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Quick Q and A with Rani Arbo
 by Kathy S-B  ·  27 April 2015

The Boston Globe once called the music of Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem “playful and profound.” I can’t think of two better adjectives to describe this amazing band. They play some of the most soul-lifting songs you’ll hear in your life as well as some of the most awe-inspiring collaborations ever. Rani Arbo (fiddle, guitar)) and her husband Scott Kessel (percussion) hold down the fort in Middletown, CT and are ably supported by Anand Nayak (electric and acoustic guitar) and Andrew Kinsey (bass, banjo, ukulele). The whole is so much greater than the already great parts. Pure magic happens when these four musicians play together. Outstanding harmonies and fanciful and exuberant instrumentation are key factors that make this band so much fun to experience live.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem

A video showing the very soulful side of Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem is their rendition of “Bright Morning Star.” And here’s a song that highlights each of the musicians in the group, “Hear Jerusalem Moan.”

Rani Arbo was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

If you had to describe your music in three words or less, what would they be?
Eclectic, fun, deep
Let’s take a trip aboard the wayback machine. What is your earliest recollection of music?
I remember building great blanket-and-chair forts around my parents’ cabinet-style record player (turntable, record storage and speakers all in one big box). I was a preschooler. I’d stay in there for hours, listening to my parents’ music — Pete Seeger, Scott Joplin, Flat & Scruggs, Peter Paul & Mary, others. My mother would serve me snacks in there, in the dark. This was a very intense listening experience that I craved, and that I could keep up for hours at a time. Also, as an 8-year-old, I started as a chorister in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, which entailed 30 hours a week of rehearsal and services — a very intense training that has served me well, not only musically but also spiritually. I think that experience is the root of how I continue to experience music as a musician and a performer. I’m not a churchgoer now, but I believe strongly that music is a tent under which we can gather to reflect, celebrate, grieve, pray, dance, laugh, love. There is nothing like it.
Did you learn violin at an early age?
No! I studied classical cello from age 8 to the end of high school; at the peak of my activity (and ability) I was playing in High School orchestra (which, believe it or not, Gil Shaham was also in) and playing in a string ensemble and in quartets on Saturdays in Queens, under the direction of Enrico DiCecco, a New York Philharmonic violinist. I loved that music, but had had enough of the intensity of trying to keep up with the Julliard kids who were really dedicated. I let it all go at the end of high school, but I came back to discover the violin/fiddle, and remember my folk music roots in college (see story below).
Were you aware that there was a whole world of string music outside of the traditional classical training that most young people learn?
I was somewhat aware of a wider world of string music, in part from those early recordings my parents’ had — and also from experiences I had watching Eugene Friesen play cello with the Paul Winter Consort, which was in residence at the Cathedral where I was a chorister. I didn’t really fall for bluegrass/folk until college, but then I immersed in tapes (remember those) and live shows. I saw a performance of the touring show, “Masters of the Folk Violin” in 1988, featuring Alison Krauss (then a teenager), Claude Williams (who played with Duke Ellington), Kenny Baker (who played with Bill Monroe), Michael Doucet (cajun fiddle maven) and the winners of the Scottish and Irish fiddle competitions that year. Six fiddlers, six styles, no band in sight. I was mesmerized. I fell in love with the idea of being able to play harmony — the part of music that moves me the most — on a stringed instrument that was capable of so many different moods. Certainly you can play double-stops on the cello (and I had just gotten to using them in Bach Suites when I left the cello), but with the fiddles I hear something very different, more nimble and exciting. Of course the nimble part has been a learning curve for me ever since, but I’ve never turned back.
Do you remember consciously making a decision that music would be your career?
When I started fiddling, and then helped start the band Salamander Crossing in 1991, there was no “career” in mind whatsoever. That band began as a weekly jam session in the back of the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, MA, an institution that is still, amazingly, thriving. We played and sang in the back room — and I had just been playing fiddle for a few years, so this was a challenge. The singing, for me, was easy and glorious. All those riveting modal and four-part harmonies were just what I’d been singing all my life, but now they had fiddle, banjo, bass, and so much energy and groove. It was a revelation to me how much fun that was. We played for about a year, and then requests started trickling in for house concerts, local fairs. I think our first show was the opening of a dentist’s office. Our current bassist, Andrew Kinsey, was in Salamander Crossing, so we have played together now for almost 25 years; and in short order after 1992-93, we were traveling all across the U.S. playing gigs and festivals. Salamander Crossing blended folk and bluegrass in a way that, back then, was something new. I remember going to a bluegrass conference showcase, and collecting the audience feedback slips afterwards. One of them said, “This band needs to make up its mind whether it’s a folk band or a bluegrass band.” And we all thought, “Ha! We did it!” I think we made some folk fans from bluegrass fans, and vice versa. We were in the middle, a little hard to describe, and happy to be there.
How long did that group play and what led to the beginnings of fronting daisy mayhem?
Salamander Crossing played for almost 10 years. We ended for a host of reasons, the biggest of which had a lot to do with differing visions about how seriously we wanted to take our “career,” and what it means to take something seriously. I wanted to play, enjoy it, and make as much of a living as we could, but not at the expense of the generous energy of the music and the health of band relationships, some of which had started to unravel. So we let it go, which was not easy on anyone. Andrew and I started Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem in 2000 with the release of Cocktail Swing. You could call that our rebound record — it was full of ukuleles, swing tunes, goofy energy, smiles. It did anything but take things seriously. Of course, as bands last, they become more intimate, and as that happens, people and ambitions, hopes, logistics, and life get more and more complex and interconnected. I think Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, which has been together 15 years now, has weathered that process pretty well. We do take ourselves and our music very seriously — but still keep the lightness and fun in it as best we can. So far we are succeeding. This may be the chemistry of this particular band, but it also may be that we started RAdm in our 30s, not in our 20s, and so had that much more wisdom and experience to bring to bear on how to make a band work over time.
What’s the story behind the name “daisy mayhem?”
It was a chance discovery. In 1999, when the band coalesced, we went looking for a name that spelled fun, and one that made a nod to our sometimes chaotic mix of old and new musical styles. As we looked around, I got a call from my friend Sonja in Minneapolis, whose all-girl punk band — named daisy mayhem — had just broken up. I asked if we could use the name, and she said yes. Later on, we found out that Daisy Mayhem was a character from a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Even later on, we learned it was the name of a bright pink recumbent bicycle manufactured in Rockford, IL. And that’s all the daisy mayhem trivia that’s fit to print!
As you said above, your music is very eclectic. Do you plot out each album so that you’ve got an array of various kinds of songs — traditional, contemporary, old-timey, etc.
Not much plotting — more looking at what songs we’ve been playing the last few years and picking what is really satisfying and exciting for us and our live audiences. Our recent album, Violets Are Blue (March 31, 2015), has no traditional material on it — instead, it’s more than half originals. We used to have a clear trad/contemporary/original mix, about 30% of each on most of our albums. But that shifted with this recent CD. The new original songs have been feeing very juicy to us, to write and to play, so that’s where we went. And yes, Violets Are Blue was plotted a little, in that it coalesced around a core of about partnership. These seemed to attract others like it, and before long we found ourselves recording album with a theme. The last album, Some Bright Moring, evolved similarly — it coalesced around a core of songs that were pretty spiritual — loosely defined — and that core attracted others like it. In fact, last year we created and toured a performing arts program called American Spiritual, based on Some Bright Morning and including a selection of other gospel, folk and blues songs that sustain and uplift the human spirit. That was extremely satisfying to work on, and has continued to be a big theme in all our shows.
Are you a disciplined songwriter? Do you carve out a time in your weekly schedule to play music and tinker with new songs or are you a victim of working to meet deadlines?
Neither! I’m an opportunistic song-catcher, and extremely slow at producing new original material (last few years have been particularly productive, though). Almost always, I wait for something to move me — an event, an image, an emotion, a realization, something I need to articulate for myself or someone else, then grab a nugget of truth from it — maybe a few lines, or a chorus. Only then will I sit down and hack away at finishing a song. Call it lazy, but I have to feel like I’m starting with something that has weight. I can’t bear the blank page. I have always wondered what would happen if I embraced the discipline of regular songwriting, but so far I haven’t had the willpower to do it.
You’ve been playing music for kids for quite some time. How would you describe that music scene? Do you feel that kids’ music has changed a lot since you were a kid?
The kids’ music world is great — it’s more of a community, partly because it is smaller, than the currently huge folk/roots/Americana scene, and it is a supportive one. There is lots of cross-pollination of musicians, recordings, collaborations among kids’ musicians, at least in the Northeast where we live. Our guitarist, Anand Nayak, has worked with Alastair Moock, Lui Collins, and Stevesongs, for starters, as guitarist and producer. Kids are a fantastic and discerning audience. They want to laugh and dance, they are mesmerized by watching someone play an instrument and by how musicians interact. They’re inspiring to watch from the stage. The market for kids’ music, too, is easier to navigate — there are fewer reviewers, fewer outlets, and an audience that is always turning over. Americana fads may come and go, but will never run out of children to play for! I do think the genre has grown and changed over the years, as the market has developed for it — but at the core it’s not that different. Good music for kids comes in so many packages. I grew up on Free to Be You and Me, on Pete Seeger’s kids’ records. And on the Beatles — that is great music for kids. You can opt for the kid-specific bands who sing about kid-specific topics, and they are numerous and great, or you can just put on Doc Watson and it’s just as great. In making our CD, Ranky Tanky, we did put a lot of animal songs on there, but also Nat King Cole, Tom Petty, Cat Stevens — we aimed to make a kids’ record that we, as musicians and parents, thought we could enjoy on repeated spins.
Do you prefer live appearances over the recording experience?
They are so different, and they call on different energies and skills. Live performance is simpler to love, because it’s so ephemeral. You give everything you have, without thinking about it, for an hour and a half, and you enter into an energizing exchange with the audience that has the potential to truly fill you both up.
Recording can be equally thrilling, but it isn’t ephemeral, and it can take weeks or years to complete. It asks us for more reflection and editing, and so it’s more intellectual and occasionally frustrating. That said, our goal in the studio is to capture our live performance — that spontaneous, ephemeral energy — as best we can. And after we do that, then the painstaking process of listening back, adjusting sounds and adding textures (which we sometimes, but not always, do) can be very rewarding.
To add another thought here — being listened to changes how one plays. It makes playing into a conversation, rather than a soliloquy. The treasure of a live performance is our relationship with the audience, and the way that compels us to give immediately of our energy and music. After 10 years and hundreds of shows together, we can take that live-performance memory into the studio and conjure it up; over the years, we have gotten better and better at doing so. Also, we’re lucky to be a band of four people who can play for each other, applaud each other, laugh, get silly, and be frustrated together. So, even when we’re in the studio, we still have a chemistry to work with. In turn, the reflective studio time often informs choices that we make on stage — arrangement choices, lyric adjustments, and so forth. In our experience, live and in-studio work really complement each other.
How do each of you go about presenting your songs to each other? Do they end up being altered after they’re introduced to the band?
Usually quite shyly, and often at sound check. No matter how long we’ve known each other or how well we get along, presenting new songs and ideas takes a moment of courage. We don’t use every song or idea; some work well for the band, and others less so. Given a little time, we can usually pronounce a unanimous decision on what works. Most songs do end up altered after they’ve been introduced — we almost always add harmony ideas, and the arrangements can fall together quickly or take a long time. Sometimes a song can take weeks, or years, before it finds its musical “home” with us.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing independent musicians these days?
In our band, I think one of our biggest challenges is balancing touring and having a family, because of the logistics and the finances that result from being an independent musician. Speaking for myself (and my husband Scott who is also in the band), we have an 11-year-old old son Quinn, who has come with us on tour (on and off!) since he was 5 weeks old. Now, he often chooses to stay home with his grandmother so he can stay in school and be with his friends instead of taking long plane trips around the U.S.. It’s hard to leave him at home, and it takes extra energy to bring him on tour, though we’re always glad to have him when he comes. Traveling together has been an amazing experience for us as a family.
Independent musicians (among many other “content” creators now) are grappling with a media-drenched world where offerings are so plentiful that we all are exhausted by the task of finding new music, new ideas, new thoughts, new friends to inspire us. There are so many choices, tidbits, bait held out to us every day that it becomes harder to face the smorgasbord and actually want to eat. So — it takes a lot of energy to compete to be seen and heard, but you just do your best, as much as you have energy for, and let it be enough. This is why I feel so strongly committed to the live show — who even listens to more than a few ipod tracks of a band at once? Sitting through two sets of a live show, focusing, laughing, crying, with other people, under that “tent” of music — this kind of experience is becoming profoundly rare in our society. And ever more valuable because of it.
Do you have any musical bucket lists? Songs you’d like to record, people you’d like to collaborate with, places you’d like to tour?
Tour: We’d love to go across the pond to play in Europe or Asia some day, but I’m not sure that finances or family will ever allow it. We can keep dreaming though
Collaborations: Someone asked us this very question at a radio show recently. Anand said Daniel Lanois (songwriter/guitarist/producer extraordinaire); I said Richie Stearns (banjo player for the Horseflies); Andrew said Mavis Staples (one of our most treasured elder singers); Scott said Oliver Mutukudzi (Zimbabwean bandleader and singer). We can put all those together only our dreams, but what a band! Part of what makes this band strong is our crazy diversity of obsessions, and how they percolate into what we do in interesting and unpredictable ways.
Songs: we really don’t know what’s on our bucket list until we hear it, though we do have a short list we’re hoping to tinker with. And we just finished an album, so now is the time when we start listening broadly again, trying to catch our own original song ideas as they go whistling by our lives, going to shows (Anais Mitchell is a big inspiration for me) and hearing songwriters. It’s a fine wave of inspiration and creation — there’s a time to be absorbing possibilities, and then a time to make choices and build a song, or an album, or a new program. I’m excited to be back in the realm of possibility in the upcoming year.

Quick Q and A with Laney Jones
 by Kathy S-B  ·  28 February 2015

Laney Jones is one spunky bluegrass musician. You’ve gotta love it. She’s got the chops. She’s got the tunes. She’s tearing up the bluegrass circuit with her band, The Lively Spirits. A DJ once referred to her voice as “mixture of lemon, molasses, gin and gun powder.” After listening to her songs, I totally understand that comparison.

Laney Jones and The Lively Spirits are one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.

For more information about Laney Jones and The Lively Spirits, visit their website. Check out this video of Laney and the Lively Spirits performing their song “Colorado and Washington.” Be prepared. You won’t be able to control your foot. It’s going to start tappin’ and pretty soon you may need to get up and starting moving and then before you know it. . . . you may be sashaying around the room.

Laney Jones

So what’s this about you growing up on an exotic animal farm in rural Florida? What on earth was that like?
About a year before I was born, my parents got into raising swamp wallabies they got from Connecticut and the farm grew from there. We always had a weird assortment of animals at our place; goats, foxes, dogs, and kangaroos would run around the house together. I was born into the quirkiness so it was normal to me. Instead of a dog insert a kangaroo and that was my childhood! I moved to Florida from Maryland when I was 6 and grew up exploring outside in the orange groves and marshy areas surrounding my house. I think that influenced my leaning towards older, more down-to-earth sounds in music.
When did you start making music? Did you come from a musical family?
I actually didn’t start making music until I was 18 and going to college for International Business at a small school in Florida. I had been singing a long time because I was in plays growing up and had few piano lessons but it was never something I took seriously. But after going to college for a few months, I started toying around on a friend’s guitar. Then I wrote a song one night and that was it. My addiction for writing escalated quickly.
And when did the banjo come into the picture?
A friend had a banjo and let me borrow it for a night. I felt an instant connection to it and traded the mandolin I got for my birthday in for a banjo. I especially loved the sound of clawhammer banjo and completely lucked out that Mark Johnson lived only an hour away from me in Florida. He’s been an inspiration to me and wonderful mentor on the instrument.
What’s your favorite banjo joke?
Okay this one is a little morbid. . . . “How do you get two banjoists to play in tune? Shoot one.”
Was it culture shock to come north to live in a busy city like Boston?
A little bit. I live on 10 acres in Florida and to be reduced to sharing a 350 sq foot apartment was a change. Mostly because I love going outside and writing/practicing in the sun. Not as much space to do that in Boston unfortunately but at the same time it’s an amazing opportunity to be in a city like this with so many talented people and lots of great music.
What’s it been like studying at Berklee? Are you in for the long haul or are you getting too busy with gigging to be able to stay enrolled in classes?
I love Berklee. I’ve been there for a year now and it’s totally exceeded all the expectations I had. Not only are the faculty and students world-class but Berklee has even given me a lot of opportunities and gigs. They sent me to the Kennedy Center my first semester! I was not expecting that at all! It’s tough because I have been touring a lot this summer and would love to continue on into the Fall, but for now I am really grateful to be where I’m at.
Last summer you were part of the Grey Fox Emerging Artists showcase. What was that like? Was that your first festival appearance?
Pure awesome. I had played festivals in Florida and Shakori Hills in North Carolina but never something on the scale of Grey Fox. I got to meet some of my heroes like Del McCorry, and even played in a songwriter’s circle with Celia Woodsmith from Della Mae! I love music festivals as both a fan and a performer. You get to connect with the true music lovers, the people who are really dedicated to it because they love it. It was an absolute honor to be a part of Grey Fox and I can’t wait for Falcon Ridge!
Tell us about the Lively Spirits. How is this band different than previous bands you’ve worked with in the past? How would you describe your sound?
I actually have been using the Lively Spirits name for a few different groups of musicians and we have had kind of a revolving door lineup for the past few years. When I’m in New England we have a solid lineup that augments my banjo and harmonica sound with fiddle, guitar and bass. I really love to work with other multi-instrumentalists so we love to switch off on different twangy instruments like mandolin and dobro, as well as more surprising textures of clarinet and melodica. I would say we are a string band with a progressive twist.
You were chosen to take a vocal master session with Alison Krauss last fall. What did that entail?
I got to play two songs for Alison and Dr. Thomas Cleveland in front of an audience at the Kennedy Center. I was originally only supposed to play a cover but because there were only three singers instead of four in the session I got to do an original song as well. They both were super nice and reassuring. I love that I get to say “Alison Krauss likes this song” whenever I play my song “Broken Hearts.” I also got notified that my performance will be aired on PBS in a documentary about the event sometime this year!
How did you get hooked up to play upcoming shows with Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban?
I totally lucked out again and got a sort of sponsorship from the southern department store Belk. They held a competition called Southern Musician Showcase where they chose six artists/bands from different genres. The Lively Spirits and I got it for Bluegrass. As part of the prize for winning we get to play in the Belk Lounge at these big concerts, be in a commercial, and get some free new clothes. My band has never looked better!

Quick Q and A with Jesse Terry
 by Kathy S-B  ·  20 February 2015

Jesse TerryI first got to hear Jesse Terry at NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) two years ago. I was captivated by his songs and he had such a nice, easy rapport with his audience that it was impos­sible to ignore his presence at a conference full of hundreds of other singer-songwriters One listen wasn’t enough Two listens wasn’t enough. You get the drift. He’s a real trouba­dour — crisscrossing the country with his wife and dog — and making new fans and friends at every stop. It’s easy to see why Dave Dirks, the host of the #1 Acoustic podcast on iTunes, Acoustic Long Island said this: “At the core of it all, his personality — sunny naivety meets gritty wisdom — is what sets Jesse Terry apart.”

Jesse Terry is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.

You can learn a lot more about Jesse by visiting his website. Check out this video of Jesse singing “Empty Seat on a Plane.”

As a traveling musician, give us the real skinny about the pros and cons of life on the road.
Wow, that’s a big question. I’d say there are many more pros than cons, but that’s coming from an eternal optimist! I like to think of the road as an adventure and we really do enjoy the journey (and if we do have an epic disaster on the road, it always makes for a great campfire story later on). If we have time to route our tour through Yellowstone we do exactly that. If we have a couple of days off I try to find a cool place to explore, instead of just finding the nearest motel next to the interstate. In June we rented a tiny little cabin in the California Redwoods on our days off. It was magic. I know I’ll remember that trip for the rest of my life. And oh yeah, playing music was a blast too!!
Pros:
Making music, adventures, meeting new and fascinating people, making great new friends, seeing the world, having no real boss, finding good hotels/motels/camp-sites, connecting with perfect strangers, camping, hiking, campfires, national parks, great shows, natural wonders, having the ability to make a lot of dough in one night, signing cds, feeling like you’re doing something positive and peaceful in this world, the feel of the open road.
Cons:
Homesickness, road food, bad motels, sketchy parking lots, subway and really all fast food, that really lame gig, that really lame gig that also pays really bad, bad coffee, powdered creamer, ugly stretches of highway that seem to last forever, depressing towns, finding the time to workout and write songs, uncomfortable beds, pet fees at motels, no steady paycheck, high gas prices and fueling up twice a day, doing laundry, car maintenance, oil changes.
I love that story about you and your wife meeting in the South Pacific and now working together as a team. What were you both doing in the South Pacific? And how perfect is it that you’re the Jess and Jesse team?
You know I didn’t have a ton of luck with love before I met Jess, but I must admit, our love story is straight out of a Hollywood movie script. I couldn’t have written it any better if I tried. It really is perfect working together and having our little trio out on the road (we also travel with our Border Collie mix “Jackson Browne”). I’m so lucky that Jess loves being a huge part of the family business. She also has her own full-time mobile job so she works really hard. Actually, we both work really hard but it’s generally joyful work. And we’re both extremely grateful that we can be together and make a living doing what we love. I wouldn’t be able to do this without her. We tried being apart for long stretches of time and it didn’t work for either one of us. We lived from the car and toured non-stop for a while until we could make enough dough to afford an apartment and have a home base. And wow, I’m so freakin’ grateful for our apartment now!
I took an Australian cruise ship gig in 2010 after my Nashville publishing company closed its doors. I was finding my way in music, I hadn’t started touring yet and I had no idea on how I was going to make a living in the music business. I signed this publishing deal right out of college so I had just spent 5 years getting paid every month to write songs. It was a deceptively easy introduction to the music business:) Anyhow, it was terrifying not having a paycheck and I was a dreadful waiter. So the cruise ship gig was a huge blessing and the most amazing experience for me. My wife Jess was working as a photographer on the ship and I was part of an acoustic duo. My duo played four sets of cover songs EVERY day and night over the course of five months (actually we had two days off and I was severely sea-sick for one day, so we performed almost every day). Even though I was performing mostly cover songs, it was the perfect gig for me at the time. I really started to get comfortable in front of audiences out there and it taught me a ton about performing. I booked our first US tour from the crew Internet cafe on the ship. It was so bizarre, booking some gig in Montana or Florida while I was cruising around somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific.
Do you have any memorable gigs in any memorable towns or do they all blur together?
There are too many memorable gigs and memorable towns to list here. I remember almost every show but some shows inspire me for many years and become something like musical soul food to me. I recently had a concert like that in Portland, Oregon at The Alberta Rose Theatre. Oregon is one of my favorite states and Portland may be my favorite city in America, maybe because it doesn’t feel like a city. That night at The Alberta Rose was just special. Great crowd, great family in town, great sound, great co-billers. It was a milestone of sorts for me. It was the first time I was able to fill up a world-class theatre as a co-biller and not just as an opener. So that was a big night for me. My first packed show at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage Two was a big moment for me. I worked really hard for that and it felt amazing when everybody showed up! I love my NYC fans and band-mates. It’s such a sweet community.
I love so many of the towns, concert series and venues that I get to visit and re-visit. After a little while it feels like I’m just driving around and visiting old friends. I also love to go back to a town and find that great coffee shop we discovered. It makes the town feel like another home. I try to buy a fridge magnet and a sticker for my guitar case every time we visit a memorable place. That way when I look at my fridge and my guitar case, all of those great memories, feelings and shows come rushing back to my mind. Nerdy I know, but that makes me happy:)
How do you find time to write when you’re on the road so much? Do you compose “in your head” while in the car? Do you have to make occasional creative pit stops and pull out the guitar and get the song going so you won’t lose it?
At the moment I’m not writing too much. Time is a real issue for me. We’ve got seventeen shows in July and I don’t have a driver, so there really isn’t ample time to write when you’re traveling and performing that much (I know that so many of my fellow artists can relate – the topic usually comes up when I’m catching up with a touring bud). There isn’t really even enough time to book shows, return emails, or update websites, but it all happens somehow:) Like I said, it’s a joyful job, or else I wouldn’t have the energy to keep it all going. I do record song ideas on my phone and write down any song ideas that come into my head. When I have a break from the road I know I’ll head home, go into la-la land and write like crazy. That’s how I’m balancing it these days. I’m a big believer in following the lead of the universe and keeping my eyes open. This is obviously a season for me to tour, meet folks and perform a ton. I have enough albums and songs where I can do that and feel good about what I’m sharing with the world. I’m sure I’ll have a season soon where I’m writing/recording a lot more and touring less.
I have a strong feeling that I’ll have a great musical team around me soon. That will free up more time for me to write and spend more time being creative. Management and booking help will make a huge difference at some point. It seems like those things usually happen organically and when the time is right (and seem to come as a result of relentless touring, releasing albums, booking and doing everything yourself – artists are expected to wear a lot of hats these days and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing – we learn about every aspect of the business and build so many great relationships). Right now, I’m just always focused on getting better and moving forward.
Here’s the obligatory question: which songwriters have you been inspired by the most? And which guitarists blow you away?
So many. . . . But I’m going to narrow it down to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, The Beatles and Paul Simon. Those are the artists that I could listen to all day long on repeat. Those are the artists that have written lyrics and melodies that I could never tire of. That really is an amazing feat if you think about it. A Joni Mitchell record still sounds fresh and perfect after over forty years. James Taylor and Joni blow me away as guitar players because at the time, they played the guitar in a totally new and innovative way. The same is true with Jimi Hendrix. It’s like they were all from outer space. Who did they emulate? I love Neil Young as a guitar player because his playing is so emotional. It seems to me that Neil is much more concerned with emotion than perfection. And often that emotion makes a “perfect” record. It’s like that slightly out of tune slide guitar that Duane Allman plays at the end of “Layla.” It’s just so perfect, passionate and emotional. It sounds like that guitar is literally crying.
Do you have any guilty musical pleasures? Do you a favorite band that no one would ever suspect?
Hmmmmm Whitney Houston? But Whitney had one of the greatest voices of all time so that can’t count! I love listening to over-produced R&B and Pop at times . . . Luther Vandross, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Andrea Bocelli etc. That stuff is a far cry from Neil Young but it’s so well done, so well recorded and so pristine. I listen to Christmas music all year long. LOVE it. I love rocking the Hall & Oates, Toto, Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan . . . such great records and legendary players on those recordings. Amazing that it was all recorded to tape. No fixes, comping or tuning, just flawless performances and productions.
Some of my favorite bands that I grew up with:
Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against The Machine and 311 . . . I always listened to my singer/songwriter heroes but I also used to crank up my Jane’s Addiction in high school and mosh in the backyard with my friends. And I absolutely attended the very first Lollapalooza. I was a wild child.
You’ve played in so many places but I’m intrigued by your gig playing before US and NATO troops in Greenland. What was that like? (I didn’t even know we had troops in Greenland!)
Yes, we most definitely have wonderful US and NATO troops up in Greenland! Thule Air Force Base doesn’t have any planes though. We have military radar facilities all over the globe and the Thule base has one of the largest radar stations in the world. That’s why we’re still up there. It was a major base during the Cold War. The government tracks every object in the atmosphere (we track objects as small as tennis balls) and is always alert in case of a sneak missile attack.
Performing for the troops up in Greenland was a great honor and a highlight of my career. It’s like another planet up there. We were only about 900 miles south of the North Pole and the terrain was Mars-like (or what I imagine Mars would look like). It was so beautiful, un-touched and rugged in Greenland. I was there in the summer so it never got dark. We would play the “Top Of The World Club” and emerge at 3am to a blazing sun. It was just wild. I had the chance to hike to the polar ice sheet and take a boat ride around icebergs. I visited nuclear missile silos and control rooms that have been filled with solid ice. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
I highly recommend performing for the troops if any artist has the opportunity. Our service men and women were all so incredibly grateful and welcoming to my band and myself. Just don’t try and keep up with them in a drinking game. Please take my word on that one.
After studying at Berklee, you entered into a publishing deal in Nashville. Non-Nashville people like myself hear these stories about musicians being put into a room with another musician and they’re expected to create . . . to mate and birth a song. Was that your experience?
Landing a publishing deal was a dream come true in 2004 and I think of those years with such fondness. It was a special and exciting time.
And yes, when you’re a staff songwriter on Music Row in Nashville, 99% of the time you are co-writing and often they are musical blind dates. Like a blind date, the co-writes have the potential to be really painful, really average or really great! Songwriting chemistry is a really difficult thing to predict or quantify. After a lot of musical blind dates you usually find your crew and wind up writing with your buds on most days.
It was a bit like birthing a song on command in those writing rooms. The level of song-craft is so high that professional staff writers can churn the songs out, even when it’s not a particularly great song day. I suppose I had a love/hate relationship with the co-writing process there. In fact, I took a break from co-writing for almost four years after I left Nashville. Co-writing with so many different kinds of writers made me feel a bit like a chameleon. I really wanted to find my own voice and figure out who I was as an artist. There was a lot of pressure to write a big ole hit song, which would have been great, but I didn’t like how the pressure affected my creative process. That’s just me. It was crushing at the time, but in hindsight I’m so grateful that the publishing company closed and I lost my job/paycheck. I discovered that my true love was touring, performing and making my own records.
I did learn a lot about craft and the importance of work down there. Painters must paint and writers must write. I loved the fact that songwriters went to work every day. Often I would wake up and not feel like writing, but if I had a co-writing appointment I would have to show up. And some of those uninspired days were the days where I wrote the best songs. Sometimes the song became the inspiration and it just took over. I’ve adopted that same practice when I’m in my writing mode now. I wake up, brew my coffee and go to work. Sometimes a lack of “inspiration” is just another word for procrastination. It’s the hardest thing to stare at a blank canvas. There is a great book about the creative process written by Steven Pressfield that I swear by, “The War Of Art.” So so good.
Here are a few quotes from the Steven Pressfield book that I have on my fridge and try to always remember:
“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
You’ve released three albums in the past five years. How would you categorize and compare them?
At one point, when I was writing songs professionally in Nashville, one of my biggest fans/supporters (and a freakin’ Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter) told me that I had lost my musical way; essentially that I was not following my personal truth and that I was letting too much outside interference wreak havoc with my creative process. Really she was simply saying that my music was sucking because of one thing: I was not speaking my truth. I think the world has a great BS meter when it comes to music.
That conversation has stuck with me and has become a bit of a mantra for me. I vowed to never stray again from truth and authenticity. It doesn’t mean everything I record or write will be great, but at least it will be authentic. It will have the potential to be great and filled with honest emotion.
All three of my records are really different. They are snap-shots and I made them exactly how I wanted to at the time. And I’m really proud of that. They all have elements of Americana, Folk, Pop, Country and Rock and Roll within them. The Runner was my first record and I made it when I was so green, which was super exciting and liberating. I was going through a huge Jackson Browne/Ryan Adams phase so it has more of an Americana/Alt-Country feel to it. Lots of pedal steel and slide guitar on the record.
My second record Empty Seat On A Plane was intentionally stripped down. I wrote every song on the record by myself and I wanted the tracks to feel more sparse and open. I think of it as a troubadour inspired record.
My latest record Stay Here With Me is my most live record to date. I wanted it to have a really organic full band sound and be more raw than my previous efforts. I wanted folks to sing and play together as much as possible. I think we finished 90% of the record in the first four days and that felt really good. We recorded all of the harmonies together around one mic, ala CSNY. I love that vocal sound and I don’t think you can replicate it by stacking harmonies. It’s almost too flawless when you stack them.
Categories and genres are so difficult these days huh? In the seventies James Taylor and Jackson Browne were platinum selling Pop superstars. Now they are probably categorized as Americana or Folk artists. And that’s totally cool — we’re in the same genres now!
I think with my music and so much music, a lot of the genre classification comes down to instrumentation and production. A pedal steel on a song can instantly slide it into an Americana/Alt-Country genre. I tour so much solo acoustic but when I play with my band in NYC it changes everything instantly. I’d like to think that my music is organic, honest and timeless Americana music. That’s what I’m striving for. I think it’s wonderful that the Americana and Folk genres have opened the doors for so many artists that don’t fit into the current Top 40 world. I’ve found Folk Alliance and The Americana Music Association to be extremely open-minded with different kinds of music and genres. I love traditional folk music but you certainly will find a lot more than traditional folk music at Folk Alliance, Falcon Ridge, NERFA etc. I think that musical diversity is wonderful. And I love Folk/Americana/AAA radio too. How awesome that these DJ’s are still spinning the records that THEY want to play? I know a lot of folks are all gloom and doom about the music business but I think it’s a really exciting time to be making music and finding a unique path.
I can’t wait to make my next records. I just want to keep growing and trying different things . . . writing different kinds of songs and digging deeper and deeper. I started making records in 2009 and started touring in late 2010. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.

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