Within whispering forests of skyscraping trees, in the thunder of coastal swells and between the rushing torrents of our rocky rivers, Oregon is making music. Our diverse natural environment is a symphony of sorts. Whether in the plains of the high desert or atop a snowy peak, the state seems to conduct its own musical arrangements just by being.
Its inspiration and influence is undeniable to a variety of local voices—each forging their own brand of “Oregon music.” The term singer-songwriter barely scratches the surface. In the interest of discovering what exactly it means to be a musician in Oregon and how and where inspiration strikes, 1859 caught up with three local artists whose music is both turning heads and tapping toes … each to their own beat.
When picturing the predominant musical landscape of Oregon, jazz may not be the first genre that comes to mind. However, the tireless and savvy Eugene-based vocalist Halie Loren may be changing perceptions.
“In my view, there isn’t a single dominant genre [in Oregon],” she explains, “and because there is no major music industry center, independent artists like me have a lot opportunity to gain attention locally and statewide, and to be celebrated for our talents and musical contributions to Oregonians’ cultural tapestry.”
The Alaska native relocated to the state with her family while she was a teenager—in part to further her opportunities as a budding performer. “When I first set foot in Oregon,” she reminisces, “it felt like the perfect place to me in that the cities were bustling with so much music and art and culture while being surrounded by so much wilderness. I needed to feel strongly connected to nature, coming from such a nature-lover’s paradise as Sitka, Alaska. Oregon felt like the best of all worlds to me.”
A classical vocalist, Loren breathes life into traditional jazz standards, while her rich and sultry voice also bends the genre through her own pop-influenced songwriting and arrangements. Though the bright young singer has been performing across the globe for over a decade and has found wide success—particularly in Asia—Loren continues to make the Willamette Valley her home base.
“Oregon has an irreplaceable feeling of home to me that outweighs any of the perceived benefits of living in a larger music hub,” she elaborates. “In the era of digital sales platforms, social networking, and home studios, it’s easier than ever before to make a music career from wherever one decides to live… and I tour so often anyway, it certainly doesn’t seem to matter so much that I live where some might consider to be ‘a little out of the way.’”
Loren’s music seems to match the mood of a crisp fall afternoon in Oregon: bright and cozy. Though familiar, it’s still filled with surprises. Loren takes much of her musical inspiration from her natural surroundings.
“I feel very tied to the Pacific Northwest in general, and find so much inspiration in the rain and changing of the seasons and the landscapes and the imagery. They inspire in my music, art and poetry,” she explains. “I think having a sense of place, wherever that place happens to be, heavily influences an artist’s work. It seeps into all aspects of a person’s perspective on the world, including the way one creates art that reflects pieces of that world.”
Loren also cites a variety of local musicians and experiences as positive influences on her style and work ethic. “I was quite inspired by a lot of the performances I watched at festivals around the state, like the (once-named) Willamette Valley Folk Fest, the Jazz at Newport festival and so many others. Local artists like Laura Kemp and Shelley James and Deb Cleveland—so many people that are still major parts of our local scene. It was hugely influential to see the vast variety of musical styles and the freedom it brought to my thinking about what performances could sound and look like.”
Loren will share the Silva Concert Hall stage at the Hult Center with local pillars the Sugar Beets on April 26, during a special evening with the Eugene Concert Choir. Tickets are available on the Hult Center’s website.
Hood River singer-songwriter Ben Bonham is anything but average. The multitalented British expat creates the sort of music that conjures bygone eras: his array of current projects includes The Bonham Blues Band—a three-piece blues roots band, old-time string quartet The June Bug Boys and female-fronted duo Hokum Pokum, the last of which he describes as playing “raunchy old ‘20s blues conversation songs.”
But he doesn’t stop there. Bonham frequently plays solo and recently revived his renowned vintage Hawaiian swing band, The Hapa Hillbillies. He is an accomplished guitar and ukulele player, and, in addition to playing, is one of just a few instructors in the Pacific Northwest to offer lessons in slide and steel guitar.
Though he isn’t a native Oregonian (Bonham relocated from the UK in 1996 and settled in the Hood River area in 2003), there is a recognizable familiarity in Ben Bonham’s style. His tireless work ethic and appreciation for American roots music embodies the “pioneer spirit” that’s grounded in our region.
“Locally, there is a resurgent interest in many things from forgotten times—especially music,” Bonham shares. “Including how it used to be made and consumed, and how different it was from the mass production industry it is today. My experience in the Gorge and Portland makes me feel I am not alone in this pursuit, and I frequently meet new musicians and audiences who inspire me to carry on down this path. I think of my style as just temporally misplaced! There was a time (the ‘20s and ‘30s) when all the music I love and play was the absolute fashion of the day.”
He cites the local do-it-yourself attitude as a key factor in his decision to make Oregon his permanent home. Bonham now uses his passion to help evoke a sea change within the industry as a whole: “I think everywhere, including Oregon, music is no longer valued as it once was, but I am working hard to effect a change there. I think it’s working. I want my kids and their friends to see music and art as a valuable direction in life, and not just what you do after your ‘real work.’
The Gorge seems particularly receptive to that—another reason why I am delighted to be here,” Bonham explains.
This local powerhouse shows no sign of slowing down. Bonham is eager to kick off this year’s projects and performances. His two-piece Hokum Pokum will be performing at Portland’s Mission Theatre on March 8, and he is also diligently assembling a set of finger-style jazz standard love songs to perform as part of a Valentine’s Day show. Visit his website to stay on top of the most up-to-date schedule of performances and news.
Shelley Short is an anomaly of sorts: she is a member of an increasingly rare population of Oregonians actually born and raised in Portland. While the city floods with hopeful musicians, artists, and other makers drawn to the low cost of living and the almost electric buzz of creativity, Short has been ensconced in the scene since birth. It’s certainly had an impact on her music.
Short is a singer-songwriter that embodies the ethos of the Pacific Northwest. Musically, her soft and chirpy voice swirls around minimal arrangements. Her songs are honest, simple, and warm. Even her music videos for tracks like “The Dark Side” and “Right Away” feature a spread of imagery that includes rustic homes and grey skies, and conveys an overwhelming feeling of comfort and familiarity. Oregonians should inherently get Shelley Short’s music.
photo by Faulkner Short
“There are a lot of transplants that move here from all over, which gives [Portland] an organic, changing feeling that keeps things interesting,” she explains. When asked about her inspiration, she confirms suspicions that Oregon’s lush landscape and lifestyle have represented to her more than just a backdrop: “I don’t think you can live here around all these big trees and water without having it affect your ideas and thoughts!” she quips.
Collaboration and community seem to rest at the core of Shelley Short’s art. Recently, she collaborated with friends and local musicians Chris Funk, Jon Neufeld, Cory Gray, Nate Query and Matt Berger on an all-covers album, Wake the Dreamers, which they recorded together at Type Foundry Studio. The resulting record was celebrated this past fall by being performed in its entirety at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater. The album actually pays tribute, in a way, to one of Short’s childhood favorites.
“We covered a song by Johnnie Ray called “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” It was a song I had listened to growing up, never realizing that Johnnie was a native Oregonian—he is from Dallas, Oregon,” she shares. “He had a very interesting life and voice. It would be so great to see him sing live with that powerful voice.
Short is buried this year in the writing and recording process for her next full-length album. In the meantime, Wake the Dreamers is available in vinyl format only via Jealous Butcher Records.
1859’s music blogger, Meredith Frengs Wales, has been an Oregonian since 2001. Wales leads a double life as a high school English teacher by day and a passionate music fan outside the classroom. Meredith parlays her past experience as a radio promoter and marketing professional into discovering–and sharing–the incredible musical offerings of our fair state. When she isn’t teaching or writing, Meredith spends time show-hopping with her musician-slash-journalist husband and exploring all the history and culture that Oregon has to offer.