Gypsy’s video interview with Music Historian: New album, Politics and more

Music Historian welcomes back Gypsy George to talk about his new album. This interview is a little different – it is a recorded webinar. Watch, listen, and learn about Gypsy’s new record, Politics, Ex-Girlfriends, and the Ayn Rand Shuffle. Conversations like the one Gypsy and I have in this recorded webinar get deep into his inspirations about releasing an album now, during the pandemic, while also poking some light-heart fun at our own life experiences. Following this conversation, I encourage you to watch Gypsy’s new music video from the new album. The video is for the song “Sailing Away,” and you can watch it here. To see the video recorded interview, click the image below.

A snippet of the webinar recording

Recorded interview with Gypsy George. Technology courtesy of Zoom Communications

I thank Gypsy George for working with me on creating a teaser (an introduction) to this webinar and for his time in answering my questions. I also thank him for sharing his world with me on Music Historian. This new method of interviewing is a way to challenge the status quo simultaneously I have established for my blog and to express my gratitude to Gypsy’s support of my creative ideas.

As I reflect on this new project, I recall a quote I read by Bob Dylan from his book published in 2004, “Chronicles: Volume One” — “It [folk music] exceeded all human understanding… I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes … each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom. Each demanding a degree of respect. I could believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified” (Goodreads.com, Folk Music Quotes, para 14).

I concur with what Dylan says about folk music being “so real, more true to life than life itself.” While I define Gypsy George’s music as alternative rock, I think there are so many elements of folk mixed throughout his songs. Further, this experience explores the music through an artist’s eyes, and I like to believe that I helped guide that exploration. Most importantly, we had fun. I hope you do to in watching this webinar. Enjoy!

Works Cited

Folk Music Quotes. (n.d.) Goodreads.com, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/folk-music

Choir Interrupted: An Op-Ed

Image created by Patricia Trutescu The social isolation brought about by the Coronavirus has changed the course of my day-to-day. Before entering this period, my schedule for the first week of March involved activities, both professional and recreational. On Friday night, I took a long car ride to St. Bartholomew’s Church on the upper east side with a few congregation members of Bethany Presbyterian Church Huntington, to see a New York Choral Society concert. Listening to the choir, I thought that the act of savoring the church’s architecture and massive organ would be available to me indefinitely. Little did I know that the relief I was experiencing within that moment would become temporary.

 

By the second week of March, social interactions and professional meetings continued to unfold online through Zoom Video Communications, private phone calls, and Facetime conversations with friends, family, and prospect hiring managers. The same goes for physical exercise – doing workouts to the instructions of teachers (whom I have never met before) over YouTube videos. Performing in a choir, on the other hand, proved less easy to replicate virtually.

 

On the final Sunday of March 2020, the Bethany Presbyterian Church of Huntington successfully held its first remote church service, which saw an attendance of 50. The pastor, along with a handful of members, volunteered to do a practice run of the service that previous Saturday. In the trial run, we also made sure to try out singing simple hymns. We sang together over the computer audio, but those who called on their mobile and landline phones came in seconds later. The results involved segments of singing around that coagulated into cacophony. By the time of the Easter Sunday service, the protocol of singing hymns had changed. The pastor had muted all members, except for the music director who played the piano accompaniment. Members could easily follow the music and sing to themselves. While I felt confident that other congregation members and I were singing simultaneously, though I could not hear them, I still long for that feeling of connectivity, I have always experienced singing with a choir.

 

Later, I read a message from David Hayes and Patrick Owens, the Directors of the NY Choral Society. A friend of mine who is a member of this chorus forwarded me an email from the directors who felt compelled to share a message that offered support and encouragement, one that can potentially hold us together in spirit and continue looking toward a more positive future.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Perhaps a good way to think about the period we are in is what the Tibetan Buddhists call “the Bardo state” – and intermediate state in which we have lost our old reality, and it is no longer available to us, leaving us feeling ungrounded,” write Dave and Pat.

 

“As a chorus, we are particularly ungrounded – the notion of social distancing is profoundly ‘un choral’ as it strikes at the very core of what we do – come together as a community to rehearse, socialize and make music together. For many of us, this has left an eerie emptiness.

 

“We know live music will be an essential healing force for all of us and a critical component of bringing some sense of normalcy. What we don’t know is how and when we will be able to create and share live choral music.

 

“So, notwithstanding all of this uncertainty, we will be working on some projects and long-term planning for the chorus to ensure we are ready to share our voices in song when they will be needed most! (D. Hayes & P. Owens, personal communications, March 14th, 2020).”

 

One of the major projects the directors are working on includes planning to host a ‘virtual gala and online silent auction’ sometime in mid-to-late April. More information on this event will appear on the NY Choral website in the coming weeks. Also, David and Pat decided to publicize video and audio recordings of past concerts to members and their e-newsletter subscribers.

 

Returning to their message, I decided to look up the definition of ‘the Bardo state.’ Researching the Encyclopedia of Britannica Online, ‘Bardo State’ comes from the definition ‘Bardo Thödol,’ Which in Tibetan means “Liberation in the intermediate State Through Hearing.” Further, this phrase is called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ This funerary text is recited to ease the consciousness of a recently deceased person through death and assist it in a favorable rebirth” (Britannica, n.d.).

 

By using this metaphor, I think the choral experts feel the “Bardo state” of the choir is more a quiet transformation than a slow withering. While many choir leaders hope the tradition of meeting to rehearse in person will resume as soon as it is okay to stop social distancing and isolation, how much longer do we need to stall?

 

Like everyone else I know who is socially isolating or distancing themselves daily, I also watch or read the news. While it is helpful to see how the virus is playing out beyond the performance space, I remember that the experience varies from person to person. On Facebook, I read posts and comments from friends of friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, who know at least one person who has either been infected with COVID-19 or has died. Some of the individuals who passed had no underlying medical conditions and did not even reach the threshold of 60 years of age. I also read posts about emergency tents getting pitched up in Central Park, shortages of workers in make-shift hospitals in the boroughs. On my Twitter feed, I read notices from friends and acquaintances who may face possible layoffs due to the closing of businesses or have been sick with COVID-19.

 

Reversely, social media also bears positive news. Another friend, working in healthcare, says that in the state of New York, Coronavirus recoveries outnumber the deaths. Recently, the New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, had also expressed in a live Coronavirus briefing broadcasted on Twitter by TIME that while cases of infections and deaths are starting to level, the economy is not yet ready to re-open. He says, “How you re-open determines everything” (TIME, 2020). The governor also references missteps taken by foreign countries which re-opened their economies too soon following a decrease in Coronavirus cases and then saw another spike of infections shortly afterward. To prevent NYC and surrounding states from repeating the same mistake, the governor talks about collaborating with the governments across seven states on a public health strategy that will help in re-opening the economies[1] (TIME, 2020).

 

In the spirit of observation that Governor Cuomo had made, “Look at how people have been selfless and put their own agenda aside for the common good” (TIME, 2020). I feel that many New Yorkers and citizens all over the country have contributed to this selflessness this with social isolation and social distancing. Although it may not help with anxiety, continuing this trend seems paramount for the time being, as it has helped halt the spread of the COVID-19 infection.

 

As social isolation continues to interrupt the landscape of choir singing, can live performance and rehearsals transform into something we could not have previously predicted or imagined? To answer this question, I look at what other musical organizations are doing to keep the spirit of singing alive among their communities. Opera Night Long Island (ONLI), a not-for-profit in Northport, NY, is now holding virtual concerts on the first of every month. The Artistic Director of the series, Danielle Davis, reassures that these events will get publicized on the ONLI Facebook page via a video teaser. Viewers can follow a link beneath the teasers to the official ONLI webpage and view the virtual concerts, which will now also include video interviews with the singers. All of this is accessible from the comfort of one’s own living space (D. Davis, personal communications, April 14th, 2020). Larger organizations like the National Chorale, according to its Executive Director, Amy Siegler, are postponing their major concerts until further notice about performance spaces re-opening. As for National Chorale’s educational courses, they will continue their partnership with the Professional Performing Arts High School in remote classrooms, and they are currently in the process of planning their 2020-2021 Lincoln Center Season (A. Siegler, personal communication, March 26th, 2020).

 

For now, if your choir seeks alternative ways to rehearse, I can only encourage you to get creative and look for alternative ways to support real-time practice virtually. I can also offer you two pieces of advice. Firstly, whether you chose to rehearse over computer communications or telecommunications, make sure all players connect on one single channel. Secondly, to have a successful virtual rehearsal, all singers need impeccable internet connection or signal, which we all know is not always possible. One choir in particular which seems to be gaining popularity on YouTube with their “Self-Isolation/Virtual Choir Covers” is Camden Voices (n.d.).

 

If the advice I provide you above does not work or you are skeptical of it, please remember you have a voice! Use it to bring peace to someone who is severely ill yet able to connect with you through virtual communication. If you require more information as to how to better deal with this tough situation or to get some artistic inspiration, Patrick Owens shares a few articles with his readers, and now I am also passing them onto you. To all my readers, and all musicians, please stay safe.

 

—————————————————————————————————————

[1] To understand how a public health strategy would help state governments re-open their economies, please watch the COVID-19 briefing with Andrew Cuomo from 18:40 – 20:09 in the twitter moment, https://twitter.com/TIME/status/1250085119173332999

 

 

Recommended reading from Patrick Owens

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief – A really nice article from (of all places) the Harvard Business Review

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR0TvULRJ27bPuuLhifRhmnUcmG1b15eoaIYiEVeb2jlxj_q_CiBmVhUm10

“I didn’t know how much I would miss art and culture until it was gone.” Holly Mulcahey is a musician who writes on the Neoclassical blog  https://insidethearts.com/neoclassical/2020/03/missing-art-and-culture/?fbclid=IwAR0o6p29sreZ7wA4ROMfmboUpsY3gGENKrtffDVYn-lENQiMSom56tozv5s

How We Should Reimagine Art’s Mission in the Time of ‘Social Distancing’ – Ben Davis at Artnet is providing some wonderful insights on the current state and future possibilities of the arts

https://news.artnet.com/opinion/social-distancing-art-1810029

 

Works Cited

Bardo Thödol. N.d. Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tibetan-Buddhism

TIME. (2020, April 14). New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers briefing on COVID-19 [Twitter moment].  https://twitter.com/TIME/status/1250085119173332999

Camden Voices (n.d.). Home [YouTube Channel]. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1EEtXsLimU5kjJPSeIWW3A

 

Nerding out with MC Frontalot about his new record Net Split

MC Frontalot Press photo by Richard Shakespeare In the track “Memes are stupid” the godfather of Nerdcore hip-hop, Mc Frontalot, raps Just another echo of an image that you’ve seen/in another permutation on that same rectangle screen/just a little more obscene or droll, according to your self-expression/ And still it’s dumb, affording you this hellish lesson… (Hess and Martinjack, 2019). This song opens his brand new record Net Split, which officially releases March 8th, 2019. Why should you give this record a listen? Let me explain in my interview with MC Frontalot right here on Music Historian.

What must one do to become the godfather of a style of hip-hop, in this case, one called Nerdcore? According to a Wikipedia.org article about the artist, MC Frontalot first recorded the song “Nerdcore Hiphop” in 2000, which became an immediate hit in the geek and nerd communities (MC Frontalot, n.d.). In my personal interview with Frontalot at a quaint pie shop in Brooklyn, he elaborated on this niche genre.

“Music genres, more formally, should have something unifying them musically and not just in their subject matter. I don’t think Nerdcore is that. Jesse Dangerously, the Nova Scotian rapper, often points out that Nerdcore does not qualify as a genre… but is still a classification that is useful to people. It has certainly been useful to me because everyone is like “oh you made that up, so somehow you are in charge of it.”…

“It was always just hip-hop anyway, with just some nerd kids making it. The only real distinction is that they, or we, were less concerned with appearing cool than rappers were traditionally expected to be. That was always the thing about rap, it was always the newest, the coolest, most interesting kind of music in the United States. I think that might still be true even though rap is like 40 years old… That’s reflected in the traditional and modern hip-hop lyric… staking your claim to how wonderful you are. How much you should be paid attention to and how many trends you’ve set. And if you don’t have any of those feelings, but you still want to dabble in the form, then that’s what Nerdcore would give you… trying to make something within that space without having to present yourself as super cool.”

Returning to the song “Memes are Stupid,” I found myself asking the question, what was famous about memes in the first place and then what made them stupid?

“I think that the term was originally coined to describe a little unit of thought that was communicable and that could gain a mass beyond its individuality through the way people wanted to move around that idea,” Explains Frontalot. “Now, it just means pictures with words on them… the way they are approached and trafficked, they could not be more disposable…

“It is a form of harmless hipness that kids can rejoice in and that’s fine. But as a replacement for forming a complete thought, composing in words and communicating it as an original composition that might have some important meaning? As a substitute for that it… seems to be a very poor [one]… but as I identify in the song, it is like sewing your mouth shut – voluntary muteness.”

The name for the album, Net Split, broadly represents a break-up between the artist and his love for the internet. Another track, “DDoS” opens with Quelle Chris rapping, and he paints an image of a computer and internet junkie who is experiencing the failure of a computer’s ability to connect to the internet, and it sounds like an apocalypse with the heavy-handed lyrics and the ominous tones. The words Frontalot raps in the chorus are: D-D-o-S/ All heads saturated by internets/Get progressively worse and thought/Imagine it the other way around? It’s not/ D-D-o-S/All heads saturated by internets/ Get progressively overwhelmed/ Are you the service or are you the clientele? (Hess and Tennille, 2019) MC Frontalot Press photo*

The building blocks for this song arose as Frontalot and Quelle searched through this laptop and vast catalog of unused beats originally created by Quelle himself. They sought a grim, frightening apocalyptic vibe and found a fitting one, and wrote the lyrics to that feeling. Frontalot then talks more about the motivation behind this song. He provides an anecdote.

“If you remembered five, ten years ago, if a politician had one scandalous [news story] that emerged, it would be in the news for three or four days… and now, there are scandals far overshadowing [those from that period happening] three to four times a week… It is insane, and none of it sticks because the mental space we have reserved for current political scandal is completely overwhelmed… like a buffer overflow… a security flaw in a software program or, as we compare it in the song, like a server-client model where so many client requests come in fraudulently, that legitimate client requests are impossible to handle, and [become] attributed to denial of service. Nobody can use the server, and that is the point of that kind of attack. That is what happens to our brains, the lies, the craziness, and the next wild scandal and utter outrage floods in and washes away the last one. Nothing gains purchase.”

Frontalot parallels how our minds receive information – whether it is true or not – to the way a server processes real and unreal client requests. After a while, it may become difficult for us to distinguish the real from not. Yet I still pondered about the actual challenges Frontalot experienced with the internet, especially given that he fell in love with it in 1992, as a first-year college student. Referencing my attentive ear, I then refer to another song that might allude to a personal challenge with the internet – online sexism and bashing.

The song “IWF” which stands for Internetting While Female addressed online sexism. The rapper, E-Turn, a.k.a. Eliza Azar Javaheri, rhymes to the fictitious unapologetic and obnoxious user, Chad: See you jumping on a thread and steady watching you choke/ Post some politics, you tell me to get back on the boat… Quoting Joe Rogan, posting how you’re #blessed/ the next day online talking trash about your ex/ getting in your feelings ’cause she denied your request/ Blahblahblah bro, bro, bro you’re a mess (Hess, Exum, Liu, Javaheri, 2019). Then Chad, played by Frontalot raps: Well, actually! Not all of us act as you say/ Be exact! You’re sounding irrational. Facts are the way… Simply be us, you’ll have an easier time/ Or log off! Why are you here? I won’t follow you/ I get to be worse than any of you, if not all of you (Hess, Exum, Liu, Javaheri, 2019).

Chad displays proud ignorance in these lyrics. Frontalot admits to writing that from the perspective of the quintessentially terrible online man. This song also includes women decompressing about those types of interactions with Chads in their personal experience. Whether or not men are trying to intentionally push women offline, this is what Frontalot sees on the internet.

“They [the terrible online man] cannot wrap their head around the idea of any space they feel strongly about because it should not belong to anyone else. That’s typical and bad human behavior,” says Frontalot, “but it seems viciously amplified within this particular gender conflict…

“Obviously, sexism is not just something that happens online. It’s been brought, like almost everything we go through, our rich history of treating each other badly in person. There is something about reaching so many other humans directly, without having your name and face attached, or without having any stakes in terms of your reputation… The anonymity brings out all the behaviors we have civilized down in our normal lives. Now we have to worry… is it about boys behaving as badly as ever times 100 because they’re anonymous, or times 1000 because people are actively leading them on towards malice?”

Further, in the interview, I learn that these common occurrences on the internet, such as the one previously described, is not enough to diminish Frontalot’s passion for the online realm.

“Hopefully, the love outweighs the suffering? That’s what you want out of any relationship. No relationship will be ‘suffering-free.’ But you want the joy and comfort to so far exceed the suffering that you are not every so often asking yourself whether it is worth it. I still love so much about the internet more than ever, and it is not like I spend any time away from it.”

The female rapper, E-Turn, is also joined on “IWF” by Miss Eaves, Starr Busby, and Lex the Lexicon Artist. Thanks to the internet that all these artists were able to collaborate. Funny enough, many musicians with whom Frontalot worked, made their acquaintance online before meeting in person. Does the internet facilitate musical collaboration?

MC Frontalot Press Photo* “I was introduced to that possibility with the site “Song Fight” which I was involved with a lot from 2000 all the way to 2005. Much of the early Frontalot stuff that got reworked into the first album was from song fights originally. It is a songwriting and production competition.

“Every week, they present a title, and everyone writes a song which includes that title, i.e., we all write a song with the name “Yellow Lasers” by the end of the week. [Then], we go around and critique each other… and somebody wins. Through the process of that and the community forums for that, we do a lot of collaborating.

“The internet still has so much to offer. I still have stars in my eyes when I think of it. How great the internet seemed, and the limitless possibilities.”

That idea of a community then made me think of how hip-hop started. Parties were occasions where people could listen to hip-hop. I thought of how turntables were used to provide the entertainment for a party as an alternative for having a multi-person band.

“The DJ has something the band does not have – the whole history of recorded music in a crate, at your fingertips, ready to take the party in any direction; to perform at full energy, tirelessly, for hours. You have electricity which is your energy source.

“The art form of turntablism where you are taking different recordings and putting them together live into a new thing… It’s better to look at it as an inventive moment in the pre-existing paradigm of having a party where there is a DJ.”

The turntablist, Kid Koala, appeared on Frontalot’s 2014 record, Question Bedtime in the track “Shudders.” When I asked Frontalot about his previous records, such as Question Bedtime, he admitted “I think I went a little too in the weeds with the last couple of records. With Question Bedtime, when people saw it was about fairytales and folktales, they worried they would not find they had loved before in the “Voltron: The Adventure Games” references. This [Net Split] will be the most accessible record I have ever written.”

Net Split is releasing soon, and for anyone who likes dark humor and satire, this record is for you. There will not be a listening party, but Frontalot is entertaining a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread on Monday, March 11th. “Being an old nerd now is funny. ‘Get off my line’ or ‘get off my lawn’ is the vibe of this record.”

On the other hand, Frontalot also insists “That not all hope is lost. It is a record about complaints and pessimism… that’s my writing voice… I’m a little worried that the tone of it will concern potential listeners.”

That may happen. The only people I see this album offending are meme lovers. You have been politely warned.

If you are wondering about a tour, there is one! MC Frontalot plans a tour for 18 days with Schaffer the Darklord, MC Lars and Mega Ran from April 30th through May 16th. On March 16th, he will be at SxSW. Other performances include After PAX in Boston March 31st, and New York April 5th.

*All photos were published with permission of the artist and Baby Robot Media

Works Cited

Hess, D., Martinjack, D. (2019, March 7). Memes are Stupid (Net Split) [Lyrics]. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/bmljnlwrk7uqp47/MC%20Frontalot%20-%20Net%20Split%20-%20Credits%20%26%20Lyrics.pdf?dl=0

MC Frontalot. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MC_Frontalot

Hess, D., Tennille, G.C. (2019, March 7). DDoS (Net Split) [Lyrics]. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/bmljnlwrk7uqp47/MC%20Frontalot%20-%20Net%20Split%20-%20Credits%20%26%20Lyrics.pdf?dl=0

Hess, D., Exum, S., Liu, A.S., Javaheri, E.A. (2019, March 7). IWF (Net Split) [Lyrics]. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/bmljnlwrk7uqp47/MC%20Frontalot%20-%20Net%20Split%20-%20Credits%20%26%20Lyrics.pdf?dl=0

A Reactionary Dialogue with Gypsy George about his latest record, Caollaidhe

“Wanna be my lover?” and “Cracked Candy” are the two tracks which open the latest album by Gypsy George, Coallaidhe.  These songs present two different sides of the protagonist within the record. The first song, “Wanna be my lover?” is composed of power chords that seem to have crawled out of the grunge era. The second, “Cracked Candy,” feels cleaner and calmer, enabling listeners to pick up on key changes and the components produced by each instrument. The lyrics within the first song expresses a singer who seems to focus on the lingering anxiety of a relationship that travels the middle road between friends and lovers. In “Cracked Candy,” our main character turns outwards instead of inwards, accepting that his love interest has left the picture and now, he must take this break-up.

Album cover of Caollaidhe by Gypsy George

The motivation behind Coallaidhe (released in 2017) seemed straight forward. In an email interview, Gypsy confirmed “My girlfriend broke up with me… The problem with making a ‘break-up’ record is falling into the trap of whininess, self-loathing, narcissism… I think because I approached the record from a reactionary perspective, I avoided these types of sentiments. In other words, I was exploring all aspects of what was going on around me – looking from the outside in. The abruptness of how it happened left me no other choice but to cope and move on. Some people go to therapy or talk to friends; I turn to music. All my life, it’s how I deal with problems… On another note: great observation on the opening tunes!”

Gypsy did not just eviscerate heartbreak on the new record; he also expressed emotions from other events in his life. The singer-songwriter admits that “June 2016 morphed into one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching periods of my life.” He continues:

“My best friend, Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm, [whom] I have known almost my entire life in NYC, moved back to Alabama with his family. He is like a brother to me. A week before he moved, we did a huge blow-out show at Littlefield (Gowanus) featuring all the bands he played with. A few weeks after that, my girlfriend abruptly broke up with me without warning, purpose or reason. A few days after that, I got a call that my mother’s cancer came back.

“My schedule was frantic at the time: I was constantly traveling for 10deka – my Greek Olive Oil company I have with my family; started work on our production for South Brooklyn Shakespeare, and had a full load producing and recording in the studio. In short, it was pure chaos.”

My last interview article with Gypsy was titled “Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up.” What is chaos? For many of us, it is an abrupt change, the kind that seems to turn our lives upside down. The following question comes to my mind – how do we learn to embrace such change, and how can music be an outlet to these events? I hope to find out within my interview article with Gypsy George. I welcome him back to Music Historian.

Gypsy continued to reflect back the hectic year, “Rather than continue down a dark spiral that would ruin me, I decided to use the studio as my personal therapist. For the following 3 to 4 months, I would plant myself in the studio whenever possible. This led to me routinely recording until the sun came up, napping for a couple of hours, and continuing on my way with everything else.

“I was the only person involved on this record – performing, engineering, mixing, mastering… All the tracks were recorded live, in one take. I would lay down the main vocals while playing either guitar or piano. I would do five performances in one session without taking a break. I would [then] select the best version and continue to arrange the song.

Gypsy Recording Session by Gypsy George “I wanted the soul-crushing rawness I was feeling to come through the music. Although there were [many] elements that inspired the songs, it began to focus on one thing: my break up. It was a rough recording process. Often times, I would unleash so much emotion that the sessions [resulted] in tears. It’s the most naked I have ever been as an artist. I exorcized a lot during the making of Caollaidhe.”

As I continued listening to this record, the third song “The Myth” and the fourth, “Lay Lady Lay” furthers the diversity of the musician’s compositional style. The lyrical structure in “The Myth” seems far more fragmented, presenting a message that is not immediately cohesive. Then, Gypsy risks introducing an intricate and long guitar solo in the first minute and a half of this 4 minute and 10-second song. Getting to “Lay Lady Lay,” a far more structured song with the repeating verse “Lay lady lay/ lay across my big brass bed.”

Adding an exciting fact to “Lay Lady Lay,” the lyrics were originally written by Bob Dylan. Turning my attention back to the musical components, descending chromatics in the keyboard and the staccato harmonic rhythm in the guitar appears. I interpreted the inclusion of this component as risky.

“From the moment I learned to play music, I was a risk taker,” expressed Gypsy. “Convention seemed boring and uninspired. In some ways, it is easier to write songs to ‘form.’ I find that doing a verse/chorus/bridge, AB rhyme scheme… to be too predictable. That does not mean I do not respect form and structure in songwriting… Rather, it’s refreshing and freeing to play with form, blow it up, and build something new. Also, I have never been a ‘genre’ artist (meaning I don’t hold to one category/style of music). I play all styles, am influenced by all types, and write in all forms. I try not to repeat musical styles and themes.

“It is interesting you pointed out the musical juxtaposition between “The Myth” and “Lay Lady Lay.” I did not write it on purpose. Perhaps it was a subconscious thing (much like the two songs that open the record). However, that is what ‘art’ is supposed to be: a reactionary dialogue?”

Looking back at the answers Gypsy provided me, I had not realized that he was at a bar in Cape May reviewing my questions. Coincidentally, songs 5 and 6 are named after two east coast locations, “Catskills” and “Cape May.” “Catskills” includes a melody which is backed up my harmonies which eventually resolve. Meanwhile, “Cape May” has melodies which resolve on a dissonant chord. Although this resolution does not happen in the end, by the time this song finishes, the harmonies do not resolve on the tonic. Also, that dissonant chord never reappears. I wondered whether the composition in “Cape May” is inspired by situations or events which never resolve. Gypsy George at Overlook Mountain by Gypsy George

“I never thought of those songs in that light… but I do now. I travel a lot. With all my adventures, I carry people who inspire me along for the journey. Sometimes they are with me physically, sometimes spiritually, sometimes emotionally. “Catskills” I wrote while I was with my girlfriend. It’s based on a day we spent upstate (in the Catskills) where we stumbled upon this amazing hike northwest of Woodstock. It is an area known as Overlook Mountain. That song, basically, recounted our entire day together. If you read the lyrics, you will get the day’s story traveling up the mountain and back down.

“Cape May is a place that I have developed a great fondness and connection. Throughout my life, I have always connected with places that have a combination of nature, history, small-town vibe. Places like Cape May is unique because [it] appears in an area of the U.S. where you would least expect… Cape May was written – at least the foundation – while I was laying down on the sand at 3am looking at a full moon. There was no one else around… As I was staring up at that moon, I wondered whether my ex was staring at that same moon. Then, as you do late at night, I started to contemplate life. The next day, I had the song written.

“Cape May was a place I wanted to take my ex. I never got the chance. The line ‘the necklace I bought that day’ is referencing a handmade necklace I bought for her while I was in Cape May.”

Although “Catskills” was written during a hike Gypsy took in an area called Overlook Mountain, there is another song called “Overlook Mountain.” This song features a mandolin, and Gypsy reveals that he had the mandolin with him playing it all the way to the top and back down. “It was a lovely, beautiful moment,” he said. “After we broke up, I returned to that trail – alone – with my mandolin. As I ascended, I kept running into couples who would stop, listen, smile, thank me, and then move on.

“Externally, I [felt] grateful to provide a soundtrack to these couples’ romantic outing. Internally, I was a puddle. When I got up to the top, I had written the piece that wound up on the album. Also, the album cover is a photo of an abandoned building one finds on that same trail.”

It is refreshing to see that as Gypsy found the courage to go back to Overlook Mountain. The intrinsic inspiration to write a tune on the mandolin while re-traveling this trail resulted in a song that brought a smile to the faces of passersby. I then wondered what Gypsy hoped listeners would take away for Caollaidhe. He explains:

“It’s such a personal album, I don’t know how it could relate outside myself… I hope the listener is not afraid to let go and immerse in the work’s intensity. This is not an album to put on at a party. It is an album of introspection, deep dark tunnels, rabbit holes, experience, love, heartbreak… This is me at my most honest.

“I just hope people take the time to really listen. Put on a pair of headphones, pour a drink, sit back and take it in. It’s meant to be a journey – an auditory movie. Don’t skip and play. It’s not worth it.”

The 2017 album has been available for download on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, Amazon MP3, and Soundcloud. Based on my conversation with Gypsy, this album was an internal journey through the grieving of a lost relationship. Another album which the artist recorded prior to Caollaidhe, called The Loneliest Man in New York, started as a break-up album, but then it transformed into a more extensive collaboration – a band of six musicians, including Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm (Trutescu, 2015, retrieved from https://musichistorian.net).

Caollaidhe started as a break-up album –and perhaps an outlet for other dark emotions brought on by anxiety – only taken on by one artist and instrumentalist. Gypsy’s latest album seemed to stay on the same path from start to finish. On Caollaidhe, Gypsy George was a one-man band. He adds, “It was too personal to bring anyone else in the process. Plus, I was a maniac. Who would want to deal with that?”

Between the release of Caollaidhe and now, Gypsy has taken up many new endeavors. This year, he will remix and remaster his entire back catalog for a release throughout 2019. Gypsy is also working on a new album, which currently has no title; producing a few new records for other artists; and finalizing a poetry book entitled Inamorata: a collection of subsequent poems written over road trips, diners and cups of coffee and a novella, burning of the fragile fire all to publish this year. The musician will also start a podcast culling from all of Gypsy’s interest; it is tentatively called Stories from the open road: a one-stop destination for controlled chaos.

Late in 2018, Gypsy lost his mother to cancer. While taking on a variety of creative projects may seem impulsive and excessive, they can also be exits for a crest of emotions. When done right, like Coallaidhe, the finished products that come from these products can be enjoyed equally by the consumer and the creator.

Works Cited

Trutescu, P. (2015, June 15). Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://musichistorian.net/2015/06/15/embrace-the-chaos-wherever-you-may-wind-up-gypsy-george-discusses-biculturalism-entrepreneurship-and-how-music-has-brought-him-to-brooklyn/

*All photos were taken by Gypsy George, and were published with his permission

Playing with expectations: Kim Ware talks about her latest record with the Good Graces

Set Your Sights Album Cover*Kim Ware, the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter says that while making the record, “Set Your Sights” with the Good Graces, which released in July 2017, some songs would go places she had not really planned. “It took some getting used to,” admits the artist. “In the end, I felt that was more an equal partnership than any other record I had made in the past. It sort of helped set the tone for what I want the next record to be. I am getting slightly more calculating in my approach, but the word “band” still scares me!”

She does not refer to Good Graces as a band, but as very talented friends who are part of the sound and the creative process. “… It’s unrealistic to expect the same group of folks to always be available when I want to play a show or record songs. And let’s be honest, bands break up. I feel like for this to be sustainable, it needs to be fluid and organic. If it’s not a band, it can’t break up! For me, it’s really about the songs, and what makes sense at that given time to present them in the best light possible…”

I meant to create an interview article about “Set Your Sights” (produced by Jonny Daly) last year. Then life happened, and I had postponed writing this story up until now. It is never too late to bring this full-length interview article with Kim Ware on Music Historian.

Compared to the musical composition of Kim’s 2014 record, “Close to the Sun,” “Set Your Sights” brings more musicians together to collaborate on each individual song, especially on guitar and drums. The 2014 album seems to treat the drums and guitar more as accompaniments. Further, there is a three-year gap between “Close to the Sun” and “Set Your Sights.” I wondered what changed in the creative process between the two records, and whether any significant events inspired “Set Your Sights.”

“Honestly,” begins Kim, “they were pretty similar, just made with different people. For “Close to the Sun,” you hear a combination of my and Rob Dyson’s (who engineered a good bit of and mixed the record) influence and tastes. And for “Set Your Sights,” it’s mine and Jonny Daly’s.

“I’m a drummer, but for years, I wanted this project to not have many drums in it. But when I got to know Pete McDade, who played a lot of the drums on “Set Your Sights,” he became one of my favorite drummers, and I really wanted him on the album. He’s got more of a rock style than I do, so I think that lent to the new album coming off as a little more rocking than previous ones.

“”Set Your Sights” took a year and a half to make. We recorded something like 24 songs, and then picked what we thought worked best together for the album. As far as major events, shortly after “Close to the Sun” was released, we were asked to do a handful of shows with the Indigo Girls. That was a big deal for me… that experience really boosted my confidence.

“We went from playing 100 or so-capacity rooms to playing in front of 1500 people. It’s something I will always be grateful for, and I think it helped shape many of the songs on this record. I saw people really react to the songs [in which] I am totally honest, even if that means singing about things that are super personal and a little uncomfortable to talk about.

“When we got back from tour, I went through this weird funk that lasted about a year. There were some challenges in my relationship with my husband; I questioned a lot, tried to figure out whether I am doing what I should be doing. Typical mid-life stuff, I think?

“It can come out of nowhere, and it can be really rough, and affect everything around you. It caused me to do a lot of self-reflecting, more than I had before. I think that comes out in the record.”

On the subject of experiencing strange phases in your life, I am currently going through one of my own. I had undergone surgery, and now, trudging through my recovery period, I feel socially isolated. While this period will pass, much like the way Kim’s phase had passed, experiences like these are worth putting in writing. In Kim’s case, she sublimates her experience through music.

I wondered whether Kim with this record tried to reach listeners who enjoy experimental types of rock music, or fans of folk who are looking for something a little non-traditional within the mix, such as a dash of punk. Kim responds:

“I don’t think about that so much. I’m really into folk with an experimental, atmospheric bend. That’s pretty much my favorite thing – acoustic guitars with bleeps and beeps or weird stuff, and often times “noise” rather than traditional parts that accompany it. As far as the punk stuff, the first band I was ever in, I was the drummer, and it was noisy, and a little punky and the songwriter/guitarist of that band is still one of my biggest influences.

“We were just in our 20s and did not know what we were doing. But we had this reckless abandonment that was just so raw, honest and awesome… I have an appreciation for that – the idea of something being a little messy… but still beautiful.”

Aside from pondering what emotions are conveyed strictly through the style of music, Kim’s lyrics tell stories. Do they originate from solely her personal life, or is there a common theme which she lives out collectively with her own circle of friends, such as getting older? She feels it is both.

“Most of it is very personal. [In some songs] every lyric is autobiographical, but others may not be 100 percent about me, but one line might be. Then I use that line as the jumping off point for the rest of the song. Or, the song might be more about a feeling than the actual events that I sing about. [The song] “Too Old for This,” is more about that phrase. The “this” could be anything you find yourself experiencing and think you should know better, or that you should get past. This is probably pretty common for us 40-somethings.

“For the song, “Out There” – I did not really swim across the lake and almost drown. But I did experience being in the middle of the ocean in a small boat and not being able to see land, and feeling so small. It had a truly profound effect on me I did not expect.”

I then wondered what Kim would like listeners to take away from “Set Your Sights?”

“I hope folks will get that the songs are honest and real, and have heart. I like to surprise people and play with expectations, and I like to think the album does that. And after someone listens to it, if they find themselves humming a song or two afterward, then that’s awesome too.”

In “Remember the Old School,” the verses are constructed on top of driving riffs. As the song approaches the chorus, those riffs slow in their harmonic rhythm, making room for a message in the lyrics:

We will never be in fashion/ we don’t know the latest trends/, but at least we have the passion/ or at least we can pretend

This song leans more towards punk rock than folk, and I happened to walk away humming the melody. Yet, for “Good in it all,” I had a different experience – I could not walk away humming it, but, I did walk away remembering the verse which opened and closed the song – I wrote a song about staying together/ but every time I sing it/ it just falls apart.

“Good in it all,” compared to “Remember the Old School,” takes 45 seconds to build up an instrumental section before Kim sings, and feels more reminiscent of country and folk. The styles of “Good in it all” and “Remember the Old School” seem to juxtapose one another, especially when the chords in “Remember the Old School” resolve, whereas in “Good in it all” they do not. That’s why I also wondered whether Kim explores different genres in this record. She answers:

“I enjoy different types of music. I think the Good Graces is more a vehicle for delivering my lyrics than anything else. In most cases, I come up with lyrics and vocal melodies, and a pretty basic acoustic guitar part for the foundation. Then, [I] flesh it out with the other players. A lot of what ended up on the album, as far as the style, was influenced by the other folks I worked with. So, yes, I think I do like to explore other genres, but only because I like to play with whatever style makes the most sense for the lyrics and overall message of the song.” Kim Ware*

One of the beautiful parts about music is the ability to work together with so many different individuals, such as instrumentalists, producers, and more. Making a living from such an involved artwork like this is a challenge. What is the turning point in any musician’s life when they said to themselves ‘I am going to pursue music,’ what did that look like?

“I’ve not known a time in my life where I was not immersed in music,” explained Kim. “But it was never something I consciously decided I needed until around 2010.

“I actually took a pretty long break from it that year. I was playing drums in a couple of bands and had just started releasing albums under the Good Graces. At the same time, I had taken a new day job. In the beginning, it looked like it was going to be a pretty positive career move for me, but [required] a lot of energy. I felt burned out. I chose to take a year off from playing (and releasing, as I was also running a small record label) music, to see what I missed.

“I managed to make it about 9 months. [Then] I got really sick; I’m not sure [whether] it was because I was not playing music, but it makes sense – I did not replace my creative outlet with anything. I ended up in the hospital for four days with pneumonia. By that time, the day job had gone completely south. A few months later, I got a new job, and around the same time went to Austin (in Texas). I came home, wrote the first song I had written in a couple of years, and decided music was something I needed in my life.”

I find some parallels in Kim’s experiences with music and my experience with music writing. She felt she had to step away from music due to a demanding job. I also thought I had to take a similar step with my music blog. By the time Kim got another job, she had started writing the first song she had written after a stint. The article I am writing now is the first full-length interview story I have written in over a year.

Aside from the personal story behind “Set Your Sights,” what makes this record worth the listen? If you are not curious about “Remember the Old School” or “Good in it all” I recommend listening to “Porchlight”; it marries the best elements within “Remember the Old School” and “Good in it all.”

“Porchlight” has an acoustic guitar with driving rhythms and the instrumental interlude at the beginning last about 22 seconds. Throughout the song, listeners hear the build-up of layers including slide guitar, violins, and church bells. The structure of the composition is A, A’, which means there is very little difference in the chords and the harmonic rhythm for the verse and chorus. The chorus can only be distinguished through the lyrics:

There is something holding us together we can’t understand/ it’s so easy until we make it so hard

Then there is the final verse before the lyrics finish at 3:05:

… The porchlight in the clear night, it will be all right/ if I keep telling myself, maybe I’ll believe/ Someday I’ll believe

Afterward, “Porchlight” concludes with about 15 seconds of wind chimes playing freely, as if one listens to wind chimes right outside their window. For Kim, this song wrapped up her experience with making “Set Your Sights.” “Porchlight” nicely concludes the experience of an album on which different genres bring forward juxtaposing musical styles, styles which are utilized to convey the tone of various stories being told via lyrics.

Reflecting back on the past year and how I postponed writing this review of “Set Your Sights,” I now feel grateful that Kim had responded positively to this long past-due article. Sometimes you have to go away to come back, and that is what Kim also did with music before she finished and released this record with the Good Graces. She is currently working on a new album at the moment.

I’m almost always writing new songs, and after we finished tracking “Set Your Sights” I just kept going. By the time 2018 rolled around I started feeling like I had enough for another album, so I got all the players together and began figuring out what it would be, around July or so.

The new one has a lot of the same players, but I approached it very differently. I planned it out and prioritized all the songs. I think I made a list of 14 or so. We worked them up and recorded them sort of in priority order, tackling what I felt to be the strongest songs first. I figured if I did that, I’d know once the album was “done.” And I did – once we got 12 tracks down it just felt like that was it, that was the album.

Although Kim has not yet revealed a name for the record, or a final release date, she hopes that it will be released in the Fall.

 

* All photos were published with the permission of the artist

Putting Faces to Names, and Coverage on Performances: Baby Robot Media’s Set at Pianos

On Saturday, October 7th, I went to Pianos (on the Lower East Side) to meet the crew of Baby Robot Media, a media service agency that has been introducing me to new and independent artists and arranging interview opportunities. I had met the founder, Steve Albertson, John Graffo, the Director of Music Publicity, John Riccitelli, Director of Sales and Artist Relations, and a few others. Then, of course, I also went to Pianos to see the set that Baby Robot had put together with the help of their partnership with Glide Magazine for the city-wide event, Mondo NYC 2017.

The set was divided into two floors. I started watching the performance on the top floor. The first singer-songwriter I saw was Gabriel Mayers. Steve described Gabriel as a troubadour on guitar. After hearing this description, I made a parallel to Gypsy George, another troubadour. Traditionally, troubadours wrote songs about courtly love.

Gabriel Mayers performs on acoustic guitar at Pianos, Oct. 2017

Gabriel Mayers performs on acoustic guitar at Pianos, Oct. 2017

In one of his songs, “Cocoon,” Gabriel sings, “How much can your lover take, before it all comes crashing down?” This song is composed of 3-5 chords on the acoustic guitar. The melody includes a few embellishments such as hammer-ons and hammer-offs, the technique which adds the trills the listeners hear. His next song, “Philando,” did not resemble “Cocoon” lyrically. This song would take Gabriel out of that description of a troubadour, as it addressed the case of Philando Castile, a 32-year old civilian who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota last year.

Although I cannot decide whether the song “Philando” classifies Gabriel as a political artist, he did appear in the documentary How to let go of the world (and love all the things climate can’t change) directed by Oscar nominee, Josh Fox (gabrielmayers.com/about). I would suggest you read more about Gabriel on his website and check him out performing solo on acoustic guitar sometimes.

After Gabriel’s set, I went downstairs to see another artist, Ava Raiin, whose music was composed of a synthesizer, pre-recorded loops, and her voice. Ava’s first song easily stands out with a synthesized drum beat that sounds like a distorted heartbeat. When I was a student in high school, studying music theory, my teacher told me that Disco beats typically imitate heartbeats.

Ava’s rhythm in her first song though seems to deconstruct disco into something that you would not imagine your parents listening to if they were into that genre in the 1970’s (while it enjoyed its run). Her songs do not stick, and the lyrics do not seem to represent a story or create any imagery. She sings, “It is time to move the world/It is time to paint the world.” I did not get the name of this song.

Ava Raiin performing at Pianos, Oct. 2017

Ava Raiin performing at Pianos, Oct. 2017

I am now trying to guess the name of Ava’s next song, and I believe it is “Eagle Eye.” In this song, the melody created by the vocalizations and the harmonies that cannot be classified as either major or minor. Based on what I have heard, Ava seems more interested creating space with sounds, even atmospheres, as they do not seem grounded in a structure that is detectable to a listener who does not spend too much time with the electronic music genre.

My concern with this artist is how much she showcases her voice, which comes in only for brief periods of time throughout her songs. I feel that within any performance that involves a vocalist and a synth player, the typical listener will be more likely to walk out of a performance commenting on the singer’s vocal abilities rather than the sound capabilities of a machine.

I want to talk about another band I would watch later in the day at 5 pm, Radiator King. The frontman, Adam met Steve of Baby Robot through a mutual friend who plays in another band. Adam took time to get acquainted with Steve before signing onto the company’s roster of musicians.

Adam prefers to write songs about historical events such as world wars, traditional American stories, especially ones about the underdog. Like many musicians, Adam never starts writing songs with a specific intent. The singer says that as a former history undergraduate, he approaches music by researching like a musicologist. During his years studying history, Adam has taken what he has investigated into his songwriting.

“You pick up certain things in a certain way, and put it into what you are imagining.” Adam would think, “I really like Jimmy Hendrix, I wonder who he liked?”

He continues, “Bob Dylan would listen to blues music from the south and try to recreate it. He played it like a boy from the mid-west, which he is, not like a poor man from the south. He listened to other artists and then replayed the songs in a way that made sense to him. It is very hard to find your own voice, but Dylan did.”

As I listened to Adam speak, I got the feeling that if he were to sing, he would have a range of a tenor, just based on his timbre. As I briefly spoke to Adam, it was only 3 pm. I would have some time before I would get the chance to hear Radiator King perform at 5 pm. I decided to continue my concert viewing downstairs.

On the stage on the first floor, the four-piece band, Oginalii started to play; the first rock band I had heard at the Baby Robot Media set. This group’s sound could have easily felt like a combination of Sound Garden and Stone Temple Pilots. If you are a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast like I am, yes, Oginalii’s music is filled with riffs composed of power chords, and drumming that is perfectly synchronized with the guitars and the bass. According to John Riccitelli, the band is from Nashville, and they are alumni of Belmont University.

Oginalii performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Oginalii performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

One of Oginalii’s songs, “Red” sounds like a cross between “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age and “Black Math,” a track on the 2003 album Elephant by the White Stripes. If you should have the chance to see Oginalii live, do expect a sound of rock ‘n’ roll from the early 2000’s and amazing solos from the lead guitarist – something else I miss from today’s mainstream music. Expect a timbre from the frontwoman that reminds you of Gwen Stefani’s voice. If I could paint a clearer picture of this singer’s timbre, imagine Stefani getting stepping into a genre that was opposite the mellowness in the pop songs she has performed recently. Oginalii may be a refreshing group for those who are looking for new and exciting rock music from Nashville.

Hayley Thompson-King performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Hayley Thompson-King performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

After Oginalii, came Hayley Thompson-King and her band. According to Riccitelli, Hayley is also an opera singer and she recently wrote a concept album. I will have to look back at a press release Riccitelli had sent me about this artist, because I was impressed with her energy on stage. The music Hayley plays resemble country, and she too is also based in Nashville.

Radiator Kings (Adam, right), playing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Radiator Kings (Adam, right), playing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Some singers sound very different when they perform versus when they talk, and I discovered that this was the case with the frontman of Radiator King, Adam. When he spoke to me, he sounded like a tenor. When he sang with his band, I heard a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but I felt that onstage, his timbre seems forced. Further, while Adam had explained to me that he (unintentionally) tells stories through songs, I could not hear the lyrics. The inaudible lyrics might have resulted from either the lack of volume in the microphone, an excessive degree in the Strat guitar Adam played, or both.

Trumpeteer playing with Radiator Kings at Pianos, Oct 2017

Trumpeter playing with Radiator Kings at Pianos, Oct 2017

In one song, “So Long Charlie,” Adam explained the story behind the song to the audience before playing. “This song is about the crazy characters you meet in your life. You don’t want them to be your roommates, but you don’t forget them.” For me, the most memorable part of this song was the guest trumpet player who performed a solo.

Baby Robot Media’s set finished at 6:00 pm. I appreciate the opportunity I got to review several performances in one location. I then recalled my first experience at Pianos, and had a brief flashback.

One evening in March 2012, I went to pianos to see Imagine Dragons play. That night, following their show, I met the band’s manager, and had told him that I was interested in writing a story about the band for my blog. I had a lot of competition from more established media channels in getting this band’s attention. New York media from all channels – television, radio, magazines – had been rushing up to the frontman, Daniel, hoping to get a story with the band. A few emails later with the band’s manager and the members of Imagine Dragons, I had a telephone interview scheduled with the bass player, Ben McKee. I consider myself lucky for the chance to talk to Ben. My interview with him is still one of the most popular articles on Music Historian.

Returning to the present, I realized that up until now, I had only seen Pianos at night, and I could not get a clear picture of the space like I did that day; it is beautiful. Most importantly, since Baby Robot Media arranged the performances, I felt so happy that I met the people whom I had been in contact with over the last few years. I saw the faces of this boutique music publicity firm and put them to names. I got to know the human beings behind the emails, press releases, and LinkedIn profiles.

I certainly hope to meet this crew again in person. I hope to continue the professional relationship and learn more about independent artists who might be writing gems that for the moment remain unnoticed by the mainstream, or maybe try their hand at showcasing their talent to various communities, or perhaps have a story to tell about their journey with music. Although I may not be interviewing as much, I will try to prioritize quality research and write about a few artists.

Making it easier to love than hate: Nathan Bell talks about his new folk album LOVE>FEAR

Nathan Bell Press Photo* As a teenager, Nathan Bell got his first performance experience at a rally against the Vietnam War. The singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chattanooga, Tennessee admits that this is not the most profitable way to navigate the music industry. Further, he did not initially set out to be a songwriter. “I wanted to be a journalist, a Steinbeck or Hemingway,” said Nathan Bell about his inspirations. “But I can’t write prose the way I can write songs.”

I wondered what made Nathan interested in journalism. He said,”… if you are doing something as a journalist, you cannot present things the way you want them to be, and you cannot point fingers. Dylan even said that. And so, I try to keep the fingers out of it. There is some objection that goes into my songs, but these are not rallying cries in the tradition of protest music. These are stories of people.”

The songs which Nathan talks about are on his forthcoming album LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland). When I first learned about Nathan, he was described to me as a veteran singer-songwriter. For almost 15 years, he did not get involved in music. “I stopped playing altogether in the core of my adult life while my children were young… it was actually when my first born was 15 that I got back… in 2007. I came back then, but I had been out since 1994.”

Since his return to music, which was a decade ago, Nathan had been consistently writing and composing. His previous records include I Don’t Do This For Love (working and hanging on in America) Black Crow Blue, and Blood Like a River (Bell, 2017). Nathan has a keen eye for detail and an unapologetic penchant for the populist humanism of his literary heroes, John Steinbeck, Jack London and Studs Terkel. Perhaps it is no surprise that in his songs on LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland) Nathan portrays the characters with such great detail and depth, that you could not help but find sympathy for them if you were to meet them in real life (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). A beautifully played acoustic guitar, harmonica and a voice that seems to come from a narrator who does not sing to gain notice for his virtuosity, but rather his attentiveness for people and their struggles, builds each song. He tells the story about real people, the way of traditional American folk music. To learn more about Nathan’s new album, I invited him to be the subject of my full-length feature interview on Music Historian for the month of June.

When I asked Nathan about his interest in writing stories about other individuals, he said, “I have been lucky enough to never write in an artist’s place where I was looking out. I have always had people around me. I am careful never to use an actual person, and there is a reason for that; when you narrow it down to one single person, and this does not reflect negatively on Dylan doing a song about Medgar Evers, sometimes you lose the story. The story of miners,” Nathan gives an example of a song he had written about miners from an earlier record, “is not the story of one guy. It is a story of American miners, of outright criminality on the parts of the [entities] that used them. It is interesting that miners get a job they respect doing, and there is a level of collegiality there that is almost like the Marines. That comes from a real story, but I fictionalize just enough so that no one can look at that and say that was done on purpose. But I have known every character in that song in one way or another.”

Raised in Iowa City, Iowa, by his father and poet, Marvin Bell; Nathan grew up around writers. “My story is of the people I know. I think in most of them… you would not have any trouble finding me. And there are, in previous albums, [songs] that are biographical and autobiographical. But when it comes to the human conditions and talking about the world we live in, my opinion is just my opinion. The more I could talk about the actual lives of people, the more I could effectively communicate what is out there, what is happening. I look at, and there has been an evident distaste for this book in the past few years which I feel is illegitimate, Steinbeck’s, The Travels of Charlie. I realized when you look at the story, and what he does, which is put himself smack dab in the middle of human beings, and reacts to them and they respond to him. That’s how I think you get the stories out there that are legitimate.”

“I know many people on both sides of the [political] aisle. I feel very fortunate to have worked enough jobs that I met my share of very proud people, and my share of great people whose politics I still don’t know anything about, and this makes it easy. I have probably taken more credit for them [the stories] than I probably should. I think the stories tell themselves.”

Nathan’s songs that appear on the forthcoming album, he had for a long time. While his tracks present a viewpoint that is journalistic, the artist also admits “songwriting is a vast field that includes everything from Bird is the Word to Townes Van Zandt. That makes it a little more complicated to speak openly as a songwriter. We tend to be a group who downplay whether our work is important or not. Again, there are so many songs we respect. They [the songs] are there to make people happy… but this is a serious record. It goes back to a time when I wanted to be a reporter, or walk in the footsteps of Steinbeck.”

One of the songs which stood out to me is about a struggle many young women go through, titled “So Damn Pretty.” Written in a major key, the lyrics in one of the verses in this track include:

She was Summa Cum Laude
as she walked across the stage
into 40 years of fighting for a fair and honest wage

Then the chorus follows:

You’re eyes are pretty
your hair is pretty
everything about you is just so pretty
you should be so happy to be so damn pretty.

A modulation to a minor key follows – to the sixth chord I believe:

They talk about her
like she was not even there
they talk about her like she wasn’t anywhere
then she says, I won some, lost some, like everybody does
I didn’t care about what people thought I should be
I was happy with who I was
I’ve tried, to be honest, and kind and hoped to be brave and strong, to be everything…
they could never see
there was more to me
than just so damn pretty. 

I asked Nathan about this song, and he explains, “I was raised by a man who… in all the ways, that you would say, he was truly a feminist-allied man. But that did not stop me from being a chauvinist as a kid because that was the society I lived in. I think I was talking to my daughter when she was 14 or 15 years old. That’s when I realized that it was so deeply ingrained in me that no matter what I say about rights, civil rights, economic rights, I still have work to do. I had thought about these things actively and out loud to try and help change things, but I was still part of the problem. It took me years to realize that one of my initial responses to my daughter who was a dancer most of her life, until she went to college and decided to pursue social justice, [was that]… Everything is pretty; everything is visual. My daughter is beautiful, and I would focus on that and see that. This song is my apology.”

“The fact that we are talking about salary equivalences… the longer I stay with it, I realize there is more work to do with myself before I have any right to hold anybody else accountable. That is something I would need to change before any real change could take place. That is kind of me throwing myself on my sword.”

The name of the new album LOVE>FEAR stems from Nathan’s big goal in life – to make it so much better to love people, that after a while, hating people seems like a lot of work. On the subject of the music, many of the tracks were recorded live-in-the-studio in front of a small audience, with no doubling and almost no overdubs. The second part of the name, traitorland comes from a concept which has been around a while, rewritten and reworked quite a bit. Nathan elaborates on this idea. LOVE>FEAR Album Cover*

“It was written in 2009, and then several others, with different incarnations… traitorland came up because there are some lessons which I would like to take away about loving people, about fighting back [in the face of tragedy], and about understanding people… it is a real miracle to learn to love your enemy.

“Love is greater than fear because everything I am comes from hard work and because I have love. I feel when you have enough love, it is manageable and workable. If you don’t have love, you are going to be miserable. [Then] It is just a question of who gets to take advantage of who.”

Nathan’s down-to-earth philosophies and once-sought-after desire to follow in the footsteps of an author who gained popularity for creating fictional stories of common people – especially during the great depression – definitely makes a sound basis for a folk record. However, plenty has changed for the musical landscape, in particular for the folk genre.

“The folk genre suffers from one major problem – people don’t hire performers anymore. I grew up… I played acoustic sets regularly… and that’s how it worked. That’s how I got on stage.

“In those days, you were also expecting people to get albums, not one song. The internet is great to help you find what you never [thought you] could find. If you are a kid and go to a concert, and you don’t know the first thing about folk music, you could go on the internet and find 9,000 ways to hear it. That’s fantastic! I used to go to the university library, and on their record player, play their collection of folk records until I had heard them all. That was a lot of work. Now, it is ‘just download a playlist of everything you need to know about the history of the music and hear it within an hour.’ That’s cool.

“However, for the performance… I make more money per show than I do for putting out an album in the United States… I [also] don’t think there is a lot of community out there… I see the album form as having been abandoned. I want to be sure that does not happen with me.

“The positive is the accidents. Somebody in North Dakota can listen to someone in Florida and, also, you can make a record at home now with $10 of software. That’s pretty amazing.

“There is some good. But I think the business itself has suffered terribly.”

I agree with the artist about this point of view. However, based on my experiences interviewing past performers, there is a growing Americana community both inside the United States and outside. The thought of whether the folk community is merging with the Americana might open up discussions or debates.

As a member of the folk community, Nathan had the opportunity to share bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. Norman and Emmylou would work with Bob Dylan at one point in their career (Wikipedia, 2017). Taj worked with Muddy Waters, along with other musicians including Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Lightnin’ Hopkins (Wikipedia, 2017). Most of this success happened in the ‘80’s for Nathan. During this time, he performed as part of an acoustic duo.

“Those were still the days a record contract was necessary to do more than [being] a local act. We signed with a serious acoustic label at the time. We got the opportunity to put out two records, one of them was reviewed quite positively, which was unusual at the time for an acoustic duo. We played many shows where we were the opening act, and also, played with Taj Mahal. There were times when I was sharing the stage with people… we are talking about mid-to-late eighties, where there was still a record business.”

Meanwhile, he and Emmylou and worked with the same producer. Nathan adds, “In Nashville, there is a lot of that kind of stuff. I did, work within performance settings where Emmylou was on the bill, and we were at a festival, with all of these singer-songwriters. It helps to understand that it was a less isolated musical world. You had everybody; it was a little more communal.”

After the late ‘80’s would come the ‘90’s and in 1994, Nathan would take a long break from music. In regards to his newest record, LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), Nathan says “I would like to see it get attention in the singer-songwriters’ type of circle.”

In terms of what Nathan hopes listeners would take away from his record, in addition to understanding his goal of making it easier to love rather than hate, he would like “for the topics in the song to become part of a conversation. If you hear these stories, and you say to yourself, I did not know that person, or I did not realize I did not know that person, then I would wish that person well, no matter what their position is in the world.”

Nathan Bell Press Pic* Listen to Nathan’s record, and you will hear the story of a broken widower in the midst of a crisis of faith; a first-time mobile-home owner staring down a foreclosure; a beautiful woman struggling to be appreciated for her talent, intelligence and hard work; an obese veterinarian in love with a skinny, secretly transgender patent-attorney rodeo clown; the impoverished sick committing armed robbery to pay for healthcare; an active-duty soldier turned conscientious objector who opts for the stockade over the battlefield; and a middle-aged man caught in the for-profit prison system, his best years slipping through his fingers. There is no black and white, no oversimplification, and no ‘us versus them left/right’ posturing, just inclusive and somehow vibrant shades of gray (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). Further, I believe the best way to learn how to love someone, is to find a way you could relate to them. In LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), you might be able to find a character whom you could relate to, and hopefully, this realization could help become part of a conversation that matters.

LOVE>FEAR (48 Hours in Traitorland) will release on June 30th on Stone Barn Records.

Works Cited

Bell, N. (n.d.). Store. Retrieved from https://www.nathanbellmusic.com/store

Emmylou Harris. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmylou_Harris

Norman Blake. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Blake_(American_musician)

Taj Mahal. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal_(musician)

*All photos were published with permission