A Love Shaken by War: Becky Warren returns to music with a solo record that tells a fictional story inspired by real-life events

Becky Warren Press Photo

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter returns to the music scene with a 12-track concept record called War Surplus. Although she had been playing music for 25 years, War Surplus – an independent record which has just released – is Becky’s first solo album. To promote her album, Becky is getting ready to hit the road, starting in Baltimore and then traveling to New England, as an opener for the Indigo Girls a second time. During my telephone chat with Becky, the artist recalls the moment in 2004 when she learned that Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls wanted to release an album Becky recorded with her band from college.

“I had a band called The Great Unknowns, and we recorded an album in the basement of this college dorm. Then, I left Boston, and we [agreed to] only give copies of [the record] to our families. But, a friend of ours gave it to Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls, who called us and said she wanted to put it out on her label. That was exciting. So, big surprise. We were all living in different places at that point, but she put the record out. We got to open for them and got some good press.  But then,” continued Becky, fast-forwarding to eight years in the future, “I did not do music several years – which we will probably also talk about. Then, I did another album with the Great Unknowns in 2012. Then, this record which I had done, is my first solo album.”

Becky also plans to tour separately to promote War Surplus, beginning in Atlanta and continuing west to New Orleans, Dallas, and Austin. While she feels excited to return to performance, Becky re-enters the real world of music with a greater objective, raising awareness about veterans’ issues. How does Becky, plan to accomplish this? By joining the storytelling style of country with Americana in front of a backdrop – a fictional story inspired by the real events within Becky’s life; her marriage to a veteran who served in the war in Iraq and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

War Surplus tells the story of two Americans, June, and Scott, who fall in love and have their relationship rattled by this war across 12 heart-wrenching songs that will quickly hook the listener to Becky’s sound. What I am most curious to learn is what steps the artist took to transform a fictional story into a record, how the music reflected events and character development, and how this story would end. More importantly, I wanted to understand how War Surplus could help make listeners more aware of the issues that veterans are facing in the United States. It is my pleasure to turn my interview with Becky Warren into an article and share it with you right here on Music Historian.

The creation of War Surplus started in 2012 when Becky had decided to attend the Johnny Mercer Foundation writing program. Here, she met several artists involved in musical theater, and shortly after she released a second album with The Great Unknowns titled Homefront. By this time, Becky was coming out of her five-year stint away from songwriting.

“For all five years that I was married, I was not writing. I just really wanted to get another The Great Unknowns record out. Many of the songs on that album were my personal view on what that time had been like for me: about how much I missed playing music; and what it was like for me to be married to someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is also another song on there; it is a little fictional, but it comes from the perspective of a soldier coming home and then having his marriage fall apart.

“That was me looking at my personal view of what had happened. Now that I have more distance I just really became interested in how others had gone through the same thing. That’s what had brought me to writing War Surplus. I had never considered doing a concept album, or a series of songs around one story before that [the Johnny Mercer] program.

“Before I started writing this album, I was only writing about myself, and I had not thought about writing from another character’s point of view. That was eye-opening, and it turns out I love that. I can’t believe I had spent so much of my life writing only from the view of women.  Now, I write from the view of men a lot. I feel glad that I have allowed myself to open that door… it’s a new and fun challenge for me to write from somebody else’s point of view, someone different from me.

“One thing I learned, when people write a musical, they usually write twice as many songs as they need and toss half of them. That was on my mind when I worked on this album… I should just write and write, and not worry about which songs were going to be “The songs” until I was sure I had enough to cover the whole story well. They are [also] very focused on the characters in the songs, their wants, what changes in the songs, and why the character sings the song on stage. All of these [things] I picked up from the Johnny Mercer program.

“Before that program, I had written the next to last song “She’s Always There,” and during the program, I wrote the last song, “Anything That Lasts.” I realized both songs were the same guy [Scott]. Being around musical theater people gave me the idea to keep writing about him and his story. It was fascinating to hear how they thought about the songs.”

“She’s Always There” and “Anything That Lasts” are both included as the final tracks on War Surplus. The track that opens the entire album is a song from June’s perception, “Call Me Sometime.” As a first song, “Call Me Sometimes” works well as an opener for War Surplus. The driving harmonic rhythm in the guitar and the beat of drums, and length of the measures in each bar resonate very closely with the genre of Americana. The modulation from a minor key to a major and then resolving back to the tonic in the minor key also helped create a very complete and concise song. Then, there are the lyrics in the chorus that are undeniably aggressive and alluring, But if you wanna drown your heart in gasoline and make-believe/ if you think a good lost cause is exactly what you need/ if you got a taste for poison with your wine, well yeah/ I guess you can call me sometime.”

I wondered why Becky put this song at the top of her track list and what was happening to June and Scott in the story at this time. The songwriter explains, “I knew I needed to write a song where she was introduced and then falls in love with Scott, but I had a hard time with her. I had never written love songs before this album. It’s hard for me to write something that is 100 percent “I love you,” and 0 percent anything else… even when I am in love, there is a part of me that thinks “something is about to go wrong” or “somehow this is not going to last.”

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Although Becky modestly laughed while she talked about the lyrics within “Call me Sometime,” I could tell that she seriously thought about June’s character. She continues, “It was when I realized that if I could write her like that, it will make things so much easier for me. Therefore, I pictured her as a person who was living in San Antonio, a town with a lot of military personnel, and military tradition. June is deeply skeptical of love and even more skeptical of dating men within the army. She forms opinions about how ‘good’ they would be as boyfriends, and she does not believe that someone she meets at a bar will be worth her time.

“I wanted to start with that, to give you a picture of that person. Then, when she and Scott fall in love, there must be something pretty special between them; the strong feeling June had – that love would not happen to someone like her – had been overcome. That’s why the album starts [with that song].”

So the story begins. The second track on the album “San Antonio” helps prepare the setting. According to Becky, she wanted this song to have a sense of place, and San Antonio has a connection to the military, it is also a city where one can easily live separate of that community. Therefore, she purposefully decided that June would not live on base; instead, while Scott gets deployed, June would continue living the life she had known.

The lyrics within this slower-paced serve as a narrative by someone who describes this well-known Texas city with a significant amount of familiarity, and the long hard trucker barrels down in his state town, miles left to cross/ but the late night DJ on KMBT always knows what to play for the lost/ The great state of Texas sings something secret for each of its souls tonight/ And you’re the song that’s been stuck in my head my whole life. Becky talks a little more about this song.

“For me, I wanted [to create] a story that people could see themselves in some way… I wanted to wrap up that place, and what June is feeling about suddenly meeting this person; it feels like the song that has been stuck in her head her entire life, after thinking for so long that she would never find that.”

Naturally, one can guess that “San Antonio” is another song that comes from June’s perspective. So far, I learned that the two opening songs on War Surplus express June’s point of view, while the concluding two tracks reveal Scott’s perspective and his story of serving in the war in Iraq. However; some of the songs in the first half of the album also represent Scott’s point of view. Listeners start to hear more of Scott and his experience as a soldier in “Stay Calm Get Low.”

When it came to writing from Scott’s perspective, Becky looked to many external resources, including literature. The artist at the time read many books and poems that took place in Iraq. One book that stood out to Becky was My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell.

“He started writing about his deployment; he went over [to Iraq] with the first wave in 2003. Colby was one of the first milbloggers[1] in the war, kind of before people were calling it milblogging[2],” said Becky as he gently laughed. “They turned his blog into a book… and that one just really spoke to me because it is so immediate, he is writing it as it [the war] happens.”

Becky felt that the narrative of Buzzell’s book and the character of Scott shared a lot of commonalities, including Buzzell’s “sense of humor and slightly countercultural slant on things.” The singer-songwriter also says that everything that happens in “Stay Calm, Get Low” also happens in Colby’s book. After writing the song, Becky let Colby hear it; an experience that, for the artist, was one of the most exciting parts of writing this album.

While the artist expresses feelings of creative gratification writing through the perspective of a character very different from her and using real-life examples from accounts written by ex-soldiers who served in Iraq; Becky makes sure that the listener receives a healthy dosage of disillusionment about the war in “Stay Calm, Get Low.” In the verse, half-way through the song, Becky sings I am an m240 machine gun, a black and white Hollywood rerun, a ten second mention on the evening news and then follows up with the following lyrics in the chorus stay calm, get low/ this ain’t no picture show/ stay calm, get low/ just tell yourself you know/ we’re all gonna make it home.

Becky explains, “I have never been in combat… everything you know about it comes from movies, books, and television. I believe the reality is that half of the time, it gets very boring, and then it is punctuated by moments of terror and unimaginable horror. That [combat] is a very bizarre circumstance, but you have to adjust to it very quickly.

“I think that’s what is happening in that song (“Stay Calm, Get Low”) – you get to this place, and you [start to] have a very different mindset. That is what I think is happening to [Scott]. I wanted that song to be the anthem that people could sing along with, sort of like “Born in the U.S.A.”

The chorus in “Stay Calm, Get Low,” is very easy to remember and sing along to, especially as there is a distinct downbeat that listeners hear in the pause between “stay calm” and “get low.” However, in my opinion, comparing “Stay Calm, Get Low” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” proves to be more challenging than I initially thought. Aside from the fact that Springsteen’s famous song relates to a war different from the one that Becky sings about; “Born in the U.S.A.” seems to be mislabeled continuously as a patriotic song.

According to what Becky writes about “Born in the U.S.A.” on her website, “while it is a serious song about Vietnam vets, people still have a great time shouting along to it at stadiums” (www.beckywarren.com Retrieved October 2016). Becky elaborates on her opinion of a song we both happen to appreciate.

“The interesting thing about “Born in the U.S.A.” is that for many people, it does sound patriotic because of the chorus. When a patriotic song is about war, it is not about the person; it is more about that person as a symbol for why we are proud to be American. It’s not usually about that individual’s life, their thoughts or feelings, or the details.

“But [Born in the U.S.A.] … tells a very human story about a veteran and his brother. You can’t take a story about one person, as a human, and then turn it into a symbol for a country; those are complicated. It is not something you can build a patriotic theme around. So, I think it is a very different class of song.”

Returning to Becky’s songs on War Surplus and the story of Scott and June, another song in which Scott seems to experience disillusionment about the war is appropriately titled “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” This song is the catchiest and also has the most straightforward storytelling as the singer delivers a narrative describing what led young men to sign up and serve in the army in the first place – a promise for a better future or a more rewarding career. The song that follows this is “I Miss You,” which, told from June’s perspective. The phrase, God I miss you like you wouldn’t believe, solidly concludes a few verses throughout that song, and beautifully ties up a narrative from the perspective of a woman whose husband or loved one has been absent from her life for a prolonged period.

After listening to the first half of War Surplus, I started to wonder which songs were from Scott’s point of view, and which ones were from June’s point of view. Becky clearly identified which of the songs were told through Scott’s or June’s perspective. However, one component that I found missing from the album was a song that could have easily expressed both Scott’s and June’s experience of how the war in Iraq affected their relationship on the same caliber. There seems to be a lack of unity between Scott and June, and perhaps this is primarily caused by the distance that the war places on these two individuals. I asked Becky whether she saw these two characters coming together on a song in the future.

“I see June leaving in the song “Grenade,”” expressed Becky. “I picture her gone during “She’s Always There” and “Anything That Lasts.” I think [when] Scott ends the album with “Anything That Lasts,” [he’s] in a very dark place. I hope he ends up okay and that they end up together again. But I am not sure. I believe I wanted to finish it in a place where they were both in a precarious situation.”

I then followed this up with another question – did Becky feel that this precariousness is part of the unpredictability of the war which affected both Scott and June? She replies, “I wrote it,” “Anything That Lasts,” “as Scott contemplating suicide, which happens way too frequently for vets. And, I don’t know whether he will… that is a great “if” to leave the album on, that it was not resolved.”

As I come to understand how June and Scott’s story ends, I also inquire Becky about another objective she has with War Surplus, to spread awareness about veterans’ issues. In an interview that Becky did with the magazine, Elmore a few months ago, she said “I want to do everything I can to make them feel like they’re not invisible. And maybe at the same time, the record will lead some people to learn more about veterans’ issues, and take some positive action (www.elmoremagazine.com Aug 2016).”

While I have heard about the problems veterans experience in the United States, I wanted to hear from Becky what she felt people misunderstand the most about veterans returning from Iraq. She kindly explains:

“We have such a divide right now between veterans and their families, and everyone else. The people who fought the most recent war, were a very small portion of the population; I think it is one-tenth of one percent. Therefore, many of us don’t know anyone who served at all, and we don’t know anybody who has been in combat. That was the case for me too before I met the person who became my husband.

“I don’t think we are doing anything wrong; I just believe that it is strictly in the numbers. Many of us do not know that life at all. I think we form pictures of who veterans are… and maybe tend to think of them as different from ourselves. I think that’s part of the reason why there is perhaps not more pressure on Congress to improve things for the better because many of us think of veterans as somebody else.

“That’s why it was important for me to make Scott and June sound like people who you might know and like. Hopefully, you can hear their story and think ‘okay, I do have some things in common with these individuals, they’re not that distant from me.’ I believe that veterans come in all different personalities just like the rest of us. But, especially because of the kinds of patriotic songs we mentioned, we think of them as one particular caricature or couple, and I think that’s not incredibly helpful in getting people interested in veterans’ issues.”

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

As I incorporated Becky’s interview into a full-length article, I had a memory of a term paper for an undergrad class I wrote many years ago in my pursuit of a degree in Music History. In my report, I had written about how while a lot of musicians wrote songs focused on particular wars, very few artists wrote songs that directly protested the Iraq war. I now wished that I interviewed a musician like Becky Warren at the time. She helps present a new view of how music can contribute to telling a story about the realities of war and its affects soldiers both in combat and at home, away from the battle. Although the story Becky tells in War Surplus is fictional, real life inspires it. Most importantly, Becky Warren brings War Surplus to massive audiences at a time when people are starting to talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the additional effects that the most recent war has left on American veterans.

1-2 Milblogging refers to Military Blogging (Becky Warren, personal communication, October 11, 2016)

Works Cited

EXCLUSIVE: Americana Artist Becky Warren Makes Heartache Sound Beautiful on Her Ballad, “I Miss You.” (2016, August 5). Retrieved from http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2016/08/music-news/solo-artist-becky-warren-premieres-a-gorgeous-and-heart-aching-ballad-i-miss-you

Warren, B. (Retrieved, 2016, October 1). About. Retrieved from http://www.beckywarren.com/about/

Top 5 of 2015

Happy 2016! I should have published this post before December 31st. Please excuse my tardiness. Let’s go into the top five Music Historian blog posts in 2015!

No. 5 – The Naked and Famous

The Naked and Famous’ Next Chapter: An Interview with the band’s keyboardist Aaron Short

The Naked and Famous Press Photo I interviewed Aaron in 2014, just weeks before the New Zealand-native indietronica group would perform at The Governor’s Ball Music Festival. I had contacted about ten talent management organizations for interviews with some of the artists attending the festival. CRS Management, who at the time managed The Naked and Famous, was the only talent group that expressed any interest. The effort CRS put in to coordinate an interview between Aaron and I was worth the while.

 

No. 4 – A guest blog post about Holly Henry

The Flip Side of Holly Henry’s Music

The Orchard Cover Art The guest blogger and author of this post, Gary Reese, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” on Idolforums and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” on The Voice Forums have received several page views. These pages have given Holly Henry the “third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who as competed on “The Voice.”” I am happy to say that in 2015, Gary’s guest blog was the fourth most viewed article on Music Historian.

 

 

 

No. 3 – An artist who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes

Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist. My interview with George Mihalopoulos, also known by his stage name, Gypsy George, had opened doors to several themes: entrepreneurship; creativity in today’s music business; and being bicultural in America. I initially learned about this artist while researching the music roster for The Northside Festival. His name first grabbed my attention. When I asked the American-Greek artist how he decided to choose his stage name, and call his band – The Open Road Love Affair – I knew I was an for an interesting story. According to the numbers generated by the readership, I might have been on to something.

No. 2 – Lessons from a prolific slide-guitarist: Better to be a trendsetter than a ‘trend-follower’

Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar Legacy: Everything from Robert Johnson to The Blues Brothers, to Teaching Students and Major Artists

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Throughout his career as a professional slide-guitar player, Arlen performed on television, taught famous performers, and even acted as a director for a popular film. However; he never strayed away from his life as an artist and a teacher. Arlen says that showing an artist’s passion is what he is all about. Arlen’s stories of where he has been, his experiences and the lessons he has learned attracted many readers in 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 – The story of how a Las Vegas band started their journey, even after they have made it “big,” remains a favorite

Opening Doors: Imagine Dragons’ Bassist, Ben McKee, talks about the band’s exciting journey

Imagine Dragon's Press Photo When I interviewed Ben McKee in 2012 for a story on Music Historian, I never imagined this story would attract so many readers, nor would I believe that someone would cite my article in their work! I continue to feel so grateful for this opportunity. Also, I feel humbled that so many readers continue to enjoy this post.

Although it is a few days late, I wish you, my loyal readers, a very Happy New Year! Thank you for your readership.

Translating the Grind into Song: Alternative Country Siren Ruby Boots Talks How Hard Work, and Extensive Travel led to Opportunity

Ruby Boots Promotional Photo On one of her tracks on her debut album, the alternative country singer-songwriter from Australia, Ruby Boots, sings Sliding down Hell’s Backbone/ dark as night, heart unknown/ I’m just looking to lighten my load/ I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared… welcome to the middle of nowhere. The name of the song is “Middle of Nowhere,” and the name of the record on which it is featured is called Solitude. In preparation for my interview with Ruby – whose real name is Bex Chilcott, and whom I had the pleasure of learning about through Baby Robot Media – I researched her back story. Visit her web page and you will read that she left home in Perth when she was 16 to work on a pearling trawler in Broome, a town on the northern coast of Western Australia.

“I left home when I was 16, but by the time I managed to get out of Perth, I was about 19 years old. I got up there by hitching up some trucks. I went to where all the truckies loaded on and off and waited for a trucker who would take me. I found two; they would swap and take 5-hour shifts. We managed to do [the trip] in 36 hours, with a quick stopover in Newman. There was a carriage where they slept. If you are just one driver, I guess it could take a few days,” said Ruby.

Throughout my interview with Ruby, I was reminded of my semester abroad in Brisbane, Australia (Queensland) in 2008. When I first arrived in the country, I underestimated its size: it is as large as the U.S. Although I never visited Perth during my travels, I did notice how that city seemed to be the only one I had heard of in Western Australia. I then wondered whether “The Middle of Nowhere,” was about Ruby’s road trip from Perth to Broome, or about her days working on a ship and being removed from civilization. I soon learned this song has several interchangeable stories about Ruby’s journey into music and her first album that she is promoting on a tour across the U.S. and Australia. Welcome to my conversation with Ruby Boots on Music Historian.

As we start our interview at Sugar Café, adjacent to Rockwood Music Hall – where Ruby would later perform – the artist shared her story behind the song “Middle of Nowhere.”

“That [song] was about when I went to southern Utah to meet Vikki Thorn, who is part of The Waifs. I flew from Perth to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Sydney, from Sydney to L.A., from L.A. to Salt Lake City. I was then picked up and drove five hours down to Southern Utah. I fell asleep for the last hour of the car ride and woke up in her driveway. She [first] said to me, “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere.” And I said, “That’s going to be the name of our first song.” Ruby Boots Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography*

“I originally met her in Perth, and we played a show together. When I worked on the boats, I heard one of [The Waifs’] songs called “The Waitress” from a distance. That [song] drew me to think that I might want to play guitar and sing. That’s how important [she was to me.] All the songs I played at the beginning were all of their songs. You can imagine how important she is to me. She was my role model and wound up meeting her in Salt Lake City.

“It was a confronting situation,” she concluded. From the moment Vikki told Ruby “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere,” the Aussie songstress admitted, “I thought, “just write that,” hold onto anything that would save the situation from going bad. We worked on the song for two days. The first verse is really about having faith in our life path and what you want out of life; having enough guts to follow that, to the point where you would make that journey after ten years of holding it in your psyche, and a little bit of self-sabotage and self-sacrificing (in the second verse). [It’s a] long story, but it had to be explained.”

Another song that crawled into my ears is “Wrap Me in a Fever.” The lyrics, I understand are, I thought that loneliness came/ all wrapped up in plastic, cured with cocaine/ I’ll think of you all the same/ if I go without you, at least I’ll have you to blame, then the chorus enters, Come pick me up, honey wrap me in a fever/ I need your love tonight, I’m nothing without you… I recited these lyrics to Ruby, and I almost got them correct. Luckily, Ruby understood the sentiment behind the opening to my next question for her. I wondered whether she found it difficult to put speak very honestly about her feelings. She paused to think about the question for a few seconds. “No,” she responded.

“For two reasons: 1) That is how I like to live my life, I am an honest person; and 2) I think at the end of the day, if you want people to relate to what you say, then it must be true to who you are as a person. If [I] can be honest and lyrical about something, then that’s the key for me as a writer.”

“Wrap me in a Fever” is a more upbeat songs on Solitude. The overall sound and style for this record has an Americana feel and traces the traditional roots of country – a storytelling vehicle about the life of the folk. However; Ruby decided to name her debut after another song, “Solitude.” I asked her why.

Ruby Boots Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography* “Going back to when I was first starting writing [music], which was out at sea, I felt there was a lot of that essence… I brought that sentiment from being out there into my songwriting. This is my first full-length album; I wanted to pay homage to where it started for me. It seemed like a good fit, and I think it is a great title,” she explained.

Ruby also told me about her days on a pearling trawler. She would be out at sea with a crew for two to three weeks at a time. In her words, “work was tough.”

“I would lift three to four hundred kilos a day,” Ruby began. “I remembered when I first started; I had carpal tunnel in my hands because you would either hold on to a chisel or a chain. I would wake up with my hands cramping like that,” she showed me how tensely her hands would curl. “I couldn’t even hold a butter knife.”

I immediately pondered how Ruby was able to find solitude, nevertheless, time to write songs, when she worked a grueling and physically taxing job. Ruby assured me that this work was what she needed to help her learn guitar and songwriting.

“On a day-to-day basis, I got to throw myself into work, and a friend of mine started coming and playing out at sea. I started singing on the deck with him late at night because there was nothing to do. Eventually, I learned a couple of chords, and I picked up the guitar. My day-to-day life out there started changing because I was playing guitar and learning.

“Another thing that showed me is I like to work hard. I think, I am trying to learn how to work less; to slow down a little bit. I am lucky enough that my heart led me out of the city. Working on boats was great; it removed a lot of the chaos for me. I am looking back at the time I first started playing, and I think playing out there [at sea], I was processing all of that previous chaos.”

Ruby’s carpel tunnel syndrome dissipated after three months, and she was out there for three years. It was not until her last year on the pearling trawler; she picked up the guitar. During her time away from the work at sea, she would write songs and perform at local venues in Broome. Ruby contemplated being a professional songwriter for several years. She credits The Waifs for being her greatest inspiration during this time. It was for this reason, Ruby traveled about 9,000 miles, or 14,500 kilometers, to meet Vikki in the U.S. to write songs with her. Interestingly, the artist did not take too long to make her final decision. Three years prior to the night she made her decision, Ruby had played on a set with The Waifs only once.

“I was talking to their [The Waif’s] manager and asked whether he knew of anybody in the U.S. who I could write with, and [Vikki] was living here,” recalled Ruby. “We teetered up, and I had met for 30 seconds, and we played three years before that. She said [to her manager], “Yeah, I liked her when she played. Send her out.” And so, he did.

Ruby Boots Promotional Photo, Tony Proudfoot Photography* “I was scared. She meant a lot to me, and to my creative career. I would only be with her for seven days to write songs. She had never written a song with anybody else. I had only written a song with one other person. The beautiful thing about it was, it was close to 10 years prior that I had been thinking about being a songwriter.”

Vikki co-wrote “Middle of Nowhere” with Ruby Boots, and also appeared as a guest vocalist on the track. Additional collaborations on Solitude include Tony Buchen (Tim Finn, The Preatures, Mama Kin), who recorded and helped produce “Middle of Nowhere.” Anna Laverty (Jae Laffer, Paul Dempsey, New Gods) produced “Wrap me in a Fever.” I asked Ruby to expand more on her experiences with her collaborators.

“Tony and Anna were two of my producers, and they are both very different. It was very cool to work with a woman behind the desk. There is a very different energy in the room, a softer energy, it was very enjoyable. Not to say that she did not take control, but it was a different energy. I liked working with her, and when we got into the studios, she helped me flush out my songs, the music, and words. Tony was very fast-paced, and what we got through was very quick, and I felt like we could go in any direction at any time. We went in the right direction for me.

“Vikki…we have become close friends, and we look forward to working more and getting together again to write some songs. I think one of the songs we wrote together ended up on their [The Waif’s] album, on their release. It has been a close collaboration, and it’s been beautiful to have a friendship come out of songwriting. It could be very rare to have those connections, on the road.

“Across the board, I felt it contributed to where I am now as an artist.”

Ruby Boots performing at Dashville Mercedes, 2015* Ruby came close to tears thinking about her journey, the chances she took, and where it had brought her. I felt relief for her that she recognized what she had been through and just how much the decisions she makes now affect her professional, creative and personal development. On the topic of her professional development, Ruby is not the only Australian musician I had heard of who aspired to travel to the U.S. to write songs, tour or create an album. I asked Ruby the difference between being a musician in the U.S., versus Australia.

“Here you can jump into a van and play 250 shows. In Australia, you can’t do more than 30 per year. That is a big difference. [In Australia] there is a lot more flying involved while there is a lot of driving here. My dream is to be on the road for that much of the year. In Australia, it is almost impossible to do that; you burn out your audiences if you visit every city every time, because there is also less of us. Here, there are so many places to play.

“I am not saying it is easy here, to get in and do it; I think you have to work hard. But I think once you have gotten to that point to be able to tour as much as the others, you are on the way. Eventually, I would like to move over here if I can.”

I know the U.S. would love to have Ruby over here, especially with the Americana scene. She has already performed with independent Americana acts, including Kim Logan. Years ago, when she came to Nashville for the first time, she also met the front man of The Blackfoot Gypsies, Matthew Paige. When I had told her that I listened to them, and even interviewed them, chills traveled up and down her arms. However, I know that getting to the U.S. from a foreign country presents plenty of challenges – the travel, the visa and working status, the cost of relocating, finding work – for some individuals they search for a company that would sponsor their visa – and many more. I wanted to know about the challenges, and the rewards that came with those challenges for the artist, Ruby.

“Where do I start?” she says. “I have been sleeping on couches for two and a half years. I’ve never put a cent in my pocket from my music. I work a couple of jobs so I can stay on the road and everything. That is not to say my music is not going well, but as it grows, it costs more to put a band on the road. I think the sacrifices you make – the times you get to spend with your friends and family – I face many challenges but at the end of the day, doing what you love, truly love, outweighs that all. If it doesn’t, then you probably would not last, to be honest.

Ruby Boots, Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot* “The reason I love the genre I am in is because there is true storytelling; the lyrics of the song can connect with people. There is this DIY mentality where people… it is all about the realness. It is not a pop-polished genre. You write songs because you have to; you’ve got something to say. I am glad there are challenges. It teaches me things about life. I am certainly not complaining about it.

“The most rewarding part about being an artist is that… the life we live, with all of its challenges, it’s so emotionally nourishing. We have this deep love of life. We have the power to communicate things that people often can’t say. We have the opportunity to connect with people, [and] music teaches us so much, so much about ourselves emotionally. If we can touch someone else with that, then that’s huge. That’s massive.”

Ruby has touched people with her music. During our conversation, a fan emailed her. She took out her iPhone to read that email, and shared with me what she read.

“They are talking about “The Middle of Nowhere”; about how great the song is, and – my eyes are tearing up. [They are saying] there is only one other song that does that to them, John Prime’s “Say I’m Stoned.”

“I get a lot of comments about the first verse of “Wrap Me in a Fever.” They love those lyrics. Other than that, you don’t hear from people who don’t like it. You mostly just hear, “Oh, I love it!”

On this subject, I believe the most honest lyrics touch people the best, especially in Americana. It is for this reason, and another – the composition of the music – I decide whether I am interested in an artist. Whether or not I use this criterion to interview each musician for my blog, the answer is ‘no.’ Now I am honest with my readers.

I then asked another fitting question, who are the musicians who have touched Ruby with their music? Although The Waifs are an obvious answer, she still admits that this question was difficult. She gave it her best shot.

“I love Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams… then it depends on whether you are talking about songwriters. Then I could list off those two, and about fifty. Then, if you are talking about vocal inspiration, I looked up to Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, and Bessie Smith. It depends on what musical aspect you are talking about.”

This question might have been tough, but Ruby answered it beautifully. As our conversation neared an end, as did the iced latte she bought at the beginning of our talk, I asked her one last question – where would she like Solitude to take her into the future?

“That’s a tough question because it is my first record. I hope that it can take me on a path to write six or seven, or, however, many more [albums]. I hope that it gets me in America. I would like to move over here, and like I said, work hard on the road over here. I hope it gets me into people’s ears and hearts.”

Ruby Boots, Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography* Ruby Boots’ sound will fit easily into the ears and hearts of Americana lovers, and even country fans who want to listen to lyrics that are honest, sometimes even blunt, but beautifully sung. This country siren from down under translates hitting the grind, both emotionally and physically into music. You will not hear too much rasp in Ruby’s voice, but rather a sweet and clean timbre. Her style of storytelling will make you wonder, what is going on in the country down under, and can we have some of that sound up here. Lucky for these listeners, Ruby is not slowing down anytime soon.

Until the end of March next year, Ruby and her band will tour Australia. In late September, she finished her tour in the United States.

“I was hoping to ride the wave for at least a year because you put all that work into an album, and then you hope that creates opportunities on the road. I want to be on the road and play for people. I can’t say too much in detail, but I will get back here in April and May, touring.”

 

 

*Photos published with permission

The Flip Sides of Holly Henry’s Music*

The Orchard Cover Art, by Rit Suchat American singer/songwriter Holly Henry has recently released “The Orchard,” her second extended play (EP) in two years. Produced at Minneapolis’s The Library Recording Studio, this Alternative music album was funded by fans through an IndieGoGo campaign. The six tracks in the EP lyrically play to Holly’s diversely international audience of multi-generational fans. They are her catchiest songs yet, which may leave listeners with hooks and melodies hard to get out of their head.

Since Holly’s September 24, 2013 appearance on “The Voice” (US), she has experienced rapidly increasing popularity as a YouTube cover artist. Her hollymaezers YouTube channel increased from 1,500 subscribers before appearing on “The Voice”[1]  to 20,000 soon after her elimination from the show[2]. By mid-September 2015, she had over ten times the subscribers and video views. Thus, her YouTube popularity, coupled with having reached Alternative #6 album rank with her debut EP, “The Immigrant,” likely have contributed to her success more than from appearing on “The Voice.”

To better understand Holly’s choice of songs in “The Orchard” EP, it helps to explore the lyrics to a quintet of original, related songs: “The Ghost,” “Katie,” “Hide and Seek,” “Grow,” and “Better.” I asked Holly, “How would you describe that lyrical saga?” She responded:

“These songs were all written for different reasons at different periods of my life. But, I feel like these songs could be connected through a similar theme of feeling out of place or thinking maybe you aren’t being the best version of yourself. There is an underlying idea of inadequacy in these songs.”

We are imperfect/  what a lovely thing to be hints in “Katie” of the wisdom Holly gained from challenging her agoraphobia in her Knockout Round elimination on “The Voice.” Originally released concurrently with Holly’s “The Voice” Blind Audition, “Katie was re-released 15 months later as a YouTube-subsidized music video. YouTube’s commitment to her career development hints to the geographic expansion and growth of Holly’s fan base. I asked Holly to explain that change:

“My YouTube channel is how I view most of my international activity so it’s really the only source I have. So, from what I’ve seen, The Voice helped me gain a following [which following “The Voice”] plateaued for a few months but after a while my YouTube began to grow again and now I have a following of 200,000. Nearly 50% of those following me are from Russia. Many different countries follow and support me and I’m very grateful for it.”

Holly’s new fans maybe learning about her persona through her commitment to autobiographical songs.  Holly held back the single “Hide and Seek from her December 2013 release of “The Immigrant” EP, for more elaborate studio production in California by Christopher Tyng’s Grow Music Project team (see Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice).  Its timing and deep, revealing lyrics like hiding in the corner/ I swear that I adore ‘ya/ but I’m stuck in the corner,” depicted a debilitating anxiety sink in which powering through emotional blocks to recovery is a temporarily unattainable goal. I asked Holly “What it was like to be called perfect when you are in a long anxiety sink?” Holly responded:

“When people compliment, encourage, and look up to me it makes me want to be a better and stronger person. It makes me want to be what they believe me to be. And it is always very therapeutic to write about what you’re currently struggling with. Releasing it into the world is even more therapeutic because it’s almost like you come to complete terms with your issues and are willing to share your experience with others.”

To read fan comments posted since the August 21st release of “The Orchard” EP, is to confirm continuing, divergent lyrical preferences among Holly’s fans. Divergent preferences create marketing challenges. Can Holly sell entire EPs, versus only single tracks playing to specific fan preferences?

On the one hand are fans who desire romantic and upbeat lyrics. They commonly project her in their social media comments as being “perfect” or “a queen.” I asked Holly if that “was symbolized by the crown in her cover art?” She responded that “the artist, Rit Suchat, had drawn me previously before I had even commissioned his work for the EP. The picture he drew of me had a crown similar to the one on the EP cover so I’d say it’s more the artist’s creativity than mine.”

Will fans learn enough about Holly Henry to embrace a multi-dimensional persona beyond their projections of perfection or frailty? Holly challenged fan perceptions of perfection with lyrics in “Hide and Seek” like: My baby thinks that I’m weak/ An antique/My life’s hide and seek. Her candor and honesty has helped foster an empathetic fan base over the last two years. Those fans commonly post how Holly has been “lifesaving” to them. Perhaps this is symbolized by the hummingbird totem in the cover art – an animal totem representing resiliency and adaptability while keeping a playful and optimistic outlook?

I asked Holly if “the process of writing and singing songs, then getting such feedback, is equally therapeutic?” “It sometimes feels like a group therapy session (in a good way),” Holly responded. “And, my favorite thing in the world is hearing that people feel calmed and comforted by my music.”

Fans are used to her timely, innovative, and seemingly triumphant rebounds from career setbacks. But, financial considerations may ultimately limit how many more Holly can weather as a professional musician. By soliciting production assistance in producing “The Orchard” EP, her IndieGoGo campaign successfully staved off that day.

Might too few of her fans, used to free covers, be willing to pay for her original songs? For an artist who typically gets 1,500 to 3,000 likes per Instagram post, only about 325 unique donors funded her IndieGoGo campaign. The campaign generated about $15,000 (after IndieGoGo’s fees), requiring Holly to modify her stated goal. “We had to stay in Minneapolis to record the EP,” Holly explained. “But it turned out to be a wonderful decision because we had an incredible [time] recording it at The Library Studio. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Holly, Recording at The Library In the intervening months between EP releases, Holly has capitalized on numerous opportunities beyond Grow Music Project. She won a 2014 Upper Midwest Emmy in musical composition/arrangement for a television promotion of the Sochi Olympics.  She was also featured in numerous soundtracks to indie short films. Ultimately, she reappeared on stage for three live performances between February and April 2015. They were her first since November 2013.

I asked Holly what the highlight was of her most recent live performances:

“I loved playing at The Varsity this year. It was a really energetic atmosphere which I’m not used to because most of my gigs are really low key acoustic vibe kind of performances. For this particular show, I had band with me. The crowd was really attentive and involved. It was a cool night in general.”

“The Orchard” EP represents what Holly can accomplish given sufficient money for production. Before her IndieGoGo campaign, I asked Holly, If you had $25,000 to spend on only your music, what would your priorities be for spending it?”[3] Holly prophetically responded:

I definitely wouldn’t change my style. But I think I would use the money to enhance my style. Make it more what I hear in my head than what I have the money to give you. So, it would probably sound like me, but a little bit more in depth

It is evident in “The Orchard” EP that her IndieGoGo campaign allowed her to enhance her style and to more fully record what she mentally composes and arranges.

To help listeners interpret the lyrics in the EP, I asked Holly to provide a two-word description to each song, as follows.  She described her 46 second prelude, “Arbor,” as “dreamy entrance.” It sets a sophisticated air to the EP and reassures us of the fine artistry which can arise from successful collaborations among musicians. In “Hotel” (“detached crush”), Holly sings her own harmonies, as in her “Sweet Dreams” cover, with nearly 1.8 million views on YouTube. She also repeats the hand-clapping style so successful in “The Immigrant” EP. “Hotel” reaffirms her desire to contribute to music soundtracks, TV and commercials. It is the top selling track and was promoted by Holly and some fans as a song for “American Horror Show.” “The Orchard” (“safe place”) is joyful, dream-like poetry, offering a reassuring message of transition from midnight fears to creative dreams. “Skin” (“soul bearing”) especially appeals to fans desirous of an original duet between her and Josh Dobson. Show me your skin, skin, skin/ show me what’s within lyrically reveals a delicate caress arising from Holly’s romantic persona.  Like her duet with Jamison Murphy in his song “Remember When (released April 2015), “Skin” is far more intimate as a duet than as a solo. “Foolish Heart” (“sarcastic infatuation”) is Holly’s most upbeat offering, representing a lyrical continuation of the youthfulness of “The Immigrant” EP. Its bridge shows off a delightful instrumental collaboration with Josh and producer Matt Patrick.

Holly describes “Better,” the closing track on “The Orchard” EP, as “euphoric recovery.” It builds like her popular, full-length acoustical rendition of “Creep.” With lyrics like I was overwhelmed/ but I’m getting better, it is a thematic sequel to her quintet of songs depicting inadequacy. The strength of an empathetic fan base shows by “Better” being her third best-selling track off the EP.

Holly ends this “The Orchard” EP with the lyrics, Did you miss me when I was lost? I asked Holly, “How do you wish fans would answer your concluding lyrics?” “I feel like those lyrics can mean something different to everyone,” she said. “For me, the meaning is, when I’m going through a rough time I hope you don’t forget who I really am underneath all the craziness.”

Will Holly’s hummingbird totem guide her through her goal of at least three more years of professionally creating music? Fans post their appreciation of Holly’s honesty and accessibility on social media, but fans I know also want to see her perform live. As a Minneapolis-based musician, Holly would benefit from broadcasted or recorded performances. She needs, at the least, to utilize StageIt performances over the Internet to reach distant fans, helping to retain them over the long haul. Additionally, she should schedule gigs while on her periodic trips to Florida, where her musician fiancé Josh Dobson regularly performs solo and in the band “East Harbor.” Josh, Holly, and Matt

“The Orchard” EP successfully plays to audiences attracted to Holly’s angelic voice and allegorical lyrics. The EP represents a sophisticated evolution of Holly’s musical talent, combined with a remarkable collaborative achievement by producer and backup instrumentalist Matt Patrick. Josh Dobson provided lead instrumentation, plus duet vocals and collaborative songwriting in “Skin.” The EP was released by Garden Ghost Records and is available on Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon. Holly Henry’s official website can be found at hollyhenrymusic.com.

*This entry was written by a guest blogger. Author Gary Reese, known online as pcacala, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” He is an Original Poster on Idolforums (IDF) and The Voice Forums (TVF). The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” (on IDF) and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” (on TVF) have combined page views of over 151,000, making Holly has the third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who has competed on “The Voice.”

Works cited

[1] Holly Henry. (2013). “Hollyhenrymusic” [blog post]. Retrieved from

http://hollyhenrymusic.tumblr.com/

[2] Boneyarddog. (2013, November). “Holly Henry Fan Thread.” Retrieved from

http://idolforums.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=706360&view=findpost&p=26015851

[3] Holly Henry. (2014, October 5). “Very Exciting Questions & Answers Video” . Retrieved from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypcD4CRo_Ow

 

 

 

Today’s Afrobeat: Founded by father, Fela, and continued by son, Femi Kuti takes this genre into a changing world

Femi KutiFemi Kuti, Head Shot, Press Photo carries his father’s – Fela Kuti – legacy of Afrobeat graciously and humbly. Developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Afrobeat blends elements of Yoruba music, jazz and funk rhythms with an instrumentation that emphasizes African percussion and vocal styles (New World Encyclopedia 2015). American musicians have come to appreciate the sounds of Afrobeat pioneered by Fela and expanded by Femi.

Throughout his 26-year career, Femi has toured with large rock and roll acts in the U.S., including Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and collaborated with Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright on a song for the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV (Ridgefield Press 2015).” As I interviewed Femi for the Music Historian in the lounge above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, minutes before his rehearsal, I asked him what it is about Afrobeat that artists from other genres admire.

“Understand,” Femi begins, “that it has always been there. In fact, in 1970s, when my father was making all of his hits, I think diplomats from Nigeria were taking records [of Fela’s music] to America. People like Miles Davis, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were listening to him. So many great musicians were inspired, but his name was never mentioned. What probably happened was that someone had been listening to his record, and they said, “Wow, this is great. Who is this?” Someone else would respond, “It is this cat from Nigeria,” and they would say “Wow! Great music.”

“In 1977, when Nigeria hosted the Festac Festival, I know Americans came to the shrine and played with him [Fela], jammed with him, and loved his music. I would [also] say 50-60% of Hip Hop came from the Afrobeat. So, it would not be surprising to hear people say my father inspired them. Then there was a musical about him on Broadway. I think this is a just a manifestation, but he was never mainstream. He was always on the ground and inspired American arts, culture, and music.”

In Nigeria, Fela had a very strong fan base. Femi got his start in music by playing saxophone in his father’s band at the age of 15 (femiakuti.com 2015). The fan base often asked Femi when he was going to play music and be like his father. When Femi decided to leave his father’s band, this was a taboo.

“In Africa, you never fight your father, especially if he was Fela Kuti,” explained Femi. Further, the musician admits he had a stressful period of trying to convince people his music was his own, and not his father’s.

“People misinterpreted everything I did,” he said. “My father told so many journalists that he would never write a song for his kids, but they still thought that was not true. When I had my first hit in Nigeria, “Wonder Wonder,” I was not given credit; people thought my father wrote the song for me. Then I had my big hit, which became international, “Beng Beng Beng” and people said “No, no. It is [a hit] just because you are Fela’s son. When I got my first GRAMMY nomination, it was, “Oh it is because you are Fela’s son.

“I think the good thing about it is it never troubled me. We loved my father very much. I don’t think critics or anybody could destabilize my thoughts.”

Femi has released a total of eight albums in his career. His 1998 album Shoki Shoki broke many boundaries in Afrobeat music. The artist used technology and machines to drive the force of the music. His last three records, Day by Day (2010), Africa for Africa (2011), and No Place for My Dreams (2013), have been released by Label Maison Records. I wondered whether Femi, when making a new album always searched for a new experience or focused more on the process of making music rather than an end goal. He says:

“I feel the experience of the time is what contributes most to the making of the album. For instance, in Africa for Africa, I wanted people to experience what it was like to record a band like mine both live and in the studio in Nigeria. [For example] they were recording and the electricity goes off. Hopefully, they would feel the frustrations I felt trying to get the record done.

No Place for My Dreams, the last one, reflects more of my childhood. I was trying to bring sounds from my father that touched me. Bringing that power – ‘I would love to play music, what kind of music do I want to play?’

“The next album I am working on is trying to go back to Shoki Shoki, which tried to use technology to enhance the creativity of Afrobeat. Most people [at the time] thought it was not very possible [to do] with the Afrobeat.”

Africa for Africa is one album that personally stood out to me the most. Femi, in a 2011 interview with NPR, said that one of the themes from this album reflects an ongoing concern among many African citizens, the lack of a unified central news network to inform people about what is going on in multiple regions across their content (NPR 2011). I asked Femi to tell me more about this theme. He elaborates:

“We have to wait for the BBC to tell us there is a war in the Congo; we have to wait for CNN to tell us what is going on in Ghana. Where is the African central network system to tell us our story, and then to tell all? It would be so powerful, that the BBC and CNN would have to get new [about Africa] from this network, not vice versa.

“Let’s take for example the crisis of Boko Haram. The BBC reports any crisis before any Nigerian network. The BBC or CNN will send journalists into this area to investigate. How come no Nigerian network sends a journalist to this war zone? Are they too scared? Not even videos or live footage. With the war in Iraq, you see BBC journalists will go there – this is journalism; there is no room to compromise nor argue with this. You have to appreciate the bravery of the journalist.

“There is so much. Don’t African nations see what is going on? Where is that kind of courage, where is that kind of attitude in journalism? If you were to focus really on Africa, Africa would probably not have time to listen to other news. There is too much going on there to deal with that. If we did have a serious network like the BBC – that was not corrupt, of course, not managed by interference or governments manipulating the system – then can you imagine how fantastic that network would be? For an individual journalist to be curious and go to find the truth of that news at any length because it is important? That’s what I would have loved for Africa.”

Femi Kuti Powerful Force Rehearsal (2) Like his father, Femi also addressed corruption within his music, corruption that each African citizen faces daily. One song from No Place for My Dreams, “No Work, No Job, No Money,” includes a lyrical message that within a country filled with plenty of oil and other natural resources, there is no work for people to help them make money and feed themselves nor their families. Based on personal curiosity, I wondered how have people’s reaction to this same type of corruption changed from the 1970’s to present day.

“I think what has changed is that now people are most outspoken. In my father’s time, it was just his voice and his voice alone. Now, on social media, you will see young boys and girls express their discontent with anything they see; this was not happening in my father’s time.

“The young people communicate way too fast for the leaders. I don’t think world leaders can deal with this, especially when they [the government] is being dishonest. More people today complain, so the government is very uncomfortable. The government is being forced to be honest for the first time, but, I think they will try to be smarter, more sophisticated; they will try to hide.

“You see what is happening in Greece, Spain, and France? I now realize that Greece is facing the kind of problems Africa faces – they have no jobs, they can’t put food on the table. You see what is going on in Ukraine? The government is losing its invisible force. Europeans and Americans don’t fear government like Africa fears government. Africa too is changing very fast and African governments are losing that invisibility where they think they are untouchable,” says Femi.

Issues of joblessness, poverty and hunger exist in all countries. Femi also makes a valid point when he says U.S. or EU citizens don’t fear their governments as much as Africans fear theirs. While the musician mentions that young people in Africa speaking on social media regarding what is happening around them; neither he nor his father wanted to encourage the international community to get involved.

“Understand,” begins Femi, “African leaders want people to believe they are honest. If I can show the true picture, then you have a different view. You become intrigued; you want to find out more.” A listener might ask, ’Is Femi speaking the truth, or will I go to Africa?’ Femi continues with this figurative scenario, “You will say ‘Oh, there is no electricity.’ How come Nigeria, a big oil-producing country cannot provide healthcare? How come the education system in Nigeria does not even exist? You have all of these universities and no matter what degree you come out with; it is meaningless. [You then ask] ‘Is Femi telling the truth, or are the leaders telling the truth?’ Then you have to question – How come your leaders are negotiating or doing business with corrupt people? Are they part of this corruption?

“I feel, that the world, whether we like it or not, in a few years, the political arena will change drastically, for the positive I hope.”

Looking towards the future, I wondered what Femi expected from himself and his band, The Positive Force. Before I directly posed this within a question, I wondered whether his last album No Place for My Dreams had produced the results he wanted. Femi says:

“I think it has already done its full lap. We have toured already now for over a year and a half, promoting the album. People love it very much, and now, [they] go into the future, and talk about it later on. The later generation might pick it up one day like they picked up my father’s [albums]. I think what is important for me is to know how to look into the future. Always try to bring new sounds into our music – new conversations.”

Wherever these new conversations lead listeners, Femi will continue that passion for a genre that helps define Africa. Also to combining funk, jazz, and soul, Femi also defines Afrobeat as a genre filled with African culture and tradition, “the true roots.”

“Don’t forget,” he explains, “Africa had its melody before the west came, or before jazz. My father was lucky to grow up in a village that still kept its tradition and folk songs from ancestral times. I think my father was gifted enough to say, “Everybody is doing this in Africa, this what I have… and if we take it and just make it rich.” That just caught everybody’s attention. His grandfather was a musician and composer, and his father was a musician and a composer. His grandfather was the first composer from West Africa to record for the BBC. They composed a lot of hymns, many of them are still relevant in churches, or in traditional culture in Nigeria.

“My father grew up with all of this rich music. As he studied classical music, fell in love with jazz, tried to find his feet, he probably then remembered, “Wow. This is what my grandfather was doing.” This is what I was listening to in the streets… where I was born. [He said] “Oh, I can… put all of this richness together and bring about my kind of music.” Then everybody said “Whoa! What is he doing?” Everybody was moved by it.”

In July, between the 10th and the 18th Femi Kuti & The Positive Force will travel to Paris and the UK to perform on a short tour. Then, it is back to Nigeria to focus on the new album, which will revisit the stylistic creativity established within his previous work, Shoki Shoki.

“I think with my experience, age, and maturity, and if my calculation is right, in my mind, it should be ten times greater than the Shoki Shoki album,” explains the musician. “If I can arrive at that, then I can say that I have reached another milestone in my musical career.”

Works Cited

Afrobeat. (2012, August 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Afrobeat

Femi Kuti Official Website. (2013). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.femiakuti.com/#!about/c2414/

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force Bringing Afrobeat To Ridgefield | The Ridgefield Daily Voice. (2015, May 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://ridgefield.dailyvoice.com/events/femi-kuti-positive-force-bringing-afrobeat-ridgefield

Nigerian Star Femi Kuti Talks Politics And Music. (2011, April 27). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135770537/nigerian-artist-femi-kuti-talks-politics-and-music

 

All photos were published with permission

Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist.Like many bilingual professionals, Gypsy George, a Brooklyn-based musician whose real name is George Mihalopoulos, has learned to manage two lifestyles simultaneously. You might have guessed that his family is from Greece. Though he was born in the U.S., George says he is “firmly rooted in Greek culture.” He describes to me his every day.

“My day to day is quite active and busy. Recently, I’ve added importing olive oil from Greece with my Dad to the mix of things I do. A few years ago, he and I were trying to find ways to bring money back to Greece, due to the financial crisis. My grandfather used to press this fantastic olive oil in our hometown of Nafpaktos, and later, we discovered that everyone in the area just pressed their own oil and never sold it. We met with a local miller there, developed a relationship, and now we exclusively bottle our single varietal (Athinoelia) Premium ‘Agouraleio’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Nafpaktos under the brand name 10δεκα.

“So, that has been taking up most of my weekday mornings. After I finish with Olive Oil stuff, I usually move onto music-related matters – responding to emails, organizing shows and working in the studio. It varies from week to week but generally, my daily life has been ‘Olive Oil & Music.’”

Aside from participating in a business partnership with his father, George also founded a publishing company in 2003, Always Already.

“I started this company mainly so I could start receiving royalties on a movie I contributed music to, ‘The Maldonado Miracle’ produced and directed by Salma Hayek. From there, I started to build it around music licensing and composing. Today, I have expanded it to include a record label. It is a boutique music company that pretty much offers all music related services – recording, producing, publishing, licensing, composing, and more.”

He adds, “I run the company very grass roots, family-style, encouraging all the artists I’m producing to be as involved with their projects as possible. I do try to teach them about the business end of things, so they are better armed to tackle the ever-changing universe of music.”

Speaking of an “ever-changing universe,” an entrepreneur and musician who runs multiple businesses might describe the road to their success as unpredictable and messy. At least, that’s how I would describe it as I reflect on countless interviews with musicians, informal interviews with NYC student entrepreneurs, and my professional development.

Like many entrepreneurs, George has learned to ‘embrace the chaos.’ He also incorporates this motto into his definition of a gypsy: “One who lets life happen – the good and the bad – and welcomes it; who can adapt to their surroundings with ease and pleasure; who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes.”

While I certainly find this definition of a gypsy inspiring in a creative and artistic sense, I know that in an ethnic and practical definition, it needs more refining. For George, Gypsy is his stage name, one he more or less picked up while being on the road, spontaneously traveling America’s mid-west for his musical inspiration and his identity. Further, George’s affinity to the open road also influenced the name of his band, Gypsy George and the Open Road Love Affair. The band creates what one might describe as Americana music with spurts of Greek flair. The band’s repertoire of music has opened doors to new projects and possibilities. Gypsy George shares his story right here on Music Historian.

Gypsy George Press Photo. Published with permission. Gypsy George received his name from his insatiable desire to randomly hop in a car – without a map – and travel the depths of America. The artist had mentioned that during this time, he was trying to figure out whether he was Greek or American (National Herald 2011). I asked him exactly what fueled this desire.

“A few things contributed to my desire for exploration and travel,” explained George. “Firstly, I moved around a lot when I was younger, eight times in the first six years of my life. So, that clearly laid the foundation. Secondly, it was my family origin. My sister, my cousins, and I are the first generation born in the states. The rest of my family was born in Greece, including my parents. I was raised bi-culturally. I frequently travel to Greece, and I am fluent in the language and culture.

“Initially, my drive to explore America was to experience all the regions that Blues artists had lived in or traveled. I wanted to find the places where Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, and Leadbelly had been before me. I wanted to see and feel what inspired them, and this led me up and down the Mississippi River for many years. Since I lived mostly in big cities and urban environments, it was mind blowing to see these places up close and play guitar on the banks of the mighty river. I fell in love with the countryside; it opened my eyes to the true beauty and freedom of this great experiment known as the United States.”

After some time, Gypsy George decided he was 50/50 Greek-American (National Herald 2011). Then, came my next question – where in his music does George’s Greek heritage shine most?

“My music is filled with my Greek heritage,” he begins. “I’ve always felt that my music truly is a culmination of American Blues and Greek music sprinkled with the Lennon’s and Dylan’s of the world. Some specific examples are the songs “Door County Nights”, a blues structure over a 9/8 Zeibekiko time signature; the ‘bouzouki’ style mandolin on “Everyday”; the solo section of “Maude On The Run”; and the list goes on.”

Door Country Nights” is the title track to Gypsy George’s 2003 debut. This album conveyed the artist’s stylistic versatility incorporating Americana, country, honky-tonk, and some funk. At the time this album was recorded (in Los Angeles), George worked as a music supervisor and composer at a music company that had recording studios. The owner encouraged the employees to use the studios and learn how to record during off hours.

“I figured, ‘if I’m going to learn how to record, I might as well record an album of my stuff.’ It was a learning experience, to say the least,” admits George. “It is always interesting when you record your first album; expectations are so high, yet your ability is in its infant stages. Additionally, I worked with an engineer who was even newer to recording than I was. That combination of hope mixed with a lack of experience can be an exciting, frightful adventure. We had a blast though, and I think we pulled it off – at least for our first effort.”

Another song on this debut, a honky-tonk, and a country-influenced number is titled “Open Road Love Affair.” I wondered whether this song inspired the name of Gypsy George’s group. I just happened to be right.

“The band name did, in fact, come from the song title. When I was trying to come up with a band name, I spent months bouncing around ideas. I wanted a name that would convey the ideology of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’[i] with the controlled chaos of a road trip. Also, I did not want it to sound forced. One day, I was barbecuing with some friends, and I complained about how hard it was to come up with a band name. Finally, my friend Stacy blurted, ‘why don’t you call it Open Road Love Affair?’ Everyone, instantaneously, had that moment of ‘uh, why didn’t I think of that?’ And that, folks, is how the band name came about.”

The song “Everyday” comes from his 2011 release The Loneliest Man in New York. In this track, Gypsy’s inner-Greek comes out on a mandolin that plays hints of tremolos. He says that when it comes to arrangements, he pushes the envelope. George explains “I like to take chances and treat instruments differently from their basic intended purpose. Sometimes, this fails. However, I’d rather go for broke than be conventional. With a song like “Everyday,” I was very influenced by Pet Sounds (an album by The Beach Boys); particularly the songs “That’s Not Me” and “I’m Waiting for the Day.” The drum part,” which exaggerates the downbeats within the measures, “was me trying to be Brian Wilson.”

Gypsy George Press Shot published with Permission Lyrically, George is influenced by Lennon, Dylan, Beat poetry and Kazantzakis. Occasionally, he writes in an obscure referential way or inside jokes. “Sometimes, “I like to use words to create a feeling or imagery. Sometimes, I just like the way words fit together regardless of meaning. It depends on the moment, the mood.” One such song like this is “Couplet Gun” a song about love which starts with a very distinct verse – I find a little Marxist red war paint/ And, I don’t want to pray it/ I don’t want to say it/ I just want to step in right next to you. The second chorus includes this rhyme I shoot the stars with asphalt bars/ I creep along a familiar song/ I find a way to stick my nose in the dirt…

“‘A little Marxist red war paint’ was a strange way of me referring the lady of the song, who is a redhead. The second set of lyrics was written to convey the heavy, deep pain and loneliest I felt at the time, hence, trying to shoot starts with asphalt bars, sticking my nose in the dirt. I attempted to convey my truest, deepest thoughts and emotions at that very juncture in my life.”

The Loneliest Man in New York included a band of six musicians, including Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm on vocals, who also appeared on the 2014 album 30 Songs in 30 Days. Between these two albums, George experienced a professional and personal development that was initially brought on by an impulsive decision. When he started recording Loneliest Man, George had just moved to NYC without knowing a single person.

“I wound up in NYC by accident: I was fed up with L.A. and left town. I just started driving due East to get as far away from the West Coast as possible. I lived in various spots throughout the country; toyed with the idea of going back to Chicago (where he lived throughout most of his life). Eventually, I came to Brooklyn and figured I’d try it out.

“My girlfriend at the time abruptly ended things, and I thought she was THE ONE – at least at the time. Dealing with a deep heartache – combined with living in NYC without any friends – led me to the only therapist I knew – music. I spent a month and a half in my apartment – which at the time, had no furniture or music equipment and hefty bags filled with clothes – and just wrote songs after songs.

“When it was all said and done, I had written around 100 tunes. From there, I began tracking the album. As I went through this process, I met a bunch of musicians at Roots Café in South Slope on an open mic night. After that, I just immersed myself in music and met more talented folks. Eventually, I asked a few of these insanely gifted people to play on the record. What started as my ‘breakup album’ turned into this colossal musical effort.”

“I had a very ambitious plan with 30 Songs in 30 Days,” continues George. “Having accumulated a wealth of songs I had written, I finally decided to release a double album. I also wanted to tap into all the different styles of music that have influenced me over the course of my career. Initially, my plan was to recreate the Beatles’ White Album. Rather than interpret the album song by song, I wanted to capture the general feel and weirdness of the album. As I developed the concept, it turned into the one thing I detest in art – pretentiousness. I felt I was forcing songs on this sort of strict creative platform. What I then decided to do was release 30 songs in 30 days. For the month of October in 2014, I released a song a day for 30 days. It was a maddening, yet rewarding experience.

“A lot of the material I recorded [involved] mixing and mastering on the fly. It was a very curious project that lent to quick, creative decision making as opposed to past albums where I had all the time in the world to figure out whether I liked this, that or the other. It was a fun release and one I am proud of accomplishing. Although I did play the majority of the instruments on the album, I did have some outside vocalists and musicians.”

Aside from Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm, the musicians who played with George on 30 Songs in 30 Days included Emily Trask and Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn. George says that while it is always difficult to gauge what people fundamentally think about his work, he was happy with the ‘all-over-the-map’ reaction from listeners.

“I like to add humor and silliness to my songs. At the end of the day, I just try to have fun and enjoy life. Obviously, there are serious moments, but I’d much rather poke fun at myself and not take it too seriously. I think that silly and loose atmosphere of my music is what people grab onto at first.”

“Charlton Heston” and “Maude On The Run” are some of the songs on 30 Songs in 30 Days that stood out the most to me. According to George, the political themes within these tracks were overlooked in the States but resonated more in Europe. Whether or not a listener can pick up on the political themes naturally is purely left up to opinion. I was curious as to how George incorporate politics into this song. A perfect example is his 2007 record, Joe’s Beginning, which he recorded while living in Los Angeles. George also recorded this album while in an interesting place in his life.

“I had ended a relationship, felt upset with the administration [at the time], and faced a crossroads with my career. I got my feelings out in music. I locked myself in the studio for six months recording the album, and it was the first record where I did everything, including the engineering.

“Thematically, I based the record on [the story of] “Romeo and Juliet.” I interpreted the couple’s fight for love as obstructed by socio-political circumstances as opposed to warring families. I chose [the title] ‘Joe’s Beginning’ as homage to the ‘Average Joe.’ I wanted to make a political statement without being pedantic. Whether I pulled that off with the album is a different story.”

My conversation with Gypsy George so far has helped me notice that emotional events like a heartache, an abrupt move, and the challenges of being your boss – which for this artist, involves getting songs out on schedule – drives him to create music. Also, he has managed to put his talent out in a robust artistic city. Although he has become known for getting up and moving from place to place, Gypsy George has lived in Brooklyn for seven years now. As far as I know, he has no leaving plans.

Gypsy George Press Photo published with permission “I love living in Brooklyn. I have lived in South Slope, and it has been a true home for me, a first for me in my adult life. Brooklyn and NYC have a great energy and a wonderful mix of gifted and talented artists. It is a city that lays the foundation for a creative atmosphere.

“Out in L.A., I felt that it was all about who you know or how you look, but the quality of the music did not matter [so much]. In NY, you have to be pretty good to survive in the music scene. Chicago has a great art and music scene, but it remains a bit more underground.”

This year will mark the second time Gypsy George has been invited to perform at the Northside Festival. He will perform as part of a lineup hosted by Whatever Blog at The Gutter in Williamsburg. Afterward George will return to producing his second record with Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn, with the hopes of releasing it in July. Also, George is in the process of remixing and re-mastering 30 Songs in 30 Days and officially release it as Politics, Ex-Girlfriends & the Ayn Rand Shuffle. He hopes to have this record out in the Fall. Finally, he is also the Music Director and Composer for South Brooklyn Shakespeare, a theater company founded by Paul and Dee-Byrd Molnar. This year, the company will perform “Much Ado About Nothing” on July 25th, August 1st, and August 15th.

Whether or not George chooses to stay in this city or relocate wherever his passion for the open road takes him, he will embrace the change, whatever it maybe, and channel it into his music. Whatever life throws his way, especially if it brings him into a rougher moment in his career, George will center his focus on the fact that he has felt blessed enough to continue doing music.

“My Dad told me a long time ago, that wherever you are, whatever you wind up doing in life, no one can ever take away your ability to create and play music. To me, every moment is a proud moment. I always view myself as an artist first and that everything I do is part of a larger dialog beyond myself.

“The music industry has turned a blind eye to creativity and has focused on profit. I mean [the need] has always been there, but I don’t believe a band like The Beatles could ever make it in today’s music business structure. This is why Independent Artists are more vital than ever. While I might sound critical, I am very hopeful for the future of music and where it will wind up.”

[i] Gypsy George says he “sort of stole a page from John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s concept for the ‘Plastic Ono Band.’ They had a philosophy that ‘anyone’ can be a member of the band, and were adamant that there was no ‘set’ lineup (G. Mihalopoulos, personal communications, June 9, 2015).”

Works Cited

“In the Spotlight: Gypsy George – Musician” (2011). National Herald. Retrieved from http://www.gypsygeorge.com/uploads/9/0/3/2/9032999/national_herald.pdf

 

Pop Musician & Classical Music Fan Campaigns for Key Change on PledgeMusic

Last Fall, alternative indie pop artist, Janna Pelle, introduced herself and her concept album, Key Change to Music Historian readers and the independent music scene in New York City. For the month of May, my interview with Janna has gotten into the top ranks of the blog’s most read articles. One reason for this might be the result of her fundraising efforts to make Key Change the album every classical and pop music enthusiast and history nerd wants to hear.

The evolution of the keyboard, which was largely inspired by the different performance spaces in which the piano was placed throughout history, inspires the concept in Key Change[i]. In her album, Janna infuses instruments that inspired the modern physical structure of the piano, like the harp and the forte piano, with pop-inspired tunes. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic – which is filled with personality and elegance – will make fellow musicians, bloggers of independent music, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano fall for enthusiasm and talent. Watch her campaign video right here:

Aside from bringing together additional talent within the independent art scene of New York City, Key Change represents the beginning of a new chapter in Janna’s life which followed many life-changing events. Music Historian has spoken to Janna about the themes in her first two albums. Shameless Self-Promotion (2012) reflect the moment she stepped out on her own as a musician. Janna wrote The Show Must Go On (2014) while she was grieving her father’s passing[ii]. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic will attract fellow musicians, bloggers, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano to her enthusiasm and talent.

Music-wise, Janna describes herself as the love child of Fiona Apple and Lady Gaga, with the alter-ego of David Byrne[iii]. If you want lyrics that describe city life, coping with difficulties, romantic relationships and sex, music that quotes theme songs from popular television series, and rhythms that can make you dance like you would at a club or a fashion show, then Janna Pelle brings it all. Pre-order her album Key Change today at PledgeMusic. As stated on the page which the previous link will take you to, donors can expect the album for a release date in November of this year.

[i] Janna Pelle: Key Change Campaign Video. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/keychange

[ii] P Trutescu. (2014, Nov. 18). Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change.” [Web log]. Retrieved from https://musichistorian.net/2014/11/18/janna-pelle-the-shameless-advertiser-musician-brings-us-key-change/

[iii] Pelle, J. (2014). Janna Pelle: The Band, The Brand. Retrieved from http://jannapelle.com/bio.html