Rebecca Rego&The Trainmen: homespun acquaintance

I’m listening to superb Americana dosed with a unique blend of antiquated folk. The album presents as a conduit that carries you off, back in time, to the sun-porch at your grandma’s house. That porch, where you’d sit to sift through old photographs and reminisce, learn a thing or two. There, records were played on a small and mobile plastic record contraption that was likely beat up because it was transported everyplace.

It’s an album of note from seasoned musicians. Deep and meaningful prose is set to exuberant instrumentation. And, with that, Rebecca Rego & The Trainmen succeed in their pristine debut effort, Tolono.

Rebecca Rego fronts the outfit with a subtle warble that mingles with strength and pointed honesty. Growing up inside a lyric, a musician’s fortitude is ever tested. And with Rego, it’s ever-present. It’s that rolling emotion her band sets to tumbling tune. Never at once, too familiar, as instruments shimmy, they shake at the hands of contemporaries, Cory Ponton, Eric Fitts, and Matt Yeates.

Her range has changed through the years, she’s had practice, and her new outfit exudes a heightened comfort with one another. This is wholly new, but urges more from the listening party…a flirtatious and boundless album that never lapses in creativity nor energy.

Notions of escape aren’t truly necessary when you take music for what it’s worth. Those regular, everyday, tales are just as magical as a song about an epic romance. Because, in the gritty grind of daily life, even sipping wine straight from the bottle and hanging laundry to dry can make for intriguing fodder.

Individuals, still striving for growth and experimenting with theories they’ve seemingly mastered ages ago. The group has presented an expertly crafted album relying on their chemistry, which is undeniable. The bar is set; it’s a lofty peak and one that’s sure to set them apart on the scene. A certain permanence exists, and that will allow them to try their hands at honing an already amazing set of skill.

The future looks bright, smooth sailing ahead, and baited breath for their next foray. For now, I’ll continue to embrace and take this set of song in, daily, like a multi-vitamin. Better than a morning cup of coffee, stronger than that last sip of whiskey in those moments before bed.

For an in-depth grapple with the one of the minds behind the music, we sat down with Rebecca Rego to talk shop, the album, the open road, and corporate sponsorship. The lines ahead, for your perusing pleasure:

Your voice… I know it sounds so trite to ask how you found it. It’s something that’s seemingly always present. But, as a singer, it evolves and takes a life of its own over time. How do you go about creating the sound you intend to? Is it a natural progression, or something you sit down to work on each night?

Well, it’s not something that I work on every night. But it is something that I have been working on for years and years. I think most people listen back to how they sounded 5 -10 years ago and it’s a little bit horrifying.  My voice has been something I battle with all the time and fitting that into songwriting. I think touring has actually helped, and playing a lot more shows. You start to get a rhythm going and see what it is you want.

Inspiration on the new album is deep. Most people focus on the dreams come true, they throw bleach on all of that dirty laundry. It’s refreshing to speak of the real grit of relationships without dashing them completely. Everyday living, it’s nice to see an artist pen a tune to that effect and make it sound so damn mystifying. How on earth do you pull that off? Was it hard to throw that all out into song? 

I guess, no, I was just saying to my husband they other day I need some more hardships to get back on the songwriting train. I think that when things are hard it’s easier to be introspective and to be alone and that’s when songwriting gets done. I think that people always talk about the tortured songwriter.  Personally, the first step to starting to write is just getting in a room by myself. It’s weird how hard that can be sometime.

Songwriting, it’s a gift. But, it often comes spontaneously. What is the oddest way in which a song has come about for you? Any profound inspirations? 

Well, I don’t know about profound. But, it seems that songs are just something that come to you in a flash. It’s like a story you want to tell and then the words sort of arrange around that. When I bring these songs to the band I think that sometimes they sound pretty ordinary or similar to other things I have done.  Sometimes, that’s when magic happens. Hearing it all together with them and how they are interpreting it.

When the time comes to record a new album and step away from an old style, tackle something new. Is that process hard for you? Or does it come as a natural, “next step,”…growth?

No, I think its super refreshing. It’s nice to be doing something different and changing it up. I loved making this record cause it was just so natural and easy. We just recorded it pretty much how we play live. Each song was a few takes and that was it. There are some mistakes that you live with but that really just makes it more real.

The Midwest is a fairly unique place. You grew up in Wisconsin. Did you travel to Chicago strictly to harness your passions and work on your music career? 

Yea I did. When I was 23 I graduated from college and I think that it is a really hard time for people. They, all of a sudden, are unsure of what they are doing. I made this decision that I wanted to work on music and be a songwriter, and sort of just started searching for a place that I thought would foster that. I spent some time in San Francisco but, ultimately I really found Chicago to feel more like a home to me.

Was it hard to leave home, bartend and pay those dues? It seems worth it to play all those emblazoned old Chicago stages. What was the hardest part? The most rewarding?

This question is a little funny cause it sounds like a past tense. I feel like I am still at a really early part of my career and doing that still. However, I think… yes, it is hard but I remember someone asking me how it was to just be playing music full time after I quit my bartending job I had in Chicago for so many years and I said, “ It feels like what I am supposed to be doing.” I think it’s something I used to question a lot after a bad show or playing a really horrible club somewhere but I don’t really do that anymore.  I realize that not many people in this world get to live the lives they want to and I am just grateful and happy for that every day.

Traveling. Tell me about the infamous, “tour van.” Every band has one and they become such an integral part of daily life as they take on mode of transport, home, and diner booth.

Oh yes, ours is Russell. He is a ’91 Chevy Gladiator and amazing! He is a fully upholstered conversion van, we found him in an ad in the Daily Journal in Kankakee. He had been owned by this elderly couple that took such good care of him for so many years, they wouldn’t even let people wear shoes in him! He has been the most amazing van.

Are there places on the road you’ve come across that were truly the most intriguing places in the country?

We have seen some awesome places for sure. I think driving through the mountains is probably my favorite part of touring. It makes it so epic. Out East, the tradition for folk music is so strong there. I think that the Appalachians are such a great place and hold so much history for folk and old time music.

Any cities you seriously decided packing up and moving to after touring through?

Well, I really fell in love with Charlottesville, VA when we were there this summer. The people we met there and the places that we hung out after the show were so fun and inviting. Also, you drive like a half an hour out of town and you’re in these beautiful mountains.  We swam in this little water hole hidden in the mountains. I’d seriously consider that place.

Tell me a little about the decision to move away from the hustle and the noise, was it time for a simpler life after you married? Did moving help you to refocus on your music and give you different perspective?

Well, our decision really didn’t have to do with being married that much. It was more about finding a more affordable place to live.  Chicago had changed so much since I had first moved there in 2006. I loved it so much but it was becoming really hard to pay rent, and keep a large vehicle there, and even just eat and do this full time. We wanted to be able to find a place with a lower cost of living that would still be good to tour out of. I really love Champaign for that reason. The music scene here is very vibrant and people are very excited about art and culture. A friend told me a long time ago that he thought it was the best place to be a musician in the country and I am starting to think he was right.

To you there is a romanticism of the railway. I think that’s there for everyone. It’s an antiquated practice, train travel. You mingle, you dine, you speed past luscious escape all in the safe confines of a train car. As an artist was this a go-to topic you had to lend song to? I think it’s a delight. And, now…I want book a ticket on the Orient Express.

I think it all started with this song, “ We Jump In The River,” that is on the record. When I first started playing with The Trainmen (they weren’t called that then). It was the first song that we wrote together. Matt came up with this rolling drum part that actually sounded like a train moving.  The Trainmen have all kind of grown up together in Bradley/ Bourbonnais just outside of Chicago. I had started spending a lot of time down there and got married there, because that’s where my husband is from.  The train has such a strong history in this country and especially in towns in Illinois. If the train stopped in your town, it put you on the map. I think that tradition still sort of stands and it is something that when I was writing some of these songs/stories about people from Illinois it found it’s way into.

The groups of musicians you tend to bring together for your projects, it’s as though they are heaven sent. The camaraderie and that closeness you elude is makes your work so prevalent and brilliant. Was it a happy accident that you found these folks are did you network and keep an ear to the scene to find out about them?

Happy accent for sure. I was just playing in Kankakee County a lot at Farmers Market and other outdoor events and met another songwriter Lupe Carroll. These guys had been playing with him there. I asked the drummer Matt if he would want to play a few shows with me. His friend Eric was graduating from EIU and was back in town for a while. We started doing some small tours together, even going all the way down south for a week and a half or so. We had such a good time. We asked Cory to do a few local shows with us and then we did a full tour… me, Cory, and Eric this summer (Matt ended up getting asked to tour with a Seattle band Ivan and Allyosha then).  We slowly started to evolve these songs into what they are on the record.

Your live act is a genuine crowd pleaser and the albums are insane. Is it nice to know you can produce such stellar recording and then take that, lean on that…and blow an audience away in the same manner during a live set?

Thanks! Yea we love playing together.  I think that we genuinely really all love each other and love this music, that’s what comes across when we’re playing.

What’s your favorite song on the debut album?

Well, I love them all but I think my favorite is Trouble. The horns are just very fun and add a lot.

Do you have a song that you’re oddly addicted to at the moment?

Well probably like 2000 but I would say right now I just love, love, love, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. Whenever we put that record on I just have to stop what I’m doing and sing every word.

Lastly, when you’re out on the highway and hunger strikes. can someone in that van eat a junior roast beef and cheddar with a side of jalapeño poppers for me? I’m craving Arby’s and Argentina hasn’t gotten notice of its superior beef product just yet.

For sure! We are trying to get an Arby’s sponsorship.  It’s our favorite road food!

-Holly Jones, editor, OnTour Magazine

Photo Credit: Stephanie Bassos

Catch Rebecca Rego & The Trainmen at The Hideout this Thursday for their album release show. 8PM, $10.00. Quaint setting for such an outstanding group. You can buy the album or stream a sample here.