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.

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.

A World of Wonderful Machines: The philosophy behind Yuzima’s new LP

Yuzima Philip, Press PhotoNew Yorkers might recognize Yuzima for his performance of “Hey Jude” at the annual Beatles Complete on Ukulele concert. While the concert approaches, Yuzima is currently celebrating the release of his latest LP, THE MACHINE.

The singer songwriter describes his earlier works – Sound Opera – Project One (2012) and Powerful (2012) – as statements, larger than that of his additional work Glasnost (2011), all adding up to THE MACHINE (2013). “The songs on THE MACHINE are bigger, more pop, and more political. Everything is more,” he explains.

“Get Things Done,” is the first song on the album that gives the listener any idea about the meaning of the record’s title. The vocalist mentions within his lyrics how everyone should have dreams so that they can avoid becoming part of “the machine.”

In my first full-length interview feature for 2014 on Hear, Let’s Listen with Yuzima, I come to understand the machine he describes only operates properly with contradictions, politics, and musical craftsmanship.

“Everything is a machine – your family, your neighborhood; they all have systems, habits and levers,” explains Yuzima. “We all know what makes our families work: who’s who, who’s a bully, who’s artistic. It’s a system.

“People like to think of things in a very compartmentalized way: allies and enemies, etc. Life in essence is about competition. We’re all the current players in the way life works.”

He adds, “You can’t escape “the machine.” The minute you exit one you enter another. It happened in the 60’s going into the 70’s where many learned that the alternative of the system was another system. On the other hand though, you can “escape the machine”, in the instances of, being yourself, getting out a bad relationship, and more. In the end, the artist wants to be free.”

THE MACHINE Poster

As I listened to the song “Get Things Done,” I wondered whether Yuzima feels that there is a moment where individualists want to be a part of the machine – a collective in which individuality is lost. According to Yuzima, this is “the irony of human nature.” He enumerates:

“People want to be alone – just in a crowded room… We’re all working together while competing against one another.”

Yuzima helps express this contradiction through his music. The first few tracks of his record include a fragmented musical form. For example, “Black Graffiti” has a guitar that produces riffs which follow measures with specifically placed rests. There is a disruption in the harmonic flow of the chords. Yet, the clear and imagistic storytelling keeps the listener moving throughout the discord of the song. Half-way through “Black Graffiti,” a listener will soon start putting together in their own minds how to sing the song back in a continuous flow that follows the harmonies from the music and Yuzima’s vocals.

By the time listeners get to “Sex City,” they no longer have to make the inner effort to put a fragmented song together. Instead, Yuzima delivers a more easily audible tune that listeners can immediately sing back. In this song, he sings, You were spotted on the outskirts of town/ looking for a new drug…

Yuzima reminds listeners of experimental independent music that no matter what message is being expressed within the song; chord progressions, vocal melodies, harmonies and rhythm come first. Meanwhile, his vocals include a hint of soul that resonates deeply with the listener, especially when the lyrics tell a story about love, violence or societal troubles. “Black Graffiti” and “Sex City” are such examples. Then, there is the simple political message in the song “Guns,” expressed through lyrics guns kill.

Yuzima claims that while he freely makes political statements in his songs, he does not classify himself as a political artist. He says:

“I write about what is happening to people and what they are going through; kind of like a documentarian. If you don’t write about what is really going on, you’re playing pretend.”

While Yuzima may repeat some of the lyrical practices artists before him implemented, like politically themed messages – which I believe veers toward the prosaic – and compositional experimentation; the clear artistic reflection between song structures and titles – a practice he has implemented throughout all of his music – presents something new for the independent musical culture.

“Anarchy,” for instance, includes several musical ideas, like an electric guitar riff playing with drums against the fragmentation between the song and the lyrics. The song evokes a feeling of disorder. Listeners can guarantee that all his songs on THE MACHINE will accomplish this reflection between song structures and titles.

“Music for me is an art form from top to bottom,” he enumerates. “I’m thinking of these songs from the beginning to the end. Some songs, you want to be easy while some you want to be more ambitious.

Yuzima, Press Photo “In order to be ambitious, you need to break rules. Yet, at the same time, you need to get to the point – for instance, the drums on “Anarchy” have a monochromatic hard hitting sound to them. The guitars have a militant feeling to them with discordant notes, and the chorus is a ground shaking explosion.”

Clearly Yuzima is the type of experimental musician who makes a plan for each of his songs, putting a great deal of effort and love within each track. On this note, he makes a point to keep his collaborating and recording process very restrained. Yet, Yuzima openly listens to feedback from reliable colleagues, including mastering engineer Nathan James, who “throws the magic” on the music.

At the end of our conversation, I learned the machine is a system that feeds on overused politics and the contradictions produced by human nature. This system exists in all dimensions within our present societies, the societies that once existed, and the ones yet to emerge. I also learned that philosophy has always been the hidden hand behind Yuzima’s most pop-inspired material, including THE MACHINE. Yuzima shares the quote from Red Plenty that inspired the theme of his LP.

“Capitalism created misery, but it also created progress, and the revolution that was going to liberate mankind from misery would only happen once capitalism had contributed all the progress that it could, and all the misery too… At the same time, the search for higher profits would have driven the wages of the working class down to the point of near-destitution. It would be a world of WONDERFUL MACHINES and ragged humans.”

While these philosophies might have inspired political and social movements, Yuzima does not serve a political agenda through his music. Instead, Yuzima wants to express the nature of machines – systems that leave little room to reinvent the wheel but at the same time require changes, usually brought about by the continuation of time, in order to survive. The artist successfully conveys this idea through his music by accomplishing two different goals simultaneously. The first developing the symbolic relationship between the titles of songs and structures which validate each title’s specific tone. The second, breaking some of the compositional rules of pop music through fragmentation, the imbalance in the volumes of the electronic instruments, and that unsettling industrial noise.

THE MACHINE Cover Art Yuzima’s THE MACHINE inspires lovers of experimental indie music to embrace a new listening experience. This might be why writers described Yuzima as a “rising indie luminary,” while fans deemed his music to be “bad ass” and “flawless.”

Yuzima will perform songs from his latest LP for audiences on January 11th at Pianos NYC. In the near future, he also plans to debut three music videos for THE MACHINE online. THE MACHINE is currently available on iTunes, Cdbaby and Bandcamp.

A Union of Bluegrass and Hip-Hop, Urban and Rural: an interview with Rench of Gangstagrass

Like many individuals, I initially questioned the thought of bluegrass and hip-hop in the same song. Then, I listened to the Brooklyn-based group Gangstagrass and became more confident and intrigued by this amalgam. When I watched Gangstagrass perform live at the Mercury Lounge earlier this year, I felt like I stumbled upon an exciting discovery on the New York City music scene.

“We get a tremendous amount of positive responses from people,” said Rench, the producer and guitar player of Gangstagrass, who also goes by the official title ‘Mastermind. “They say “Wow. I like hip-hop and I love bluegrass, and this is the kind of music I’ve been searching for my entire life.””

Gangstagrass Facebook Banner

In my full-length interview feature for the month of June, Rench talks about the events that helped Gangstagrass gain substantial attention from the public; how the union of bluegrass and hip-hop works; and why this union matters in today’s musical landscape. It’s my pleasure to welcome Gangstagrass to my blog on Music Historian, Hear; Don’t Listen.

From a one-man project, to a band, and to a theme song for a television show, and more!

According to Rench, Gangstagrass gradually evolved from a one-man project inside his own recording studios in 2006, Rench Audio studios, to a group composed of long-time musical collaborators and temporary instrumentalists in 2010.

“I met T.O.N.E.-z while working at a recording studio. We worked together in a few sessions, where I created beats for him, and we started talking from there,” said Rench. “I eventually recorded some of his albums in my studios.”

Rench arranged the beats and the instrumentation on T.O.N.E.-z’s latest solo album Hennessy and Moonshine released earlier this year.

“At the time I started Rench Audio Studios, I already had a band called B-Star which played honky-tonk hip-hop. Dolio the Sleuth was part of that group. I have been working with him for about a decade now.

“These are MC’s I already knew and I was able to draw on these existing relationships. I would call them up and say “Hey, can I put some of your hip-hop vocals with bluegrass music” and they said “sure man, go ahead.”

Rench, the group's Mastermind, performing with Gangstagrass at the Mercury Lounge on March 30, 2013 “Once I saw how many people were into this one particular project, I thought of making an actual band. I had been involved in the Brooklyn country scene and knew many musicians. I actually recruited people through word-of-mouth, and I was able to pick out a couple of them and bring them on board.”

Some of the bluegrass players that Rench originally recruited stayed in Gangstagrass for a while. The group also experiences a wave of musicians that frequently come and leave as they pursue separate projects or go into different directions.

The transformation of Gangstagrass from a project into an actual group opened the door to what would later be “a big stroke of luck.” In 2010, the band’s song “Long Hard Times to Come” featuring T.O.N.E.-z was selected as the opening theme for the television show on FX, Justified.

“They [the producers of the show] were looking for a bluegrass and hip-hop song, and we happened to be doing it,” enumerated Rench. “It was the perfect type of exposure for Ganstagrass.

“When we tried to explain our music, people tried to make sense of bluegrass and hip-hop mixed together and how that sounds. They don’t think that combination works well. Having people listen to what I make without explanation is the perfect exposure, and that’s what Justified has been doing by playing 30 seconds of Gangstagrass at the beginning of each episode.”

The positive reception of “Long Hard Times To Come” resulted in an Emmy Nomination in July 2010 for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. The public’s growing interest in Gangstagrass encouraged Rench to make a full album later that year titled Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic.

“After the theme song was picked up, I knew I definitely had to get some original Gangstagrass music out there. I made the songs on Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic to sound a lot like the Justified theme with the same rapper and players. That album mostly featured T.O.N.E.-z.”

Rench also states that he applied the compositional formula in “Long Hard Times To Come” to the other songs on Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic. The album that followed Lightning on the Strings… was Gangstagrass’ 2012 release, Rappalachia, a record that displayed more the band’s versatility.

Rappalachia… explores different ways of combining bluegrass and hip-hop and welcomes different techniques and rappers,” elaborates Rench.

“I wanted to branch out a little and not stick closely with the same [compositional] formula, so I took the production in different directions. Sometimes I would start with a hip-hop beat and build with a bluegrass clip. On other songs, I would start with a bluegrass sound, build a beat around that, and then have the rappers build their rhymes. Some songs involved a more organic approach, like having the bluegrass band play a whole song through while others had more of a sampling approach.

“Some highlights also included working with new high-profile rappers like Kool Keith, Dead Prez and Nitty Scott to bring out different elements.”

The introduction of new rappers and new songs excited Gangstagrass followers. One rapper that stands out in my mind is the female Brooklyn-based rapper, Tomasia, who appears on the Rappalachia track, “Big Branch.”

Tomasia rapping in "Big Branch" with Gangstagrass at the Mercury Lounge “The song “Big Branch” is based on actual events that happened,” explained Rench. “When I brought the song to Tomasia, she took it upon herself to research the rural mining issues that affect many communities in Kentucky. Tomasia put herself into that role and wrote from that perspective so well.

“She is brilliant at writing these narratives from different perspectives with a lot of depth and clarity. I was really thrilled, and that song is a great example of reaching different people and seeing their struggles in us and our struggles in them.”

Rench’s last statement about “Big Branch” helped me see that both bluegrass and hip-hop include topics about the average person’s everyday struggle. Of course, one genre pertains to the struggles of rural life while the other focuses on the struggles of urban life. Then started I wonder whether these two genres have more in common than just lyrical subjects. Rench observes the similarities and differences of these two genres while working in the studios and performing with Gansgtagrass.

The Union of Bluegrass and Hip-hop

(Left to Right) Rench, R-Son, and Jon West on the Fiddle “When I work with the rappers and bluegrass players, we find a lot of common ground musically. Both these genres share improvisational elements and each has a different word to describe these elements. For example, during a jam session, we stand around in a circle and take turns improvising. In hip-hop, this is called a cipher while in bluegrass, it’s called a pick. Basically, they are both the same thing.

“Sometimes rappers will freestyle while the bluegrass players are improvising solos, and they will click. The artists from both genres approach improvisation with the same impulse – creating a dialogue within music and turning it into a conversation.

“As you mentioned,” added Rench, “both of these genres have a history of focusing on stories of outlaws, struggle, heartbreak, and hard things in life. Hip-hop and bluegrass help create a catharsis by singing or rapping about these stories.”

While the players in Gangstagrass have established a common ground musically and lyrically, the differences in performance within bluegrass and hip-hop balance each other nicely. Rench says:

R-Son performing with Gangstagrass“As a genre, Bluegrass is very virtuosic-focused and lacks an exciting performance element. Traditionally, it involves people fine-tuning their skills and ability to perform accurately and passionately. Bluegrass performers typically stand in one place and focus on their instrument and playing something amazing.

“We had to focus on the idea that our performance would be more like a party. So we asked the bluegrass players to move around more and interact more with the rappers.”

According to Rench, members of Gangstagrass “make sure to have fun on stage.” Rench adds, “It’s really exciting to perform and interact with these guys on stage.”

During a performance, the rapper often sings to the audience then turns his or her attention to the neighboring banjo player and says “take it away.” The instrumentalist can really focus on a solo and the rappers can freestyle a new verse.

When I went to see Gangstagrass perform for the first time back in March, I couldn’t remember the last time a room of 70 or more people had so much fun watching musicians that were also enjoying themselves. I believe this experience helps individuals with varying musical tastes accept and embrace the fusion of bluegrass and hip-hop. One question I do ask myself though is whether Gangstagrass’ union of bluegrass and hip-hop might help shrink the divide between rural and urban audiences. I ask Rench for his opinion on this thought.

Why this Union matters in today’s musical landscape

(Left to Right): Rench on Guitar, Landry McMeans on Dobro, and R-Son “I think the music industry has perpetuated this idea that there is white music and black music, rural music and urban music. Each style has a separate chart, separate radio stations, separate websites and separate everything, as though separate groups of people listened to these genres. That’s not the case.

“People have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on their iPods on shuffle. They listen to all kinds of stuff and appreciate a variety of different music that comes from different places in the country.

“I sometimes do see our fans discussing how these two [bluegrass and hip-hop] can integrate so well. I’m happy to the extent that this happens. If Gangstagrass can bring this up in discussion or give people a little hint that we are not so divided, I think that would be fantastic.”

Gangstagrass’ music definitely generates discussion. Some listeners feel excited that Brooklyn-based rappers are talking about issues that affect rural communities. According to Rench, when listeners commented on Tomasia’s rap in “Big Branch,” they often expressed, “I can’t believe you found this incredible rapper from Kentucky.”

Sometimes, Gangstagrass stimulates debates among purist listeners. Rench explains:

“Sometimes, we receive responses from bluegrass purists who say “I don’t think you should have rap in here, the lyrics will be too violent.” In reality however many bluegrass songs were inspired by violent imagery, especially in the tradition of murder ballads that are far more violent than any of the subjects that the rappers describe.”

First-time listeners also exhibit amazement at the fact that bluegrass and hip-hop can work well together.

“Many people think bluegrass and hip-hop would not work well,” says Rench, “and it’s certainly true that it can turn out badly or come out wrong. It happens sometimes.

“I take the project of bringing out the best of both worlds very seriously. I don’t take this as a novelty. It’s a great thing to do – making a full project out of the idea that these two genres can be brought together and have something cool come out.”

Gangstagrass is currently on the road, touring in various cities on the mid-Atlantic coast and stirring conversations and discussions among hip-hop and bluegrass listeners. By the middle of July, the band plans to hit California and make a stop overseas in the Czech Republic, before hitting the road on the East coast again in August.

In addition to the on-and-off touring, Gansgtagrass plans to release another album either in the Fall or early next year.

“I don’t know what to call it [the album] yet, but we’re exploring ways of bringing together a lot of the same rappers and bluegrass players that we are working with now,” enumerates Rench.

The Mastermind is exploring whether something beyond bluegrass hip-hop exists. “We don’t necessarily need to be locked in being half bluegrass and half hip-hop,” claims Rench. “I’m using this album to explore whether this is not just bluegrass hip-hop, but blending them together into a new sound – something that does not have a name yet.”

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

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

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

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

The Perils and Romance in Travel-Themed Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Finding These Songs

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

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

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

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

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

Todd’s Musical Influences and Performance Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Recording Experience of Songs for a Traveler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd’s Plans for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early years with The Dark

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

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

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

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

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

Transitioning into the Recording Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confident and Experienced Musicians are Interested in Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Genre: Cosmic Country 

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

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

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

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

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

Kamara and Jeff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place of Spirit that Inspired a Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path and Miracle to Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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