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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Desert Sharks’ Hook-Drenched Rock ‘n’ Roll Tunes: My Interview with Stephanie Gunther

Desert-Sharks_CakeShop When I touched base with Stephanie Gunther, the vocalist and bassist from the Garage Rock Band, Desert Sharks, I felt excited to talk with a rock ‘n’ roll band that puts so much vulnerability into their songs. “Tequila Shark” was the track that attracted me to this Brooklyn-based all-women group, with a grimy bass line, and tinny sounding guitar which seems to echo, creating a space within the music for Stephanie’s beautiful alto voice. In the second verse, she sings the lyrics, I had a dream/ we had just met/ you showed me through your hallways/ and asked me would I stay. Fast forward to the chorus she sings It’s all mine/ your love’s in my mind, and then these lyrics repeats one more time.

When I asked her about the lyrics, Stephanie said, “I was exploring how we can go to such depths of dreaming up scenarios in our mind about someone we pine over. You can have all these fantasies of what it would be like to be together, how every detail would go down, where you would go, how you would interact, how much in love you would be.

“You can literally picture it and sometimes start to feel the emotions as if it were real, like you are having this secret mental affair with someone and they have no clue. I wrote, “Tequila Shark” about two dreams I had about two separate people, and that went along with those ideas.”

The most attractive aspect about the lyrics involved the vulnerability and honesty of the storyteller. In addition, there is very little mystery and interpretation of the meaning. Desert Sharks will remind rock enthusiasts that female bands continue to push past the gender stereotypes, and can do so with grace, and create opportunities for themselves independently in hopes to get recognized by a label. All of these are reasons for players in the music industry to pay attention to this group who were also in the Artists on the Verge class of 2014 at the New Music Seminar. It is my pleasure to feature Desert Sharks on Music Historian.

Stephanie says that when the band first started, people immediately doubted Desert Sharks.

“We’d get comments from people who first saw us on stage that they didn’t expect us to be any good, due to being female. Then, they’d say we blew them away. Now, it’s less about gender and more about our set, who we reminded them of and how they felt during our show. We’ve met some really awesome and supportive people at our shows. That’s one of the best parts about playing,” says Stephanie.

While some stereotypes are easy to disprove, including the one that says women can’t play instruments, women still have to work perhaps twice as hard as a man to make it in the business. Luckily, Desert Sharks don’t let challenges slow them down. Instead, they look to create opportunities to help them get closer to their ultimate goals – making a living with music.

“We’d love to work with someone on a full-length. The biggest task is getting heard. Our focus is on writing, playing shows, recording and touring,” explains Stephanie.

At the moment, Desert Sharks have an EP and vinyl they released in early 2013 which was recorded at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio, post-produced by Adam Reich, and pressed through Double Dare Ya Records, titled Sister Cousins. Just a few weeks ago, they released their 2014 EP on Manimal Records, Template Hair – an occasion that was marked with a show at Shea Stadium in late June. The promotion for their latest record will continue with a tour in August. Sister Cousins vinyl and Template Hair cassettes are available for purchase on Desert Sharks’ bandcamp.

In the short time they have been together (since 2011), Desert Sharks have played with bands they look up to, recorded and worked with a few labels, and toured. This four-piece group continuously set their sights on greater projects like working on a full-length with somebody in the future, touring out to the Midwest, where Stephanie is from, and getting signed. In order to reach these benchmarks, the group continues to dedicate their time to as Stephanie would say “making our music better and better.”

“We’re constantly writing new material and are anxious to get it recorded and out there for people to hear,” Stephanie adds. Desert Sharks Press Photo

Like I learned at the New Music Seminar in the panel The A&R Movement: Where is Music Headed? good music rises and makes its way to several listeners and to A&R representatives. I also learned that there is an opportunity for guitar-driven genres to make a comeback as well, which presents an opportunity for Desert Sharks. Songs like “Tequila Shark” can act like one of the Desert Sharks’ strong songs.

Aside from the fact that garage rock – according to Stephanie – can be “sexy, heavy, sweet or dancy,” “Tequila Shark” has an impressive compositional structure of A, B, A, B, C, as opposed to A, A,’ B or A, B. In my opinion, the more varied the sections within the song, the more interesting and exciting the track is to the listener. In addition, the lyrical content, which is straightforward and honest, lingers somewhere between vulnerable and impermeable. I asked Stephanie whether the realistic scenarios behind these lyrics focused on past romantic relationships, friendships, struggles or anything else.

“I’d say yes to all of those things,” begins Stephanie. “A lot of it is from my own life experiences, some of it, like our newest single “crazycrazy” is from someone else’s point of view put into my own words.

“When we start writing a song, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to write. I write at home a lot and put notes in my phone of phrases that pop into my head. Once we put together a song musically, I start to actually feel out the vibe. [I ask] ‘Does this song sound happy to me, does it sound sad?’ The hardest step for me usually is deciding the subject matter. Once I know what I want to write about, I can shape the words to fit the melody.”

While Stephanie loves Garage Rock, and agrees that this style influences Desert Sharks’ music, she admits that describing the group’s style of music is never easy.

“Garage and surf [rock] definitely influence our music, but I’d say we’re also heavily influenced by metal, punk, goth, pop, and more. Describing your style of music is the worst thing ever, especially when every band is a mishmash of influences. You end up [saying something] like, ‘Oh, we’re like The Ramones meets Dolly Parton meets Sabbath meets the Spice Girls.’ People get hung up on trying to label it and it gets hard to navigate. You want to say ‘just listen and see for yourself.’ Choose your own adventure and draw your own conclusions. It’s all rock ‘n’ roll in the end.”

An additional challenge to being in a rock band is making decisions with a group. The ladies within Desert Sharks “all share strong opinions,” says Stephanie.

“It usually takes a long time to come to a decision. Figuring out a [band] name was no easy task. We wrote “Tequila Shark,” and afterwards, some of us said ‘that’s a cool name, should we just call the band that?’ Desert had been a word on a list of words we dug, so we stuck desert and sharks together. It was the first name we came up with that we all didn’t hate.”

Since 2011, this band has built an excellent resume. The greatest strength they have developed as a group is their willingness to be flexible while they maintain strong attitudes. Their talent for writing a lot, and having a wide selection of songs is also beneficial for any A&R representative looking to sign a female Garage Rock group. From starting off with a Craigslist ad and arriving at Shea Stadium, Desert Sharks have made a healthy journey.

“We met through Craigslist,” recalled Stephanie. “The stars were aligned for that one. Rebecca [Rose, the drummer], Sunny [Veniero, the guitarist] and I met up initially with another girl and wrote a song together. We were sort of just jamming and playing around with ideas.

“The other girl had prior commitments to another band, so she left. We put out an ad, and Stefania [Rovera, the additional guitarist] answered. It was the missing puzzle piece. Once she joined we started writing a ton and felt like we wanted to start playing shows.”

Desert Sharks Bkyln Vegan There are plenty of rock ‘n’ roll listeners out there who want to hear this type of music and Desert Sharks might be at the right place in time to get recognized. People still line up to see independent Garage Rock bands in the United States. As for guitar-driven music, based on what I listened to at the New Music Seminar and what I saw at the Governors Ball Music Festival, there still exists an audience for The Strokes and Jack White.

Regarding my final question for Stephanie, I wanted to know what she thought of the motto “Rock is Dead.” She explained in two words “rock ‘n’ roll reincarnation.” Based on my interpretation, this means rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well, just in another form.

Female bands continue to make a comeback in rock ‘n’ roll, and like the Desert Sharks, they dedicate their time to writing songs, making records and performing in both small and large venues. These sharks are coming up to the surface with their hook-drenched tunes and ready to enter new territory – the wild music industry. The greatest strength of this group is their ability to carry listeners within the strong currents of their 2-3 minute tracks, a talent which – based on my listening experience – has been difficult to replicate on today’s music scene.

Dive Into The Minds of Industry Players: A Review of the New Music Seminar

If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.

The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.

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The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.

The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.

While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.

The A&R Movement: Where music is headed

Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.

Trends in Music

Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.

On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.

A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not

One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.

If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.

In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.

On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.

Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs

Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.

If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.

What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.

So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.

The Take Away

The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.

Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.

Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions

This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.

I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”

Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.

Some of the Songs up for Critique

The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”

Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”

The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.

A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists

Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.

One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”

An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”

As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.

The Take Away

All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.

“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”

Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”

They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.

So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.

Online Media Music Discovery

Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.

Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player

As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.

Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention

The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.

On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.

Do Use Social Media to Create Attention

Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.

Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention

Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”

In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.

Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them

Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.

Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.

Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big

Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.

Final Thoughts

The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.

Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.

Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”

He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.

“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”


New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.

Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice

Holly Henry, Singer Songwriter Holly Henry, the 20-year-old musician based in Minneapolis experienced the turning point of her musical career when she performed Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on season 5 of “The Voice.” Getting all four judges to turn their chairs after her beautiful performance marked the first moment she introduced herself to the public as a major talent. When time came for her to choose an artist to work with, she picked country musician and producer, Blake Shelton.

“I said to myself, ‘I will choose who turns first,’ and Blake turned within two seconds. He was ready to work with me,” recalls Holly.

While the young singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist chose to work with a country music producer, Holly does not define herself as a country musician. After finishing her time with the reality television show, Holly met with producer and founder of the Grow Music Project, Chris Tyng to record and produce her latest single “Hide and Seek.” While Holly exhibits the same voice from season 5 of “The Voice” within this new single; the lyrical content within “Hide and Seek” resembles something different from the pop songs she performed on the reality show.

In the chorus of “Hide and Seek,” Holly sings I’m stuck in the corner/ I swear I adore you. I asked her about the inspiration behind these lyrics.

“I do have anxiety, and I wrote the song “Hide and Seek” about that, and how it affects my life and relationships with the people I love,” she says.

I investigated her repertoire of original music further by listening to her 2013 acoustic EP, The Immigrant. The lyrics in the chorus for the song “Paper Clips,” she sings Life has just tripped you up by your laces. Then, there is the title track in which she sings Be still your love, your broken heart/ ‘cause I will kill it.

“Paper Clips” was about growing up and how we all miss childhood,” explains Holly. ““The Immigrant” focused on someone loving you more than you love them. These are the ideas that go into the songs, but the lyrics are open to interpretation.”

According to her latest interview in a documentary of her experience with the Grow Music Project, Holly is most inspired by artists like Bon Iver and Lana Del Ray.

“The artists and singers I am most inspired by are the ones who know who they are, and who have a different voice,” states the young performer. “It’s hard to find someone unique… so when you do find somebody different you can say to yourself ‘Wow, I’ve never heard this kind of music before.’ That’s [they type of artist] that really intrigues me.”

The most intriguing quality about this developing artist is that while she returns with a voice we are all familiar with, we now have the opportunity to enjoy something more refreshing – beautiful and youthful voice that expresses an old soul. At the moment, Holly is searching for a producer who will help her create her first full-length record, one that will showcase the voice she looks to present to the world. It is my pleasure to welcome this young artist to a full-length feature article for the month of June to Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

Holly claims when she tried out for season 5 of “The Voice” in early 2013, she did so on a whim.

“They [the show] always hold auditions every year, in 4 or 5 cities. That year, they held an audition in Chicago. My parents watched the show, and they really liked it, and I also found the show interesting. My Dad said to me “you should try out.”

“At the time, I was also in my gap year, I had just finished high school and I took a year off to pursue music. Not purposely the voice in the beginning.

“I went to their auditions in Chicago and went through three or four auditioning processes before reaching the final blind audition. I was not expecting to get called back at all, I didn’t think I’d get past the open call. I hadn’t planned for it, it all just happened,” explains Holly.

During this time, Holly had already published videos of herself performing her own songs on YouTube. These videos grabbed Chris Tyng’s attention.

“He actually listened to my YouTube videos way before I went on “The Voice.” He planned on contacting me but when he learned I was going on the show he thought “she’s probably not interested.” When he found out I got off the show, then he contacted me.

“I didn’t want to let that opportunity with the Grow Music Project go. Chris either chooses an artist, or an artist applies, for his specific program in which they record a song for free and he shoots a video documentary [of the project]. It is a first step into the industry. Chris is a great guy. He sits down and gets to know who you are and then helps show your voice to the world. I was happy to have someone help me make music that fits my persona.”

Holly Henry and Chris Tyng - founder of the Grow Music Project

So far, Chris has worked with Holly specifically on “Hide and Seek.” Holly claims she would love to work with him again. However, she is also open to working with other producers. I was curious as to what criteria an artist like Holly uses when hunting for a producer.

“Listen to what they produce,” she says. “Listen to other things they’ve produced and then figure out who they are – are they more high tech or very acoustic? Try new things; you never know exactly how you will work with someone.”

While Holly looks to continue her acoustic styling, as she presents in “Hide and Seek” and her first EP, she is also open to adding new elements to her compositions.

The Immigrant was [recorded as] just acoustic because we wanted to create something and put it out quickly. In general though, my music is not completely acoustic but more along the lines of “Hide and Seek” and some of the songs on my bandcamp website like “More Than Nothing” or “Secrets Spoken.”

“There was a lot less production on The Immigrant, whereas in “Hide and Seek,” we added cello, piano, drums and various instruments.”

Holly claims acoustic is also perfect for her because some of her songs which include topics about anxieties, reflections and love would clash with a very upbeat melody. While some producers might worry that her songs steer towards the mellower and possibly melancholy, Holly never received a negative message about her songs. As a matter of fact, she received plenty of encouragement from her fans. Holly Henry in Chris Tyng's studio

“When “The Voice” happened, the whole experience kick-started a fan base and this whole new way of life for me. They say very encouraging things, and I am very lucky to have people follow me. I receive messages all the time, both about my music and my struggles. People who struggle with anxiety and depression tell me “your music encouraged me to keep going and trying.” Honestly, that’s all I want to [hear and] do. I just want to help people out.

“People say my music is relaxing. It is not jamming music. It makes the listeners say “let me sit down and think about my life for a minute.””

The next steps Holly looks forward to most within her music career is releasing another album.

“I am excited to release new material to my followers. As of now, I have only released a single and an EP. I want to give them something new and complete, something I am extremely proud of.”

As she continues to address internal struggles within her songs, whether experienced by her or someone else, Holly describes songwriting as a therapeutic endeavor. Performing, however, does come with the territory, one she treads gracefully and with poise. One can see this in her performances both on “The Voice” and in a recent show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.

“If I am feeling anxious, I can write a song and get my feelings out. Although performing music is quite frightening for me. Performing does come with the territory,” explains Holly.

“I was less nervous during the first time I sang on “The Voice” for the blind audition because I had been practicing that audition song “The Scientist” for two or three months. I had plenty of time to build up confidence for that moment. Plus, I didn’t know what to expect when I first went out.

“In the beginning, there was not too much fear to overcome, I was not very afraid. Towards the end of the show, I realized if I were going to do music, I would have to push through the anxiety. I might as well power through, and do what I love.”

I then ask myself, if this artist’s anxieties do not show anywhere in her performances – perhaps as a result of her perfect practice and discipline – then why does she choose to talk about it in her music?

“I’ve chosen to be public about it [the anxieties] not because I want pity or attention. I do it to let people know ‘It’s all right.’ I know so many people who have social anxiety, which can be quite crippling. I don’t have social anxiety, but it’s very common amongst others. It’s also nice to talk about it because you feel you’re not alone in your problems. I just hope I make people feel better about themselves,” she expresses.

Holly Henry in the Recording StudioPopular music listeners need an artist who treats professional musicianship and public recognition with greater dignity, humbleness and respect. Holly Henry fills this need both with her music and her persona. Now, Holly requires a producer to recognize this and showcase her talent to the world with an album that features her latest single “Hide and Seek.”

“There will be an album at some point,” Holly confidently expresses. “I have most of the songs written for it, but who produces it is still unknown. I’d love to work with Chris again. He understands what I want my music to do. He doesn’t pressure me into making my music something it is not.”

Most importantly, the best producer, whether it be Chris or someone else, should realize that in order for Holly to present the world a new voice, she must continue to deliver the same type of authenticity she exhibited in “Hide and Seek.” Recalling my previous interview with music producer Roger Greenawalt, the one thing a producer might ask in return from Holly is that she is ready to push herself and handle challenges, which might include performing more or welcoming more instrumentation. By having these needs from both the artist’s and the producer’s side, Holly Henry is ready to start the process of putting her new songs on a full-length album.

Apollo Run’s “Here Be Dragons” Saga: Bass player Jeff Kerestes Shares the story from start to finish

Apollo Run (Left to right: Jeff Kerestes, John McGrew and Graham Fisk)

The most successful bands establish a memorable sound, the one that encourages listeners to return to performances and purchase the group’s music. In the process, artists might find that the music they create does not fit a label. Jeff Kerestes, a professional bassist of the Brooklyn-based band Apollo Run, briefly explains this experience.

“When we changed the band’s name to Apollo Run we did not know how to categorize the music. It was all new to us, the three part harmonies, the bass, the drums… We were wondering “what’s here?” Let’s explore it.”

It was at this moment the band decided to name this phase of their musical development “Here Be Dragons.”

“In the old maps,” explains Jeff, referring to maps of the globe dating as far back as the 1500’s, “signs that read “here be dragons” were drawn to represent uncharted territories. The music was uncharted territory for us.”

In Music Historian’s full-length band interview for May, Jeff talks about how Apollo Run’s “Here Be Dragons” exploration started; where the course has taken them; the possible conclusions of their journey; and what awaits the band in the near future. It is my pleasure to welcome Jeff to Hear; Don’t Listen.

The Beginning: John McGrew and the Sit Backs

One night in 2007, the Arizona-native with a jazz degree from Arizona State University, was celebrating his one year anniversary of living in New York City. Through the husband of a friend, Jeff learned of a band that was looking for a bass player – John McGrew and the Sit Backs. Jeff joined this group in December of that year. Here, he met singer John McGrew and drummer Graham Fisk.

“John and Graham hit it off right away,” recalls Jeff. “The band also had another bass player, a guitarist and keyboard player.

“In this group, all the songs were fully-written by John and the members of the band would play these songs and perform under the moniker John McGrew and the Sit Backs. At that time, John was working a day job just to pay the band. In New York, there is almost nobody that will play another person’s song for free.

“Eventually though, paying the band became expensive, and John decided to leave his day job and do music full-time. Since John McGrew and the Sit Backs was the best experience I had at the time, I decided to stay, and so did Graham.

“Afterwards, John decided he wanted to change the name of the band because all three of us would be writing songs, not just him. We were ready to create a new sound.”

At this point, it was 2009, and John, Jeff and Graham decided they wanted to bring a new approach to music making – one in which all three members could use their ability and talent to the fullest and tie it together into a series of songs.

The Middle: Developing Ideas and Completing Songs Together Apollo Run at the Bowery Electric, April 5th, 2013

“One of the most exciting parts about Apollo Run is that we all write, and we will bring different ideas to each other.

“For example, John and Graham were both in a Cappella groups in their college years. Sometimes, John will have a great a Cappella line, and we’ll develop a song from there or, he will come to us with a song that is almost finished, and we’ll complete it together.

“Graham also writes songs on piano, and sometimes he will come in with a song that he has not finished, and we will hone out the rest of the parts – the vocal harmonies, the bass line, drums and the key board.”

Jeff enumerates on this example through a few stories about some of the songs on “Here Be Dragons” vol. III.

“One of the songs on our last record, “Sirens,” we wrote while we were on tour. I was playing chords on a ukulele during the car ride. In this time, we created the hooks of the song. Then, when we halted for rest stops, we would refine the lyrics and the vocal lines.

“For “Desire,” Graham came in with a partially developed idea for the song. We composed fifty to sixty percent of it in the studio. By the time we finished the other songs for the third volume; we had to complete “Desire.”

“This was one instance in which we were putting too much thought into how a song is “supposed to sound.” When this happens, it becomes very difficult to complete the song. Once we played the song several times through though, it came out right. We played [“Desire”] until it felt right.”

Naming the Band: “Many names can put you in a box and we did not want that”

Prior to recording any of the “Here Be Dragons” records, the band applied the same intuitive effort behind finding the band’s new name.

“Naming the band was difficult,” recalled Jeff. “We really wanted our music to dictate the name and not the other way around. For example, when you hear the name Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam, you think about the music of the band, not their name. The words don’t mean much on their own until you define them with music.”

“We did not feel we could categorize our sound,” adds Jeff. “Many names can put you in a box, and we wanted to avoid that.”

Listeners will have a difficult time putting Apollo Run’s music neatly in a category. One might feel that the opening piano melodies to “Autumn Song” that paid homage to art songs from the Romantic period; or that the doo-wop-feel of “That’s How it Felt” belongs more to pop; or that the “Devil in Disguise” makes a slight nod to the swing-jazz genre.

The eclectic sounds of each “Here Be Dragons” album might also make listeners wonder what made the band chose the name Apollo Run. For this simple reason: it felt right.

According to Jeff, all the members liked the mythology behind the Greco-Roman God Apollo, who ruled music, poetry, and light. In addition, John who is also an astronomy enthusiast repeated the phrase “Apollo Run” to himself several times. The more he heard it, the more confident and comfortable he felt with the name.

The Music: “You never know where your inspiration is going to come from…”

(Left to Right) John and Graham at the Bowery Electric As my conversation with Jeff continued, I became curious about what influenced the lyrics behind their songs. I learned that for these three musicians, “influence comes from everywhere.”

“You never know where your inspiration is going to come from; it can be from literature to what’s going on politically. A couple of our songs are inspired the book series The Game of Thrones. Sometimes John will come to us and say, “I wrote a new song, it is inspired by The Game of Thrones,” says Jeff jokingly.

Then, some of the inspirations for Apollo Run’s songs come simply from gazing up at a clear night sky.

“Our song “Stars” is basically John’s take on what he hears from looking at the stars. As they twinkle back and forth, John hears they are singing “oh-way-oh,”” explains Jeff.

Apollo Run plays on romantic imagery while celebrating the union of many musical ideas. In addition, fans’ responses to the band’s music have been supportive and unusually phenomenal.

This brings me to what might be the beginning of the end to a great expedition, a possible musical theater production of “Here Be Dragons.”

The End: A Theatrical Reception?

During the summers, John, who has a background in musical theater, works at a drama camp in Oakland, Maine called Acting Manitou. Every year, John helps students put on a play. According to Jeff, “the kids really liked Apollo Run’s music” and they wanted to make a play using the band’s songs.

“Last year, the kids asked whether they could put on a play using Apollo Run’s music, and they did,” enumerates Jeff. “Graham and I went to perform the music for the production. The result was amazing.

“The play takes place in a dystopia. In the story,  a ruler is overthrown and then another ruler takes over. The replacement, however, turns out to be much worse than the initial leader. During this story, there is a love story taking place between two characters. The play references the many faults and issues within our society.”

“After the experience, we decided to bring the play down to New York City and invited Broadway actors for a reading.”

At the moment, the musical has only developed to a reading of the play by professional actors. John says “I do not know where it will go from there.”

Beyond the Saga: A Fourth Album with a New Focus

If the “Here Be Dragons” saga does not end with a big bang, then fans can look forward to a fourth album in the near future. Jeff says the band is in the process of creating a new record that will focus on this idea: now that the territory has been explored, it is no longer uncharted.

“We are currently in the writing stage,” he explains. “The songs are very exciting right now.

“The album’s title will depend on the shapes the songs will take.”

Apollo Run (left to right): John McGrew, Graham Fisk, and Jeff Kerestes In the meantime, the band continues to receive a positive reception from fans all over the country. Jeff recalls Apollo Run’s first national tour from November, which was to promote their third volume and first full-length album “Here Be Dragons” vol. III, as a career milestone for the group.

“That was pretty big for us,” enumerates Jeff. “We started on the west coast in San Francisco, then drove all over the country for a month. We traveled to my hometown in Arizona, then to San Diego, and several other places before concluding the tour in Maine.

“Our fans traveled great distances to come see us perform, and it was rewarding to see them enjoy our music.

“We love what we’re doing and taking that everywhere with us is great.”

Jeff also invites fans to watch Apollo Run’s music videos for the following songs on “Here Be Dragons” vol. III that just premiered today on their website – “Devil in Disguise,” “Bending the Light,” and “Act IV.”

Apollo Run reminds listeners that while establishing a solid sound is a necessary component for a successful band, creating music is not about fitting neatly into a category. Reflecting on my interview with Jeff, I realize that a band’s potential relies on their ability to explore new musical territory despite the uncertainties or possible dangers. Apollo Run’s exploration helped them arrive to the destination they sought – a definition of their sound. In addition, their expedition contributed greatly to their artistic development. The result is the complete “Here Be Dragons” trilogy.

What awaits Apollo Run fans after the HBD saga remains a mystery, but it is one that listeners will look forward to discovering. One thing is certain. The band will apply the same virtuosity, dedication and meticulousness to each song and its various components. As Jeff says, “Many bands are known for doing one thing really well in their music. We work to making everything sound well.”

3dCosby’s Daniel Harris Talks about Band’s Latest Album, Satan’s Secret and “Doing Family”

 On the hot and muggy Thursday, June 21st, I traveled to Williamsburg to visit the Cyn Lounge. Here, Avi Wisnia was hosting his annual BBQ Block Party. Although the heat persisted as 8:00pm rolled around and I was sweating through my work clothes, I was happy catch up with Avi to hear some of the bands in his line-up. One band I particularly enjoyed was 3dCosby.

The songs by this band that caught my attention included “Paint by Numbers” and the humorously-titled track, “Star F*cker.” Both songs are featured on their latest record, Satan’s Secret. All of 3dCosby’s tracks combine funk and jazz. Occasionally, they will add a special musical technique called polyphony – the playing of four different voices or melodies produced by the guitar, keyboard and bass all at the same moment.

During their performance, the front man of 3dCosby, Daniel Harris, invited audience members to dance to some of the instrumental pieces. The audience, me included, responded positively, and moved to the rhythms of their songs inside the small cemented outdoor space of the Cyn Lounge.

Daniel Harris on guitar and mic at the Cyn Lounge, June 21, 2012

Daniel admits that “it’s great to see people respond to it [our music].” However; Daniel and the member of 3dCosby who is perhaps closest to him, Matt Ross, see music making as more than just a means for having fun; it is how they “do family.” Over a telephone conversation, Daniel talked to Music Historian about the history of 3dCosby, the album, Satan’s Secret, and most importantly, the development of their style. I am happy to introduce 3dCosby as the full-length interview feature on Hear; Don’t Listen for the month of July.

Pre-beginnings of 3dCosby: Hillel

Anybody who listens to Daniel talk about 3dCosby can believe that this band is a family.

Daniel says, “Matt and I initially met when we both moved to Monroe, New York. Our Moms introduced us, and we were pretty much attached at the hip. We went to the same camp; we were in the same Jewish youth group” and they made music together from an early age. Daniel continues:

“We both grew up around music. Matt’s Dad was a professional musician who practiced saxophone and flute. My Dad taught me to use the turntable when I was 3 years old; and in the 4th grade, I started playing cello and Matt picked up trumpet. In the 5thgrade, I picked up guitar, and at that time, Matt and I would listen to songs on the radio and write our own lyrics.”

Daniel Harris and Matt Ross, courtesy of 3dCosby’s site on bandcamp.com

Daniel and Matt initially dabbled in the idea of forming a band. Then, once the two hit high school, the idea slowly turned into a reality.

“Matt and I wrote our first song at 14 years old called “Never End” inspired by the author, Michael Ende who wrote The Never Ending Story. We also started playing in bars, coffee houses and in people’s backyards at that age too.

“Our band was first called Hillel (named after Hillel Slovak of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), though we eventually changed the name to Ethan’s House of Pancakes. At the end of high school, I got a call from our friend Alan asking if I wanted to start a new band with him. “Can Matt be in the band?” I asked. Alan said “Totally,” then added, “We have a gig in two weeks at the House of Blues in Boston.”

Daniel admitted that playing the House of Blues was an epic opportunity for him and Family Junction at the time. The band stayed together for about 7 years. While they were in the process of recording a series of 5 EPs, Hillel separated. Daniel describes the break-up:

“We [all the band members] started taking on extra projects. Matt was working with other bands and I was working on solo stuff. We made the collective decision not to play anymore shows until the EPs were completed, which ostensibly was a diplomatic way for us to sadly agree that things had come to an end. In the Fall of 2008, I put out my first solo album, “Thirty-two bit isn’t really eight bits better” which you can check out on http://www.iamdanielharris.com.”

Luckily, the break-up of Hillel was not the end of the friendship between Daniel and Matt. These two would continue to make music together.

“This is just what we do – we’re brothers, and at the foundation of our relationship is music. It [music] keeps us together and it keeps us sane.”

“It All Made Sense”: A few jam sessions and songs later, a new group and record forms

Although Family Junction was over, Daniel and Matt decided to come together for a jam session in 2008. Daniel enumerates:

“After the band was already broken up, I drove to Matt’s house in New Paltz and decided to just jam. We soon started writing songs in his living room.

“We just wanted to see what would happen, and as we continued writing together, we soon had enough songs to make album. Just last winter, we decided to make a record which transformed into 3dCosby’s first album.”

3dCosby still remains just Daniel and Matt, and their friends that are invited to play during live performances. So far, the band gained tremendous recognition for their album, Satan’s Secret. The track “Paint by Numbers” became the band’s hit.

3dCosby’s album cover for “Satan’s Secret”

“This [“Paint by Numbers”] is a funny track. My younger brother wrote the lyrics, and it is about a guy named Colors, who only saw in numbers, and a girl named Numbers, who only saw in colors. It was originally an instrumental piece, but someone demanded we add lyrics. So, we gave Jesse, our bass player, my brother’s story, and asked him to write the lyrics.

“This song also makes fun a band we played with a few times. We still love them, and so we decided to tease them in “Paint by Numbers” because we feel one of the ways you show someone you love them is by teasing them.”

After the album was completed, Luke Sullivan, the musician who mastered Satan’s Secret suggested that 3dCosby send “Paint by Numbers” to Michael Marotta, a disc jockey who played songs by local artists in the Boston area on WFNX.

“Luke suggested we send the single to Michael. So we did, and he wrote back to us within 3 to 4 hours and agreed to spin it on the air. He also asked us to follow-up with him once the release date for the album came closer. Then, we were played on 4 to 5 difference station, and we made it to the top ranks on a few music charts like “The Deli New England.”

“The attention from the press was just flowing very naturally and it all made a lot of sense.”

3dCosby was “Satan’s Secret”

Daniel and Matt have constructed their own world of excitement by incorporating their own jokes into their songs. In addition, the dance beats and funky rhythms and dissonances that accompany the lyrics in 3dCosby’s songs invade the minds of attentive listeners and music lovers without creating any discomfort or pain. Daniel validates my thoughts as he explains the meaning behind the album title.

“When we were naming the album last year, this joke happened to come into our minds; then it became that 3dCosby was “Satan’s Secret.” We want to destroy you,” joked Daniel as he continued to make a reference to the Satan character in the 1999 South Park movie.

As Daniel and I continued to talk, I soon realized that we were starting to joke between ourselves. I reiterated back to Daniel my understanding of why 3dCosby thought that “Satan’s Secret” was a great name for their record. I said to him:

“Satan’s Secret is 3dCosby. They want to destroy you, and so do you. They will annihilate you in the best ways possible, and it will seem like you’re not being destroyed at all.”

Daniel responded, “That’s great, write that down.”

As our conversation continued, I saw the progress between the beginnings of 3dCosby to the band’s full-length, Satan’s Secret, which was released in February of this year,as the result of Daniel and Matt’s musical development, their friendship and the appreciation of different musical styles. One individual that Daniel credits for fostering his and Matt’s appreciation for music is their history teacher from junior and senior year of high school, Mr. Lee.

“He showed us a different dimension and put us on a specific path”

“When we graduated,” explains Daniel, “he gave me a copy of the book On the Road and two Frank Zappa albums. I didn’t listen to them until the year 2003. I was going to attend a protest in NYC against the war in Iraq, but ended up spending the weekend in Monroe, New York at Matt’s house.

“When we were there, we really wanted to listen to something we had never heard before, so I found one of the Frank Zappa albums Mr. Lee had given me and I remember listening to the first track titled “Inca Roads” off the album, One Size Fits All.We loved this track; we literally took it with us in the car and drove around Monroe for one hour listening to this song.

“This marked an important musical change in my life. This motivated me to get Frank Zappa’s albums, and through listening to them I was inspired me to revisit an album I already possessed by John Coltrane. Afterwards, I eventually fully understood jazz.

“So, if it wasn’t for Mr. Lee, we wouldn’t have learned to develop an understanding of jazz. He showed us a different dimension and put us on a specific path. That’s why, when we released Satan’s Secret, the initial idea was to make 3 copies of this CD: One for me; one for Matt; and one for Mr. Lee.”

“People…whether they’re musicians or not, they connect with the music” 

Although Daniel and Matt graduated high school over 10 years ago; have experimented with several different musical groups; and have each jumped from job-to-job in order to support themselves; the members of 3dCosby always remember the friends that have helped them and the communities that facilitated their growth and love for performing.

“This is what we want to be doing and we’re doing it our way,” says Daniel. “We’re gregarious; we have a strong sense of community and we love meeting new people. We also stay in touch with our friends from home. Matt still keeps in touch with the friends he’s known since he was a child.

“Through this album, and through music, is how we do family. When people see 3dCosby, and listen to the record, they get to know who we really are and they also see our profound dedication to music, as well as our humor and what music does for us as individuals. People get it. Whether they’re musicians or not, they connect with the music.”

3dCosby is currently working with a third party on a Fall tour for this year. They are booked to perform at Lit in New York City on September 22nd. In the meantime, the duo will continue to make music and perform for audiences everywhere they travel. For Daniel, playing music and doing music with Matt “means more than what any words can appropriately describe” – playing together is “a saving grace.”

“Put Yourself Out There”:Solo Guitarist, Hannah Winkler Shares Her Music and Story

In today’s indie band culture, especially the one in the Big Apple, I too often feel that something is missing. Then it hits me – “Where are the solo guitar chicks?” I was happy to finally find one on a warm and rainy February evening, at Seth Glier’s set in Rockwood Music Hall. Here, I stumbled upon the voice and guitar playing of singer-songwriter, Hannah Winkler

One of the songs I heard from her that night, “Dear Love” – which is on her self-titled EP – left me in awe. It starts with an unsettling progression of minor 7 chords, followed by progressions of major 7 chords, and then finishes soundly on the tonic, the 1 chord. On top of these harmonies, she sings about how she simply cannot wait for love to arrive, even though it is warm and comforting.

I wanted to find out more about the girl with the intricate chord progressions and the disillusioned views about love. So, I invited Hannah to be my April music feature for the full-length interview right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen.

“The Paper Plate Song”

Hannah and I met at the café on East Houston, Sugar. In our conversation, I learned that Hannah’s relationships with friends both from her home in Bethesda, Maryland and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor influenced her songwriting. She says:

“During my freshman year, I was writing “Dear Love,” and one of my friends wrote lyrics which I later set to this song. Coincidentally, the lyrics he wrote happened to describe something I was experiencing at that time – a long distance relationship. The lyrics just fit with me, and I just finished with what he started. “Dear Love” became one of my favorite songs to play.

“My relationships and my friends’ relationships in college inspired my music; we were learning a lot about ourselves at that time. Also, missing relationships from home, missing relationships from college while I was at home also inspired my songs.

“I wrote a song after I left college called “The Paper Plate Song.” When I wrote it, I was at a concert, and I missed my friends so much that I started crying and had to leave the concert. As I left, I needed to write down what I was feeling, so I searched for whatever I could find to write on, and it happened to be a paper plate.

“Until this day, I don’t have a title for the song; it’s just called “The Paper Plate Song.”

College was also where Hannah had her first performing opportunities for her own music. All her life, Hannah only performed solo classical piano pieces or performed in ensembles. Luckily, Ann Arbor offered her several safe and intimate spaces where she could practice as a solo artist and share music with her friends and the surrounding community.

“Put Yourself Out There”

“I would perform for friends in my apartment and at a local church that welcomed a lot of jazz musicians.

“I also participated in a student songwriting competition which took place at Ann Arbor’s premier folk venue, The Ark. The winner of this competition would get to open for an undetermined better-known artist at the Ark. I ended up winning the competition, and opened for Joshua James a few months later.

“Not only did I open for Joshua James, but I got my foot in the door and was able to play again at the Ark. Afterward, I performed at a large outdoor concert series, Top of the Park Festival. I also met a few dj’s and had the opportunity to perform on a few local radio stations.”

Hannah’s message to all soloists is, “Put yourself out there. You might meet people who can recommend you to a specific venue or a band in need of an instrumentalist.”

This is just one way a singer-songwriter can attract opportunities. I then asked Hannah whether her move to Brooklyn was a result of her hunger for more opportunity.

“Moving to Brooklyn, I was able to collaborate with several artists. I opened for Seth Glier and Theo Katzman at Rockwood. Then last Thursday night, I played at Googie’s with several other friends. I also sang back-up vocals on a record by the band called Guggenheim Grotto.

“Open mic night is also great way to meet people with whom you can collaborate. I also like taking breaks from doing my music, and helping other people with theirs. This is how I met Kat Quinn, another artist. I will be singing back-ups for her on her set at Rockwood.”

Aside from singing with fellow artists, Hannah also scored a short film by her friend from college, Perry Janes titled, Zug. Her most recent single, “Hide it Away,” which she produced with Theo Katzman, is included in the film. Another one of Hannah’s friends, Brian Trahan, also from University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, helped her produce her EP.

“I want to see who will help me bring out the best in my songs”

“While I was in college, Brian and I sang together in an a cappella group. I started recording the EP with him and I enjoyed seeing what he had to bring to the table. He is very influenced by rock and classical music, and for some of the tracks, we invited string quartets to help us complete the songs.”

Hannah adds, “Recording the EP was a wonderful journey. I like painting with music, and you get do that in the recording process.

“I have a lot of ideas of how the tunes should feel, and I appreciate hearing others’ ideas as well. I am currently trying to assemble a team of recording engineers for a full-length album – one with 10 to 12 songs. I want to see who will enjoy working on the album, understand my music, and help me to bring out the best in my songs.”

The Puzzle: Rehearsing with Hannah

 The experience of producing an album differs for each artist. For Hannah, her recording days started in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she created her first album with Brian. Recording the single, “Hide it Away” in her Brooklyn apartment however, presented a different challenge. Hannah explains:

“We only had a chunk of time each day to record songs. We had to wait for cars and ambulances to pass,” because every passing noise could be picked up by the recording devices.

Prior to recording a song, Hannah and her guest-musicians rehearse a piece of new music for the best process. An on-going puzzle during these rehearsals, is figuring out what Hannah is playing on her guitar. She says:

“I’ve been playing piano since the first grade. Then I picked up guitar in the 9th grade, and taught myself. I still have never taken a lesson. From the moment I picked up guitar, I started writing my own songs. I occasionally looked up the chords in songs from my favorite artists, but I never really learned them well. So I wrote my own.

“Playing the piano for so long really helped my ear, but I could never translate my theory knowledge onto guitar. I just press my fingers down wherever and just play things that sound good. When I rehearse with bands, I can’t explain to them what I’m playing so I show them, and they get it. For some, it’s like a puzzle and they really enjoy learning. In turn, these rehearsals help me figure out who I’d like to work with in the future.”

I was surprised to hear that Hannah composes songs purely by ear. I have played guitar for years, and actually picked it up around the same time as Hannah, but I only learned formally.

When I wrote my own songs, I always used tablature and mastered simple major and minor chords. If I don’t have something written in front of me, I don’t know what to do. For Hannah, the power of experimenting and her gift for hearing is an outstanding musical asset.

As I continued my conversation with Hannah, I learned more about her song writing process. She has a few recipes for creating songs that are ready for “the-road-to-recording.”

Setting a piece of music to words

Hannah says, “I experiment with chords for a while until I find a structure I like. Then, I usually start humming a melody over it, and the words come last. That’s the hardest part for me.

“Occasionally, I’ve written music to poetry by my mother, E.E. Cummings and myself, then composed music to it; and this instance, I found it easier to already have the words. To already have a piece of music with a melody and then have to add lyrics to it is really tough.”

Since they are the only musicians creating their songs, the solo singer-songwriter is often challenged by their own compositional methods. Collaboration is definitely one solution that can ease this pressure. However, even the most eloquent songwriter has to push themselves to create a song that will successfully express their emotions or thoughts.

“Sometimes, when I am really upset, I find it difficult to express myself eloquently or poetically; I just want to scream about it and say whatever it is I am feeling.” Hannah adds, “It is hard to make that sound beautiful. Usually though, my best songs come out of these moments.”

 “I Really Love This” 

Like every promising musician, Hannah has set goals for herself and has identified areas for improvement. One of these areas includes becoming more comfortable with performing.

“It’s a very vulnerable thing,” Hannah explains. “Singing with a group of people is comforting as opposed to singing a personal song by yourself. I still get nervous at large gigs just as I’m about to perform, but I want to continue to do so. Once I’m on stage, I feel great.

“The whole thing, like hiring, paying for a band, and covering expenses, can be intimidating, but it’s exciting. I hope to continue to perform more and more. It’s important for me to show people that I really love this and that I believe in myself.”

Hannah’s passion for recording and performing is unfaltering and infectious. Although she does occasionally worry about the challenges within the music industry now; it did not cross her mind when she decided to pursue this path. She says, “It definitely intimidates me, but I love it, so I’m going to continue with it.”

No Idea is Too Small

Hannah might have moved to Brooklyn for more opportunities, but her music career really started in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During this time, she learned to make connections with individuals, make herself known in a music community, and work with others on producing music.

That warm Friday afternoon at a café called Sugar, Hannah taught me that no performance or musical idea is too small. What can start as an open mic night at a little club in Brooklyn, can lead to a performance in a large line-up in Manhattan. What can start as a few words on a paper plate can turn into a beautiful song on either an EP or a full-length album. With her a beautiful voice, a passion for playing guitar, and a talent for songwriting, I feel Hannah Winkler will definitely receive a warm reception from both fans and fellow musicians in New York City.

Drawing Inspiration from Songs: A Conversation with Comic Book Artist, Nikki Umans

Today’s digital music technology enables everybody to create the playlists they need on a daily basis. A simple playlist can help a busy person get through the most tedious of tasks; enable an athlete to complete another rigorous workout; or nurture an artist’s creativity.

Nikki Umans is an SVA alumni and currently working on her first comic book

Dominique Lee Umans, or Nikki as I’ve come to call her, is a graduate from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and a comic book artist. She recently talked to me about how some of her favorite music helps her in creating Diamond Bright Delirium, her first original comic. It is my pleasure to interview her right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen in my first full-length aspiring artist feature.  

The Story of Two Brothers

Nikki explains, “This horror fantasy series takes place in an alternate and mythical universe, one where there is a world in the sky, another world below the earth, and one in between the two. The series is mostly set in the world between the two.” It is in this world the story begins.

Sketch of Teliau*

“The story starts when one of the supporting characters, Dr. Rivières loses his son, Teliau. Dr. Rivières refuses to accept the fate of his son, and tirelessly looks for ways to bring him back from the dead. Meanwhile, an angel, Ciel, accidentally falls from the world above, and Dr. Rivières takes him in as one of his own. Soon though, Dr. Riviera discovers that he can use Ciel’s genes to resurrect Teliau.”

Ciel and Teliau are the protagonists in Diamond Bright Delirium. Throughout the series, these brothers grow close and eventually fight battles together side-by-side.

“These brothers grow up knowing only each other and their father.

“Dr. Rivières isolates himself and his sons to avoid stirring any suspicion of what he has done, especially since it puts him in legal danger. In addition, both these sons are ridiculed by the people in their town because of their physical deformities. The effects of Dr. Rivières’s procedure on Teliau, left him looking like a monster. Meanwhile, Ciel still has wings from when he was an angel.

“These two brothers come from very different backgrounds and become very close as a result of their isolation. Throughout the series, the brothers rely on one another as they fight their way through every upsetting circumstance and perilous situations; most of which are caused by the female crime-lord and their boss, Evangeline.

Sketch of Ciel*

“Evangeline gives Ciel and Teliau work that involves racketeering, bounty hunting, procuring business deals with rival groups, and dealing with her own family whom she cannot stand.

“She doesn’t assign these jobs to the brothers because she’s confident in their skill. Instead, she assigns them these jobs in hopes that they will fail. If they fail, she will kill their father. If they don’t, she will continue to abuse her power and take full advantage of Ciel and Teliau.

Siren: Mythical villain that appears in the series*

“Her spiteful behavior towards the Rivières brothers stem from the pain she experienced in her past and her inability to move on from that pain. Creating upsetting circumstances for Ciel and Teliau is how she deals with it, but, she still remains unhappy.”

This type of hypocrisy is an overarching theme in Diamond Bright Delirium. Evangeline is one such character who is a hypocrite to the extreme. Her inner suffering increases in every episode, no matter how much trouble she single-handedly creates for the Rivières brothers. Later in the series, Nikki makes this “seemingly all-knowing mob-boss fight her hypocrisies.”

She also adds, “One of my goals for Diamond Bright Delirium, is to incorporate more characters and their backgrounds into the story and not make it only about Ciel and Teliau.”

Nuckelavees, Scottish water fairies, in Diamond Bright Delirium*

So what fuels Nikki’s tireless energy for simultaneously creating dramatic and bizarre situations for these heroes and supporting characters? She responds, “Aside from my favorite comics, which exude elements of black cinema, horror movies, and gangster movies, like Richard Sala’s The Chuckling Whats It and Mad Night; music is one of my other major influences.”

Gathering inspiration for Diamond Bright Delirium from songs by the Circus Contraption

Songs by the band and traveling circus, Circus Contraption, help Nikki visualize settings that inspire her, like urban America during the Victorian period and the 1920’s.

“Whenever I listen to one of their [Circus Contraption’s] songs, I start to visualize things that symbolize the settings of these time periods like old smoke stacks, battleships pulling into harbors, the turning of wheels.

“Also, every song by Circus Contraption is a story, and in every concert, they re-enact these scenes on stage; and the settings of their performances are also inspired by the Victorian period and vaudeville. Their songs lyrically focus on taboos that were shocking during those times.”

I then wondered how Nikki draws inspiration from a song by Circus Contraption and then incorporates that into her work, Diamond Bright Delirium. She talks to me about one episode, “The Carnival,” which is directly inspired by a song from Circus Contraption.

“In this episode,” Nikki explains, “Ciel and Teliau are sent to deal with the manager of a mechanical traveling circus Mr. Jynx, who Evangeline believes might have stolen some of her money.

“Once the brothers arrive to the premise, one of circus members is mysteriously murdered. Mr. Jynx believes it was a scheme by Evangeline, and suspects the brothers have some knowledge about this. Now, the brothers have to investigate whether the crime was committed by anybody from within the circus.”

“By listening to the emotions expressed… I can pick out what could be the next proceeding scene”

Although songs by Circus Contraption and other musical groups help Nikki in the creative process, she doesn’t take songs from these artists and simply turn them into visual stories using her own characters. Instead, these songs help inspire plot developments.

“If I ever come to an episode and I have trouble with plot development, I go to a song in my playlist that I feel fits the current scene I am working on. I can pick out elements from this song that I believe can be incorporated into the plot and hopefully further my story.

“By listening to the emotions expressed within the music, I can pick out what could be the next proceeding scene.

“On this note, I design playlists that are consistent in theme, tone and style, and I always revise my playlists to make sure they flow well. Listening to these playlists also helps me battle writer’s block.”

Playlists: “This helps me stay consistent in my writing process.”

In our conversation, I learned that writer’s block is more than a creative wall; it can trigger damaging setbacks for even the most successful artists.

“I have observed other writers who have attracted a strong following or fan base, and then experienced writer’s block, which caused them to stop updating their comics. This is detrimental; a stymie in their work disrupts the relationship,” between the artist and his or her audiences, “and disappoints readers. They often feel betrayed.”

Nikki takes the threat of writer’s block very seriously, which is why she is setting all of her ducks in a row.  At the moment, she plans to finish writing all 12 seasons of Diamond Bright Delirium by the end of this year. With 148 episodes under her belt, she hopes to have a total of 228 stories completed within the next year. This will enable her to have a whole storyline ready so that she can concentrate on drawing the scenes. She hopes to start drawing the comics by 2014, and finally publish the series that same year.

Consistency is very important for Nikki, and music is one of the many resources that will help her continue working towards fully publishing Diamond Bright Delirium.

“I feel writer’s block is the worst excuse I could have for disrupting my work. So I go through my playlists and find songs that I can easily connect to the scenes I am currently working on, and try to create an episode without pictures. This helps me stay consistent in my writing process.”

“I want readers to get lost in the story”

By the time Nikki’s comic hits the web, the end product of her creative process will come in the form of refined and colorful caricature sketches and boxed scenes that tell the story of two brave brothers. As a result, Nikki hopes her readers to take away the following from her series:

Driffiks: mythical woodland creatures*

“I want readers to go to this comic after a hard day’s work and really get lost in the story. People consistently deal with hardships, whether it’s a recent death in the family; not having enough money; or dealing with a physical ailment. I hope readers come to this comic to find something cathartic about these two main characters.”

“I hope my comics help readers re-examine their points of views about themselves and others”

While the characters in her series mimic and reflect the character flaws we exhibit in everyday life, like hypocrisy, Nikki wants readers to first and foremost have fun reading Diamond Bright Delirium. She explains:

“There are times I go to read some of my favorite web comics when I feel stressed. Afterward, I am happy to see that somebody out there can see the world from a point of view different from mine, and express it through their creative work.

“I hope that I can accomplish something like this with Diamond Bright Delirium help readers notice the flaws they observe in themselves and others in everyday life and hopefully view the world with fresh eyes.”

*All pictures are patented and published with permission by the artist and rights holder*

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

Creating hit songs, completing albums, and finishing nation-wide tours are series of feats in a recording artist’s career. This is why individuals who want to fully pursue music should be ready to dedicate their life to it and LOVE it, like the Las Vegas-native band, Imagine Dragons.   

In a telephone interview, Ben McKee, Imagine Dragons’ bassist, tells me, “We’ve all been playing music for a long time, and performance is where we feel most comfortable. It is magical to be in a space, especially an intimate one, where everybody can be a part of that same community. The music doesn’t become alive until you’re sharing it in a room with a crowd and feeding that energy.”

I saw Imagine Dragons perform at the lounge in Delancey, Pianos, on March 7th, and the experience from watching the band was electrifying. Their music was my greatest motivator for trekking out to Pianos to personally approach Imagine Dragons. Now, I am happy to bring my conversation with Ben to this month’s full-length band feature right here on Music Historian’s, Hear, Let’s Listen.

 The Busy First-Visit to the Big Apple: “That performance was our third one that day”

Getting this band’s attention was not easy. Following their showcase at Pianos, everybody in New York City wanted to meet Imagine Dragons. That evening was also the end to a busy first-time in the Big Apple. Ben explains:

“We drove all the way from Boston to make an 8:00am sound check earlier that day. We performed on the set of Mark Hoppus’s show on FUSE TV; then we had a couple of interviews at a few radio stations; went to another showcase; then made it to Pianos – our third performance that day.”

So what is it about Imagine Dragons that has recently caught the attention of disc jockeys, popular music figures, show hosts and of course, fans everywhere? The answer might hide in a sense of ‘mystery’ the band incorporates in both their music and image.

A Factor of Mystery: “We leave all the songs to the listeners’ interpretation”

When I listened to songs like “America” and “It’s Time” I felt that the singer, Dan was touching on the life philosophies and issues that affect everyone as a collective. Another song, “Cha-Ching” which the band performed at Pianos that night helped me imagine a more specific story – one about the tiring strife Americans experience when competing in the business world. These are the lyrics I recall:

“You’ll be a worker/ I’ll be your soldier/…/I’ve never seen this side of you…”

Dan Reynolds (right) and D Wayne Sermon (left) performing at Pianos

When I asked Ben about the meaning of “Cha-Ching,” he explained:

“Dan writes all the lyrics. He tries to write lyrics that are not so definitive. He focuses on something he’s feeling and tries to translate that into lyrics and a mood that people can connect with and attach their own meaning to. We leave the meanings of all our songs a little bit to listeners’ interpretation.”

Further into our conversation, I also learned the band’s name is another big mystery.

“The name, Imagine Dragons, is an anagram,” claims Ben. “We in the band all agreed on a statement and we switched the letters around to create this name so that nobody would guess the statement.” Fans from everywhere have already tried to decode the name ‘Imagine Dragons’ and uncover the hidden message, but nobody has come close. According to Ben, the band is “happy to keep it a secret.”

While the meaning behind Imagine Dragons’ name and music is undefined, their story as a band that gradually built their reputation on the popular music scene is clear and inspiring.

“When we met, we never thought that we’d go on to play pop music in a matter of years.”

Ben McKee, Imagine Dragons’ Bass Player at Pianos in NYC

In his early years, Ben’s love for music stemmed from trying to emulate his father on the acoustic guitar. By the 5th and 6th grade, Ben was forced into playing acoustic bass.

“Up until the 5th grade, I played violin, but then, my elementary school band needed a bass player. Later, in High School, I became part of a jazz trio, and that’s where I really learned to play the bass more proficiently.

“This led me to study at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, where I met Wayne (the guitarist) and Platzman (the drummer) who are in the band now.”

A few years later, a telephone call from Wayne led Ben to make the decision of pursuing performance and songwriting full-time with Imagine Dragons.

“Wayne started Imagine Dragons when he moved back to his hometown in Provo, Utah. Then, he moved his band to Las Vegas, and that’s when he invited both me and Platzman to join.”

Soon after the band was complete, the group created a definite style and sound. Introducing it onto the Las Vegas music scene however, was a challenge. According to Ben, Las Vegas is a great city to perform as a cover band, but original bands have a harder time gaining attention.

“A lot of venues will actually want to schedule cover bands in order to attract tourists. When we started, we played cover songs at Casinos by night, and spent the day composing original music. Then, we gradually introduced Imagine Dragons’ original sound into these sets, and found that people, both local and tourists, were stopping to watch us.”

This recognition opened the door to the next big opportunity – performing Battle of the Bands at festivals for four consecutive years and landing in first place a total of three times. Although they landed in third place at their fourth performance; this show would have the greatest impact on the group.

“Playing in front of 20,000 people… had the greatest impact on our career.”

“The Bite of Las Vegas is a music and food festival in Las Vegas, and the Battle of the Bands showcase within this festival is called Battle of the Bite.

“In our fourth consecutive and last performance at Battle of the Bite, we came in third place; just far enough to win a spot on the local stage. It just so happened, that when we performed on that set that afternoon, the promoter of Battle of the Bite was watching from the audience.

“Later that evening, Train, was supposed to perform on the same stage, but singer, Pat Monahan came down with a sore throat, and the band had to cancel their show. The same promoter who saw our show earlier helped place us in Train’s spot.

“Although we didn’t win Battle of the Bite, we played in front of 20,000 people that night. That moment had the greatest impact on our career.”

Imagine Dragons’ history holds a lesson – you don’t have to win every battle to open the next door in your music career. For Imagine Dragons, the opportunities that followed their performance at Battle of the Bite included a contract with Interscope Records in 2011 and working with popular music producer, Alex Da Kid.

“He believes in the music we are making, and he wants to help us bring it to more people”

“One of his assistants [Alex Da Kid’s assistants] presented him with a CD of our old music,” explains Ben, “and Alex connected with it and he loved our sound.

“He wanted to help us realize more of our own vision and work with us to release our music on a bigger scale. He believes in the music we are making, and he wants to help us bring it to more people, which is also what we want.”

Imagine Dragons is currently working with Alex Da Kid on their first full-length album, which they hope to release around this Fall. The title of their upcoming record is a mystery for now, and they can’t wait to reveal it to fans.* They also just wrapped up the music video for their single, “It’s Time,” and are planning to hit the road again in May. In the long run, Ben and the band hope to continue doing the one thing they love most – music.

“It’s been great, and we hope to continue doing it on a bigger scale.”

“Music is the primary way we express ourselves. We are not the most social people, and we feel we are in our element when we perform music. We feel that we can expose ourselves in a way that makes us feel less vulnerable than in other situations.

“We also love connecting with our fans as much as possible. Even with the increasing attention from the press – which we also enjoy – we always want to connect with those who travel great distances to see us perform.

“We are a band that lives and thrives when traveling on the road and performing live for crowds. It’s been great, and we hope to continue doing it on a bigger scale.”

“We never planned on doing music as second to our everyday lives.”

At the end of our conversation, I thought about the exciting road Imagine Dragons traveled so far. I realize an exciting journey like this one is rare, and it doesn’t come easy.

The life of a recording artist is not for the opportunistic job-seeker or entrepreneur, but for the most dedicated artist that is willing to devote years of practice to their craft. The road to bigger opportunities – whether it is a record contract with a big label, going on a nation-wide tour, or releasing a full-length album on a national level – is a long one. Luckily, Imagine Dragons accepted the challenge from what seems like, the moment they started.

Ben says, “We never planned on doing music as second to our everyday lives nor to escape our lives. This is our life and it’s what we wanted to do.”

*The full-length album by Imagine Dragons was released on September 4th, 2012 and it’s titled Night Visions. The record is available for purchase on iTunes.

Musical Theater Today with Mallory Berlin: The Lead of A Doll’s Life Shares Her Experiences, Thoughts and Advice for Young Performers

As a musician who played classical piano and sung in several women choir groups, I truly love to sing. However; being a professional vocalist is not in my future, mainly because I cannot master the skill that all classical and opera singers need for a successful performing career– acting.

Mallory Berlin*

I have known actress and casting director for The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, Mallory Berlin for years, and she can attest that the most prevalent career roles for professional singers in the performance world are either in musicals or operas. Mallory fills me in on some of the tougher realities for individuals looking to make it as a singer and actor.

“Before I started working with The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, I would go to auditions for several different productions. As an actor or actress, you are required to wait for long periods of times outside of studios or theaters, and even then, you might not even be seen by the casting crew. Usually, many non-equity performers arrive at 4:00am and stay until 5:00pm, just to sing an 8-bar song.”

Further in our conversation, Mallory also talked about additional ways a professionally trained actor or actress can gain the experience they need so that they are not just investing their time in waiting for a call back from an audition. In our conversation for Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen, Mallory talks specifically from experience. She graciously shares stories from her journey in musical theater, and how she found opportunities in the most unexpected places.

Specializing in a popular style can work against young actors and actresses

Mallory’s professional training as a performer didn’t start in the theater, but in the music school at Ithaca College. She says, “When I got to college, I knew I wanted to perform, act and sing, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted a degree in musical theater. I did know that I wanted to continue singing, so I auditioned for singing lessons at the music school.

“I passed the auditions, and one of the professors, Jennifer Haywood, suggested that I should sing opera. This was something that I had no idea I could do; and she thought I would be great. So, I decided to audition for a spot in the music school.

“Once I was admitted, my advisor said to me, “We loved your audition, and we think you’d make a great music teacher.” I had never thought of myself as a teacher, and I was excited by the idea.

“From then on, the bulk of my college career entailed education and vocal training. By my junior and senior year, I realized I could be a cross-over artist and perform in a variety of mediums including opera, musical theater, and regular theater.”

Being a cross-over artist is a great professional strength for Mallory. Here is why:

“The most popular type of singing today includes belting pop and rock and roll,” explains Mallory. “While this type of voice is in demand, most actors and actresses who specialize in this style have to compete with other performers that sound the same.”

Specializing in a popular style can work against young actors and actresses, especially when they are the 50th person in line for an audition and have to perform the same monologue or 8-bar song that previous auditionees presented. Having a different sound though will not guarantee an actor or actress better chances for being cast.

To help myself, I had to make my own acting opportunities

“In classical music, I am a lyric mezzo- soprano. I have sung roles of little boys, children and occasionally men in opera. In the musical theater world, I am considered a soprano only because I do not have that belting pop voice.

“In purely theatrical roles, I am a character actor. Most people who fall into this category are typically cast to play comical roles. In my case though, my style of singing and acting doesn’t satisfy many casting directors in other theaters because character roles are usually assigned to women that can belt.

“Currently, nobody is producing plays for character actors that have classical voices. So, to help myself, I had to make my own acting opportunities.”

Networking is the key to making it in this industry

Mallory received a lot of sound career advice from experts in the performing arts during her studies at Ithaca College. One of the most important pieces of career advice was “always network.” Mallory enumerates:

“The most important thing I learned is that networking is the key to making it in this industry. Meeting people, making a good first impression and getting involved with different projects will help you in the weirdest of times.

“In my career orientation course at Ithaca College, a professor told all of us, “Look to the person on your left, and now look to the person on your right. One of these people will be in the position to help you find a job in the future.””

One of these individuals that helped Mallory tremendously did not sit on either side of her in the lecture hall but instead, shared a stage with her in Daniel Guyton’s original production, Where’s Julie?

The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective Icon*

“I was very fortunate to meet actor and playwright, Steven McCasland. We first met at the Author’s Playhouse in Bay Shore in the summer of 2006 during the production of Where’s Julie? From that point forward, we started talking and got to know one another. Then, we lost contact for a while.

“About a year after I graduated from Ithaca College, Steven asked me to sing in the benefit for the new theater company he was creating called The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective. He also asked me to audition for the role of Viola in his upcoming production of Twelfth Night. After I got the part for Viola and sang in the benefit concert; Steven recognized my credibility and then cast me as the Queen of Hearts in play he wrote of Alice in Wonderland.

“That summer, he asked me if I would consider joining the Executive Board. The position that interested me, and one I thought I was well-suited for, was the Talent Director. So, I started at Beautiful Soup as an actor, and then became a part of the Executive Board.

The Official Poster of Alice in Wonderland by the Beautiful Soup*

“Who would have known that meeting somebody at a low-budget theater would have lead to opportunities that made a huge difference in my career path? It’s been a great adventure so far, and Steven has really given me a lot of great opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. I cannot thank him enough.”

Nora in A Doll’s Life: the Defining Role for a Character Actor and Classical Singer

Aside from working the business-end of the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, Mallory’s opportunities ranged from playing Viola (Twelfth Night) to the Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland). Her most recent role was Nora in A Doll’s Life.

A Doll’s Life is a musical with a book and lyrics written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Larry Grossman. The musical is based on a play by Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House. It originally premiered in 1982 and it was a flop. In 1994, The York Theater re-premiered a slightly different version of the play. The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective is the third theater to have produced this play since its premier.

“For the Beautiful Soup’s production, Steven wanted to firstly create a version of the musical that only focused on Nora leaving her husband and finding herself. Secondly, he wanted to combine both ending scenes from the 1982 and 1994 productions.

“We made sure to get permission from the play’s composer, Larry Grossman and Adolph Green’s wife, Phyllis Newman to create this new ending.”

The Beautiful Soup's Production of A Doll's Life*

Since Steven decided to narrow the focus of A Doll’s Life strictly on Nora’s journey, Mallory adopted the same attitude as she prepared to act the part.

“When I researched Nora’s part, I was struck by the humanity in her character. She was raised her entire life to do what men asked of her, but has no knowledge of what she likes until she ventures into the world to find herself.

“Nora also wants to teach her children something genuine about life, and she does not want to return home until she feels she really knows what it is like to work, have power, start a business, and more.

“She makes several mistakes in her journey, and she learns from them. I really tried to live in the moment of that.”

I saw Mallory perform the role of Nora in A Doll’s Life back in February, and her performance was impeccable. She has found the perfect theatrical character that can facilitate all of her different talents. The character of the lead role is dramatic, and sings like a soprano. As a character, Nora is ambitious, subtly manipulative and innocently sexy for a woman who was once raised to live like a doll.

Mallory Berlin (Nora) and Alex Pagels (Eric) at The New Ohio Theater*

As I thought about more about Nora, I realized she is a timeless character. We have all experienced a time in our lives when we were programmed and taught to operate in a single structural manner, only to get out into the real world and see that in fact the only rules we need to follow are the ones we make ourselves.

In addition, some of the plays we consider timeless are performed by character actors and classical singers. Musicals with these actors and singers include My Fair Lady and A West Side Story. In addition, Mallory also taught me that what is popular isn’t always timeless.

What Musical Theater Experts Have to Say

“Although there is a large demand for singers who can belt out pop and rock vocal styles; many musical theater experts say that this style will be dated in 20 years, especially since musical theater changes through the generations.

“In the 1950’s, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals were popular, and my voice is considered very appropriate for their work. During the years between the 1980’s and now, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s work became popular – and his works included that belting pop, rock voice that has since become the norm.

“I do know however, that the musical theater sound will change because if you look at audition tapes from the 80’s they are far different from those in the 90’s and even from those after the year 2000.”

Mallory’s Final Suggestion: Be Nice!

Several artists can attest that the popular demand for certain musical theater works, vocal styles and actors will change in later years. Although the industry will change, the landscape for all performers, actors and opera singers will still be competitive. Here is what Mallory suggests to all young actors:

“When you’re in school, you don’t have to be friends with everybody or like everyone, but you should be nice to them. And I can say this is relevant in the job world in so many ways.

“As the talent director for the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, I do occasionally contact individuals I went to school with regarding auditions. If I remember things about a respective individual that I feel didn’t help them, for example, they didn’t treat me with respect, then I ask myself, what will make them treat me with respect now? Or what will make them treat the director with respect?

“When I do meet individuals who I went to school with that were nice to me, and I like their audition, I can put in a good word for them, and hopefully help them out in a small way, like recommend that they come in a second time.”

*All photos were published with permission*