Todd Carter a.k.a The Looking Make Old Folk Songs Great for Rock ‘n’ Roll

The Looking perform at Symphony Space on February 25, 2013 Todd Carter (a.k.a. The Looking), the New York City-based singer songwriter, is in the process of releasing their third album, Songs for a Traveler. In this record, Todd turns American folk classics and old country songs from the years 1850 to 1950, like “Wayfaring stranger,” “900 Miles,” “River in the Pines,” and “Blue River” into rock ‘n’ roll.

My personal love for rock music motivated me to talk with Todd about his newest album, which is set for a release date in April of this year.

In our conversation, I learned that Todd’s love for the archaic folk songs The Looking covers in their latest record doesn’t stem from a deep understanding of American folk music. Instead, he has developed an appreciation for how some of the crazy, romantic and mind-boggling themes and stories within these songs easily transition into the rock genre. This is why I am happy to introduce Todd Carter as the subject of my March full-length interview feature on Music Historian’s, Hear; Don’t Listen.  

The Perils and Romance in Travel-Themed Songs

I asked Todd what he liked about these folks songs and he said:

“I love travelling, and a lot of these folk songs have some sort of traveling theme in them. “900 Miles” is about a man trying to get back home to find this woman, but he’s lost on a train somewhere. “Hobo’s Meditation,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “River in the Pines,” all share this theme.

“It really comes down to, not necessarily being about the music but how much I love these songs. It’s about taking the listeners on the journey of these songs. I just want to articulate that and present it in a way that is really available to people.”

To enumerate on this point, he took me through the process of recording “Blue River,” a ragtime song that was popularly performed by jazz singer Sophie Tucker in 1928.

“We ‘unragtime-ized’ the song by taking it out of its original 4/4 time signature and made it 6/8. We put some heavier guitar in there and we thought it would be fun to leave some of the jazzy influence. We also removed some of the lyrics that are found in the original version, which are really hokey.

“I really wanted to move it to another dimension.”

Some songs on The Looking’s latest record underwent fewer modifications. This enabled Todd to focus on conveying the tone and themes they presented. One example is “River in the Pines,” a song made famous by Joan Baez. He explains:

““River in the Pines” is a wild song that takes place around the Chippewa River in Wisconsin. It’s about a logger named Charlie, who falls in love with a woman named Mary. Later in the song he dies in a river accident; and at the end, Mary also ends up in the grave, but it is unclear how she got there. You think she was so bereft by Charlie’s death that she couldn’t handle it anymore. There is something romantic and a little hard core.”

The Story of Finding These Songs

Stories about danger, loneliness, and suggested taboos that one learns about on the road have graced many rock songs. Based on my experience, I always felt rock ‘n’ roll was a more popular and familiar genre among urbanites than American folk, especially in New York City. So then, I became curious about what motivated Todd to release a rockin’ cover album of folk music.

“Last year, I completed a residency at The Underground on 107th and West End, and I had two hours to perform every Wednesday night,” says Todd. “So, I started to gather a repertoire of more songs I could perform besides my own.

“I found some old Bob Dylan, which led me to look at Townes Van Zandt, which led me to examine all the versions of “Wayfaring Stranger.” We also found some old Gospel tunes like “Angel of Death” written by Hank Williams.

“My band and I started experimenting with these songs; and we started playing them live for the audience in different arrangements and keys.

“I really enjoyed playing the songs and started recording a lot of them in my studio. Then, I tried to figure out which ones I liked most and got the idea that I really wanted to make a record.”

Todd’s Musical Influences and Performance Background

Todd Carter aka The Looking at Symphony Space 02/25/2013 When I first listened to Songs for a Traveler, I had no prior knowledge that these songs were covers of folk and old country tunes. I simply judged them as originals. In doing so, I developed the following thoughts on The Looking’s record: the lyrics express an old country feel and tonally, the songs convey rock ‘n’ roll. Then, I picked up subtle influences of classical music, like the minor to major key modulations, and the simple duple meter in the song “Blue River.”

This led me to ask Todd about his performance background. He enumerates:

“Growing up, I loved listening to Michael Stipe from R.E.M. As you listen to Michael’s vocal evolution, you hear that he started becoming more of a crooner. Although he was never exactly a crooner, it was interesting to hear.

“During my early years, I was into Brit pop, and bands like New Order and Joy Division. I mixed that with my old-time love for country music – Johnny Cash, Ray Price, and Bob Dylan.”

Todd adds, “I started out singing in my parents’ garage in Carmel, Indiana. I played a lot of punk rock and didn’t have any real training until I moved to New York in about 2000, when I decided to study at the Mannes School of Music. That’s when I became really interested in vocal training.

“I began to study with various teachers. I eventually trained with a singer at the Metropolitan Opera, Edna Lind. I studied with her for quite a while and started putting on some Operatic performances around the city.”

The Recording Experience of Songs for a Traveler

During the time that Todd was performing Operatic pieces around Manhattan, he also worked on two other albums recorded with The Looking: Tin Can Head (2005) and The Cabinet of Curiosities (2009). Both of these albums were created under his label, Astraea Records. I asked Todd how his experience with making his 2013 album differed from that of his last two records.

“That’s a good question,” he remarked. “I wanted this record to have more of a live feel. I wanted to come out of our recording days with Ken Rich over on Grant Street Recording and record a lot of live music off the floor. I really wanted to try to deliver some of the vocals in the studio while we were recording the instrumentals live.

““Sail Around” included a live vocal recording. Then the vocals for “Blue River” and “900 Miles” were recorded in the studio. I sang the lyrics right back into the speakers.

“I love the way this record sounds. The man, who mixed the music for the latest record, Songs for a Traveler, Myles Turney, did an amazing job.”

At the moment, people can listen to some of the tracks on Songs for a Traveler on The Looking’s website. When I listened to the tracks prior to interviewing Todd, I received no auditory indication that these songs were recorded live. In short, the album lives up to its promise of being finely mixed.

As for Todd’s love for the musical styles and genres he previously touched upon, listeners can expect to hear something different on each record that he will release with The Looking. Todd already has another complete album he hopes to release in the next couple of months.  

Todd’s Plans for the Future

“I actually just finished another record that I’m hoping to release in the next couple of months called 1969 to 1984, produced by Roger Greenawalt,” he says. “It is another cover project I have been working through. We recreated songs by Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Echo and the Bunnymen.”

When Todd is not recording or performing with The Looking, he works with an intermediary company that helps him place his original music on spots for television programs on channels such as Bravo and Discovery. Then, there is Todd’s record label Astraea Records, which he has been running for ten years.

Todd explains that owning his own record label “Came out of helping of friend who wanted to make a record. Her name was Morley; she is a New York singer songwriter. We got a couple of people together to help her and we created this record to get that project off the ground.

“It was really out of the spirit of assisting some friends that needed to get their music out. I felt it was important at the time because Morley made an incredible record that helped her get signed to Universal in France.

“Then, other projects came into play like Camomile, Parmidian One, and then mine.”

Todd continues, “Astraea has become more of a production company than a label per se. We’ve had a few releases. Astraea has been around for quite a while and it has created a presence on-line which enables people to listen to the different artists. I would say it’s more in its twilight sphere now. I’m actually moving my attention to The Looking.”    

At the moment The Looking are planning an official launch party for Songs for a Traveler sometime in April. A tour for this album and a potential release of 1969 to 1984 are also possible plans for later in 2013.

Roger Greenawalt on Music & Business Part 1: Running Shabby Road Studios

Roger Greenawalt at Shabby Road Studio. Courtesy of Originalhipster.net Last week, on one of the windiest evenings in January, I stopped by the Shabby Road Studios to talk with record producer Roger McEvoy Greenawalt. I asked him what a high-quality recording requires, and he says, “All you need is a good microphone, a mic pre-amp, and an audio digital converter like an M-Box going into a computer.

“That’s it; then knowing where to put the microphone, and a good musician playing a good part on a good instrument. Finally, a good mixer can make anything sound serviceable.”

As my conversation with Roger continued, I learned that while anybody can produce a record, a musician needs more than talent and ambition to become a professional.

My debut full-length interview for 2013 will be divided into two parts. In this article, part one, I talk with Roger about: the most important lessons he learned as a musician in his early years; the day-to-day in the life of a record producer at Shabby Road Studios; and the advice he has for young musicians looking to make it in music.

Early years with The Dark

During the start of his career in the early 1980’s, as a guitarist for the band The Dark, Roger learned the difference between a musician that was ready to take on the music industry, and one that was not. Roger explains:

“We [The Dark] were on Relatively Records at the same time as the Beastie Boys, when they were putting out their first record, “Cooky Puss.” And Megadeath was also on the label. We were at the right place at the right time. Our music, structurally, was cutting-edge, but not suicidally so.

“I think ultimately though, we had two weaknesses. The first was all my fault – I was the leader of the band and we did not develop an effective business team. Although we had some good PR instincts, we just couldn’t focus on them.

“Art lives in a system defined by commerce. Visionary entrepreneurs like David Geffen, for example, actually curated the culture. The artists that were closest to him defined the core of a dominant style and they acquired the best reputations. Think Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Are they really the best of their era, or did they have the best PR and management?

“Secondly, our singer did not believe whole heartedly that he was the “Joseph Campbell” hero character. He would not inhabit the hero. He thought it was okay at the time to make fun of the rock star. Our singer was a virtuoso but he didn’t really believe he was a star. He made fun of it and didn’t really own it; so that gave people this view: “If he doesn’t believe it, then I don’t believe it either.””

Transitioning into the Recording Business

Roger eventually became The Dark’s ad hoc manager. Then, in 1983, the band parted ways.

Roger then describes the transitional period in his life from the guitarist in The Dark to learning the business of the recording studio.

“The Dark won a Battle of the Bands contest, and we won the time to do a record with Rico Ocasek at the Cars Recording Studio Syncro Sound, on Newberry Street in Boston. Then, I became the habitué at the studio and just insinuated myself there and made myself useful.”

Roger’s experiences at The Cars Recording Studio later took him to different recording experiences in the United States and abroad. Roger has only been living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at Shabby Road Recording Studio for the past 13 years. Prior to this, he lived in Los Angeles; Kingston, Jamaica; and London. He briefly touches on what he experienced in each of these musical landscapes.

“During the time that I was in London, in the 90’s” Roger says, “the major label businesses were flushed with money; very different from now. I liked the energy of that city; it was similar to that in Los Angeles at the time. I still like the energy of LA now.

“When I lived in London, I was always learning a lot about new music. London is fantastic for music – their [London recording studios’] recordings are just more exquisite. They have more quickly evolving styles, they’re cutting edge. Since it rains there all the time, people stay indoors more when they record music.”

Working at Shabby Road: “…master the technical stuff and listen widely and voraciously.”

Living and working in different studios will definitely provide a developing music producer with plenty of experience. The more experienced the producer, the better they are at the craft. Roger states:

“To be a producer is to master the technical stuff: audio engineering; the physics of music – to understand that music is a subset of the physics of sound; and also the challenge to become an expert on as many musical instruments as possible; and listen humbly, widely and voraciously.”

During our interview, Roger exhibited to me exactly how the required skills of a music producer would translate into the everyday work of creating a record.

“My job is mixing and recording albums. I’m actually making loud speaker paintings.

“When we look at a classical musician, like Bach Concertos or especially Ravel, we figure out what to do with all the tones, frequencies and the ranges. Then, there is Nelson Riddle and George Martin and Max Martin to contend with. Time is the magic that music flows within. The rhythm of what’s coming out of the speakers, the display of all the different frequencies. What are the words being spoken/ rapped/ sung? You ask yourself ‘what do you do with all of that?’ ‘How do you disperse the energies to tickle the human brain and the nervous system just right?’ ‘Where do you draw the line between structure and surprise?’”

Roger on bass at the Shabby Road Studio. Image courtesy of Originalhipster.net Roger continues, “I really like playing reggae bass. I’ll give you a taste of what reggae bass is – the opposite energy-wise of the ukulele, which is a collection of high frequencies just floating and dancing above in the hi register. The voice is here, in the middle,” he shows me with a flat-hand positioned in front of his mouth, “and the ukulele is here,” he moves his hand above his head, “and the bass is down here,” he re-positions his hand below his chest. “So it’s great that the voice has all this space and the bass generations so much more energy without clouding the vocal.”

Roger plays me a line that is typical reggae bass. The line is written in a minor melody, and is easy to remember and repeat. He then picks up the ukulele and plays a few staccato minor chords. He plays these chords again in an arpeggio, and then changes them up again my turning these chords into major chords. Meanwhile, for every variation, he repeats the same minor bass line.

“There is a lot of color that can go over it [the bass line],” concludes Roger.

Whenever an artist comes to Shabby Road Recording studios, Roger applies a similar technical process to every client. The instrumentation and the goal for each recording session varies widely though.

“For musicians I haven’t worked with before, I ask them to send me a Spotify list of all their favorite stuff. I will listen to these songs with the artist and talk music. Then I will play them my favorite stuff and say “this is what I think is cool.” Then we would make a Venn diagram and see where our likes overlap.

“In the same moment, I will also try to tactically push a formal element so that this way, we are consciously doing something innovative without abandoning my two core values. The first: hook and second: groove. And crucially, the emphasis is on the singer. After that, everything is up for grabs: what instruments; what historical influence; what ensembles; tempos; and mood/feeling.”

Confident and Experienced Musicians are Interested in Learning

Artist Kiddeaux (Left) accompanied by Roger Greenawalt (Right) in the basement of Shabby Road Studio. Photo courtesy of maneatingseas.com  Roger’s job goes beyond providing the recording space and acting as master of the equipment.

“I don’t want to be anyone’s bitch,” he enumerates, “nor do I want to oppress anyone. I find that the more confident and experienced the person is, the easier it is for me to collaborate with them and the easier it is for them to listen and take advice.

“It’s painful to work with the inexperienced and insecure. They’re unable to put excellence outside their ego.

“I ask, “Can you be taught?” Because if they are interested in learning, then I am as well, and I see they want to be on a team that learns together.

“I don’t care about me and what I think, I care about the thing being excellent; and that takes a little bit of maturity.”

Of course, there are plenty of artists that know exactly what they want when they enter a recording studio; that is to put their song on a record. While Roger is open to this idea, he still expects more openness and commitment to the creative and collaborative process from the musicians that enter his orbit.

“If a musician has songs to record, I’ll be up to record their songs. I’m still into all of that, but I would rather start songs from scratch and create songs together.”

For The Young Musician: the benefits and challenges of the industry

Shabby Road Studios caters to musicians looking to get serious about their craft, and sometimes that means the artist must step outside of their normal routine and create new songs with producers. Based on what I learned from Roger, the musicians that are open and willing to accept this are the ones ready to take the first steps in pursuing the music industry. So what are the benefits and the challenges of taking on such a task today? Roger explains:

“There are multiple levels of rewards. The arts are good for people’s soul. Talented artists that work for themselves and are not working for any corrupt institution that oppresses people is a win/win for humanity.

“Aside from the grandiose and narcissistic personality; fame is necessary for economic survival in popular music. Fame is just part of the job. On a spiritual level, it doesn’t have to be who you are. There are a range of celebrities that are more-or-less well-adjusted. There is a range between Amy Winehouse and Tom Hanks.

“The challenges? Now, you have to be an artist, an entrepreneur, run your own small business, find your own scenes and drive people yourself. You have to be very good at that and adapt. The more you adapt, the faster things are going to change for the better for you.”

Recalling my past interviews with artists, each one encountered a specific obstacle. Sometimes it involved growing comfortable with performing in front of a large crowd, discovering a signature sound, or seeking the right ensemble. Each musician found a way to overcome their challenge and continued on their professional path.

What I didn’t realize until I met Roger is that economic success for a musician also depends on their ability and willingness to firstly, grow artistically and secondly, learn from a producer with extensive experience on the business side of music. Like Roger confirms:

“Being good at music is just not enough. We have to be good in business.”

What’s ahead?

Since I am talking to a music producer that has a ton of experience under his belt; my debut interview with Roger Greenawalt will continue in part two, which I plan to have up by the end of the month.

Kamara Thomas and The Ghost Gamblers: Where Country Music and the Cosmos Meet

[left to right] Kamara, Amal Bouhabib, Jeff Malinowski

 When I first watched Kamara Thomas perform with The Ghost Gamblers on May 2nd at The Living Room in the Lower East Side, I was drawn by her style. She sported a cotton poncho top that was a combo of both a solid color and floral print fabric and a pair of pants with various religious symbols. Then there is her music, with song titles like “Stranded in San Antone” that include these lyrics:

You promised me the rivers of Damascus/ And your love was all that I was askin’ for/ instead you left me Stranded in San Antone…

As I researched the band, I learned they describe their music as cosmic country. The name of this genre and the catchiness of this acoustic folk and rock ‘n’ roll sound, intrigued me so much, I knew I had to invite Kamara to be the full-length music feature for May right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen.

A New Genre: Cosmic Country 

Aside from any country I hear on the radio, The Ghost Gamblers is the first band I heard of that plays cosmic country. Inside The Living Room, where shadows and flickering votive candles set a meditative atmosphere, Kamara explains the genre as she shares her personal history with music.

“In general, I think of myself as a priestess of country music. I was raised with country and classical music at a very early age.

“Before I was 7 years old, my mom was a big hippie and I had always listened to rock ‘n’ roll in my house. Then, when my mom “got God,” as they call it, she became a Seventh-Day Adventist – a religion that is on the side of fundamentalist Christianity. Afterward, I was cut off from rock ‘n’ roll, and also, as far as I could tell, fun. The only music my mother would let us listen to was country and classical.

“But I often wondered why country got to stay and why rock ‘n’ roll had to leave. Country talks about crazy stuff going on in the world just as much as rock ‘n’ roll. My mom just always told me, “Country was about life,” so it was okay.

“As I continued to live in this fundamentalist atmosphere, I adopted a philosophical point of view. I was always thinking about God and tried to integrate everything I was learning with my callings as an artist and singer. I also tried to integrate what I was learning with my own internal disagreements about the fundamentalist point of view. So naturally, my stuff is of a very spiritual nature and I always ask myself spiritual questions.”

Kamara and Jeff

Further in my conversation with Kamara, I learned her spiritual ponderings eventually transformed into journeys, which she shares through music. She says, “As my journey unfolds, the lessons I learn in my life end up becoming songs. One of the songs, “My Pretty Angel” is probably the most spiritual song you’ll hear.

“This song took my three years to write, because it accompanied me on my spiritual journey. When I get the inkling of a spiritual lesson I’m learning, I will write a song, but won’t finish it until the lesson has been fully learned or realized.”

I then wondered whether Kamara applied this process to all of her songs. She then explained to me how her creative cycles differ for each of her songs, and how they correspond with her spiritual journey.

“I write songs in cycles. Some are tiny ones, others are large. Some songs will take me an hour to write, and some will take me seven years. My spiritual lessons are cycles, and they are built into my song writing process. I found, the more I dealt with my spirituality, the more cosmic it became. So, that’s why it’s [my music] is cosmic country.”

Although I found my answer to “what is cosmic country,” I felt I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg on Kamara’s adventure with music. Then, she shared with me another important life lesson – accepting the path of music.

The Need for Solitude: Listening to the Still, Small Voice

She says, “There was a moment in my life I realized I was a musician, and it was weird because all my life, I was involved with music but had no idea I was being called to be a songwriter or a singer.

“As a child, I was heavily involved with church and I was a part of everything that had to do with music. I learned to play drums in the concert band, and I gained all of my singing experience from being in the choir, but I took it for granted. I didn’t realize I was actually a musician.”

When it came time for Kamara to go to college, she knew she wanted to perform, so she decided to pursue acting. However, she couldn’t put music aside. She explains:

“In my freshman year of college, I almost flunked out because I was involved in all these musical ensembles that would start as soon as classes ended, and continued until 11 at night, so I never studied for classes. I was also too involved in communities to listen to or even hear my still, small voice – one that wanted to say “Oh, I’ve been making music all my life” or “Oh, I’ve been a musician this whole time.” I didn’t hear it until I was alone long enough that it finally hit me.”

Kamara claims that solitude helped her discover her need to start songwriting. She found this solitude when she moved to Los Angeles after college to become an actress.

“I moved to L.A. to be an actress, and I didn’t act at all. I happened to stay in a part of the city that had everything I needed to do within a one-mile radius, so I walked everywhere, and fell into the solitude I needed to start writing songs. During this time I started to hear my still, small voice. Then it occurred to me I wanted to be a musician.

“That’s when I decided to move to New York, because I would never be able to cut my teeth into L.A. without a car. And, I could build experience in songwriting and performing.”

 For Kamara, this decision marked the end of one life chapter and the start of another – her life as a musician. Like the cycles of all things that exist in nature and in life, nothing is ever wasted, and that is what I learned from Kamara. She translates some of elements of her past experiences and spiritual lessons into songs. For example, Kamara’s experience with the west, inspired The Ghost Gambler’s hit, “Stranded in San Antone.”

A Place of Spirit that Inspired a Song

“This song is part of a larger story cycle called Tularosa, explains Kamara. “Tularosa is an area in New Mexico, a place that really caught my attention. I first learned about it when I studied theater in college, and I started to see this place as a focal point for several American dreams. 

“When I traveled to the west, I felt a lot of spirit in that land. If you become still enough, you can almost listen to it. Learning about all that happened in Tularosa lead me to write several songs about this place. “Stranded in San Antone” is one of them.

“So, I was writing this song, but I soon found myself stuck. I had a block, and decided to do a spiritual exercise to find the focus of this song. I took out some tarot cards and did a reading. This helped me find the focus of the story I would tell in this song – one of a woman who did whatever she could to make something of her life and then paid the price of her decisions in order to battle through the rugged terrain.”

Nobody can turn away from the tune that pulls the listener into this story. Kamara’s voice tells the story through the eyes of this character, but it is her voice that expresses that element of rock and folk that excites listeners from the very moment the song starts.

The inspiration behind “Stranded in San Antone,” is very intriguing. How often have you been able to listen to the New York City’s landscape when it’s still? I certainly haven’t, because our city never stays still, and we certainly don’t stand still enough to listen. “Stranded in San Antone” is one of the Ghost Gambler’s songs that will take you to the final frontier of someone’s dream and personal journey.

As my talk with Kamara drew to a close, I learned that aside from being a musician, she is first and foremost, a full-time mother. Playing both roles requires a balance of determination and patience.

The Path and Miracle to Creation

“It’s amazing to play music with a little child in the house,” says Kamara. “I often tell people “I’ve never gotten more done with my music before my daughter was born.” This is because time takes on this new meaning – everything you do is in this allotted time.

“I have to plan what I’d like to do and actually see it though. When I have free time, to not do what I really want is like sacrilege. I think to myself, ‘let me use this time to help make something happen.’

“In this way, she’s contracted me and my husband’s life, but expanded it at the same time. We’re able to do so much more. And it’s great that she’s inside inspiration all the time. She loves music.”

Kamara also says the journey of motherhood teaches her the true value of creation.

“Doing this creative act – passing a human being out of my body and into the world – helped me understand the path and the miracle of creation more deeply. Now, I know how hard it can be to bring something into the world.

“I was in labor for 32 hours. Nothing went wrong, it was very normal, natural and painful; it just took a long time. It helped me realize that in the creative process, you sometimes have to push your creation out; sometimes, you have to trust that it’s going to come out in its own time; and sometimes it is painful.

“What my daughter brought to the picture is far more than what she took away. Now, and I have more patience with myself, and I am more determined.”

Future with The Ghost Gamblers: “It’s Our Time”

 Earlier, Kamara talked about how her spiritual lessons and songwriting process accompany one another in creative cycles. Aside from realizing these cycles, Kamara is now at a point where she can listen to her own inner voice, and reflect on her experiences, and understand how she’s gotten to this point in life. All of these reflections help her to pursue what life has called her to do – music.

Right now, Kamara is finishing her residency with The Ghost Gamblers at The Living Room. They are also getting ready to release an album in September, and she’s currently putting together a free teaser, which she hopes to have ready in the next few weeks. As for the near future, Kamara hopes to get back into the studio and record the next record.

When she is not in the studio, she is raising a child with her husband, who is also the pedal steel player in The Ghost Gamblers. Kamara’s journey through motherhood is a large cycle that has just begun. Like the movement of celestial bodies in the cosmos; family, career and everything else that makes up life, all revolve simultaneously with one another. Some of these life cycles are small, some are large. Kamara’s cycle with The Ghost Gamblers is well underway. She says “We’re just getting up and running – it’s our time.”

A Love for Piano Meets Entrepreneurial Achievement

Last Saturday, I caught up with Melissa Ng, a former classmate. She runs a music center with her family in Jackson Heights called PianoVerse – an organization dedicated to facilitating people’s love for piano and developing their passion.

PianoVerse has come a long way since it first opened over a year ago. According to Melissa, challenges during the first year of business involved getting the word out about the company and learning the logistics. The challenge for the second year was finding ways to improve the company.

Word of mouth advertising, or customer driven advertising, is one of the most effective marketing techniques today. This technique works in your favor when you provide individuals a positive experience. PianoVerse continuously demonstrates these experiences.

PianoVerse: A place to learn, play and love piano

“Parents come to PianoVerse to give their children a chance to play piano. They see their child has potential. Recently, I have seen an interesting development among parents: they start building an interest in piano after they see their kids practice. This has inspired many parents to take lessons at our facilities for their own interest in music.” This developing trend encouraged Melissa, her sisters and mother to make PianoVerse a more accommodating space for adults. I then asked Melissa on the challenges of working with students on a wide age range.

Young PianoVerse student performs at Summer Finale Recital at the Langston Hughs Library

“We believe age is just a number. We don’t lock anybody into a “learning” category. I’ve met all kinds of students and I’ve learned that each person has their own way of learning. Work ethic is a big part of learning piano; and if you have a desire and curiosity for it too, that’s already taking you half of the way. If you have the willingness to do it and you give yourself permission to try, this is what will help you move yourself along.”

Discipline and work ethic is a small part of learning piano; a larger part of it is passion. At PianoVerse, playing piano is all about “enjoying it – something that is a huge part of learning. It helps you stay engaged.” This is perhaps why PianoVerse’s latest tag line reads, “PianoVerse: A place to learn, play and love piano.”

As someone who has been a piano student for years, I wonder how PianoVerse facilitates this love for piano for their clients. The answers might stem from the fact that Melissa and her family doesn’t simply see their clients as business customers, but as “friendly new faces.”

The positive student and teacher dynamic

“When people come in here, we think of them as new friends. I believe you meet a person with expectations but you never know what you might learn from them. We want to create an environment where people can learn from each other and support each other; and we find this helps develop a positive relationship between teachers and students.”

The relationship between student and teacher is very apparent in the way some young students reacted when they learned they wouldn’t have the same teacher for the Fall as they did this past Summer. Melissa explains, “On one hand, this is endearing. On the other, some students had to continue with a new teacher due to scheduling differences. Overall, we are really happy to see that a positive student and teacher dynamic. It means the student really enjoyed learning with that teacher.”

Such a dynamic really helps create a familial atmosphere at PianoVerse. The idea of family is a reoccurring theme at PianoVerse – one that is perhaps fueled by the critical role music plays in Melissa’s own family.

It was a family pursuit and we all felt like it was the right thing to do

Melissa’s grandparents ran a piano center in Manhattan for over 30 years; her mother and her mother’s siblings also played a big role in managing the business in their youth. Melissa’s mother also pursued additional entrepreneurial projects outside of this center, but has now found herself returning to music.

Melissa tells me, “My grandmother told my mother, “Whatever you do with your life, make sure music is a part of it. It will give you peace.”

“Overtime, my mom continued her various businesses with my father while she raised me and my sisters. A year and a half ago, my grandmother became very ill and at that moment, my mom and sisters decided to drop everything we were previously doing and come together to make a piano center in Queens. It was a family pursuit and we all felt like it was the right thing to do.”

Melissa, her mother and sisters wanted to show their grandmother the results of this starting venture, but her grandmother passed away before they even had a chance to show her PianoVerse.

Melissa Ng (left) superving the Summer Finale Recital

As our conversation continued, I truly understood how music brought personal and entrepreneurial fulfillment to the Ng family. “Music has really drawn our family together,” explains Melissa. “My family has always been close and working with them is great. Jackson Heights is also a very family oriented neighborhood; many businesses are family run. And in times like these, people appreciate small businesses more, because working with family gives you that mutual support and constant communication. This helps make a business better.”

Creating opportunities in music

Like many young professionals in the arts industry, I am attracted to the robust artistic scenes in and around New York City; and I plan to make PianoVerse part of my artistic pursuits when I physically get closer to the city. In addition, I also feel young professionals in the arts have something to learn from Melissa Ng and her family’s business, and that’s how to find career opportunities in music.

Melissa explains, “We need to be more creative of how we want to use music in our lives. People will ask me, “What’s the point of learning music? Or “What can you do with music?” I believe everybody should learn music without expecting a specific end goal like “how much do I have to practice before I can become a concert pianist?” Most goals in our lives constantly change just like music.”

Melissa and her family wants PianoVerse to be a place where people can fall in love with piano and carry this love to something more notable like improving their performance skills or completing a piece. While PianoVerse cannot magically transform beginning students or training pianists into “superstars,” they can help students develop musical goals or simply help students relax and have fun.

Audience at Summer Finale Recital 2011

When I asked Melissa where she hopes to see PianoVerse a year from now, she would like to make the business “even better.” She enumerates, “We always want to improve and supports our students’ interests and help them out more… a lot of our teachers and students are very performance oriented and we’re looking to find them performance opportunities outside of recitals.”

For Melissa and her family, music is not just a business, it is a lifestyle. PianoVerse doesn’t only require dedication, business expertise and an understanding of music; it requires genuine love and a belief in the potential music helps unlock in every person. Melissa claims, “Just like people and life, music is beautiful and forever changing.”

Ava Luna: A Band in Transition

A band undergoes several transformations, hardships and disappointments before they gain recognition from music lovers and record producers. Brooklyn-based band, Ava Luna, is no exception. This band has persevered through some of the toughest and, sometimes, seemingly impassible obstacles and are now reaping the benefits. Front man, Carlos Hernandez has been with Ava Luna every step of the way. He enumerates on his experiences in this first full-length band feature article for Hear; Don’t Listen

“Hated to practice; but loved to write”

 Carlos started the band at 17 years old. Over the course of his music training, Carlos consistently trained in classical piano. Over the course of his training, Carlos learned he “hated to practice but loved to write.” This led to an interest and pursuit in piano composition. Carlos also developed an interest in rock and roll; and the band, Weezer became his favorite group. At 17 years of age, Carlos had a new passion and goal: writing music that people his age would listen to and love.

Along with his best friend at the time, Nathan, a synthesizer player, Carlos stared a band called Ava. In later years, the original band members adopted the second name, Luna, after they learned about another band also called Ava.

The band’s early fall-outs

In the early years, Ava Luna created three albums, all of which Carlos claims were “disasters.”

“Back when Ava Luna first started, people called it cabaret; somebody even described it as the Rocky Horror Picture show – something I definitely didn’t want to hear.” In his mind, Carlos perceived the band’s sound as something darker and with less pizazz. Comments like these shocked him.

In addition to the response from audiences; problems started brewing between Carlos and Nathan. The two original Ava Luna members ended their friendship once they both finished college. Afterward, Carlos decided to continue Ava Luna as a one-man band.

“How can I make this group sound?”

After the band broke-up, Carlos rethought a lot about what he wanted in a band. “I literally sat down one day and thought ‘how can I make a band with no people in it, and how can I make this group’s sound?’ If I wanted to have a future with this band, I had to define a clear sound. I thought about my musical background and asked myself how I could make a band that represents this and gives me the opportunity to compose and offset the soul music influence.”

(Left to Right) Carlos, Julian, Becca, Anna, and Felicia

Carlos also thought of how he could contribute instrumentally to the band, and picked up singing and guitar in addition to playing synthesizer. He also asked his younger brother to play drums. Eventually, Carlos decided to compose intricate vocal lines for multiple singers, and this led to inviting three back-up singers to the group. A drummer would soon follow, and Carlos’s old band mate and friend, Nathan, reunited with Ava Luna.

Ava Luna today is a “group of musicians that come together and combine their eclectic tastes”

Ava Luna is now a 6 person band. They managed to go on tour after only a year of performing.  And though they were still experimenting as a band, they received a greater response from audience members.

Carlos describes Ava Luna today as “the group of musicians that come together and combine their eclectic tastes.” Ava Luna might

Ava Luna perform at the Baseline Stage of the U.S. Open

have started as an experiment but over time, it became a long-lasting band in which everybody has a free say and the ability to play around with how ever much they want.

Carlos adds, “I can now understand what makes my band members like this music, and my job is to see how I can make everybody feel satisfied.”  Their latest performance at the U.S. Open in Flushing, Queens, New York proves this.

The group’s musical magnitude, dedicated and flawless performance stirred the most attention from the passing crowds that day. I was in the middle of that crowd photographing and video recording this band the entire time. I might have gotten the back of many people’s heads but the performance was worth every minute!

Recently, a record label invited Ava Luna to create a new album titled “Service LP.” They will also tour New England, Canada and some of the mid-west as an opening act for Toro Y Moi. Their first show is tonight at Webster Hall in New York City, and their last show is on September 25th in Minneapolis.

Greater opportunities and commitments also equates more complicated time and work management for the band. In my conversation with Carlos, I learned four of the band members have full-time jobs. They all try to make it to rehearsals 2-3 times a week and when they can’t, all singers and instrumentalists perform their parts in their own times. At rehearsals, Carlos conjures up ways he can synthesize rehearsals to temporarily fill the absent instrumentalist or singer.

“We have day jobs, but we play enough shows to support the band…It’s a lot of work”

Carlos also works several part-time jobs in order to make time for the band. On a normal day, Carlos communicates with the band members through constant emails concerning Ava Luna’s upcoming performances.

Becca, Felicia and Anna: Ava Luna's back-up singers

“We have day jobs, but we play enough shows to support the band; it is self sufficient. It is a lot of work,” concludes Carlos with conviction. Yet, Carlos wants to continue the group and further develop it professionally.

“When you step back and look at how far this band has come, it’s an accomplishment”

I asked Carlos where he would like to see Ava Luna a few years from now. One of his wishes is for Ava Luna to keep their sound without any compromises, or without changing their music in order to satisfy another major band’s musical taste. Carlos also says, “I want to see how far this can go. When you step back and look at how far this band has come, it’s a great accomplishment.”

Ava Luna’s mix of blues, soul, rhythm and blues, and folk in their songs, makes this independent group unlike any I’ve ever heard. I hope this band will go on more tours and make more albums. I finally asked Carlos what keeps him motivated to stay in the music business and he candidly replied, “It’s not a choice; this is just what I do.”

Opera Night’s 7th Anniversary!

Like any modern day music historian, I talk about music during our generation in the 21st century. I also like to examine the role of classical music in today’s society. Although classical music is not on the top 10 list of popular genres, it is still used to educate and help young musicians, school children and professionals further their performance skills.

 Northport – a New York City suburb on Long Island – is one such artistic community where classical musicians and music teachers dedicate their time to building new talent. My former classical piano teacher, Isabella Eredita-Johnson has not only developed young artists as a teacher, but she has also created an organization called Opera Night.

Since its beginning, the series grew 

Since its first gathering at Café Portofino in Northport village on Friday, July 1st, 2004; Isabella and her sister, Maddalena Harris, have been inviting singers to perform arias and vocal duets on a monthly basis. They both named this gathering, Opera Night. As the series grew and began attracting larger audiences, the little café with the bistro charm couldn’t accommodate crowds.

Two years later, Opera Night relocated to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church across the street. Along with more seating space, the church provided an upright Steinway piano to accompany the singers and greater performance space. While moving to St. Paul’s greatly benefited audiences and singers, Isabella, also faced challenges. Some of them involved focusing on professional singing and musicianship while accommodating local audiences. I personally talked to Isabella about how Opera Night evolved from a monthly gathering to an actual venue, and the challenges that arose.

Opera Night is still as fresh and exciting as when it started

Isabella explained, “The caliber of the audience has grown and the presentation is now more formal than from Opera Night’s beginnings in 2004. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the spontaneity.” The performance program is determined by which singers show up that night. Isabella claims, “we do this to keep the performances fresh and exciting. After a performance, people come up to me and say, “this was the most exciting Opera Night to date!” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be very rich.”

 This spontaneity helps Opera Night stand out amongst the competing performance venues that heavily rely on structure in their programming.

Another aspect of Opera Night that hasn’t changed is the immediate delivery of famous arias and duets. Isabella started Opera Night to bring the most exciting and popular parts of great operas to opera lovers instead of performing full operatic works. Some musicians might find this hodgepodge of music overwhelming, but for Isabella, it comes naturally. Isabella claims, “For me, it’s easy because good, finely trained singers have come to me. The nature of inviting 20 different singers is they will most likely sing 20 different songs.”

Opera Night now focuses on furthering singers’ performing repertoire and skills

Focusing on the singers is fairly new general goal at Opera Night. Isabella explained, “The reasons a singer would want to sing at Opera Night are: they sing in front of a large audience; they get a free accompanist provided by Opera Night; and they increase the quality of their performances.” These benefits naturally encourage singers to spread the word about Opera Night to opera lovers and potential future Opera Night performers.  

If a free accompanist and a full house is not enough to attract singers to Opera Night, the success story of some regular performers will perhaps change prospective singers’ minds.

Bringing professionals back to the music and putting their voices in films

Bruce Solomon initially had a successful singing career. However; supporting a family while performing as a concert artist was challenging. So he went into sales.

Years later, he heard about Opera Night, which helped satisfy his passion for singing and helped make up for the years he was out of the musical scene. Thanks to Opera Night, Solomon can now easily step back into singing.

In the beginning years, Frances Fascetti was an Opera Night regular. Chris Garvey, an audience member, taped and recorded all of Fascetti’s performances and distributed them on a digital music platform.

One faithful day, independent film director, David Campfield, found Fascetti’s recording of “Ave Maria.” Isabella was thrilled to hear Campfield wanted to use Fascetti’s recording in his upcoming film, Cesar & Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre. Fascetti was doubly excited to learn that out of all the “Ave Maria” tracks available for download on the worldwide web, Campfield chose hers.

Opera lovers are all around and they are coming out to Opera Night

Aside from helping young professionals develop their skill and performance repertoire, Opera Night reinforces the communities love for one of the most classical performing arts.

Isabella says, “Opera lovers are out there and they’re coming out of the woodwork. We see the audience turn out, and it is growing. You meet these people who love Opera and want to know if there is anywhere they can listen to it… and you tell them about Opera Night.”

The minute Isabella meets an Opera lover looking for a good performance; she puts them on the email list and sends them reminders about upcoming performances.

Opera Night also reinforces Isabella’s life-long drive and passion for opera and classical performing arts.

Isabella’s performance experience during college encouraged her to take on Opera endeavors

 Isabella’s mother and father were the first opera lovers she ever knew. Their love of music fostered Isabella’s talent for classical piano, and soon, her years of dedication and performing eventually resulted in a degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Her greatest inspiration for opera however, was a “fine” bass/ baritone singer and enthusiastic voice teacher named Peter Maravell.

Isabella became Maravell’s piano accompanist at his studios. What Isabella thought would be a summer job that paid more than what her peers were making at McDonalds, turned into an assistantship and apprenticeship under a great singer. Maravell taught Isabella the music from the operas by some of the greats – Mozart and Puccini.

Maravell helped give Isabella a job that enhanced her experience as a concert pianist. Working under Maravell also expanded her musical world.

Isabella’s performance experience outside of academia encouraged her to teach music and take on projects and musical endeavors that would attract large audiences. For her, these projects and endeavors would revolve around opera.

Isabella encourages communities to help keep opera afloat

As Isabella continues in her musical endeavors and projects, she is constantly reminded of the hard economic times currently affecting many opera companies – even large ones in the neighboring metropolis, New York City. Isabella has taken the initiative in promoting New York City Opera’s Chairman Challenge, a fundraiser that will help City Opera continue producing full operas. More importantly; this challenge will help New York City Opera improve their opera education and professional development programs. This is why Isabella encourages community members to take an active interest in keeping opera afloat by attending a performance; spreading the word about a company; or donating.

Tonight is Opera Night’s 7th Year Anniversary!

Tonight’s celebration of Opera Night’s 7th year in Northport will remind community members of how much people love Opera. People want to have it and need to have it. “And for a good reason too,” Isabella says, “it is just wonderful!”