Q&A with Folk/Americana trio The Refugees, an homage to harmony-focused California bands of the 60s & 70s

"I believe music, at certain times in our lives, in society, is one of the ONLY ways to reach and connect with people! We know that from the '60s."

The Refugees: Back To The Roots

Folk/Americana trio The Refugees to release CALIFORNIA, an homage to harmony-focused California bands of the 60s & 70s on May 19th, 2023. The trio of artists that is The Refugees emerged on the music scene as a verifiably unmatched force of talent, diversity, and experience. Each successful in their own right as a solo artist, Cidny Bullens, Deborah Holland and Wendy Waldman formed their unique and innovative group in 2007 and since that time have been wowing audiences, radio DJs, and music critics alike with their soaring harmonies, indelible musicianship, and unforgettably humorous stage presence. Individually, The Refugees have logged almost five decades in the industry, with more than twenty solo albums and multiple Grammy Award nominations to their credit, featuring musical styles that blend country, rock, folk, blues and Americana. To describe them as eclectic would be an understatement. These three artists have utilized their intense drive and relentless passions to create an entirely new sound.              (Cidny Bullens, Deborah Holland & Wendy Waldman / Photo by Saida Staudenmaier)

Their newest album, CALIFORNIA, ten cover songs will be released on May 19th, 2023. One of the strongest components of The Refugees is their 3-part vocals. Cidny had suggested The Refugees record an album of some of the bands that featured 3-part harmonies and were a big influence on all three members. The band combed through many songs and finally narrowed it down to this list. These recordings are a tribute to, and, The Refugees own unique take on, classic recordings by The Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations,” “Sail On Sailor”), The Mamas and the Papas (“Monday Monday,” “Dedicated to the One I Love”), Crosby, Stills, and Nash (“You Don’t Have To Cry,” “Carry On,”), The Byrds (“So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Stand”), The Flying Burrito Brothers (“Sin City”) and Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”). Of course, The Refugees put their own unique stamp on each track, making CALIFORNIA not only a celebration of what was, but a revelation of the power these songs still hold today.

Interview by Michael Limnios          Special Thanks: Billy James (Glass Onyon PR)

How has the American Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Cidny: The first album I ever bought when I was around twelve or thirteen years old was Lightnin' Hopkins. I am still not sure how a white kid from rural northeastern Massachusetts got wind of him. But the Blues and Black roots music was what ignited my soul. I supposed it started when I was around four or five with Little Richard's "Tutti Fruiti" played in my home by my older siblings. Also, my parents loved jazz, so Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and even Miles Davis, were all a part of my musical upbringing. Later in my pre and teen years, of course, that of mine love crossed over to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But I also had a passion for R&B in those years. Though my own songwriting perhaps does not reflect a direct influence from Black music--it is underneath and in there somewhere. Of course, I was also influenced early by the harmonies of the Everly Brothers and then of course again, the Beatles--then by Joni Mitchell (lyrically as well as musically), and some of the folk music of the '60s, The Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and on. I came of age in the '60s and '70s--the times of great protest in America. The songs and music of the times (as a result of the enormous political and cultural upheaval--Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the women's movement) were what drove most of us in those days into action and change.

Deborah: American Roots music is part of my musical DNA. It’s what I’ve lived and breathed my whole life. My parents were politically left, and folk and protest music records were played all the time. My first concert I attended as a child was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I had a fascination with the song “Rock Island Line” by Leadbelly and played the 45 on my record player over and over again. My father had 78s of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Pete Seeger and Mahalia Jackson were household names. As a teenager and adult, other genres of music became influences, but early folk, blues, and jazz (and classical) was the start.

Wendy: I've been a folk and pop musician since my early teens--that would be 55+ years ago. I was raised in a classical music household but grew up in Los Angeles in the time of great changes in music. I was part of and a witness to the birth of the singer-songwriter, folk revival and rock n roll culture that began in the mid-'60s here in Los Angeles. These were formative times, I was playing music then with my friends: Kenny Edwards, Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold, also sharing bills with or singing with people like Jackson Browne, JD Souther, Linda Ronstadt etc. The folk music community was extremely strong in this country in those days, so we got to see everyone from Lightnin Hopkins to Bill Monroe to new psychedelic bands, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, the Kweskin Jug Band and everyone who was touring across the country in those days. Making music in such a manner, in groups, with respect to tradition but also finding new ways to interpret, these values have stayed with me my entire life. Mastery of ones' craft, playing, recording, knowing the history--these things have never changed for me as primary goals.

When/how did the idea of The Refugees come about? What characterizes a band’s music philosophy?

Cidny: The Refugees started in 2007 after the three of us got together in Nashville in 2006 at a songwriters festival after many years of not seeing each other. I had known both Deborah and Wendy separately, meeting Deborah in 1990 in Los Angeles and Wendy in 1992 in Nashville. They had an idea of putting together a show with us singing together "in-the-round". Eventually I flew to LA, where they both lived at the time, and we started singing. After a song--we knew there was some kind of magic vocally between us and we knew we wanted to be a band, NOT a group of individual songwriters. At one point the first day, after some frustration with an unrelated issue, Wendy blurted out "I feel like a Refugee..." I said--"Hey that sounds like a good band name!" (A nod to Tom Petty in all of this.) We Googled it and found (at that time) that there were no other bands with the name. It stuck and here we are. We all have our individual thoughts on why the name fits. The Refugees "philosophy", to me anyway, is authenticity. We all came up as women in a man's world of the music business. We all had to forge our own paths, pushing down barriers that were firmly in place, and many times being thwarted by norms and old ideas. Some of those experiences left deep wounds and scars. Why? Because we were all authentic.

So, The Refugees are what we are--both musically and culturally. We do what we do best--sing, write and play. And well, if it doesn't suit you? So be it.

(The Refugees are Cidny Bullens, Deborah Holland & Wendy Waldman / Photo by Ron Safarty)

What is the story behind the trio's name: The Refugees? Do you have any stories about the making of the album “California”?

Deborah: We all felt we were “refugees” from the music business. Ageism and sexism had pushed us out, and we were finding “refuge” in each other. WE still feel that way. I was against the idea at first. Because we’d have to pay for the right to sell the songs, I thought we should stick to recording our original songs. I’m so glad my bandmates convinced me!

Wendy: These days it seems like so many of us feel like or are in fact refugees from something or another. For some of us it’s a very tangible and horrific situation. For others of us, it appears at first glance to be more subtle. But in our cases, as women in a male dominated industry and subsequently with one of us transgender there are plenty of confrontational issues in our histories that support the notion of needing refuge.

Why do you think that the “Californian 1960/1970 music era” continues to generate such a devoted following?

 Cidny: Great songs! Great harmonies! Great arrangements! Great energy! And great musical innovation. All those musicians were kind of making it up as they went along. They were young outsiders and, influenced by those old Blues and Traditional genres--and of course by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan AND the Beatles (who were also influenced by Bob Dylan and the Blues greats etc--it was circular in terms of influence.)

Deborah: Because the songs were that good!!! Lyrically they still resonate, and the records are timeless.

Wendy: Those years were an extraordinary time of invention and discovery  in popular music: the turning of a new leaf, and California was ground zero for those experimental and expansive viewpoints toward rock, folk, country, blues, and how they all meshed in a new way. Since it was the first time, coupled with the explosion of records (and I do mean vinyl), radio, and newly powerful record companies, it was the perfect setting for a new, groundbreaking industry which still reverberates today in many different forms. And the music was so good, people still look to it as a standard.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Cidny: All of the above. Though there are some wonderful Americana, Folk, and Roots rock artists out there now and new ones emerging. If you are asking what my hopes and fears for the future are generally--it's a loaded question. As a transgender man, I am feeling the brunt of hatred and vitriol (as are all women, minorities, and those in the margins of any culture)--at least in America. I could go on with a long list of worldly ills that many of us worry about. Of course, I fear for our planet in general. So, it's a scary time. But I have hope that the younger generations, along with support from those of us who are actively involved in the betterment of humanity, will continue to rise up to counter the cacophony of those stuck in their fear. Musically? Music will always evolve. But let us continue to refer to what is so great and innovative about the music of the past.

Deborah: I miss the lack of variety on the radio. What are your hopes and fears for the future? I don’t have any hopes or fears. “It is what it is.”

Wendy: If we're talking about contemporary music in general, I miss the presence of "soul" in terms of playing music from the gut, writing and singing with deep conviction and fearlessness. depth, exploration, inventiveness in writing.

(The Refugees are Cidny Bullens, Deborah Holland & Wendy Waldman / Photo by Ron Safarty)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Cidny: Of course! I believe music, at certain times in our lives, in society, is one of the ONLY ways to reach and connect with people! We know that from the '60s. We know it from Hip Hop. Of course, music scholars (like my bandmates in the Refugees) can tell you about many other times in our history that that fact has been so.

Deborah: I don’t think music can change the world. I think it represents and comments on what is happening. Songs can provide solace though and give a listener satisfaction that someone has expressed their own beliefs. California is a tribute to an era when unformulaic great songs of all genres and forms could be heard on the radio. The Refugees are primarily a harmony group, and these songs are some of the greatest examples of 3-part harmony singing.

Wendy: In years past, music had a tremendous impact on society, culture and politics--actually going all the way back to 17th century England, and certainly culminating in the 1950s-60s here in America. In the US in those particular decades, music was a very powerful tool for communication, protest, illumination and information, and people really looked to it as a beacon. Today however, music has become just another commodity, an entertainment form, while interesting at times, quite spineless compared to its impact in past years. There are many reasons for this, but that's not the point of this discussion right now. Of course, I would like music at least to inspire thought and feeling in people, and when I do find something that does, I'm always excited.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Cidny: As stated above, music connects people. For me, my music has always been about stating the truth of my own life experiences--internal and external. There is something about the transmission of truth through music. It's received into the body and brain differently than in a conversation for example. Sometimes, as listeners--at least in my own experience, we don't even know what that truth IS at the moment. It doesn't even have to be in words. Sometimes it's just there in the music itself somehow, conveyed in a chord structure or melodic line. In terms of my experience as a professional performing musician and artist, songwriter and author--well, again it's all about the truth. Whether I am standing in front of 6 or 60,000 people, or in the studio recording, or writing words on a page. It's all about being all of who I am and giving all, I have to whatever I am doing in that very moment.

Deborah: I’ve had a very long career in the music business and so have been at many different stages. You have to love making music so much that even if you don’t achieve success, you feel it’s worth it. You have to first satisfy yourself, and then hope others will like what you’ve created.

Wendy: I've been down many paths in music, very few of them planned. I'd say the important things I've learned are: 1) educate yourself about every kind of music you can, even some you might not like. 2) learn to do many different jobs in music--sing, write, play, arrange, engineer--so that you can always be working in some aspect or another 3) keep improving your skills on every level 4) be prepared for a long long haul 5) have a sense of humor and never give up.

The Refugees - Home

(Photo: The Refugees are Cidny Bullens, Deborah Holland & Wendy Waldman / Photo by Ron Safarty)

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