Beth Patterson is a multi-instrumentalist, performer and songwriter specialising in the eight-stringed bouzouki – a huge-sounding instrument brought to Greece from Asia in the 1900s and, in turn, adopted by Irish folk musicians. Her love of Celtic music in particular and ethnic, folk and roots music in general led to her to study traditional Irish music and ethnomusicology at University College Cork, Ireland.
According to Beth’s online bio, she was ‘born in a swamp’ in Lafayette, Louisiana… and by her teens was touring in her mother’s cajun music ensemble, playing oboe in classical orchestra, and jamming the bass guitar in metal bands. Patterson has self-described ‘raging Attention Deficit Disorder’ and is relentlessly pushing boundaries, bridging musical styles and searching for new experiences. She is a published author and has recorded seven solo albums, has played live in more than fifteen countries and has contributed music to Hollywood movies.
Beth has now taken a one-month sabbatical from live gigs in her adopted hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana to explore Cambodia for the first time. Travelling with her husband and fellow musician Josh Paxton, Beth has been hanging out in Kampot acquainting herself with local customs and language whilst Paxton plays the nightly piano residency at Equinox. With St Patrick’s Day approaching, Beth hooked up with some Phnom Penh musos to organise a series of Celtic-themed gigs at Bouchon, The Lazy Gecko, Bassac Lane, Paddy Rice, Farm to Table and Hops Beer Garden. Leng Pleng gave Beth a call to find out more:
Hi Beth! You’re currently experiencing your first trip to Cambodia and first time in South East Asia. Be careful… this place can really get under your skin! What’s a regular gigging week like for you in New Orleans?
There is no typical gig in New Orleans! I might have five gigs in a week or I might have one. Expect the unexpected. It might be a friendly crowd or it might be a room full of people looking at their cellphones – there are people who don’t understand that New Orleans is a unique city, or don’t want to try something new.
Worst-ever song request?
One time, a guy requested the same song over and over again for four solid hours – the song was ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’. People will sometimes request something impossible, something that cannot be done with a solo acoustic set up.
Once, someone requested Enya! So, I turned the reverb on the system up to the max, and sang these long ‘aaahs’ while passing the mic from side to side, giving the effect of Enya… singing in a passing speeding convertible car.
Another time, someone requested a Megadeth song without realising that I used to be a metal bass player and knew the song. People try to mess with you. 27 years as a performer… it’s hard to be polite sometimes when people don’t ask for something respectfully or they’re just trying to get a part of the action.
A member of the audience asked for a song called ‘Orgasm’. I don’t know if that’s a real song or not. I said ‘I don’t know it… but I can fake it!’
How about Sweet Home Alabama or Hotel California? Those are the two songs that are most requested by audiences at Cambodian gigs.
I would say: ‘Let me think about it, no’.
Tell me how metal fits into the Beth Patterson story?
Most of the kids my age they all wanted to play metal. I’m more of a progressive rock fan but in your teens you can’t find anybody who wants to play Rush, Yes, or King Crimson… they just want to play metal. I appreciated the subversive aggression of metal – that is something I still carry with me to this day. There is a lot of aggression amongst metal performers but there are so many complete goofballs in there too. Am I a goofball? I am indeed an absolute goofball!
You were also a Cajun bass player?
Cajun music was all around me because I’m from Lafayette. Cajun music was always there, in High School I knew a really good Cajun fiddle player. We’d go out into the country where you’d find the old boys… take tape recorders and record them singing. My mom was in a Cajun band. I was part of a Cajun folklore troupe that toured.
Cajun is the music of South-West Louisiana. It’s very downbeat heavy. A lot of the songs which remain today are dance tunes: two-step, waltzes. There are other types of Cajun songs not widely known. The culture is a mix. Not only do you have the French… we had Scottish and Irish and German and Austrian settlers… and all of that got mixed in and of course we had some African-Americans who settled as well. There are parts of Cajun music that are bluesy. It has since taken on an identity of its own.
You studied in Ireland? How did that come about?
I was in a college study-abroad program. I chose University College Cork because they had a course in traditional Irish music and ethnomusicology. Had I have been there for four years, I would have taken one course per year like everyone else. But instead as I was there for one year, I took all four courses in one year! It was fantastic, taught me lot of things I didn’t know about historically… things about the Irish dance tunes… made me pay attention to the nuances. My time there was partly studying in the classrooms and part research in the pubs. Session etiquette… just learning to get a window into the mindset of the players, how they thought.
What is the difference between the ‘real’ Irish folk music and the ‘Wild Rover’ type of stuff?
There is a reason the mainstream stuff is so popular. People relate to it, they feel safe and included. Some of the more complicated stuff is harder for people with shorter attention spans. It’s tempting to denigrate the popular singalongs, like comparing McDonalds to steak, it’s that kind of safe zone that everybody can find. They might not understand the complexities of jigs or reels and they might not want to make the emotional investment to discover the more complicated stuff.
I still sing the popular stuff though. Even though I tell myself ‘I don’t have to do this’ …its taking one for the team. But I do sometimes say to myself ‘If I play Whiskey in the jar one more time i’m gonna fork myself in the eye’! So I change the lyrics to ‘Whack for my Daddy-O, I hate this fucking song’.
You’ve been in Kampot for a couple of weeks now, have you tried Kampot Cider? Are you a teetotaller when you play a gig?
Yes, Kampot cider is good, not too sweet some like some of the ciders back home – which taste like ‘good God, somebody put alcohol in a popsicle’. We tried Khmer whiskey, the one with the picture of the guy with a pouty face on the label. Cognitive dissonance in a bottle! I don’t like to drink before i play, don’t like to be drunk when i play. Maybe about halfway through the night, have a drink, just enough to relax. I never want to get to the point where I can’t play at my best – don’t worry, you won’t have to worry about Beth: ‘The Bouzouki player is face down in the palm wine again!’
How about your general experience of Cambodia so far?
The expats here… that’s an interesting world. It’s almost a global purgatory… coming from all over the world, getting a fresh start somewhere. People bare their souls more here. It’s easy to fall into a colonial mindset, living this luxurious life for pennies a day that the vast majority of Cambodians themselves can’t live. I have deep respect, appreciation and admiration for the Khmer people… the resilience after the Khmer Rouge.
The roads in Cambodia are in better shape than the roads in New Orleans, I’m not kidding! I have a friend who lives in mid-city and one of the potholes is so bad that his neighbour put his washing machine inside. Have you seen the TV series ‘Treme’ ? It’s so accurate, we would be glued to our TVs in New Orleans. It is pretty much like that – a music town, great bands and great venues a stone’s throw from each other.
Things about Kampot remind me of Honduras and Mexico… the people are very friendly and very intensely creative.
I’d like to get out into the Cambodian countryside more. One thing I always say about us musicians, performers: we don’t get front seats in life… but we get backstage passes.
You recently organised your own Australian tour?
I’ve toured Australia three times. At one time I actually planned to emigrate there. The first two tours were booked through an agent, the last tour was very short – three-and-a-half weeks, only got to see three states. The previous tour was four solid months across Australia and New Zealand. Even then, there are so many places I have yet to see.
It was amazing to me how diverse Australia is, just as diverse as America. English, Irish, Scottish… You can’t a throw a rock without hitting a Greek person in Melbourne! Chinese… Afghanis… did you know that the Afghanis brought camels over to Australia from the Middle East? Now there are more camels in Australia than in the Middle East! The camels have taken to the outback so well, now some places in the Middle East will will import their camels from Australia!
In the Northern Territories, any camels you can catch, you can keep. I could only fit three in my suitcase, the fourth wouldn’t fit in. But at the airport, they took away my bottle of water, my nail clippers and at least two of my camels.
I also wanted to learn more about the indigenous people of Australia. It broke my heart to learn how the aboriginal people were treated. I’ve only scratched the surface with that, I want to know more about their concept of dreaming, how stories are used to demonstrate the law.
Beth Patterson will be appearing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia:
Wednesday 14th March – Bouchon Wine Bar & Restaurant
Thursday 15th March – The Lazy Gecko Guesthouse & Bar
Friday 16th March – Bassac Lane
Saturday 17th March – Paddy Rice
Sunday 18th March – Farm to Table
Sunday 19th March – Hops Beer Garden