An Interview With Punch Brothers’ Bass Ace Paul Kowert & A Look At His Latest Album With Bluegrass Supergroup Hawktail

As a resident of Music City, it can be hard to find authentic live music that isn’t geared towards our Dolly-loving hearts. But as one of the south’s fastest growing cities, we could use innovative playing from a genre that also runs deep in our beloved Dixieland: bluegrass-folk music. The up-and-coming group of seasoned string players known as Hawktail is doing just that.  

Composed of bass virtuoso Paul Kowert, veteran fiddle-player Brittany Haas, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie (Hawktail’s most recent addition), the group has joined collaborative forces to redefine the sound of Bluegrass/string bands as we know it- and what a force they are.

Selling out quaint concert halls or bustling Bluegrass festivals is an everyday occurrence for Kowert, who’s also a founding member of the ever-popular Punch Brothers. As if winning a Grammy with his fellow Punch Brothers – er, brothers – wasn’t enough, Kowert has carved out time over the years to perfect his writing and playing in preparation for Hawktail’s sophomore album, Formations. From his experiences in recording hit songs for popular films including “This is Forty” and “The Hunger Games,” and years of mentoring young musicians at Bluegrass camps, it’s no wonder Kowert landed on Hawktail as his most recent project to hone in on.

Amidst his busy schedule, Kowert took a moment (juggling multiple projects in Nashville is no small feat), to talk about the muse behind Formations, becoming Hawktail, and more…

Music Mecca: So how did Hawktail come together?

Paul Kowert: So we’ve all known each other since about 2006 or so. Primarily camps, music festivals, playing backstage, and that kind of thing. Jordan [Tice], he and I have always had a project going. We wanted to add in some mandolin, so we went and got Dominick in there.

MM: What was the vision for your newest album Formations, and what was the primary influence and inspiration behind it? 

PK: The first album was written before we had Dominick in the band. With Dominick around and in mind this time, the inspiration for it was kind of exactly that; stronger music at music festivals that incorporated the mandolin.  

MM: I see your debut album, Unless, took three years to finalize, while your latest album, Formations, only took a mere two months. What made the second time around so much quicker? 

PK: The process [for this album] was a little different than it was for Unless. Let’s see. (Pondering) It was more efficient because I guess the timeline was more set in stone. I wouldn’t call it a time crunch…but we needed to get it done. (laughs)

MM: What was the hardest part about writing or recording this album?

PK: There’s always something challenging. You’re always looking for the next best thing. I guess we spent a good deal of time editing. I spent a lot of time outside of our group-time together developing material and bringing in things that were sort of half-moons. It was cool to take ‘em to its final stages with everybody. One thing that was remarkable, is that [the album] really came together last minute in terms of my history of recording. Some of the music from it we had never played before! The first time we played through the second-half of [Formations], it was the opposite of being jaded.

MM: How does this album differ from Unless aside from the time it took?

PK: (Apologetically jokes) Well I kind of ramble, but it’s sonically more robust I’d say, and the music is also that. It’s designed to be stronger music for a festival stage, really.

MM: So I know Chris Eldridge is your Punch Brothers bandmate, but how did you get hooked up with engineer Dave Sinko and the others, and what made you think they were the right bunch to produce this particular album? 

PK: So yeah, Critter [Chris Eldridge] is a bandmate of mine. He produced Hawktail’s first album. He’s not really your typical producer, but we knew it would go better if Critter was around. He understands what we’re going for, and he brings a real familiarity with the sound that we’re getting on the record with a little bit of the arrangement stuff, just to show what we’re trying to get across. Sinko is the sound engineer for Punch Brothers, and has been since the band started. He recorded Hawktail’s first record and other trios before that, and so he’s really in and out.

MM: I see you guys are set to tour in February and into April, and have one of your last shows as of now at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, which is also a new song on the album. What’s the connection and inspiration there? 

PK: It came about at a soundcheck at Eddie’s Attic years ago; something that we saved on our phones in a voice memo. We always thought it was a good idea that we never did anything with.  

MM: What else might you have planned throughout the year whether it’s with Hawktail, Punch Brothers, or just your own thing?

PK: Well, uh, we don’t really know yet! (excitedly) I think we’re just going to play behind this record.

MM: What has been one of your most defining and accomplished moments as an artist so far?

PK: Truthfully, I just want to say that – on the record – we had a mission to create stronger music that really incorporated the mandolin. And we did it. That feels like a feat for me right now. 

MM: What advice would you give to young composers and musicians trying to break into the bluegrass scene? 

PK: (Pondering) Find out what you have to offer, and really hone in on it.

MM: And lastly, friends, family, or visiting musicians ask you the best places to eat in Nashville. Where do you send them?

PK: (Laughs) Oh boy. I guess that’s up to how you eat. There’s a place called Prince’s Hot Chicken. It’s the seminal Nashville Hot chicken!

Formations, Hawktail’s sophomore album, dropped January 10th and debuts at Nashville’s Little Harpeth Brewing on January 31st.

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