Burlap to Cashmere
When Burlap to Cashmere took the stage to a packed out Third and Lindsley May 15, the scene wasn’t unfamiliar to the Brooklyn-based folk band.
They hopped off their van after a 16-hour drive and rolled through their set to an enthusiastic crowd like they’ve done thousands of times before. But this show was different. For friends and supporters of the pioneering band, this show was a long overdue call from an old friend. It was the first time Burlap had played a Nashville venue in more than 10 years, and just as in years before, Jars of Clay warmed up the stage for their old friends.
“Jars used to share the stage quite often with Burlap to Cashmere in our early days,” says Jars’ pianist Charlie Lowell. “We always knew we had to be at our very best because they had such a dynamic and musical performance.”
Burlap’s core members, cousins Steven Delopoulos and John Philippidis and their childhood friend, Theodore Pagano, have always been known for an exciting live performance, and this night was no exception. From the opening song to the final chord, audience members were floored by tight guitar rhythms, smooth vocals and the band’s distinct Mediterranean sound.
Rewind 10 years to 2001. The Billboard Hot 100 is dominated by artists like J.Lo, ‘N Sync, Nelly and Destiny’s Child. European folk is hiding out in the din of small, esoteric clubs, not yet ready to jump into the mainstream. Bands like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers have yet to scratch the surface, much less break through with an intensity not seen since The Beatles.
Despite their lack of appeal to the MTV crowd of the day, Burlap to Cashmere were packing out New York City clubs like The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, whose stage has welcomed greats like Billy Joel, Tori Amos and Bob Dylan.
Burlap manager Tom Lewis describes a typical show for the band back in that time: “People were literally pressed up against the glass to hear them play,” he says. It was then, at the seeming height of their career, that Steven, Johnny and Teddy decided it was time to take a break.
Though their success had ushered them through a record deal with A&M and the release of their first major album, Anybody Out There? (1998), Steven says something still just wasn’t right for them. “We were always folk-based, and at the time, the marketplace didn’t want to hear about us.”
All of the band members agree that the split was never meant to be permanent. Each guy had other goals and aspirations that didn’t line up with the stress of constant tours, living out of a suitcase and never seeing more than venues and hotel rooms in each city they visited. While Steven and Johnny pursued other musical outlets, Teddy took a break from music altogether.
“I have always been interested in different forms of design from a young age,” he says. The time was right for him to test out that passion. He started out working for MTV in New York as a production assistant. Moving on to a brief run at IKEA designing room settings, he finally ventured off to London to work for Apple as a visual merchandiser.
The members of Burlap spent the next several years doing their own things, finding their own ways, not knowing if or when time would give them a chance to reunite.
Unfortunately, it was a near fatal accident almost four years ago that eventually sped their reunion along. Johnny was driving home from a studio session one night when he was rear-ended at a stoplight. He got out to exchange insurance information with the other driver but was met instead with a brutal beating by a baseball bat. He was left for dead.
“I was in a coma for three weeks and had my whole face reconstructed,” he shares. “The recovery was long and difficult.”
It’s not a memory the cousins enjoy talking about, but they both agree that the event hurried along the reunion they always hoped would happen. “Music was therapeutic for my cousin, and it did help him get through the scars and the black and blue of his life,” says Steven.
Lewis shares his own thoughts on Johnny’s accident and the painful reality of looking back on events that, while unavoidable, can lead to good but serious change. “Anytime you’re confronted with your own mortality, you start to reflect on coulda, woulda shoulda,” he says. “When you get beaten to near death, you wonder what would have happened if you had taken a different path.”
Though the two cousins had already been writing music together before the accident, Steven and Johnny decided it was time to give some serious devotion to the project they had left behind in 2001. Burlap to Cashmere was back on.
Like a musical boomerang, they drew their comrade back to join them. Teddy was visiting New York on a job for a design gig with National Geographic when he saw Steven and Johnny performing some of their new songs.
“I had always imagined what Burlap would sound like 10 years on with a more focused and rootsy sound,” he recalls. “When I heard the new tunes, it closely matched what I had envisioned. I decided I would come back to New York and see where it led.”
“We started taking baby steps, rehearsing,” Steven says of the band’s rebirth, “but what really got it going was when we started working with Tom [Lewis].” Lewis was an A&R rep at Universal Records years ago when Burlap were just starting out, and he has been an advocate for the band ever since. He was one of the first people to get a call when Burlap reunited.
After hearing a few demos, Lewis says working with Burlap was a no-brainer for him. “It had evolved,” he says of the group’s new sound. “It was a little less bombastic, a little more centered, matured to where it was supposed to be.”
“Our first go-round, we were very young,” Teddy says. “It was like a traveling circus, and almost all that we did felt out of our control. This time, I spend my days making conscious decisions on exactly how I want us to be heard, seen and experienced. There is a certain clarity that has been gained since those early days.”
Lewis describes the dynamic between the band as something almost palpable. “Steven and Johnny are artists—they are Renaissance men—but when Teddy came back and joined the group, he really cemented the deal.”
Teddy says the months following the band’s reunion were both good and bad. “Bad because it was daunting to realize how much work was ahead of us,” he says. “We had to completely reinterpret our own music, rebrand our image and reconnect with all the people we enjoyed working with the first time around. But it was good because we realized that the chemistry we once had was still very much intact, and it became clear to me that although it was a long, difficult road back, it would not only be possible, but it would be some of the best work we had ever done.”
Since their reunion, the band has recorded a new, self-titled album with producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits), signed with Jive Records/Sony Music and have truly seen the fruit of their growth. Though it has been four years since Johnny’s accident, he still finds himself in recovery with one more surgery ahead. So much has changed, but Burlap to Cashmere have remained true to their Greek-inspired, folk roots.
“I write in different rhythms now,” says Steven. “A lot of our material is based on Greek rhythms, and so I think people heard those and were not sure what to make of it before. Simplifying the rhythms, simplifying the lyrics to make things more tangible is what we’ve been trying to do since getting back together.”
Lewis describes the new record, which released July 19, as an experience, a journey from beginning to end. “I can’t say what the best song on the record is. It’s the totality of the experience. You start someplace, and you end someplace.”
“Mitchell didn’t want to do anything sterile on the record,” Steven says. “We recorded it mainly live. It’s very raw—there’s even mistakes on the record.”
Steven shrugs when Burlap is praised as the predecessor to bands like Mumford & Sons or The Avett Brothers. “It makes me feel older,” he says with a laugh. “I think those bands are fantastic but don’t think we necessarily paved the way for them. I just think the time is right for a revival.”