by Rachel Cholst, Senior Editor
Andrew van Norstrand has traversed the Northeast in a shifting array of bands, all falling somewhere under the traditional/roots heading. After ten years of touring with his contraband group, Great Bear, van Norstrand, his brother Noah, and Chris Miller resurrected their trio the Faux Paws and recorded their self-titled album in February of 2020. Well, you know how that turned out. In the meantime, van Norstrand released his deeply personal and experimental That We Could Find a Way to Be.
In van Norstrand’s interview with Country Queer, he discussed the differences between music for self expression and music for dance, finding the happy medium in between; wrestling with his privilege as a cis white man, and how bi erasure has impacted his journey.
Something I noticed about The Faux Paws is it’s very light. I think for obvious reasons, most of the albums I’ve been listening to this year are kind of more meditative or mournful. Why did you and the band choose to go in a more lighthearted direction?
“The very basic answer is we did all of the tracking for the record in February of 2020. The most obvious pile of shit that we’ve all been living through hadn’t quite started yet. Also, the material on the record is about half material that Chris and I have been playing together for really quite a long time, basically 10 years. “
“So, half of the record is stuff that we had pretty thoroughly road tested. The other half was written a couple of months leading up to that recording session in February. The material itself was not really influenced by the pandemic at all because it was all already recorded.”
“Additionally, my solo record That We Could Find a Way To Be, was me working through some stuff like that was very personal and equally for my processing my life at that point than it was meant for any sort of entertainment, you know?”
“So the tunes on the trio record are coming from a different place. They’re coming from a place that’s a little more settled, a little more confident.”
The Faux Paws have been around for 10 years. What made 2020 the time to record your first album as a band?
“Part of it is the natural ebb and flow of projects. Noah and I met right around 2010. We seemed to have a bit of a rhythm when we’re together as a trio.”
“Then we’d incorporate that into some like larger bands. We had a configuration called the Andrew and Noah Band that was like a seventies roots rock vibe. When that project went on hiatus, we brought it back to a trio, and then eventually incorporated Chris into our big dance band.”
“That band was called Great Bear. And we added Chris again into like this six or seven piece roots rock dance band. When that project finally got put to bed in 2018, we still all wanted to play together.”
“We’re really excited for this album. We’re gonna be touring mostly in 2022. We’re gonna put out music videos.”
How do you feel that playing music that’s meant to be danced to, like for Great Bear, is different compared to a band is more focused on performance and self-expression?
“When you’re playing for dancing, you are presenting an artistic performance, but you are also facilitating an activity and the people who are there are there for both things to in varying degrees. Some of the people are there because they want to take in your performance. Some of them are only vaguely aware that there’s even a band. But that’s not so different than playing in a bar.”
“There’s something really rewarding about seeing the way your music connects people. There’s no better way of seeing that than in contradance, because you’ve got this very cool view on stage and the way you’re playing, you are physically watching the connections being made to the thing I just literally did.”
“When you’re playing for a seated audience, you just need different tools. You need to treat it a little differently because their attention is completely focused on you and they’re not distracted. You need to work a little bit harder to get them to have the experience that you want them to have, because it’s all riding on you.”
I didn’t realize, until I started writing for Country Queer, just how traditional bluegrass and trad spaces are. But contradance, at least in New England, is more chill. There’s often a lot of gender bending. I was wondering how the culture in these scenes has impacted you as a queer musician.
“I have a real background in grounding in dance music. Especially in new England, that is a very welcoming, accepting space — at least on that entry level of acceptance of different of different kinds of people. It’s not the most challenging place in our culture to be a queer person.”
“I’ve got a lot of privilege as well. Being a cis, white guy, I’m just ahead on a lot of shit, you know, through no virtue of my own. I don’t have to work as hard to be seen or accepted. I’m just wanting to always try and look for those ways in which I just happened to be the person that I am and that has benefited me in ways that are invisible to me, unless I’m looking for them.”
“My challenges as a queer person come more from bi erasure. My queerness is very important to me, but it could so easily be overlooked unless I make it an important thing.”
“I need you to know about me. This is an important part of who I am. And if you, I want you to understand other things about me. Things that I, you know, who I am as a person. I need you to understand this part of me as well.”
“As a band, we are three white cis guys and we’re doing something so very obvious in playing traditional music. But we want to make music in the context of a big range of people. We want to fit into a music scene that includes so many more people. We want to be alongside queer people. We want to be alongside trans people. We want to be alongside people of color. We don’t want to be on top. We don’t want it to be ahead. We don’t want it to be in front.”
“I need to look for ways to increase that space. And it’s not always easy or obvious, but if you’re not looking for those ways, you miss a hundred percent of the things you’re not looking for.”
Speaking of bi erasure, I really enjoyed “She’s Not Looking For You.” What’s the backstory behind that song?
“It was a friend of mine, a really, really terrific person. We were just talking on Instagram. She lives in Western Montana. She was telling me about the obvious challenges of being a queer woman, trying to date in Western Montana. I remember her showing me like her Tinder profile and it’s like, you know, zero matches in a 600 mile radius. That sort of got me extrapolating a story.”
“I was thinking of just, like, taking a moment and realizing that just because someone else exists doesn’t mean they need to interact with you; doesn’t mean they’re looking for you. What kind of bizarre assumption is that? Like everyone else in the world is just waiting to find you? Maybe just sit with that for a moment.”
What’s something you want other queer like country or roots fans to think about?
“I want people to know that this is music for you, music that you can fully participate in.”
“It’s some of my earliest music I ever played. It like really connects with me as a person. Are those parts of me that I have to drop now, or are those still things that I can embrace?”
“This genre is all about people who have complicated emotions. People who’ve made complicated choices. People who are on the outside. People who are lonely. But also people who have an appreciation for nature. There’s so many aspects of what I love about country music that are queer and have always been queer and have always been enjoyed by queer people and sung by queer people.”
“I’ve been bi the entire time, but there’ve been times when that’s been a really difficult thing to accept about myself. And there’ve been times when that was a source of a lot of pain or a lot of anxiety as a source of losing a lot of connections, a lot of support, losing a lot of my family.”
“I want to be a happy bi person. I feel like that is not something I have seen modeled for me terribly often.”
“I want other bi people to know that you can be bi and happy and you can just be that person.”
“It’s for you. These things, these places, these spaces, they’re yours.”
“Don’t feel like they aren’t.”
Rachel Cholst (she/her/hers) is an NYC-based educator, printmaker, and country music journalist. She is the editor of the long-running Americana blog Adobe & Teardrops, which strives to feature BIPOC and LGBTQ+ country and Americana artists. Her work has appeared in No Depression, The Boot, Wide Open Country, and Country Queer. She also works with linoleum and has self-published her comic, Artema.