INTERVIEW: Fireside Collective Talks Bridging The Gap On New Album ‘Across The Divide’

With a fresh collection of progressive bluegrass numbers, Fireside Collective has dropped their new album, Across The Divide.

The nominees for the IBMA New Artist of the Year have been dedicated to making honest, spirited music, and they have delivered once again with their latest release. Across The Divide marks the multi-faceted group’s second album release since their signing with Mountain Home Music Company.

After exploring an array of sounds from country to funk to blues in their previous records like 2020’s Elements, Fireside Collective’s new release delves even deeper into their sonic explorations and discoveries. 

Organic, resonating notes of banjo, mandolin, and acoustic guitar prevail throughout the 11-track EP, unearthing another angle to their natural sound while they embark on a narrative adventure through emotional highs and lows. The story-telling in their lyricism paired with a range of instrumental and vocal melodies carry the ear all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains and beyond.

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The Asheville-based quintet is made up of Joe Cicero (guitar), Tommy Maher (dobro), Carson White (bass), Alex Genova (banjo), and Jesse Iaquinto (mandolin).

We had the pleasure of chatting with the band about Across The Divide, hitting the road, and much more.

So going back to your retreat in the Smoky Mountains during peak pandemic days, what was the group’s mindset and creative process like for writing the songs that are on your new album, Across The Divide?

Joe Cicero: When the pandemic first hit, like everyone else, we hunkered down and just took some time off. When it became obvious that we wouldn’t be back to touring anytime soon, we decided the best thing to do was make an album. Jesse booked a cabin in the Smoky Mountains and we all came ready to show each other the songs we’d been writing.

As I recall, we first sat in a circle and went around with just guitars. Then we kind of picked our favorite from each songwriter and went to work arranging and seeing how we could bring the songs to life. We hadn’t seen each other for several months, so it was great to just be around the guys again. Creativity was definitely flowing and we just kind of followed wherever it led us. 

And what made Across The Divide the winning album title choice? What significance does it hold?

Joe: I believe Jesse was thinking of some possible album titles and noticed that two of the songs had the line “Across The Divide” in them. It was a total coincidence, because one of the songs was written by him, and the other myself (and we certainly didn’t plan that). I remember Jesse suggesting it and thinking it had a good ring to it. But, it really made sense the more we thought about it. We found that it went along with what we do musically. We’re always bridging a gap, trying to meld influences. Lyrically, there’s some divides being crossed throughout the album as well. It just became obvious- we had ourselves an album title.

How might this album differ from previous releases from the band?

Joe: I think that when we started making music together in the beginning, there was a tendency to stay a little closer to the bluegrass side of things. It’s always been our common denominator. As the years have gone by, though, we’ve stretched out musically and discovered more common influences. The more we make music together, the more we bring in other flavors that help us to create a unique voice. Across The Divide is another step in that direction. It feels like another layer has been peeled back to better reveal what’s always been there for us as a band. I’d say it’s the most “Fireside” thing we’ve ever done.

The cover art for the album is quite unique as well. Who did it, and what was the vision/idea behind it?

Jesse Iaquinto: The album art was designed by Asheville-based artist Hannah Bunzey. Hannah had been designing our tour posters lately, and we felt that her aesthetic would be great at capturing the vibe of our new album. We have this natural tendency to go back and forth between the progressive and the traditional, and the album itself has a lot of that. It’s about taking our bluegrass foundation and using it to explore new realms. Hannah’s trippy design style and colorful palette resonates with the soundscapes of our album, and we’re really happy with the final design of the album.

Other than playing your respective instruments, how did each member contribute to the creation of this album, and what makes this group’s compatibility so efficient?

Jesse: This particular album features original song contributions from four different members. Typically an individual brings a song to the table and the band takes part in arranging their own particular instrumental parts. I have a heavy hand in writing and arranging vocal harmonies for the album, and every member contributes either lead and/or harmonies on the album. Our efficiency has to do with understanding our individual roles and working in harmony to move each song from start to finish. An artist’s greatest challenge is finishing a piece, but we strive to keep the process moving and make final arrangement decisions in a timely manner. 

Do you find establishing the order of songs on an album like this to be an arduous task, and how important is that to you?

Jesse: In the past, we’ve spent weeks trying to work out the perfect album order. We always want our albums to flow and resemble aspects of our live show. We decided to let our producer, Jon Weisberger, decide the album this time around. We gave him a basic idea of how we like the music to flow and let him drive the final decisions on track order. We also have to consider vinyl production when it comes to the order of songs as we plan to release our first vinyl recordings later this year.

What was a challenge you faced while recording this album?

Alex Genova: Each time we record, it gets a little easier and feels like a more fluid process. However, one of the challenges we encounter is trying to choose the right material. So far, we’ve only used original material, and with so many songwriters in the band, there’s never a shortage of songs. One of the first things we do is share songs we’ve written, discuss which songs feel like they fit well together, and which might not fit as well. We want the songs to feel like they’re connected by common themes, but we don’t want them to be too similar. It can be challenging to find that balance. The goal is to find material that varies in style/tempo/subject matter etc., that also feels like it fits well together.

What song or two on Across The Divide might you be most excited to perform live?

Alex: I’ve really been enjoying playing the first single, “And the Rain Came Down.” It’s a great mid-tempo bluegrass song that feels really good when the whole band is grooving together. Also, the breakdown section is really fun to improvise over. When we play it live, we create a different soundscape each time that mimics the sounds of rain falling. We have a general outline for that section, but it turns out a bit different each night we play it. I love that.

I’m looking forward to playing the instrumental from the album, “Code Switch.” It’s one I wrote that I brought to the band because it was unlike anything else in our repertoire. The A section melody is pretty sparse, with a denser B and C section. I imagine us being able to stretch out on the A section, and maybe playing some of the denser melodic parts together. Like almost all of our live material, I’m sure it will evolve over time, and I’m excited to see what the guys do with it and how they tackle each section.

Honestly, I’m really excited to start playing all of these songs live. We’ve been adding a lot of improvised sections to our live shows, especially this summer. I’m excited to see how these new songs will fit into our sets and how we might use some of them as vehicles for improvisation.

I see you’ve got a good chunk of tour dates lined up post-album release. Which one or two might you be most excited for and why?

Tommy Maher: We are super excited to return to Raleigh on August 19th to the Pour House Music Hall with our buddies Into the Fog. Raleigh is one of our favorite places to play because we have such a history there from attending the IBMAs for so many years, plus I grew up there so it’s like a homecoming. Beyond August, we are really pumped about our first appearance at Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival, the Earl Scruggs Festival, and a nice West Coast run from Oregon down to southern California. We’re starting to slowly make our presence known out west, and we love representing Asheville and North Carolina so far from home!

What else might the band have in store for the rest of the year other than touring?

Tommy: Since we just released an album, our main focus will be touring. We’re all really pumped to start playing the new material at our live shows and it’ll be fun to see how these songs develop on stage. We don’t often play songs the exact way they were recorded, and I’m sure the new tunes will take on a life of their own as we play them more. That’s one of my favorite things about jamming and letting things morph organically.

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