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.””

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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.”

“Put Yourself Out There”:Solo Guitarist, Hannah Winkler Shares Her Music and Story

In today’s indie band culture, especially the one in the Big Apple, I too often feel that something is missing. Then it hits me – “Where are the solo guitar chicks?” I was happy to finally find one on a warm and rainy February evening, at Seth Glier’s set in Rockwood Music Hall. Here, I stumbled upon the voice and guitar playing of singer-songwriter, Hannah Winkler

One of the songs I heard from her that night, “Dear Love” – which is on her self-titled EP – left me in awe. It starts with an unsettling progression of minor 7 chords, followed by progressions of major 7 chords, and then finishes soundly on the tonic, the 1 chord. On top of these harmonies, she sings about how she simply cannot wait for love to arrive, even though it is warm and comforting.

I wanted to find out more about the girl with the intricate chord progressions and the disillusioned views about love. So, I invited Hannah to be my April music feature for the full-length interview right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen.

“The Paper Plate Song”

Hannah and I met at the café on East Houston, Sugar. In our conversation, I learned that Hannah’s relationships with friends both from her home in Bethesda, Maryland and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor influenced her songwriting. She says:

“During my freshman year, I was writing “Dear Love,” and one of my friends wrote lyrics which I later set to this song. Coincidentally, the lyrics he wrote happened to describe something I was experiencing at that time – a long distance relationship. The lyrics just fit with me, and I just finished with what he started. “Dear Love” became one of my favorite songs to play.

“My relationships and my friends’ relationships in college inspired my music; we were learning a lot about ourselves at that time. Also, missing relationships from home, missing relationships from college while I was at home also inspired my songs.

“I wrote a song after I left college called “The Paper Plate Song.” When I wrote it, I was at a concert, and I missed my friends so much that I started crying and had to leave the concert. As I left, I needed to write down what I was feeling, so I searched for whatever I could find to write on, and it happened to be a paper plate.

“Until this day, I don’t have a title for the song; it’s just called “The Paper Plate Song.”

College was also where Hannah had her first performing opportunities for her own music. All her life, Hannah only performed solo classical piano pieces or performed in ensembles. Luckily, Ann Arbor offered her several safe and intimate spaces where she could practice as a solo artist and share music with her friends and the surrounding community.

“Put Yourself Out There”

“I would perform for friends in my apartment and at a local church that welcomed a lot of jazz musicians.

“I also participated in a student songwriting competition which took place at Ann Arbor’s premier folk venue, The Ark. The winner of this competition would get to open for an undetermined better-known artist at the Ark. I ended up winning the competition, and opened for Joshua James a few months later.

“Not only did I open for Joshua James, but I got my foot in the door and was able to play again at the Ark. Afterward, I performed at a large outdoor concert series, Top of the Park Festival. I also met a few dj’s and had the opportunity to perform on a few local radio stations.”

Hannah’s message to all soloists is, “Put yourself out there. You might meet people who can recommend you to a specific venue or a band in need of an instrumentalist.”

This is just one way a singer-songwriter can attract opportunities. I then asked Hannah whether her move to Brooklyn was a result of her hunger for more opportunity.

“Moving to Brooklyn, I was able to collaborate with several artists. I opened for Seth Glier and Theo Katzman at Rockwood. Then last Thursday night, I played at Googie’s with several other friends. I also sang back-up vocals on a record by the band called Guggenheim Grotto.

“Open mic night is also great way to meet people with whom you can collaborate. I also like taking breaks from doing my music, and helping other people with theirs. This is how I met Kat Quinn, another artist. I will be singing back-ups for her on her set at Rockwood.”

Aside from singing with fellow artists, Hannah also scored a short film by her friend from college, Perry Janes titled, Zug. Her most recent single, “Hide it Away,” which she produced with Theo Katzman, is included in the film. Another one of Hannah’s friends, Brian Trahan, also from University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, helped her produce her EP.

“I want to see who will help me bring out the best in my songs”

“While I was in college, Brian and I sang together in an a cappella group. I started recording the EP with him and I enjoyed seeing what he had to bring to the table. He is very influenced by rock and classical music, and for some of the tracks, we invited string quartets to help us complete the songs.”

Hannah adds, “Recording the EP was a wonderful journey. I like painting with music, and you get do that in the recording process.

“I have a lot of ideas of how the tunes should feel, and I appreciate hearing others’ ideas as well. I am currently trying to assemble a team of recording engineers for a full-length album – one with 10 to 12 songs. I want to see who will enjoy working on the album, understand my music, and help me to bring out the best in my songs.”

The Puzzle: Rehearsing with Hannah

 The experience of producing an album differs for each artist. For Hannah, her recording days started in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she created her first album with Brian. Recording the single, “Hide it Away” in her Brooklyn apartment however, presented a different challenge. Hannah explains:

“We only had a chunk of time each day to record songs. We had to wait for cars and ambulances to pass,” because every passing noise could be picked up by the recording devices.

Prior to recording a song, Hannah and her guest-musicians rehearse a piece of new music for the best process. An on-going puzzle during these rehearsals, is figuring out what Hannah is playing on her guitar. She says:

“I’ve been playing piano since the first grade. Then I picked up guitar in the 9th grade, and taught myself. I still have never taken a lesson. From the moment I picked up guitar, I started writing my own songs. I occasionally looked up the chords in songs from my favorite artists, but I never really learned them well. So I wrote my own.

“Playing the piano for so long really helped my ear, but I could never translate my theory knowledge onto guitar. I just press my fingers down wherever and just play things that sound good. When I rehearse with bands, I can’t explain to them what I’m playing so I show them, and they get it. For some, it’s like a puzzle and they really enjoy learning. In turn, these rehearsals help me figure out who I’d like to work with in the future.”

I was surprised to hear that Hannah composes songs purely by ear. I have played guitar for years, and actually picked it up around the same time as Hannah, but I only learned formally.

When I wrote my own songs, I always used tablature and mastered simple major and minor chords. If I don’t have something written in front of me, I don’t know what to do. For Hannah, the power of experimenting and her gift for hearing is an outstanding musical asset.

As I continued my conversation with Hannah, I learned more about her song writing process. She has a few recipes for creating songs that are ready for “the-road-to-recording.”

Setting a piece of music to words

Hannah says, “I experiment with chords for a while until I find a structure I like. Then, I usually start humming a melody over it, and the words come last. That’s the hardest part for me.

“Occasionally, I’ve written music to poetry by my mother, E.E. Cummings and myself, then composed music to it; and this instance, I found it easier to already have the words. To already have a piece of music with a melody and then have to add lyrics to it is really tough.”

Since they are the only musicians creating their songs, the solo singer-songwriter is often challenged by their own compositional methods. Collaboration is definitely one solution that can ease this pressure. However, even the most eloquent songwriter has to push themselves to create a song that will successfully express their emotions or thoughts.

“Sometimes, when I am really upset, I find it difficult to express myself eloquently or poetically; I just want to scream about it and say whatever it is I am feeling.” Hannah adds, “It is hard to make that sound beautiful. Usually though, my best songs come out of these moments.”

 “I Really Love This” 

Like every promising musician, Hannah has set goals for herself and has identified areas for improvement. One of these areas includes becoming more comfortable with performing.

“It’s a very vulnerable thing,” Hannah explains. “Singing with a group of people is comforting as opposed to singing a personal song by yourself. I still get nervous at large gigs just as I’m about to perform, but I want to continue to do so. Once I’m on stage, I feel great.

“The whole thing, like hiring, paying for a band, and covering expenses, can be intimidating, but it’s exciting. I hope to continue to perform more and more. It’s important for me to show people that I really love this and that I believe in myself.”

Hannah’s passion for recording and performing is unfaltering and infectious. Although she does occasionally worry about the challenges within the music industry now; it did not cross her mind when she decided to pursue this path. She says, “It definitely intimidates me, but I love it, so I’m going to continue with it.”

No Idea is Too Small

Hannah might have moved to Brooklyn for more opportunities, but her music career really started in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During this time, she learned to make connections with individuals, make herself known in a music community, and work with others on producing music.

That warm Friday afternoon at a café called Sugar, Hannah taught me that no performance or musical idea is too small. What can start as an open mic night at a little club in Brooklyn, can lead to a performance in a large line-up in Manhattan. What can start as a few words on a paper plate can turn into a beautiful song on either an EP or a full-length album. With her a beautiful voice, a passion for playing guitar, and a talent for songwriting, I feel Hannah Winkler will definitely receive a warm reception from both fans and fellow musicians in New York City.

Drawing Inspiration from Songs: A Conversation with Comic Book Artist, Nikki Umans

Today’s digital music technology enables everybody to create the playlists they need on a daily basis. A simple playlist can help a busy person get through the most tedious of tasks; enable an athlete to complete another rigorous workout; or nurture an artist’s creativity.

Nikki Umans is an SVA alumni and currently working on her first comic book

Dominique Lee Umans, or Nikki as I’ve come to call her, is a graduate from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and a comic book artist. She recently talked to me about how some of her favorite music helps her in creating Diamond Bright Delirium, her first original comic. It is my pleasure to interview her right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen in my first full-length aspiring artist feature.  

The Story of Two Brothers

Nikki explains, “This horror fantasy series takes place in an alternate and mythical universe, one where there is a world in the sky, another world below the earth, and one in between the two. The series is mostly set in the world between the two.” It is in this world the story begins.

Sketch of Teliau*

“The story starts when one of the supporting characters, Dr. Rivières loses his son, Teliau. Dr. Rivières refuses to accept the fate of his son, and tirelessly looks for ways to bring him back from the dead. Meanwhile, an angel, Ciel, accidentally falls from the world above, and Dr. Rivières takes him in as one of his own. Soon though, Dr. Riviera discovers that he can use Ciel’s genes to resurrect Teliau.”

Ciel and Teliau are the protagonists in Diamond Bright Delirium. Throughout the series, these brothers grow close and eventually fight battles together side-by-side.

“These brothers grow up knowing only each other and their father.

“Dr. Rivières isolates himself and his sons to avoid stirring any suspicion of what he has done, especially since it puts him in legal danger. In addition, both these sons are ridiculed by the people in their town because of their physical deformities. The effects of Dr. Rivières’s procedure on Teliau, left him looking like a monster. Meanwhile, Ciel still has wings from when he was an angel.

“These two brothers come from very different backgrounds and become very close as a result of their isolation. Throughout the series, the brothers rely on one another as they fight their way through every upsetting circumstance and perilous situations; most of which are caused by the female crime-lord and their boss, Evangeline.

Sketch of Ciel*

“Evangeline gives Ciel and Teliau work that involves racketeering, bounty hunting, procuring business deals with rival groups, and dealing with her own family whom she cannot stand.

“She doesn’t assign these jobs to the brothers because she’s confident in their skill. Instead, she assigns them these jobs in hopes that they will fail. If they fail, she will kill their father. If they don’t, she will continue to abuse her power and take full advantage of Ciel and Teliau.

Siren: Mythical villain that appears in the series*

“Her spiteful behavior towards the Rivières brothers stem from the pain she experienced in her past and her inability to move on from that pain. Creating upsetting circumstances for Ciel and Teliau is how she deals with it, but, she still remains unhappy.”

This type of hypocrisy is an overarching theme in Diamond Bright Delirium. Evangeline is one such character who is a hypocrite to the extreme. Her inner suffering increases in every episode, no matter how much trouble she single-handedly creates for the Rivières brothers. Later in the series, Nikki makes this “seemingly all-knowing mob-boss fight her hypocrisies.”

She also adds, “One of my goals for Diamond Bright Delirium, is to incorporate more characters and their backgrounds into the story and not make it only about Ciel and Teliau.”

Nuckelavees, Scottish water fairies, in Diamond Bright Delirium*

So what fuels Nikki’s tireless energy for simultaneously creating dramatic and bizarre situations for these heroes and supporting characters? She responds, “Aside from my favorite comics, which exude elements of black cinema, horror movies, and gangster movies, like Richard Sala’s The Chuckling Whats It and Mad Night; music is one of my other major influences.”

Gathering inspiration for Diamond Bright Delirium from songs by the Circus Contraption

Songs by the band and traveling circus, Circus Contraption, help Nikki visualize settings that inspire her, like urban America during the Victorian period and the 1920’s.

“Whenever I listen to one of their [Circus Contraption’s] songs, I start to visualize things that symbolize the settings of these time periods like old smoke stacks, battleships pulling into harbors, the turning of wheels.

“Also, every song by Circus Contraption is a story, and in every concert, they re-enact these scenes on stage; and the settings of their performances are also inspired by the Victorian period and vaudeville. Their songs lyrically focus on taboos that were shocking during those times.”

I then wondered how Nikki draws inspiration from a song by Circus Contraption and then incorporates that into her work, Diamond Bright Delirium. She talks to me about one episode, “The Carnival,” which is directly inspired by a song from Circus Contraption.

“In this episode,” Nikki explains, “Ciel and Teliau are sent to deal with the manager of a mechanical traveling circus Mr. Jynx, who Evangeline believes might have stolen some of her money.

“Once the brothers arrive to the premise, one of circus members is mysteriously murdered. Mr. Jynx believes it was a scheme by Evangeline, and suspects the brothers have some knowledge about this. Now, the brothers have to investigate whether the crime was committed by anybody from within the circus.”

“By listening to the emotions expressed… I can pick out what could be the next proceeding scene”

Although songs by Circus Contraption and other musical groups help Nikki in the creative process, she doesn’t take songs from these artists and simply turn them into visual stories using her own characters. Instead, these songs help inspire plot developments.

“If I ever come to an episode and I have trouble with plot development, I go to a song in my playlist that I feel fits the current scene I am working on. I can pick out elements from this song that I believe can be incorporated into the plot and hopefully further my story.

“By listening to the emotions expressed within the music, I can pick out what could be the next proceeding scene.

“On this note, I design playlists that are consistent in theme, tone and style, and I always revise my playlists to make sure they flow well. Listening to these playlists also helps me battle writer’s block.”

Playlists: “This helps me stay consistent in my writing process.”

In our conversation, I learned that writer’s block is more than a creative wall; it can trigger damaging setbacks for even the most successful artists.

“I have observed other writers who have attracted a strong following or fan base, and then experienced writer’s block, which caused them to stop updating their comics. This is detrimental; a stymie in their work disrupts the relationship,” between the artist and his or her audiences, “and disappoints readers. They often feel betrayed.”

Nikki takes the threat of writer’s block very seriously, which is why she is setting all of her ducks in a row.  At the moment, she plans to finish writing all 12 seasons of Diamond Bright Delirium by the end of this year. With 148 episodes under her belt, she hopes to have a total of 228 stories completed within the next year. This will enable her to have a whole storyline ready so that she can concentrate on drawing the scenes. She hopes to start drawing the comics by 2014, and finally publish the series that same year.

Consistency is very important for Nikki, and music is one of the many resources that will help her continue working towards fully publishing Diamond Bright Delirium.

“I feel writer’s block is the worst excuse I could have for disrupting my work. So I go through my playlists and find songs that I can easily connect to the scenes I am currently working on, and try to create an episode without pictures. This helps me stay consistent in my writing process.”

“I want readers to get lost in the story”

By the time Nikki’s comic hits the web, the end product of her creative process will come in the form of refined and colorful caricature sketches and boxed scenes that tell the story of two brave brothers. As a result, Nikki hopes her readers to take away the following from her series:

Driffiks: mythical woodland creatures*

“I want readers to go to this comic after a hard day’s work and really get lost in the story. People consistently deal with hardships, whether it’s a recent death in the family; not having enough money; or dealing with a physical ailment. I hope readers come to this comic to find something cathartic about these two main characters.”

“I hope my comics help readers re-examine their points of views about themselves and others”

While the characters in her series mimic and reflect the character flaws we exhibit in everyday life, like hypocrisy, Nikki wants readers to first and foremost have fun reading Diamond Bright Delirium. She explains:

“There are times I go to read some of my favorite web comics when I feel stressed. Afterward, I am happy to see that somebody out there can see the world from a point of view different from mine, and express it through their creative work.

“I hope that I can accomplish something like this with Diamond Bright Delirium help readers notice the flaws they observe in themselves and others in everyday life and hopefully view the world with fresh eyes.”

*All pictures are patented and published with permission by the artist and rights holder*

Opening Doors: Imagine Dragons’ Bassist, Ben McKee, talks about the band’s exciting journey

Creating hit songs, completing albums, and finishing nation-wide tours are series of feats in a recording artist’s career. This is why individuals who want to fully pursue music should be ready to dedicate their life to it and LOVE it, like the Las Vegas-native band, Imagine Dragons.   

In a telephone interview, Ben McKee, Imagine Dragons’ bassist, tells me, “We’ve all been playing music for a long time, and performance is where we feel most comfortable. It is magical to be in a space, especially an intimate one, where everybody can be a part of that same community. The music doesn’t become alive until you’re sharing it in a room with a crowd and feeding that energy.”

I saw Imagine Dragons perform at the lounge in Delancey, Pianos, on March 7th, and the experience from watching the band was electrifying. Their music was my greatest motivator for trekking out to Pianos to personally approach Imagine Dragons. Now, I am happy to bring my conversation with Ben to this month’s full-length band feature right here on Music Historian’s, Hear, Let’s Listen.

 The Busy First-Visit to the Big Apple: “That performance was our third one that day”

Getting this band’s attention was not easy. Following their showcase at Pianos, everybody in New York City wanted to meet Imagine Dragons. That evening was also the end to a busy first-time in the Big Apple. Ben explains:

“We drove all the way from Boston to make an 8:00am sound check earlier that day. We performed on the set of Mark Hoppus’s show on FUSE TV; then we had a couple of interviews at a few radio stations; went to another showcase; then made it to Pianos – our third performance that day.”

So what is it about Imagine Dragons that has recently caught the attention of disc jockeys, popular music figures, show hosts and of course, fans everywhere? The answer might hide in a sense of ‘mystery’ the band incorporates in both their music and image.

A Factor of Mystery: “We leave all the songs to the listeners’ interpretation”

When I listened to songs like “America” and “It’s Time” I felt that the singer, Dan was touching on the life philosophies and issues that affect everyone as a collective. Another song, “Cha-Ching” which the band performed at Pianos that night helped me imagine a more specific story – one about the tiring strife Americans experience when competing in the business world. These are the lyrics I recall:

“You’ll be a worker/ I’ll be your soldier/…/I’ve never seen this side of you…”

Dan Reynolds (right) and D Wayne Sermon (left) performing at Pianos

When I asked Ben about the meaning of “Cha-Ching,” he explained:

“Dan writes all the lyrics. He tries to write lyrics that are not so definitive. He focuses on something he’s feeling and tries to translate that into lyrics and a mood that people can connect with and attach their own meaning to. We leave the meanings of all our songs a little bit to listeners’ interpretation.”

Further into our conversation, I also learned the band’s name is another big mystery.

“The name, Imagine Dragons, is an anagram,” claims Ben. “We in the band all agreed on a statement and we switched the letters around to create this name so that nobody would guess the statement.” Fans from everywhere have already tried to decode the name ‘Imagine Dragons’ and uncover the hidden message, but nobody has come close. According to Ben, the band is “happy to keep it a secret.”

While the meaning behind Imagine Dragons’ name and music is undefined, their story as a band that gradually built their reputation on the popular music scene is clear and inspiring.

“When we met, we never thought that we’d go on to play pop music in a matter of years.”

Ben McKee, Imagine Dragons’ Bass Player at Pianos in NYC

In his early years, Ben’s love for music stemmed from trying to emulate his father on the acoustic guitar. By the 5th and 6th grade, Ben was forced into playing acoustic bass.

“Up until the 5th grade, I played violin, but then, my elementary school band needed a bass player. Later, in High School, I became part of a jazz trio, and that’s where I really learned to play the bass more proficiently.

“This led me to study at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, where I met Wayne (the guitarist) and Platzman (the drummer) who are in the band now.”

A few years later, a telephone call from Wayne led Ben to make the decision of pursuing performance and songwriting full-time with Imagine Dragons.

“Wayne started Imagine Dragons when he moved back to his hometown in Provo, Utah. Then, he moved his band to Las Vegas, and that’s when he invited both me and Platzman to join.”

Soon after the band was complete, the group created a definite style and sound. Introducing it onto the Las Vegas music scene however, was a challenge. According to Ben, Las Vegas is a great city to perform as a cover band, but original bands have a harder time gaining attention.

“A lot of venues will actually want to schedule cover bands in order to attract tourists. When we started, we played cover songs at Casinos by night, and spent the day composing original music. Then, we gradually introduced Imagine Dragons’ original sound into these sets, and found that people, both local and tourists, were stopping to watch us.”

This recognition opened the door to the next big opportunity – performing Battle of the Bands at festivals for four consecutive years and landing in first place a total of three times. Although they landed in third place at their fourth performance; this show would have the greatest impact on the group.

“Playing in front of 20,000 people… had the greatest impact on our career.”

“The Bite of Las Vegas is a music and food festival in Las Vegas, and the Battle of the Bands showcase within this festival is called Battle of the Bite.

“In our fourth consecutive and last performance at Battle of the Bite, we came in third place; just far enough to win a spot on the local stage. It just so happened, that when we performed on that set that afternoon, the promoter of Battle of the Bite was watching from the audience.

“Later that evening, Train, was supposed to perform on the same stage, but singer, Pat Monahan came down with a sore throat, and the band had to cancel their show. The same promoter who saw our show earlier helped place us in Train’s spot.

“Although we didn’t win Battle of the Bite, we played in front of 20,000 people that night. That moment had the greatest impact on our career.”

Imagine Dragons’ history holds a lesson – you don’t have to win every battle to open the next door in your music career. For Imagine Dragons, the opportunities that followed their performance at Battle of the Bite included a contract with Interscope Records in 2011 and working with popular music producer, Alex Da Kid.

“He believes in the music we are making, and he wants to help us bring it to more people”

“One of his assistants [Alex Da Kid’s assistants] presented him with a CD of our old music,” explains Ben, “and Alex connected with it and he loved our sound.

“He wanted to help us realize more of our own vision and work with us to release our music on a bigger scale. He believes in the music we are making, and he wants to help us bring it to more people, which is also what we want.”

Imagine Dragons is currently working with Alex Da Kid on their first full-length album, which they hope to release around this Fall. The title of their upcoming record is a mystery for now, and they can’t wait to reveal it to fans.* They also just wrapped up the music video for their single, “It’s Time,” and are planning to hit the road again in May. In the long run, Ben and the band hope to continue doing the one thing they love most – music.

“It’s been great, and we hope to continue doing it on a bigger scale.”

“Music is the primary way we express ourselves. We are not the most social people, and we feel we are in our element when we perform music. We feel that we can expose ourselves in a way that makes us feel less vulnerable than in other situations.

“We also love connecting with our fans as much as possible. Even with the increasing attention from the press – which we also enjoy – we always want to connect with those who travel great distances to see us perform.

“We are a band that lives and thrives when traveling on the road and performing live for crowds. It’s been great, and we hope to continue doing it on a bigger scale.”

“We never planned on doing music as second to our everyday lives.”

At the end of our conversation, I thought about the exciting road Imagine Dragons traveled so far. I realize an exciting journey like this one is rare, and it doesn’t come easy.

The life of a recording artist is not for the opportunistic job-seeker or entrepreneur, but for the most dedicated artist that is willing to devote years of practice to their craft. The road to bigger opportunities – whether it is a record contract with a big label, going on a nation-wide tour, or releasing a full-length album on a national level – is a long one. Luckily, Imagine Dragons accepted the challenge from what seems like, the moment they started.

Ben says, “We never planned on doing music as second to our everyday lives nor to escape our lives. This is our life and it’s what we wanted to do.”

*The full-length album by Imagine Dragons was released on September 4th, 2012 and it’s titled Night Visions. The record is available for purchase on iTunes.

Ava Luna: A Band in Transition

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

“Hated to practice; but loved to write”

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

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

The band’s early fall-outs

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

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

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

“How can I make this group sound?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear People Listen, Part 2: Tapping into part of my father’s life

I recently interviewed my father, a former Cold War refugee from Romania, and learned about the power of forgetting and remembering stories. Such stories linger in people’s minds but rarely surface in conversation.

His flee to the United States

 This past April, I visited my parents’ native Romania. My parents, sister and I stayed at, what used to be, our grandparents home in the center of the capital city, Bucharest. I brought with me a story kit from StoryCorps to initially record a conversation with my mother and her best friend. My father became excited by the idea and asked if I would interview him and his two life-long friends, Dan and Marian.

I had to limit the conversation between these three friends to 45 minutes. Along with the “ice-breaking” background questions – how did you meet, describe me a favorite childhood memory, etc. – I also saw this as a golden opportunity to tap into a specific part of my father’s life – his flee to the United States.

After 30 minutes of listening to their walk down memory lane, they finally ambled to the year of my father’s daring escape from Romania – 1980. I then asked the following: “When you learned Tomi (my father) was going to make a perilous journey to America during the Romania’s communist occupation, what thoughts came to your minds?” So, the story began.

“My leave in 1980 was a dangerous matter…those who know will do well to forget”

I watched my father lean back into his chair with his arms folded across his chest as he enumerated.

“My leave from Romania in 1980 was a dangerous matter and one that was kept confidential. My wish for all my friends and family was this: those who know will do well to forget.”

And forget they did. As far as all his friends knew, my father was going on a month-long trip to Israel to visit an aunt. Marian elaborates.

“Tomi and I attended a sports club every Sunday to play tennis in pairs. Since we were both enthusiasts we always showed up on time.

“A month had passed since he left for Israel and I knew he was supposed to be back; so I waited for him at the club one Sunday after his return but he never came. I was incredibly amazed but I assumed he hadn’t come home from Israel yet. His prolonged absence eventually worried me.

“Sometime later, I stopped by his parents’ house to see if they had heard from Tomi. They invited me inside to listen to a homemade tape recording of a telephone conversation between them and Tomi. Making that tape was courageous because in those days, government authorities tapped most phones.

“I listened to the conversation. Tomi had gone to Italy to get an exit visa for the United States. On the tape, Tomi told his father about his arduous time abroad. He was exonerated by the application process and didn’t feel confident about continuing his journey. In the conversation, his father encouraged him to push forward. Mr. Trutescu said to Tomi, “You left here for this reason, and you’ve traveled too far to turn back now. Keep going.”” My father eventually finished his journey safely.

“You could only imagine what my friends thought when they learned I wasn’t coming back”

“I started my journey on Jun 10, 1980 in Israel,” said my Dad. “In September, I boarded a charter plane from Italy and landed in America.” He then remarked, “You could only imagine what my friends thought when they learned I wasn’t coming back.” Dan then told his story.

“It was 1982, two years after Tomi left when I learned he wasn’t returning home.

Romania during communism

“It all happened at my parents’ house on Christmas of that year. Marian and his fiancée, Veronica stopped by, and I saw they brought Tomi’s father along with them.

“I found it unusual how Marian and Mr. Trutescu stopped by without bringing Tomi. At this point, I started thinking he already fled the country; a thought I kept to myself because I was so afraid of possibly exposing Tomi.” Dan didn’t know about the cassette recording Marian had heard and thus, wasn’t sure if my father had already made it to the States or discontinued the trip.

These memories and stories were seldom shared, even though communism was long gone

For a few seconds, I noticed a remarkable silence. My father still had his arms crossed; this time seated all the way back into his chair. Dan adopted a similar posture. Meanwhile, a gloomy expression came over Marian’s face as he turned his head downward toward his seat. It was clear to me that these memories and stories of my father’s escape were seldom shared, even though communism was long gone.

Further into the conversation, my father talked about his return to Romania for the first time in 10 years – right after communism collapsed in 1989. During those 10 years he was in the States, the only contact he made with his friends was through a Christmas card. Marian pulled that Christmas card out of a manila envelope and showed it to me. He kept it in mint condition for over 3o years.

A holiday greeting card can mean many things, but for my father’s friends, it was a sign of hope that their friend, Tomi was alive and well and somewhere safe.

Remembering and preserving some of life’s most important stories

Romanians today no longer adhere to secrecy and forgetfulness. However; those who lived in a time where certain speeches, knowledge and verbal speculations opened a door to danger, still remember this protocol: forgetting is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. Today, remembering and preserving some of life’s most important stories is essential; especially among friends, family, and generations to come.

I am happy to preserve and share my father’s story. It is a story about freedom, danger, perseverance and friendships that have passed the tests of time.