Will Ferrell in comedies such as Step Brothers and Talladaga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Reilly sang in the 2002 movie adaptation of Chicago, and he also starred, sang, and played guitar as the fictional music icon Dewey Cox in Judd Apatow's biopic parody Walk Hard. He even made a brief appearance in A Prairie Home Companion as one-half of a hoakey folk-comedy duo alongside Woody Harrelson.

By now, though, the secret is most definitely out in the open. Reilly, who grew up in Marquette Park and went to college at DePaul University, is currently on tour as the lead singer and guitarist for his own group, John Reilly and Friends.

Roughly three years ago, Reilly teamed up with musicians Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau after bonding over a shared love for the close-harmony folk and country music of groups such as the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. The trio initially played small shows for friends in living rooms around Los Angeles. More recently, they recorded a handful of singles for Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville. And now, Reilly and Friends are on a worldwide tour with an entire band consisting of musicians from Old Crow Medicine Show, Soul Coughing, and more.

Reilly spoke to Gapers Block over the phone recently about his background in music, how he formed this band, and the epiphanies he experience while attending school just blocks from the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he'll be playing with his band this Saturday.

Tell me how you met Tom Brosseau and Becky Stark. How long have you three been doing this?

I was friends with Becky socially through different people years ago, and she started singing with this group called The Living Sisters--just a beautiful female vocal harmony group. I went to see Becky play with them, and Tom Brosseau opened for them one night. It was like a double whammy, I just had these two epiphanies where I thought, "Oh my god, I have to sing with Becky," and "Oh my god, I have to sing with Tom." I've been really obsessed with this close harmony kind of music, with the Everly Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers, and just roots music in general. I was looking for people who were not only interested in the music like I was but whose voices would sound good with mine and would be a good meld because that can be a real alchemy kind of thing, you know? We just started singing, tentatively trying it out in our living rooms, and it just became a really good thing. Then I realized I was doing music with all these different people, and I thought, rather than going to five different living rooms, why don't we have everyone just come to the same living room and put it together like a variety show?

We started playing shows at a really great club here in Los Angeles called Largo, which is kind of a hub for great music here. I think it's one of the best places in town to hear music. It just became this sort of labor of love. We've taken it up and down the coast of California, to Australia, to England and Ireland, and now it's time to bring it all back home to the midwest where I'm from. I'm really excited and super honored to be playing at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Did you know about the Old Town School of Folk Music growing up here?

I grew up in Marquette Park, which is like another world from where the Old Town School of Folk Music is. But I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Irish music and we had a player piano in the house, and I listened to a lot of older, Tin Pan Alley kind of music. Then I went to school at DePaul, and that's when I became aware of the Old Town School of Folk Music. When I was up in Lincoln Park going to college, I had put together a lot of the old Irish music that I was listening to as a kid, and I noticed it was all being played at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the sixties and stuff. It was kind of a revelation.

Can you remember anything specific about what it was that got you hooked on this kind of music enough to want to play it and record it on your own?

Just in general, it's one of the only truly magical things that human beings can do, to take one voice, sing with another voice, and create a third voice that wasn't there before. Most of our lives are very rooted in the laws of physics, but when people sing harmony, something magical really does happen. I think if people come out (on Saturday), they're going to be really happy with what they hear.

It also sounds like the format for these shows is very traditional, with people gathering around and sharing duties on one microphone.

I think singing together around one microphone lends an intimacy to the performance that is lacking in a lot of music shows where everyone's on a separate mic in a separate channel with a separate monitor, and earphones in. It's something really cool that happens when people are brought together around one mic. That said, we might have more than one mic on Saturday. Because there will be six of us up there.

As an actor, how has the experience been touring and playing shows? Does it feel weird at all?

Well, that's why we kind of started out at a slow simmer. We wanted to get our footing and really get solid as a band because at first, audiences were like "What is this?! John Reilly the actor?!" Sometimes people would show up to the shows and think it was going to be an evening of stand-up comedy or something. That said, when people do show up and they don't know quite what to expect, they end up coming away really happy. You just get all these beaming faces after the shows. People have been very cool about opening their minds and experiencing the moment even though it's something different than what I'm known for.

I think it would probably be an easier path for everyone to stay in their little box that they're in, like "John Reilly. He's an actor in movies." But life is short, I think everyone should do what they can do. If you can paint a painting, why not? Paint a painting. Write a short story. Sing a song. If anything, the success that I've had as an actor gives me the opportunity to do stuff like this, and I thought, what better way to use my fame, or whatever you want to call it, than to share these other musicians with people you might not have heard of? It's like the dual mission of this band is to keep this music alive and to share Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau and Willie Watson and Dan Bern with people that might have just come to the show because they saw my name.

I think it's pretty easy for anyone who follows you to find out you're musically talented. Have you always wanted to be a musician?

Not really. I never even dreamed that I could be an actor as a kid. Where I grew up, I didn't have a lot of role models from the neighborhood who had gone on to become musicians and actors. It's a pretty practical place, the South Side. You usually just try to get a good job and it's usually not in the arts. But you know, I had some really great mentors over the years. And a lot of people in my family play music. Like I said, I'm amazed at how lucky I've been and the things I've gotten to do with my life.

So is this tour in support of the singles you recorded for Third Man Records with Jack White?
Well, it's not really based on that. Those were a couple of songs we were doing already, and Jack White invited us down to Nashville to record some of them. Those are the only recordings we have right now other than what's on YouTube, but we are planning on recording an album soon, so we'll have more of the stuff that we do on our record. The show's are more based on the whole catalog of roots and country and bluegrass music. We've got like a hundred songs that we could do, and every show we decide what's going to be best for that night, and we pick what feels good to play that night.

Thanks for your time, John. Anything you'd like to add?
I really hope people come out because if they don't, it will be a rehearsal instead of a show! But I'm super, super happy to be back in Chicago and to be able to share this music that I love so much with my hometown! It's going to be a really cool night.


John Reilly and Friends come to Chicago this Saturday for a special evening of close harmony American roots and country music at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are on sale to the general public for for $28, $26 for Old Town School Members.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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