Recap of March 22nd, 2020 Article Coronavirus (Covid-19) Strikes a Chord with Musicians (Part 1) We are living in unprecedented times and crossing over uncharted waters, it’s a new world; one we may have to get accustomed to for the foreseeable future.
(Covid-19) is attacking the social and economic fabric globally and does not discriminate against race, creed, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or anything else for that matter. It has ravaged and even closed down most trades and no industry has been spared, from restaurants to schools, airlines, supply chains, and the entertainment industry.
According to Worldometeras of today June 8th, 2020 215 Countries and Territories around the world have reported a total of over eleven million (11,425,240) people confirmed Infected, 534,491 Deaths with 6,473,428 that have recovered.
According to the World Health Organization Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a new virus. The disease causes respiratory illness (like the flu) with symptoms such as a cough, fever, and in more severe cases, difficulty breathing. You can protect yourself by washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding close contact (1 meter or 3 feet) with people who are unwell.
Coronavirus disease spreads primarily through contact with an infected person when they cough or sneeze. It also spreads when a person touches a surface or object that has the virus on it, then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
The Coronavirus epidemic has devastated almost every industry in the world, and one of the hardest hit is the entertainment industry including performers, producers, stagehands promoters, musicians and the list goes on, some of these people do not have a second job, they rely solely on recording, tours, music and merch sales to pay the bills.
Millions of people in the entertainment industry have/had multiple jobs just to make a living. A number of these folks got hit with job displacement twice as hard since many worked in the food industry for the flexible hours. Just trying to make ends meet. As we all know most restaurants have closed, reopened, and have closed their doors again with the 2nd wave, a small percentage remain open with a skeleton crew offering curbside service or delivery service.
It is bad enough so many need more than one job to live. For musicians, it is almost a guarantee that a second job will be needed outside of music to sustain a living. Due to layoffs and closers of businesses these musicians are dealing with the same issues as the few full-time musicians, loss of most if not all income. Most musicians lack one of the most basic and fundamental needs: insurance! Many musicians have turned to online gigs and teaching to make a few dollars. Here’s what a few industry professionals and a few more musicians have to say in part two of our interview Coronavirus (COVID-19) Continues to Strike a Chord.
Rick Herbert ( Ace High Printing, Musician ) USA
Interview conducted July 2020
Q) Hello Rick, how are you doing? A) Hey Nick! Hanging in there, these last few months have been a wild ride.
Q) You own and operate Ace High Printing one of the best Florida based printing companies, how long has the company been around, and what kind of printing do you specialize in? A) Yeah man, I’ve been printing a long time for a lot of incredible people. I first opened the doors to Ace High in July of 2004, so this marks our 16th year in business. We specialize in Wide Format Printing (Vinyl Stickers, Banners, Amp Scrims, Custom Kick Drum Covers, Signs, Vehicle Wraps, and Buttons), Digital Printing (Business Cards, Flyers, Brochures, Posters, Artist Prints) and Screen Printing (T-Shirts and Apparel).
Q) Has your company always focused on the entertainment industry A) From day one, Ace High has always been a part of the music industry. As a matter of fact, I only started this company because I couldn’t find a good local merch company for the band I was in at the time. I had been working at a local sign shop and started making my own merch. I decided if I was having such a hard time finding a reliable company, other musicians and artists must be as well. That’s when Ace High was born. Over the last 16 years, we’ve worked with tons of venues, bands just getting their start, huge musicians/labels, and everything in between. We’ve sponsored showcases and events, and we’ve even shipped merch to over 20 different countries.
Q) What are some of the most popular products that you make for the musicians and the industry? A) It’s a total toss-up between Stickers and the Custom Kick Drum Covers for sure. Everyone loves stickers – and are full color, glossy and weatherproof, but I’d have to say we have almost as many kick cover orders coming in these days.
Q) Over the years you have also offered services for commercial business, how is that different if at all to the products that you manufacture for the entertainment industry? A) The commercial side isn’t much different. I’ve found that just like musicians, businesses also need stickers, labels, banners, things like that. The biggest difference would be the Signage and Vehicle Wraps. We do a ton of sign work for local and sometimes not so local companies for their storefronts. We’ve been known to wrap all kinds of vehicles as well. One of my favorite “corporate” projects was for the MLB Network. Anytime you catch a baseball game on TV and see the huge MLB Network logos on the walls in the outfield, you’re looking at something we printed. They contracted us to do all the MLB Logos years ago, it was a blast.
Q) How has the COVID-19 Epidemic affected your business? A) COVID-19 has been a real pain in the ass. haha, I think everyone is feeling that these days. Luckily, print shops were deemed “essential” and I was allowed to keep the doors open through all of this, but getting material in has been tough – a lot of the manufacturing plants had to close. Shipping times have slowed a bit as well – just because the carriers are taking more care with sanitizing. I’ve taken a pretty big hit business-wise for sure… Without the musicians able to work and venues unable to open, no one is really buying merch at the moment, which is completely understandable.
Q) The COVID-19 Epidemics seems to have been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A) It has been tough – we ended up switching gears a bit in the business plan. We’ve been working with a lot more restaurants and things like that. You know, they all need those “We’re Open for Takeout” banners, they need stickers/labels for the to-go containers, all the businesses needed the “Wear a Mask” signs… so we’ve been printing a lot that type of stuff. We’ve also just been giving out all kinds of discounts and package deals to anyone that needs them. Times are tough for everyone, and I’m just here to help as much as possible.
Q) You, yourself are a musician has this epidemic given you a moment of pause and encouraged you to write and record some new music? A) Actually yeah. I hate to say that I’ve had a little extra time on my hands, but it’s true. And since the whole social distancing and closing of bars/venues, I’ve been able to spend a little more time just sitting down playing and writing. That’s been an upside to this whole situation – I feel like I’m finally laying down those songs I’ve had in my head for so long.
Q) How has this affected you on a personal level? A) Personally, it hasn’t been bad at all. Over the last few years, as the business has grown, I’ve pretty much been working non-stop. Haven’t had a ton of time to go out, play shows, or do much of anything. And since I was fortunate enough to be able to remain open through this, I’ve just kept on working like usual. If anything it’s given me a chance to use my companies abilities to help people in a rough time – that really makes me feel good.
Q) Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A) I think the bigger question is, what is “normal” going to look like when this is all over? I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back to exactly the way things were, and that might be ok. But I have a feeling all this will settle down a bit in the next few months. Or directly after the election. But that’s for a whole different discussion about conspiracy theories. haha.
Q) What can people do to help support local businesses like yours? A) Honestly, right now keeping money local is key. I’d say try to shop as locally as possible instead of heading to the big box/chain stores. There are going to be a number of businesses that don’t make it through this, and that really sucks. The more you can utilize the services you have in your own city, the better chance we all have of making it.
Q) Please give us a WORD that you rely on and gives you hope? A) Perseverance. I think we all personally, and as a country, have always done a decent job of adapting and overcoming trying times. This is just one more fight, one more hurdle, one more historical obstacle that we WILL get through and persevere.
Q:Hello, Ace how are you doing? A: Feeling grateful and blessed, Nick, but a bit confused, too.
You work for a company called SST Studios and Rentals. Can you tell us how long you have been with SST and what do you do? A: SST is a music industry complex in Weehawken, NJ, right across the river from Midtown Manhattan. We are one of the leading backline companies in the U.S. and our rehearsal soundstage is one the best in the city. We also have a state-of-the-art 48-channel recording studio with a rare analog Focusrite console.
The owner, John Hanti, grew up near my hometown, Warren, Ohio. We played in different teen bands in the 60s on the same circuit. He tells me we once met at a teen club when we shared the bill, but I don’t remember it. I had been out of the business for 26 years when he heard some of my new songs on a Yahoo discussion group. He looked me up and called me on August 30, 2007 to offer me a long-term production/writing development deal. I took the deal.
In late September 2012, Hanti was critically injured in an auto accident. A month later, Superstorm Sandy destroyed the studio, along with the successful production company we had built together. I lost everything I owned to that storm. We both endured five challenging years of recovery, but recover we did. By March this year, SST had become the hottest studio and rehearsal spot in the New York area
I had worked in advertising as a creative director during those long years away from the music business, so I am today SST’s Marketing Director.
How long has the company been around and what’s special about it? A: Hanti founded SST (which stands for “studios, systems, and transport”) in 1982 in response to the Second British Invasion. He had established a formidable reputation in Manhattan and built a substantial inventory of stage gear and vans. British bands like the Smiths, Police, and Motorhead needed both to tour the States, and Hanti provided them. That’s how it started.
Q:Who are some of SST clients? A: Beyonce’ and Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, J-Lo, Bruno Mars, Camila Cabelo, Blue Oyster Cult, and the Rolling Stones to name just a few. For Backline, our clients include LiveNation and iHeart. Multiple Grammy winner, H.E.R., was in the studio in March when we were forced to shut down.
Q:What are some of the services that you offer to your clients? A: The backline is our bread and butter, but the artists come for our soundstage and our studio, IIWII Recording. We also have a storage building where many stars store their own gear when they are not on the road and the adjoining Willow Building houses project studios for several top Hip Hop artists and producers.
How has the COVID-19 Epidemic affected SST? A: Drastically. Our entire business is based on tour support services. There are no tours right now and there will be no tours at all in 2020. Hanti had the foresight to have a Cyclorama constructed on one wall of the soundstage, so we were able to open again in mid-June for music video shoots and live-streaming, in-studio concerts. We are re-purposing the studio now as a live streaming/video concert venue.
Q:The COVID-19 Epidemics seems to have been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: The biggest challenge for John Hanti has been to keep his people employed. We’re down to three right now. If another shutdown doesn’t stop our progress, I believe we can attract enough in-house business to bring everyone back on board and survive 2020. That is a big IF, though, the way things are going.
Q: You, yourself are a musician has this epidemic given you a moment of pause and encouraged you to write and record some new music A: This is why I feel so blessed and grateful. The shutdown forced Hanti to lay everybody off for a while. Thankfully, In January, a recording artist named John Blangero, aka, Sun King Rising, with whom I had become friends, asked me to produce his album for PeacockSunrise Records. He had the budget to do it right and the project has sustained me. Now that the album is in the can (that’s an old school term if you don’t know), I have been additionally blessed to work on the cover design and promotion. Also, Hanti and I had been writing a book together about the business. The album project has injected new energy into my spirit and renewed momentum to finish the book proposal and shop for an agent.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: I think I am a bit shell-shocked, as most of us are. I have chosen to focus on the positives and ignore the negatives, only because I was already in such a good space when this came down. Had I not had the album and the continuing faith of both John Blangero and John Hanti, I may not have felt quite so optimistic. Looking to the future…well…I am hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
Q:Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: Our industry? No, I do not. I’m afraid we won’t be back to anything close to normal until next summer.
Q:What can people do to help support local businesses like SST? A: SST doesn’t do business with the public, so that is not really an appliable question. As an artist myself, though, I can only hope that fans will channel their dollars from the concerts they would have spent them on to supporting artists like Sun King Rising, who are still making records. The stars will survive this crisis. The independent bands and performers for whom live music and indie records are a livelihood may not…not without fan support.
Q:Please give us a WORD that you rely on and gives you hope? A:“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “Jeremiah 29:11 ‘Nuff said,
Q: Hello Tom, how are you doing? A: Thanks for asking…it’s certainly a question we are all asking our friends and loved ones much more often these days. I’m doing well, all things considered, and I hope you and everyone reading this are also doing well!
Q: You are the founder and music director of ProgStock Music Festival one of the best new music festivals on the east coast of the US, When and where did you launch the first one? A: I’m deeply grateful for that very favorable description…I hope we can continue to live up to it! We launched ProgStock in October 2017 at the beautiful and historic Union County Performing Arts Center’s Mainstage Theater in the very arts-friendly city of Rahway, New Jersey. As you know, we are an annual volunteer-run event whose mission is to shine light on one of the most exciting and creative genres of rock music, Progressive Rock. To date, we’ve produced three editions of ProgStock, in October of 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Q: How has the COVID-19 Epidemic affected ProgStock and other live performances around the world? A: That’s a really tough question to ponder, emotionally…because the impact has been nothing short of devastating. Live music performances heavily depend upon the “in-person experience” for both musicians and fans, and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made that nearly impossible for the time being. Performances of all kinds have understandably been indefinitely postponed or canceled, for everyone’s safety.
Q: This has been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: So many challenges…it’s hard to describe all of them. The main one is that we are “frozen” and unable to predict when conditions will allow for a safe and secure environment to have a festival or any kind of live performance. The musicians and others involved with musical performance production have seen their entire lives ripped apart by this pandemic…the damage is deep and pervasive. In spite of all this upheaval, we at ProgStock, along with many others in the music industry, are doing our part to support musicians and fans by organizing live performances over streaming services. As we learn more about what can be done safely (especially for the musicians involved), we will try our best to help keep Progressive Rock alive during this incredibly difficult time. Stay tuned as we will be announcing some exciting things very soon!
Q: How has this affected you on a personal level? A: Frankly, I’m depressed…but I remain hopeful. I also know that I have been very fortunate, in many ways, and that many others have been overwhelmed by the pandemic and its effects on themselves, their loved ones, and society in general. There have been some hardships for me, and some friends and family members have run into health problems, sure. But, putting that aside, I’ve come to realize how important it is to remember that we are a society, a collection of people who all want to experience our lives as safely, securely, and happily as we can. And that means giving a bit more consideration to others when making my own choices…within reason, of course, but always with good and proper intentions, and without judging others for having real concerns about their own safety and security. If that leads to minor inconveniences for me at times, so be it. I’d certainly want the same in return if I needed it!
Q: Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: Not soon enough, certainly. Living with this pandemic has been hard for everyone, and nearly impossible for many. Everyone has had to “hit pause” on their lives, and for some folks, that’s been catastrophic. Returning to “normal” might not be possible at all, because we’ll need to adjust what we think “normal” is. However, I am hopeful that we will be able to return to a more “familiar” way of life sometime within the next 9-12 months. At first, we’ll need some medical breakthroughs to give us the edge we need to stay ahead of the virus (both it’s spread and its disease process). Then it will require some very necessary “healing time” so that our psyches can recover from the damage they’ve taken…as we’ve experienced (to varying degrees) after previous tragedies that we’ve endured. Getting back to enjoying a musical event with friends old and new, feeling that incredible exhilaration and excitement without fear…we will absolutely achieve that again, I have no doubt. Eventually.
Q: Please give us a word that you rely on and gives you hope. A: Science. Plain, and simple. We are an extraordinarily intelligent species, and I’m convinced that we will innovate our way out of this worldwide crisis and be better prepared for future situations like this.
Q: What can people do to help support music festivals for future events? A: Here are my “top 5” things that people can do to support music festivals in the future: 1) embrace their efforts to present streaming options when you cannot attend in-person, and buy their tickets and merchandise as soon as you can when they are made available; 2) donate your time and effort in order to help them cut costs if you are willing and able to do so; 3) spread the word about them to other potential fans to help increase their audiences; 4) if you are fortunate enough to be able, please consider making financial donations to the ones that need them; and 5) try to keep the safety, security, and dignity of your fellow festival attendees in mind by treating everyone kindly, respectfully, and tolerantly. Above all else, please try to be as patient as you can with musicians, event organizers, and fellow fans as all of us try to navigate the new “landscape” of the music industry…because there’s never been a better reason to remember that we are all in this together!
Chris Topham ( Plane Groovy Records ) United Kingdom
Q: Hello Chris, how are you doing? Very well thanks; we live fairly remotely so no huge change here apart from not seeing our pals.
Q: How long have you been in the music business? A: Since November 2011
Q: What exactly do you do? A: I run Plane Groovy Records, a vinyl-only record label.
Q: Who are some of your clients? A: Mainly current Prog bands such as Big Big Train, I am the Manic Whale, Unitopia, A Formal Horse, Thieves’ Kitchen, This Winter Machine, Peter Jones, Francis Dunnery, and many more.
Q: How has the Coronavirus affected you and your artists? A: The artists have been hugely hampered by the lockdown; no touring, no rehearsals, and in many cases no day job to fall back on either because of furlough.
Q: This has been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what are you doing to overcome these challenging times? A: I’m just drifting on through, to be honest; we’re still putting albums out.
Q: What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: One thing which we’ve put on hold is the Plane Groovy Investors project, which among other benefits offers colored vinyl versions of some releases to those who have signed up. I thought it unfair to put any kind of pressure onto our Investors, not wanting them to feel that they had to put money into this when times could be quite tough. We’ll be restarting that again very soon though, with an album from Comedy of Errors, “Disobey”.
Q: How has this affected you on a personal level? Honestly, it hasn’t been too bad – apart from not seeing my Mum and my son as much as I’d like to.
Q: Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: Normal? No. Workable yes, but I think life is going to be very strange for a good while yet.
Please give us a word that you rely on and gives you hope? Positivity.
Anne Leighton ( Leighton Media * Music Services * Motivation ) USA
Q: Hello Anne, how long have you been in the music business? A: Around 40-45 years.
Q: What exactly do you do? A: I write and do music services. My core work is publicity, social media, organization, management, project development, goal setting, copywriting, rapping, songwriting, poetry. I am available to tutor English (writing), Civics, and History on Skype. I’m, also, a crackerjack proofreader and editor.
Q: Who are some of your clients? A: Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius, Phoebe Legere, Sharon Katz & the Peace Train, John Hall & Jonell Mosser, Ian Anderson, Leslie Mandoki, Katy Moffatt, the Yardbirds, and me.
Q: How has the Coronavirus affected you and your artists? A: Most of what I do is tour press, and nobody is touring. We all need to reinvent how we earn money, plus keep working on our art, and love the people and animals we live with. We’re doing more Internet work together with people, and seeing what else businesses need when it comes to music services.
Q: This has been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what are you doing to overcome these challenging times? A: 1) I’m paying attention to what is included in the reopening phases for the next few years. It’s important to analyze that progress to see if the loosening of restrictions is healthy. That is important so I know who to reach out to for work for my artists and me!
2) Pitching my artists, and their songs for music services, concerts, workshops in non-music venues. I have rich connections in North America, South Africa, and the UK that are responsible and available for work. They also have great songs. Also, looking for funding for songs on relevant topics.
3) Accepting the fact that we might not have big live concerts for a few years, so I’m letting the world know I’m available to publicize empowerment people, social media influences, as well as releases of music in prog rock, Americana, jazz, folk, singer-songwriter, classic rock, diehard musician, blues, fusion, jam bands.
4) I’m giving myself a schedule where I have to be ready by 11 am, and in bed by 2:30 AM. Sleep is essential. I take naps. Writing my gratitude’s, creating peace. Speaking up to people that could learn to be less disrespectful. Learning more diplomacy! Meditation a few times a day, exercising, eating healthy, making phone calls, going out to the park, wearing protective gear—you know the mask and the gloves!
Q: What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? The worst is finding out friends died. Three of them were magical spirits that understood me and vice versa. All were in the music world.
I miss hanging out with people and physical touch. In the past, I hugged people every day!
Finances are the least of my concerns because all of us are capable of living on less money than we do. Budgeting through rough times is something every college kid learns. I did it once, I can do it again.
Q: We are seeing a second wave of people getting ill and dying, do you think it’s because we reopened too soon or that there are a fraction of people that don’t care or may even believe COVID-19 is not real? A: Combination. I think some people either have no concept of self-discipline or just don’t want to live.
Q: How has this affected you on a personal level? A: I’m working on my serenity. Loving myself, and focusing on my writing aspirations. I’m writing a spoken word album about evolving through rough times. Looking for funding for the project and aiming to produce a rap song this summer. Then another song in the fall. If I get more funding, I’ll produce the whole thing by the end of the year. I’d love to place two-column ideas in paying outlets—one on bullying, and the other would be poetry and prose of some of the more obscure classic rock and contemporary acts that have that sound.
Q: Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: New normal. You’re normal.
Q: Please give us a word that you rely on and gives you hope A: The word? I’m gonna give you a phrase: Honor yourself with kindness.
Q:Hello Aaron, how are you adapting to the Covid-19 Pandemic? A: I arrived in Europe to play a two-month solo tour on the same day that the U.S. government restricted flights & entry from Europe & asked Americans to come home. I hung around there for two weeks, hoping that I might still end up playing some of my gigs once the virus situation cleared. In the meantime, as I waited, I started playing online live-streaming gigs. Eventually the timelines for life to “return to normal” kept being extended. So I headed back to the States, lest I be locked out indefinitely.
Q:What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: It was a forced opportunity to re-assess my career, start playing online gigs and look for new chances to get the music heard – and to make money with the music. That’s scary, and in “normal” circumstances, we tend to avoid scary. The silver lining here is that I had to take a fresh look at my music career, see what was and wasn’t working, and make educated guesses on what would work in a post-COVID-19 world.
Q:Are you working on a new release? A: I am! I’m working on a long-distance collaborative song with artist friends in three other countries, all recording separately in our various quarantine situations.>Are you planning on performing via a live streaming platform?I started playing 3x a week live stream concerts as soon as my European tour gigs were put on hold. That will continue indefinitely – I’m guessing I’ll have to suspend them once my touring resumes. Touring’s too much work to be doing much else.
Q:Are you offering your fans any incentives to help support your music? A: I’ve had a Patreon account for five years now, the incentives are in there: I release exclusive songs & remixes, I write custom songs for people, etc. It’s so much more helpful to have support via a patronage model than it is to get a one-time tip in the PayPal “hat” during a live-streaming gig. In the patronage model, it’s ongoing: a commitment to supporting your songs for the long-haul.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: The uncertainty has created a slow creeping anxiety for me I suspect that most everyone on the planet is feeling that right now. I’ve been combating the anxiety with exercise, meditation, yoga, tai chi.
Q:Will you continue creating and performing now and after the dust settles? A: I will! What will that look like? Well, what will the world look like? Nobody knows. But I’m a musician, that’s what I do all day, that’s where I receive my income. So I’ll adjust accordingly to whatever new reality we are handed…or that we create!
Q:How are you adapting to the Covid-19 Pandemic? A: Actually in my/our family’s case, because of our son’s health issues, there isn’t much of a change in terms of our daily attention to hygiene. The only thing that’s perhaps different is the fact that we have ramped up our attention to detail in light of the current situation.
Q:What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: As I mentioned, there really are no new challenges per se. But it has given me the opportunity to focus on time with the family, which comes at a premium when you’re “work” keeps you away from home for long periods of time.
Q:Are you working on a new release? Personally? A: All the time. But yes, there is a new release from the band being worked on as we speak.
Q:Are you planning on performing via a live streaming platform? A: I’m considering putting a little something together with Seren, but I’ll make sure I give everyone a fair warning.
Q:Are you offering your fans any incentives to help support your music? A: I don’t think we, as artists, need any more support that we’re already getting. Plus, the idea that we’re being hit harder at a time like this isn’t necessarily true, especially recording artists who have the luxury of receiving compensation in the form of residuals and royalties. As big or small as some of those payments may be, it’s 100% more than a large portion of the workforce is getting.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: I find that the present situation merely serves to underline my concern for humanity. It’s times like these that always tend to bring out the best as well as, unfortunately, the worst in people. But ultimately I have faith that we will collectively do the right thing.
Q:Will you continue creating and performing now and after the dust settles? A: Dust or no dust, I personally will never stop creating and performing. Besides, there’s a wealth of content out there right now for someone like myself who draws on human behavior as a source of inspiration.
Q:: Hello Tori how are you adapting to the Covid-19 Pandemic? A: Here in Barcelona, we’ve been under quarantine for a bit over a week already. It’s been pretty non-stop, canceling, and reorganizing literally everything. I got back from several shows in Madrid just before we all were placed on lockdown, so I had time to go to the store and prepare. Since then, I’ve been working from home — which isn’t unusual, I always do — but the kind of work is different. Instead of booking live concerts, the focus has been on other ways of reaching our community of fans. On a personal level, I’ve also been checking in with friends and family a lot, I want to make sure everyone is ok mentally as well as physically, as this is a scary time for everyone. The virus is bad enough, but the chaos that’s been a result of the general panic seems like it will have heavy economic repercussions, especially for people who freelance or who own small businesses.
Q:Are you planning on performing via a live streaming platform? A: I’ve done two concerts from my balcony here in Barcelona, to try to uplift my neighbors. Last weekend was impromptu and very last minute, as it was the day after the quarantine was announced and we’d had a show canceled for that very night. I just plugged in my amp and mic and started playing, and people starting poking their heads out of their windows and applauding. Both times the reaction was really heartwarming, it was so beautiful to see people out on their balconies or in their windows or on their rooftops, enjoying life for a moment in the midst of all this madness. The original idea was just to give something back to my community, so I honestly didn’t think of doing a live stream. But thanks to my mom’s suggestion I decided to also stream the performance on Instagram and Facebook, which turned out to be a great thing, as people all over the world tuned in and I think the gesture made people happy. So I’ll keep playing every Saturday until the quarantine is lifted. It’s important that people have a little hope in times of darkness, and music brings a community together in a way that is special.
Q:What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: There are a number of challenges, of course. I make my living playing shows, so with 99% of all concerts canceled through June — possibly beyond — I am extremely concerned in terms of my financial future. I’ve had concerts canceled in multiple countries, and two major projects put on hold. This doesn’t just affect me, there’s my band, my sound tech, my publicist — none of these people will be working during this time, and I care about all of them personally, not just professionally. Most of them have little kids and they don’t know how they’ll pay their bills. However, there’s nothing I or anyone can do except to keep moving forward day by day, and hope that things will get better and that our community will continue to support music and culture as much as they can. There are also opportunities, in that the balcony concert I mentioned has received a lot of unexpected attention in the national press here in Spain as well as online, and it’s connected me to many new people.
I am the secretary of the Musicians Union of Catalunya (Sindicat de Musics Activists de Catalunya), we working to raise awareness of how this situation is affecting working artists via social media campaigns and by proposing meetings with government officials as well as other unions (our sister union in Madrid and the soundtechs union, for example). One huge problem facing musicians where I live is that there are a number of politically influential organizations, associations, and unions that have a vertical structure, not a horizontal one. What that means is that the persons or entities responsible for hiring and firing employees and/or freelance workers are a part of the same union or organization that is meant to defend everyone’s interest. (It’s like being in a workers’ union with your boss — there’s no way to defend your interests.) So our union runs into conflicts with groups like this all the time, which claim to represent the “music industry.” This is not the same thing as representing musicians’ professional interests. Musicians are already in a bad spot in Spain because of of spotty enforcement of labor laws, blatantly illegal and abusive contracts, pay-to-play situations, problems being paid performance royalties…. the list goes on and on. The current situation has made it much worse,
Q:Are you working on a new release? A: We released our last album not quite a year ago, the double live album Wait No More, so we’re still in the promotion phase for that record. But I’m always working on ideas in my head for the future, I have scraps of new songs here and there that will definitely turn into something!
Q:Are you offering your fans any incentives to help support your music? A: Speaking of new albums, I’m putting together a compilation album called Amor en Tiempos de Cuarentena (Love in a Time of Quarantine), featuring various artists from my community that has been affected by the pandemic. The album will be paid for by crowdfunding and will support not only me but also 9 other artists. The crowdfunding link will go live this coming week. I hope that my audience and theirs will respond, and we will all get through this together. The streaming concerts are given as a gift to our communities, but we also have to remember that artists make their living from their music. I’m trying to remind people of this in a positive, proactive way, so they’ll be excited to support the music they love — hence the compilation album. I am also encouraging my people to buy albums in general (mine, sure, but if not mine, someone’s — specifically independent artists) instead of just listening to Spotify. We really need the support of our communities now more than ever. I believe that my fans will be there, during and after this crazy time.
And if you missed the final #BalconyConcert, a playlist of videos from all 9 concerts — all 10, if you count the bonus second set from the final show this past weekend — are on YouTube, with more videos to come. Huge thanks toLas Telenotícias de TV3, Radio4, El Periódico, Radio Primavera Sound, El Punt Avui, ScannerFm, Ruta66, Radio Gràcia, Rock On Magazine, and the other members of the press as well as friends and fans who all helped to spread the word about both the compilation album and the balcony concerts.
The balcony concerts may have ended when the quarantine was lifted, but that doesn’t mean the concerts are over! On Saturday, May 30th Tori will present a very special online concert the trio, accompanied by El Rubio on guitar and Javi García on cajón. More information is here.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: My work and my personal life are pretty much intertwined, as it is for many musicians out there I’m sure. It’s a stressful moment. But one positive thing that always comes out of a crisis is that we end up appreciating the people who love even more, and discovering that yes, we can face down a situation like this one and carry on. I feel both of those things, in spite of the challenges in my day to day and my concerns about the future.
Q:Will you continue creating and performing now and after the dust settles? A: During and after the storm — of course! If musicians didn’t make music just because they weren’t making any money I think new music would have stopped happening long ago, working in this industry has always been a tough gig. The only issue is that I’m actually so busy with canceling, rescheduling, the compilation disc, and so on, that I’ve been working more this past week than I have since the album release — I haven’t had time to stop and write a song yet! But as they’ve just extended the quarantine here for 15 more days, I have a feeling I’ll find the time. I hope so. At the end of the day, all this — the production of the albums, the promotion, the social media, the interviews — all started because I used to feel happiest sitting at home and writing songs in my bedroom. It’s important not to forget why I (or anyone) got into this crazy biz in the first place.
Since this interview was conducted in March Tori has finished “Love in a Time of Quarantine” On 21 May 2020. A: The crowdfunding campaign for Love in a Time of Quarantine has ended at 146% of its initial goal. Thank you from the bottom of our quarantined hearts to everyone who supported the project. This album will not be available in stores, or online. It won’t be available on Spotify, YouTube, or other streaming platforms. Its truly limited edition. The digital download version was sent out last night, and the physical albums will be shipped by the end of the month. The show must go on — and with your help, it did! Click here to learn more about the compilation album and check out the incredible artists who are a part of it.
This Pandemic is far from over, the numbers of cases keep rising. The only thing for certain is that we need to continue to be vigilant, wear a mask in public, stay out of cramped spaces with lots of people, and bad ventaliation, don’t gather in large groups. These are the things we know that we can do, what we don’t know is how long this will last and when and if there will be a vaccine or a cure.
On a final note, please support your musicians by purchasing music directly or Bandcamp if possible and please support your community by shopping local.
At some point last year, I became aware of the band Potter’s Daughter, and their lead singer Dyanne Potter Voegtlin. I can’t remember who reached out to who, but we have been talking to each other through Facebook, and I was lucky enough to hear the wonderful debut album. At some point we discussed undertaking an interview which was promptly forgotten by both of us until a mutual friend tagged me in a video of Dyanne playing a grand piano, which made me realise that we hadn’t spoken about the idea since. Here is the result of the ensuing conversation, with someone who follows some very different musical paths, but it all comes together in this amazing band. If you have yet to hear these guys you are missing out, and I know by the end of this piece you are going to be searching for them, and your ears will thank you forever.
Who, what, when is Dyanne Potter Voegtlin?
I have spent my life searching for the answer to this question and I am still working on it! But what am I like? I am both outgoing and reflective; I love performing on stage and interacting with the audience, but also require solitude. I am a wanderer; from an early age I knew I wished to live in many different places and experience the richness and variety our world has to offer. Being a musician has made it possible for me to live in several countries, immerse myself in their cultures, and befriend many different people. I am fascinated by people and their stories. Practically speaking, I’m a pianist, composer, singer, entertainer, lyricist, traveler; I love being outside in nature, I love animals, I love feasting and celebrating, I love hiking, mountain streams, sailing, I love hearing people laugh and sing, I love doing yoga at sunrise, I love sitting around a campfire, I love drinking my morning coffee. I love my family and friends.
The most important thing for me, for my Life, is to seek depth in my relationships, in my connection to others, to Music, to Life. I am so grateful to be a musician because music encourages connection in so many ways!
Who first influenced you to start performing music?
I was born into a musical family. My mother directed our church’s choir (for over 50 years!), my father played in the army band, my brothers and sister each played an instrument. I thought it was something everyone did. I was able to play piano by ear very young, so when my sister’s piano teacher heard me plunk out a tune on the piano, she recommended I begin taking lessons to avoid learning incorrectly. I was three years old. I began performing at age five. I played in a recital at Carnegie Hall that same year. I remember the only reason I really liked playing in all those recitals as a young child was because after the performance, cake was often served! My parents took us to see many concerts and performances, I loved them! I remember specifically, seeing “Up With People” and begging my mother to let me audition. She thought I was too young, alas. I remember seeing ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and being moved beyond words. And then, I discovered Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer!!!!!
What inspired a classically trained pianist to start working with rock bands, and how did that come about?
Even though I studied classical piano my entire childhood, I still loved popular music. My older sister had a few albums and I listened to them; Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, also Rufus and Chaka Khan. My brother and I would play all those songs together, he on electric guitar, me on piano or organ, and singing at the top of my lungs! Good thing we lived out in the country!!!
I had the opportunity at age 16 to audition for a successful cover band in the area, East Coast Revue. They were really good and played every Friday and Saturday night. I had to play “Hold the Line” by Toto to prove my keyboard skills and I had to sing “I Will Survive” to show my vocal skills. I luckily got the job and started working with them every weekend. What a wonderful and fun time!! I thought I was so cool, working in bars when I was just 16. I felt like such a rebel!
Then I moved to NYC to attend the Manhattan School of Music. I continued my dual musical life, studying and practicing the classical piano repertoire, listening to Yes, King Crimson, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, and performing with a band of fellow MSM students at different colleges and venues in the city.
After I graduated from MSM, I was hired as keyboard player for Shirley Alston Reeves, the former lead singer of the famous girl group, The Shirelles. I toured with her for two years, and it is from her I learned how to engage the audience. The Shirelles were officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996! Not long after leaving Shirley, I toured playing keyboards with Noel Redding, the bass player with Jimi Hendrix. During that tour, we did a show with Ginger Baker. What a thrill!! We also opened for Blue Öyster Cult in NYC with Tico Torres playing drums with us. Very cool!!! I then started working with an agent who booked me to play and sing in fine hotels and piano bars in Europe. I traveled 6-8 months out of every year, playing in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Japan. Then I would return to NYC and perform with Potter’s Daughter. Twice while playing in Lugano, Robert Palmer came to hear me and sang some songs with me. Really fun!!!!
Then I met my husband in Switzerland, moved there, and lived in Switzerland for 14 years. It was during that time I got in touch with Jon Anderson. He was accepting submittals for a new project and I sent him an orchestration I had done. He loved it, and I did several arrangements for him. After we moved back to the USA, I reconnected with my friend Amit Chatterjee, and restarted Potter’s Daughter!
Since releasing our debut album, The Blind Side, in 2018, we had the honor of recording a single (Blood and Water) with the fabulous Annie Haslam, and have also recorded a still-unreleased single featuring Jon Anderson which we hope to include on our upcoming second album.
You trained as a classical pianist, toured with Shirley Alston Reeves and Noel Redding, then went back to playing piano and hotels. Why the switch?
That was a function of survival. I was a young musician in NYC struggling to make enough money to pay rent. I worked while attending MSM at whatever sort of job I could get; waitress, concert hall usher (this one was great because I heard amazing concerts for free!), I worked in a health food store, sold office supplies over the phone (hated it!), worked as a live-in nanny. I lived in an illegal basement apartment for a time. I would move from one short-term sublet to the next since the rent was cheaper. I moved so many times, my brother Dave claims he only knows his way around NYC with my futon on his head!! I used to have to take my DX7 and Memory Moog on the subway to get to gigs because I could not afford a cab. I lived once for two weeks on frozen spinach and rice I was so short on money.
So, when I had the opportunity to travel to Europe AND get paid PLUS expenses, it was a no brainer. My bags were packed, and I was out the door!
You say that when you came back to NYC you used to play with Potters Daughter. How different was the band then to what it is now.
I think the band is more of a group now than it was then. In the beginning, the band was more of a support to me. Now, we are a team; Jan-Christian is a huge part of the composition process, both Amit and Jan-Christian help me arrange the songs, and certainly, the amazing instrumental prowess of both Amit and Jan-Christian have a huge effect on our sound. As far as the name, Potter’s Daughter, well, my maiden name is Potter. When I was in my early twenties, I played dinner music in several different restaurants. One of them was the Elmhurst Country Club, where my parents are still members. Whenever I would play there, some of my Dad’s golfing buddies always came up to the piano to ask me, “You’re Potter’s Daughter, aren’t you?” I guess it just stuck!
How would you describe Potters Daughter to someone who has never heard you before?
My friend and Melodic Revolution Records labelmate, Joe Deninzon, said it best, I think. He says our music is a lovechild between Joni Mitchell and Bela Bartok. Haha!!! We call it Art Rock/Prog Fusion since our vocal music is quite different in style to our instrumental music. But this is known in Prog, with bands like Frank Zappa and ELP, whose instrumental music was often quite different than their vocal songs.
I am aware our music is difficult to fit into one genre, which poses challenges, mostly for marketing. However, in my opinion, it is exactly our diversity that makes our music interesting and exciting. I come from a classical background, Amit from Jazz Fusion and World Music, Jan-Christian from Jazz, blues, classical. We bring all these sounds and influences into our set.
What do Amit and Jan-Christian bring to the band?
AMIT CHATTERJEEPRODUCER, ARRANGER, GUITARIST
Amit Chatterjee has produced all our recordings thus far and arranged all the songs on The Blind Side. He also plays most of the guitar solos on our recordings. Amit played guitar in jazz legend Joe Zawinul’s band for 11 years, performed in international performances of Zawinul’s symphonic masterpiece “Stories of the Danube” and is featured soloist on the recording of the work on Phillips Classics. Other stellar musicians with whom Amit has worked include: Peter Erskine, Victor Bailey, Manolo Badrena, Badal Roy, Eric Johnson, David Liebman, and many more.
Born and brought up in India in his early years and living in the United States since his teens, Amit has acquired knowledge and experience in both modern Western music (jazz, funk, blues, rock and pop) and North Indian Classical music. It is this rich palette of sounds, harmonies, rhythms, and posture, which Amit brings to all his musical projects. Amit’s playing is passionate, virtuosic, expressive, and sensitive.
JAN-CHRISTIAN VÖGTLINCOMPOSER, BASS, BASS SYNTH
Jan-Christian co-composes almost all our material with me. He is a multi-instrumentalist, primarily playing bass in Potter’s Daughter. Jan-Christian focuses on unrelenting groove, and his wide knowledge of modern jazz harmony, melody, and rhythm allow him to effortlessly combine and move between genres ranging from progressive rock to jazz and fusion to world music. Classically trained in Switzerland (where he was born and raised), his compositions build upon poignant melodies and chordal movement along with a strong rhythmic presence, and are influenced by classical, impressionist, jazz, and fusion schools. One of the most unique aspects of Jan-Christian’s bass playing is his combination of traditional and non-traditional approaches to bass. He solos on the bass as effortlessly as if the instrument were a guitar; he is featured soloist in many of our songs, especially in live performances. Jan-Christian is endorsed by the Ribbecke Guitar Company, with whom he is developing an innovative one-off 7-string bass. He is also known for playing R-Bass and Zon Fretless basses.
How did the collaboration with Annie Haslam come about?
We have been lucky to work together with Billy James from Glass Onyon PR since releasing our debut album. Billy has been a huge help to us. It was he who suggested we approach Annie. We had just recorded a single with Jon Anderson as guest vocalist (we plan to include it on our second album!). Jon was at that time getting ready to go out on tour for his 1000 Hands tour, so there was no time to finish that single and release it. I spoke to Billy about it, and he suggested we record a different song and ask Annie. Billy introduced us and set it up for us. We sent Annie a demo of Blood and Water along with our vision of the collaboration and she loved it! She said she was intrigued to sing on something which showcased her lower register for a change! Annie phoned me and we had a lovely chat, and we arranged the details. She was getting ready for the Strawbs 50th Anniversary Concert, so there was a bit of a time pressure! We quickly sent her the tracks and she recorded her vocals with Rave Tesar at his studio. The whole experience was a great honor for us.
How did you become involved with Nick Katona?
I actually reached out to him! I had been in touch with several record companies; I was interested (and still am) in building a dynamic and enthusiastic team. What makes Nick Katona stand out from the crowd, in my opinion, is his heartfelt style and approach to music and people. I want to work together with motivated people I truly like and respect. And I love Nick!! He is absolutely motivated; he lives and breathes music! And he is respectful, fair, approachable, and open-minded. I am so grateful to be working with him and Melodic Revolution Records!!
You mention the second album – what is it going to be called and when are we likely to be hearing it?
We are playing around with a few different titles at the moment. We have been prolific during quarantine and the songs we want to present on the album keep changing! Jan-Christian and I are spending May/June 2020 organizing the songs and arrangements. Once that is completed, we will decide when we can get everyone together to record. I am old school in that way. I want to record the second album with the band all together in the studio, playing as a unit, just as we recorded ‘The Blind Side’. The energy is just different when we all play together, and I believe it affects the sound. I imagine we will release the album in spring of 2021.
Where can people discover your music and find out more about you and Potter’s Daughter?
We do our best to be present online as much as possible. There are several opportunities to connect with us! Here are our links:
In the middle of last year, I received an email from Daria Kulseh, who has been given my details by the wonderful Elfin Bow. She described her music to me as “a bold fusion of cultures and styles – my Russian and Ingush (see: North Caucasus) heritage is mixed with English and Celtic folk influences, unique and rich family history and a turbulent journey through life. Storytelling plays a crucial part in my songwriting and live performances. True life tales are intertwined with folklore and magic.” I was incredibly intrigued by this and soon fell in love with her album ‘Earthly Delights’. We became friends on Facebook, as a way of keeping in touch, and then two weeks ago I realized she had posted a video of her performing live at home – I’d missed the event due to it being the middle of the night in NZ when it was originally aired. I watched the event and was blown away by it, so much so that Daria and I were soon swapping messages, and I wondered if perhaps she might like to undertake an interview? The result is one of the favorite pieces I have ever been involved with, as Daria has an incredible story to tell, and this knowledge helps bring her songs even more to life. She is an amazing talent, and hopefully, this interview will inspire you to seek her out for yourself.
Who, what and when is Daria Kulesh?
Daria Kulesh is an extremely split personality! My identity is a crazy cocktail of Russian, English and Ingush. Moscow, Russia is where I was born and grew up – so that’s my native heritage, my fond childhood memories and adolescent adventures. England is my adopted home, where I became a wife and a mother; found my path as a performing artist and my language as a songwriter. Ingushetia in the North Caucasus is my Grandmother’s long-lost home, a land that has always fascinated and summoned me – first from a safe distance; but then I answered the call and my life has never been the same. The story and spirit of the Ingush people, their tragic and unique fate, the severe, primordial beauty of their mountains are the lifeblood of my inspiration. Up there, in the mountains, time flows differently – you can hear the voices of the ancestors in the wind, and stories that unfolded in ancient legends feel as real, recent and routine as a cup of coffee you had in the morning. Up there, the soil and the sky meet and intermingle, the past bleeds into the future, the boundaries between myth and history are blurred, and magic is commonplace.
In the words of the Ingush poet Ali Khashagulgov: Where icy summits ring so clear, Their voices can be heard – No earthly soil they’re ploughing here, But heaven’s fields are stirred. Their heavy ploughs are pulled by clouds, Their furrows are of smoke, The sun, with ever watchful eyes, Observes their constant work. They sow no earthly seeds, but stars! Throw handfuls in the air… A song of love the starling starts, The tune is pure and fair. Of spring it sings, of hope it sighs, Of faith in days ahead… Those who can’t see these simple signs Are deader than the dead (Translated by Daria Kulesh)
What are your earliest musical memories and who/what inspired you to start playing music?
I was a very geeky child, an academic achiever, but with what felt like too many strings to my bow. I wasn’t sure whether I preferred art and craft, or poetry, or languages. A Jack of all trades, I had no idea which one to try and master. What I really wanted was to be good at the one thing that seemed completely out of reach – music. Music was my unrequited passion – as a young child, I would sit, silent and spellbound, through classical recitals. My Mum soon discovered that the best way of getting me to behave was the threat of binning concert tickets. Yet, my dream of becoming a violinist had been dashed – aged five, I auditioned for a music school and the verdict was pretty damning. I was pronounced a profoundly tone-deaf no-hoper. In the rigid Soviet system that favored child prodigies nobody wanted to give me a second chance. Despite this brutal reality check, the impossible dream proved too hard to kill – and one night, aged something like eleven, I made a wish before going to sleep: to become good at music. At the cost of all my other skills and strengths, if necessary. Not that I woke up with a coloratura soprano the very next morning, but a couple of years down the line, I randomly picked up a leaflet on the underground – a concert featuring some Scottish folk musicians, that same evening. Out of pure curiosity, I went along. And ended up besotted, not just with the haunting melodies, but with the sheer joy and fun of the performances. Very different from the strait-laced classical world I’d known. I dived into learning all these wonderful Celtic songs and singing them at house parties. People started giving me compliments – at first, I thought they were joking! One thing led to another, and at the age of 18, I became the resident singer at one of Moscow’s Irish pubs, with a backing band of Conservatoire students. I guess I got the job mostly because of my lack of a heavy Russian accent! With a couple of line-up changes, the band had an exciting journey including some TV appearances and performances for the UK Embassy and the British Council. I even ended up lending my tartan outfit to the Russian pop star Glukoza to record her MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech – the ceremony she couldn’t attend was held in Edinburgh that year.
Anyway, long story short, back in Russia I was merely a singer. And an active, published and performing, poet. Playing instruments and writing songs came much, much later: my first instrument was a bodhran bought in Nova Scotia, along with a tin whistle (which I’ve never practiced enough!); then years later, in England, I discovered first the guitar, urged by a friend – which, to my complete amazement, suddenly enabled me to write tunes and songs – and then the Shruti box, inspired by seeing Maz O’Connor perform. At the moment I’m using the quarantine to practice some other instruments that people have kindly gifted me over the years – the Appalachian dulcimer and the Kazakh dombra, plus the far less exotic piano keyboard and loop pedal. On my recent home live performances, you will also see me playing the Shruti box, aka “squeezy suitcase” (as described by one of my younger audience members). I bought it on eBay for £75 and it was delivered all the way from India!
Your grandmother was obviously a huge inspiration in many ways, please tell us about some of the stories she told you which you later turned into songs.
Her most important story was of her own parents, Diba Posheva and Rashid-Bek Akhriev, the Moon and the Pilot, and of her people’s deportation by Joseph Stalin on 23rd February 1944. It’s a story that combines beauty and stoic heroism with unspeakable brutality, it’s a story of sacrifice and horrific injustice – but ultimately, of love that can’t be killed, of the human spirit that can’t be broken. When I perform live (used to perform live? Crazy times!), I share with my audience an album of precious family photographs kept by my grandmother. While she was alive, she never showed them to me, I didn’t even know they’d existed. But after she passed away, she left me a sealed package. When I opened it, all the people from her stories sprung back to vivid life. Her descriptions of them were so extraordinary, I knew instantly who everyone was… Her mother, the Moon, a beauty with luminous snow-white skin framed by the blackness of her hair. Her father, the heroic Pilot with sad, mild, knowing eyes. Her own grandmother, proud and prim, solid and sharp, like an ancestral stone tower – the wise matriarch who speaks up in defense of her daughter’s unorthodox choice of a husband and wins, with pure elegance and common sense, against prejudice and conservatism. Her Uncle, the gentleman doctor, the brilliant dancer – grace and steel combined, seemingly immune, in his unshakeable nobility, to the ugliness and cruelty of the world. It felt like being struck by lightning, I was electrified, set alight – songs just came pouring out… “The Moon and the Pilot”, “The Hazel Tree”, “Like a God”, “Safely Wed”, “Only Begun” – all of these songs on my ‘Long Lost Home’ album are rooted in my grandmother’s stories.
I’m a little intrigued that you are a published poet. Were you writing about Ingushetia back then as well?
I was indeed as that was a way of coping with my grandmother’s passing… A few of my songs – “Safely Wed”, “Fata Morgana”, “The Hazel Tree”, “Only Begun” – are based on earlier Russian poems. Being fully aware of my grandmother’s illness for years – in fact, all the time I got to spend with her was borrowed time – I knew how precious her memories were and kept writing everything down. Not just the bare bones of the stories, but all the witty little phrases and metaphors and the vivid images they evoked. The main difference between the earlier poems and the later songs is the viewpoint which informs the tone. The poems were penned by a curious outsider, sometimes perplexed by the “exotic” culture; years later, the songs carry a sense of belonging, a much deeper understanding, and respect.
So how come you ended up in the UK?
In 2006, I was employed by a Russian luxury lifestyle magazine as a travel writer and sent to the UK on the hunt for stories. Music and poetry weren’t my livelihood at the time, in Russia one was expected to have a “real job” and I’d chosen my career quite early on, volunteering and working for various young people’s publications since I was 13. Once in the UK, I traveled to beauty spots and cultural landmarks, interviewed museum and theatre directors, writers, artists, and performers. One of the most glamorous perks of the job was reviewing upmarket hotels and restaurants… as well as folk festivals! (the latter was my idea, obviously) There was a sinister side to this world of luxury, too, as reflected in my song Fake Wonderland. Also, when the magazine started running into serious financial difficulty and my wages evaporated, some situations I found myself in were deliciously absurd – for example, flying with Ryanair to a 5-day luxury fam trip of Scotland with a tiny bag, and wearing most of my clothes in ridiculous cabbage layers – I was due to stay at The Balmoral and Gleneagles, yet paying an excess baggage fee would have meant genuine financial trouble. In the middle of this crazy penniless life of occasional ultra-luxury, I met my future husband, and the rest is history.
What did you think of the UK music scene when you arrived, and how did you get involved in it?
I had absolutely no clue how things worked and had to start completely from scratch… Open mics were great fun but didn’t really lead to anything – my goal wasn’t necessarily to make any money, but to find musicians to play with. At the time, I couldn’t play any instruments and hadn’t written any songs apart from some lyrics to other people’s tunes. So, I gave folk clubs a try, and at first, got a few things terribly wrong – such as bringing backing tracks to sing along to. I did the odd pub gig with local musician friends I made along the way, singing either Irish songs or an embarrassing selection of covers. Slowly but surely though, having picked up a couple of guitar chords, I started writing songs, finding my way on the folk scene and getting feedback, both encouraging and constructive. It was at Uxbridge Folk Club that Archie, the organizer, played the musical matchmaker and, in a stroke of mad genius, introduced me to my first UK band, KARA. The band ended up developing a very original Anglo-Russian sound, made even more exotic by the combination of accordion and hammered dulcimer, and our debut album was acclaimed by The Telegraph and bootlegged by Amazon… Also, in a quirk of fate, I presented a show called Folk DJ on a local community radio station, and that was a great way of meeting people for interviews and live sessions as well as listening to loads of records and generally getting quite immersed into the scene. Generally, I found the folk community very friendly and family-like, the main difference with Russia is that if you see your music journey (or “career” if you like, although I’m not a fan of the word) as a ladder, in the UK you can slowly climb from the ground up to a considerable height. In Russia, you can make it as far as the first couple of steps and then there’s a void, the middle rungs are missing… to go any higher, you usually need a helicopter lift – a huge cash injection which can only come from an ultra-rich sponsor/benefactor. I feel very grateful for the way the UK folk scene is set up in such a welcoming, informal way, surrounded and nurtured by an amazing community of music appreciators.
Did working with Kara lead directly to your first solo album, ‘Eternal Child’? Looking back on it from five years, how would you describe it now?
‘Eternal Child’ felt like a vanity project, a selection of very confessional, unashamedly revealing stories, and I was blown away by the response to it. I had been worried that the thoughts and sentiments expressed in the album were too personal and quirky to mean anything at all to other people. It was released in contrast to the theatrical, dramatic, make-believe, over-the-top realm of KARA – which I’d thought had a much broader appeal.
I would describe it as a “twilight” album, compared to ‘Long Lost Home’’s moonlit darkness and ‘Earthly Delights’’ bright sunrise. Back then, I found inspiration in the shadows and was one of those artists who feel they can’t write happy songs. Also, Eternal Child was therapy – at the time I was giving up on the idea of motherhood (or so I thought!) and coming to terms with it. I embraced being different from most people, looked at the world with the eyes of a child who will never grow up, clinging on to the echoes of lost innocence, shadowy memories, and dreams. Yet there were some things that I saw very clearly, such as human weaknesses and fakeness. One should be very careful around children – they are watching us, understanding a lot more than we realize. And some children grow up to be singer-songwriters…
Five years later, I’m looking back at ‘Eternal Child’ and realize that I have, somehow, grown-up. Yet I do miss being that child, too.
The second album, ‘Long Lost Home’, has a real back story to it, how did it come about?
It all started with one song – “The Moon and the Pilot”, a song that wrote itself in a matter of minutes and took me on a whirlwind journey – first, to the studios of BBC World Service and from there, unexpectedly, to my grandmother’s lost homeland of Ingushetia. The BBC World Service broadcast was seen by my grandmother’s nephew, the son of her estranged brother, and him reaching out to me was the first, mind-blowing step toward rebuilding burnt family bridges. Then, also on the back of that fateful broadcast, I was officially invited to visit Ingushetia by Rustam Tarkoev, who became my guide, host, and advisor and also introduced me to the incredible Timur Dzeytov, then People’s Artist of Ingushetia and now its Minister of Culture. The strange thing about that visit was my sudden celebrity status, the TV talk shows and the audiences with politicians – yet, as much as most people were very keen to give me the most glamorous impression of life in my grandmother’s native land, I saw enough of the truth, heard enough of the real stories. The generosity and warmth of the people – despite their often tragic, sometimes horrifying life stories – was deeply humbling, and their love of life infectious. I was also completely awestruck by the beauty of the mountains and the towers. Finally, I arrived on the soil of my grandmother’s ancestral nest and felt such a deep, blissfully aching sense of belonging, as if my feet were growing roots. I felt grounded, no longer the fleeting spirit, Peter Pan, the Eternal Child. The Ingush word for happiness – “iraz” – means, literally, a plot of land. I have found mine.
After that journey, some songs got changed and enhanced. Some got written from scratch. And for certain, Long Lost Home would not have been the same had I not found it…
Your most recent album, ‘Earthly Delights’, was released in 2019 and you describe it as “Bright sunrise”. When I reviewed it I said that it was “Simply awesome… an album which should be in every music lover’s collection“. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it? Take us through the songs.
‘Earthly Delights’ is a celebration – fun and upbeat, whimsical and mischievous. It’s a grateful and playful exploration of human nature; of love, desire, ambition and other urges that drive us, both physical and spiritual. It retells and twists fairy tales, episodes from history, urban legends – rich old stories that are timeless, ever-relevant and relatable. “Great battles of love and life” that we all live through, every day. If I can make my listeners gasp: “That Russian fairytale – wow, feels as if it’s all happened to me!” – then my work is done. A review in FATEA Magazine says that my songs “aren’t just sung, but lived”. When I perform, I become the characters in my songs. I tell the stories by living them.
To recoup my journey as a songwriter and storyteller, ‘Eternal Child’ was a surprisingly well-received very private, very confessional album from a time when I was still figuring out my path, my place in life. Back then, darker stories seemed more appealing and nuanced, more interesting to explore as a detached, childlike observer. Having matured through the making of my second album ‘Long Lost Home’ – a life-changing journey to my Grandmother’s homeland of Ingushetia in the Caucasus that opened my eyes and my heart – I was handed the great responsibility of telling stories that really mattered. People’s reactions to my song “The Moon and the Pilot” in particular have been incredible and humbling. Music no longer felt like a self-indulgent vanity project. I had something to offer that people truly wanted and needed. Also, my vision has changed – now my inspiration doesn’t just live in dark places; the new songs are full of light, shade, and color. Of lust for life. One of the covers on the album – “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” – reflects and embraces my deep belief that “love is lord of all”, an ever-present force, like gravity, that connects all living things. And the penultimate song, “Made of Light”, claims that the more love we leave behind in the world, the longer we live on.
From a completely different angle, “Shame or Glory” is another song inspired by the current stage of my journey, by this new understanding and maturity, by the sheer joy and fulfillment I’ve discovered in my art – regardless of any competitive aspects, any awards or other forms of formal recognition. While singing songs and telling stories is a reward in itself; while you feel like you simply can’t be doing anything else – nothing else matters! And in that, all truly possessed artistic souls are united in a brotherhood of holy fools – whether you are the ridiculed William McGonagall or the revered Vincent van Gogh.
Also, ‘Earthly Delights’ is deeply rooted in my native language, the emotional landscape of my culture, the old stories that I was told and read as a child, such as the tales of Vasilisa and Morozko – all of that is at the core of who I am. I have grown many cultural and linguistic layers, and my music is a fusion of many influences, described by some as an “ambitious culture clash” – but underneath all that, my native background is the soil from which all these fanciful flowers and strange fruit grow. Interestingly, on the new album, I have a W.B. Yeats poem, set to music by Joseph Sobol – “Cap and Bells”. The reason I picked that song is because it echoes the familiar plot of a classic Russian novel, which in turn is based on a powerful true story.
My favorite song on the album is probably “Golden Apples”, It’s such a fun, playful song to perform, and I have fond memories of fleshing out the arrangement with the supremely talented Jonny Dyer during a wonderful tour of Scotland in October 2018. It’s written from the point of view of a magical, whimsical creature – the Firebird of Russian folklore. She represents – to me – pure unchained desire, pleasure without consequence. She flies into the Tsar’s garden at night to steal, uncaught and unpunished, his most precious treasure – the magical golden apples. The Tsar sends his sons to catch the mystery thief; but the Firebird’s enchantment sends them into a deep sleep, night after night. From the Firebird’s uncluttered perspective, what’s the point of all that effort to guard something you possess, but never dare to enjoy? We all have hungry Firebirds held captive in our ribcages, desires we will never release, perhaps not even confess to. If we were to release them, all at once, the world would catch alight!
The whole album is full of complex, often ambivalent characters – the seductive and childlike Rusalka, who turns a pious old monk’s world upside down; the brave and ruthless Vasilisa, who becomes a queen at a considerable moral cost. Most of the songs on ‘Earthly Delights’ can be described as “morality tales” – no wonder that several of the songs – “Pride of Petravore”, “Greedy King” – have deadly sins in their titles. Yet, the rigid biblical framework of virtue and sin is shaken and stirred by the pure, pagan lust for life and enjoyment of everything this world has to offer. In “Greedy King”, the moral of the story is that shameless, primal, indestructible joy can be found down the deepest well of despair, and that’s how life triumphs over death itself. And the title track encourages you to:
Be greedy – for joy! Be lusty – for life! Be proud – of what makes you stand tall. No deadlier sin Than a heart without love. Feed your fire, Sing the song of your soul!
Since leaving Moscow you have flourished as a performer, become a wife and a mother, and investigated your grandmother’s heritage among other things. What is next (after the current situation)?
After my very short maternity leave, I found so much new joy in performing and uncovering previously unseen layers and meanings in my existing material. It felt like I was connecting with my audiences on a whole new level. I’ve also incorporated some new songs, such as tender, exquisite traditional lullabies and a couple of covers. My own writing, however, has been dormant – but that’s not a worry. I’m finding a lot of magic, inspiration, and nourishment in motherhood, but it will take time to distill these new discoveries into songs, it’s a natural process, a necessary pause as I’m adjusting to a new way of being, of rediscovering the world through my daughter’s eyes. I can’t wait to be performing live again though as before the lockdown it felt better than ever this year, totally exhilarating – even more so, I can’t wait to collaborate with my amazing musician friends in various duo and trio outfits, and in exciting projects such as Joseph Sobol’s incredible “folk opera” based on the life and poetry of W.B. Yeats.
Meanwhile, here is a quote that really resonates at the moment, as I gaze upon the slowed-down world with a mix of childlike wonder and giddy gratitude for the joy and beauty of nature. In the words of Ali Khashagulgov, as he returned to Ingushetia, his homeland, after long years of exile:
“Woodpeckers are drumming on the tree trunks, dropping dust onto the ground. I am drunk, Homeland, drunk with my love for you! You alone are in my thoughts, I dreamed so tirelessly about you from a distance. And now I’m wandering in your woods, like a madman… My heart is pounding; it is glad – like a cuckoo that’s broken free from the human grip. Every berry-laden branch of the viburnum shrub is like a blushing bride. And the spider among elderberry leaves is weaving me a white scarf with silver threads. I am giddy with its aroma! The sun ripens a sweet red apple, caressing it, cheek-to-cheek, and cornel berries are like embers in my mouth …How I love all of this! I am keen to kneel before your every tree, as I would before a priest. In foreign lands, so long have I dreamed of seeing you! And now woodpeckers are drumming on the tree trunks, greeting me after a long separation.”
(Translated by Daria Kulesh)
Where can people find out more information, purchase your music, or watch your home concerts?
My website – www.daria-kulesh.co.uk – is quite busy and informative, do take a peek! Discover my music and art, learn more about Ingushetia, connect with my social media pages, and even watch my online home concerts (via the links on the Gigs page). And when we can gather again to celebrate the magic of songs and stories, I very much hope to meet you in the real world!
PoP: Thank you for sitting down with us here at Power of Prog.
John: Thank you. It is a privilege!
PoP: Tell us a little about yourself, your musical training?
John: I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old but stopped at around ten years of age. My teacher, a wonderful elderly woman, would only let me play classical music and hymns…but it introduced me to some gospel-type playing. I then did not play much until I was about 14 when I got into my first rock band. At that point, I returned to the piano and taught myself all about chords so that I could start to write music. In college, I took a few music theory courses and I continue to learn to this day.
PoP: How long have you been a professional musician, and who or what inspired you to become a musician?
John: My first inspiration to get into a band came from artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Humble Pie, Deep Purple, and many others. My first paid gig was when I was 15 in a band named Anxiety’s Moment. It was a good introduction because most of the band were at least 4 years older and experienced. I fronted that band as lead vocalist but didn’t play keyboards. We did a lot of Uriah Heep and Deep Purple. After that I started to get into prog-rock bands like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and ELP, which led me and my close friend, guitarist Ron Dominicis, to start bands that largely did original material. That culminated in the formation of a band named Harlequin (currently renamed Harlequin Reborn) that booked out of Pittsburgh and played the Pennsylvania/Ohio/West Virginia market. That band was a combination of prog and glam with a lot of theatrics. I gave up on music for quite a while to get my Ph.D. and become an active biomedical research scientist. After a twenty-year hiatus, I started playing with other musicians in blues bands in San Antonio where I rediscovered my love of the piano, songwriting and playing live.
PoP: You are working on your debut album with your band Sun King Rising an Americana Rock band, can you tell us a bit about the album? For example who is on the album?
John: Sun King Rising is just what I call my solo non-prog project versus being a full-blown band, although it is likely that I will put a band together around it. This album is really focused on my love of more organic rock music like that of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, early Elton John, Dan Penn, and a host of others. It reflects my love of southern rock and country soul. The album is calledDelta Tales because it focuses on southern themes and I live in the Texas delta of the Rio Grande Valley. I have a lot of great musicians on this album. Steve Acker, from the great 70s band LAW, is producing. He also plays guitar and provides background vocals. Without Steve, this album would not be getting done as fast or be as good as we think it is. My cousin, Steve Schuffert, is playing lead guitar on the album. He is an amazing musician who spent a lot of time in Nashville as a session musician as well as producing quite a few albums as a solo artist or as part of his blues band. David Granati of the Granati Brothers is also playing some guitar, as well as doing some of the engineering. The drummers include George Perilli who played extensively with Michael McDonald, John Sferra of the incredible band, Glass Harp,Andy Taravella of the ADD Band, and Mark Francis who is my drummer from Harlequin Reborn. The bass players include Jeff Bremer, Bambo Kino, and Eddie Costa (also of Harlequin Reborn). Hermie Granati, also of the Granati Brothers, provides some additional very soulful keys. Jacob Wynne wrote the horn charts and provides the talents of the fantastic Cold City Horns. Katherine O’Neill also plays some pretty violin parts on it. Most of these players are from the Pittsburgh and Northeast Ohio area where I grew up. There are also some fabulous back-up vocals by great singers such as Shawn Mayer of Nashville.
PoP: Who writes your songs? What are the main themes or topics for most of your songs? Do you think these topics will change over time?
John: I’ve written most of the songs on the album. Steve Acker is contributing an additional two songs and Steve and I have co-written another. While not a concept album, Delta Tales is thematically coherent. It is about the southern experience. The songs reflect vignettes of love found, love lost, family, faith, historical burden, betrayal, sin, and redemption set in a southern cultural landscape. The root subjects are pretty universal.
PoP: What makes a song stand the test of time such as The Beatles’ Let It Be?
John: The song needs to have a great hook and it needs to connect to the listener emotionally. Most of the great classics have these features. Take the songs of the truly great songwriter, Jimmy Webb. A song like Wichita Lineman paints a picture that draws the listener in and then imprints it in memory with an awesome melody. The true greats of Americana songwriting like Randy Newman and Leon Russell have this ability. They are literate, melodic, harmonically interesting, and classically memorable. Their songs are strongly evocative, loaded with atmosphere, and can mean different things to different people.
PoP: What is the creative process like?
John: It varies quite a bit. Usually, a song comes to me when I’m sitting at my Yamaha grand piano and playing, which I try to do for at least an hour a day. I’ll develop a chord progression and a melody. Sometimes, I’ll already have a lyrical theme in mind or even a title. I keep a document filled with phrases that I come up with that I can incorporate in songs. The Sun King Rising songs tend to be simpler and shorter, of course, than what I write for Harlequin Reborn.
PoP: Where do you sing besides the studio or a live performance?
John: I sing in the car a lot when I’m working out phrasing! Also, I’ve been known to go out to do competitive karaoke.
PoP: What instruments do you play?
John: I mainly think of myself as a singer/songwriter but the piano is my number one instrument that I connect with the most strongly. I’m not bad at playing Hammond organ either. I play both on the SKR album. Of course, I play lots of other keyboards in HR including various synths and my prize mellotron.
PoP: What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into as a musician?
John: Ha! Luckily, I’ve not been in much trouble at all.
PoP: What was the most memorable time in your music career?
John: It probably has been working on the Delta Tales album. It has been a truly wonderful experience to work with such great musicians. The first Harlequin Reborn reunion show in 2015 also was awesome.
PoP:` How about a track by track break down?
John: Sure. We are still working out the exact list and running order of songs. Because we want to put it out on vinyl also, we have some physical constraints that remain to be worked out. Beneath the Southern Sun is a new song that I wrote for the album that is a real rocker and features a jaw-dropping guitar solo by Steve Schuffert. It is a song about a fictional southern family’s history. Let There Be Light is a song with a hope-filled message that I probably wrote 10+ years ago. It is also up-tempo and has a pretty good hook in it. Milkweed and Thistle is one of my favorites. It’s a new song about loss but still rocks and probably has my favorite lyric on the album. It has the flavor of an early Elton John song when he was in his more country period. Horns play an important role in several songs since I am a big fan of those powerful horn sections heard so often on southern soul records. Love Turns Grey is a Leon Russell-Esque funky song that has some awesome horn lines in it. In a State of Grace is a mid-tempo rocker that also has a good horn section in it. There is also an amazing cover version of an old R&B song, The Snake, with a huge horn and background vocal sound that is like something that Joe Cocker and Leon Russell could have put together on their Mad Dogsand Englishmen tour! Down the Delta Road is a poignant southern love song with a cool violin part by Katie O’Neil. Evangeline is a newer song I wrote with Steve Acker. It is a beautiful southern ballad of lost love with only piano and strings backing it. Steve also has contributed two other songs on the album including a remake of his wonderful song Take It Down that he originally recorded with LAW. He also wrote The Lions of Gettysburg which is a song about the Civil War with an awesome hook in the chorus.
PoP: Let’s say I asked you to describe your musical style as if you were a painter. How would you describe your music pallet using vivid colors?
John: For the Sun King Rising, I’d use the colors of earth, sea, and sky to depict the cotton and cane fields of the southern delta country. Maybe they can be painted in an expressionist style so you can sense the heat, humidity, and the smells of the soil and wetlands. Figuratively, I’d want to show the southern human textures of toil, honor, hospitality, and grace infused with religious references that still dominate the southern cultural environment.
PoP: How long has this project been around and when do you plan to release it?
John: Some of my songs on it are as old as fifteen years but several are very recent having being written specifically for the album. The album will be released on PeacockSunrise Records hopefully in the summer of 2020. The vinyl may be a problem due to a worldwide shortage, but we will also be releasing it digitally and on CD.
PoP: You are also in a progressive rock band, Harlequin Reborn, a band that is as different as night and day from the Sun King Rising. Can you tell us about this project?
John: Harlequin Reborn is my symphonic prog rock band that has been resurrected, or reborn. It allows me to write more complex and longer pieces. I also tend to sing quite differently in HR. Basically, I suppress my southern twang! HR songs are harmonically more complex and let me write more literary lyrics that can be more abstract. HR songs generally start from a concept and then I find the music within myself that fits the story. HR also functions as a live act with a significant stage show, although we haven’t played in the past two years. We had to cancel a gig recently because of the untimely death of our incredible keyboard player and my close friend, Tom Dyer.
PoP: Are you working on a release for Harlequin Reborn?
John: We have worked on a release since 2015 but have abandoned our original idea to initially put out a live album. We scrapped that and are now well into a studio album. It will be called Scenes From the Harlequinade. I will return to the studio to finish it up after we wrap up all the final bits of the Sun King Rising project. We have not signed with a record company yet but are in initial talks.
PoP: Are you planning a tour or select shows with either of the bands?
John: We are just now working on some initial plans to do a couple of select gigs for Sun King Rising. SKR is substantially easier to organize for live performances than HR which is really limited to large stages due to the theatrics. Luckily, we do have a complete production company (led by my production manager, Jeff Schuffert, and our front-of-house genius Pat Benigas) that can handle quite a range of venues. Anything more than a short tour would be hard due to the burdens of day jobs etc. We would also be very interested in any festival work that may come our way once we are out of the plague season!
PoP: What process is more magical, playing live and sharing your music or creating the magic of music?
John: For me, it is the creative process. Writing the song, arranging it, and searching for that golden artistic spark is extremely satisfying.
PoP: If you could put together a band of your idols (past or present) for a one-time album and tour, who would be a part of it and why?
John: Leon would be playing the piano that is for sure. Maybe add Booker T on the organ! I’d like to have Ray Charles backup singers also! There are tons of great rhythm sections that I’d be happy with. On guitar, I’d want my cousin, Steve Schuffert, because he is as good as anyone I have ever heard.
PoP: What ten albums should be in every seriously good music collection?
John: I can’t do it. There are way too many. It changes daily for me! From a SKR perspective, I would have to include albums by BobDylan, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Randy Newman, Jimmy Web, Carole King, Laura Nyro, John Hiatt, William Topley, and Al Green.
PoP: What’s the last album you listened to?
John: The last three according to my Amazon music account are: Music for Piano, Voice and Chamber Ensemble from The Thomas De Hartmann Project, All in the Downs by the remarkable William Topley, and the Italian prog band Saint Just’s eponymous album, a little known gem from 1973.
PoP: What makes you happy and what ticks you off?
John: People being kind and thoughtful to one another makes me happy. A beautiful work of art or a great book also make me happy. Being with my friends, hearing live music, and playing music make me happy. Traveling the world makes me happy. Debussy’s harmonies make me happy. A fine champagne definitely makes me happy. Ignorance and greed tick me off. People who abuse children or animals enrage me. Bad drivers upset me. And bands who wear shorts and tennis shoes on stage (unless you are a drummer and then I’ll probably hide you behind tinted plexiglass)! Not being able to tell the band from the audience is a real drag for me, although I realize it is idiosyncratically shallow of me to reveal such sartorial contempt.
PoP: What does success mean to you, not as a musician, but as a person?
John: Success is reflected in the kindness and charity that you show others in need. I have been very fortunate in life. I try to help others, especially musicians when I can.
PoP: How has the music landscape changed since you have become a professional musician?
John: There are nowhere near as many live venues for young musicians to hone their performance skills and they don’t pay nearly as well as they once did. However, the ability to have high-quality recording technology in the home has benefited musicians by giving them greater access to audiences. The sheer amount of new music that is now available due to this technological egalitarianism is daunting, however.
PoP: If you could put one thing back into Pandoras Box what would it be?
John: The advent of software-based autotuning tools that have led people who should not be singing to put out records that are fit only for the demons of Gehenna to listen to.
PoP: Do you see value in streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube for example?
I don’t use Spotify but I often go first to YouTube when I’m checking out a new band or trying to find an old song. I like Bandcamp because they have an incredible variety of great music available and it is “close” to the source of the music, the musicians themselves.
PoP: If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be? And who would be your warm-up act?
John: My goal is to play in Europe, especially the UK and Italy. I am friends with lots of musicians, so I’d probably choose somebody local who complements whatever act I was touring. If it was a prog show, there is no doubt that I would want my good friends in This Winter Machine to play on the bill, although I think it more likely that we’d be warming up for them!
PoP: What influences your songwriting?
John: My mood, a painting that I see, or a nice lyrical phrase all can stimulate the process.
PoP: What is the best advice you’ve been given professionally?
John: Frankly, it was to go to graduate school because the likelihood of having a career in music was vanishingly small. Also, in my early years, someone suggested that I learn as much music theory as possible because it would greatly expand my musical palette. They were correct!
PoP: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
John: Make sure you get a good education that can provide you with the necessary expertise and a skill set that can help you have a sustainable career even if the ultimate focus is not music. Music will always be there to inspire.
PoP: Have you ever thought about being something other than a musician? Oh, wait you do… you have a Ph.D. in Genetics. That’s some pretty heavy stuff, tell us a little about it?
John: Ha! I am a professor of Human Genetics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. I am a biomedical research scientist working in the area of the genetics of common complex diseases like heart disease, diabetes, psychiatric diseases, neurological diseases, and infectious diseases to name a few. My group does a wide variety of things including genome sequencing, stem cell biology, and the development of mathematical and statistical models to enhance discoveries relevant for advancing human health. I am far better known in science than I am in music! I’ve published about 700 peer-reviewed papers in the biomedical literature and have been fortunate to have been asked to give talks in more than 40 countries and all continents except Antarctica (still waiting for that invitation!). It has been a wonderful career that I have been very fortunate to have experienced. I also co-own a predictive data analytics company, 4TellX, that is based in Austin and that primarily works in the education space by helping school districts better understand and utilize their data to tailor education appropriate for individual students.
PoP: Dare I ask your thoughts on the current situation of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)? How do you see this affecting the musician and the people of our planet in general?
John: It has certainly been an eye-opener to see how the planet can almost come to a stop due to an extremely simple organism. It has already been devastating to musicians who require live engagements to sustain their lives. In general, I think it is very scary for people and there is a lot of disinformation that would be less impactful if we did a better job at teaching the importance of scientific process and knowledge. I grieve for places like Italy that have been hit so hard. As a scientist, I am confident that we can quickly minimize the loss of life with existing treatments and then develop a vaccine that will reduce the potential for future outbreaks. I also have developed a project in the last few weeks for identifying human genetic variations that are contributing to the different responses that we see amongst individuals who are infected.
PoP: In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us. Do you have anything that you would like people to know that we did not talk about?
John: I think it has been pretty wide-ranging! Thank you very much for the stimulating questions and this opportunity to introduce myself to your audience.
A few years ago, I heard about an album which had been reissued by Gonzo that was creating a lot of interest. I duly searched out the release, thoroughly enjoyed it, and wrote a review and thought little more of it. A few weeks later, Martin had seen the review and tracked me down through one of the sites I work for. Since then it is safe to say we are in communication very frequently indeed, and I have been fortunate enough to hear his other albums, as well as enjoying his wonderful artwork. When it came time for my books to be released, I cheekily asked Martin if he would like to be involved, and he jumped at the opportunity, and has designed the covers for all three, for which I am eternally grateful. He has just finished recording his latest album, ‘Boy On A Bike’, so now seemed to be the right time to have a formal chat.
From a fairly young age you followed a path in both illustration and music, who/what inspires you in both fields?
Some early inspirations as you know, stay with you for life, so let’s start there. ‘What is the point of a book without pictures’? asks Alice in Alice In Wonderland. Well exactly, that was my view in my young years growing up in England, I was only interested in books with pictures and so reading novels came late to me. Certainly, comics were a big influence, in fact, one of my first attempts at the form was a ‘graphic novel’ version of John Carter Of Mars created when I was 13 years old. Alas, this has been lost, but I do recall getting an early insight into how time-intensive this sort of project could be, three weeks of work and I was on page 8 of the novel. I had yet to learn how to use images to create sweeping broad narratives, to go for the heart of it, leaving out unessential details. The Eagle comic was a huge influence as well, I cannot underestimate just much I learned from the various illustrators who worked on this tabloid-sized publication. This comic was an institution in the U K in the ’50s and 60’s. Dan Dare, created by Frank Hampson, was the flagship strip, printed on the front pages, essentially the R A F in space! Arriving every Wednesday morning with the postman it was a highlight of my week. I lived in a pub in Appledore in Kent, my mum and stepfather were the publicans, and my ‘studio’ was a tiny room which housed the hot water tank and the drying laundry! There was a small window that overlooked the village green, and I have many happy memories of being in my own world in that wee room, drawing as the rain pattered against the window; even now when I am working, the sound of rain against the window conjures up that same feeling. I can go to whatever worlds I care to inhabit, all I need is a 2B pencil, a piece of paper and my imagination.
On Remembrance Day, 1962, around noon, I was listening to the BBC on a tiny transistor radio. It was my job to serve the kids that came into the pub, for ice cream, pop, etc. Unusually the beer barrels for this pub, The Victoria Inn, were on the main floor, directly behind the bar. I was drawing in my sketchbook, positioned close to the door that lead from the barrel room to the public bar. Whenever a kid came in, my stepfather would rap on the door, and then I would open the door, and serve the young customer. While waiting for that nock, I listened to the radio. It was tuned to a program called Two Way Family Favourites, a request show for British soldiers stationed in Germany and their families. I wasn’t listening very closely, the pop music of the day didn’t interest me much, although I had discovered American blues recently. Then I heard it, the harmonica intro to Love Me Do! Clearly here was something cool, blues-influenced, yet played by an English band, requested by an army lad stationed in Germany who wanted his family to hear Liverpool favorites, The Beatles. (I know the exact date and time of when I first heard The Beatles because of Mark Lewison’s amazing book, Tune In. Highly recommended).
What fanned out from these major young influences, a comic called The Eagle, a band called The Beatles, essentially altered the course of my life. I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I, like millions of other guys and gals, had to have a guitar after hearing The Beatles. So I got my first ratty guitar at 14, a late start really, but I was a quick study and had all the basic chords learned a year later, mainly from Beatle songbooks.
The Beatles, Bach, and the Blues, all in the same year! Overwhelming and wondrous! (The new Gardening Club album, ‘Boy On A Bike’, has a direct connection to this period.) Some years later when Progressive Rock made its first appearance, the combination of the visual and musical storytelling was irresistible. Yes, especially, with Roger Dean’s great expansive covers. I wanted to do both things, create great covers like Dean’s and write songs like Yes. I simply had to do both! A clearly impossible task, as there were sometimes three to four composers per song! I found my own voice of course, after many years of exploration. Those early Yes albums were addictive I have to say, as was Jethro Tull, but I turned away from prog-rock for a while, for one main reason, it was just too arranged. As much as I loved it all, I was enthralled by Jazz musicians who created music in the moment, improvising spiraling lines and rhythms that were so exciting. The Mahavishnu Orchestra opened up that door of course! I have been dealing with that ‘tension’ ever since, writing and arranging the music, fascinated with ‘orchestral’ details and colors, but leaving room for the improvised serendipitous moment! King Crimson has dealt with that tension very well, and still, are!
The recent rise of interest in ‘books with pictures’, that is graphic novels, and the vinyl revival has been very inspirational for me. The art for ‘Boy On A Bike’, is centered around panels, or portals, echoing the layout for a comics page. The art for this project allowed me to return to some early artistic influences. I used the gateway metaphor for a life journey, so I created gates that echoed my favorite comic book artists, Moebius and Jim Woodring as well as, Picasso, Klimt, Dali and others who have had an impact on my artistic life.
My career in children’s books was long and fruitful, not only in all the art I created for a great many books and book covers, but in my travels all across Canada as a presenter to students in schools and libraries. I would go through all the nuts and bolts of how to create an illustrated book, using a slide show, drawing on the spot and ending every presentation I gave with a short performance on the guitar. Even though these were, you might say, the ‘quiet years’ as in no one was listening to the recordings that I constantly made, the presentations I gave year after year in the schools kept my guitar performance chops up quite well.
You made the decision to emigrate to Canada, but then returned to Europe to tour and play music, what are your favorite memories of this period?
Playing a tour in Germany and Austria, opening for Soft Machine was a highlight as I got to see Allan Holdsworth play every night for two weeks! I was in a band at that time called Gateway Driver. We were based in a little village just outside Hannover, two Brits and two German lads. So, I had my ‘German experience’, like a lot of British bands did! Later on, I lived in London and worked for CBS, now Sony, records creating L P covers. I did Ian Hunter’s first solo L P cover, still available amazingly, interior illustrations for an Argent record, and a Stravinsky L P, The Three Great Ballets. This won Best Classical Cover Of The Year award. I also recorded some demos with a hopeful band I was in at the time at Morgan Studios, famous for many a prog rock recording, including Tales From Topographic Oceans.
1983’s ‘The Gardening Club’ was your first released album, by which time you were already a well-known fantasy illustrator for both books and records. How did the album come about, who else was involved, and how would you describe it to someone who has yet to hear it?
The Gardening Club was a culmination of many, many things. I had first walked into a professional recording studio in Vancouver in 1969 to record an album of Tolkien’s poems that I had set to music from The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. It was never released; Christopher Tolkien would not give his permission to allow the LP to come out. At that time, I met a young recording engineer named Don Geppert who worked at Studio 3 where I recorded all the Tolkien material. He had moved to Toronto in 1976, and when I later moved to the city as well, I got in touch. I met Don in the studio where he worked, he told me to bring my guitar along, so I could play a few new songs for him. I did so, and after listening he said, “Well we must do something.” So, the adventure began! It was recorded over a three-year period, which was rather frustrating for me at the time, but I could only get into the studio when it was not in use. Don generously donated his time and long experience in the studio, so I essentially had free studio time but paid all the musicians who played on the record. The arrangements came about organically as we rehearsed in the studio, usually the rhythm section first. The drummer, Penner MacKay added so much rhythmic fuel to this music; that’s one of the reasons I think it has stood the test of time, I cannot overestimate how important Penner is to the musical success of the album. The bass players Paul Daiter and Paul Blaney were perfect additions to the ‘engine room’, and those initial sessions discovering the rhythmic possibilities of each song are some of my favorite memories of that time.
I had very clear ideas about all the details I wanted to hear on top, and my good pal Russ Walker (Heads In The Sky) added his wonderful flute sounds to two songs on side two. I recall I sang all the flute melodies to him as we recorded! He had great ideas of his own, of course, but this is how the recording process went, me doing a lot go singing, to sometimes bemused players! Bob Brough, who is still playing in jazz groups here in the city, played a brilliant solo on “The Traveller”. I love jazz and wanted that saxophone sound somewhere on the album for sure, and this 5/4 tune was just the right vehicle for him. My other Vancouver pal, Ann Mortifee added her beautiful voice to “Andromeda”, and to me it makes the song soar, and it makes it work. The perfect sound for the ‘cosmic’ experience I hoped it would be. One thing this album did for me, is that it gave me confidence in my musical choices, choosing the right sounds to echo the emotional and musical intentions of the song.
It is almost impossible for me to describe the music on ‘The Gardening Club’ album, as I know very well that labels are on the one hand restrictive and on the other, can help people connect to music that they don’t know through the association of that which they do know. I never called this music, Progressive Rock. When I made it, it’s just, “An album of songs by Martin Springett.” Yes, I used a twelve-string, but not because of Genesis. I picked up the twelve because of Leadbelly! I was never influenced by them or Camel either. I have never listened to Camel! The thing is, I sound English, I have always sounded like this, it’s in my DNA. Those early influences are still there, but now shaped by my years in Canada, or, North America. So, jazz and blues are in there gliding alongside my melodic English sensibilities, and also my love of classical music. You could say my roots are, Vaughn Williams, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Debussy, XTC, Weather Report, etc; the usual gumbo! Those who took the time to listen to The Gardening Club for what it was, rather than compare it to Yes, Genesis etc and find it wanting, those reviewers, ‘got’ the music very well.
From then on you released a few albums over the years both solo and with bands, but what was the idea behind the “duo” album of ‘Diving Into Small Pools’?
The impetus for ‘Diving Into Small Pools’ was essentially this – why create music, if no one is listening. Is it ‘delusional’ to think, as Bill Bruford suggests in his otherwise excellent autobiography, that making music when no is interested is the act of a person who has lost touch with reality? What if, you have to do it, no matter what anyone says or thinks. What if you know on some level, that what you are doing, has the potential to engage and interest people even if all the evidence suggests otherwise. So, I decided to create an album that was going to take me back to my earliest listening influences and make it my musical autobiography in the music business, my so called ‘career’. I had had so many disappointments in my time, the Tolkien album, ‘The Gardening Club’ LP going nowhere, and many others while in the U K and Europe, that I could whinge with the best of them. Then it occurred to me that I could use humour to make it much more than a whiny ‘o woe is me’ experience. Certainly, having a sense of humour had saved my sanity on several occasions while negotiating the biz that is music. I brought in my altered ego, Eddie Fielder to help me. I was born, Martin Edward Fielder, changing my name to Springett to placate my stepfather Walter Springett. I always thought I would change it back to Fielder at some point, but it never happened. So Eddie has lots to say throughout the record, he takes on several roles; usually those know it all’s who knew bugger all about music that I had met in my travels, managers with a gun in the briefcase, obnoxious record company dudes who couldn’t wait to put you down, for ‘looking like a boy scout on stage’, etc etc, many weird and wacky individuals, so many that I made the decision a year after I had made ‘The Gardening Club’, to pull out of the music business entirely. I had had enough. Enough of the business, but never the music.
Once I had my theme, a river of songs just started pouring out, it was liberating in every way, clearly, I needed to do this. I remember sitting on the couch one day, I was alone in the house, the family was out and about, writing about six songs in succession, lyrics first, music second. I had just gotten my first iMac, and Garage Band changed my musical life! I could record at home, no longer worried about studio time, and take, my time, to get it right. I had to get over the ‘horror’ of using drum loops, that didn’t take long of course. The songs took shape as I recorded them, I did a lot of improvising, taking bits and pieces from here and there, it was all way too much fun, except, it was all me all the time. I wasn’t used to that. I loved hearing other players on my songs, it always improved them immeasurably. Gradually I brought in some wonderful Toronto musicians to add their sounds, Allyssa Wright on cello on “Wired For Sound”; Tim Hammel on trumpet for “Miles To Go”; Chris Church on violin on “Thieves and Poets Part 2”; Kevin Laliberte on flamenco guitar, “Thieves and Poets, parts 2 and 3”; Wayne Kozak on “Caves and Cathedrals”! Now it started to sound good. I had so many songs that I ended up with a 2 CD set. Like a lot of song writers though, I needed a second pair of ears to help me evaluate the music, and Don Geppert agreed to take my not so technically great recordings and mix and master them. What a difference that made. I was very happy to work with Don again. A couple of years after I had completed the two discs though, I began to see and hear that the concept had lost its focus spread over so many songs. So, I edited out those that were the weakest, and made it into a single volume set. I redesigned the package and it’s now a single CD experience and much the better for it. I did do some tweaking on some songs, discreet stuff, but enough of an improvement that I can listen to it now and enjoy this very eccentric and eclectic musical journey.
During this period did you just see music as a hobby?
Music was never a hobby, it was something I had to do, every day, always. It kept me sane, can’t live without it. Whether it was playing for the kids in my school presentations, the very occasional solo gig, or recording at home, it was always part of my everyday life. My family was very supportive, and both my daughters, Rebecca and Miriam, played flutes and we recorded together several times. They play on the ‘Bright Weaving’ CD, my musical homage to fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay.
Gonzo Media reissued ‘The Gardening Club’ in 2016, and it now received critical acclaim. How did the reissue come about and were you surprised at the rekindled interest?
To say I was surprised at the interest shown in ‘The Gardening Club’ after all this time, would be putting it mildly. The thing is, it wasn’t rekindled interest really, because there never was any interest to begin with, anywhere. Two separate things occurred around the same time. Ed Kanerva of Spacewreck Records got in touch, to see whether I would like to rerelease the album, as an LP. I was somewhat behind the proverbial eight ball in realizing that vinyl had made a significant comeback. Someone had put up all the tracks from ‘The Gardening Club’ on YouTube, and Ed loved the art as well as the music, and got in touch. Ed works for a comic/graphic novel publishing house, so he has his fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist all right! His mission was to promote ‘cosmic Canadiana’, especially if it had been overlooked, and I was a classic example of that. Ed was amazed to find I still had 300 copies of the L P in the basement, the original pressing, unopened, catnip for the uber vinyl collector. So, Ed put a package together, with a second LP, ‘Songs From The Greenhouse’, that was made up of songs that I recorded around the time ‘The Gardening Club’ was originally released. All those songs were archived on cassette tape, that most dreaded of musical formats, but Don Geppert came to the rescue again and digitized and remastered all the songs.
The second thing was Rob Ayling of Gonzo Multimedia, based in the U K, got in touch to ask about the rights situation, re ‘The Gardening Club’ album. I had signed a deal with Spacewreck Records just a few weeks before, and wasn’t sure whether I was free to sign up with Rob as well, but as Gonzo wanted to do a CD version, not an LP, and would be selling mainly in the U K and Europe, Ed gave his blessings to a new deal with Gonzo Multimedia. Once again, I got in touch with original producer Don Geppert, and Don agreed to digitize all the songs from the vinyl LP and remaster them. Rob wanted to add most of the songs from the ‘Songs From The Greenhouse’ LP as well to ‘The Gardening Club’ CD. I had fun creating a 24-page illustrated lyric booklet to accompany the music, although I had to go into my archive to find a lot of the images as time was short. The most surprising thing then in the long run, was all the positive reviews, 32 years later!
This then inspired you to form a band and start recording again, so how did The Gardening Club get together and how did you decide on the line-up?
Six months after my heart operation, I played a concert in Victoria BC at a vinyl record store called Vinyl Envy. The lads in the store loved the ‘Gardening Club’ story, and as I had a 2 LP vinyl package for sale, they were very keen to have me in to play a concert. With me was Norm Macpherson on guitar, and Wayne Kozak on saxophone with Neil Golden on percussion. The concert went very well, and Norm right away wanted to record “Blues For Richard” in his home studio. As we got talking, we both realized that we had something special in the music we had played that night at Vinyl Envy. We had to capture it. Norm had had a studio for many years in Windsor, Ontario, and was a very experienced recording engineer. A few months later we started recording what would become ‘The Riddle’. The main idea at that point was for me to finally record as many of the songs that I had of our friend Cyril McColgans poetry. I had been setting Cyril’s poems to music for many years but had never collected them into one place; here finally was the ideal way to do that. Wayne Kozak recommended Sean Drabitt on fretless bass, and he was the perfect choice for these songs. His deep rich sound filled out the harmonic movements beautifully, plus he is an amazing improviser. The drums initially were a problem, as we used loops just to get going, but then Norm’s son James heard the “Riddle Overture” and wanted to be a part of it all, and began programming drum tracks that once again lifted the music up and were a perfect fit. James is a big fan of bands like Dream Theater and Devin Townsend, so he brought in the drama that we needed. I have known saxophonist Wayne Kozak for many years, and I always want his sound on any project I do. Years of stage and studio experience shine through in his playing, a consummate improviser! Norm Macpherson is a brilliant guitarist, arranger, and producer, and his slide playing is an unusual addition to what could be called a prog-rock album, always intense and musically and emotionally involving. I am extremely lucky to have all these players who respond so well to my musical musings!
Although my good friend Terry Findlay did not play on the album, he was an integral part of its success, as he was the one who initially had the idea that Norm would sound great on my songs. This really was the first important step, so I can’t thank him enough.
Please can you provide a track by track breakdown of the resulting album, ‘The Riddle’.
The Riddle Overture –
I loved the idea of starting off the album with a rock cliché, if you like, to see whether we could pull it off, but this tune become in a way much more than that. I had recorded the basic guitar tracks and temp melodies and we had added Norm on bass, and a drum loop, just to get going. I called Norm the following morning, how does it sound I asked him, in ‘the cold light of day?’. He responded in typical Norm fashion, ‘I added some shit last night.’ I have since learned that when Norm says this, be prepared! When I heard it later that day, I was amazed, he had added a searing slide guitar line and string orchestration, it took the whole thing to a different realm. That one tune opened up all the possibilities for Norm and myself, it set the tone. When James added his drums and a superb synth solo, that’s when it seemed to me that here was a band, trading ideas and influences and coming up with something unique. A rather more than cool beginning! The doors were now open!
This was written in the studio, sort of between takes on another song, it was one of the few Cyril lyrics that I had not set to music. I was bubbling over with ideas, just having so much fun. I should add that Norm’s studio is surrounded by forest, deep in the countryside, it is the most inspiring space I have ever recorded in. (Yes, many gifts have come my way recently. I am forever grateful.) My connection to Cyril’s words is visceral, I just know when it works, when the melody marries the words, and the emotion is distilled in a purely musical way. When Norm said, is that a Cyril song and I said yes, he said let’s record it right away, while it’s hot out of the oven.
“A dog on fire / pursued by a dog on fire”. Yes, dark stuff, written by a young guy in search of himself. Essentially, the blues, the human condition, and a song I have had for maybe ten years or so, rattling away asking to be recorded. Norms solo on this song, as far as I am concerned is as good as it gets, digging deep into the changes and the emotional darkness, but what a great release of tension!
Blues For Richard
When I was recovering from my heart operation, I heard that our good pal, Richard Moore, had died from a brain tumour. Richard was important to both Norm and I in our youthful musical days, growing up in Victoria. Norm and Richard were in a band called Blues By Five, and then Richard joined me in The Iliad when BB5 broke up. Later Richard and I had some crazy musical experiences around the same time in the U K in the 70’s. Richard joined the Troggs; need I say more! Richard later moved to California, where he became a real estate agent, but was always playing in a band somewhere.
The slow 5/4 section in this tune was the first thing I played upon hearing that Richard had died. It just came out fully formed. I knew it was for him, but I realized I wanted to go into this homage to Richard with a full-on band riff that he would have enjoyed, with the sadness held back until the end.
Just before we did our concert in Victoria, that set the ball rolling on this new Gardening Club adventure, being in an excitable state, I wanted to write something brand new for the gig, and this song was the result. I have quite a few different versions of this lyric but none that really clicked with me. For quite a while after my surgery, I could not hit all the high notes I used to, so for the first time ever, I used a capo to change the key of a particular song, but not the chord shapes. The guitar does sound different when you put a capo over the strings, no doubt, and I was quite taken with the timbre of the raised string sound. I just started playing a particular chord sequence that I had always liked but had never sung over. (For those with an interest in this sort of thing, it’s actually the first four chords of the sequence I use on the tune, Eddie’s Theme on Diving Into Small Pools. I’m allowed to steal from myself.) With the words in front of me the song just took off, one minute it wasn’t there, the next it was. I would say it took as long to write the song as it took to play it. This never happens.
Of all the surprises on’ The Riddle’, this may be the most surprising, because Norm plays the bassoon! He has been a symphony musician since he was a teenager, straddling both the popular music world and the orchestral world. This is why he is so adept at arranging, a deep knowledge of orchestration. It wasn’t clear to us what instrument should play the melody here, we tried guitar, mandolin, voices. As soon as Norm played it on the bassoon it seemed the perfect fit. The most ‘English’ sounding tune on the album.
The story behind this tune is that at one time I was asked to create illustrations for a novella by JRR Tolkien called ‘Farmer Giles Of Ham’. I went to England to talk to the publisher, and while in the office I asked if Pauline Baynes the original illustrator of the book was still alive. Very much so, came the reply, and I asked for her phone number. I called her, and my brother-in-law and I visited her in her magical cottage deep in the Surrey countryside. And so began a lovely friendship, whose memory I cherish. Pauline heard my setting of Tolkien’s words and loved the music, you can imagine how much this meant to me as Pauline and Ronald, as she called him, were very good pals. Often, she and her husband Fritz went on holiday with Tolkien and his wife.
In this tune I tried to capture the feeling I had when visiting Pauline, and the magical worlds she helped to create in Tolkien’s books, and in the Narnia books by CS Lewis, for which she is justly famous around the world, wherever children read books!
Notes On The Affair
There is no doubt that Cyril’s lyrics are often dark and intriguing, and maybe that’s why I like them, nothing is spelled out clearly, there is a mystery at the heart of it all. Here, the chorus, “the light in her life / will be the light in my own / and I will not know the difference …” is perhaps his most positive statement, and I couldn’t resist going into a major key for this one, which is unusual for me. The jazzier verse sequence came about as I was exploring a new Taylor guitar, sometimes a new instrument will inspire new sounds, no doubt! Once again Norm shows his amazing fluency on the gut string guitar, an improvised solo here that he arranged for marimba and other instruments, so that it sounds like a written-out passage. Perfect for the song. The ending is mysterious, why go to India at that point? Because it felt exactly right to do so; perhaps that is the end of the affair, or, the place it takes our couple.
The Original Sleep
This poem is by Robert Priest, a quite brilliant Toronto poet who I have known for many years. I always found this poem so intriguing, and as usual I kept coming up with ideas that I felt did not go where the poem took me. As I live in Toronto and Norm lives in Metchosin near Victoria on Vancouver Island, our recording sessions happen when I visit every two or three months. In the time when I am at home here in T O I work on new music or the art that will accompany the music on its release. Obviously, we are both aware of file sharing, but something special happens when we are in the same room together, a musical chemistry that is unique, so we prefer to create in real time when we are in Garry Oak Studio, Metchosin.
When I started working on this song, I realized I was now in a position to write for a band, or a sound, so that influenced all my writing from then on. The song was originally much longer than the recorded version, I had a whole other section that vanished after Norm wielded his musical scalpel, saying the immortal words, ‘I think we can lose the last five minutes’. And he was right! It is now a very focused piece of music, conjuring the up the deep green evening of an African forest, “the countries are so vast there / and the love so true.” Once again Norm’s slide guitar amplifies and sustains the mysterious atmosphere of the lyric.
Tears At The Matinee
This is the oldest tune on the record. I must have set this at least twenty years ago, but as much as I liked it, it didn’t really fit any other project I worked on. The original title was Tears At the Matinee 1971, so it’s the only poem in Cyril’s book, ‘The Upside Down Blackbird’, with a specific date. This is very much a portrait of our young years, and I always loved the words and was thrilled to have found just the right setting for it.
Having Wayne Kozak and Sean Drabitt on the song was a gift worth waiting for. Their combined harmonic knowledge and musical story telling are a perfect fit.
When Norm and I met again after many years, we had a lunch and a listen to my new songs at his place, just to see whether we could connect musically. I had been working on this song and played it for him, it was indeed the first Cyril song of mine that Norm heard. One could call it the ‘lightest’ song on the album, but the lyrics belie that I think. The delightful surprise here for me was James MacPherson’s perfect synth solo.
The tune is from some years ago, the lyrics written as we recorded. This was not meant to be on the album, it was just an exploration to see whether it worked, just a bunch of chords and me trying to sing! I was still having problems hitting high notes that I used to reach fairly easily. However, I was determined to meet this challenge, but it would have been foolish to push my voice if it sounded strained, so we left this one on the back burner. We worked on all the other songs then came back to this, and by that time, just by having done all that singing, I was now comfortable with the melody. After I came up with the words, I realized that it tied all sorts of threads together; you don’t always know what you are up to until it’s finished. You take the journey, but the destination is often hazy.
Just a little echo of my love for composers like Eric Satie.
The Riddle Overture Reprise
I wanted to write something where everyone in the band gets a solo, and we tie a musical ribbon around the whole thing. I think we go out here in a celebratory mood. We felt so good that what started as a tentative idea to see if we could do anything ‘interesting’ turned into ‘The Riddle’, a complete and sustained musical journey, with important musical and emotional touchstones for all of us. Truly a band effort, everyone contributing their best work, and enjoying it all so much.
One word on the order of the songs. As I was designing the CD package, I realized that I had to make that decision, as I was determined to have a lyric booklet, this was essential as Cyril’s words were so important in the genesis of the album and its outcome. I was working on the back cover of the CD package. I placed the image I had decided to use, one of ‘The Three Riddles’, that I had created after coming home from the hospital. The album did not even have a name. I looked at the list of songs. It seemed to me that ‘The Riddle’, short and to the point, even if the point was a mystery seemed to be the perfect title. Also, it lined up with the art. I had always assumed it would be a Cyril song as the title, not one of mine. Obviously, the Overture would come first, then the opening lines of Whirled Away “About to laugh / about to be let in on a secret…” Seemed to set the tone for what was coming up. After that I simply went with my instinct about what would naturally follow, contrasting tempos and sounds, like a suite.
Have you surprised yourself with your enthusiasm for getting back into the studio?
All of this has been a surprise on so many levels, I let go of this musical dream many years ago when ‘The Gardening Club’ album “died”. To have it all resurrected in this way has been completely life affirming and inspiring!
You have already been back in the studio working on a follow-up album, ‘Boy On A Bike’. Is this in a similar vein? When do you expect this to be available?
‘Boy On A Bike’ is you might say a continuation of our musical explorations, the difference being the lyrics apart from two songs are all mine, so the emotional themes are quite different, plus James wrote one of the tunes on the album, “WolfGate”. I wrote most of the music on the heels of finishing The Riddle, I was very inspired and couldn’t wait to get to the next thing! We hope the album will be available in October.
What is next for Martin Springett in both your artistic and musical endeavours?
Right now, I am putting together the lyric book and CD package for ‘Boy On A Bike’. I will actually be glad to park the bike, very soon, it’s been a rather long ride, but I am so happy with this new album, we went to new places and landscapes for sure.
Recently having performed with Syrian violinist Sari Alesh, we are adding his sound to our band, and Norm and I will be performing with Sari as a trio this coming November and recording some new tunes as soon as we can. I have a feeling the next project will be very different. Which is as it should be. We just go where the music and emotions take us. Our lives are wrapped up in all this. That’s the true joy of it all.
I’m a science fiction singer-songwriter. Or maybe a weird-fiction singer-songwriter. I’d say the latter, but the phrase ‘weird fiction’ is a bit less well known so sci-fi seems a better bet. A line I used to use was “I’m what you get if early Genesis started writing songs with Nick Cave after watching too many episodes of Doctor Who”.
Occasionally I’m a live act, both acoustic and in the last year or so as a full band. But I do have a full-time job – I work for a social mobility charity in London – that means gigging is pretty hard to do. I just don’t have the time, and my main mission over the last few years has been to catch-up with my songwriting and get all my best songs recorded and released. Sunday mornings are a great time for recording, far less conducive to gigging. People don’t want to come see you play on a Sunday morning.
I’ve been accused of being a prog rock artist. I like that, but I’m not sure how useful it is because if you listen to my stuff expecting it to sound like 1970’s progressive rock, I think you’ll be disappointed. The main influences for me are David Bowie, Radiohead, Mansun, lots of heavy metal bands, various bits of folk, Meat Loaf, the musical Sweeney Todd and my sort-of-classical composition training. I know that might sound an odd mix, but the two main threads are story telling songs and nerdy clever musician stuff like funny chords and time signatures. I always think I’m trying to write music for two people. One of them likes a singalong chorus that tells a story, the other likes clever-clever musician stuff. And the two don’t necessarily like the same things, so you have to write things so the one who likes singalong choruses doesn’t notice the funny time signatures at the same time as the one who likes the funny time signatures doesn’t care they’re listening to a singalong rock song. And both of them are me.
Does that all make sense? Possibly not. But it is still true.
Who originally inspired you musically to pick up an instrument and who inspires you now?
Mine is a musical family. My mum was a music teacher in local schools, including my primary school (though she took ten years out to raise me and my siblings). My dad and brother play guitar, my sister the bassoon. So, there hasn’t been a time when I didn’t make music. I remember sitting at the piano pre-school age learning the basics. I played violin for a few years in primary school, which I think might have been the tail-end of free individual instrumental lessons in my neck of the woods before they were cut. I then took up guitar at about the age of ten. I also sang in my mum’s choir at primary school.
In my teens I got into rock music, heavy metal and 90s grunge. I wanted to be Eddie Vedder, or maybe Thom Yorke, or maybe James Hetfield. I started writing my own songs and started a band with some mates. It was called Nothing Sacred – awful emo stuff. We did one little TV appearance inappropriately on Nickleodeon – I’m not quite sure why they had us on. We were about fifteen and they asked for acts and our bass player sent them a tape cos he thought it would be funny that they heard this dodgy rock band in amongst the wannabe pop stars: but they said yes and we ended up playing on TV while 70’s disco sensation Leo Sayer rocked out on a beanbag. Looking back, it was a bit odd.
I went off to college, then uni, studied music – mostly composition – and played in a songwriting duo called Comrade Robot. Then in 2010 I started releasing music solo, and by my second album – 2012, so about 16 years into songwriting – I started to find my voice and figure out who I really am as a songwriter.
Who inspires me now? Recent artists that I’ve wanted to steal ideas from include Paul Mosley, Richard Dawson, Matt Blick and there’s always David Bowie and King Crimson, obviously.
To the uninitiated what is Steampunk, how did you discover it and what fascinates you about the scene?
Steampunk is not a kind of music. It’s a genre of science fiction that takes inspiration from Jules Verne style of science fiction but seen through a retro lens – Verne and HG Wells were writing contemporary sci-fi as it were. The name is a play on cyberpunk, which is Blade Runner style gritty near future sci-fi. The ‘punk’ bit in both alludes to the American use of the term as in ‘you dirty punk’ not to punk music directly.
My first few albums told steampunk stories. So, the music itself isn’t steampunk – and despite what a lot of silly people on the internet sometimes say there’s no such thing as a steampunk style of music – but the lyrics are.
I have an ambivalent attitude to the scene. The people are lovely, the events can be fun, but it isn’t a music centred scene. They prefer cabaret style stuff where the audience can get involved, and except on rare occasions I’ve never really felt my music fits with what the audience wants in a live setting. Prog audiences where people are really into their music and want to listen to every note suit my music much better.
At the very end of ‘Fit the Fourth’, my last album, I looped in a little hint of the opening of my first album ‘Spinning the Compass’ as if to say. “that’s finished, the loop is closed, no more steampunk stuff”. All the releases since have not been steampunk at all.
Your first album, ‘Spinning The Compass’ featured just you, and most releases since have been the same. Is it that you don’t like other musicians, or they don’t like working with you?
I can’t stand them. Preening, egotistical idiots, all of them. Don’t get me started on singers. They’re the worst of the lot.
No, not really. Partly it’s personality as I’m naturally a bit of a loner. Partly its practicality. I mentioned the lack of time, well, organising people takes a lot of time. If I’m to get the work of recording all these songs recorded, I need to be efficient and that usually means doing things myself. Having said that since ‘Fit the Fourth’ I’ve had other people collaborating musically on most releases, with ‘Demon’ my latest album as the most collaborative. You can get some great results by just asking good musicians to record what they think fits.
I’m a solo artist for a good reason – I have no interest in compromising on what these songs should sound like. This is my project, my vision, what I want to say with the popular song format. I have no desire to share that with someone else or to work at someone else’s pace. I’ll have other people play for me, but it’ll definitely be me with the final say so.
What was Murder and Parliament?
Murder and Parliament is a name I gave to an instrumental project that was a sort of heavy metal-ish, post-rock, weird ambient music. I had a load of music that had originally been written for classical instruments back at uni, but never realised. I decided to rearrange a lot of it for rock band, add a load of drums and make an album of it. It worked pretty well. I like the mix of heavy metal instrumentation and scored out part-writing. There are also some great additions from Alun Vaughan on bass and Chrissie Caulfield on violin.
It isn’t finished either. I’m slowly bringing together ideas for Murder and Parliament’s second album. I’m not sure when it will be ready, certainly not in the next 9 months, but hopefully before the end of 2020 there’ll be another Murder and Parliament album.
Unusually for a “serious” musician, you also release a lot of singles and EP’s. Why is that and where do you see the value?
I take offence at being called a serious musician! Well, not really, but seriousness is too easy, I have no interest in it. I want to be an entertaining musician, a fun musician. I sincerely believe that in art the most difficult thing to do consistently and well is being fun. I want my music to be fun.
Is it unusual to do lots of ‘non-album’ releases? These days I think the artist that only releases one album every two years is behaving pretty strangely. That’s not how the audience listens. Why not pay attention to the audience a bit more? People these days listen to a lot of audio – whole albums and playlists on a commute, hours of podcasts just when mowing the lawn or washing the dishes. And they move on to new stuff quickly. That’s where culture is, so why not give people what they want? I’ve got a tiny group of fans, but they do like my music, so why not give them stuff to listen to.
And besides, I have the ideas and the songs. If I have two songs that fit together but will probably never belong on an album, why not release them digitally? Same with the EPs. I had a load of acoustic murder ballads last year. They weren’t long enough to be an album on their own, but there were enough to make an EP, so I did. As I said, I want to get all my good songs recorded. Lots of releases are necessary!
How did you first meet up with the Great Elephant, and was curry involved?
There are two versions of this story, the public one and the real one. I’ll ask you please to print the ‘public’ one, but I’ll tell you the real one too. Just whatever you do, don’t print the real one.
Here’s the public version: David Elephant from Bad Elephant music stumbled across my third album, ‘Three Rows of Teeth’, online. He liked it, played it on his podcast and we got to chatting online. He offered to put out my fourth album ‘Fit the Fourth’, and I said yes. Really easy. David’s great to work with.
So that’s what you can print. Please don’t print what actually happened, which was this: He showed up at my house. Him, in a suit, with trunk and tusks, and these two thugs behind him, one with a Yorkshire accent the other sounding German. They muscled their way into my house, trashed my studio and made it very, very clear that if I didn’t do what they said I would be physically hurt. Then they made me sign this contract. It was three hundred pages long, they didn’t let me read any of it, and they made me sign it in my own blood.
I’m scared, Kev. Scared. And so is every other BEM artist. Except Simon Godfrey, because he’s an idiot.
Have you any desire to work with any other artists on BEM? I have always thought a joint effort with Matt Deacon could produce interesting offspring.
Yeah, in principle. I’ve co-written and performed on a song with Mike Kershaw and added some guitar to Shineback’s last album, but apart from that I haven’t done much. I’d be well up for working with Matt Deacon, though I’m a little scared of his obsession with hot sauce. That’s kinda weird.
Talk us through Demon, song by song, and what you were trying to achieve in each case.
I have actually recorded a video for each song explaining what they’re about. I’ve done guitar tabs and stuff as well. But they’re only for people on my mailing list. The album is autobiographical, just not in the lyrics. Each song alludes in some way to family, or places I’ve lived.
“Wizards of this Town” is about drunk wizards trying to fix their town through magic. It has odd drunken verses and a big singalong indie rock chorus. Definitely one of my most accessible songs. People really seem to like it. It’s inspired by the area I was working in at the time, having just left teaching to move into educational charity.
“Modern World” is the second track. It’s the longest track on the album and it’s a Frankenstein song – I stitched together disparate parts. There’s a 90’s indie rock style section, an off-beat prog rock section, and a musique concrete section that one reviewer confusedly said was “just noises”. Which is true, but then, that’s all music is! This song is there as a bit of a potted musical biography, and also as a challenge. It says – this album mixes ‘normal’ rock with a little bit of weird. You better be ready.
“Weather Balloons and Falling Stars” is the third in my tentacle trilogy. It’s an upbeat, rocky love song to tentacles. It’s also tying into older albums.
“West Wind” is the most prog song on the album. It has folky acoustic guitar, stringsy mellotron sounds and all the time signatures. Well, three of them. It is also a sequel to a song written by the other half of my songwriting duo from years back, Comrade Robot.
The middle section of the album breaks from the rock band set up. We have “Patterns of Light”, a short acoustic song that includes my sister’s bassoon and lots of vocal harmonies. Then “Cutting Up All Of Our Dreams”. For this song I sent my mum a score of what I would be singing and asked her to arrange her singers around it. This was the result. The song fades into some scary spoken word stuff courtesy of my brother in law, Joel.
This middle section with a spoken word bit is supposed to be an allusion to the middle of “Ok Computer” by Radiohead and “Six” by Mansun, both of which have a spoken word thing in the middle.
We then go back to the rock band format, with “Drop Dead’s Punching Above His Weight Again”, a song about a serial killer. This is a big homage to David Bowie and has great lead guitar from Gareth Cole who has been playing guitar a lot for me in the last two years or so. He’s also on last year’s EP ‘Spirit Box’.
“Tinfoil King” was written very quickly for February Album Writing Month. It uses crossword-clue lyrics to say humanity is rubbish. Some days it’s my favourite song on the album.
And finally, “Demon”. “Demon” has been around for a while; Comrade Robot recorded a version. I always wanted to do the big loud rock version, so here it is. It’s about various things, including a drunken night out with Pete, the other half of that duo, so the first and last songs have that theme of drunkenness in them. It also has great drumming in the middle where I told Michael Cairns to play an inappropriate, slightly sloppy jazz solo. He obliged. It’s great.
That last song is a reminder of my early twenties, being slightly glum and unsure about what to do with life.
And that’s the album. I’m dead proud of it.
So what’s next for Tom Slatter, and where can we hear more of your music?
As to what’s next – I have literally no idea. In the short term I’m focusing on telling people about ‘Demon’ and doing some online gigs because that’s a bit more practical than touring for me at the moment.
Beyond that, this is pretty uncharted territory. For the first time in at least a decade I don’t have any songs ‘in the bank’ that I definitely want to record. There’s maybe one piece of unfinished business – an ep I released a few years ago that i don’t think was recorded well enough, that I might redo – and then I’ve got no more ideas.
That means I need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what the next version of me sounds like. Which is kind of exciting? I’ve no idea what I’ll write next.
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