Mark your calendars, Saratoga! You’re not going to want to miss the modern bluegrass-folk duo, 10 String Symphony, which is coming to Caffè Lena this Sunday, August 19. The band, which consists of multi-instrumentalist Rachel Baiman and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer, gets their name from the two, five-string fiddles that make up their instrumental core (sometimes a five-string banjo is added to the mix). And last year, Sedelmyer’s seen his star rise exponentially, as he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for his work with legendary lap steel guitarist Jerry Douglas on The Jerry Douglas Band’s album, What If.
Both Sedelmyer and Baiman grew up far away from what you might consider hubs of bluegrass, country or folk music: Sedelmyer in Erie, PA and Baiman in Chicago. They moved to Nashville, separately, around the same time ten years ago to pursue fiddle playing full time (both were still playing your standard four-string violins back then). They met one night at a jam session in a bar called The 5 Spot and, oddly enough, both ended up obtaining five-string fiddles shortly after that first musical encounter (can you say fate?). Experimenting with the new instruments together led to some unique arrangements and then, ultimately, writing totally original songs together.
Since the release of their debut album, Weight of the World, in 2015, 10 String Symphony has made a name for itself with its signature blend of traditional bluegrass and bolder, folksy harmonies and techniques. They just released their third album, Generation Frustration, this past month, and are currently on tour promoting it. I caught up with the band’s Rachel Baiman before their performance this weekend.
Is this your first time in Saratoga?
We’ve played Caffè Lena once or twice before. It’s a lovely spot.
A lot of big folk heroes have played at Caffè Lena. Have any of them been influences of yours?
Yeah, we actually have a Bob Dylan cover. We do his “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind.” He’s a big songwriting influence for me. So it’s pretty cool to see his photos and stuff up there.
Violins normally have four strings. How common is a five-string fiddle?
They’re not super common, but they’re starting to be quite popular in the fiddle world. You won’t see them in the classical world at all. But a lot of pretty well-known fiddle players use them like Brittany Haas and Bobby Hicks.
You’re from Chicago and Christian’s from Erie, PA. How did you get into what is essentially a rural, mostly Southern style of music?
Well, my parents were originally from New England, and they were really into country dancing and folk music. When we moved to Chicago, I really started learning [those genres]. I started taking music lessons with this fiddle player who was really into bluegrass; he was from rural Illinois. There’s actually a lot of open bluegrassers in more rural areas of Illinois, outside of the city. As I got more into it, I started traveling so I could learn more. I used to come to Tennessee in the summer and do a workshop and take a bunch of lessons, and that’s what led me to Nashville.
I can definitely hear a harder edge in 10 String Symphony’s sound. You must have influences outside of the bluegrass-folk world.
We try to be really open, harmonically. I think that’s usually what is most edgy in our music—that we’re open to these kind of raw harmonies, a lot of tension, a lot of dissonance. There’s a band called LAU that really influenced our most recent record, Generation Frustration, because the lead singer [Kris Drever] was our producer. They’re one of those really cutting-edge folk bands that play great folk music and are masters of the craft, but they’re really inspired by Radiohead and use a lot of electronics. We try to be really open to whatever we’re listening to and enjoying at the time and allow that to influence the sound of our band.