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

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

Connecting the Dots (Part 2): Leah Speckhard talks Female Empowerment and Coming-of-Age on her second EP, Sleepwalker

Leah Speckhard, Press Photo Although Leah changed her mind about her university major, she always made sure to remember music and make that a part of her life. The singer-songwriter reflected on the transition between recording of her first album Pour Your Heart Out Like Water, and her newest one, Sleepwalker.

“I recorded my first album in Greece. When I signed with the label, Legend Records, they had me record a full album, which they put out with full press coverage. But the follow up coincided with the downturn, and  the album came out during the whole economic crash.

“The record label was very supportive of the album and me as an artist, but everybody was tightening their pockets. I saw that it wouldn’t be easy for a new artist to break through in this environment.”

While Leah felt satisfied with the completion of her first record, she also admitted that it did not build up into what she expected. In addition, the young artist realized the market for Greek music showed a greater affinity for club music, which did not suit her lyrics-driven songs. Leah asserts, “I felt it did not make sense to keep pushing in Greece, so I decided to come to New York to see if I could make it happen here.”

Leah describes her first experience as a recording artist as invaluable. When she made her first EP, Leah listened to a lot of folk music, and she was relatively inexperienced at recording. She says:

“In Greece, the label was very supportive of me, but I did not understand how the whole process of making an album would play out.. I am a fairly assertive person in general, but in the studio, in that element, I did not feel that assertive. I had a hard time articulating what I wanted the arrangements to sound like.

“In the second record, I felt more involved in the process – which I think is just part of the indie experience versus the label experience. I worked with a producer in Brooklyn and within a different environment. You just naturally have more control over things.

“Many artists I talked to have a similar experience with their first album. You don’t know how to assert yourself and sometimes, you feel that you shouldn’t, because the label is paying for everything and they bring in people with a lot more experience to work on the music, too. The record was also the label’s investment, and I wanted to be respectful of that.”

“On Sleepwalker, I was more sure of what I wanted, and I’d evolved as an artist. I also worked with someone younger, so the collaboration felt easier and more intimate. I knew I was working with someone who believed in me and who brought a lot to the table – we co-wrote most of the songs, and he listened to me about what I wanted production-wise and we really vibed as far as finding a direction that reflected who I am as a person and the dance influence that I liked.”

A great lesson Leah learned was to be assertive on the second album. She would agree that learning assertiveness without acting rude, and finding that fine line, is also a process of growing up creatively, personally and professionally.

“When I was younger,” Leah recalled, “I wanted to be easygoing. I did not want to come across as difficult, but now I realize, you must be to a certain extent if you want your creative vision to come to life. You don’t have to be rude, but you have to be straightforward if something is not the way you want it, and that can be very awkward and uncomfortable. While I love to hear suggestions from other co-writers or producers, as an artist I have to be the ultimate decision-maker and ask myself “Is this what I want my sound to be or not?””

As an indie artist, Leah funded this album herself. Some people might think that an artist paying for their album defeats the purpose of making money with music. Leah says that having her music pay for itself would be a dream. At the moment though, she tries to separate money from music.

“I know some people to think about the connection between them [money and music] when they make music their full-time job. I realized that apart from the money piece of it, I want music to be a big part of my life. I try not to focus specifically on the money because it is really more about the emotions and the feelings for me.

“I try to organize my goals more around questions like  “Do I want to play for bigger audiences, make a music video, or get the music out?” To put it out, you want to have the audience.

“There are so many emerging artists now. To charge people right off the bat for your songs seems foolish – very few people will want to pay $10 or $15 for your album when they can get everything for free on Spotify. I know as a consumer, I am the same way. I’d rather pay to go see a concert, so as an artist, I try to keep that in mind. I think people have grown unaccustomed to paying for recorded music. It’s more about the audience now. I feel like my investment will pay itself off someday with a bigger audience, which is more important to me.”

Listening to Leah talk about her music and her experiences, I realize that growing up for twenty-something’s is not reflected so much how frequently they change their minds until they make a decision most people find logical. Maturing comes from the valuable lessons twenty-something-year-olds learn within their development and apply that to make better choices in the future. I then wondered whether Leah had a song on her album that reflected a coming-of-age theme. She talked about another song on Sleepwalker called “Time Machine.” Leah Speckhard Album Cover

“I was delving into relationship issues with my songs – examining all of the heartbreaks, trying to figure out what was happening, and getting into all of this philosophical questioning about what really mattered to me. In looking at my emotions more closely, I realized that a lot of my fears circled around  getting older, and I put that into my song “Time Machine”.

“I started having this strong urge to be young again and have all of this time again to do things over. Aside from the social pressure to have a “real job” and career, there is also pressure to be young from wanting to be part of an industry that emphasizes youth and beauty. I started feeling like I needed to make choices, and fast. With so many options, though I was blessed to have them, I felt overwhelmed. In “Time Machine,” I thought, “I just want to go back in time and be young and not have to make any of these decisions.”

Leah is not afraid to expose her feelings in her songs – though they may come across as hyperbolic sometimes, she thinks hat many people can relate to strong feelings like this popping up from time to time. If you are wondering whether to listen to Leah’s music, this is definitely one reason; but it is not the only reason. In today’s popular music, there is a disconnection about the definition of female empowerment. Major performing artists talk about being female within their pop tunes without emphasizing empowerment.

Leah addresses female empowerment by expressing the injustice, the dissatisfaction with it, and then taking responsibility for entering that disappointing situation in the first place all within her music. “Loser”, a bonus song on her website www.LeahSpeckhard.com, is the track that beautifully introduces this concept. As for the rest of the songs, listeners will have to attend the launch of Sleepwalker on February 23 at 8:30 pm at The Bowery Electric, which she will do in partnership with Tinderbox Arts PR.

 

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

The Naked and Famous Press Photo*: (L-R) Jesse Woods, Aaron Short, Alisa Xayalith, David Beadle, Thom PowersWhen I asked a member of The Naked and Famous, Aaron Short, to share one of his favorite moments as a professional musician, he told me, “Every time our manager tells us there is a free buffet breakfast included with our hotel room. It doesn’t take a lot to please us. Imagine how we reacted when a label from the UK wanted to sign us?”

One could definitely say Aaron has learned to appreciate the simpler things in life, especially as The Naked and Famous’ journey grows more exciting, opportunity-filled, successful and complicated. Continuing my conversation with Aaron, he then talked about the New Zealand-native Indietronica band’s big move to Los Angeles.

“Between the time we left New Zealand for our Passive Me, Aggressive You tour in 2010 and landing in Los Angeles in 2012, is a blur of 200 or so shows around the world. We were very ready to pick a spot to settle once we reached the end of it, and LA made sense to us for many reasons,” explains Aaron.

The favorable turn-out of their career in the U.S. provided one motivation for the band to stay in this country, and Aaron even mentions they did not want to “stray too far from a good thing.” Additional motivational factors include affordable avocados, rapid internet connection, and a peaceful house just outside of Hollywood. In this home, the band transformed one of the rooms into a little demo studio, a room that would become the birthplace of their latest album, In Rolling Waves.

As I thoroughly researched the band in the press, and listened to their music from their 2010 release, and 2014 album, I definitely felt a strong sense of artistic development. The Naked and Famous are currently between tours – having just finished Coachella and now taking on the Groovin The Moo Tour in Australia. Aaron very graciously took some time out to talk with me about the band and share the story of this group thus far. One of the parts within the story he shared that stood out for me was his forecast of a third album on the horizon, which he describes as “the next chapter in our book once this current tour is complete.”

While The Naked and Famous work towards completing their Australian tour, and what is most likely the band’s current chapter, I examine the earlier chapters of this band’s life through Aaron’s point of view. I am happy to welcome The Naked and Famous to Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

Chapter 1: The Rule of Performing Live

When Aaron met Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith at Auckland’s MAINZ music college in 2008, he did not consider himself a part of the band, nor really a musician. Instead, Aaron saw his future in co-producing within the studio environment. He credits Thom for being a “man with the plan.” Aaron recalls the moment they finished the band’s first EP titled This Machine.

“The demos we made doubled towards the end of term assessment submissions, which pretty much gained me that diploma. Thom was always a man with a plan though, and that [plan] was – make an EP, form a live band, get a song on college radio, play a few shows, and wing it from there, in that order.”

I wondered what Aaron meant by a “live band.” He explains, “Since day one, we’ve always had a rule that if something can’t be performed live, it shouldn’t really be in the recording. This law we followed was definitely more for us than the audience, and it dramatically changed our approach to writing, the way in which we recorded albums, and the live set up.

“What we have now is an incredibly exciting and active stage set up, which makes the songs much more satisfying to play. I find it is boring when I go to see a band play and hear a part [in their song] which sounds really cool, then I look around and realize no is actually playing.”

Learning this fact about The Naked and Famous’ approach to music also excited me. Based on what I initially understood from reading major popular music publications online; In Rolling Waves was the album that first incorporated this emphasis on the ability of successfully playing a song both live and in a recording. Luckily, the band has been doing this from the beginning.

Chapter 2: Push the Dynamics

Moving forward with the conversation, I wondered what changed in the recording experience of the band’s latest album compared to their first full-length debut in 2010, Passive Me, Aggressive You. When The Naked and Famous were writing their debut, the five members who – as Aaron explains – “draw from a massive range of musical influences” came to agree on one musical style. Aaron Short - keyboardist, pictures from North American Tour 2012*

“Though we all share many of the same favorites,” begins Aaron, “no one’s tastes perfectly match, which is beautiful. I personally come from a strong electronic music background compared to the rest, and this makes for an interesting dynamic when it comes to the production of our records.”

It is perhaps no surprise that, between the recordings of the two full-length albums, everything about the record-making experiences differed. Talking with Aaron, I felt Passive Me, Aggressive You was The Naked and Famous’ first chance to stretch their muscles as electronic musicians, helping create memorable and dreamy tracks like “Young Blood.” As for the second release, Aaron says:

“We put a lot more consideration into the parts being written and refined them to the point we felt they were as powerful as possible, without relying on the use of excessive production to make a track ‘big.’

“There is also this encompassing sense of being a little more grown up this time around. “Young Blood” was written as a demo in 2009, and we were 4 years on from that when In Rolling Waves was completed. You can definitely feel that in the themes of the lyrics, and the construction of the songs.

“We also made an effort to push the dynamics of this record; making those quiet moments even more delicate, and the darker and heavier moments more powerful than on the first record.”

The evolution in the lyrical themes between the two records will stand out to listeners. The lyrics in “Young Blood,” express a shaky love between two people – probably adolescents – who want to be together for no other reason than simply being together. The lyrics are:

We lie beneath the stars night/ Our hands gripping each other tight/ You keep my secrets hope to die/ Promises swear them to the sky…

Fast forward four years, the vocal timbre remains the same, but the tone behind the lyrics changed. Now, The Naked and Famous perform a slightly different tune in the song “Hearts Like Ours” which includes lyrics like:

Could we try to reinvent?/ Feed the head with common sense/ through the streets and avenues/ climbing up the walls with you…

The theme of growing up is evident to the listener in this song. Here, the story between the lovers may have started with the illusion of promise and might be now finishing at an impasse which is represented by the question ‘can we grow together and continue this journey, or should we part?’

The Naked and Famous, photos from their North American Tour 2012* Chapter 3: Cool Heights

One might say that time will change anybody’s attitude about their lover, life or even themselves. The same applies for artists. For The Naked and Famous though, their experiences as full-time professional musicians between 2009 and right now speaks louder than only the time that has passed between their album releases.

While the band did not make an additional full-length record between 2009 and 2014, The Naked and Famous did release B-Sides and Remixes which were extensions of their original works and compilations of songs that did not make the album. In addition, the band created a live film of their Passive Me, Aggressive You tour cycle in a live film they released in 2012 titled One Temporary Escape. Aaron says:

“We made it available for free download in HD and with fully mixed audio, as a nice way to wrap everything up before moving to the second album phase. Our live shows reached a pretty cool height at that point, and we want people to see how much better the show looked as opposed to watching if from one of the 10,000 shaky distorted mobile uploads on YouTube.”

Now, the band can expect plenty of additional mobile uploads from fans after “conquering two incredible weekends at Coachella” something the band has looked forward to for years. They are currently touring Australia, which according to Aaron, has involved enduring colder weather than they are typically used to, along with an overloaded van and plenty of long drives.

While Aaron did not mention anything in regards to a live film of the In Rolling Waves tour, fans can keep up with the band by following The Naked and Famous on Twitter – @tnaf – and Instragram – @tnaf. In the meantime, more information about their tour is available on their website thenakedandfamous.com. If you are a New Yorker, you have a chance to see The Naked and Famous perform amongst an exciting line up which includes Jack White, The Strokes, Fitz and the Tantrums, and many more on Saturday, June 7th at the Governors Ball Music Festival. Click here to get tickets.

The Next Chapter?

I feel fortunate to have caught one of the members of a band that is currently experiencing a riveting stage within their career. In addition, my conversation with Aaron reminds me of a piece of advice I received once during my time as an undergrad in Music History – “do what you love, and the rest will come.” Aaron’s experience perhaps parallels these words well. Press Photo*

For a musician though, ‘doing what you love’ is not always easy. Their career might involve relocating to faraway places, and taking on experiences filled with challenges like cross-country tours and squeezing in time for some publicity. Yet, getting to these experiences and achieving these benchmarks is part of the job, and the reward waiting for some, after the successful turnouts at shows, the large album sales, and the additional promotional merchandise, is a peaceful home and the beginning of another album. Although we so far only have a hint of news about a third record, The Naked and Famous would definitely say “We’re getting there.”

*All photos were published with permission from CRS Management in New Zealand