Mike Merenda: From an astrological standpoint I would have to go with Leo the Lion. Ruthy is a Pisces Fish.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Mike Merenda: Music is an obsession for me. Listening to great songwriters, making up my own songs – it’s always brought me joy. Music has been an outlet. It’s been a friend. It’s guided my life, led me to friendships, to my wife. I’m lucky that I’ve found a way to live a musical life – and with my partner and family, too. The older I get the more I appreciate how unique this is.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show? What do you look or hope for as the folks setting foot on that stage?
Mike Merenda: The making of a great show usually starts with a great audience. If there’s an audience there ready to receive then you can pretty much do no wrong. You can connect. As my friend Robert says, “It’s not the size of the crowd it’s the size of the room.” I’ve had epic shows for 25 people crammed in a living room, hanging on every word. Sometimes, the further you get from the conventional “venue” the more the music can connect. ‘Cause it’s defying expectation maybe. But, of course – to contradict myself -there’s nothing like playing in a beautiful hall or on a big festival stage with great sound, the magic of the lights. We are eternally grateful to the presenters who work behind the scenes – who curate, take risks, who know how inspire their community to come out, who make a space for an hour or two of magic to occur. In the end, it takes energy from all sides of the stage: the performer, the presenter, and the crowd.
B&L: Is songwriting a relatively easy thing for you? How does that process unfold? What inspires the act of pushing a pen across paper for you?
Mike Merenda: As soon as I’m alone with my guitar I’m writing a song – sometimes several in one sitting. It comes very naturally to me and it always has. I don’t always finish the songs in that one sitting but I can pretty much always get a few off the ground pretty quickly. But my muse is very picky about the environment and works best when we’re completely alone. That’s always been the way. Songwriting is like an isolated retreat for me. When I go there, I make imaginary friends. Some last a lifetime.
B&L: Let’s talk about the new record, “Bright As You Can.” What were the goals behind this album?
Mike Merenda: Our goal with “Bright As You Can” was to get back to playing with a full band after several years of touring as a duo. There’s an excitement and energy that only a band can conjure and it to serves our new material very well. One of our goals has been to get back on the national festival circuit and to accomplish that we felt we needed to get back to a bigger sound. I believe that we succeeded. But as it is with us, we can never stick 100% to one plan so the album has quite a range of feels, tempos and genres. That has sort of become our thing, I suppose. An eclectic and diverse repertoire – the through line being strong material with roots.
B&L: You guys were pals with the late, great, Pete Seeger. What was it like conversing/collaborating with him? What would he think of the new record?
Mike Merenda: Pete was an endless well of stories. Anecdotes. Ideas and dreams. He was the hardest working musician I’ve ever known. He was always talking. Always thinking. So much so that if he wasn’t careful he might lose his voice before his show even started, even if his set was at 11:00 in the morning!
The last time I saw Pete in person was at our inaugural Summer Hoot in 2013. It was late August. His wife, Toshi (whom we dedicated our stage to) had just passed away in July and so we were unsure how up to performing Pete would be that August. He arrived early, took in, and quite enjoyed the morning performances, watching from the wings with a very sweet and sincere smile on his face. At one point he leaned over to me and joked, “you know, Mike. I think the folk instruments of the 21st century are the drums, the electric bass and the electric guitar!” And we both started cracking up. It was his cute way of acknowledging that as long as the audience is engaged and enjoying themselves, it doesn’t really matter what the tools of the trade are.
That next week he sent us a very heartfelt postcard that said, “your hoot was one of the best song-gatherings I’ve seen in all my 94 years. I hope that next year I can be there for more than one day.” And he even went on to say that there’s a song he wrote Toshi’s birthday that he specifically hoped to sing at the next year’s Hoot and that he would spend the year practicing it to make sure he could remember all the words.
Pete passed away that next January and, although, he never made it back in person, his spirit is very much alive at The Hoots and we certainly feel that we received his blessing. It really helps give us the strength and conviction to continue as festival organizers – especially when the work becomes overwhelming. Pete’s words keep the wind in our sails. He was a very wise man. He knew exactly what he was doing when he sent that postcard. He was enabling the work that he saw as important to continue on.
I do think Pete would be proud of our latest record. It’s a marriage of old sounds and new songs. Fiddles and banjos with drums and electric guitars. Songs that tell stories and that impart struggle and joy. I particularly think he would have liked the title track, “Bright As You Can.” And probably “The Farmer.”
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written
Mike Merenda: Hard to whittle it down. But my favorite songwriters are Dan Bern, Jeffrey Lewis, Richard Buckner, and Ani DiFranco. And – of course – John Lennon, Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty.
B&L: You have quite a history here in Seacoast, New Hampshire… What do you enjoy about performing in this part of the world? How does it feel to “come home” when you get back to the Granite State to perform?
Mike Merenda: I love the seacoast of NH. It’s exhilarating to come home to perform but also increasingly nerve-wracking the older I get. There’s a whole different set of nerves that come into play when performing for the hometown crowd. I mostly just love being back home, seeing the old streets and the old community. The show is almost second to just being home among my peeps. The salty air. I miss it daily out here in NY. Although the Hudson Valley is isn’t so bad either.
B&L: How does New Hampshire inform the music that you make (if at all)?
Mike Merenda: Most of my musical instincts can be traced back to my very first bands and collaborators. My first songs were written in NH; my first bands were in NH. My Oyster River music teacher, Dave Ervin was instrumental in me finding my artistic voice. That’s where it all started. That part of me was born in NH. Home will always fill me up with a beautiful and nostalgic joy.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform Birdseye Lounge on November 6th?
Mike Merenda: Folks can expect to see some hardworking musicians doing what they do best. We’ll have our quintet with us including Konrad Meissner on drums, Jacob Silver on bass, and Ken “The Fury” Maiuri on keys. These fellows are first-rate players – and some of our best friends – and that joy and excitement really translates during our shows. We all love playing together, especially this new material from “Bright As You Can,” which we believe is our best work to date.
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Mike Merenda: A dozen incredible new songs.
The Mike + Ruthy Band make there way into the newly established, Birdseye Lounge on Friday, November 6th. Don’t miss out on the fun. For tickets and information click here.