An Unpopular Opinion: I’m a Vegetarian, But I Don’t Think Everyone Should Be

Culture, Press, Random

Why am I a vegetarian? Don’t I want everyone to be a vegetarian?

Well, I’ll tell you. And no. Hear me out.

I already started off not being a fan of steak or pork. As a kid, I could only eat steak if it were near burnt and doused in ketchup. My family never made pork and, that’s right, I didn’t really like bacon. Ok. You may now judge me.

Even when my parents made beef it seemed very different to me than what was served outside of our house. Of course!

One of my friends had been a vegetarian since we were very little kids. I kept saying I was going to go vegetarian, because I didn’t really care too much for eating meat and didn’t enjoy the thought of eating someone’s flesh, but that was that. I wasn’t about to demand my family make a separate dinner for me in the hectic years of high school. Who would have time for that?

Then, one day, I was at a Wendy’s with my friend. I know, possibly not the best standard of meat, but it was the only thing open later at night within 45 minutes of where we lived, other than a Barnes and Noble. My friend joked, “If you look at it, you can’t eat it.”

And I looked at it. And I never ate it again.

That left chicken. For some reason, grilled chicken had started to gross me out. One day, before an audition, I tried to eat my leftover grilled chicken for lunch. I’m not sure if it was the texture, the thought of it, the nerves for my audition, but I ran out of the cafeteria, gagging on the meat, promptly hurling it out. Lovely. End scene on grilled chicken.

At this point it was just fried chicken, and I figured if I liked it just because it was fried, then what was the point?

I went to college as a pescetarian (someone who only eats fish outside of a vegetarian diet).

Somewhere between then and graduating college, I just went full vegetarian. A few years ago I went vegan, then weekday vegan, and then back to vegetarian.

Yes, the more I learned about factory farming, the less I wanted to eat animals, but that wasn’t the crux of my decision. I don’t really enjoy eating meat, the texture is gross to me, the thought of biting into skin and flesh that used to be part of a living animal is also gross to me, and the smell is something I also find unpleasant. Sure, learning of animals packed full of antibiotics and sitting in their own feces, chicken meat that has to have chicken flavor added to it because the chickens were so sickly they taste awful, or animals being mutilated while still alive definitely DOES bother me. It’s insanely disturbing. It’s grotesque. Reading some of the counts from people who work at these places, or seeing video, makes me wonder how detached you have to be from what you’re doing in order to cause something to suffer like that. I don’t wear leather because it also doesn’t sit well with me to have some animal’s skin on me, but I see why some people do. But don’t get me started on wearing fur. That does make me angry. Sorry/not sorry.

Papa gorilla looks at us with skepticism. I don't blame him. ©Farah Joan Fard

Papa gorilla looks at us with skepticism. I don’t blame him.
©Farah Joan Fard

But here’s the thing: I grew up in a farm town. We got hay from a farm that had cows. One of the cows was named Annie. She was adorable, and we would often pet her when going to get corn, hay, etc. I’m pretty sure Annie ended up as the family’s dinner. But they also milked her, fed her, treated her with kindness.

One of the earliest field trips I can remember was going to milk a cow at the farm and then making butter out of it.

I know you might be thinking something like this:

But I swear that’s not it. However, I know a good deal of people who have worked around cows, and I don’t see the harm in milking a cow the natural way. The assembly lines of cows being milked by factory machines is creepy and unnerving, though.

Some chicken friends back in NH. ©Farah Joan Fard

Some chicken friends back in NH.
©Farah Joan Fard

Ok, ok. So we’ve got the vegetarian part. And, honestly, aren’t you used to people who are on a specific diet kind of looking down on others who aren’t on that diet? But there are three main reasons why I’m not about to hit everyone in the head with Eating Animals (good book; very disturbing).

I’m not a doctor.

Health conditions.

“Processed” food.

I’m not a doctor.

Well, hey, you don’t say! But really. Though I read a lot about health and nutrition (for a while I wanted to be a medical reporter), listen to NPR daily, read all of the labels on what I buy, yada yada yada…I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or, basically, anywhere near educated enough or, hopefully, arrogant enough to think I should tell other people how they should be living their life in the kitchen. Outside of the pretty obvious statements, such as ‘sugar/fast food/boxed foods/soda/cigarettes/not exercising/you get the idea’ is not healthy, I’m not about to turn my nose up at others like that. It drives me nuts to see some of the ‘fitness and health experts’ out there who are just self proclaimed health geniuses. There have been many instances where I’ve looked up an individual who is the namesake to a fitness or diet trend, only to find that this person, while getting rich off of telling others that what was good for their body is good for everyone else’s, doesn’t have much of a background to back that fact up.

Man, you sound smart when you back that fact up!

Some diets are trendy because they’re just that…trends. Fads.

A marvelous piece of dietary advice I found within an old LIFE magazine.

A marvelous piece of dietary advice I found within an old LIFE magazine.

And…newsflash! Every one of our bodies is different!

This leads me to…

Health conditions.

I remember hearing of people who were really annoyed when Zooey Deschanel declared she was no longer a vegan for health reasons. I’d seen her at a concert shortly after this and remember being startled by how frail she looked. Deschanel is allergic to eggs, dairy, and gluten, and stated that she could not stay healthy on a vegan diet with these health problems.

There’s no reward in suffering. Honestly.

A few years ago I was tested for a nickel allergy, where I would have had to adhere to a nickel free diet. As a precaution, the doctor gave me a list of what I could not eat. YOWZA. Goodbye beans, peas, chocolate, dried fruits, pears, asparagus, cabbage, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, nuts, grains, and even tea. It would have made a vegetarian diet very difficult. Luckily, the severity of my nickel allergy does not make its way to food.

Someone I know who cannot eat gluten recently posted this, and I couldn’t agree more. Some of these diets are for medical reasons, and using at as a way to be trendy can be infuriating to some. My freshman year roommate had celiac disease and it was not fun, or hip, and I am betting she would have wished not to have to go through that. Her diet was very limited. One day she ordered a salad with no croutons and yet a few crumbs of bread may have found there way in there. She was sick. Celiac disease damages the lining of the small intestine. It’s not a fad to lose weight.

I also have friends and family who can’t eat too many carbs for reasons like Lyme disease, or because of intestinal issues that have landed them on the FODMAP diet. Being a vegetarian on that diet would also be very tough.

Everyone’s body is different. Some of us absorb things differently, or our bodies reject them. That doesn’t mean we should all eat the same way. And if following a certain diet is going to make you miserable, because you already have  dietary restriction, wouldn’t it be better to be healthy?

Speaking of healthy…

“Processed” foods.

I use quotations because sometimes I feel the word ‘processed’ is thrown around the way the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ are.

It’s like when people seem to think everything is healthy if it comes from Whole Foods. Cake, candy, soda? It’s ok! It’s from Whole Foods!

So? Candy doesn’t grow off of trees, does it? If it does, please don’t tell me where because I will want to go to there.

I didn’t find it that difficult to eat vegan. Baking was actually pretty easy without animal products. I found hummus or avocados to be great substitutes for cheese or buttery cravings, though making pizza was disappointing. Vegan ice cream is actually quite tasty. Chia seed pudding is delicious, in my opinion. And I don’t like drinking milk, anyway, so woopdy doo. I started to find that I didn’t crave cheese so much, or eggs, except nothing can ever replace The Gouda.

But while I made a lot of vegan stuff at home to take with me, such as breakfast foods or baked goods for parties, I was constantly reading labels. Even more than I used to! And I wasn’t too fond of what I saw.

Some of the best tasting vegan cookies I have ever had? Read the label. Oof. The amount of fat, oil, calories, you name it was outstanding. A lot of vegan products tried to make up for animal fat by loading it up with other junk. And I was consciously avoiding soy products, too.

Try to find me one vegan butter substitute (outside of peanut butter, avocado, or pumpkin, etc) that does not have palm oil or cottonseed oil in it. I couldn’t.

When I was a kid, I didn’t understand some of the things my mom bought. I always felt slightly jealous of the kids who had Pop Tarts or the fancy juices, the cool cereals, or the Lunchables. Everything seemed much more plain on my side sometimes. But every time I went to a party and piled on the junk food, I’d come home feeling like I had the flu. I wish I had appreciated it then. I certainly do now! Thanks, mom, for the healthy food! And I still love brussels sprouts!

Point being, I guess I feel like if I have to choose between something that is vegan or gluten free, and something that is more to its true form, less processed, or made from scratch…I’d rather go with the less processed item.

I still try to buy cheese that is made without animal rennet, but its not always labeled. We try to buy the most animal friendly eggs we can find, or buy them from a local farmer. I admit I try to avoid foods with gelatin. I also see other vegans trying to hard to minimize animal suffering by restricting sugars that could be burned and processed with animal bone. But if the goal is to cut out anything that harmed an animal, you may end up on a strict diet similar to Jainism. Which is fine if that is what’s for you. My question is, what is really worse for the environment and animals? Eating eggs from the farm up the road, or using a butter replacement full of palm oil (read up on palm oil if you haven’t) and other ingredients that may also plug up your cardiovascular system? Eating locally sourced goat cheese on our homemade bread, or buying a vegan and gluten free food that is riddled with refined sugar?

Sign outside of lovely Lull Farm. ©Farah Joan Fard

Sign outside of lovely Lull Farm.
©Farah Joan Fard

And that’s that.

What about you? Do you follow a specific diet? Did you do it to follow a trend or for health reasons? Are you unable to go on a trendy diet due to health restrictions? Does it bug you when people follow a diet that you have to follow due to allergy or other medical concerns?

Let me hear it!

 

 

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What Do You Learn From a Month of Madness? An Interview With Susannah Cahalan

Culture, Random

I had heard of the memoir, Brain on Fire, for a while and was very intrigued. I find medical stories to be very interesting, and was reading a good deal of books that hovered around the medical and mental health topics over this past summer.

Once I started reading Brain on Fire, I couldn’t put it down. Compelling, frightening, and at times almost unbelievable, Susannah Cahalan’s story gripped me. The voice in her writing was so particular, I found myself gasping or cringing while reading it on the bus.

Cahalan is a journalist, which one can clearly see when reading her memoir. Her detail and attention to documentation, as if she weren’t writing about herself at times, is candid and honest. This is one point that struck me about her story. She didn’t hide moments in this journey that were embarrassing. As her brain seemingly begins to betray her, she recalls this crescendo of madness through every turn and hurdle.

This, and the eventual diagnosis, left me astounded. Not only was I craving more information on her condition, antiNMDAreceptor autoimmune encephalitis, I wanted to raise awareness about it to others. Story upon story filled my computer monitor as I researched the condition, and I learned about others who had been long misdiagnosed. During Cahalan’s struggle, a doctor named Souhel Najjar unraveled the mystery by having her draw a simple sketch, but it may have saved her life. Other stories can be found here on Cahalan‘s site.

Once again, I am so happy to have the opportunity to speak to and learn from someone so inspiring, and with such an amazing story. Susannah Cahalan agreed to speak to me via phone for an interview, and you can read the full story here on Blast Bombshell.

For more information on Susannah Cahalan’s story, visit http://www.susannahcahalan.com. For resources, check out https://aealliance.org/ and http://www.encephalitis.info/

Scoring Requiem, Black Swan, and Moon: An Interview With Clint Mansell (Part 2)

Press

“If you’re going to have a lot of music in a film, it’s got to really work, it can’t just be wallpaper, you know? It’s got to be a character in there.”

This interview is a continuation of part one from November 26, 2013.

Film music was always a sort of gateway to daydreaming and more when I was a kid. The intro to Rescuers Down Under was such a thrill, I thought, that my dad recorded it onto tape cassette when we couldn’t find the soundtrack. It still makes me smile. The percussion!

Whereas Hans Zimmer’s score to The Lion King correlated directly to the first loss I experienced: my grandpa, Frank. The music is still very difficult for me to listen to.

As for the blog, I passed my other milestones and then, near enough to Halloween, reached out to a composer, Katherine Quittner, who had worked on some films that were monumental to my childhood. I felt a few steps closer to my blog goal, but had no inkling that this would be a bridge. Temp score was something I had never explored before. It was something I had never heard much about in college, or after. I found the discussion with Katherine to be very interesting, especially based on studies I had done years before on switching out scores from films to see how it impacted the audience’s interpreted narration of the scenes they were watching. I’ve always felt that the music in a film is crucial to the story, mood, characters, and more.

I’d interacted with Golden Globe and Grammy nominated composer, Clint Mansell, a few times via Twitter and, being that he is one of my favorite composers, always enjoy his perspective. He responded to the temp score piece I did, and I wanted to clear up any opinions. I also wanted to put some more questions out there, and learn about his process.

Mansell was kind enough to schedule a phone call with me, and here we approach part two in this interview. Catch up from part one here.

Speaking of Requiem for a Dream, the main theme has been used for many pieces of content now. It is a great piece–what was your inspiration for it? When I first heard it, I started going through a lot of old requiem pieces, because I thought it sounded so much like something else I’d heard…but I hadn’t.

Well, you know…there you go. That’s a perfect example of me…basically playing it on the piano to begin with. But I can’t really play the piano. So, you know, I probably only do two or three note chords. And then, I just…whenever I noodle around with it, I’m just looking for something that resonates with me. And I often like things that can, you know, you can have a drone underneath that holds the note, the tonic […] I constantly look for something that resonates with me. And, obviously, that probably depends on what mood I’m in, or what film I’m working on, or whatever. But, to me, that’s it really. It’s about trying, and playing, and hitting some notes. And finding things that clash together in a certain way that makes you feel something. And then building on that. And I suppose it depends on what I’m looking for, what mood I’m in, as to what comes up.

Mansell explains how director Darren Aronofsky wanted a specific pace for the film’s musical ambiance.

At the time, Darren wanted stuff in Requiem to have a sort of hop-hop pace to it, a hip hop feel. So, you know, I was ranging around the 100 BPM thing, but then, if you dropped it to around 85…you get that sort like, slightly of melancholy feel to it, sort of a downbeat. That was probably about the only real prerequisite for it. The rest of it was just playing around until I found something I liked.

As we move on to the next question, he interjects with a laugh. 

I know that sounds really boring, but that’s pretty much the truth!

Oh, no! And how old were you when you started composing for film? Was it for Pi?

Yeah. Um, about 35? Something like that.

Ok.

But you know…I’d never even written that many songs at that point. I’d written the songs in my band, but suddenly I have to write, you know, 60 minutes of music. I just didn’t see how I could even possibly do it, but, you know, you never know. You get in there and you start swimming, as they say.

So, we already mentioned that you work a lot with Darren Aronofsky and, you know, if I Google your name, it shows on Google , ‘you may also want to look up Darren Aronofsky’…

Right.

It’s presented as hand in hand. And I think it’s great when directors and composers team up, and that’s part of the reason why I question the auteur theory. Not to sound like a total nerd, but people often say that the director is the auteur, and I thought if he or she uses the same composer…then a good example of being an auteur is being a composer, too.

Beat. Laughter.

So, what do you think about that?

Well, I’m from England. We don’t respond well to hierarchy.

But the business being as it is, everybody’s sort of like, it’s not like , “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir”. I can’t afford to be part of that because I can’t sort of be in awe of the director if you like, or not be able to be myself. Because that’s of no use to him because you’ve got to be honest and say what your opinion is and express yourself honestly through the music for the film, you know?

I mean, that’s how I feel. I don’t know. I mean, sometimes you get the impression that the composer’s job is to be a people pleaser, and…’ok, you want a bit of reggae now–here you go! You want a bit of jazz, a bit of light jazz, here you go!’…whereas I don’t see it like that at all. I’m coming to bring something to the equation. Like I say, the music is as vital as the lead role, the lead actors.

Obviously, I’m a musician, so I probably care about it abnormally more than most people who see a movie do. But that’s the way it is, that’s how I feel, that’s what I want to do, you know? That’s why I sort of don’t like temp, because it can really sort of close off possibilities. You never know what the film might respond to.

I don’t know who made this quote, but every time you do the obvious, you miss an opportunity to learn something. Because if you take a gamble…I mean, that’s what I say when I start a film. Your options are as wide as the ocean. But you write a few pieces and put it on the film and it instantly narrows it down what your options are, because you get a sense of what it doesn’t want. You can see things that will not work with this film, whether it’s the pacing or the instrumentation. Once you start doing a few things to the film, you start limiting opportunities. If you listen, and watch what it does when you play music…the film itself will pretty much guide you where you need to go…

Basically what had bothered me about the auteur theory was that I felt that a composer has just as much authorization to what’s going on in the film and impacting the direction of the film.

Well, you know, I mean, obviously it depends on the film. You look at, say, the impact that the music in Jaws has on the film. They say that Spielberg wanted to have more of the shark in the movie, but circumstances didn’t allow it. But, actually, it worked better now. And that’s not being an auteur, that’s benefiting from being there and working hard and trying stuff. But that’s just a random thing, and that’s what I love about movie making…those random things. Those moments of transcendence, that’s what we’re all looking for.  And some of those things are planned out, but–but they are orchestrated, or they are made to happen by the process itself. It like sort of being an alchemist, you know? Creating something out of nothing.

The thing about my and Darren’s relationship, is that the music or the film kind of make room for one another. I mean, Darren’s films have always made room for music, he’s always wanted a lot of music in there. If you’re going to have a lot of music in a film, it’s got to really work, it can’t just be wallpaper, you know? It’s got to be a character in there.

This is another one of my pet peeves…it’s like, to do that takes a long time. And it takes a lot of understanding on all sides–the director, the studio, the composer. To find those threads and fine tune them and make them sing and dance so that every theme works with every lead line, and every progression works with every melody.

Not in a way that makes it boring, but in a way that leads you and tells the story. Enhances the story.

But so often now a composer will do six weeks work and bang it out, do another one and bang it out…I don’t understand why people don’t want to put the time in to do something well. I mean, I’ve been on Noah a year. And that’s what it takes, you know? That’s what it takes. And I get irritated when I see people taking shortcuts. And that’s sort of works for Darren and I. And I love that. Every film I’ve done with him has been a challenge to find that score.

Was it more of a challenge, or did it help your flow, to be working with Tchaikovsky’s music [for Black Swan]? Or did you initially know that you somehow wanted to interpret that theme? Well, obviously, because of Swan Lake.

Yeah, I mean, from the moment I read it. I had been to see Swan Lake a few years before.

And I had never been to the ballet before, and it blew my mind. I thought it was brililant. And I thought, ‘I would love to do something like that someday’, but I sort of meant in the live arena, with music, to some performance.

But then Darren came to me with this idea of Black Swan and I said, from the start, the score’s got to be built out of Swan Lake, because this girl is driving herself crazy, wanting this role. She’ll be rehearsing to it every day, she’ll be hearing the music every day, that’s all that will be going on in her head would be Swan Lake, all of the time. And then we can start to f— with it. Obviously, Tchaikovsky writes very, very different than me. But what I did was go into the score of Swan Lake, and I started finding patterns or four bar pieces, that if I just played them, or if I stripped down one of his phrases and use the progression without the melody…I could start building these new arrangements, but using his building blocks, his DNA. So, the music really would be of Tchaikovsky, but rearranged, or remixed, by me.

Mansell then describes the recording process for the film. 

Classical musicians, they probably know Swan Lake back to front. And that music is written for those instruments. I’ll write orchestral parts, but I’m not classically trained, so I probably do things that, while interesting, is not really what the instrument is designed to do. Whereas Tchaikovsky wrote for those instruments. So when you heard that music played, it’s bigger and bolder than what we do now. But on top of that we have slightly newer arrangements now, so it sort of melted into something sort of different. I thought it was really cool.

Black-Swan-BTS-1

I recently saw Moon, maybe a few months ago finally, and I really enjoyed how some of the scenes, where the music started to feel heavy and sad, then it would pick up with that percussion…I interpreted it as a good representation of Sam’s thoughts and optimism. Is that what you were going for?

My favorite sort of films to score really are those lone protagonist, and getting into his mind, or her mind…Black Swan is sort of like it, Pi is definitely like it, and Moon is definitely like it. Music, for me, just takes me on a journey. So, when I see scenes like, Sam is trying to phone home or he is looking back to Earth, and he is coming to the understanding with what he is. I’m just trying to write a piece of music that says that…but also allows the audience into it…not so they feel it, too, but so they empathize with him. And what doesn’t overwhelm the performance or the film, and doesn’t sound cheesy, I hope. Again, it’s hard work. And that’s the commitment.

Did you ever consider, since you were in a band before you were composing, another career path in anything other than music?

No, because I really had no other options. I was just hanging on, hoping something would work out. I mean, at some point, I would have had to. I was fortunate when I met Darren. I was getting by. I think I left the band in ‘96, and we started doing Pi in ‘97, I think? Yeah. And I worked on it through ‘97. And then I got to do Requiem, so things started picking up. It was something I was definitely having to face up to, but it really wasn’t enjoying the thought of it, so I was very lucky that I never would have to go there.

How did you meet Darren and get started on Pi?

My then girlfriend knew Darren’s writing and producing partner, and they worked in PR and stuff together.

The friends heard they were getting the script together, as well as some music, so Mansell’s girlfriend suggested him as a musician. As Darren chatted with him, they shared ideas, artwork, influences.

I wrote a piece of music based on the script and based on the things we talked about. Everybody really loved it. It was sort of a really nice galvanizing thing.

He and Darren continue that approach even today, and have worked together countless times since then.

I like to start with a bunch of ideas even before I’ve seen any footage…just to see where it goes. I just want to hear more voices, and see people take a chance. Excite us, you know?

 

The Current State of Film Score: An Interview With Clint Mansell (Part 1)

careers, Culture, Interview, Music Business, Performance

Most blog projects start with a specific path in mind, along with an end goal.

When I changed the focus of my blog, the mission was this: interview one of my favorite film composers. Among these are Eric Serra, Clint Mansell, and Maurice Jarre (RIP).

Film music was always a sort of gateway to daydreaming and more when I was a kid. The intro to Rescuers Down Under was such a thrill, I thought, that my dad recorded it onto tape cassette when we couldn’t find the soundtrack. It still makes me smile. The percussion!

Whereas Hans Zimmer’s score to The Lion King correlated directly to the first loss I experienced: my grandpa, Frank. The music is still very difficult for me to listen to.

As for the blog, I passed my other milestones and then, near enough to Halloween, reached out to a composer, Katherine Quittner, who had worked on some films that were monumental to my childhood. I felt a few steps closer to my blog goal, but had no inkling that this would be a bridge. Temp score was something I had never explored before. It was something I had never heard much about in college, or after. I found the discussion with Katherine to be very interesting, especially based on studies I had done years before on switching out scores from films to see how it impacted the audience’s interpreted narration of the scenes they were watching. I’ve always felt that the music in a film is crucial to the story, mood, characters, and more.

I’d interacted with Golden Globe and Grammy nominated composer, Clint Mansell, a few times via Twitter and, being that he is one of my favorite composers, always enjoy his perspective. He responded to the temp score piece I did, and I wanted to clear up any opinions. I also wanted to put some more questions out there, and learn about his process.

Mansell was kind enough to schedule a phone call with me, and here we approach part one of this hurdle in the LaParadiddle music career blog.

Part one? Yes. Because I want to be thorough. And with topics like working with Darren Aronofsky, classical training, the current state of the film industry, sound design, Requiem for a Dream, and more…I thought breaking this into two parts would be best. Enjoy! Questions and comments are welcome…after all, I sure had a lot.

You mentioned that you hate ‘filmmaking by committee’. That being said, what is the standard process when you are to score a film? For example, when you did The Wrestler or Black Swan? What is the start to finish process?

Well, before I answer that, let me just say that you know I don’t have any problem with music editors or whatever, that really wasn’t my gripe from the piece (my previous composer interview). It’s really just a case of now, the way movies are made, and a lot of things are…essentially lazy. But, you know, they are quick shortcuts to getting a result. But when you cut corners like that you get a sort of cheap fix of movie-going.

[It’s a ] quick fix that is commonplace in movie making these days, and mostly in the music department, because the music is the last thing to be finished. Usually the budget has been eaten up elsewhere and there are some compromises that are enforced on the music.

Why music?

One: laziness, and another…a lack of understanding, a lack of respect for what the music actually has. I think people think that music is music and that just anything will do, you know, and we know that is really not true…but for me the music in the film is as important as the casting of the leads. You know, it’s a vital character in the process.

And so the objection to temp score is…or do you have an objection to it?

I understand why people do it, but my problem with it is that it just becomes a [cycle], perpetuating the same ideas all of the time. You know, certain scores become temp friendly and people temping them all over town with those same scores, and what it does, it places a burden on the film before anyone’s even had a chance to explore the possibilities of what the score for that film could be.

When you start putting on a temp, you just close off so many avenues, and people fall in love with something that they can’t have.  You know, it doesn’t bare any relevance to the film they’re making , it’s just real artifice and people just wanting something before it’s actually ready.

For instance, I work on films that are temped, of course I do, you know. Do I listen to them? Initially, when I maybe just watch a film, to see what it’s all about. But after that, very little. Because I don’t want to be constrained by what somebody else’s idea of what the movie means is, you know? I want that to be my job. Now, all films are different, and, you know, if you’re working on…Fast and the Furious 19, the requirements for that film are probably very different from 12 Years a Slave. So, there are all different ways of approaching those. But, my real beef with it is, is the temping process because…

He trails off, and then brings it in focus to projects he was worked on.

Let’s take a Darren Aronofsky film. We don’t temp. He doesn’t temp his films with anything but my music.

Now what that does is, it just leaves the slate wide open. The board is completely clean, you’ve got no preconceptions coming from music that really has no relevance to your film, you know.

Photo from Darren Aronofsky's Twitter, Aronofsky and Mansell working n the score for the upcoming film, Noah.

Photo from Darren Aronofsky’s Twitter. Aronofsky and Mansell working on the score for the upcoming film, Noah.

I write from the script for Darren’s films, and I write from the rough assembly of stuff. And then by the time he’s getting to a place where the film is becoming something that is bit more than an assembly site, he starts using the bits that I’ve been playing with, just almost anywhere in the film to see what they say, what they speak to, and what comes to life from these different ideas, you know. That way, it stops limiting you before you have a full idea of what the film needs.

But when people temp,  I guess they temp with the same scores, because they’re good temp scores. They really work under a number of things. Then that starts dictating–for some people, that will dictate how that score’s going to be. You end up with this same voice going around all of the time. People imitating temps, people perpetuating that temp, using it again. So, you get all these different versions of, essentially, the same piece of music.

Film and music, to me, are things that are meant to educate and challenge, and sort of ask questions while also entertaining. And the modern movie making process has turned everything into a homogenized, industrialized farming technique…plomp, plomp, plomp! All the same.

I do know that music editors have put together great temp scores […] but also while working with the composers material and re-editing it to the film, if you like.

Mansell then refers to my previous post, and film scores he enjoys where the music editor has had a hefty role in the creation of the score.

That’s fantastic work. It works great in the film. I just want to hear more voices.

Mansell states that there is a worrying trend. There seems to be a current idea of making movies by committee, giving the people what they want…but do people really know what they want, if we stick to such a formula? If we don’t explore?

Every once in a while a film will come out of the blue…like say something like Black Swan, and people will go see it…for reasons people can’t define, if you like. Like, “the numbers never said this would happen”,  or this sort of stuff. But people are excited by stuff they’ve not seen before. And that’s what I want every film to be doing.

Honestly, I had never heard of temp score before, until I started to dig into it. It was strange to me.  I was surprised. It must be such a challenge for the temp score composer and other, credited composer. I’ve also noted the trend of film scores starting to sound alike. (Maybe you’ve read the recent articles sprouting up over the Inception score?)

Well, I think, you know…again, it’s a product of not having enough voices out there.

Mansell then refers to JJ Abrahms and his involvement with Star Trek and Star Wars.

Nothing against him. That’s great for him!

However…?

You get the same thing coming at you all the time from this one camp.

He delivers what people want from him, so that’s why they go back to that well, if you like. That’s not Abrams’s or (Zimmer’s) fault. They’re doing a good job.

I want to be challenged, I want to be prodded, but as well as entertained. And it worries me that people sort of seem okay with it. That’s my biggest problem, you know. I grew up in an era…early teens, if you like, in the seventies, watching films like The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Walkabout, you know. Films that were probably a bit too old for me, but they were challenging me…teaching me how to think and question things. And every generation feels that the generation coming behind them is really dropping the ball, you know, but the statistics seem to add up.

Also, do you work closely with sound designers? I noticed a lot of the scores you’ve done has so many interesting sounds weaved in on the soundtrack. Do you do that yourself as part of the score?

No, that’s the sound designers job. Yes, it becomes a bigger part of the process these days because so much can be done with sound. And there tends to be a lot of music in films these days, so it’s great that the soundscape can really be the cue at times. So, if you communicate with one another: “I’ve got a part for here I’d really like to focus on that, if you could sort of let me know what you’re doing with the sound, and vice versa”, they might come to me and go, “these sections, the director said, ‘ok, this I want to be more sound design than score’” Then they’d be sure to keep out of the way. It’s a team effort at the end of the day. It’s becoming more prevalent, directors are getting younger, and it’s a popular approach.

I noticed an interview I read about you, that it was mentioned that you are not classically trained, and I know you were in a band before. I know a good deal of people who have studied music at university or conservatories, but I don’t agree with this notion I have seen recently that self taught musicians, or non-classically trained musicians, don’t deserve to be in the same category. I have had a lot of trouble with this myself, but I don’t feel that someone has to be trained a certain way in order to be an artist. What do you think about this?

Well, I mean, at the end of the day, you should be judged on your ideas and the execution of those ideas. You could have all the training in the world, and know stuff inside out, and you might not have a creative mind. You might have a more technical mind. Don’t get me wrong–no, I am not classically trained.

I am completely aware and in awe, whenever I have toured with a live group of musicians. The amount of training and commitment…dedication that they have put into making sure that they are the best player they can be. They come into one of my sessions, and play my little simplistic tune and riffs, and make it sound completely f-ing awesome. And you know, amen for them doing that! Ok, so that wasn’t my chosen path. I went down the rock and roll road, if you like. And, you know, the training…I like to learn on the job.

Mansell says that he learned as he went, and the jobs got more demanding each time.

I imagine if you worked really hard, and trained, and you feel you are good at what you do, and you’ve got all the skills and all the chops…and then you see, some Johnny-come-lately (…) getting all of the jobs…

Essentially, he can understand how that would be disappointing. I certainly can, too.

At the end of the day, it comes down to opportunity, and the ideas. Because you don’t need to be classically trained to write music. It’ sanother one of these things. With music-to me-see, I don’t believe there’s a right or a wrong way of doing anything. Music’s there, like painting, as a way to express yourself. And if it sounds out of tune to somebody but you love it, then that’s up to you. So sometimes those trainings, those rules, can maybe inhibit your thinking a little bit now.

Of course, he adds, that could be a generalization.

But what I mean is, as much as something can be a benefit to you it can also be a hindrance at times. Would I like to have more skills in the sort of arrangement and just general knowledge of music? Sure I would. But the flip side of that is if I don’t know certain things, I just find my own way of doing it and I find something that’s me, if you like. And I’m sort of fortunate that people have liked my idiosyncrasies, and it’s a benefit to me, so…I can understand it, but there’s no right or wrong answers.

He does state that, honestly, nobody has ever given him a hard time. Nobody has ever had a problem with him not being classically trained or, as he says, ‘musically literate’.

The first time I ever worked with a live players was the Kronos Quartet for Requiem for a Dream, and I was almost embarrassed.

I’m surprised by this! After all, Lux Aeterna was such a critically acclaimed piece. And the music in Requiem adds so much to the emotional intensity of the film as a whole.

There were these fantastic musicians.

He explains, adding that they were all enthusiastic to be involved, and warm and friendly.

And that’s very humbling.

That’s awesome. I guess I had to teach myself a lot of stuff. I don’t know a ton of music theory. My instrument…I don’t need to play chords or anything like that. But I’ve come across some individuals recently, where it was sort of looked down upon. And I never thought of it that way before. Like painting, the output should be what counts.

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s an attitude you can find in any walk of life, really. Not specific to music.

Questions? Comments? Stay tuned for Part 2 to hear more about Lux Aeterna, the auteur theory, and Mansell’s career path.

Of course, special thank you to Mr. Mansell for his time!

UPDATE:  Part 2 is now posted here.

Keeping Classical Music Friendly

careers, Interview, Media, Performance, Press
Contrary to what some people may think, we can interview classical musicians for an inside scoop. Classical music is not dead!
I started this blog to focus on careers in music. All of the options! And you know what genre is left in a corner far too often these days? Classical.
Right? I know there are tons of you who enjoy classical, whether it be film scores, modern, or Mozart. To others…you may ask…’what exactly is classical? Why are we still talking about it? Isn’t it boring?’
Well, everyone is different, but read this first and you be the judge. If you’re ready to dismiss classical music, then it is my challenge for you to check this out. If you already dig it, prepare to meet Sally Whitwell.
Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell. Credit Rhydian Lewis.

Keeping classical music friendly. This is how you describe yourself in the first line of your ‘about’ section. Why do you think people feel it is ‘unfriendly’? How are you changing this?
I’ve talked at length about this to friends of mine who are not classical music people.   Of course this is purely anecdotal evidence and should be understood as such, but so many of the people I’ve asked simply feel that classical musicians are very far away from them.  Far away in terms of the way they have been trained to do an extraordinary thing, in terms of the kind of life they lead, often even in terms of the way they present on stage.  Essentially, it seems to me therefore that it’s all about communication.  I try to show that we classical musos can be friendly and immediate and upfront and real, too.  I play concerts as much as I can in intimate venues where I can see everyone’s face and share a beer with them afterwards.  I chat very happily directly with anyone on social media, not through an agent or manager or other minion.  When I organize a concert out of town, I directly involve some local musicians so that we’re all making music together.  Real contact.  This must be the future of classical music.
Is there a classical piece that you think people are familiar with, but not for their original use. I know that each piece can mean something different to any person, and at least it is being heard, but…for instance, Ride of the Valkyries?
Something like how the opening minutes of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss were used at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001?  The mighty expansiveness of that music, I can’t think of a better piece for that moment in the film!
I did a study on film score during my last semester of college and was very interested to find how many pieces of music are referenced in film scores. Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, Holst’s ‘Planets’, Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’–all compelling pieces on their own. Do you have any thoughts on the evolution of film music? Especially with electronic music now-Trent Reznor’s Oscar winning score for The Social Network, for example.
The use of music in film is such an enormous topic, I hardly know where to start.  There are two film soundtracks in particular that leap out at me simply because of the way the combination of music/image/narrative made me feel.  One was Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack to There Will Be Blood which had me feeling this constant uneasiness.  I wouldn’t say I identified with the greedy oil barons of the film, but I certainly felt what it was like to have a desperate greed so strong you could almost call it addiction.  The other soundtrack is Michael Nyman’s music for Jane Campion’s film The Piano.  Because the central character Ada was mute, the only way she could communicate her emotions was through the abstract form of piano music.  I can’t recall any other film in which music and characterization were so closely woven together.  Extraordinary artwork.
What was the first piece you ever wrote?
It was a setting of the Byron poem She walks in beauty like the night.  It was inspired by my beautiful partner Glennda, the light of my life.  Actually, I wrote a little story about it too, you can read it here.

Beautiful!

You say the piano chose you, but you dabbled in other instruments. When did you first play the piano?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play.  My lovely grandmother Beryl lived in the house with us and brought her giant monster of a steel framed upright into the house.  She taught me to play quite a few things, my favorites being Cockels and Mussels and The Wedding of the Painted Doll.  As soon as they realized I was interested, I got sent off to piano lessons.  It was a revelation to me!
This quote in your bio, regarding composing and performing, is so lovely: “I even help them to manifest their own imaginations in sound”. Growing up, I got lost in sound. We didn’t have cable, and I lived on 5 acres in the middle of the woods, so we couldn’t just walk to a gathering place that wasn’t a pond or something (because the pond was a gathering place!). I would sit in my room and listen to music, and that was enough a lot of the time. Music is so important for brain development and memory…could you elaborate on what you hope to accomplish with the imagination?
Everyone has a voice, but to express yourself creatively you need to feel that it’s safe to do so.  I try to create that safe space for people, whether it be a private composition lesson or a group writing session with 10 year olds (I’ve done a fair few of those).  I’ve been moving into new territory lately by workshopping composition with teens through improvisation.  It’s all still a bit of an experiment, but I was pretty pleased with the 2 minute opera that a bunch of kids and I created at the Perth International Arts festival early in 2013.  They inspired me! It was magical.
Was there a turning point for you deciding you wanted to be a professional musician?
I did always know that music would be in my life.  For a while there, I did think that ballet was going to be my future, but I realized was actually the music that drew me in to that in the first place, so music won.  Also, I like my body too much to subject it to the kind of punishment that dancing requires.  I’m not built for that.
Working in a creative field can be a constant struggle, as these jobs are usually first to be cut or to lack funding. What is the oddest job you’ve ever done while pursuing music, if you had another job?
I played a really silly gig once as an accordionist.  These rich housewives were having a lingerie party (kinda like a tupperware party, but selling each other very fancy expensive French designer lingerie).  Anyway, they wanted live music so my friend and I went to this enormous harbourside residence and whilst I performed Sous le ciel de Paris as she danced around pegging little lacy numbers onto washing lines strung up about the room.  The money was excellent and we got fed and watered and supplied with other, um, party favors. It turned into a bit of a wild night actually.
Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell. Credit John Fick.

This portion of my blog aims to profile as many different professions in music and sound as I can. I was led to focus my blog on this mainly due to two thing: 1) being laid off twice and finding, while networking, lots of interesting people and careers and 2) receiving questions from students and wanting to get the info out there. I think starting a discussion is important for the arts community, and I’d like students-or anyone-to be able to relate and learn from one another. I can relate on your ‘shared‘ page of your site. That being said, if you were to make a sort of bullet list of the things that were crucial to you getting your career off the ground, what would that be?
1.  Theory and Aural skills – even more important than mastering the technique of your instrument, learning how music actually works is the most important skill you will ever learn.  You can apply that knowledge to every single thing you do.  if you’re just really good at your instrument, you’re basically, um, a jock.
2.  Be yourself – find the thing for which your desire burns hotter than the sun and do that thing.  Let lots of people know you’re doing it.  Be seen doing it as much as possible.  It builds you a kind of accidental brand.  I got known for doing lots of contemporary music cos I just did it, said yes to all the ensuing opportunities and suddenly found myself in a bit of a niche.
Out of those, what was the most challenging? Did you ever feel like giving up? What kept you going?
It’s a constant challenge to live like this, juggling the different facets of my musical existence.  Time management is the hardest thing, especially finding time out for non-musical pursuits.  When your work and your play are so inextricably linked, it can be difficult.  Also when I see my friends with ordinary day jobs and how they get to have this thing called a weekend, it’s occasionally tempting to think I could just chuck this in and get a real job.  But then I’d be miserable and unfulfilled.  Music is the only thing for me.
Of course, you have some pretty impressive collaborations. Philip Glass and Steve Reich stand out to me. How did you meet and build your work relationship?
I made my first album at the request of the ABC Classics producers, they came to me saying rather enigmatically “We’d like you to make a solo piano album of approachable contemporary music.”  We met in their offices and the “approachable contemporary” meant Philip Glass.  I made the album and it led to an invitation from Perth International Arts Festival to perform Glass’s complete Piano Etudes with the man himself!  What a wonderful experience to meet and work with such a unique and driven artist.  I’ll be performing some of the Etudes with him again in Los Angeles and New York in 2014. Can’t wait!
Amazing, and congrats on your ARIA award! Can you explain the experience, in your own words?
It was of course a great honor to win the ARIA Award, because it’s a peer voted award and to know that your colleagues support your work is a lovely thing.  There is only one award for classical music though, and it’s hard to compare what I do to an opera recording or a string quartet or a period instrument band.  I felt like I was accepting on behalf of the entire classical music community.  In a sea of pop music, it’s the only mainstream recognition we get!
Speaking of Aria, slight digression here. My cat’s name is Aria, and I see you have cats with very interesting names. Did you choose those? I love it!
Our cats, or ‘fur babies’ as we like to call them, are our pride and joy. I’m a stepmother to Gandalf, named for the character in Lord of the Rings.  Lucky was so named because she’s lucky to be alive, having been rescued from a rubbish bin.  Boudica is our posh fluffy Selkirk Rex and is a bit of a princess so it seemed appropriate to name her for the Iceni queen.  And Dickens is named after the great British author who hails from my partner’s hometown, Rochester, Kent, UK.
You also have a really awesome style and flair. Is this part of keeping classical music friendly?
It’s just who I am!  And I feel that keeping classical music friendly is not about how cool or up to date you are, it’s just about how you share your passion with the world.
The unanswered question (pun intended har har)…how do Charles Ives and The Muppets fit together? 
He wrote a splendid song called The Circus Band which I did in a concert with my cabaret soprano friend Nadia Piave and a bunch of friends, choristers from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir.  It was called The Children’s Hour (after another Ives song!) and we made little mini operas out of all these art songs strung together into a loose kind of narrative.  After The Circus Band had come over the hill and disappeared again, we were left alone on our dreamy lily pad to sing The Rainbow Connection.  Maybe you had to be there to understand? Trust me, it worked.
I love it!
Are you drawn to minimalists? 
I have at times in my life been very drawn to different types of meditation practice.  Through the process of learning a whole lot of minimalist music over the years, I came to the realization that performing, listening to or experiencing this music is a kind of meditative practice for me.  Life imitates art imitates life.
What are your thoughts on John Cage? I find musicians tend to have very torn opinions on pieces such as 4’33”.
4’33” still totally works for me.  I went to see Bang on a Can All Stars the last time they came to Australia.  They performed in a John Cage anniversary festival here at Sydney Opera House.  4’33” was the first piece on the program and the audience, fully aware of what was about to come, dutifully sat in complete silence for the length of the piece.  This was interesting in itself.  I wondered if there was anyone there at all who’d never heard of it? And what were they thinking? As you can see, this piece still causes me to question and that, after all, was it’s purpose.
If you could pick four words to describe your songwriting process…?
Text, understanding, communication, layers.
And your post modern pop minimalist baroque’n’roll project?
I’ve recorded an album of solo piano music by Michael Nyman called All Imperfect Things.  We’ve already talked about Nyman’s unique contribution to film music.  I’ve just posted a copy of the album to him; I hope he likes it.
How has technology impacted your career over the years?
It’s had a huge impact on the music industry as a whole, I think.  Through the development of all manner of instruments of course.  Then there is the way technology helps us to disseminate what we do.  Finding the audience is another matter altogether.
Do you think there is going to be a change in music education at the university level, due to the economy and rising costs of tuition? 
I think there’s a bit of fear surrounding future careers in music, which has a flow on effect.  Music is not seen to be useful, so it’s a low priority.  I am reminded of a quote from Winston Churchill when the finance minister suggested cutting arts funding in order to fund the war effort.  Churchill said “Then what are we fighting for?”
What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind when working in music?
Say something.  Your musical voice is unique and important.
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All Imperfect Things is now available on iTunes. For more info, you can check out Whitwell’s work at her site, http://sillywhatwell.weebly.com/index.html, and on Facebook.

Deciding to Leave the Music Industry (And What To Take From It)

Interview, Music Business, Press
Here is an interview that answers the question: “why did you leave the music industry?”
A few years back, when I started my blog, I was introduced to Alex McKenzie through my work with Doe Paoro. All I knew at the time was that he was a recording engineer at Converse’s Rubber Tracks Studio in New York. Through a few more discussions about the music industry and performance work, I learned much more…and gained some very interesting insight about the industry.
McKenzie has seen the music industry through a multitude of angles: artist, touring and promotions, writer, non-profit, publishing, and as a producer and engineer.
And now? He explained to me via email, “I’m totally fine with the concept of music being something that exists on the margins of my life.” From there, we decided to do an email interview to explore his path, and I might say it is one of the most interesting profiles here so far.

So, I guess we can start with education. You studied a lot in the Boston area with two highly regarded programs–Berklee and UMass Lowell. What sort of music stuff were you involved in before college? How do you feel you prepared yourself for the studies at UMass Lowell and Berklee?

I grew up in a musical household, in and around my dad’s home recording studio. He was self-releasing his music on vinyl in the early 80s, which was much more difficult to do back then. He has played everything from prog-rock to folk, from power pop to jazz, and we would go hear him play and whatnot. My mom is also a terrific singer, and is still active in her church choir, though she didn’t pursue music professionally. But I can’t say I ever took music “seriously” before college; it was just something I did very often, but also very casually. It was a way for me to hang out with friends, or connect with my family. I had bands in high school, and would fool around on a four-track, but that’s about it. So when I opted to go to UMass Lowell to study music production in 1999, I totally half-assed it, which was a missed opportunity on my part; I dropped out after three semesters.

I took the Berklee courses online a couple years ago — about eleven years after my stint at UMass Lowell. As I got further into the music world professionally, I thought it would be helpful if I knew more about music supervision and licensing, because it seems like that’s where a few big paychecks might be coming from for your average independent musician.

I made an effort to really apply myself to the coursework at Berklee, and because it was done online, I could simultaneously network in the NYC scene to meet people in person who had more experience in music supervision than I did. I was ultimately on the verge of signing a fairly substantial co-pub deal with an established sync company, which fell apart after about six months of hard work. I would have been representing about fifteen other musicians. At the last minute, they decided to change a fundamental point on the contract, simply because it would fit their larger vision better.

Were there other career paths you considered? Why did you bypass those at the time?

I worked in a lot of restaurants to support myself in the music industry. I wound up working for a very talented chef and restaurant owner in Cambridge, and got really into food and wine. The job actually paid me pretty well, and it’s only a small exaggeration to say that I worked seven days a week for about five years: four days at the restaurant, then three days in a studio, often on my own dime, as I was cutting my teeth in the Boston studio world. I also got into farming at the time, and was very torn between food and music.  But I knew I was never going to be able to commit fully to the serene, stable world of food and farming if I didn’t first at least really try to make it as a musician. I felt like if I gave it my all for an extended period of time, and still couldn’t make a decent living in music, then I could let it go and come back to food if I still wanted to.

You studied Music Supervision at Berklee, which has always interested me. Can you explain what a Music Supervisor does, for others that may not know?

A music supervisor works on a film or television production to source, create, and/or edit the music for a given project. They handle any contracts between the artist or label and the production house, and are also in charge of submitting the correct music cues correctly to the PROs — ASCAP, BMI, etc — so they can pay everyone their royalty checks.

I also love music licensing. Working with music licensing and publishing really shows all the ins and outs of who was involved in a song, I think. What is the trickiest part of working with licensing and supervision, in your opinion?

I think the toughest part is bridging the gap between the art and the commerce. An artist might think his perfect little love song is really special, but once it’s being licensed, it’s simply a commodity. Additionally, that artist’s own licensing agreement might be really confusing to him.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make negotiations between parties sometimes difficult; artists are understandably protective of their music, yet they want to make money off of it, so it can be difficult to negotiate a situation that can be both emotionally and financially confusing.

When and why did you migrate to Portland, Oregon?

In 2001, I moved to Olympia, WA with a friend. I instantly fell in love with the Pacific Northwest music scene — Kill Rock Stars and K Records, basement shows, all that stuff — and moved to Portland about six months after. I stayed there for nearly five years, and worked in booking and promotions, while trying to advance my own skills as a musician in my crappy basement recording studio. I also worked at the Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls.

Why did you get involved with the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls?

I was really into a lot of politically or socially conscious music at the time — Fugazi, The Minutemen, that sort of stuff — and the only overtly political music I could find in Portland was coming from women, this sort of post-Riot Grrrl movement that existed there. All the male-fronted bands were doing their best Bright Eyes imitations, and I just hated it. But these women — Sleater-Kinney, Donna Dresch, Lauren K. Newman, Beth Ditto — were just destroying the stage and making their listeners feel empowered. I became very good friends with the founder of the camp, and wound up volunteering for her organization for a few years on a regular basis.

I’ve had a bit of an internal struggle with some of the rock or music industry groups or events that focus solely on women, only because I have a fear that it can subdivide us more. I think we should all be included as musicians and put talent and passion ahead of whether we’re male or female.  What is your view on this, based on your experience at the camp?

I agree with your assessment — the self-imposed subdivision of women, or any other group, can breed further marginalization, and I saw that happen with the camp, to a certain extent. But the camp definitely helped hundreds, if not thousands, of girls feel far more confident in sharing their opinions with the world, and I’m sure many of those girls have grown into very self-assured women.

You also wrote for Tape Op, which is pretty big! I hear so many tips about getting in for writing for a major magazine. How did you find your ‘in’ there?

I had met Tape Op founder and editor Larry Crane through mutual friends, and Pete Weiss, who was later my studio mentor in Vermont, was a regular contributor to the magazine. I was pretty active on the Tape Op Message Board, and a discussion of (audio engineer) TJ Doherty came up. I couldn’t find anything on the guy, but was in love with all of his records — albums by Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke, Wilco, Beth Orton, Stephen Malkmus. I just pitched the idea to Larry — “Mind if I interview this guy?” — and he said sure. I didn’t have any professional writing experience, but it was pretty easy and a ton of fun. I got to travel to some amazing studios and ask some very talented people whatever questions I wanted. It was great! It advanced my studio knowledge exponentially, and a few of those names look good on a resume.

Alex McKenzie for Tape Op.

Alex McKenzie for Tape Op.

What is a particularly memorable interview or article you wrote for them and why?

The Q Division article was a blast. That studio is sort of a modern legend. Some of the best records ever made came through their studio, and they have kept their doors open for a long time. The owners, Mike Deneen and Jon Lupfer, have very well-informed, unglamorous opinions about the music industry, yet have stable, healthy lives and family, and great senses of humor. Sort of amazing in the music industry today, right? I have not met too many people like them, and it makes me sad that less studios get to enjoy that sort of success today.

Boston loves Q Division!  Picture by Pete Weiss, taken for Tape Op Magazine.

Boston loves Q Division!
Picture by Pete Weiss, taken for Tape Op Magazine.

When we were introduced, you were at the Rubber Tracks studio, correct? How did you eventually land there?

I had heard through the grapevine that Converse was opening a studio in Williamsburg. I sent an unsolicited email to somebody I knew was involved, and I didn’t even hear back until about nine months later. So let that be a lesson: leave no stone unturned, because you never know what seeds you plant may sprout further down the line!

Was it a crazy schedule?

Rubber Tracks wasn’t at all crazy; it was actually very stable and professional. Sessions were only booked during the day, there were no drugs or drama, all the gear worked and was very clean, and there’s a terrific support staff there.

But the gig did pose some challenges for me as a working engineer: Because of the way the studio is run (independent artists get free studio time, usually just for a day or two), the bands typically want to spend the whole time tracking, which means that as my tracking chops were improving, I wasn’t really getting much work to be a mixer. I would track five different bands in a week, send them all home with a decent 20-minute rough mix, and then they would ultimately take the tracks somewhere else to finish them up. I very rarely saw the finished product, and didn’t pick up too many mixing credits.

But while I was working at Rubber Tracks, I was simultaneously working at a Manhattan studio that was mostly used by major label songwriters — the people who have written songs for Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, that sort of thing. That gig came with a lot more headaches and overnight sessions, so a week at Rubber Tracks felt like a trip to the spa in comparison.

With any of the professions I’ve covered here, I think a lot of people can think of the glamor of it without delving into the labor and struggles. Working at a studio like that is one of them. What, in your mind, are the top three things someone should be mindful of before pursuing this?

1. Don’t go to school for music production or performance. All of those skills can be learned on your own time, and that degree is going to do almost nothing for you. I would instead suggest a degree in Electrical Engineering, if you’re hoping to work in a recording studio, or in Music Business, if you’re hoping to work in the performance side of things. Those degrees will set you up for not only success in the music industry, but also elsewhere in life should you decide that a career in music isn’t for you.

2.  Take care of your health. Eat very well and get plenty of exercise, because no one is going to take care of you in this industry. Don’t do any drugs; reject the notion that chemicals will fuel your creativity. If you have to smoke something or drink something just to get in the creative head space, that’s not really a sustainable way to approach your career as a musician. You will likely wind up with hundreds of half-finished song ideas and some regrettable performances. Drink tea or coffee instead, and save any stronger chemicals for after the session or the gig, when you’re reviewing the day’s work and trying to wind down, and even then, do it sparingly.

3. If you’re an artist and you’re “young” — however you define that — tour your ass off. Any success these days is going to rely on a lot of touring, and any decent label is going to want to see that you are willing to work very hard before they sign you. Be on the road as much as possible before you’re too old for that lifestyle, because that day will come.

And you left because…?

When I moved to New York to pursue this career full-time, I had this dream: I was going to get an A&R position, and help get challenging or socially-conscious music back into the mainstream. I met all the right people, and I finally got a couple offers from the major labels, and they were both really insulting; one of them wanted seventy hours a week for forty thousand a year, and I was going to be working on nothing but pop music! But that’s the state of the major label industry today.

I got burned out; I was just having to make too many compromises to make a buck. Too many teen pop sessions, too many missed vacations with my girlfriend. I hated living in New York — I like open space and clean air. My priorities changed. I was taking whatever work I could get just so I could pay my rent, and I had ceased to create any music for my own enjoyment.

You previously said the following: “For the first time in my life, I’m totally fine with the concept of music being something that exists on the margins of my life. I’m excited to pursue another career, and it has taken me many years, and many different roles within the music industry, to come to this acceptance. I’m actually really happy and excited about the change, and I’m just now — after three years working in service to other artists in NYC — remembering how to create music for the sheer joy of it, rather than for someone else’s ideas about what sounds good.” Can you elaborate?

The “margins of my life” comment is something I re-appropriated from an interview I heard with Steve Albini. It was something that really resonated with me at the time I was deciding to leave New York, and it seemed so practical and logically sound: my music can be sustainable if I don’t grasp for something financially unattainable. The guys in Shellac [Albini’s band] maintain stable relationships with their wives, they have serious mortgages, and they’re able to create experimental, challenging music of a very high technical quality, yet they treat it like a serious hobby, something that comes after the bills are paid and the woman is happy.

I’m now back in school, studying food and the environment. The change in direction came with Hurricane Sandy; it was a very profound event for me at the time it happened. I was putting my creative energy into either pop music that sold t-shirts and paid my rent, or into independent music that was often so tightly budgeted as to render the record technically deficient by my own personal standards. I felt like I really missed making music for my own enjoyment, and that the hours I was spending to pay my bills could be better spent elsewhere.

You also mentioned to me, in the past, that you felt the music industry was more dominated with business professionals over music professionals. I often get frustrated when I see this, too–places would rather hire a business major over someone who has studied the work that they are producing. Do you see that as a weakness in this industry? Do you think it will change?

The modern major label industry consists of three labels whose financial stability lies not in the creation and distribution of their music, but in the licensing of it to other institutions, and to a much larger extent, to the selling of goods and services — whether it’s merchandise depicting their own artists’ likeness, or the products of other companies via radio ad-space. The A&R jobs don’t require a real appreciation of music or how a studio works, but rather the skill of identifying an instantly-recognizable “hit” and working out the financials to deliver a finished product to radio and Youtube.

Simultaneously, the people making the decisions for Clear Channel and the like have become equally subservient to the commercial paradigm, so those Program Manager jobs at radio are no longer staffed by former college radio DJs and music fanatics, but rather by marketing people. So now we have marketing grads at the major labels interfacing with marketing grads at radio. They collaborate to generate ad revenue, and the music playlist serves only to deliver one hook after another, to ensure that the listener doesn’t change the dial.

What was your worst experience working in the music industry?

Hmm, that’s a tough one…I remember one session in particular, at a now-defunct studio in Manhattan. I was the lone engineer in the studio that day — they had just let their main guy go, and I had only been there for about two months. This guy was cutting a demo for a musical theater production in hopes of finding financing to take it on Broadway. He wanted 11 songs — performed by a full chorus, a band including strings and horns, all these silly bits of dialogue — tracked, mixed, and mastered within ten hours. I didn’t even have an assistant! It was a completely absurd expectation, and the studio owner unfairly told the producer that we could make it happen. When it didn’t come out too great, the owner completely threw me under the bus — said I was incompetent, and refused to pay me for the session. I was so angry and dejected. I quit the next day, and I have to admit that I felt vindicated when he closed his doors a couple years later after a lawsuit he incurred for operating with pirated recording software.

The best?

Mike Watt crashed at my place a few years ago after a show. He drank me under the table and schooled me on WWII history; he was really passionate about it! The next morning I was throwing up, and he was talking fluent Japanese to some girl on his laptop. She waved at me through the the laptop camera while I was puking, and I thought, “This is amazing.”

Was there a specific spark that led to Beasty? A sort of pinnacle moment in your work that led you to it?

I was just completely burned out on working on other people’s music. I was gravitating towards some very intentionally ugly, discordant records just as a way of hearing something that resonated with me. I found these two guys on Craiglist, and their drum-and-bass demos were just transcendent: super raw and edgy, and I could hear that any guitar parts I could add would have to be so atypical. I really needed to be challenged, and to feel deeply connected to the music I was making, and they offered me the perfect outlet for that, at the perfect time.

We had a lot of fun together: a couple of tours, some decent recordings, and a lot of laughs. I ultimately left the band when I left New York, and they are continuing on with a new guitarist. There are no hard feelings; I’m really happy for them, and I don’t feel any sense of ownership over the music we created together, because it was an entirely organic process. There were no split sheets, no arguing over how to make the chorus more catchy; there was no chorus. But that sort of music — the stuff that is purely boundary-pushing and cathartic — can always exist in my life. It doesn’t need a “like” on Facebook or a spin on Spotify to make it creatively satisfying. The people who want it will find it, and I don’t need any sort of validation from the listener that my music is good. My music is inherently good, because it feels good to create it, it brings me together with other people, and it allows me to process emotions that don’t otherwise have a healthy outlet.

McKenzie performing with Beasty. Photo by Eric Phipps

McKenzie performing with Beasty. Photo by Eric Phipps

Erica Gibson, Behind the Song Machine

Interview, Media, Music Business, Press

Who are the writers behind pop songs?

“Bad Romance”, Khayat/Germanotta. “Halo”, Knowles, Tedder, Bogart. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, Swift, Martin, Shellback. You may recognize the song titles and the majority of the names (Knowles, Swift, Germanotta). The other names? Tedder? Martin? Notable songwriters in the music industry.

A lot of hits, pop music especially, are produced by a team of songwriters. This can be for many reasons. For one, artists who are newer to the scene need to really make a hit. It’s more of a safety net before they can convince record executives, etc, that they can go it alone. In addition, pop hits are constructed carefully for what pop fans want. I know I’ve referenced this article many, many times…but The Song Machine says it all.

How many of your favorite pop songs are actually written by the performer? I challenge you!

There are so many songwriters out there behind the scenes, writing the hooks, modulations, and bridges to your favorites. Even Lady Gaga started out this way.

Want to peer behind the curtain of the songwriting factory?

Meet Erica Gibson. Music educator, performer, songwriter, singer. Theory extraordinaire. She knows her stuff.

She stood out to me, at first, because of her musical knowledge displayed on Twitter.  Once I started paying attention more, I learned of her story and what she was up to.

Pop music tends to be seen as watered down, yet the majority of those who write and produce it are very much trained. Don’t believe me? Read on.

I can’t remember how I first connected with you via Twitter, but what stuck out to me was that you REALLY know your music theory. I appreciate a good music pun, too, despite my theory being only basic (my excuse is that I play the drums). Did you parents encourage you to pick up an instrument at a young age, or did you pursue it yourself?

Well I started piano when I was really young… maybe three or four? I honestly don’t really remember.  We had one of those little toys around with the plastic color-coded keys and a book telling you what colors to play.  Apparently I was really fascinated by it and played with it a lot, so my mom got me into lessons.  Both of my parents have musical backgrounds and there already happened to be a piano in the house.  As I grew up, I took piano lessons on and off and also took up flute/piccolo in fourth grade, which actually ended up being my primary performance medium in college (I don’t really play much anymore though).

Erica Gibson, hittin' the keys at a young age.

Erica Gibson, hittin’ the keys at a young age.

And were you involved with music groups at school? Chorus, band?

I was involved in band in elementary/middle/high school… playing flute [and piccolo], that is.  I was really into classical music; I was the girl who’d be listening to Saint-Saëns on her discman in study hall or looking through the ‘Flute Music by French Composers’ sheet music book.  In 8th grade I joined a local youth orchestra since my school unfortunately didn’t have a string program.  My last two years of high school, I played keyboard in jazz band (if I remember correctly, I was the only girl). Ironically, I was never into the whole chorus scene.  For some reason I’d convinced myself in high school that I couldn’t sing/wasn’t good, etc.

Since you also teach, how do you think music education impacted your career, and how do you see it impacting your students, developmentally?

I always liked taking private lessons and had some great teachers (at one point I took flute lessons from Kazuo Tokito who’s the piccolo player in the Philadelphia Orchestra).  My high school never really offered any theory classes or anything, so I just did my own thing and learned what I could on my own.  I was really into learning about composers- one night I was out to dinner with my family and for some reason decided to see if I could write down 100 composers on the paper place mat (my mom still has it).  Developmentally speaking, I feel like learning and performing music in general is great for kids–helps build confidence and also instills the fact that if something doesn’t go right on stage, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world… life goes on and you can try to improve next time around.

What is a major misconception regarding music teachers? My sister is also a music teacher and I’m constantly floored at how much work and education goes into it for such a competitive, and rarely funded, line of work.

Hmm, I’m not really sure actually.  I’ve known so many different types of teachers over the years that it’s hard to remove myself from the picture enough to legitimately draw any perceptions or [misconceptions] if that makes sense…

Have you had any ‘oh wow!’ moments as a teacher?

Well, if teaching general music to classes of 30 kids, grades K-4, for two years and thinking “this doesn’t seem to be the best job for me” counts… then yes!  I managed, but based on my experience I seem to work better one-on-one than with large groups of kiddos that, sometimes,  just wanna goof off.  Also, just in general, seeing how different students learn in so many different ways is really intriguing.

You were mostly into classical music when you were younger. Do you find any of your students to be into classical?

A few, yeah. Usually kids whose parents seem to be into different genres and play the kids lots of different stuff at home to expand their musical palette.  Most kids who don’t really give classical music a fair shake generally just decide for some reason that’s it all Mozart and Vivaldi and hoity-toity stuff where everyone has a stick up their ass…which is far from the truth!  Just like there are multitudinous genres in today’s music scene, the classical music that was being written in the 1700s is radically different in so many ways from what was written a hundred or two years later.

What composers really captured your imagination as a child?

I was involved in ballet growing up and performed in the Nutcracker for maybe seven or eight years…I was serious about it, pointe shoes and all.  I always liked the piano music that was played in class and recall at one point, in middle school maybe, where it seemed like a new world opened up and I was suddenly able to hear all the different parts going on in Tchaikovsky’s score.  Aside from that, I loved anything with a great melody or that had interesting tonal colors going on. I went through a Mahler phase after hearing his first symphony performed live and thinking it was the most amazing thing ever.

I think that’s great that you also pursued music recording technology! It’s such a useful tool now for musicians to have those skills. You mentioned before that you were the only girl. I remember a similar experience. While I thought there were a good amount of females in my program (I didn’t focus on music and audio at first and then slowly drifted from video to audio), I found myself in a sound design class one day with a substitute professor, and she declared that she’d “never seen so many girls in this class”. There were two of us. Then, I decided to check out how many women were actually in my MP&E class. I counted two other girls in the lecture hall. Why do you think this is?

Good question… I’m not entirely sure!  I spent my first two years in college/university as a music recording technology major- in retrospect I don’t even know why I pursued that route at the time!  A friend said something like “what do you even want to record after you graduate? You can’t just record orchestras”. It was said haphazardly but it was a bit of an eye-opener for me at the time.  I spent the first two years as a recording major feeling out of my element since most of the other guys in the program had come from backgrounds like being in bands, running live sound at events, DJing, etc.  I had to take physics and electronics courses as well as actually learning how to record in a studio, and I felt like I was constantly trying to catch up to learn things that everyone else seemingly already knew.  Ironically, when I switched my concentration to performance/composition was right around when my own musical taste started to shift.

Did you migrate to guitar to branch out your performance opportunities?

Not necessarily for that reason. In my sophomore year of college, Michelle Branch blew up when her major label debut record The Spirit Room came out.  I was into that and subsequently got hold of her indie/acoustic album, Broken Bracelet.  I was really into that aesthetic at the time – acoustic guitar paired with programmed beats and lots backing vocals.  I also had what was probably a romanticized idea about playing the guitar (how you can just pack it up, take it anywhere and write/play) so I convinced myself to give it a go.  I signed up for a group guitar class and then took individual lessons the next year.

What was your coffee house experience like? 

It was interesting…where I went to school there was a small movie theater/adjoining coffee house that was a popular spot to study/hang, etc.  I played piano and guitar various times at the front of the theater as people made their way in to take their seats before movie showings, and I also performed out in the coffee house a few times singing/playing guitar.  It was a cross between doing a solo show where everyone’s there just to see/hear you, and playing background music (another gig I had…playing background dinner music on the piano at an upscale Italian restaurant).

When I started to work with music licensing and publishing I sort of re-realized how many pop songs out there are not at all written by the performers. The New Yorker article, ‘The Song Machine’, was a great piece about that. Do you think it’s disappointing that so many artists show up for the recording sessions and have nothing to do with the songwriting experience? I believe the New Yorker piece refers to Rihanna as a ‘manufactured’ pop star because of this. How do you feel about that label?

It’s definitely a bit of a slippery slope.  Of course that could be said about Rihanna, but she has a way of really selling what she sings and making it seem genuine and personal.  Certainly there are many artists out there who I wouldn’t say the same about. But yeah, the average uninformed music listener nowadays seems to assume that whoever is singing a song wrote it when in fact, a good amount of what’s out there in the pop world is co-written by a small handful of people that doesn’t include the artist.  Personally I prefer when an artist writes their own material &/or plays an instrument.

At the same time, Elvis and Frank Sinatra didn’t sing their own songs. Even the Beatles sang other people’s songs at first. Do you think the cynicism toward this is because of how these artists are portrayed these days? We wouldn’t say that ‘Hound Dog’ was the Beatles’ song, but ‘Umbrella’ is portrayed as Rihanna’s song, even though she just performs it.

It does seem to be a bit of a double standard, doesn’t it?  Maybe it has to do with the way things are marketed these days with so much emphasis on image, videos, etc. which perhaps takes focus away from a song & its meaning and adds focus to the individual doing the conveying.

How hard is it to get your music noticed by a producer? Is it all who you know?

Ha! That depends on what you consider ‘noticed’.  I see people on Twitter constantly tweeting producers/writers asking them to check out their material.  Of course that’s one way to go, but it’s more or less the same as junk/spam mail.  If the person you’re trying to get to notice you doesn’t know anything about you, why would they feel compelled to listen to you? If you get a solicitation under your windshield wiper telling you to come to a restaurant you’ve never heard of and they don’t advertise a compelling reason, why would you go? However if you can build even a little bit of buzz and your name comes to them via someone else whose opinion they value, they’re more likely to check you out.

And, when you collaborate with someone, what is your songwriting process like?

I’ve done collabs previously where a producer worked up a track with me in the room and then I took it home and wrote the melody/lyrics myself, then came back and recorded.  As is probably the case with most creative types though, I tend to second-guess myself when I’m working on my own.  The last 2 or years though I’ve been working with Scott Stallone… he’s an amazing writer/producer/mixer and he and I work really well together.  It’s great to work with someone who you feel like can be yourself around!!

Can you take us through the process of writing, producing a song, and getting it placed?

Well, things are never exactly the same but from my experience the last year or two, Scott works on the track stuff (sometimes with my input) and then we both work on melodies and lyrics together.  Coming up with melodies is usually the easiest element for both of us– we’ll sing snippets back and forth and hone in on what works best and lay it down with amusing/made up syllables. Then it’s a matter of concept.  I like co-writing lyrics ’cause it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off.  It’s great to be able to have someone to throw crazy ideas at, laugh with, and have someone honestly tell you if an idea works or not.  Getting a song placed, well, that could be a whole other article/subject, ha!

And is this totally focused on pop music? From what I’ve seen, it seems to be a totally different approach for indie and folk, etc. Yes? No?

Getting things placed definitely seems to be more of a thing that goes on in the pop/R&B-ish world.  Usually folk artists are writing their own stuff, at least from what I’ve observed.  Funny, my taste is very wide-ranging (I love pop, soul, trip-hop, r&b, electro-anything, film scores, classical, jazz, downtempo/lounge, etc) which frequently makes me feel like I have musical multiple personality disorder.  It makes for an interesting perspective in lots of ways though!

I do find it frustrating when people see pop performers, or the songwriters they may not even ‘see’, and discard any musical training these individuals have. True, not everyone has training. I think people tend to dumb down pop music, without realizing that most of these people had some sort of musical training before. Again, not all. But even Carly Rae Jepsen did very different music before “Call Me Maybe” was everywhere.

True, there does seem to be a vacuous perception.  Pretty much anyone can make pop music- all you really need is a set of chords that work together and a great producer who can fix your singing with Melodyne.  Ok, so that’s a bit of a stretch but just about anyone with minimal musical skills can make pop music working with the right people.  However, someone who really knows their theory and has something interesting to say about life… well… that’s where it’s at, for me.

Is location really important? New York, LA…

Eh, guess that depends on what you want to do.  Obviously being near a major city is favorable for seeing shows, meeting other musicians/potential collaborators, playing gigs, etc.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a pop performer? A songwriter for pop performers?

Performer? Ermm…attend lots of shows and observe how performers connect with their audience (banter, etc.)  I’ve seen many artists whose music I love in a live setting, but my favorite experiences are the ones where the performer really finds a way to draw the audience in and relate so they (audience) feel like they’re part of the experience.  Anyone can get up on a stage and deliver a solid performance but if you can draw people into your world, that’s even better.

Writer…listen to as much pop music as you can!  Study some music theory so you can understand how chord progressions work and how melodies can be most effective.  Take up learning piano and/or guitar.  Write as much as you can, even if you think it sucks at the time (sometimes it’s fun to look back over old ideas years later and see how your writing mentality has changed).

You say that you should build your own reputation first, before reaching out to producers…how do you go about networking from there, or introducing yourself? I’m doing a radio segment on networking next week and love to hear other people’s stories. Especially with social media…it becomes a small(er) world!

Well, in my experience there’s certainly no perfect way to go about things, but I have learned what does and doesn’t seem to work for me.  Having a SoundCloud page is a good start- and putting things up that accurately represent what you’re all about, not just rough demos.  From there you can link to your SoundCloud page via Twitter and/or Facebook and let people happen upon it on their own.

Tweeting producers “I am the next _______, please check out my music!!” is not the way to go… again with the whole unsolicited thing, like I mentioned before.  To me that’s kinda like someone in the mall in one of the kiosks trying to get your attention to come try their product just by getting in your face about it.  For someone using Twitter, maybe try just building some type of relationship with a person you’re trying to reach without seeming desperate or sycophantic.  Reply to a few things they say.. ask a question or two, convey to them that you’re a genuine person, not just trying to use them as a means to an end.  If you manage to build a rapport with someone then maybe mention that you’d be curious what they think of your music if they’d like to listen, not “go check out my music here”- that sounds like a command.  If you were that great, you wouldn’t have to tell them to listen to you, they’d probably already know.

Also if you can get your name to someone via somebody else they already know, that’s a great way to go.  I feel like the key is just being humble and human and not “OMG I am the next big thing, listen to my music!!” because that’s just annoying and off-putting.

Is it frustrating to think that someone else might, in the eyes of the audience, get recognition for your song?

Sure, though it depends on the situation — if it’s something you don’t feel much attachment to, well, okay.  If it’s something you feel a bit more personally connected to, then of course it’s likely to be more difficult.  In my mind the ideal situation is being in a position like Skylar Grey or Bonnie McKee- being known for being a great writer first, then getting to do your own thing after you’ve already made a name for yourself.  I had Bonnie’s Trouble album when it came out in 2004 and also listened to Skylar when she went by her given name Holly Brook and did more folky-type stuff.

Stereotypical question, but I have to ask…where do you see yourself in five years?

As much as I do enjoy teaching piano to kids, it’s not really what I want to do forever.  Ideally in five years I’ll be making a living writing/recording/performing/etc.  I’ll see where the road takes me though!

You can follow Erica for more musical thoughts and creativity here, here, and here.

After this, I need to post this song by M in here. ‘Pop Muzik’.

We’re Still Talking About Women in Music

Music Business

I remember being more mortified than anything else. Not angry or hurt. I always doubted myself when it came to performing with my instrument.

I’d really wanted to join the pep band in high school. I did my senior year, thinking that I was probably the worst musician…poor sight reading skills, and less experience playing. But I still loved it.

“Where’s your drummer?” The school administrator stared at us as we prepared to play at the basketball game.

I looked around, to and fro. Seriously? I am, you know, sitting on the drum throne with a pair of Vic Firth 5B sticks in hand. I’m not just sitting here because it’s comfy. So I timidly raised my hand. The administrator looked embarrassed, mumbled something as if he hadn’t seen me (I’m 5’4″, but I’m not Borrower-Small) and walked away.

I still meet people who don't know that Karen Carpenter was a very gifted drummer. However, a lot of people stay fixated on her illness. That's another point altogether.

I still meet people who don’t know that Karen Carpenter was a very gifted drummer. However, a lot of people stay fixated on her illness. That’s another point altogether.

In that moment, sitting there and feeling invisible, I panicked that maybe I didn’t present myself in a way that said I knew what I was doing. Maybe I needed to be more assertive. Maybe I was busy talking to our bassist, and the school administrator thought I was just hanging out. I tried my darndest to push the thought that he had dismissed me because he didn’t expect a female to the back of my head. It still punctured my confidence.

There are many instances when I’ve gone to do something with my drums and, yet, the person I am interacting with assumes I am not the drummer. When my dad wanted to get me a new pair of sticks for my birthday and, after purchasing them, handed them to me, the Guitar Center employee blurted his surprise that the sticks were not my dad’s. The same employee who then tried to sell me a hot pink cheetah print stick bag. Or the guy I ran into when I was loading my set in at a gig, who walked by me and asked me, critically, “Do you actually play those things?”. No, sir, it’s fun to carry a drum set through a crowded city and narrow bar doorways, just for fun I say! Or the man who asked me what I was doing with a drum key on my belt loop. Not because it’s fashionable, dude. Because a) it’s not and b) I had to tune a drum set before practice.

I always give people the benefit of the doubt, though. And that’s why I have been mulling this topic over in my head for quite some time, and delayed writing about it.

Because sometimes I fear that, by isolating musicians by gender, we end up…well, isolating ourselves. If I were to compare myself to others, musically, I wouldn’t compare myself to only females. So, why would I present myself this way?

At the same time, I see why we’re still talking about women in music. Because, outside of pop especially, there is still some leverage to be had. And I don’t just mean in regards to sexist men, or ‘old fashioned’ women. I’m not just talking about the guy who wrote a letter to the guitar magazine my sister was reading, to complain about their list of ‘best guitarists’, because–in his words–you ‘have to have balls’ to really play. Rude, a lie, and just plain arrogant, is what that comment was.

This blog covers music and audio because I find the two to be so closely entwined, and most audio production is, obviously, a major factor in the music industry.

In college, I never thought about a male to female ratio in my classes–at first. Then, one day, we had a substitute for our sound design professor. Before starting the lesson she exclaimed, “I have never seen so many women in this course!” and beamed at all of us.

What? I turned around. I always sat in the front row, so maybe I missed something, someone. Nope. Still only two of us. This surely couldn’t be a grand total.

If you don't know Clara Schumann...look her up right now!

If you don’t know Clara Schumann…look her up right now!

I started to pay attention after that. Music Production and Engineering course. Counting in the lecture hall…one or two other girls. Acoustics? Same. Drum lab? Me, myself, and I. Drum studies? Hi, how are you, self? Sound As Fine Art? Yep…nope.

I loved those classes. I had great classmates and professors. And I feel like I know a ton of other women who are in these fields! Sure, the ratio is tilted.

I have to ask myself, do I try too hard not to notice the gender gap for fear of the issue I mentioned before: isolation?

I started working as a journalist before I graduated, and have bumped around to a few places due to layoffs. One place in particular was predominantly male. Ok, all male. When I was being shown around on my first day by my boss, who was awesome, I heard a voice as I left one end of the office. “A woman!”. When I left that company I had to sign a release saying that I couldn’t cry ‘discrimination’ for being the only female. I knew that I wouldn’t, because it was never the case, but I was still surprised.

Every year, ELLE produces a Women in Music issue. I really do think that they’ve been better each year-more diverse, less fashion-centric.

Last year I did my own Women in Music, to sort of add on to their list. I’d love to see more production and business profiles included as well.

I was hesitant even to do those posts. Sometimes it just seems plain weird. We don’t have Men in Music specials, Male Authors groups, special camps for boys who want to play rock music. So, what gives?

Did you know that Madonna was originally a drummer?

Did you know that Madonna was originally a drummer?

There are a ton of women I know who hold jobs that were male dominated back in the day. Keep in mind that the Nineteenth Amendment isn’t even 100 years old; the first woman to be accepted into medical school in the United States was accepted by accident (thought to be a joke) less than two hundred years ago; the “first woman of finance”, Muriel Siebert, was in the late 1960s; the first female conductor of the Met Opera wasn’t even thirty years ago; and the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars was only three years ago. According to Catalyst.Org, 1978 was “the first year that at least 50% of all women over the age of 16 participated in the labor force”.  I suppose many of the fields I am thinking of are still male dominated, I just try hard to look at each person by their work, and not their gender.

It can still be disheartening when sitting back to look at statistics. No matter how optimistic I am, and how much I try not to be critical of comments such as the ones I mentioned earlier in this post, I can’t turn a blind eye to this discussion. I’ve heard the daughter of a businessman say that he didn’t want to hire young women, because he didn’t want to have to deal with maternity leave. Even the discussion on equal pay is…well, it’s still a discussion. How long will the discussion be “Women in Music”, rather than notable musicians of the year, etc, discarding male or female identity?

What about you? Guys, what do you think? Is this still an issue? Have you been on the other side of this situation, and what do you think? Girls, have you ever felt isolated being a woman in your field, or do you feel more isolated when it is pointed out? Do you think it’s a problem at all?

Being a Studio and Touring Musician: A Chat With Brandon Gilliard

Interview, Music Business, Performance

I’ve wondered…what is it like to be on tour with a Grammy nominated, high profile musician and her band?

Brandon Gilliard has been performing since he was a child. He studied hard as a Music major at Anderson University, and has been collaborating with an impressive roster of musicians ever since. He is currently the bass player for Janelle Monáe.

I have to admit that this is how I found out about Gilliard. I was really digging Monáe’s new track, ‘Q.U.E.E.N‘, and found Gilliard through Twitter.

To say that his story makes for a great addition to my project is an understatement.

Thankfully, Gilliard agreed to do a phone interview in between gigs.

Ok, I guess we can start start with some back-story. What was it like to perform with your father as a child? Was that when you learned to love music so much?

Yeah, yeah. So, my dad…he taught me, he got me started on..actually got started on guitar and later on I switched to bass. So, I started playing in my first church when I was eight.

Just then we have to take a break as a mean gust of wind comes by, disrupting our phones.

And we’re back!

So anyway, when I was eight I started playing at church …and different things around town. Then, when I was in middle school and high school, I did marching band, and then I decided that I wanted to be a music major by the time I got to college. So, I went to college and I was a music major, did that whole thing. I graduated in 2005 and moved to Atlanta.

Marching band is something I had always wanted to do and never did. I used to love watching our local marching band rehearse in the mall parking lot. What is the most difficult thing about being a drum major in a marching band?

Gilliard laughs.

The most difficult thing? Let me think, let me think. I really enjoyed being a drum major. How’d you know I was a drum major?

Future reference to anyone I interview…I love doing research. And here my job is to research…you! Hope this isn’t creepy of me.

There was nothing negative about being a drum major. I was a band kid so I loved everything about being a drum major.

What made you decide to focus on the double bass?

Ok, so, I wanted to..I knew I wanted to do music as a career. The college I went to was pretty traditional, and they didn’t offer electric bass. To do bass I had to do double bass. I did orchestra and all that good stuff.

As for genres, Gilliard’s training and love of music has made him as versatile as ever.

…I do the classical stuff, and the pop stuff, and the country stuff…I’m there.

I have to ask…

What’s your favorite classical artist?

Artist? Favorite classical composer would be Haydn. I love the string quartets.

Your track record is pretty impressive…that would be an understatement. How did you start working as a studio musician in Atlanta so soon after graduating?

How did I? Ok, so, when I first moved to Atlanta…there’s a place in Atlanta called the Apache. It’s kind of like a big open mic night for singers, and they’ll let musicians come, too.

He explains that the first time he went, a bass player let him play. One night, someone needed a bass player to fill in. He started giving his card to people, which led to studio sessions.

In Atlanta , church thing is pretty big. So from there…that kind of lead to studios sessions.

And you were part of the Atlanta Orchestra?

Yeah, yeah, the Atlanta Community Symphony Orchestra, I did that for a few years. I subbed with the ASO.

Do you have advice for musicians who would like to pursue being a studio musician?

There are a lot of things. One thing that you have to kind of remember, as a musician, you are pretty much a…it’s kind of like owning your own business. You are an entrepreneur. So, you have to look at music as…this is my business…and treat it that way. Even though you are having fun and all that good stuff, at the end of the night you have to remember, ‘Ok, this is my livelihood’. Think responsibly, if that makes any sense. Another thing is […] a lot of people think music is this easy thing. It’s really not. It takes a lot of work. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that goes into it, a lot of practice, a lot of time goes into it…but it can be done if you want to do it. You’ve really got to want to do it. And if you want to, you can make it.

Kimbra at Royale Boston, October 24, 2012. Photo © Farah Joan Fard.

Kimbra at Royale Boston, October 24, 2012. Photo © Farah Joan Fard.

I really got into Kimbra a few years ago, and was fortunate to see her perform this past fall. What was this late night session like, the one at the Jazz Festival in Sweden?

That was great. So, I met Kimbra […]I’m not, as far as what’s on the radio, I’m kind of the last person to hear what’s going on. So, when I met Kimbra, I didn’t realize that she was as big time of an artist as she is. I met her, and she was sweet and nice, and we had a conversation about music. And, you know, she was like, ‘do you guys want to jam’, and we were like, ‘yeah, cool, lets do it’. And then later on I found out she was Kimbra, now Grammy Award winning artist. She didn’t say any of that, she didn’t say ‘hey, I’m Kimbra’. She was just like, hey ‘I’m just a normal person’. Which I thought that was great.

How much has learning to improvise impacted your career, then? I know it’s an important skill for musicians or even actors. How do you sharpen this skill?

As far as learning to improvise…I play a lot of gigs. If I’m on the road I am usually playing with someone else, someone local in town. A lot of that comes from getting out and doing it. I’m constantly playing bass.

…There’s a whole lot more that goes into improvising other than, you know, just wiggling your fingers. There’s a lot of theory behind improv, which I learned (music theory) as a music major in college. So, the ability to improvise, that’s really important as a musician,

You have to be flexible. Somebody might say, ‘lets do this song in a different key’… If you’re able to do that, you’ll get more work. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. So then, jumping around a little bit more…

I wish I had started listening to Janelle Monáe sooner. My boyfriend actually kept telling me that I really needed to listen to her. When I did I was truly impressed! I love the new single as well, and songs like ‘Cold War’ remind me of why it is so important to write. How did you meet?

How did I link up with Janelle? Sorry, the phones.

It’s ok! And yes.

As far as Janelle, I did a studio session with her music director when I first moved to Atlanta. That was like…seven years ago? We were doing the studio session for another artist, Avery Sunshine. I don’t think we saw each other again for another six, seven years. One night, I was loading in my gear for another gig in Atlanta and I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.

It was the guy he did the session with years ago, asking if he’d be interested in playing with Janelle Monae.

I was like, uhh….yes?

We laugh a little. Who would say no to that? What an opportunity!

That’s how that came about. We kind of met…Janelle, shes a great person. That’s the story of that.

What is the songwriting process like with her, or are you part of that?

Not so much the songwriting process, as far as the sessions and things. I play bass on some of the tracks. Usually when I come in they kind of already have an idea. As far as the bass lines, I make up that part.

Great! And you perform with many others! What other musicians do you collaborate with?

Like I said, there is a lady out of Atlanta, Avery Sunshine. There’s a kind of a Christian rock artist named David Crowder. I’m playing with him actually this weekend. And […] whoever calls. Somebody calls and says, ‘I need a bass player’, you know…I’m there. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to play with a lot of people. Sometimes it’ll be like a one time thing…you’ve got to put it all together and make a career out of it.

As for equipment, Gilliard has a solid backing and is endorsed by Lakland, t.c. electronic, Thunderfunk, and Pigtronix.

Now, back to musical training…as a music major, how do you feel your college studies helped you? I recently did a poll and article focused on performers, and how many of them felt that studying music helped them with their career, opposed to how many of them perform but didn’t study it.

I feel like it helps me a lot because, mostly on the theory side, because I know what’s going on in a piece of music. It’s not just going through the motions. If somebody says play a G chord, I know which pitches are in that chord. Knowing what’s going on with music helps me to play it better, to understand it. I guess when I started college, I was a decent player, [but] I didn’t have any theory. There was the technical exercises and everything but the theory is really what helped me to become a better player.

I know a good deal of music and art teachers, and am sad to see their positions constantly chopped down. What was your music education experience like before college?

I had a good experience. I had a band director who was named Mr. Bobo. He was really encouraging, and always would kind of say ‘hey, you guys can do it’. Yeah, I had a great experience with the educational system.

Are there any false notions out there about what its like to be a touring musician? What does your typical day look like?

Gilliard laughs.

There are some, there are some. It’s work. A lot of times people have this idea that it’s a constant party, and its not. We do have a lot of fun but there’s work involved. A lot of stuff behind the scenes that everybody doesn’t see. The idea that rock stars can be on the road and just party the whole time, thats not true.

Gilliard is currently on tour with Janelle Monae, and performing with other musicians as much as he can. This past weekend, he played four different venues, but perpetually holds a positive and supportive attitude. One thing is clear–Gilliard’s attitude and musical aptitude have been, and will continue to be, a winning combination in the music industry. From music education, to performing with Grammy nominated teams, I found myself nodding along to Gilliard’s sentiments during our discussion. You can find out more on his site, and Twitter.

Verismo: A Career in Opera

Interview, Music Business, Performance

“Violetta Valéry knows that she will die soon, exhausted by her restless life as a courtesan. At a party she is introduced to Alfredo Germont, who has been fascinated by her for a long time. Rumor has it that he has been enquiring after her health every day. The guests are amused by this seemingly naïve and emotional attitude, and they ask Alfredo to propose a toast.”*

This isn’t a daytime soap, or some evening cable drama. It’s the beginning of Verdi’s famous opera, La Traviata.
Pursuing a career in the arts, music especially, is daunting these days because…let’s face it. Pursuing any career is daunting these days. Student loan debt, the cost of textbooks, the lack of jobs, the seeming acceptance by my generation that our quality of life and careers just won’t match the previous generation’s. Glum enough?
It’s more prudent than ever to REALLY know what you want to study before investing in it. It’s quite a leap of faith in the arts, and I hope to explore the different areas that one could pursue here in this blog.
That being said, how many of you know–really know–what it’s like to be an opera singer? What is the audition process like? What is the competition like? Heck, what’s out there for you, job-wise?
Meet my friend, Amal El-Shrafi. Amal has a B.M. in Music Education and a B.A. in Vocal Performance from the University of New Hampshire, where she graduated in 2009. As a student there she performed roles such as Dido (Dido and Aeneas), and Cunégonde (Candide), and is a two time award winner of NATS. She performed for Governor John Lynch, at the University of New Hampshire’s commencement ceremony, and worked as an elementary school teacher for a year after graduating.
She began studying with Michael Meraw, of the New England Conservatory faculty (voice), and became involved as a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She made her Symphony Hall debut in 2011, and competed as a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Regional Finalist.
I hope to not only offer insight as to what an operatic career entails, but dispel stereotypes and shed some light on this beautiful art form. Drum roll on timpani, please…
Amal El-Shrafi. Photo by Shino_Takahashi.

Amal El-Shrafi. Photo by Shino_Takahashi.

Currently, what is your professional background, title, and education?

I have a Bachelor of Music in Music Educaton, BA in Voice Performance from UNH, and A Master of Music Degree in Voice performance from New England Conservatory of Music.

At what age did you start to listen to opera? When did you pursue it, and decide that it’s what you wanted to do?
I started listening to it in college. I was more into Musical Theater growing up and when I went to college, I was told I had a voice for classical music and should pursue it. After trying it out and seeing how comfortable it felt to sing, and discovering how vast a world it was, I was hooked.
What is the first opera you attended?
Ummm….I think my first was a touring opera company (performing) La bohème when it came to UNH, but my first professional production was seeing The Barber of Seville at the Metropolitan Opera.
First opera you performed?
Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. I played the Mother of Antonia.
What is your favorite piece?
That’s a tough one. I honestly can’t answer that because there is so much music I haven’t heard out of there yet. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dvořák’s Rusalka because not only is it the story of The Little Mermaid (which is my favorite Disney movie’s ever), but the music is GORGEOUS.

 I think a lot of people still have an incorrect idea of what opera is. It’s probably horrible of me to admit this, but after hearing ‘Lucia di Lammermoor‘ in The Fifth Element, I started to look into different opera pieces. When I first heard Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament‘, or ‘When I am laid in earth’, I was in college. I thought it was one of the saddest pieces I’d ever heard. Opera can be so moving! What is one of the most common incorrect generalizations about opera, in your opinion?

I think people think that opera is pretentious and not easily accessible . Yes, you have to have a certain level of understanding for the music to be able to appreciate it, but when it comes down to watching a person pour out their heart and soul into what they’re singing, you’re seeing true human emotion. That speaks to everyone. Yes, the stories can be out there and character’s reactions can be a bit dramatic at times (think being stabbed in the back and singing about it for 5 minutes before you die), but when the majority of the famous stories and operas were written, it was one of the only forms of entertainment so it had to speak to the common people to thrive.

What is the hardest piece you have ever performed? What is a piece you really want to pursue?

The hardest aria I perform is “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). It is sung by the character Pamina when she is at her lowest, weakest state. The music is so exposed, the accompaniment doesn’t have much support for the singer and your voice has to have the agility and precision like a wind instrument. It is so hard for me and I think I want to put it away for a while, let my voice figure out more technical issues and return to it. As far as what I want to pursue, I would love the chance to get to study and sing another Mozart leading lady like Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte or Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. Their characters are so complex and real and crazy. That would be so much fun to play! 
Did you prepare yourself for studying opera before college?
I didn’t. I just sang musical theater and in my chorus class.

Do you have suggestions for prospective students who want to study opera? Tips for grad school?

Hmm…for someone considering opera…take your time and pace (yourself). Our voices have a long way to mature. Women’s voices peak from their late twenties to early thirties and some men’s voices aren’t fully developed until they are 40. Also, sometimes the larger the voice, the longer it takes to mature. Taking that into consideration, sing what shows your voice off well at the stage you are at now.
As far as grad school goes, do your research. Also, know that this is really what you want to do. I’ve seen people realize that this profession isn’t for them after they are thousands of dollars in student loan debt. It is a very competitive market and you will need to get used to being rejected audition after audition. It requires a lot of traveling, a lot of money to pay for auditions and traveling, and it can get lonely at times. It is a long, hard road. That being said, hard work makes the prize that much sweeter. If you know your passion thrives off of the energy of an audience and singing is what you live for, go for it!

 Here’s a big one (I think)! What about auditions? If you could give performers any advice on auditioning, it would be…

Don’t sing something in front of anyone unless you are 100% committed to it and you know it inside out. Know what every word of your text means if you’re singing in another language. It is obvious to those watching if you don’t. Besides that, have fun and tell a story!

What has the preparing-for-post-college-in-the-opera-world process been like for you?
Lots and lots and lots of auditioning. Lots of trips to New York. Lots of time on Yap Tracker. (www.yaptracker.com). It’s a part time job in itself.

What is something you think most people don’t know about opera, or opera singers?

I can’t speak for every singer, but the ones I have encountered are respectful, hard workers, but don’t take themselves too seriously. When we have to sing pieces that can be emotionally challenging for us to get through, laughter and joking is the best therapy.

How is preparing for professional opera different than, say, preparing to be an actor, or instrumental musician?

I don’t think it really is different. You need to be committed to what you do and, in doing that, your performance will be more receptive to an audience.

 I think people may also have this notion that opera singers only listen to opera and classical. What else do you listen to?

I still love my occasional musical theater, but I’m really into vocal jazz and Brit Pop, like Adele, Amy Whinehouse, Mika, etc.
(Side note: Mika. This song got me through more than a few college midterms and research papers. Oh, Emerson.)

What has been one of the most exciting experiences for you so far?

I made it to the New England regional finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions this January. It is a huge competition with a lot of exposure and it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life!

What is the most discouraging?

As you study and work with more people, everyone will give you opinions. Sometimes its hard to weed out what and what not to listen to, and you can lose yourself in the doubt. Stay strong to yourself or the doubt can destroy you.

How was Tanglewood? It sounds amazing!

It was fun! It’s like a vacation to go sing with amazing conductors and a professional orchestra. I’m going again this summer to sing in Beethoven’s 9th symphony!

 Anything you wanted me to ask that I didn’t touch on?

No, I think you covered a lot!

Have more questions? Ask on the ‘contact‘ page!

*Intro retrieved from http://www.metoperafamily.org/

T John Cadrin…Why Boston? Which Time Signature? And Where’s Dubstep?

Interview, Performance, Press

T John Cadrin’s music is not what I expected from his bio:

“T John Cadrin is a smart-pop singer-songwriter from Boston, Massachusetts. With influences ranging from The Dillinger Escape Plan to The Punch Brothers, the culmination of his music brings the listener along for an interesting ride. His eccentric strumming style, odd time signatures, fluttering vocal range & jolting change”

While this description is all true-this is pop with a twist, more than a few turns, and a whole lot of prominent guitar-Cardin’s lyrics certainly pop out, and vividly. A writer at heart.

Cadrin and I had touched base before I changed the course of my site. Seeing that there are so many songwriters looking for some insight, feedback, or other thoughts on the whole process, I thought a fiction writer/songwriter blend would be an interesting profile.

And you know what? He’s so darn approachable!

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Photo credit Izzy Berdan

You have a good deal of writing on your Tumblr. Is that all you? Did you write before you considered yourself a musician, and how does that impact your songwriting process?

I do love writing poetry and fiction. It’s a place where I get a lot of thinking done. And I would say that it is how I came to music originally. I received my first guitar at 15, but I’d been writing poetry for years at that point. It felt very natural to set the words to music and I found that there was more freedom when music came into the picture.

The process for me at this point is kind of (still) all over the place. Songs rarely come in complete thoughts to me. They usually are put together, bit by bit. Songwriting is kind of a slow process of continued discovery for me.

And in terms of anything I post online…if it doesn’t have quotes around it, it’s most likely mine.

Why Boston?

I’m from Mass. originally. Boston seemed like the next reasonable step for me after college in Vermont. I’d already been playing lots of shows here, had a ton of friends around, and wanted to be in a city. Now, though, LA & NYC are calling me pretty hard.

I hear you on that one!

So you’re from Massachusetts…what is your background, leading up to the present?

Prior to Boston, I went to St. Michael’s College in Vermont for English & Music Composition. I spent a lot time writing short stories, poetry, plays & scoring them. My songwriter music has always been there. I was helping run a music venue & putting together shows. Once I graduated, I went through a slew of jobs. The biggest moment for me post-college was when I realized that my creativity could be channeled into each of these endeavors. Whether it was delivering pizza or making salads in a kitchen, it all eventually started to feel like creating music or writing. Now I serve tables, love that, and love the personal creative opportunities I create for myself.

Was there a song you heard, growing up, that may have been a game changer for you? Or a moment that persuaded you to pursue music?

Honestly, the first song I learned how to play on guitar was ‘Shirts & Gloves’ by Dashboard Confessional. And regardless of the social movements surrounding Carrabba’s genre of music, he was one hell of a songwriter. He knew how to elicit emotion and make it catchy as all hell. I learned a lot then from that early scene: Coheed & Cambria, Dashy, Hot Rod Circuit, Ben Kweller. When I got up to Vermont, this was the game changer. Being the jam band capitol – it’s where Phish started, for instance – there was so much music being tossed around and played all the time. There is a fantastic jazz scene up in Burlington as well. Odd tensions and strange arrangements blew my mind.

Odd time signatures are listed in your bio as well…are you more of a Dream Theater odd time signature guy, or jazz (as you mentioned)? What type of music got you into that?

If it’s odd, it’s in. I think the first tune I ever tried to count out was The Mars Volta’s, ‘Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus.’ My bass player and drummer at the time were (and probably still are?) super into Dream Theater and Primus and they were very well trained in jazz. They loved that odd groove. I think they bestowed it into me. We would sit down after band practice and get re-amped on counting out songs and geeking out to time signatures.

Math rock! Please lend some insight on this for those who do not know…

Math rock is odd-time centric rock. I think though that the term may be a bit played out at this point.

Being a musician-or even involved in the community-can sometimes seem like a thankless job. What’s your spin?

Absolutely. Even within the music community, I think we all take our gifts for granted sometimes. Especially when we’re surrounded by musicians, so many artists, so many acts, it becomes very easy to view creating music as less than art. I think what we have working to our advantage, now more than ever, is the pay what you want notion that has become so prevalent and recognized as appropriate.

Let’s get into some more random questions…

…How do you feel about concept albums? Best one? Do you ever anticipate writing one?

Early Volta was some serious conceptual stuff. I loved it, how out there and non-linear it is. Of course, none of that would have been possible without concept albums from bands like The Beatles or Pink Floyd.

And I did write half of one once. It was an EP called ‘This Fall… – the structure of it moved through they keys of A, B, C, D, E, & G. Maybe I ought to finish it. The second half was going to reverse through those keys. This rotation was to represent the cyclical nature of the seasons, moods, friendships, etc.

Dubstep. Thoughts? It seems to be creeping into everything lately.

I think it’s interesting, though nothing new. Those rhythms and noises are now just ultra concentrated and bastardized into one genre. Like any fad, it has its place. Honestly, it feels like it’s on its way out.

Is there a venue in Boston that you feel is underrated? A hidden gem?

Well, I’m not sure I can totally answer that. I’ve certainly not played them all. But, a couple weeks ago I went to see Eva Walsh at O’Brien’s down in Allston. I liked the intimacy of it. That could be an awesome place to pack.

Love Eva Walsh.

If you could cover a theme song…?

Rocko’s Modern Life or Hey! Arnold.

Plans for Spring and Summer 2013?

Keep on keepin’ on, really. I’m looking to play new venues with new bands and meet new people all over, always. I’ve got a bunch of shows booked through June in NYC, Providence and Boston. I have a fairly large PledgeMusic campaign that I’m putting together. It’s going to involve recording a new record and publishing a book whose content coincides motivically & lyrically. If all goes according to plan, it’ll go live with this Fall/early Winter.

There you have it. Approachable. See for yourself.

His next show is this Saturday at ZirZamin in NYC.

His latest release, Nothing Is Hidden, is waiting for your ears!

http://tjohncadrin.bandcamp.com/album/nothing-is-hidden

Xenia Dunford: On Lyrics, Licensing, and LA

Interview, Music Business, Press
Dunford had been playing in Cambridge for a while when I met her, and then picked up a journey to the West Coast. I caught up with her to discuss the new album, traveling, music licensing, and songwriting.
Xenia Dunford doesn’t let us off easy with her new album, His & Hers. The melodies are captivating, and they will follow you.
The full length album, following the EP, Lonely Streets, continues the story of Dunford and the band, and gives us more reasons to love her authentic playing style and honest lyrics.
photo cred: anthony papamarkakis

photo cred: anthony papamarkakis

You went to UMass…were you involved in music and the arts while there? What was your focus there?

I’ve bounced around a few universities in my time. I don’t think it was necessarily about finding myself, but finding the courage to accept my path as an artist and commit myself to it wholly. However, my time spent at University of the Arts and Umass Boston really helped shape me as an artist before I ventured out on my own. I was involved with the arts more heavily at Uarts since vocal performance was my major. I was inundated with music, from theory and composition, to performing romantic era operas. It was in Philly during this time that I really began writing and composing my own material. It was an amazing experience, but for the price tag I knew I still wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted. I transferred to UMass Boston and focused on socio-cultural anthropology. It was here that I began hitting the bars and performing my songs. I immediately fell in love and signed my life away. I would’ve stayed at Umass, and hope to one day return, but I thought it’s now or never.

When did you start performing around Boston, and what was one of your most memorable performances from this city?

I started actively performing in Boston in late 2010/early 2011. I was living in Central Sq in Cambridge at the time and it was such an inspiring place for singer/songwriters. There was a big community of artists and venues alike who supported the genre, and it’s still the case in Cambridge. It was a great place for me to start. One of my most memorable performances in Boston was performing at a tiny art gallery in Cambridge called Out of the Blue. The place was packed, and still the owner’s Alaskan malamute roamed freely. It wasn’t anything close to amazing for most people, but I met some of the most talented, inspiring artists that I’m still friends with today. Music is all about community, and don’t you forget it.
I am so glad you mentioned Out of the Blue! It is such a great place to meet new artists, and is such a welcoming experience. Definitely a gem in Cambridge. What spurred you to move to LA?

A man. And the romance that is California. And other things, but mostly those two.

What has been the biggest change for you, performance wise, in LA?

Getting people to my show. Coming from Boston, where everyone is train hopping, bike riding, and walking about town…to LA, the most vast and segregated city I know, was quite a change. If I was playing in Silverlake or East LA, it might as well have been China to those in Santa Monica. And forget about going to West LA during rush hour. Or any time of day for that matter. Whereas on the east coast, in a week’s time you might play a show in Boston, then venture to surrounding NE states, then maybe to New York, and you’re constantly picking up new people in those areas. In LA, you’re constantly playing in LA but always changing your plan on how to get those same people to your shows, and hoping for some newbies, which is a strange and rare thing in Los Angeles. To sum it up, I had some truly amazing shows in LA and some truly shitty ones.

How did your song, “Killing Kind of Love”, end up on the Revenge spot? That was my favorite song of yours when I reviewed your music last December.

Thanks!! As a DIYer in the music industry, making money isn’t and shouldn’t be one’s top priority. However, exposure should be, and if you get paid that’s an added bonus. So I’m always looking for opportunities to get my music heard and luckily people have listened. The Revenge spot was courtesy of one of the licensing companies I work with that pitch my music to film/TV. Every artist should do themselves a favor and submit their music to as many and all licensing companies out there.

Actually, I’ve found a lot of search queries end up on my site from that review, because people are looking for the lyrics to that song! Is there somewhere they can find them?

Yes, the lyrics for that song and all my songs are on my bandcamp page. All you have to do is click the song and the lyrics will pop up. www.xeniadunford.bandcamp.com

How did you come up with the idea for the “Best I’ve Ever Had” video?

Don’t really remember exactly, but I would imagine either in a dream or after drinking a bottle of whiskey! The making of the music video was a labor of love and I couldn’t have done it without all my awesome and talented friends who helped out. It’s a story of a misfit in love. I certainly can identity with Django the mime.

“Home Waits For Me” has a very interesting feel and composition. Was the song catalyzed by your move to LA?

Thank you. It actually took me forever to write that song. I’d pick it up, then put it back down, and that went on for months. I probably would’ve never picked it back up if Forrest, my friend and bass player, hadn’t told me how much he liked it and that I should actually finish it. So I did, and it’s one of my favorite songs. It was indeed reminiscent of my transition to LA, but it’s truly just about the struggle, day in and day out, and staying strong throughout.

Also, here’s a dorky question…and since I don’t have my keyboard next to me and I’m a drummer (not a knack for ear training), what key is that song in? Did you think of the melody and words first, or pick the key, etc?

“Home Waits for Me” is in the key of Ab. I have no rhyme or reason when I write a song. Sometimes it’s the lyrics that wake first, and sometimes it’s a certain progression that’s captivating my ear. If after a while it still sticks, or if the song just happens to write itself, then it is born and alive, and now I’m just the vessel so to speak.

How was the 5th Annual Singer-Songwriter of Cape May?

It was a spectacular weekend. Coming back east to a weekend of friends, family, and music was nothing short of amazing. We played both nights at Congress Hall, the host of the festival, and played to packed rooms every nigh.t The festival was very well put together and efficiently ran, and was a very successful showcase for us. I have wonderful memories.

How did the album title come about for His and Hers?

The title pays homage to my “silent partner”, co-writer and collaborator on the album, Scotty Mlodzinski. This album is ours equally.

What advice do you have for singer/songwriters who are currently gigging around, recording, or trying to get their music placed?
Do what makes you feel fulfilled and happy. Because if you’re not happy your music is probably suffering the most. If you are fulfilled, you should fight to keep it so, because who wants to be empty? 
 
Check out the new (or all, actually) music here and here!
Xenia Dunford-Vocals & Keys
Scotty Mlodzinski- Guitar
Forrest Pettengill- Bass
Adam Farley – Drums

Creed Bratton: From His First Guitar to ‘The Office’ Finale. Telling Us About It.

Interview, Music Business, Performance, Press

“I gotta leave here in a little while to go do a soundcheck. But I’m just so close, I’m staying at the W in Boston and I just…I walk right across the street. Literally. Right across the street. I’ve never been at a hotel where I could walk right to the gig. It’s so amazing.”

The person on the other end of the phone is Creed Bratton. You may know this name from the American version of the hit television series, The Office. I grew up familiar with a band Bratton had once been in, The Grass Roots.

Creed Bratton, courtesy of The Musebox

Creed Bratton, courtesy of The Musebox

In fact, when I learned that Bratton’s past included being a member of The Grass Roots, who recorded ‘Let’s Live for Today’, I became interested in interviewing him about his professional journey in the arts. I’d let my pursuit of this story slip. I loved the song, and often listen to it on repeat. I also always found the character of Creed Bratton a catalyst for guffaws and sweeping laughs. When this story blinked back on my radar, I jumped at the chance to speak to Bratton. We scheduled a phone interview, though I then realized that I could have possibly reorganized my schedule and made the twenty minute bus ride down to the Theatre District, where he was performing that night.

He asks me if I am from Emerson College; some students will be attending his sound check. I mention that I actually did go to Emerson College, but graduated in 2009. I thank him for taking time to speak to me before his sound check, and apologize for the technical problems I had experienced with my phone. He is nothing but cordial and pleasant.

My blog focuses on different aspects of working with music professionally. Creed Bratton’s journey has taken him through music, acting, and now music again. The Office is wrapping up its ninth and final season, and Bratton released a new album, Tell Me About It, this month, with Act 1 of the album having been released on April 16. The album is very telling of his life, and I’m interested in his musical career. Where better to start than with his first guitar?

“You said that you knew you wanted to be a musician from a young age, and I saw a note that your first instrument was a guitar from Sears. I remember my first drum set was nothing fancy, but I remember coming down the stairs and seeing it there and being completely elated, even though it would fall apart all of the time. What do you recall from receiving your first guitar?”

Bratton dives in. “We were very poor, and I had been playing trumpet since grammar school basically, you know? I played trumpet through grammar school, junior high, and high school. But I was like, thirteen years old, and I heard Link Wray over the radio. I heard Link Wray play ‘Rumble’. It’s just an instrumental guitar thing. My mind, my spirits soared, the sound got me going.”

He then explains that loving that sound led him to pursue music. He had worked milking cows, taking out garbage, as a soda jerk…but music made a profound impact on him.

“So, I got the guitar. I sent away from Sears…and it came in the mail. And it was basically a Silvertone guitar. It had the lipstick pickups on the front of it. (…) The amp was built into the guitar case itself.”

He began learning chords. “I’d slowly let each string ring and let the sound go through my body.” He recalls the peace and elation that each note brought him, and concludes the thought with, “Yeah, I know, the first instrument that you really want to do is a life changing moment. No doubt about it.”

 And now he is releasing this album digitally, and on vinyl. Bratton plans on releasing vinyl with free downloads–not MP3s, mind you, and to monitor how listeners respond.

The CD is certainly on its last hurrah, or already done with it. Singles are powerful, but what about the concept of an album?

“Well, I…it’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just evolution. It’s the way things are, you know, you can’t really stop anything. I definitely believe that the CD-and both myself and my producer are of the like mind (that if) we get another year out of CDs that will be it. Because people now, they don’t even download a full album. They go, they like one song in an album and they’ll download a single.”

As for singles, he is hoping for two or three.  ‘Faded Spats’, ‘Move To Win’, and ‘Unemployment Line’ are his picks.

“I think as far as singles, I think those will be the ones that the younger people will probably want”. Bratton sings a few bars of ‘Faded Spats’.

“It’s definitely an earworm.” I tell him, and it’s true. The chorus keeps getting stuck in my head.

 But some of the songs have origins from years ago. Decades ago.

“A lot of them…I know ‘Chemical Wings’ I wrote a long time ago (…) ‘Heart of Darkness’ I wrote with Billy Harvey, who is an incredible guitar player and songwriter. He worked on the album with us. I wrote ‘Faded Spats’ with Vance DeGeneres, (who) is Ellen’s brother. I met him at a health food store, and he runs Steve Carell’s production company, Carousel. So we were talking about music and stuff and we hit it off.”

 He affirms that it’s always great to hit it off with someone and click with them in a way, especially to write music. I agree. Writing music is personal. You share your stories, your creative thought process. Finding someone you’re comfortable developing that with is refreshing.

‘Faded Spats’ and ‘Unemployment Lines’ form interesting stories. ‘Faded Spats’, the first single?

“Basically a boy and a girl’s first acid trip at a party, and how it makes you feel. And ‘Unemployment Lines’, that was written when I was forty years old, so that was thirty years ago. And I’d come back from being in the unemployment line. I told my friend, I said, ‘I thought I saw an old girlfriend of mine’, and it just made my heart sink. Here I was in the unemployment line. And he said ‘Well, you’ve got to write about it’. They gave me some verses and we wrote that song together. Peter, Sarah, and I.  And that’s a heart wrenching song. But its honest, there’s no doubt about it.”

(Peter and Sarah Dixon co-wrote the song with Bratton)

The story of the song, ‘Unemployment Line’, hits home for me. The whole album is said to be autobiographical.  “You describe this album as an audio biography, but you mention an off-Broadway play. Think we could ever see that? I’m a little bit of a musical nerd, so this has me very intrigued…” Perhaps Bratton didn’t mention ‘off-Broadway’ to me, but I had read it in his other interviews. I needed to clear this up!

 “I had originally, when I play around…I’ve done shows with Rainn Wilson for some charity events…” He explains that his stories intertwine with his music during performances. “People like my stories in between the songs because I tell about my life. I’ve had a pretty interesting life for sure.” He continues recalling instances, and adds, “I’d love to do…go off-Broadway and do a play where I walk out and I tell these stories, and sing these songs and really craft it.”

 And then, in the midst of production for Tell Me About It, someone mentioned to Bratton, “This album we’re cutting is your audio biography.”

Bratton reflects, “And it actually tells the ups and downs of my career.  You can hear the ups and downs of my life.”

So, I have to ask. “Do you like musicals?”

 Bratton seems surprised at this. “No, no I don’t like musicals at all!”

A split second later and we both burst out laughing. Somehow this question now seems absurd of me to have asked. I went from frying pan to fire with off-Broadway to musicals.

 “This, I wouldn’t consider this a musical,” Bratton says. Then he adds, “Musicals are kind of weird. And I mean that in a very loving way, I don’t judge.”

 But with theater, acting, performing, education…how do we keep it together?

“You mention that you are at home with the guitar-it makes you feel better, and you follow the direction the art takes you. That you will always have music. I really admire and appreciate that,” I say. And I mean it. “My blog focuses on musician stories from all walks of life-from the studio and touring musician, to music educators and hopeful students. I find that, even with social media, it’s still tough to work in the arts, with layoffs and arts funding being cut. What feedback do you have for those of us who are dedicated to staying in this field?”

 Bratton takes a moment and then says, “Ok, well, as far as I am concerned, I didn’t really have a choice. I did lots of different jobs. I worked as a caterer…a prop man…I studied acting, I worked as a waiter…” This spawns a joke about actors being waiters as a rite of passage. Then he adds, in a more serious tone, “To be very honest, Farah, I always wrote music, I loved it so much I never had to stop. I’ve always written songs. And through the years they’ve gotten better, the songs have gotten better because I continued at it.”

He continues, “All those times in the thirty years where I didn’t have a pot to piss in and I was really wondering whether I was going to be able to eat the next day, I always found a way to get to my class…whatever group I was working with, and put up a scene, and always act. So, yes, my advice is-no matter what’s going on-find a way to keep doing it. Even though you say ‘well, what’s the point’? The point is…the point IS you’ve got to keep doing it. Because it will get better. Even if it doesn’t, you’re going to feel better about yourself. It’s not about saying ‘I gotta do this to be a success’. You do it because you love it. If you don’t do it because you love it, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. That’s true, that’s very true. And I’m a living example of that. I didn’t hit it really big-well The Grass Roots, yeah sure. Forget about that. I was in my twenties. As far as an actor…I didn’t hit it until I was sixty. Think about that. Most people would give up.”

“Another thing to say to actors and musicians: if you see it in your minds eye, if you actually see yourself doing it and you’re not kidding yourself…’I believe in my heart of hearts, I believe this is going to happen’. And you’re not just blowing smoke up your own ass…you really see it. And if you see it you gotta continue with it.”

I let this sink in for a moment. The Grass Roots pop back into my head, though I know he mentioned to skip over The Grass Roots when he mentioned his career path.  I can’t help it. Not even a week before I happened upon the opportunity to speak with Bratton, I was chopping veggies in my kitchen and listening to The Grass Roots on repeat. I have to ask.

“Ok, so I know you said to skip the Grassroots…but ‘Let’s Live For Today’ is one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, and I found out that you were in the Grass Roots a few years ago. How did that song come to be?”

 After a humble thank you over the mention of my love of that song, Bratton quiets a bit, and mentions that he has to save his voice for that night. His sound check is not far off.

 The Grass Roots had gotten in with Dunhill Records. The daughter of the president of the company was in Europe, when she heard a catchy song. The track was “Piangi Con Me”, and she brought a copy of the song to The Grass Roots and Dunhill, where it was suggested they do an American version.

“This song took off in, like…not even a week. It was on the charts. It was amazing. Amazing.” Bratton recalls.

 In the midst of showing the song to my friends, and pointing out, ‘did you know that’s Creed from The Office’, I noticed one video with a particular funny moment. “I don’t know if you remember, but there is a video-I saw on YouTube-of one of your performances on a TV show, and at one moment, it pans to you, and you kind of smirk. Do you remember what happened that made you almost laugh at that moment?”

 Bratton laughs.  “I was probably laughing because I never take anything really seriously. There’s one of me out there on YouTube,too, where I actually spit, like some punk rocker, on the ground. Showing my disdain for the whole process. I’m laughing because I didn’t take myself seriously. I thought it was all kind of a joke and it was really funny. We didn’t really take ourselves very seriously.”

 “So, humor and comedy have always been important to you?”

“Yeah, of course, of course, the human being…the human condition is absurd. And we have to see the humor in it or we all go crazy. That’s why I think, people who don’t laugh…there is something really wrong.” Bratton concludes.

 I guess what I was getting at was a segue to The Office. “A lot of people of course know you from The Office. One my friends once told me that the cast of The Office could floss their teeth and she would still laugh. Who is one person on set who can, without a doubt, always make you pee your pants laughing?”

 Bratton takes a moment, and then says. “Oscar.”

I let out a snort. “Oscar!”

“ Oscar can kill ya. Steve Carell could do it, no question. But Oscar, he’s…you wouldn’t think…he’s very dry but he’ll do some stuff that will just make us die. Just die. He’s great.”

 Now we begin discussing the development of Creed Bratton, the character. Bratton, the actor, had started to get involved with The Office initially as a background character. Bratton developed his character and presented it as if he had maintained a rock star lifestyle, chock full of drugs and alcohol. Off-kilter and absurd. The creators of The Office found it hilarious, and the character of Creed found himself a steady home with the cast. Since so many of the cast are skilled comedians, I wondered if they ever find themselves improvising and crafting lines.

 “No, oh, some of the stuff is ad-libbed,” Bratton replies. “More and more as years go by, more and more stuff is ad-libbed. But all in all, through the years it’s basically ninety percent scripted. We get all the scripted lines for sure before they say, ‘okay, we got it, now lets play with it’. Because we’ve got the best writers. The Office writers are the best. And we all acknowledge that. How lucky we are to have those people brought in for us.”

Now Bratton fears his voice is getting raspy, and the soundcheck is approaching. We agree on one more question before he has to leave.

“What are some bands you’re currently following, or you see being important to this generation of music?” Bratton has been involved with this craft for quite some time, and I’m curious on what his outlook on the current music scene is.

 “Oh, I don’t know. The show-we just finished the show up after nine seasons, and we work twelve-hour days, and I…when I’m not working, I write songs myself. I don’t listen to a lot of music. I still listen to John Coltrane and Miles Davis…”

I interject. “ A Love Supreme is one of my favorite albums!”

“Yeah, I listen to jazz and classical music.” He finishes.

I definitely hear a mix of influences on Tell Me About It. There are hints of the era of rock and roll that The Grass Roots emerged from. The ambiance of the songs drift in such a way that you truly feel a narrative, thoughts, emotions–of course as with any album, but you are bounced through being an observer and to somehow feeling as though you are having a conversation with Bratton himself.

Bratton leaves for his sound check and we agree to reconnect. I smile at the thought of students from my Alma Mater moving into the soundcheck. Small world.

Act 2 of Tell Me About It is out May 7, with Act3 out May 21. The vinyl of all three acts will also be out May 21.

You can check out more from Creed here.

Here’s to staying on our paths to creativity, and keeping music in sight.

Public Service Announcement for Boston

Uncategorized

I’m going to say right now that this post is not about music, but it’s very important.

I have a ton of blog posts ready to go-interviews, personal essays, etc. But this week has been a nightmare for many people I know, care about, interact with…and the city I live in. Promoting stories and writing here just didn’t seem right when everyone was glued to the news, grieving with loved ones, or otherwise in a daze. I myself felt my attention span was somewhat out this past week.

I don’t want to give details about where I live or work, because I don’t think a blog is a smart place to give that information, but I was very close to some of the events that took place surrounding the Boston Marathon tragedy.

This is not music related but it is important. There are many charities that have been set up. These are three that hit me the most directly, and I’d like to share them here in order to spread the word.

The Webb & Norden Recovery Fund

I was very sorry to learn that my coworker was at the Boston Marathon blast site, with her sister and friends. Her sister suffered from burns and the other two unfortunately each lost a leg.  A Facebook page has been set-up for updates and donation info: https://www.facebook.com/WebbandNordenRecoveryFund

Individual donations can be sent to a new fund set up by the family that go directly to the Webb/Norden recovery fund. 
The URL is: http://tinyurl.com/webb-norden-recovery if you want to share with your family and friends.  To donate without paypal, donations can be mailed directly to StonehamBank C/O Jacqui Webb, Paul Norden, JP Norden Recovery Fund. 80 Montvale Ave Stoneham MA, 02180.

The Richard Family Fund

My friend babysat Martin and his sister. He wrote a beautiful piece here, with info on how to help this family. There are no words to express this loss.

Bucks for Bauman

I’m sure you have seen the photo from the marathon, with the young man being wheeled away by Carlos Arredondo. I will not link to this image due to how graphic it is. It will haunt me forever. This young man’s name is Jeff Bauman, and he sadly lost both legs. He also is cited as identifying one of the suspects.

Bauman worked at the Costco back in NH, where I grew up. I urge you to check out the fundraising page!

I know we will all have our own causes, and there is also the wonderful One Fund Boston. I just wanted to share these three causes that really hit home for me.

I’ll be back soon with some music stories, but let’s take a breather.

Be kind to one another.

Thank you, all!

Farah

Muse in Boston-The 2nd Law

Concert, Performance, Press, Review

What an adrenaline rush!

I believe this was my first time working  a show at the TD Garden since The Police Reunion Tour in 2007. I’m sorry to say that it seems, despite having set my Nikon back to have a factory defect fixed,  that there are still some issues going on, but here are some of the photos from last night!

It’s always a little tough, usually being the shortest person in the photo pit, but it does mean I can duck under armpits. It also means that it is easy for crew, and all the taller photographers to miss me in their line of vision. If you ever decide to cover a stadium show, always keep that in mind! Security will do a darned god job at keeping you away from the video track, but it’s your responsibility to not get trampled, too.

 

Again-I know some of these shots aren’t the best, and I hope to have my camera issues resolved. However, I also like to keep some blurry photos in, as I find them expressive! Big thanks going out to BB Gun Press, Muse’s Security, and TD Garden personnel for their help!

Muse at the TD Garden, Boston. April 12, 2013. Farah Joan Fard

Muse at the TD Garden, Boston. April 12, 2013. Farah Joan Fard

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Again, not so psyched about the quality of the images, so I’ll probably have to have the camera checked out again.

Either way, so happy to have been able to capture some of these moments. Muse is fantastic live. The opened with ‘Supremacy’, then delved into one of my favorites, ‘Map of the Problematique’, which then transitioned to ‘Supermassive Black Hole’. And then I was whisked away back to backstage and security! Enjoy!

Did you go to the show? How do you like the new album? I still think ‘Plug in Baby’ is one of my favorites from them.