Portrait by Asher Penn
Ed Askew is a true anomaly within the underground music community he calls home. At 77, the Ridgewood resident performs sitting down, accompanied by avant veterans Jay Pluck and Tyler Evans, bringing audiences to tears with particularly tender indie folk ballads. Making his debut with the wholly unique “Ask The Unicorn” on the famed ESP Records in 1968, Ed Askew draws from 40 years of songwriting, the majority of which he did not record until the last two decades. Embracing DIY recordings and platforms like bandcamp, Ed has revealed himself to be a truly prolific artist whose work is appreciated by the youngest of souls.
Where are you from?
I’m from Stanford, Connecticut. It’s changed a lot since I grew up there, when it had a small downtown and the corporations weren’t there. In the 70’s they bought out all the land and forced a lot of black people out for “re-development”. The photo on the cover of my first album, Ask The Unicorn, is actually a protest on the day that MLK died. That’s where it was.
What was it like there?
It was a nice town. Lots of parks. As a kid I kept to myself. My school and church were both on the same block so I didn’t venture far. I spent most of my time in that neighborhood, making things and drawing.
Was there much art or music around your house?
There wasn’t much art. My parents had Elvis Presley and Fats Domino records- current pop music. When I was a kid we had the wind up record player and we’d listen to Bing Crosby. My father didn’t really like classical music.
What was your first instrument?
It was a Tiple. It was in the attic. [pulls out Tiple] This is what I play, what I’m known for, but it’s really hard on the thumbs. I have serious tendonitis.
So it’s like a Ukelele?
It’s tuned like one. That’s why my father had it, because he could play the Ukelele. He never picked it up my whole childhood but I found it when I was around 15. At the time you could get “Tiple Tabs” for popular music of the time, sheets for relatively cheap. I started doing that at picnics, playing for the family for fun. It was warped, though, so you could only play so far.
You were self taught? What about the piano?
I wanted to learn the piano for a long time my parents wouldn’t pay for lessons. They thought I would give up and the money would be wasted… Eventually my mom bought a piano. I’d have instructors but it was very basic instructions- they’d give me a sheet until I could play it and then they’d give me something else. I basically taught myself, playing constantly, but I didn’t write anything till later.
Ed Askew at Silver Mine, 1962.
You went to art school?
I went to the Silvermine Guild School of Art. Silvermine had a mixture of a few young people- not many- and a few ladies and middle aged men. I was there for two years. Some of the people at the school really liked my work and encouraged me to show it to the dean at Yale. That was how I ended up there, on another scholarship.
I heard you went to Yale.
They had just created this program where you got your Bachelor’s and your Master’s in 3 years. I had already been at Silver Mine for 4 years, so I went to art school for 7 years. The program was started because the students were skipping the classes they didn’t like. They wanted a more contemporary approach.
Were you into contemporary art?
I was looking at all the latest stuff. The entire time I was in art school I used to take trips to New York down to 57th street which was where all the galleries were and go to a museum.
What was your art like?
I was doing all different kinds of things, as big as I could. I would buy big rolls of this inexpensive detail paper and paint them and cut them out in the style of Matisse and glue them in compositions. I made several paintings that way that everyone loved. They were destroyed though, at a wedding. I loaned them to my friend, and the wind caught them and they were blown away.
What kind of music were you listening to at Yale?
I heard my first Dylan there. People think I knew all about the Greenwich Village scene but I didn’t even know it was going on. My friends were listening to the Beatles and we had parties where we were playing the Rolling Stones. A friend of mine wrote to me to be sure to get a Doors record. There were some other recommendations. That’s how I picked up stuff like that… but I was still listening to classical music.
Were you playing music in school?
Not really until after I graduated from Yale. I had found this tiple in New Haven for very little money. Once I got that I stopped making art for almost a year. I was just writing songs, like what I do now… coming up with a progression of chords I had never played before. I didn’t use any standard chords, I couldn’t even tell you what they were.
Dixwell Ave House, 70′s. Photo: Rufus Butler Seder
What did people think?
I guess some people liked it. Nobody really said. The first real performance was at this basement coffee house in New Haven called The Exit. They were having an open mike and they put me on last. After the show all these people rushed up to the stage and wanted to talk to me- it was really strange. Somehow I hit a nerve. Russ Warren was running the show, and immediately asked me to join his band, Gandalf and the Motor Pickle.
What did you play?
Well, they didn’t want me to play the Tiple. In those days if you had a band, the band couldn’t have other instruments… Every band had x guitars, a bass, and drums. For a while it was very strict so it was out of the question that I played the tiple, which is too bad and the reason I quit. I wasn’t writing any music- I was just showing up when they told me to show up and sing. It was nice playing in a band. but it wasn’t all that satisfying.
So you kept playing solo?
I knew all my songs by heart, could do like 25 songs at a set. I used to put on shows in New Haven a lot. I would rent a space very cheaply and I would put one on for like 25 dollars. I would play what was on Ask The Unicorn- that’s where all that music comes from.
Whenever I try to describe your to your music I keep coming back to ‘ballads.’ which aren’t necessarily specific to folk or pop.
Yeah I didn’t think of it as folk or pop. Anybody who played a harmonica was instantly labeled ‘folk musician’. Those were singer-songwriter songs. Up until my going to Yale I wasn’t listening to pop music, I was listening to Bartok and Eric Satie and John Cage. I was listening to stuff like that.
How did you see what you were making fitting into the music of the time? Did you see yourself as kind of participating in a dialogue, or was it more of a self expression?
I saw it as- even though they weren’t using the term then, sort of indie-folk. I saw it as indie, I was using the means of folk music just to make whatever I made and I didn’t think of it in terms of a genre, it’s just what I did.
So you moved to New York?
I was always staying with various people. I was running around to so called ‘basket houses’ where groups of kids who call themselves ‘families’ would live. They weren’t run by the Mansons or anything, just nice kids that had their little coffee houses in the East Village. At night I’d go around with my tipple, just show up and play. Then I played on the Bob Fass show, a famous radio show on WBAI. It was one of the first places Dylan played several years earlier.
Ed Askew, 1981. Photo: Yasonori Yamamoto
That must have a been a big break.
It was a major show. He had me play for hours but nothing happened as a result of it.
So Ask the Unicorn and Little Eyes came out in ‘71? Were they both on the same label?
ESP had me record both albums. The label was ran by Bernard Stollman, a lawyer who ended up knowing a lot of musicians. He liked jazz, started creating opportunities for people to make recordings and then I guess he met some folk people. People like the Fugs, a contemporary sort of anti-pop.
Did you have to reach out to him or did he find you?
I called him up. He didn’t know anything about me. Somebody told me call up ESP. They said he doesn’t listen to people directly, you have to have a tape and he’ll listen to the tape. I found a reel to reel recorder. When he put the tape on, the whole time it played, he didn’t look at me. It was about 5 minutes. I was so nervous. Then he turned around and offered me a contract. We recorded the album, and then they went bankrupt.
So how did the album come out?
The only reason it exists is because they got acetate pressings. They sent me the acetate pressings but they didn’t put the record out. Before I wore it out, which I did, because I was waiting for it to come out my good friend Carl suggested we tape it. That’s the tape that over 30 years later I sent to De Stijl records.
What happened after ESP?
I was trying to get a gallery in New York for my paintings.
How did you see your art evolving?
It shifted and changed a lot. Thats one problem with galleries, because I’m not what you call consistent. I don’t do a lot of things at one time but I’ll do something for maybe five years, and sometime’s I’ll just do a set of things because it’s an idea I got and then I’ll be like okay, you don’t need to make any more of these. I found what I wanted to find out and then I’ll just go do something else.
And you were still playing live though?
I was trying to make money from tips. For a while in the late 1970’s I was in San Francisco and you could get gigs really easy but no one would pay you. I was kind of blowing my thumbs at that point because I was just playing so much.
Ed Askew, 1981
And you returned to New Haven?
I eventually found a studio on Daggett ’s street, New Haven where the rain would come in and the boiler was next door. It was very loud but it cost practically nothing. There was no heat on weekends. I was actually doing deals with friends for buying my art. They would pay me so much a month and then they would pick out a painting when they wanted it. I was making so much art a month I could just live on that, because everything was so cheap.
How did you start doing home recordings?
I moved back to New York and had got some money. A friend of my mother left a few thousand dollars both to me and my brother. I was able to buy a couple of Shure microphones, a compressor, a small tape recorder, stuff like that. I started making tapes, making copies and sending them to friends mostly.
Was this on a 4 track?
I did everything on cassette. I’d write and write until I had enough stuff and then I’d feed everything into one master cassette. I made a little package and I’d have it copied someplace, until I got a printer, and then I’d send them to my friends. I had a list of about 30 people, 40 people, and would just send them the tapes. Sometimes I heard back. On two occasions two people sent me a hundred dollars. I created an audience for myself.
Your older records also started to get re-released. Was that when you started playing live again?
People were hearing about me so I started getting asked to play. I was invited to WNYC’s Spinning on Air and the host, David Garland accompanied me with two members of the Doveman. Because of that I was invited to play The Stone so De Stijl recommended Steve Gunn, who had played with Kurt Vile. Jay Pluck saw that show, reached out to me on Myspace, and asked if he could learn some of my songs, which was good because Steve had left on tour. When Drag City released my 1994 cassette “Imperfection” as an LP I was invited to join the Black Swans on tour. That was how we met Tyler Evans who was moving to New York so we invited him to join the band. That’s what the current Ed Askew Band lineup is today.
Tyler Evans, Jay Pluck, Ed Askew, European Tour, 2017
I love how you play sitting down.
I only recently started playing that way because I had a fall about 3 years ago and was in extreme pain. A lot of therapy corrected the situation.
I want to talk about your writing process a bit more. Are the lyrics mostly personal or more literary?
A lot of them are personal. Situations I’ve been in, people I’ve loved, people I’ve known. Like one says, the lyric is, ‘and you mother called me up’ it was like ‘you woke me up, kissed me, we made love, but your mother called me up, you were gone’. That was a friend of mine I knew really well who died when he was 36 and his mother called me to tell me he had died. I didn’t wanna give away too much because it’s really personal, but I don’t ever write, or very seldom do I write specifically. I use the information to create a scenario that has implications, creates an atmosphere, rather than explaining anything, because the reality is boring, and I don’t necessarily want anybody to know my business. On the other hand I’m using my business all the time to write about stuff.
Is it difficult or easy for you to write a song?
I have to feel like writing, and then I sit down and start. What I do now is sit down and I open pro tools, just start playing, and then do a cut and paste and put the progression together that way. Before I would work out a whole thing out and memorize it so I could play it and then I go over and over and over it, like with the Unicorn and then later Little Eyes. I would get all that work done ahead of time, and then I’d just play it over and over and over again. But my standard method is to wait until something pops into my head.
The Ed Askew Band, Alphaville, 2017. Photo: Aasim Syed
And for the lyrics?
For the lyrics I almost never decide what it should be about. I just wait for something, and if something doesn’t come to mind I’ll put it away for a while and then I’ll try again later. I could spend an entire four or five hours listening over and over and over again to this stupid progression, waiting for something to pop into my mind. Eventually something does most of the time, if I get a progression that I like, but it may not be anything I understand, until I have a few lines and then it starts to kind of make sense. Then you can start to shape it, because you know what it’s about, but sometimes you don’t know what it’s about. It’s just implications and more surrealist like stream of consciousness kind of thing. You wouldn’t be able to figure it out.
A lot of the time the lyrics may kind of remind you of a memory, or a conjuring of a memory, like something from the past.
You want to bring to mind a kind of atmosphere. It’s like the difference between saying that you feel sad, writing about feeling sad, versus writing about being on a beach, thinking about this girl or boy you liked who you don’t see anymore, looking out at the sea and seeing the vast openness which evokes the whole feeling… Rather than saying ‘I feel sad I don’t see this person anymore, we broke up’, you know what I mean? I’m into beaches.