Tony Furtado devours musical styles like a competitive eater. He possesses that special constitution that allows him to process a great deal in a short time, synthesizing it beautifully first as a virtuoso banjo player and then as a skillful slide guitarist. A few years ago, he decided to try songwriting after more than 15 years as a skilled instrumentalist.
Furtado's banjo playing began first out of a school project where students not only wrote reports on a musical instrument, but they had to make one. Intrigued, he decided to learn to play the banjo, which seemed more unique than the guitar, which all his friends picking up. Then in 1987, he left school at Cal State Hayward on a whim to enter the Grand National Banjo Championship in Kansas. He won, sealing his fate for the last quarter century.
Furtado's banjo playing, while deeply indebted to bluegrass, also incorporates elements of jazz, Celtic, and folk. But Furtado's a restless sort and soon found himself obsessed with slide guitar. He studied the records of Ry Cooder and Blind Willie Jefferson to develop the skill to bring the songs he heard to life.
"It was in my head already, and it was just a matter of transferring it to my hands," he says. "You get hand cramps from holding the glass [slide] on your pinky all day, but after a while it made sense and my banjo playing was informing my slide playing and vice versa."
That love affair lasted for nearly a decade until Furtado started to explore singing and tentatively moved into the singer/songwriter realm. Songs with vocals remained a rarity until 2004's These Chains, which signaled his full-scale embrace of the genre. The supple drama of his playing suited the songs, which were more geared toward a verse-chorus-verse, melody-driven approach.
His latest collection, Golden, is the first to fully integrate all three chapters of his career, from the bluegrass of the catchy little rocker "Toe the Line" to the dewy folk of "Golden (Broken)" and the old-timey "Portlandia" encircled in wails of slide guitar. Not only did he bring in all the prior elements to the album, but he added one more.
"I actually produced that album, and I recorded it here in Portland," he says. "I'd actually never recorded an album in the town I resided. It made things much easier, much less stressful, and I had a lot more say in how the tunes were crafted."
Furtado recently left his management company and record label, Funzalo, and is embarking on an even more independent future. But there's an even larger challenge looming in Furtado's future. "The next big thing is I'm having a kid in October," he says. "I never thought I'd do that, but my wife and I decided to give it a shot."
It's probably not surprising that when we catch up with Furtado he's elbow deep in his new latest love: sculpting. While in Los Angeles doing singer/songwriter duty, he happened to catch Girl With a Pearl Earring, the film about Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. His artistic sensibilities aroused, Furtado found an art store across the street, bought some clay, and began working with it, just as he had as a tween before the banjo consumed his life.
"Around the same time I picked up the banjo, I had a ceramics class in sixth grade and just found it was really easy to make whatever I wanted," Furtado says from his Portland, Ore., studio. "I was originally going to be a sculptor. I went to school as an art major, but left early to start touring." Of course, he doesn't intend to give up music. He's merely found a more pleasant diversion. "It's kind of a release valve from the whole music business thing."