Boston-based singer/songwriter Antje Duvekot still seems a little amazed when she recounts what would prove a turning point in her musical career, when her "scratchy little demo tape" found its way into the hands of acclaimed Celtic band Solas. Apparently they liked what they heard; the group went on to cover several of Duvekot's songs, including "Black Annis" and "The Poisonjester's Mask" on the 2002 album Edge of Silence.
"When Solas first covered my songs, I really had only written songs for myself, in the bedroom," she says. "It took me a while to register that they felt my songs were up to par with their talent—the songs that were on that record were real songs, like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. It was such a good feeling!"
It didn't stop there; the Irish-American group went on to invite Duvekot to tour with them. Her first studio recording, 2006's Big Dream Boulevard, was produced by Solas' Seamus Egan.
Duvekot has racked up some impressive awards since then, including the prestigious New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival, the Boston Music Award for Outstanding Folk Act, and the Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition. Big Dream Boulevard was voted the #1 Folk Release of 2006 by The Boston Globe and was named one of the Top 10 Releases of the Year by NPR's Folk Alley. Former Rolling Stone editor Dave Marsh called it a "brilliant, brilliant" album, and went so far as to compare Duvekot to folk legend Patty Griffin. Boston songwriter Ellis Paul is convinced that Duvekot is going to be America's next great folk singer.
While "folk singer" isn't really Duvekot's preferred job description, it's close enough. "If someone on the street asks me, I'll just answer ‘folk' because there's usually not a lot of time to talk and, since I play acoustic guitar and sing softly, it's not untrue," she says. "But I think it's more personal than just trying to play music in a certain style. To be more specific, I'd probably say I write original acoustic songs that are confessional in nature. Contemporary singer/songwriter, I think they call it."
Most red-blooded Americans have heard Duvekot's music, whether they realize it or not. In 2007, the Bank of America featured her song "Merry Go Round" in a national TV spot that aired during the Super Bowl. Not bad for the former Liberty Bell tour guide, who will perform at Oak Ridge's Grove Theater Friday night.
Duvekot's second and latest studio recording, The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer, is a blend of rootsy folk, electric pop-rock, and her trademark confessional ballads. It's something of a thematic and stylistic departure for the German-born singer. While her first album addressed some pretty heavy themes—politics, God, redemption, the search for love—her latest offering is, if not lighter, at least more narrative in nature. "Long Way" is a beautifully realized road song with hints of "Me and Bobby McGhee," and Duvekot describes "Lighthouse" as "a purely metaphorical story of a lighthouse that lost its ocean." There's a song about Woody Guthrie ("Ragdoll Princess & Junkyard Queens"), and a winsome tale of young lovers called "Coney Island."
"It's all over the place," Duvekot says. "And I really love it that way."
Like Big Dream Boulevard, The Near Demise boasts an impressive pedigree. It was produced by famed folk songwriter Richard Shindell, and features guest musicians John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky and Victor Krauss.
"Working with Richard was an awful lot of fun," says Duvekot. "He was really passionate about the project and almost as excited about it as I was, so the energy of all of us trying something completely new and reaching beyond our normal comfort zone really pervaded the sessions. It was contagious to everyone who worked with us. It was kind of magical because we just had this ‘let's see what happens' attitude and, in fact, really lovely things happened."
Fans of Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams—artists whom Duvekot cites as influences—will likely appreciate Duvekot's music, and she routinely wins new fans with her compelling and entertaining live shows. She's a gifted and charismatic performer, and more than a little unpredictable; she might be wincing her way through a painful ballad about a failed love one minute, but she's just as apt to follow it up with a surprisingly uptown rendition of Christopher Smith's notorious groaner, "Dead Horse Trampoline." She's one of those rare performers who actually sounds better live than on a disc, and she has a knack for engaging her audience.
"I feel that I'm in a rewarding line of work as long as I feel that people out there are listening to my music and drawing something from it," she says. "If that ever stops, I might look for a new job. But so far I have a loyal group of fans who tell me that what I do is meaningful, so I take their word for it and just try to do what I do without thinking about it too much. I don't feel the need to acquire a zillion fans. As long as the fans that I do have care, I'm doing my job."