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

Juicebox Perform at the New Yorker Hotel (l-r): Isaac Jaffe, Lisa Ramey, Nicholas Myers, Aaron Rockers Juicebox, the soul and funk band based in New York City, experienced several positive changes that launched them into a new direction after they released their 2012 single “Occupy my Heart.” Isaac Jaffe, the bassist of the band, shared the story of the birth behind this sultry and contagious single.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” agree Nick and Jamie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Your Heart Hear It First: An interview with John Elliott and Performance Review

John Elliott at the Cantina Royal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn John Elliott’s songs appeared on the television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “One-Tree Hill.” He even co-wrote a song within one episode of “Californication.” Yet, for most of his career, John remained an independent artist.

“It’s a serious balancing act,” explained the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter. When I asked him about the benefits and challenges of staying independent in the music industry, John honestly and humbly answered, “Sometimes the benefits outweigh the challenges and sometimes it’s the other way around. I’ve mainly stayed independent because… I just haven’t met the right people yet. Actually, I might have just met the right people the other day. We’ll see how that goes.”

He adds, “I do have someone working with me who started as a fan, and now because she believes in what I make and I [in turn] believe in her, she has become a valuable member of the team. I think that’s a rare relationship to find. I would love to continue to build a team, but it has to be with the right people.”

Since high school, during his first attempt to write music on a blank tape from 1993, John knew he wanted to pursue music as a career. So far, he has entirely self-produced all his records, including his latest Good Goodbyes – the first record on which he played every instrument, and the one that perhaps presented the most challenges. Now, as he continues the journey he started long ago, John Elliott reflects on the radical experience of relying solely on himself to bring his music to fruition. It is my pleasure to welcome John as the featured artist for the month of March on Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

In the title track of his record, which is composed in a major key, John sings the following lyric, “I can’t let a good thing go even when it starts to bleed,” followed by, “Even when I know it’s dying and it’s time to set if free/ I’m afraid I won’t be treasured/the way she treasures me.” John wrote this song in 10 minutes one morning, without even writing the lyrics down.

He says, “I don’t question songs that come [to me] like that. They are just pure and right. If I look at it now and try to analyze it, I would say it’s [the song] about moving on from something without knowing what’s next, which is a scary thing to do. People always say “let it go, let it go” as if that’s something safe or easy. I think it’s a little disingenuous to claim you can just lightly skip into the future, unencumbered by the past, never to return or look back or wonder.”

“Of course,” he continues, “the album is called Good Goodbyes, so I understand that moving on and elsewhere can be, and often is, a good thing. The rest of album definitely lives under the umbrella of that song.”

As a critic, I find it comforting when the title track of the artist’s album is born with little effort and yet holds so much meaning that analyzing the lyrics might take 10 days.

John confirms, “It’s not about how “easy” it is to write something, it’s about how right if feels. I know when I write well, with honesty, passion and heart. When I try too hard, it’s no good.”

Other songs on his album like “Yin and Yang Collector,” “Monogamous” and “Friends Back East” seem to tell a definite story. I wondered whether these songs had a story and whether John spent more time trying to write them compared to “All These Good Goodbyes.”

“Generally, it’s doesn’t go well if I start by trying to write something with a message. That’s tricky. It’s better if the story, images, or lines are strung together by emotional truth of some sort. If you get that right, a message “might” emerge. The best writing is a little mysterious, but somehow makes perfect sense to your soul. You have to get your head out of the way and let your heart hear it,” explains John. John Elliott on Guitar at Cantina Royal

John describes the lyrics on his album more as poetry than storytelling. He also recalls a moment when he performed another one of his songs from Good Goodbyes, “Still I’m Not Still” for a producer. “That’s not a song,” remarked the producer, “that’s a meditation.” While John admits the producer might have meant to say this as a negative remark, John received it openly and happily. He claims “I loved it.”

Like most artists who perfect their craft (and the art of letting a song take its form without exercising too much control is one of the ways to be perfect), John has written, and rewritten a myriad of songs that did not make his latest record. By the time a song does make it on his album, he has “obsessed over every line” both lyrical and musical.

Listeners, of course, are another important part to any musical experience, and John’s music is no exception. “Every listener brings his or her own unique perspective to the experience, and might hear something radically different than what you intended,” adds the artist.

In the case of Good Goodbyes, I couldn’t help but feel that John really went out on a limb and made himself very vulnerable, especially since he was the sole creative and functional driver of this record. On his past albums, John included a number of different players in the process. He claims the making of his latest record “happened during a very solo time in my life and as the process of creating it continued, I realized it was important to me that I remained true to that.

“It’s quite unnerving to rely solely on your own intuition with creative choices that have no objective basis. It’s also, eventually, quite satisfying.”

Good Goodbyes also taught John how much he relies on other people for approval about his music. Although he enjoyed the experience of producing and only answering to himself, he still needed a second set of ears. After putting the record through seven revisions, John invited mastering engineer JJ Golden to help frame the final product.

“I tried to bring all the disparate pieces and sounds together into something cohesive,” he explains. “It’s a collage, and it has some sonic flaws, but hopefully that gives it character.”

Watching John during one of his live shows on his nation-wide tour back in November, I listened to and watched an artist whose music brought a character out of him, one who believes in himself so much and manages to attract an audience that believes in his sound and performance.

I walked in to Cantina Royal, a restaurant in Williamsburg just in the nick of time to see John Elliott. Secured with a Brooklyn Lager, I traveled down a red-light lit hallway to a performance space behind a gritty grey door.

In this performance space, there was no stage but a clear floor. There was plenty of room for audiences to take seats in rows of mobile chairs and mini tables. Pink and blue lights covered the space designated for acts. In the far left corner of the room, I noticed the uncanny detail of a rope that extended from the high ceiling and coiled out on the floor.

Most chairs were filled, and the only available seat was at a table occupied by a couple. As I sat down and prepped myself for a night of intense observation and musical analysis, I occasionally peeked at the flirtatious exchanges between the man and the woman next to me. Underneath the table, the guy caressed his girlfriend’s bare knee as she sketched a picture on some scrap paper. Both shared a package of very low caloric snack of seaweed sheets. Perhaps they decided this food paired well with beer? I was not sure whether this combination was romantic or strange.

Returning to John’s performance set, I knew I was in for a performance I would never forget. And I was right.

During his song “Monogamous,” which is primarily built on ambiance created by electrical and synthesized instruments playing held out notes, there is a long period in which John does not sing. On the record, the artist can get away with this, in a performance it is a different story. John knew he had to fill up that silence with something, so he started to swing on a rope in the far left corner of the room; a move several audience members found amusing. John Elliot in Williamsburg, November 2013

For his next song “Yin and Yang Collector,” John had a costume change. He dressed as a king, one that somebody might find in a frat house in New Orleans as opposed to one in a dramatic film about Henry VIII. During this song, he picked up his guitar and started playing like a true singer songwriter. But, I soon learned the surprises were not yet over.

John did not finish “Yin and Yang Collector.” Instead, he looped into another song, a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then transitioned back to “Yin and Yang Collector.” An artist successfully and easily accomplishes this only when the tonic of another song is the dominant or the predominant of the song they initially sing. This makes for easy modulation, and often, one will not find artists doing this during a performance but rather in their private time practicing.

John Elliot at the Cantina Royal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2013As I looked back to the couple, I noticed the woman started sketching a new picture, one of a masked face that imitated the appearance of John’s costume. It made sense then and there that something about John’s performance successfully captivated the imagination of one and perhaps multiple members in the public.

When I asked John what audience members said about his music during his tour, he remarked that most of what he heard has been “positive!” That or complete silence,” he adds. “A few people said it’s their new favorite. One person told me how much they liked this album more than the last.

“I just finished a show in Bellingham, Washington. Someone told me [I put on] the most entertaining show they’ve ever seen, so that was nice. But really, I have to remind myself to make what feels right to me and then let it go.”

John recalls a few moments from his tour in which listeners did not enjoy his set. During his show at Cantina, he humorously told the audience about the reception of one of his songs.

“This song went well in Austin, but horribly in Oregon because it was a song about people in Austin. Then it went well in Pennsylvania.”

Humor is just part of John’s nature, it is no way a coping method of dealing with the downsides of being a musician. Sharing your creation with the world comes with the territory, and that is why so many individuals who probably have songwriting talent will not pursue anything with music. Luckily, John understands this territory well, having traveled it before. He claims:

“The album is out there now. I hope people listen to it and like it. I’m very proud of it… And I’m thinking about what to make next.”

Currently, John is in between touring for Good Goodbyes. His agent is currently booking shows in the Midwest for 2014. In the meantime, he tackles the toughest component of any business plan, the marketing of his product. Audience at Cantina Royal watch John Elliott, November 8th, 2013

“Promotion is the greatest challenge of releasing an album independently. Truth is, I had some good plans in place, and then I went on tour and lost track of things. I want more people to hear it… I funded this album myself with savings from tours and other music income.”

When I asked him about the most important lesson he learned about being an artist and a businessman, he openly claimed, “The most important lesson I’ve learned as an artist is that everything happens in waves and you must learn to ride them. The most important lesson I learned as a businessman is that I’m learning as I go, and sometimes I luck into great decisions. In general… I need help on that side.”

John’s story of making and promoting Good Goodbyes is honest. It reminds listeners that like heroes in our favorite novels and films; if a musician does not go through any struggle, whether it is letting go of an old relationship, a bad habit or faulty belief, or a challenge of understanding business or making music, there is no reason for that listener to care about the artist. As for John’s music on Good Goodbyes, which is now available on iTunes, his website http://thehereafterishere.com/recordings, on Spotify, and, of course, at his live shows, the album will draw listeners into his world of expression, one that reaches the soul on an esoteric yet comforting level. Perhaps it is no surprise why his songs appeared in the hit television shows among audiences that fall within the 25 – 40 year age range. John presents us with something worth listening to, but we have to get out head out of the way and let our hearts hear it first.