What started as a few ideas suddenly developed into a full-time concern for Country & Western outfit Toini & Rio Bravo.
Howdy partners! There’s a new band in town who go by the name Toini & Rio Bravo. Saddling up for a new adventure and what is a new project for the normally rockabilly bound Toini Knudtsen of Toini & the Tomcats fame, who decided a fresh outlook was required, for the time being at least, by turning her attention to the genre of Country & Western.
In hiring a few new faces along with one or two longstanding band members to represent Toini & Rio Bravo, this latest creation has set out their stall early with a 4-track EP release on 45-inch vinyl with its leading track going by the title ‘Kiss Me’.
Drawing upon many of the country greats for inspiration from Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young and Hank Williams to name but a few, Toini & Rio Bravo is not simply about imitating what has gone before as the band has plenty of their own ideas, and clearly identified from their debut EP.
Whilst it is important that Toini & Rio Bravo remain within the traditions of what constitutes as genuine country music, this new line-up is also open to new ways of thinking as spokeswoman Toini from Toini & Rio Bravo explained to Famous Last Words only recently about how the band came to be and their initial ideas, not to mention reviving a longstanding rural tradition of yodelling with Rio Bravo’s frontwoman learning how to yodel herself. Go cat go! High praise indeed.
“Rio Bravo has been through some changes since the idea for a Country & Western project materialized, and pedal steel guitar was what started it,” begins Toini Knudtsen on current incarnation Toini & Rio Bravo. “Sveinung Lilleheier joined Toini & the Tomcats full time in 2001, and I’ve always loved that sound. In Tomcats, we used it a little differently than you would in a regular country band. We explored alternative ways of refining our sound through Sveinungs great musicality, and he really changed the band. Toini & the Tomcats incorporated lots of different musical styles, though most people think of it as a rockabilly band. Anyway, Arne (upright bass), Sveinung and me found out we absolutely love classic country music, so we started a little trio on the side to have some fun. We played C&W from the 1920s to the early 1960s. I even learned how to yodel, and therefore really going back to its roots.”
Having established the formation of Toini & Rio Bravo, how would you describe your sound right now?
“We still do some traditional songs, like Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and some bluegrass from time to time, but we’ve modernized the sound, moving up to the 50s and the 60s. My head and my heart are in that time period and that is really what comes naturally to me. I love both the Nashville sound of Owen Bradley and the Bakerfield productions from Capitol around that time, so consciously or unconsciously, that is the sound that comes out.”
Given your longstanding with Toini & The Tomcats, what were the reasons for going “country” for this project?
“For me, there will always be some rockabilly in most things I do. However, when I listen to all my childhood heroes and dig into their influences and the development of my favourite music in the 1950s, the Country & Western part of it is really talking to me. I love doing a homage to this part of my musical foundation, so our new EP really is C&W with a rockabilly twist.”
Your debut EP ‘Kiss Me’ has been issued on vinyl. What were the reasons for choosing this format as a first release?
“Through three decades with Toini & The Tomcats we put together six albums, and they were all CDs. Vinyl has never even been considered as a viable format, at least not in our official output. But I grew up on vinyl, and the first records I had was my dad’s discarded 45s, all rock’n’roll of course. So, it feels good and more real in a way, and the 7-inch format is great. It’ doesn’t take up much space, and it’s not grand or bossy, it’s simply charming and classy. Also, a big thank you to Morten Pisani designing the cover and Nina Ruud for the photos.”
Where and when was the EP recorded, and how long did the whole process take?
“The process of making this record has been a long one – from wishing it to happen to actually doing it. As I mentioned, Sveinung Lilleheier is a great engineer, and he set up his own home recording studio in his garage in Gjøvik. We spent a couple of weekends there and though the recordings were done in just three or four days, we spent a lot more time planning what to do with the material. I spent some time with Kyrre Fritzner in FMV studio in Fredrikstad perfecting the vocal track. Producing a record is one thing, producing your own vocals, nah, that I leave to Kyrre, whom I can’t praise enough. Kyrre Fritzner also did the mixing and mastering.”
It sounds like there may have been one or two tricky moments along the way when writing and recording your current record?
“For me the writing process is two parts. The first part is like lightning, the idea strikes, and you must hurry jotting down words and melody before you forget something you can really use. That’s the easy part. Then the work starts. You might have a theme or even the whole first verse or maybe just the first line, as I did in ‘Kiss Me’. The rest can take a day, a week or a year. ‘Kiss Me’ was a line at a time for even more than a year, just sitting at the back of my head until it was ready, as Merle [Haggard] would say, “One row at a time”.
“Recording with these guys is just a thrill because everybody contributes, and we all agree on the direction of our music. I know how good they all are, and we all use what we have to our mutual advantage.”
There seems to be pop influences in one or two songs, especially ‘Kiss Me’ with hints of early 60’s pop music in terms of its production and vocal styling would you agree?
“Yes, absolutely! ‘Kiss Me’ is a pop song with a country influence, or a country song with a pop influence or whatever you want it to be. I guess the production is coloured by (if not by any means to be compared with) what Owen Bradley did for Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline, or what Chet Atkins did for Skeeter Davis.”
Who is responsible for the lyrics, and what experiences inspired such writing?
“I wrote the two songs on the EP’s A-side, and I guess my themes are universal. In a way it’s true that it’s easier to write songs when you’re unhappy. I consider myself a very lucky and happy person. For me, the acceptance of changes and the knowing they might alter everything makes me really appreciate my life. So, I guess, love and the fear of losing it inspires my writing.”
Do you have a favourite track from the EP and what are your reasons?
“I guess I’m more invested in my own songs, but it’s hard to choose between them because they are, in a way, connected. ‘Kiss Me’ I guess is different from anything else I’ve ever done, as most of my songs are energetic, and this one is contemplative and quite romantic. Or is that the country side [coming out] of me?”
The country & western influence really comes to life during ‘Happiness’, but also the “chuggin’” rhythm of Johnny Cash can be heard and ditto in segments of ‘My Brand Of Blues’. Therefore, what can you tell FLW about the track ‘Happiness’ because on first impressions we rather love it?
“The arrangement of ‘Happiness’ has changed from its original form. In the process of writing it, I used Sam Cooke’s voice in my head as the lines formed, so I have a little dream of making another version based on that idea someday. That said, it is the duelling guitars that really gives it a kick for me in the recorded arrangement. The idea comes from the wonderful thrill of live duels between the guitarists in concert. That really tickles me and was what I wanted. Also, it gives the solo part something else, the one soloist trying to top the other!
“What a song really needs is a hook, and though you might want to wait and not use the hook too soon, on ‘Happiness’ I decided to use it as the intro; you only have a few seconds to make your song recognizable to listeners, so I used those chords to shout out identity in the very beginning of ‘Happiness’.
“About Marvin Rainwater’s ‘My Brand Of Blues’; a lyric I really love, so heart-breaking, hanging on to love no matter what. I have no stories from anyone about this song, but my personal theory is that this recording could be a demo because it really is sparse, no solo, just the boom-chicka-boom rhythm making me suspect that Marvin Rainwater was thinking about pushing it in Johnny Cash’s direction.”
Has there been a release party for the EP, or has it been difficult due to the current circumstances we are all living in right now?
“We did have plans for a big party, but it all fell through because of the restrictions. It’s been a drag, really, but we’re not the only ones experiencing this. We could have waited, but we really wanted to see this happen. It’s been a long process. Hopefully we can get together to mark the event, maybe next year. Even if restrictions lift, it can be difficult to plan such things in such a short time. But we’ve learned a lot and are very eager to do it all over again, making this record’s sister!”
What three items can Toini & Rio Bravo never be without?
“(The boring answer is) Ian’s Telecaster, Sveinung’s pedal steel guitar and Arne’s upright bass.”
Has it been a difficult time for the band because of the pandemic and all its restrictions whether writing and recording or performing live?
“You would think being cooped up for so long makes you creative, but I’m feeling much more alive and ready for writing new stuff now that things seem to get on the right track. We’ve played a few gigs, but that’s just a small percentage of what we would usually do. We’re working on bookings now and would gladly take more!”
What’s next for Toini & Rio Bravo?
“We’re planning a new studio session. We are eager to make new songs, a second 45-inch record is very much forming in my mind.”
Any final words of the day?
“The competition these days is extreme, thousands of new songs are uploaded to Spotify every day and it keeps getting harder to reach our audience. Every listener is very much appreciated. Follow Toini & Rio Bravo on Spotify and listen to our new songs, it would make us very happy, and hopefully you might enjoy it too!”
(Toini & Rio Bravo EP design by Morten Pisani. Photography courtesy of Nina Ruud)
The EP Kiss Me is out now and available from Musikkpartner
‘Kiss Me’ I guess is different from anything else I’ve ever done, as most of my songs are energetic, and this one is contemplative and quite romantic."
Toini & Rio Bravo
FLW - From the Tapes
What can you tell Famous Last Words (FLW) about the band members making up Toini & Rio Bravo?
“I mentioned Sveinung Lilleheier as my influence for starting this band. Besides being a wonderful pedal steel guitarist, he’s also a great engineer. I would say I couldn’t have made this record without him. He’s done all the technical work, putting it all together and is also my co-producer. Sveinung plays all kinds of guitars, and he also builds them himself!” www.facebook.com/sveinungsgitarer
“Arne Ertnæs has been my closest musical compadre for three decades, and he is also my husband. He is a true rockabilly, holding on to his style as easily as breathing and is also the coolest guy I know. The more he plays his upright bass, the better he gets at it, and he is truly anti-modernist, slapping away just like he did when he first started out as a bass player in his teens.
“As we moved on from the trio format, we went through some changes, before striking gold with our friends Bjørn Haglund (drums) and Ian Johannessen (guitar).
“Ian Johannessen has a distinctive style that sets him aside and really gives Rio Bravo a sharp edge. Ian is my guitar hero; he makes playing sound so easy anyone could do it, while shooting off a boyish grin when his brilliance shows through. He’s giving his own personal twang to old classics and making my brand-new songs sound like they were made sixty years ago.
“Bjørn Haglund might be the best classic country drummer in this country. He lives and breathes music and is such a solid character in all kinds of ways. What Norwegians would call “hel ved” (good luck trying to translate!). His record collection is vast, and his drumming always makes me feel safe because he knows where he is and where he’s going. I must also mention the backing vocals of Arne, Sveinung and Bjørn. It really lifts the whole project.”