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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arlen Playing Slide Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Disclaimer: All Photos were published with permission

“Alone the other Night”: A Fresh Focus on Indie Pop

Official Press photo of Todd Carter

Official Press photo of Todd Carter

In Songs for a Traveler, The Looking had a specific goal – make archaic Americana folk songs great for Rock ‘n’ Roll. In their newest EP, Alone the other Night, Todd and his group celebrate an era of songwriting from not too long ago through a meditative message: never fear that you cannot successfully meet a challenge.

The opening track to the band’s new EP starts with an element rather foreign to the rockin’ folk songs from the last record – a melody line with a definite meter but free flowing rhythm. The lyrics include: Alone the other night/ I lost my mind here/ he went missing for a while/ I felt no fear/ I wonder if I’ll miss him/ Or maybe I won’t care/ chalk it up, a little whim/ I won’t feel bare. In the second chorus, Todd sings, In the morning light/ I found myself cheered/ thinking of my headless nights/ A genie force, a mindless seer/Looking under rocks and stones/ Searched around to find what’s new/… Light my mind, the heart will choose.

The next track, “Lightning my Mind,” has a rather passé verse but incredibly memorable chorus in a major key and a catchy rhythmic application of lyrics to the chord progressions. Meanwhile “Waitin’ On You” includes a verse that repeatedly plays a minor chord, and a chorus in a major chord which recites one simple message – I’ve been waiting on you/ standing here ‘til you’re passing through… There is no transition between verse and chorus, and there is no need for one. Finally, the song ends in one sad minor chord.

The compositional elements of these songs stylistically reflect indie-pop of the ‘90’s. An ode to the 3-minute song also appears in this EP. The Looking embrace this type of songwriting with lyrics that reflect a lesson that listeners from all generations should learn at any age – the anxiety we experience with any major or abrupt life changes dissipates. The lyrics in the first verse of “Alone the other Night,” I lost my mind here/ he went missing for a while/ I felt no fear… I found myself cheered perhaps best represent this lesson. While everybody has had the opportunity to realize this various moments throughout their lives, very few slowed down enough to notice. Todd Carter at the Rockwood Music Hall, March 2014

Although listeners will most likely have a greater affinity for “Lightning My Mind” and “Waitin’ On You”; “Alone the other Night” acts as the best opening track for that album. The meter is also slow, and the only melody (which I have had trouble singing back) is solely produced by Todd, helping to calm listeners’ minds into a meditative like state. Why not try, it lasts no more than 4 minutes. Afterward, listeners can experience those indie-pop filled tunes later in the album with a fresh focus.

In his own words, Todd says “I love the contrast and variety of the songs on this EP. It was a joy to record with Dan Rieser (Rosanne Cash, Marc Cohn), Diego Voglino (Mudville, Marshall Crenshaw). Bill Finizio (Bill T. Jones), Adam Kromelow (Alice Tan Ridley), and John Carey (Oz Noy, Steve Holley) who are such talented and accomplished musicians. It was also wonderful to work with Richard Hammond (Joan Osborne, Lucy Woodward) for the first time.”

Tinderbox Arts’ Showcase at CMJ: Reviewing Artists who have been on Music Historian

Alyson Greenfield performs solo during her set at Pete's Candy Store, 10/23/2014 as part of CMJ Last Thursday, I went to The Tinderbox Arts’ CMJ showcase at Pete’s Candy Store. This show was made possible with the help of The Catalyst Publicity Group, and hosted by Alyson Greenfield. The performance included a line-up of five bands – most of which have been interviewed by the Music Historian – that performed between 9pm and 12am the next day. This showcase was a great replacement for the Tinderbox Music Festival Alyson had hosted in the past.

Before I get into reviewing the show from last week, I want to share a little history about the Tinderbox Music Festival. In 2010, Alyson learned there was a large community of female musicians who desired to be part of a new women’s music event, specifically reflecting the current landscape of emerging talent (tinderboxmusicfestival.com/story). The festival continued annually for four years. In 2012, CocoRosie headlined the festival. Then in 2013, Deerhoof, the art-pop band headlined the fourth and last Tinderbox Music Festival.

During the four years of this large festival, Alyson established Tinderbox Arts, a company that focuses on booking shows for artists, public relations and consultation, and the former official producer of this large event. This year, she has decided that all of her company’s efforts would focus onto showcases that bring together both male and female artists who are on the firm’s roster – Todd Carter a.k.a. The Looking, Janna Pelle, Alyson, Fiona Silver, and Sylvana Joyce + The Moment.

Todd Carter a.k.a The Looking opened the set with songs from his 2013 release Songs for a Traveler. These songs included “Blue-River,” and “Old Man River.” Then, he sang a cover of the avant-garde songwriter from the 1970’s Hugo Largo’s “Second Skin.” As the guitarist plays the opening chords on his tin-like sounding Strat guitar, Todd takes time to feel the driving harmonic rhythm. Very silently calculates the volume at which he should project his voice during the sudden skin-crawling crescendo within the chorus. Todd was very precise in his vocal execution, as was his entire three-piece band on their instruments – electric guitar, drums and piano.

The Looking’s most notable skills include their ability to make music sound just right – not too loud nor soft – in any performance space. Further, if you like art music that is void of automated technology and involves instruments of classic rock, please check out this band the next time you want to head out on the town. The Looking as part of Tinderbox Arts showcase at Pete's Candy Store, 10/23/2014

Janna Pelle followed The Looking as the second act. Her ensemble included a drummer, whose set had snares, an electric bassist and a piano played by Janna. The most memorable number in her set is from her 2012 album, Shameless Self-Promotion, titled “Accessory.” This track feels like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple if they were upbeat and fearless about admitting their need for sex. The lyrics in the chorus are You are my favorite accessory/ you look so good on me/ there ain’t no other piece of jewelry/ that does what you do to me.

In terms of melody, the song does not finish on the tonic, but with a half-cadence; giving the feeling this light-hearted physical affair our songstress is having will not finish anytime soon. Our heroine might take a break, but she will not put her needs on the back burner anytime soon. Or so I hope.

In addition to songs about sex, “City Life” is one song that talks about the confusion of The Big Apple. In the chorus, Janna sings Where, where, where do I go?/ So many directions/ I don’t know where to go. The song opens with a driving cymbal and snare in the rhythm section as the bass plays a syncopated and jazzy line. On the keyboard, Janna holds out the chords for whole notes across her measures.

Janna Pelle's set at Pete's Candy Store, as part of Tinderbox Arts showcase for CMJ, 10/23/2014 During Jana’s performance, Sylvana Joyce sat down next to me to say “hello.” As Janna takes the listener further within her song, Sylvana starts to harmonize with the remainder of the chorus, I guess I’ll have to figure this out on my own. This lyric, without any pun intended, serves as a mantra for several artists.

Between performances, I also had time to mingle with other active musicians. I was introduced to a young composer who works full-time writing children’s music professionally for an app development firm. This composer has toured all over Australia with his old band, completed his Masters in Composition at NYU debt-free, and opened his own studio in Brooklyn. I would not be shocked if he had to figure out his way in the business independently too.

I then talked with Alyson about the company she manages while she continues paving her career path. Watching her performance at the line-up, Alyson exhibits how she consistently paves her way in music. I first interviewed Alyson in 2012. She was premiering the music video for her cover of LL Cool Jay’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” At that time, she had already recorded “Understand the Sky,” which was on her album Tuscaloosa – a record that compiled acoustic guitar. In this album, her songs addressed the toils of women taking on the music business and living with the societal stereotypes often placed on them. In addition, synth-themed songs acted as meditations regarding the experiences we don’t immediately acknowledge, like human nature.

In her most recent performances from 2014, Alyson has kept her synth-work, put the acoustic guitar aside temporarily, and made room for hip-hop. Her collaboration with beatboxer Shane Maux in the song “Uncharted Places,” and other tracks – including one where the two rap about the industrial development in Brooklyn – serves as valid proof of this bold stylistic move.

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Turning to Fiona Silver’s set, I must say her music sounded a lot better at Pete’s Candy Store than it did at the Knitting Factory. I accredit this a lot to the great sound system and the engineering, a small space, and finally, the performance skills of the songstress and her band. Fiona brought with her an electric guitarist who played a Les Paul – a perfect accompaniment to the moments Fiona pulled out her strat and ukulele. Additional players involved a drummer and bassist.

The beauty of photographing Fiona and her band up close is that I could get a better shot of her, the Elvis mic she brought and better capture her incredible stage presence. Fiona’s style of blues-singing has always been described as smoky. That night, I heard a few new tracks that brought out more fiery vocals and melodies than the firm and gentle “Sweet Escape” and “Sand Castle.” Songs like “Coming to Get You,” does not exhibit the light strumming of a uke, but a guitar melody with a metal slide. Her last song for the set, “Long Gone” resembled something more of rockabilly and surf rock.

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These irresistible tracks got the audience to request one more song. In honor of the night that would quickly draw to a close though, the songstress left the spotlight open for the next scheduled act.

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment were the second to the last act. They opened with their latest single, “Rosie” – a song which marries classical and heavy metal music together, and repeats several beautiful minor cadences. Further, their sound is that of rock, cabaret, and classical with an Eastern European flair. Think Klezmer and Romanian folk.

The music by this band spiced up the response of the crowd. Sylvana and her crew drew in young fans who, in that cramped performance space, busted out dance moves appropriate for a punk rock concert. When I listened to the band’s next song “Chin, Chin,” the rhythm in the chorus made me want to get up and dance the sarba (pronounced Suh-R-Baa). This dance is similar to the hora but with a lot more staccato-like step and bouncing.

Sylvana Joyce + The Moment rock CMJ show, 10/23/2014 Sylvana Joyce + The Moment’s music combines both American and Romanian style. Depending on where you come from, your ear will pick up one element more quickly than the other. In order to fully understand this music, one must not think about why these different elements would work well together in the first place, but instead physically feel how these components work together to make one union. With songs which are 5 minutes long, at least, there will be plenty of time to absorb the experience of this band.

Shayna Leigh closed the night with an unplugged performance. She played with an acoustic guitarist. By the time she got up, it was already 12:30 AM, on October 24th. Although I couldn’t review her performance the way I reviewed the previous bands, I can tell she is a talented songwriter. Her original song “Crash” felt composed like a pop song. I could clearly hear a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and then, a section that might have been built on a deceptive cadence (think the dominant chord, or the 5, going to the supermediant, the 6).

When a show runs that late, I will say; it is not only audience members who become tired. The artists – especially those with day jobs – also become a little too overwhelmed. Some of the audience members told Shayna, while she was taking a breather between songs that her water bottle looked like a vodka bottle. She responds, “I wish it was, I really do. But I’m not that type of person.”

It was during Shayna’s set I noticed more verbal interaction between the audience and the artist. After a long and busy day, this can be quite refreshing. Sometimes listening to music live is not all about the music; it is about the absence of structure and the presence of personable experiences within performers while they put on a show.

My experience at the Tinderbox Arts CMJ showcase this year felt like a reunion filled with music, catching up, interaction and listening. Even in a large and robust places like New York City, there are moments when we can break down barriers and get close to the artists.

Music Historian’s thoughtful interviews with independent artists show just how the musical landscape is evolving. Looking to the future, I hope to work and help the public get closer to these talented musicians through my blog. I just have to take things one step at a time. Happy Birthday, MH!

Works Cited

Greenfield, A. (2014). Story. Tinderbox Music Festival. (About). Retrieved from http://tinderboxmusicfestival.com/story/

Yuzima’s Insta-Album, BASH: The Pop-Up Album That Unites Anti-Homophobia & Mysticism with Punk

Yuzima Philips, Press Photo, for the BASH, the insta-album released on Oct. 7, 2014 What do you call a collection of songs, created to represent a specific theme, which are then released as an automatic response to a quickly changing world? Yuzima, the indie luminary who graced the Music Historian with his 2013 industrial-themed LP, THE MACHINE, calls it an insta-album. Since this release is very spurring of the moment and surprising, I thought an interview article of the same spontaneity with a New York City musician that has gained my artistic respect was very appropriate.

During the creation of THE MACHINE, many additional musical ideas hit Yuzima, especially during one influential visit to New Orleans. The artist also thought about what was happening in the world at that time, specifically the issue of homophobia. All of these experiences funneled down into one creation, the three song album titled BASH, which Yuzima will release digitally on October 7th.

The self-titled track on the Insta-Album opens with a heavy U2 influence in the vocals. Then there is the musical component within the guitar and drums that I have not yet heard within an indie song – polyrhythms. In this musical element, and in the case of “Bash,” the electric guitar plays the melody with syncopation and many rests. The drums work to fill in the silent spaces of this guitar melody.

Listeners taking in “Bash” will hear the intricate relationship between the instruments. Further, they will feel the physical space created by the echoes – which are recited with crescendos and decrescendos – Yuzima creates in the chorus. This chorus quickly follows a verse that contains the following lyrics, we are different yet the same, straight and we are gay. Naturally, I wondered whether the next two songs on BASH would carry the same type of instrumental feel.

“That seems to be a touchstone for me – a little bit inspired by U2 and then transformed into my thing,” explains Yuzima. “Madame Laveau has a bigness to it… I drag in synths. I think of art like the cosmos; U2, The Beatles sent out creative energy and folks like me are transmuting it, and sending it back.”

In regards to the lyrics mentioned above, Yuzima claims he was “on the fence about that lyric.”

“I thought it might be too straightforward, but I made the artistic decision that the message still needed to be said and heard. So I kept it. I don’t believe in race, in ‘black people and white people.’ I think we have interests that either unite or divide us, and that [theme] was a big part of my last record.” BASH, cover art, a pop-album by Yuzima, to be released on Oct. 7, 2014

On the subjects of interests that either unite or divide us, gay rights and the issues of homophobia comes to mind. When I was a child, I received plenty of homophobic slurs from my peers. While this eventually disappeared for me – mostly because these slurs came from bullies or classmates who were very immature and insecure with their own sexuality – for many, unfortunately, homophobic bashing does not stop in adulthood.

Yuzima claims that his pop-up album delivers a theme of anti-homophobia. The musician explains, “Homophobia is awful and cruel. At the same time, it’s insanely uncool. When folks engage in hate, it makes them look way out of touch. That’s where music comes in – artists are the purveyors of cool. By putting homophobia on blast in a punk tune… we assert ourselves.”

BASH also has a rebel post-punk theme. Meanwhile, “Madame Laveau,” is a progressive reggae-ish rock number inspired by the New Orleans voodoo legend, and “Light Love” is a spiritual pop number. Yuzima’s trip to New Orleans inspired him to creatively marry this rock ‘n’ roll genre with the wild jazz and voodoo energy of the Louisiana city.

“I loved New Orleans. You don’t know jazz until you go there. I’m always heavily influenced by places I visit. I’ve written songs about Miami, Venice Beach and New York City – where I live.

“Part of the reason I went [to New Orleans] was to inhale the scene – to be touched by the magic. The moment I touched own, I wandered the streets and [entered] a store called Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo Readings. It was one of those transforming moments where I came out a different person and I had to write a song about it. The concept of the Insta-Album is to get that inspiration out – not have it sit around for half a year. I came back to NYC, started writing, recording and voila!”

Prior to embarking on his trip, Yuzima knew there was something down in this city he wanted to experience – voodoo. I wondered what interested him in this mystic practice. He says:

“I love the idea of something that has not been adulterated by the modern world. It’s stronger than technology. Old voodoo ceremonies seem to connect us to the spirit world and the old world [in a time] when everything didn’t have an [immediate] answer. Also, there is a hidden power in music, which voodoo kind of exemplifies.”

Yuzima poses for photo shoot, for his insta-album, BASH, to be released digitally on October 7th So, Yuzima parallels multiple themes or ideas that perhaps don’t belong together, like the purity of mysticism next to the unrefined and grimy feel of punk music. Meanwhile, the coupling of rebellion against homophobia and a spiritual trip inside Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo Readings seems almost impossible. Come October 7th; listeners will have a chance to understand how Yuzima’s signature new age punk will connect these juxtapositions into a musical relationship that will be just as intricate and exciting as his single “Bash.”

My last question to the artist was, “why come up with this new album format? Is it for more effective marketing for a longer album coming down the line, or does it excite fans more?” Yuzima answers:

“It might be…but artists today can’t just rely on the past formats. Bands innovated before us, it’s our job to carry the torch and innovate for today.”

Yuzima also claims he plans to release two more insta-albums. Yet, one might ask themselves, why not just wait to release 10 songs in a full-length album? The answer, based on what Yuzima tells me might reside in the fact that letting a musical idea or message sit for too long will eventually lose its level of pure artistry. Further, an artist might fall in the trap of overproducing a song.

All artists will greatly benefit from the traditional process of focusing solely on a full-length or an EP. This insta-album is a new way of releasing music, especially since it can allow musicians to focus more on their art. Most importantly, this can serve as a trial and error period to see how fans receive an artist’s new musical idea. Could Yuzima be onto something? Maybe.

“When others say “no”, find a way to “yes”: Tina Shafer of the Songwriter’s Circle and her advice for today’s musicians

TIna at Young Performers Night 2014, at The Bitter End night club Many artists we have come to know experienced their first big break at the right place and the right time. This is especially true for Billy Porter, a former pupil of songwriter/ vocal teacher and founder of The New York Songwriter’s Circle, Tina Shafer.

“When I worked with Billy Porter – who won a Tony 2013 for his performance in the hit Broadway Musical “Kinky Boots” – he was an unknown singer with one of the most amazing voices I had ever heard. In the late 90’s he got a record deal with my help on the A&M label.   He later went on to perform “Love is On the Way” a song I co-wrote for him that became the Center piece song in Bette Midler’s film “The First Wives Club”.   Later that year, Celine Dion cut “Love is on the Way” and it ended up on her album “Let’s Talk About Love”.  The Album sold over 33 million copies worldwide because it also contained the song “My Heart Will Go On” from the blockbuster movie “Titanic.”

The songstress, who I had the pleasure of meeting in-person at a performance at the New York Songwriter’s Circle held at Bitter End last month, also talked about another former vocal student named Lana Del Ray.  Those who follow Lana know her break was very different from Billy Porter’s.

“Lana, when she was studying with me,” recounts Tina, “wrote the song “Video Games” and most of the attention she first received was through online bullying.   She is very beautiful and an easy “hate Target”. As people started listening to her they then started actually liking her music.  There was a whole backlash of people that starting standing up for her.  It became a viral phenomenon.

But then, where do you go from there? How do you keep your fan base and the customer in mind?”

Music Historian has welcomed advice on how to make it in the music industry from current and former record producers, music publishers, A&R representatives. Now, I welcome advice from Tina Shafer, who is a vocal teacher, singer-songwriter and the founder of the New York Songwriter’s Circle that helps provide a welcoming community to those who work in the beautiful, yet sometimes, lonely and cutthroat world of songwriting. I welcome Tina Shafer to my blog.

Before I get into what Tina advises to current and aspiring musicians and songwriting professionals, I want to share her story about how she became involved in songwriter and began with The New York Songwriter’s Circle.  Music served as the background to Tina’s life. Her mother was a composer, and she brought Tina up in a house where there was always music. At the age of 4, Tina started to learn music in an experimental class for young children at a conservatory in Cleveland. Tina explains:

“They [the teachers] were trying to prove they could teach difficult theory and composition to young kids.  This is similar to the way they teach languages now to young kids.

“The first time I really decided to become a songwriter was when I listened to my first Joni Mitchell record. I was in the 10th grade. From there on, I decided to pursue music and songwriting.”

Just as she finished high school, Tina made the move to New York City, by herself, where she did not know anybody. She performed in clubs, including the Bitter End, and picked up any gig she could do. After 10 years in the city, she obtained her first publishing deal as a songwriter with Warner Chappell and started working with some big names. In addition to Billy Porter, she has written for Celine Dion, Donna Summer, Phoebe Snow, and performed with John Oates (Hall Of Fame), Suzanne Vega, Marc Cohn, The Hooters, The Spin Doctors, Gavin DeGraw, to name a few.

The New York Songwriter’s Circle officially started in 1991 held the first Monday of every month at the Historical Bitter End located in New York City’s West Village.   Tina originally took over the circle as a temp for the original founder. The woman who was initially in charge left to Nashville for a trip and decided to not return. In 2016, The Circle will celebrate 25 years of facilitating rising talent. I then wondered how the business model worked. 

“The New York Songwriter’s Circle is a platform for great talent and up and coming writer/performers but her own company “Tina Shafer Inc.,” I work as an executive producer, developing talent, and putting together  the best creative package to represent that talent.  This often includes, putting together all the musicians, writers, and producers, making an LP and finding the proper promotion.  This is known as “Content packaging”.”

The last component of her business model; marketing, is perhaps most crucial. According to Professor Ana Valenzuela, a faculty member at Baruch College, 75% of a plan for any type of business involves marketing. The other 25% are finances. Marketing enables entrepreneurs to understand who they are as a business, which customers they serve, and what makes the customers return to use the product or service.

Based on what I learned at the New Music Seminar earlier this summer, the same holds true for musicians. They must make music for their audiences. On the same token however, the music industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, making artists perhaps more vulnerable.

“When Vanessa Carlton – another Grammy nominated artist and student of Tina’s appeared at The New York  Songwriter’s Circle before making it big – (in 2002), some of these new artists received $400,000 advances  on their first record,” said Tina. She adds that in those days, record labels fostered artists’ development, now, labels do not want to pay for this. On the other hand though, Tina, just like Daylle Deanna Schwartz, asserts an artist does not need a record deal. She explains:

“All you [the artist] need is a great booking agent and advisor. Then you tour, make money from that, and create a record on your own. In a way, this is good, but it costs money to have a booker, a website, you have to pay for so much.

“Now, you have to be self-propelled. Ed Sheeran, for example, was couch surfing and writing with everyone and anyone he could when he started out, then got some air time. Then, he started touring with Taylor Swift.”

While so much has changed in the music industry, Tina reassures songwriters that even when record labels stopped paying for artistic development, Napster started satisfying customers who could get content for FREE, and self-recording and digitization has become more prominent; the only thing that has not changed is the need for great content. In other words, excellent records, songs, playing and performances. We are slowly catching up to the ways of the internet and trying to find avenues to get payment for content.

However, like everybody working in music, I heard a lot of ‘no.’ Even while I was in college, many of my colleagues who were vocalists were told they would have the hardest times finding work after graduation. Now, I find myself talking with a Tina Shafer, who is a conservatory-trained vocalist and guitarist who managed to make her dreams of being a singer-songwriter come true. Naturally, I wanted to know whether she had any advice for someone who is currently in college or in the music industry and receives a lot of discouragement.

“Anyone who goes into the arts will almost always hear that they are not going to make it,” says Tina. “You have to find a way to say, “that is not going to be me”. You have to recognize your strengths.  You may be an ensemble player, you may be a soloist, there are many avenues of music to explore”. “When people said “no”, it gave me [the chance] to find a way to say ‘yes.’”

Tina carries these encouraging words to her sons. Her oldest, Ari Zizzo who is 18 and becoming a well-known teen songwriter.  He has so far, opened up for artists like Mumford and Sons and this summer will open for Emblem3 and Demi Lavato at the Pop Tarts Concerts in Chicago.

Thomas, her youngest who is 16, is a sophisticated writer who hopes to become a film critic. The boys’ father is also a music producer. (Peter Zizzo)

Tina Shafer at the Songwriters Circle on July 7, 2014, The Bitter End In addition, Tina applies this lesson to The New York Songwriter’s Circle. While her company also works to help artists create content, Tina confirms that musicians must push themselves to connect with their own fan base, communicate with their customers directly, and get out into the performance spaces. In addition, good music will not change, and a great song has a way of rising to the top.

One might bump into a cynic who discourages them from continuing with the music industry, but remember this – while music is an undervalued industry, music consumption will double within ten years. Thanks to digital technology, the artist, who I believe can now become more personally involved in the marketing and distribution, has the chance to ultimately get closer to the consumer via social media. Therefore, the consumer can have a better relationship with the product. This gives way to great branding opportunities exist for today’s musicians. Also, musicians trying to fund a record through KickStarter.com help create business while increasing communication with their supporters and customers. Finally, digital vehicles like iTunes and Spotify can immediately deliver music to buyers. Fantastic customer service, right?

If you are a musician and worry about making money, your best option is to focus on the customer. A returning customer, whether it is a loyalist who will come to your shows or always buy a new record, will bring you the most financial return. Lastly, I can attest, that customers return for the good music. So don’t stop doing what you’re doing. Tina didn’t stop. If you happen to be a singer-songwriter looking for some help, check out The New York Songwriter’s Circle www.songwriters-circle.com

You can also check out Tina Shafer directly Tinashafer.net.