Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change”

Janna Pelle sings and plays keyboard at her Album Release concert at Pianos, for her latest record,  Janna Pelle, a young advertising grad from the University of Florida in Gainesville, builds her portfolio by helping promote a musician she knows very well – herself. Why? When a first-time professional steps into the competitive world of advertising, marketing and communications, she must stand out. Doing so sometimes requires some shamelessness.

“I had a band in college,” Janna beings. “We were called Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps. We performed covers and originals around campus and venues around the city, we were the house band of the University of Florida family events, and we performed at all of the parents’ weekends.

“My band – who were also my best friends in college – and I had just finished an album. As I was graduating, I knew I wouldn’t be in Gainesville anymore, but I did not know yet that I was coming to New York City to do music. Shameless Self-Promotion was the first album I had made without the band, and I started working on it knowing that I was going to be on my own soon. My drummer was going to law school, my bass player was going to be a teacher for Teach for America, and my guitarist would become an Apple Techie.

“When I worked on Shameless Self-Promotion, I had an opportunity to do something different. I also started working on that album knowing I would pursue music. I hate saying the word “pursue music” because I’m [already] doing it, why say the word pursue? So, I finished the whole album in a relatively short time. I had a bassist and a drummer do their part, and I produced the entire album. I knew I needed to have a product ready by the time I would decide to move where I wanted.”

I asked Janna, “And you were studying advertising?”

“Yes, exactly,” she answers. “As a result of this advertising endeavor, I felt so certain I could take a year or more without working in an agency, and do music. I am still building my advertising portfolio in the process – my album, logo, merchandise, and posters I have made for my shows are all a part of that now. At this point, I feel a certain confidence in wanting to do music as my full career. Shameless Self-Promotion was the product I needed to have before I moved to New York.”

Before physically skimming the back cover of her cd-case that proved her record was recorded in Gainesville; I stop for a second to see a nude shot of Janna on the front cover. She has her knees folded and placed up below her neck and on her feet, she wears lightning white go-go boots with her logo on them. This photograph has tasteful nudity which does not even touch risqué. Plus, I certainly could not have thought of cooler visual to match the phrase “shameless self-promotion.”

I then listen to tracks on this album like “Machine” and “Accessory,” and feel excited about Janna’s music. As I research her discography and find her 2014 release, The Show Must Go On, I learn that she courageously shares with listeners the tough experience of her father, who battled cancer. When I sat down with Janna to talk to her about her upcoming album Key Change, I discovered a lover of music history seeking to include a niche audience, in addition to her target listeners – conservatory students. Janna has come to the right blogger. I feel delighted to welcome her as my feature interview subject for November on Music Historian.

Prior to starting Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps at UF, Janna’s musical journey started at the tender age of 6, when she enrolled in piano lessons with a teacher, Rachel Currea.

“My parents enrolled me in piano lessons when I was 6. I was enrolled because I have hyperextension of the inter-phalangeal ligaments. My parents did not know how that would affect me later in life, so they wanted me to exercise my hands.

“They met Rachel, who is still one of my best friends – she’s amazing. My parents told her, ‘Whether she learns little songs only we will hear, or becomes musical; we want her to have fun and exercise her hands.’ So that’s when I learned to enjoy playing.”

Janna Pelle performs at Pianos for her album launch celebration, 11/10/2014 Janna did become musical, and eventually enrolled in a piano magnet high school, where she performed in state-wide classical recital programs. Throughout Janna’s high school education, Rachel acted as her trainer. When the young pianists had to decide on what to major in, Janna decided to continue with music without focusing on it as a degree.

“I realized I did not want to major in music, but I still wanted room for it in my schedule. Gainesville is a great music town, so I was able to form a band. I was greatly influenced by classical, rock and a little bit of jazz. Although I was no longer taking classical lessons… having a band… that experience was just as formative as my classical lessons.”

Hebrew music also slips its way into Janna’s repertoire. I wondered whether she liked Klezmer music – music I happened to play with a college ensemble at Syracuse University – and she claims her chord changes resemble that sound, but the instrumentation is very different. Listeners will not hear a wailing C-tuned clarinet in Janna’s music. However, the chord changes she talks about resonated a little with me, especially in her song, “Machine.” Further, she quotes a measure of a popular animated cartoon series television show from the 80’s. Can you guess what it is? Visit her website, www.jannapelle.com, listen to “Machine” and let me know in the comments section.

Another song that excited me is the one she performed at the CMJ showcase I reviewed last month and the one that gets listeners most excited – “Accessory.” Through the lyrics, Janna turns a romantic male partner into an object, calling him “her favorite accessory,” and how no other piece of jewelry can do what he can do to her. I asked her about the metaphor between sex and fashion. Janna explains:

“You hear the expression ‘trophy wife,’ but you can definitely have a ‘trophy husband,’ or even a ‘trophy relationship.’ You can carry around any kind or relationship as an accessory really. Janna Pelle at Pianos (l-r): Jamie Pitrelli (Bass), Leo Freire (drums) and Janna Pelle.

“The song is all about liking the presence of a person in your life and what they represent. There is nothing wrong with wanting someone as an accessory. You are proud of them and you want to show them off like an expensive bracelet. So, it is not always a negative form of objectification. You feel proud and it’s sweet when you want to show somebody off like that.”

While materialism seems to largely lingering in the background of Janna’s lyrics, the artist does not consider herself a highly materialistic person at all. She defines herself as a sentimental person. Her 2014 EP, The Show Must Go On – a dedication to her father, Tony Pelle, demonstrates this more intimate and emotional side.

Janna felt a need to write songs when her father was diagnosed with MDS, a type of cancer which is also known as “pre-Leukemia.” According to Janna, it goes without saying that songwriting served as a form of therapy for her. However, she felt humbled and happy to learn that it helped her family and listeners battling the same sickness.

“My aunt would tell me, ‘Every morning when I wake up, I listen to “Kick It In,” and look at the slide show you made about my brother [Janna’s father]. That’s how I start my morning.” That was what she did until the day he died. She always used that as therapy.

“There is a song on there for my Mom called “In Your Free Time.” [My Mom] is so devoted to other people. I know that helped her and my Dad a lot. My Dad got to hear all of the album before things got bad. Looking back, I sometimes I think I was so naïve writing these songs, but I wasn’t, I was hopeful. That’s all you can be in these situations.”

The MDS Newsletter featured Janna in one of their issues and distributed information about The Show Must Go On to all of their patients and support groups. People also started donating money to the album, which Janna in return gives to MDS research.

“That was also therapy for me, to know I was actually making a difference, raising money and awareness. I also received emails from patients and their family members who said, ‘I found your album, and it helped me express what I’m feeling now.’ That it really stuck with them. I knew the album would be therapeutic for me, but I didn’t know it would be therapy for so many other people.”

“That is good business right there. People showed and demonstrated how your product helped them,” I remarked.

“I think I would like to go into Non-Profits. Honestly. I will never feel as fulfilled as when I did knowing that I was helping people get through a seriously tough time,” she replied.

Fast-forward a few days to the show Janna put on for the release of her next full-length, Key Change. This performance took place on Monday night, November 10th, at Pianos in the Lower East Side. Here, she performed with her drummer, Leo Freire and bassist Jamie Pitrelli. She also welcomed poets, dancers, Sylvana Joyce and Sean Cunningham to sing and play violin with her in the song “Crazy,” guitarist and singer-songwriter, Jade Zabric, and even welcomed The Super Market Fairy (aka Sally Graves) to come and pass out small samples of organic food to the audience. The most sentimental portion of her show included a verbal message to the audience before she sang, “One Day at a Time.”

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“If there is anybody in your life you maybe take for granted,” she said as she played the chords of her song on the keyboard, “think about them when you hear this song. Remember that you don’t live your day to the fullest until you tell them you love them.”

It was certainly one of the most memorable shows I have seen on the Lower East Side. The amount of additional talent involved reminded me that there is room for everybody in music. While she might be promoting herself, Janna, like Alyson Greenfield, understands that artists live in a community where they have opportunities to support each other.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my article, in which I talk to Janna about the inspiration behind Key Change. In the meantime, I leave you with this:

I’m never one to directly ask a reader to listen to an artist’s music, but if you want to try and recognize the theme song of a popular animated cartoon series from the 80’s quoted in “Machine” of a listen to it here. If you can recognize the theme song, please write it in the comments below. Thank you!

The Allegory, History and Humanism in Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s Gypsy Rock

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment (l-r): Peter Bellomo, Sean-David Cunningham, Nick Salgo, Sylvana Joyce, Christopher Smith “Comrade” by Sylvana Joyce + The Moment, a track from their 2012 debut, For You, greets listeners with a Doina, the freestyle violin playing found in Klezmer music. Further, in the song, the Habanera rhythm – and yes, I do mean the one from the song that made Georges Bizet’s Opera Carmen an internationally recognized hit – will tempt a listeners’ curiosity. Let the track play further, and you will be led to a driving gypsy-like folk dance.

I started listening to Sylvana’s music after I saw her and her violinist, Sean Cunningham open for Todd Carter’s performance at the Cutting Room back in June. I covered her performance and we communicated back and forth. I mentioned how moved I was by her story of how the Romanian folklorist musician, George Sbarcea, was her grandfather. I then invited her to read some of my father’s story. We learned that both of our parents had nearly identical stories about how they left Romania during one of the worst eras of communism in Eastern Europe.

Naturally, I wanted to learn more about her background. More importantly, I was interested specifically in how she would describe her style of music, which she titled Gypsy Rock.

“It’s an interesting question. Gypsies around the world get a terrible rap. In fact, there are still rumors in the states that all Romanians are gypsies,” explained Sylvana.

“Yes!” I respond. “What do you say when someone claims “Oh, you’re Romanian, you must be a gypsy?”

She says, “Being a gypsy is an idea. It’s the idea that your home is not a place, it’s a feeling, and it’s a relationship you have with a person or an ether. I feel because our style is so diverse, we are a nomadic tribe wandering the world of genre. We fall in love with everything we come across, and we make it ours. I believe Gypsy Rock reflects the sentiment of wandering and finding our own version of an eclectic assortment of genres.

“We are all very passionate about what we do,” Sylvana claims as she focuses on the band. “We are all conservatory trained. We have all fallen in love with music and married music. I think, in the end, that is the most important thing that comes through and helps us connect with others.”

Like many, I readily observe how music can connect the artist with the public. What interest me the most is finding an artist who can describe the experience through his or her own point of view. I welcome Sylvana Joyce to do just that right here on Music Historian.

My talk with Sylvana about her music started in a model apartment within the Stuyvesant Town/ Cooper Village complex somewhere between Alphabet City and FDR Drive. Following Sylvana Joyce + The Movement’s hour-long set at the Oval, we were escorted to the apartment complex. When Sylvana, her guest, per diem bassist in The Moment, and I arrived at the apartment, we all had a look around the place and commented on the excellent space. Sylvana and I then headed to the small kitchen for a beer and then proceeded to the dining room table a few feet away to conduct our interview.

Sylvana, the singer, songwriter and pianist claims that she grew up in New York City, where she has gotten to know some of her band members from playing in a conservatory setting with them as a child. As a city-native, the bold and energetic artist reminds me how New York can be a tough scene for musicians.

“[While] I feel it’s easy to get lost in New York City, we don’t find that in smaller towns. That’s kind of been our goal – to find community-based places, play there, and go from there. One of our strengths is that we can perform to any kind of crowd.”

Although community-based places are sometimes overlooked by new music enthusiasts, these spaces enable the performer and audience members to have a better listening experience. For the musician, the sound system and the listening experience beats that of a brownstone pub. In addition, the listener can enjoy a pleasant, spacious spot on a clean lawn, sitting on a blanket with friends and breathe in an open space while experiencing the music.

Aside from discovering their love for giving community-based concerts, Sylvana Joyce + The Moment quickly learned that industry players have an interest in their music. In just six months of the band’s inception, Sylvana Joyce + The Moment were winning international competitions, and even gained a week long coverage from MTV about the band, which included a new recording of their single, “The Break.” The music video can be viewed here.

“MTV was a complete shock to me,” explained the artist. “I sent my music [to an acquaintance at the headquarters], it was this demo we recorded in somebody’s apartment. Someone [the person who listened to the song] just fell in love it with, so we were really excited.”

“That is one step though,” Sylvana continued. “You have a long way to go. We’ve been a band for four years… we’ve been moving up the ranks… it’s been a learning experience for me. I feel good.”

The group’s single, “The Break,” which has received the most attention successfully straddles the musical world of the 2 to 3-minute rock song, and the complex Eastern European-fused cabaret music. I then had two questions for Sylvana: What did she enjoy so much about Romanian folk music? Are the subjects within her songs inspired by real-life, fantasy, or the escaping into fantasy as a way to deal with real life?

As I asked the first question, I brought up George Sbarcea again. Sylvana laughed, “Oh my God, I have not heard his last name said correctly in forever!”

She continues, “Something that is really interesting… a lot of Eastern European folk music is minor. Romanian music is upbeat and major. It [might include] a few interesting minor melodies, but it has a very major and happy-sounding basis.

“We are almost putting a certain genre of music… rock ‘n’ roll on a pedestal. I want the next generation of musicians to start thinking outside the box a little bit. I may be involved in projects that put together rock bands of completely crazy assortments of instruments. I want anyone who plays any instrument to feel like they can be in a rock band because it’s true!

“I hope I can contribute in my own way, both as a performer and instructor. I’m happy I am going to teach music while playing. I think being an example and giving back is important in life.”

In addition to serving as a tool that can help artists reciprocate to the communities that fostered the musical development all each band member; songwriting has also become a form of therapy for Sylvana. Sylvana and drummer, Nick Salgo

“I kind of had a tough childhood. My father left when I was young, and my mom struggled to make ends meet. It [songwriting] was a way of expressing all of those difficult, sometimes ineffable situations. What I couldn’t put into words, the music would take over.

“I’ve actually been writing music since I was a little kid… around the age of 4 or 5, just as silly and imaginative play. I just got very interested in the fact that musicians would put thought into what words went well with the music. I thought the marriage of the two was very interesting.

“I only shared my music with my closest friends, but I would usually feel so embarrassed that I did, I would regret it later, and then have nightmares. When I put a band together 4 years ago, that’s when I started to take it seriously, and I thought I could do something with it, and when I was the crowd respond, I then said to myself, it was a possibility.”

Songwriting serves as a form of therapy for many musicians. A listener most quickly detects this in the lyrics, especially if they directly speak of a delicate situation that one hears of commonly. However, many artists will not address a story involving an issue or a personal problem directly. Instead, they might create an allegory or an allusion. Sylvana accomplishes this in “Comrade.”

“All the songs I have written have some application to my life, but then I will always put in a little bit of allegory and allusion. “Comrade” is loosely based on the story of MacBeth, and how he was so power hungry. He wanted to be adored [so much] that he didn’t listen to reason, became swayed and seduced by magic, and skipped the process of gaining power with integrity. He chose the quick route [to power] and then lost the ability to choose his own fate.”

As Sylvana helped me recall the Shakespearian story which I read many years ago, I was then reminded of the character Morgan from a recent flop-of-a-series about King Arthur produced by Starz called Camelot. I explained to Sylvana that like MacBeth, Morgan – who is Arthur’s half-sister – is so hungry for the throne, she depends on black magic to help her devise a plan that will kill her half-brother. The anti-heroine though has difficulty controlling her powers and depends on the help of her mentor, a nun who has been banished from her own convent. The nun reminds her that the best way to gain power is through earning the trust of her people, the commoners. Adding an adjacent story seemed to interest Sylvana. She then went on to apply another recent (non-fictional) story to the song “Comrade.” This story is about a malicious historical figure many Romanians know too well, Romania’s last communist dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.

“You know,” Sylvana begins, “Comrade” also reminds me of the stories my mom told me about Ceausescu. Ceausescu’s right hand, his entourage, would try to shield him from the truth of what his regime really created in the country. When he would visit the places of peasant’s, his entourage would arrive early and put nice things in people’s homes to make it seem like they were not living in squalor.

“I feel like, as responsible as he was for his fate, he just wanted to be loved, and this kind of fueled his decision making and it ended in a tragic way. He was such a purist, and idealist that it all went horribly wrong. So, “Comrade” for me, the song, is about bringing something humanist to that fatal flaw of wanting to be loved and going to lengths, and how this desperation distorts everything.”

The lyrics within the chorus of “Comrade” are – Could it be/ that you’ve been made a fool/ by you, yourself?/Turn back now/ it’s better for your pride/ to bruise than lose your soul. This is followed by the second verse, Memories, of all the people who made fun of you/ would creep into your consciousness/ and keep you up at night/ now they have become/ the people who will work for you/ they are on their knees smiling/ and reciting popular poetry/ through their teeth.

Aside from “The Break,” most of Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s songs are not the 2 to 3-minute tracks that many artists try to reproduce in the rock genre. While some bands have written great songs within this play-length, I have read comments from a handful of listeners who stream this type of rock music for free on Youtube, who often say, they want the songs to be longer. Sylvana’s music helps fulfill that wish with her 6 to 8-minute tracks, and “Comrade” serves as an example. Further, this length allows for so many different compositional movements, that it almost seems to be an eclectic circus of styles and genres facilitated by a classical music backdrop. I wondered whether Sylvana finds herself traveling throughout different genres in one song.

“I grew up listening to classical music, not rock music. That came later in life, and also through the band introducing me. I think that classical influence, especially with Sean and I having played chamber music as kids, comes into play as we are creating the music together,” explains Sylvana.

Now that we have landed on the subject of creating music, I had to ask Sylvana the following question, “When you come in with a song, do you present a basic idea, and then all of this improvisation happens, which eventually turns into a solid song?”

“It is that way for many songs,” she begins. “Sometimes, I have specific parts that I write for players, but [really] many influences come together to create something really special.

“This act can lend itself to being very folk-based. The harder rock sound, [produced by] Chris’s guitar playing, is influenced a lot by metal. Then, Pete’s bass playing is very funk influenced. Our drummer, he went to school for contemporary jazz. Sometimes, I want to reign it in, but other times, I want to let it loose and make room for something eclectic.”

Sylvana claims the entire group contributes the final sound within all the songs. “I will come up with a script of the song, let’s say, and we’ll have our own characters which we play in our performances – a grand opening of its own kind, like a movie, play or story.”

She then adds, “I think something special about the group, is that I found musicians who I trust creatively.” This sense of security is critical to all musicians, and any ensemble working creatively together. Further, one must have trust especially if they want to be successful in their future endeavors. Sylvana Joyce + The Moment currently have a few immediate projects. One includes a new record, which does not yet have a title.

“I think us as a recording band, and live artists are two different experiences. I’m trying to converge that into one cohesive sound in this upcoming record,” claims Sylvana.

An additional creative endeavor that will serve more as a Public Relations tool is Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s appearance in a South Korean indie film, produced by an independent agency TreeFilms. Sylvana talks more about how the film and how the band became involved.

“The violinist of the band, Sean, performs in train stations every other day. A filmmaker visiting from South Korea one day noticed him, and Sean invited him to come see our set at the Brooklyn Bowl later that night. [This happened a few months ago]. He [the filmmaker] was so taken by our theatrics and music that he wanted to make a movie about us.

“In the film, Sean is a musician who is dealing with the death of a friend. I am the friend he loses, and I am actually a ghost. The story in the film is about loss and grief, and how a musician deals with it. I show up wherever he [Sean’s character] goes. He [The director] actually just finished filming.”

At this period in our interview, we have come back to another allegory. This film has a fictional subject, but the theme can be applied to a situation very many experience – loss. Then, there is also the topic of fear, the kind that is brought about by a corrupt political idealist with a desperate wish – wanting to be adored by the masses, but not loving yourself first – like “Comrade” might suggest. Aside from the allegories and allusions, Sylvana also hopes to help people overcome fear through music. She explains:

“I feel that music is one of the most powerful antidotes to fear. It reminds us that we cannot always worry about [fear]. I also feel like success for me will come when I have given everything I can do creatively.” In my view, I believe Sylvana will feel successful when she knows her music will impact somebody positively.

Based on what I see from this artist, the wider the performance space, the better. Sylvana can make her theatrics, dramatic character and boldness visible to all, which is why this band works well in a community-based space. In addition, the absence of walls makes it easy for that sound to travel and bring in passing audience members at their own volition.

On the subject of performances, the band will have a concert, celebrating the release of their new single, “Rosie.” The show will be on August 24th at Rockwood Music Hall at 8pm.

In addition to unrestricted physical space for her shows, as a songwriter, Sylvana exercises little control over others, yet enough control of herself. She embraces freedom enough to welcome to new ideas and accept other players’ roles within her music. For the community of classical, Eastern European, traditional Romanian and Gypsy music lovers, and fans of eclecticism; Sylvana Joyce + The Moment is a force to be reckoned with.

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.

“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.

Edgar Allen Poe’s Holiday Song

When I first heard about giving a Christmas recital with the Huntington Women’s Choir, these ideas for songs crossed my mind: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Thankfully, the Women’s choir would not sing any of these selections. Instead, we were handed a copy of “Hear the Sledges with the Bells.”

This unaccompanied song for first and second soprano and alto is written by Hugh S. Roberton. And to everyone’s surprise, the song is adapted from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe titled, “The Bells.”

During the Huntington Women’s Choir holiday recital, the instructor, Judy, confidently claimed, “it was perhaps the only happy moment in Poe’s life.”

Naturally, listeners concurred with this thought as the singers recited, Hear the Sledges with the bells, silver bells… What a world of merriment their melody foretells… how they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the icy air of night… While the stars that over sprinkle, all the heavens seem to twinkle with a crystalline delight.[1] However, scholars and researchers argue the poem’s jubilent appearance.

Kenneth Silverman in his book, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, claims the ringing of the bells are symbolic of the changing seasons: the transition from spring into winter. Silverman claims Poe may have used the ringing of the bells as a metaphor for life itself.[2]

The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore offers an opposing view to Silverman’s interpretation. According to their historical records, Poe had no inspiration for this poem. He was staying at his cottage in Fordham, New York, and while with Marie Louise Shew- his wife’s nurse- in the same room; he listened to her comment on the bells ringing from afar.[3]

Whether or not Roberton interpreted “The Bells” as a dreary and grim rhyme, he certainly didn’t express it in his musical composition. Aside from the many interpretations and analysis created around this poem, Roberton wrote his song with a vivacious tempo and in the meter of 2/4, a meter used repeatedly for tunes within musicals. The key signature of D flat major, a key recognized by the tradition of romantic music as whimsical and dreamy, is another component that pulls the initial tone of the poem into a different direction.

“Hear the Sledges with the Bells” is a delightful song that invokes holiday cheer and joy without taking part in the fabricated repertoire fed to consumers Christmas after Christmas.


[1] Sir, Hugh Stevenson Roberton. “Hear The Sledges with the Bells.” (Bryn Mawr, PA: Theodore Presser Company, 1919).

[2, 3] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “The Bells,” (December 4, 2010), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bells (accessed December 12, 2010)