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

 

 

 

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Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist.Like many bilingual professionals, Gypsy George, a Brooklyn-based musician whose real name is George Mihalopoulos, has learned to manage two lifestyles simultaneously. You might have guessed that his family is from Greece. Though he was born in the U.S., George says he is “firmly rooted in Greek culture.” He describes to me his every day.

“My day to day is quite active and busy. Recently, I’ve added importing olive oil from Greece with my Dad to the mix of things I do. A few years ago, he and I were trying to find ways to bring money back to Greece, due to the financial crisis. My grandfather used to press this fantastic olive oil in our hometown of Nafpaktos, and later, we discovered that everyone in the area just pressed their own oil and never sold it. We met with a local miller there, developed a relationship, and now we exclusively bottle our single varietal (Athinoelia) Premium ‘Agouraleio’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Nafpaktos under the brand name 10δεκα.

“So, that has been taking up most of my weekday mornings. After I finish with Olive Oil stuff, I usually move onto music-related matters – responding to emails, organizing shows and working in the studio. It varies from week to week but generally, my daily life has been ‘Olive Oil & Music.’”

Aside from participating in a business partnership with his father, George also founded a publishing company in 2003, Always Already.

“I started this company mainly so I could start receiving royalties on a movie I contributed music to, ‘The Maldonado Miracle’ produced and directed by Salma Hayek. From there, I started to build it around music licensing and composing. Today, I have expanded it to include a record label. It is a boutique music company that pretty much offers all music related services – recording, producing, publishing, licensing, composing, and more.”

He adds, “I run the company very grass roots, family-style, encouraging all the artists I’m producing to be as involved with their projects as possible. I do try to teach them about the business end of things, so they are better armed to tackle the ever-changing universe of music.”

Speaking of an “ever-changing universe,” an entrepreneur and musician who runs multiple businesses might describe the road to their success as unpredictable and messy. At least, that’s how I would describe it as I reflect on countless interviews with musicians, informal interviews with NYC student entrepreneurs, and my professional development.

Like many entrepreneurs, George has learned to ‘embrace the chaos.’ He also incorporates this motto into his definition of a gypsy: “One who lets life happen – the good and the bad – and welcomes it; who can adapt to their surroundings with ease and pleasure; who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes.”

While I certainly find this definition of a gypsy inspiring in a creative and artistic sense, I know that in an ethnic and practical definition, it needs more refining. For George, Gypsy is his stage name, one he more or less picked up while being on the road, spontaneously traveling America’s mid-west for his musical inspiration and his identity. Further, George’s affinity to the open road also influenced the name of his band, Gypsy George and the Open Road Love Affair. The band creates what one might describe as Americana music with spurts of Greek flair. The band’s repertoire of music has opened doors to new projects and possibilities. Gypsy George shares his story right here on Music Historian.

Gypsy George Press Photo. Published with permission. Gypsy George received his name from his insatiable desire to randomly hop in a car – without a map – and travel the depths of America. The artist had mentioned that during this time, he was trying to figure out whether he was Greek or American (National Herald 2011). I asked him exactly what fueled this desire.

“A few things contributed to my desire for exploration and travel,” explained George. “Firstly, I moved around a lot when I was younger, eight times in the first six years of my life. So, that clearly laid the foundation. Secondly, it was my family origin. My sister, my cousins, and I are the first generation born in the states. The rest of my family was born in Greece, including my parents. I was raised bi-culturally. I frequently travel to Greece, and I am fluent in the language and culture.

“Initially, my drive to explore America was to experience all the regions that Blues artists had lived in or traveled. I wanted to find the places where Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, and Leadbelly had been before me. I wanted to see and feel what inspired them, and this led me up and down the Mississippi River for many years. Since I lived mostly in big cities and urban environments, it was mind blowing to see these places up close and play guitar on the banks of the mighty river. I fell in love with the countryside; it opened my eyes to the true beauty and freedom of this great experiment known as the United States.”

After some time, Gypsy George decided he was 50/50 Greek-American (National Herald 2011). Then, came my next question – where in his music does George’s Greek heritage shine most?

“My music is filled with my Greek heritage,” he begins. “I’ve always felt that my music truly is a culmination of American Blues and Greek music sprinkled with the Lennon’s and Dylan’s of the world. Some specific examples are the songs “Door County Nights”, a blues structure over a 9/8 Zeibekiko time signature; the ‘bouzouki’ style mandolin on “Everyday”; the solo section of “Maude On The Run”; and the list goes on.”

Door County Nights” is the title track to Gypsy George’s 2003 debut. This album conveyed the artist’s stylistic versatility incorporating Americana, country, honky-tonk, and some funk. At the time this album was recorded (in Los Angeles), George worked as a music supervisor and composer at a music company that had recording studios. The owner encouraged the employees to use the studios and learn how to record during off hours.

“I figured, ‘if I’m going to learn how to record, I might as well record an album of my stuff.’ It was a learning experience, to say the least,” admits George. “It is always interesting when you record your first album; expectations are so high, yet your ability is in its infant stages. Additionally, I worked with an engineer who was even newer to recording than I was. That combination of hope mixed with a lack of experience can be an exciting, frightful adventure. We had a blast though, and I think we pulled it off – at least for our first effort.”

Another song on this debut, a honky-tonk, and a country-influenced number is titled “Open Road Love Affair.” I wondered whether this song inspired the name of Gypsy George’s group. I just happened to be right.

“The band name did, in fact, come from the song title. When I was trying to come up with a band name, I spent months bouncing around ideas. I wanted a name that would convey the ideology of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’[i] with the controlled chaos of a road trip. Also, I did not want it to sound forced. One day, I was barbecuing with some friends, and I complained about how hard it was to come up with a band name. Finally, my friend Stacy blurted, ‘why don’t you call it Open Road Love Affair?’ Everyone, instantaneously, had that moment of ‘uh, why didn’t I think of that?’ And that, folks, is how the band name came about.”

The song “Everyday” comes from his 2011 release The Loneliest Man in New York. In this track, Gypsy’s inner-Greek comes out on a mandolin that plays hints of tremolos. He says that when it comes to arrangements, he pushes the envelope. George explains “I like to take chances and treat instruments differently from their basic intended purpose. Sometimes, this fails. However, I’d rather go for broke than be conventional. With a song like “Everyday,” I was very influenced by Pet Sounds (an album by The Beach Boys); particularly the songs “That’s Not Me” and “I’m Waiting for the Day.” The drum part,” which exaggerates the downbeats within the measures, “was me trying to be Brian Wilson.”

Gypsy George Press Shot published with Permission Lyrically, George is influenced by Lennon, Dylan, Beat poetry and Kazantzakis. Occasionally, he writes in an obscure referential way or inside jokes. “Sometimes, “I like to use words to create a feeling or imagery. Sometimes, I just like the way words fit together regardless of meaning. It depends on the moment, the mood.” One such song like this is “Couplet Gun” a song about love which starts with a very distinct verse – I find a little Marxist red war paint/ And, I don’t want to pray it/ I don’t want to say it/ I just want to step in right next to you. The second chorus includes this rhyme I shoot the stars with asphalt bars/ I creep along a familiar song/ I find a way to stick my nose in the dirt…

“‘A little Marxist red war paint’ was a strange way of me referring the lady of the song, who is a redhead. The second set of lyrics was written to convey the heavy, deep pain and loneliest I felt at the time, hence, trying to shoot starts with asphalt bars, sticking my nose in the dirt. I attempted to convey my truest, deepest thoughts and emotions at that very juncture in my life.”

The Loneliest Man in New York included a band of six musicians, including Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm on vocals, who also appeared on the 2014 album 30 Songs in 30 Days. Between these two albums, George experienced a professional and personal development that was initially brought on by an impulsive decision. When he started recording Loneliest Man, George had just moved to NYC without knowing a single person.

“I wound up in NYC by accident: I was fed up with L.A. and left town. I just started driving due East to get as far away from the West Coast as possible. I lived in various spots throughout the country; toyed with the idea of going back to Chicago (where he lived throughout most of his life). Eventually, I came to Brooklyn and figured I’d try it out.

“My girlfriend at the time abruptly ended things, and I thought she was THE ONE – at least at the time. Dealing with a deep heartache – combined with living in NYC without any friends – led me to the only therapist I knew – music. I spent a month and a half in my apartment – which at the time, had no furniture or music equipment and hefty bags filled with clothes – and just wrote songs after songs.

“When it was all said and done, I had written around 100 tunes. From there, I began tracking the album. As I went through this process, I met a bunch of musicians at Roots Café in South Slope on an open mic night. After that, I just immersed myself in music and met more talented folks. Eventually, I asked a few of these insanely gifted people to play on the record. What started as my ‘breakup album’ turned into this colossal musical effort.”

“I had a very ambitious plan with 30 Songs in 30 Days,” continues George. “Having accumulated a wealth of songs I had written, I finally decided to release a double album. I also wanted to tap into all the different styles of music that have influenced me over the course of my career. Initially, my plan was to recreate the Beatles’ White Album. Rather than interpret the album song by song, I wanted to capture the general feel and weirdness of the album. As I developed the concept, it turned into the one thing I detest in art – pretentiousness. I felt I was forcing songs on this sort of strict creative platform. What I then decided to do was release 30 songs in 30 days. For the month of October in 2014, I released a song a day for 30 days. It was a maddening, yet rewarding experience.

“A lot of the material I recorded [involved] mixing and mastering on the fly. It was a very curious project that lent to quick, creative decision making as opposed to past albums where I had all the time in the world to figure out whether I liked this, that or the other. It was a fun release and one I am proud of accomplishing. Although I did play the majority of the instruments on the album, I did have some outside vocalists and musicians.”

Aside from Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm, the musicians who played with George on 30 Songs in 30 Days included Emily Trask and Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn. George says that while it is always difficult to gauge what people fundamentally think about his work, he was happy with the ‘all-over-the-map’ reaction from listeners.

“I like to add humor and silliness to my songs. At the end of the day, I just try to have fun and enjoy life. Obviously, there are serious moments, but I’d much rather poke fun at myself and not take it too seriously. I think that silly and loose atmosphere of my music is what people grab onto at first.”

“Charlton Heston” and “Maude On The Run” are some of the songs on 30 Songs in 30 Days that stood out the most to me. According to George, the political themes within these tracks were overlooked in the States but resonated more in Europe. Whether or not a listener can pick up on the political themes naturally is purely left up to opinion. I was curious as to how George incorporate politics into this song. A perfect example is his 2007 record, Joe’s Beginning, which he recorded while living in Los Angeles. George also recorded this album while in an interesting place in his life.

“I had ended a relationship, felt upset with the administration [at the time], and faced a crossroads with my career. I got my feelings out in music. I locked myself in the studio for six months recording the album, and it was the first record where I did everything, including the engineering.

“Thematically, I based the record on [the story of] “Romeo and Juliet.” I interpreted the couple’s fight for love as obstructed by socio-political circumstances as opposed to warring families. I chose [the title] ‘Joe’s Beginning’ as homage to the ‘Average Joe.’ I wanted to make a political statement without being pedantic. Whether I pulled that off with the album is a different story.”

My conversation with Gypsy George so far has helped me notice that emotional events like a heartache, an abrupt move, and the challenges of being your boss – which for this artist, involves getting songs out on schedule – drives him to create music. Also, he has managed to put his talent out in a robust artistic city. Although he has become known for getting up and moving from place to place, Gypsy George has lived in Brooklyn for seven years now. As far as I know, he has no leaving plans.

Gypsy George Press Photo published with permission “I love living in Brooklyn. I have lived in South Slope, and it has been a true home for me, a first for me in my adult life. Brooklyn and NYC have a great energy and a wonderful mix of gifted and talented artists. It is a city that lays the foundation for a creative atmosphere.

“Out in L.A., I felt that it was all about who you know or how you look, but the quality of the music did not matter [so much]. In NY, you have to be pretty good to survive in the music scene. Chicago has a great art and music scene, but it remains a bit more underground.”

This year will mark the second time Gypsy George has been invited to perform at the Northside Festival. He will perform as part of a lineup hosted by Whatever Blog at The Gutter in Williamsburg. Afterward George will return to producing his second record with Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn, with the hopes of releasing it in July. Also, George is in the process of remixing and re-mastering 30 Songs in 30 Days and officially release it as Politics, Ex-Girlfriends & the Ayn Rand Shuffle. He hopes to have this record out in the Fall. Finally, he is also the Music Director and Composer for South Brooklyn Shakespeare, a theater company founded by Paul and Dee-Byrd Molnar. This year, the company will perform “Much Ado About Nothing” on July 25th, August 1st, and August 15th.

Whether or not George chooses to stay in this city or relocate wherever his passion for the open road takes him, he will embrace the change, whatever it maybe, and channel it into his music. Whatever life throws his way, especially if it brings him into a rougher moment in his career, George will center his focus on the fact that he has felt blessed enough to continue doing music.

“My Dad told me a long time ago, that wherever you are, whatever you wind up doing in life, no one can ever take away your ability to create and play music. To me, every moment is a proud moment. I always view myself as an artist first and that everything I do is part of a larger dialog beyond myself.

“The music industry has turned a blind eye to creativity and has focused on profit. I mean [the need] has always been there, but I don’t believe a band like The Beatles could ever make it in today’s music business structure. This is why Independent Artists are more vital than ever. While I might sound critical, I am very hopeful for the future of music and where it will wind up.”

[i] Gypsy George says he “sort of stole a page from John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s concept for the ‘Plastic Ono Band.’ They had a philosophy that ‘anyone’ can be a member of the band, and were adamant that there was no ‘set’ lineup (G. Mihalopoulos, personal communications, June 9, 2015).”

Works Cited

“In the Spotlight: Gypsy George – Musician” (2011). National Herald. Retrieved from http://www.gypsygeorge.com/uploads/9/0/3/2/9032999/national_herald.pdf

 

Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar Legacy: Everything from Robert Johnson, to The Blues Brothers, to Teaching Students and Major Artists

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Since the age of 17, guitarist Arlen Roth has been influencing the scene of rock music, film, and television with his slide guitar, dobro, guitar and pedal steel guitar-performing skills. His most recent album, The Slide Guitar Summit, brings together many great musicians Arlen admires, like Cindy Cashdollar, Sonny Landreth, Lee Roy Parnell, Jack Pearson, and Tom Hambridge and many more for a large concert and jam in Nashville. At the moment, magazines like Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar have planned interviews with the musician regarding his new work. Most importantly, somebody who knows Arlen personally and lives in my hometown within Huntington spoke highly of his new record. Arlen’s friend Billy said:

“The album I feel will be important to musicians interested in the bottleneck and slide formats. I don’t think any recordings have ever put the “cream of the crop” together in this way and just let them challenge and play off of each other.”

Arlen tells me, over a telephone conversation, “I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said “What should I do for this next project, what’s going on?” Simultaneously, we both said, “What about a slide guitar summit project?” Now, I am known as a guitar player, in general, who has influenced and taught many, but Slide guitar has always been a big part of what I do. In fact, there is a book about slide guitar I wrote when I was 19 years old. It is still the biggest slide guitar book in the world. This was 40 or so years ago. I don’t want to date myself too much, but that’s always been a big thing of mine – specializing in the slide guitar. I am sure you are aware of what slide guitar entails and what it means, and how different it is from other guitar playing, but it has also become the voice of American music these days.”

Slide guitar is a technique of guitar playing where the player presses down on the strings while wearing a piece of bar, brass or glass cylinder on one of their fingers. Arlen adds:

“In the old days, it used to be called Bottleneck guitar because players would take a piece of actual bottleneck and put it on their pinky or third finger, or whichever finger suited them. I prefer a heavy piece of brass. You can also alter the tuning of the guitar to an open chord – EBEG#BE for example – as opposed to standard tuning. There are some great standard tuning slide guitar players, but I prefer the open chords. This started to be common back in the ‘20’s with Delta Blue players like Robert Johnson and Son House.”

Arlen Playing Slide Guitar

If you listen to Q.1043, WBAB, or any rock station within and around New York City and the Tri-state area, you have heard slide guitar. Whether you listened to, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “My Friends,” The Black Crows’ “She Talks to Angels” (in which the guitar is tuned to the open chord), or the instrumental version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (recreated by Arlen Roth), you heard slide guitar. Yes, I am thrilled that the first official interview article on the Music Historian for 2015 covers a guitar playing technique that has captivated all types of audiences. Rest assured; however, Arlen Roth will not pay a simple ode to the beauty and joy of playing guitar. Arlen shares his story about how he was at the forefront of bringing slide guitar into television and film. Most importantly, he talks about the importance of passing his passion of guitar to his students, family, colleagues and musicians who are gaining a new appreciation for American roots music. It is my pleasure to welcome Arlen to the Music Historian.

“When I was writing my slide guitar book at 19, I remember asking myself, “How do I know all of this stuff?” I have not even had time to learn it, but at that point, I had already been playing for nine years. I was deeply involved in the blues and in country music. So, at that time, I was the only person in New York City who was playing pedal steel guitar, dobro, and Hawaiian guitar, just because I loved that sound. I used to tune into the far off radio stations and listen to country music in Upstate New York. Whether I was listening to it from Pennsylvania or Wheeling, West Virginia or the famous WSM from Nashville. I picked up all of those stations, and I would pick up and fall in love with those sounds.

“When you say, you’re the Music Historian; that’s what we all are. We all fall in love with something like the Blues or Country, and we want to keep getting deeper and deeper into it, and it does not take very long. I can remember at 15 or 16 saying, “I love Mike Bloomfield, now I love B.B. King, now I love Buddy Guy, now I love Son House, now I love Robert Johnson.” Being so young and voracious for this material, and so you are learning ten-fold, and the speed at which you pick it all up can be amazing.”

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Arlen was 21 in 1974. In addition to writing his book about the slide guitar (also titled Slide Guitar), he went on tour with the Bee Gees across Canada. In 1975, he toured with John Prine, then between 1976 and 1978, he performed on an episode of Saturday Night Live with Art Garfunkel, taught guitar and recorded his first solo album. In 1983, he would tour with Simon and Garfunkel. However, Arlen assures that his road to success was not always rosy.

“I was in the opening act for the Bee Gees,” recalls Arlen. “They loved my steel guitar playing, so they would have me play on their song [Arlen sings] “I’m a-Goin’ back to Massachusetts.” This is like the real original Bee Gees, before they got into R&B and disco.

“We were touring Canada, and we had just done an album with a $100,000 budget. While we were on tour, we discovered the album was being shelved. It was not going to come out. Some of these things in the music business, you never know how much delay there is. The Slide Guitar Summit, I recorded two years ago. Almost, three years ago. Sometimes, that’s how long it takes to get things together.”

Arlen (middle) with (l-r) Sonny Landrith, Jack Pearson,  Lee Roy Parnell performing in Nashville to promote The Slide Guitar Summit, Jan. 2015

Aside from delays within record productions; Arlen also experienced plenty of challenges on large global tours, this time with Simon and Garfunkel.

“In 1983, I was teaching Paul Simon. I would also help and give him some pointers in some of his songs. Then, they asked me to do the world tour, the big Simon and Garfunkel tour. It was exciting to be on a tour that big, playing for 40,000 to 100,000 people a night.

“When you do a tour like that, the music connects with people, but more as part of an event. You are on the big screen, and one little move you make, gets 20,000 people to yell. It’s a whole different thing. I like it more when you are closer to the audience, and you have a closer rapport with the crowd.”

“True,” I said. “When you are on a global tour, you want to make a bigger event to get more money to pay back more of the expenses (operational). I’ve also noticed across the world, that in some countries, especially in Europe, music is made more for entertainment, and large events like that.”

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” responded Arlen. “It seems like they have festivals all the time, and these huge gatherings of people. I remember doing some of them with Simon and Garfunkel, and when the crowd got violent, there were riots and people getting hit over the head.

“We were playing “Scarborough Fair” and people are hitting each other over the head with bottles of Evian. Paul, when he saw that yelled, “Stop doing that. We will stop playing if you don’t stop hitting that guy!” People were getting crushed, running on stage and pulling your clothes; it was kind of scary.

“I also remember being in Boston, and [the crowd] getting unruly. People were hitting us in the face with glow sticks. I saw my niece in the front row, and she looked so worried because she was getting pushed from behind. Once the crowd starts pushing, they don’t stop. So, in the bigger events, try to be as safe as possible. But still, it’s exciting to be part of something on that scale.”

As I thought about having thousands of people watching every move a musician makes on stage, I recall reading about another major event in Arlen’s career where he performed for a large audience. This time, his guitar playing had caught the attention two actors on the set of Saturday Night Live – Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A jam warm-up session that night with Arlen transformed into the beginning of The Blues Brothers.

“That night in 1978, [on the set of Saturday Night Live] there was no “Blues Brothers” yet. Belushi comes up to me, puts on a hat and sunglasses and says, “Look, we are going to warm up the crowd. We’re going to put on these blues outfits, and we are going to be these blues guys.” We just warmed up the crowd with a song, which happens to be on this new album, “Rocket 88,” which I also did with Johnny Winter on the new album. John Belush (Left), SNL Host (Middle), and Arlen Roth (right) on the set of SNL, 1978

“What happens at Saturday Night Live, is you start on Wednesday, and by the time you hit Friday, you do the show over, and over. You have a rehearsal, then a dress rehearsal, then a live show. By the time you do it, you don’t even care anymore. You don’t even know it’s live, you are like blind. They keep cutting routines, changing them, and I remember I was backstage with Belushi.

“I wrote out the words for him, and he was very much an actor saying, “Quick, give me the information right now.” Then I remember Andy Kaufman was there, and everything was amazing. Then, we hit the stage and warmed up the crowd with “Rocket 88.” In fact, later that night, after the show, we all went to this bar afterward – because the party never ended with Saturday Night Live – and we were jamming and playing the blues. That’s what turned into the Blues Brothers.”

According to outside sources, The Blues Brothers became a musical sketch on SNL, then filming of the movie started in 1979 and then premiered in June of 1980. While it earned just under $5 Million on its opening weekend, it went on to gross $115.2 Million in theaters worldwide before its release on home video. The film has become a cult classic (en.wikipedia, 2015).

By the 1980’s, Arlen had taught Paul Simon, toured the world, and contributed to the beginning of The Blues Brothers. In 1986, his influence would later grab the interest of director Walter Hill, who had just started filming the film about the legendary Robert Johnson titled Crossroads. Walter invited Arlen on the set to be an authenticator for the film, to play much of the guitar in the movie and to coach Ralph Macchio on his playing, and the guitarist made sure to deliver.

“What happened in a scene – which included Robert Johnson in 1937 recording in a hotel room in San Antonio – I said, “Hey look, the guy has tuning pegs on his guitar from the 1980’s.” They [the pegs] were bright chrome, and I told them, “No, you can’t have that.” Walter had to shut everything down just because I said that. I told him, “We’ve got to get the right guitar. If I am hired here to make sure that all the guitar scenes go down right, even if the guitar is wrong. I am going to point it out.”

“The actor who came in said, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.” He didn’t have anything covered. He did not understand that the guitar had to be the right one for the era of the scene. So, we shot another scene instead and then, the following day; we shot the authentic and correct Robert Johnson session.

“Walter would sometimes let me sit in the director’s chair and direct the scene. He already had his camera angles set right and said, “Arlen, this whole scene is about the music, and I don’t know anything about it, and you do. So, I’m going to go in my trailer, and you be the director.” I thought, “Wow! Here I am in the middle of a Mississippi cotton field sitting in the director’s chair saying “cut.”” Everybody was looking at me like I was the director now. They did not even miss a beat. I personally think Walter did that to give me a little thrill.”

While Arlen acted as a director for a popular film, performed on television, and taught famous performers, he did not stray away from his life as a performer and a music teacher. He did not depend on these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for his living. Arlen claims that teaching and showing an artist’s innermost passion is what he is all about.

“Many years ago, I was one of the first people to ever document famous musicians teaching. I had started a company with my late wife Deborah called Hot Licks. We formed it in 1979, and it was as far back as 1973 that I knew I would start it one day. In ’79, I started recording my teaching on audio cassettes. I then found other peers of mine – guitar players, piano players, drummers, whoever might be – anyone who would be willing to do something like this. It was a very new idea – it was not something many players embraced – the concept of laying it out on the line and saying “This is what I am about.” I am self-taught, I never took lessons, I don’t read music, I only learned in real life, in front of real people!

“I thought audio recorded lessons was a great way for people to learn because, and till this day, I still encourage my students to tape their lessons. I teach privately, and I always tell them [students], please tape it [the lessons] because you will lose everything, you will miss a lot of what we say. One day, a student said to me, “I miss those lessons on tape.” That student moved out to Colorado, and I said, “Aha! Lessons on tape. That’s what I will do someday when I need to start another business.

“Music is up and down. I was touring off and on, in between teaching and recording. When I got to the point of doing [one of the earlier albums] Toolin’ Around, I had many folks who had done videos for me, like Brian Setzer, Albert Lee, Danny Gatton – who was a big fan and friend of mine – Duke Robillard, Jerry Douglas, the incredible dobro player who performs with Allison Krauss, played on the album with me. This [album] stretched from 1989 to 1992, and it came out with 8 or 9 artists on it with me.”

Arlen playing guitar at Building 24 in October 2014 Arlen now touches on an important point – the fluctuation in the music business. For many musicians, across the different generations, teaching had provided a stable endeavor for instrumentalists. He claims that this is why he stuck with teaching. In addition, teaching brought Arlen equity.

“I figured that no matter what, people would enjoy my playing and be interested in my playing because I would change the way people were learning the guitar. I had self-taught musicians, teaching everybody else to teach themselves.

“Many of the artists I recorded or filmed never actually sat down and ever had to explain what they did. I had Buddy Guy talk about the blues. Here is a guy who is my hero from when I was about 15 years old, telling me, “You’re the boss, tell me what to do!?” I said to him, “Buddy, just do it, just play.” All the people who I had admired for many years, some of them whom I really looked up to, suddenly there they are sitting in that chair, in front of those recording cameras for an instructional video, produced by ME!!

“I had directed more than 180 instructional videos with about 140 artists, over a 25-year span. It was quite something. We had 2 million students worldwide; we would make these documentary-type videos into films or box sets. The company that bought my business is still to this day converting things over to digital, DVDs and little snippets on the internet.”

Arlen also filmed about one thousand instructional lessons for Gibson.com, each being five or seven minutes long, but some over an hour in length. He describes them as “a meaningful vignette of an archetype, a certain aspect of guitar playing and music that is a little gem that someone might hook onto and say, “Wow. I never knew about that!””

The musician expresses, “there is a lesson to be learned in everything.” He also believes in “the timeless quality of passing all of that information onto people” and down to his family. Lexie, Arlen’s second daughter, picked up the bass guitar when she was eight years old and entered the world of performing within her teens. Now, in her mid-twenties, she is working on her third album. In the meantime, Lexie also works as a natural gourmet chef. Earlier this month, she starred in a commercial for the Food Network.

“She writes great songs,” says Arlen. “Many of them are very hard-hitting and she’s wonderful and incredible with lyrics. Give her a few chords to go with a guitar part, and before you know it, there is another song.”

Arlen’s first daughter Gillian, who had incredible poise, beauty, and dignity, learned to play the guitar, and started doing commercials at 11 years old. She also performed with Arlen at a concert when she was 12. She even received a contract to star in a television show, where she would be the main actor, guitar player, and singer. Sadly, in the late 1990’s Gillian passed away in a car accident at the age of 14, with her mother, Deborah just two days after she had recorded the theme for that show.

These talented girls learned guitar early from watching their father. Reflecting on the lessons Arlen gave students, adult performers, and his family, I wondered about the most important lesson Arlen learned from his lifetime in music. I asked, “If there were any advice you would give your younger self, what would that be?”

Arlen says, “Because I did start playing so young, I worked with many people who were much older than me. Looking back, I got the spotlight a lot, but people also took advantage. I think you have to be a little cautious about that; there are must as many predatory people out there [today] as there ever were. When you are young and happy to do anything for any money, people start to know you are not the kind of person to turn stuff down.

“Something good has always led to something else. If you do something great, the word spreads and you get called for something better the next time. For example, in my old days in New York, in the early ‘70’s, I would get called to do recording sessions. I really grew up listening to the music that came out of California, Chicago and Nashville. What made me stand out in New York at that time was, there were not too many people my age who played slide guitar, dobro or my unique string bending method. They could not even get a good sound on a guitar in New York.

“I came to New York [in the early ’70’s], into a recording session. I would hear myself play on the record what sounded like this little “chink, chink, chink” sound. I told them, “That’s not the sound I am giving you. I’m giving you this wonderful rich guitar sound,” but the guitar was not important. The guitar was secondary, and you always had to be careful of what you’d say to these folks.

“It [New York] was a horn town, where they wanted to hear strings, horns, piano and drums – jazz. Now, I think there is a wonderful movement in New York and Brooklyn where many people are embracing the roots of rock music, the blues, and the country sound again.”

Recalling this experience in New York during the 1970’s, I asked Arlen what he learned. He responded:

“[I thought], “what are they asking me to record here?” I am recording nothing on this guitar. They were so impressed with me; they saw me perform, they jumped out of their seats and the next thing I know, I am playing “chink, chink, chink” on a record. Then I realized, this is what it is [sometimes] to make a record, at least back then. In those days, it was about overdubbing, layering, getting different sounds, going for hours and hours, breaking for lunch, and then doing it again.

“It was a whole different experience that I never knew. You learn from everything you experience, and all that learning is beautiful.”

In addition to the openness to learn, and the need to protect oneself from being misled, Arlen thinks of another piece of advice he would like to give his younger self:

“Stay true, and learn from those lessons. I had recording gigs that were just nightmares. You walk out of there, and you feel like you aged ten years. The reason it was such torture is because I already had the direction I needed to go in, and they were trying to force me into another thing. That’s part of working as a session man or a musician. Sometimes you have to play backup, adhere to what they want, and be attentive to find the moments where you can shine, and be your creative best.

Slide Guitar Album Cover “You have to stay true to your music, stay ahead of the pack. Don’t try to be a trend follower, it is better to be a trendsetter. Pretty soon, people will come to you, and turn their heads to what you are saying. I think that’s a little bit of what’s happening now with The Slide Guitar Summit.”

From Hollywood films to recording studios in the south, and on television, slide guitar has become very prominent in soundtracks. Interestingly, the average layperson does not think they are listening to slide guitar. Therefore, Arlen decided The Slide Guitar Summit would help educate and seize a very special moment. He explains:

“I’ve got this wonderful breadth of people, great friends and greats who play various forms of slide guitar,” which includes Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Rick Vito, Johnny Winter, Lee Roy Parnell, Greg Martin, Jimmy Vivino and more.

Arlen also asserts that when people think of slide, they think of blues. Slide Guitar Summit however, will expand into many different territories when it comes to slide guitar music. While listeners can expect the electric blues and Delta blues, they can also expect rock, southern rock, country, and Hawaiian. It is a little more challenging to categorize, but that is what makes it fun. Listeners can expect duets between the artists mentioned above and tributes to songs that have become classics within American music.

In his concluding words about The Slide Guitar Summit, Arlen says, “I wanted to do something that was going to catch people’s attention, and get them to appreciate it and love it. For me, I think of it as a legacy. To me, it is very much about what I am doing now. I loved getting together with these people. Some of the musicians, I had never met before or played with before, and some I had known quite a bit. So, we are going to get it all out there and make something new!”

Arlen Roth and his Slide Summit band will be in upstate New York on May 29th and 30th. Before that, he will probably hit New York City. To get the most updated information on concert dates, standby his website and Facebook.

I let Arlen take the reins of this conversation to share his amazing story. What many music listeners often forget is that music is cyclical. While the slide guitar tunes I learned when I took guitar lessons as a teenager are not the same tunes Arlen taught himself when he was a teenager; that technique transcended eras and continues to do so. What also transcends eras are the lessons musicians learn from being within the business.

Performers and recording artists continue to learn how to walk that fine line of staying open to new experiences within creating music while never losing focus on the sound and the style that makes them passionate. For Arlen, it was always about the playing and being self-taught. For other musicians, it may be about revitalizing a genre that made them happy growing up, or experimenting with various genres, or focusing on layering sounds within music, or simply about performing or collaboration. Whatever we stand for as professionals, we must never lose sight about what makes us who we are. Prosaic? Sure. Valuable though? Yes.

Works Cited

Wikipedia.org (2015 Feb 17). The Blues Brothers (Film). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blues_Brothers_(film)

Disclaimer: All Photos were published with permission

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!!!

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/