Smile Politely

Family, farmscapes, and the 90s

Rebecca Rego and the Trainmen have all the pieces in place: a talented singer-songwriter out front with a penchant for writing pretty rootsy folk and an assured, salty voice, backed by a tight band that supports the melodies without being boring, and that is interesting to listen to without overwhelming the writing.

I met with newly-minted Champaigner Rego at the Blind Big Brewery to talk about her new album, Tolono, which was for the most part recorded live, directly onto analog tape in one take.

Smile Politely: You’ve been doing the music thing for a while, right?

Rebecca Rego: Yeah, I was living in Chicago for eight years, and I played music there with a different group of people than I’m putting this record out with, and we called ourselves Rego. I played with them for about six years or so. I moved to Chicago when I was 23, and started playing music in open mics and slowly met those people and got a band together. We didn’t do much touring but we put two records out together.

SP: Where are you from originally?

Rego: Milwaukee.

SP: What brought you to Champaign?

Rego: We recorded the record in Tolono, and we spent time in [Champaign] and then we met some people who were from here during that time, and I just kind of fell in love with it. I felt like it was such a good place to go, such a great alternative to the city. Ryan Groff, who everyone knows from around here, he’s like a local celebrity — our bands would play together a lot in Chicago, and he would always tell me this is the best city for music in the world, and now that I’m here I just love it.

SP: I was curious about the Tolono connection… you said you had recorded in Tolono; I think I’ve driven through Tolono once or twice… what’s the deal with Tolono?

Rego: Matt Talbott, one of the members of HUM, started a studio there. He bought this old building and it used to be a recording studio way back in the 70s. It used to be called Great Western Recording, he switched the name to Earth Analog. I was googling analog recording in Chicago because I wanted to do this record live to analog tape, and I didn’t really have the money to pay city prices for it, so I was looking all over, I found it and went down there and met him and was like, it’s gonna be really cool here, and I decided to record there. There’s nothing [in Tolono]. There’s a Casey’s General Store and a Subway and that’s it. There’s a train that runs through there. We liked all the ambient sounds in the background.

SP: Have you recorded in analog before?

Rego: I haven’t. I know it’s the new hip thing to do, do everything to tape, so that was part of it, because people had been talking about it. I was feeling like all these recordings that I’d been doing for so many years digitally, there was a disconnect between my live show and what was actually going onto a record. I just wanted to experiment with something new, so I had it set in my mind that I wanted to do it live on tape, I want it to sound close to what we do in front of people.

SP: I read on your website that your record was influenced a lot by marriage and the first year of marriage.

Rego: I got married in September 2011, and then a lot of these songs got written right after when we got married. When you get married, there’re all these things that come up that you didn’t know were going to come up. When people talk about any sort of life-changing time, when they get out of college or they have a baby, it was the same for getting married.

We got married and then we were like, whoa, there’re all these weird feelings that we’re having and ghosts of our families that are always coming out and fights that we never thought we’d have, and I think some of the songwriting comes from that, and it’s also intertwined with these stories of both of our families that I’d been hearing for the last couple of years, because when you get married all of a sudden your families look at you differently too, and you start to hear different stories and people start talking about different things, it’s such an experience that brings you back to your family. When you leave and go to college and you’re on your own for a while, you’re not so into what your family is doing, and then when you get married you’re back into that mode.

SP: The theme of trains comes up a lot in the record. Did you write that before you knew you’d be recording in a place that was basically built by the railroad?

Rego: After we recorded there, and we looked into the history of that town and were trying to come up with a name for the record, we were like holy shit, this town was completely built for the railroad, it was built for people to live there who worked on trains.

I didn’t set out to make that, because I feel like that’s kind of cheesy, but the reason I think it worked its way into so much is because when I first started playing with these guys and there was a lot of driving back and forth between Chicago and Kankakee, because that’s where a lot of them are from, and now there’s a lot of driving back and forth between here and Kankakee, so it’s that stretch of 57, and a lot of songwriting gets done when you’re driving by yourself. The train is a huge part of the landscape, on that stretch it’s like you’re following that train, and sometimes, especially this time of the year, it’s all you see. You’re looking out and it’s like the only thing that’s moving in the landscape.

I wanted to write a lot of songs about this area because I had been spending so much time here since I met my husband, and I’ve never been here before. Before I met my husband I’d never been to Kankakee, never been to Champaign, and I think it’s an interesting part of Illinois. Especially because there’s not a lot to it. The land is pretty simple, and I think that’s what makes it cool and interesting.

SP: What’s your favorite town to play in?

Rego: Well, my favorite town consistently is probably Chicago because that’s where I’ve been all the time. Also, I just like it here. Because I’m kind of new and I’m a transplant and we’ve just started playing here. I have really enjoyed playing shows here.

SP: People are super supportive here and are really into the local acts.

Rego: I feel like they’re more into local than national. It’s so opposite from Chicago, where Chicago people are very into music there, and they’re very into seeing live music, but they’re very influenced by Pitchfork and trends and what’s going on that way, rather than their friends’ bands and local bands. And here I feel like it’s completely opposite. Which is really cool.

SP: Your singing voice is very different from your talking voice. I thought you would sound totally different. How did you teach yourself to sing like that?

Rego: People say that all the time, and I guess I really don’t know where it comes from. I didn’t grow up singing at all, I grew up playing guitar but not singing, and when I got older I really fell in love with people from the 90s. I loved the Indigo Girls and I loved Ani DeFranco. I say it now wincing, because it’s so clichéd…

SP: It’s all good, it was the 90s!

Rego: Yeah, it’s like the 90s, everybody loves Ani DeFranco, but now you listen to it and you’re like, God, was I really that pissed off? I want to say I grew up listening to Johnny Cash or something really cool like a lot of hipsters to but I didn’t. It was like, Alanis Morissette for sure. Then I got into college and I started writing some songs and singing.

I think my singing voice has come a long way since I started playing with these guys too, because we love the same music and we’re all striving for the same sound and the same goals so it makes it easier to play together. They’ve all been playing music since they were really young, together. They’re all friends and they’ve been playing music in their town since they were 15. As a unit, they’re so cohesive and they really know what they’re looking for. Even though they’re five or six years younger than me, I feel like they’re so much more experienced than me a lot of times. So I think that playing with them, they really challenged me to sing a lot better.

Catch Rego and the Trainmen with Tigerbeat at Cafeteria & Company this upcoming Saturday at 8 p.m.

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