Passion, Practice and Performance: Tender Glue, Alyson Greenfield, and Myself

My social calendar has been quite full over the last two weekends. These social gatherings involved seeing old friends and new colleagues performing music in New York City. Last Saturday, December 12th, I went to the Rock Shop in Brooklyn to see Alyson Greenfield perform with a drummer she had been collaborating with, Sanal. Then I went to the Lower East side later that night to see my work colleague play guitar in a project called, Tender Glue.

The last time Alyson and I both saw each other, was in mid-October at CMJ. Sadly, I missed her show because I stayed too late at work. The next time Alyson and I met, we were both walking towards the Rock Shop in Brooklyn. She was wearing a cozy and fashionable white wool coat peppered with little nuances of black thread. Alyson also wore a pink backpack that I believe she purchased at American Apparel. Her hair was tied up in a ballet bun, and her lips sported a ruby red shade of lipstick. To accompany the dramatic facial appearance, Alyson wore sheer black stockings on her legs and flat-heeled leather boots that came mid-way between her ankles and her calves.

At the Rock Shop, friends of Alyson’s were waiting in the backstage/VIP area – a patio covered by a plastic canopy. When we got there, we met Kristin Flammio, a good friend of Sanal’s, known for her work with Brooklyn based band Forts. Also, I had a chance to meet and talk with Sanal.

Sanal moved to the U.S. from Kalmyk Republic, Russia – closest connection to Kazakhstan in the area of Caspian Sea, which belongs to indigenous people of Mongolian ethnicity, named Kalmyks. He comes from a musical family and learned to play drums from when he was six years old. During our chat, he told me how much he admires Alyson’s professionalism. Sanal said that any musical idea Alyson has, she records it, and then plays it to him and says “This is what I want.” Sanal then plays a rhythm on his drum set. Some of the song Alyson prefers having an “orchestra” or ambient atmosphere with what I guess would be toms, padded mallets and other percussion instruments. When he and Alyson decide on a rhythm, they play it together three or four times during their rehearsal.

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According to Sanal, Alyson practices her parts individually before she comes to rehearsal. That helps contain the rehearsal time to an hour. Making a living as a musician in New York City is time- and cost-consuming. Aside from the fact that having a day job is important to help musicians sustain themselves and focus on their craft; renting a place to practice with your band requires an adherence to the time restrictions of that space. Although my experience is nowhere near up to par with Alyson’s or Sanal’s, I remember rehearsing with the S.U. Klezmer Ensemble, on a weekly basis, and being conscientious of the fact that our rehearsal times were only one hour in length.

Returning to Sanal’s story, he explains, “Especially for singers, it is important they perform their parts individually because they have certain notes they must hit a certain way, at various moments in the song.” He also says that singers who don’t practice their parts before a rehearsal can spend copious amounts of time repeating specific sections, and this can overrun the rehearsal time.

After about thirty minutes, of talking, and enjoying a beer and a sandwich in the backstage area, Alyson and Sanal were ready to perform. Alyson’s stage outfit included a black string tank top, black denim shorts and those stockings and boots I had told you about earlier. At one point during her performance, she said, I was going for a Black Swan look. (She was referring to the way one of the main characters from the 2010 film, Black Swan, dressed). Sanal wore a black t-shirt that simulated a black tux.

Alyson and Sanal both displayed a love for music itself, and a desire to share it with their audience. Although the show they put on was free and started at 5 pm on a Saturday evening, the turnout of the crowd was great – about 30 people came to watch. Alyson and Sanal both performed two new songs together for the first time. I did record this clip of an acapella song Alyson performed. (the song she performed with a loop pedal. The one with a floor tom song, she performed with me also playing drums – Sanal).

After the show, Alyson, Sanal, and I, took a tour around The Rock Shop. We had a chance to see the merchandise displayed by various Brooklyn-based artisan businesses. This slideshow includes all we saw.

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Later that night, at around 7:00 pm, I left the Rock Shop and went to Leftfield on the Lower East Side. There, I met my work colleague, Janise, who was going to play guitar, as a temporary participant in Tom Gluewicki’s project, Tender Glue. According to the project’s Facebook Fan Page, Tender Glue is “Not a person. Not a band. It is music made by an urge to create (Tender Glue, Facebook, 2015).” Tom explains that Tender Glue is only him for now (“About| Tender Glue,” n.d.).

Tender Glue’s music has a structure that, pays ode to the psychedelic and folk rock of the ‘60’s. Then, somewhere within the first song, where the listener expects to hear a melodic guitar solo that is easy to sing back, the lead guitar instead delivers a series chords stretched across the measures as whole notes, creating an ambiance and ultimately, reminding listeners that these songs have been written in modern times. In another song, on which Tom played acoustic guitar, Janise played a solo that bounced between the low registers of the ‘e’ and the ‘a’ strings, and then the ‘b’ and the second ‘e’ strings on her Strat. The song was – for the most part – composed in a major key, with an upbeat tempo, and a steady rhythm.

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Tom, on rhythm guitar, played more major and minor chords, than the power and bar chords we are used to seeing from the most famous rock guitarists we can identify. In one song, Tom’s harmony involves a progression between ‘C’ major, ‘G’ major and ‘A’ minor. As for his vocal performance, one might say that that Tom’s voice floats in the register of a tenor. Further, Tom’s vocals are accentuated by the guitar pedals and the effects of the microphone. These effects help simulate distance as if the singer’s voice echoes. Another memorable effect made by the technology was at a specific time in the performance where Tom played his harmonica, touching it on the surface of the microphone in front of him, which produced a sound that felt like a cross between a fog horn and the horn of a small train.

If you would like to listen to any track by Tender Glue online, you can download songs for free on Bandcamp. All of Tender Glue’s music, lyrics, and the additional effects are the idea of Tom Gluewicki (J. Lazarte, personal communication, December 28, 2015). During the performance, I met one of Janise’s friends; he works in finance, and he also plays drums within various bands around New York City. Aside from telling me about his day-to-day, he also told me about his admiration for Janise’s drive to perform music.

On the topic of performing, I wanted to bring up another interesting conversation I had with Sanal. He and I had spoken about the difference between musicians who have a passion for music and those who are merely skilled. He used the example within the film Black Swan, in which ballerina Nina (played by Natalie Portman), the main character, has mastered the skills to dance the parts of both the white swan and the black swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. However, she does not perform with as much soul as her understudy, Lily (played by Mila Kunis). This realization drives Nina mad, and eventually, results in her own physical and mental demise. Sanal’s finishing point to that conversation was that those musicians who have a passion for playing music and practice, are happier than those musicians who have the skills, practice, but lack passion.

Fast-forward to last Saturday, December 19th. That Saturday, I did not travel to the city for concerts. Instead, I invited someone I have been dating for a few weeks now to come over. I told him previously that I had played piano throughout my undergraduate studies. He suggested that maybe one day, I would play for him. Therefore, I decided to take Saturday afternoon to practice a few pieces on my Baldwin Upright Piano. A few pieces I had come to love playing, all by Erik Satie, included “First Gymnopedie”; “First Gnossienne”; and “Third Gymnopedie.”

That afternoon, I practiced these three short pieces, and while I still have the skill, I am a stickler for playing everything perfectly, much like the ballerina Nina was when she danced. However, I then recalled what Sanal talked to me about, and I asked myself, what was more important, to play each of the notes perfectly, or to play with passion? I decided on the latter. The most important part of my performance that night – if it were to happen – was to play a piece through. If I were to make mistakes, I would have to disguise them like they were intentional.

That night, when my date came over and asked me to play something, I chose the “First Gymnopedie.” I stumbled a few times in my performance, but my mistakes were not very noticeable. When it came time to play the “First Gnossienne,” my stumbles were far more noticeable, yet I felt like I played that one with far more passion than I did the “First Gymnopedie.” Regardless, though, when I played that final F-minor chord on the “First Gnossienne,” I looked back at my date who was watching me from the living room, and he just smiled.

Works Cited

J Lazarte. (n.d.). About| Tender Glue [website]. Retrieved from http://tenderglue.com/about/

Tender Glue (n.d.). In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from https://www.facebook.com/TenderGlue/info/

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

Today’s Afrobeat: Founded by father, Fela, and continued by son, Femi Kuti takes this genre into a changing world

Femi KutiFemi Kuti, Head Shot, Press Photo carries his father’s – Fela Kuti – legacy of Afrobeat graciously and humbly. Developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Afrobeat blends elements of Yoruba music, jazz and funk rhythms with an instrumentation that emphasizes African percussion and vocal styles (New World Encyclopedia 2015). American musicians have come to appreciate the sounds of Afrobeat pioneered by Fela and expanded by Femi.

Throughout his 26-year career, Femi has toured with large rock and roll acts in the U.S., including Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and collaborated with Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright on a song for the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV (Ridgefield Press 2015).” As I interviewed Femi for the Music Historian in the lounge above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, minutes before his rehearsal, I asked him what it is about Afrobeat that artists from other genres admire.

“Understand,” Femi begins, “that it has always been there. In fact, in 1970s, when my father was making all of his hits, I think diplomats from Nigeria were taking records [of Fela’s music] to America. People like Miles Davis, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were listening to him. So many great musicians were inspired, but his name was never mentioned. What probably happened was that someone had been listening to his record, and they said, “Wow, this is great. Who is this?” Someone else would respond, “It is this cat from Nigeria,” and they would say “Wow! Great music.”

“In 1977, when Nigeria hosted the Festac Festival, I know Americans came to the shrine and played with him [Fela], jammed with him, and loved his music. I would [also] say 50-60% of Hip Hop came from the Afrobeat. So, it would not be surprising to hear people say my father inspired them. Then there was a musical about him on Broadway. I think this is a just a manifestation, but he was never mainstream. He was always on the ground and inspired American arts, culture, and music.”

In Nigeria, Fela had a very strong fan base. Femi got his start in music by playing saxophone in his father’s band at the age of 15 (femiakuti.com 2015). The fan base often asked Femi when he was going to play music and be like his father. When Femi decided to leave his father’s band, this was a taboo.

“In Africa, you never fight your father, especially if he was Fela Kuti,” explained Femi. Further, the musician admits he had a stressful period of trying to convince people his music was his own, and not his father’s.

“People misinterpreted everything I did,” he said. “My father told so many journalists that he would never write a song for his kids, but they still thought that was not true. When I had my first hit in Nigeria, “Wonder Wonder,” I was not given credit; people thought my father wrote the song for me. Then I had my big hit, which became international, “Beng Beng Beng” and people said “No, no. It is [a hit] just because you are Fela’s son. When I got my first GRAMMY nomination, it was, “Oh it is because you are Fela’s son.

“I think the good thing about it is it never troubled me. We loved my father very much. I don’t think critics or anybody could destabilize my thoughts.”

Femi has released a total of eight albums in his career. His 1998 album Shoki Shoki broke many boundaries in Afrobeat music. The artist used technology and machines to drive the force of the music. His last three records, Day by Day (2010), Africa for Africa (2011), and No Place for My Dreams (2013), have been released by Label Maison Records. I wondered whether Femi, when making a new album always searched for a new experience or focused more on the process of making music rather than an end goal. He says:

“I feel the experience of the time is what contributes most to the making of the album. For instance, in Africa for Africa, I wanted people to experience what it was like to record a band like mine both live and in the studio in Nigeria. [For example] they were recording and the electricity goes off. Hopefully, they would feel the frustrations I felt trying to get the record done.

No Place for My Dreams, the last one, reflects more of my childhood. I was trying to bring sounds from my father that touched me. Bringing that power – ‘I would love to play music, what kind of music do I want to play?’

“The next album I am working on is trying to go back to Shoki Shoki, which tried to use technology to enhance the creativity of Afrobeat. Most people [at the time] thought it was not very possible [to do] with the Afrobeat.”

Africa for Africa is one album that personally stood out to me the most. Femi, in a 2011 interview with NPR, said that one of the themes from this album reflects an ongoing concern among many African citizens, the lack of a unified central news network to inform people about what is going on in multiple regions across their content (NPR 2011). I asked Femi to tell me more about this theme. He elaborates:

“We have to wait for the BBC to tell us there is a war in the Congo; we have to wait for CNN to tell us what is going on in Ghana. Where is the African central network system to tell us our story, and then to tell all? It would be so powerful, that the BBC and CNN would have to get new [about Africa] from this network, not vice versa.

“Let’s take for example the crisis of Boko Haram. The BBC reports any crisis before any Nigerian network. The BBC or CNN will send journalists into this area to investigate. How come no Nigerian network sends a journalist to this war zone? Are they too scared? Not even videos or live footage. With the war in Iraq, you see BBC journalists will go there – this is journalism; there is no room to compromise nor argue with this. You have to appreciate the bravery of the journalist.

“There is so much. Don’t African nations see what is going on? Where is that kind of courage, where is that kind of attitude in journalism? If you were to focus really on Africa, Africa would probably not have time to listen to other news. There is too much going on there to deal with that. If we did have a serious network like the BBC – that was not corrupt, of course, not managed by interference or governments manipulating the system – then can you imagine how fantastic that network would be? For an individual journalist to be curious and go to find the truth of that news at any length because it is important? That’s what I would have loved for Africa.”

Femi Kuti Powerful Force Rehearsal (2) Like his father, Femi also addressed corruption within his music, corruption that each African citizen faces daily. One song from No Place for My Dreams, “No Work, No Job, No Money,” includes a lyrical message that within a country filled with plenty of oil and other natural resources, there is no work for people to help them make money and feed themselves nor their families. Based on personal curiosity, I wondered how have people’s reaction to this same type of corruption changed from the 1970’s to present day.

“I think what has changed is that now people are most outspoken. In my father’s time, it was just his voice and his voice alone. Now, on social media, you will see young boys and girls express their discontent with anything they see; this was not happening in my father’s time.

“The young people communicate way too fast for the leaders. I don’t think world leaders can deal with this, especially when they [the government] is being dishonest. More people today complain, so the government is very uncomfortable. The government is being forced to be honest for the first time, but, I think they will try to be smarter, more sophisticated; they will try to hide.

“You see what is happening in Greece, Spain, and France? I now realize that Greece is facing the kind of problems Africa faces – they have no jobs, they can’t put food on the table. You see what is going on in Ukraine? The government is losing its invisible force. Europeans and Americans don’t fear government like Africa fears government. Africa too is changing very fast and African governments are losing that invisibility where they think they are untouchable,” says Femi.

Issues of joblessness, poverty and hunger exist in all countries. Femi also makes a valid point when he says U.S. or EU citizens don’t fear their governments as much as Africans fear theirs. While the musician mentions that young people in Africa speaking on social media regarding what is happening around them; neither he nor his father wanted to encourage the international community to get involved.

“Understand,” begins Femi, “African leaders want people to believe they are honest. If I can show the true picture, then you have a different view. You become intrigued; you want to find out more.” A listener might ask, ’Is Femi speaking the truth, or will I go to Africa?’ Femi continues with this figurative scenario, “You will say ‘Oh, there is no electricity.’ How come Nigeria, a big oil-producing country cannot provide healthcare? How come the education system in Nigeria does not even exist? You have all of these universities and no matter what degree you come out with; it is meaningless. [You then ask] ‘Is Femi telling the truth, or are the leaders telling the truth?’ Then you have to question – How come your leaders are negotiating or doing business with corrupt people? Are they part of this corruption?

“I feel, that the world, whether we like it or not, in a few years, the political arena will change drastically, for the positive I hope.”

Looking towards the future, I wondered what Femi expected from himself and his band, The Positive Force. Before I directly posed this within a question, I wondered whether his last album No Place for My Dreams had produced the results he wanted. Femi says:

“I think it has already done its full lap. We have toured already now for over a year and a half, promoting the album. People love it very much, and now, [they] go into the future, and talk about it later on. The later generation might pick it up one day like they picked up my father’s [albums]. I think what is important for me is to know how to look into the future. Always try to bring new sounds into our music – new conversations.”

Wherever these new conversations lead listeners, Femi will continue that passion for a genre that helps define Africa. Also to combining funk, jazz, and soul, Femi also defines Afrobeat as a genre filled with African culture and tradition, “the true roots.”

“Don’t forget,” he explains, “Africa had its melody before the west came, or before jazz. My father was lucky to grow up in a village that still kept its tradition and folk songs from ancestral times. I think my father was gifted enough to say, “Everybody is doing this in Africa, this what I have… and if we take it and just make it rich.” That just caught everybody’s attention. His grandfather was a musician and composer, and his father was a musician and a composer. His grandfather was the first composer from West Africa to record for the BBC. They composed a lot of hymns, many of them are still relevant in churches, or in traditional culture in Nigeria.

“My father grew up with all of this rich music. As he studied classical music, fell in love with jazz, tried to find his feet, he probably then remembered, “Wow. This is what my grandfather was doing.” This is what I was listening to in the streets… where I was born. [He said] “Oh, I can… put all of this richness together and bring about my kind of music.” Then everybody said “Whoa! What is he doing?” Everybody was moved by it.”

In July, between the 10th and the 18th Femi Kuti & The Positive Force will travel to Paris and the UK to perform on a short tour. Then, it is back to Nigeria to focus on the new album, which will revisit the stylistic creativity established within his previous work, Shoki Shoki.

“I think with my experience, age, and maturity, and if my calculation is right, in my mind, it should be ten times greater than the Shoki Shoki album,” explains the musician. “If I can arrive at that, then I can say that I have reached another milestone in my musical career.”

Works Cited

Afrobeat. (2012, August 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Afrobeat

Femi Kuti Official Website. (2013). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.femiakuti.com/#!about/c2414/

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force Bringing Afrobeat To Ridgefield | The Ridgefield Daily Voice. (2015, May 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://ridgefield.dailyvoice.com/events/femi-kuti-positive-force-bringing-afrobeat-ridgefield

Nigerian Star Femi Kuti Talks Politics And Music. (2011, April 27). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135770537/nigerian-artist-femi-kuti-talks-politics-and-music

 

All photos were published with permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

 

Pop Musician & Classical Music Fan Campaigns for Key Change on PledgeMusic

Last Fall, alternative indie pop artist, Janna Pelle, introduced herself and her concept album, Key Change to Music Historian readers and the independent music scene in New York City. For the month of May, my interview with Janna has gotten into the top ranks of the blog’s most read articles. One reason for this might be the result of her fundraising efforts to make Key Change the album every classical and pop music enthusiast and history nerd wants to hear.

The evolution of the keyboard, which was largely inspired by the different performance spaces in which the piano was placed throughout history, inspires the concept in Key Change[i]. In her album, Janna infuses instruments that inspired the modern physical structure of the piano, like the harp and the forte piano, with pop-inspired tunes. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic – which is filled with personality and elegance – will make fellow musicians, bloggers of independent music, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano fall for enthusiasm and talent. Watch her campaign video right here:

Aside from bringing together additional talent within the independent art scene of New York City, Key Change represents the beginning of a new chapter in Janna’s life which followed many life-changing events. Music Historian has spoken to Janna about the themes in her first two albums. Shameless Self-Promotion (2012) reflect the moment she stepped out on her own as a musician. Janna wrote The Show Must Go On (2014) while she was grieving her father’s passing[ii]. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic will attract fellow musicians, bloggers, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano to her enthusiasm and talent.

Music-wise, Janna describes herself as the love child of Fiona Apple and Lady Gaga, with the alter-ego of David Byrne[iii]. If you want lyrics that describe city life, coping with difficulties, romantic relationships and sex, music that quotes theme songs from popular television series, and rhythms that can make you dance like you would at a club or a fashion show, then Janna Pelle brings it all. Pre-order her album Key Change today at PledgeMusic. As stated on the page which the previous link will take you to, donors can expect the album for a release date in November of this year.

[i] Janna Pelle: Key Change Campaign Video. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/keychange

[ii] P Trutescu. (2014, Nov. 18). Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change.” [Web log]. Retrieved from https://musichistorian.net/2014/11/18/janna-pelle-the-shameless-advertiser-musician-brings-us-key-change/

[iii] Pelle, J. (2014). Janna Pelle: The Band, The Brand. Retrieved from http://jannapelle.com/bio.html

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.

Julie Coulter, Insurance Broker and Consultant Gets Real about where musicians should direct their attention

JCoulter_Company_Logo Julie Coulter, Founder and Owner of J. Coulter & Company, Inc., fell into working with an important part of the music industry – insurance brokerage and consulting for artists. Although she set her sights on becoming an actress during her days at Emerson College in Massachusetts, Julie read Rolling Stone Magazine fervently. One article inspired her to fall in love with the music industry.

“I was stimulated by the fact that there was a man doing this [insurance brokerage for musicians], named Walter Howell. Walter took care of the Jacksons on their tour, right around the time that Michael’s hair caught fire during the shoot of the Pepsi commercial. I remember reading an article about him in Rolling Stone Magazine and thinking MY GOD! Rolling Stone is writing about this guy? Are they going to make this a regular – write about the insurance people to the stars or what?” recounted Julie. “I thought, that the next time I saw something like that again in Rolling Stone, I wanted it to be about me.”

Julie’s father had an insurance business for musicians and was a pioneer in the field for what was then the emerging music business. He insured The Rolling Stones, he acted as the broker on the policy during the time The Who stampede happened in 1979, and also had Peter Frampton as a client. In 1985, Julie started working for her father. From there, she would get licensed for insurance, create a base of clients including Willie Nelson, Patti LaBelle, and continue with Peter Frampton. Throughout her career, Julie would also join several robust agencies, and help several artists along the way. Now, Julie has a portfolio of experience and a goldmine of information that Music Historian readers, especially performing artists, can find helpful. Keep reading, hear and listen to what Julie has to say in my question-and-answer interview.

Music Historian: Tell me a bit about your professional background.

Julie Coulter: I’ve gone from being in the big insurance brokerage realms to being the chief cook and bottle-washer of J. Coulter and Company. I started working for my father in 1985. I was living in Boston and after attending Emerson, took a class at Northeastern University, a Continuing Education class, for insurance and got my primary insurance certification. Then, I came home to New York to attend the Hill school of insurance and got my license. In the old days, I was licensed in all 50 states, but now I am licensed in 23.

I continued working for my Dad’s agency, Coulter and Groner, which merged with another firm called York International around 1987, the time he also passed away. After a few years with York, still servicing my father’s entertainment book of business. Then in the spring of 1989, I started my agency with a woman named Debra Kozee-Sands. Together we formed Coulter and Sands. When I left my father’s business, most of my entertainment clients came with me.

In 1996, I sold my ½ of the business to my partner, and went to work for a business in Chicago called Near North Insurance Brokerage, a nationwide firm that used to be the second largest entertainment insurance brokerage in the country. Here, I ran the music touring division, but I was the only one in that department in their NY office. I again bought my clients along to Near North, and took Near North associates from Chicago & LA offices to music touring conferences, where I introduced them to all of the concert promoters. Slowly, but surely, Near North started insuring these promoters during the formation of SFX Entertainment.

At the beginning of 2003, I left Near North and went to work for MusicPro, which was a different kind of agency. MusicPro was half-owned by a Long Island firm called Sterling & Sterling, now called Sterling Risk, and half owned by ASCAP. I brought most of my business from Near North into there, and I grew to love working with ASCAP, and getting involved with the musicians. That’s where I started to advocate more the little guy. I also started forming a different perspective. I worked with the Performance Rights Organizations and the individual bands and learned about their needs and how to address their needs. I wanted to make them think consciously. For example, on LinkedIn the other day, the lawyer, Wallace Collins posted the following:

“Musician: A person who puts $5K worth of instruments into a cheap broken-down car to drive 500 miles to a $50 gig.”

MH: Those things need to be insured just in case something happens…

Julie: Right. For a musician, that is one of the last things they think about. Unless it is put in their face and say “Oh, man. They’re right! I have $30K worth of equipment here, and if it gets stolen, what will I do?”

One of the reasons I went to MusicPro is because that agency has a musical equipment floater that cannot be beat.

MH: What is a floater?

Julie: A floater is an inland marine insurance policy that covers a specific item(s) that are not connected to one location.

MH: Just to make sure I have the right idea, is a floater specifically for transporting items across state borders?

Julie: Yes, pretty much. We tailored that floater to the musician, whether they played classical instruments, carried high valued instruments, played in a garage rock band, or whether one player slept in the car with their guitar and traveled from place to place.

Working at MusicPro helped me develop a new appreciation for this. Now, I say, I deal with everyone from the wannabe, to the has-been, to everyone in between.

I remember working from 9 to 5 for my father’s agency doing claims, and getting on the phone with Peter Frampton because he just hit a deer. That’s how exciting it got. I also worked with Patti LaBelle, who was a client until probably about five years ago. I had Willie Nelson for 20 years, who was my first big client.

MH: So, musicians don’t ask questions or get involved?

Julie: They get involved on a grassroots level. They’re going to play a local catering hall, and the venue says to them, “We’d love for you to play, but you need to have your insurance.” Normally, it is the business management, accountant, lawyers, or the manager – whoever is really looking after the band – or a booking agent who might have a new band out on the road traveling to play mostly colleges, performance arts centers, and catering halls, who are asked to provide certificates. We live in a very litigious society; it has become so common now to make everybody get insurance.

MH: What kind of worries do musicians usually have regarding insurance?

Julie: They have skepticism. They say, “I don’t want to spend my cash there…” Unless it is personal insurance for them, or their homes they do not get overly involved. Musicians very rarely get involved with their insurance, but they should have concerns.

I also handle promoter. There are [for example] restrictions on bad weather coverage. You must provide at least a ten days notice, or they [the insurance companies] won’t even bother insuring you. Theft, obviously, damage to a venue, any of those kinds of peril, is usually excluded because the general liability policy itself usually excludes properties that are in your custody or control. For a promoter that would be a venue, and they’d have to buy a policy that does address those restrictions.

MH: How has the insurance business within the music industry changed over the years?

Julie: The tech industry took us all. Compared to where technology is for other businesses, for insurance, they are still coming to grips with switching from instantaneous emails and attachments to completing website forms. My bookkeeper and I just discussed this… I call it “other people’s websites”. I went from being on the phone with “Person A,” and I would say “Person B” has done 22 tours to date. I will send Person A the itinerary. Here is the information. I hang up the phone and immediately tend to what I need to get done.

Now, I’ve got to go to Person A’s website, answer all of the questions, or I cannot get any further. It [technology] went from making everybody’s life easier to not. That is technology in general.

The wording started to change as events unfolded. For example, musicians at first worried about being an additional insured. Many thought “Oh if I am additionally insured on their policy, I am okay.” That was not true.

Insurance is also very event-oriented. The rate on insurance depends very much on the band’s genre. Someone getting up on stage with a guitar and an amplifier will not have as high a rate as a rapper, especially a gangster rapper.

MH: How come?

Julie: I said this to somebody the other day, “Rap gets a bad rap.” Nothing happens in the stadium where these musicians perform but, two blocks away from there, someone is getting hurt, and the police or the victim blame the concert. They might say, “Oh, a civilian was shot right by the rap concert.” There are stigmas that can affect the rates in the industry.

Moshing was another problem; people started getting hurt [by the masses at concerts]. If you see your friend from 30 feet away, you start smashing into another person’s body to get to them. Somebody is getting hurt, and the minute that happens, of course, the lawsuits start. Moshing, therefore, became excluded from policies.

The week I started at MusicPro, in 2003, the Station Fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, happened. The heavy metal band, Great White played at a club, where they included pyrotechnics. The guy who pulled the plugs on the fireworks, before they went off that night, worked for a client of mine. I used to tell him constantly; fireworks are not covered.

The station fire was a big game changer for many things in the business. I was being driven to the MusicPro office by my Boss’ driver. He asked, “Is that [the station fire] going to affect what they [MusicPro] do?” I answered, “Absolutely.”

One hundred people died in this club; the entire place burned down, and nobody had proper insurance. The case went so far to get Anheuser-Busch involved. [People] looked to sue who had money, and they had the deep pockets. Sure enough, pyrotechnics (except flashpots) were excluded from their policy. As a result of that incident, trying to get Great White insurance today is not easy.

Now, there has not been a major change in how things get done. What has happened more now, is the insurance industry is making changes within their coverage and policies based on world events instead of something local. I’ve seen companies go crazy in not knowing where to go with ratings or risks. If something happens, and you paid $1,000 for a policy last year, but this year, that same policy is $3,500. This happens, even to someone who has many claims, cancellation and non-appearance insurance.

Michael Jackson was incredibly difficult to insure. He had concerts he would just cancel, and the claim was Hell. When he passed away just about as he was going on tour, his insurers paid a pretty penny to get him cancellation and non-appearance insurance. Then, there was that whole problem about who had that money. Concert promoters lost some money and those dates.

Then, there was the question, “Did Michael Jackson commit suicide?” before ruling out any of the benefits from the policy. Yes, Dr. Murray went to jail for giving him the drugs, but was self-inflicted? Was this the result of negligence? Will your policy pay if it excludes these sorts of things? There is insurance that picks up these problems.

There are many levels to which you are insuring a show, for a musician or an event. I have found that many bands will play all of the festivals instead of [solely] touring. They tour the festivals, and if they play five during the summer because they are headlining, then that too changes the nature of the industry.

MH: Is there a difference between touring and playing at festivals? When you perform at festivals, do you fall under the festival’s insurance?

Julie: Yes/No. In the old days, the band would be covered by the festivals or promoter’s coverage. Not so anymore. Now they do a hold harmless where everyone carries their own insurance and you are responsible your actions, and then the festival picks up the rest of it.

These days since festivals are much more prevalent, a lot of musicians “tour” the festivals as opposed to doing an outright tour on their own.

MH: I’ve noticed that too with many musicians. Why do they only tour festivals?

Julie: That’s where they can headline, get a better dollar. For the ones who have been in the business for several years, they can make as much playing ten dates for ten festivals, as opposed to trucking their stuff around the country for three months. It is attractive. Most festivals offer second stages so that the younger emerging artists can get looked at or get new fans they might not get when they tour around on their own. Exposure is big, and these are places where you can become known.

MH: Returning to the topic that insurance is very event-oriented, would you say that like the music industry, it is volatile?

Julie: The players change, the names change, but the song remains the same. As intriguing as it is to insure different clients, the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, it is still insurance. I’ve been blessed with good clientele whom I have had for twenty some odd years. The industry itself gets funky, and that’s when I have issues. My clients bring up rate increases and stuff like that. It is the same as any other insurance business except it is ten times more important that you get it done now.

I often hear, “The guys are picking up a van, but we don’t have van insurance for them…” Then I say, “Oh, I see. The guys are picking up the van tomorrow. You didn’t tell me they are on tour yet! Would you like to send me an itinerary, maybe we will cover this one?” It’s always a lot of laughs.

I [also] find a whole other ball game. The event people a week before the show call me and say “Oh, I didn’t realize I needed insurance for this!” Or, they might say, “Oh, I need $10M to cover this,” and then I respond, “You need this much? The band that is playing is only getting $100!” If the insurance is going to be more than the gig, they will not buy it like that.

MH: Do you work with negotiating?

Julie: Yes. I am a licensed consultant as well for insurance in New York. I am always amazed at what people sign before they realize what liability and responsibility they take on. I will often get back to my client and say “You should look at this and that, and why are they asking you for this? What are you really doing there? They want you to have $10M in insurance for a one hour gig involving you and a guitar.”

Many of my clients now, when they get a contract, send it to me for insurance purposes to make sure they have everything they need. Then, I might go back and say, “You don’t have those limits. Here is what it will cost you to get that.” After they hear this, they will go back to their party and talk it over.

MH: Aside from going to get certification for an Insurance License; what else would someone need to do to get involved in your line of work?

Julie: One of the other things I did which helped, I used to go to music conferences, like the one held by Pollstar Magazine. When I started at MusicPro, I went to Folk Alliance because musicians there had a lot of instruments, and we had a program for that. I became a member of Women in Music in the mid 90’s so that I could learn more about the music industry and understand what I needed to insure.

I took another Continuing Education class about the Music Business at Baruch College, to learn about all of the other facets of the industry. The professor who taught this class started SoundScan. It was a very multifaceted class; he brought in different managers. Between that and the professional women in WIM, which had peaked my interest.

MH: I also graduated from Baruch this past December. I got my Masters in Marketing at the Zicklin School of Business.

Julie: Oh, funny! They were one of the only schools – this was before you could get degrees in music industry – who taught classes specific to the industry. I also worked on the New Music Seminar, which was a whole different animal, and one of the bigger conferences. Places like that had an industry gathering.

MH: Do you hear myths that people often bring to the table when they first talk about why they want to get involved in the music industry?

Julie: I find that many come to this with a lot of naivety. I have been to conferences where people say, “Here is so-and-so, and he will be the next, whatever…” I also find that musicians as a general category – not to stereotype any single kind of musician – like anyone else, must research what they are doing, and take an interest in their tools and instruments.

About J. Coulter & Company Inc.

J. Coulter & Co. Inc., a “boutique” insurance agency with a niche in entertainment risks, specializes in coverage for the music and special event industries. This company’s mission is to provide accessible, affordable and understandable insurance coverage and consulting services for our clientele. These services include the following:

Consulting – Review contractual obligations and needs for insurance purposes. Oversee all policies, brokerage activities, claims, and any other insurance needs. Act as management liaison for all insurances.

Brokerage – Through a network of top agents and carriers, help clients find the proper coverage for the best pricing. Coverage involves:

– Insurance offerings for the entertainment industry with niche in Music Industry, Touring and Musicians
– Special Events
– Personal Lines Coverage
– Studios
– Errors & Omissions (all types entertainment related)
– Cyber-Liability & Cyber Security

Insurance Specialty Programs:

– Musical Instruments & Equipment
– Special Events (one offs; festivals, private and public events)
– Individual & Group Trip Travel Accidental plans

For more information, please call (914) 305-2393.