Daylle Deanna Schwartz, Former Rapper Talks Music Business, Empowerment & Self-Love

Daylle Deanna SchwartzLast October, New York City’s first while-female rapper, Daylle Deanna Schwartz passed away. Last Saturday, a beautiful and warm day in April, Daylle’s family and friends held a remembrance for her at The Open Center. Inside a spacious room with large windows on the second floor, everyone gathered to pay their respects to Daylle. They talked about how they have come to meet her, the time they had spent with Daylle, and how she left an impression on their lives.

I had come to know Daylle back in the Summer of 2013 when I interviewed her for the Music Historian. Learning about her background in music, her strides within the industry, and her advocacy for self-love, made this interview and article one of my most memorable. Meeting her family and friends, whom she has touched with her energy, love and positiveness – and who reciprocated the same to her – made me realize there was a backdrop to this artist’s life that I did not, nor could not see the first time around.

Throughout her life, Daylle was a rapper, teacher, entrepreneur, writer, and former Board Member of Women in Music and a committee member of New York Women in Communications. She also dedicated her life to her daughter, grandchildren, and all of her family members. Even when Daylle split with her husband, she always remained a great friend to him. Friends and family members said that regardless of her busy work schedule, Daylle made an effort to stay in touch with everyone closest to her.

While everyone has a public persona and a private persona, I believe there should exist a characteristic common in both. For Daylle, this characteristic was empowerment. Based on what I have learned from our interview years ago, the self-love she talks about closely relates to how she empowers those around her to feel more confident in who they are, braver in verbalizing their needs, and more accepting of what they need to fix within their lives. Reflecting on what I learned from her family and friends, Daylle advocated self-love and empowerment to everybody, like a need everybody required whether they admitted it or not.

In honor of the celebration of Daylle’s life, I republish my easy-to-read question and answer interview with a rapper who broke stereotypes to make her fantasies real, showed the world nice girls can finish first, and spread the word of self-love. I also republish this article as a “Thank You” to Daylle’s family and friends for having me at her remembrance. To my readers, let this article be a reminder of how far the industry has come in including ethnic diversity among genres like hip-hop, and how much attention gender inequality still requires.

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(First published July 19, 2013)

Prior to becoming the founder of the Self-Love Movement™ and the author of How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways, Daylle Deanna Schwartz, first left her mark on the 1980’s music scene in New York City as the first white-female rapper. Shortly after, she would become one of the first women to start her own record label.

When I listened to Daylle’s song, “Girls Can Do” I initially thought, “how charming.” Then I listened with my Music Historian ears, and heard a song that encouraged women to value self-respect and break the feminine stereotypes that lingered in both society and the music industry during the 1980’s. That stereotype being that a woman could not achieve everything she desired without compromising her emotional self, femininity or well-being, especially when it involved music or any profession.

As I personally reflect on my own professional experiences from the past few years, many women today continue to think they need to change themselves in order to get ahead in their careers. I also feel that many women still live with the illusion that personal and professional success is measured only by material; a belief that causes them to disregard genuine happiness.

As Daylle furthered her experience in the music business, she started to carve room for another passion – writing about self-empowerment for musicians and women. Today, she advises clients on how to manage their own music careers and focuses on growing the Self-Love Movement™.

In my first Q&A segment on Music Historian, I talk to Daylle to find out what she learned about being a woman in the music business, the advice she has for other female professionals, and why her 31 Days of Self-Love Commitment matters.

Music Historian: Tell me about your career as a rapper.

Daylle: During the late 1980’s, I was a teacher, and I remember feeling so bored and creatively stuck. In those times, my students were doing the human beat box in class. I would feel the beat and start to write my own raps. Article about Daylle by Newsday from the 1980's

My students were always rapping in school, and one day they dared me to rap. They would say “you cannot rap because you are a white lady,” but I told them I could rap as well as anybody out there.

In those days, there were no white rappers. This was before 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice, and the only female rappers before Salt-N-Pepa were Sparky Dee, emcee The Real Roxanne and Roxanne Shante.

Then they [my students] told me I couldn’t rap because I was too old.

How old were you?

I was in my 20’s.

That’s not old by today’s standards.

Yeah, but I was also a teacher. The students would say “we don’t know how old you are, but you must be too old [to be a rapper] because you are a teacher.”

That’s how they assessed me as too old. Although I was in my early twenties, I was perceived as a grown-up. Most rappers typically start when they are teenagers. While they are in school, they build a fan base, then receive a record deal and obtain fame during adulthood.

I wanted to rap to prove a point. I wanted to show my students not to let stereotypes stop them. I didn’t want kids to grow up believing their sex or skin color could stop them.

Eventually, I would go into the streets and rap. At the time, Davy DMX lived in the neighborhood and heard about this “a crazy white teacher rapping.” He sent someone to recruit me, and as soon as I was introduced to him we started working together.

I met Kurtis Blow and a few other rappers. I soon recorded my first record with Davy, “Girls Can Do.” At that time, Kurtis also invited me to come along on his European tour.

In the U.S., mostly Black Americans listened to hip-hop, and it took some time for this music to cross over to different nationalities. Europe had a very different scene. Most of the audience members at the shows Kurtis played on the tour were white kids.

While I was in the UK, I made some contacts, a few great ones and kept in touch with them afterwards. I met a guy who wanted to manage me when I was sure I was going to [professionally] rap. He was the manager for a rock band that was popular in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Fine Young Cannibals.

My manager helped me get onto a few radio shows in the UK and helped me gain a lot of publicity. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t get signed.

You had all of these fabulous publicity opportunities but still could not get a deal?

Yes, my manager in England eventually said “I give up. They just don’t want a white woman rapper.”

When I returned to the U.S. and to teaching, my students would tell me “You have to shop a deal here.” So I started paying people to shop a deal for me, but they took my money and did not do anything.

Is that when you decided to do Revenge Productions?

My students followed the story, and they would say “You have to get your revenge on them; they’re ripping you off…” That’s when I started Revenge Productions and then Revenge Records.

Revenge Productions and Revenge Records did quite well. I released “Girls Can Do” under this label, and DJs picked up on it, and the song sold, and I got distribution for my label.

Getting ripped off and losing money eventually taught me that I was doing the business all wrong. Then I started doing it right.

Part of my “revenge” stemmed from the fact that people tried to take advantage of me. I also had a mentor that was a very powerful man. He had told my father he would take good care of me. After that though, he tried to rape me. That made me more determined to succeed on my own without having to give up my body.

[The music industry] was very misogynistic then. Every woman that went to a music conference wore a skirt up to the top of her thighs and a blouse buttoned down to her navel. Many women were using their bodies to get ahead.

Although I am not sure whether I was the “first” woman to start her own label, in those days, I never met another woman that started her own record company. I knew women that created labels with their husbands like Monica Lynch who was married to Tommy Silverman and she started Tommy Boy Records with him. I did it all by myself, and that was another reason I had difficulty being taken seriously as a business woman.

Daylle Deanna Schwartz's novel, "Nice Girls Can Finish First" Since being nice did not get me anywhere I started to be aggressive and tough. People did not like me, and I did not like myself either. I had to learn to manage myself in a way where men could take me seriously without having to act like a perennial bitch. In fact, many of my lessons in my book Nice Girls Can Finish First come from my experience learning to carry myself in a way in which people would like me and also know that I meant business.

Many young professionals today continue to struggle with finding a position that will make them feel empowered. Sometimes they think that in order to obtain that appropriate role, they have to change. What do you say to this?

I focus on this a lot in my writing. Women often feel like they have to play on a man’s level and usually that does not work. Men don’t like women that act like men. While several men might easily be excused for behaving abrasively and aggressively, yelling and screaming, and using inappropriate language; a woman that behaves in this manner is not accepted. A woman has to walk that fine line between asserting herself and making sure people still like her.

Women also have trouble separating doing favors for people and charging money for their services. A young professional, for example, may know how to build a website, but everybody wants to have one created for free. Many women struggle with saying “this is my livelihood and I get paid for it.” I see this happen all the time.

In my personal experiences, I hear from individuals trying to break into the music industry or write a book, and they will approach me and ask me to read their manuscript. I will say “all right, here is my fee…”

Women must always remember their needs to understand there is a personal and business side of themselves.

In addition, many young women who cannot obtain that one position that will empower them actually start their own opportunities. However, even the most entrepreneurial individual might be afraid of not making enough money, being creatively restricted or coming to a dead end job. What do you say about these fears?

If you face your fears, they go away. It is a matter of passion, drive and desire. You have to want it [that position, job, record deal, raise, etc.] bad enough to face your fears.

In my book I Don’t Need a Record Deal, I ask many people “Do you truly want to do music or do you want to be a rock star?”

Sometimes you cannot always do what you want, especially in the beginning. I will advise musicians “play a couple of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs because it’s really good money.” I received responses like “I don’t want to play covers” and I [rhetorically] ask “isn’t that better than waiting tables?” RecordDeal

Musicians can still do music and make some money, and most importantly, they can make contacts along the way. Doing this also gives them the freedom to make original music when they are not working.

Whether it involves singing back-up at someone’s gigs, going on tour, being a music teacher, or playing on someone else’s tour, musicians have many opportunities to earn money. They might not be making their own music, but they are still getting paid to do music, practice, sing or play, and they have the chance to meet people.

This also applies to people searching for any careers. Some company presidents start in the mailroom of that company. For them, that’s where they learn about the business, and that’s where it all begins.

Many of the musicians I interview on Music Historian have second jobs to support themselves; whether it is teaching, singing at weddings, or a second profession.

Music has always received a reputation as a tough career choice. But now that I think about it, there is something difficult about every career path.

Absolutely, you have to earn a living. I never tell anybody not to earn a living. You must willingly give up certain things in order to enjoy the things you love, and you have to make time for what you actually want to do.

If you want to tour, you have to give up your free time to do that on the weekends, even if you have a day job. You might dedicate your vacation to touring instead of simply enjoying yourself.

Since writing is my passion, I make time to write. Every time I travel, I take my laptop along. I schlep it everywhere I go. On vacation, whether I am at the beach or in the mountains, I take that time to write peacefully. There is nothing else I want to do except off-shoots of my writing, like speaking.

Since we are on the subject of your writing, tell me a little more about the 31 Days of Self-Love Commitment on your site HowDoILoveMe.com.

Book Title: "How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count The Way", a book that Daylle is giving away I founded The Self-Love Movement™. I grew up a doormat and felt immensely unhappy and disempowered. I hated myself growing up [for several reasons]. I didn’t think I was good enough because I was not slim.

When I was in middle school, and elementary school, every student had to be weighed in gym class. That to me was traumatic because the teachers would call out everybody’s weight. Since I am big-boned, my weight sounded gigantic to everyone else. Everyone teased and laughed at me the moment they heard my weight.

That started it, I just felt so big and fat, and this made me set limits for myself. I never talked to the cute guys because I didn’t think I was worthy enough.

I never honestly liked myself for years. Then in my adulthood, I started building good self-esteem by doing music and being successful. I began to be kinder to myself, and that motivated me to take care of myself.

I built self-love through showing myself kindness, and doing nice things for me that made me feel good. This included exercise or doing something I have always wanted to do. By saying “no” to someone, you are saying “yes” to yourself. As a result, I created the 31 Days of Self-Love Commitment, a pledge to do something kind for yourself for 31 day.

I launched The Self-Love Movement™ in the Fall of 2012 and have given away almost 10,000 copies of my book, How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways, so far.

Do you hope to take on any additional projects in the future?

My eventual goal is to get The Self-Love Movement™ program into colleges. I have many Self-Love ambassadors. Now I’m looking to recruit young self-love ambassadors that are involved in sororities and student unions at their schools. I believe they can encourage other students and their colleagues to sign the 31 days of Self-Love Commitment.

These young self-love ambassadors will go to a representative stationed next to a computer, and they will sign their name digitally. Afterward, they will receive a pass code within an email. They can then go onto the website, HowDoILoveMe.com and enter this code to download a free copy of the book.

I feel that self-love can really help the many students experiencing depression, eating disorders, or thoughts of suicide.

I am also working on the plans for a video that will spread the word about the movement. I plan to use Hoobastank’s song “The Reason.” At the moment in the video when the following chorus is sung I found a reason for me/ to change who I used to be/ a reason to start over new/ and the reason is you, the actors in the video pick up mirrors and see themselves. I’m working on getting sponsorship, and I am really excited about finding someone that will make the video for me.

Based on your research, why do you think people have a difficult time loving themselves?

Oprah Winfrey and Daylle Deanna SchwartzWe don’t learn to put ourselves first or to feel worthy. A majority of this stems from childhood. They receive a lot of criticism when they are young and don’t feel accepted. They might not feel good enough, or they might not get what they want because their parents withheld what they desired.

Dysfunctional childhoods come in many forms, and children usually grow up not loving themselves. In my case, body image issues played a role. And many women experience this issue.

I have women in my workshops often saying they need to lose weight even though they are slender. I’m just astounded. I see women that constantly exercise at the gym or resort to eating disorders to stay thin.

I actually interviewed a model for my book, and she expressed to me, “If you want to know how lousy you could feel about yourself, try being a model and then having your picture airbrushed because your body is not good enough.” You can be slender and think you look really good. Then, they [the editors] air brush you. [Often] we compare ourselves to images that are not even real.

Many women feel happiness is based on having a lot, whether it is money, food, many beautiful physical features, a ton of things…

It’s a band aid. Feeling the need to make a lot of money, overeat, or overspend is a band aid. They look to soothe themselves with food, or overspend on retail therapy. And the same applies for guys too.

I knew this one man years ago who would work from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. One day, he came to my office very late because he was busy all day completing jobs for other people. While he was working on my computer, he was constantly answering his phone and making appointments for later in the evening.

I asked him “is this your every day?” and he said “yes. I just run from one place to another.” I asked “why?” He made decent money, and he was exhausting himself.

Then, he opened his bag and inside he owned every tech toy. “I need to have the latest smart phone, laptop, iPad, I need to have it…” he explained. Again, I asked “why?” He just looked at me and said “because I have to.”

I thought to myself, “You are one unhappy guy.”

Finally, how do you define success?

If you are happy with what you are doing, that’s success. It also means doing something meaningful and satisfying for you.

Personally, I think I will feel successful getting the word out and the message across further about The Self-Love Movement™. Having a happy life is success.

Connecting the Dots (Part 2): Leah Speckhard talks Female Empowerment and Coming-of-Age on her second EP, Sleepwalker

Leah Speckhard, Press Photo Although Leah changed her mind about her university major, she always made sure to remember music and make that a part of her life. The singer-songwriter reflected on the transition between recording of her first album Pour Your Heart Out Like Water, and her newest one, Sleepwalker.

“I recorded my first album in Greece. When I signed with the label, Legend Records, they had me record a full album, which they put out with full press coverage. But the follow up coincided with the downturn, and  the album came out during the whole economic crash.

“The record label was very supportive of the album and me as an artist, but everybody was tightening their pockets. I saw that it wouldn’t be easy for a new artist to break through in this environment.”

While Leah felt satisfied with the completion of her first record, she also admitted that it did not build up into what she expected. In addition, the young artist realized the market for Greek music showed a greater affinity for club music, which did not suit her lyrics-driven songs. Leah asserts, “I felt it did not make sense to keep pushing in Greece, so I decided to come to New York to see if I could make it happen here.”

Leah describes her first experience as a recording artist as invaluable. When she made her first EP, Leah listened to a lot of folk music, and she was relatively inexperienced at recording. She says:

“In Greece, the label was very supportive of me, but I did not understand how the whole process of making an album would play out.. I am a fairly assertive person in general, but in the studio, in that element, I did not feel that assertive. I had a hard time articulating what I wanted the arrangements to sound like.

“In the second record, I felt more involved in the process – which I think is just part of the indie experience versus the label experience. I worked with a producer in Brooklyn and within a different environment. You just naturally have more control over things.

“Many artists I talked to have a similar experience with their first album. You don’t know how to assert yourself and sometimes, you feel that you shouldn’t, because the label is paying for everything and they bring in people with a lot more experience to work on the music, too. The record was also the label’s investment, and I wanted to be respectful of that.”

“On Sleepwalker, I was more sure of what I wanted, and I’d evolved as an artist. I also worked with someone younger, so the collaboration felt easier and more intimate. I knew I was working with someone who believed in me and who brought a lot to the table – we co-wrote most of the songs, and he listened to me about what I wanted production-wise and we really vibed as far as finding a direction that reflected who I am as a person and the dance influence that I liked.”

A great lesson Leah learned was to be assertive on the second album. She would agree that learning assertiveness without acting rude, and finding that fine line, is also a process of growing up creatively, personally and professionally.

“When I was younger,” Leah recalled, “I wanted to be easygoing. I did not want to come across as difficult, but now I realize, you must be to a certain extent if you want your creative vision to come to life. You don’t have to be rude, but you have to be straightforward if something is not the way you want it, and that can be very awkward and uncomfortable. While I love to hear suggestions from other co-writers or producers, as an artist I have to be the ultimate decision-maker and ask myself “Is this what I want my sound to be or not?””

As an indie artist, Leah funded this album herself. Some people might think that an artist paying for their album defeats the purpose of making money with music. Leah says that having her music pay for itself would be a dream. At the moment though, she tries to separate money from music.

“I know some people to think about the connection between them [money and music] when they make music their full-time job. I realized that apart from the money piece of it, I want music to be a big part of my life. I try not to focus specifically on the money because it is really more about the emotions and the feelings for me.

“I try to organize my goals more around questions like  “Do I want to play for bigger audiences, make a music video, or get the music out?” To put it out, you want to have the audience.

“There are so many emerging artists now. To charge people right off the bat for your songs seems foolish – very few people will want to pay $10 or $15 for your album when they can get everything for free on Spotify. I know as a consumer, I am the same way. I’d rather pay to go see a concert, so as an artist, I try to keep that in mind. I think people have grown unaccustomed to paying for recorded music. It’s more about the audience now. I feel like my investment will pay itself off someday with a bigger audience, which is more important to me.”

Listening to Leah talk about her music and her experiences, I realize that growing up for twenty-something’s is not reflected so much how frequently they change their minds until they make a decision most people find logical. Maturing comes from the valuable lessons twenty-something-year-olds learn within their development and apply that to make better choices in the future. I then wondered whether Leah had a song on her album that reflected a coming-of-age theme. She talked about another song on Sleepwalker called “Time Machine.” Leah Speckhard Album Cover

“I was delving into relationship issues with my songs – examining all of the heartbreaks, trying to figure out what was happening, and getting into all of this philosophical questioning about what really mattered to me. In looking at my emotions more closely, I realized that a lot of my fears circled around  getting older, and I put that into my song “Time Machine”.

“I started having this strong urge to be young again and have all of this time again to do things over. Aside from the social pressure to have a “real job” and career, there is also pressure to be young from wanting to be part of an industry that emphasizes youth and beauty. I started feeling like I needed to make choices, and fast. With so many options, though I was blessed to have them, I felt overwhelmed. In “Time Machine,” I thought, “I just want to go back in time and be young and not have to make any of these decisions.”

Leah is not afraid to expose her feelings in her songs – though they may come across as hyperbolic sometimes, she thinks hat many people can relate to strong feelings like this popping up from time to time. If you are wondering whether to listen to Leah’s music, this is definitely one reason; but it is not the only reason. In today’s popular music, there is a disconnection about the definition of female empowerment. Major performing artists talk about being female within their pop tunes without emphasizing empowerment.

Leah addresses female empowerment by expressing the injustice, the dissatisfaction with it, and then taking responsibility for entering that disappointing situation in the first place all within her music. “Loser”, a bonus song on her website www.LeahSpeckhard.com, is the track that beautifully introduces this concept. As for the rest of the songs, listeners will have to attend the launch of Sleepwalker on February 23 at 8:30 pm at The Bowery Electric, which she will do in partnership with Tinderbox Arts PR.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Artist Interviews of 2014!

You are right; I wrapped up the departing year yesterday with looking at what listeners found most interesting in New Music for 2014 regarding major music events in New York City. Now, I want to welcome the New Year with a look at which interviews Music Historian readers from everywhere, 88 countries including the U.S. (leading the pack), then Brazil, and Germany not far behind, found most exciting. Let’s start the countdown!

No. 5: Juicebox

Soul, a foundation that can’t go wrong: An interview with Juicebox members, Lisa, Nick, Isaac & Jamie

Juicebox Perform at the New Yorker Hotel (l-r): Isaac Jaffe, Lisa Ramey, Nicholas Myers, Aaron Rockers From the moment, they walk up on stage; people in the audience are ready to have a moment with Juicebox’s performance. In an industry full of maybes, one thing that will always be definite for this band – they will always give their listeners an unforgettable show and music that will move them.

 

 

 

No. 4: YUZIMA

A World of Wonderful Machines: The philosophy behind Yuzima’s new LP Yuzima poses for photo shoot, for his insta-album, BASH, to be released digitally on October 7th

YUZIMA wants to express the nature of machines – systems that leave little room to reinvent the wheel but at the same time require changes, usually brought about by the continuation of time, in order to survive.

 

 

No. 3: The Blackfoot Gypsies

The Blackfoot Gypsies: Modern Southern Rock That Helps You Release Internalized Feelings

 This Nashville-based group has the perfect American music that will help you temporarily lose yourself, feel the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, positive and negative emotions all at once. The energy from The Blackfoot Gypsies’ music vibrates in both their recordings and live performances.

 

 

 

 

No. 2: Kim Logan

Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan 

Kim Logan has found her voice within the Southern and Classic Rock genre, and she flexes it freely. Whether listeners are attracted to her country songs, driving rock ‘n’ roll riffs, or blues-infused choruses, they are bound to hear the voice of a woman who delivers clever lyrics, thoughtfully written compositions, and warmly recorded sounds.

 

 

 

 

No. 1: Imagine Dragons

Imagine_Dragons Yes. This article is from two years ago. It still seems to attract new readers. Plus, why not celebrate this article a second time? 2014 was a big year for these guys too – they performed at the Grammys.

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

Ben McKee talks about the career-changing moments that have brought Imagine Dragons to this moment in time – recording a national album with producer, Alex Da Kid

Readers, thank you for a great year. Juicebox, YUZIMA, Kim, and Gypsies, thank you for the conversations and shows. Alyson Greenfield, Pam Lipshitz, and Pamela Workman thank you for the amazing experience at NMS. To everyone, Happy New Year!!!

Wrapping Up 2014: What People said about music, and what I wish to see in music reporting

In 2014, Music Historian experienced its most decorated year. The New Music Seminar opened opportunities to listen to industry experts. Through this event, I also spoke to musicians who currently modernize classic rock and Americana, (Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies), revitalize the sounds of 1970’s funk and soul (Juicebox), and pay homage to some rock genres critics have often thought of as outdated or even obsolete, including grunge (Desert Sharks). The Governors Ball Music Festival presented a chance to apply the market research, strategy and consumer studies I had gathered at Business School in real life, and an interview with The Naked and Famous. Finally, during CMJ, my business colleagues introduced me to musicians who stood up for specific causes. Janna Pelle, for example, raised awareness for pre-Leukemia. Then, YUZIMA addressed the pettiness of homophobia with his artistic flair.

Looking back on a fantastic year, I am curious people say in the final weeks of 2014 about The Governors Ball Music Festival, New Music Seminar, and CMJ. I look at what people Tweeted over past three weeks and created a word cloud analysis to understand what was trending in regards to these events. Here is what I learned.

Governors Ball Music Festival

GovBall2014_Word_Cloud

“Tbt” appears in this word cloud as one of the largest after GovBall2014. Those of you Twitter fans know it stands for “Throw Back Thursday.” Naturally, one can assume that many remember the 2014 Governors Ball Music Weekend in the final weeks of December. As for musical acts that appear in the cloud, it appears that the Strokes and Vampire Weekend show up on most these Tweeters’ minds as December comes to a close. Out of all the musical acts that the Governors’ Ball brought New Yorkers; these were the two bands which came out on top.

In terms of consumers’ behavior at the festival, aside from the obvious subject, music; the words “festival,”  “photos” and “selfies” might indicate that this event was also a time for many celebrating together to make memories. Based on the activity I saw of people interacting with one another, I can say this is definitely the case.

New Music Seminar

NMS_Word_Cloud In the case you notice this word cloud is more compact than the last, that is for one reason only – I wanted to make sure I gathered at least 100 Tweets for each cloud. In the case of the New Music Seminar, those Tweets extended all the way to June 11th, the day after the event concluded. Meanwhile, GovBall2014 and CMJ, included 100 Tweets that were posted between early December and now.

So what do I see for this word cloud? Aside from New Music Seminar, I see “marketing,” “insights”, “streaming,” “industry,” “underground,” “marketers,” “Tips,” “Tune,” and “Battle.” This last word most likely refers to the battle of the top three bands at the 2014 NMS looking to win prize money. These bands included VanLadyLove, Kiah Victoria and June Divided.

VanLadyLove seems to be the only band which has appeared in the cloud. This is no surprise since they won the battle of the bands at this year’s NMS. Just like the word cloud for GovBall2014, you will see TBT. So what did Tweeters throw back on Thursdays where the NMS is concerned? Pics and articles of artists from the NMS in the late 80’s and early 90’s who quickly became famous, including Nirvana and Madonna. These Tweets that go to show readers that no one can ever expect who from the NMS will make it to the mainstream in the music industry a few years.

CMJ

CMJ_Word_CloudIn the CMJ cloud, the words which stood out to me include “new,” “songs,” “Jazz,” “Videos,” “news,” “one,” “unbreakable,” “interview,” “best,” “premiere,” “Murad,” and “Lucie.” How relevant are these words to what people have tweeted about CMJ in the last few weeks? Here is what I observed:

Jazz refers to “The Jazz Junes” from Philly, which have been popular in many Tweets. An interview with CJAM 99.1FM (Windsor, Detriot, MI) Music Director, Murad Ezrincioglu by CMJ received plenty of attention. Then, the English-born, New Zealand-raised, Nashville newbie, Lucie Silva premiered her song “Unbreakable Us” at this event too.

Social Listening in Popular Music Research

Although only 7-10 tweets included any interest in Murad or Lucie, these are the only news sources that showed up consistently throughout all the content from the 100 posts I gathered. I have also noticed in the Tweets for the Governors Ball Music Festival and the New Music Seminar that some subjects will receive more popularity than others. Now I ask, what matters more when reporting about Twitter trends regarding an important music event, quality or quantity? Here is what I think:

The number of Tweets leads to a clear distinction of what is popular by quantity, enough that it can be considered a trend. Further, the more people tweet about a subject, the greater the variation of the audience. On the other hand, the quality of the content of what people tweet provides insights to the concepts people consistently associate with CMJ, something known as brand mapping. In addition, the strongest content will include a specific emotion, strong mood or preferential word within the Tweet and include a link to a specific web page. Such messages include content like:

@LucieSilvas, I think I love you. This is beautiful. http://www.cmj.com/news/track-premiere-lucie-silvas-unbreakable-us

Check out this Q&A by @CMJ featuring one of our favorites Murad Erzinclioglu of @CJAMFM! http://www.cmj.com/column/on-air/qa-murad-erzinclioglu-music-director-cjam/

The smart chart I have made below shows that looking at both quantifiable and qualitative information within the content is important.

Quantity vs Quality

 

For whom does this information matter? A marketing consultant or public relations consultant working with a musician, or a music journalist? I would say for both. At least this is what I learned as a marketing student at Baruch College, as I completed a course in web analytics and intelligence. In this class, my final project involved working with Brandwatch, a social media listening tool and using it for the Music Historian.

While I did not know it then, I would soon learn that tools like Brandwatch looked very closely at trends on Twitter regarding specific news stories and examined both the quantity and quality of Tweets. When I did some research about the music consumer at the Governors Ball Music Festival back in June, I used this tool to see which Twitter users would be most interested in attending the event. Please read more here. Further, those who expressed interest by Tweeting about bands they looked forward to watching at the festival, made part of a specific demographic I would have never discovered otherwise.

Social listening is certainly one way to gather information about music consumers who would show interest in the musical talents at a specific event. Most importantly, social listening might also provide marketers, public relations experts and journalists information on how audiences perceive a musical event without having to reach these consumers personally.

What I would like to see in Music Journalism

While social listening is one way journalists can improve their research in regards to what people say about new bands and music; I also would like to see more actual music journalism. Just like I discussed with Janna Pelle last month, former musicians have their reasons for discontinuing music. Nevertheless, they still have an ear for music that they had developed when they played an instrument and spent more time performing.

I would like to see journalists who have played instruments once upon a time, to incorporate their musical skills into reporting on new music from rising talent. Although I understand entertaining content reaches audiences easier, readers are seldom challenged. Perhaps this is due to my bias that there is an art of asking quality questions. What are quality questions? Let me explain:

Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ Answers 

These types of inquiries should only be asked if they are essential to the context of the conversation.

If your research can already answer the question, DON’T ASK!

If a publicist provides you with a press release about an artist who announces they are working on a new project, study that release. Doing so will help prevent redundancy and focus on what you really want to know about the artist. Further, the artist you are interviewing is also a business person with plenty to do. I guarantee the artist will feel like you are respectful of their time by asking questions they have not already answered through any press materials, including their social media profiles.

Stick to the music

Like many, I agree that you don’t need to get too technical with an artist about their songs. You are trying to understand what motivated a musician in their songwriting by listening to their answers to your questions. On this note, don’t ask loaded or uncomfortable questions about a performer’s personal life, finances, or families. If the musician specifies that personal values like religion, social issues or inspire their songs, then you are welcome to ask these questions. Remember to ask in a context that will not diverge from the topic you are most interested in – their music.

A Pop Album Inspired by the Evolution of the Classical Piano: Interview with Janna Pelle, Part 2

I return to my interview session with Janna Pelle, which took place on the first Thursday of November, at the Bosie Tea Parlor in the West Village. As Janna received her order of Mau Feng tea, I asked her about the challenges and rewards she experiences in her career as a musician. She responds:

Janna Pelle_Pianos_Key Change launch_11/10/2014 “Other than making money, I think the challenge is to be able to stay true to yourself. When you decide you want to do music professionally, you don’t know exactly what that would mean for you, or what you like about music. Will it give you the same sense of fulfillment that you would get in a job? Are you up for it? Do you want to do music your whole life? You need to enter with a very open mind. If you don’t do a certain thing, realize it does not mean you are selling yourself short, or failing. It means you are learning how to make yourself happy, how to support yourself, and balance all of these different things going on around music – even your lifestyle or sleep schedule. That’s the challenge, accepting what being a musician means to you.”

“It’s like taking care of a baby,” I commented.

“It is a baby!” Janna positively exclaims. “It’s like your creative brain child. And as a musician, you are always in a state of flux. I’ve been playing keyboards for other bands, making posters for them, and more. It goes back to the feeling like I am providing a service to people. That’s going to make me happy. I would prefer to do something that makes me passionate.

“I don’t know what type of audience I will reach at any time, but I know that when I perform for Beatles Fest, my own shows or a cover set, I can feel good about myself. I completed work for somebody, they appreciate the fact that I am playing their music, and that’s my job.”

The subject of audience reminded me of Janna’s plan for Key Change, the album which received the dedicated concert from earlier this week. The concept for this record involves following the chronological history of the keyboard’s evolution from harpsichord to synthesizer. Further the music in this record mixes classical with pop, and offers an ode to the versatility of the piano and all the changes it underwent throughout history to make it better.

“The evolution is really interesting,” begins Janna. “There is no other keyboard instrument like the modern piano. You can do everything with it; play delicately, legato, staccato, very high, very low, loud, or soft.

“The earlier keyboard instruments were all imperfect in some way. The clavichord was perceived as a passive instrument. Then, the harpsichord was built for really small rooms – it was the elitist’s instrument present at dinner parties for all the kings, queens and important politicians. Organs, which actually came before these instruments, were placed in churches with high ceilings and started to be adapted for concerts. Organs were, however, huge and importable. People couldn’t do anything with them, including playing very short notes as the sounds linger in the pipes for a long time. The modern day piano blends portability, mobility, long notes, short notes, and all the qualities of the earlier keyboards together. You can play harpsichord music on the piano, and anything.

“Part of the reason I love the piano is so much is because it is a solo instrument. When I came to New York, I said to myself, I don’t have all of these other instruments [with me]. With the piano, I am able to write for myself, sing and accompany myself. I also like how it is a percussion instrument. I love playing heavily on the keys and not worrying about anything really. It is not hard to produce a note, compared to the violin and other instruments, like woodwinds.”

As Janna worked on the album, she had the opportunity to work with a musician from Juilliard on one of her songs. This made her think about marketing to an audience of classical musicians, conservatory musicians, or dormant musicians. Janna explains:

“I am not sure what your reason for being dormant is,” Janna says, “but the people I know who say they’re a dormant musician claim it’s because of time consumption. I think many of these dormant musicians have not listened to anything other than the pieces they played growing up. I think they will find this album interesting and fresh. And there are a lot of little tasteful musical moments that music nerds will be able to appreciate.”

One song from Key Change my audience in New York City will definitely appreciate is “City Life,” in which Janna sings … So, this is city life/ for better for worse/ even on a shitty day/ I still live in the greatest place on Earth. I am sure anybody who has taken on the city at one point in their lives will relate to some of the lyrics in this song. If you live in New York, enough said.

I wondered about the moment Janna had – and I ask this of all my musical subjects – when she decided to become a musician. She answers:

“That moment is still evolving. When I graduated, I wanted to try being a musician though I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that for a fact from the time I left school, moved back to Miami (the singer’s home town) for two months, and then came here. I could have gone right into advertising, there is an advertising school in New York. I thought about going to Spain for a little while to teach English. I earned a minor in ESL, and linguistics, and that always interested me. Yet, I felt I could do that at any age. It was mainly just feeling like it was my time to do this. I’m as young as I am ever going to be today, so it’s time to do it.”

Wherever Janna goes with her career and however long she decides to stay in music is up to her, and her future looks bright. Aside from her immediate confidence, charm and her passion for songwriting and performing, Janna has support from many different communities – her peers, patients and their families battling a serious illness, the artists who join her during a performance, the lovers of music she wins over with her songs, and the business partners who help her along the way.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

“When others say “no”, find a way to “yes”: Tina Shafer of the Songwriter’s Circle and her advice for today’s musicians

TIna at Young Performers Night 2014, at The Bitter End night club Many artists we have come to know experienced their first big break at the right place and the right time. This is especially true for Billy Porter, a former pupil of songwriter/ vocal teacher and founder of The New York Songwriter’s Circle, Tina Shafer.

“When I worked with Billy Porter – who won a Tony 2013 for his performance in the hit Broadway Musical “Kinky Boots” – he was an unknown singer with one of the most amazing voices I had ever heard. In the late 90’s he got a record deal with my help on the A&M label.   He later went on to perform “Love is On the Way” a song I co-wrote for him that became the Center piece song in Bette Midler’s film “The First Wives Club”.   Later that year, Celine Dion cut “Love is on the Way” and it ended up on her album “Let’s Talk About Love”.  The Album sold over 33 million copies worldwide because it also contained the song “My Heart Will Go On” from the blockbuster movie “Titanic.”

The songstress, who I had the pleasure of meeting in-person at a performance at the New York Songwriter’s Circle held at Bitter End last month, also talked about another former vocal student named Lana Del Ray.  Those who follow Lana know her break was very different from Billy Porter’s.

“Lana, when she was studying with me,” recounts Tina, “wrote the song “Video Games” and most of the attention she first received was through online bullying.   She is very beautiful and an easy “hate Target”. As people started listening to her they then started actually liking her music.  There was a whole backlash of people that starting standing up for her.  It became a viral phenomenon.

But then, where do you go from there? How do you keep your fan base and the customer in mind?”

Music Historian has welcomed advice on how to make it in the music industry from current and former record producers, music publishers, A&R representatives. Now, I welcome advice from Tina Shafer, who is a vocal teacher, singer-songwriter and the founder of the New York Songwriter’s Circle that helps provide a welcoming community to those who work in the beautiful, yet sometimes, lonely and cutthroat world of songwriting. I welcome Tina Shafer to my blog.

Before I get into what Tina advises to current and aspiring musicians and songwriting professionals, I want to share her story about how she became involved in songwriter and began with The New York Songwriter’s Circle.  Music served as the background to Tina’s life. Her mother was a composer, and she brought Tina up in a house where there was always music. At the age of 4, Tina started to learn music in an experimental class for young children at a conservatory in Cleveland. Tina explains:

“They [the teachers] were trying to prove they could teach difficult theory and composition to young kids.  This is similar to the way they teach languages now to young kids.

“The first time I really decided to become a songwriter was when I listened to my first Joni Mitchell record. I was in the 10th grade. From there on, I decided to pursue music and songwriting.”

Just as she finished high school, Tina made the move to New York City, by herself, where she did not know anybody. She performed in clubs, including the Bitter End, and picked up any gig she could do. After 10 years in the city, she obtained her first publishing deal as a songwriter with Warner Chappell and started working with some big names. In addition to Billy Porter, she has written for Celine Dion, Donna Summer, Phoebe Snow, and performed with John Oates (Hall Of Fame), Suzanne Vega, Marc Cohn, The Hooters, The Spin Doctors, Gavin DeGraw, to name a few.

The New York Songwriter’s Circle officially started in 1991 held the first Monday of every month at the Historical Bitter End located in New York City’s West Village.   Tina originally took over the circle as a temp for the original founder. The woman who was initially in charge left to Nashville for a trip and decided to not return. In 2016, The Circle will celebrate 25 years of facilitating rising talent. I then wondered how the business model worked. 

“The New York Songwriter’s Circle is a platform for great talent and up and coming writer/performers but her own company “Tina Shafer Inc.,” I work as an executive producer, developing talent, and putting together  the best creative package to represent that talent.  This often includes, putting together all the musicians, writers, and producers, making an LP and finding the proper promotion.  This is known as “Content packaging”.”

The last component of her business model; marketing, is perhaps most crucial. According to Professor Ana Valenzuela, a faculty member at Baruch College, 75% of a plan for any type of business involves marketing. The other 25% are finances. Marketing enables entrepreneurs to understand who they are as a business, which customers they serve, and what makes the customers return to use the product or service.

Based on what I learned at the New Music Seminar earlier this summer, the same holds true for musicians. They must make music for their audiences. On the same token however, the music industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, making artists perhaps more vulnerable.

“When Vanessa Carlton – another Grammy nominated artist and student of Tina’s appeared at The New York  Songwriter’s Circle before making it big – (in 2002), some of these new artists received $400,000 advances  on their first record,” said Tina. She adds that in those days, record labels fostered artists’ development, now, labels do not want to pay for this. On the other hand though, Tina, just like Daylle Deanna Schwartz, asserts an artist does not need a record deal. She explains:

“All you [the artist] need is a great booking agent and advisor. Then you tour, make money from that, and create a record on your own. In a way, this is good, but it costs money to have a booker, a website, you have to pay for so much.

“Now, you have to be self-propelled. Ed Sheeran, for example, was couch surfing and writing with everyone and anyone he could when he started out, then got some air time. Then, he started touring with Taylor Swift.”

While so much has changed in the music industry, Tina reassures songwriters that even when record labels stopped paying for artistic development, Napster started satisfying customers who could get content for FREE, and self-recording and digitization has become more prominent; the only thing that has not changed is the need for great content. In other words, excellent records, songs, playing and performances. We are slowly catching up to the ways of the internet and trying to find avenues to get payment for content.

However, like everybody working in music, I heard a lot of ‘no.’ Even while I was in college, many of my colleagues who were vocalists were told they would have the hardest times finding work after graduation. Now, I find myself talking with a Tina Shafer, who is a conservatory-trained vocalist and guitarist who managed to make her dreams of being a singer-songwriter come true. Naturally, I wanted to know whether she had any advice for someone who is currently in college or in the music industry and receives a lot of discouragement.

“Anyone who goes into the arts will almost always hear that they are not going to make it,” says Tina. “You have to find a way to say, “that is not going to be me”. You have to recognize your strengths.  You may be an ensemble player, you may be a soloist, there are many avenues of music to explore”. “When people said “no”, it gave me [the chance] to find a way to say ‘yes.’”

Tina carries these encouraging words to her sons. Her oldest, Ari Zizzo who is 18 and becoming a well-known teen songwriter.  He has so far, opened up for artists like Mumford and Sons and this summer will open for Emblem3 and Demi Lavato at the Pop Tarts Concerts in Chicago.

Thomas, her youngest who is 16, is a sophisticated writer who hopes to become a film critic. The boys’ father is also a music producer. (Peter Zizzo)

Tina Shafer at the Songwriters Circle on July 7, 2014, The Bitter End In addition, Tina applies this lesson to The New York Songwriter’s Circle. While her company also works to help artists create content, Tina confirms that musicians must push themselves to connect with their own fan base, communicate with their customers directly, and get out into the performance spaces. In addition, good music will not change, and a great song has a way of rising to the top.

One might bump into a cynic who discourages them from continuing with the music industry, but remember this – while music is an undervalued industry, music consumption will double within ten years. Thanks to digital technology, the artist, who I believe can now become more personally involved in the marketing and distribution, has the chance to ultimately get closer to the consumer via social media. Therefore, the consumer can have a better relationship with the product. This gives way to great branding opportunities exist for today’s musicians. Also, musicians trying to fund a record through KickStarter.com help create business while increasing communication with their supporters and customers. Finally, digital vehicles like iTunes and Spotify can immediately deliver music to buyers. Fantastic customer service, right?

If you are a musician and worry about making money, your best option is to focus on the customer. A returning customer, whether it is a loyalist who will come to your shows or always buy a new record, will bring you the most financial return. Lastly, I can attest, that customers return for the good music. So don’t stop doing what you’re doing. Tina didn’t stop. If you happen to be a singer-songwriter looking for some help, check out The New York Songwriter’s Circle www.songwriters-circle.com

You can also check out Tina Shafer directly Tinashafer.net.

The Desert Sharks’ Hook-Drenched Rock ‘n’ Roll Tunes: My Interview with Stephanie Gunther

Desert-Sharks_CakeShop When I touched base with Stephanie Gunther, the vocalist and bassist from the Garage Rock Band, Desert Sharks, I felt excited to talk with a rock ‘n’ roll band that puts so much vulnerability into their songs. “Tequila Shark” was the track that attracted me to this Brooklyn-based all-women group, with a grimy bass line, and tinny sounding guitar which seems to echo, creating a space within the music for Stephanie’s beautiful alto voice. In the second verse, she sings the lyrics, I had a dream/ we had just met/ you showed me through your hallways/ and asked me would I stay. Fast forward to the chorus she sings It’s all mine/ your love’s in my mind, and then these lyrics repeats one more time.

When I asked her about the lyrics, Stephanie said, “I was exploring how we can go to such depths of dreaming up scenarios in our mind about someone we pine over. You can have all these fantasies of what it would be like to be together, how every detail would go down, where you would go, how you would interact, how much in love you would be.

“You can literally picture it and sometimes start to feel the emotions as if it were real, like you are having this secret mental affair with someone and they have no clue. I wrote, “Tequila Shark” about two dreams I had about two separate people, and that went along with those ideas.”

The most attractive aspect about the lyrics involved the vulnerability and honesty of the storyteller. In addition, there is very little mystery and interpretation of the meaning. Desert Sharks will remind rock enthusiasts that female bands continue to push past the gender stereotypes, and can do so with grace, and create opportunities for themselves independently in hopes to get recognized by a label. All of these are reasons for players in the music industry to pay attention to this group who were also in the Artists on the Verge class of 2014 at the New Music Seminar. It is my pleasure to feature Desert Sharks on Music Historian.

Stephanie says that when the band first started, people immediately doubted Desert Sharks.

“We’d get comments from people who first saw us on stage that they didn’t expect us to be any good, due to being female. Then, they’d say we blew them away. Now, it’s less about gender and more about our set, who we reminded them of and how they felt during our show. We’ve met some really awesome and supportive people at our shows. That’s one of the best parts about playing,” says Stephanie.

While some stereotypes are easy to disprove, including the one that says women can’t play instruments, women still have to work perhaps twice as hard as a man to make it in the business. Luckily, Desert Sharks don’t let challenges slow them down. Instead, they look to create opportunities to help them get closer to their ultimate goals – making a living with music.

“We’d love to work with someone on a full-length. The biggest task is getting heard. Our focus is on writing, playing shows, recording and touring,” explains Stephanie.

At the moment, Desert Sharks have an EP and vinyl they released in early 2013 which was recorded at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio, post-produced by Adam Reich, and pressed through Double Dare Ya Records, titled Sister Cousins. Just a few weeks ago, they released their 2014 EP on Manimal Records, Template Hair – an occasion that was marked with a show at Shea Stadium in late June. The promotion for their latest record will continue with a tour in August. Sister Cousins vinyl and Template Hair cassettes are available for purchase on Desert Sharks’ bandcamp.

In the short time they have been together (since 2011), Desert Sharks have played with bands they look up to, recorded and worked with a few labels, and toured. This four-piece group continuously set their sights on greater projects like working on a full-length with somebody in the future, touring out to the Midwest, where Stephanie is from, and getting signed. In order to reach these benchmarks, the group continues to dedicate their time to as Stephanie would say “making our music better and better.”

“We’re constantly writing new material and are anxious to get it recorded and out there for people to hear,” Stephanie adds. Desert Sharks Press Photo

Like I learned at the New Music Seminar in the panel The A&R Movement: Where is Music Headed? good music rises and makes its way to several listeners and to A&R representatives. I also learned that there is an opportunity for guitar-driven genres to make a comeback as well, which presents an opportunity for Desert Sharks. Songs like “Tequila Shark” can act like one of the Desert Sharks’ strong songs.

Aside from the fact that garage rock – according to Stephanie – can be “sexy, heavy, sweet or dancy,” “Tequila Shark” has an impressive compositional structure of A, B, A, B, C, as opposed to A, A,’ B or A, B. In my opinion, the more varied the sections within the song, the more interesting and exciting the track is to the listener. In addition, the lyrical content, which is straightforward and honest, lingers somewhere between vulnerable and impermeable. I asked Stephanie whether the realistic scenarios behind these lyrics focused on past romantic relationships, friendships, struggles or anything else.

“I’d say yes to all of those things,” begins Stephanie. “A lot of it is from my own life experiences, some of it, like our newest single “crazycrazy” is from someone else’s point of view put into my own words.

“When we start writing a song, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to write. I write at home a lot and put notes in my phone of phrases that pop into my head. Once we put together a song musically, I start to actually feel out the vibe. [I ask] ‘Does this song sound happy to me, does it sound sad?’ The hardest step for me usually is deciding the subject matter. Once I know what I want to write about, I can shape the words to fit the melody.”

While Stephanie loves Garage Rock, and agrees that this style influences Desert Sharks’ music, she admits that describing the group’s style of music is never easy.

“Garage and surf [rock] definitely influence our music, but I’d say we’re also heavily influenced by metal, punk, goth, pop, and more. Describing your style of music is the worst thing ever, especially when every band is a mishmash of influences. You end up [saying something] like, ‘Oh, we’re like The Ramones meets Dolly Parton meets Sabbath meets the Spice Girls.’ People get hung up on trying to label it and it gets hard to navigate. You want to say ‘just listen and see for yourself.’ Choose your own adventure and draw your own conclusions. It’s all rock ‘n’ roll in the end.”

An additional challenge to being in a rock band is making decisions with a group. The ladies within Desert Sharks “all share strong opinions,” says Stephanie.

“It usually takes a long time to come to a decision. Figuring out a [band] name was no easy task. We wrote “Tequila Shark,” and afterwards, some of us said ‘that’s a cool name, should we just call the band that?’ Desert had been a word on a list of words we dug, so we stuck desert and sharks together. It was the first name we came up with that we all didn’t hate.”

Since 2011, this band has built an excellent resume. The greatest strength they have developed as a group is their willingness to be flexible while they maintain strong attitudes. Their talent for writing a lot, and having a wide selection of songs is also beneficial for any A&R representative looking to sign a female Garage Rock group. From starting off with a Craigslist ad and arriving at Shea Stadium, Desert Sharks have made a healthy journey.

“We met through Craigslist,” recalled Stephanie. “The stars were aligned for that one. Rebecca [Rose, the drummer], Sunny [Veniero, the guitarist] and I met up initially with another girl and wrote a song together. We were sort of just jamming and playing around with ideas.

“The other girl had prior commitments to another band, so she left. We put out an ad, and Stefania [Rovera, the additional guitarist] answered. It was the missing puzzle piece. Once she joined we started writing a ton and felt like we wanted to start playing shows.”

Desert Sharks Bkyln Vegan There are plenty of rock ‘n’ roll listeners out there who want to hear this type of music and Desert Sharks might be at the right place in time to get recognized. People still line up to see independent Garage Rock bands in the United States. As for guitar-driven music, based on what I listened to at the New Music Seminar and what I saw at the Governors Ball Music Festival, there still exists an audience for The Strokes and Jack White.

Regarding my final question for Stephanie, I wanted to know what she thought of the motto “Rock is Dead.” She explained in two words “rock ‘n’ roll reincarnation.” Based on my interpretation, this means rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well, just in another form.

Female bands continue to make a comeback in rock ‘n’ roll, and like the Desert Sharks, they dedicate their time to writing songs, making records and performing in both small and large venues. These sharks are coming up to the surface with their hook-drenched tunes and ready to enter new territory – the wild music industry. The greatest strength of this group is their ability to carry listeners within the strong currents of their 2-3 minute tracks, a talent which – based on my listening experience – has been difficult to replicate on today’s music scene.