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February Sky - The Long Story, and What About That Name???

I sometimes reflect that when people look at pictures of February Sky - Phil Cooper, the man with the beard and the guitar, and me, Susan Urban, the woman with the long red hair and the dulcimer – they mostly have no idea of the long and twisted path we walked to become this act.


As far as we’re concerned, we are the ultimate Folk Music act, a living demonstration of the idea that Folk Music is a continuum, uniting songs as young as a few weeks to as old as hundreds of years.


Phil and I first met in 1983.  Phil had already decided that his musical mission was the preservation of English language Traditional music, and his business partner in that endeavor, Margaret Nelson, was a fine Traditional singer.  Phil was already well known at that point as a truly gifted guitarist.  I, on the other hand, had been playing guitar for only about a year, and wasn’t anywhere near ready to be playing in public.  However, I had already decided that my musical mission was to be a songwriter in the Folk tradition, using my considerable facility with words to write story songs and humorous songs reflecting the world around me.  At that time, there was a fierce, almost war-like opposition in the Folk scene between the writers of new songs and the singers of old ones, a division that persisted for many years.


The Chicago area Folk scene of the 1980’s was (and it still is) a lot like a small town.  All the players of Folk music tend to run into each other frequently and everyone knows what’s going on in everyone else’s lives – and this was decades before Facebook.  As the ‘80’s progressed, Phil and I found ourselves in the same places with a fair amount of regularity, but it was not until 1989, at a point when we were both “unattached,” that we had a conversation during which we discovered that we had a great deal in common.  One thing led to another, and we became and remained an “item” for many years, although we never thought of doing music together on a regular or professional basis.  Phil and Margaret, and later Phil and Margaret with singer Kate Early, had a very successful musical partnership, playing mostly Traditional material.  During those years, I was often a solo performer, but I eventually discovered that I preferred the energy of playing with other people to performing alone.  For many reasons, most of the bands I was in lasted only a few years.  All of them were a joyful experience while together, but none had the staying power of Cooper & Nelson or Cooper, Nelson & Early.


As the years went on, occasionally Phil and I would do performances that we referred to as “guitar pulls.”  These concerts were like an “in the round” song circle, but with an audience.  We would take turns singing songs on stage.  Phil, being the very adept guitarist that he is, was able to play on most of my songs, and I would sing harmony on his when I knew the song well enough, but we never actually rehearsed or arranged the songs.


Then, in 2007, as the market for Traditional music became tighter and gigs for Cooper & Nelson and Cooper, Nelson & Early became somewhat sparser, and another one of my bands was nearing the end of its own existence, Phil and I talked about the idea that in a relatively few years, we would be moving to our land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the other people we’d been playing with were not likely to follow us.  So we decided to become a band, actually rehearsing and arranging songs, but continuing with the dual focus of my original songs combined with Traditional and Trad-influenced songs mostly sung by Phil.


As the years had passed, my songwriting had become more and more influenced by Phil’s Traditional music.  At the same time, the Folk scene had changed too, to the point where writers of original songs that had a Traditional sound and focus were brought in by Folk Music presenters and promoters under the “Traditional” musical umbrella.  Phil and I found this amusing, as our differing musical missions started to merge into one through no effort of our own.


And thus “February Sky” came into existence, and the results have been positive beyond our wildest expectations.  We “get along” musically, since both of us relate to music in an intuitive, or “right-brained” manner, so there is no conflict about how to approach the arrangement of a song or tune.  Over the course of my years as a solo performer and a performer in other bands, I had picked up (in addition to my original standard-tuned six string guitar) the playing of alternate guitar tunings (from Phil), six string banjo, and mountain dulcimer.  It’s great for Phil to have another instrumentalist to provide rhythm backup for his expert melodic leads on guitar and cittern.  Our voices blend well in harmonies too, something we didn’t know until we tried arranging our songs.  And in 2009, we finally moved in together, making traveling logistics much easier than when we lived 50 miles apart.


As time has gone on, we’ve discovered that those Folk venues who want only “modern” or “Alt-Folk” songwriters, OR who want all Traditional music aren’t much interested in us YET, but venues with a less specific focus have welcomed us with a great deal of wonder and joy that February Sky’s dual focus actually works.  We released our first self-titled CD, “February Sky,” in 2008.  We have also released a six-cut EP, which will be the basis for another CD to be released in 2011, entitled “Time-Honored Pathways.”


Many people have asked how we picked our name.  We wanted something that would reflect the idea that we present songs dealing with both the light and the dark sides of life, just as a February sky can be gray and cloudy or it can be blue and clear, with sunlight shimmering on snow in a way that doesn’t happen in Summer.  And besides, “February Sky” rolls off the tongue in a mellifluous manner that we like a lot.


In the old days of the traveling musical bard, people knew that music was not intended to reflect only joy and happiness, but to help them to process the inevitable sadness and loss that is a part of living on this Earth plane.  They knew that the purpose of music and storytelling was to make them think and feel, not to numb them into unconsciousness.  Although we travel in a Subaru Forester on 4-lane highways, rather than on dirt roads in a horse-drawn cart, February Sky continues this mission.  Sometimes people will ask us, “Why didn’t you guys do this sooner?”  The answer is that it just wasn’t time.  But now it is.


--Susan Urban