Northern Borne – Xperience History
Written by Staff on February 4, 2024
Northern Borne – Xperience History – by Liam Sweeny.
Originally published April 2020, the only issue of Xperience Monthly that couldn’t be printed.
Beneath the deep-woods mosquitoes and the mud from the hike lies the bedrock of why you might spend some time in the Adirondacks this spring, summer, or fall – the purity. The air and the water and when you see the ingenuity of what passes for camp chairs, you can add deep honesty to purity and soak it all in.
Northern Borne is a band of honest ingenuity. They are bluegrass and roots music and blues, glued together with some jam band. They are Sarah Babushkin, Shows Leary, and John Wensley, and their sound in incredible.
I sit down with Northern Borne, and we discuss polishing musical spoons.
RRX: Northern Borne hails from Washington county, with its heart in the Adirondacks. We haven’t covered a lot of bands from north of the dial. So maybe you can play ambassador. What does the north country have that sparks such a passion in you all. Is it just scenic vistas, or is there something more?
NB: The scenery, history and lore of the Adirondacks makes a compelling backdrop to a good story. The rich history of mining and logging, the early development of the railroad and the hardiness of the people play into a lot of our songs. It’s one of those rare undefined places- wild at heart, it appeals to the very nature of who we are and where we came from. There is a certain intangible element there that is difficult to put into words- a particular sense of being at peace with nature yet struggle with the difficulties it also offers.
John was raised in Albany and spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks camping as a kid. He grew to love it there and wanted to be part of the mountains, so he eventually built a cabin in the woods. Ironically, as John was working on building his cabin, Sarah was working on a ranch just a stone’s throw away- though it wasn’t until much later that the duo would meet. It was in that cabin that Northern Borne was created as a duo.
RRX: You describe your music as a mix of bluegrass, storytelling, blues, roots, and jam band. I’ve always loved the storytelling aspect of music; it taps into the truth, most prevalent in acoustic music, of ‘have instrument, will travel’ – you can go anywhere with a guitar and banjo and tell a story. Does Northern Borne ever go ‘off-grid’ and just play?
NB: That is the beauty of what we do and we often play unplugged. The band got its start relatively off-the-grid in the cabin that John built. There was no t.v. in the cabin, and phone service was very limited. It was nice to have a space that encouraged creativity and provided a good backdrop to the stories that unfolded in a lot of the music. The band also started acoustically, with Sarah on the mandolin and John on the banjo. We were camping in Vermont and just picking around our campfire when the camp director came over and asked us to come back and play a gig there! We were very new and that experience made us think about performing live.
RRX: I remember the first time I saw Northern Borne. It was at one of the station shows, and Sarah was handing out your card. I still have it; it’s nice. And I don’t often see bands hands handing us their cards. Being that you’re bluegrass and that you’re from up north, do you have to do extra to book in the Capital Region?
NB: We are still navigating our way through the entire booking process and are just starting to look into playing more in the Albany/Troy/Schenectady areas. We have a few shows coming up this month (April) at Corcoran’s Towpath Tavern in Waterford and The Schenectady Distilling Company. We just opened for Beg, Steal or Borrow at one of our favorite haunts, the Rustic Barn in Troy, which is also where we met our bass player Shows Leary. Shows is a welcome addition, and brings in a strong rock influence that has really helped us hone in our sound. Receiving positive feedback from open mics like the Rustic Barn and the Black Bear in Watervliet pushed us to reach out to those areas initially. We honestly weren’t sure how well we would be received at first since a lot of the music seemed to be blues/rock and we are so different. But when we had the crowd dancing and having a good time, it gave us a boost of confidence to try and expand past the outlying venues that we are used to, such as the Argyle Brewing Company in our hometown of Cambridge, Unihog in Hoosick Falls and Hicks Orchard to name a few. Regardless of where you ask to be booked, however, it seems the process is pretty much the same. Places look to see that you are playing other gigs and check your music out online to make sure you would work for their venue. The business cards are a formal approach to putting our name out there and providing something physical past the online content.
RRX: You won an award from Dorn Space Theater, for the best original local song of the year in 2019. Can you tell us about this song? And also, in speaking of awards in general, is there a recognition landscape in the Adirondacks like there is in the Capital District? How do bands up north, including Northern Borne, get their due?
NB: We are very proud of this song, not just because of the award, but mostly because we were able to capture our dear friend in a song- appropriately named Adirondack Cowboy. The song is a true story based on a dear friend named Chris Boggia that we lost to cancer. Sarah lived on his ranch The Circle B in Chestertown for a time and after we met, we boarded our horses there. Chris and his family lived and worked on that ranch for over 50 years. Back in the 1950’s, Dude ranches were a big part of the Adirondacks and quite prevalent. He was a true Adirondack Cowboy and we are glad that we can help to tell his story and touch on the rich history of the Adirondack Dude Ranches of yesterday.
We aren’t certain about awards in the North Country, most of the bands there seem to get their recognition mainly through word of mouth.
RRX: Kicking back on the ‘storytelling’ question… the Adirondacks is a land of change. There’s development, and even though it’s a park, the areas that aren’t government owned are growing, expanding, in some cases going the opposite way. What is the current story of the Adirondacks; not in words, but what would the song sound like?
NB: To us it would need to be haunting. At one time the Adirondacks were vibrant with industry. Mining and logging, railroad development and tourism, the beginning of the great camps and the history of the dude ranches. When the Northway was built, it bypassed a lot of the small towns that had previously thrived. Less tourism coupled with changes in industry led to more small towns and businesses to struggle to keep their doors open. The ghosts of the mountains and the struggle of the local people mixed with the beauty of the natural surroundings incorporates a pretty but ghostly sound.
RRX: One thing that is true of almost every musician or band that we’ve interviewed, and that is the love everyone has for their instruments. Be it a war-battered harmonica or an armory of electric guitars, there’s a connection. Sometimes it’s love hate. I bring this up because I notice a vocal mic that Sarah uses that’s really distinct. Any tale to it?
NB: That mic is an Ear Trumpet Labs Microphone named Josephine. We first saw a similar mic used at a bluegrass festival band competition. All of the instruments and vocals came through the one mic with surprising clarity. Plus, it looked cool! They hand make these mics from recycled materials with an excellent condenser mic at its core. Since we purchased ours, we have realized how many other artists utilize similar versions from the same company. It helps define who we are and the style we play. We recycle a lot of traditional tunes and make them our own just like Josephine has recycled parts. She looks the part and adds to our character. She can be finicky, however, due to the condenser, and it does not work well for every venue. It’s been a learning experience for sure.
RRX: Here’s where you answer the question we didn’t ask. Any love to give o’er the mountains? People/places/things we should check out? Enlighten, educate, emote – the floor is yours.
NB: When we were first starting out we were traveling through Schroon Lake and happened to stop for dinner at “Witherbee’s Carriage House”. They happened to have music that night, the fabulous Tom Brady was playing. There was a large group at a table that night that took us under their wing and we were instantly part of the music scene. “Witherbee’s” became our local haunt and we frequented the open mic run by Mark Piper for many years. A couple others to check out would be “Bar Vino” in and “Basil and Wicks” both in North CreekThere are so many talented musicians that play in the area that are worth checking out…” TNT”, The Willy Playmore Band”and “George Parrot”,with however he plays with the man is amazing. We moved to Cambridge in Washington County going on three years ago now. This area has a diverse music scene, and places not to miss would be Argyle Brewing Company and Unihog in Hoosick Falls- both of which host local and national acts. Be sure to check out the East Bound Throwdown in September, put on by a Capital Region Favorite Band “East Bound Jesus” and another local favorite also in a similar vein as us- “The North and South Dakotas”. Be certain not to miss our good friends and extremely talented individuals “Keanan Stark and Orion Kribbs” when they play. Also be sure to check out the re-located band from Troy to Shushan “Bleak Little World.”