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

Connecting the Dots (Part 1): Leah Speckhard talks Female Empowerment and Coming-of-Age on her second EP, Sleepwalker

Leah Speckhard, Press PhotoIn her song, “Loser,” Leah Speckhard, sings, Why don’t you call me up, tell me my family’s dead/ tell me my best friend hates me, and always has/ burn my house to the ground, as you watch me cry/ this is what you know best, how to say goodbye. The catchy chorus carries the same dramatic tone, yet applies a more truthful resolution – I never really wanted you/ and all the things you made me do/ make you a loser/ and me a fool. Last Friday night, I sat down with the artist at the Moroccan restaurant, Marrakesh to ask her more about this song.

“The funny part for me, is that I wrote those songs in all seriousness,” explains Leah. “Then I would sing them for my friends and they would laugh hysterically. They said, “You’re so crazy.” I think that when I write, it helps that I am a bit melodramatic. My emotions are magnified when I have a moment where I think, “I don’t like that this [situation] happened, or I really don’t like this interaction.” It tends to be a little over the top, yet I think I started to embrace that instead of tone it down. This is part of my personality sometimes, and this is a fun way to release emotions – a lot like therapy.”

Aside from the obvious exaggerated context, the song is indeed funny, the melody is upbeat, and the rhythm has a nice dance feel. This song would be great on the show Girls; I said to her. Then, I silently recalled the press release of Leah’s upcoming album Sleepwalker. In addition to “Loser,” Leah also wrote a song that will also appear on this record called “Gaslighting,” which builds on a commonly-used feministic term. Additional songs, like “Time Machine” touch on coming-of-age in a global community. Naturally, with so many themes circulating in this artist’s music, and the release of new album coming up; I welcome Leah as the featured artist for January on the Music Historian to connect the dots on all the themes in her songs.

I have heard A&R Representatives from labels say that in dance music, lyrics are typically superficial and simple. “Loser” is an example of a song that is suitable for dancing yet does not fit in a club, and includes lyrics with depth, regardless of their dramatized context. Leah furthers her efforts by taking the message of female empowerment to new grounds.

“I think that some women allow themselves to be manipulated as a result of having a good and trusting nature, and unfortunately that can translate into playing a stereotypical fool. I saw that within myself at least. I thought “Yeah, maybe it was foolish to trust this person, but that person is also a loser for wanting to manipulate me in this way.” The song “Loser” stemmed from a reaction to that, and thinking “something needs to change.”

“Part of my process was to try and understand how I gave people permission to treat me this way, to examine whether it happened more than just once or twice. If it becomes a pattern, then you have a responsibility to stop that and stand up to that. I hope that some of that message comes through my songs,” says the artist.

Leah then talks about another important song on her album, “Gaslighting.” The term, Gaslighting expresses a practice in which men tried to convince women they were crazy. The term is based on an old film of the same name, in which a man arranges to have gaslights flicker noticeably while a woman is in the same room. When the woman comments on it, the man tries to convince her she is imagining the flickering of the lights in the room and is for this reason going crazy. Leah Speckhard Album Cover

“The song “Gaslighting,” is probably the most important and one of my favorite because it comes with a real message: Gaslighting should stop for me and all women,” explains Leah. “It bothered my sense of justice to see those things happen to me and my friends when I was younger. I have many amazing female friends, and I’ve seen many of them manipulated over the years. I too have been to a certain extent. I don’t want this for anyone, even men if they are experiencing this. While my songs come from a victim’s perspective, I want to be a little more empowering and say, “We can do something about this.”

Further in our conversation, I learned that in Leah’s life, she cared about a sense of justice not only in relationships, but also in a broader global sense. Leah is also the daughter of a U.S. diplomat and grew up in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C. until the age of 12 when her father was assigned to Belarus. While Belarus had a president, the leadership in the government was similar to a dictatorship.

“I moved to Belarus, and lived there for a few years in a compound where all of the ambassadors stayed. Everybody lived next to the president. He became very paranoid and believed people were spying on him. He blocked water, electricity and heat to the houses, and told residents they had to move for nonsensical reasons. All of the embassies invested money in those houses, so they told him that they had backup generators, and the residents were okay to stay. Then finally, he just said, “Get out.” This action violated an international treaty regarding diplomats, so my family moved back to the U.S. for a year until it was resolved. Living in Belarus really made me aware that we shouldn’t take rule of law for granted.”

After Belarus, Leah and her family moved to Belgium. Leah spent the remainder of her teenage years in Belgium completing high school. Afterward, she decided to pursue a degree in Vocal Performance at James Madison University in the U.S.

“I first became interested in music as a kid, because my family would always sing songs when they got together. My parents are originally from Wisconsin and my grandparents have a lake house there. All the generations would gather when we went there and sing around a campfire, and I loved those experiences. My Dad also sang to us every night before bed, and plays guitar. Music was always around me.

“My parents put me in piano lessons when I was a kid too. I can’t say I loved it; I always gravitated towards the singing and the writing more. I sang in a choir and the select choir in high school. I realized I wanted to do something more serious when I went to college and did voice as my major. However, at James Madison, the vocal coaching was geared towards opera singing, and I realized that I really wanted to write and sing current music. I learned that for me, music was more about expressing myself and sharing my ideas. So I ended up changing majors and working on my music on the side.”

After that revelation, Leah returned to Belgium and decided to change her major to International Relations. She explains:

“Although I grew up in Northern Virginia right outside of Washington, D.C., I lived in a city. James Madison University, while a great fit for some, wasn’t right for me – it was in a very rural area, and I wasn’t used to that. Apart from deciding not to major in music anymore, I also thought the location did not make sense for me. So, I moved back to Brussels and completed a dual accredited American and European degree.

“After college, I graduated and looked for my first job in Belgium. During this time, my family moved to Greece, and they told me, “Why not look in Greece? We miss you, and we’d love to have you around.” So, I found a job at a shipping company in Greece, and moved there.

“On the side, I worked on my music the whole time. I played around Greece, and some people heard my music and they wanted to introduce me to a record label. That’s how I started.”

Standby for Part 2 of my interview with Leah, in which she talks more about recording her first album in Greece, and coming-of-age on her second EP, Sleepwalker.

“Alone the other Night”: A Fresh Focus on Indie Pop

Official Press photo of Todd Carter

Official Press photo of Todd Carter

In Songs for a Traveler, The Looking had a specific goal – make archaic Americana folk songs great for Rock ‘n’ Roll. In their newest EP, Alone the other Night, Todd and his group celebrate an era of songwriting from not too long ago through a meditative message: never fear that you cannot successfully meet a challenge.

The opening track to the band’s new EP starts with an element rather foreign to the rockin’ folk songs from the last record – a melody line with a definite meter but free flowing rhythm. The lyrics include: Alone the other night/ I lost my mind here/ he went missing for a while/ I felt no fear/ I wonder if I’ll miss him/ Or maybe I won’t care/ chalk it up, a little whim/ I won’t feel bare. In the second chorus, Todd sings, In the morning light/ I found myself cheered/ thinking of my headless nights/ A genie force, a mindless seer/Looking under rocks and stones/ Searched around to find what’s new/… Light my mind, the heart will choose.

The next track, “Lightning my Mind,” has a rather passé verse but incredibly memorable chorus in a major key and a catchy rhythmic application of lyrics to the chord progressions. Meanwhile “Waitin’ On You” includes a verse that repeatedly plays a minor chord, and a chorus in a major chord which recites one simple message – I’ve been waiting on you/ standing here ‘til you’re passing through… There is no transition between verse and chorus, and there is no need for one. Finally, the song ends in one sad minor chord.

The compositional elements of these songs stylistically reflect indie-pop of the ‘90’s. An ode to the 3-minute song also appears in this EP. The Looking embrace this type of songwriting with lyrics that reflect a lesson that listeners from all generations should learn at any age – the anxiety we experience with any major or abrupt life changes dissipates. The lyrics in the first verse of “Alone the other Night,” I lost my mind here/ he went missing for a while/ I felt no fear… I found myself cheered perhaps best represent this lesson. While everybody has had the opportunity to realize this various moments throughout their lives, very few slowed down enough to notice. Todd Carter at the Rockwood Music Hall, March 2014

Although listeners will most likely have a greater affinity for “Lightning My Mind” and “Waitin’ On You”; “Alone the other Night” acts as the best opening track for that album. The meter is also slow, and the only melody (which I have had trouble singing back) is solely produced by Todd, helping to calm listeners’ minds into a meditative like state. Why not try, it lasts no more than 4 minutes. Afterward, listeners can experience those indie-pop filled tunes later in the album with a fresh focus.

In his own words, Todd says “I love the contrast and variety of the songs on this EP. It was a joy to record with Dan Rieser (Rosanne Cash, Marc Cohn), Diego Voglino (Mudville, Marshall Crenshaw). Bill Finizio (Bill T. Jones), Adam Kromelow (Alice Tan Ridley), and John Carey (Oz Noy, Steve Holley) who are such talented and accomplished musicians. It was also wonderful to work with Richard Hammond (Joan Osborne, Lucy Woodward) for the first time.”

Tinderbox Arts’ Showcase at CMJ: Reviewing Artists who have been on Music Historian

Alyson Greenfield performs solo during her set at Pete's Candy Store, 10/23/2014 as part of CMJ Last Thursday, I went to The Tinderbox Arts’ CMJ showcase at Pete’s Candy Store. This show was made possible with the help of The Catalyst Publicity Group, and hosted by Alyson Greenfield. The performance included a line-up of five bands – most of which have been interviewed by the Music Historian – that performed between 9pm and 12am the next day. This showcase was a great replacement for the Tinderbox Music Festival Alyson had hosted in the past.

Before I get into reviewing the show from last week, I want to share a little history about the Tinderbox Music Festival. In 2010, Alyson learned there was a large community of female musicians who desired to be part of a new women’s music event, specifically reflecting the current landscape of emerging talent (tinderboxmusicfestival.com/story). The festival continued annually for four years. In 2012, CocoRosie headlined the festival. Then in 2013, Deerhoof, the art-pop band headlined the fourth and last Tinderbox Music Festival.

During the four years of this large festival, Alyson established Tinderbox Arts, a company that focuses on booking shows for artists, public relations and consultation, and the former official producer of this large event. This year, she has decided that all of her company’s efforts would focus onto showcases that bring together both male and female artists who are on the firm’s roster – Todd Carter a.k.a. The Looking, Janna Pelle, Alyson, Fiona Silver, and Sylvana Joyce + The Moment.

Todd Carter a.k.a The Looking opened the set with songs from his 2013 release Songs for a Traveler. These songs included “Blue-River,” and “Old Man River.” Then, he sang a cover of the avant-garde songwriter from the 1970’s Hugo Largo’s “Second Skin.” As the guitarist plays the opening chords on his tin-like sounding Strat guitar, Todd takes time to feel the driving harmonic rhythm. Very silently calculates the volume at which he should project his voice during the sudden skin-crawling crescendo within the chorus. Todd was very precise in his vocal execution, as was his entire three-piece band on their instruments – electric guitar, drums and piano.

The Looking’s most notable skills include their ability to make music sound just right – not too loud nor soft – in any performance space. Further, if you like art music that is void of automated technology and involves instruments of classic rock, please check out this band the next time you want to head out on the town. The Looking as part of Tinderbox Arts showcase at Pete's Candy Store, 10/23/2014

Janna Pelle followed The Looking as the second act. Her ensemble included a drummer, whose set had snares, an electric bassist and a piano played by Janna. The most memorable number in her set is from her 2012 album, Shameless Self-Promotion, titled “Accessory.” This track feels like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple if they were upbeat and fearless about admitting their need for sex. The lyrics in the chorus are You are my favorite accessory/ you look so good on me/ there ain’t no other piece of jewelry/ that does what you do to me.

In terms of melody, the song does not finish on the tonic, but with a half-cadence; giving the feeling this light-hearted physical affair our songstress is having will not finish anytime soon. Our heroine might take a break, but she will not put her needs on the back burner anytime soon. Or so I hope.

In addition to songs about sex, “City Life” is one song that talks about the confusion of The Big Apple. In the chorus, Janna sings Where, where, where do I go?/ So many directions/ I don’t know where to go. The song opens with a driving cymbal and snare in the rhythm section as the bass plays a syncopated and jazzy line. On the keyboard, Janna holds out the chords for whole notes across her measures.

Janna Pelle's set at Pete's Candy Store, as part of Tinderbox Arts showcase for CMJ, 10/23/2014 During Jana’s performance, Sylvana Joyce sat down next to me to say “hello.” As Janna takes the listener further within her song, Sylvana starts to harmonize with the remainder of the chorus, I guess I’ll have to figure this out on my own. This lyric, without any pun intended, serves as a mantra for several artists.

Between performances, I also had time to mingle with other active musicians. I was introduced to a young composer who works full-time writing children’s music professionally for an app development firm. This composer has toured all over Australia with his old band, completed his Masters in Composition at NYU debt-free, and opened his own studio in Brooklyn. I would not be shocked if he had to figure out his way in the business independently too.

I then talked with Alyson about the company she manages while she continues paving her career path. Watching her performance at the line-up, Alyson exhibits how she consistently paves her way in music. I first interviewed Alyson in 2012. She was premiering the music video for her cover of LL Cool Jay’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” At that time, she had already recorded “Understand the Sky,” which was on her album Tuscaloosa – a record that compiled acoustic guitar. In this album, her songs addressed the toils of women taking on the music business and living with the societal stereotypes often placed on them. In addition, synth-themed songs acted as meditations regarding the experiences we don’t immediately acknowledge, like human nature.

In her most recent performances from 2014, Alyson has kept her synth-work, put the acoustic guitar aside temporarily, and made room for hip-hop. Her collaboration with beatboxer Shane Maux in the song “Uncharted Places,” and other tracks – including one where the two rap about the industrial development in Brooklyn – serves as valid proof of this bold stylistic move.

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Turning to Fiona Silver’s set, I must say her music sounded a lot better at Pete’s Candy Store than it did at the Knitting Factory. I accredit this a lot to the great sound system and the engineering, a small space, and finally, the performance skills of the songstress and her band. Fiona brought with her an electric guitarist who played a Les Paul – a perfect accompaniment to the moments Fiona pulled out her strat and ukulele. Additional players involved a drummer and bassist.

The beauty of photographing Fiona and her band up close is that I could get a better shot of her, the Elvis mic she brought and better capture her incredible stage presence. Fiona’s style of blues-singing has always been described as smoky. That night, I heard a few new tracks that brought out more fiery vocals and melodies than the firm and gentle “Sweet Escape” and “Sand Castle.” Songs like “Coming to Get You,” does not exhibit the light strumming of a uke, but a guitar melody with a metal slide. Her last song for the set, “Long Gone” resembled something more of rockabilly and surf rock.

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These irresistible tracks got the audience to request one more song. In honor of the night that would quickly draw to a close though, the songstress left the spotlight open for the next scheduled act.

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment were the second to the last act. They opened with their latest single, “Rosie” – a song which marries classical and heavy metal music together, and repeats several beautiful minor cadences. Further, their sound is that of rock, cabaret, and classical with an Eastern European flair. Think Klezmer and Romanian folk.

The music by this band spiced up the response of the crowd. Sylvana and her crew drew in young fans who, in that cramped performance space, busted out dance moves appropriate for a punk rock concert. When I listened to the band’s next song “Chin, Chin,” the rhythm in the chorus made me want to get up and dance the sarba (pronounced Suh-R-Baa). This dance is similar to the hora but with a lot more staccato-like step and bouncing.

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment rock CMJ show, 10/23/2014 Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s music combines both American and Romanian style. Depending on where you come from, your ear will pick up one element more quickly than the other. In order to fully understand this music, one must not think about why these different elements would work well together in the first place, but instead physically feel how these components work together to make one union. With songs which are 5 minutes long, at least, there will be plenty of time to absorb the experience of this band.

Shayna Leigh closed the night with an unplugged performance. She played with an acoustic guitarist. By the time she got up, it was already 12:30 AM, on October 24th. Although I couldn’t review her performance the way I reviewed the previous bands, I can tell she is a talented songwriter. Her original song “Crash” felt composed like a pop song. I could clearly hear a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and then, a section that might have been built on a deceptive cadence (think the dominant chord, or the 5, going to the supermediant, the 6).

When a show runs that late, I will say; it is not only audience members who become tired. The artists – especially those with day jobs – also become a little too overwhelmed. Some of the audience members told Shayna, while she was taking a breather between songs that her water bottle looked like a vodka bottle. She responds, “I wish it was, I really do. But I’m not that type of person.”

It was during Shayna’s set I noticed more verbal interaction between the audience and the artist. After a long and busy day, this can be quite refreshing. Sometimes listening to music live is not all about the music; it is about the absence of structure and the presence of personable experiences within performers while they put on a show.

My experience at the Tinderbox Arts CMJ showcase this year felt like a reunion filled with music, catching up, interaction and listening. Even in a large and robust places like New York City, there are moments when we can break down barriers and get close to the artists.

Music Historian’s thoughtful interviews with independent artists show just how the musical landscape is evolving. Looking to the future, I hope to work and help the public get closer to these talented musicians through my blog. I just have to take things one step at a time. Happy Birthday, MH!

Works Cited

Greenfield, A. (2014). Story. Tinderbox Music Festival. (About). Retrieved from http://tinderboxmusicfestival.com/story/

Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan

 Behind the full-bodied and slightly sweet vocals of Southern Rock singer-songwriter, Kim Logan, is a fiery woman who know what she wants and what she is about. Lyrics like I’m a real good catch and I know it… from “Voodoo Man,” And I’ll give you three, but no more, turns across the floor/ But then it’s your turn, boy you better learn to be a gentleman, from the chorus within “Gentleman,” and finally, I ain’t someone’s other half/ I don’t like you baby, but I’m like you baby/ I think I love you but I don’t know if I should/ because there’s already one of me in the neighborhood from the song titled “Neighborhood,” which you won’t find on her first full-length record, but on the landing page of Kim’s website, will get the message across to any listener.

Although she recently turned 23, Kim has had a long road of musical development and plenty of real-life experiences which she transforms into great songs. In addition, she has an attitude about music today that matches the female empowered persona portrayed in her tracks.

“In the music industry today… It takes at least twice the work for a woman to accomplish half as much as a man. I really want to break that ceiling, and someone who has inspired me with lyrics, statements and actions has been Lady Gaga. What really disturbs me is Classic Rock and Southern Rock does not have somebody like that,” says the young musician. “I want to be the new millennium woman, the Lady Gaga of southern music, telling women and all creative spirits that it [the music industry] doesn’t have to be gender divided anymore.”

I agree with Kim on the subject of women in the industry. Daylle Deanna Schwartz, New York City’s first white female rapper will tell you that in the ‘80’s, women used their bodies to get ahead in the industry. Look back at the history of the American industry in your own personal time, and you will see women were only given two masks to wear – the emotional exhibitionist who was a sex object, or the unsentimental, bitter and passive-aggressive woman. Both of these facades are one-dimensional and superficial and sadly, female musicians are still expected to put on these faces today.

On a brighter note, there are female artists in country music that did not play either of these roles during the pinnacle of their careers, and led and continue to lead by a more positive example. One woman that comes to mind is Dolly Parton. I asked Kim about her thoughts on this, and while she agrees Ms. Parton continues to positively speak up for women’s and gay rights, her prominent years were the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The Southern Rock scene needs a fresh young face, and Kim hopes to be one of those new faces.

Yes, Kim is a very ambitious young woman. So I listen to her story of how she got into the industry, the positive experiences she had along the way, and what she wishes to make of them. In doing so, I begin to understand what fuels this passionate musician’s ambition, and why she chooses Southern and Classic Rock to tell her stories to the public. I am happy to welcome Kim to Music Historian.

Kim credits her mother and father for their support in her long road to becoming a singer songwriter.

“I always wanted to sing and my Mom worked in pubic relations and events for some really amazing people in the 90’s like singer songwriter Charlie Daniels, Southern Rock bands [like] Molly Hatchet and the Marshall Tucker band.

“I developed a special bond with Doug Gray, the guitarist from the Marshall Tucker band, and when I was about 9 years old, I was talking to him during one event weekend and he said I should go out on stage with Charlie Daniels at the end of the show and sing with him during a jam. Doug and Charlie jammed together after the show.

“I believe we sang “Amazing Grace” and Doug kicked my ass out on stage. Singing with Charlie and Doug is when I got the [rock ‘n’ roll] bug. I went to my Dad and told him I wanted to sing professionally, and I think my Mom had already realized that. My parents said “you’re going to do it right,” so they put me in classical and vocal training and the opera program in Sarasota, Florida for about a decade. This started when I was turning 9, and I did this all through high school.”

During this time, Kim also picked up the guitar. Her motivation was to accompany herself in her singing and songwriting.

“My parents got me a guitar and my father told me I wasn’t allowed to play electric guitar until I made my fingers bleed on my acoustic guitar, which he was right about,” says Kim. “I don’t know where I would be without a guitar in writing. I can’t do without it in the writing process, I want to have control over the writing process.”

Throughout high school, Kim also participated in additional musical activities such as playing in punk bands, party bands, blues and classic rock bands. Whether it was opera or songwriting, she was always singing.

Kim’s strong classical education helped her get into the Berklee College of Music in Boston for vocal performance. However, her desire to play honky tonk and rock ‘n’ roll made it difficult for the young artist blend into the Boston music scene.

“I think, at the turn of the millennium, everybody just got so crazy with music technology and music school, and students at Berklee had all of this new equipment available to them, they were held up in their dorm rooms tracking themselves and playing shows for other students,” expresses Kim. “It was also that weird blog [phase] that happened at the same time… and for the first 10 years of the new millennium, I think everyone was a little too innovative and saturated with music technology to get out to a show and plug their amplifiers into a wall and play. I wanted to play, not sit in a classroom anymore.”

So, the artist moved to Nashville to perform, record and tour. “Nashville is very centralized,” she explains. “I have been able to hit the entire deep south, including Texas, and then come back up to New England, and Chicago. I very briefly studied at Belmont, but that was more of an afterthought because my schedule for years has not been conducive to a classroom environment.”

Thankfully, Berklee College reached out to Kim while she was pursuing her career and Nashville, and she is now completing her music degree online. She hopes to obtain her degree from Berklee soon. Although Kim has been in and out of school, she never stopped educating herself in the history of American genres. Through self-education, she learned to appreciate some of her songwriting heroes and favorite musical styles. She explains:

“It really comes down to the fact that I am obsessed with Music History. Before I was in college, I sought to learn the history of the genres in contemporary music myself. I would just dive into everything from the 1860’s civil war tunes to jazz and the blues.

“What really lit my fire was the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax, who went to the Appalachians and the deep southern terrains and did their field recordings. When I learned about that, and the Great Depression, and where everything after that comes from, it helped me understand the songs of Jack White and heroes of mine who, have also gone back and learned the same things. I felt like I was going back and strutting the same path, learning the same things in order to create my own contributions.

“My potpourri of different stylistic attempts comes from a deep love of other genres of music and re-creation of southern and grace, and different types of music. This lets me stretch my muscles in songwriting and vocal performance. That’s sort of my life’s work there.”

 Pick up Kim’s self-titled debut and you will hear how she flexes her songwriting muscles. “Black Magic Boy,” a Southern Rock song with a grimy tin-like effect in the guitar will leave you feeling like you transcended into a barroom in a southern part of the U.S., perhaps New Orleans. Listen to “Devil Makes Three” and the pitch bending produced by the steel-peddle and the major melody within the tune makes one feel like they are driving through a small sunny town in the Midwest. Then, there is the blues-infused track “Gentleman” which includes soulful vocals that back-up Kim in the chorus.

Aside from her style of writing, Kim continues to display her love for music history in the Vinyl production of her debut record. I asked what attracted her to recording with analog equipment, as opposed to staying strictly with digital.

“It is a science that non-compressed music and sounds, which have not been diluted digitally, are much warmer, more open and richer,” explains Kim. “I recorded the album at a converted church, and I pressed the record at United.

“I am passionate about vinyl records, no matter who represents me or what management I am under. We want that instant gratification and that quick satisfaction of logging onto Spotify and hearing something from somebody’s iPhone or their party. When you are at a live show though, you are listening to real live music, and you want to take home a vinyl of that record so that you can listen to it and understand the artist’s brain, and why they felt it was necessary to create that thing.

“It’s plain and simple, but that is the best method of listening to what a musician has to convey and say.

“I do think analog and digital can go hand-in-hand, they both can be complementary.”

I remember reading articles in Brooklyn-based publications, like Brooklyn Magazine and I heard that the vinyl is making a comeback in some music communities. I thought back to when I had researched Kim Logan before I contacted her for an interview. Specifically, I recall feeling surprised when I learned about some of the other artists on the Artists on the Verge roster for the New Music Seminar, who also make Southern Rock music – The Blackfoot Gypsies, Jamestown Revival, and Carolina Story. I thought to myself ‘something is happening within the Southern and Classic Rock community somewhere in this country that is getting industry players here in New York City excited.’ In regards to Kim, I wanted to know what made her passionate about classic rock, and the other form of classical music that attracts her, opera.

“It really is the timelessness in a piece of artwork. Each movement, whether it was classical, romantic or experimental in opera, were associated with distinct feelings. It was both a genre and community.

“I feel that way about classic rock and I feel that way about the blues, classic country, and the new wave of classic country that is currently happening. You have a community of artists who are trying to achieve a certain standard while enjoying art as much as possible.”

As I got to know more about Kim, talking with her in the very crowded and active second floor lobby of the New Yorker Hotel, I wondered about her personal observations of the music communities throughout the U.S. What did she think about the scenes throughout the different places she has lived?

“The scenes are going to be completely different in almost every city in America. Everything springs from the ground up. There are very different kinds of people in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville and Chicago.

“I think Nashville and Brooklyn have become my favorites. I spent a lot of time in the Boston and Brooklyn scenes trying to connect with some of the bands, who came from indie pop music. There were many blog-driven Pitchfork bands with whom I did not connect. I was happy to take my act to Nashville where I not only played with large bands, but also became a fan of the bands.

“As Americana has taken hold, and as retro recordings make a comeback, like vinyl, it feels good for musicians playing rock ‘n’ roll, country and soul.”

While this young artist works towards greater goals like being a positive role model in the Southern and Classic Rock genres; like every savvy business person, she is always setting little goals along the way. Kim self-produced her debut. At this time, she gets ready to make a second record with producer, Dave Cobb.

“I am excited to work with this guy because I think it will provide the perfect combination for what I want to hear on my record, and what I want everyone else to hear. I am returning to the studio in the late summer and I am aiming for a Fall release.

“I think I am going to tour on it, and start the whole cycle over again. I think I have beaten this last record almost to death, and it’s time to get some new material.”

At the moment, Kim is currently unsigned. If any producers or A&R agents in New York City plan to attend CMJ in October, I encourage you to check out one of Kim’s shows.  If you are an industry player in Nashville, watch out. She is playing several shows throughout the summer.

Between her move to Nashville in 2010, and the release of her debut in 2013, and her appearance at the New Music Seminar, so much has changed for Kim, and the development of her career continues.

“I have put out records in March of 2013 after I had gone down to the SXSW Festival and I did not have merchandise nor any recordings, and I scrambled to release this record so that I could take it on the road. Then, I got an article in the Nashville-based Native Magazine, and it all kind of tail-balled in the last year and a half.

“I’ve been on the road, and I have been working my ass off, and the iron happens to be hot. Absolutely everything has changed, and I’ve checked a lot off my list since then. I’m really grateful, and I want to go to as many places as possible and bring the best records there. It will only get busier.”

Music history lit this young artist’s fire. Plugging-in to a performance space with other musicians and making something happen helps feed that passion. Whether listeners are attracted to her country songs, driving rock ‘n’ roll riffs, or blues-infused choruses, they are bound to hear the voice of a woman who delivers stories about her real life experiences through clever lyrics, thoughtfully written compositions, and warmly recorded sounds.

She might be a combination of a music nerd and a young woman who reveres the Southern and Classic Rock legends who were big in the 60’s through the 80’s, and in the early millennium. Regardless, Kim Logan has found her voice within this genre, and she flexes it freely. She comes to the city as much as possible to bring her sound to Southern and Classic Rock lovers here in New York City, Nashville and just about any city she can reach. Kim says, “I want to get people excited about it, and I want people to put money, time and energy into real music, with real instruments.”

Dive Into The Minds of Industry Players: A Review of the New Music Seminar

If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.

The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.

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The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.

The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.

While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.

The A&R Movement: Where music is headed

Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.

Trends in Music

Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.

On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.

A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not

One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.

If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.

In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.

On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.

Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs

Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.

If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.

What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.

So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.

The Take Away

The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.

Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.

Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions

This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.

I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”

Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.

Some of the Songs up for Critique

The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”

Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”

The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.

A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists

Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.

One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”

An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”

As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.

The Take Away

All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.

“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”

Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”

They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.

So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.

Online Media Music Discovery

Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.

Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player

As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.

Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention

The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.

On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.

Do Use Social Media to Create Attention

Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.

Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention

Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”

In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.

Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them

Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.

Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.

Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big

Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.

Final Thoughts

The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.

Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.

Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”

He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.

“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”

Bibliography

New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.

The 1st Day Experience of the Governors Ball Music Festival

Bridge to Randall's Island from Manhattan

If you came to the Governors Ball Music Festival on Randall’s Island for the first time this year, you probably learned to expect the unexpected. For one, I learned the shuttle from 126th Street and Lexington Avenue to the West End entrance to the festival is far more convenient than walking the bridge, which stretches along the entire length of the Triborough Bridge. If you really want to experience the bridge, which results in a 30 minute leisurely walk or a 15 minute jog (at 5mph), go for it, as long as you are not running late for the show.

The Chain Gang of 1974 and Little Daylight at the Gotham Tent

I ran to the grass field underneath the Gotham tent from the East end entrance to catch the last few seconds of The Chain Gang of 1974’s performance of “Sleepwalking,” the single from the Los-Angeles based band’s second full-length release, Daydream Forever. Afterward, Kamtin Mohager introduced the closing song for their set, the hit that most fans recognize from their 2011 debut Wayward Fire, “Hold On.” The strength about this performance lays in the fact that the band was able to display plenty of gusto in their performance, and the lead singer’s efforts in paying attention to the audience members at the right hand and left hand corners of the standing area just beyond the stage was appreciated by the audience.

My only criticism at this moment focuses around the tent as a proper performance space. The speaker for the bass player might have been too loud, preventing me to hear the little nuances in “Hold On,” like the little trills in the last two minutes of the song that are produced by a synthesizer. However, this might also have something to do with the elongated tent. A highly raised canopy over the entire audience standing area and the sound control panel possibly made the sound bounce more than project.

I experienced the same loudness with the next band Little Daylight. Luckily, the timbre of the lead singer’s voice and the rhythm-driving synthesizers in the songs stirred my intrigue about this band’s musical style. Little Daylight is one band to research in the future.

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Charging Stations and Conversations at the Miller Lite Tent

After Little Daylight’s performance which concluded at 1:30pm, I scouted the festival area to see the different business vendors, merchandise tables, game areas and food stations. By 2:30pm, the battery on my Samsung Galaxy had a life just below 50% and I knew I had to find a charging station quickly. At the festival, Citi Bank has a charging station for Citi Bank card holders. Then, the lounges reserved for VIP ticket holders had charging stations, but exclusively for these customers. My last hope was the Miller Lite lounge between the Gotham Tent and the Governors Ball Stage. I successfully found a station – a small bar table – where I could charge my phone, place my iPad mini, and chat with some interesting fellow concert goers.

The first visitor came from Melbourne, Australia. A college student who was traveling after completing a semester abroad in Los Angeles. He booked a ticket for the ball in January to see Outkast, and had come to the festival early where he waited to meet up with a friend. The other was a resident of Queens, who had moved to the states from the Philippines when she was 13 years old. She had also come to see Outkast, and while she planned to meet with friends for the entire three days, she claimed she wanted to attend the festival by herself for a few hours.

The young college student claimed that spending the first few hours of the festival alone enabled her to partake in additional musical acts and activities the festival had to offer without compromising her preferences. This reminded me of one of the perks of attending festivals alone – answering only to yourself.

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The third stranger stood across from me from the bar table. He currently studies music business in college, and he came to the festival to see both Phoenix and Outkast. As I typed notes on my iPad mini, he told me about the festival last year and the shows that were cancelled due to Tropical depression Andrea – a storm that had not affected me, but certainly affected those who attended the concert. Luckily, many of the bands set to perform during that unfortunate storm were rescheduled the next day. Trust me, wet New Yorkers, who spent hundreds of dollars on a festival ticket never want to hear that the band they paid so much for and traveled long distances to see, cancelled the show.

The final visitor I spoke to came from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and he talked to us about the difference in security etiquette and people’s behavior at Bonnaroo versus The Governors Ball Music Festival. Apparently, Bonnaroo allows visitors to bring with them a specific amount of alcohol into the premise as opposed to Governors Ball. Based on experience where I saw a member of the security staff empty the booze from one man’s whiskey flask, I can attest this festival very strictly imposed a zero-tolerance rule. All alcohol had to be bought and consumed inside the festival gates.

Some Market Research: How Guests Used the Governors Ball Smartphone App

Governors Ball Smartphone App I asked these four visitors how they created their plan for the festival. They used the free Governors Ball Music Festival app. I too used the app and conducted a simple quantitative marketing research, a T-test in which I analyzed the number of times app users scheduled specific shows within their own course in comparison the number of app users who said they “liked” a band playing at the festival.

The data showed that more people scheduled bands than “liking” them and my initial hypothesis was the means for the samples of these two populations were very different. I then ran the test, and thanks to some help from one of my Facebook friends, I rejected my initial hypothesis. In layman terms, there was no difference in the mean of the two sample sizes of those visitors who included a band in their itinerary, and those who simply “liked” a band; those who scheduled the band perhaps did not bother to “like” the band.

All four concert goers claimed they used the app more for scheduling purposes than for fandom entertainment. I happily gathered some qualitative marketing research to help support the T-test results. Plus, it brought me great pleasure to find a way to mix what I learned in my Business School curriculum with social data from a large-scale musical event.

Janelle Monae and Bastille

As 3:00pm approached, I checked my Governors Ball Music Festival app and saw that I had to head to the Governor Ball stage for Janelle Monae’s set. During her set, I experienced the importance of little steps to the perfect spot within the audience that would give me an excellent view of the stage. While I got a view of the stage, I was so far away from Janelle Monae, I could only take pictures of her from a distance. Here was the best I could do; and in the midst of all my efforts, I indulged in the sounds of her hits “Electric Lady” and my personal favorite, “Queen.”

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My experience with seeing Janelle Monae taught me that if I wanted to have a better view, a closer view of the stage and the artists performing, I had to arrive at a set at least 20 minutes early to beat the stand-stills of the crowd and squalor and ultimately, get a decent place for taking pictures. Luckily, whether a large mass of people dominates a large outdoor space or an intimate indoor setting, the performing artist can facilitate a sense of community among listeners. Bastille demonstrated this in their performance by performing covers of songs from the ‘90’s many of the audience members, especially those around the age of the band members, knew very well. These selections included “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona, and TLC’s “No Scrubs.”

(Please check out this great slide show of my pictures made possible by Google+) https://plus.google.com/photos/103337755454641381498/albums/6022561660631199729

Aside from creating a temporary sense of musical nostalgia among attendees; Bastille’s covers helped the audience sing along comfortably and confidently with the band. Of course, let’s not forget that members of the audience had come to listen to and watch live performances of Bastille’s original record, Bad Blood. Here is a snippet of one of their songs titled “Blame.”

At a particular point in the set, singer Dan Smith left the stage to travel through the crowded audience, followed by a single bodyguard while he sang the vocals to the song. Although this move easily excited the public, the tone of the atmosphere felt civilized. Everybody is respectful of each other’s space, including the musician’s. However, one audience member did overstep her – at least I assume it’s she – boundaries when she threw a bra on the stage. Dan picked up the undergarment and read the message penned on the inside of the cup aloud. I don’t remember the message verbatim, but I believe it suggested that Dan should Snapchat with her sometime. I recall that one of the musicians hung that bra on the keyboard and left it there for the remainder of the set.

(Here is a collection of all my footage from the Bastille show in one teaser. If you enjoyed it on my Facebook page, you’ll love it on my Google+ account) https://plus.google.com/photos/103337755454641381498/albums/6022559621574821937

This story covers what I did on the first day of the Governors Ball Music Festival. I look forward to sharing more content from the festival right here, and I will plan further ahead in the next days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1: The Rule of Performing Live

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2: Push the Dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Chapter?

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

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

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

Let Your Heart Hear It First: An interview with John Elliott and Performance Review

John Elliott at the Cantina Royal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn John Elliott’s songs appeared on the television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “One-Tree Hill.” He even co-wrote a song within one episode of “Californication.” Yet, for most of his career, John remained an independent artist.

“It’s a serious balancing act,” explained the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter. When I asked him about the benefits and challenges of staying independent in the music industry, John honestly and humbly answered, “Sometimes the benefits outweigh the challenges and sometimes it’s the other way around. I’ve mainly stayed independent because… I just haven’t met the right people yet. Actually, I might have just met the right people the other day. We’ll see how that goes.”

He adds, “I do have someone working with me who started as a fan, and now because she believes in what I make and I [in turn] believe in her, she has become a valuable member of the team. I think that’s a rare relationship to find. I would love to continue to build a team, but it has to be with the right people.”

Since high school, during his first attempt to write music on a blank tape from 1993, John knew he wanted to pursue music as a career. So far, he has entirely self-produced all his records, including his latest Good Goodbyes – the first record on which he played every instrument, and the one that perhaps presented the most challenges. Now, as he continues the journey he started long ago, John Elliott reflects on the radical experience of relying solely on himself to bring his music to fruition. It is my pleasure to welcome John as the featured artist for the month of March on Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

In the title track of his record, which is composed in a major key, John sings the following lyric, “I can’t let a good thing go even when it starts to bleed,” followed by, “Even when I know it’s dying and it’s time to set if free/ I’m afraid I won’t be treasured/the way she treasures me.” John wrote this song in 10 minutes one morning, without even writing the lyrics down.

He says, “I don’t question songs that come [to me] like that. They are just pure and right. If I look at it now and try to analyze it, I would say it’s [the song] about moving on from something without knowing what’s next, which is a scary thing to do. People always say “let it go, let it go” as if that’s something safe or easy. I think it’s a little disingenuous to claim you can just lightly skip into the future, unencumbered by the past, never to return or look back or wonder.”

“Of course,” he continues, “the album is called Good Goodbyes, so I understand that moving on and elsewhere can be, and often is, a good thing. The rest of album definitely lives under the umbrella of that song.”

As a critic, I find it comforting when the title track of the artist’s album is born with little effort and yet holds so much meaning that analyzing the lyrics might take 10 days.

John confirms, “It’s not about how “easy” it is to write something, it’s about how right if feels. I know when I write well, with honesty, passion and heart. When I try too hard, it’s no good.”

Other songs on his album like “Yin and Yang Collector,” “Monogamous” and “Friends Back East” seem to tell a definite story. I wondered whether these songs had a story and whether John spent more time trying to write them compared to “All These Good Goodbyes.”

“Generally, it’s doesn’t go well if I start by trying to write something with a message. That’s tricky. It’s better if the story, images, or lines are strung together by emotional truth of some sort. If you get that right, a message “might” emerge. The best writing is a little mysterious, but somehow makes perfect sense to your soul. You have to get your head out of the way and let your heart hear it,” explains John. John Elliott on Guitar at Cantina Royal

John describes the lyrics on his album more as poetry than storytelling. He also recalls a moment when he performed another one of his songs from Good Goodbyes, “Still I’m Not Still” for a producer. “That’s not a song,” remarked the producer, “that’s a meditation.” While John admits the producer might have meant to say this as a negative remark, John received it openly and happily. He claims “I loved it.”

Like most artists who perfect their craft (and the art of letting a song take its form without exercising too much control is one of the ways to be perfect), John has written, and rewritten a myriad of songs that did not make his latest record. By the time a song does make it on his album, he has “obsessed over every line” both lyrical and musical.

Listeners, of course, are another important part to any musical experience, and John’s music is no exception. “Every listener brings his or her own unique perspective to the experience, and might hear something radically different than what you intended,” adds the artist.

In the case of Good Goodbyes, I couldn’t help but feel that John really went out on a limb and made himself very vulnerable, especially since he was the sole creative and functional driver of this record. On his past albums, John included a number of different players in the process. He claims the making of his latest record “happened during a very solo time in my life and as the process of creating it continued, I realized it was important to me that I remained true to that.

“It’s quite unnerving to rely solely on your own intuition with creative choices that have no objective basis. It’s also, eventually, quite satisfying.”

Good Goodbyes also taught John how much he relies on other people for approval about his music. Although he enjoyed the experience of producing and only answering to himself, he still needed a second set of ears. After putting the record through seven revisions, John invited mastering engineer JJ Golden to help frame the final product.

“I tried to bring all the disparate pieces and sounds together into something cohesive,” he explains. “It’s a collage, and it has some sonic flaws, but hopefully that gives it character.”

Watching John during one of his live shows on his nation-wide tour back in November, I listened to and watched an artist whose music brought a character out of him, one who believes in himself so much and manages to attract an audience that believes in his sound and performance.

I walked in to Cantina Royal, a restaurant in Williamsburg just in the nick of time to see John Elliott. Secured with a Brooklyn Lager, I traveled down a red-light lit hallway to a performance space behind a gritty grey door.

In this performance space, there was no stage but a clear floor. There was plenty of room for audiences to take seats in rows of mobile chairs and mini tables. Pink and blue lights covered the space designated for acts. In the far left corner of the room, I noticed the uncanny detail of a rope that extended from the high ceiling and coiled out on the floor.

Most chairs were filled, and the only available seat was at a table occupied by a couple. As I sat down and prepped myself for a night of intense observation and musical analysis, I occasionally peeked at the flirtatious exchanges between the man and the woman next to me. Underneath the table, the guy caressed his girlfriend’s bare knee as she sketched a picture on some scrap paper. Both shared a package of very low caloric snack of seaweed sheets. Perhaps they decided this food paired well with beer? I was not sure whether this combination was romantic or strange.

Returning to John’s performance set, I knew I was in for a performance I would never forget. And I was right.

During his song “Monogamous,” which is primarily built on ambiance created by electrical and synthesized instruments playing held out notes, there is a long period in which John does not sing. On the record, the artist can get away with this, in a performance it is a different story. John knew he had to fill up that silence with something, so he started to swing on a rope in the far left corner of the room; a move several audience members found amusing. John Elliot in Williamsburg, November 2013

For his next song “Yin and Yang Collector,” John had a costume change. He dressed as a king, one that somebody might find in a frat house in New Orleans as opposed to one in a dramatic film about Henry VIII. During this song, he picked up his guitar and started playing like a true singer songwriter. But, I soon learned the surprises were not yet over.

John did not finish “Yin and Yang Collector.” Instead, he looped into another song, a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then transitioned back to “Yin and Yang Collector.” An artist successfully and easily accomplishes this only when the tonic of another song is the dominant or the predominant of the song they initially sing. This makes for easy modulation, and often, one will not find artists doing this during a performance but rather in their private time practicing.

John Elliot at the Cantina Royal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2013As I looked back to the couple, I noticed the woman started sketching a new picture, one of a masked face that imitated the appearance of John’s costume. It made sense then and there that something about John’s performance successfully captivated the imagination of one and perhaps multiple members in the public.

When I asked John what audience members said about his music during his tour, he remarked that most of what he heard has been “positive!” That or complete silence,” he adds. “A few people said it’s their new favorite. One person told me how much they liked this album more than the last.

“I just finished a show in Bellingham, Washington. Someone told me [I put on] the most entertaining show they’ve ever seen, so that was nice. But really, I have to remind myself to make what feels right to me and then let it go.”

John recalls a few moments from his tour in which listeners did not enjoy his set. During his show at Cantina, he humorously told the audience about the reception of one of his songs.

“This song went well in Austin, but horribly in Oregon because it was a song about people in Austin. Then it went well in Pennsylvania.”

Humor is just part of John’s nature, it is no way a coping method of dealing with the downsides of being a musician. Sharing your creation with the world comes with the territory, and that is why so many individuals who probably have songwriting talent will not pursue anything with music. Luckily, John understands this territory well, having traveled it before. He claims:

“The album is out there now. I hope people listen to it and like it. I’m very proud of it… And I’m thinking about what to make next.”

Currently, John is in between touring for Good Goodbyes. His agent is currently booking shows in the Midwest for 2014. In the meantime, he tackles the toughest component of any business plan, the marketing of his product. Audience at Cantina Royal watch John Elliott, November 8th, 2013

“Promotion is the greatest challenge of releasing an album independently. Truth is, I had some good plans in place, and then I went on tour and lost track of things. I want more people to hear it… I funded this album myself with savings from tours and other music income.”

When I asked him about the most important lesson he learned about being an artist and a businessman, he openly claimed, “The most important lesson I’ve learned as an artist is that everything happens in waves and you must learn to ride them. The most important lesson I learned as a businessman is that I’m learning as I go, and sometimes I luck into great decisions. In general… I need help on that side.”

John’s story of making and promoting Good Goodbyes is honest. It reminds listeners that like heroes in our favorite novels and films; if a musician does not go through any struggle, whether it is letting go of an old relationship, a bad habit or faulty belief, or a challenge of understanding business or making music, there is no reason for that listener to care about the artist. As for John’s music on Good Goodbyes, which is now available on iTunes, his website http://thehereafterishere.com/recordings, on Spotify, and, of course, at his live shows, the album will draw listeners into his world of expression, one that reaches the soul on an esoteric yet comforting level. Perhaps it is no surprise why his songs appeared in the hit television shows among audiences that fall within the 25 – 40 year age range. John presents us with something worth listening to, but we have to get out head out of the way and let our hearts hear it first.