Reaching for that A flat

Peython Henry Wolfe Echelson-Russell studies music theory at Johnson State College and sings for a total of four ensembles, and finds direction in both his faith and the forest. Recently, Basement Medicine sat down for an exclusive interview with the singer and Celtic Thunder fan, whose name can hardly fit on a driver’s license card. Enter ‘HenryWolfe.’

What genre of music best describes who you are?

I generally tend to veer towards protest folk. Like anti-war songs and a lot of stuff from the Vietnam War protest movement. My parents are baby boomers, so they were raised then. My mom was a coffee shop singer during the Vietnam War. So that’s the kind of music that she raised me with. I was raised with a lot of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez — that strain.

What is Celtic Thunder?

Celtic Thunder is a musical group. They do a wide variety of music and generally present it as concert music. I’ve been to a good number of their concerts and they’re sit down concerts. For their encore they’ll do “Ireland’s Call,” and people generally stand up for that one. I try to go to each of their tours; they’ll usually do one a year. And sometimes I’ll go to the concerts of their individual members as well. I’ve seen Keith Harkin, Colm Keegan, and Emmet Cahill.

What is the hardest song for you to sing?

I suppose of recent repertoire, I just did my performance lab and one of my two songs that I did was “Tears of Hercules” as done by Keith Harkin of Celtic Thunder. For one, I realized that morning that I was just starting to get sick, I had that trace of congestion. I was like, “Hope this holds off!” Well, I made it through my high A flat that I did in modal voice, so that was nice. I just really connected with that song emotionally. I almost forgot that I needed to prepare for that A flat when it was coming up because I was just so in the moment of the song. Right before I was like, “Oh, crap! I have to take a big breath!” Luckily enough…

Any favorites?

One of the songs I really enjoy singing is “A Lover and His Lass,” arrangement by the Swingle Singers. There’s a duet at the end; I think it was written for alto and bass. I’m a tenor, but I did the bass part. And it went all the way down to a low F sharp, so . . . that was fun! Luckily it was doubled by the baritone.

Who’s your favorite Disney character?

Ron Stoppable. I watched a lot of Kim Possible growing up, [and] a lot of Lizzie McGuire. It was between Ron Stoppable and David “Gordo” Gorden from Lizzie McGuire. They’re both quirky and don’t really fit in anywhere, but they also have things where they’re actually the best person to go to, surprisingly.

What trend would you most like to see die?

You know, something that really irks me is when people pick on language that they think is originated as a fad, but actually originated as a part of African-American vernacular English. There are a lot of words that were basically stolen from that dialect of English and popularized as either vain, or petty, argumentative, or really low class. Things like that — perpetuating stereotypes. People then criticize those words and say that they think those words should never be said anymore because they don’t understand the real context of where they came from.

Where’s the weirdest place you have ever visited?

I have to say Asheville, North Carolina. It’s the most liberal place — this super progressive little pocket in North Carolina — which is so politically backwards. I’ve been to North Carolina a good number of times because my dad lives in Northwestern North Carolina — he lives in Alleghany County. His property is in both Alleghany County and Ashe County if I remember correctly. Ashe County is the county that borders Virginia and Tennessee, and luckily enough my dad lives up in the middle of nowhere in the mountains where only the weirdos live. So you get some cool people who live up there.

If you could time travel, what time would you travel to?

There’s a lot of stuff that has happened that I’d like to see, but I don’t know if I’d want to be in it, or if I’d want to be a casual invisible observer. I think I’d like to see when my parents grew up, so late 40s through the early 60s, and see when my parents were really growing up and had their earliest memories. There’s a lot of stuff that my dad has talked about of his childhood that I would like to see because his stories are so descriptive. He’s talked a lot about walking along the railroad tracks in Manchester, Connecticut. So I was walking over some railroad tracks over tour — I don’t even remember where I was — somewhere in Vermont. It just made me think of that.

Cliché question: who are five individuals, dead or alive, that you would like to have dinner with?

I feel like most of the celebrities I look up to are for things that aren’t really reasons to want to spend time with on a personal level, except to talk about music. If I could get a translator, then I’d go for the classic, J.S. Bach. There’s a lot of common practice music theory information that I feel would be interesting to get from that early of a perspective. I’d love to talk with Andrew Lloyd Webber about some of his compositions, because there are some real gems there. Just some of the concepts that he has used. It’d be nice to hear where he got his ideas, and how he analyzes his own work. Louis Armstrong, absolutely legendary, he’s an amazing musician. You know, I would love to talk with Phil Ochs, both about music and politics. Because with Phil Ochs, you can’t avoid politics and music — I mean, it’s Phil Ochs. There was a documentary that I saw about Phil Ochs at an art cinema in Hartford, Connecticut. Basically, [it] was talking about the end of the Vietnam War unfortunately being the catalyst to his suicide. That’s really unfortunate, but really understandable, because when you devote your entire life to a cause and that cause no longer exists, what do you do? With what I’ve learned in music history, I think [Claudio] Monteverdi. He really revolutionized a lot in earlier music, he was the first person to really introduce and popularize tremolo. A lot of techniques didn’t have any footing in music until Monteverdi popularized them. So that would be interesting to talk about.

Do you have any hobbies that are not music related?

Well, I like hiking, just being out in the forest and following trails. Because when I’m walking around on streets or driving, if I’m in more populated areas with more places to go than if you’re on a trail, then I have a really, really hard time keeping track of directions and which way I’m supposed to be going. I’ll remember that something looks familiar for a turn that I’m supposed to take, but I won’t remember which way to turn. That is the norm for me, but when I’m hiking usually the way I go tends to be pretty straightforward because I’ll usually either take a way I’m familiar with or explore an area and be like, “Okay, so I went left at the fork and then right at the next fork. So then I have to do a left and then a right again!” That’s all the directions I’ll need for going out for an hour or two hiking. So that’s a lot less directions to keep track of, and a lot easier for me to know where I am and feel comfortable knowing that I can get back when I’m hiking. And just being alone in the forest is nice, too. Listening to all the creatures.

You have a really long name. Is there a story behind each name?

My full name is Peython Henry Wolfe Echelson-Russell. The Peython name is fully my choosing, and I actually had different middle names lined up for what I wanted. I wanted to have two middle names because that was the format of my birth name and I wanted to keep that same format. But all of my names were heavily gendered, so I wanted to have my name not sound distinctly female. I wanted to keep the original format, so I told my mom what I wanted them to be, and she told me that if she was going to allow me to change my name I had to pick family names. I said, “Well, what would you suggest?” So she gave me a list of names that I could pick from. I liked Henry and Wolfe the best — they come from various places in my family. Echelson is my mom’s last name and Russell is my dad’s last name. I was just kind of looking at lists of names online because I knew I wanted change my name, but I didn’t know what I wanted it to be. I saw Peyton without the H and thought it was kind of cool, but I wanted it to look different somehow. So I decided on the silent H, because why not?

Cliché question #2: You like the forest, so if you were chilling in a big forest, what three items would you want with you?

If it could be literally anything, then a full bee keeper’s suit because I’m terrified of bees. That would definitely be one, if I had one of those I would feel a little more secure. Bees scare the crap out of me. As far as nonessentials go, maybe durable gloves to make it easier to climb trees, because why not? And probably a lighter to start a fire.

How big of a role does faith play in your life?

Definitely being Jewish plays a very large role in my life; however, it’s more conceptual. I was raised in the Reform tradition, which basically interprets the practice of Judaism as more based in following concepts than following Halakha to the letter. Traditions are definitely important to me, but I need to do things in a way that works with my life, and in a way so that I can continue to further ideas like Tikkun olam: “bettering the world.” Trying to improve the world and make life more livable for everyone.

Having transitioned, what advice would you give to somebody who is in the process of transitioning?

Something I’d say would be that everyone has doubts, and if you accidently misgender yourself — that happens — that’s because you’re used to calling yourself something different, and that habit stays no matter what. Even if your identity is different than the words you have used to describe yourself in the past, the habit of calling yourself by one set of words stays, even if you’re more comfortable with another set. Internalized transphobia is really strong and I’ve found that it’s really common for people to wonder if it’s really worth it for them to transition, or to even continue identifying as trans after having transitioned. Fully out, being on hormones if that’s part of their transition, having had surgery if that’s part of their transition. And even then, wondering, “Am I really trans?” Most of the time, if you’ve spent a lot of time where you’re like, “I’m pretty sure I am,” then those moments of “Am I really?” . . . Yeah, yeah you are.