Some Q & A with Duluth ’s Bill Isles

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

This Friday night at 6pm, Bill and Kate Isles will be joining 60 other acts performing at the Knife River Music Festival.

The tickets for the three day festival range in price from $10 to $30 depending on your age and how many days you want to attend. There is also a promotion being run with North Shore Scenic Railroad for round-trip rides from Duluth to the festival on Saturday and Sunday that are very reasonably priced. For more information on the train/festival express and pricing visit

One performer who has made a name for himself in the Northland region and lately the entire nation is Bill Isles. He continues his journey, joined by his wife Kate, with a performance at the Knife River Music Festival. Bill’s storytelling while picking the guitar displays a gifted artist of life, and it also shows a comforting voice of character.

Andrew Olson: Now that you have grown as an artist so much over the last few years, how has your confidence as a performer changed?

Bill Isles: When I did my first show of my own music in 25 years, I was 48 years old. Entering an arts market at that age can be pretty intimidating. I quickly learned that the audience was the most important group that I had to please, not the publishers, record company people, self-revealing reviewers, etc. I can be more selective of the gigs that I accept. If I feel that I'll have a receptive audience, that's my primary concern. I'll still do the background music shows, though, if the money is right. After all, it's a job.

AO: How has adding your wife to your "band" changed the sound?

BI: Kate's addition has been part of the plan for several years. She started doing one or two songs with me, then we started doing duets, one that she began writing and I helped finish. It's grown from that. The most important thing she's added to the show is completeness. The two of us together is an entirely different thing than the sum of us. Her presence on the stage creates a balance and the audiences just love it. My favorite comment, still, is about how our voices blend. It's a very intimate thing to notice and we're honored to be able to share that with our audiences.

AO: Does Kate write songs now, and how has she grown as a performer and


BI: Since early this year (2008), Kate has been performing her sweet song, "Girl" at every show. Lately, I've been accompanying her on the mandolin. It's an audience favorite. I was enjoying just sitting in the audience and absorbing it, but she likes the mandolin addition and having me there. She's working on more songs as she has time, and we're working on some duets together for our upcoming release.

AO: What’s new with your music?

BI: Well, the duet CD is our newest thing. We're taking pre-orders for it now and it's been very popular as we give a live bonus disc to whoever pre-orders it. These were songs, not all duets, that were recorded this winter at small town concerts in southernMinnesota and southwestern Wisconsin . We're planning tours to Arizona, Texas,Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia , etc. for this fall and winter. We've been selected as official showcase artists for the Midwest Folk Alliance conference inChicago in October. We have a new agent, for larger venues, and from Chicago, we're flying to Oregon for a showcase with his other artists, Mason Williams (Classical Gas, Smothers Brothers) John Doan and Glenn Yarlborough.

AO: Do you feel like you are a regional artist or have you outgrown the Northland?

BI: Yes, we're a regional act. I'll be performing and emceeing at Big Top Chautauqua for the songwriter event Labor Day weekend. But, we're also a developing national act, with gigs in about 30 states so far. I collect a flat rock from every state where I've performed and have built a patio around our cabin fire pit with them.

AO: How has folk music changed over the last few years?

BI: That's a great question. Though some uninformed people have tried to narrowly define folk music as a guy playing badly by himself, complaining about the world, in fact, folk music encompasses many different genres. Listen to for an hour and you'll hear bluegrass, folk ballads from the sixties, upcoming folk-rock bands, salsa, fado, contemporary singer/songwriters, Celtic and more. And as friendships develop, musicians start to participate with each other. On my last album, I was accompanied by Canadian national champion Ottawa Valley fiddler April Verch (She's coming to perform with us in September), local master mandolinist Ted Heinonen, world percussionist Marc Anderson and cellist Michelle Kinney (Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow). Folk Music is a big beautiful blend of music performed by a very diverse (I hesitate to use that word) people who love music and have a story to tell and played for people who love those story and want to listen and not just groove. Though there is still a lot of


AO: What can you tell us about this Knife River Music Festival?

BI: Get there early! (we're the first act on Friday night at 6pm) Knife River is the natural evolution of the Two Harbors Folk Festival. One of the hallmarks of the great festivals (Kerrville, Falcon Ridge, Telluride, Winnipeg, Rocky Mountain ) is on-site camping. It's what makes it a "community event" for many people. What I mean by that is that a community develops and each year, it grows and flourishes. People start to camp near their friends and cook food together, play music together, etc. The move to Knife River will make that a major part of this festival. It would be a great year for people to attend and camp since you will have been part of the "charter" group. Secondly, and interestingly, the name was changed from "Folk Festival" to "Music Festival" because of the misconception of the term "folk". But truly, with Celtic, singer/songwriter, blues, and other styles, it's a "folk" festival to anyone who knows the deal.