At just 19 years old, Aurora Aksnes is making waves in the music industry, and it’s just a matter of time before the unforgettable Norwegian singer’s synth-pop portfolio conquers the cross-continent charts, and the entire planet is singing her tunes. Now known only by her first name, AURORA began playing piano at age six due to an attraction to classical music’s emotional, relaxed undertones. She started to write original songs as early as age nine, but she only chose to share her music with the world when her mother suggested that her gift could help others process their own emotional journey. Despite initial fears of performing in public, she sang at her high school, which peaked her now-manager’s interest after a fellow student uploaded her performance online. Her subsequent ascent has been swift, daunting, and perhaps a tad overwhelming for the singer who once claimed to relish in solitude. But her climb is coupled with a slow comfort, and as the public becomes more aware of her prowess, she is ever-the-more fearless, and it shows.
I had the pleasure of watching AURORA perform for a sold-out crowd at The Troubadour, and I’ll be talking about it for years to come. Her on-stage oddities are refreshing, with a quirky amalgam of authenticity, fun, and a bit of endearing discomfort. And given today’s penchant for over-produced auto-tuning and her stunning album vocals, it shocked me to discover her live vocals are on par, if not superior to her recording. It’s clear she’s been polishing her craft for much of her life, because her youthful exuberance is met with what I perceive to be a polished, shrewd performer who is clear about the direction of her career. According to AURORA, “there’s something inside her that needs to make music and to play the music she makes.” For that, we should all feel lucky. Read my interview with singer/songwriter below.
You’ve mentioned that songwriting provides an emotional release. When you sing a song written from a place of pain or sadness, is it difficult to sing it again each time you perform because you relive that emotion?
I’ve never found that to be difficult. Reminders of pain can be difficult if you haven’t spent enough time processing what happened when you needed it the most! When I write, it helps me to accept, understand and sometimes move on from pain. And singing songs about darker times makes me both sad and happy! I like to remember, and I like to cry.
I know you wrote “Runaway” at a very young age, which is incredibly impressive. When you listen to “Runaway” now in relation to your more recent songs, how do you feel your sound has evolved?
My sound will evolve and change as I change! As I grow, I learn more about producing and how to get my sound just right. I also learn to listen more to my own opinions. There are many voices around me, and I’m learning to not listen to them too much. I can always learn, but it’s important to go with what your belly tells you to do once in a while.
Is it scary to share such deeply personal music with others? I would imagine it feels as if someone is reading your journal.
I don’t find it scary. I’m definitely not the only one who have felt the things that I’ve felt through my life. What is personal, is also at many occasions not special. It’s important to share your experiences and feeling with people around you. We all have them, it’s perfectly normal.
You’ve mentioned how much you enjoy the solitude of songwriting. How are you coping with the attention that comes along with fame?
I’m not a fan of attention. My listeners seem to be very lovely people that love my music, but I don’t think I like the idea of having fans either. It’s strange being someone to so many people. You loose your freedom the minute everyone wants a piece of you. But I love people who appreciate what I do. I just don’t like the limelight.
Because you were signed at such a young age, did anyone try to change your sound or influence your art in a way that you did not expect?
I don’t think people try deliberately to change me just to be mean! But people have different opinions, and everyone just wants me to succeed. And to get listed on radios. I find it hard but also…educational to try to make so many people happy – at the same time as I’m happy. And sometimes I win the battles and sometimes I lose. I know that’s how it is, but still it’s very difficult. Many things would have been different if I was the only one to decide. For me music is not about business, and it never will be! I think I would tell the younger me to slow a bit down, and wait if I could go back in time. But I am also happy to be where I am now.
Is it possible to take me a little bit inside your songwriting process? Do you start with the lyrics or the melody, for example?
It usually starts with a lyric line, or a melody line that makes me jump up and run to the piano and start making that idea into a whole song. Those small lightnings sometimes appear in dreams, and sometimes when I see something peculiar, or sad or lovely. Everything is quite inspiring when you’re in an inspiring mood.
Have you ever been surprised by which songs the audience responds the most to when you perform live?
No, people are quite predictable. We create magic moments together as well. If people are paying attention and the light is right, I can feel tension and energy fill the room, which makes me perform with so much energy that I almost explode. Then they react to it with great energy afterwords. You get back what you give, and when the audience is great, it’s inspiring for me and my band as well.
What instrument do you use to write your music with?
Mostly piano and sometimes guitar if I want to write outside. I’m learning how to play a harp now, so maybe I’ll write more on harp in the future.
You’ve said your mother encouraged you to share your work with the world. How does she feel about your current success?
Well, she wants me to be happy and follow my dreams. This is all getting much bigger than we thought it would get, so she’s worried and thrilled at the same time for obvious reasons I think!
Do you have a favorite country you’ve performed in?
It’s more about the room and the energy of the people than the country. Countries don’t really define the people that live in them. Everywhere people are very lovely and give a lot of energy back to us!
Your rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is absolutely stunning. Was there something about that song that spoke to you specifically?
Thank you so much!!! I’ve loved that song for a long time. I love looking at the sky at night time, and where I live you can see the stars very clearly when it’s dark. And I understand the need to escape this world, and the question about a greater more pure life somewhere out there. A more fantastic place. Like, Is there a life on Mars.
You can purchase AURORA’s debut album, ‘All My Demons Greeting Me As a Friend’ HERE. When you begin to listen, you’ll discover that the title personifies the entire album, which beautifully blends both light and shade, wavering between “Broken mornings, broken nights and broken days in between” and “feel[ing] the light for the very first time.” Watch some performances below.
I requested an interview with Macy Gray thirty seconds into listening to her cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps.” I didn’t need to hear more. I knew the album would be good. When she agreed to the interview, I was elated — and nervous. I’m always intimidated by people I admire, but as soon as we began talking, everything changed. Her friendly, down-to-earth personality put me at ease. She’s just so damn likable. Read below, and buy her Covered album immediately. You will not regret it. Watch her “Smoke 2 Joints” video at the end of the interview.
What made you decide to make a cover album?
I wanted to do a cover album for a long time. I saw that Nina Simone did a cover album, My Way, by Frank Sinatra, and I thought it was so cool how she took it and made it her own thing. It was a challenge for me to see if I could do something like that.
How did you select the songs for the album?
There were four or five that we showed everyone, and the rest were really spontaneous [choices]. It was really off-the-cuff. I’m a fan of all the songs, but mostly it was the lyrics that I could make personal to me.
Is there less pressure on you as an artist when it’s not your original material?
The songs are completely redone. It was still really creative and challenging. We were all really nervous about whether the artists were going to like them.
Did you get any feedback from the artists you covered?
Me and Dave Stewart went back and forth on Twitter, and I said, “Did you send [“Here Comes the Rain Again”] to Annie [Lennox]? He said she loved it, and I felt better. My producer, Hal Willner, is good friends with [Metallica], and apparently they played it over and over again.
I love the Nicole Scherzinger skit on the album. Is that based on your personal experience in the industry of people telling you to change?
Oh yeah. I get suggestions all the time. People are always telling me what I should do next. Everybody’s always saying things like I need to make a dance record or change my afro — stuff like that. It’s crazy. But I’m really proud of what I do. I’m not The Beatles, but I really like the stuff that I’ve done.
Did Nicole immediately agree to do the skit?
Nicole’s a good friend of mine, and she does these impressions. She can impersonate anybody. She actually does a really good one of me. I told her the idea of what the skit would be about, and she just kind of ran with it.
I was surprised by her Britney Spears impression. It was so accurate.
I know! She should do that all day! She sang a song like Alanis Morissette, and you would swear it was her.
Some of your promotional shots for this album are so beautiful. Do you like promoting your albums, or is it a necessary evil to being in the industry?
It always depends on [my mood]. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood. I hate taking pictures, but I have this photographer that I’m really comfortable with. But if it was up to me, I’d just make music, have my label put it out, and go on with my life.
Is it true that when you first started in the industry you were not a fan of your own singing voice?
That is true. My voice has always been peculiar. When I was little they always made fun of me. But as you get older you get over stuff. When I started singing . . . it took me a long time to like it. I actually worked on it a lot to get to the point where I liked it.
You entered the industry before the social-media generation. Was it a difficult adjustment?
I actually get a kick out of Twitter. It’s crazy that you can have conversations with your fans. It’s an easy way to let people know about your record.
I had a few friends in Rio de Janeiro at the Back 2 Black Festival who said you killed it. I heard the other artists dropped out.
Prince dropped out at the last minute. That’s one of the reasons I agreed to do the festival, and then he dropped out [laughs].
Do you get nervous for big performances like that?
I still get nervous. I used to get really sick before my shows, and I got over that, but I still get butterflies.
Is it true you don’t read your own reviews?
It’s hard to get around it now, because everything is online, but [negative reviews] still affect me.
What music are you listening to now?
I really like Jack White’s The Dead Weather record, and I like Wiz Khalifa and J. Cole.
You’ve collaborated with some big-hitters in the past. Is there anyone on your wish-list for future collaborations?
I really want to collaborate with Kanye West. I’m always jealous of the people he puts on his album. That’s my big dream.
The Lumineers did not come across The Dishmaster’s desk by accident. I’m on a constant hunt for new music, which includes an overloaded news feed flooded with music blogs and magazines. But with all that research, I rarely find anything worth listening to. You can therefore imagine my shock and happiness when I found The Lumineers. I discovered them through Paste Magazine, who voted them one of “The 20 Best New Bands of 2011.” I immediately listened to their EP, followed by playing their Daytrotter session on repeat. When I reached out to their team for an interview, I was elated when they invited me to their “Ho Hey” video shoot, which was filmed at a broken-down, old hospital that is also the home of some familiar movies, including Saw and Pearl Harbor. Though I was briefly afraid that ghosts might attack me, my nerves were immediately calmed when I met the band. They had been shooting all day and somehow still managed to sustain their fun, laid-back energy. I’m told by their manager that they revved up their dedicated, suspender-wearing extras with a live performance prior to the shoot, and it’s no surprise that everyone loved it. These guys are good. Our interview took place a few days later. They answered all my questions with the right amount of humility and honesty. In fact, after forty minutes I said, “I’ll let you off the hook. I’ve kept you way too long.” The band then said, “No, ask us anything. Keep going if you have more questions.” I took their bait and held them hostage even longer. Their self-titled debut album hits stores April 3rd. Enjoy the interview, and watch their “Ho Hey” video below.
As the daughter of a dentist, I’m intrigued by your name. How did you come up with it?
Wesley Schultz (Lead Vocals, Guitar, Piano): We stole it. We were playing at a place in Jersey City and they accidentally called us the name of a band performing the following week.
Why the move from New York to Denver?
Wesley: We wanted to move to the middle of nowhere and write songs. It was pretty random. We wanted to go somewhere new and cheap. It’s an absurd proposition to tour and live in New York. We wanted a low overhead. But we didn’t expect to find the really great music scene [in Denver]. There was a huge community of musicians.
How did Neyla join the band?
Neyla Peckarek (Cello, Piano): I just finished school and I had nothing on my plate and didn’t know what was next. I got a teaching degree and they don’t hire a lot of teachers in [December]. I checked the musicians page of [a Craigslist ad]. They sent me a couple of tracks and it was a pretty natural fit right away. I wasn’t looking to be in a band at all. It forged naturally. They wanted to go on tour, and I said yes.
Did you always know you wanted strings?
Jeremiah Fraites (Drums): No. That was a long discussion for months. We knew we wanted something different [and we thought of] upright bass. Somewhere along the way we switched to cello and placed the ad.
Wesley: But now we have electric bass.
Why did you change your mind about having the electric bass?
Neyla: I had a friend from college, and I asked him to play upright bass. He brought an electric bass to the recording, and it sounded sick. It pigeon-holes you less into that bluegrass genre.
Do you get along on the road?
Neyla: There are few people I can travel with. I think that’s part of the reason why we are together–because we get along so well.
I read that you did a thirty day tour and crashed at people’s houses.
Wesley: We had a bunch of leads. We either knew someone or we played shows, and someone would offer us a place to stay.
Neyla: People are really kind and just open their homes to complete strangers.
Is it possible to sustain relationships when you tour that much?
Wesley: It takes a lot of work. It puts stress because you’re gone. You have to be creative, but it’s not exactly the best breeding ground for a successful, long-term relationship.
Tell me about your writing process. Is it collaborative?
Wesley: Usually someone comes up with a basic idea and then we work on it together. I’ll write the lyrics and we’ll flesh out the ideas together.
Jeremiah: Me and Wes lived with each other for a year when we first moved to Denver, which was really beneficial [to writing music].
Neyla, when do you enter the writing process?
Neyla: There’s usually a skeleton, and I add the padding for it.
Wesley: There’s always an idea first. We aren’t the band that smokes a joint and says, “What do you think of this, dude?” We wake up in the morning, sober, coffee, come up with ideas and work on it in the best hours of the day.
Is it true that “Gun Song” is about your relationship with your father?
Wesley: My dad had passed away, and his socks were still in his drawer. I went in there to grab black socks, and I pulled out a gun. It made me think of all the things I didn’t know about him. That was the spark of the song.
There’s a lyric I have to ask you about. “It takes a man to live, it takes a woman to make him compromise.”
Wesley: It could have many meanings. People can interpret it as they should. My sister is a big inspiration. She’s married to a Green Beret, and they say behind every man is a great woman. And they embody that. It was kind of a shout-out to that.
Ah. I read it as, “A man experiences life, and the woman reigns him in.”
Wesley: It’s more like, “It’s easy to live for yourself, but it’s harder to make compromises.” It’s about people living for more than just themselves.
Has your sound changed since you first started? Were you always folk rock?
Jeremiah: No. When Wes and I first started writing I wanted to be truly fresh. I got over that. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. With trial and error, we know more of what we don’t like. But categorizing is more for a press release.
Steve Gadd’s musical story starts early. Born in Rochester, N.Y., Gadd was given drumsticks by his uncle at age three. By seven, he received a drum set from his grandfather, which led to his first formal lessons. At 11, his parents began bringing him to local jazz clubs to see legendary performers such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who let Gadd sit in during a Sunday matinee. It was during that time that he first met jazz great Chuck Mangione, whose quintet he later joined along with then unknown pianist Chick Corea (Corea would later recruit Gadd for his own band). Mangione recalled his early years with Gadd, saying, “Steve was amazing at the age of eight. He was fundamentally sound in every area of the drums.” Shortly after college, Gadd enlisted in the U.S. Army and played in their big band for the next three years before finally returning to the New York studio scene, which ultimately landed him two of his most iconic performances in history: Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Steely Dan’s “Aja.” When Gadd was commissioned for Steely Dan’s title track, it was widely rumored that despite numerous takes from many other drummers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen still hadn’t found a drummer that fit their vision for the song. Gadd famously performed his part in one take. According to Becker, “Gadd’s part was not written. [They] discussed the tune a little bit and by virtue of his musicianship he just knew what to do.” Fagen agreed, explaining that Gadd was one of the rare players “who was familiar with R&B’s backbeat and could negotiate jazz harmony with ease.” Paul Simon similarly reflects on his work with Gadd, calling him “the greatest drummer of his generation.” Simon and Gadd’s work together now spans decades, along with James Taylor, Eric Clapton, and many others.
The major takeaway from talking to Steve Gadd isn’t the technical elements of his talent and his impressive resume. It’s his humility. He’s had some of the most high-level gigs in history, and he does not take it for granted. He looks at every performance as an opportunity, and he’s simply grateful for the chance to do what he loves. When I asked Grammy-winning producer Peter Asher about working with Gadd, he eloquently explained the importance of his contribution, saying:
Throughout the history of jazz and rock and roll there have been a few great drummers whose touch, whose ideas, whose groove and whose tone were wholly distinctive and capable of changing the direction of a specific track or even music as a whole. The influence that the past masters (people like Gene Krupa or Max Roach or Kenny Clarke) had on the music of their time is matched by very few players today – and preeminent among those players is Steve Gadd. He contributes to the very essence of the songs and tracks on which he plays. Elegant, distinctive, witty, inventive – and yet somehow irresistibly funky at the same time. He plays like a gentleman- but a gentleman with a deep and dark soul.”
Read my interview with Steve Gadd below.
I’m always interested in the nature-vs.-nurture side of talent and creativity. I know your uncle bought you drumsticks at the age of three. Had he not provided that encouragement, do you think you would have gone down the same path?
I don’t think so. They saw interest, which guided me. My uncle gave me those drumsticks before we had television, and my grandmother used to take me for lessons. I lived with my parents, my grandparents, and my father’s brother. My grandparents and my uncle had horses, so I’d go to the barn and hang out with the horses. After they were bedded down, my uncle and I would put on records and the whole family would listen. We’d put on John Phillip Sousa marches and play on little round pieces of wood. It was a family affair.
Do you think they knew almost immediately, though, that you had an innate pull toward drumming?
Yeah, my uncle gave me sticks because I was banging with knives and forks. He saw that I had that inclination. He was a drummer in high school and he played in a parade with veterans. He had this red parade drum that I’ll never forget, and that was the first drum I saw. He was playing it in the parade. They just saw that I had an interest, and they nurtured it.
You’re a session drummer and a live, touring musician. Do you have a preference?
No, I like both. If the musicians are good and the music is good, they’re both enjoyable. It can get a little wearying to be away from family on the road, but musically I am inspired by both.
Your intro to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is iconic. Are there any drum parts that were equally influential to you?
Not drum parts, per se, but there were drummers – Buddy Rich, the Dorsey band, Gene Krupa with his band, Benny Goodman, and hearing a recording of Louie Bellson doing “Skin Deep” with double bass drums. Those were iconic drummers. I was influenced by them and by what they did. There wasn’t a part that they played, but it was everything they did.
The intro to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” has a marching style to it. I know you spent about three years in the military. Did that play a role?
Not the military, but I played in drum corps as a kid and we had a great drum line. They were my good friends, and we were pretty serious about writing our own parts and teaching the guys to play the parts. So I’m sure that had some kind of influence.
I’ve read a lot about your performance on Steely Dan’s “Aja.” As I understand it, you weren’t aware that Steely Dan already had other drummers record drum parts but weren’t happy with their performances.
No, I knew that. I think I’d heard that. I was doing a lot of recording back then, so I got the call. The band was there, and we did it live. They were well-rehearsed because they’d played it with different drummers. I didn’t hear what they did with other drummers, and I’m sure whatever they did was good. It was just a matter of whatever was done was not exactly what Walter and Donald were looking for, and somehow they were able to communicate it to me and we just went for it. So I was aware that other drummers were called to do it, but you never know which one they’re going to use. I didn’t know at the end of what I did whether they were going to end up using it or using something that someone else did. You never know. You just try to do your best.
Did you have a feeling after, like, “Man, that one worked.” Could you feel the energy when it was complete?
I felt like they liked what happened. It wasn’t as if I was trying to go in there and do my set. I was going in there to try and understand what it was they were going for and to try to give them that. You could feel the positive energy at the end of that session.
I’m sure you’ve had experiences where you feel like the energy in the room is not conducive to optimizing creativity. How do you handle that?
You just give whatever it is you give to try and make it happen. Whatever knowledge and experience that I have, I would put all my energy into just getting past that. A lot of times there’s just a miscommunication, so if you can help the line of communication or if you can help someone understand, it takes it to another level. Hopefully that would help, but there’s no guarantee. You just do the best you can.
I read an interview with Steely Dan that you’re playing worked so well because of your jazz background. Do you think it’s necessary for up-and-coming drummers to master all genres?
The things that I’ve mastered were things that I’ve loved, so I’ve just followed my heart. I think that if they hear jazz and they like it, then it’s worth pursuing, not for any other reason than to enjoy playing that kind of music with people who play that way. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get called to do that, but there’s a possibility that you’re going to have a good time with good players playing good music, and that’s the inspiration.
Do you think it’s an advantage that you learned jazz first, since it’s a more complex genre?
It was good for me. I don’t think that there’s any one way that works for anyone. I think it can work different ways for different people. There’s a lot of jazz drummers back in the day that weren’t inspired by groove or pop kind of music. At a certain point, I went to New York and I heard some guys play very simply and the groove was deep. You’d think it’s a simple, less technical approach, but it’s not. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s just as challenging as playing very busy, but in another way. The drummer I heard do it the first time was Rick Marotta, and that’s what inspired me. To play less notes and make it feel the best it could feel, and to record where you start with the minimal amount to make it feel musical and then add as you go, it gives you somewhere to go. If you start at technical level 1 and volume level 10. you’ve got nowhere to go.
You’ve talked a lot about your desire to challenge yourself.
If I’m sitting down practicing, I’m always trying to look for new things. Yeah, I do that. When I was in the studios a lot, whatever calls came in I would take, no matter what they were. I’d just go in and do my best. Now, the studio scene isn’t the same anymore. It’s a lot different. If I was in New York and I was in a position to be in the studio, I would take whatever came in and try to do the best I could. If it was something I couldn’t do or I didn’t do as well as I wanted, I’d probably just go home and try and do it better.
When you say the studio scene is different, do you mean because of how the music industry has changed, or are you just referring to the fact that you’re no longer in New York?
Both. First of all, there’s not as much recording as there used to be when I was living in New York. Back in those days, there were advertisements, record gigs, and it was from morning until night. Since then, a lot of the studios have closed down, and there’s MIDI instruments where one guy can program everything. It’s a whole different ballgame. It’s not better or worse now, it’s just different. I still get some recording and I do my own stuff, but it’s not like when I was living in New York getting calls tonight to show up tomorrow at 10:00. It’s not that way now.
It sounds like you’re not necessarily upset about it, you’re just saying it’s different.
I’m not upset, I’m very grateful for the music that I’ve had the opportunity to play. I feel really lucky. I play with great musicians either in my own band or if I’m out with James Taylor, Eric Clapton, David Sanborn with Bob James, or Will Lee. I play with some great players, and I love their music, so I feel pretty cool. I like spending time with my wife and seeing the kids when I can. It’s good.
You’ve talked a lot about self-evaluating, and I know you’ve said that when you’ve listened to your playback in the studio, it’s eye opening. When you’re playing live, can you get that same feeling in the moment of what works?
It’s a different thing. It’s not necessarily based on what you’re gonna hear back but on how much higher the person you’re working with is playing and how the audience is responding. There’s different ways to gauge it. And hopefully if you get a chance to hear it back, it will be something that you’ll like.
When you work with people like Eric Clapton or James Taylor, do you feel more creative freedom because you have worked with them in the past?
You sort of know what the music needs and you just try to get it to a certain level every night. The person you’re working with should get what they need. The bottom line is when you’re working with Eric Clapton, the arena’s going to be full. It’s about doing what you have to do for the music of the artist that hired you. You creatively figure that out in rehearsals. Then it’s just a matter of trying to get yourself ready to do it every night as if you were doing it for the first time.
Is it difficult to sustain that energy level when you’re performing songs that you‘re so familiar with?
Not if you’re clear about the job. It’s difficult if you’re thinking that you’re not doing as much as you can do creatively. You’ve got to just get your head around what you’re supposed to do. The performance takes a lot of energy. You’ve got to deal with monitors, different kind of halls every night, etc. There are hurdles to jump over when you’re on the road, even if you’re playing the same stuff every night.
You’ve discussed how you loved working with Chick Corea because the drum parts were not written. Is that something you prefer?
What I meant was the music was all written out, but I was reading off the piano score, so it was open for interpretation. I had music in front of me that was guiding me and his writing is beautiful, so it was just clear to me what I thought it needed. It was challenging because the writing was very high-level, and we recorded it live. It encompassed a lot of different areas of music that you work your whole lifetime to be able to achieve. You don’t always get in those situations where you’re able to apply everything, but that was one where I could pretty much apply it all – I could apply jazz, funk, reading music, playing in an orchestra – all of those things played a part in how I interpreted what I did for that music.
I would also imagine when you record live it creates a different energy in the room.
Yeah, all those situations are different when you record live. It’s another kind of pressure that you have to deal with. You have to work your mind to stay relaxed and remember that all it’s got to do is really feel good and everything else will fall into place. I don’t get too personal and try to get too slick with what I’m doing. I try to just be part of the process and do things for everyone else.
Tell me about your upcoming album.
I just finished our second album with the Steve Gadd Band, and we’re still mixing it. We haven’t decided on the title yet. Our first LP is called Gadditude, and it’s with the guys that I play with in James Taylor’s band: Larry Goldings (keys), Michael Landau (guitar), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Walt Fowler (trumpet). I like the music, and there’s a lot of original stuff. These guys are great players and they’re great friends and we love hanging together. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve also been doing some projects with Edie Brickell.
I love Edie!
Edie writes all the songs and I produce them. She came up with the name of the band, The Gaddabouts, because she doesn’t like to put herself in front, but it’s all her music that we played and worked out in the studio. There are two albums out, and we’re just about ready to release the third. I’m really proud of that music and being involved with producing with people that I really love.
Is it more enjoyable to lead your own project?
Whatever music I play is special to me, regardless of whether it’s my thing. I wouldn’t approach working for someone else any less diligently than I would approach doing my own thing. The thing that’s nice about doing my band is that I can make more decisions musically. It’s a growing situation for me. I’m learning something that I never did before and getting to spend more time in the studio, so I like that.
I’m always looking for records that I can listen to in their entirety. While this might seem like an easy task, you’d be surprised. And Hey Marseilles’ first album, To Travels and Trunks, met this very difficult standard. It’s clear the band knows their sound, and it’s consistent from beginning to end. It also puts me in a happy place, a task also difficult to achieve. The Seattle-based band, fronted by Matt Bishop, has seven members, a number that slowly grew from the original two (Bishop and Nick Ward) who met in college. They released their first record in 2008, and then re-released it two years later. And based on the new song off their second record, “Hold Your Head,” I anticipate great things. The record, entitled Lines We Trace, will be released on in February 2013. Read my interview with Matt Bishop below.
Your music has a European influence. Was that always your sound?
It slowly evolved. Our motivation isn’t [about] trying to capture a European sound as much as it is trying to do something eclectic and dynamic. [That sound] slipped into our first record because the music we were inspired by was very much European. But it wasn’t intentional.
Why did you re-release the first record, To Travels and Trunks?
It was about trying to get exposure for that record on a level beyond Seattle. We released it out of the back of our cars and sold it to our friends at shows. We felt that if we had the potential to get as strong of a reception elsewhere as we did in Seattle, it was worth re-releasing it.
Was there any particular moment when you realized that your hard work was paying off?
I wouldn’t say it was one specific moment. We’ve been a slow burn. We’ve been together for about six years and we’re now going on our first truly national tour. We’ve been slowly reaching [our] aspirations.
Are you ever surprised by an audience’s response to one of your songs over another?
I’m surprised when an audience responds at all [laughs]. Sometimes I can see the audience [sing along] to certain words. It’s awesome and humbling.
I read that some of your band members disagreed on your band’s name, and the majority won out. Do you vote on all band disagreements?
There’s always a discussion. But it’s helpful that there’s an odd number of people in our band so it’s kind of like the Supreme Court. We’re pretty egalitarian.
Why the time span between your first record and your upcoming record?
We’ve been writing our upcoming record for a year and a half. There were moments when we thought we were done and then we went back. We want to be intentional about releasing a record we are proud of, and we’ve finally gotten to that point.
I know you have a day job in addition to being in a band. Are you the coolest guy at your job?
I don’t know about that [laughs]. It’s gratifying that people at my job are supportive. But it’s also really frustrating to balance two different mindsets. It’s not easy. But with the release of our next record, I’m stepping away from it. I’m looking forward to solely focusing on music. We’ll see how that goes.
I read a funny story about you that I have to ask you about. Is it true you stole instruments from your school’s marching band?
There was a period where we used a sousaphone that we procured from the University of Washington’s marching band room. We returned it though and nobody knew. Not too many people [use] the sousaphone.
You’ve said that your study of poetry hinders your song-writing ability. I would assume it would be the opposite.
The rhythm and musicality of poetry is entirely dependent on the words and how they are spoken. When you’re writing lyrics for music, you have to depend on the musicality of the melody. I’ll easily write something and then have to step back and decide if it works well in the context of music instead of how it’s written on a page or how it’s spoken.
Does the songwriting process ever create friction with your bandmates if they want to go a different direction?
I’ve been lucky. They kind of let me have full control over the lyrics, so I have a lot of autonomy. But most of the collective work is on the music.
Does your new record have a different sound than your first record?
It’s much more mature. The strength of our musicianship has improved. I think it’s a good reflection of where we are at in our lives.
Watch below to see Hey Marseilles’ video for ‘Hold Your Head.’
There’s a reason it’s difficult to define Alex Cuba’s sound, and it’s because he’s a true original. Alex’s father, Valentin Puentes, is a well-respected musician and music teacher. By age four, young Alex had already appeared on national television in his native Cuba, playing claves under his father’s direction. He later learned to play guitar and then moved to electric bass, sometimes practicing eight hours a day. Though Alex knew his love for playing music was strong, he didn’t fully discover his passion for singing until the age of 24, when he moved to Canada to “creatively spread his wings.” His fearless, out-of-the-box style paid off, with a cross-cultural sound that earned him a Latin Grammy in 2010 for best new artist. He has since released five solo albums, including his most recent record, ‘Healer,’ which he is promoting on tour with Sheryl Crow. Speaking with Alex confirmed that he’s not only talented, he’s also humble. He’s grateful for every opportunity and he’s excited about the future. Read my interview with Alex Cuba below, and CLICK HERE to purchase his new album.
I noticed your effortless ease on stage. Do you think that playing at such an early age helps with your onstage performance?
Yeah, also I have lived in Canada for sixteen years which has made me comfortable onstage because the audience barely speaks Spanish.
Did you alter your performance style to accommodate the audience?
Yeah it was actually quite challenging in the beginning because I wasn’t that trained onstage, and I couldn’t communicate what I needed [to the staff]. I also tried to speak to the audience, but no one understood me because I had a thicker accent. I slowly built the confidence I needed to be comfortable on stage. I even joke in English now.
Because the audience doesn’t know the lyrics, do you think about your physical staging and inflection as you sing?
The goal has been to communicate with the audience, with every inch of my body, with everything we do onstage. The point is to make music that transcends the language. I hope that every time that I’m playing people sort of get it. I remember in 2005, I opened in Central Park, but the label didn’t get my vibe. They got me a nine piece band and our act came across completely desperate. Jose Gonzalez played after my set by himself and he killed it. Then the main act, Seu George had a four piece band. I felt so stupid, trying to perform with so much going on while everyone else was so smooth. When I got this opportunity with Sheryl I wanted to feel the audience.
It worked. I could tell that the audience at The Hollywood Bowl really responded to your performance.
Johanna Rees also has a lot to do with that. That’s the work of a good promoter. I say this because I have worked before with other big stars in the past, and the fans don’t always cross over. In this case, people found a relationship between Sheryl Crow and I, and I take my hat off to her.
One of the songs you performed had English lyrics. Do you approach the lyrics differently as a songwriter when you’re writing them in English as opposed to Spanish?
I haven’t written an entire song in English by myself, yet. I’ll have an idea, but because English is not my first language, I’ll find people to write with.
When you return to Cuba now, do you feel differently about performing for people who do speak your language?
When I’m playing for an entire audience that speaks Spanish, I sometimes laugh at myself because I find myself translating from English to Spanish. It’s as if the stage has become something different in a way I didn’t expect. I guess I feel so inside the culture of America that when I go to a place like Columbia, for example, I turn kind of shy.
I know your father encouraged you to be more of a player than a singer. At what point did you start to pursue a path as a singer?
When I moved to Canada I started to realize that singer/songwriters were way more appreciated, because people feel the soul of the artist. I recorded my first album in Canada with my brother, and I sang two songs myself. When my dad listened to one of songs that I recorded, he couldn’t believe it. My mom said that he was in shock. I asked him why it made him feel that way, and he said, “I don’t know. It’s a nice song.” I said, “Dad, open up a little bit more,” and he finally said, “It’s something special of yours.” [His reaction] totally touched my heart.
I know my father is a man of few words, so when I get a compliment I get very excited. Do you feel that way about your father? Was that compliment unique because it came from him?
It was a lot of that. I left Cuba, and I left my culture behind, so I understand that he might not get everything that I do, but he sure is proud when he walks down the street and people come up to him to say “I saw Alex singing on the internet, and he’s amazing, etc.” I know he is very proud.
How did your family react to your Grammy win?
That was a beautiful moment. When I won, my wife thought my parents were going to have a heart attack. [Laughs] They were screaming like kids. They were very proud.
What was your own personal reaction to the Grammy win? Was it important?
I was excited. I absolutely wanted it. I didn’t think I was going to get it. It was my first submission to the Grammys. We get two nominations and then all of a sudden we win the biggest one, which was new artist of the year. I always felt that my music has universal appeal, because it’s how Canada trained me to play. Canada is a melting pot of different cultures. I was the first Canadian to ever get a Latin Grammy.
I know you recorded with your brother in the beginning of your career. What made you decide to step away from singing with him?
It was a creative decision. That album was a celebration of our culture, and the fact that we left Cuba at different times and then reunited. We made something beautiful. We wanted to celebrate where we came from, our culture, and our roots. Shortly after that I realized I wanted to sing differently. I told my brother I need to follow my heart.
Tell me about when you first learned to play?
Our father started teaching us guitar when we were six years old. When I was fourteen I saw somebody playing electric bass in our town, and I immediately fell in love with that. And I said to my dad, “What’s that?” and he said, “That’s an electric bass”. From then on I was an electric bass player. That’s what I did until I moved to Canada. But I’ve now evolved more, so I don’t mind what instrument I’m playing. It’s about making sure the band sounds great.
You’ve written for other artists. Is the process different when you write for someone else?
Yes, absolutely. When you’re in a co-writing session with someone else, most of the time you don’t have the luxury or the time to say, “Okay, I’m going to wait for inspiration to come.” It’s sort of like create and respond. [When I write for myself], I record songs that I write strictly when they come to me, without really thinking about it. I have learned to enjoy both [processes], and to never put conditions on how it’s done. There’s always something [to learn from a co-writer] that could open up your eyes in a way that you wouldn’t learn on your own. I have learned to take that and run with it.
I listened to your new record, ‘Healer,’ and it’s really great. Was there a different goal in mind for this record? Did you have a different sense of inspiration?
Yes. I decided not to go to Cuba while recording. On this one I said, “You know what, I want to try to reinvent.” I went to New York City instead and recorded most of the album there.
How do you feel about it now that it’s done? Do you feel that it was good to change it up?
Yeah, we managed to make it very focused on the sound of my voice. It’s very soulful, and the songs breathe more without heavy arrangement.
I requested an interview with David Wax Museum immediately after watching their video for “Harder Before It Gets Easier.” The memorable masterpiece is the first single off their latest record, entitled, ‘Knock Knock Get Up.’ Their unique sound is relatively difficult to describe, but David Wax coined the catchy term, “Mexo-Americana” and it has since stuck. The band’s core members include Wax and Suz Slezak, who are currently touring the new record. I’m told by my friend who saw their show in Santa Monica that it’s one of the “best live performances [he’s] ever seen.” The very kind Suz Slezak took the time to graciously answer all of my nosey questions. Read below.
Can you take me through the making of your video for “Harder Before It Gets Easier”? It looked intense.
We wanted something bright and fun. [Our producer and his partner] asked us if we were okay with face paint, but we had no idea that we’d be completely covered for three days. We were game, though. The funniest part was walking outside and interacting with people on the street.
I know you’ve worked with the same producer for two records. Can you tell me a little about his influence?
He talks about wanting The David Wax Museum to sound more like The David Wax Museum. For the past two records he’s made our sound unique. He’s had a hand in bringing our stage energy to our records.
The donkey jawbone has become a staple in your live acts, and I know David initially suggested that you learn to play the instrument for percussion. Did he have any idea it would become such an integral part of your brand?
I don’t think so. When we started the band, I was just playing fiddle. But it didn’t work on the songs with a more Mexican sound. We looked into some Mexican instruments, and the jawbone was a pretty inexpensive purchase that we knew would add something we were missing.
You are really great about connecting with your fans. Is there any part of you that would like to hand over the business side so you could focus solely on music?
No way. What I love about being in a band is that it involves running a business. Thinking about artwork, videos, and all the other pieces that come along with this are what keeps me going.
I read that your parents were very encouraging of your musical pursuit. Had you not had that encouragement, do you think you would have found your way down the same path?
It’s different for everyone. For me, music was a basic part of our life. We had to practice our instruments every day before breakfast. It was a regimented part of our day.
There’s a song on this record called, “Wondrous Love.” Is that about someone in particular?
David doesn’t talk about what his songs are about. There’s a sense that a lot of art comes from a deeper, bigger place, rather than being about a certain person.
Do you test out your new material during your live performances? Are you ever surprised with the audience’s reaction?
It’s album by album. For ‘Knock Knock Get Up,’ we actually didn’t play a lot of the songs live. We wanted the record to be exciting and new for our fans. But audiences don’t realize how much they are a part of the music. What they give back with their energy is a huge part of what we give out.
You guys have been at this for a long time. Today’s music is so much about a slow growth. Did you ever get impatient about your success?
That’s a great question. No one has been honest enough to ask that. We’ve definitely had ups and downs. We see this as a long-term career choice. David and I aren’t teenagers. We made this choice after doing other things in our life, and we take it very seriously. When you’re a musician, you’re putting your heart and soul in front of people every night. It’s really important not to give up.
Watch below to see their video for “Harder Before It Gets Easier,” and click HERE to catch the band on tour.
Mike Doughty is a talented guy. I’ve been a fan since my high school days when I played Soul Coughing on repeat, and I later became addicted to his solo work when my musically adept cousin pointed me to Haughty Melodic, one of my favorite albums in history. So when he agreed to do an interview with The Dishmaster to promote his new album, Yes and Also Yes, I was elated. While preparing for the interview, I quickly discovered that he and I have very different feelings about the band he spent numerous years with. In fact, he once referred to his time with Soul Coughing as “the devil’s asshole.” You can therefore imagine my trepidation on broaching the subject. But I wouldn’t be The Dishmaster if I didn’t get the dish. So I dove right in, and I happily discovered that Mike was not only gracious about discussing the subject; he was also honest, which is rare in this industry. Read my interview below, and then listen to his song, “Na Na Nothing,” at the end of the post. It’s fantastic, and so is he.
I was a huge Soul Coughing fan. You’ve described your experience with Soul Coughing as “Dante’s Inferno.” Do you think being in a band inherently lends itself to fights over songwriting?
No. My band mates, in my opinion, were sociopathic. It was worse than your average band conflict. The majority of the songs were solely written by me. My band-mates’ [perspective] was “You’re not very good, and you’re very lucky to have found us,” and they also threatened to leave the band over the [songwriting split], and they were stupid enough to have done that. I do not know a story of a band crazier than mine.
Did they ever approach you after reading your interviews about them?
No. I refuse contact. But there was an interview with the keyboard player, where he basically said, “Doughty doesn’t really write music at all,” and he wasn’t trying to be a dick. He really believed that. It would be one thing if they were just mean-spirited and conniving, but to really talk to someone and say “The sky is blue,” and have them follow up, “No, it’s red” . . .
Is that why you no longer sing Soul Coughing songs?
I choose not to sing them. Chances are I wouldn’t sing those songs even if it was a good experience. I just want to get away from it. I just have songs that I like better. I’m not going to come to your house and steal your iPod. You are welcome to listen to those songs. But I don’t want to play it. If people come to the show and say they want to hear “Super Bon Bon,” I’ll tell them not to come back. And if I could give you your money back, I would. I genuinely dislike the Soul Coughing stuff. I don’t think most of the songs are very good at all.
Is that because you’ve changed styles as a musician since your time in the band?
If I had not had to constantly appease my band-mates, it would have sounded more like my solo stuff. We were Captain Beefheart, and we could have been Led Zeppelin. It sucks that this work I really dislike is hanging around my neck. I feel like a creative person that wants to keep creating art and I have a large audience that digs it.
Too bad schmucks like me keep asking you about Soul Coughing.
I don’t think you’re a schmuck. I just really wish honestly, humbly, and respectfully that guys that want to hear Soul Coughing don’t come to the shows. It’s so aggravating.
Did getting away from the label contribute to your freedom as a solo artist?
The label was very good to us. But there were a lot of stupid decisions made by my band-mates that lost [the label] money, and I look back and don’t understand why someone didn’t step in and say, “This is what you’re going to do and you’re going to like it,” because it would have been better for us.
I’ve heard you say that you make more money now than you did on the label.
It loops back to the band. But I also don’t own the Soul Coughing songwriting. The label was making a profit even when we were in the hole. But the band spent a lot of money. I remember a gig in DC and my drummer insisted on taking a tour bus instead of a van. There was so much money spent. I am not excluded from that. I would stay at the Royalton for a month making my record, and when I got out I couldn’t pay my rent. When I went solo that’s when it all made sense to me. Also — I wasn’t wasted anymore.
When you write music, do you ever look back on your songs and discover a new meaning?
Yes. You have a perspective on the emotional context after playing it for a bunch of years that you don’t have when you record it. I don’t really want to talk about it because very, very deep factors in my personality are revealed to me years later. But I’ll tell you one thing – “I don’t need to walk around in circles” was about Soul Coughing.
I love the song “Holiday” on the new album. I read that Rosanne Cash said something nice about you during a concert. Did you contact her after hearing what she said?
She said from the stage, “I’m really nervous because Mike Doughty is here and he’s such an amazing songwriter,” and my jaw hit the floor. So when Dan Wilson and I wrote “Holiday,” there happened to be this note there that I couldn’t hit, so my solution was to get a female backup singer who would sing along with the chorus . . . but I [thought] . . . as a shot in the dark, let’s send this to Rosanne Cash and see if she’ll do a full-on duet . . . And she said yes. It was astonishing.
Because of the climate of the music industry, artists are making most of their money on tour. Does the excessive traveling bother you?
No, I love touring. This last tour I did with the band was a dream. Everybody was so awesome. I’m touring with dedicated, smart, funny, interesting people that are a blast to work with, and I like being on the road.
Is it true you wrote this on an artist’s colony? Do you usually write in one condensed period of time?
It was more writing from square-one than I had done in the past. I wrote it in a more linear way than I [usually] work in.
How did you choose the title, Yes and Also Yes, for the album?
It was an improvised headline to an OkCupid profile. You can’t put the profile up without a headline, which is annoying, so I wrote “Yes and Also Yes.”
I discovered Cold War Kids a few years ago, and when I paraded around Los Angeles asking others if they had found this hidden gem, I quickly realized they are not so hidden after all. To date, the Long Beach-based band has released four albums and over five EPs, and their extensive touring schedule indicates a very loyal following. I had the fortunate pleasure of attending the first show for their latest tour, and it became immediately clear that this band thrives on performing live. Their on-stage energy is contagious, and they not only feed off their fans, but also each other. When I played their most recent EP, Tuxedos, I was mesmerized by the haunting sound, and I immediately seized the opportunity to interview lead singer Nathan Willett.
Your new EP, Tuxedos, is a very stripped down version of your previous material. Was that sound an intentional choice?
I don’t think necessarily that it was a plan, but you know even on the record itself it’s kind of more down-tempo.
Do you look at your EP’s as an opportunity to do something different?
It’s definitely an opportunity to do something different. You’re not going to have as critical an eye or the same expectations. [It’s about] the fun of knowing you’re getting to release these songs and it’s something that the true fans are more likely to dig into. We’ve always done it from the very beginning. We had three EP’s before we put out our first record.
Why did you choose these particular covers?
At the end of scoring [Dear Miss Lonely Hearts], our friend Richard Swift came down, and he was weighing in on a bunch of stuff and working on a bunch of art. We were having so much fun and those [covers] came out of that time. It’s almost a way to reveal yourself and show the songs that inspired our record. These are songs that in some way tell the story of where we are right now. There’s something that feels very transparent about that that is kind of nice. Whether it’s saying that these are our influences or the act of playing songs after you’ve been recording for months, playing songs that are already written feels really good.
You’ve said in previous interviews that covers are more relaxing to play than your original material. Are you the kind of songwriter who obsesses over your original material to the point where you need a break from it?
Yeah, I think that’s true. It’s just so much easier to be in somebody else’s poetic song. [When] you release music to a wider audience it comes with all the necessary questions of “Who is this about?”, “Who is it for?”, and “What does it mean?” All of those questions are good questions, but in some ways you have to keep those questions kind of a mystery to yourself to be able to write songs. Even from the time of our first record I felt a little kind of invaded upon about the songs and their meaning. All these things never really occurred to me before, and in some ways that self-awareness kind of stifled me. You know it’s never good for anybody.
Do you look back on those first records and discover meanings that you didn’t realize initially?
Yes, definitely. That’s a really weird thing that I have experienced. There’s certain things that I am more comfortable with now, like, “Oh yeah that song is definitely about this.” But at the time I just didn’t know the answer. Talking about your music while also not being so transparent is a real talent that I am probably better at now than I was at the beginning.
You’ve said that your lyrics have become more personal. Would you say that’s because you’ve become more comfortable with all those invasive questions?
Yeah, I think so. It’s the weird anxiety of somebody looking at something that you wrote and twisting it or making it say something that it’s not saying. You can’t worry about that at all, and it takes thick skin to get to that place.
I know Cold War Kids is known for its live performances. This EP captures that magic. Do you view the recording process as almost a tedious way to capture that sound?
Yeah, that’s actually really well put. We have always, always had that problem. [When we’re on stage, it’s a] totally raw experience. We perform songs just a little bit different every night based on everything happening around [us], and then [we’re] in a studio and it’s dry and dead. You can play live and have this huge relief with each other, but recording is different. It’s harder to have that big relief because you’re fine tuning and turning knobs and you’re doing things multiple times. It’s just a different experience. But we’re always striving to get to that place.
Have you ever been surprised by the reaction to something you’ve released?
Yeah, extremely. I know for us the first period of doing really, really well was total utter shock. We were all living in a tiny, tiny house and we were shocked with the place we elevated to, the size of audience we were playing, and people who knew our story. The opposite side of that was definitely our last record, Mine is Yours, where we thought we did everything the right way. You think it’s really going to hit home on every level, and then it just kind of gets passed over like that record did. A lot of the process after Mine is Yours was about saying, “Whoa, maybe we have changed over the last few years of record making and touring . . . and we got too aware of our environment. Maybe we need to learn how to forget about ourselves again and not think about our place in music or making a big statement, but rather just do what [we] do.” If it’s really fun and great and you love it, then other people will like it or not like it. But you will be happy either way.
So you’d say that after the reception of Mine is Yours you became less in your head rather than the opposite?
Initially we suffered from the reaction or lack of reaction. We definitely felt like, “Wait a minute. We put everything on the table for this.” After that we just said, “Man, what happened? Is there anything we can point to and say this is what we need to fix?” We’ve been fortunate to have the really rad audience that follows us. Because of that we were able to say, “Let’s just keep going. Let’s move on and try to strip away the things that weren’t working.” [While touring] this new record, Dear Miss Lonely Hearts, it’s really interesting to see that there are lots people that became fans of our band because of Mine is Yours, and that’s really special. It kind of reaffirms not to get lost in [questions such as,] “Was it a label mistake? Was there something that I just wasn’t seeing that I should have done differently?” You just have to keep moving forward.
Listen below to the title track of Cold War Kids’ EP, Tuxedos, and click HERE to catch them on tour.
When I told my musician friends about my Alan Parsons interview, it solidified my eternal bragging rights. In fact, they insisted that I watch the documentary for the making of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the legendary album that Parsons engineered. His iconic career as a producer and engineer spans four decades. To date, Parsons has sold millions of records and earned 11 Grammy nominations. He kindly took the time to answer a few of my questions. Enjoy!
The music industry has significantly changed since you entered the business. Do you think it will ever recover?
Clearly the established artists have suffered. The consumer doesn’t really understand that copyright holders have to get paid. Youtube is the biggest culprit. But up-and-coming artists love it because they have a chance to get exposed for nothing. And although record sales have declined, people will always pay to see a band play live. As long as there are live shows, people will see them. But I’m really worried about recording music.
Have the changes also paved the way for less talented stars?
There’s a tendency for people to think that because the technology has become so accessible. Anyone can make a half-decent record on a laptop. But in the end, the real talent will come through. And that’s always been the case.
You’re known for some high-profile concept albums. With the ability to individually purchase songs, is the concept album dead?
People don’t seem to be interested in listening to 40 minutes of music anymore. They want a three minute clip. It gives instant gratification. The reality is that probably one or two of the songs on an album will get picked up by other outlets. It’s lamentable that people aren’t picking up an album, turning the lights down, and enjoying it. But you still have to sequence an album. And people still expect me to make conceptual music. That’s what I do best.
With your level of experience, is it possible to listen to music from a layman’s perspective?
I’m very much a layman when it comes to listening to music. I rarely listen to other people’s music on my studio stereo. I listen to most of it in my car. If I do have the occasion to listen to someone else’s record under studio conditions, then I might be more analytical. I might be quizzical or jealous. But I’m most likely to play stuff I really like in the studio.
Do you have a preference for analog over digital recording?
Digital recording is young. We are already using video recorders to make movies, so why not use digital recorders to make an analog sound? We just haven’t found the right parameters and technology to exactly emulate analog. But we are getting closer every day.
While working as an engineer in the beginning of your career, did you know that you ultimately wanted to be a producer?
It was always a goal. I didn’t know when I left school that I would be a producer, but as soon as I got the job at Abbey Road, I had my sights set on production. I learned from watching other producers and engineers at work. I saw who had the magic touch and who didn’t, and it helped me learn from the mistakes and strengths of others.
When you work on high-profile projects like Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road, does your inner fanboy disrupt your objective outlook?
I think being a fan of the music has a value. I take no credit for the creative input on The Beatles though. I was too young and too green. But I was the ultimate Beatles fan. I was in 7th heaven. It was incredible.
If you could duplicate that experience now, would you approach it differently?
Not at all. I still work on instinct. I’m essentially rather selfish. I’m pursuing things that I think work. That’s not to say that I won’t team up with others. I enjoy the spirit of collaboration. But in terms of whether I work differently now, no. I’ve always worked the same way.
I have to ask you this, because my musician friends have discussed it extensively. You’ve obviously heard the controversy about Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” being a rip-off of your song, “Eye in the Sky.”
I have heard of that controversy, yes. And I have absolutely no comment.
Fair enough. And speaking of controversy, I’ve read a few interviews where you’ve addressed Dave Gilmour’s comments about your contribution to Pink Floyd. Have you ever had a personal conversation with him about it?
We only worked together during that period. So no, we’ve never had that conversation. The opinions of the band have occasionally been dismissive about my contribution and occasionally been very complimentary. To me, it doesn’t really matter what they think. I know what I contributed.
Tell me about your upcoming project with Jake Shimabukuro.
Jake is touring as we speak. What I like about the album is it’s a combination of unaccompanied solo, Jake playing with a rhythm section, and Jake playing with an orchestra. It was an idea I put forward. I thought he’d be incredible playing live with an orchestra.
What motivates your decision to choose a project?
In the past it was a matter of convenience and finance. But I would not get involved in something that didn’t have some merit. I’m not about to suddenly make a hip hop album because it pays well. I’ve got to be into the style of the music and to feel that I can offer the artist something as his or her producer.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
We are in the process of fundraising for an Anglo-Greek band called Electric Litany, and I’m hoping we will be recording their new album by the end of this year.
There’s a very valuable playlist in my music library entitled, “Music That Makes Me Happy,” and Eric Hutchinson has been on it for years. While playing his first album for the 500th time, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if he had a second album? Where’s he been? I want more Eric Hutchinson!” So I googled him, and my prayers were answered. He released his follow-up, Moving Up Living Down, on April 17th, and he achieved the rare feat of surpassing the quality of his debut. Because I’m The Dishmaster, and I have an insatiable need to pick the brain of everyone I admire, I requested an interview with the man himself — and he kindly agreed. Read below, and catch the video for his hit single, “Watching You Watch Him,” at the end.
I was a huge fan of your first record. I know you did the first record on your own and now you’re on a label. Do you have a preference?
I still consider myself an independent artist, but this way was a lot easier. I got to concentrate on the music and the writing and the singing a lot more, and I got paired up with some really great producers. I worked with Martin Terefe and lived in London for a month, and Mike Elizondo who I lived with in LA for a month.
Does the creative input from a producer ever create friction?
You have to find the right person. We had a few people that didn’t work out, but the most important part is the creative flow with the producer. Mike had pictures of The Beatles all over his studio, and The Beatles are probably my favorite of all time, so I had a feeling right off the bat that we would get along. It’s a really fun, creative vibe. Never for one second did it leave my head that here I am making an album for Warner Bros. Records, and how is this my life?
It’s been a few years since your first record. What’s the reason for the time-gap?
I toured for so long with the first record. It was sort of an unorthodox release, because it kind of came out on its own, and then it came out again when Perez Hilton sent it out, and then Warner Bros. picked it up. So I was just touring and touring. And then finally I came home to New York and got to process everything and started writing my record. I know from the outside it probably feels like a while, but I’ve been busy the whole time.
Did you know that Perez’s post would create such traction?
I was in LA and went to sleep, and the next morning I woke up, and my phone was blowing up. Within the day it was in the iTunes top five. It was a really great moment. Perez has been very supportive and continues to be very supportive.
I read that you went broke making your first record. Was there a definable moment where you thought, “I can make a living doing this.”
I had been making a living, but I went a little too far making that record. I feel a real privilege to be able to do this, but I got a lot of very lucky breaks.
One of my favorite songs on your record is “The People I Know.” It’s a really upbeat song with sad lyrics. Is that an intentional juxtaposition?
Yeah, it’s something I learned from The Beatles. It helps the medicine go down, if you will. I try to cram big ideas into a three-minute pop song, and if you do it with an upbeat feel it’s easier to process it all.
There’s a lyric, “I’ve got a sister who I barely see,” in “The People I Know.” Is that a literal lyric? Did she hear it and say anything to you about it?
I had a talk with her about it. It’s sort of true. My sister did live down the street from me, and I didn’t see her because I was on tour all the time. And then one day I ran into her on the street, and it was a weird moment. It’s a weird moment when you recognize someone that is that close to you and you see them on the street out of context. But I get along with my family really well, and they have been very supportive.
But you gave her the heads up before you released the song?
I did, yeah. She likes [the song]. The other thing that’s really cool about that song is I play it live and people come up to me afterwards and say, “I have an estranged relationship with somebody.” That’s when the music really feels special.
Do you ever have a revelation about your lyrics in hindsight and think, “Wow, I must have been really sad and not even known it?”
All the time. There are certain songs where I think, “I don’t even know what I’m writing,” and then I look back, and it’s so clear. That’s one of the good parts about the album. Having some time to release this album, I got a lot of perspective on it, and I could look at it clearly and think about which songs I like and what I wanted to say.
When you play live, do you have a venue preference? Do you prefer a smaller, intimate venue to a large stadium?
As long as the crowd is excited, that’s where the magic comes from. I could play to 50 people or 5,000 as long as they’re are excited about the tour.
You’ve performed on some really great late-night shows. Do you have a favorite performance?
The first time I played The Tonight Show. It was my first time on TV. It just felt really cool.
Do you still get nervous for those performances?
Not really anymore. I’ve performed so much at this point that I’m kind of used to playing. I really want to play Saturday Night Live. Maybe I’d get nervous for that.
What music are you listening to now?
A band I got really into is Los Lobos. My plan is to get them to come play on my next record. I love Vampire Weekend, the new Black Keys record, and Kanye West.
Who chose “Watching You Watch Him” as the single for the record? Did you write it and think, “That’s the hit?”
A lot of times I’ll have to [do something] and stop writing, but every now and then I’ll write a song and I just can’t leave it. I was supposed to meet a bunch of friends to watch a football game, and about ten minutes into writing “Watching You Watch Him,” I just knew I couldn’t go anywhere, and I called them and told them that I couldn’t come. I really love that song. To me, I can just picture driving through the desert on a road trip and blaring that song really loud.
I can’t remember where I was when I first heard Sister Hazel’s biggest hit, “All For You,” but I certainly remember singing it excessively. In fact, I’ve played . . . Somewhere More Familiar hundreds of times. So when my good friend – Rob Columbus – told me he was playing drums with the band for a few of their shows (because their regular drummer, Mark Trojanowski – had a baby), I immediately asked if he could land me an interview. He asked, and the band kindly agreed. I’ve never been more nervous. I spent the entire day immobile on the couch thinking of everything that could go wrong. Rob attempted to squash my panic by assuring me that the band members are “five of the nicest guys he’s ever met,” but nothing worked. Finally, I met the band. It became immediately clear that Rob wasn’t exaggerating. We did the interview in their dressing room at the Los Angeles House of Blues prior to their show. When we began, Ken Block (lead vocals, acoustic guitar) hilariously turned things around and started to interview me. Andrew Copeland (rhythm guitar, keys, vocals) laughed and said, “isn’t she supposed to ask the questions?” Thanks to Ken — I loosened up. It’s nice to meet a band with the perfect combination of success and humility. Enjoy!
I love that you still play the songs that made you famous. I know a lot of bands that get angry about playing their biggest hits. Is it difficult to sustain the energy playing those songs so many years later?
Ken: We’re fans of music, too. There are artists that we like to see, and we want them to play the songs that we love. People ask us if we get tired of playing “All For You.” It’s so fun to see how much it continues to resonate with people so long after that song came out. It’s more a feeling of gratitude that people still care and it can still make people sing every word no matter where we are in the world. And one of the things that’s so gratifying about our fan base is that they sing along to [our news songs, too].
Andrew: Even if they don’t know the words, they’ll just move their mouths as if they know the words. That’s even more fun to watch.
When you write a song about a tough personal experience in your life, does it reopen the wound every time you perform the song?
Andrew: There are certainly times when you fade back to something that reminds you of that time. It takes you back to what inspired the song.
Ken: There’s one song that I wrote that we had done for years, and after Andrew lost his dad he said he couldn’t do it anymore.
Andrew: He wrote it about losing his younger brother to cancer. I sang it with him forever, and I was always amazed that he could make it through without much of an issue. And when my dad passed away, I tried to sing it a couple of times and I couldn’t do it.
What song is that?
Ken: It’s called “Running Through the Fields.”
What about you Ryan? I know you wrote songs about your divorce. Is it difficult to keep singing those songs after you’ve healed?
Ryan Newell (lead and slide guitar, harmony vocals): The songs definitely helped me get through [my divorce] at the time and put my feelings into music. It’s like therapy. But I don’t go back to that place from where they came from. Once they went into the song they took on a life of their own. I don’t relive it every time we play the song. They don’t have that weight anymore.
Ken, I read that you wrote “All For You” very quickly. Did you have any idea it would become such a massive hit?
Ken: I wrote it in a couple of hours. I don’t think you ever know it’s going to be a massive thing. But I knew there was something special about it. I turned it in for a compilation CD that there were only 10 spots for. Who knows what’s a hit? But you do know when songs resonate quickly. But it was six years from the time I wrote it to when it got on the radio.
What was it like to hear it for the first time on the radio?
Ken: Our bus broke down and we had to rent a Ryder truck and we were sitting in the back with all these chairs and amps, and Casey Kasem came on the radio and said, “Breaking into the top forty, it’s this little band from Gainesville, Florida, with ‘All For You.” We were like, “Yeah! We’ve made it!”
You entered the music industry prior to the social media generation. Was it difficult to adjust?
Ken: We feel like we were on the leading edge of it. We asked Universal Records for money to work on a website and they said, “Websites are a fad. We’d rather put the money [elsewhere].” But we knew early on that we would connect with our fans any way we could. Free downloads impacted the industry, but you gotta roll with it.
What’s different now that you’re not on the label?
Ken: There are pros and cons. The pro is that we can work at our own pace. You know who to applaud if things go well and who to point your finger at if they don’t. The downside is that you don’t have as big a stick. Our whole deal is to control what we can control.
I read that on this most recent record, Heartland Highway, everyone participated by submitting songs. That’s a great idea in theory, but it can lend itself to fighting.
Ken: It used to be really tough. We’d come in with 70 or 80 songs. We would vote on it and people’s feelings would get hurt. But the last couple of records we tried to evolve and let everyone bring their A-game and contribute. We had a blast, and the record came out great. Even if we bring in songs, everyone gets their fingerprints on it. We defer to the writer on the bigger decisions.
Andrew: They always change shape by the time the five of us start to mess with it.
Tell me about the Rock Boat.
Andrew: This is our twelfth year. It’s a way for us to connect with our fans. We have about twenty five to thirty bands that go out with us.
Why did you start Lyrics for Life?
Ken: When I was fourteen, my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He died four years later. You take that with you the rest of your life. There’s the research side of it and then there’s the side of it that supports organizations that supports the families and patients that are going through it. We’ve raised nearly a million dollars.
What music are you listening to?
Andrew: Need to Breathe was on last year’s Rock Boat. I love them. And I love The Band Perry.
Ken: I’m a huge fan of Blackberry Smoke. They are an authentic Southern Rock band that we’ve known for a long time. They are the Southern Rock real deal.
You’ve been together for a long time. Have you ever wanted to kill each other?
Ken: The first few years were tough. We went from playing little bars to touring a platinum record. Everyone was kind of finding their way. Egos get in the way. Plus, we were partying hard. When that’s coloring things, there’s a lot of misunderstandings. One thing that happened is that I got clean and sober nine years ago.
Andrew: It had a major effect on all of us. It made everyone look in the mirror.
Ken: It’s been a huge gift to all of us. But some things just take time and trust. In those next few years we stopped taking things personally. We try to check our egos at the door. There are things we’ll hear and think, “God there was a time when that would have been a big argument and then three weeks of the silent treatment.“ Now, it’s over in thirty seconds.
I’d always liked Daniel Bedingfield, but he entered my interview-radar when my musician friends played his first album from top-to-bottom, while endlessly praising his songwriting prowess and vocal range. “He’s incredible,” they said. “You have to be great to get a number one dance track and a number one ballad on the same album.” When I discovered his very catchy new single, “Rocks Off,” the next day, I considered it fate and wanted an interview. I quickly found out that he’s gone completely independent, and I’d have to contact him directly. So I tweeted him, and he invited me to his show at Hotel Cafe the following week. Though Hotel Cafe is often a low-energy singer/songwriter venue, I knew his performance would be unique when he showed up in very colorful clothing, removed all the tables and chairs, and took the time to greet almost every fan that arrived. His charm and stage-presence won over the audience, who danced to both his new material and his most-loved hits. We scheduled an interview the following week, and I had an extremely long list of questions. Where has he been for the last eight years, how often will he be releasing new music, and whose idea was it to get naked at the end of his “Rocks Off” video? I figured I’d hold that last question until the end and only ask it if things went well, which they did.
I notice your very colorful style of dressing. Is the wardrobe choice a product of being an independent artist now?
I used to think that you had to consider the opinions of the people that you’re working with, because they work so hard and they’re so successful and they’re making millions, so they must know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t really matter anymore. I think the make-your-own-decisions, do-whatever-the-fuck you-like [approach] is much better.
Did the label have specific demands about how they wanted you to sound?
Sure. That’s why they didn’t release anything for eight years.
The irony is that when you first started in the industry the label was something you were probably aching to be a part of.
No. Your first job for the mafia, you could become a Don, or you could try to get out, and they could kill your whole family. My version of that is eight years of my twenties.
How does it feel to now be completely independent?
Now that I don’t care whether I succeed or not — I hope that I succeed, I dream that I succeed — [but] I don’t have the same pressure. It’s tough enough fighting this world to get music out without having to fight the business side. I’m very glad that I did it, [but] I never thought it was a golden opportunity. I don’t get excited by success, I get excited by creativity. So when I wasn’t able to release anything, that was difficult. But it was good for me. Now I know what it’s like to desperately want to do something for eight years.
You must get a little excited by success, though.
I’ve had enough to satisfy me, and I know it didn’t satisfy me when I had it. It’s not success that’s ever going to make me feel good. On the day “Gotta Get Thru This” hit number one, it was my 22nd birthday, and I had my first kiss with this girl I had been chasing for two years, and I was certainly more excited about the kiss.
Is it true you wrote the song on the way to professing your love to that girl?
I wrote it in the morning crossing the Tower Bridge on the way to work. My feet hitting the pavement gave me the tempo. After an hour-long chat with my mom she said, “It’s very obvious what you have to do,” so I went up to [talk to her]. We were best friends, and we were trying to pretend not to be in love with each other.
Is “Secret Fear” from your new EP also about a specific girl?
Who’s the girl?
[He shakes his head to indicate he’s not going to tell me]. All my songs are true. As awful as it sounds, it’s that awful, and as wonderful as it sounds, it’s that wonderful. It’s a diary transcript.
Does the girl know it’s about her?
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard my song, “Wrap My Words Around You.” But it’s about whether it’s a good idea to tell a girl that a song is about her, because it can really play with the dynamics of a girl genuinely or not genuinely liking you. You can make a girl like you when she wouldn’t like you otherwise by writing a good song.
Is that a bad thing?
Yes. Because if you leave her, then it was all a lie. You can win someone’s heart and then leave her, and it can really hurt. It’s tricky. My songs have caused incredible devastation to a number of people. You can get absolutely into someone’s head with your song, and it becomes impossible to get out.
You didn’t answer my question. Does the girl know that “Secret Fear” is about her?
The beginning of that song is so shocking, what it says. I’m so frightened that any woman that I date will hear the lyrics and think I won’t be happy with her. It was a deliciously bad feeling writing that. I knew I could be fucking my life hard-core. I was getting-off on the danger. Imagine you’re lying in bed as my wife and thinking of those lyrics.
I also love “Rocks Off” from the new EP, and I like how different it is from “Secret Fear.” Is the variety on your records a calculated choice?
This idea of an artist having one sound is nothing I’ve ever connected with. I don’t think it’s a valid restriction, so no — I don’t think about variety, I just think about the song. I’m not trying to be clever, I’m just incredibly ADD.
I know you’re releasing EPs 3-5 months apart. Do you think this is the wave of the future in the music industry?
Everyone I’m listening to thinks so.
You’re in a family of musicians. Are there moments when you have to tell them to buzz-off?
We are the last people to hear each other’s music. We don’t like playing it for each other. An honest opinion might not have a place in your family. Is the point of family to criticize?
Were you ahead of your time with the social media transition in the music industry? You’re really good with replying to your fans on Twitter.
I really like them! I have an amazing social media coordinator. I told her I didn’t have the time and energy to reply to my fans on Facebook and Twitter. She said, “That’s incredibly sad.” She said so many people are finding a way of interacting with their true fans through this. She’s like a Twitter evangelist. So I started replying, and I now wake up in the morning so happy to see what people are talking to me about. I realize that it’s the beginning of peeling away the wall of managers and record company people that are supposed to protect the artists from their fans.
I read a tweet about your “Rocks Off” video where a fan called it misogynistic, and you said that you’d seriously consider the criticism. I found the exchange very funny.
It is misogynistic. It’s an expression. Art doesn’t have to be balanced.
Whose idea was it to be naked at the end of the video?
Me! I wrote this thing! I’m trying to say something behind that video, and one of those things is that I don’t give a fuck about clothes or what I’m wearing, and I desire to be naked in all my music and in this interview. And also — guys getting stripped by girls . . . I think that’s quite funny.
I’m not sure I’d have the guts to be fully naked in a video.
That’s the point. I found the guts to be naked in a video in front of the planet, and in my next video I’m completely naked, underwater, in fire, and spinning. It’s not a perverted thing. I’m a nudist. I’m naked all the time.
My other favorite song on the new EP is “Don’t Write Me Off.”
Thank you. That’s something that’s very important. There’s a whole crowd of people that want the piano stuff, and there’s a whole crowd of people who just want the rock stuff. [One guy will] say, “Daniel, nobody likes that falsetto.” Then the other guy will say, “The best thing about you is your falsetto.” So if it’s really moving me, and I’m feeling the energy of everything flowing through my veins, then I’m going to release it.
Listen below to Daniel Bedingfield’s EP, Secret Fear — Stop the Traffik, and watch the video for his new single, “Rocks Off.” Note: Be sure to stay tuned for the end of the video — that’s when he gets naked.
I fell in love with Monsters Calling Home almost immediately. I saw them perform at The Mint in Los Angeles, and I emailed lead singer Alex Hwang minutes after the show. Since then, I’ve shamelessly stalked them around Los Angeles, and then I took the stalking to the next level and invited Alex to Brick & Mortar Recording for an interview. He kindly complied. Listen below, and watch their new video, “Fight to Keep,” after the interview.
It’s my secret agenda in every interview to befriend my subject. And Langhorne Slim certainly made the list. His real name is Sean Scolnick, and he might be the most normal, down-to-earth guy I’ve ever interviewed. In doing my research for his new record, The Way We Move, I realized that we have a lot in common, which is a data-point that will surely help in our future friendship. We’re both Jewish, and we both exited five-year relationships that were subject to long distances apart. Because I’m egocentric, I made sure to ask about these commonalities, along with questions about his joyful, dance-worthy style of music that I’ve fallen in love with. Read below.
Do you refer to yourself as Langhorne, or do your friends call you Sean?
It’s different. Some call me Sean, some call me Langhorne, some call me Seany Boy, some call me Slim. I’ve got lots of names. It just depends on who’s talking to me.
Is it true you wrote this album while mourning a breakup?
I wrote a few of the songs after my wonderful ex and I broke up, but a lot of the songs were [previously] written. [When] we went into the studio to record the record, we had already broken up.
Is it difficult to record in such an emotional place?
It was a difficult period, but it was amazing to have that kind of release, and to feel it in such a raw, immediate way. Instead of leaping off a cliff, I had this creative outlet.
I assume “Someday” is directly about the breakup, right?
The funny thing is . . . we were still together. Maybe you’re breaking-up before you realize it.
Do you ever get a call from an ex who is combing through your songs and wants to know if it’s about her?
They know that it is. I’m a man that hasn’t been with very many women. The last fifteen years of my life I’ve been in relationships. My ex knows exactly what songs are about her, because she heard me writing them.
Is it hard to sing songs that remind you of the time when you wrote them?
When I listen to [this record], it takes me very much back to that time and place, and I think that it always will. But it’s freeing. Even if you’re singing about pain, it’s a blessing to be able to create something that gets me through it. I don’t feel the heartbreak, I feel the release.
You raised the money for this album through PledgeMusic, which requires you to fulfill some very random promises to fans you’ve never met. I know you’re Jewish, and if I told my over-protective Jewish mother about the promises I’d have to fulfill, she’d kill me. Was your mother concerned?
I’m ten years into [my career], and my mother embraces it. [But] I remember the first time we ever got booked in Europe, she said, “Okay, wait a second. You’re going to Italy to play for some random people? How do you know they’re not going to kill you?” [laughs]. Now [my family] gets it. They knew I wasn’t cut out for a conventional job. Thankfully, they supported [me]. [They’re] still neurotic though.
You’ve toured with some heavy-hitters. Before you go on tour, do you think about whether you’ll get along on a personal level?
At this point it’s a little different. We’re in a position of picking who we tour with. [But] when we were going out with other bands, it wasn’t random. It already comes with a bit of a connection. There’s already a respect.
What about in your own band? Is it tough to be in close quarters for an extended period of time?
You learn each other’s eccentricities. It’s very much like a romantic relationship, but the romance is creative and musical.
How do you sustain a romantic relationship when you tour for 8 months out of the year?
I don’t know. People have told me it’s not feasible. But I did it the entire time I was a touring musician. It’s difficult to connect on a day-to-day basis, but I believe in it still. I’m a big, sappy believer in love. I feel like it’s just as difficult in different ways to have a 9to5 job and come home to each other every day. It’s a different set of challenges.
Do you have a favorite song on your new record?
The song that’s really meaningful to me is “A Song for Sid.” I wrote it for my grandfather. I’m very happy with it. You were asking if I’m brought back to the heartbreak or pain of a song that I wrote, and I am brought back [with that song], but in a beautiful way. It’s a tribute to him that he would probably feel proud of me for writing.
Watch below to see the video for Langhorne Slim & The Law’s single, “The Way We Move.” And thanks to Sean for proving that you can be talented and normal at the same time.
Fifty percent of my taste in music is about the music, and the other fifty percent is about an artist’s personality. And Jesse Elliott of These United States has a great personality. I’m admittedly a new fan of his music, which I discovered when I noticed his joint tour with Trampled by Turtles — another great band. Once I found his music, I played every These United States album for about two weeks straight, an obsession that was solidified immediately after listening to Crimes. And because of my insatiable desire to pick the brain of artists I like, I reached out to his team for an interview. I knew it would be good, but I couldn’t predict the extent of his openness. He’s not just a good musician, he’s an interesting guy. In fact, I might have a new crush. Enjoy the interview!
I know your band started with different members. Why the rotation?
In the beginning it was a matter of practicality. We had a lot of different sounds in our mind that we weren’t capable of making ourselves, so we had to recruit other people. I think it mostly came out of liking different kinds of music and wanting to interpret songs in different ways.
What made you stick with your current band members?
It’s still a little bit of a free flowing thing, because all the people I play with have always played in their own projects with other people. I think of it as a big extended family, and people are free to come and go as it makes sense for their own lives. That’s been good and bad but mostly good, and in the long term it keeps most of us as relatively sane creative collaborators.
Are you the primary songwriter?
I write the simple skeleton of the songs and the lyrics and maybe what people think of the core message to it, but I like recruiting other people to flesh out the instrumentation. I’ve always treated it like we have these different skeletons that we dress up in different bodies or skin with all these other people.
I always wonder what defines a “band,” because if you’re the primary songwriter then even though there is a band name, it’s really just you.
I think there’s a whole range of how that works. I don’t think that’s true for us, because the people I’ve incorporated throughout the years and especially now, there’s a real solid reason why we work together. We feel like we each have a different strength in a different part of the music.
Do they ever give you input on your music?
Definitely. They give me all kinds of sh*t. If by “input” you mean insults . . . [laughs]. Yeah — these guys are not shy. We hack these things apart all the time. I know that the stuff I’m doing is not perfect. The reason I like collaborating with these guys in particular is because everything is open for discussion.
Do you ever take their feedback personally?
Oh, I take it very personally, and I take it out on them in very subtle, passive-aggressive ways for weeks after they make a suggestion, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t acknowledge in retrospect that it was a good suggestion.
When you play music live, are you ever surprised by the audience’s reaction to certain songs?
Definitely. You can’t predict that stuff. There are songs that I am still surprised people like as much as they do, and there’s certain songs where I think, “You people are crazy. How could you not realize what a great song this is?”
Why do you release your records so quickly? You have kind of an unusual pace.
We can’t think of anything better to do with our lives [laughs]. None of us like day jobs. When your relationships fall apart and everything else goes to hell, you just write a bunch of songs and play a bunch of shows.
When you release the next record so quickly, are you starting from scratch?
Most of the time. There’s a couple of songs that survive. The one that comes to mind is on the album we’re releasing in June, and it’s called, “So Sweet to Be Back”. We tried using it on [three other albums] and it didn’t work. It’s come back with a vengeance on the newest album.
You toured a tremendous amount in the beginning. Did you do that because touring is the only source of income in today’s music industry?
I keep hearing this idea about making money touring. But I’ve never made money anywhere, including touring [laughs]. But we like it. It’s always fun to play a rock show whether it’s for ten people or a thousand.
Do you ever have moments when you’re on the road and touring this much where you think, “F*ck this sh*t. I can’t do this anymore?”
Yeah, but they’re really brief. I’ve had a really good life in the sense that I’ve tried out a lot of different things. Music was a very conscious choice. When I have those moments, I think back to the last twelve jobs I had before music and think, “It’s okay, I’ll survive.”
Are you able to sustain a romantic relationship when you tour that extensively?
I’ve tried and failed more than I’ve tried and succeeded. It’s definitely hard. You kind of choose one or the other — a real life or a life of constant movement. The hardest thing about it is how time moves in these situations. In some sense time moves slower, because it feels like you live three years in the space of a year. One of my favorite quotes is, “People change and forget to tell each other.” People at home may be changing in an incompatible direction.
I imagine you’d have to really like the people you’re touring with, too.
You’d have to really like them or have no other options [laughs]. But that’s one of the first things we think about when [we ask people to join us on tour], almost more than their musical talents. It’s a tricky, unnatural situation.
Do you ever look back on your song lyrics and discover new meanings?
That’s a really good question. I almost never know where exactly something came from. Just the nature of how I write song lyrics down is very fragmentary. It’s rare that I can tell where different parts of the song came from.
Tell me about your new album. I read that it’s a concept album. What’s the concept?
Well, we set out to make one of the ten greatest albums of all time and I think it’s probably number three of all time [laughs]. It’s just about different people and places. That’s why we called it These United States. Our last album was very personal and about a near-death experience. But I feel like I got that out of me, and now I’m thinking more outside myself about all these people and places and things we were experiencing. It’s a big, raucous, carnival celebration of life.
Whoa! What was the near-death experience?
That is what What Lasts was about. I almost drowned. It had me thinking a lot about death.
How did you almost drown?
I paddled too far in a kayak that wasn’t Lake Michigan-worthy, and it filled up with water from the waves of an iron ore tanker that was far away. I swam for over an hour in very cold water to get back to shore. It ended up being more of a life-affirming thing than a death-affirming thing. The next three days I was wrapped up and shivering. My whole family was there. My poor dear mother was probably more scared about it than me in some sense. But then I had a few days to sit and write songs [about it].
Did your parents always support your pursuit of music?
Yes. My parents were always interested in music. My dad was a drummer in college, and my mom gave me my first nylon string guitar. They would be happy with whatever I did. I feel hugely lucky. That’s not something I take for granted.
Who are you listening to right now? I like to discover artists through other artists.
We get to listen to so much music, which is kind of a blessing and curse because it all comes and goes very quickly. My bandmates recently produced a great album by Rebecca Marie Miller. She sings with a band called the Mynabirds that I’ve always really loved. Our good friend Laura Burhenn sings with them, and I’ve always really loved her music and our friend Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent joins her on a song [called “Two Gods” for our new album]. Our new album was an excuse to ask people we’ve been huge fans of for a long time to help us make music of our own. Also on our new album is Cotton Jones, Deer Tick, and Backwords. I’ve also gone back and listened to some old music from our buddy Josh Read who has a band called Revival and he sang on the album. Another person in our friend camp is Adam Arcuragi, who just put out a really great album. Is that enough?
It must be living a dream to collaborate with people that you’re also huge fans of.
Yeah, that’s the only reason you do this. You don’t do it for the health insurance or the dental benefits. You do it because there’s a lot of people in the world doing inspiring stuff, and you want to do inspiring stuff with them.
When I began watching this season of The X Factor, it became immediately clear that Alex & Sierra are the ones to beat. They’re the show’s most authentic performers, avoiding all the standard network pitfalls of cheesy backup dancers and sparkly outfits in favor of stripped down songs. The two semifinalists took some time to answer all my probing questions about their journey in the competition and their future plans. Enjoy!
You have a very unique, indie style to your performances. On such a mainstream show, is it difficult to keep your identity intact?
Thank you. We look at it like this; if we perform the songs the way we want to perform them on the show, whether we get voted off for it or not, we’ll leave the show with supporters who like what we do. We came in with an idea of what we wanted to do on the show and we want to leave with as much of that idea intact as possible. Everyone we work with on the show knows we have extremely strong feelings on how we want things to do and they have been really cooperative in helping us grow, while still staying true to ourselves.
I can’t imagine working beside my significant other. I like to keep my personal and professional life private. How do you successfully manage that overlap?
We are just having a lot of fun, and when things are going so well it’s tough to get upset about things. We aren’t really consciously managing our relationship along with the show, we’re just taking things as they come and trying to enjoy all of it.
X Factor is largely predicated on the mentor aspect of the show. What have you learned from Simon Cowell since the show began?
We’ve learned that we should continue to be who we are. It seems as though people in the business like to work with strong willed people who know what they want. And that’s good for us because we really like fighting for what we believe in! We’re grateful that Simon respects our opinions and always wants to hear what we have to say.
Being on a network show almost fast-forwards your journey as artists. How are you dealing with this immediate attention in such a short period of time?
This whole thing is so much fun. When people come up to us in public it’s really exciting, when we see commercials that were on it’s a surprise. We absolutely love this experience, however I think something that has made it easier to deal with such immediate attention is the people that we are going through this with. We’ve made incredible friends with the other contestants and we’re all able to share this new experience with each other.
How tough are you on yourselves after you receive the judges feedback? Do you watch your performances back to discover things you could have done differently?
Alex: Sierra is a little bit tougher on herself than I am, but we also agreed to come on this show knowing full well that we’d get criticized. It’s a new experience to sing and then be immediately criticized after, but we’re dealing with is as well as we can.
Sierra: It was definitely tough to deal with receiving criticisms on national television, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where I know it’ll happen so as long as I’m happy with our performances I don’t take negative responses as “hate” I use them as motivation.
Both: And we do watch our performances back, we like to hear how our performances sounded on TV and we like to hear what we can improve on.
Lastly, have you thought of what you’d like your record to sound like and where you’ll go from here?
I don’t think we know what a record would sound like. I think we’re both just taking things as they come and if the prospects of a record come along then we’ll start diving into that. But as of right now we just want to get through each week!
Joe Zee is an influencer, a stylist, a leader, a pop-culture enthusiast, and simply — a man who loves fashion. As the current Editor-in-Chief and Executive Creative Officer of Yahoo Fashion and former Creative Director for Elle Magazine, he doesn’t just follow trends, he predicts them. Most of his accomplishments are admirably the result of sheer ambition and tenacity; Zee landed his first post-graduation gig simply by declaring his desire to work for the legendary Polly Mellen. He later left Allure to work as a fashion editor for W Magazine at a time when the page turner was ready to push boundaries. Then in 2007, Elle came calling. Zee joined as Creative Director, contributing his keen eye to each fashion shoot and stretching the brand far beyond any pre-conceived parameters. After nearly a decade in his post, Zee exited Elle for Yahoo in a bold choice that, true to form, is more predictive than reactionary. He knows where fashion is going, and he’s fearlessly embraced the digital trend. Yahoo will become his personal playground, and his leadership will provide plenty of original opportunities for creative content. Zee graciously answered all of my questions about his new venture.
I have worked in print my entire career but in a way, you can almost say that it has prepped me for my digital life. I look at everything to be news. Even going to a fashion show isn’t just about seeing what’s on the runway anymore, but everything around you. How are show goers dressed? What is the trend amongst them? What are they talking about? What’s in the zeitgeist right now that transcends – the obvious. Even sitting next to someone at random during a dinner will lead to a conversation that will lead to a story. Ever since the launch of social media, I’ve always embraced it because I love that real-time conversation. I love the opportunity to react in a very quick and immediate way.
Do you find that a digital medium makes it easier to keep up with changing trends?
The digital medium absolutely allows for a quicker adaptation to changing trends. Here’s an opportunity for us to discuss those trends while it’s happening and in some case, even moments BEFORE it’s going to happen. I get a high from being able to have those immediate exchanges and analysis.
You’re well-known both behind the lens and in front of it, with columns like “A to Zee” and your own video series. Did you always want to be the face of the brands you worked on?
I don’t know if that was ever a mandate. I’ve never worked anywhere where I said, I need to be the face of this brand. In most cases, if that happened, it did so organically but of course, the Joe Zee Brand is very personal to me for obvious reasons so yes, I am conscious of that but in terms of everything else I do, I just did it with so much love and passion, so I think that’s what really comes through. If I didn’t love what I was doing, you would know. But I am always thinking: Who would be the person to represent my POV when it comes to the stories I want to tell? If it’s me, ok and if it’s not, that’s ok too. I just want to tell the best story possible.
The older I get, the more resistant I become to change. Was it scary to take the leap from Elle Magazine to this new venture with Yahoo? What motivated the decision?
As I get older I think I worry a little less about change. When I was younger, I think I was much more concerned with change and perception but as I get older, I love trying and tapping into arenas. The world has changed so much and allowed every one of us to be able to embrace not just change, but incredible new opportunities. I think in my parent’s generation, everyone was expected to have one job at the same company their entire lives. Then the next generation, it was several different companies. Now the new generation is all about having multiple jobs simultaneously. That’s what we’ve encouraged, and it’s very refreshing. If we didn’t embrace change, that would be a tough theory to follow. But in terms of your question, I think my biggest motivation was two-fold: o speak to a much larger audience on a global level and to tackle a new challenge in a new form of media.
Magazine covers usually appear effortless. Can you give me a behind-the-scenes secret we’d be surprised to learn about the process of preparation?
Ha! I think “effortless” is probably the last word anyone on my team would ever say about a cover, including all the digital covers we are producing here at Yahoo Style, but the fact that you read it as that means we’ve done our job well. The cover is our ad, the chance for the editorial side to grab your attention and sell the magazine. Every nuance of what is seen is discussed, prodded, dissected and put back together from who the cover star should be to fighting for that person to editing the right clothes to getting the right picture. As my first mentor, the legendary fashion editor, Polly Mellen, told me, the cover needs to immediately read “Buy Me.” And in our case now, it would need to read “Click Me.” But I think the most surprising thing about a cover is despite its always being from the waist up, we stylists always show up to the shoot with no less than 100 pairs of shoes!
Fashion is largely about predicting future styles and trends. Where do you see fashion heading in the next five years?
Wearable technology seems to be the phrase of the day but nothing has really stuck with the marketplace or consumers yet. Let’s see how the Apple Watch does, because that will be the real game-changer if it’s a flyaway hit. I think innovation will definitely be a part of what the future holds for fashion but it’s just defining what that is, and it isn’t necessarily jackets with solar heating. Though as much as innovation will be big, a true return to real classics and investment pieces will also be big. We just did a Nightline segment about buying less but better. We were saying, “Less is more (Money).”
Has the return of any particular fashion trends surprised you?
Honestly I am surprised (but not really) about this sudden admiration of the Birkenstock. I remember when Marc Jacobs did grunge: we Birks were such a thing back then. There wasn’t a single photo shoot I did in the early 90’s that we didn’t call in a pair of Birks. But of course, today’s are fur lined or platform or colored. The cycle of fashion ultimately is predictable, but it’s still surprising.
I know you have worked in fashion for a large part of your life. Can you recall your first big fashion purchase?
I was 12 years old and had just started going to a new school for seventh grade, and all the cool kids at school had Jordache jeans on. I remember going to the mall in Toronto and looking them up and realizing they were $40! (That’s a lot of money to a non-working 12 year old!). I saved up my allowance money for two months and finally splurged on that pair of designer jeans. I wore them so proudly when I got them, I must have had them on every single day. I knew the kids were all envious, looking at the pocket design on the back. Only in hindsight did I ever realize I bought women’s jeans, but I didn’t care. Those jeans screamed, “This guy knows fashion.”
It’s been argued that the critique of fashion on pop-culture television shows has indirectly impacted the red carpet. Do you think that armchair commentary has made designers and actresses take less risk?
I have been on the red carpet numerous times as a correspondent, and it can be such a fun and exhilarating experience, especially being able to see the dresses in real life. I don’t think it’s the armchair critique that made the designers less risky. I think actresses are more hesitant because of the digital era we live in. Previously, if you were on the worst-dressed list in the newspaper the next day, it was horrifying. But it was also old news 24 hours later when that moment is in the recycling bin. Today, that worst-dressed picture lives forever. That one moment you choose to take a “risk” will come back to haunt you every single time the media needs to refer back to something they didn’t like. So I don’t blame the actresses at all. I really think it’s we,the media that has made the red carpet risk-taking a lot less visible. If we all weren’t so quick to pan, we just might have a few more homemade gowns coming our way.
|Photo By: Michael Rozman|
When I saw the first trailer for ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon,’ I thought, “I wonder if that guy in the space-suit is hot?” Then I landed an interview with him and as it turns out — he is hot. There are days when being a blogger really pays off. Actually, I prefer to call myself an “online journalist,” but that’s neither here nor there. The hot guy in question is Don Jeanes, and he plays Neil Armstrong in one of the biggest blockbuster films in history. Jeanes grew up on a ranch in Texas, and he later moved to New York to pursue acting. After a few years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles, where, needless to say, he’s doing quite well for himself. Read my interview with the yummy actor below.
I think every kid fantasizes about being an astronaut. What was it like wearing the space suit?
It was really cool. Our costumes were inspired by the designs of actual NASA space suits. I couldn’t help but feel a little heroic just trying it on at the fitting. I will say though that once you put on the glass helmet it gets a little claustrophobic.
The 1984 animated Transformers film was Orson Wells’ last movie. Were you intimidated by the history of the Transformers franchise?
Yes and no. As an actor I was intimidated to play one of America’s most beloved heroes in front of such a large audience but not of the Transformers franchise; in that aspect it was an honor.
As a kid, I loved the transformers cartoon and used to watch it every morning before school. I went to see both ‘Transformers’ and ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ in the theater. I remember sitting there after ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ envisioning myself being a part of such an action thriller film.
Shia Labeouf has described Michael Bay as having an “aggressive personality.” What was your experience working with him?
From my personal experiences on set, I would say that Mr. Bay is straightforward when he is directing. I found him to be as personable as a man can be considering the millions of dollars invested in the film while orchestrating hundreds of people on set everyday. I was intrigued by his hands-on approach for each scene and his interactions with all of the actors and crew members. It was great knowing that I could have an open line of communication.
You’re starring in the Los Angeles play, ‘Jesus Hopped the “A” Train,’ this summer. I know your career began in New York. Do you favor theater or film?
That’s a hard question to answer. I really enjoy working in both mediums because they allow me to work as an actor and perform in different ways. A linear performance in front of a live audience on stage is what I love. On the other hand, I also love film because it reaches a broader audience in which I can impact more people.
I read in an interview that your cousin is a rodeo clown. For some reason I think his career might be just as entertaining as a Hollywood film. Any chance you might have stayed in Texas and gone that route?
(Laughs) Yes, there’s a slight chance that would have happened. I started riding bulls when I was fifteen with my older brother. We had only been riding for a short while when he broke his collarbone. I must admit, as a young kid, that scared me a little given that I could no longer get to the rodeos because I couldn’t even drive yet. I think if that accident hadn’t happen I might still be “Spurrin and Pickin Apples” in Texas today.
Tell the truth. Do you have a Megatron figurine from your childhood that you fight in your spare time?
(Laughs) No, but I do have a “Sonar” figurine that was given to me for my last birthday.
Did you get to steal anything from the set?
(Laughs) Does a pair of socks count? I drove my motorcycle to the set every day and one morning it was raining. My feet ended up being soaked. I ended up getting a pair from the costume department and they have been a memento ever since!