Celebrated Guitarist Eli Winter on his Early Influences, his Eponymously-Titled New Album and More

Eli Winter press photo
Credit: Julia Dratel, courtesy of the artist

When 20th-century occultist-artist Austin Osman Spare remarked that, “It was the straying that found the path direct,” he could have been anticipating the peripatetic ways of guitarist Eli Winter.

Granted, the British magician died nearly 70 years ago and Winter was born in 1997. Yet the Chicago-born Winter has packed a lot of experiential wallop and road miles in a quarter century: he’s an erudite author and essayist who has written for national and international publications. Yet Winter is primarily known as a mercurial guitarist, particularly in the solo-acoustic guitar vernacular. In less than a decade, Winter has appeared on some two dozen releases and his work has been lauded by the likes of Aquarium Drunkard, The Guardian, Pitchfork, NPR, and Stereogum.

Winter is an ascendant in the new aeon of solo guitar playing. It is a lineage whose alpha source of pre-war country blues and English Isles folk has no heir apparent to any omega or endpoint. In the 1960s, players like John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, etc. corralled tradition, technical proficiency and (particularly in the case of Fahey) homespun mysticism and mythology into potent and influential catalogs of music.

Considering the six-string purple-hazing of Hendrix and other high-volume guitarists of that age, the neo-folk scene was a cryptic, hermetic, and “secret handshake” society for most music fans. By default or design, the late Jack Rose (1971-2009) became the heir apparent to these previous musicians: Rose was a direct product of ‘80s/’90s DIY underground music, an era when non-folk musicians like Sir Richard Bishop, Glenn Jones, and Sonic Youth were lauding and hot-wiring the guitar explorations of Fahey and other 1960s genre wanderers. The volitions and views of the subsequent and disparate wave of prominent players—notably Marisa Anderson, Bill Orcutt, and Steve Gunn—would surely impress the aforementioned musicians for their toggling of technique and tradition. 

Winter has seemingly bloomed out of the high tide of the past six decades of this solo guitar diaspora. He is diligent in music-as-live-performance in lieu of releasing a barrage of precocious Bandcamp bedroom-guitar musings. On Eli Winter, he displays a casual ability to shift gears from the traditional-bucolic acoustic flow of “For a Chisos Bluebonnet” to the decidedly-electric “No Fear”; which is more akin to a Sun City Girls guitar bonfire. 

Tracking Winter down was a mild task due to his troubadour arc and tour schedule. He was immediately amenable to speaking with JME, and after a series of emails and texts volleyed back and forth, and a tech-fraught London-to-Chicago Zoom call, he graciously augmented the remaining answers via WhatsApp and voice memos. 

Winter approached the answers to the questions with the same kind of measured, thoughtful approach to his playing, in the following interview that ran the gamut from his own influences, shifting gears from acoustic to electric, and his views on improvisation. 

Tell me about your most recent album: the eponymous full-length on Three Lobed Recordings. This is your first release for that label? How did you hook up with them? 

Yeah, this is my first record with Three Lobed. I’ve been a really big fan of the label for years and years. That label changed my life, and [featured] a lot of the musicians who I became really inspired by directly in my guitar playing, who are still alive. The overwhelming majority of those musicians have a connection to Three Lobed in some way. Jack Rose recorded several records for them. Daniel Bachman, who’s the closest thing I have to a hero, recorded several records and continues to record for them. Sonic Youth, one of the bands that made me want to start playing guitar outside of the confines of standard tuning, have a record that came out on Three Lobed last year and are connected to other label mates and kindred spirits. And along with Paradise of Bachelors, which is another favorite record label, Three Lobed is a label that I’ve really looked up to for about as long as I’ve been actively thinking about music as a thing to do with my life.

And we’d already known each other through the internet for years, several years, honestly, I want to say five or six years if memory serves. I’d written an email to [Three Lobed label owner] Cory Rayborn in which I said, among other things, “You know I really look up to people who’ve released music on your label, and I really look up to and am really inspired by the label. And maybe we can work together and put out a record together some time.” And because Cory is an incredibly kind person, and maybe also because I told him I was in high school (laughs), he didn’t tell me off. He said, “Hey, yeah! Maybe someday. Thanks for writing.” And that was all I needed. And so fast forward a few years, and we’ve already been in touch and, you know, gotten to know each other to some degree through the internet over the course of several years. And I’d sent him my second record, Unbecoming, which came out on American Dreams in August 2020 and he heard a song that resonated. And that song had band on it (the song “Maroon”) and he asked, “What if you used the idea of a band as an organizing concept for a Three Lobed record?” And I said, “Okay.”

On Eli Winter, you collaborated with what your press release describes as a “murderer’s row of peers and contemporaries.” What was your criteria in picking this particular group of murderer-players?

The core group on the record is Sam Wagster on pedal steel; Tyler Damon plays drums, and Cameron Knowler plays guitars. They were already dear friends and remain dear friends and they had also already played on the song “Maroon,” which I mentioned earlier and I’d already imagined some of this music featuring them in some way, anyway. But I hadn’t really given thought to how that might happen and I hadn’t given thought to the shape the record might take. And Cory’s suggestion [to play with the band] ended up focusing the music in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise allowed myself to pursue. And the nature of what I was looking for from players was pretty intuitive and didn’t have anything to do with training or background, or any such thing.

But I found myself being moved or otherwise compelled by their playing and trusted them in the context in which I heard them.  And what resulted is a mix of players who are, or were, rightfully acclaimed: like the late (flugelhorn player) jaimie branch, or like David Grubbs, or like Tyler Damon, and so on. And players who use music-making as a part of their larger artistic practice, like Liz Downing and plenty others, you know? But by chance, everybody who plays on the record was either already a friend or became a friend through working on it with me.

Although you also play electric, how did you wind up performing, specifically, flat-pick or acoustic guitar? Was it an early fascination or did you wind up playing this style through the serpentine path of the music and the arts?

I suppose it’s both. You know I should say I don’t actually flat-pick, I primarily fingerpick. Part of my playing fingerstyle was, because I really struggled early on in my guitar playing, I’ve been playing for about 10 years, and I started in the first semester of my first year of high school to seriously play. This was in fall of 2012, and I knew I didn’t have an interest in learning guitar through a formal idiom: for classical music, or jazz, rock, or blues even. I knew I didn’t want to take lessons from somebody who, even if they were a skilled teacher, wouldn’t be able to teach me music that I wanted to learn for myself.

And I knew I wanted to use music to find music I wanted to play and to find ways to teach myself to play; to as much completion as I could, given my existing toolkit and to return to it over time, as I learned more and more and developed a stronger and stronger foundation. And so finger-picking in part, as an approach came about because I was hardly able to play with a pick. And to this day, it feels more natural than playing with a pick.

And playing in open tunings, from the interest of playing music by Sonic Youth and Pavement and others, which I wasn’t able to play on an acoustic guitar, and also playing music, I always listened to Nick Drake; whose music I would learn the instrumental parts of, that just happened to be a foundation. The same with Steve Gunn, ultimately the same as Daniel Bachman or Jack Rose or Nathan Salsburg, Ryley Walker and Michael Chapman, and so on. That music happened to hold my interest and the forms or parameters of that music so often would encompass open tunings and fingerstyle playing, and a general lack of gimmickry. And the absence of tricks or contrivances as compositional devices. Those are things that really moved, and continue to move and informed, and continue to inform, the way I approach guitar playing. And I think fingerstyle guitar playing, perhaps can lend itself more easily to those characteristics for me, as well than other approaches of guitar playing.

At the same time, I had started playing music from a young age. I played clarinet and piano when I was younger and I sang as a very young kid. And I’d always had creative aspirations with my life and wanted really desperately to sort out how that might come about. And in that context, it can slot into a larger scope as well.

I remain mystified that so many dude musicians will say how they “started playing music to meet girls”—it sounds like an antiquated trope. I personally started playing bass guitar because my older brother played drums and I was a chubby, lonely 13-year-old kid who could miraculously decode Jack Casady bass lines. Do you recall a specific piece of music that inspired you? Or a “leveling up” in your playing or an epiphany, wherein you realized you had an innate gift of playing music?

I can think of several pieces of music that inspired me that have inspired me to continue to and so on. As far as music that is like directly born on my existing records? Daniel Bachman’s record River; Jack Rose’s record Kensington Blues; Steve Gunn’s Tiny Desk Concert, which quite literally changed my life; Nathan Salsburg’s records but especially the album, Hard For To Win And Can’t Be Won

Michael Chapman’s song “Caddo Lake”; Pauline Oliveros’ Accordion & Voice. Those are all records or pieces of music that in some way really directly inform the way that I approach playing or writing on either a foundational level or to a specific end. I’ve been lucky to have a natural aptitude to some extent in playing music and thinking about music that went beyond just interest. I struggle to call it a “gift”—I think it’s just how I am at this point in time.

It seems like there is a parallel between intensive study of an instrument, virtuosity, and athleticism. Do you feel like you have a subtle or overt competitive aspect to your personality in regards to being musician—and in particular—a solo performer?

I think I used to. When I was younger, and I was pretty young, especially when I was in Houston where I’m from, and I started playing shows towards the end of high school. I’d often feel frustrated by concerts I’d go to where I felt like I could do a better job. And I think that kind of competitive aspect is understandable, I realize now, and fair.

I think for the start of my career of releasing records and so on, I thought about myself as wanting to be the best and strongest guitarist of a certain…idiom. As one of the few overarching career objectives—in general, objectives— and that’s changed over time. I think because I’m less motivated to prove myself in that specific arena. I think in part because I’m more aware of my own limitations and things that can improve upon and I think also, and perhaps most importantly, because the way I approach performing I don’t consider myself with exacting, technical perfection in as much as you know, a conservatory-trained musician might feel compelled to, and instead this is of course different on records.

Eli Winter press photo
Guitarist Eli Winter has been lauded by the likes of Aquarium Drunkard, The Guardian, Pitchfork, NPR and Stereogum. He plays the Walrus in Murray Hill on Thursday | Credit: Julia Dratel, courtesy of the artist

On records, I’m a perfectionist. But in concerts I am more concerned with giving the best concert I can, rather than playing the best music I can, and so that encompasses a range of other things outside of just sheer virtuosity. I do want to keep developing as an instrumentalist, as a composer, and as an overall musician or “quote unquote” artist. And I’m not quite sure how to articulate the motivations’ changes in this moment. I do think that at the least, virtuosity for its own sake, even within a certain idiom, is not something I’m thinking about to the same degree, if at all.

In previous interviews and also tweets, you’ve seemingly distanced yourself from the “American Primitivism” old-guard of John Fahey and Robbie Basho et al, yet seemingly have an affinity for players like Daniel Bachman and Jack Rose. What are the particular facets and discrepancies in these aforementioned players that make you feel more of a kinship with someone like Rose over Fahey?

I think part of my concern with the label American Primitivism or American Primitive Guitar being applied to my music is that it’s somewhat retroactive and even if it suggests superficial, aesthetic similarities between generations of players it flattens context and nuance from players who have different aims and perspectives and motivations and interests for their music. And you contextualize the music in entirely different ways. I understand that someone like John Fahey is a direct influence on many musicians and instrumentalists and guitarists, and there is of course a superficial overlap between his technique and mine, say, in as much as we both play in open tunings and generally, we play fingerstyle guitar or use a fingerstyle technique to play guitar. And I tend to feel like the closer you look — and not just at the two of us—but some of them like Fahey and Jack Rose or Fahey and Daniel Bachman, and so on, the similarities disappear and the resemblance disappears.

Part of it, is that players like Jack Rose and Daniel Bachman have made recordings and live performances that, when I first started playing guitar and aspiring towards working as a musician, playing—of all things— instrumental-guitar music as a foundation for the music I’d make, I found it fundamentally moving and wholly compelling and convincing in a way that I didn’t with someone like Fahey or someone like Robbie Basho. And I’ve learned various pieces of the latter two, when I started playing. For years, I would play “Variations on Easter” by Robbie Basho in concert. “Poor Boy a Long Ways from Home” is one of the first songs I remember playing as well; the Fahey arrangement. And I think if I had known that I didn’t have to learn that music, I could appreciate that music for what it is; and not necessarily feel the need to contextualize my music within a boundary that I find fundamentally restrictive, and uninteresting. But I wouldn’t have. Someone like Daniel Bachman on his record River, that’s the record where I can really clearly identify the first time I listened to it, and I felt my life changing.

When I heard the song “Won’t You Cross Over To That Other Shore,” and when I heard the entire record, I was completely awestruck, I was completely moved, and spellbound. And I found it commanding and powerful and beautiful. And I wanted so badly to make my own music have, in its own way, those same feelings and effects. And the same sort of thing happened with the music of Jack Rose. When I heard his record Kensington Blues and then branched out. You know, I think with players like those, those people I think are good examples as contrasts to the examples of Fahey and Robbie Basho because the motivations and interests in making music are not only different, clearly different from those of Fahey and Basho, but they’re also quite different from each other’s. And the contexts in which they choose to situate the music—this is perhaps most important—the contexts in which they choose to situate their music are also quite different. And so the fact that players like those or players like Nathan Salsburg: his playing continues to really interest and inspire me. And so on. You know, they provided my own context for the music and over time, as my listening diet has grown and evolved and expanded, I’ve become increasingly interested in other sorts of music and become increasingly interested in using the guitar as a tool in my toolkit to make music that has more or less complete disregard for genre; that tries to exist on its own terms, and no one else’s.

I think partially because that seems to be a model that sustains working artists throughout long-term careers and I think partially because it holds my own interest, rather than working within the confines of a framework that I don’t even relate to or feel a direct identification with. Because the connotations of the term American Primitivism and the music of players like Fahey and Basho and the politics of such, despite the best intentions of the term, I think it carries complex political implications. I think it boxes in players and prevents players from having their music reconsidered in a larger canon, a context. I think about how players like William Tyler, perhaps, seem to less often receive that label despite sharing, by and large, the same superficial similarities as anybody of the aforementioned. And I think it’s important as a working artist to be intentional about the context within which you want to situate your work, and to be intentional about the reference points with what you reference or contextualize your work.

So I think in short, I don’t relate to the label American Primitivism or American Primitive Guitar. I don’t relate, or find personally compelling, or moving from my own work and never have the music of John Fahey. And I think it’s important to the extent one needs to categorize music, to categorize it in a way that respects or understands the artist’s desired context.

You write definite songs—yet in performance, how much of your playing delves into totally free improvisation? 

I think I’ve always been interested in leaving space to improvise during concerts in intersectional spaces between sections of songs or as part of the sections of songs or entirely. And I think it’s rare that I play in a completely free way. I think it’s easier to, if I’ve either consciously decided to do so, or if I’m playing with other musicians and have a non-melodic basis; or at least a basis for melody that doesn’t share the same range as my guitar playing in terms of pitch. 

What do you think are the overt and subtle nuances, or even hindrances, in switching back and forth to acoustic and electric guitar? Is that a difficult shift for you?

Yes, but I think it’s not as difficult as playing acoustic music with other players, whether rhythmic or melodic instrumentalists or singers beyond accompaniment. Because of the sheer ability to control the volume and to alter the texture and timbre and responsiveness in how you play with an electric guitar compared to an acoustic guitar. They offer different kinds of possibilities.

I still think of volume first: I think of how with an electric guitar you can play quietly and still amplify your “quiet playing” such that it occupies a lot of sonic space compared to the rest of the music. And I think acoustic guitar, as I play it, with a mic on my guitar, without any amplification besides the P.A., isn’t possible [as the amplified quietness of an electric guitar]. I think playing an electric guitar also provides me with a greater sense of control or awareness of my left hand’s playing than an acoustic guitar.

Because on an acoustic guitar I’m often used to my left hand having relatively less variation or ability to vary my playing than with an electric guitar. And an electric guitar facilitates playing in different areas or idioms and approaches [then] with far more ease than an acoustic guitar. As of late, I’ve found myself generally more interested in using the electric guitar as a vehicle for exploration both in terms of future music and in terms of developing technique. I’ve found acoustic guitar mostly helpful for its specific utility: for needing to play a song that cannot translate to electric guitar, no matter how hard I might try for reasons of volume or amplification.

There is a tacit level of vulnerability in being a solo performer; you are literally open to injury onstage since you don’t have any onstage musicians to help you if things go sideways, but also in the sense of being raw and trying to tap into the Other while playing. Have you noticed this kind of phenomenon and if so, how do you navigate it? 

Yes, and I try to be open to it as much as I can. And I try to present myself as a performer, to present and approach concerts and to play concerts in such a way that I’m as open as possible to that phenomenon. In the sense of serendipity and discovery, I suppose that it might take me a while.

Are you mindful of a distinct shift in consciousness while improvising onstage, and if so, could you possibly describe or articulate the engagement and arc of that experience?

I think it can be—I think it’s not guaranteed. I think it’s about being as open and present as possible in the moment of music and your relationships to what your fellow performers are playing in context with you, your ability to conceptualize the component parts within that larger context, and your ability to balance being assertive with your ideas, and fluid and open to following paths the music that’s here seems to suggest. So, I think it’s hard to describe how that experience occurs, bit by bit, in a generalized way, because it’s so contingent. I do think the goal, as I play in that context, is to feel that kind of presence and openness and fluidity and tension and possibility of catharsis and fear, even. And that ideally, I think, as I understand it, at the moment as I think about those more meaningful experiences of improvising—that if you can really let yourself feel to the fullest and feel alive and feel wholly compelled by the process, even if you’re apprehensive—even if that comes through. Even if any number of other things you’re feeling…any number of other things. But if you can have that kind of trust of the totality of feeling and what you’re doing, and accept those feelings and bring them about in the music that those feelings, and that that sense of aliveness or heightened awareness or presence, or attention, seems like that’s really what it’s about—[they] will imprint themselves on the music. And on any memories or recordings of the music.

“I think part of my concern with the label American Primitivism or American Primitive Guitar being applied to my music is that it’s somewhat retroactive and even if it suggests superficial, aesthetic similarities between generations of players it flattens context and nuance from players who have different aims and perspectives and motivations and interests for their music.”

And I think that applies outside of improvised contexts, too. I think that’s part of what particularly compels me about instrumental music: the fact that I haven’t yet understood how to perform songs with words in such a way that preserves that openness and aliveness for myself and can bring it about for others. And that it also creates its own kind of interpretation or variation from performance to performance and makes the music dynamic in different ways with each performance or iteration. And the more I have the chance to do this, and the more I have the chance to embrace these feelings in making music, and playing music, the more I try to embrace and accept and assert and intentionally act on those feelings in my own life, outside of music.

I think the more I do that in music, I am more easily able to apply that frame and openness and so on to the other aspects of my life. However, I can only speak to this from my own experience. And I think the chance that a different musician-improviser might share overlap with how I describe or feel about such thing like? This is wholly contingent.

Eli Winter performs with Eureka Springs and Kevin PM at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 23 at The Walrus in Murray Hill; tickets are $10 and are available here.

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