Friday
Jan132017

Jeff Finlin Interview 

Jeff Finlin Interview 22nd November 2016 – The Sound House Dublin

It’s a bitterly cold winters night in Dublin with the outside temperature marginally higher than in the venue where Jeff Finlin is about to take the stage for his slot on his latest Irish tour, this time accompanied by UK’s  Peter Bruntnell and our own Clive Barnes. Not the most obvious trio that comes to mind but having witnessed them in action the previous week in Kilkenny, both on and off stage, their compatibility as performers and personalities is obvious. The format for the tour are sets by Finlin and Bruntnell accompanied on guitar by Barnes, who also does a short solo set himself between the two acts. Clive Barnes comes across as the organiser, the tour manager, the sat nav of the team, always busy, setting up, sound checking, and stacking guitars. Peter Bruntnell is the most laid back, the joker, the happy go lucky one. He’s likely to slip out to the bar, have a pint ("I’m very disciplined, only having a few beers every other night on this tour" he tells us) and discuss the merits of Tottenham playing with Harry Kane as a lone striker or how Wales are likely to hammer both England and Ireland in the Six Nations. Off stage Finlin is the most reserved of the three, a listener, an observer, an artist that has been at the cold face of the music industry in Nashville and has witnessed first-hand the highs, lows, expectations, hopes and regrets of a ruthless industry. Yet he also exudes contentment, self-control and is an engaging and charming conversationalist. Hitting rock bottom almost 20 years ago was, by his own admission, a godsend. Getting sober was a life changer, leading him down a more spiritual and magical path which inspired much of his splendid catalogue of work as a songwriter, musician, prose writer and poet. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to get an insight into the industry from a true survivor, career musician and writer.

 

You’re one of the few artists that have moved out of rather than into East Nashville in recent years. How did that come about?

My wife and I moved back there but she didn’t really like it, missed Colorado so we decided to get back to Colorado where she was happier, that was about two years ago. I had been in Nashville for twenty years, I cut my teeth there and then we moved to Colorado to raise my son, we wanted to get out of the city which turned out to be really good at the time. There may be an opportunity for me to go back so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Property prices have rocketed but we bought at the last minute so you could say it didn’t work out yet did work out as we still own a house there that we are renting. Even by getting in at the last minute was a coup and I still have a lot of ties there and I’m pretty bored in Colorado right now so I’m thinking of going back to Nashville more often as there are opportunities for me there at the moment. The music scene there is just crazy at the moment, the level of talent there, artists coming through and established acts, it’s amazing but it’s also a Nashville that comes with its own can of worms and the scene of all my crimes!  When I cross the county line I think "what’s that funny feeling in my stomach (laughs)." It’s a double edged sword that town. 

On reflection and twenty years into your career is it more difficult to make ends meet these days?

Completely, the music industry is gone, it’s over. It’s all about having enough of a name to go out and play and attract people, then it can work out. Who knows how it happens now, there used to be these paths to success which are all gone now, the publishing industry’s gone, the record labelling industry is gone. At least when I was young there was this $100 billion Industry that was out there spending money and making money so if you were in the right place at the right time with the right song something could happen for you. I knew guys that were in bands that signed record deals for a million dollars, records that never even came out! That certainly doesn’t exist anymore! There’s an entertainment industry and a touring band industry. It’s crazy but as artists we’re not in charge of the results, we just take action and turn it over and see what happens.

The contradiction is that the artists are still there, 2016 has possibly been the best year for recorded music in the past ten years

That’s it and you wonder how they make ends meet. You go to Nashville and you see a lot of the artists tending bar. There’s a great story about a well-known artist. It’s a story and I’m not sure if you can publish the artists name but it’s about these college kids having a wild party listening to him and his band and they decided to order a few pizzas and the delivery man comes to the door and guys who’s delivering the pizzas arrives and of course its him. The guys are like "what the fuck he’s my hero!" That’s the reality you know.

So tell me how you ended up touring over here with Clive (Barnes) and Peter (Bruntnell)?

Well, I wanted to come back to Europe as I hadn’t been over in six or seven years and I wanted to come back and dip my feet in the water again. So, I spoke with Clive last year and he said he’d call Peter up and see if we could all do a couple of weeks together in the UK. It worked and we were able to fill the two weeks and we had so much fun that we said we’d try and do the same in Ireland

Tell me about your writing. I’m aware that you’ve written a few books of prose. Did that direction come in advance of the song writing out the other way around?

The music always came before the prose. I’m kind of a word guy, I’ve always written songs because I’ve something to say. People will often say that the music comes first but for me it’s about the story. I’ve had so much stuff going through my head for over twenty years so I thought I need to put this all together in a book. My last book prose book just came along as a stream of consciousness thing. 

And is that a form of relaxation for you?

It can be (laughs), it just comes over me and I do it. The last prose book, I was going through certain stuff at the time and I just needed to sit down every morning and write stuff down. I’ve just finished a yoga book too, I’m pretty disciplined when it comes to writing and can get up at six every morning and write, I’m a morning guy so this touring and late nights turns my world upside down, going to bed at 2am and getting up at 8am (laughs). I’m not used to feeling shit all day and coming alive at six o clock in the evening, I’m used to feeling great at 5am and shit at 4pm (laughs). I’m good with the sun up.

So in terms of a young guy growing up in Ohio what sort of music were you introduced to?

I grew up in the 70’s which was probably the greatest time in history for music, the majority of people were listening to the best stuff. Those times in music history are rare, I grew up with all that great music radio in the 70’s, AOR radio and   I was a Stones, Beatles, Dylan guy ... Led Zeppelin too.  Black and white music was an integral part of what I listened to, they were separate and yet they were not. Getting to see Ike and Tina Turner live in 1974, Pink Floyd in '77, The Stones in '78 so many great bands in that era. I grew up with the blues, that’s why I loved the Stones, they went back into the blues and the Chuck Berry thing but I also always loved pop music. My song forms tend to lean as formalised as pop songs, there is blues influences but there’s pop form in there. Maybe that’s from hanging out in Nashville, it’s a very structured form based craft thing there and it rubbed off on me a little bit.

Your early career found you behind the drums I believe in the rock band The Thieves?

Yes, I was a drummer until I was 28 years old and started writing songs, a bit of a late developer as a songwriter and a guitar player. Some guy at the gig last night commented that I was a perfectly paced guitar player. I had to tell him that I’m actually a drummer and he said ‘Ah well that explains!’  Every good guitarist needs a good drummer behind him so I pretend to be both!

Are you optimistic career wise going forward?

I’m kind of in the middle, I’ve got my ass kicked enough not to get my hopes up. I just trust that inner voice to tell me when I need to write and what I need to do. I’ve just finished another album in Holland that will be coming out next year, have some more touring lined up but realistically it has to be sustainable so we’ll just have to see. I don’t do what I used to do, killing myself. I can’t do twenty-two dates in twenty-three days in three countries anymore, nor do I want to, life’s too short.

Your current compilation album Life after Death. How difficult was it to select the songs from your extensive back catalogue and did the record label give you a free hand to select the material?

Not too hard, there are songs that are missing, as I’ve been reminded. They allowed me to select all the songs myself which was nice of them, though I reckon if I don’t know myself by now I have a problem!  I tried to pick songs that were unique to my own little twisted lyrical thing but also wanted it to flow as a piece of work you know and not be disjointed and have a beginning and an end and feel that it flowed the whole way through. It can be difficult when you’re putting twenty songs together but I’m happy with it.

Interview by Declan Culliton

Monday
Jan092017

Country Lips Interview

  

Country Lips are an eight piece country band who have just released their latest album Till The Daylight Comes. It is a testament to their talent, attitude and collective take on traditional country music - somethhing that is a whole lot of fun. Lonesome Highway recently took the opportunity to throw some quick questions to the band.

What brought you guys together as a country band in Seattle?

We were all part of the music scene out of the U-District in north Seattle, some of us playing in other bands together. There had been talk of our shared interest in country music. Austin (bass) invited us to his house to jam on some old country tunes one night. We all brought a song or two, and that became our first set list. He booked us a show maybe a month later. We were super raw but excited to share the side of country music we loved - the party, honky-tonk, hard-edged side of country music. We started writing songs not long after that. A few lineup changes later and here we are.

Playing country music of the old school type is not usually something associated with the area. Is there a good local scene there?

There really is. Seems like there have always been at least a couple of very solid true country bands in Seattle since it was put on the map as a music town. And that seems to be more true today than ever. In Seattle proper the scene exists mainly around three venues (Tractor, Conor Byrne, and the Little Red Hen, which serves as the hub) and more than a couple handfuls of solid country bands (check out Ole Tinder, Swearengens, Deception Past, Lucky Lawrence, Country Dave, Gus Clark). Regionally Washington can be about as back-country as anywhere! Remember, Loretta Lynn got her start in northern Washington State.

With a line up of 8 members is there a difficulty with people moving on or are there a pool of platters there you can draw from?

We have had a number of lineup changes since our inception. And we have relied on fill-ins here and there, but our lineup has been solid for three plus years now.

How do you collectively feel about the state of country music these days in the mainstream and independent sectors?

Despite the obvious, that mainstream modern country has kind of become its own genre, I feel there may be some kind of reunification coming, as “alt-country” artists like Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan, or Nikki Lane grow in popularity. My favorite mainstream country artists have had more traditional country leanings anyway - Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley - and less of the arena-pop stuff that’s on the radio. But in spite of that weaker radio stuff, really good young musicians, singers, and songwriters are continuing to find expression through the more traditional country sounds and that is definitely a good thing for country music.

Your shows are a mix of original songs and some classic covers. Is that the best way to mix the old and new?

We think so. It’s a good feeling when we hear our song on the radio in a block of music with some of the greats and you think “hey that holds its own!”. Same idea in a set list.

How difficult is it for Country Lips to tour in the current climate?

Our touring difficulties are as much our own as they are the climate’s. We like touring as a full band and it’s tough bringing 8 on the road. And the market for live music 7-nights a week has dwindled all over the country.

Do you guys have day jobs to keep body and should together or how does that work?

We all do have day jobs and that also makes touring tough.

There is an element of humour in the songs and I’d imagine with such a large band that that needs to be part of the make up?

It is inevitable. Get that many fun-loving guys in a room together and try being serious.

With the album Till The Daylight Comes being available in Europe, do you intend to tour there?

We do, just a matter of when. Touring Europe is a major goal of ours. It will be a logistical challenge and we don’t have a plan yet in place but we’re hoping there will be enough of a demand to make it work sooner than later.

What is the best and worst thing about being a member of Country Lips?

Best: It’s a collective of the most supportive friends I could hope to have. We drive each other to be better musicians and band mates and we help each other out. Worst: it can be bad for ones health at times, what with all the partying. When it comes to drinking, we practice what we preach.

What do you see as the future of country music today. Will it survive on the fringes?

I think modern country music will continue to dominate in middle America, while alt-country and traditional country gain in popularity along the east and west coast. And like I said, I see more modern country artists breaking from the modern pop-country mold.

What do you draw inspiration from for your original material?

Musically it’s a blend of honky-tonk and Bakersfield - like Merle and Jones - with some Mexican norteño, and other outlaw country. Personally on guitar it’s all about “Chicken Pickin’” ala Brent Mason or Johnny Hiland.

Lyrically we seem to come back to our own personal struggles with love, money, work, and minor social deviance.

With a number of albums under your belt to date what is the band’s intention as a recording act and how important is that?

Hopefully we can up our rate of output, and keep recording albums at a more rapid clip. Recording is certainly something we’ll always be doing as it helps make sure we keep writing new material.

Outlaws or outsiders?

Outliers

Cowboy hats or backwards baseball Hats?

Almost always cowboy hats. Sometimes baseball hats, but usually forwards.

What are the bands ambitions for the future?

To keep getting better. To continue making music we love and to keep getting more and more opportunities to share it. Beyond that: Tour the world by boat. Move to Mexico and make a true norteño album. Waterski with Alan Jackson. The usual.

Interview by Stephen Rapid

Friday
Dec302016

Michael McDermott Interview

 

If you were to judge from the photography and the songwriting on his latest album (and previous recordings) it would be easy to perceive Michael McDermott as an overtly serious and moody person. In person nothing could be further from the truth. 

McDermott is an open, honest, gracious and likable man. His background of artistic failure and the following decline into drink and drugs before a subsequent recovery and renaissance is documented on his website ( http://www.michael-mcdermott.com/bio ). 

It says a lot about the character of the man that he has seen the light through the darkness and his journey has made him a very notable singer and songwriter whom author Stephen King wrote “ Not since I first heard Bruce Springsteen singing Rosalita had I heard someone who excited me so much as a listener …” King is not the only one to recognise McDermott’s talent. He recently made  his Dublin debut playing upstairs in Whelan’s. Lonesome Highway caught up with him prior to that performance.

You were raised in Chicago in an Irish-American home, what an affect did that have on your future musical direction if at all?

Well it was pretty big. It was so much growing up even though there was Irish music playing in the house but when I first moved into the city I played with a guy, Paul Fitzpatrick, who’d seen me at open mics and I was, you know, with sunglasses on doing the whole beat poet thing, reading Ginsberg, pretty silly. I was broke too. So, he said “if you want you could play with me.” I ended up getting a schooling of sorts in Irish music with songs like The Fields Of Athenry, which isn’t that old really, or songs from Christy Moore and others like Waltzing Matilda, all that kind of stuff. It was great to learn them and highly influential and also learning about, not particularly Irish, but just good songwriting. Songs that went on too long (laughs) but were written because they had to be written not just a current song of the day.

After the failure of your major label band deal you went through a very negative period. How did that experience resonate with you?

I’d become a very entitled spoilt brat. I was a young kid and had been given money, that kind of thing. Then it didn’t happen and for a young man that was hard. I wonder about kids today and how they remain well adjusted to all of that. It’s a disappointment really when people you thought were your friends and family don’t return your calls anymore. That was the hardest thing. You know it’s not going to happen and that is painful. Friends used to say “don’t forget about me when you make it big.” And you think “well don’t forget about me if I don’t.” 

You have just released a solo album. Where does that fit in the overall scheme of things?

It was a new start. I was sober and clean so I felt different and I wanted to re-establish who I was. When you bury yourself with all that stuff for twenty years you don’t know who you are. You become infantile in a lot of ways; emotionally and in a lot of other ways such as relationships and all that stuff. It’s a learning process all over again. I felt that I was making up for lost time. I was writing all the way through that terrible mayhem. I would never write under the influence of anything as it wasn’t that ‘drunk poet’  thing. I wanted it clean, but I may take something when I was finished. There’s a purity that I take seriously. So The Westies was kind of a new birth. But there was a lot of baggage and my manager at that time said “Mike, I don’t know to tell you this but there’s a lot of baggage associated with your name. But your songs are so great so if we could just get them heard.” So we set about trying to do that. 

Do you think and have you now put The Westies on hold?

No, it was really just the nature of the material. Right now it’s just very solo record kind of writing, but as I move forward I’ll know where the songs are going. Like “that’ll be a good Westies song.” There be the solo records that would be a spiritual journey or some weird crime song. So I thought why not put those songs into one kind of thematic place. 

Some of your songs have a historical context, for instance your song about William Bonney.

Right, when I was watching a show on Billy the Kid and it mentioned he was Irish I just like “you’re kidding me!” So, I ordered all these books on him. That was amazing. No one really wants to hear another song about Billy the Kid but when I heard about the Irish connection I thought maybe he was the first Westie (the Irish Mafia gang in New York). That gave me a different angle.  

I’ve since become friends with the writer of the book on the Westies and he still talks to those guys as they’re still around. I’ve always been fascinated by those characters so in my days being insane you run into a lot of those people. Gunrunners and so forth, so I’ve always been compelled by that, by the psychology of that lifestyle. But I don’t romanticise them as many of them are sociopaths. 

Do you tend to write for a specific project or are you always stockpiling songs?

I wrote as I go. I try to do it every day. I get up before the family as I have a 6 -year-old. I get up when it’s still dark and try to get an hour of writing in before the footsteps start. There’s chaos the rest of the day so it’s the only time.

After the initial writing do you redraft a lot?

I do, I overwrite. For a normal song I could have up to 30 verses. Them my wife comes in and what she writes becomes the song. I’Il write what I think I need and I then edit it, then it will be half of what I wrote. 

After two Westies and a solo album what’s the next Step?

I don’t know. I’ll see what comes up I think I have more solo songs right now. My wife and I were talking about this as the first (Westies) record was this guy looking at the early part of his life - urban, New York, getting into trouble. The second album was where he was re-habilitated and were he goes away and discovers how hard it is to get back into life. I know how hard it is as I was facing time. If you try to get a job after that it’s really hard but I’m a musician so it doesn’t affect me in the same way. So I don’t know where that guy goes now. I’m not giving up on the Westies at all. I’m just not sure what to do with it next.

As a solo artist are you consciously making a move away from the Westies group sound?

I don’t know, maybe. But if there is anything to be learned from the last few records and the way they seem to have gotten more connection is that my work was buried under the fact of maybe being obtuse for obtuse sake. I’m now getting rid of the fat so-to-speak. I hope, if anything, that they’re getting leaner. The songs, while I don’t want to get away from the detail necessarily, which is kind of what I do, are more honest. Some people have said that I’m a painfully honest songwriter but I don’t know that I’ve been as honest as I could be.

Sometimes it may be better not to reveal too much.

Right, that’s the thing. A lot of times I’m asked what’s the song about but I don’t really have anything to add. I think it’s there for the listener.

A song should allow for personal interpretation.

Exactly.

Do you write outside of the song lyric structure at all?

I don’t think that I’d have the stamina for it, or maybe the attention span. Songs are like little books. I’ve entertained the idea, but not seriously.

How different is the process of getting your music out now compared to when you started?

Actually, I never had a bad relationship with any of the labels I was on. You hear nightmare stories, but it didn’t really happen to me. They say the best thing now is that anybody can make a record and the worst thing is that anybody can make a record. There’s just a lot more clutter now. Before you would know who was coming out with a record, someone like Warner Brothers would release 16 albums a year. 

Labels were somewhat different then to some degree as they were often headed by people with a genuine love for music rather than simply profit. As an independent artist you can have some say in how the record sounds and how the artwork looks .

I don’t really think about that because records are so ephemeral now. You put a record out now and a month later it’s pretty much over. It’s hard to get traction. There’s so much music and I don’t blame anyone as it’s hard to find. We are so inundated. Even making videos is something I don’t think about that much. We are making one for my song Getaway Car as it’s going to be in the Showtime series Billions. We got permission from the John Dillinger Museum where he broke out from jail so we’re going to film there. 

Which of your contemporaries are you inspired by?

Well, I think Jason Isbell is amazing. David Grey always seems to speak to me too. Those two guys would be the main ones. In the Irish context I like Mundy and Liam from the Hothouse Flower. U2 too, I used to cover some of their songs. They’re one of my favourite bands of all time. 

Where does Europe fit into the long-term equation?

I’m not sure of the numbers but there seem to be interest here. It’s a more discerning audience over here. I really believe that. 

Interview and colour photograph by Stephen Rapid   Black and white cover portrait by Sandro

 

Monday
Dec192016

Jude Johnstone Interview

 

Jude Johnstone is a very special songwriter and someone who has been producing wonderful music under the media radar for many years now. Her experience in the music industry is second to none and it was a real treat to speak with her when she agreed to spend some time giving her insights and thoughts on the creative process and her career. If you have not heard her music, then the following interview should certainly have you looking to add her to your collection of important artists.

When did you begin to play music and was the piano always your instrument of choice?

I started writing songs when I was 8 years old and started playing piano. And yes, piano was always my instrument of choice.

Who were your early influences when you were growing up?

My influences varied widely because of my dad, my brothers, my mom ... they were anywhere from Glen Miller, Sarah Vaughn, The Beatles, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Lowell George, Jeez Louize, so many more.

In 2002 your debut, Coming of Age, was released with notable guest appearances from Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood & Jennifer Warnes. How did you come to have them involved with the project?

I was back stage at a concert in Santa Barbara that featured Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby and I forget who else … after the show I was talking to Jackson and said, “I am gonna finally make an album at 40 years old!” and he said, “Well, that’s a great idea! It takes about 40 years before you actually have anything to say.” So, I said, “Would you sing on it with me?” And he said, “Sure.” And the same with the others that sang on it. Was as simple as that.

Were you happy with the reception that it received on release?

Well, I was on a label that my manager and I made up so there was no machinery behind it. There was no money to promote a product like what is necessary. We were with a distributer that was calling Barnes and Noble and Borders and asking them to put it in their stores but I had no prior records, audience, or reason for that, so they said no. Then I got an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition with Renee Montagne. Well, it went well and the impulse buyers on their way to work that morning stopped at the Borders and Barnes and Nobles stores to get the cd but it wasn’t there, you see, so they had to search it out on our website etc. That takes too much time. We still sold 7000 cds that morning and would’ve sold 20,000 if it had been easily available in the stores. But that’s the catch 22. So, after that, the bookstores called our distributer and said, “Where is this cd everyone is asking us about?” And they said, “That is the one we tried to get you to put in your store.” Well, of course, then they did put it in the stores but it was too late. It’s an impulse buy. So, in answer to your question, was I pleased with the reception from that the first CD, I’d say yes. But I was handcuffed.

Clarence Clemons was an early mentor and invited you to E-Street band sessions for the River. How did that experience shape you?

Clarence Clemons was my guardian angel in every sense of the term. He was my second dad, uncle, whatever you wanna call it. He brought me to Los Angeles where I lived for 14 years and worked in those early days with Springsteen’s producer, Charles Plotkin, who helped me hone my craft. I wouldn’t be talking to you now had it not been for Clarence. It’s too long a story but he was one of the greatest friends and supporters I have ever had.

You also sung on records by T Bone Burnett and Leonard Cohen and were invited to compose some music with one Mr Bob Dylan. What were these experiences like for you as a young artist and what are your memories of that time?

Oh, I was fresh in Los Angeles in those days. And not a pretty picture in some ways. Yeah, I remember singing some with T-Bone and more with one of his cohorts, Stephen Soles, who I worked with quite a bit. As for Leonard, I was invited by Jennifer Warnes to sing on his I’m Your Man album, a great privilege. Entirely because of Jennifer at the time. It was a blast and Leonard was a blast. I will never forget the experience. The Dylan thing was a fluke. His publishers at the time just sent me a “song start” of his that they wanted me to take a look at...so I finished it and recorded it and sent it back to them. They were trying to make him some money, I think, maybe get some cuts, to pay for some of his overhead, I suppose. It has only been recorded by one artist whose record wasn’t widely released. Hardly anyone’s ever heard it. I almost did a weird version of it for my current cd but didn’t have the time.

Your songs have been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler, Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, Jennifer Warnes, Trisha Yearwood and many others. Do you write with such artists in mind or do the songs come from a personal perspective initially?  

No, I do not think of other singers when writing, generally. I just write my songs cause I have to. Then afterward, I might think, “Oh, I’ll bet Trisha would really like this one.” So, I’ll send it to her. I did write this one Xmas song that’s very sad that I actually heard Willie Nelson singing in my head as I was writing it. But that’s rare. Never got it to him.

Has song-writing for others become your main focus or do you see the release of your own work as the key driver?

The release of my own work is for me, mostly, and my fans, cause I don’t have a situation that can get my records out there too far. It is like a calling card for my friends who are more famous than me to listen to and take songs from it, hopefully, and record them on their own albums so that the songs find their way out into the world.

Your second release in 2005, On a Good Day, received much praise. Did you feel a media momentum building at this stage of your career?

I just put my music out there as best I can. I have the acknowledgment of my peers and try not to have a lot of expectations beyond that.

In 2007 the Blue Light release took a new direction into a more jazz-based space. Was this a conscious decision and did you feel the need to redefine your sound?

Blue Light was made because, first of all, jazz inspired writing and chord changes are my favourite kind of writing to do, particularly torch. At that time, Henry Lewy, Joni Mitchell’s long time engineer/producer, who had also worked with me on many unreleased tracks, and been a lifelong friend, died. And because that style of music was his favourite that I did, I needed to do that record to grieve his loss. For starters

Mr Sun quickly followed in 2008 and remained in the area of reflective jazz-based arrangements. The lyrics referenced songs that dealt with the challenges of relationships, hope, loss and gained perspectives on life. Did you allow character writing to infuse your songs or did they continue to evolve from personal experience?

Mr. Sun was derived entirely from personal experience. The whole record was about a relationship with the same person, from start to finish.

Quiet Girl arrived in 2011. The songs included were a return to something of a roots/country base in terms of song structures. Was this a conscious decision?

Yes, it was a conscious decision to go back to the Americana cause I felt I had, over two albums, done the work I had wanted to do in jazz/blues. For the time, anyway.

Was the title in any way a reflection of your absence from the media glare over the previous years?

No, it was about a guitar player.

Shatter was released in 2013 and saw you speak of new beginnings and seeking a sense of rebirth. Was there a new perspective shaping you at this time?

Yes. But it’s too long a story. I was in a separation/divorce at the time after 28 years of marriage. So many of the songs were about what I was thinking at that time.

Your new record is now ready for release and can you tell us a little more about the central themes and the creative process behind it?

The new CD contains songs that pertain to love, some of my traveling abroad in the last few years and what it’s meant to me.

You have been touring in Europe, on and off, for a few years now. Touring can be hard work but do you find the journey and the miles worthwhile?

Touring Europe and seeing more of the world and its inhabitants has saved my life.

You have now moved to Nashville. Was this to be closer to the hit machine factory or was it for other reasons?

I moved here because I could no longer afford to care for my 1800s Victorian house on the California coast and rather than go all the way back to Maine, where I’m from, I thought I would try Nashville, since I have so many contacts here. Still working on that. We’ll see.  

Do you like playing live or would you prefer to remain as a home-based writer essentially?

I love playing Live and telling stories. And I like staying home. But staying home doesn’t get you very far. Around here, you gotta get out and be seen. So I try to do that every now and then.

When you look back over the arc of your career what reflections do you draw?

That’s a tough question. I have some regrets about missing some opportunities that I shouldn’t have missed cause I was asleep at the wheel at certain times. but at other times, I suited up and showed up and it was good. I’m grateful that other artists recorded my songs. It was a great living for a long time. It put my kids through various schools, it fed our faces. You know, I am grateful for the most part.

Has the changing distribution of music been a good or bad thing for your career? 

The internet and the way music is pretty much stolen these days has been very bad for me. The artists that have recorded my songs don’t sell records anymore so unless you are writing hit singles that are getting radio airplay, you don’t make any money anymore. I mean, I made a living on album cuts from album sales and those days are kind of over unless you’re on a very big record like a Beyoncé or Adele or someone like that. There’s still money in tv and film placements but those are hard to come by. I’m working on that. 

Is the present state of the music business something that you now embrace? 

No, I don’t embrace where the music biz has gone for the reasons I just stated. Also, I’m old fashioned. I loved getting a whole album by an artist. The album is its own full statement. The songs are meant to be listened to together. My albums certainly are. Not to be taken a song at a time out of context. I take the sequence of each record and the meaning behind the whole record very seriously. I do think it’s sad that people just download a song and put it on some playlist on their iPod. I mean, that’s just not what I ever envisioned. It’s art. You don’t order pieces of a painting. You buy the painting. 

What does the immediate future hold for you and is the glass half full or half empty?

I have no idea what the future holds for me or writers like me. I just bang away at it cause it’s what I do. I didn’t choose music. It chose me. I stopped trying to figure out if the glass is half empty or half full a long time ago and just do my work and hope I can do it again tomorrow

Interview by Paul McGee

Monday
Dec052016

Ariel Bui Interview

One of the most interesting new artists to come to the attention of Lonesome Highway at The Americana Music Festival in Nashville this year was a young female artist currently residing in Nashville by the name of Ariel Bui. The daughter of Vietnamese parents who emigrated to the States at the end of the Vietnam war, Bui is a classically trained musician who studied voice and piano at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida focusing on Piano Pedagogy, the art and business of teaching piano. She founded Melodia Studio in Nashville which currently provides education in piano to over twenty students and intends widening the project to include education for children as young as infants

Bui showcased her recently recorded self-titled album at Fond Object on September 25th, introduced on stage by JP. Harris whose annual Sunday Morning Coming Down outdoor event has become a not to be missed feature of the festival.

Lonesome Highway was interested to learn more about Bui and her experimental and quite unique take on Americana which she and her excellent band performed during her forty-five-minute slot.

How would you describe your music?

It is challenging to describe my music, because I draw inspiration from so many different places and strive to defy genre. Since moving to Nashville in 2011, I was inspired to explore my Southern roots. Born and raised in the American South, I wanted to write songs that explored the depth and richness of distinctly American music like rock’n’roll, country, jazz & blues. However, with a background in classical music and a variety of other styles, I wanted to meld everything together in a way that was classic yet subtly experimental. I suppose I would describe my music as a unique melting pot of styles, with honest lyricism and delivery.

Your album launch in Nashville featured the album in its totality played in the same order as it on the record.  It seems to start with a somewhat traditional country feel and move further away from country and into more classical and jazzy territory towards the end. Was this intentional in choosing the order of the songs?

One of my main concerns going into recording this album was how to cohesively put together songs that sounded so different from each other. Producer Andrija Tokic not only assured me he would help choose what songs to include on the album from over twenty demos that I sent him, but he would also help me decide on song order.

When making an analog album with the intention that it is going to be on a vinyl record, there are a lot of considerations. You must consider how long each side needs to be in order to maintain best audio quality, with a maximum of 18 minutes per side being the sweet spot. Then you must consider the physics of the grooves, with sparser slower songs sounding better towards the end or inside of each side. Then, there’s also the consideration that each side becomes its own stand-alone unit, where typically Side A hosts the more conventional hits (in this case, the more country-sounding songs) while Side B hosts the less conventional.

Honestly, by the time we were done recording I was so mentally and emotionally exhausted, I gladly let Andrija take the producer lead on song order. After poring over his song order, I made only one change which was to make To All the Cowboys the first track instead of Jump the Gun. Andrija wanted the first track to immediately grab the listener with the catchy bass line, but on listening I wanted the first track to slowly sneak up on the listener and honour my long-time friends and fans who know that my last three releases were solo acoustic albums. I wanted to slowly introduce the band production. And to honour my classical sensibilities and background, I wanted the tonal centre to move gracefully from track to track. To All the Cowboys ends closer to where Jump the Gun begins, but then Jump the Gun ends on E where the next few songs hang out. Then we move from E to A with Moon Over Kentucky and slow the country tempo down to end Side A with Since You Went Away. Side B starts out with a fully orchestrated, spaghetti-western style interpretation of a song that’s on my first record Disguised As Fate from 2009 and slowly gets “weirder” from a single drop D tuning to a double drop D tuning until it ends on the stand-along jazzy track Honey, Moon. The way Honey, Moon ends, so jazzily and dreamily, feels like a cliff-hanger to me. A musical mystery of what’s to come next.

Take us through the recording of the album at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville and the influence of producer Andrija Tokic

I knew I wanted to record this album for analog vinyl. For years, many of my friends around town highly recommended Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter, the little pink analog recording studio in East Nashville. One night, I went to Mickey’s Tavern and ran into Jem Cohen (Fond Object Records, The Ettes) who was playing foosball with Andrija. After being introduced, I sent Andrija some demos, visited the studio, and we decided to work together.

Between meeting in January and booking our June recording session, Andrija and I were in pre-production. I recorded rough demos of over twenty songs, trying to capture the essence of my songs in my kitchen onto my ipad. Andrija and I worked on dwindling down which ten or eleven songs we would want to record and what kind of instrumentation and vibe I wanted.

He recommended two session musicians, percussionist Dave Racine and multi-instrumentalist Jon Estes, assuring me of their precision and expertise. He had many spaghetti western ideas, and ideas of how to not make the songs sound like stereotypical Music Row country songs. He liked my weirder songs. He assured me that, though he had many ideas, he would always respect and defer to my artistic vision.

Once in the studio, we started with Appraisal, listening to the demo a couple times while Jon and Dave charted out the chord progressions and song structure. Andrija discussed with us what he was thinking for instrumentation, vibe, and sound. Then we would record the bed tracks live, meaning the main bare bones of the tracks were recorded live with me singing and playing guitar in an isolated booth, while Dave and Jon played drums and bass in the bigger room at the same time. We went through all the songs this way, charting the songs, discussing production ideas, and recording the bed tracks live to 2-inch tape with me in an isolated booth. Then, Jon overdubbed all the other instruments, from keys of all kinds, to supplementary guitars, cello, pedal steel, and some percussion.

We ran out of time after those first four days in the studio, so we booked some more dates in the fall. At that point, my friends Emma Berkey and Lizzie Wright came in to do a bulk of the harmonizing vocals while Jem Cohen offered additional support as an extra ear and voice for harmonies. Andrija acted as motivator, coach, and conductor, boosting morale while offering direction, suggesting ideas and changes and engineering everything. Working with tape, you only get a limited number of tracks to record with, so Andrija also called a lot of shots on which takes to keep and which takes to re-do and tape over.

Once harmonizing vocals were complete, Andrija and I chose a few songs for me to re-record main vocal tracks over. At first I felt a little insecure that I hadn’t “nailed” the vocal tracks while recording with the band the first time, but singing vocal overdubs probably became one of my favourite parts of recording. I got to set my guitar down and just sing. And not only sing, but sing my heart out to match the now fully-orchestrated tracks, not just sing over my own guitar or even with a small band. However, there were a few songs where we left the original vocal tracks, such as in Since You Went Away. There’s even a part where I accidentally hit the microphone with my face, which will never be able to be cut and pasted out.

Andrija then mixed the songs from the 24-track 2-inch tape to ¼-in tape, adjusting analog effects, manually fading parts in and out and adjusting levels live as the 24-tracks were condensed into a few tracks. We collaborated on things like which takes and mixes to keep, and I got to be my perfectionistic, detail-oriented self-asking that certain breath sounds were kept or cut, certain things end abruptly rather than fade. After mixing was done, we finalized a song order and Andrija literally cut the ¼” tape and taped the songs into the right order for the reels.

Eventually, I flew up to Brooklyn with the mixed tapes and sat in on the analog mastering session with Paul Gold at Salt Mastering. It was like watching a mad scientist at work in his lab, with all these gadgets, circular knobs and mathematical notes. He fine-tuned everything and I’m grateful I was able to fly up again when I was ready to press the record to vinyl. I got to watch Paul take all his mathematical notes, and in real-time witness the ¼” tape play through the board where he would adjust all the knobs at the start of each song as the grooves were cut into the lacquer, the template for what would become the metal stamps to stamp out the analog vinyl records. Not only was it a huge learning experience for me to witness this process, but I got to be there to catch any weird irregularities that may have arisen.

Was there a particular reason for choosing to live and record in Nashville?

It happened a little by accident, or fate, depending on how you look at it. After graduating with a degree in music from Rollins College in 2009, I took a totally different turn and moved to Taos, New Mexico, living off the grid for a couple years, working first with radically-sustainable architecture firm Earthship Biotecture and then with Americorps’ Energy Conservation Crew at Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.  When my term at Americorps ended, I had plans to move to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to work in Disaster Relief as a freelance activist with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). But my life came to a head when I went to Burning Man in 2011 to convene with Burners Without Border and the NGO I was planning on working with.

At Burning Man, no money is exchanged for an entire week, and it really changes the way people interact with themselves and with others. While I was questioning what role I could play to make the world a better place, especially if the world were to end in, say, 2012 or something, it really became clear to me that I had to come to terms with my calling as a musical artist. Attending Burning Man and living in New Mexico, appropriately dubbed the Land of Enchantment, I was forced to do some serious soul-searching. I had put music off as an egotistical hobby at that point, but others appreciated my unique musical artistry and urged me to pursue music for my own sake and for theirs.

So when I returned to Taos and decided not to move to Haiti, I had to figure out what to do next. I had no shelter and no job. Someone I met at Burning Man travelled to Taos to intern with Earthship Biotecture and needed a place to park his RV. We struck up a deal. He could park his RV on my little quarter-acre of land if I could live in it, too. But winters in Taos are brutal, dropping to temperatures of -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter was coming. So, we struck up another deal. We could drive my car to his hometown near Toronto, Canada where he could find work and we could elope. Then I could become a Canadian citizen and hopefully receive benefits and make a living as a Canadian artist. But the relationship was untenable and shortly after arriving in Canada, it became extremely clear it was not going to work.

At this point, I was running out of money and options, so my father and stepmother convinced me to move in with them in the suburbs of Dallas, TX. In between Toronto and Dallas was an Earthship friend outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky and a close old friend in Nashville, TN. I spent a couple weeks helping Jacob Mudd with his Earthship build in Kentucky, pounding dirt into tires, playing music and reminiscing about Taos.

Then I headed off to Nashville, where I was reunited with my old friend Dylan Ethier. Dylan and I have been friends since high school and our friendship has revolved around music. We collaborated on my first record, Disguised As Fate, where he recorded some of the tracks, mixed the album, finalized the album art, and released it on his boutique label Love Note Collectables in 2008. During the week or two I visited Nashville, I met amazing people who were artists, musicians, industry people, and activists, and Dylan and I recorded my third album, Niche EP, in his living room. Dylan moved to Nashville to study sound engineering at SAE, yet he and I have always been a fan of lo-fi albums and artists. I love collaborating with Dylan because he understands and respects my artistic vision and it was a no-brainer when we recorded Niche EP live to tape, from a single mic straight to his reel-to-reel tape recorder with no editing and minimal mixing or EQing. We wanted the organic room of the sound and of my performance. It broke my heart a little when we converted the tape to digital files to then become limited edition cassette tapes, released on boutique cassette label, Tent Revivalist. At any rate, I felt like this third record was much more natural and indicative of the way I wanted to record moving forward.

I left Nashville for Dallas where I quickly had another falling out with my father, fled to stay with my mentally ill mother in my birth town of Shreveport, Louisiana for a couple weeks where I fell in love with a late-night college radio DJ, and headed back to Nashville where I crashed on Dylan’s couch until I could find work and get myself established in Nashville. It was clear I could definitely build a life and career as a musician here, amongst like-minded people and friends. It’s taken a few years to work up to the point where I am now, and it is proving to be the best move I’ve ever made.

Comparisons have been made with another wonderfully talented artist Angel Olsen. Are you comfortable being placed in a category of female experimentalists such as Olsen and Fiona Apple?

Not only would I be honoured to be placed in a category with female experimentalists such as Angel Olsen and Fiona Apple, but it is a dream of mine. I will admit, I get really star-struck by people I admire deeply, so I dream deep-down of just getting to become friends and equals with my heroes. That way I’m not only a blubbering fangirl, but hopefully, fingers-crossed, a respectable peer in the world of music and art.

The word experimental is funny, because I feel like what makes artists like Fiona Apple or Angel Olsen experimental is not that they necessarily do anything avant-garde, but more so that they are genuine and unique, which is what I strive to be.

Where did your musical inspirations come from growing up to lead to a career as a singer-songwriter and performer?

Gosh, I have so many influences, it’s hard to narrow it down. But when I started writing music at around fifteen years-old, it was contemporary artists like Fiona Apple and Regina Spector that inspired me to pursue song writing and performing. Fiona’s performing, lyricism, artistry and production really drew me and has stuck with me over the years. When I was fifteen, Regina Spector had two stripped down, self-released albums out (11:11 and Songs) and was gigging around New York City. I followed her on her website where she would communicate with her fans on a chat forum, but I was too young to get into the bar shows during my summer vacations in New York. Instead, I did by chance get to witness Beyoncé perform with Destiny’s Child when they performed their first album for free in Time Squares’ Virgin Megastore. If you bought the album you could watch them perform in the book store and get their autographs, which I did. Following these humble women’s careers from the early stages has been very inspiring.

Ultimately though, it was the underground music scene in Brevard County, Florida that inspired me to write and perform. When I was a teenager, there were countless bands making music that will never be heard by most ears because it all happened in garages and weird DIY spaces, on burnt CDs and Myspace profiles never to be re-released. The spirit of making art for art’s sake and sharing it within a community of friends, that will always be an integral part of who I am musically. My teenage years in Brevard County, Florida was where I learned to write songs, perform live, record an album, book and promote shows, and do everything DIY. These skills and sense of community have laid the foundations for me to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter and performer, and now to hopefully evolve to reach a wider audience.

What artists in particular have inspired you in a manner that you would be proud to achieve in inspiring others?

On this album, I was inspired by older artists like Odetta, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bob Dylan, while also being influenced by more modern artists like Angel Olsen, Fiona Apple, and The Ettes for being classy, unique, and genuine. Elliott Smith is also a huge inspiration to me for his song writing, guitar playing, and tasteful yet simple production. I also draw inspiration from bands like The Beatles, Radiohead, and Bjork because of the way that they have been able to evolve and change over time while remaining true to themselves as artists.

These artists, and too many others to name, have inspired me by making me feel less alone. Every artist is inspiring in different ways, but I find that authenticity and honesty carry through and that’s what speaks to me. I’ve felt inspired by the way people express their emotions, or execute a tone or performance, how they navigate their ever-evolving careers. But at the end of the day, I would be proud to inspire others in the way so many artists have inspired me to connect with ourselves, each other, and the entire planet and universe in a more honest and meaningful way.

Your lyrics appear both deep and very dark, in some ways a contradiction to your upbeat and buoyant personality. Do you consider song writing a necessary medium for you to comfortably express your inner feelings?

People seem to make the observation of this contradiction quite often, while the people who know me most don’t find the contrast surprising at all. In my daily life, I prefer to be upbeat and friendly, perhaps because I want everyone around me to be as comfortable as possible. However, I do absolutely consider song writing a necessary medium for me to comfortably express my inner feelings, and in a way, make people comfortable with their deep, dark feelings, too. I experienced a great deal of trauma as a child including child sexual abuse, and though I am a high-functioning individual who is not defined by my trauma, I live with many symptoms of PTSD. Coming from a family of immigrants who fled the Vietnam War, I have many theories about intergenerational trauma and epigenetics. Music is a healing force in my life, a meditative process where I commune with my subconscious and the collective unconscious. Without music and song writing, I honestly don’t think I would be alive today.

You combine your performing career with the Melodia Studio teaching vision which seems the ideal combination. Is it your intention to remain in Nashville and expand both projects?

Yes. As both musical careers grow simultaneously, I do often wonder what the future holds, but thus far my plans are to continue living in Nashville and to expand upon both my careers as a musical artist and as a musical educator ... and hopefully as a DJ at our new community radio station WXNA as well. I aspire to find a permanent live/work space, hopefully with the help of Nashville non-profit The Housing Fund’s Make A Mark Project which aims to help provide affordable live/work options for artists in Nashville. With gentrification and development on the rise, many artists and low-income residents of Nashville are getting forced out of the city.

I would eventually like to be able to provide a more permanent space not only for my students, but for other artists, teachers and their students as well. I currently have students as young as three and as old as retirees, however, I want to begin offering group classes for infants and toddlers and eventually be able to somehow offer lessons to underprivileged children and adults as well. My thoughts are that if my own musical career gets to a place where I need to step away from teaching sometimes, I can bring in other teachers and eventually other administrative assistants as well. But I feel very attached to Melodia Studio, because I helped form it and have stuck with it through thick and thin because of my belief that everyone could benefit from a musical education. Music is a healing force and it is beneficial to individuals and communities for an infinite number of reasons. Whenever I get overwhelmed by the task of promoting my own music, teaching offers me the opportunity to watch someone else discover their own musical journey, which is extremely humbling and gratifying. Combining a career as a musical artist and a career as a musical educator, really allows me to pursue my dreams while having a balanced, humble and stable grounding. It really is an ideal combination.

Interview and photography by Declan Culliton

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