NORTH EAST — Not many kids have split their childhoods between countries as distinct as Venezuela and Norway (to name just two). But that’s the sort of nomadic existence that singer-songwriter Pat Wictor grew accustomed to in his formative years.
The Brooklyn-based musician, who plays the North Elk Coffee House this Saturday, was born to a father in the oil business, and that career saw his family moving from country to country every few years as the industry changed. Nowadays he reflects on that time as crucial to his own career, one that has him playing around 200 shows across the country each year, lately with a folk trio called Brother Sun.
On Tuesday morning, Wictor took a call from his home in Brooklyn, where he expressed his contentment at being snowed in for even a short time. Life is tough for a working musician, and he cherishes the time to recharge.
The following has been edited lightly for clarity and concision.
Cecil Whig: One of the things that stuck out to me on your website bio is that as a kid you moved around a lot. What were the circumstances there?
Pat Wictor: My dad was in the oil business, and the early- to mid- and even to the late-’70s was a very turbulent time in the oil business. We had to move every few years because things were changing so much.
In Venezuela, the Venezuelan government nationalized the oil business, so we ended up leaving. We moved to Texas, then, you know, OPEC strikes and oil prices rise, so we ended up moving to the Netherlands and then Norway. All of that European oil business took off because oil prices rose.
I mean, I didn’t know any of that as a kid, I just figured that out retroactively as an adult. Most of the kids I grew up with, they all moved. I knew mostly Americans who were ex-patriates in the oil business — they all moved every year to three years.
Whig: So it seemed normal then?
PW: Yeah, I just thought everybody moved every year. [laughs] It took me a little while to figure out that wasn’t so normal.
I didn’t think of it as difficult or easy, it was just normal. Looking back on it, I think what I ended up adapting to was that, since you’re moving so often, you make friends really quickly. But what I learned much later is that there are certain things that only happen when you stay in one place a long time and get to know people over a long period of time. I didn’t really have that experience until well into my adult years.
So I was adapted to frequent change, but not adapted to stability. I had to learn how to do that.
Whig: Now that you’re touring a lot, do you think your transient childhood has impacted your stamina for touring, so to speak?
PW: Yeah, I was traveling to a lot of new places as a kid … so my ability to adapt to that has certainly served me well as a touring musician. I sometimes joke that I was born on the road, born to this kind of life.
Whig: Then at what point did you start becoming interested in music?
PW: I’m definitely a product of music education. When we were living in Holland, they made all the 6th graders at our school play a musical instrument. It was all sort of brass band instruments, so I ended up playing the trumpet. And then two years later when I was living in Norway, they made all the 8th graders learn to play the guitar. And that was that. I was completely bitten by the guitar bug. I pretty much forgot about the trumpet at that point, and I’ve been playing guitar ever since.
Whig: Your bio also mentions that you meandered a bit through genres before finding yourself somewhere in the folk realm.
PW: What got me excited about playing guitar as a teenager was heavy metal. And because I was a nerd — I suppose I still am — I would read interviews with all the heavy metal musicians I was interested in, and they would talk about their musical influences, then I’d go and check those out. That led me to blues, that led me to jazz, that led me to a lot of different things.
So after playing guitar for several years, I ended up picking up the saxophone, and … I studied with a guy who — I didn’t know this at the time but I figured out later — was into free jazz. I thought I was gonna learn how to play Charlie Parker or something like this, and he was into completely improvised music. I ended up learning a lot about improvisation.
Whig: What year was it that you started writing songs for yourself?
PW: Around 1993, I was 27 at the time.
Whig: And now here we are in 2017, where you’re doing a lot of touring with your trio Brother Sun. How many albums have you put out with them?
PW: We put out three albums together. I have to say that two of those albums were the No. 1 record on the Folk DJ charts for the entire year that they came out. We had the No. 1 record for all of 2013 and for all of 2016. Those CD’s got a lot of radio play in the folk community.
Whig: But you’ve all elected to disband in the fall? Why is that?
PW: Well, the music has been great, we get along great, it’s just that the logistics of keeping a group together that’s geographically dispersed are pretty brutal. One of our guys is in Chicago, another in Boston, I’m in Brooklyn. And we’ve been on the road, each of us, over 200 days a year for the last six years. It’s just not sustainable — that’s a really brutal pace to keep up.
And the nature of the music for Brother Sun is if we don’t do it a lot, it loses its precision. You know, we’re singing very precise harmonies and doing very precise instrumental parts, and so it’s not the kind of group where you can sort of just do a few gigs here and there and have long layoffs. We take a lot of pride in how tight we are as a group. We realized this was something we needed to do a lot or not at all.
So we’re planning on going out on a high note. We’d rather have everybody remember Brother Sun for being a terrific group that did great shows and didn’t overstay its welcome. [laughs]