The jet lag has hardly worn off as Abigail Washburn discusses her banjo-rooted music and the faraway locales it has taken her.
Since the 2011 release of City of Refuge — a recording that shifts from stark, spiritually flavored vocal ambience to often anthemic pop — Washburn has balanced stateside treks with overseas journeys to Australia and China, where she toured 13 times over the past seven years.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles after the last of her Australia shows, Washburn seems genuinely elated by the opportunities her music has provided her.
"We flew straight to L.A. from Australia, so I just woke up from a nap," Washburn said. "So if the question is, 'Do you get tired?' ... Well, the answer is definitely, yes. But it has all been an exciting and life-enriching journey."
An Illinois native, Washburn, 32, studied and lived for a time in China, becoming fluent in Mandarin. An initial career path involved studying law — but that was before she was blindsided by the banjo.
"Right about the time I was going to leave for law school, I heard a record with Doc Watson playing Shady Grove. I heard the sound of the banjo coming out of a record player at a party. I couldn't resist it. I bought myself a banjo, and my whole life changed."
Work in two high-profile string groups followed — the all-female bluegrass ensemble Uncle Earl and the all-star Sparrow Quartet that features fellow banjo ace (and husband) Béla Fleck, Central Kentucky cellist/songsmith Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen.
The latter group was featured during one of Washburn's Chinese tours. But after City of Refuge, she mounted a new band, augmented by a videographer and sound technician to chronicle the overseas adventures. The entourage was dubbed The Village, and the destination became the famed Silk Road, the ancient Chinese trade route traveled by Marco Polo. Jointly promoted by the U.S. Embassy and the Chinese International Center for Exchange, the tour in November and December allowed for Washburn and company to perform for Chinese audiences and to collaborate with numerous native musicians in the provinces that The Village visited.
"A whole network of people made the tour happen," Washburn said. "But that's always the case, right? The tour was under my name, but it was an entire community that made it go.
"Every single audience was quite different. When we collaborated with their local musicians, they would get really excited. I would bust out into a Chinese folk song onstage that everybody knew and they would sing along and feel really connected. Then I would say, 'Now, here's a song I wrote.' And they would take that in, too. The excitement generated came out of respect, admiration and love."
For her current North American tour, Washburn is performing as a duo with keyboardist/guitarist Kai Welch, who was a member of The Village and a writing/singing partner for much of the music on City of Refuge.
"The band has been stripped down to just the two of us — lean and mean," Washburn said. "That was for the sake of finances at first. Then we discovered how exciting it was, and how many musical ideas opened up, when there wasn't a drumbeat or pedal steel (guitar) or fiddle picking up the melody lines.
"It was a big chance that Kai took working with me. It was a big chance for both of us to go from hardly knowing each other to suddenly working on this big and, for me, important record. It was a really big leap of faith on both of our parts. He and I both have learned about worlds of music we never would have known about otherwise."
As for the next chapter in her global banjo journey, Washburn isn't telling. But that's mostly because she relishes not knowing where her music will take her.
"I feel unclear about what my next steps artistically will be," she said. "I don't spend much time thinking about what I should do other than being present in the moment, playing the music of City of Refuge. To be able to stand on stage and share that artistry with people is profoundly moving."
But one of Washburn's more immediate steps will take her, in a way, into the past. She views her Lexington performance almost as a homecoming, because she met and worked here for several years with Sollee.
"Ben is one of my dearest, earliest collaborators. He made Song of the Traveling Daughter (her 2005 debut album) with me, toured with me for that record and with Sparrow Quartet for about six years. I got to come to Lexington a lot during that time. It became a very special place for me. Now to come back with this new collaboration and new project is very much a full-circle situation."