Don't get it twisted: John C. Reilly's folk group is no movie star vanity project. His musical career goes deep. After launching his acting career in the Chicago musical theater community, Reilly blew the Academy away with his performance of "Mister Cellophane" as part of the cast of 2002's Chicago. Sure, he might be best known for his comedic chops (think Stepbrothers and Walk Hard) but Reilly's serious about keeping the traditional songs in his setlist alive.
And he's aligned with other serious musicians - - like Jack White, who helped Reilly and band members produce a pair of original singles in his Nashville studio in 2011. Onstage, he's joined by singers Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Tom Brosseau, who, along with Reilly, create setlists of spirituals, classic folk and country tunes marked by close harmonies. Reilly's hosted his roots revue multiple times in Los Angelos, and now he's taking his eight-piece show on the road.
And the missing "C"? That's intentional.
NUVO: I am a pirate song enthusiast.
John C. Reilly: Ah-ha!
NUVO: So I heard your contribution to Rogue's Gallery [a compilation of sea shanties released in 2006] a while back. Did you pick the songs you contributed and performed ("Fathom the Bowl," "My Son John") or if you were assigned to them? Did you have a long scroll with "John's Favorite Sea Shanties" scrolled across the top that you pulled out to choose from?
Reilly: I actually did know a lot of shanties already. I think that's maybe why Hal [Willner, who did the record] asked me to come down and do that. "Fathom the Bowl," I had actually not heard before. He sent me a disc of a whole bunch of stuff, and some of it I knew and when I heard that one I thought, "This is the greatest ode to drinking I think I've ever heard." So that one was a new one for me, but I was well-primed for loving shanties.
"My Son John" by John C. Reilly
NUVO: What draws you to folk music?
Reilly: The first thing I think of is [how] it feels immortal. Maybe the older I get, the more interested I am in immortality. There's something really cool that you hear one time and it sticks in your head. I had a blues band for a while and I was going deeper and deeper into blues. Then I found myself in Appalachia, and suddenly I was right back where I was as a kid, listening to traditional Irish music.
The first thing I would guess I'm drawn to is the eternal sound of some of those songs. I like the simplicity, the purity of the lyrics. They're like little short stories.
NUVO: I've found that some of the most genre in-fighting that I've observed in the music community comes from the roots music community - what is "real" bluegrass; what is "real" folk music? There's such strict lines drawn.
Reilly: We're just looking for music that moves us; music that is in line with this traditional or "roots" umbrella. That said, we do try to do bluegrass music as strictly "bluegrass" as we can. And when we do an old folk song, we try not to jazz them up. We try to stay pure within what the song wants to be. But in terms of defining ourselves as a bluegrass band, or a country band - - we're really not interested in that. If anything, the collection of personalities in the band really lends itself to variety. It's Becky Stark who has this voice of just a beautiful bird. Then Tom Brosseau and Willie Watson - - the one thing we all have in common is that we're all soulful people. We're drawn to things that are soulful or have a depth to them. I've never been someone as an artist who's been very keen on defining what I am. Or even as a person! Fact is, I think that's why I became an actor. I thought, I don't really have a lot of self-awareness at all. I just know what I like, and I try to do the best that I can and [the rest] is for more intellectual people to analyze if they want.
Reilly performs "Mister Cellophane"
NUVO: How did you get hooked up with Jack White?
Reilly: Jack and I met socially years and years ago when I heard he was doing a cover of "Mr. Cellophane" in concert. I was really tickled and honored by that. So I went and saw some of their shows and we became friends socially. And then I asked him to do Walk Hard [as Elvis] and miraculously he said yes.
We've stayed in touch. He's just a really generous, amazingly prolific guy. He said to us, "Hey! I have this recording studio, this record pressing plant, I've got a guest room - - do you want to come down and do whatever you want on a record?" And I thought, well, I've been singing with this guy Tom and this girl Becky - do you think we could come down and do that? And he said, "Absolutely! I'll produce it." He plays drums on one of the songs. It was a big honor.
NUVO: You have the interesting problem that not many people have - - constantly saying, "I'm not just an actor, I also do this whole separate thing!" Most people know you as an actor, or even a musical actor, but not a musician. Do you think most people realized you were also a musician with "Mr. Cellophane" [In Chicago, for which Reilly was nominated for Best Supporting Actor]?
Reilly: People are always surprised when you do something that they didn't know you could do. They're always surprised - - but that's my business plan right there, Kat. Doing things people don't expect me to do, because then you surprise them and they're interested in what you're doing. A lot of people came up to me after Chicago and said, "I didn't know you could sing!" Of course if you were around the Southside of Chicago in the late '70s, early '80s and you were a fan of community theater, then you would know!
In terms of being defined about who you are, or what people will accept you as, I think that everyone has stuff in them that they should get out. Whether you're a professional artist or not. If you've got a painting in you, you should do it. If you want to sing a song, you should do it. The world would be a better place if everyone shared their talents in that way. Life is short. You should do everything that you can while you're alive. And I've been really lucky. At first it was a little bit uncomfortable. People were yelling things from Stepbrothers or whatever. Which is fine - - I love Stepbrothers as much as the next guy. But then they kind of settled down and realized what we were doing, this labor of love, bringing these old songs to people. There's a real power to these songs. Once people kind of settled down and opened their hearts to what we were doing, they've been really cool about accepting me doing something different than what you might have known me for before they came to the show.
"Goodnight Irene" by John Reilly and Friends
NUVO: Why did you decide to drop the [middle initial] C from your band's name?
Reilly: Oh, [the middle intial] was something that was forced on me to begin with [through the Screen Actors' Guild regulations]. I thought, "Here's the chance to call myself whatever I want!" It was also a way, I suppose, to subtly define this as something different than the acting thing. I don't know - - I'm very, pretty much, a modest, Midwestern kind of person. I always found it a little embarrassing to "put your name out there," like, "Live! In Person! John C. Reilly!" It's one thing to be playing a character and have a play or whatever, but it just seemed like a more accurate name for how I feel about it. I ... I don't know! I haven't figured this out! I just have to do things. I want this to be a little simpler.
NUVO: Continuing with the simplicity of your name: from the "Friends" part of John Reilly and Friends, I assume they really are your friends.
NUVO: How did you assemble this friend group?
Reilly: We just became friends! And we started singing together, and I realized that I had all these disparate pairings, and I thought, "Well, what if I just bring everyone together and we'll all be friends?" And it worked out. I knew Becky first, and I went to see her in a band she had called The Living Sisters. And Tom was opening her one night, so I got to check out Tom. We started out playing together at this club called Largo; that's where we all coalesced as a group.
NUVO: What's the difference for you between performing on stage in a musical theater production and performing with at a concert?
Reilly: In a concert, there's a lot more improvising and interaction with the audience. I can really recognize the moment and what's going on in the moment and talk about it and engage with the audience. That feels really good and alive. There's a lot more listening in the moment [during a concert]. I mean, you try and listen during a play, but it gets to be more of a challenge when you're doing your fiftieth performance with the exact same set of words. There's more variety with music; we switch the setlist up every night that we can. And singing harmony with people, you have to really listen very carefully when you're singing together. The difference is that you feel more free. More independent.
Listen to John's impression of Tilda Swinton's love of Walk Hard.