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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

 

All photos were published with permission

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Not to Get Lost to the Scrolling Sands of Your Timeline: Roger Greenawalt’s 366Visions

The healing power of music comes in several packages. Roger GreenawaltRoger_Greenawalt_ukulele_happy – who has worked with Iggy Pop, Albert Hammond Jr., Ben Kweller, Rufus Wainwright, and Nelly McKay – experienced his healing power with music starting with Twitter poetry. What is Twitter poetry and how does it work with music? Roger’s project 366 Visions will launch online on April 17th, 2015 on Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud simultaneously. On the same day, he will premier 366 Visions as a live performance at Webster Hall. Both occasions will provide the answers.

In late 2013, as he recovered from cancer surgery on his throat, Roger experienced complications which left him unable to speak. He began to write furiously and found a new voice in Twitter poetry, poems that fit into the 140-character limit of a “tweet.” This literary form that has received praise and support from the Poetry Society of Great Britain, former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and Yoko Ono.

Roger then challenged himself by adding visual and audio elements to the poem, combining Twitter poetry, original Instagram imagery, and self-composed Soundcloud music into a single unified piece called a Vision. He says:

“I found the challenge of fully expressing myself as a writer in 140 characters not unlike the challenge of expressing myself as a singer in a three-minute pop song.”

Roger begins each Vision by asking for a word from a guest “Celebrity Vision,” a well-known artist, and then inspired by the words, composes a poem in his head. Along with his “Celebrity Vision,” he edits the poem to exactly 140 characters. The Celebrity Vision becomes the subject of a photograph inspired by the Twitter poem. Roger then composes and expertly records an original song with music inspired by the photograph, using only, and all of the words of the Twitter poem as lyrics. Then, he simultaneously posts the poem on Twitter, the photograph on Instagram, and the song on Soundcloud. Through the act of publishing it across these social networks, the Vision comes to a completion.

“It is impossible to experience the work without participating in all three of these social networks,” says Roger. “By combining elements on Twitter, Instagram, and Soundcloud, this work breaks down artificial barriers between these gated communities.

“A Vision is not only content. It is an event that takes place in a moment, and then lost to the scrolling sands of your timeline.”

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Roger also wants to make 366Visions an actual event. One Friday, April 17th at 8pm in Webster Hall’s The Balcony Lounge, he will perform 366Visions music live with guest stars Eric Hutchinson, Anya Marina, Nicholas Megalis and more.

Aside from launching on Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud, the completed Visions will also be archived in their entirety on Greenawalt’s 366visions.com website for posterity. Please visit Greenawalt’s Rocket Hub campaign for 366 Visions and watch a 5-minute explanatory video here.

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

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

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

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

Governors Ball Music Festival

GovBall2014_Word_Cloud

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

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

New Music Seminar

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

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

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

CMJ

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

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

Social Listening in Popular Music Research

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

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

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

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

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

Quantity vs Quality

 

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

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

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

What I would like to see in Music Journalism

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

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

Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ Answers 

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

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

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

Stick to the music

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

“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.

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

 When I listened to the song by the Nashville-based band, The Blackfoot Gypsies called “Don’t know about you,” I immediately felt the timbre within the singer’s voice resembled that of Bob Dylan from the ‘60’s. In addition, I felt splashes of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Garage Rock, and Americana. As far as the rest of the song is concerned, I heard very little country. I initially found this curious because I thought Nashville was the capital of country music. Thankfully, the band told me this is not the case.

“I think it is more of a touristy thing that Nashville is only for country music,” explains the bass player in the band, Dylan Whitlow. “Where we live in Nashville, there are mostly rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

The group’s harmonica player, Ollie Dogg adds, “It used to be that way, but I always played the blues.” As I talked with this group at the dimmed Delancey lounge on the Lower East Side, I soon learned that only two members of the Blackfoot Gypsies are Nashville-natives.

The group began as a duo in 2010 with drummer Zack Murphy and Guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige. Zack had just moved back to Nashville after spending six years in Knoxville, and Matt had recently moved from his hometown around Portland, Oregon. Both young men were new to the music scene and somehow, they found each other and started playing. Then, in 2012, Dylan, who relocated from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania met with Matt after seeing the duo at a show. The final addition to the band is Ollie Dogg, who was introduced to the group by his cousin at a Marathon Party. Now, all members live together in the same house.

Research this band’s Facebook page, and you will see a charming photo of the band right outside of their beautiful home. Dig deeper onto the “about” section of their page and you will find something that if it doesn’t grab your attention, it certainly grabbed mine – Band Interest: “Spreading the terrifying joys of realism.” I asked Matt to talk to me a little more about this.

“Being a real band is almost a challenge,” he begins. “Being a real person and entertainer is very difficult. Touring as a real band and seeing how terrifying it really is, it makes people say “oh man these guys are real; [they’re] people playing music because they like it.””

Zack chimes in, “to make money without compromising ourselves or our art.”

“To be able to earn money, be silly and entertain, and somehow keep a leveled head about yourself,” concludes Matt.

Just a few minutes into my chat with this band, I have already learned that something besides country music is happening in Nashville, and the realism this group speaks of might actually go beyond the lyrical content within their songs. For the remainder of my conversation with this group, I wanted to learn more about the band that described themselves as “The amplifier for your heart and soul, your love and your hate, your on and off, your push and pull… there is no room for thinking… Only feeling (Blackfoot Gypsies, Facebook, 2014).” It’s my pleasure to welcome the Blackfoot Gypsies to Music Historian.

When the group says “there is no room for thinking… Only feeling,” within their music, they emphasize the need for listeners to lose themselves in a song – a human aspect that is left out of today’s modern music. Further, the feelings Zack and Matt wish to evoke through their music are visceral. Matt elaborates:

“They are the ones you can’t control, and the ones that you want to hate, but you can’t. We’re not necessarily trying to prove anybody wrong [about themselves] but mostly trying to tear down the walls of the preconceived notions people usually create about who they are and what they like.

“When they come to the show, [for example], I’ve watched guys try to be straight, square and cool in front of girls, and then they turn into these ape monkeys because something happened [inside of them]. It is in the music, it is in the energy, and sometimes, it gets so fast and perpetual that you lose yourself.

“We lose ourselves all the time, that’s our job and getting other people welcomed into that. This is the type of feeling we try to harvest in people. That is the human aspect so often left out of music nowadays. That’s real.”

I could tell this band wanted to convey something to the listener within the first song on their 2012 LP On the Loose, titled “Don’t Know About You.” In the opening verse, only the guitar accompanied the voice. The lyrics are – I wandered out last night/ looking out for your home/ knowing you like to roam/ without your telephone/ But you don’t know because/ I never said a thing. Then when the chorus came, later in the song, the one element that grabbed my attention was how the down beat in the drums, the harmonic rhythm in the guitar, and the voice came in synch, emphasizing the lyrics I don’t know about you, but I feel like makin’ love.

These compositional elements attract the listeners’ attention and make for a memorable melody. Then, there are other songs on the record that have sadder lyrical content, like “Stone Throwin’ Angels.” One of the verses in the song is You’ve got three kids in the yard/ and watch you come and warm your bed/ and a fugitive conscious that goes unsaid… I asked the band members about the meaning behind these lyrics.

“That one is mainly about a friend of mine who was once a musician and could have followed the dream, but then he had kids and a wife, and I watched it not happen,” explains Matt.

While this song is based on a true story, Matt claims that if it holds any relevance at all, the fun part is making up the rest, in a way, that applies to the songwriter.

“We are just doing real life, even if it’s just something stupid,” he continues. “We were just jamming on a song called “I’m on Fire.” It was really hot in our room one night, all of the amps were turned on, and I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to sing?’ “I’m on fire!” There it is, a song, and it’s real.”

I decided then and there that I would share a story about when I took a trip to West Virginia for the Appalachia Service Project. “I was 15 years old, and I went to Logan County as a volunteer with a church to fix homes for those in need,” I said to the Blackfoot Gypsies. “One day in July, I was doing roof work and I thought to myself, it was scorching up there.”

Then Zack asked me where I was from and somehow, I mentioned that I grew up in a Romanian-speaking household. I promise, I’m not babbling. This information will become helpful as the article continues.

At the moment, The Blackfoot Gypsies currently self-distribute their LP and it is available for download and 12” vinyl. Zack describes the process of being your own musician and entrepreneur as rewarding.

“It’s nice to have help in getting everything done, but when you all of the work yourself, you get all the rewards for yourself. Do you really want to pay someone else money that will not be used for you? Would you rather have that money yourself? You don’t have to pay anybody back. It feels good.”

This made me wonder – since the Blackfoot Gypsies are currently unsigned – whether the group is currently on the hunt for a record deal. According to Zack, the band is looking for the “Right record deal.” Matt adds, “It’s not really like we’re hunting, it is more like they’re hunting.”

“It’s so much like dating someone – ridiculous. It’s through a friend of a friend that saw you at a show… and now they’re bringing their friend’s lawyer to check you out. Then, there is a meeting and contract, and ‘Oh my God,’” he continues.

While this method of networking with labels proves to be more efficient, the group should be ready to ask a handful of questions. I asked the members whether they had been careful when speaking with lawyers. Zack reassures, “We usually consult our friend who is a lawyer. We ask him questions in order to decipher what we should ask [the label representatives].”

As the group keeps experts within the music legal field close, they simultaneously stay atop of their long-term goal for the future, which Zack claims is “being the next big thing.”

Matt_and_Zack_BFG “Anyone who says they don’t want to be famous for what they are doing are probably lying,” he expresses. “So, why are you doing it? You want to be unsuccessful with it, do you want nobody to hear your music?”

I agreed with Zack. I then asked Matt to share his thoughts, and he expressed something similar, but with a little more hint of sass. (Remember that information I shared with the members regarding my ethnic heritage? It will be useful now.)

“One of the greatest bands that ever lived. We’ll be 90 years old and still doing it, God willing none of these guys gets hit by a bus, or overdoses or falls in love and runs to Romania. That could be bad!”

“It’s only bad if you don’t have a plan,” I politely and diplomatically replied. “But, if you know someone who can help you get established…”

“Romania is fine, I’ve got nothing against it,” said Matt jokingly.

Regarding the Blackfoot Gypsies’ immediate future, the group is currently focusing on a few projects. The first, a new LP titled Handle It, which they plan to release at the beginning of August. The second, a Gypsy Camp Tour set to start in July, which Zack claims will be amazing. Matt, Dylan and Zack say the band is coming to do a show in New York City on July 11th, at the Bowery Electric, as part of a two-week camping excursion, romping around the middle of America.

Basically, The Blackfoot Gypsies will perform at venues everybody recognizes. Instead of heading to a motel after the show though, the group will set up a tent somewhere. Given the lack of camping grounds in cities like this one and Chicago, the band already established they will sleep under a roof for these particular shows.

“It is part of the adventure,” explains Matt. “We are shooting for the gypsy concept but sometimes that does not always work out. We will sleep under a roof when we come to New York City or Chicago.

“We also encourage artists to come out and sell their jewelry, pictures and art. You can buy things, and you can trade. Why restrict it to just us? Have other people come out.”

The group sees the Gypsy Camp Tour as more of a recreational pursuit than an entrepreneurial endeavor. They did it for the first time last year, and it was “a blur of great memories.”

While the band definitely does find time for fun, they expect to get paid for the performances they put on. After all, performing is still work. The camping is their downtime. In addition, while performing and touring presents its benefits, including the constant changing of scenery, meeting new people, and keeping oneself busy; there are also challenges, even for musicians who don’t mind “roughing it.”

“All of the driving in all of the conditions possible, and making a dollar stretch longer than it should, the show we perform determines whether it is worth it or not. It happened to be worth it almost every time,” says Matt. “The challenge is, you can’t predict when you lose. Sometimes you lose, but when you win, you really win.”

I saw a performance by the Blackfoot Gypsies at Spike Hill in Brooklyn. The energy that filled the audience, the amazing and full-bodied harmonica playing by Ollie Dogg that drew in the attention of the whole crowd, and the well-rehearsed set from the rest of the band assured me this group is really searching for winning moments. These moments don’t only come from performances, they will also come from the right record deal that will benefit both The Blackfoot Gypsies and the label helping distribute and promote the band’s music to audiences in all corners of the U.S.

Lovers of Americana looking for the perfect music that will help them temporarily lose themselves and feel both the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, positive and negative emotions all at once need to check out this band. They can download their album through their Bandcamp website, or go to a live show, which can have its perks. The Blackfoot Gypsies like to bring a close-knit line-up with them, enabling listeners to get a taste of other Nashville-based independent musicians who have a similar sound.

Meanwhile, label representatives should continue pursuing this group, especially since, as Nashville-based artist Kim Logan would say, “Americana has taken hold, and as vinyl makes a comeback,” more artists will be performing rock ‘n’ roll (as cited in “Plugging into Modern Southern Rock,” 2014, para. 33).

As I conclude this interview article, I want briefly to share the inspiration behind the band name.

“I had another band before this one,” said Matt, “and we all sat around trying to think of a name that was cool and close to home, like the Blackfoot Indian tribe. And gypsies are cool, I like them. They wander around nomadic style, you know, like Romanians.”

“Not all Romanians are gypsies,” I explained.

“Yes they are,” he responds.

Perhaps The Blackfoot Gypsies don’t play themselves up as a mysterious rock band, but who needs mystery all the time? Let the music take over every now and then, and help you release some of the feelings you have internalized for a while. Try it. You might actually find it enjoyable.

Works Cited

Blackfoot Gypsies (n.d.). In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved June 9, 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/blackfootgypsies/info

P Trutescu. (2014, June 18). Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan. [Blog].