Making it easier to love than hate: Nathan Bell talks about his new folk album LOVE>FEAR

Nathan Bell Press Photo* As a teenager, Nathan Bell got his first performance experience at a rally against the Vietnam War. The singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chattanooga, Tennessee admits that this is not the most profitable way to navigate the music industry. Further, he did not initially set out to be a songwriter. “I wanted to be a journalist, a Steinbeck or Hemingway,” said Nathan Bell about his inspirations. “But I can’t write prose the way I can write songs.”

I wondered what made Nathan interested in journalism. He said,”… if you are doing something as a journalist, you cannot present things the way you want them to be, and you cannot point fingers. Dylan even said that. And so, I try to keep the fingers out of it. There is some objection that goes into my songs, but these are not rallying cries in the tradition of protest music. These are stories of people.”

The songs which Nathan talks about are on his forthcoming album LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland). When I first learned about Nathan, he was described to me as a veteran singer-songwriter. For almost 15 years, he did not get involved in music. “I stopped playing altogether in the core of my adult life while my children were young… it was actually when my first born was 15 that I got back… in 2007. I came back then, but I had been out since 1994.”

Since his return to music, which was a decade ago, Nathan had been consistently writing and composing. His previous records include I Don’t Do This For Love (working and hanging on in America) Black Crow Blue, and Blood Like a River (Bell, 2017). Nathan has a keen eye for detail and an unapologetic penchant for the populist humanism of his literary heroes, John Steinbeck, Jack London and Studs Terkel. Perhaps it is no surprise that in his songs on LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland) Nathan portrays the characters with such great detail and depth, that you could not help but find sympathy for them if you were to meet them in real life (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). A beautifully played acoustic guitar, harmonica and a voice that seems to come from a narrator who does not sing to gain notice for his virtuosity, but rather his attentiveness for people and their struggles, builds each song. He tells the story about real people, the way of traditional American folk music. To learn more about Nathan’s new album, I invited him to be the subject of my full-length feature interview on Music Historian for the month of June.

When I asked Nathan about his interest in writing stories about other individuals, he said, “I have been lucky enough to never write in an artist’s place where I was looking out. I have always had people around me. I am careful never to use an actual person, and there is a reason for that; when you narrow it down to one single person, and this does not reflect negatively on Dylan doing a song about Medgar Evers, sometimes you lose the story. The story of miners,” Nathan gives an example of a song he had written about miners from an earlier record, “is not the story of one guy. It is a story of American miners, of outright criminality on the parts of the [entities] that used them. It is interesting that miners get a job they respect doing, and there is a level of collegiality there that is almost like the Marines. That comes from a real story, but I fictionalize just enough so that no one can look at that and say that was done on purpose. But I have known every character in that song in one way or another.”

Raised in Iowa City, Iowa, by his father and poet, Marvin Bell; Nathan grew up around writers. “My story is of the people I know. I think in most of them… you would not have any trouble finding me. And there are, in previous albums, [songs] that are biographical and autobiographical. But when it comes to the human conditions and talking about the world we live in, my opinion is just my opinion. The more I could talk about the actual lives of people, the more I could effectively communicate what is out there, what is happening. I look at, and there has been an evident distaste for this book in the past few years which I feel is illegitimate, Steinbeck’s, The Travels of Charlie. I realized when you look at the story, and what he does, which is put himself smack dab in the middle of human beings, and reacts to them and they respond to him. That’s how I think you get the stories out there that are legitimate.”

“I know many people on both sides of the [political] aisle. I feel very fortunate to have worked enough jobs that I met my share of very proud people, and my share of great people whose politics I still don’t know anything about, and this makes it easy. I have probably taken more credit for them [the stories] than I probably should. I think the stories tell themselves.”

Nathan’s songs that appear on the forthcoming album, he had for a long time. While his tracks present a viewpoint that is journalistic, the artist also admits “songwriting is a vast field that includes everything from Bird is the Word to Townes Van Zandt. That makes it a little more complicated to speak openly as a songwriter. We tend to be a group who downplay whether our work is important or not. Again, there are so many songs we respect. They [the songs] are there to make people happy… but this is a serious record. It goes back to a time when I wanted to be a reporter, or walk in the footsteps of Steinbeck.”

One of the songs which stood out to me is about a struggle many young women go through, titled “So Damn Pretty.” Written in a major key, the lyrics in one of the verses in this track include:

She was Summa Cum Laude
as she walked across the stage
into 40 years of fighting for a fair and honest wage

Then the chorus follows:

You’re eyes are pretty
your hair is pretty
everything about you is just so pretty
you should be so happy to be so damn pretty.

A modulation to a minor key follows – to the sixth chord I believe:

They talk about her
like she was not even there
they talk about her like she wasn’t anywhere
then she says, I won some, lost some, like everybody does
I didn’t care about what people thought I should be
I was happy with who I was
I’ve tried, to be honest, and kind and hoped to be brave and strong, to be everything…
they could never see
there was more to me
than just so damn pretty. 

I asked Nathan about this song, and he explains, “I was raised by a man who… in all the ways, that you would say, he was truly a feminist-allied man. But that did not stop me from being a chauvinist as a kid because that was the society I lived in. I think I was talking to my daughter when she was 14 or 15 years old. That’s when I realized that it was so deeply ingrained in me that no matter what I say about rights, civil rights, economic rights, I still have work to do. I had thought about these things actively and out loud to try and help change things, but I was still part of the problem. It took me years to realize that one of my initial responses to my daughter who was a dancer most of her life, until she went to college and decided to pursue social justice, [was that]… Everything is pretty; everything is visual. My daughter is beautiful, and I would focus on that and see that. This song is my apology.”

“The fact that we are talking about salary equivalences… the longer I stay with it, I realize there is more work to do with myself before I have any right to hold anybody else accountable. That is something I would need to change before any real change could take place. That is kind of me throwing myself on my sword.”

The name of the new album LOVE>FEAR stems from Nathan’s big goal in life – to make it so much better to love people, that after a while, hating people seems like a lot of work. On the subject of the music, many of the tracks were recorded live-in-the-studio in front of a small audience, with no doubling and almost no overdubs. The second part of the name, traitorland comes from a concept which has been around a while, rewritten and reworked quite a bit. Nathan elaborates on this idea. LOVE>FEAR Album Cover*

“It was written in 2009, and then several others, with different incarnations… traitorland came up because there are some lessons which I would like to take away about loving people, about fighting back [in the face of tragedy], and about understanding people… it is a real miracle to learn to love your enemy.

“Love is greater than fear because everything I am comes from hard work and because I have love. I feel when you have enough love, it is manageable and workable. If you don’t have love, you are going to be miserable. [Then] It is just a question of who gets to take advantage of who.”

Nathan’s down-to-earth philosophies and once-sought-after desire to follow in the footsteps of an author who gained popularity for creating fictional stories of common people – especially during the great depression – definitely makes a sound basis for a folk record. However, plenty has changed for the musical landscape, in particular for the folk genre.

“The folk genre suffers from one major problem – people don’t hire performers anymore. I grew up… I played acoustic sets regularly… and that’s how it worked. That’s how I got on stage.

“In those days, you were also expecting people to get albums, not one song. The internet is great to help you find what you never [thought you] could find. If you are a kid and go to a concert, and you don’t know the first thing about folk music, you could go on the internet and find 9,000 ways to hear it. That’s fantastic! I used to go to the university library, and on their record player, play their collection of folk records until I had heard them all. That was a lot of work. Now, it is ‘just download a playlist of everything you need to know about the history of the music and hear it within an hour.’ That’s cool.

“However, for the performance… I make more money per show than I do for putting out an album in the United States… I [also] don’t think there is a lot of community out there… I see the album form as having been abandoned. I want to be sure that does not happen with me.

“The positive is the accidents. Somebody in North Dakota can listen to someone in Florida and, also, you can make a record at home now with $10 of software. That’s pretty amazing.

“There is some good. But I think the business itself has suffered terribly.”

I agree with the artist about this point of view. However, based on my experiences interviewing past performers, there is a growing Americana community both inside the United States and outside. The thought of whether the folk community is merging with the Americana might open up discussions or debates.

As a member of the folk community, Nathan had the opportunity to share bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. Norman and Emmylou would work with Bob Dylan at one point in their career (Wikipedia, 2017). Taj worked with Muddy Waters, along with other musicians including Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Lightnin’ Hopkins (Wikipedia, 2017). Most of this success happened in the ‘80’s for Nathan. During this time, he performed as part of an acoustic duo.

“Those were still the days a record contract was necessary to do more than [being] a local act. We signed with a serious acoustic label at the time. We got the opportunity to put out two records, one of them was reviewed quite positively, which was unusual at the time for an acoustic duo. We played many shows where we were the opening act, and also, played with Taj Mahal. There were times when I was sharing the stage with people… we are talking about mid-to-late eighties, where there was still a record business.”

Meanwhile, he and Emmylou and worked with the same producer. Nathan adds, “In Nashville, there is a lot of that kind of stuff. I did, work within performance settings where Emmylou was on the bill, and we were at a festival, with all of these singer-songwriters. It helps to understand that it was a less isolated musical world. You had everybody; it was a little more communal.”

After the late ‘80’s would come the ‘90’s and in 1994, Nathan would take a long break from music. In regards to his newest record, LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), Nathan says “I would like to see it get attention in the singer-songwriters’ type of circle.”

In terms of what Nathan hopes listeners would take away from his record, in addition to understanding his goal of making it easier to love rather than hate, he would like “for the topics in the song to become part of a conversation. If you hear these stories, and you say to yourself, I did not know that person, or I did not realize I did not know that person, then I would wish that person well, no matter what their position is in the world.”

Nathan Bell Press Pic* Listen to Nathan’s record, and you will hear the story of a broken widower in the midst of a crisis of faith; a first-time mobile-home owner staring down a foreclosure; a beautiful woman struggling to be appreciated for her talent, intelligence and hard work; an obese veterinarian in love with a skinny, secretly transgender patent-attorney rodeo clown; the impoverished sick committing armed robbery to pay for healthcare; an active-duty soldier turned conscientious objector who opts for the stockade over the battlefield; and a middle-aged man caught in the for-profit prison system, his best years slipping through his fingers. There is no black and white, no oversimplification, and no ‘us versus them left/right’ posturing, just inclusive and somehow vibrant shades of gray (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). Further, I believe the best way to learn how to love someone, is to find a way you could relate to them. In LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), you might be able to find a character whom you could relate to, and hopefully, this realization could help become part of a conversation that matters.

LOVE>FEAR (48 Hours in Traitorland) will release on June 30th on Stone Barn Records.

Works Cited

Bell, N. (n.d.). Store. Retrieved from https://www.nathanbellmusic.com/store

Emmylou Harris. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmylou_Harris

Norman Blake. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Blake_(American_musician)

Taj Mahal. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal_(musician)

*All photos were published with permission

The Flip Sides of Holly Henry’s Music*

The Orchard Cover Art, by Rit Suchat American singer/songwriter Holly Henry has recently released “The Orchard,” her second extended play (EP) in two years. Produced at Minneapolis’s The Library Recording Studio, this Alternative music album was funded by fans through an IndieGoGo campaign. The six tracks in the EP lyrically play to Holly’s diversely international audience of multi-generational fans. They are her catchiest songs yet, which may leave listeners with hooks and melodies hard to get out of their head.

Since Holly’s September 24, 2013 appearance on “The Voice” (US), she has experienced rapidly increasing popularity as a YouTube cover artist. Her hollymaezers YouTube channel increased from 1,500 subscribers before appearing on “The Voice”[1]  to 20,000 soon after her elimination from the show[2]. By mid-September 2015, she had over ten times the subscribers and video views. Thus, her YouTube popularity, coupled with having reached Alternative #6 album rank with her debut EP, “The Immigrant,” likely have contributed to her success more than from appearing on “The Voice.”

To better understand Holly’s choice of songs in “The Orchard” EP, it helps to explore the lyrics to a quintet of original, related songs: “The Ghost,” “Katie,” “Hide and Seek,” “Grow,” and “Better.” I asked Holly, “How would you describe that lyrical saga?” She responded:

“These songs were all written for different reasons at different periods of my life. But, I feel like these songs could be connected through a similar theme of feeling out of place or thinking maybe you aren’t being the best version of yourself. There is an underlying idea of inadequacy in these songs.”

We are imperfect/  what a lovely thing to be hints in “Katie” of the wisdom Holly gained from challenging her agoraphobia in her Knockout Round elimination on “The Voice.” Originally released concurrently with Holly’s “The Voice” Blind Audition, “Katie was re-released 15 months later as a YouTube-subsidized music video. YouTube’s commitment to her career development hints to the geographic expansion and growth of Holly’s fan base. I asked Holly to explain that change:

“My YouTube channel is how I view most of my international activity so it’s really the only source I have. So, from what I’ve seen, The Voice helped me gain a following [which following “The Voice”] plateaued for a few months but after a while my YouTube began to grow again and now I have a following of 200,000. Nearly 50% of those following me are from Russia. Many different countries follow and support me and I’m very grateful for it.”

Holly’s new fans maybe learning about her persona through her commitment to autobiographical songs.  Holly held back the single “Hide and Seek from her December 2013 release of “The Immigrant” EP, for more elaborate studio production in California by Christopher Tyng’s Grow Music Project team (see Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice).  Its timing and deep, revealing lyrics like hiding in the corner/ I swear that I adore ‘ya/ but I’m stuck in the corner,” depicted a debilitating anxiety sink in which powering through emotional blocks to recovery is a temporarily unattainable goal. I asked Holly “What it was like to be called perfect when you are in a long anxiety sink?” Holly responded:

“When people compliment, encourage, and look up to me it makes me want to be a better and stronger person. It makes me want to be what they believe me to be. And it is always very therapeutic to write about what you’re currently struggling with. Releasing it into the world is even more therapeutic because it’s almost like you come to complete terms with your issues and are willing to share your experience with others.”

To read fan comments posted since the August 21st release of “The Orchard” EP, is to confirm continuing, divergent lyrical preferences among Holly’s fans. Divergent preferences create marketing challenges. Can Holly sell entire EPs, versus only single tracks playing to specific fan preferences?

On the one hand are fans who desire romantic and upbeat lyrics. They commonly project her in their social media comments as being “perfect” or “a queen.” I asked Holly if that “was symbolized by the crown in her cover art?” She responded that “the artist, Rit Suchat, had drawn me previously before I had even commissioned his work for the EP. The picture he drew of me had a crown similar to the one on the EP cover so I’d say it’s more the artist’s creativity than mine.”

Will fans learn enough about Holly Henry to embrace a multi-dimensional persona beyond their projections of perfection or frailty? Holly challenged fan perceptions of perfection with lyrics in “Hide and Seek” like: My baby thinks that I’m weak/ An antique/My life’s hide and seek. Her candor and honesty has helped foster an empathetic fan base over the last two years. Those fans commonly post how Holly has been “lifesaving” to them. Perhaps this is symbolized by the hummingbird totem in the cover art – an animal totem representing resiliency and adaptability while keeping a playful and optimistic outlook?

I asked Holly if “the process of writing and singing songs, then getting such feedback, is equally therapeutic?” “It sometimes feels like a group therapy session (in a good way),” Holly responded. “And, my favorite thing in the world is hearing that people feel calmed and comforted by my music.”

Fans are used to her timely, innovative, and seemingly triumphant rebounds from career setbacks. But, financial considerations may ultimately limit how many more Holly can weather as a professional musician. By soliciting production assistance in producing “The Orchard” EP, her IndieGoGo campaign successfully staved off that day.

Might too few of her fans, used to free covers, be willing to pay for her original songs? For an artist who typically gets 1,500 to 3,000 likes per Instagram post, only about 325 unique donors funded her IndieGoGo campaign. The campaign generated about $15,000 (after IndieGoGo’s fees), requiring Holly to modify her stated goal. “We had to stay in Minneapolis to record the EP,” Holly explained. “But it turned out to be a wonderful decision because we had an incredible [time] recording it at The Library Studio. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Holly, Recording at The Library In the intervening months between EP releases, Holly has capitalized on numerous opportunities beyond Grow Music Project. She won a 2014 Upper Midwest Emmy in musical composition/arrangement for a television promotion of the Sochi Olympics.  She was also featured in numerous soundtracks to indie short films. Ultimately, she reappeared on stage for three live performances between February and April 2015. They were her first since November 2013.

I asked Holly what the highlight was of her most recent live performances:

“I loved playing at The Varsity this year. It was a really energetic atmosphere which I’m not used to because most of my gigs are really low key acoustic vibe kind of performances. For this particular show, I had band with me. The crowd was really attentive and involved. It was a cool night in general.”

“The Orchard” EP represents what Holly can accomplish given sufficient money for production. Before her IndieGoGo campaign, I asked Holly, If you had $25,000 to spend on only your music, what would your priorities be for spending it?”[3] Holly prophetically responded:

I definitely wouldn’t change my style. But I think I would use the money to enhance my style. Make it more what I hear in my head than what I have the money to give you. So, it would probably sound like me, but a little bit more in depth

It is evident in “The Orchard” EP that her IndieGoGo campaign allowed her to enhance her style and to more fully record what she mentally composes and arranges.

To help listeners interpret the lyrics in the EP, I asked Holly to provide a two-word description to each song, as follows.  She described her 46 second prelude, “Arbor,” as “dreamy entrance.” It sets a sophisticated air to the EP and reassures us of the fine artistry which can arise from successful collaborations among musicians. In “Hotel” (“detached crush”), Holly sings her own harmonies, as in her “Sweet Dreams” cover, with nearly 1.8 million views on YouTube. She also repeats the hand-clapping style so successful in “The Immigrant” EP. “Hotel” reaffirms her desire to contribute to music soundtracks, TV and commercials. It is the top selling track and was promoted by Holly and some fans as a song for “American Horror Show.” “The Orchard” (“safe place”) is joyful, dream-like poetry, offering a reassuring message of transition from midnight fears to creative dreams. “Skin” (“soul bearing”) especially appeals to fans desirous of an original duet between her and Josh Dobson. Show me your skin, skin, skin/ show me what’s within lyrically reveals a delicate caress arising from Holly’s romantic persona.  Like her duet with Jamison Murphy in his song “Remember When (released April 2015), “Skin” is far more intimate as a duet than as a solo. “Foolish Heart” (“sarcastic infatuation”) is Holly’s most upbeat offering, representing a lyrical continuation of the youthfulness of “The Immigrant” EP. Its bridge shows off a delightful instrumental collaboration with Josh and producer Matt Patrick.

Holly describes “Better,” the closing track on “The Orchard” EP, as “euphoric recovery.” It builds like her popular, full-length acoustical rendition of “Creep.” With lyrics like I was overwhelmed/ but I’m getting better, it is a thematic sequel to her quintet of songs depicting inadequacy. The strength of an empathetic fan base shows by “Better” being her third best-selling track off the EP.

Holly ends this “The Orchard” EP with the lyrics, Did you miss me when I was lost? I asked Holly, “How do you wish fans would answer your concluding lyrics?” “I feel like those lyrics can mean something different to everyone,” she said. “For me, the meaning is, when I’m going through a rough time I hope you don’t forget who I really am underneath all the craziness.”

Will Holly’s hummingbird totem guide her through her goal of at least three more years of professionally creating music? Fans post their appreciation of Holly’s honesty and accessibility on social media, but fans I know also want to see her perform live. As a Minneapolis-based musician, Holly would benefit from broadcasted or recorded performances. She needs, at the least, to utilize StageIt performances over the Internet to reach distant fans, helping to retain them over the long haul. Additionally, she should schedule gigs while on her periodic trips to Florida, where her musician fiancé Josh Dobson regularly performs solo and in the band “East Harbor.” Josh, Holly, and Matt

“The Orchard” EP successfully plays to audiences attracted to Holly’s angelic voice and allegorical lyrics. The EP represents a sophisticated evolution of Holly’s musical talent, combined with a remarkable collaborative achievement by producer and backup instrumentalist Matt Patrick. Josh Dobson provided lead instrumentation, plus duet vocals and collaborative songwriting in “Skin.” The EP was released by Garden Ghost Records and is available on Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon. Holly Henry’s official website can be found at hollyhenrymusic.com.

*This entry was written by a guest blogger. Author Gary Reese, known online as pcacala, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” He is an Original Poster on Idolforums (IDF) and The Voice Forums (TVF). The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” (on IDF) and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” (on TVF) have combined page views of over 151,000, making Holly has the third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who has competed on “The Voice.”

Works cited

[1] Holly Henry. (2013). “Hollyhenrymusic” [blog post]. Retrieved from

http://hollyhenrymusic.tumblr.com/

[2] Boneyarddog. (2013, November). “Holly Henry Fan Thread.” Retrieved from

http://idolforums.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=706360&view=findpost&p=26015851

[3] Holly Henry. (2014, October 5). “Very Exciting Questions & Answers Video” . Retrieved from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypcD4CRo_Ow

 

 

 

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/

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 Juicebox, the soul and funk band based in New York City, experienced several positive changes that launched them into a new direction after they released their 2012 single “Occupy my Heart.” Isaac Jaffe, the bassist of the band, shared the story of the birth behind this sultry and contagious single.

“I wrote this song while we were on a previous tour. It was probably one of the first songs where I wrote the lyrics before the melody. In my head, I pictured this song as a Neil Young-type of folk song – one with a falsetto voice which was sweet and a little bit wistful. Then I said, ‘there is no way the band is going to want to play that.’ So, I gave it a few weeks to kind of incubate and then I found a rhythm and the syncopation for the song.”

Saxophone player, Nicholas Myers, singer, Lisa Ramey, and then the newest member of the band, percussionist, Jamie Eblen laughed with Isaac as he shared this story.

After the single’s release, Juicebox toured Italy. Isaac claimed that sharing a song with people in a very different place was incredibly thrilling. Lisa added, “That’s when we turned to being pretty cool. We were nerdy cool, then we were not nerdy anymore. Now, we had this style, we had artwork, we were the Juicebox guys.”

As I interviewed these four members from the seven piece band, I noticed how elegantly they answered each question. Like a perfected performance piece, nobody interrupted each another. They came in with their own words and comments in a timely manner, never too soon and never too late. All members neatly and smoothly connected their comments so that they flowed like a well-written article. It almost felt like they had a structure for the way they interviewed. I had the same thoughts regarding the composition within their songs. So I asked the group how important structure was for a band like Juicebox?

“It’s not so much structure as it is about communication,” said Isaac. “That’s the key. Because of the improvisational thing, we have a pretty clear roadmap of how we work, but at the same time, every once in a while, our guitar player will play something that is too good to run away from. With the bands all in the same place, you are plugged in and there is nowhere to run.”

Whether or not soul and funk are your thing, Juicebox has proven there is really nowhere to run when you listen to their music live or on a recording. That is why I just had to interview this band. As I talk with them, I soon realize what will attract all types of listeners to Juicebox. Read my interview with the band right here on Music Historian to find out.

Starting in 2009, all the instrumentalists in Juicebox met through the jazz performance community at New York University. Isaac was a senior when Jamie was a freshman. Prior to Jaime joining the group, the five piece group of male performers recruited Lisa while she playing with another band in the city.

“She was singing back up with another group,” recalled Nick, “and I said to myself, ‘what is she doing singing back up?!’ She needs to be in front of the band! We did not have a singer at that time, we were only instrumental. We wanted to be a band but could not find anybody. Then, we saw Lisa and said “we need her. She is phenomenal. We need her out of the background and right up front. It was a match.”

Lisa remembers the moment this five-guy band approached her as being a tad terrifying. However, she quickly recognized the opportunity to come into the forefront. Juicebox perform at the New Music Seminar Conference on Tuesday, June 11th. (Left - Right) Isaac, Jamie Eblen, Lisa, Nick and Aaron

“I enjoyed being in the background, and I knew I would sing in the front. But at that time, I was trying to perform and get out in front of people. They [the Juicebox band] said ‘you are up in the front, in the middle, go!’” she explains. “I actually remember being so nervous when I sang in front for the first time with the group; I had all of the lyrics and everything written out. I thought I was not going to get hired for the job.”

“That was a really great show,” added Isaac. “I remember we had been playing in many downtown bars, performing mostly soul, jazz and instrumental stuff. Then, we did the first show with Lisa – I had only known Lisa after we hung out once or twice – and she started singing, I looked up and saw her immediately rock the crowd. I thought to myself this is probably the coolest experience I have had being up on stage. So, I knew it was going to work out.”

“I am the quiet one here because I was not around to see any of this,” said Jamie.

If you need a little more convincing that Juicebox is a band you must hear, consider how this ensemble can move a crowd of rap and hip-hop enthusiasts. This happened to be the case at the New Music Seminar during the performance nights, when Juicebox performed next to hip-hop artists, Dylan Owen, M Bars, and Lanz Pierce at Tammany Hall on the Lower East Side, on June 9th. Speaking to the group, I learned that although hip-hop might be very different stylistically from funk and soul, these two genres have something in common. Nick explains:

“All of the hip-hop artists sampled records we listened to. That’s what first got me to listen all of that stuff [soul], I would listen to [hip-hop] songs on the radio and I figured out the samples turned out to be my favorite parts. When I heard a sample from Stevie Wonder in a song, I would go and listen to the original song by Stevie Wonder.”

Returning to the show, Lisa said, “Everybody loved our show… With a foundation like that, you can’t go wrong. It was a hit.”

I then asked myself, which soul artist presented an example for Juicebox, and what have they done to move that influence forward? What is the most important element within soul for this band? Finally, how do they fit in today’s music scene while remaining distinct?

It turns out the name Juicebox, pays homage to one of Nick’s personal idols, James Brown. Aaron Rockers, the trumpet player within the band, suggested the name and it clicked.

“In his [James Brown’s] band,” stated Nick, “all the instrumentalists called themselves the JB’s, and we look up to them. So then, we thought about Juicebox and felt it was really cool.

“We went through many names and thought, ‘oh that doesn’t feel right.’ Then Juicebox immediately felt right, and with the type of music we had, it [the name] makes sense. Plus, it makes everyone feel positive when they say then name.”

Personally, I don’t see how anybody can ever get angry saying the word juice box. In regards to music, I don’t recall a moment where a person got angry saying the word soul. Soul is supposed to make you feel good. Nick adds, “that’s what we’re about.”

Juicebox at the New Yorker Hotel Jamie then entered the conversation with his thoughts about Juicebox’s performance practice – “Another crazy thing about the band is that they are in different settings and it’s kind of like a chameleon. When we play live, we will have a different vibe, whether it is one for a dinner club or bar. We’ve also played acoustic sets.”

“It’s going to be much different than when we play at Rockwood,” adds Isaac, “where we put the pedal to the metal, beat one and we hit the crowd. Then, it’s like ‘Wow! Did that just happen?’

“I think that’s where all the time we put in playing in different jazz bands… [and] whether we played in a club about 100 times… we are still improvising… we’re trying to be fresh.”

Nick concludes, “I think that is an important part of what we do. I think every time I listened to a James Brown record, he rearranged his theme at every live performance.”

Juicebox rightfully recognizes the JB’s, and they find great comfort in incorporating the music element that attracts the group to soul and funk – improvisation. So, what is Juicebox doing differently from the other bands I have interviewed thus far? The answer is this, they read the audience.

Depending on the setting, Juicebox will slightly improvise certain elements within their songs to match the tone of their performance settings. Juicebox’s has mastered this into a winning strategy.

“We put in a lot of work learning how to win over the club,” explains Isaac. “You walk up on stage, and you see people [in the audience] eating dinner, talking to their girlfriend, or doing whatever. You have to start small and figure out how you are going to get your ‘in’ with them, and have them listen to you. That’s all we really want, is to play music people want to listen to.”

Isaac adds, “We’re getting to the point right now that, when we walk on stage, people automatically think “I am going to have a moment with this.” That I feel is a real privilege and I’m really thrilled. That makes me happier than anything else.”

As all marketers know, word-of-mouth is the best form of promotion. When listeners start feeling this way about a band, the word spreads. When the word spreads, the possibility of an A&R representative or a music producer attending a concert increases. Lisa attests that in this industry, the chances of getting accepted within this industry is very opportunity-based.

“Someone saw us and recognized us. Everyone here, and out there, understands how hard that is, and it is a matter of someone who came to see you, and maybe they liked you, and then maybe they will talk to somebody who will maybe look at your stuff. With all of those things happening, we just feel really honored.”

While for many bands, this career path is full of a lot of maybes, one thing that will always be definite for Juicebox – they will always give their listeners an unforgettable show and music that will move them. According to Isaac, dancing is a level below talking, the internalization of music listening.

“If it hits people there, when they are dancing and they feel it, then I know we did a good job.”

Nick adds, “My personal goal is to leave fans completely speechless.”

Based on fans’ testimonials, Juicebox has accomplished what both Nick and Isaac want. Fans have given testimonials like “Can’t stop moving,” and “[They] murdered it. Oh my God, so funky,” just to name a few.

Juicebox will now continue to bring more great music to audiences with a second album and a second tour which are supposed to peak sometime this Fall. Keep your eyes peeled on their website or Facebook Page for updates.

If you do visit their website and listen to their music, I will say this Lisa’s voice is powerful within all the songs. What makes me remember this group the most is how the instruments come into the forefront with the singer, they are not just accompaniments. I wondered whether Juicebox treated the human voice as an instrument, or the instruments as voices.

“Personally,” began Lisa, “I am not Ella Fitzgerald. She is a natural horn. I can’t say I am a horn but, I can say in body movement, I play every instrument. I consider our band to be an act, a function of different people. Everybody has a chance to shine. I think we are all a bunch of instruments.”

Isaac enters, “I think it’s interesting because, for a long time, all the music I wrote was instrumental. Then, when the shift came, I gave Lisa some words to sing, and that changed the way I wrote songs, and in a really good way.”

“Yeah,” agree Nick and Jamie.

Isaac continues, “I think it [the voice] really made the instrumental parts deeper… and they reflected what was happening in the voice. So, I think there is an important separation there.”

“I think it brings the instruments closer to the vocal side, which positively influences the way we play… They are not meeting, but they definitely inform each other, and that really helps along the way,” adds Nick. Juicebox at the New Yorker, on June 10th, 2014

Isaac intercepts, “I was going to say, there is something really satisfying when you’ve got this idea built in the melody within the horns, and then Lisa delivers a lyric that makes everyone fall on their head, and set up the delivery. That’s really satisfying.”

“I’m glad we’re having this interview,” responds Lisa.

So there it is. In addition to Juicebox’s successful delivery of soul and funk, and improvisational music that is sometimes missing in today’s popular music scene; this group makes sure that everybody has a chance to shine. Just like the JB’s, this band relies on all instruments equally to deliver a great piece of music. Yes, they might say the instruments and the voice complement each other within the music, but nobody here is an accompanist.

At the moment, electronic pop seems to come to everyone’s mind when they hear the word “dance music.” Juicebox is plugged-in and they constantly master the craft of live performance as opposed to relying on automated technology. The only drawback is this group still has a small audience. The right exposure, however, and additional time to increase their fan base might be the next step in spreading Juicebox’s soul and funk onto the modern scene.

Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice

Holly Henry, Singer Songwriter Holly Henry, the 20-year-old musician based in Minneapolis experienced the turning point of her musical career when she performed Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on season 5 of “The Voice.” Getting all four judges to turn their chairs after her beautiful performance marked the first moment she introduced herself to the public as a major talent. When time came for her to choose an artist to work with, she picked country musician and producer, Blake Shelton.

“I said to myself, ‘I will choose who turns first,’ and Blake turned within two seconds. He was ready to work with me,” recalls Holly.

While the young singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist chose to work with a country music producer, Holly does not define herself as a country musician. After finishing her time with the reality television show, Holly met with producer and founder of the Grow Music Project, Chris Tyng to record and produce her latest single “Hide and Seek.” While Holly exhibits the same voice from season 5 of “The Voice” within this new single; the lyrical content within “Hide and Seek” resembles something different from the pop songs she performed on the reality show.

In the chorus of “Hide and Seek,” Holly sings I’m stuck in the corner/ I swear I adore you. I asked her about the inspiration behind these lyrics.

“I do have anxiety, and I wrote the song “Hide and Seek” about that, and how it affects my life and relationships with the people I love,” she says.

I investigated her repertoire of original music further by listening to her 2013 acoustic EP, The Immigrant. The lyrics in the chorus for the song “Paper Clips,” she sings Life has just tripped you up by your laces. Then, there is the title track in which she sings Be still your love, your broken heart/ ‘cause I will kill it.

“Paper Clips” was about growing up and how we all miss childhood,” explains Holly. ““The Immigrant” focused on someone loving you more than you love them. These are the ideas that go into the songs, but the lyrics are open to interpretation.”

According to her latest interview in a documentary of her experience with the Grow Music Project, Holly is most inspired by artists like Bon Iver and Lana Del Ray.

“The artists and singers I am most inspired by are the ones who know who they are, and who have a different voice,” states the young performer. “It’s hard to find someone unique… so when you do find somebody different you can say to yourself ‘Wow, I’ve never heard this kind of music before.’ That’s [they type of artist] that really intrigues me.”

The most intriguing quality about this developing artist is that while she returns with a voice we are all familiar with, we now have the opportunity to enjoy something more refreshing – beautiful and youthful voice that expresses an old soul. At the moment, Holly is searching for a producer who will help her create her first full-length record, one that will showcase the voice she looks to present to the world. It is my pleasure to welcome this young artist to a full-length feature article for the month of June to Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

Holly claims when she tried out for season 5 of “The Voice” in early 2013, she did so on a whim.

“They [the show] always hold auditions every year, in 4 or 5 cities. That year, they held an audition in Chicago. My parents watched the show, and they really liked it, and I also found the show interesting. My Dad said to me “you should try out.”

“At the time, I was also in my gap year, I had just finished high school and I took a year off to pursue music. Not purposely the voice in the beginning.

“I went to their auditions in Chicago and went through three or four auditioning processes before reaching the final blind audition. I was not expecting to get called back at all, I didn’t think I’d get past the open call. I hadn’t planned for it, it all just happened,” explains Holly.

During this time, Holly had already published videos of herself performing her own songs on YouTube. These videos grabbed Chris Tyng’s attention.

“He actually listened to my YouTube videos way before I went on “The Voice.” He planned on contacting me but when he learned I was going on the show he thought “she’s probably not interested.” When he found out I got off the show, then he contacted me.

“I didn’t want to let that opportunity with the Grow Music Project go. Chris either chooses an artist, or an artist applies, for his specific program in which they record a song for free and he shoots a video documentary [of the project]. It is a first step into the industry. Chris is a great guy. He sits down and gets to know who you are and then helps show your voice to the world. I was happy to have someone help me make music that fits my persona.”

Holly Henry and Chris Tyng - founder of the Grow Music Project

So far, Chris has worked with Holly specifically on “Hide and Seek.” Holly claims she would love to work with him again. However, she is also open to working with other producers. I was curious as to what criteria an artist like Holly uses when hunting for a producer.

“Listen to what they produce,” she says. “Listen to other things they’ve produced and then figure out who they are – are they more high tech or very acoustic? Try new things; you never know exactly how you will work with someone.”

While Holly looks to continue her acoustic styling, as she presents in “Hide and Seek” and her first EP, she is also open to adding new elements to her compositions.

The Immigrant was [recorded as] just acoustic because we wanted to create something and put it out quickly. In general though, my music is not completely acoustic but more along the lines of “Hide and Seek” and some of the songs on my bandcamp website like “More Than Nothing” or “Secrets Spoken.”

“There was a lot less production on The Immigrant, whereas in “Hide and Seek,” we added cello, piano, drums and various instruments.”

Holly claims acoustic is also perfect for her because some of her songs which include topics about anxieties, reflections and love would clash with a very upbeat melody. While some producers might worry that her songs steer towards the mellower and possibly melancholy, Holly never received a negative message about her songs. As a matter of fact, she received plenty of encouragement from her fans. Holly Henry in Chris Tyng's studio

“When “The Voice” happened, the whole experience kick-started a fan base and this whole new way of life for me. They say very encouraging things, and I am very lucky to have people follow me. I receive messages all the time, both about my music and my struggles. People who struggle with anxiety and depression tell me “your music encouraged me to keep going and trying.” Honestly, that’s all I want to [hear and] do. I just want to help people out.

“People say my music is relaxing. It is not jamming music. It makes the listeners say “let me sit down and think about my life for a minute.””

The next steps Holly looks forward to most within her music career is releasing another album.

“I am excited to release new material to my followers. As of now, I have only released a single and an EP. I want to give them something new and complete, something I am extremely proud of.”

As she continues to address internal struggles within her songs, whether experienced by her or someone else, Holly describes songwriting as a therapeutic endeavor. Performing, however, does come with the territory, one she treads gracefully and with poise. One can see this in her performances both on “The Voice” and in a recent show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.

“If I am feeling anxious, I can write a song and get my feelings out. Although performing music is quite frightening for me. Performing does come with the territory,” explains Holly.

“I was less nervous during the first time I sang on “The Voice” for the blind audition because I had been practicing that audition song “The Scientist” for two or three months. I had plenty of time to build up confidence for that moment. Plus, I didn’t know what to expect when I first went out.

“In the beginning, there was not too much fear to overcome, I was not very afraid. Towards the end of the show, I realized if I were going to do music, I would have to push through the anxiety. I might as well power through, and do what I love.”

I then ask myself, if this artist’s anxieties do not show anywhere in her performances – perhaps as a result of her perfect practice and discipline – then why does she choose to talk about it in her music?

“I’ve chosen to be public about it [the anxieties] not because I want pity or attention. I do it to let people know ‘It’s all right.’ I know so many people who have social anxiety, which can be quite crippling. I don’t have social anxiety, but it’s very common amongst others. It’s also nice to talk about it because you feel you’re not alone in your problems. I just hope I make people feel better about themselves,” she expresses.

Holly Henry in the Recording StudioPopular music listeners need an artist who treats professional musicianship and public recognition with greater dignity, humbleness and respect. Holly Henry fills this need both with her music and her persona. Now, Holly requires a producer to recognize this and showcase her talent to the world with an album that features her latest single “Hide and Seek.”

“There will be an album at some point,” Holly confidently expresses. “I have most of the songs written for it, but who produces it is still unknown. I’d love to work with Chris again. He understands what I want my music to do. He doesn’t pressure me into making my music something it is not.”

Most importantly, the best producer, whether it be Chris or someone else, should realize that in order for Holly to present the world a new voice, she must continue to deliver the same type of authenticity she exhibited in “Hide and Seek.” Recalling my previous interview with music producer Roger Greenawalt, the one thing a producer might ask in return from Holly is that she is ready to push herself and handle challenges, which might include performing more or welcoming more instrumentation. By having these needs from both the artist’s and the producer’s side, Holly Henry is ready to start the process of putting her new songs on a full-length album.