A Conversation with Born Crooked

Charlottesville two-piece rock group talks music with Arts & Entertainment

Brother-and-sister duo Hunter and ARE Wolfe make up delta blues-rock act Born Crooked. Based in Charlottesville, the pair performs regularly in venues around town. Their next show is July 29 at The Ante Room, on Water Street. Arts & Entertainment chatted with guitarist and singer Hunter about the group’s recent work.

Arts & Entertainment: Something which sets you apart from most other groups is the fact that you are a drum-and-guitar two-piece. How does this dynamic affect your songwriting process?

Hunter Wolfe: It forces us not to rely on other instrumentation to make our music interesting. The challenge for us is to take one stringed instrument, one set of drums and one voice and give it life, depth, texture and complexity — and sometimes that complexity is found in the spaces and pauses between the notes. We work hard to generate a full, rich sound and create music that is interesting, has staying power and that people really enjoy. We want to make music that we love and enjoy immensely, something that if we heard it on the radio we would turn it up, look up the band and buy their music.

A&E: For all curious concert-goers, what can we expect from a Born Crooked live experience?

HW: We want everyone who sees us live to walk away from that show saying, "That was a great concert!" When you go see a band live you're not there just to listen to music, you're there to see a show, hear the music, feel the passion of the artist and walk away having experienced something you can't experience anywhere else. We crank out a lot of energy when we perform. We want you, the audience, to feel like you are right up there on stage with us.

We want every night to be unique and different from any other night. We follow the energy of the room and how the audience reacts and we don’t hold back. Going out in the crowd, standing on chairs, laying my guitar down on the floor and keep playing it, ARE flipping her hair while she's playing so it looks as though her hair is a ball of fire are some of the things that happen at a Born Crooked concert. All we can say is, you better be ready to have fun and be a part of the show when you go see Born Crooked live.

A&E: Who are some of your chief musical influences, and how have they influenced your craft?

HW: First off, we listen to everything, and I mean everything. Rock, Rap, Pop Country, Classical, I mean everything. But, we have learned an immeasurable amount about music listening to the 1920s and ‘30s Mississippi Delta Blues. That music is the foundation to everything you hear on the radio today. We grew up listening to these guys who had really rough lives but worked hard and made the best out of every second they were given. The amount of soul that came from artists like David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson, to name a few, is so strong you can feel every emotion they were feeling while they were playing.

What we are still trying to do to this day is what they accomplished with a little four track tape recorder, a beat up old guitar and a voice … they made you feel. They made you feel whatever it was they wanted you to feel in their music. To be able to create something from thin air, turn it into a series of vibrations, notes and words and make someone cry, laugh or feel happy is a powerful thing.

Have you ever heard a song during something that's happening in your life and 10 years later you hear that same song and you feel exactly the same way you did as the moment that event was happening? Like going through a bad breakup and a Coldplay song is the hit song on the radio and 10 years later that breakup feels as raw during those three minutes and 30 [seconds] of that song as it did the day it happened.

A&E: How has your music evolved through the years, and what aspects of it do you consider to be staples of your sound?

HW: Our sound when we started out was that of a rough sounding garage rock band, we didn’t know exactly what direction we were going to go … we just knew we had something special and we had to keep doing what we were doing. I think the biggest aspect of our sound is that we are brother and sister and we are a two piece band. For years we tried to find a third member to add to the group, but anytime we played with a third member we would lose our sound, what made us unique and special.

We were just kids when we first started who knew nothing about anything. We both had a dream, a couple of instruments and the passion to create a lifelong career doing what we love. 10 years later we still feel like those two kids with a dream but we have grown as artists and performers to tour the U.K. twice, tour the U.S. opening for some incredible bands, compete and win in the National Slide Guitar Championship and be a Top 10 Finalist in the GRAMMY Amplifier competition.

The biggest thing we took away from all of those experiences is that we learned from each of those opportunities. Through the years our songwriting and stage presence has improved, we've met and learned from some incredible musicians and people in the industry and we found our sound. That being said, we are still learning and growing every day. There is always room to grow.

A&E: What is your favourite song from your most recent project and why?

HW: Both of us love the song "Hearts Like Grenades" from our new live EP recorded right here in Charlottesville, Va. We listen to this song as if it were not us but as fans of a new band who put out their new record and we can't get enough of it! It sounds weird, but this song, this whole EP, is music that we love and are really excited about and we enjoy it as if we were music fans and not the ones who created it. A lot of this is because of the amazing people who gave this project life. The incredible fans at the show, Brian Craddock at Cat Room Studios, Nick Jay, Brad Blackwood … Everyone involved made this project into something we are so excited about!

We always write about personal experiences, but do it in a way that is more like a story with characters and — whichever one of us is writing the lyrics — our personal experiences of feelings mixed in. ARE wrote most of the lyrics and we composed this song together. A lot of my feelings and emotions are in the music itself and the way I sing the song … the personal points for ARE can be felt in the lyrics and rhythm of the song.

A&E: Was there a singular experience that compelled you to start a band?

HW: I can't say there was one defining moment, more like several moments. The first for me being, I went to SNL [Sunday Night Live] with a friend when I was 13 and there was a live band, and afterwards we were all allowed to go up on stage and mess around with the instruments. I picked up a guitar and it was like a bolt of lightning hit me. I knew in that moment this was what I was supposed to do. A few months later my parents bought me a guitar for my birthday and I haven't put it down since.

ARE saw a DVD of a band playing that I was watching and she saw that the drummer was a girl. She was like "Hey, girls can do this too?" and she instantly wanted a drum kit so she could rock out like this girl too! So, for her 10th birthday we pooled our birthday money and bought her a used drum kit. ARE was a great drummer from day one … she just sat down and started playing and she was instantly awesome.

A few years into us playing together our handicapped brother had to have surgery on his spine. Due to his allergies he couldn’t have any pain medication after the surgery. He was in incredible pain in recovery. Our mother had brought in a live DVD of his favorite band, Led Zeppelin. ARE and I witnessed how music made such a huge impact on him because as soon as it started playing he stopped crying and his tears dried and he had some relief listening to that music. We knew in that moment that music was exactly what we were supposed to do with our lives.

A&E: If you could speak to the entire University of Virginia student body, would there be anything you would like to tell them?

HW: Follow your dreams and never give up. Work hard, dedicate yourself to your passion and do it. The only thing that can ever hold you back is yourself. There is always more than one way to do something so keep trying. Don't get discouraged and when life gets a little too heavy sometimes, grab a pair of headphones, put on your favorite band and keep working. You only get one life, it's your job to live as much as you possibly can!

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