Phyfe - the 12th-16th century rock god
By Sally A. Schwartz
Photos by Dave Schwartz
Last month, I headed over to the Down Under
Winery in Chandler, Arizona to see a real renaissance rock star. Owain Phyfe
is just one of the performers for Renaissance Faire circuit throughout
Northern America. His music is a compilation of 12th through 16th
century songs that enthrall audiences. I managed to get a few minutes with
Phyfe to learn about him and his music.
DB : What sparked your interest in the
OP: It comes about with just wanting to
participate with the fair many years ago. It sparked the urge to create a
character so there would be a reason to be out at the fair. I thought well I
play music and I could be kind of a troubadour character. So I started
digging into the Renaissance music and I loved it! It was beautiful and love
at first hearing.
DB: So that is how you first started
performing at the Ren Faires?
DB: How did you make your connections with
the music that you studied?
OP: Well, I listened to any kind of early
music that I came in contact with or could find. That was back in the days
when records were being to be phased out, cassettes were still there, CDs
were brand new… so there were recordings of music that people were doing. I
liked the music that I was hearing, but didn’t like the performance practice
in which they were presenting it. I thought that I could improve on that.
For me, it is a living and fun, romantic
thing that I like to recreate the spirit of it rather than recreate it note
for note. We use the expression that we aren’t doing a documentary of the
music and I am very glad that there are people that do documentaries of the
time piece of music. There are those of the academia that do recreate it in
the historical sense and it is about the recreation for them to perform the
music in its true sense. and it has its place. For me, it is about the
spirit and fun of the music.
DB: What is the favorite period of the
music that you play and sing?
OP: I don’t really draw lines of attractions
to the music. To tell the truth, I can’t tell you that I am in love with all
of it because, like any genre of music, there is junk in there. You will
come across dreary and boring pieces of music in there, again like I said
like, in any other genre of music. You can come across a beautiful country
western, blues or rock and roll song... But I found that if you are careful
and selective, go for those gems that were created 400,500,600,700 years
ago. It really doesn’t matter how old they are, but they are gems and they
deserve to be reacquainted with and be presented to a 21st
DB: Do you think that a lot of the
Renaissance period music is being lost or do you think it is being carried
over to the 21st century audience?
OP: Yeah, I suppose that there have been many
gems that have been lost. But I still think that there are many research
musicians who think that that is kind of the last frontier…but there is
always new things that are being discovered. There are so much, for example,
in the loop repertoire that you could play forever and not play through the
repertory and still come across a gem that had been written 600 years ago
and deserves to be played.
DB: Tell me a little bit about the type of
guitar that you play.
OP: It’s a 16th century instrument
called the chitarra battente, an instrument that I found that worked for me.
I had three of them made specifically for me. It is much a kin to the
American folk guitar. It is a pre-guitar instrument. The guitar is about 200
years old, the instrument that I play is about 400 years old. It is
different from the guitar in that that back side is vaulted or rounded. The
sound holes are covered, which causes the sound to tumble before it comes
out, so it is a rounded out and gentler sound.
the instrument, chitarra battente, that I play from Italy was an instrument
that was metal strung and metal-fretted so it's like I had said a kin to the
American folk guitar which makes playing outside on the same level with
playing with a metal-strung instrument.
DB: How many instruments do you play?
Excluding weavoes. (we both laugh).
OP: I just do that behind close doors.
(laughs). Well, the chitarra battente is my instrument of choice and the one
that I play. I haven’t really dabbled into other instruments. There are so
many wonderful musicians that I have come in contact with that have joined
me in presenting the music and that has been the beauty of the New World
Renaissance Band. The education from people, like Max Dyer, Bob Bielefeld
and Sasha Raykov, has been brought to the band so I don’t have to go back
and do that. They make it easy for me.
DB: I read that when you were younger you
studied languages. Were you studying to become a linguist and how many
languages do you speak?
OP: Actually, I was raised in a home that was
one of the languages spoken. One of the languages was Welch. It was always
something of interest to me. I’m not sure why, but I guess that enables you
and gives you an enhancement to travel. Knowing another language encourages
you to travel.
DB: How many languages to you speak?
OP: English, French and Spanish. I studied
German, I don’t speak it. I studied a little Italian, don’t speak it. But
the romance languages are pretty well to… well, if you're going to be singer
you have to sing in Italian.
DB: I have also read that you are an
OP: What? (laughs). Don’t let that get out.
DB: Have you written any of your own poems,
set them to song and performed them?
OP: Umm…Yeah…Not so much. Sometimes I will do
alterations to a given song, but still keeping within the original song.
There is so much out there to choose from. Yes, I have written a few of my
own… but should I do something with them, we will have to wait and see.
DB: You have taught workshops to numerous
organizations, what does one of your workshops involve?
OP: I love teaching workshops. They are a fun
thing. One of my favorites is “Doing Ancient Music for the 21st
Century,” we delve into many considerations based upon definitions of art
and music in a type of art.
DB: Tell me about your Nightwatch Recording
Studio, are you geared toward a certain style of music?
OP: You know it is always a nice thing… that
happens when people hear something that old and people are surprised on how
they still can connect with the music of old. So that is one of the reasons
why Nightwatch had gotten started, because no one else was doing it in that
fashion. So it seemed to fit the need at the right time.
DB: Who was the most influential writer to
catch your attention?
OP: You know, I don’t think I could put a set
finger on just any one person. So many of the songs come from such varied
sources and I don’t do music of just one person. So I think that is the
answer to that question.
DB: Tell us about the "back stage passes" you
sell at your shows?
OP: Oh, OK, thank you for asking. It
originally was a little goofy thing to do. When I was doing a tour with
Blackmore’s Night in Germany, they gave us passes for backstage and asked us
to please put them on so they knew when you were going in and out and that
you were cleared to be backstage. We decided that when we got back to the
states to do our own little passes at the Jewel Stage in Michigan. OK,
they’re backstage passes, but if you have ever been to the Jewel Stage in
Michigan there is no backstage. So it was a goofy little thing that we made
up. Well then other people asked, “How can I get one of the those?” Then it
started as a "let’s do something for charity."
is a wonderful charity called, Renaissance Entertainers Servicers, Crafters,
United. It’s called RESCU Foundation. It is a foundation that is set up to
help people who do Renaissance Faires/ Renaissance circuit across the
country. If they have a medical problem or some other issue on the road,
RESCU is there to help them. It is one of those foundations that is right at
it’s beginning so 100 percent of the money actually goes to those people
that need it. It doesn’t go to administration or things like that. I am very
glad to be a part of that and donating the profits to them.
When we raised money in Michigan, some of the people asked
why we only had done it in Michigan why not do it at the other fairs as
well? So this year, we started doing the 2008 Backstage Tour Pass.
Someone in Colorado came up to me and said, “
You know if you pull up Troubadour in Wikipedia your picture comes up?” I
didn’t know that and I as flattered to find that out, so let's use that! You
have to use what they give you and that is what prompted the theme for the
2008 Backstage Pass. So the picture that is on the pass is the one that is
pulled up in Wikipedia. We sell them for $5 and I am proud to say thus far,
which is just the start of the season, we are closing in on a $500 donation.
So that is the good news.
DB: I think that is just very cool and
awesome. To help those that give us so much enjoyment is important. I
know that there are many who do the Renaissance circuits and donate their
time, so to have something like this is important. Now the last question of
the night- - is there anything you would like to add, I have missed asking
or you would like to make comment on to our readers and fans?
OP: Nothing really jumps into mind at the
moment…well, maybe just if you can catch one of our performances and that it
touches you. So come out and enjoy a show or two.
The night ended in just the same fashion as
each of Phyfe‘s shows: “With a health to the company and one to my lass… Let
us drink and be merry all out of one class. Let us drink and be merry all
grief to refrain, for we may all might never all meet here again.” It was a
perfect ending to a perfect evening at the Down Under Winery. When the
Renaissance Faire comes to your area, I highly suggest that you check the
performers' lists and see if Owain Phyfe is on the venue and schedule time
out of your day to take in one of his shows-- you will not be disappointed.