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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the chorus follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

*All photos were published with permission

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A Love Shaken by War: Becky Warren returns to music with a solo record that tells a fictional story inspired by real-life events

Becky Warren Press Photo

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter returns to the music scene with a 12-track concept record called War Surplus. Although she had been playing music for 25 years, War Surplus – an independent record which has just released – is Becky’s first solo album. To promote her album, Becky is getting ready to hit the road, starting in Baltimore and then traveling to New England, as an opener for the Indigo Girls a second time. During my telephone chat with Becky, the artist recalls the moment in 2004 when she learned that Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls wanted to release an album Becky recorded with her band from college.

“I had a band called The Great Unknowns, and we recorded an album in the basement of this college dorm. Then, I left Boston, and we [agreed to] only give copies of [the record] to our families. But, a friend of ours gave it to Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls, who called us and said she wanted to put it out on her label. That was exciting. So, big surprise. We were all living in different places at that point, but she put the record out. We got to open for them and got some good press.  But then,” continued Becky, fast-forwarding to eight years in the future, “I did not do music several years – which we will probably also talk about. Then, I did another album with the Great Unknowns in 2012. Then, this record which I had done, is my first solo album.”

Becky also plans to tour separately to promote War Surplus, beginning in Atlanta and continuing west to New Orleans, Dallas, and Austin. While she feels excited to return to performance, Becky re-enters the real world of music with a greater objective, raising awareness about veterans’ issues. How does Becky, plan to accomplish this? By joining the storytelling style of country with Americana in front of a backdrop – a fictional story inspired by the real events within Becky’s life; her marriage to a veteran who served in the war in Iraq and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

War Surplus tells the story of two Americans, June, and Scott, who fall in love and have their relationship rattled by this war across 12 heart-wrenching songs that will quickly hook the listener to Becky’s sound. What I am most curious to learn is what steps the artist took to transform a fictional story into a record, how the music reflected events and character development, and how this story would end. More importantly, I wanted to understand how War Surplus could help make listeners more aware of the issues that veterans are facing in the United States. It is my pleasure to turn my interview with Becky Warren into an article and share it with you right here on Music Historian.

The creation of War Surplus started in 2012 when Becky had decided to attend the Johnny Mercer Foundation writing program. Here, she met several artists involved in musical theater, and shortly after she released a second album with The Great Unknowns titled Homefront. By this time, Becky was coming out of her five-year stint away from songwriting.

“For all five years that I was married, I was not writing. I just really wanted to get another The Great Unknowns record out. Many of the songs on that album were my personal view on what that time had been like for me: about how much I missed playing music; and what it was like for me to be married to someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is also another song on there; it is a little fictional, but it comes from the perspective of a soldier coming home and then having his marriage fall apart.

“That was me looking at my personal view of what had happened. Now that I have more distance I just really became interested in how others had gone through the same thing. That’s what had brought me to writing War Surplus. I had never considered doing a concept album, or a series of songs around one story before that [the Johnny Mercer] program.

“Before I started writing this album, I was only writing about myself, and I had not thought about writing from another character’s point of view. That was eye-opening, and it turns out I love that. I can’t believe I had spent so much of my life writing only from the view of women.  Now, I write from the view of men a lot. I feel glad that I have allowed myself to open that door… it’s a new and fun challenge for me to write from somebody else’s point of view, someone different from me.

“One thing I learned, when people write a musical, they usually write twice as many songs as they need and toss half of them. That was on my mind when I worked on this album… I should just write and write, and not worry about which songs were going to be “The songs” until I was sure I had enough to cover the whole story well. They are [also] very focused on the characters in the songs, their wants, what changes in the songs, and why the character sings the song on stage. All of these [things] I picked up from the Johnny Mercer program.

“Before that program, I had written the next to last song “She’s Always There,” and during the program, I wrote the last song, “Anything That Lasts.” I realized both songs were the same guy [Scott]. Being around musical theater people gave me the idea to keep writing about him and his story. It was fascinating to hear how they thought about the songs.”

“She’s Always There” and “Anything That Lasts” are both included as the final tracks on War Surplus. The track that opens the entire album is a song from June’s perception, “Call Me Sometime.” As a first song, “Call Me Sometimes” works well as an opener for War Surplus. The driving harmonic rhythm in the guitar and the beat of drums, and length of the measures in each bar resonate very closely with the genre of Americana. The modulation from a minor key to a major and then resolving back to the tonic in the minor key also helped create a very complete and concise song. Then, there are the lyrics in the chorus that are undeniably aggressive and alluring, But if you wanna drown your heart in gasoline and make-believe/ if you think a good lost cause is exactly what you need/ if you got a taste for poison with your wine, well yeah/ I guess you can call me sometime.”

I wondered why Becky put this song at the top of her track list and what was happening to June and Scott in the story at this time. The songwriter explains, “I knew I needed to write a song where she was introduced and then falls in love with Scott, but I had a hard time with her. I had never written love songs before this album. It’s hard for me to write something that is 100 percent “I love you,” and 0 percent anything else… even when I am in love, there is a part of me that thinks “something is about to go wrong” or “somehow this is not going to last.”

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Although Becky modestly laughed while she talked about the lyrics within “Call me Sometime,” I could tell that she seriously thought about June’s character. She continues, “It was when I realized that if I could write her like that, it will make things so much easier for me. Therefore, I pictured her as a person who was living in San Antonio, a town with a lot of military personnel, and military tradition. June is deeply skeptical of love and even more skeptical of dating men within the army. She forms opinions about how ‘good’ they would be as boyfriends, and she does not believe that someone she meets at a bar will be worth her time.

“I wanted to start with that, to give you a picture of that person. Then, when she and Scott fall in love, there must be something pretty special between them; the strong feeling June had – that love would not happen to someone like her – had been overcome. That’s why the album starts [with that song].”

So the story begins. The second track on the album “San Antonio” helps prepare the setting. According to Becky, she wanted this song to have a sense of place, and San Antonio has a connection to the military, it is also a city where one can easily live separate of that community. Therefore, she purposefully decided that June would not live on base; instead, while Scott gets deployed, June would continue living the life she had known.

The lyrics within this slower-paced serve as a narrative by someone who describes this well-known Texas city with a significant amount of familiarity, and the long hard trucker barrels down in his state town, miles left to cross/ but the late night DJ on KMBT always knows what to play for the lost/ The great state of Texas sings something secret for each of its souls tonight/ And you’re the song that’s been stuck in my head my whole life. Becky talks a little more about this song.

“For me, I wanted [to create] a story that people could see themselves in some way… I wanted to wrap up that place, and what June is feeling about suddenly meeting this person; it feels like the song that has been stuck in her head her entire life, after thinking for so long that she would never find that.”

Naturally, one can guess that “San Antonio” is another song that comes from June’s perspective. So far, I learned that the two opening songs on War Surplus express June’s point of view, while the concluding two tracks reveal Scott’s perspective and his story of serving in the war in Iraq. However; some of the songs in the first half of the album also represent Scott’s point of view. Listeners start to hear more of Scott and his experience as a soldier in “Stay Calm Get Low.”

When it came to writing from Scott’s perspective, Becky looked to many external resources, including literature. The artist at the time read many books and poems that took place in Iraq. One book that stood out to Becky was My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell.

“He started writing about his deployment; he went over [to Iraq] with the first wave in 2003. Colby was one of the first milbloggers[1] in the war, kind of before people were calling it milblogging[2],” said Becky as he gently laughed. “They turned his blog into a book… and that one just really spoke to me because it is so immediate, he is writing it as it [the war] happens.”

Becky felt that the narrative of Buzzell’s book and the character of Scott shared a lot of commonalities, including Buzzell’s “sense of humor and slightly countercultural slant on things.” The singer-songwriter also says that everything that happens in “Stay Calm, Get Low” also happens in Colby’s book. After writing the song, Becky let Colby hear it; an experience that, for the artist, was one of the most exciting parts of writing this album.

While the artist expresses feelings of creative gratification writing through the perspective of a character very different from her and using real-life examples from accounts written by ex-soldiers who served in Iraq; Becky makes sure that the listener receives a healthy dosage of disillusionment about the war in “Stay Calm, Get Low.” In the verse, half-way through the song, Becky sings I am an m240 machine gun, a black and white Hollywood rerun, a ten second mention on the evening news and then follows up with the following lyrics in the chorus stay calm, get low/ this ain’t no picture show/ stay calm, get low/ just tell yourself you know/ we’re all gonna make it home.

Becky explains, “I have never been in combat… everything you know about it comes from movies, books, and television. I believe the reality is that half of the time, it gets very boring, and then it is punctuated by moments of terror and unimaginable horror. That [combat] is a very bizarre circumstance, but you have to adjust to it very quickly.

“I think that’s what is happening in that song (“Stay Calm, Get Low”) – you get to this place, and you [start to] have a very different mindset. That is what I think is happening to [Scott]. I wanted that song to be the anthem that people could sing along with, sort of like “Born in the U.S.A.”

The chorus in “Stay Calm, Get Low,” is very easy to remember and sing along to, especially as there is a distinct downbeat that listeners hear in the pause between “stay calm” and “get low.” However, in my opinion, comparing “Stay Calm, Get Low” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” proves to be more challenging than I initially thought. Aside from the fact that Springsteen’s famous song relates to a war different from the one that Becky sings about; “Born in the U.S.A.” seems to be mislabeled continuously as a patriotic song.

According to what Becky writes about “Born in the U.S.A.” on her website, “while it is a serious song about Vietnam vets, people still have a great time shouting along to it at stadiums” (www.beckywarren.com Retrieved October 2016). Becky elaborates on her opinion of a song we both happen to appreciate.

“The interesting thing about “Born in the U.S.A.” is that for many people, it does sound patriotic because of the chorus. When a patriotic song is about war, it is not about the person; it is more about that person as a symbol for why we are proud to be American. It’s not usually about that individual’s life, their thoughts or feelings, or the details.

“But [Born in the U.S.A.] … tells a very human story about a veteran and his brother. You can’t take a story about one person, as a human, and then turn it into a symbol for a country; those are complicated. It is not something you can build a patriotic theme around. So, I think it is a very different class of song.”

Returning to Becky’s songs on War Surplus and the story of Scott and June, another song in which Scott seems to experience disillusionment about the war is appropriately titled “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” This song is the catchiest and also has the most straightforward storytelling as the singer delivers a narrative describing what led young men to sign up and serve in the army in the first place – a promise for a better future or a more rewarding career. The song that follows this is “I Miss You,” which, told from June’s perspective. The phrase, God I miss you like you wouldn’t believe, solidly concludes a few verses throughout that song, and beautifully ties up a narrative from the perspective of a woman whose husband or loved one has been absent from her life for a prolonged period.

After listening to the first half of War Surplus, I started to wonder which songs were from Scott’s point of view, and which ones were from June’s point of view. Becky clearly identified which of the songs were told through Scott’s or June’s perspective. However, one component that I found missing from the album was a song that could have easily expressed both Scott’s and June’s experience of how the war in Iraq affected their relationship on the same caliber. There seems to be a lack of unity between Scott and June, and perhaps this is primarily caused by the distance that the war places on these two individuals. I asked Becky whether she saw these two characters coming together on a song in the future.

“I see June leaving in the song “Grenade,”” expressed Becky. “I picture her gone during “She’s Always There” and “Anything That Lasts.” I think [when] Scott ends the album with “Anything That Lasts,” [he’s] in a very dark place. I hope he ends up okay and that they end up together again. But I am not sure. I believe I wanted to finish it in a place where they were both in a precarious situation.”

I then followed this up with another question – did Becky feel that this precariousness is part of the unpredictability of the war which affected both Scott and June? She replies, “I wrote it,” “Anything That Lasts,” “as Scott contemplating suicide, which happens way too frequently for vets. And, I don’t know whether he will… that is a great “if” to leave the album on, that it was not resolved.”

As I come to understand how June and Scott’s story ends, I also inquire Becky about another objective she has with War Surplus, to spread awareness about veterans’ issues. In an interview that Becky did with the magazine, Elmore a few months ago, she said “I want to do everything I can to make them feel like they’re not invisible. And maybe at the same time, the record will lead some people to learn more about veterans’ issues, and take some positive action (www.elmoremagazine.com Aug 2016).”

While I have heard about the problems veterans experience in the United States, I wanted to hear from Becky what she felt people misunderstand the most about veterans returning from Iraq. She kindly explains:

“We have such a divide right now between veterans and their families, and everyone else. The people who fought the most recent war, were a very small portion of the population; I think it is one-tenth of one percent. Therefore, many of us don’t know anyone who served at all, and we don’t know anybody who has been in combat. That was the case for me too before I met the person who became my husband.

“I don’t think we are doing anything wrong; I just believe that it is strictly in the numbers. Many of us do not know that life at all. I think we form pictures of who veterans are… and maybe tend to think of them as different from ourselves. I think that’s part of the reason why there is perhaps not more pressure on Congress to improve things for the better because many of us think of veterans as somebody else.

“That’s why it was important for me to make Scott and June sound like people who you might know and like. Hopefully, you can hear their story and think ‘okay, I do have some things in common with these individuals, they’re not that distant from me.’ I believe that veterans come in all different personalities just like the rest of us. But, especially because of the kinds of patriotic songs we mentioned, we think of them as one particular caricature or couple, and I think that’s not incredibly helpful in getting people interested in veterans’ issues.”

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

As I incorporated Becky’s interview into a full-length article, I had a memory of a term paper for an undergrad class I wrote many years ago in my pursuit of a degree in Music History. In my report, I had written about how while a lot of musicians wrote songs focused on particular wars, very few artists wrote songs that directly protested the Iraq war. I now wished that I interviewed a musician like Becky Warren at the time. She helps present a new view of how music can contribute to telling a story about the realities of war and its affects soldiers both in combat and at home, away from the battle. Although the story Becky tells in War Surplus is fictional, real life inspires it. Most importantly, Becky Warren brings War Surplus to massive audiences at a time when people are starting to talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the additional effects that the most recent war has left on American veterans.

1-2 Milblogging refers to Military Blogging (Becky Warren, personal communication, October 11, 2016)

Works Cited

EXCLUSIVE: Americana Artist Becky Warren Makes Heartache Sound Beautiful on Her Ballad, “I Miss You.” (2016, August 5). Retrieved from http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2016/08/music-news/solo-artist-becky-warren-premieres-a-gorgeous-and-heart-aching-ballad-i-miss-you

Warren, B. (Retrieved, 2016, October 1). About. Retrieved from http://www.beckywarren.com/about/

Translating the Grind into Song: Alternative Country Siren Ruby Boots Talks How Hard Work, and Extensive Travel led to Opportunity

Ruby Boots Promotional Photo On one of her tracks on her debut album, the alternative country singer-songwriter from Australia, Ruby Boots, sings Sliding down Hell’s Backbone/ dark as night, heart unknown/ I’m just looking to lighten my load/ I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared… welcome to the middle of nowhere. The name of the song is “Middle of Nowhere,” and the name of the record on which it is featured is called Solitude. In preparation for my interview with Ruby – whose real name is Bex Chilcott, and whom I had the pleasure of learning about through Baby Robot Media – I researched her back story. Visit her web page and you will read that she left home in Perth when she was 16 to work on a pearling trawler in Broome, a town on the northern coast of Western Australia.

“I left home when I was 16, but by the time I managed to get out of Perth, I was about 19 years old. I got up there by hitching up some trucks. I went to where all the truckies loaded on and off and waited for a trucker who would take me. I found two; they would swap and take 5-hour shifts. We managed to do [the trip] in 36 hours, with a quick stopover in Newman. There was a carriage where they slept. If you are just one driver, I guess it could take a few days,” said Ruby.

Throughout my interview with Ruby, I was reminded of my semester abroad in Brisbane, Australia (Queensland) in 2008. When I first arrived in the country, I underestimated its size: it is as large as the U.S. Although I never visited Perth during my travels, I did notice how that city seemed to be the only one I had heard of in Western Australia. I then wondered whether “The Middle of Nowhere,” was about Ruby’s road trip from Perth to Broome, or about her days working on a ship and being removed from civilization. I soon learned this song has several interchangeable stories about Ruby’s journey into music and her first album that she is promoting on a tour across the U.S. and Australia. Welcome to my conversation with Ruby Boots on Music Historian.

As we start our interview at Sugar Café, adjacent to Rockwood Music Hall – where Ruby would later perform – the artist shared her story behind the song “Middle of Nowhere.”

“That [song] was about when I went to southern Utah to meet Vikki Thorn, who is part of The Waifs. I flew from Perth to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Sydney, from Sydney to L.A., from L.A. to Salt Lake City. I was then picked up and drove five hours down to Southern Utah. I fell asleep for the last hour of the car ride and woke up in her driveway. She [first] said to me, “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere.” And I said, “That’s going to be the name of our first song.” Ruby Boots Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography*

“I originally met her in Perth, and we played a show together. When I worked on the boats, I heard one of [The Waifs’] songs called “The Waitress” from a distance. That [song] drew me to think that I might want to play guitar and sing. That’s how important [she was to me.] All the songs I played at the beginning were all of their songs. You can imagine how important she is to me. She was my role model and wound up meeting her in Salt Lake City.

“It was a confronting situation,” she concluded. From the moment Vikki told Ruby “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere,” the Aussie songstress admitted, “I thought, “just write that,” hold onto anything that would save the situation from going bad. We worked on the song for two days. The first verse is really about having faith in our life path and what you want out of life; having enough guts to follow that, to the point where you would make that journey after ten years of holding it in your psyche, and a little bit of self-sabotage and self-sacrificing (in the second verse). [It’s a] long story, but it had to be explained.”

Another song that crawled into my ears is “Wrap Me in a Fever.” The lyrics, I understand are, I thought that loneliness came/ all wrapped up in plastic, cured with cocaine/ I’ll think of you all the same/ if I go without you, at least I’ll have you to blame, then the chorus enters, Come pick me up, honey wrap me in a fever/ I need your love tonight, I’m nothing without you… I recited these lyrics to Ruby, and I almost got them correct. Luckily, Ruby understood the sentiment behind the opening to my next question for her. I wondered whether she found it difficult to put speak very honestly about her feelings. She paused to think about the question for a few seconds. “No,” she responded.

“For two reasons: 1) That is how I like to live my life, I am an honest person; and 2) I think at the end of the day, if you want people to relate to what you say, then it must be true to who you are as a person. If [I] can be honest and lyrical about something, then that’s the key for me as a writer.”

“Wrap me in a Fever” is a more upbeat songs on Solitude. The overall sound and style for this record has an Americana feel and traces the traditional roots of country – a storytelling vehicle about the life of the folk. However; Ruby decided to name her debut after another song, “Solitude.” I asked her why.

Ruby Boots Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography* “Going back to when I was first starting writing [music], which was out at sea, I felt there was a lot of that essence… I brought that sentiment from being out there into my songwriting. This is my first full-length album; I wanted to pay homage to where it started for me. It seemed like a good fit, and I think it is a great title,” she explained.

Ruby also told me about her days on a pearling trawler. She would be out at sea with a crew for two to three weeks at a time. In her words, “work was tough.”

“I would lift three to four hundred kilos a day,” Ruby began. “I remembered when I first started; I had carpal tunnel in my hands because you would either hold on to a chisel or a chain. I would wake up with my hands cramping like that,” she showed me how tensely her hands would curl. “I couldn’t even hold a butter knife.”

I immediately pondered how Ruby was able to find solitude, nevertheless, time to write songs, when she worked a grueling and physically taxing job. Ruby assured me that this work was what she needed to help her learn guitar and songwriting.

“On a day-to-day basis, I got to throw myself into work, and a friend of mine started coming and playing out at sea. I started singing on the deck with him late at night because there was nothing to do. Eventually, I learned a couple of chords, and I picked up the guitar. My day-to-day life out there started changing because I was playing guitar and learning.

“Another thing that showed me is I like to work hard. I think, I am trying to learn how to work less; to slow down a little bit. I am lucky enough that my heart led me out of the city. Working on boats was great; it removed a lot of the chaos for me. I am looking back at the time I first started playing, and I think playing out there [at sea], I was processing all of that previous chaos.”

Ruby’s carpel tunnel syndrome dissipated after three months, and she was out there for three years. It was not until her last year on the pearling trawler; she picked up the guitar. During her time away from the work at sea, she would write songs and perform at local venues in Broome. Ruby contemplated being a professional songwriter for several years. She credits The Waifs for being her greatest inspiration during this time. It was for this reason, Ruby traveled about 9,000 miles, or 14,500 kilometers, to meet Vikki in the U.S. to write songs with her. Interestingly, the artist did not take too long to make her final decision. Three years prior to the night she made her decision, Ruby had played on a set with The Waifs only once.

“I was talking to their [The Waif’s] manager and asked whether he knew of anybody in the U.S. who I could write with, and [Vikki] was living here,” recalled Ruby. “We teetered up, and I had met for 30 seconds, and we played three years before that. She said [to her manager], “Yeah, I liked her when she played. Send her out.” And so, he did.

Ruby Boots Promotional Photo, Tony Proudfoot Photography* “I was scared. She meant a lot to me, and to my creative career. I would only be with her for seven days to write songs. She had never written a song with anybody else. I had only written a song with one other person. The beautiful thing about it was, it was close to 10 years prior that I had been thinking about being a songwriter.”

Vikki co-wrote “Middle of Nowhere” with Ruby Boots, and also appeared as a guest vocalist on the track. Additional collaborations on Solitude include Tony Buchen (Tim Finn, The Preatures, Mama Kin), who recorded and helped produce “Middle of Nowhere.” Anna Laverty (Jae Laffer, Paul Dempsey, New Gods) produced “Wrap me in a Fever.” I asked Ruby to expand more on her experiences with her collaborators.

“Tony and Anna were two of my producers, and they are both very different. It was very cool to work with a woman behind the desk. There is a very different energy in the room, a softer energy, it was very enjoyable. Not to say that she did not take control, but it was a different energy. I liked working with her, and when we got into the studios, she helped me flush out my songs, the music, and words. Tony was very fast-paced, and what we got through was very quick, and I felt like we could go in any direction at any time. We went in the right direction for me.

“Vikki…we have become close friends, and we look forward to working more and getting together again to write some songs. I think one of the songs we wrote together ended up on their [The Waif’s] album, on their release. It has been a close collaboration, and it’s been beautiful to have a friendship come out of songwriting. It could be very rare to have those connections, on the road.

“Across the board, I felt it contributed to where I am now as an artist.”

Ruby Boots performing at Dashville Mercedes, 2015* Ruby came close to tears thinking about her journey, the chances she took, and where it had brought her. I felt relief for her that she recognized what she had been through and just how much the decisions she makes now affect her professional, creative and personal development. On the topic of her professional development, Ruby is not the only Australian musician I had heard of who aspired to travel to the U.S. to write songs, tour or create an album. I asked Ruby the difference between being a musician in the U.S., versus Australia.

“Here you can jump into a van and play 250 shows. In Australia, you can’t do more than 30 per year. That is a big difference. [In Australia] there is a lot more flying involved while there is a lot of driving here. My dream is to be on the road for that much of the year. In Australia, it is almost impossible to do that; you burn out your audiences if you visit every city every time, because there is also less of us. Here, there are so many places to play.

“I am not saying it is easy here, to get in and do it; I think you have to work hard. But I think once you have gotten to that point to be able to tour as much as the others, you are on the way. Eventually, I would like to move over here if I can.”

I know the U.S. would love to have Ruby over here, especially with the Americana scene. She has already performed with independent Americana acts, including Kim Logan. Years ago, when she came to Nashville for the first time, she also met the front man of The Blackfoot Gypsies, Matthew Paige. When I had told her that I listened to them, and even interviewed them, chills traveled up and down her arms. However, I know that getting to the U.S. from a foreign country presents plenty of challenges – the travel, the visa and working status, the cost of relocating, finding work – for some individuals they search for a company that would sponsor their visa – and many more. I wanted to know about the challenges, and the rewards that came with those challenges for the artist, Ruby.

“Where do I start?” she says. “I have been sleeping on couches for two and a half years. I’ve never put a cent in my pocket from my music. I work a couple of jobs so I can stay on the road and everything. That is not to say my music is not going well, but as it grows, it costs more to put a band on the road. I think the sacrifices you make – the times you get to spend with your friends and family – I face many challenges but at the end of the day, doing what you love, truly love, outweighs that all. If it doesn’t, then you probably would not last, to be honest.

Ruby Boots, Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot* “The reason I love the genre I am in is because there is true storytelling; the lyrics of the song can connect with people. There is this DIY mentality where people… it is all about the realness. It is not a pop-polished genre. You write songs because you have to; you’ve got something to say. I am glad there are challenges. It teaches me things about life. I am certainly not complaining about it.

“The most rewarding part about being an artist is that… the life we live, with all of its challenges, it’s so emotionally nourishing. We have this deep love of life. We have the power to communicate things that people often can’t say. We have the opportunity to connect with people, [and] music teaches us so much, so much about ourselves emotionally. If we can touch someone else with that, then that’s huge. That’s massive.”

Ruby has touched people with her music. During our conversation, a fan emailed her. She took out her iPhone to read that email, and shared with me what she read.

“They are talking about “The Middle of Nowhere”; about how great the song is, and – my eyes are tearing up. [They are saying] there is only one other song that does that to them, John Prime’s “Say I’m Stoned.”

“I get a lot of comments about the first verse of “Wrap Me in a Fever.” They love those lyrics. Other than that, you don’t hear from people who don’t like it. You mostly just hear, “Oh, I love it!”

On this subject, I believe the most honest lyrics touch people the best, especially in Americana. It is for this reason, and another – the composition of the music – I decide whether I am interested in an artist. Whether or not I use this criterion to interview each musician for my blog, the answer is ‘no.’ Now I am honest with my readers.

I then asked another fitting question, who are the musicians who have touched Ruby with their music? Although The Waifs are an obvious answer, she still admits that this question was difficult. She gave it her best shot.

“I love Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams… then it depends on whether you are talking about songwriters. Then I could list off those two, and about fifty. Then, if you are talking about vocal inspiration, I looked up to Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, and Bessie Smith. It depends on what musical aspect you are talking about.”

This question might have been tough, but Ruby answered it beautifully. As our conversation neared an end, as did the iced latte she bought at the beginning of our talk, I asked her one last question – where would she like Solitude to take her into the future?

“That’s a tough question because it is my first record. I hope that it can take me on a path to write six or seven, or, however, many more [albums]. I hope that it gets me in America. I would like to move over here, and like I said, work hard on the road over here. I hope it gets me into people’s ears and hearts.”

Ruby Boots, Promotional Photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography* Ruby Boots’ sound will fit easily into the ears and hearts of Americana lovers, and even country fans who want to listen to lyrics that are honest, sometimes even blunt, but beautifully sung. This country siren from down under translates hitting the grind, both emotionally and physically into music. You will not hear too much rasp in Ruby’s voice, but rather a sweet and clean timbre. Her style of storytelling will make you wonder, what is going on in the country down under, and can we have some of that sound up here. Lucky for these listeners, Ruby is not slowing down anytime soon.

Until the end of March next year, Ruby and her band will tour Australia. In late September, she finished her tour in the United States.

“I was hoping to ride the wave for at least a year because you put all that work into an album, and then you hope that creates opportunities on the road. I want to be on the road and play for people. I can’t say too much in detail, but I will get back here in April and May, touring.”

 

 

*Photos published with permission

The 2015 SESAC Pop Music Awards Celebrate Publishers and Songwriters behind Today’s Hits

SESAC 2015 Pop Awards Icon Thanks again to Pam Lipshitz, Thomas Mulgrew, and the rest of Workman Group PR, I attended another red carpet event, one with more star-studded celebrities – The SESAC 2015 Pop Music Awards. The ceremony included a riveting red carpet reception followed by dinner, award presentations, and performances. This event brought together many successful publishers and songwriters behind hits that were recognized by the GRAMMY Awards, received many placements, and got a lot of air time.

The awards – which took place last night between 7:30 and 11:00 pm – would be centered at one of the Big Apple’s many important cultural landmarks, The New York Public Library. The press anticipated the arrivals of Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams, but she turned into a no-show. Luckily, legendary hip-hop artist and Public Enemy founder Chuck D, walked the red carpet next to honoree – Jon Platt, President, North America for Warner/Chappell, who received SESAC’s Visionary Award.

Jon has long been recognized as one of the most revered executives in the music industry. He played an instrumental (no pun intended) role in attracting a wide range of talent to Warner/Chappell like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Roc Nation’s publishing roster, Mike WiLL Made It, and Aloe Blacc. Meanwhile, he continued to build relationships with songwriters like Katy Perry, Nate Ruess, Michael Buble, Barry Gibb and George Michael. Jon also worked at EMI where he signed Drake, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, Mary Mary and Snoop Dogg, and many others at the onset of their careers.

Additional songwriters who enjoyed an incredible night include James Napier and William Phillips (TOURIST), the team that wrote the GRAMMY Award-winning Song of the Year recorded by Sam Smith – “Stay With Me.” This hit was published by Salli Isaak Music Publishing (PRS), Method Paperwork LTD (PRS), and Universal Tunes. Napier also scored additional hits with Sam including “I’m Not The Only One,” and two songs featuring Sam – “Latch” by Disclosure and “La La” by Naughty Boy. For this accomplishment, James and William took home SESAC’s coveted Songwriter of the Year award.

Prior to accepting the awards, on the red carpet, I overheard James talking to a reporter about how he met Sam Smith. Although I will not divulge all the details of that conversation, I will say the success of the songwriting duo and the soulful male vocalist did not happen overnight. It happened over a few years. Napier and William Phillips (tourist) accepting award

Returning to the red carpet experience, I think about all who walked down for photo and interview opportunities following Napier. Angela Hunte, a Soca enthusiast, and the singer-songwriter who wrote “Empire State of Mind” for Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, also graciously posed for the press. Dressed in a daffodil neck to toe gown by BCBG Max Azaria, she smiled and humbly shared her experience with another journalist next to me about her current projects and future goals. Later that night, Angela would perform “Empire State of Mind” in honor of Jon Platt.

DJ Marley Waters, who had hit songs this year with electro-R&B song “2 On,” recorded by Tinashe, featuring Schoolboy Q, and also performed on the same stage alongside popular DJs including Avicii, would also receive an award. SESAC’s Mario Prins accepted the award on DJ Marley Waters’ behalf. On the red carpet, the songwriter posed for photos with Trevor Gale, Writer/Publishers relations at SESAC, and one of the night’s many glamor queens dressed to the nines, Jillisa Lynn.

Mike Free Accepting Award Mike Free, a contributor to the hit recorded by Trey Songz, “Na Na,” walked the red carpet mostly solo. Although he, like many quickly grew tired of smiling for all of the press; Mike would later receive an award for his success with “Na Na.” Award recipients who did not seem to grow tired on the red carpet included London On Da Track, a record producer, songwriter, and rapper, who collaborated on the hits recorded by Rich Gang featuring Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug, “Lifestyle,” and one recorded by T.I. featuring Young Thug, “About the Money.”

Like previously mentioned, not all award recipients appeared that night. Charli XCX, the songwriter and performer of “Boom Clap” and a contributor to other songs like “I Love It” recorded by Icona Pop, and “Fancy” recorded by Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, also received an award, but did not attend the event. American Authors received the most memorable award that night; SESAC’s first ever, SYNC Award, which counts the number of air plays an SESAC artist receives. While this group was not present to accept either, they did prepare a video thank you message to SESAC for their major accomplishment. Their hit, “Best Day of My Life” received 150 placements in television and film.

Singer-songwriters were not the only guests of the red carpet reception that night. Other celebrities invited to the event like famous model Rain Dove and actress from Orange Is the New Black, Farrah Krenek made appearances. New singer-songwriters also graced the reception including: East-Texas native, Laura Lee Bishop Green, who followed just behind DJ Marley Waters on the carpet; the Brooklyn-based vocalist of Chairlift, Caroline Polachek; singer-songwriter Lisenny Rodriguez; and many more. My slide show of red carpet snapshots will show more. Additional SESAC players also pose with guests including Pat Collins, SESAC President; Trevor Gale, Senior VP, Writer/Publisher Relations; Linda Lorence Critelli, VP, Writer/Publisher Relations; Jamie Dominguez, Senior Director, Writer/Publisher Relations; and Greggory Smith, Associate Director, Writer/Publisher Relations.

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The red carpet event finished at about 8:30 pm and the awards ceremony started at 8:45 pm. During this time, Pat Collins made the opening speech. Linda Lorence Critelli introduced the sponsors of the awards, Delta Airlines, City National Bank, and The London NYC, an exclusive hotel partner. Linda and Trevor Gale shared the responsibility of announcing the awards.

By 9:15 pm, the audience was given a break to eat dinner. I would take off in the middle of dinner service to catch a train back home. During the remaining 30 minutes, I chatted with a few members of the press who were able to come into the Celeste Bartos Forum, the room where the ceremony was held, and drew conclusions about what I have learned from attending the event. Celeste Bartos Forum 542015

The 2015 SESAC Pop Music Awards ceremony celebrated the songwriters and publishers that helped recognized artists become household names through hit songs. While 2014 – 2015 has proven to be a year in which SESAC writers have had tremendous success, these achievements are meant only to be enjoyed in a moment. Like I have heard from many industry experts, it is difficult to predict which songs will capture the attention of the masses.

The most important lesson I remembered last night is that no artist is an island. Publishers and Songwriters play a vital role in helping recording artists rise on the popular music scene. While guarantees do not exist, artists who benefit from a collaboration with songwriters and producers, the way Sam Smith, Tinashe, and Trey Songz did, can only hope that their hits from the past year will and open the doors to more profitable opportunities in the near future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arlen Playing Slide Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Disclaimer: All Photos were published with permission

The Best Artist Interviews of 2014!

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

No. 5: Juicebox

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

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

 

 

 

No. 4: YUZIMA

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

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

 

 

No. 3: The Blackfoot Gypsies

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

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

 

 

 

 

No. 2: Kim Logan

Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan 

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

 

 

 

 

No. 1: Imagine Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governors Ball Music Festival

GovBall2014_Word_Cloud

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

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

New Music Seminar

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

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

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

CMJ

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

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

Social Listening in Popular Music Research

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

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

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

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

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

Quantity vs Quality

 

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

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

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

What I would like to see in Music Journalism

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

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

Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ Answers 

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

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

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

Stick to the music

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