Owain 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 Renaissance music?

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?

OP: Yes.

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 century audience.

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.

But 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 accomplished poet.

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."

There 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.

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