Wednesday
Oct112017

Interview with Worry Dolls

 

Rosie Jones and Zoe Nicol are the Worry Dolls and first met while attending the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts as students. They have come a long way since those early days and their debut, Go Get Gone has been receiving widespread critical acclaim since the release in January last. Lonesome Highway has reviewed their album and featured their music on our radio show. We were delighted to meet with them on their maiden tour of Ireland for plenty of conversation, laughter and tea …

Tell us about touring. You have not been off the road since the start of 2017.

We have had a couple of days off since the release of the album in January but it has been pretty intense. A few breaks, but it has been constant touring. 

What countries have you been to?

Mainly touring the U.K. but we have also been to Belgium and Spain. We did our own headline tour in England and also toured with Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople fame), which was really different and fun. It was the hottest week of the year and we call it our sweaty clubs Rock 'n' Roll tour. We also did our Country tour with Sam Outlaw and now we are touring Ireland for the first time.

You originally met at Liverpool University?

We became great friends and saw each other play at open mic nights. We began writing and collaborating on a very relaxed basis; let’s just hang out and learn a cover or write a song. We had a Bluegrass band as part of a project and Rosie had purchased a mandolin which she wanted to master by learning Nickle Creek songs. They are technically difficult and I was obsessed – tabbing them not for note and practicing 8 hours a day, wanting to be as good as the best. We realised that we harmonised really well together and that it was all very natural to us.

Is it true that Sir Paul McCartney gave you advice?

Yes, he is a former pupil of the Institute of Performing Arts and he mentors the third-year songwriters. It was just him and us in a room with him listening to our songs. We had been paired by the school as a natural team when we could have been put with anyone from the class.

Was he of practical help in terms of advice?

We were both somewhat in awe of the whole thing but we did soak up what he said to each of us. He was really helpful on little tweaks in song-writing techniques and one of the really big things that we got out of it was his advice to change up the melody in the second verse in order to keep the listener interested. That has stayed with us when writing, that you don’t have to repeat the same thing. It was strange having him listen to our songs and then play them back to us!

So, a couple of E.P.’s released and then the big decision to relocate stateside with a move to Nashville

We had been working towards that decision for a long time and like anything in life, sometimes you just have to do that crazy thing or you never quite see what could happen. We went to Nashville with half an album written and it could have all been an epic failure. But we both trusted that it was the right thing to do.

There are a number of cowrites on the album. Was this a conscious decision?

Our first EP was recorded at University while our second was written when we were living in London and was more representative of what we were doing. We went out to Nashville initially for 10 days, meeting friends and new people. Everybody there says ‘let’s just write a song’; almost like going for a coffee. We were inspired and it became part of the story of the album. Songwriters in Nashville are credited much more than in England where it does not seem to matter who wrote the song. In the States the songwriter if often credited higher than the artist and we wrote so many songs as a shared experience.

Was it a culture shock and intrusive to suddenly be faced with letting others into your creative process?

No. We are together already and a strong writing unit. It might have felt intrusive if it had just been one of us and new people that we had never met. We are so solid in what we want to create so it was ok to let someone else come in and share what they thought would work. There is a transition between writing on your own and writing with another person. We had already been through this when we first decided to start writing together so to let someone new into the collaboration process was not as difficult as it may seem. We felt very much at home in Nashville and we brought a lot of that feeling back home with us to London. We feel like a part of that community now and you just have to know how to find these groups which exist in all of these areas – it’s just finding it and being a part of that network.

Bread & Butter is your record label. Are you happy with their input?

Very much so. It’s a U.K. label but one of the heads works for an American label in their European division. They help us go to the next level by assisting in distribution further afield than just what you could do on your own. It is all about working together to ultimately help us grow as artists. We had recorded the album ourselves and were about to release it before any label was involved. We had a distributor that was willing to come on board but we could never have had the success we did by not waiting for a year in order to have Bread & Butter come on board.

Are you happy with the way that the record has been selling?

We don’t always see the figures for how the album is selling digitally and we always do our best sales after the live shows – hopefully there is a big cheque in the post for us down the road! That would be nice.

The fact that you have done it all yourselves augers well for the future

Yes, and the nice thing about this Irish Tour is that we had been playing recently with a band, whereas now we can get back to our roots. We always wanted the core of it to be just the two of us, which is why we made the album stripped back and that it sounds like us. The additional musicians and instruments that came on board for the record was wonderful but hopefully everyone will appreciate us playing it live as a duo.

On the album there are songs about travelling, the need to be free, experiencing the new, leaving and wanting to return.

The creative process is the best part and the songs are so fresh that some of them were only written a few days before we went into the studio. Miss You Already was written as an acapella song initially and it was only later that we added the instruments for the studio. She Don’t Live Here is about the sacrifices that you take. That was one of the only songs we played on the piano and our life change was involved in the song along with the fact that the piano we wrote it on had been given to us by a family member that subsequently died. It is the last song that we wrote for the album and is a special song for us.

The song Passport speaks of a negative experience that you had as part of being in this career?

It’s about how not everyone has your best interests at heart. It’s not about a specific relationship and it was somebody we didn’t know. We were opening our hearts up to a lot of wonderful things but unfortunately when you do that a certain amount of darkness can also come your way.

It is all part of the odyssey you have embarked on. It must be very rewarding to see the attention that is now coming your way?

It feels like the tables are turning a little bit after all the hard work that we put in. It can be funny however because anything that brings you right up the next day you can be brought back down again! It keeps you on your feet. Playing the Cambridge Folk Festival was the most incredible experience and to hear people singing your songs back to you in the middle of the day was special. Country 2 Country was another highlight, along with London Fashion week appearance; Jessie Weston is this incredible western-style designer with native American stuff which is so our vibe! We played the catwalk and it was amazing to see the models in real life; the way they can just switch on that look.

Do you write from a personal perspective?

I think that the songs will always be written from a personal angle. If you don’t write something from personal experience then people are not necessarily going to connect with it. From co-writing you get less precious, in that words you would never use can be given new meaning. For example, the song Someday Soon has a refence to ‘my last cigarette’ and I never would have used this as a non-smoker. However, as a metaphor for being down on your luck it works really well … I would like for the two of us to just write the next record and to each take the lead more on certain songs in this direction. This will not be taking us away from the personal!

So, this nomadic life is suiting you at the moment. You haven’t started getting tired of the travelling yet?

In the time we had off we were moving house but luckily our base is very happy, so wherever we are, we are never going to feel alone. Meeting people after the shows is important and we love to hang out at the end of our performance getting feedback.  

Both Rosie and Zoe are charming in conversation and totally open in their honest assessment of their career trajectory to date. They contribute equally to the answers and often talk with great enthusiasm so that the answers recorded here are a composite, without singling out who exactly said what and when. We look forward to following their continued success into the future! 

Interview by Paul McGee

Wednesday
Oct042017

Jess Klein with Mike June Interview

 

With a very impressive back-catalogue of nine releases to her name, Jess Klein comes highly recommended as an artist and singer-songwriter bearing great gifts and insight. This highly accomplished musician and wordsmith, recently sat down with Lonesome Highway to share her thoughts on life, the universe and everything after. She was joined by her husband and fellow musician Mike June who is currently accompanying her on their European tour.

LH: Life on the road versus recording – how do you split your time?

JK: I really love to be in the studio because you feel like the sky is the limit. I am working on an album right now and you go in thinking that it will be really stripped down, just me and my guitar mostly; then as soon as I got in we started bouncing ideas around and suddenly it becomes a much bigger soundscape. It is like a cool fantasy world to live in but then I also get very antsy if I am not playing for people. It’s like I can’t get my fix of a real live spontaneous experience. When we are in Europe I really love being on the road whereas at home the drives can be longer and it doesn’t feel as special.

LH: Do you have your own studio?

JK: Mike is currently building a studio…

MJ: When we lived in Texas we had a one room apartment so when we moved to North Carolina our first priority was to get some walls…! I have a love/hate relationship with recording. I love the end product but it can be so tedious, almost like anti-music. I have all these great ideas running around in my head but putting them down shows up all you’re your limitations. It can be very hard being in the studio and keeping it spontaneous. Playing live gives me that chance to be spontaneous and to have that feeling that pretty much anything can happen. That is why we play music I guess.

LH: So, it comes down to balancing the recording process with the need to tour again?

JK: We both decided to take a few months off this year but then I start to forget who I am and what my purpose on the planet is… Especially when I look at social media and watching everyone else’s experiences and it starts to feel like, ‘I could be doing that’ – so I don’t have a good sense of what is coming in two months; it’s whatever I’m doing now that is my experience. 

LH: You haven’t got exhausted with the whole touring thing yet?

JK: A couple of years ago I really got burned out and we had to make a couple of changes as to how we did it. We had to let our agent go because he wasn’t doing a great job and it can be really hard to make it work.

MJ: It’s hard when you have to ask people for money and I would prefer to have someone else doing that part for me. Last night was my first gig for a while and it felt a little strange. I had lost a whole tour because of the problem with our booking agent but it was kind of good in that I had previously been playing almost 200 gigs a year in the States and don’t know if I really gained anything career wise.

JK: You have grown a lot as an artist…and as a performer and a player. However, career wise you can drive 600 miles to play to a handful of people.

LH: I suppose it depends what you define as success? The fact that you can both keep doing this career as professional musicians can be seen as a success in itself

MJ: I tour a lot with Jon Dee Graham and he’ll complain that he is ‘barely makin’ it; what you makin’? For me, I get to travel around the world playing music with my wife, so it is a great experience. For example, we got engaged in Paris which was very special…

LH: It’s a real bohemian lifestyle and people would be envious of that.

JK: I find that when I’m at home I am a real homebody but I actually find it really freeing when we are moving on the road to keep things lean and we only have so many things with us. I don’t like packing but when we’re moving it is great to keep things simple.

MJ: If we didn’t tour then I might never leave the house. I’m just at that age when I’m not much into the social life!

LH: Speaking of not leaving the house, how does the writing process work for you?

JK: I’ve learned that the writing process can change. The last few records were all done in Austin Texas with this same group of people so you always had a sounding board. But then we moved to North Carolina and I went to a town I had never been to and didn’t know too many people so I didn’t have the structure with me. My initial response was that I would sit and try to write everyday but it doesn’t work like that. It has to flow and you have to trust that if I go live my life then the songs are gonna come. I sometimes use my phone to capture ideas at the time they appear.

MJ: Living with Jess makes me ashamed to call myself a songwriter as she is up first thing in the morning working on stuff whereas I am waiting for the inspiration to come…My last record, Poor Man’s Bible, I poured over every part of that for almost a year before we went to the studio. This new stuff, I had just an EP come out on Friday, Election Day and I decided to not think too much about what I was writing but just go back to having fun and keeping it simple. I think this is a progression for every artist who starts out wanting to prove that you can do something really big and I think that doing that with Poor Man’s Bible made me comfortable with myself.

LH: What comes first when you write, the lyrics or the melody?

MJ: Usually it’s always words for me first but it can be a guitar riff, sometimes the song just goes in my head and I have an idea how I want it to be but when you sit down and start pounding it out, it can sound totally different.     

JK: Early this year I had a repetitive strain injury in my arms and hands which was really terrifying. For me it had almost always been melody first but I couldn’t play the guitar as much as I normally would so I had to compose just in my head and sing it into the phone and wait until my hands were able to play. It was interesting in that my first thought was ‘oh my God, I can’t play the guitar the way that I want to…’ but then I had to roll with it and it just works its way through you. I don’t think my guitar style has changed but I was so nervous when I returned to doing shows after taking the time off. I changed my guitar (a Martin J-21) and found that when I played, it was the one time I was not thinking about my hands, so it all worked out fine!

LH: Getting paid as a professional duo; can you make money anymore from the recorded product or is it live performance?

JK: Honestly it is a combination. I think that I make half of my money on the road from merchandise sales. If I’m not on the road then it is harder.

MJ: I signed my record deal last year and the budget that my record label gave me was only quarter what I had spent on my previous record by myself. They send me statements every month about how much I owe them or how much they have lost on me! They’re sweethearts but what can you do? Even a band like Los Lobos who have been around for almost 40 years and have made so many great records were chatting amongst themselves as to whether it was even still worthwhile continuing to make records. The cost of making them is so high and then services like Spotify don’t pay the artist anything. As a listener, you can have all the music in the World for just $10 a month but that doesn’t pay the artist. Any other business would revolt against that... Even using Kickstarter to fund your record ends up with 15% of the money raised going to them.

LH: Looking at the arc of your career and that first album that received great media acclaim, you had the experience of being on a big label before doing it all for yourself

JK: I would have to look at my files to see who now owns Rykodisc, maybe Warner Bros., but I was not with that label for very long. I made two albums with UFO also but I found myself feeling that I can do this better on my own and hiring the people I wanted for myself. If I’m failing, then it’s because of decisions I am making on my own now.

MJ: Having been on both sides of the fence, previously as a booking agent, at our level then to be doing it for yourself is the best option. A lot of the people working I the industry are just not very good and can let you down. Do they have your best interests at heart?

JK: I feel like we have both been through enough now to just do it yourself. I feel like I know what questions to ask before getting anyone involved now.

LH: You must have built up a decent network of people over the years that you can trust?

JK: I think it is important to be able to ask for help – no man is an island!

LH: You are quoted as saying ‘my motivation in making music is to connect with people and in doing so, to connect with myself, which is the hardest and the scariest part…’ How vulnerable do you feel on stage?

JK: It’s not that playing in front of people has ever really been hard. I feel that there is a difference between putting on a show and giving yourself over to the performance and connecting. I feel like the thing that I have been working on over the last 4 or 5 years is going a little on faith and being completely open. When I am on stage, you have to have a purpose and I put all the love I could into these songs and I really want for people to be able to act off that. I can’t control how they receive it but the intention I go in with is to share the love in my heart as I have crafted it.

LH: You are a very giving performer and the audience just believe it. This is what makes it special

MJ: You have to play to the people that are there and not the people who aren’t. I remember playing a gig in Clarksdale, Mississippi to zero people. I am just rockin’ it, by myself, thinking this is good practice, just get into it, when 2 guys come in at the end and one turns out to be Danny Boyle, the movie director, who liked my stuff and wanted to buy some CDs. I didn’t know who he was right then and I’m saying just keep your money, you are on vacation so just have a CD… Then in North Carolina I was playing to 8 people on a Sunday afternoon and decided not to let it be one of those ‘I don’t want to be here’ moments; I do a strong set and it led to me getting my record deal out of that…! Play to the people that are there.

JK: I don’t want to overblow the importance of art but I feel because this is what I do, I look to art and music to give me permission to open up and feel my feeling. I believe that there is good in this world and it is like a sacred transaction when I go onstage and it can’t just fit in a box. It means something to me to be able to give to other people.

LH: Do you write from the personal or the observed experience, or is it a mix of both?

JK: Some of the songs are very personal. When I was younger it could be pretty scary to try and figure out the answer to something by the end of the song and present it in this neat package. Now I’ve grown up!

MJ: I made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to stop writing songs about things that everyone else writes about. I started to turn my attention to the outside and look at religious and political issues. It’s what I think about, it’s just who I am… I want people to get along and to see that this world is so much better than we give it credit for. If I am angry and I want to write songs against the establishment then that is what I do. The Folk Alliance and the American Music Association used to say they don’t want any political issues here. However, It is really personal for me…

JK: The other night he was dreaming and shouted out in his sleep ‘you can’t lie to the American people’…!!

LH: When you travel do you find differences in the audiences you play for?

JK: I think the difference is that there seems to be a more embedded cultural appreciation of the arts in Europe. In the States people come to see us feel that way but it seems more of an uphill climb.

MJ: A couple of years ago I did a tour and was playing house concerts in Texas and in San Francisco where the political views were different and the culture and perspective was so varied. You meet people in small towns that give you a different view of why people feel isolated and on the outside of things in America.

Travelling then to Europe is a real education. Taking in refugees is so much talked about in the States but people have never seen it. Then we are here and on the day we got engaged, what is in my head is; ‘I’m going to ask this woman I love to marry me today’ and the first thing we see when we get off the highway is a refugee camp on the outskirts of Paris and you see people living on the street dividers. And you see that this is the reality of it. Getting that perspective is a whole new education.

Being on a small level lets you be able to sit down with people and really listen with real communication. A big change with music now is that a lot of house concerts end up with your fans becoming your friends.  

Coda:

Jess Klein talks of her career as a twisting journey and says that she is tired of all the anger and cynicism she can sometimes encounter; ‘I say, get out there and do something’.

This is a good note on which to bring our conversation to a close. There is so much to recommend in the sublime talents of Jess Klein and her body of music is waiting to be discovered by those of you who like to visit the realm of accomplished writing and sensitive soul-searching.

Her husband, Mike June, is a very engaging person who was really interesting to spend time with. Together they make a great team and in trying to bring light into the lives of those that they meet, both Jess and Mike lift the collective spirit to an elevated place where our awareness and appreciation of the arts can be heightened.

Interview by Paul McGee 

Tuesday
Oct032017

Slim Cessna Interview

The first thing you notice about Slim Cessna is that he lives up to his name. He’s both tall and thin with an open smile (complete with gold tooth) and an open attitude. This is the bands first visit to Ireland where they are due to play four dates after which they return to play in the UK before heading for a gig in Moscow. The bands roots go back to the early 1990s and the band has evolved since that time into something quite unique in both its recorded and live entities. We sat down prior to the gig in Whelan’s to discuss the band’s career and outlook. Cessna explained the genesis of the band which started initially as an offshoot of his main band. One that also briefly included David Eugene Edwards of Woven Hand and 16 Horsepower. “The Denver Gentlemen was my main thing but I started the Auto Club because I wanted to experiment with playing country music; even more so than what the Gentlemen were doing.  I learned some chords on the guitar and got some buddies in and we started messing around in my basement. We didn’t really have a plan to do anything other than to drink beer (laughs). All of a sudden then it got busier than we were with The Denver Gentlemen so that became the main thing.” 

The influences on his musical journey were as much non-musical as they were musical. Living and working in Denver meant that the presence of some extreme weather conditions should not be underestimated. “ A good storm is pretty influential. They happen rapidly and then after it can be total calm and peaceful. We don’t try to use that on purpose but that we do anyway. There’s a lot of space where we are.” He felt such forces would just as easily be reflected in the music as they might in the content of the lyric writing. As well as having the environment play its part on their music it has also meant that touring has to be a planned exercise. “It is a long distance from Denver though to anywhere else” Cessna explained. “Kansas City is the nearest town east and that’s 9 hours drive. Salt Lake City is 7 hours west and there’s not a lot of anything in between. When we tour we work out a route that makes sense as doing a one-off show is impractical unless we are in Denver or a surrounding college town.” All well and good but adding an additional layer to the bands continued existence. “We have to make it work to survive” Cessna adds. The continued existence of any band depends on there being a means for the band to play and to record. Something that was made more difficult in the past when various members lived in different places. “We were living in different places, he explained. “I was living in Pittsburgh, which is 2000 miles from Denver for years and I raised my family there. But in the last 3 years I have been able to move back to Denver. Dwight’s also back in Denver and that has helped us to consolidate things and we can tour whenever we want too. For me there’s no extra trips involved. That’s been pretty good.”

In terms of their recorded output the band have recently set up their own label (SCAC UnIncorporated) and also produced their most recent album The Commandments According to SCAC themselves. Both Cessna and guitarist Lord Dwight Pentecost taking the helm for that process. Something that was a learning curve for them both and one that they hope to revisit when they begin to record their next album. “The Commandments album was the first time that we done all of it by ourselves including having it on our own label. But the next one will be better. Because we learnt a lot doing it. All of a sudden we found ourselves with a deadline but I still think it turned out great. I love the album. But there’s certain things that could have been thickened out here or thinned out there.” 

Cessna revealed that Munly Munly, his fellow singer and banjoist, was the main songwriter for the band. “Munly writes all of the songs for all of the bands.” This includes the offshoot DBUK or Munly and The Lupercalians as well as Sim Cessna’s Auto Club. How they made the choices as to which song suited which of the different bands was, he felt, pretty much down to Munly. “I suppose it just depends what mood he’s in which band the songs are for. It’s kinda fun for all of us. They’re all completely different musically. Different kinds of story telling. There are different worlds that Munly creates and it’s pretty fascinating for us to explore that with him.” Having such an enigmatic character in the band was “like having a Flannery O’Connor in our band.” It gave him and the band the opportunity to be involved in a singular creative process “It’s a privilege for me to help bring some life to those characters in performance and in my interpretation of what he’s writing. That has been amazing. Sometimes he brings a lyric to us or often times the whole chord progression. We then build from there. We cut and paste. Sometimes the songs end up going somewhere he didn’t intend and he probably doesn’t like it but it’s a democracy.” One that has an obvious starting point though. “Munly as always be the primary and initial songwriter and he’s very meticulous and we don’t apply any pressure to him or to ourselves.” This process has meant that they don’t want to force it in any way but to ask that they try and deliver something that they can feel proud of. “It always takes us longer than other bands because we always want it to be perfect.” 

In previous visits to Europe the band had tended to play in the larger cities rather than to do something more of a tour. This current longer tour was due to the band working with the Punk Rock Blues Agency (who book “twisted roots and blues” across Europe). As regards this visit to these shores Cessna reasoned that it had been hard to get shows here but also in the UK and Scotland as previously they had only played in London. “It’s harder for us to make money doing more shows but we know we have to do and we have to bust through -  and hopefully we can. This trip isn’t going to be financially successful (laughs). We knew that coming in though. But we’re very happy to be here.” This shows that the band realise that opening a second front in Europe could, in the long term, give a band an additional audience to appreciate their music. 

The band, since their inception, have created an identity, one that has been consciously considered and administered. The graphics especially have been, along with the photography an important constitute of that overall image. “We all do that, though Dwight does a lot of it. All our photography is by Gary Issacs from Denver. We try to keep things in the family. There is a certain branding that’s important to us, a certain visual sense, even with the show.” Along with the image, which can only take a band so far is their music which has become a blend of different sources and strands that have been blended to create the SCAC sound. “When we started, and I’m the only original member of the band now, I just wanted to play country music with friends, the music that I grew up with. I had played with punk rock bands and we were getting closer to that with the Denver Gentlemen.” However that soon seemed to fall short of being as satisfying as he had hoped. “I really wanted that, but in a weird sort of way it just got kinda boring (laughs). Well not boring, that’s the wrong way to say it just wasn’t as satisfying, especially as this started to become the main thing.” that however changed soon after when the key members of the band joined him. “When Munly and Dwight joined, and that was probably 18, maybe 19, years ago now everything took a left turn. Almost instantly we didn’t have the same rules. We knew that this isn’t going to be a country band. But the root of it is still American folk music.” In the process they realised that what they were creating and refining was something that was every much based in the collective consciousness. Something that soon found it’s realisation in the songwriting. “For whatever that’s worth. we let the songs become their own personalities. They have to go where they’re supposed to go without worrying about any preconceived structure or genre.”

There is no escaping the religious element of the music, the balance of sin and redemption, the balance of Saturday night and Sunday morning. This is something that Cessna has grown up with and so incorporated that Christian ethos into the fabric of the music. “That was really important to me, a huge part of it. I was born in the church and my father was a Baptist preacher.” As we talked he told me that, surprisingly it may seem to some, that U2 were a big part of the music he loved growing up. “Touring bands didn’t really come to Denver except for during the summer - we had Red Rocks Amphitheatre which U2 made very famous. I was at that show. I was grabbing the flag - you can see me in the movie. I was a 17-year-old knucklehead (laughs). I was a huge fan in the 80s with Boy and October especially. People don’t like them sometimes in my circles but I say “you haven’t heard Boy and October!” Those were amazing albums. Red Rocks was a great show and Bono is very influential in my life as is David Byrne, as well as many of the greats from the 1980s.” Another factor in his enthusiasm was that U2s’s music and message was music that was acceptable to his parents. That they were considered uncool by many of his contemporaries was something that he considered was because in retrospect “that some of the people that say they don’t like them are just trying to be cool. It’s just one of those things because they’re successful. People say the same things about the White Stripes and how stupid is that? One of the great rock bands of all time.” 

I wondered then was there a time then that he might have rebelled against that. “I never rebelled against that. That’s not necessarily to say that I stayed in the church. I go back and forth with that even now.” A strong factor that emerged during his growing up with that framework was his particular love for gospel music in all its forms. “I have always really loved gospel music. The pure form of it. I mean I love Bob Dylan more than most anything and I think his greatest album is Saved. It is so powerful. You don’t have to believe in any of it, but it just hits me. That kind of music - Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, gospel. It’s all amazing.” This is the gospel according to Slim Cessna - on that day, at that time. Hopefully SCAC will find further converts on future visits.

Interview by Steve Rapid   Photograph by Kaethe Burt O'Dea

Friday
Sep082017

Clare Sands Interview 

I was transported back a number of decades at The Harbour Bar in Bray a few weeks ago by a powerful performance of what used to be described as Celtic Fusion back in the day before buzz genres such as alt-folk, indie folk and New Age folk became the vogue. The occasion was a show by the Clare Sands Band, a Cork-based young artist who had been highly recommended to me by a number of reliable sources.  An outstanding fiddle player who also plays electric and acoustic guitar and possess a beautifully potent vocal style  was accompanied on stage by a four piece band, equally youthful yet playing like seasoned veterans.  Featuring material from her 2016 album Join Me At The Table and a number of well-chosen covers their ninety minute set was outstanding. Their sound is a blend of folk, blues infused jazz and traditional, superbly executed. Self-assured, bubbly and with an infectious personality Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to chat with Sands, a young lady with melody, rhythm and verse ingrained in her genes and endless potential in wherever her musical career takes her.

You seem to have the perfect career and lifestyle balance combining teaching, session playing, support artist, performing and recording with your own band. A full-on schedule without doubt but well structured. Was this your game plan?

I wouldn’t say ‘Perfect’- more like intense, hectic! I never had a huge game plan. But I knew from day one that I wanted to play as much as possible, and release an album under my own name. I don’t like to rely 100 % on gigs for income- thus the balance I have finally achieved with teaching, music therapy, session work etc. It keeps me interested. I’m interested in a lot musically, and in other walks of life, so I have to keep it new and exciting.  Ironically enough, the Leaving Certificate points came out yesterday- I had Music and Italian, or Law and French. I went with the music! 

Am I correct in saying that you are the fifth generation of fiddle players in your family?

6th! No escape. All Dad’s side are fiddlers, songwriters. Mom’s side are pianists, singers.

Aside from the obvious inspiration from family members what other musicians have influenced your playing style?

I’ve found myself inspired by a variety of different genres and musicians. I’m a huge fan of Gypsy Jazz (The music of Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli). I also love Latin music, in particular anything from Cuba. The rhythms are incredible. The musicians barely think- yet they can do things us Westerners can’t even dream of.  I love rhythm...Something these two genres are steeped in. 

When did Clare Sands the musician become Clare Sands the songwriter and which writers would have had the greatest impact on you?

I wrote my first song when I was 14 and learning to play the guitar. A song called Hear My Call which was all about homelessness in Ireland. Something or somebody must have affected my subconscious. After that, I just kept writing. It was a good way to deal with feelings, and what was going on around me. But as you get older, your songwriting definitely starts to change, and it’s not all about YOU! I loved poetry growing up, and still do, in particular Irish poets like Kavanagh and Heaney. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, and have acquired a recent obsession with Leonard Cohen, after reading a book of his poetry when I was in Guatemala. Strange guy. Master of the Pen. I also love two Cork men’s writing, John Spillane and Mick Flannery. Nothing is as it seems in their songs. I find that I write my best when I’m travelling. New experiences, new people, new cultures. I guess I’ll just have to keep jetting off if I want to keep writing!

Your musical style strays away from traditional, embracing both blues and jazz in equal measures, what I would describe as genuine Celtic Fusion without introducing a soft pop core centre. Did the motivation come from any particular artists consciously steering you in this direction?

Thanks! That’s a nice compliment. Consciously, no. I think it’s more to do with music I was immersed in growing up. I would listen to my Dad playing tunes in the house at night, but listen to Rodgrigo Y Gabriela (two Spanish guitarists) on the way to school. UCC also affected my playing hugely. I had a fantastic Jazz teacher-Tommy Tucker-who I really admire. My band also contributes hugely to the ‘Celtic Fusion’ sound. My keys/sax player Dylan Howe, is probably the best musician I know. He knows which chords to use, and puts them in the right places. Dylan and I have been playing for a long time together, as well as guitarist Kevin Herron. I feel we are extremely in synch with each other, and the two Fionns on bass and drums never miss anything.

Unlike the annoying tendency of many artists to ‘create’ a vocal style your delivery emphasises your natural accent which is refreshing, similar in many ways to that of Mary Coughlan. Was it a conscious decision to avoid adopting a ‘singing accent’?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and changed my opinion many a time. Firstly, I wouldn’t call it ‘annoying’. Everyone to their own. When children are listening to the radio, they imitate the accents of the singers they hear. All of my students sing in English Ed Sheeran accents! Some musicians also do this as adults, maybe from growing up hearing American accents constantly on their parent’s records. It’s nearly ingrained in them. I have no problem with it. I listened to a lot of American music growing up, but also to a lot of Irish singers- Karen Casey, Mary Coughlan, Mary Black. So maybe I slipped through ‘that’. I did make a conscious decision. When I listen back to my first single there is a twang of an American accent. I don’t know when I decided ‘Why am I singing in that accent’ but I did, and haven’t looked back. It’s too much effort to put on an accent- I’ve enough going on in my head! I’m also ridiculously proud of this fine island. I’ve been in eleven different countries this year as far away as Mexico, but Ireland has something very beautiful about it. I would like anyone that listens to my music to know that I am from Ireland.

I was hugely impressed with the band that accompanied you on stage on your recent Irish tour. Are these your regular band members and can you name check them?

Sure. Yes, they are my band members, and sometimes we have an additional percussionist, Paul Leonard. I mentioned them above, but to reiterate - Dylan Howe is on the keys/sax/vocals, and whatever else he can get his hands on. Multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist. Kevin Herron on electric guitar, sometimes dobro, and vocals. Funkiest guitar player around, and a fantastic singer. Fantastic rhythm. Fionn O'Neill on bass, sometimes guitar, vocals. New addition, and ‘A Rock!’ Fionn Hennessy Hayes on drums and vocals. Fionn is fantastic. Because he’s not ‘a drummer’, he picks up on my right hand of the guitar, and most importantly, listens. He can be as rock 'n’ roll as you want, or sit there and play a song on symbols.

With an increasingly over crowded market internationally and a small Irish market how does an artist like you best market yourself going forward and do you foresee yourself dropping the day job and pursuing a professional performing career at some stage?

I don’t know, to be honest with you. Definitely need to keep social media up and running. Make good videos. Try get as much airplay as possible and tour as much as I can. It’s really like building a house!  Always building. It’s been an extremely busy year. I’ve been happy with everything that’s happened. I released the album last October, and have toured with some great Irish names as well as my own tours, and getting airplay on album tracks. It’s not so bad for a 23 year old, I suppose. I’m ridiculously hard on myself- and will never be fully content- but that makes it very easy to be driven. Won’t ever give up the day job (I say this now!) I don’t think music is a very sustainable or healthy business. There are the few exceptions (The Beatles, Dylan etc.) but I feel everybody has a ‘use by’ date. I’m not being negative- I think it’s a logical train of thought, especially with how music has gone.  Even if you become the next U2, I don’t think I’ll want to be touring in forty years time. And for those that do, fair play! I’m a woman of simplicity, and I like my freedom. My goal is to start my PhD soon (music related - ha!) and take it from there

Are you working on a follow up to your 2016 Join Me At The Table or simply drawing breath and enjoying the opportunity to tour the album at present?

I’m enjoying the touring immensely. I have a new live video coming out soon and dates coming out of my ears till next December. Anything is possible. I might even go back and do Law!

Interview by Declan Culliton

Monday
Aug282017

Christopher Rees Interview

Christopher Rees is a Welsh born and based solo artist, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, producer and record label director. He performs both with a full band and in a solo capacity. To date he has released 7 full length albums, The Sweetest Ache (2004), Alone On A Mountain Top (2005), Cautionary Tales (2007), Devil's Bridge (2009), Heart On Fire (2011) Stand Fast (2013) and his just releaswd album The Nashville Songs. To get some background on his latest Music City based album and life in general Lonesome Highway recently had the opportunity to catch up with Christopher.

What does Nashville mean to you now in a musical sense given that it is often seen as the home of the mainstream?
I realised very soon after my first visit, that Nashville is now much more than just the home of Country Music. It’s fair to say that it really is ‘Music City USA’ as it claims to be, mainly because of the sheer amount of talent that is there and on display in every venue. It’s pretty jaw dropping. Yes, it’s still the home of country music and quite rightly celebrates its amazing musical heritage and tradition, but there is a lot more going on away from Lower Broadway or Music Row. I really have no connection or concept of what is going on with what they now call ‘Mainstream Country Music’, because in many cases I just don’t hear it as country music. It’s can often be soft rock, pop or even hip hop dressed up with a sprinkling of fiddle or banjo. A lot of these ‘mainstream hits’ are written by people who don’t necessarily write ‘country songs’. Nashville is certainly a central hub for the practise of ‘song writing’ and a good song can translate into any genre of music. 
 
Personally, I was attracted to Nashville because of its historical musical legacy through people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. It’s hard to escape it when you walk around. So, in a musical sense that will always be more important to me. There is also a big resurgence in traditional old timey style country music and songwriters who have that authentic spirit which I’m really attracted to.
  
How important has been location (and your Welsh upbringing) in your overall musical direction?
It’s difficult to say. I am a very proud Welshman and certainly feel at home in Wales but my musical inspiration has always come from elsewhere. Yes, I love Tom Jones and John Cale but I think it’s fair to say that their inspiration or influences also came from outside of Wales. There is no disputing the power of a good male voice choir or the beauty of a Welsh harp but I never really connected with that music like I did Rock’n’Roll, Country or Soul music. It always felt more direct and immediate. I think it’s very common when you grow up in a small town, wherever it may be, that you aspire to break out and leave. Travelling America in my early twenties certainly opened my eyes and inspired me immensely but I’ve always just tried to follow my gut instincts with song writing and take the songs in whatever musical direction I feel suits them best. You can create your own musical environment via your own music collection. If you surround yourself with the music of a certain style, whatever it may be, then it will inevitably inform and influence the music that you are inclined to create. As the old saying goes, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”.
 
Did you enjoy the co-writing situation that is fairly common in Nashville? How did it affect the writing?
I did enjoy the process very much. To begin with it came remarkably easy. I think it really depends who you are writing with and how you connect on a personal level. I was fortunate that I felt very comfortable and connected with the other writers (Rick Brantley and Mando Saenz) during the first couple of trips. They were just so easy going and with a little encouragement the songs just clicked into place. I had never written with another person before I went to Nashville but I approached the sessions with an open mind and an impetus to come up with something. You have to be very present and engaged for the process to work, and try to work towards creating something you can both be happy with. 

I was just amazed how quickly things can come together when you are both on the same wave length and working together towards the same goal. It wasn’t always that easy. Someone must come up with a seed of an idea first, whether it’s the music or the lyric. But you’ve got to start somewhere. Even if you later go in a different direction and abandon the original idea. Someone has the drive the idea forward and engage the other writer into knocking ideas back and forth. When it’s balanced and positive the process can be very rewarding. It’s only when ideas run thin or stall that it can become a little frustrating. But overall it was a very positive experience and one that I think really helped to develop my craft as a song writer.
 
Which is the most interesting part of the process for you the lyric writing or the music?
I don’t think I can separate the two. They are both so dependent on one another and benefit from one another. Yes, I often write reams of lyrics before I marry them with music. And I also write instrumental pieces of music before I marry it with lyrics but almost always they will both change and adapt to one another when they come together. And generally, become stronger together. 
 
That direction, through your various albums, has looked at different variations of roots music while retaining a consistent viewpoint. Has that been a fundamental attitude?
I think so. As I mentioned previously a good song can always translate into any genre and I have always just tried to follow my gut instinct regarding where I should take a song. My taste in music is very wide ranging and I really don’t wish to be restricted in any way. I naturally seem to react against the last song I’ve written, so if I write a slow melancholy song, I will almost immediately begin something fast and upbeat next. The contrast is often exhilarating and keeps things interesting. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut and keep repeating the same process so I need to shake things up and remain inspired to try new ideas. I guess the consistent viewpoint is my voice and my outlook on life. Even when you are writing a character or story driven song which has nothing at all to do with you, it’s hard to resist injecting something of your own viewpoint or attitude in there somewhere.  
 
You recently supported Mavis Staples in Wales. How was that?
It was truly wonderful. A real dream come true. Such an honour and a privilege. 
 
I have such a deep love for Mavis. Her music and her voice have been a source of great comfort and inspiration to me for many, many years. My set itself went well and I had a great response from her audience. I played a mix of the more soul or gospel influenced songs from previous albums as well as a few from the new album. After my set, I bravely knocked on her dressing room door to say hello and she invited me in. So, there I was sitting with the one and only Mavis Staples. Just me and her for 5 or 10 minutes talking about some mutual friends and the new album that she’s just finished recording with Jeff Tweedy, whilst I tried hard not to just gush like a giddy fan. She has always been my favourite female soul singer and I absolutely adore her. She was everything I had hoped and expected her to be. She was warm and welcoming with such amazingly positive energy.

She was so gracious, sweet and kind. I’ll never forget what she said to me. She paid me the compliment of saying, "Boy you sounded great! Your voice is strong! And that was just you up there - you sounded like three people". I was so flattered. It was a moment that I will cherish for the rest of my days. 
 
And then of course Mavis' set was just amazing! Her band were phenomenal. 
She filled the room with positive vibrations, love and joy and the crowd worshiped her. The world is just a better place while you are in her company. 
 
Obviously with recent albums like Heart On Fire with the South Austin Horns reflect your interest in soul. Something that has now become something of a musical trend in the last couple of years. Did you foresee that?
Not really. I have always been a big fan of vintage soul music from the 1960’s and to me it’s utterly timeless, which might explain why it still connects with a modern audience so well. The combination of a passionate and soulful voice with a horn section and a good arrangement will always speak to people. To me it’s ‘Feel Good Music’ even when it’s singing of blues and heartbreak. It can just hit you in the gut and then tear your heart out but somehow also feel joyful and uplifting. In my case I had slowly been putting songs to one side for many years, that I felt would benefit from a soul styled arrangement, long before I decided to record ‘Heart On Fire’. A couple of them were written before my first album came out. So, when the opportunity finally presented itself to record with a horn section, I had the material ready to go. Musical trends come and go but good soul music like rock’n’roll will never really die. It’ll always have a place. I never really thought of what I was doing in terms of following any contemporary trends. I just felt that those songs in particular where calling out for that kind of instrumentation and I wanted to follow my gut instinct to try and do them justice. 
 
Are there other artists who you worked with that provided you with a memorable experience? 
Yes, quite a few. I’ve been very fortunate to work with or tour with some of my absolute musical heroes. People that I have admired. People that had an important impact or influenced me in some way through listening to their music, long before I met them. Working in the studio with Victoria Williams was certainly a memorable experience. I remember first finding out about Victoria when I was in California in 1993. I had read an article about the tribute album ‘Sweet Relief’ that was being released to raise money for her medical bills after she was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) while on tour with Neil Young. It featured a lot of great acts that I liked, from Lou Reed to Evan Dando, Buffalo Tom, Pearl Jam and more, covering her songs, so I had to check it out. I then bought a few of her earlier albums, and when Loose came out in 1994 I was a big fan. Twelve years or so later, I was invited by a friend in Cardiff to meet Mark Olsen from The Jayhawks as he was looking to find someone with a studio that he could use to record some demos while he was in town. 
 
To try and cut a long story short, I ended up putting a band of local musicians together for Mark to record the demos which went very well. Then a few months later Mark returned to Cardiff, this time with Victoria. I was thrilled to see her walking down my street one morning and to meet her. We recorded another batch of songs (some of which went on to be re-recorded in LA for Marks’ solo album, The Salvation Blues) and at the end of the second day of recording I had the crazy idea of turning my song ‘Bottom Dollar’ into a duet and asked Vic if she would be interested in recording some vocals for me. She was happy to oblige and I was just blown away. A year or so later Vic came back over to record with me again. I took her up to a cottage near Aberystwyth to specifically try and develop some song ideas for a new album of her own. There were lots and lots of ideas flying around that week and we captured some great stuff. On the strength of those demos she was later offered a deal with ‘Honest Jon’s Records’ but as far as I know nothing ever materialised. She is an unique and special singer and song writer. I hope that I helped in some way and that she can deliver a new album sometime in the not too distant future.

There are a few other memorable moments like the first time I opened for John Cale which was a very big deal for me at the time. Touring the UK with Kristin Hersh was huge for me too, as I was such a big fan of Throwing Muses as a teenager and her solo work was such a big inspiration to me when I first started making music. She was just so kind and supportive. I feel privileged to now call her a friend. I don’t want to come across like a name dropper but I have been fortunate enough to tour with some legendary people. I’ll never forget sitting in the dressing room talking about Townes Van Zandt with Steve Earle or talking about Johnny Cash with Billy Joe Shaver or discussing Elvis with Wanda Jackson. It’s pretty insane to think about really, when you revere those people so much, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned from meeting all of these great people is that, away from the stage spotlight, they too are just living and breathing human beings like me or you. They have exceptional talents – yes, but they face their own challenges and have to work as hard as anyone else to sustain their success and continue to produce great work.      
 
As an independent artist how has the musical landscape and the way music is now distributed changed your process?
It hasn’t really changed my process, but then I’m quite old fashioned in my approach to making and releasing music. I’ve always valued the album as a body of work above the single. I do struggle to pick individual songs for a ‘Radio Single’ or a video as I get too attached to them being part of the album. I realise that it is a necessary thing, to try and promote an album but I’m not very comfortable with the process. The digitisation of music and all the various platforms that are available to distribute music does make it easier to get your music out there online but it has also devalued the product so much that it makes it very difficult to get any financial return, as people have become so accustomed to consuming music for free. It now feels like you make an album then battle to try and give it away for free with some vague hope that people may then come and see you play live. Youtube has become such a massive platform because the visual aspect is so powerful. I am guilty of this too. If someone recommends a band or artist to me, the first thing I will do is go and check what they have on Youtube. It’s crazy really. An artist or band toils away for a year or two trying to make the best sounding record that they can and then people just go to Youtube and end up watching and listening to some low quality live recording captured on a mobile phone camera. It’s a great resource for archive recordings though and I use it a lot. I’m conscious of the fact that I need to feed that side of things more. 

As an independent artist, these days you have to cover all bases and be a great multitasker. On top of being the song writer, singer, musician, performer, producer, recording and mixing engineer, manager, booking agent, press and radio plugger, and whatever else, it seems that being a good videographer or film maker should be high on the list of priorities now too. I certainly need to work on that area of things and get more quality videos out there. 
 
In these somewhat confused and troubled times how do these events filter into your music?
I think it’s inevitable that they filter into the music. If you care at all it’s hard not to be aware, not to feel emotionally moved or reflect what is going on in the world within the things that you want to say and the music you make. I can’t really claim to have ever been an overtly political or social songwriter but I’ve written a few and I’m sure I’ll write a few more in due course. We are certainly living in very troubled times right now and it’s sad to think that so many of those protest songs from the civil rights movement in the 60’s are still as relevant today as they were then. I’m just glad that Mavis Staples is still alive and kicking and able to sing them whilst also spreading her positive message of love and inspiration. 
 
Are the opportunities to play live more difficult these days and does that mean that you have a reverse situation in that touring the US in that it is usually US artists coming to Europe rather than the other way round. Is offering some scope for you?
It seems that it has become more difficult yes. Venues and pubs are closing down all over the country, for various reasons, and there is a lot of competition for gigs. As an independent artist and your own booking agent you can’t sit back and wait to be offered gigs. You have to keep seeking them out and driving things forward, whether that is in the UK, Europe, America or anywhere else. North America has always been notoriously difficult, firstly to get the work visa to tour and secondly to make any kind of impression. Canada is somewhat more accessible and parts of Europe can be great but Brexit will most likely have a negative effect on UK touring musicians over there. There is always scope but it’s a hard slog sometimes. Some days you dig around trying to find opportunities and it feels like your banging your head against a brick wall. But then every once in a while, you might knock a chunk out of that wall and a ray of light comes shining through. And that makes it all seem worthwhile. 
 
Is the future bright or is it a struggle (the glass full or half full question)?
Oh, it’s a struggle alright, but the future is bright too. I’ve always regarded myself as something of a cynical-optimist. Prepared for disappointment but always hoping for the best. Sometimes the power of positive thinking does seem to work. It’s hard to stay optimistic sometimes and I am prone to getting stuck in a rut from time to time, but in general I feel tremendously fortunate and grateful to live the life that I live.  I have so much to be thankful for. I may not sell as many albums as I’d like, or play to as many people as I’d like, but I still live for it. And I still love writing songs, recording music and performing.
 
You still love making music, given you continue to release albums, is it a necessity for you?
Yes. It may sound cliched but the creative process really is its own reward. There is a great feeling of accomplishment when you create something out of nothing or turn a negative emotion into something positive. It’s often like taking a weight off your shoulders or getting something out of your system so that you can look at it in a more objective manner. It can be very therapeutic or cathartic.

You can grow bitter or grow better. I often console myself if an album doesn’t achieve what I might think it should, by telling myself that the next one will be better. I think it’s healthy to always aspire to improve and develop your abilities. And with music and song-writing you never stop learning. There are always areas that you can work on, and that feeds your drive to move forward, improve and hopefully make better records. Playing live is rewarding too and necessary to gauge the quality of the work you’ve created. To see the reaction to songs and find out if they sink or swim. It also feeds the ego a little, helps to boost your confidence and provide some reassurance that you aren’t completely misguided or delusional.  
 
It’s a long time since you played in Ireland. Any plans to return? 
Yes, it’s been far too long since I was last over there on tour opening for The Handsome Family in 2009. I would love to come back and play some shows, especially the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival which people keep telling me is the greatest. I really enjoyed playing at Cleere’s when I was last there. The people were amazing and I’d love to return. I need to make some serious plans to get back over there to play especially with this new album out now. Of course, it would be great if I can get on another tour with a more established act to ensure a good crowd, but I just need to get a few gigs of my own organised and get over there again. It’s such a beautiful country to tour around and always a great experience to play to such passionate music lovers. I’ll keep you posted.

Interview by Stephen Rapid