The Transformation of Miracles~Lost and Found: Marla Mase talks inspiration behind her songs, the themes that emerged, and where she hopes to take her new record

Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer

Researching the Brooklyn-based playwright and singer-songwriter, Marla Mase, I had learned that the Huffington Post and Chorus.FM had reviewed her previous records. I listened to Marla’s latest concept album she had released with her label, True Groove Records, in October 2016, Miracles~Lost and Found. I felt moved and nostalgic for a time when I had an affinity for power-pop punk tunes that replayed endlessly in my head throughout the day.

Tracks like “Dreamland” and “A Gun” contain driving power chords and major chords that move in rapid duplets. Lyrics in these choruses, such as We are living in a dreamland, and in “Truth Comes Down” where Marla talks – rather than sings – the truth comes down in unison with the short and accentuated beats produced by the drums. The song that stood out to me the most was “A Gun.” Marla seems to be almost playfully singing in an alto range, There’s a boy right here he’s holding a gun/ A boy right here he’s holding a gun/ He wants to be in a gang, and wants to go ‘bang’/ He wants to be someone.

Some music theorists who possess a penchant for classical music or jazz would say that this musical composition is simplistic. Attentive listeners of popular and rock and roll music would say that this musical composition has a potential for marketing success.

While Marla’s Miracles~Lost and Found strikes a chord with me – no pun intended – she is not necessarily a stickler for writing music both compositionally straightforward and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by a market saturated with mainstream genres. According to a review Chorus.FM had written about one of Marla’s previous records Half-Life, “It’s obvious that spoken word and poetry looms large in her most recent release, but the problem is that poetry and other forms of writing intended to read and spread a message don’t always lend themselves to good, listenable music.”[i] This criticism written in 2014 about Marla’s old record got me to listen to Half-Life. This particular record has a very different tone and style compared to Miracles~Lost and Found.

My research on Marla’s musical repertoire led me to a few questions: did Marla define herself as a musician or a performer; what inspired the change between the fusion of eclectic funk, rock and experimental fusion, and spoken word of Half-Life and the power-pop and post-punk inspired Miracles~Lost and Found; and what concepts was Marla looking to convey? I welcome Marla Mase to a full-length feature interview on Music Historian.

When I asked Marla about her musical background, she explained, “I think of myself as a writer first. I have always been a writer and a performance artist. I write many plays [and] that’s where the music part originates. I did take many years of piano lessons.

“When I was younger, I used to joke and say ‘I should be a rocker, but I don’t really write music.’ But I do come from a musical family. My mother writes music, and my brother is a songwriter, sister-in-law and so was my grandfather. That’s how I started getting into all of this stuff.”

I wondered how Marla made the connection between music and playwriting.

“I was writing plays, one woman shows, monologues and performance pieces for about ten years or so. Then I fell into a super hard time. I basically broke. A lot was going on with my family, my daughter was sick for years and finally it caught up to me. I mean it was 24/7 of constant anxiety. Then I discovered that when I sang, I [experienced] a minute of release. So I started to sing. Then, I would go to my acting class and perform and started singing other peoples’ tunes. It was healing.

“Then I started writing a ton of songs, they just came to me, and I was putting them in my one-woman shows, performing them a cappella. I knew I needed a musician. A friend of mine introduced me to Tomás Doncker, an amazing songwriter/guitarist/producer. We began working together, first on my shows, then on albums and eventually we ran the label together. He just really believed in me and my work.”

Marla’s story so far explains how she got started in music professionally. Afterward, more opportunity began to follow. “The windows open very quickly,” she said again. “We released the first album and the soundtrack to the one woman show (Brief Night Out), and then I released another album, Speak, six months later.”

It was not long before Marla started receiving attention from other musical professionals. During a sound check, a woman spotted Marla. This individual brings American prodigies to China and brings talent from China to perform in the United States. Although the woman admittedly said that she found Marla interesting, and liked what she did; the meeting between Marla and the curator of performance talent (if I may), did not immediately produce leads.

“We met, it did not work out. She was looking for more classical stuff. Literally [though], a year-and-a-half later, she called me and said “I never forgot you, Marla. I have a friend who is part of the UN.” Then boom! The next day I was going to China with my band for International Day of Peace.”

For this musician, it seemed like a world of yes started emerging. I then became interested in what ignited the switch from spoken-word poetry against rock and roll music, to power pop punk tunes. However, keeping in mind that Marla is a writer first and foremost, a blogger must also think about influences and inspiration that do not always parallel music.

“When I released Brief Night Out, Speak and Half-Life, those are all very niche; there is a lot of spoken word, rock and roll, and mixes. Miracles~Lost and Found is more of a traditional album. On the surface, it is more song-oriented; you can sit down and listen to the ‘nice’ songs. With the other ones, maybe somebody does not want to hear spoken word. I just go where ‘it’ tells me to go. I write according to what I think, by my inspirations. In a lot of press written about me, they say that I am a genre-hopper. I have written Reggae songs and all sorts of genres. For me, as an artist, you just write what makes sense. That’s where there is a lot of mixes, the change.

“With Miracles~Lost and Found, the inspiration was… this story I had heard.” Marla shared the story with me – a religious fish butcher, during his work one day had a spiritual experience. A fish had started talking to him. The fish told him The Messiah was coming. Naturally, the main character became frightened. He began yelling “kill all the fish!” He started chopping up all the fish but then accidentally cut off his hand.

Marla had heard this story years ago, and she thought, “…‘this guy was praying for a miracle his whole life, and waited for a sign of the Messiah. Then it happens, and he freaks out. He cannot handle the miracle.’ That’s when I thought of writing about this entire concept for an album, Miracles~Lost and Found. How many things happen in our lives that we don’t recognize as a call to transcend? Or, we pray for this stuff, but when it happens, we say ‘No!’ Either you don’t notice it, or you can’t handle the hugeness of it.”

Regarding the difference in musical composition between the previous records which Marla mentioned and this latest one, she and her producer, Tomás, collaboratively decided to make the songs simpler. According to the playwright, both she and Tomás had the following attitude about Miracles~Lost and Found: ‘Let’s keep it simple, and to the point. Too much talking these days.’

When Marla describes Miracles~ Lost and Found in greater detail, she says “…I have two or three-minute songs, whereas, on the old albums, I have six-minute, half-funk, spoken word [songs]…with Half-Life, a lot of it was written with the beats first. Tomás and [True Groove Sound Engineer/Producer/ and Partner in the Label] James [Dellatacoma] would give me some of the beats and instrumentals, and I would write the lyrics around those. Most of the time, it is me coming in and [saying], “Hey, I have an idea for a song,” and I will sing a melody.”

On Miracles~Lost and Found, listeners can expect to hear Marla structure her vocalization more around the harmonies in the music and the chords created on a piano or guitar. After learning about how Marla composed her lyrics in the previous record Half-Life, I wondered whether, in Miracles, she focused first on writing the music and then the lyrics.

“Sometimes it is the lyrics; sometimes it is the melody. For example, the song “Always” was [already] together. My mother, who is suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, wrote a line in my notebook – ‘Now is the time we must say goodbye.’ Her condition makes her not be able to read and write. As soon as she sees a blank page, she thinks it fills up with words, just like in Harry Potter – there is a blank page, and then words just appear. I was trying to show her [and tell her], “You actually can write, Mom. If you close your eyes, you still know how to write.””

Marla came across this notebook again one day while in a coffee shop. She revisited the sentence her mother had written. Thinking about the sentence, Marla then puts a melody to it, which is the same melody within the track “Always” on Miracles. Another melody which had stayed inside of Marla’s mind for a while was the verse in “A Gun.”

“I don’t play the guitar, but sometimes, when I was alone in my house, I would just take out the guitar and play around on my own. I would always have this [melody] “There’s a boy over there, he is holding a gun…” [she sings the song]… Every time I stayed there alone, I would rant and make up a song. Then I said, “That gun song is coming into this album. It’s amazing because it is one of my favorite songs, and I have listened to people who say they like it. This song has been in my head for years, and I thought “Why?””

While Marla brought the melody and lyrics for both the verses and the chorus in “A Gun,” Tomás brought in the cello and orchestra into that song. Regarding the message, Marla asserts that this “A Gun” is not a pro nor anti-gun tune. The artist does share that at the time this song was written, the massacre in Paris (November 2015) had already taken place. She finished the demo and said to Tomás, “I just got a really weird feeling.” An hour later, on her smartphone, she sees the news about the shooting. If I put myself in Marla’s shoes, I would have gotten frightened, even if I am aware that these two occurrences – the massacre in Paris and the composition of a song titled “A Gun” – have no connection to each other.

Moving on, I remember that Miracles~Lost and Found had been defined as a concept album. I wondered about the themes in the record, and I correctly picked up on one – disillusionment. I learned that while I picked up correctly on the theme, it held little to no relation to Marla’s motivations for the songs on MiraclesMarla with a Megaphone. Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer.

“Parts of Miracles~Lost and Found refer to what I have gone through, like dealing with depression, people in my life who are depressed, suicidality, and addiction. “Dreamland” was initially written as a reaction to my Mom being sick. She would say, “What is it all for?” Then I added in ‘I am hungering for more.’ We fight and battle; we do all of this in life, then we die. Not to be negative but, what is it all for? I think the disillusionment in the song is ‘we are living in a dreamland, let’s just pretend it is all right,’” says Marla, reciting a lyric in the chorus.

Something quite common among songwriters, which Marla also emphasizes is that sometimes you are not entirely aware of what you are writing. After Election Day 2016, “Dreamland” seems to have taken on a new meaning.

“We played at the Bowery Electric two days after the election, and I was pretty upset about the results. When I sang “Dreamland” to the audience that night, I did not feel it was about my mother then, but about people, all of us in America. Maybe that is what we have to do, pretend [everything] is all right, so we can get through. Then maybe that is a bad thing because we are trying to numb ourselves, like with the media.” Marla specifically refers to frivolous stories that receive attention. One story that comes to my mind is the one Time Magazine (online) covered about fathers doing ballet with their daughters.[ii] The artist expresses that the purpose of this type of reporting is to help people pretend that everything is fine, or feel distracted.

“Obviously as a whole, it is not the first time it has ever been done…,” says Marla. “You throw something one way, distracting people of the world from what is important.”

Another theme which emerges on Miracles~Lost and Found is the rude awakening. One example of a song that embodies rude awakenings is “56 Trees.”

“On the surface, I see a song that would be on the soundtrack for a film, like that Christopher Guest movie, the one that made fun of folk songs,” she explains. The film Marla refers to is called A Mighty Wind.[iii] “I feel the song seems a little bit [like the] sixties, but then there is this weird operatic thing [that happens]. I wrote this years ago as a reaction to a headline I saw – 56 trees were removed for fashion week at Lincoln Center.

“It sounds like I am this super tree-loving environmentalist, which I never really was, and then half-way through, the song equates the removal of trees in the middle of the night to people disappearing in the middle of the night. Where ever they live, in countries all over the world, people are told to move. But now, I am just thinking, that today, this could apply to what is happening with immigration. Boom: family gone! You are just thrown out. When this album, at least for me, when it was done, I felt like ‘Wow, there is a lot of depth in it.’”

Marla’s explanation about her motivations and themes that have come out of her songs is a prime example of how artists think when it comes to creating music. During my studies as a music history undergrad, I received the advice that many successful musicians and composers hid their real inspirations from the public. As a music blogger, I continue to ethnographically investigate how musicians and singer-songwriters create music.

When talking about original inspiration, writers must decipher what could be shared with a reader to create a cohesive story. The same also applies to writing music. Marla’s choice to keep the songs on Miracles~Lost and Found straightforward, appears as a suitable example. Even with lyrics and music, which to some might seem simplistic and partially politically-charged, even without meaning to, there is a candor behind Marla’s messages.

Marla’s next step for Miracles is to create a theatrical concert adoption of this record with Lisa Milinazzo. Lisa had expressed an interest in directing her, especially after she had heard Marla’s music.

“When I did Miracles, I thought that I would like to create a show out of it… I had written Lisa years ago… I met her via someone, and I had talked to her about Brief Night Out. We were not friendly. Then, we hired her for a Broadway-bound musical, Diana and Navy and the Golden Tooth written by Phoebe Nir who is an artist on our label. She (Lisa), had directed the concert version of that, so we got re-introduced. Then we became friends. Now, we are very good friends because of that show. I was in [it], and I produced it. I was [also] in the show as a narrator character.

“She said, ‘I want to direct you, I think you are interesting.’ Her husband is [also] a fan. I gave them my music from Speak. They said ‘We love your music!’ I thought, ‘Wow!’

“We are doing it, and we will work [together] on the dramaturgy. Lisa is influencing where it goes, and it is great. I like collaboration… there is only so much that can come out of my mind just working with someone else. She thinks it is really important. For me, I just want to do another show.

“She says it has to happen now because of the situation and it is pretty timely. We plan on putting up in June.”

Aside from performing and writing plays, Marla also owns two party-planning businesses, PARTYpoopers and PartySWANK, where she has produced over 3,000 events in the last 25 years. I asked Marla what inspired her to take the risk of starting a business. Her honest answer was “craziness.”

“Years ago,” she began to explain, “When I first started getting into acting and loved it, I started thinking why don’t I act in my theater? I can do it myself. I was not yet producing anything, we [Marla and her husband] were living in Tribeca at the time before what it is now. There were many empty storefronts. I was with my husband at the time, Isaac. I told him “I want to get a space where I can do my theater.” He then came up with the idea of doing kids’ parties. I was not sure why because we did not have children then.

“And, I thought ‘I don’t know. Really?’ That morning, when he woke up and said it, there was a big kids’ fair on our block, on Duane Street. I thought ‘That’s so weird, it must be a sign!’ Then, we just opened the business, and I never thought I would have done it if I did not want to open my theater. It was not anything I never really thought I would… this is the weird thing, everything I am doing in my life, I never really thought I would be doing.”

Like any entrepreneur, Marla’s journey in owning her own business was long. “There was a period where I felt mad because I thought it [the business] took me away from doing my artistic stuff. Now, it all goes together. It does not take up all of my time. The way I balance it now is so much better than I ever did. At first, we had a venue; I used to own thousands of costumes. I got rid of everything, and now it is all me being an event manager. I am the middle man; I know who to hire, and when you know any good director [for example], you know to hire the right people. It works out, but you must have good taste.”

It seems like Marla would like to continue to work as an event manager for parties. Regarding her efforts in music and performance, she plans to release the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles and see where that takes her. She is also developing a memory play that she wrote (along with members of her family) called “The Pill.” Tomas Doncker and James Dellatacoma did the sound design and her mom wrote the music. Marla expresses the first reading of it as a “huge success.” She also says, “People came out laughing and crying. I feel very excited about this piece. It has super strong legs.

Marla at the Dodge Poetry Festival 2014. Photo by Blair Bauer“I just want to keep putting out good work. To me, Miracles~Lost and Found is just one of many things I do. I am not downplaying it. I love the album. It’s not like that album where I am very performance art-y. Maybe some people think it is edgy and they hate it, or they believe that it is hip and cool; this for me, is a treat to say ‘This is an album for me to put on and hear a song, and then hear the next song.’ ”

Music and art, in general, take on a strange life. A singer-songwriter may have a particular motivation for a song in mind, and when they listen to the completed version of their song, it tells an individual story. However, if an artist performs that same song during a time within an environment where plenty of uncertainty, and even fear, fills the political and social landscape, their music can have new meaning. As a musician, playwright and performer, Marla does not seem rattled by this transformation. I would even say she welcomes it, and I would be curious to see how the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles~Lost and Found pans out.

Endnotes

[i] Music Reviews Staff Writer. (April 26, 2014). “monoblogue music: “Half-Life” by Marla Mase.” Chorus.FM. Retrieved from http://monoblogue.us/2014/04/26/monoblogue-music-half-life-by-marla-mase/ on March 11, 2017

[ii] Lang, C. (February 16, 2017). “These Dads Doing Ballet with Their Daughters is the Only Thing You Need to Watch Today.” Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4673637/dad-daugheter-ballet/ on March 25, 2017

[iii] A Mighty Wind (n.d.), Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Wind

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right Now for Now: Casey Dinkin Lets Go of Fear to Pursue her Music Making Dream

Music was always a large part of upstate New York-native Casey Dinkin’s life. Yet like many talented and passionate singer Casey Dinkin's Official Press Photosongwriters, Casey searched for a reason not to pursue music, up until now.

“I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she explains. “I’ve always wanted to be a singer songwriter, have a band and tour around and make albums, but I never thought it would happen.”

So what changed the mind of this singer and guitarist who lyrically and musically sounds like a distant cousin of Norah Jones? In my interview with Casey Dinkin for Music Historian’s full-length feature for July, I learned that self-reflection, relocating to New York City, and raising money through Kickstarter.com to put her songs on a record helped her take the necessary steps towards making her dream of being a recording artist a reality. The result for all of Casey’s efforts is the release her debut record later this month, Right Now for Now.

“I love this independent music”

Music surrounded Casey all her life. She says that both her parents loved folk songs from the sixties. Her mother played music from Joan Baez’s songbook as well Judy Collins, and her father favored Motown and soul. Meanwhile, Casey’s musical tastes included The Beatles and The Grateful Dead.

Casey and her mother would sing tunes from musicals together. At fourteen years old, Casey picked up guitar, and she participated in musical theater and school choirs. During this time, her admiration for the independent singer songwriter blossomed.

“I remember in High School,” says Casey, “I watched people get up on a stage with a guitar and sing. They would sing a song they wrote at the coffee house. I thought that was so cool, and I wished that I could be that amazing.”

College opened up new performance opportunities for Casey and led to more experiences, some successful and some challenging. She explains:

“In college, I started singing with jazz bands. After college, I sang with a rock and roll cover band, which built a following and played many gigs. At this point, I became more confident with performing. I started to think “I really love this independent music.”

“Then I started collaborating on songs with one of the members in the band, and that was the first time I had really shared my songs with someone. When we performed them in public, people responded positively; they thought my songs were enjoyable.

“Unfortunately though, that band broke up, and I was on my own for a while. I found more opportunities as I looked for other bands. At this time, I also worked for an anti-hunger non-profit.”

Casey enumerates that at this moment, having a job and handling her own performance promotion and booking made her think twice about pursuing music. So she put music aside to focus on her non-profit work which eventually led her to Washington, DC.

Putting Music on the Backburner: Casey’s Self Reflection

“I got a job in DC working at a national anti-hunger research and action center. While I was there, I realized that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial where I could set my own path. Since I’m an artistic person by nature, I wanted to be involved in the arts.

“I found myself having conversations with people trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Then one day I was talking to my friend Beth who told me that she made a cork board to help her figure out what she wanted to do. She thought of every possible career and put it up on this board, anything she could think of, and then she told me that the goal she really wanted to pursue, which was to write a book, she didn’t have the guts to put up there. I then realized I had the same thing.”

Although Casey tried to put music aside, she never stopped writing songs. She claims to have written about 100 songs by the time she left DC.

Casey Dinkin singing at the Leave A Lasting Mark Concert Series Van Morrison Tribute Show, on 2/9/2012 at The Bitter End in NYC. Photo by Manish Gosalia, courtesy of www.caseydinkin.com “I started to realize that putting music on the backburner was just a response to fear. I was also learning to be a yoga teacher at the same time, and some of the studies included letting go of fear and being your authentic self,” reflects Casey. “I feared that I was not going to make it, or it [music] was not important enough. Instead of letting go of this fear and being a songwriter, I worried about my ego.”

Recognizing this worry was Casey’s first stepping stone in overcoming her fear. Her next stepping stone validated why pursuing the dream of singing and songwriting mattered. Casey enumerates:

“In the middle of this self-reflection, I realized I had always written songs. I never stopped. Every day that I walked to my job, I wrote songs in my head. Then, one night before I went to sleep, as my head hit the pillow, I realized “If I died tonight, in my sleep, then my songs would die with me because I had not done anything with them.”

In this moment, Casey realized her songs counted as a “real body of work” and from there she decided to change her life. This included leaving the nation’s capital and moving to a city she always wanted to live in, New York City.

“At the same time, the funding for the project I was working on in DC was ending. I called someone I knew at an anti-hunger organization in New York City. He happened to have a position that just opened. So, I made the decision to move to New York.”

The Move to New York City

In one of her songs on her record, “The Light of NYC,” Casey described Washington DC as “the city of all smarm and no charm.” Firstly, I wondered what this lyric meant. Secondly, I wondered whether Casey felt like the only individual she knew in DC that was torn between choosing either a life in public policy or the arts. Casey explains:

“I made up a phrase one day “a city of all smarm and no charm.” One of my former colleagues described this lobbyist we worked with as someone who was “so smarmy, it made her skin crawl.” Smarmy refers to a charming but manipulative person that cannot be trusted.

“One day, I was walking outside and said to myself, “This is the city of all smarm and no charm.”

Casey adds, “Of course, there are a lot of very charming things about DC, and not everybody is smarmy.”

She continues, “I thought DC was where I could be, but when I got to DC, it was clear that I wanted to be in New York City. I think if you want to live in DC in the long-term, you must want that long-term career in policy and government. I thought I actually wanted that, but when I arrived there, I realized I truly wanted music.

“Although I could do music in DC, New York is where I have more access to great people to work with in music. I feel like there are so many people here that pursue creative things. In DC, I sometimes felt like the weirdest person. But here [in New York] I feel it’s normal to be [both] a musician and something else. I’m never the weirdest person in the room. It’s so refreshing.”

One of the most important contacts Casey made when she came to New York City is her producer Dan Siegler.

“When I looked for a producer, I wanted somebody that did not see my music as just another project. I wanted somebody who genuinely likes my music; plays keyboard well; and thought about the lyrics I write. I wanted someone that would think holistically about my songs, understand what I was trying to say and guide that.

“Then I met Dan Siegler who is a gifted keyboard player. He understands my songs in ways I couldn’t even understand them. Of Course, at this point, he has probably listened to my songs 50,000 times.”

Casey talks about her first experience producing a record.

“The process involved the following,” begins Casey, “I would go and play 30 songs for Dan, and he would go through them and say “this song yes, this song no, this song maybe but it might need another verse or a bridge.” Then we would talk about how the song should sound, musically, and start putting together the instrumentation.

“It was a very interesting learning process to see how that happens and see how a song is built piece by piece.”

In order to support this essential step of putting her songs on an album, Casey decided she would raise the necessary funds.

Funding Her Dreams of Making a Record

“Two days after I decided I was going to make an album,” explains Casey, “I received an email from someone I knew asking me to Photo by DJ Glisson, courtesy of www.caseydinkin.comcontribute money for their band’s upcoming tour on Kickstarter.com. That’s when I researched Kickstarter and thought “this was how I was going to make my album.””

“I raised about $11,000 in 30 days,” continues Casey. “People came through in incredible ways.”

According to Casey, she and Dan have dedicated a tremendous amount of time figuring out each component of every song – for example, what type of bass line, or if the song needed a violin part – and the delivery, making sure every note has the right intonation and falls on the right beat.

Though she did spend time reworking lyrics for certain songs on the album, Casey feels that the lyrics in her songs, as a whole, seem to come out naturally and effortlessly. Casey claims she feels blessed to gain inspiration and constantly write.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about appreciating that gift. I think right now, I’m very fortunate that life seems to give me these thoughts that turn themselves into songs. Very rarely do I sit down and say “I’m going to write a song.” Usually, an idea pops into my head while I walk down the street, especially if I am experiencing distress, and I don’t know what to do. So I think “I’m going to write a song about it,” and that helps me through the process.”

The best example of a song that represents this is her title track “Right Now for Now.” This song, throughout Casey’s experiences as an artist, takes on multiple meanings.

“That’s the song I wrote while my first band after college was breaking up. I wrote that song when I needed to tell myself that everything would be okay,” reflects Casey.

“When I wrote that song, I was not into Yoga,” she adds. “Then when I studied Yoga and listened to leaders that talked about being in the present moment and recognizing each moment as precious and event as temporary, I [now] think that song also talks about living in the moment, understanding that troubles will pass, as well as letting go and forgiving yourself. That’s every point in my life.”

The Album Release Party at Rockwood Music Hall

Casey Dinkin, photo taken on 12/14/2012 While Casey searches for inner peace through her music and works to achieve her dream of doing music professionally a celebration follows – the album release party for Right Now for Now at Rockwood Music Hall on Sunday, July 28th.

“I really look forward to celebrating everything I have been working for over the past two years and longer. This is the absolute pinnacle; the longest-term, truest thing I have ever accomplished.

“It will be the first time releasing an album, playing at Rockwood Music Hall, and performing my album songs live with a full band,” Casey joyfully claims.

The icing on the cake for Casey’s album release party might be the reunion with people that have supported the new artist through her journey.

“I have people coming from all over the country which is super exciting. My upstate NY friends and family are coming, and people from North Carolina and DC.

“They followed my progress and my many updates along the way. They were a part of my Kickstarter campaign…, and this is the finish line.”

Every Present Moment Counts

As we conclude our conversation, Casey mentions that releasing an album has taken longer than she initially expected. This makes me think that whenever a musician has available time between live performances, recording a song, producing or promoting their record; they dedicated it to writing a new song, rehearsing, or completing a second job. Casey reminds me that every present moment counts.

In addition, even during her years in DC and Albany, not pursuing music, every moment Casey experienced included a lesson that prepared her for now. Learning yoga helped Casey see that her previous habit of putting music on the backburner was a response to fear. Moving to Washington DC slowly fueled Casey’s desire to move to New York City. Finally, Casey’s experience with non-profits taught her how to run a successful fundraising campaign – one that would help support her dreams of releasing an album of her beautifully constructed, charming and earnest songs to the public.

Right Now for Now will help listeners who are native or have become well-integrated into the New York City landscape, view this Casey Dinkin, photo taken on 12/29/2012city from a refreshing outsider’s lens. Having also been to Rockwood Music Hall several times, I can attest that Casey’s album release party on July 28th will be the perfect setting to enhance this listening experience.

In the time that Casey prepares for this big event, she is also looking to the future.

“The next thing that follows is expanding my fan base. It would be great to hit the road. I would also love to start recording another album after this one is released,” explains Casey.

The most important long-term goal for this smart, talented and ambitious artist is to become better at everything, from songwriting, to learning more instruments, and honing in on her arrangement skills.

“I’m trying not to get too descriptive about the future because I think there is no longer a cookie-cutter model of how the road to success in the music industry should look,” she adds.

And of course, Casey is right. So let’s enjoy right now, for now.

Apollo Run’s “Here Be Dragons” Saga: Bass player Jeff Kerestes Shares the story from start to finish

Apollo Run (Left to right: Jeff Kerestes, John McGrew and Graham Fisk)

The most successful bands establish a memorable sound, the one that encourages listeners to return to performances and purchase the group’s music. In the process, artists might find that the music they create does not fit a label. Jeff Kerestes, a professional bassist of the Brooklyn-based band Apollo Run, briefly explains this experience.

“When we changed the band’s name to Apollo Run we did not know how to categorize the music. It was all new to us, the three part harmonies, the bass, the drums… We were wondering “what’s here?” Let’s explore it.”

It was at this moment the band decided to name this phase of their musical development “Here Be Dragons.”

“In the old maps,” explains Jeff, referring to maps of the globe dating as far back as the 1500’s, “signs that read “here be dragons” were drawn to represent uncharted territories. The music was uncharted territory for us.”

In Music Historian’s full-length band interview for May, Jeff talks about how Apollo Run’s “Here Be Dragons” exploration started; where the course has taken them; the possible conclusions of their journey; and what awaits the band in the near future. It is my pleasure to welcome Jeff to Hear; Don’t Listen.

The Beginning: John McGrew and the Sit Backs

One night in 2007, the Arizona-native with a jazz degree from Arizona State University, was celebrating his one year anniversary of living in New York City. Through the husband of a friend, Jeff learned of a band that was looking for a bass player – John McGrew and the Sit Backs. Jeff joined this group in December of that year. Here, he met singer John McGrew and drummer Graham Fisk.

“John and Graham hit it off right away,” recalls Jeff. “The band also had another bass player, a guitarist and keyboard player.

“In this group, all the songs were fully-written by John and the members of the band would play these songs and perform under the moniker John McGrew and the Sit Backs. At that time, John was working a day job just to pay the band. In New York, there is almost nobody that will play another person’s song for free.

“Eventually though, paying the band became expensive, and John decided to leave his day job and do music full-time. Since John McGrew and the Sit Backs was the best experience I had at the time, I decided to stay, and so did Graham.

“Afterwards, John decided he wanted to change the name of the band because all three of us would be writing songs, not just him. We were ready to create a new sound.”

At this point, it was 2009, and John, Jeff and Graham decided they wanted to bring a new approach to music making – one in which all three members could use their ability and talent to the fullest and tie it together into a series of songs.

The Middle: Developing Ideas and Completing Songs Together Apollo Run at the Bowery Electric, April 5th, 2013

“One of the most exciting parts about Apollo Run is that we all write, and we will bring different ideas to each other.

“For example, John and Graham were both in a Cappella groups in their college years. Sometimes, John will have a great a Cappella line, and we’ll develop a song from there or, he will come to us with a song that is almost finished, and we’ll complete it together.

“Graham also writes songs on piano, and sometimes he will come in with a song that he has not finished, and we will hone out the rest of the parts – the vocal harmonies, the bass line, drums and the key board.”

Jeff enumerates on this example through a few stories about some of the songs on “Here Be Dragons” vol. III.

“One of the songs on our last record, “Sirens,” we wrote while we were on tour. I was playing chords on a ukulele during the car ride. In this time, we created the hooks of the song. Then, when we halted for rest stops, we would refine the lyrics and the vocal lines.

“For “Desire,” Graham came in with a partially developed idea for the song. We composed fifty to sixty percent of it in the studio. By the time we finished the other songs for the third volume; we had to complete “Desire.”

“This was one instance in which we were putting too much thought into how a song is “supposed to sound.” When this happens, it becomes very difficult to complete the song. Once we played the song several times through though, it came out right. We played [“Desire”] until it felt right.”

Naming the Band: “Many names can put you in a box and we did not want that”

Prior to recording any of the “Here Be Dragons” records, the band applied the same intuitive effort behind finding the band’s new name.

“Naming the band was difficult,” recalled Jeff. “We really wanted our music to dictate the name and not the other way around. For example, when you hear the name Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam, you think about the music of the band, not their name. The words don’t mean much on their own until you define them with music.”

“We did not feel we could categorize our sound,” adds Jeff. “Many names can put you in a box, and we wanted to avoid that.”

Listeners will have a difficult time putting Apollo Run’s music neatly in a category. One might feel that the opening piano melodies to “Autumn Song” that paid homage to art songs from the Romantic period; or that the doo-wop-feel of “That’s How it Felt” belongs more to pop; or that the “Devil in Disguise” makes a slight nod to the swing-jazz genre.

The eclectic sounds of each “Here Be Dragons” album might also make listeners wonder what made the band chose the name Apollo Run. For this simple reason: it felt right.

According to Jeff, all the members liked the mythology behind the Greco-Roman God Apollo, who ruled music, poetry, and light. In addition, John who is also an astronomy enthusiast repeated the phrase “Apollo Run” to himself several times. The more he heard it, the more confident and comfortable he felt with the name.

The Music: “You never know where your inspiration is going to come from…”

(Left to Right) John and Graham at the Bowery Electric As my conversation with Jeff continued, I became curious about what influenced the lyrics behind their songs. I learned that for these three musicians, “influence comes from everywhere.”

“You never know where your inspiration is going to come from; it can be from literature to what’s going on politically. A couple of our songs are inspired the book series The Game of Thrones. Sometimes John will come to us and say, “I wrote a new song, it is inspired by The Game of Thrones,” says Jeff jokingly.

Then, some of the inspirations for Apollo Run’s songs come simply from gazing up at a clear night sky.

“Our song “Stars” is basically John’s take on what he hears from looking at the stars. As they twinkle back and forth, John hears they are singing “oh-way-oh,”” explains Jeff.

Apollo Run plays on romantic imagery while celebrating the union of many musical ideas. In addition, fans’ responses to the band’s music have been supportive and unusually phenomenal.

This brings me to what might be the beginning of the end to a great expedition, a possible musical theater production of “Here Be Dragons.”

The End: A Theatrical Reception?

During the summers, John, who has a background in musical theater, works at a drama camp in Oakland, Maine called Acting Manitou. Every year, John helps students put on a play. According to Jeff, “the kids really liked Apollo Run’s music” and they wanted to make a play using the band’s songs.

“Last year, the kids asked whether they could put on a play using Apollo Run’s music, and they did,” enumerates Jeff. “Graham and I went to perform the music for the production. The result was amazing.

“The play takes place in a dystopia. In the story,  a ruler is overthrown and then another ruler takes over. The replacement, however, turns out to be much worse than the initial leader. During this story, there is a love story taking place between two characters. The play references the many faults and issues within our society.”

“After the experience, we decided to bring the play down to New York City and invited Broadway actors for a reading.”

At the moment, the musical has only developed to a reading of the play by professional actors. John says “I do not know where it will go from there.”

Beyond the Saga: A Fourth Album with a New Focus

If the “Here Be Dragons” saga does not end with a big bang, then fans can look forward to a fourth album in the near future. Jeff says the band is in the process of creating a new record that will focus on this idea: now that the territory has been explored, it is no longer uncharted.

“We are currently in the writing stage,” he explains. “The songs are very exciting right now.

“The album’s title will depend on the shapes the songs will take.”

Apollo Run (left to right): John McGrew, Graham Fisk, and Jeff Kerestes In the meantime, the band continues to receive a positive reception from fans all over the country. Jeff recalls Apollo Run’s first national tour from November, which was to promote their third volume and first full-length album “Here Be Dragons” vol. III, as a career milestone for the group.

“That was pretty big for us,” enumerates Jeff. “We started on the west coast in San Francisco, then drove all over the country for a month. We traveled to my hometown in Arizona, then to San Diego, and several other places before concluding the tour in Maine.

“Our fans traveled great distances to come see us perform, and it was rewarding to see them enjoy our music.

“We love what we’re doing and taking that everywhere with us is great.”

Jeff also invites fans to watch Apollo Run’s music videos for the following songs on “Here Be Dragons” vol. III that just premiered today on their website – “Devil in Disguise,” “Bending the Light,” and “Act IV.”

Apollo Run reminds listeners that while establishing a solid sound is a necessary component for a successful band, creating music is not about fitting neatly into a category. Reflecting on my interview with Jeff, I realize that a band’s potential relies on their ability to explore new musical territory despite the uncertainties or possible dangers. Apollo Run’s exploration helped them arrive to the destination they sought – a definition of their sound. In addition, their expedition contributed greatly to their artistic development. The result is the complete “Here Be Dragons” trilogy.

What awaits Apollo Run fans after the HBD saga remains a mystery, but it is one that listeners will look forward to discovering. One thing is certain. The band will apply the same virtuosity, dedication and meticulousness to each song and its various components. As Jeff says, “Many bands are known for doing one thing really well in their music. We work to making everything sound well.”

The life lessons behind cross-dressing: a Review of Yentl Today

This Fall, the New York City-based troupe, The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective is reproducing the play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yentl.

In the story written by Singer, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, a young Jewish woman living in Poland at the end of the 19th century, desires nothing more than to study from the sacred text, the Talmud. This means defying the rule that women are prohibited from reading scripture; and the only way she can pursue her dreams is by impersonating a man. Playwright Leah Napolin would later adapt this story into a play, which would then be adapted into a film in 1983, starring the actress that immortalized the character of Yentl, Barbara Streisand.

The BSTC production of the play under the direction of playwright, Steven Carl McCasland, doesn’t have the same pizzazz as the Streisand film, with the various musical numbers sung by the main character. Instead, the music in this 2012 remake is pushed in the background to conveying a restricting, uniform and orthodox atmosphere of a Polish town at the turn-of-the-century. Men and women sing songs in four-part harmonies that sound liturgical. All songs are composed in minor keys; with maybe just a few staccato rhythms that would make only the most attentive listeners do a double take but nothing more.

So if the music doesn’t do it, what makes this production of Yentl so desirable? Simply put the themes of cross-dressing and bi-sexual tendencies that are still a taboo in our society today, and most importantly, the lessons we learn from watching the main character explore these taboos.

Today, so many young people like Yentl are on a search for their own identity and eager to reach their desired destiny. Sometimes that requires temporarily stepping away from a life they know or are expected to live and understanding the realities of the life they want.

“God, what did you bear women for?”   Yentl (Mallory Berlin)

Yentl grew up as the only girl in her village whose father taught her the Talmud. During this time, a woman was prohibited from reading scripture. As Yentl matures, her parents realize she is not ready to be a wife. Further, Yentl has already set her sights for her own future on continuing her studies. Yentl’s wishes put her at a constant disagreement with her parents, even her father.

In the play’s opening scene, Yentl, played by Mallory Berlin, is quarreling with her father, played by Orlando Iriarte. Mallory successfully displays Yentl’s desires by bluntly dismissing the idea of living as a housewife. Meanwhile, Orlando exhibits a blatant impatience as a father that tries to deal with his stubborn daughter.

Strangely though, there is a compassion and bond between father and daughter that audiences will immediately feel. Although Orlando’s character recognizes that though he is slightly responsible for Yentl’s negative attitudes towards marriage and the feminine way of life; he also treasures the relationship he has with his daughter, which might have been facilitated by Yentl’s interest in the Talmud.

 When Yentl loses her father in the second scene of the first act, audience members can further understand why she is more adamant and more anxious to live a different way of life. In this moment of the play, Yentl is mourning her father’s death with his colleagues at a synagogue, and she joins the men in saying Kaddish, a prayer. However; they do not welcome her because women are forbidden from reciting this prayer and thus, leave her to herself. Then Mallory helps unleash Yentl’s voice in a time of confusion and sorrow. She says at the top of her lungs:

“God, what did you bear women for? To have children, to light candles? Then why give them souls?”

Our protagonist’s father, the only man that ever accepted Yentl for who she really was has passed; and now she worries that her only means for survival is to marry and abandon her dreams. It’s clear to her that In order to continue on to a life of study, she must travel into another town, change her identity and attend the Yeshiva, a Jewish school. So, she disguises herself as a man by the name of Anshel.

 

As a man, Yentl enjoys the freedom to study

In the second scene of the second act, Anshel comes off as a shy, stubborn and defensive young man. Yentl makes sure that Anshel keeps his head down in the Talmud in the company of male classmates, insisting he needs to study though he is ahead of all the students. Yentl does not want anybody to wonder why Anshel refuses to undress in front of other men; why he cannot grow a full beard; or why he covets at the naked body his 24-year-old classmate, Avidgor who is played by Peter Oliver.

Viewers watch as Yentl learns to behave like a man. Throughout the play, Yentl becomes close with Avigdor as a study partner and a friend under the disguise of Anshel. Avigdor reveals personal information to Anshel, including that he is already divorced and still in love with his ex-wife, Hadass, who is played by Kim Sweet. Avigdor even asks Anshel to talk with Hadass. Avigdor trusts that Anshel will find out whether Hadass still has any feelings left for Avigdor. Middle: Anshel, Yentl's diguise (Mallory Berlin)

For the first time in her life, Yentl feels like an intellectual equal among men that are not her father. As Anshel, she enjoys the freedom she so desired; but little does she know that even men in these Jewish towns are expected to fulfill specific roles as well. Our cross-dressing heroine slowly discovers this as she becomes better acquainted with Hadass in order to learn how she feels about Avigdor.

While Yentl plays the information medium, Avigdor develops an uncanny attraction for Anshel, who as far as he’s concerned is just another Yeshiva boy. This is evident when Avigdor expresses to Anshel, “Why can’t women be more like you?”

One might see Oliver’s character, as what we would call today, bi-curious. However, Avigdor is not one to consider a romance with another man. Avigdor admits to Anshel that he still needs a woman in his life, and announces that he is ready to marry another woman in town, Pesha.

The bi-curious and the heartbroken: Yentl lies with a woman

Like a good friend, Avigdor suggests that Anshel marry Hadass, but little does Avigdor realize that inside Anshel there is a woman slowly falling in love with him.

Left to right: Avigdor (Peter Oliver), Anshel (Mallory Berlin) At Avigdor’s engagement party, Anshel gets drunk, flirts and kisses the groom, falls on the floor and almost blurts out Yentl’s true identity. As a result, Avigdor leaves the Yeshiva. Yentl who feels disappointed and betrayed, asks for Hadass’ hand in marriage in order to get Avigdor’s attention, and eventually, it works.

By the middle of the play, viewers have so far believed that the gender-bending and bi-sexual themes within this play have been innocent. The second half however shows the dangers that our heroine faces in carrying the disguise of Anshel. Not only does she risk revealing her true identity; but the further Yentl is dragged into this love triangle, the easier it will be for her to commit one of the ultimate sins – “laying with one and wishing for another.”

In the scene that follows, Hadass and Anshel sit across from one another talking about the engagement, the hero turns to the audience, in a narrative, comments to the audience on how great it feels to have the freedom and power of a man.

Audiences now see a vengeful and selfish side of Anshel. Berlin successfully exhibits Yentl’s full transformation into her male disguise as she shamelessly exercises knowledge and power over a previously heart-broken woman who believes she is receiving a second chance in marriage. Anshel and Hadass lie in their wedding bed, and Hadass has no clue that it is Yentl’s fingers penetrating her; she believes she is making love to a man. Further she expresses her true emotions to Anshel when she says, “I feel like we are two bodies with one soul.” Then Anshel reveals that he feels the same way…about Avigdor.

The realities of living like a man Left to Right: Anshel (Berlin), Hadass (Kim Sweet)

As the marriage between these two develops, Hadass slowly becomes unhappy while Yentl grows tired of constantly upholding her disguise. Playing the role of the male did have its perks, like freedom to study scripture and choose any spouse. However, Yentl discovers that the pressures of being a proper spouse and having children can be just as taxing for a man, as it is for a woman.

Viewers now watch Yentl come to the end of her days as Anshel in a scene where Berlin’s and Sweet’s characters are trying to communicate their feelings to one another. Here, Yentl insists that Hadass can learn the Talmud like any man and find personal happiness in this. As Anshel opens the book and starts reciting the first lesson to Hadass, she directly expresses a lack of interest.

Yentl fulfilled her dreams of studying the Talmud among men as an equal, and now she learns that not all women have the same desire. Some, like Hadass prefer to live the life that is expected of them and find contentment in tradition. Afterwards, Yentl leaves Hadass, and makes arrangements to meet with Avigdor so she can reveal to him her true identity.

While Avigdor is upset to learn that his best friend from the Yeshiva is in fact no man at all, his emotional attachment to Anshel has not disappeared. Avigdor even proposes the idea of marriage to Yentl in hopes that she will accept. After all, Avigdor needs a woman. Yentl however refuses.

Our protagonist recognizes the bond she had with Avigdor once was false. Avigdor is really in love with Anshel, but Yentl has finally become tired of playing the man in order to feel accepted and appreciated for her intellect. She wants to be herself again.

Identifying with Yentl: Neither a Blessing nor a Curse

At the end of the play, Yentl has completed a full circle and has come back transformed. She traded back her pants for her skirt. The only thing she has not given back is her love for the Talmud.

One can say that through her gender-bending journey, Yentl learned more personal lessons than any man at the Yeshiva. She committed the ultimate sin; partook in taboos; and came out transformed. Yentl realizes that being a woman is not a curse and being a man is not a blessing, and living one life is not necessarily better than living another.

Yentl’s lessons might resonate with individuals in today’s society that might believe people belonging to a specific gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion have an easier time achieving certain goals and living a fulfilling life. The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective’s production of Yentl proves to us that such thoughts are based more on beliefs than actual facts.

Yentl became a man and entered a Yeshiva based on the belief that she would have complete power and freedom over her destiny. Once she experienced the life of a Jewish man, our heroine realized that Anshel would experience just as many restrictions as a woman. The takeaway from Yentl’s experience is learning the sacred text and reciting from it freely and having a male counterpart, like Avigdor accept her as an equal.

The BSTC is currently showing Yentl at the Gene Frankel Theater from now until October 21st. Visit the official Yentl Facebook Page for this show to learn more.

Kamara Thomas and The Ghost Gamblers: Where Country Music and the Cosmos Meet

[left to right] Kamara, Amal Bouhabib, Jeff Malinowski

 When I first watched Kamara Thomas perform with The Ghost Gamblers on May 2nd at The Living Room in the Lower East Side, I was drawn by her style. She sported a cotton poncho top that was a combo of both a solid color and floral print fabric and a pair of pants with various religious symbols. Then there is her music, with song titles like “Stranded in San Antone” that include these lyrics:

You promised me the rivers of Damascus/ And your love was all that I was askin’ for/ instead you left me Stranded in San Antone…

As I researched the band, I learned they describe their music as cosmic country. The name of this genre and the catchiness of this acoustic folk and rock ‘n’ roll sound, intrigued me so much, I knew I had to invite Kamara to be the full-length music feature for May right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen.

A New Genre: Cosmic Country 

Aside from any country I hear on the radio, The Ghost Gamblers is the first band I heard of that plays cosmic country. Inside The Living Room, where shadows and flickering votive candles set a meditative atmosphere, Kamara explains the genre as she shares her personal history with music.

“In general, I think of myself as a priestess of country music. I was raised with country and classical music at a very early age.

“Before I was 7 years old, my mom was a big hippie and I had always listened to rock ‘n’ roll in my house. Then, when my mom “got God,” as they call it, she became a Seventh-Day Adventist – a religion that is on the side of fundamentalist Christianity. Afterward, I was cut off from rock ‘n’ roll, and also, as far as I could tell, fun. The only music my mother would let us listen to was country and classical.

“But I often wondered why country got to stay and why rock ‘n’ roll had to leave. Country talks about crazy stuff going on in the world just as much as rock ‘n’ roll. My mom just always told me, “Country was about life,” so it was okay.

“As I continued to live in this fundamentalist atmosphere, I adopted a philosophical point of view. I was always thinking about God and tried to integrate everything I was learning with my callings as an artist and singer. I also tried to integrate what I was learning with my own internal disagreements about the fundamentalist point of view. So naturally, my stuff is of a very spiritual nature and I always ask myself spiritual questions.”

Kamara and Jeff

Further in my conversation with Kamara, I learned her spiritual ponderings eventually transformed into journeys, which she shares through music. She says, “As my journey unfolds, the lessons I learn in my life end up becoming songs. One of the songs, “My Pretty Angel” is probably the most spiritual song you’ll hear.

“This song took my three years to write, because it accompanied me on my spiritual journey. When I get the inkling of a spiritual lesson I’m learning, I will write a song, but won’t finish it until the lesson has been fully learned or realized.”

I then wondered whether Kamara applied this process to all of her songs. She then explained to me how her creative cycles differ for each of her songs, and how they correspond with her spiritual journey.

“I write songs in cycles. Some are tiny ones, others are large. Some songs will take me an hour to write, and some will take me seven years. My spiritual lessons are cycles, and they are built into my song writing process. I found, the more I dealt with my spirituality, the more cosmic it became. So, that’s why it’s [my music] is cosmic country.”

Although I found my answer to “what is cosmic country,” I felt I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg on Kamara’s adventure with music. Then, she shared with me another important life lesson – accepting the path of music.

The Need for Solitude: Listening to the Still, Small Voice

She says, “There was a moment in my life I realized I was a musician, and it was weird because all my life, I was involved with music but had no idea I was being called to be a songwriter or a singer.

“As a child, I was heavily involved with church and I was a part of everything that had to do with music. I learned to play drums in the concert band, and I gained all of my singing experience from being in the choir, but I took it for granted. I didn’t realize I was actually a musician.”

When it came time for Kamara to go to college, she knew she wanted to perform, so she decided to pursue acting. However, she couldn’t put music aside. She explains:

“In my freshman year of college, I almost flunked out because I was involved in all these musical ensembles that would start as soon as classes ended, and continued until 11 at night, so I never studied for classes. I was also too involved in communities to listen to or even hear my still, small voice – one that wanted to say “Oh, I’ve been making music all my life” or “Oh, I’ve been a musician this whole time.” I didn’t hear it until I was alone long enough that it finally hit me.”

Kamara claims that solitude helped her discover her need to start songwriting. She found this solitude when she moved to Los Angeles after college to become an actress.

“I moved to L.A. to be an actress, and I didn’t act at all. I happened to stay in a part of the city that had everything I needed to do within a one-mile radius, so I walked everywhere, and fell into the solitude I needed to start writing songs. During this time I started to hear my still, small voice. Then it occurred to me I wanted to be a musician.

“That’s when I decided to move to New York, because I would never be able to cut my teeth into L.A. without a car. And, I could build experience in songwriting and performing.”

 For Kamara, this decision marked the end of one life chapter and the start of another – her life as a musician. Like the cycles of all things that exist in nature and in life, nothing is ever wasted, and that is what I learned from Kamara. She translates some of elements of her past experiences and spiritual lessons into songs. For example, Kamara’s experience with the west, inspired The Ghost Gambler’s hit, “Stranded in San Antone.”

A Place of Spirit that Inspired a Song

“This song is part of a larger story cycle called Tularosa, explains Kamara. “Tularosa is an area in New Mexico, a place that really caught my attention. I first learned about it when I studied theater in college, and I started to see this place as a focal point for several American dreams. 

“When I traveled to the west, I felt a lot of spirit in that land. If you become still enough, you can almost listen to it. Learning about all that happened in Tularosa lead me to write several songs about this place. “Stranded in San Antone” is one of them.

“So, I was writing this song, but I soon found myself stuck. I had a block, and decided to do a spiritual exercise to find the focus of this song. I took out some tarot cards and did a reading. This helped me find the focus of the story I would tell in this song – one of a woman who did whatever she could to make something of her life and then paid the price of her decisions in order to battle through the rugged terrain.”

Nobody can turn away from the tune that pulls the listener into this story. Kamara’s voice tells the story through the eyes of this character, but it is her voice that expresses that element of rock and folk that excites listeners from the very moment the song starts.

The inspiration behind “Stranded in San Antone,” is very intriguing. How often have you been able to listen to the New York City’s landscape when it’s still? I certainly haven’t, because our city never stays still, and we certainly don’t stand still enough to listen. “Stranded in San Antone” is one of the Ghost Gambler’s songs that will take you to the final frontier of someone’s dream and personal journey.

As my talk with Kamara drew to a close, I learned that aside from being a musician, she is first and foremost, a full-time mother. Playing both roles requires a balance of determination and patience.

The Path and Miracle to Creation

“It’s amazing to play music with a little child in the house,” says Kamara. “I often tell people “I’ve never gotten more done with my music before my daughter was born.” This is because time takes on this new meaning – everything you do is in this allotted time.

“I have to plan what I’d like to do and actually see it though. When I have free time, to not do what I really want is like sacrilege. I think to myself, ‘let me use this time to help make something happen.’

“In this way, she’s contracted me and my husband’s life, but expanded it at the same time. We’re able to do so much more. And it’s great that she’s inside inspiration all the time. She loves music.”

Kamara also says the journey of motherhood teaches her the true value of creation.

“Doing this creative act – passing a human being out of my body and into the world – helped me understand the path and the miracle of creation more deeply. Now, I know how hard it can be to bring something into the world.

“I was in labor for 32 hours. Nothing went wrong, it was very normal, natural and painful; it just took a long time. It helped me realize that in the creative process, you sometimes have to push your creation out; sometimes, you have to trust that it’s going to come out in its own time; and sometimes it is painful.

“What my daughter brought to the picture is far more than what she took away. Now, and I have more patience with myself, and I am more determined.”

Future with The Ghost Gamblers: “It’s Our Time”

 Earlier, Kamara talked about how her spiritual lessons and songwriting process accompany one another in creative cycles. Aside from realizing these cycles, Kamara is now at a point where she can listen to her own inner voice, and reflect on her experiences, and understand how she’s gotten to this point in life. All of these reflections help her to pursue what life has called her to do – music.

Right now, Kamara is finishing her residency with The Ghost Gamblers at The Living Room. They are also getting ready to release an album in September, and she’s currently putting together a free teaser, which she hopes to have ready in the next few weeks. As for the near future, Kamara hopes to get back into the studio and record the next record.

When she is not in the studio, she is raising a child with her husband, who is also the pedal steel player in The Ghost Gamblers. Kamara’s journey through motherhood is a large cycle that has just begun. Like the movement of celestial bodies in the cosmos; family, career and everything else that makes up life, all revolve simultaneously with one another. Some of these life cycles are small, some are large. Kamara’s cycle with The Ghost Gamblers is well underway. She says “We’re just getting up and running – it’s our time.”

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

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

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

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

The Story of Two Brothers

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

Sketch of Teliau*

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

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

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

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

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

Sketch of Ciel*

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

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

Siren: Mythical villain that appears in the series*

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

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

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

Nuckelavees, Scottish water fairies, in Diamond Bright Delirium*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want readers to get lost in the story”

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

Driffiks: mythical woodland creatures*

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

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

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

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

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

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