New York City Folk Singer-Songwriter, Dancer, & Choreographer Barry Oreck Talks Latest Album, ‘We Fit Together’ & More

Hailing from The Windy City originally, folk singer-songwriter Barry Oreck has since taken his many creative talents to Brooklyn, New York.

His songs touch upon a range of topics, spanning from personal to political. He finds himself writing about “societal and ecological issues as well as the perils of aging and long-forgotten love” to “harnessing the power of music to connect and inspire others.” Having studied with Frank Hamilton and Steve Goodman at the renowned Old Town School of Folk Music, Oreck’s early introduction to folk music and exposure to blues music helped to create his signature musical style.

Oreck has since released two albums: the first, released in 2016, is self-titled and composed of ten original songs. Each is artfully crafted and showcases his blues and folk signature style. His 2018 Album entitled How the Bright Earth Spun is “a collection of new and old songs spanning the folk tradition with intricate guitar interplay, tight vocal harmonies, and rousing fiddle.” Both albums feature guitar and fiddle supporting Oreck’s smooth voice.

Released in May 2020, Oreck’s newest EP We Fit together, is a reflection on the “political shock of 2016.” For Oreck, the idea of fitting together in such a polarizing time where “so many seem to be retreating to the fringes of mutual distrust and tribal isolation” grew to be very important to him. In his song, “We Fit Together” on the EP, Oreck questions the world through his poetic lyrics. He repeatedly asks in the chorus “how did we land in the same time and space? How did the tumblers all fall into place? How did we earn the incredible grace? To be us as only we could and to fit together so good.” The idea and importance of fitting together with others is emphasized throughout the song. Oreck believes that music can inspire action or support movement and change– this EP speaks to that as he tries to sow acquaintances between those with different political opinions and circumstances.

In addition to being an accomplished singer-songwriter, Oreck is an active performer and choreographer in dance and theater in New York. He also creates sound and text scores for productions. Oreck gives both solo performances and collaborations with Barry Oreck and Friends, where he is joined by seasoned musicians. Barry Oreck and Friends features some of Oreck’s original work, traditional songs, and songs from other contemporary songwriters.

Whether performing alone or in a group, Barry Oreck believes that music touches “emotional chords that make us reexamine our lives and our relationships to others” and that it has the capacity to “change us.”

So I was hoping you could talk about your upbringing and what got you into playing and writing music?

I grew up in the folk and blues mecca of Chicago in the 1960s. I learned guitar at the Old Town School of Folk music from the likes of Win Strake, Frank Hamilton and Steve Goodman. Every Saturday morning at Old Town there was a mass hootenanny after the formal class and special guests who were playing in town would lead the songs. So I was singing along with Odetta, Theodore Bikel, Ronnie Gilbert, Oscar Brown Jr. and many, many others when I was 8 or 9 years old. As a teenager I hung out at the Blues clubs that had opened on the North side right near my house. On any given night Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, would congregate and play until all hours. I was definitely underage, but never got kicked out of the bar. I also inhaled Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk – all inspirations that influence my own songs, for sure. I wrote my first song when I was 6, and haven’t ever really stopped since then.

Do you have a specific atmosphere or pastime that aides in your songwriting process, or does it often just happen sporadically?

My best inspiration for songwriting is nature — specifically doing things in the wilderness. Songs usually take a long time to come together for me, but when I am in the backcountry skiing, paddling, hiking, songs seem to appear. I’ve got a whole sub-genre of backcountry ski songs: a somewhat limited audience, perhaps, but I think some of them have broader meanings, including “The Grunt Factor” and “Don’t Take the Road” from my first album, and “Geezer in the Weeds” from my most recent. Political events do inspire me, but those take more doing to turn into a song that doesn’t feel too didactic or preachy. 

Who are some of your songwriting idols?

In folk music, Steve Goodman is one of my longest running idols. I love Tim O’Brien’s songs, Tom Paxton, David Francey, Gillian Welch. If there is one thing that connects those last four is the ability to write songs that sound traditional and simple, but are layered with interesting rhythms and change. And I have to mention the songwriting Gods Stephen Sondheim and Frank Loesser. 

So you recently released your newest EP We Fit Together. What’s the inspiration and influence behind this collection of songs?

I pushed to get We Fit Together out in 2020 because of the political and social messages in some of the songs. In this election year and what has turned out to be the most turbulent time of my (and most everyone’s) life, it feels important to have these tunes out in the world and being heard. The message of a few of the songs, specifically “No Place to Run”, “A 60s Hippie’s Psychedelic Nightmare” and “A Simple Song” speaks to the inter-connectedness of all of us, and the power we have to collectively make change. The title tune, “We Fit Together”, is a love song, and also explores the whole idea of fitting and connecting. I don’t usually write songs thematically, but all these songs just coalesced around this central idea – one that has become more and more relevant as this weird year has gone on.  

Where was it recorded and who was involved in its production?

The record was recorded by Bob Harris at his studio, Ampersand Records in Bridgewater, New Jersey. It’s kind of a long way from my home in Brooklyn where there are numerous studios, but Bob is a master at both the recording and musical end. I’ve recorded all of my albums there. The last two records have been with my very excellent band of Brooklyn veterans – Rima Fand (violin and vocal), Jesse Miller (guitar and vocal) and Adam Armstrong (bass). Bob Harris, an extraordinary musician, also plays various instruments on the records along with special guest Michael Ronstadt.  

“On any given night Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, would congregate and play until all hours.”

How do you feel the modern day folk and acoustic songwriter scene is represented in New York these days?

It is certainly diverse and rich, but even before Covid shut down the venues, it was a difficult place to get noticed. Pay-to-play, bring your own audience, or do your own house concert often seems like the only way to play gigs. Maybe it really wasn’t that different in the Folk City days in New York City, but many of the folk specific clubs from earlier eras are gone. What I’ve found since entering this scene fully in the last five years is that the greatest satisfaction has come in sharing songs with other songwriters, and there is a lot of that in New York in open mic and other settings. You realize in that kind of appreciative listening setting that everyone has something to say, and there is no point comparing yourself to others or competing. It’s about getting your own song out in the most authentic way you can. 

What would you say is one thing Chicago does better than New York?

Chicago has always had a real neighborhood scene in music as well as theater that is a great breeding ground for new creations and collaborations. New York can seem not as community oriented, although a few places like Jalopy in Brooklyn or the LIC Bar in Queens have that vibe that reminds me of Chicago.

I see you’re also a performer and choreographer. How and when did you get involved in those endeavors?

I discovered dance seriously in college and started a dance company, New Mexico DanceWorks, with my friend and mentor Gerrie Glover in the 70’s – a time of incredible explosion of arts performance and education. With the new National Endowment for the Arts and national and state Artists in Schools programs and CETA grants we could employ a dance company and support a national touring and teaching schedule. There were actually 3 professional dance companies in the little state of New Mexico. That all came crashing down in 1980 after the election of Ronald Reagan. So I moved to New York City to dance.

I’ve always played music, but quit playing professionally in my mid-20s (too many Eagles covers shrieked over the clinking glasses at the Steak and Ale in my case). I never stopped playing or writing music but I seemed to only be able to focus on one major creative endeavor at a time. I came to New York to make fame and fortune (ha!) in the dance world, but quickly got a job at a great arts education organization, ArtsConnection, so my dancing was mostly in small companies and venues in Brooklyn and the Lower East side. 

At the end of the 90’s the scene was getting old (and I was getting old) so my partner Jessica Nicoll and I created our own company, Nicoll and Oreck Dance Theater, and began choreographing our own pieces (nicollandoreck.com). The company continues, but I haven’t performed in a few years with music becoming my main creative outlet.  

You seem to have had quite a career in numerous creative outlets- which are one or two pinnacle milestones for you would you say?

One pinnacle is certainly co-creating some very satisfying full-evening dance/theater works (Hic+Nunc, They Might Be Napping, among others) commenting on serious issues through movement, music, humor, and other media, that we performed in New York and toured with. 

My research and writing in arts education on the nature of artistic talent and how to recognize and develop it in young people is probably my biggest contribution. Many kids with high energy, a strong desire to move, make sound, communicate, get in trouble in school for the very qualities we prize in the performing arts. Helping teachers, parents and students become aware of artistic abilities can have major positive repercussions both in and outside of school. I’ve published a lot of articles on this work, available on my website.

“…and there is no point comparing yourself to others or competing. It’s about getting your own song out in the most authentic way you can.”

Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process? (or perhaps neither)

I have not had the desire to do much online performing, so it’s been a real woodshed moment for me. I miraculously received the new guitar I had ordered last June (a Mule resonator) on the first day of our at-home time in March. Nothing like a new guitar with a unique sound to inspire new music. It’s been out of my hands rarely in since March 15th.

Have you picked up any new hobbies throughout it or tapped into other creative endeavors?

No, I have more than plenty of hobbies already, although gardening and cooking have never gotten so much attention as during this strange time.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

I don’t make vacuum cleaners – that’s my uncle David. I get about a call a week looking for bags and belts. I don’t have them. How did you get my number?

What can fans expect from Barry Oreck to close out the year?

I hope to get the band together in some collective but distanced way to have a real CD release party for We Fit Together. It’s our first album to make it on the folk charts (#9 in May!) which is super exciting for us, and we’d like to play those songs as well as some new compositions that will be on our next record. When, where, how???? We’ll see. I will also be sharing some new videos of songs I’ve written in the past 6 months so stay tuned for that on my YouTube channel and website.

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