Artist Interview: Navid Eliot of Planes on Paper – PNW folk duo
Navid Eliot is a classically-trained guitarist with a real ear for melody. His partner in the duo Planes on Paper is Jen Borst, a photographer with a real ear for harmonies. The two of them make some phenomenal folk music that feels like it fits in with the great sound of the Pacific Northwest, while carving out a subtle sweetness all its own.
I took an hour or so the other day to chat with Navid while he drove through some sort of great mountain squall in the wintry mix of a Washington winter. He told me stories about the band, how they make music, and why they do what they do – all while braving a trek that involved mountains and snow and more than one reference to the rigors of the music industry. I’m not sure if he felt it, but I think we bonded. It was a moment.
What matters most for you, faithful readers, is to learn about how a talented act like this comes to be and how they do what they do. Navid had been playing guitar for many years, including making the decision to focus on it in college. Having a background playing different instruments in a youth symphony, it’s obvious that he always had talent for music. While playing a gig in Yakima, Washington a local photographer named Jen connected with him. In no time they were singing harmonies together. Jen’s story – although she tried to dismiss it – is fascinating too. In her youth she and several friends attempted to make an all-girl vocal band. While she insists they weren’t very good, they took the music seriously. The background of both artists made it natural for them to transition from different projects into their own duo.
They released The Ruins, an EP, in 2015. It has the track “Iron Boat,” which we’ve featured on the site. I had to ask Navid about the song and the process that created such a beautiful work of art. I felt a bit strange that in all of my listens of the song (genuinely several dozen times), I had never really solved the riddle of the lyrics. Navid went on to explain that the focus of the song is on the impact of the prescription drug industry. The dark chords and intricate lyrics make the listener feel as if the song is about a tragedy and it turns out that is right. Navid talked a bit about the insecurity of writing about an issue with such weight and importance, but the song comes across supremely confidently. It’s a work of art.
But this part of the conversation led to something else important as we reflected on the songwriting process. Eliot said that “each person is qualified in their own way to talk about their own life.” This creative permission slip was a breakthrough for me, even as a writer, thinking about how freeing that sentiment really is. No one else in the world will ever or can ever write what I write. This is true of songwriters, poets, musicians, visual artists, and so on. But the process is a team effort between Navid and Jen. They focus on big problems and major issues as they contemplate how to tackle them. They choose metaphors and develop themes. In short, they make it sound really is when I’m sure that it’s not.
If you’ve never heard Planes on Paper you need to take a moment to listen to The Ruins album. Every song on it is worth your time. I was curious to hear about the songs themselves. Navid mentioned that they write as a duo with a plan to perform as a duo (even though the album sometimes includes more parts). This need for songs to hold up with just two vocals means that the guitar has to hold some “melodic weight.” That’s where Eliot’s formal guitar training really shines. To me it makes their version of folk music so much more fulfilling. It’s artful and satisfying in an age where far too many folk acts end up being vapid, empty, and ultimately unfulfilling.
Because I clearly am a fan of these two, I had to ask about plans for the future. Planes on Paper are working but they’re not in a rush. They’re performing gigs all the time in the Yakima and Seattle area. Additionally, they’re working slowly but surely on a new album. While Navid said the album is “in its infancy” they do have a target for its release. But what made me happy was hearing him talk about how they like travelling and that tour allows them to do that. “So we get to travel and do shows while we’re there…” It’s clear that they have the hearts of travelling troubadours. How very folk of them…
We spent time talking about tour, the music industry, and making it all work. But what struck me as most important about this wonderful duo is their humble approach to making beautiful music. They seem unhurried and unharried as they go about the task of creating art and sharing it with their friends. Please, enjoy The Ruins, and be sure to share these talented musicians with your friends.