October 20-26, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Catching up with longtime Philly sideman Jay Ansill.
"I used to like to do things that were K-I-N-K-Y/ with L-E-A-T-H-E-R/ on my B-O-D-Y." Is that parody of "I'm Saved" by the Blue Sky Boys etched in your memory? It would be if you listened to WXPN in the 1980s. It was an oft-aired station ID by Philly's own Schuylkill Valley Nature Boys. That was Jay Ansill singing and playing mandolin, with Bob Stein and Dan Snyder. A clever ID, they were told, would guarantee plenty of airplay.
Stein and Snyder came up with the chorus: "Some folks D-R-I-V-E to the D-I-S-C-O." And Ansill, with the original, sanctimonious "I'm Saved" running through his head, suddenly started hearing "chains of S&M" instead of "chains of S-I-N." The whole verse just tumbled out. "I was so excited that I stopped at a pay phone to call the other guys at their work. By the end of the day I had written the other verses, one about sex and one about drugs. I remember that I had a hell of a time singing it and getting the spelling of vitamins right!"
Even Ansill can't recall for sure if he was a senior at Cheltenham or a recent graduate when the Nature Boys made this historic recording. He was just starting out, but that gift for strings and a clever streak still serves him well. Now he's a dad in Doylestown with a daughter almost as old as he was then. And still as funny as ever.
You might have enjoyed his Celtic harp over brunch at the Pink Rose or during a Sunday afternoon browse at Book Trader. More often you'll find him collaborating than playing a solo show. In recent years Ansill's played fiddle for John Train and Beats Walkin'.
He's a record producer (see Jennie Avila's recent Naked in the Rain) and a wingman who toured as harper for Robin Williamson and spent months working with Johnny Cunningham on the musical Peter & Wendy. In 1999 Ansill was a two-time Barrymore nominee, for original music for The Grapes of Wrath and Charlotte's Web. He's also gotten grants to stay in Mallorca and soak up the folk music of Catalunya, which will soon be interwoven in his new cycle of string quartets.
Even as a lad, if it had strings, Ansill wanted to learn it. He had the typical classical violin for a few years just as typically as he put it aside and wandered to guitar. Soon he started taking lessons from legendary teacher Ed Stanistreet. "Every week I'd turn up with a different instrument!" That didn't phase Stanistreet. To him, music was music and there was no need to build barriers between styles.
As his career took off, Ansill turned up everywhere, guesting with myriad musicians as they toured through the area. He credits these opportunities to Priscilla Herdman, a singer-songwriter who made her home in Philly at that time. "[She] was a big support in learning how to add to a song without getting in the way. There was a while when she, Rolly [Brown] and I were very tight friends. I really learned a lot from both of them about being a sideman."
Those early days sharpened his intuition. "The height of it for me was working with Anne Hills. I really thought that we communicated well and that I was able, in those rare, great moments, to really frame her voice and her songs in a way that made them better. Which is hard because she's such a great singer and writer."
Ansill says he's lucky to have come along when he did. At that time New Acoustic Music bluegrass fused with jazz and rock was all the rage. "David Amram was also a big influence. He liked to work world music into his symphonic compositions and he could play jazz. There were no boundaries. I appreciated that idea that there was no huge dividing line, that there was no idea that if you played one style you could not play another."
That suits Ansill's worldview perfectly. "I get interested in something and I just obsessively follow it wherever it leads. I discovered Maria del Mar Bonet [whom he frequently accompanies in the U.S.] through Robert Graves' family in Mallorca. I discovered Graves through Robin Williamson, I discovered Robin through the liner notes on an Al Stewart album. And I first heard Al Stewart while hanging out with some friends of my older brother's. All of these roads take you to amazing places if you're open to exploring them. I think for some people it works best to focus on one thing and really go deep into it, but I've never been able to do that, I'm always more excited to see where the connections are."