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

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

Album cover of Caollaidhe by Gypsy George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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The Transformation of Miracles~Lost and Found: Marla Mase talks inspiration behind her songs, the themes that emerged, and where she hopes to take her new record

Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer

Researching the Brooklyn-based playwright and singer-songwriter, Marla Mase, I had learned that the Huffington Post and Chorus.FM had reviewed her previous records. I listened to Marla’s latest concept album she had released with her label, True Groove Records, in October 2016, Miracles~Lost and Found. I felt moved and nostalgic for a time when I had an affinity for power-pop punk tunes that replayed endlessly in my head throughout the day.

Tracks like “Dreamland” and “A Gun” contain driving power chords and major chords that move in rapid duplets. Lyrics in these choruses, such as We are living in a dreamland, and in “Truth Comes Down” where Marla talks – rather than sings – the truth comes down in unison with the short and accentuated beats produced by the drums. The song that stood out to me the most was “A Gun.” Marla seems to be almost playfully singing in an alto range, There’s a boy right here he’s holding a gun/ A boy right here he’s holding a gun/ He wants to be in a gang, and wants to go ‘bang’/ He wants to be someone.

Some music theorists who possess a penchant for classical music or jazz would say that this musical composition is simplistic. Attentive listeners of popular and rock and roll music would say that this musical composition has a potential for marketing success.

While Marla’s Miracles~Lost and Found strikes a chord with me – no pun intended – she is not necessarily a stickler for writing music both compositionally straightforward and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by a market saturated with mainstream genres. According to a review Chorus.FM had written about one of Marla’s previous records Half-Life, “It’s obvious that spoken word and poetry looms large in her most recent release, but the problem is that poetry and other forms of writing intended to read and spread a message don’t always lend themselves to good, listenable music.”[i] This criticism written in 2014 about Marla’s old record got me to listen to Half-Life. This particular record has a very different tone and style compared to Miracles~Lost and Found.

My research on Marla’s musical repertoire led me to a few questions: did Marla define herself as a musician or a performer; what inspired the change between the fusion of eclectic funk, rock and experimental fusion, and spoken word of Half-Life and the power-pop and post-punk inspired Miracles~Lost and Found; and what concepts was Marla looking to convey? I welcome Marla Mase to a full-length feature interview on Music Historian.

When I asked Marla about her musical background, she explained, “I think of myself as a writer first. I have always been a writer and a performance artist. I write many plays [and] that’s where the music part originates. I did take many years of piano lessons.

“When I was younger, I used to joke and say ‘I should be a rocker, but I don’t really write music.’ But I do come from a musical family. My mother writes music, and my brother is a songwriter, sister-in-law and so was my grandfather. That’s how I started getting into all of this stuff.”

I wondered how Marla made the connection between music and playwriting.

“I was writing plays, one woman shows, monologues and performance pieces for about ten years or so. Then I fell into a super hard time. I basically broke. A lot was going on with my family, my daughter was sick for years and finally it caught up to me. I mean it was 24/7 of constant anxiety. Then I discovered that when I sang, I [experienced] a minute of release. So I started to sing. Then, I would go to my acting class and perform and started singing other peoples’ tunes. It was healing.

“Then I started writing a ton of songs, they just came to me, and I was putting them in my one-woman shows, performing them a cappella. I knew I needed a musician. A friend of mine introduced me to Tomás Doncker, an amazing songwriter/guitarist/producer. We began working together, first on my shows, then on albums and eventually we ran the label together. He just really believed in me and my work.”

Marla’s story so far explains how she got started in music professionally. Afterward, more opportunity began to follow. “The windows open very quickly,” she said again. “We released the first album and the soundtrack to the one woman show (Brief Night Out), and then I released another album, Speak, six months later.”

It was not long before Marla started receiving attention from other musical professionals. During a sound check, a woman spotted Marla. This individual brings American prodigies to China and brings talent from China to perform in the United States. Although the woman admittedly said that she found Marla interesting, and liked what she did; the meeting between Marla and the curator of performance talent (if I may), did not immediately produce leads.

“We met, it did not work out. She was looking for more classical stuff. Literally [though], a year-and-a-half later, she called me and said “I never forgot you, Marla. I have a friend who is part of the UN.” Then boom! The next day I was going to China with my band for International Day of Peace.”

For this musician, it seemed like a world of yes started emerging. I then became interested in what ignited the switch from spoken-word poetry against rock and roll music, to power pop punk tunes. However, keeping in mind that Marla is a writer first and foremost, a blogger must also think about influences and inspiration that do not always parallel music.

“When I released Brief Night Out, Speak and Half-Life, those are all very niche; there is a lot of spoken word, rock and roll, and mixes. Miracles~Lost and Found is more of a traditional album. On the surface, it is more song-oriented; you can sit down and listen to the ‘nice’ songs. With the other ones, maybe somebody does not want to hear spoken word. I just go where ‘it’ tells me to go. I write according to what I think, by my inspirations. In a lot of press written about me, they say that I am a genre-hopper. I have written Reggae songs and all sorts of genres. For me, as an artist, you just write what makes sense. That’s where there is a lot of mixes, the change.

“With Miracles~Lost and Found, the inspiration was… this story I had heard.” Marla shared the story with me – a religious fish butcher, during his work one day had a spiritual experience. A fish had started talking to him. The fish told him The Messiah was coming. Naturally, the main character became frightened. He began yelling “kill all the fish!” He started chopping up all the fish but then accidentally cut off his hand.

Marla had heard this story years ago, and she thought, “…‘this guy was praying for a miracle his whole life, and waited for a sign of the Messiah. Then it happens, and he freaks out. He cannot handle the miracle.’ That’s when I thought of writing about this entire concept for an album, Miracles~Lost and Found. How many things happen in our lives that we don’t recognize as a call to transcend? Or, we pray for this stuff, but when it happens, we say ‘No!’ Either you don’t notice it, or you can’t handle the hugeness of it.”

Regarding the difference in musical composition between the previous records which Marla mentioned and this latest one, she and her producer, Tomás, collaboratively decided to make the songs simpler. According to the playwright, both she and Tomás had the following attitude about Miracles~Lost and Found: ‘Let’s keep it simple, and to the point. Too much talking these days.’

When Marla describes Miracles~ Lost and Found in greater detail, she says “…I have two or three-minute songs, whereas, on the old albums, I have six-minute, half-funk, spoken word [songs]…with Half-Life, a lot of it was written with the beats first. Tomás and [True Groove Sound Engineer/Producer/ and Partner in the Label] James [Dellatacoma] would give me some of the beats and instrumentals, and I would write the lyrics around those. Most of the time, it is me coming in and [saying], “Hey, I have an idea for a song,” and I will sing a melody.”

On Miracles~Lost and Found, listeners can expect to hear Marla structure her vocalization more around the harmonies in the music and the chords created on a piano or guitar. After learning about how Marla composed her lyrics in the previous record Half-Life, I wondered whether, in Miracles, she focused first on writing the music and then the lyrics.

“Sometimes it is the lyrics; sometimes it is the melody. For example, the song “Always” was [already] together. My mother, who is suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, wrote a line in my notebook – ‘Now is the time we must say goodbye.’ Her condition makes her not be able to read and write. As soon as she sees a blank page, she thinks it fills up with words, just like in Harry Potter – there is a blank page, and then words just appear. I was trying to show her [and tell her], “You actually can write, Mom. If you close your eyes, you still know how to write.””

Marla came across this notebook again one day while in a coffee shop. She revisited the sentence her mother had written. Thinking about the sentence, Marla then puts a melody to it, which is the same melody within the track “Always” on Miracles. Another melody which had stayed inside of Marla’s mind for a while was the verse in “A Gun.”

“I don’t play the guitar, but sometimes, when I was alone in my house, I would just take out the guitar and play around on my own. I would always have this [melody] “There’s a boy over there, he is holding a gun…” [she sings the song]… Every time I stayed there alone, I would rant and make up a song. Then I said, “That gun song is coming into this album. It’s amazing because it is one of my favorite songs, and I have listened to people who say they like it. This song has been in my head for years, and I thought “Why?””

While Marla brought the melody and lyrics for both the verses and the chorus in “A Gun,” Tomás brought in the cello and orchestra into that song. Regarding the message, Marla asserts that this “A Gun” is not a pro nor anti-gun tune. The artist does share that at the time this song was written, the massacre in Paris (November 2015) had already taken place. She finished the demo and said to Tomás, “I just got a really weird feeling.” An hour later, on her smartphone, she sees the news about the shooting. If I put myself in Marla’s shoes, I would have gotten frightened, even if I am aware that these two occurrences – the massacre in Paris and the composition of a song titled “A Gun” – have no connection to each other.

Moving on, I remember that Miracles~Lost and Found had been defined as a concept album. I wondered about the themes in the record, and I correctly picked up on one – disillusionment. I learned that while I picked up correctly on the theme, it held little to no relation to Marla’s motivations for the songs on MiraclesMarla with a Megaphone. Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer.

“Parts of Miracles~Lost and Found refer to what I have gone through, like dealing with depression, people in my life who are depressed, suicidality, and addiction. “Dreamland” was initially written as a reaction to my Mom being sick. She would say, “What is it all for?” Then I added in ‘I am hungering for more.’ We fight and battle; we do all of this in life, then we die. Not to be negative but, what is it all for? I think the disillusionment in the song is ‘we are living in a dreamland, let’s just pretend it is all right,’” says Marla, reciting a lyric in the chorus.

Something quite common among songwriters, which Marla also emphasizes is that sometimes you are not entirely aware of what you are writing. After Election Day 2016, “Dreamland” seems to have taken on a new meaning.

“We played at the Bowery Electric two days after the election, and I was pretty upset about the results. When I sang “Dreamland” to the audience that night, I did not feel it was about my mother then, but about people, all of us in America. Maybe that is what we have to do, pretend [everything] is all right, so we can get through. Then maybe that is a bad thing because we are trying to numb ourselves, like with the media.” Marla specifically refers to frivolous stories that receive attention. One story that comes to my mind is the one Time Magazine (online) covered about fathers doing ballet with their daughters.[ii] The artist expresses that the purpose of this type of reporting is to help people pretend that everything is fine, or feel distracted.

“Obviously as a whole, it is not the first time it has ever been done…,” says Marla. “You throw something one way, distracting people of the world from what is important.”

Another theme which emerges on Miracles~Lost and Found is the rude awakening. One example of a song that embodies rude awakenings is “56 Trees.”

“On the surface, I see a song that would be on the soundtrack for a film, like that Christopher Guest movie, the one that made fun of folk songs,” she explains. The film Marla refers to is called A Mighty Wind.[iii] “I feel the song seems a little bit [like the] sixties, but then there is this weird operatic thing [that happens]. I wrote this years ago as a reaction to a headline I saw – 56 trees were removed for fashion week at Lincoln Center.

“It sounds like I am this super tree-loving environmentalist, which I never really was, and then half-way through, the song equates the removal of trees in the middle of the night to people disappearing in the middle of the night. Where ever they live, in countries all over the world, people are told to move. But now, I am just thinking, that today, this could apply to what is happening with immigration. Boom: family gone! You are just thrown out. When this album, at least for me, when it was done, I felt like ‘Wow, there is a lot of depth in it.’”

Marla’s explanation about her motivations and themes that have come out of her songs is a prime example of how artists think when it comes to creating music. During my studies as a music history undergrad, I received the advice that many successful musicians and composers hid their real inspirations from the public. As a music blogger, I continue to ethnographically investigate how musicians and singer-songwriters create music.

When talking about original inspiration, writers must decipher what could be shared with a reader to create a cohesive story. The same also applies to writing music. Marla’s choice to keep the songs on Miracles~Lost and Found straightforward, appears as a suitable example. Even with lyrics and music, which to some might seem simplistic and partially politically-charged, even without meaning to, there is a candor behind Marla’s messages.

Marla’s next step for Miracles is to create a theatrical concert adoption of this record with Lisa Milinazzo. Lisa had expressed an interest in directing her, especially after she had heard Marla’s music.

“When I did Miracles, I thought that I would like to create a show out of it… I had written Lisa years ago… I met her via someone, and I had talked to her about Brief Night Out. We were not friendly. Then, we hired her for a Broadway-bound musical, Diana and Navy and the Golden Tooth written by Phoebe Nir who is an artist on our label. She (Lisa), had directed the concert version of that, so we got re-introduced. Then we became friends. Now, we are very good friends because of that show. I was in [it], and I produced it. I was [also] in the show as a narrator character.

“She said, ‘I want to direct you, I think you are interesting.’ Her husband is [also] a fan. I gave them my music from Speak. They said ‘We love your music!’ I thought, ‘Wow!’

“We are doing it, and we will work [together] on the dramaturgy. Lisa is influencing where it goes, and it is great. I like collaboration… there is only so much that can come out of my mind just working with someone else. She thinks it is really important. For me, I just want to do another show.

“She says it has to happen now because of the situation and it is pretty timely. We plan on putting up in June.”

Aside from performing and writing plays, Marla also owns two party-planning businesses, PARTYpoopers and PartySWANK, where she has produced over 3,000 events in the last 25 years. I asked Marla what inspired her to take the risk of starting a business. Her honest answer was “craziness.”

“Years ago,” she began to explain, “When I first started getting into acting and loved it, I started thinking why don’t I act in my theater? I can do it myself. I was not yet producing anything, we [Marla and her husband] were living in Tribeca at the time before what it is now. There were many empty storefronts. I was with my husband at the time, Isaac. I told him “I want to get a space where I can do my theater.” He then came up with the idea of doing kids’ parties. I was not sure why because we did not have children then.

“And, I thought ‘I don’t know. Really?’ That morning, when he woke up and said it, there was a big kids’ fair on our block, on Duane Street. I thought ‘That’s so weird, it must be a sign!’ Then, we just opened the business, and I never thought I would have done it if I did not want to open my theater. It was not anything I never really thought I would… this is the weird thing, everything I am doing in my life, I never really thought I would be doing.”

Like any entrepreneur, Marla’s journey in owning her own business was long. “There was a period where I felt mad because I thought it [the business] took me away from doing my artistic stuff. Now, it all goes together. It does not take up all of my time. The way I balance it now is so much better than I ever did. At first, we had a venue; I used to own thousands of costumes. I got rid of everything, and now it is all me being an event manager. I am the middle man; I know who to hire, and when you know any good director [for example], you know to hire the right people. It works out, but you must have good taste.”

It seems like Marla would like to continue to work as an event manager for parties. Regarding her efforts in music and performance, she plans to release the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles and see where that takes her. She is also developing a memory play that she wrote (along with members of her family) called “The Pill.” Tomas Doncker and James Dellatacoma did the sound design and her mom wrote the music. Marla expresses the first reading of it as a “huge success.” She also says, “People came out laughing and crying. I feel very excited about this piece. It has super strong legs.

Marla at the Dodge Poetry Festival 2014. Photo by Blair Bauer“I just want to keep putting out good work. To me, Miracles~Lost and Found is just one of many things I do. I am not downplaying it. I love the album. It’s not like that album where I am very performance art-y. Maybe some people think it is edgy and they hate it, or they believe that it is hip and cool; this for me, is a treat to say ‘This is an album for me to put on and hear a song, and then hear the next song.’ ”

Music and art, in general, take on a strange life. A singer-songwriter may have a particular motivation for a song in mind, and when they listen to the completed version of their song, it tells an individual story. However, if an artist performs that same song during a time within an environment where plenty of uncertainty, and even fear, fills the political and social landscape, their music can have new meaning. As a musician, playwright and performer, Marla does not seem rattled by this transformation. I would even say she welcomes it, and I would be curious to see how the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles~Lost and Found pans out.

Endnotes

[i] Music Reviews Staff Writer. (April 26, 2014). “monoblogue music: “Half-Life” by Marla Mase.” Chorus.FM. Retrieved from http://monoblogue.us/2014/04/26/monoblogue-music-half-life-by-marla-mase/ on March 11, 2017

[ii] Lang, C. (February 16, 2017). “These Dads Doing Ballet with Their Daughters is the Only Thing You Need to Watch Today.” Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4673637/dad-daugheter-ballet/ on March 25, 2017

[iii] A Mighty Wind (n.d.), Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Wind

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.

Passion, Practice and Performance: Tender Glue, Alyson Greenfield, and Myself

My social calendar has been quite full over the last two weekends. These social gatherings involved seeing old friends and new colleagues performing music in New York City. Last Saturday, December 12th, I went to the Rock Shop in Brooklyn to see Alyson Greenfield perform with a drummer she had been collaborating with, Sanal. Then I went to the Lower East side later that night to see my work colleague play guitar in a project called, Tender Glue.

The last time Alyson and I both saw each other, was in mid-October at CMJ. Sadly, I missed her show because I stayed too late at work. The next time Alyson and I met, we were both walking towards the Rock Shop in Brooklyn. She was wearing a cozy and fashionable white wool coat peppered with little nuances of black thread. Alyson also wore a pink backpack that I believe she purchased at American Apparel. Her hair was tied up in a ballet bun, and her lips sported a ruby red shade of lipstick. To accompany the dramatic facial appearance, Alyson wore sheer black stockings on her legs and flat-heeled leather boots that came mid-way between her ankles and her calves.

At the Rock Shop, friends of Alyson’s were waiting in the backstage/VIP area – a patio covered by a plastic canopy. When we got there, we met Kristin Flammio, a good friend of Sanal’s, known for her work with Brooklyn based band Forts. Also, I had a chance to meet and talk with Sanal.

Sanal moved to the U.S. from Kalmyk Republic, Russia – closest connection to Kazakhstan in the area of Caspian Sea, which belongs to indigenous people of Mongolian ethnicity, named Kalmyks. He comes from a musical family and learned to play drums from when he was six years old. During our chat, he told me how much he admires Alyson’s professionalism. Sanal said that any musical idea Alyson has, she records it, and then plays it to him and says “This is what I want.” Sanal then plays a rhythm on his drum set. Some of the song Alyson prefers having an “orchestra” or ambient atmosphere with what I guess would be toms, padded mallets and other percussion instruments. When he and Alyson decide on a rhythm, they play it together three or four times during their rehearsal.

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According to Sanal, Alyson practices her parts individually before she comes to rehearsal. That helps contain the rehearsal time to an hour. Making a living as a musician in New York City is time- and cost-consuming. Aside from the fact that having a day job is important to help musicians sustain themselves and focus on their craft; renting a place to practice with your band requires an adherence to the time restrictions of that space. Although my experience is nowhere near up to par with Alyson’s or Sanal’s, I remember rehearsing with the S.U. Klezmer Ensemble, on a weekly basis, and being conscientious of the fact that our rehearsal times were only one hour in length.

Returning to Sanal’s story, he explains, “Especially for singers, it is important they perform their parts individually because they have certain notes they must hit a certain way, at various moments in the song.” He also says that singers who don’t practice their parts before a rehearsal can spend copious amounts of time repeating specific sections, and this can overrun the rehearsal time.

After about thirty minutes, of talking, and enjoying a beer and a sandwich in the backstage area, Alyson and Sanal were ready to perform. Alyson’s stage outfit included a black string tank top, black denim shorts and those stockings and boots I had told you about earlier. At one point during her performance, she said, I was going for a Black Swan look. (She was referring to the way one of the main characters from the 2010 film, Black Swan, dressed). Sanal wore a black t-shirt that simulated a black tux.

Alyson and Sanal both displayed a love for music itself, and a desire to share it with their audience. Although the show they put on was free and started at 5 pm on a Saturday evening, the turnout of the crowd was great – about 30 people came to watch. Alyson and Sanal both performed two new songs together for the first time. I did record this clip of an acapella song Alyson performed. (the song she performed with a loop pedal. The one with a floor tom song, she performed with me also playing drums – Sanal).

After the show, Alyson, Sanal, and I, took a tour around The Rock Shop. We had a chance to see the merchandise displayed by various Brooklyn-based artisan businesses. This slideshow includes all we saw.

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Later that night, at around 7:00 pm, I left the Rock Shop and went to Leftfield on the Lower East Side. There, I met my work colleague, Janise, who was going to play guitar, as a temporary participant in Tom Gluewicki’s project, Tender Glue. According to the project’s Facebook Fan Page, Tender Glue is “Not a person. Not a band. It is music made by an urge to create (Tender Glue, Facebook, 2015).” Tom explains that Tender Glue is only him for now (“About| Tender Glue,” n.d.).

Tender Glue’s music has a structure that, pays ode to the psychedelic and folk rock of the ‘60’s. Then, somewhere within the first song, where the listener expects to hear a melodic guitar solo that is easy to sing back, the lead guitar instead delivers a series chords stretched across the measures as whole notes, creating an ambiance and ultimately, reminding listeners that these songs have been written in modern times. In another song, on which Tom played acoustic guitar, Janise played a solo that bounced between the low registers of the ‘e’ and the ‘a’ strings, and then the ‘b’ and the second ‘e’ strings on her Strat. The song was – for the most part – composed in a major key, with an upbeat tempo, and a steady rhythm.

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Tom, on rhythm guitar, played more major and minor chords, than the power and bar chords we are used to seeing from the most famous rock guitarists we can identify. In one song, Tom’s harmony involves a progression between ‘C’ major, ‘G’ major and ‘A’ minor. As for his vocal performance, one might say that that Tom’s voice floats in the register of a tenor. Further, Tom’s vocals are accentuated by the guitar pedals and the effects of the microphone. These effects help simulate distance as if the singer’s voice echoes. Another memorable effect made by the technology was at a specific time in the performance where Tom played his harmonica, touching it on the surface of the microphone in front of him, which produced a sound that felt like a cross between a fog horn and the horn of a small train.

If you would like to listen to any track by Tender Glue online, you can download songs for free on Bandcamp. All of Tender Glue’s music, lyrics, and the additional effects are the idea of Tom Gluewicki (J. Lazarte, personal communication, December 28, 2015). During the performance, I met one of Janise’s friends; he works in finance, and he also plays drums within various bands around New York City. Aside from telling me about his day-to-day, he also told me about his admiration for Janise’s drive to perform music.

On the topic of performing, I wanted to bring up another interesting conversation I had with Sanal. He and I had spoken about the difference between musicians who have a passion for music and those who are merely skilled. He used the example within the film Black Swan, in which ballerina Nina (played by Natalie Portman), the main character, has mastered the skills to dance the parts of both the white swan and the black swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. However, she does not perform with as much soul as her understudy, Lily (played by Mila Kunis). This realization drives Nina mad, and eventually, results in her own physical and mental demise. Sanal’s finishing point to that conversation was that those musicians who have a passion for playing music and practice, are happier than those musicians who have the skills, practice, but lack passion.

Fast-forward to last Saturday, December 19th. That Saturday, I did not travel to the city for concerts. Instead, I invited someone I have been dating for a few weeks now to come over. I told him previously that I had played piano throughout my undergraduate studies. He suggested that maybe one day, I would play for him. Therefore, I decided to take Saturday afternoon to practice a few pieces on my Baldwin Upright Piano. A few pieces I had come to love playing, all by Erik Satie, included “First Gymnopedie”; “First Gnossienne”; and “Third Gymnopedie.”

That afternoon, I practiced these three short pieces, and while I still have the skill, I am a stickler for playing everything perfectly, much like the ballerina Nina was when she danced. However, I then recalled what Sanal talked to me about, and I asked myself, what was more important, to play each of the notes perfectly, or to play with passion? I decided on the latter. The most important part of my performance that night – if it were to happen – was to play a piece through. If I were to make mistakes, I would have to disguise them like they were intentional.

That night, when my date came over and asked me to play something, I chose the “First Gymnopedie.” I stumbled a few times in my performance, but my mistakes were not very noticeable. When it came time to play the “First Gnossienne,” my stumbles were far more noticeable, yet I felt like I played that one with far more passion than I did the “First Gymnopedie.” Regardless, though, when I played that final F-minor chord on the “First Gnossienne,” I looked back at my date who was watching me from the living room, and he just smiled.

Works Cited

J Lazarte. (n.d.). About| Tender Glue [website]. Retrieved from http://tenderglue.com/about/

Tender Glue (n.d.). In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from https://www.facebook.com/TenderGlue/info/

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 County 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

 

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.