Putting Faces to Names, and Coverage on Performances: Baby Robot Media’s Set at Pianos

On Saturday, October 7th, I went to Pianos (on the Lower East Side) to meet the crew of Baby Robot Media, a media service agency that has been introducing me to new and independent artists and arranging interview opportunities. I had met the founder, Steve Albertson, John Graffo, the Director of Music Publicity, John Riccitelli, Director of Sales and Artist Relations, and a few others. Then, of course, I also went to Pianos to see the set that Baby Robot had put together with the help of their partnership with Glide Magazine for the city-wide event, Mondo NYC 2017.

The set was divided into two floors. I started watching the performance on the top floor. The first singer-songwriter I saw was Gabriel Mayers. Steve described Gabriel as a troubadour on guitar. After hearing this description, I made a parallel to Gypsy George, another troubadour. Traditionally, troubadours wrote songs about courtly love.

Gabriel Mayers performs on acoustic guitar at Pianos, Oct. 2017

Gabriel Mayers performs on acoustic guitar at Pianos, Oct. 2017

In one of his songs, “Cocoon,” Gabriel sings, “How much can your lover take, before it all comes crashing down?” This song is composed of 3-5 chords on the acoustic guitar. The melody includes a few embellishments such as hammer-ons and hammer-offs, the technique which adds the trills the listeners hear. His next song, “Philando,” did not resemble “Cocoon” lyrically. This song would take Gabriel out of that description of a troubadour, as it addressed the case of Philando Castile, a 32-year old civilian who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota last year.

Although I cannot decide whether the song “Philando” classifies Gabriel as a political artist, he did appear in the documentary How to let go of the world (and love all the things climate can’t change) directed by Oscar nominee, Josh Fox (gabrielmayers.com/about). I would suggest you read more about Gabriel on his website and check him out performing solo on acoustic guitar sometimes.

After Gabriel’s set, I went downstairs to see another artist, Ava Raiin, whose music was composed of a synthesizer, pre-recorded loops, and her voice. Ava’s first song easily stands out with a synthesized drum beat that sounds like a distorted heartbeat. When I was a student in high school, studying music theory, my teacher told me that Disco beats typically imitate heartbeats.

Ava’s rhythm in her first song though seems to deconstruct disco into something that you would not imagine your parents listening to if they were into that genre in the 1970’s (while it enjoyed its run). Her songs do not stick, and the lyrics do not seem to represent a story or create any imagery. She sings, “It is time to move the world/It is time to paint the world.” I did not get the name of this song.

Ava Raiin performing at Pianos, Oct. 2017

Ava Raiin performing at Pianos, Oct. 2017

I am now trying to guess the name of Ava’s next song, and I believe it is “Eagle Eye.” In this song, the melody created by the vocalizations and the harmonies that cannot be classified as either major or minor. Based on what I have heard, Ava seems more interested creating space with sounds, even atmospheres, as they do not seem grounded in a structure that is detectable to a listener who does not spend too much time with the electronic music genre.

My concern with this artist is how much she showcases her voice, which comes in only for brief periods of time throughout her songs. I feel that within any performance that involves a vocalist and a synth player, the typical listener will be more likely to walk out of a performance commenting on the singer’s vocal abilities rather than the sound capabilities of a machine.

I want to talk about another band I would watch later in the day at 5 pm, Radiator King. The frontman, Adam met Steve of Baby Robot through a mutual friend who plays in another band. Adam took time to get acquainted with Steve before signing onto the company’s roster of musicians.

Adam prefers to write songs about historical events such as world wars, traditional American stories, especially ones about the underdog. Like many musicians, Adam never starts writing songs with a specific intent. The singer says that as a former history undergraduate, he approaches music by researching like a musicologist. During his years studying history, Adam has taken what he has investigated into his songwriting.

“You pick up certain things in a certain way, and put it into what you are imagining.” Adam would think, “I really like Jimmy Hendrix, I wonder who he liked?”

He continues, “Bob Dylan would listen to blues music from the south and try to recreate it. He played it like a boy from the mid-west, which he is, not like a poor man from the south. He listened to other artists and then replayed the songs in a way that made sense to him. It is very hard to find your own voice, but Dylan did.”

As I listened to Adam speak, I got the feeling that if he were to sing, he would have a range of a tenor, just based on his timbre. As I briefly spoke to Adam, it was only 3 pm. I would have some time before I would get the chance to hear Radiator King perform at 5 pm. I decided to continue my concert viewing downstairs.

On the stage on the first floor, the four-piece band, Oginalii started to play; the first rock band I had heard at the Baby Robot Media set. This group’s sound could have easily felt like a combination of Sound Garden and Stone Temple Pilots. If you are a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast like I am, yes, Oginalii’s music is filled with riffs composed of power chords, and drumming that is perfectly synchronized with the guitars and the bass. According to John Riccitelli, the band is from Nashville, and they are alumni of Belmont University.

Oginalii performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Oginalii performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

One of Oginalii’s songs, “Red” sounds like a cross between “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age and “Black Math,” a track on the 2003 album Elephant by the White Stripes. If you should have the chance to see Oginalii live, do expect a sound of rock ‘n’ roll from the early 2000’s and amazing solos from the lead guitarist – something else I miss from today’s mainstream music. Expect a timbre from the frontwoman that reminds you of Gwen Stefani’s voice. If I could paint a clearer picture of this singer’s timbre, imagine Stefani getting stepping into a genre that was opposite the mellowness in the pop songs she has performed recently. Oginalii may be a refreshing group for those who are looking for new and exciting rock music from Nashville.

Hayley Thompson-King performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Hayley Thompson-King performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

After Oginalii, came Hayley Thompson-King and her band. According to Riccitelli, Hayley is also an opera singer and she recently wrote a concept album. I will have to look back at a press release Riccitelli had sent me about this artist, because I was impressed with her energy on stage. The music Hayley plays resemble country, and she too is also based in Nashville.

Radiator Kings (Adam, right), playing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Radiator Kings (Adam, right), playing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Some singers sound very different when they perform versus when they talk, and I discovered that this was the case with the frontman of Radiator King, Adam. When he spoke to me, he sounded like a tenor. When he sang with his band, I heard a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but I felt that onstage, his timbre seems forced. Further, while Adam had explained to me that he (unintentionally) tells stories through songs, I could not hear the lyrics. The inaudible lyrics might have resulted from either the lack of volume in the microphone, an excessive degree in the Strat guitar Adam played, or both.

Trumpeteer playing with Radiator Kings at Pianos, Oct 2017

Trumpeter playing with Radiator Kings at Pianos, Oct 2017

In one song, “So Long Charlie,” Adam explained the story behind the song to the audience before playing. “This song is about the crazy characters you meet in your life. You don’t want them to be your roommates, but you don’t forget them.” For me, the most memorable part of this song was the guest trumpet player who performed a solo.

Baby Robot Media’s set finished at 6:00 pm. I appreciate the opportunity I got to review several performances in one location. I then recalled my first experience at Pianos, and had a brief flashback.

One evening in March 2012, I went to pianos to see Imagine Dragons play. That night, following their show, I met the band’s manager, and had told him that I was interested in writing a story about the band for my blog. I had a lot of competition from more established media channels in getting this band’s attention. New York media from all channels – television, radio, magazines – had been rushing up to the frontman, Daniel, hoping to get a story with the band. A few emails later with the band’s manager and the members of Imagine Dragons, I had a telephone interview scheduled with the bass player, Ben McKee. I consider myself lucky for the chance to talk to Ben. My interview with him is still one of the most popular articles on Music Historian.

Returning to the present, I realized that up until now, I had only seen Pianos at night, and I could not get a clear picture of the space like I did that day; it is beautiful. Most importantly, since Baby Robot Media arranged the performances, I felt so happy that I met the people whom I had been in contact with over the last few years. I saw the faces of this boutique music publicity firm and put them to names. I got to know the human beings behind the emails, press releases, and LinkedIn profiles.

I certainly hope to meet this crew again in person. I hope to continue the professional relationship and learn more about independent artists who might be writing gems that for the moment remain unnoticed by the mainstream, or maybe try their hand at showcasing their talent to various communities, or perhaps have a story to tell about their journey with music. Although I may not be interviewing as much, I will try to prioritize quality research and write about a few artists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the chorus follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

*All photos were published with permission

The Transformation of Miracles~Lost and Found: Marla Mase talks inspiration behind her songs, the themes that emerged, and where she hopes to take her new record

Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer

Researching the Brooklyn-based playwright and singer-songwriter, Marla Mase, I had learned that the Huffington Post and Chorus.FM had reviewed her previous records. I listened to Marla’s latest concept album she had released with her label, True Groove Records, in October 2016, Miracles~Lost and Found. I felt moved and nostalgic for a time when I had an affinity for power-pop punk tunes that replayed endlessly in my head throughout the day.

Tracks like “Dreamland” and “A Gun” contain driving power chords and major chords that move in rapid duplets. Lyrics in these choruses, such as We are living in a dreamland, and in “Truth Comes Down” where Marla talks – rather than sings – the truth comes down in unison with the short and accentuated beats produced by the drums. The song that stood out to me the most was “A Gun.” Marla seems to be almost playfully singing in an alto range, There’s a boy right here he’s holding a gun/ A boy right here he’s holding a gun/ He wants to be in a gang, and wants to go ‘bang’/ He wants to be someone.

Some music theorists who possess a penchant for classical music or jazz would say that this musical composition is simplistic. Attentive listeners of popular and rock and roll music would say that this musical composition has a potential for marketing success.

While Marla’s Miracles~Lost and Found strikes a chord with me – no pun intended – she is not necessarily a stickler for writing music both compositionally straightforward and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by a market saturated with mainstream genres. According to a review Chorus.FM had written about one of Marla’s previous records Half-Life, “It’s obvious that spoken word and poetry looms large in her most recent release, but the problem is that poetry and other forms of writing intended to read and spread a message don’t always lend themselves to good, listenable music.”[i] This criticism written in 2014 about Marla’s old record got me to listen to Half-Life. This particular record has a very different tone and style compared to Miracles~Lost and Found.

My research on Marla’s musical repertoire led me to a few questions: did Marla define herself as a musician or a performer; what inspired the change between the fusion of eclectic funk, rock and experimental fusion, and spoken word of Half-Life and the power-pop and post-punk inspired Miracles~Lost and Found; and what concepts was Marla looking to convey? I welcome Marla Mase to a full-length feature interview on Music Historian.

When I asked Marla about her musical background, she explained, “I think of myself as a writer first. I have always been a writer and a performance artist. I write many plays [and] that’s where the music part originates. I did take many years of piano lessons.

“When I was younger, I used to joke and say ‘I should be a rocker, but I don’t really write music.’ But I do come from a musical family. My mother writes music, and my brother is a songwriter, sister-in-law and so was my grandfather. That’s how I started getting into all of this stuff.”

I wondered how Marla made the connection between music and playwriting.

“I was writing plays, one woman shows, monologues and performance pieces for about ten years or so. Then I fell into a super hard time. I basically broke. A lot was going on with my family, my daughter was sick for years and finally it caught up to me. I mean it was 24/7 of constant anxiety. Then I discovered that when I sang, I [experienced] a minute of release. So I started to sing. Then, I would go to my acting class and perform and started singing other peoples’ tunes. It was healing.

“Then I started writing a ton of songs, they just came to me, and I was putting them in my one-woman shows, performing them a cappella. I knew I needed a musician. A friend of mine introduced me to Tomás Doncker, an amazing songwriter/guitarist/producer. We began working together, first on my shows, then on albums and eventually we ran the label together. He just really believed in me and my work.”

Marla’s story so far explains how she got started in music professionally. Afterward, more opportunity began to follow. “The windows open very quickly,” she said again. “We released the first album and the soundtrack to the one woman show (Brief Night Out), and then I released another album, Speak, six months later.”

It was not long before Marla started receiving attention from other musical professionals. During a sound check, a woman spotted Marla. This individual brings American prodigies to China and brings talent from China to perform in the United States. Although the woman admittedly said that she found Marla interesting, and liked what she did; the meeting between Marla and the curator of performance talent (if I may), did not immediately produce leads.

“We met, it did not work out. She was looking for more classical stuff. Literally [though], a year-and-a-half later, she called me and said “I never forgot you, Marla. I have a friend who is part of the UN.” Then boom! The next day I was going to China with my band for International Day of Peace.”

For this musician, it seemed like a world of yes started emerging. I then became interested in what ignited the switch from spoken-word poetry against rock and roll music, to power pop punk tunes. However, keeping in mind that Marla is a writer first and foremost, a blogger must also think about influences and inspiration that do not always parallel music.

“When I released Brief Night Out, Speak and Half-Life, those are all very niche; there is a lot of spoken word, rock and roll, and mixes. Miracles~Lost and Found is more of a traditional album. On the surface, it is more song-oriented; you can sit down and listen to the ‘nice’ songs. With the other ones, maybe somebody does not want to hear spoken word. I just go where ‘it’ tells me to go. I write according to what I think, by my inspirations. In a lot of press written about me, they say that I am a genre-hopper. I have written Reggae songs and all sorts of genres. For me, as an artist, you just write what makes sense. That’s where there is a lot of mixes, the change.

“With Miracles~Lost and Found, the inspiration was… this story I had heard.” Marla shared the story with me – a religious fish butcher, during his work one day had a spiritual experience. A fish had started talking to him. The fish told him The Messiah was coming. Naturally, the main character became frightened. He began yelling “kill all the fish!” He started chopping up all the fish but then accidentally cut off his hand.

Marla had heard this story years ago, and she thought, “…‘this guy was praying for a miracle his whole life, and waited for a sign of the Messiah. Then it happens, and he freaks out. He cannot handle the miracle.’ That’s when I thought of writing about this entire concept for an album, Miracles~Lost and Found. How many things happen in our lives that we don’t recognize as a call to transcend? Or, we pray for this stuff, but when it happens, we say ‘No!’ Either you don’t notice it, or you can’t handle the hugeness of it.”

Regarding the difference in musical composition between the previous records which Marla mentioned and this latest one, she and her producer, Tomás, collaboratively decided to make the songs simpler. According to the playwright, both she and Tomás had the following attitude about Miracles~Lost and Found: ‘Let’s keep it simple, and to the point. Too much talking these days.’

When Marla describes Miracles~ Lost and Found in greater detail, she says “…I have two or three-minute songs, whereas, on the old albums, I have six-minute, half-funk, spoken word [songs]…with Half-Life, a lot of it was written with the beats first. Tomás and [True Groove Sound Engineer/Producer/ and Partner in the Label] James [Dellatacoma] would give me some of the beats and instrumentals, and I would write the lyrics around those. Most of the time, it is me coming in and [saying], “Hey, I have an idea for a song,” and I will sing a melody.”

On Miracles~Lost and Found, listeners can expect to hear Marla structure her vocalization more around the harmonies in the music and the chords created on a piano or guitar. After learning about how Marla composed her lyrics in the previous record Half-Life, I wondered whether, in Miracles, she focused first on writing the music and then the lyrics.

“Sometimes it is the lyrics; sometimes it is the melody. For example, the song “Always” was [already] together. My mother, who is suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, wrote a line in my notebook – ‘Now is the time we must say goodbye.’ Her condition makes her not be able to read and write. As soon as she sees a blank page, she thinks it fills up with words, just like in Harry Potter – there is a blank page, and then words just appear. I was trying to show her [and tell her], “You actually can write, Mom. If you close your eyes, you still know how to write.””

Marla came across this notebook again one day while in a coffee shop. She revisited the sentence her mother had written. Thinking about the sentence, Marla then puts a melody to it, which is the same melody within the track “Always” on Miracles. Another melody which had stayed inside of Marla’s mind for a while was the verse in “A Gun.”

“I don’t play the guitar, but sometimes, when I was alone in my house, I would just take out the guitar and play around on my own. I would always have this [melody] “There’s a boy over there, he is holding a gun…” [she sings the song]… Every time I stayed there alone, I would rant and make up a song. Then I said, “That gun song is coming into this album. It’s amazing because it is one of my favorite songs, and I have listened to people who say they like it. This song has been in my head for years, and I thought “Why?””

While Marla brought the melody and lyrics for both the verses and the chorus in “A Gun,” Tomás brought in the cello and orchestra into that song. Regarding the message, Marla asserts that this “A Gun” is not a pro nor anti-gun tune. The artist does share that at the time this song was written, the massacre in Paris (November 2015) had already taken place. She finished the demo and said to Tomás, “I just got a really weird feeling.” An hour later, on her smartphone, she sees the news about the shooting. If I put myself in Marla’s shoes, I would have gotten frightened, even if I am aware that these two occurrences – the massacre in Paris and the composition of a song titled “A Gun” – have no connection to each other.

Moving on, I remember that Miracles~Lost and Found had been defined as a concept album. I wondered about the themes in the record, and I correctly picked up on one – disillusionment. I learned that while I picked up correctly on the theme, it held little to no relation to Marla’s motivations for the songs on MiraclesMarla with a Megaphone. Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer.

“Parts of Miracles~Lost and Found refer to what I have gone through, like dealing with depression, people in my life who are depressed, suicidality, and addiction. “Dreamland” was initially written as a reaction to my Mom being sick. She would say, “What is it all for?” Then I added in ‘I am hungering for more.’ We fight and battle; we do all of this in life, then we die. Not to be negative but, what is it all for? I think the disillusionment in the song is ‘we are living in a dreamland, let’s just pretend it is all right,’” says Marla, reciting a lyric in the chorus.

Something quite common among songwriters, which Marla also emphasizes is that sometimes you are not entirely aware of what you are writing. After Election Day 2016, “Dreamland” seems to have taken on a new meaning.

“We played at the Bowery Electric two days after the election, and I was pretty upset about the results. When I sang “Dreamland” to the audience that night, I did not feel it was about my mother then, but about people, all of us in America. Maybe that is what we have to do, pretend [everything] is all right, so we can get through. Then maybe that is a bad thing because we are trying to numb ourselves, like with the media.” Marla specifically refers to frivolous stories that receive attention. One story that comes to my mind is the one Time Magazine (online) covered about fathers doing ballet with their daughters.[ii] The artist expresses that the purpose of this type of reporting is to help people pretend that everything is fine, or feel distracted.

“Obviously as a whole, it is not the first time it has ever been done…,” says Marla. “You throw something one way, distracting people of the world from what is important.”

Another theme which emerges on Miracles~Lost and Found is the rude awakening. One example of a song that embodies rude awakenings is “56 Trees.”

“On the surface, I see a song that would be on the soundtrack for a film, like that Christopher Guest movie, the one that made fun of folk songs,” she explains. The film Marla refers to is called A Mighty Wind.[iii] “I feel the song seems a little bit [like the] sixties, but then there is this weird operatic thing [that happens]. I wrote this years ago as a reaction to a headline I saw – 56 trees were removed for fashion week at Lincoln Center.

“It sounds like I am this super tree-loving environmentalist, which I never really was, and then half-way through, the song equates the removal of trees in the middle of the night to people disappearing in the middle of the night. Where ever they live, in countries all over the world, people are told to move. But now, I am just thinking, that today, this could apply to what is happening with immigration. Boom: family gone! You are just thrown out. When this album, at least for me, when it was done, I felt like ‘Wow, there is a lot of depth in it.’”

Marla’s explanation about her motivations and themes that have come out of her songs is a prime example of how artists think when it comes to creating music. During my studies as a music history undergrad, I received the advice that many successful musicians and composers hid their real inspirations from the public. As a music blogger, I continue to ethnographically investigate how musicians and singer-songwriters create music.

When talking about original inspiration, writers must decipher what could be shared with a reader to create a cohesive story. The same also applies to writing music. Marla’s choice to keep the songs on Miracles~Lost and Found straightforward, appears as a suitable example. Even with lyrics and music, which to some might seem simplistic and partially politically-charged, even without meaning to, there is a candor behind Marla’s messages.

Marla’s next step for Miracles is to create a theatrical concert adoption of this record with Lisa Milinazzo. Lisa had expressed an interest in directing her, especially after she had heard Marla’s music.

“When I did Miracles, I thought that I would like to create a show out of it… I had written Lisa years ago… I met her via someone, and I had talked to her about Brief Night Out. We were not friendly. Then, we hired her for a Broadway-bound musical, Diana and Navy and the Golden Tooth written by Phoebe Nir who is an artist on our label. She (Lisa), had directed the concert version of that, so we got re-introduced. Then we became friends. Now, we are very good friends because of that show. I was in [it], and I produced it. I was [also] in the show as a narrator character.

“She said, ‘I want to direct you, I think you are interesting.’ Her husband is [also] a fan. I gave them my music from Speak. They said ‘We love your music!’ I thought, ‘Wow!’

“We are doing it, and we will work [together] on the dramaturgy. Lisa is influencing where it goes, and it is great. I like collaboration… there is only so much that can come out of my mind just working with someone else. She thinks it is really important. For me, I just want to do another show.

“She says it has to happen now because of the situation and it is pretty timely. We plan on putting up in June.”

Aside from performing and writing plays, Marla also owns two party-planning businesses, PARTYpoopers and PartySWANK, where she has produced over 3,000 events in the last 25 years. I asked Marla what inspired her to take the risk of starting a business. Her honest answer was “craziness.”

“Years ago,” she began to explain, “When I first started getting into acting and loved it, I started thinking why don’t I act in my theater? I can do it myself. I was not yet producing anything, we [Marla and her husband] were living in Tribeca at the time before what it is now. There were many empty storefronts. I was with my husband at the time, Isaac. I told him “I want to get a space where I can do my theater.” He then came up with the idea of doing kids’ parties. I was not sure why because we did not have children then.

“And, I thought ‘I don’t know. Really?’ That morning, when he woke up and said it, there was a big kids’ fair on our block, on Duane Street. I thought ‘That’s so weird, it must be a sign!’ Then, we just opened the business, and I never thought I would have done it if I did not want to open my theater. It was not anything I never really thought I would… this is the weird thing, everything I am doing in my life, I never really thought I would be doing.”

Like any entrepreneur, Marla’s journey in owning her own business was long. “There was a period where I felt mad because I thought it [the business] took me away from doing my artistic stuff. Now, it all goes together. It does not take up all of my time. The way I balance it now is so much better than I ever did. At first, we had a venue; I used to own thousands of costumes. I got rid of everything, and now it is all me being an event manager. I am the middle man; I know who to hire, and when you know any good director [for example], you know to hire the right people. It works out, but you must have good taste.”

It seems like Marla would like to continue to work as an event manager for parties. Regarding her efforts in music and performance, she plans to release the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles and see where that takes her. She is also developing a memory play that she wrote (along with members of her family) called “The Pill.” Tomas Doncker and James Dellatacoma did the sound design and her mom wrote the music. Marla expresses the first reading of it as a “huge success.” She also says, “People came out laughing and crying. I feel very excited about this piece. It has super strong legs.

Marla at the Dodge Poetry Festival 2014. Photo by Blair Bauer“I just want to keep putting out good work. To me, Miracles~Lost and Found is just one of many things I do. I am not downplaying it. I love the album. It’s not like that album where I am very performance art-y. Maybe some people think it is edgy and they hate it, or they believe that it is hip and cool; this for me, is a treat to say ‘This is an album for me to put on and hear a song, and then hear the next song.’ ”

Music and art, in general, take on a strange life. A singer-songwriter may have a particular motivation for a song in mind, and when they listen to the completed version of their song, it tells an individual story. However, if an artist performs that same song during a time within an environment where plenty of uncertainty, and even fear, fills the political and social landscape, their music can have new meaning. As a musician, playwright and performer, Marla does not seem rattled by this transformation. I would even say she welcomes it, and I would be curious to see how the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles~Lost and Found pans out.

Endnotes

[i] Music Reviews Staff Writer. (April 26, 2014). “monoblogue music: “Half-Life” by Marla Mase.” Chorus.FM. Retrieved from http://monoblogue.us/2014/04/26/monoblogue-music-half-life-by-marla-mase/ on March 11, 2017

[ii] Lang, C. (February 16, 2017). “These Dads Doing Ballet with Their Daughters is the Only Thing You Need to Watch Today.” Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4673637/dad-daugheter-ballet/ on March 25, 2017

[iii] A Mighty Wind (n.d.), Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Wind

“All on a Silent Night”: A song of peace and comfort in difficult times

Last year, on Christmas Eve, I sang a version of “Silent Night” called “All on a Silent Night” as a soloist, for the congregation at Bethany Presbyterian in Huntington, New York. My decision to perform involved the Music Director of the church partially talked me into it and validation from members of the congregation when they heard me sight sing this piece on the first try.

Since last Fall, I had been attending the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Huntington. Members of this community have been supportive, kind and, as of very recently, encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone as a newcomer. One Sunday after service, I was chatting with the Music Director and had told her about some of my performance experience, including my time with the Syracuse University Women’s Choir, the Huntington Women’s Choir, and my ability to play piano. She pulled me to the grand piano at the front of the room, to show me a version of “Silent Night” written by Becki Slagle Mayo; this rendition of the song was for a two-part Chorus and Piano with an optional cello. This version was titled “All on a Silent Night.”

The Music Director played a bit of the song and had asked me to follow the vocal melody in the top line with the accompanying music. After receiving validation from the director, and a few members of the congregation, I had decided then and there that it was only natural that I would perform this song. That’s when I decided to flex my musical muscles again, which involved practicing the piece with the music director and, most of the time, on my own.

“All on a Silent Night” was written in an ABA form; the ‘B’ section includes the melodic composition that resembles the original by Franz Gruber[i], while both ‘A’ sections include additional text and an original melody by Mayo[ii]. The parts which Mayo wrote for a soprano, includes a range from a D4 to an E-flat 5 on the piano, a range that just stretches over an octave – call it an octave and a half. The sections composed by Mayo presented a happy challenge, as D4 is a low note for my voice, while E-flat 5 borders the limits of my upper register. I especially liked how that E-flat 5 note was assigned a mezzo forte – more like a surprise forte – in the middle of the fourth bar into the music followed by a crescendo one measure long. There was a decrescendo in the last two measures of the seventh bar, thus concluding the first ‘A’ section.

One might think that Section ‘B’ of this song, which resembles the version of “Silent Night” we all might know, is simple, but I soon realized that the complications hide in the details of how to properly pronounce the words. The authentic version of Gruber’s song was written in German in 1818, and then translated into English in the middle of the 19th Century[iii]. Based on my experience, English is one of the toughest languages for singing an art song composed during these time periods, because the best way to clearly pronounce a sung word in English is to put on emphasis on the consonant of the first letter and the consonant of the last letter, like the word ‘night.’ However, in this word, a singer must make an effort to pronounce the middle letters in a way that makes them softer. More specifically, the singer should sound out a word that has a similar spelling to ‘naught’ not ‘night.’ When signing a word that starts with the letter ‘i’, especially like ‘infant’ that ‘i’ must receive a more acute pronunciation like how one would hear ‘ee’ like in the word “Halloween” or “seen.” Otherwise, if that ‘i’ in ‘is’ or ‘infant’ receives the same pronunciation in a sung verse as it does when spoken, that ‘I’ will sound like an ‘ugh’ to the listener.

The proper pronunciation of the lyrics within “Silent Night” is necessary to help tell the story about the time of Jesus Christ’s birth. However, the origin of this song, according to the Silent Night Association, gives the tune an additional meaning:

In the time “Silent Night” was written, the Napoleonic wars had come to an end, and new borders in Europe had been set with the Vienna Congress. The ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg lost its status as an independent country and was forced to secularize. In 1816, its lands were divided into two, with part assigned to Bavaria and the larger portion relegated to Austria. The Salzach River also became the new border between the town center of Laufen and its suburb Oberndorf by Salzburg. For centuries, the Salzach River had provided transportation for the salt trade, which provided a basis for the local economy. During the Napoleonic wars, the salt trade declined and never fully recovered, causing a depression in the local economy with the transportation companies, boat builders and laborers facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Further, Oberndorf by Salzburg was the site where “Silent Night” was first performed.[iv]

Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest of the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, wrote the text for “Silent Night.” His previous place of service, Mariapfarr, suffered greatly during the withdrawal of troops from the Bavarian occupation in 1816 and 1817. With this in mind, the creation of the 4th verse takes on a special meaning – expressing a great longing for peace and comfort.[v] Below is an English translation of some of the 4th verse, created by “Silent Night” historian William C. Egan[vi]:

Silent night! Holy night!

Here at last, healing light

From the heavenly kingdom sent,

Abundant grace for our intent.

“All on a Silent Night” by Mayo does not include this 4th verse. However, I strongly believe that the context behind songs stay consistent throughout any revision. For this reason, I felt encouraged to practice the delivery of this variant of “Silent Night” to the best of my ability. Thanks to the technician who came to my house to tune the upright piano in my house the previous week, to the holiday break I received from work, to all the practice with the Music Director of Bethany Presbyterian, I feel like I had the time to deliver a decent performance.

While I sang in front of the congregation on Christmas Eve, I felt my legs shaking from a combination of nerves and the cold air within the church (caused by a heating system which needed to be started earlier in the evening). From my waist up though, I looked calm and I felt composed. I feel grateful that I sang for Bethany Presbyterian, and I hope I get to sing again. The feeling is very humbling.

If you, the reader, ever get the chance to perform any version of “Silent Night”, please remember the historical context of the song and appreciate the meaning behind the verses, especially if you should receive a copy of the version that includes the 4th verse in the lyrics. Perhaps you might know of someone who needs comforting in a time of great uncertainty, whether it is being caused by problem that effects a nation or isolated strictly to an individual. No matter what challenges you may be facing, or those you know are facing, the next time you hear “Silent Night,” I hope you feel some peace and comfort.

_____________________________________________________

[i] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/text_and_music.asp on December 26th, 2016

[ii] JW Pepper. “All on a Silent Night.” Retrieved from http://www.jwpepper.com/10307377.item#.WGF63fkrLIV on December 26th, 2016

[iii] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/spreading_song.asp on December 26th, 2016

[iv] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp on January 16th, 2017

[v] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp on January 16th, 2017

[vi] Hymns and Carols of Christmas. Retrieved form https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/silent_night_holy_night-1.htm on January 16th, 2017

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

Becky Warren Press Photo

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

Becky Warren Press Photo. Courtesy of Kyle Dean Reinford

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

Top 5 of 2015

Happy 2016! I should have published this post before December 31st. Please excuse my tardiness. Let’s go into the top five Music Historian blog posts in 2015!

No. 5 – The Naked and Famous

The Naked and Famous’ Next Chapter: An Interview with the band’s keyboardist Aaron Short

The Naked and Famous Press Photo I interviewed Aaron in 2014, just weeks before the New Zealand-native indietronica group would perform at The Governor’s Ball Music Festival. I had contacted about ten talent management organizations for interviews with some of the artists attending the festival. CRS Management, who at the time managed The Naked and Famous, was the only talent group that expressed any interest. The effort CRS put in to coordinate an interview between Aaron and I was worth the while.

 

No. 4 – A guest blog post about Holly Henry

The Flip Side of Holly Henry’s Music

The Orchard Cover Art The guest blogger and author of this post, Gary Reese, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” on Idolforums and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” on The Voice Forums have received several page views. These pages have given Holly Henry the “third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who as competed on “The Voice.”” I am happy to say that in 2015, Gary’s guest blog was the fourth most viewed article on Music Historian.

 

 

 

No. 3 – An artist who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes

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. My interview with George Mihalopoulos, also known by his stage name, Gypsy George, had opened doors to several themes: entrepreneurship; creativity in today’s music business; and being bicultural in America. I initially learned about this artist while researching the music roster for The Northside Festival. His name first grabbed my attention. When I asked the American-Greek artist how he decided to choose his stage name, and call his band – The Open Road Love Affair – I knew I was an for an interesting story. According to the numbers generated by the readership, I might have been on to something.

No. 2 – Lessons from a prolific slide-guitarist: Better to be a trendsetter than a ‘trend-follower’

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

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Throughout his career as a professional slide-guitar player, Arlen performed on television, taught famous performers, and even acted as a director for a popular film. However; he never strayed away from his life as an artist and a teacher. Arlen says that showing an artist’s passion is what he is all about. Arlen’s stories of where he has been, his experiences and the lessons he has learned attracted many readers in 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 – The story of how a Las Vegas band started their journey, even after they have made it “big,” remains a favorite

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

Imagine Dragon's Press Photo When I interviewed Ben McKee in 2012 for a story on Music Historian, I never imagined this story would attract so many readers, nor would I believe that someone would cite my article in their work! I continue to feel so grateful for this opportunity. Also, I feel humbled that so many readers continue to enjoy this post.

Although it is a few days late, I wish you, my loyal readers, a very Happy New Year! Thank you for your readership.

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