On Saturday, May 11th, The Brazillionaires will appear at Empty Sea Studios for a live concert and webcast. Click here to learn more and to purchase advance tickets.
Hailing from Portland, OR, the Brazillionaires are a trio with a collective desire to push their abilities through the choro music of Brazil — a dynamic blend of Afro-Brazilian syncopation, jazz harmony and elements of European melody and composition. The trio throws in a pinch of samba and American old time grooves for good measure. Learn more about what they do through this interview with band leader Zac Borden.
How did you first learn about the choro music of Brazil? What drew you to play this genre of music?
I was originally turned on to Brazilian choro from hearing a 2 volume set of recordings by the great composer Jacob Do Bandolim on David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. I owned them on cassette and remember rocking out in my ’76 Volvo station wagon early in college. But to be honest, I don’t think I was ready to delve into the style back then. I was big into bluegrass at the time and it didn’t catch. Although I was actively studying samba in school and loved Brazilian music, the melodies were a bit much for my ability level at the time. But these things take time to gestate. Much later, after teaching, touring and playing many different styles of music, I met and studied with Grisman’s former bandmate Mike Marshall. He sent me a bunch of sheet music for my birthday one year and I was hooked. It was all over. I’m still angry with him about that. It was like sending me heroin. (laughter).
You have all played a wide variety of musical genres — have those outside sources influenced what The Brazillionaires do as a band?
Yes for sure. We all have a wide range of musical tastes. Peter Fung, our guitarist, started by playing rock in Jersey. Simon Lucas on percussion has a mastery of many drumming styles and plays with a ton of different bands in PDX. I think its impossible to escape your influences as a musician. We take the spirit and feel of this music very seriously and work to get the subtleties. But you can’t escape your past. And why would you want to? I love many styles of music. I think the drive and spirit of bluegrass and American swing comes through. I think music can really suffer when you try too hard to imitate instead of just being true to yourself. It drives me a little nuts when people play this stuff like its a static, curated art form. It’s alive, edgy and always evolving and we like it that way. The master Brazilian mandolinist Dudu Maia really has encouraged me to just play how I play. He thinks it’s cool that our American influences come through. That’s helped a lot to feel the love from some of the masters. We’ve been blessed to get to hang and play a bunch with those guys.
What has been your experience touring around the world and now living in Portland, Oregon? How have the places you have traveled and lived influenced your music?
I’ve done a lot of touring overseas with 2 acts you’re having at your venue this month: Casey Neill and Rachel Harrington. I’ve loved trad. Scottish and Irish music for years. And of course all those great British songwriters Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson. Yeah you soak up a lot of great music on tour.
Have you had a chance to spend time in Brazil?
Not yet myself or Simon. Peter has spent a bunch of time there and studied. We plan on a long trip down there in Dec/Jan.
Who are you listening to now? Who are some current musical inspirations?
Oof that would take a while. I’ve got a huge list of choro heroes including, of course, Dudu Maia, Douglas and Alexandre Lora and Enrique Neto. But also Danillo Brito, Ze Barbeiro, Paulo Moura, Yamandu Costa, Hamilton De Holanda, Alexandre Ribeiro…the list goes on and on. But I’m big into all kinds of music. I can’t stay put. It keeps things interesting.
What is your goal with this group? What are you excited about?
The goal is to record our first record very soon at Secret Society in Portland then record a follow up in Brasilia, Brasil at Dudu Maia’s place in January/Feb. He’s got a recording studio and we’re looking to have him produce it as well and have lots of special guests. I’ve been offered free classes at the big choro school there as well. We’re also working on our first west coast and east coast tours in the fall.
This Thursday, Danny Schmidt takes the Empty Sea stage for a concert with a live webcast. Click here to learn more and to purchase advance tickets.
Named to the Chicago Tribune’s 50 Most Significant Songwriters in the Last 50 Years, Austin, TX-based singer/songwriter Danny Schmidt has been rapidly ascending from underground cult hero to being widely recognized as an artist of generational significance. With lyrical depth drawing comparisons to Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, and Dave Carter, Danny is considered a preeminent writer, an artist whose earthy poetry manages to somehow conjure magic from the mundane.
How did you first start playing music?
I first started playing music (electric guitar) (loud!) in my room as a teenager as a way to get away from my family, and express a little bit of my teenage angst. That started my obsession with the guitar. Eventually as I matured, that obsession found more refined focal points, like the country blues pickers . . . which eventually led to a convergence with my interest in writing. I discovered the songwriters who hung out with (or idolized) the country blues guys.
Would you describe yourself as a “folk musician?” How do you define that term?
It depends who’s asking. If it’s a regular person, then yes, I say I’m a folk singer. Cause all they really want to know is if I play acoustic guitar and sing by myself. If I’m talking to a music aficionado, I’ll usually tell them I’m a “singer/songwriter” . . . just cause it’s a broader term, and more accurate. I write my own songs, and I sing them. Beyond that, the songs are really without genre. I think of songs as pretty loose frameworks, musically, and depending on what sort of instrumental fabric you hang on them, what instruments you choose to add to them, can wind up in almost any genre.
What do you think is the hardest part of this job? What is an unexpected perk?
The traveling is both the best and worst parts of this job. I love seeing the world, I love catching up with my far-flung friends, I love meeting new people . . . but I hate not having a steady rhythmic home life. It’s become more and more obvious to me how much I need a home routine to feel connected to my community and to feel rooted, personally. And in turn, it’s become clearer and clearer to me how much I need that rootedness to be a productive writer. So I’ve been actively trying to scale back the touring, and keep a healthier balance in my life. God, I sound like frickin’ Oprah.
How have the places you have lived influenced your music?
Very much so. I grew up in Austin which taught me that music is (and should be) ubiquitous and eclectic and collaborative and common. I lived communally for five years where music was a part of our daily life. It wasn’t a stage or performance affair, it was daily on the porch. Then I lived in Charlottesville, VA just as I started getting serious about songwriting, and immediately fell in with a brilliant community of upstart songwriters that to this day remain huge influences on me . . . they’re the voices in my head that help me edit my songs, and judge them when it’s judgement time.
You’ve received high praise from many, many music publications – Sing Out calls you a “force of nature, a blue moon, a hundred-year flood, an avalanche of a singer-songwriter.” Is that a lot to live up to? Does it feel strange to be described as a person by reviewers you may never have met?
Yeah, it takes awhile to get used to the idea of being “reviewed”. . . it’s kind of a polite way of saying “being judged” really . . . and that’s not a super comfortable position to find yourself in! Eventually, though, you just kinda stop paying much attention to any of the reviews, good or bad, cause you have your own internal barometer for whether what you’re doing is any good. I could argue with any glowing review and tell them all the things that are wrong with the album that they missed. And I could argue with any bad review and tell them all the brilliant themes they missed!
What are your current musical and non-musical sources of inspiration?
I love podcasts. I listen to a lot of great talks online while I drive . . . they’re really what gets my brain cranking these days.
What are you most excited about now with your music?
It’s always the writing that makes me excited. New songs are the fuel for my rockets, for sure. I’m kind of excited to be shifting back towards complexity rather than simplicity, too. For awhile there I was trying to simplify the songs, to distill the ideas and make them more accessible. And I think that was a good process to go through. I think it helped my writing. But I’m excited to be shifting back the other way now some . . . embracing the complexity and the the mystery and the code of complicated ideas . . . to allow the listener more process and unfolding. I don’t know if that’s my intent, per se . . . but that’s the result. The intent is just simply that I’m enjoying the process of writing songs that are multilayered, and heavily folded and twisted . . . and I’m indulging myself in that. Hopefully folks will enjoy the new tunes.
Tonight’s CD release shows with Girlyman alum Tylan are particularly special for us here at Empty Sea – since June of 2012, Michael, Jordan and the gang worked their butts off alongside Ty to create her solo album debut, One True Thing. After many long hours in the studio, the album is complete and ready to release to the world! We can’t wait to check it out in person.
Tylan was gracious enough to answer a few questions in advance of tonight’s show.
For maximum effect while you read the Q&A, check out the first single from the disc, “Already Fine” featuring the Indigo Girl’s Amy Ray:
How did you first start playing music? Why did you decide to focus on the kind of music you’ve played?
I started playing guitar when I was 10. My dad is an upright bass player now playing with the Chad Mitchell Trio and Tom Paxton – he taught me my first chords and introduced me to folk music and specifically harmony groups. That led to my time in Girlyman, where our signature was tight, inventive 3-part harmonies. I also learned a lot about songwriting and the importance of lyrics through that mentoring.
10 years together on the road with Girlyman must have left you with a lot of stories. What’s your favorite?
Oh, there’s too many to name. We laughed our asses off a lot of the time simply because we found ourselves in absurd and absurdly exhausting situations over and over again. Driving to some tiny town in Europe on a road that barely fit our van in the middle of the night to play for a pub with no one there. From that to playing to 7000 people when we opened for Indigo Girls. It was an amazing decade. I feel very lucky to have experienced so much with those guys.
Describe your new album One True Thing and your decision to make a debut solo album:
I’ve written a lot more songs over the years than I was able to fit onto Girlyman albums, and this is a collection of some of my favorites, plus new stuff I wrote over the past year or so. I decided to make a solo album mostly because after so much intense collaboration with one group of people I was really interesting in knowing who I was musically apart from Girlyman. I think what I’ve discovered is that I do have a different voice than the overall band sound. One True Thing is very orchestral and lush and relaxed sounding, I think. And the songs are really lyric-oriented and metaphorically layered – I spent a lot of money making 12-page booklets for the CDs with all the lyrics! I know no one does that anymore but lyrics are really important to me, I guess. Also, Girlyman’s albums were usually recorded to a click track and Michael and I hardly used the click at all. So right from the beginning there was a different kind of spaciousness.
What are you most excited about with the new album?
I’m excited to perform these songs live and give them a whole new life on the stage. And I’m really excited for people to hear this record. I’m very proud of what Michael and I made – we just laid it all out there. Very raw and exposed, a bunch of heartbreaking metaphors on a bed of lush strings. Apparently that’s who I am apart from Girlyman!
Formed by Nick Drummond and Tyler Carson, Impossible Bird is a duo that will shake your bones. The genre smashing duo from Seattle has been turning heads up and down the West Coast of North America with their blend of infectious songs and playful live shows.
How do you describe the music you play and how were you first drawn to this music?
Tyler Carson: I’ve been playing the violin for 24 years. I started with classical modified Suzuki lessons when I was five years old and my teacher who was of eastern European descent told me – “Tyler, you are very talented, but you are very lazy!” (I was practicing for ‘only’ 30min per day). You see, she wanted me to practice for at least an hour, 2 by age 8, 3 by age ten… I love it. But she also was very smart and said much to her personal disinclination, that maybe I should try playing ‘fiddle music’. And that was the beginning of a life time pursuit!
When I was 11years old I played in front of 60,000 people (fiddle music) at the Commonwealth games and I am told my feet didn’t touch the ground the whole performance (I tend to be… enthusiastic in my performance). When I was 13, I played as a solo guest artist with the Victoria Symphony half classical and then send half fiddle music. And that has been a blending experience I have always had in my playing which eventually incorporated jazz, rock, country, Celtic, bluegrass… all of these genres I performed in professionally until my recent work with Impossible Bird that was the first time that I brought all of these influences together under one project. I love it!
Nick Drummond: We actually have a pretty hard time describing what we do! Neither of us are quite sure we’ve ever heard anything like it before, as it is simply the alchemy of two players who share a whole lot of musical chemistry. But what we are sure of is how much we enjoy creating it! Fans will often tell us how our sound is way too big for just two players, and how they feel they’ve been taken on a journey by the end of a show. And frankly we agree, because we feel the same way a lot of the time. When we get painted into a corner and forced to describe what our music sounds like we usually say its a cross between Paul Simon, Radiohead, and Dave Matthews. But even that doesn’t quite seem to paint the whole picture.
How did you each first start playing music and how did you meet and start playing together?
Nick: I started out writing songs and playing in a band called The Senate. Tyler came through on tour with The Paperboys and we opened for them, and immediately hit it off. There has always been a spark between us when we play, and we both felt it pretty much immediately. Then my old band broke up, Tyler toured the world, and we reconnected at a great time for both of us. This band has been together for 18 months
Impossible Bird is such a wonderful name. Where did it come from?
Tyler: Nick’s sock drawer. Nick you want to take it from here… ? ;)
Nick: Ha, yes. My sock drawer.
Nick, What do you think about when writing music? What are your goals and what do you want to say with your songs?
Nick: Songs are a fascinating window into who is writing them, I find. Some songwriters leave you with the sense that they feel squeezed from all sides simply by their own existence, and others show you just how deeply one can think about the world and what one experiences in it. And some are just fun. I guess I think of myself as a combination of all three… at least on a good day. I think I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and so what I write tends to be a reflection of where I’m at as I struggle to be the best version of myself I can. Plus I love women and dancing and babies and the idea that we are better when we come together. If I had to distill that into a single message or idea, I think it would be “love wins.”
Tyler, You play the stroh violin (a violin which uses a metal horn instead of a wooden sound box) as well the violin or fiddle that most people know. Could you describe this instrument and tell us why you use it?
Tyler: It is from the late 19th century and designed to be more effective in the recording medium that was the gramophone. It has a more nasal and higher frequency sound that causes it to etch into the wax more deeply. They actually made full orchestras of these instruments – they even had stroh cellos!
When I heard it the first time, I just had a sense that it was important to me. Didn’t know why. 2 weeks later, Nick sent me the first song that we collaborated on – Sand and Stone which is absolutely marvelous. Deeply haunting and personally questioning and I knew why I had found the stroh.
What are you listening to now? Who are your musical inspirations?
Tyler: Being a musician and keeping late hours by necessity, I was disappointed that I couldn’t fall back asleep at 7:30am. I had a lot of things running around in my head and then I listened to “In Rainbows” (Radiohead). It gave me all the answers I needed and I was back to sleep.
Tom Yorke is a wonderful lyricist and possibly, no absolutely a more brilliant vocalist. He takes words and changes vowels at the most perfect time so that the word has still been spoken but it also turns it into something completely different and much more “instrumental.” He’s blurring the definition between vocals and instrument which I appreciate very much, from the opposite point of view…
Nick: Right now I’m listening to a lot of Elbow and Radiohead. Pretty standard for me in the winter. :)
What’s next for Impossible Bird? What are your goals with this group?
Tyler: I’m very much looking forward to getting into studio again this spring and bringing that record to a number of festival performance this summer!
Nick: Next up we are working on some new songs and maybe heading back into the studio before too long. Then it’s off on the road again.
Nick Jaina is a musician and writer from Portland, Oregon. He has released several albums on Hush Records while touring North America with his band. He has written several ballets for a group featuring dancers from the New York City Ballet, in addition to writing music for plays and film. His new album Primary Perception will be released on Fluff & Gravy Records this spring.
What does it mean to you to be a musician and songwriter? How would you describe your musical identity?
Songwriting for me is a life pursuit. It’s a craft that I’m interested in improving as long as I’m still living. I believe in using that craft to also try to improve myself as a person. I think the songwriting and the being a person thing are intertwined and share the same path. I am endlessly interested in how to open myself up more through my writing, challenge myself to do something new, and try to write the best song ever.
What has been your experience in writing music in various different contexts? How does your process change when working with artists of different backgrounds: in dance, theater, film, etc.?
Recently I’ve been writing music for ballet and film and theater. It’s a very different experience than sitting in a room trying to write a song for myself. It’s nice to have someone come to me asking me to fill a certain role and create music for their project. It makes me feel like a cabinet maker or something, to have someone come to me and say they have a kitchen that’s yea big and they have a specific space and can I make a fine cabinet to fit in it. I like getting into the bricks and mortar of songwriting, of sitting down at the piano with a project that has parameters and a deadline and making it work. I would’ve liked to live in a time where that kind of songwriting was a valued profession, where people worked in buildings creating songs for singers to sing. I mean, people still do that today, but not in the genres that I would have any idea how to write in.
What are you most excited about right now musically? What are your current goals?
I’m excited about this new album I have coming out called Primary Perception. The title refers to the gut instinct or sincere spontaneous genuine emotions you have in a given moment, versus the calculated thought-out response that comes after. There is this famous study by this scientist in the 60′s who had hooked up some plants to lie detectors to find their stress levels under certain circumstances. He wasn’t getting any responses to his tests and got frustrated and spontaneously thought about burning one of the plants with a match. The plant freaked out and all the sensors went crazy. He tried to recreate the result by consciously thinking about burning the plant, but nothing happened. Basically the only way he could get any response was when he had a true, non-scripted emotion. Which makes sense, when you think about what a plant can actually perceive, it’s not going to be fooled by visual cues or the words someone uses or anything else. If it can respond to anything, it’ll just be able to pick up the “vibe” of a situation, and that can not be faked, it has to be genuine. I took that approach to the recording process, gathering people in the studio who wanted to be there and figuring out what song to play while we were there. Often no one had heard the song before and the four to eight of us would just work out an arrangement right there in the studio, sometimes with three guitarists working at the same time. Almost all the instruments you hear on the songs were done live in the same studio at the same time (not the vocals) and I think it really helped for everyone to be really excited about the song at the moment, and arranging their part while they could simultaneously hear what everyone else was doing.
Seattle-based band Mäd Fiddlu plays Swedish traditional music featuring the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle with sympathetic strings. They stopped by Empty Sea Studios to continue tracking for their upcoming studio album.
Check out this video to learn more about the band and this unusual instrument!
This entire concert is available on demand in HD on Empty Sea Television.
Friday, October 26th — 6:00 PM
Two hours before showtime, the studio was already a buzz of activity: staff engineer Jordan Cunningham unwound cables and set up mics while camera operators chatted busily over tripods and readied video equipment. Meanwhile, The Kora Band had just arrived to prepare for a live concert and webcast from Empty Sea.
After a tour of West Africa with the U.S. State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program, Portland’s Andrew Oliver founded The Kora Band, which blends West African music and jazz. An accomplished jazz musician who had led many jazz groups around the NW, Andrew was changed by his West African tour: “I’ve always loved rhythm and specifically the kind of cyclical rhythmic and harmonic patterns that characterize much of West African music’s core. However, I was not particularly knowledgeable or educated in the specifics of this music before the Rhythm Road trip.
When he got back to the United States, Andrew teamed up with Kane Mathis, a well-respected American kora player, to create The Kora Band. Completing the band are Chad McCullough on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on acoustic and electric bass, and Mark DiFlorio on drums and percussion.
The Kora Band has unusual instrumentation for either the United States or West Africa: a classic jazz rhythm section with piano, bass, and drums; a trumpet playing melody lines and solos; and the kora itself. The 21-string harp is the favored instrument of Mali, The Gambia, and Senegal’s griots – the bard-like musicians who compile and maintain West Africa’s oral history through song. In The Kora Band, the kora’s repetitive, rolling grooves serve as a launching point for the rest of the ensemble, creating a base for improvisation and interplay.
Even the classic jazz instruments in the group are often different than one might expect: Mark DiFlorio plays a modified drum kit that includes a djembe and also a calabash, a gourd drum Andrew describes as “the other half of the kora.” Resembling a half-sphere, the calabash can be slapped, pounded, and hit to create many different sounds. Chad McCullough augments his trumpet playing with occasional uses of the pocket trumpet, a comically small version of the instrument which provides a complimentary tone color.
Though the band played many instrumental pieces, a number of tunes featured Kane singing in Gambian Mandinka, one of the official languages of The Gambia. As an American-born musician performing to American audiences, Kane has been asked at times to translate and sing in English. But he explains that the connection between Mandinka and West Africa’s traditional music allows the audience a greater understanding of the musical tradition than if he sang in English. Speaking after the show, Kane said that singing in Mandinka allows him to “share the sonic experience of language.” The specific textures and sounds of Mandinka are linked to the music, augmenting the sound of the kora.
In a constantly shrinking world, The Kora Band believes that the ideas of tradition and change are not contradictory. “I think it’s mainly a western convention to separate a tradition from its modern encounters,” says Kane. “One way traditions really shine is in the keeping of their vocabularies and transmission of their compelling elements in new environments.”
This entire concert is available on demand in HD on Empty Sea Television.
We’re also streaming this show live in HD on Empty Sea Television. Click here to learn more and purchase access.
After touring West Africa with the US State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, Andrew Oliver was inspired to dive deeper into the relationship between jazz and West African music. His exploration eventually led to the founding of the Kora Band, featuring atypical instrumentation that highlights Kane Mathis on the 21-string Kora, a traditional harp from West Africa.
How did you begin playing music? What were your initial inspirations and musical leanings?
Kane Mathis: I began with piano in the 2nd grade then moved to guitar in the 5th. I played for 5 years in blues clubs until conservatory and then 20 years of study of Africa and the Middle east.
Andrew Oliver: I started playing when I was about 3 years old on the piano in my parents house. I was initially a huge classical music snob but in high school I began to discover early jazz and ragtime which then led me over the years into many forms of jazz and improvised music. In the past 5 years I have also begun to investigate and incorporate elements of various world music traditions, specifically Mandinka music of West Africa and Tango into various projects.
Kane, how did you begin to play the kora? What is your relationship to Africa and West African culture, and how has it changed in the time that you have been playing the kora?
Kane: I got into Kora because I was listening to a lot of music from South America and was tracing the roots back to sub-Saharan West Africa. Kora does a lot of things I was going for on solo acoustic guitar at the time. There was something about the Mandinka Musical tradition that really grabbed me. I felt as if I could contribute something to it, it made sense to my brain. in 1996 I got the chance to begin making trips to The Gambia to study and I have been going ever since. In 2011 I was recognized as a government sponsored musician by The Republic of The Gambia.
Andrew, what was your relationship to West African music initially and how did that change through your tour with the Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program?
Andrew: I have always loved rhythm and specifically the kind of cyclical rhythmic / harmonic patterns that characterize much of West African music’s core. However, I was not particularly knowledgeable or educated in the specifics of this music before the Rhythm Road trip. I had a few CDs of famous kora players such as Toumani Diabate so I was excited when a kora player (El Hajj Cissokho) showed up at our sound check at this club in Dakar called Just 4 U. He taught us a traditional song (Kaira, which we still play in the kora band) and we in turn taught him some jazz (a simple blues called Centerpiece). This was an amazing experience and I was really quite surprised at the compatibility of the two styles and instruments. When I got home I called up Kane (who I had met just before the trip through a lucky coincidence) and proposed a collaboration and we began the group at that point along with Mark (who was the drummer on the Rhythm Road trip) and Brady (a longtime collaborator of Mark).
How were the rest of you first drawn to West African music? Did you have experience with it before this group? How has your relationship with both West African music and jazz changed through playing with The Kora Band?
Brady: I was initially drawn to music from South Africa (via Paul Simon’s “Graceland”), and Cameroon, (via Les Tete Brules) in high school. Many years spent playing classical, jazz, R&B, and rock eventually lead me back to world music, several years later. I had no prior experience playing this music before joining the Kora Band, but did have a great appreciation for it/interest in it. As I evolve musically/personally, all of my influences meld together and inform my approach to music.
What does it mean to you to be mixing “traditional” West African music with jazz, a style that was born out of African music and is now seen by many people as “art music”?
Kane: It’s a cliché that, “the only constant is change”. It’s a very very good one, one of my favorites actually. I feel like the tradition of Kora and Mandinka music has adapted marvelously and it is almost useless to examine the cultures musical environment without taking into account all of the influences born upon it over the years. Mandinka music and the culture of Africa in general has been a picture of adaptation for its entire history. I think it’s mainly a western convention to separate a tradition from its modern encounters, that is one way traditions really shine, in the keeping of their vocabularies and transmission of their compelling elements in new environments. Especially since there would be no existing tradition if it didn’t adapt in someway, generally . Musically speaking, In this regard, Africa has excelled. The Kora, for example, has a tuning named after an instrument that isn’t even a part of the Mandinka tradition. The vocal style came from aesthetic influences that were not even African at all initially. Many of my Gambian friends speak 5 languages, why? Because the more languages you speak the easier it is to trade with people from diverse regions thereby expanding your market. Those are 3 examples. The answer to this question being that ‘mixing’ kora music with jazz means to me that I am participating in the long tradition of having a conversation with a modern art form while maintaining the integrity of the traditional vocabulary without compromising what makes it compelling, regardless of context. I don’t feel like we’re bringing jazz “back to Africa” or whatever. The aesthetics have evolved separately enough that a lot of consideration has to go into how they merge. I’m not one of those people who feels like it’s, “All right there” with Africa, the blues, and Jazz and all one has to do is hold one next to the other and “voila!” I think that’s not true.
Andrew: I agree wholeheartedly with what Kane said above. Certainly the status of jazz as a sort of “art music” in America is becoming further cemented every day and I am all for this, especially as it relates to performance, funding, and exposure opportunities for jazz and improvised music. However, all music is born out of tradition and reflects the culture in which it is based so in that sense even “art music” is in some way “traditional.” For me it is not a “colonialist” endeavor in any way to mix these traditions – as you noted they have a strong history and the fact that jazz was born out of west African music reflects how well they work together in this contemporary context. In this day and age, genre boundaries are breaking down rapidly and cross-genre conversation is happening very fluidly all over the world. Just as jazz was itself originally a mixture of musics from a variety of cultures (African, African-American, French Creole, European, Caribbean, etc), what we are doing is to me a natural extension of that sort of cultural mix updated for the 21st century. We are not simply slapping the two musical styles together but are genuinely working to deal authentically with elements of both traditions and build a new hybrid style.
How would you describe your musical identity as a group?
Kane: The Kora Band is a multi-cultural ensemble whose musical products are pushing beyond the novelty of ‘the encounter’.
Andrew: The Kora Band draws on elements of jazz and west African traditional and contemporary music to create a new sound reflecting important elements of both musical traditions and the increasingly globalized world of the 21st century.
Who are some of your current inspirations? Who are you listening to now?
Kane: I am mostly listening to Legowelt, Autechre and a bit of Dutch experimental electronica from around 1950 like Dick Raaijmakers. As far as African music at the moment I am listening to Guelewar and Karantamba from Senegal/Gambia.
Andrew: I am listening to a lot of contemporary jazz at the moment, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Neil Cowley, Guillermo Klein. Also old and new tango music ranging from Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese from the 40′s and 50′s to contemporary groups. In the African music realm, Guinean guitar hero Grand Papa Diabate is always on my playlist as well as the Zimbabwean pop group the Bhundu Boys and some more “raw” kora players such as Kausu Kouyate and Sundiolou Cissokho.
What are your hopes for this group? What are your musical goals?
Kane: In my opinion the band has achieved all of the first round of its goals. I think we are retooling in terms of wanting to play as many shows as possible and tour all the time. For this kind of group there are more savvy and economical ways to get ‘out there’. I personally think it would be great if the band could have maximum fluidity between Jazz and World Music markets while simultaneously contributing to the state of new music in some way.
Andrew: We have recently received a commission from Chamber Music America for a new album-length suite of music. I am very excited about getting to work writing and rehearsing this music which we will premiere next fall. I plan to write a suite of tunes based very directly on specific traditional Mandinka tunes but rather than just “covering” those tunes to use elements from them as building blocks for new compositions. I hope this will allow me to explore what makes the traditional music “tick” and how those elements can continue to create a very unique and individual sound for the group. I hope that we can craft a style both in my compositions and in the group improvisational aesthetic that sounds fresh and new and contributes as Kane said to the state of new music.
Nuala Kennedy is a celebrated traditional Irish musician and internationally acclaimed flute player and singer. Touted as “spellbinding” and “a delight,” by the Irish Times, her live performances over the last few years inspired her return to the studio to record Noble Stranger, a road-tested collection of innovative originals and traditional songs recorded with her touring band. Kennedy uses her traditional music background as a springboard for the new album which offers a 12 song set on which her adventurous instrumentation and progressive instrumentation shine.
Kennedy has recently been calling New York City a home-away-from-home, absorbing and contributing to the City’s growing neo-folk scene. She was raised playing and singing traditional music on the East coast of Ireland – an artistic area steeped in mythology with long historical ties to Scotland.
How were you originally drawn to traditional music?
I picked up a whistle at a young age and liked the sound and there was a piano in our house I used to mess around on. When I was about 7 years old, my parents encouraged me to learn from local teachers. And when I was 12 I joined a local ceili band where I played flute and piano. By that stage I was teaching myself, by listening and copying what I heard. There were several members of the band who were older, and already accomplished musicians. Hearing them play inspired me. We did quite well in competitions and it was a fantastic social outlet, where I looked forward to seeing my friends and much as to playing the music.
What does it mean to you to be a musician doing a mixture of traditional and original work?
Its something I still struggle with at times, in some ways it’s easier to stay within one easily categorized sound. Certainly from a marketing perspective. Traditional music is a broad term, which takes in new compositions as it evolves. And some of my pieces are a little bit more on the more exploratory end of those new compositions. I grew up with a firmly defined idea of what the tradition was. It was a natural part of my life and almost taken for granted as a fully formed existing entity. My interaction with it was one of respect and study within a group dynamic. I don’t recall ever being encouraged to write a tune myself or to feel that would be appropriate. I think it later became very important to me especially during my twenties to follow my own path musically, and to see what is possible for me in the creation of different musical ideas and sounds. Both on a basic level, from my instrument itself, and from producing records to experiment and try different combinations of musicians and instruments. Tune In was especially like that; what immediately springs to mind was combining Flamenco guitar with Hurdy Gurdy on the song The Blooming Bright Star of Belleisle. But Noble Stranger combines both a live band sound with some Casio keyboards. It’s the band I’ve been touring with at home, and all three of the other musicians in it, also compose new music. So I guess I am in with the right crowd!
How does place influence your music? Both in terms of your Irish roots and your time spent in New York City?
It’s something which is very important to me. I love Scotland, and living in Edinburgh, it’s a place where you can find quiet and solitude but you can also enjoy the hustle and bustle of city life. And it’s also close to home, where I visit regularly. Scotland has influenced my music a lot in that I was living in Edinburgh in the mid nineties when the folk scene was burgeoning; all my friends were playing music and through forming some bands, I ended up playing full time as well. I’ve spent much of my musical life playing with fiddlers so that has had a huge impact on my own musical style. In recent years I have ben returning more and more often to my native area of Dundalk Co. Louth Ireland, both to see family, but also to work with Oirialla, a band I am in with Gerry (fiddle) O Connor, Martin Quinn on accordion and Gilles le Bigot on guitar. Oirialla is Irish Gaelic for Oriel, an ancient kingdom of Ireland that encompassed our home areas. That music is very much focused on place, on the local area and repertoire. It’s very satisfying for me to play music that is so connected to my own roots as a musician and person.
For some time, I had wanted to spend time in New York to connect more deeply with the musicians there, with whom I had a passing acquaintance over the years, and to live in one of the world’s great cities. I got the chance to spend a year there in 2012, and have been touring a lot in North America since then, venturing to many parts of the States and experiencing many new places. From driving through boiling hot Cleveland Ohio in June, to swimming in lakes in Vermont in September, I have really enjoyed checking out the huge breadth and vast scope of the U.S. It’s a very different place to Europe and interesting to travel through. It’s yet to be seen how these experiences influence my work, but I think they undoubtedly will, everything goes into the pot. Right now, (I just landed in Seattle another place where I’ve never been) I’m still in the thick of a very busy touring phase, and I find it difficult to assimilate and write about past experiences whilst still experiencing a plethora of new ones.
How has your music changed since you started performing? (Stylistically, philosophically…)
I hope I have grown and improved as a musician. I think about music in a much broader way now than when I first started out. I listen more to what’s going on around me, both musically and in the environment; the atmosphere of a concert, the sounds around me when I am travelling or at home.
What are you listening to now? Who and what are your inspirations?
I’m verging on an obsession with the American singer songwriter Elvis Perkins at the moment. I love his album Ash Wednesday. I just played at Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton where I heard lots of inspiring people perform- Daniel Lapp, Bruce Molsky, John Doyle, Troy MacGillivray, Otis
Thomas, Kathleen MacInnes, Cathy-Ann MacPhee, Wendy MacIsaac, Mary-Jane Lamond, Glenn Graham, Andrea Beaton … the list goes on. I find Cape Breton a very inspiring place to be.
Do you have a particular musical goal or focus in your current tour?
Just to play the music I love with integrity and joy. There are sad songs of course, heart-breaking traditional love songs and ballads. But also a lot of the music is dance music at its core, and has an inbuilt sense of rhythm and joy. Our show is mix of traditional and also new material I’ve composed, and reflects some other emotions or experiences.
How would you describe your musical identity? What does it mean to you to be a musician?
It’s a blessing and I feel grateful to be able to pursue my ideas and share them with others. Every concert is a special occasion that will only ever happen once, and I try to be mindful of that. My musical identity is very much linked to my roots in Ireland, but also reflects my own personal experiences and journey through life. I’m excited to be coming out West, this is my first tour here!
Earlier this summer, Oklahoman singer-songwriter Kaylee Losawyer came out to Seattle to work on an EP here at Empty Sea. It was an unusual and exciting project for a number of reasons – the first being the extremely tight timeframe of 4 days to complete a 6-song EP, and the second being that Kaylee is just seventeen years old — and financing the project completely independently.
We put together a short video chronicling the production process – take a look!
Interview by Heather Askeland
The Haunted Windchimes sound draws from traditional folk and American roots music. The songs have a vintage quality, as if they might have been written yesterday or 75 years ago. Grounded in honeyed harmonies and spirited pickin’, it lies in a nowhere land between distinct styles: It’s not quite bluegrass or blues or country. Still, there are elements of all those in songs that paint pictures of empty train stations and nights of passing a jug of moonshine around. It’s the vocal harmonies that really set them apart, a three-headed juggernaut of Desirae Garcia (ukulele), Chela Lujan (banjo) and Inaiah Lujan (guitar). The sound is often moody and melancholy, but it is always deeply affecting. That sound is embroidered by the instrumental mastery of Mike Clark (harmonica, guitar and mandolin) and the standup bass foundation of Sean Fanning.
The Haunted Windchimes are a group of talented young musicians hailing from Pueblo, Colorado. Their original songs deftly blend blues, folk, bluegrass, country, and some unnamable ingredient that keeps audiences nationwide coming back for more. In October they appeared on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and this Wednesday they’ll play the Empty Sea stage. Band front man Inaiah Lujah took a quick break from the road to delve into the Windchimes’ history, musical and topographical influences, and their unique fusion of sounds both traditional and new.
If The Haunted Windchimes were a homemade aural dish, what would be the musical ingredients?
I love this question! I’ve always felt like making good music is like making a good stew or soup. Our ingredients would be rural folk and delta Blues mixed with jazz, and three-part harmonies a la the Carter family with Gypsy seasoning.
What is the story behind your band’s inception and name?
Desirae and I are the founding members of the group. We started this band in 2006 shortly after a conversation about my parents’ mysterious wind chimes that would chime without a hint of wind. I was convinced they were haunted. It was a little different musically in the beginning, but our duo had a certain spark. Desi and I were in love and still are to this day. I wrote most of the tunes then, and Desi would find these great harmonies and sing with me. We made our first album that Halloween, Ballad of the Winds, a home recording full of minor ballads and haunting melodies. The following summer we put a tour together following a route that I had hitchhiked a few years earlier, counting on the kindness of people we’d meet to house us and help with shows. We made it to Bloomington Indiana where we met some new friends and got introduced to the music of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott for the first time; this paired with a trip through the southern states began to have a heavy influence on our songwriting. Upon our return home to Pueblo, my sister Chela (returning from her own adventures out west) joined the group adding the third vocal part we have become known for. A trip to Hawaii introduced us to the magical world of the ukulele, and Desi fell in love with the baritone ukulele and taught herself how to play it. Chela later picked up the banjo and we performed and toured around as a trio for a little over a year. Sean was next to join the group after seeing our trio perform at a bar in Pueblo. I knew of Sean’s amazing talent and when he auditioned for the group it was instant chemistry. The final piece of our group came about through a mutual friend. Adam Leech (who owns a vintage clothing and record store in Colorado Springs) invited us to his annual Leechpit BBQ to perform. There we met Mike Clark’s band The Jack Trades, a blues duo that we immediately fell in love with. We joined them for a few songs and became quick friends. Mike would come to all of our shows and it became a staple to invite him up on stage to accompany us on harmonica. Eventually we invited him up for all the songs and he joined our group shortly thereafter.
All five band members hail from the steel town of Pueblo, Colorado; does Pueblo influence your sound and if so, how?
Pueblo is surrounded by all the elements for a good folk song. Train tracks, rivers and mountains and the industrial architecture are definite inspirations for songs. All of the above are common themes you’ll hear in our music.
It sounds like you’ve been involved in music since childhood. What first ignited this passion in you?
Chela and I grew up in a very musical home. My mom, a music lover, taught us young about the Beatles and Bob Dylan amongst others. My dad studied flamenco guitar in college and when we became interested in learning to play there was always a guitar around the house to fiddle with. My first love was the piano and I gravitated to it at the age of 3… it wasn’t until I was 12 that I took up the guitar. We always sang with our mom. Desi, an army brat, traveled the world with her family doing everything from ballet to show choir and more. Sean played in orchestras and jazz bands growing up and took more of a traditional approach in his early years. Mike Clark, a former pro trials rider, discovered music later in life and was gifted his first guitar at age 27. He is 33 now and sort-of a freak of nature. He’s since taught himself how to play multiple instruments including mandolin, violin, concertina and banjo.
How did you come to cover the work of blues great Leadbelly? Can you speak about your band’s relationship to his music?
I actually discovered Leadbelly thanks to the Nirvana unplugged album and their amazing version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night. I played the song for my music teacher (an old friend of our family) and he showed me the original performed by Leadbelly. It was years before I really appreciated the Leadbelly version and there came a time when Leadbelly was all I would listen to. Studying every note and line he sang and trying to match his rhythms taught me so much. It became an obsession, like Dylan and Hank Williams were for me earlier in my life. We cover his songs to pay homage really.
What do you find yourself listening to most on your Ipod these days?
We’ve been listening to a lot of Otis Redding lately, and the old Stacks and Motown recordings have definitely popped up as inspiration, especially with Mike. Desi has been on a Nina Simone and Billie Holiday kick for quite sometime… I’ve kind-of been diving into all of the solo Paul McCartney and Wings stuff and generally we mostly listen to a lot of our friends’ bands and others we’ve met traveling.
How has the band’s sound changed since its birth in 2006?
The sound has evolved, our music grows as we grow… We’ve become so comfortable playing music with one another the processes become more natural, like breathing. It’s an exciting ride.
Interview by Heather Askeland
Dick Hensold will play Empty Sea on Saturday, February 4th. He is one of the most sought-after Northumbrian smallpipers performing today, and a multi-instrumentalist specializing in myriad musical forms: early music; Nordic folk music; the traditional music of Scotland, Ireland, and Northumberland; and Cambodian traditional music. We invited Dick to share a bit about the unique sounds he’ll bring to the Empty Sea stage.
Most newcomers to your music are likely familiar with Scottish bagpipes, also called Great Highland Bagpipes. What are some significant differences between that instrument and the Northumbrian smallpipes?
Northumbrian smallpipes are a lot quieter, about the same volume as a violin, and have a sweet sound that is sort of a cross between a clarinet and an oboe – but with drones! The Northumbrian smallpipes also have a wider range and have more notes available. They have a 2-octave chromatic range, compared to the 9 notes available on Highland pipes. So they are very versatile and can play many different types of music. On highland pipes, the sound coming from the chanter (melody pipe) is continuous, so repeating notes is accomplished with ornamentation. On Northumbrian smallpipes, you can separate notes with ornaments, but you can also make the chanter completely silent between notes, similar to “tonguing” on a wind instrument. The staccato style that results from this technique is the basis for traditional Northumbrian smallpiping. So you have many more choices on how to play.
Do you ever mix instruments and genres? For instance, have you experimented with combining Northumbrian smallpipes and Cambodian traditional music?
Oh yes, there is one Cambodian tune on my solo album, “Big Music for Northumbrian smallpipes,” and I have another CD, released in 2003, which is entirely Cambodian music, with several tracks played on the Northumbrian smallpipes. The 1987 release of my band The New International Trio combined Cambodian music, Irish music, early music and jazz. On that CD we did a cover of “In the Mood” arranged for Northumbrian smallpipes, Cambodian tro u (a traditional Cambodian fiddle), and harpsichord. It always went over very well!
Of the many instruments you play, which is your favorite, and why?
It depends what I’m in the mood for! I play seven instruments on this program, and I like the contrasts between the rich, raw, energetic sounds of the reel pipes and the pibgorn, the sweet reedy tones of the Swedish and Northumbrian bagpipes, the warm tone of the low whistle and the delicate, ethereal sound of the seljefløyte. For me it’s about using sound, melody and rhythm to convey everything the human soul is capable of — sometimes less is better, but sometimes you want the richest palette available!
What music do you most enjoy listening to? What are some of your foremost musical inspirations?
At this point, I think I’ve put the most energy into studying Cape Breton music, which is a very traditional form of Scottish highland music. The beat and the energy in this music just send chills up my spine. Also, it has a clear, punchy rhythm which I think translates very well to the Northumbrian smallpipes. I also studied early music (many years ago), and my playing and composition is still very influenced by 18th-century practice. In fact, the quickest way to describe my compositional style is: a cross between traditional Scottish and 18th-century baroque music. I love the melodies of the Scots, and the counterpoint of Bach!
Over the past few months, Molly Bauckham put together a beautiful debut solo album at Empty Sea entitled Maid On The Shore. Featuring lever harp, cittern, guitar, percussion, flute, and a few other surprises, it’s a great disc, notable for having been done start-to-finish at Empty Sea (including tracking, mixing, mastering, and graphic design.)
Things have been quiet on the Empty Sea website this summer, but certainly not quiet at the studio itself! We’ve been in the process of improving our recording gear and facilities, so if you’re looking to record this fall, you’ll be interested in learning more.
New Tracking Rooms
Studio G (for Garage)
We’ve been making a lot of sawdust onsite — construction is currently underway to turn Empty Sea’s detached garage building into an additional tracking space and editing suite, also known as “Studio G.” The finished space will be approximately 10×17 feet with 9′ ceilings, hardwood floors, ample soundproofing, a quiet HVAC system and audio interconnects to the main control room. We’re currently targeting having the space operational by October 1st and fully equipped by November.
In the long run, Studio G will contain an upright piano, vocal tracking area, and standalone audio workstation, making it ideal for vocal overdubs, isolating a single player or group of players, or as an amp or drum room. Being detached from the main building, G will be available in conjunction with the main studio, or separably rentable for small projects at a reduced rate.
Studio H (for Hammond)
Usually closed to the public, the back bedroom in the main building has served as a woodworking and electronics shop to keep the studio gear functional and provide for the occasional crafts project! However, these functions are being relocated this fall, leaving room for a third tracking space. Approximately 11 x 13 feet, Studio H will feature the studio’s Hammond organ and provide another room to isolate a player or amp cab.
In the past few months, we’ve substantially added to the studio’s gear selection. We’re proud to announce new mics, a new preamp and new hardware reverb units!
Here’s what’s new at the studio:
Microphones and Preamps
- Lauten Oceanus – “Clear the air for big revealing sound. Built to give you classic sound under modern low-noise circumstances, the LT-381 Oceanus is a fantastic vocal mic. It’s an original high-performance transformer-less tube condenser microphone that produces full and detailed recordings.”
- Peluso 22 47 SE – a modern day reproduction of the Neumann U47 tube microphone, this mic is ideal for many male vocalists, guitars, and other acoustic instruments which benefit from a strong, beefy midrange.
- Peluso 22 251 – A great choice for many female vocalists, this tube mic is extremely detailed, with beautiful highs and understated mids.
- Beyerdynamic MC 930 Stereo Set – This matched pair of small diaphragm condensers is ideal for micing a variety of acoustic instruments. In the past few months, I’ve used these on lever harp, guitar, mandolin, cittern, and percussion with great success.
- A Designs Pacifica Microphone Preamp – a stereo, solid-state microphone preamp with hefty transformers for substantial, authoritative tones when paired with a variety of microphones.
Used at mix time to create realistic-sounding spaces, these high-end reverb processors complement the existing studio gear!
- Bricasti M7 Reverb Processor – considered by many to be the most realistic and natural reverb device ever built! It is truly stunning for putting your tracks into realistic-sounding ambiences.
- Lexicon PCM92 – With 4 decades of experience, Lexicon is regarded as the gold standard in digital audio processing. Building on the legendary design of the venerable PCM81 and PCM91, and the breakthrough technology of the PCM96, the PCM92 represents the most advanced reverb and effects processor in its class.
And that’s not all…
There’s plenty of other gear at the studio already – and more importantly, Michael Connolly’s more than 10 years experience in recording acoustic projects can help your next project sound great!
Interview with Elaina Ellis, Empty Sea Studios.
Kora kana will play at Empty Sea Studios on Saturday. We invited band leader Tyler Richart to describe Kora kana’s original blend, and along the way, he told us more about the path he’s taken to a life in uncharted musical territory — including church roots and all-time favorite songs.
Kora kana brings a blend of musical traditions and genres to its sound. What are the primary ingredients, and how did this mix come about?
The primary ingredients are mostly defined by the musicians in the band. Sean Divine brings his background of playing urban blues on the harmonica, while Cort Armstrong is more fluent in rural blues from the Piedmont, and his extensive studies of Reverend Gary Davis’ style on the guitar. I’ve spent a lot of years studying West African music on the kora and percussion music, but am also comfortable playing bluegrass music, funk music, country music, and singing in those various styles. This mix came about by us experimenting with the kora, usually after I put away the mandolin for the evening. It’s a late night sort of music, a bit more meditative and laid back than the blues and bluegrass we were playing.
What kind of experience can first-time Kora kana listeners expect from a concert?
I think most listeners who aren’t familiar with the sound of the kora, a 21 string West African harp, will be surprised to hear how sophisticated the sound is, in spite of its primitive look. I think that people who are familiar with the kora may be surprised at how well it blends with resophonic guitar, upright bass, and harmonica. The vocal arrangements are also a bit different than most standard kora music. I’ve really taken care to try and make interesting harmony arrangements and song forms that move these traditional songs away from the standard versions African music aficionados may be familiar with.
Listeners can expect to really take a voyage between chaos and order. Our music is sometimes soft and soothing and moves into emotional and passionate phrases with complex polyrhythmic shifts. People regularly tell me after shows that they felt like they traveled somewhere in their mind as the songs unfold. Listeners can also expect to hear stories about the songs, and learn about the culture of the Mandingue people of West Africa.
It sounds like you’ve been interested in playing music since an early age – is there anything or anyone who sparked/encouraged that interest for you?
My mom recently told me that I was singing as soon as I learned to talk. I vividly recall being in church when I was very young, and understanding that when the “amen” part at the end of hymns came up, there were two chords, and that there were three notes in each chord. I’m very grateful for that early exposure to harmony, and hearing the alto and tenor parts being practiced at home surely helped me. My parents also pushed me to start taking piano lessons early on. My grandpa George was in a brother harmony singing group when he was a young man as well, and he used to pay me good money to learn a song and perform it for him, so I guess I got a bit of it from all sides. I’ve had some amazing music teachers along the way as well, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my drumming teacher, Famoudou Konate. His attention to beautiful tone is unparalleled.
What are the top five songs on your iPod?
I tend to listen to albums the whole way through, from start to finish. When I know just about every note on an album, I tend to move on to another album. I’ll give a shot at my five favorite songs all time, without necessarily trotting out my iPod.
The Anchor Song by Bjork – This has such beautiful saxophone harmonies and voice. Sparse and beautiful and with some challenging dissonance and resolution.
I Dreamed a Highway by Gillian Welch – This is about as pretty as anything I’ve ever heard. Beautiful and soft and slow, through and through.
Tubaka by Toumani Diabate – A stunning version of this traditional song. I can’t make it through this solo instrumental piece without crying. Toumani is the world’s greatest kora player, and one of the world’s most passionate musicians.
Moanin’ by Charles Mingus – What a hot mess this is! The horn ensemble playing on this makes my brain explode.
Wildflower Soul by Sonic Youth – A great example of chaos and order in music. This song by the legendary punk/experimental noise band ravels and unravels, twists you up and spins you around, but gives you reprieve with an occasional reassuring hug before sending back up that tall roller coaster hill again.
To experience Kora kana — to listen for all of the influences that Tyler names above — grab a ticket and come to Empty Sea Studios for the May 21st, 8.00pm show. Click here to purchase advance tickets for Kora kana.
Interview by Elaina Ellis, Empty Sea Studios
The Scarring Party, all the way from Milwaukee, will make their west-coast debut at Empty Sea Studios on April 22nd. We corresponded with tuba and trumpet player Isabella Carini, about the sounds The Scarring Party will be making in Seattle next week.
How do you describe your sound/style, for folks who are new to The Scarring Party?
End-timey seems to be the term we’ve adopted over the past 5 or 6 years. We perform tuba, accordion, and banjo driven music drawing on the influence of 20’s and 30’s music hall, Lomax folkways recordings, as well as 70’s punk. We tend to use unorthodox percussion, such as 40 pound cast-iron bells, vibraphone, and tongue drum. Dan croons through a hand-built copper microphone. People can expect to hear songs about zombies, the apocalypse, and dog boys. You know, the usual. We’re also looking forward to playing this show with Erin Jorgensen, a local vocalist and marimba player.
How would you describe the music scene in Milwaukee, and (how) does your band fit that picture?
The Midwest is finally starting to get a little attention, whether it’s because of bands that are actually getting some national exposure, recording studios, or great venue spaces. We’re lucky to be a part of that and to have found like-minded people to be in a creative community with. New things are popping up around Milwaukee all the time, but a lot of bands that we kind of “grew up” with in our city are calling it quits. I think each of our records (as different as they are) still represent us now as well as where we’re hoping to continue moving in the future. We’ve always been kind of odd in Milwaukee, but I think people are starting to realize that a band format outside of “drums, bass, guitar” can be interesting, too. It’s great knowing that we can throw orchestral chimes, an array of brass, and some bird whistles on a record, and people might actually like it.
What brings you to Seattle and/or to Empty Sea in particular?
This is our first trek out West (which we’re extremely excited about). Seattle seemed like a great place to start. It’s a city with a rich history of unconventional music. Empty Sea was recommended to us as a space that supports all kinds of traditional and non-traditional acoustic music, so we’re hoping to enjoy the intimate setting for our first night out.
Is it true that typewriters sometimes make an appearance amongst your other instruments? Do tell…
This is true! We have one song in particular that it makes a special appearance in, however, due to our situation on this tour with air travel, we weren’t able to bring one along this time. We are actively encouraging people to bring a typewriter to our shows on this tour. No joke, we’ll use it!
Get your tickets to see The Scarring Party, with Erin Jorgensen, here!
Chris Coole and Ivan Rosenberg talk folk-geography, collaboration, and road snacks at Empty Sea Studios Interview by Elaina Ellis
Chris Coole and Ivan Rosenberg are unlikely bandmates, given that they live thousands of miles apart, on opposite sides of our northern national border. Coole, from Toronto, and Rosenberg, from Portland, Oregon, sat down with me between sound check and a sold-out show, to talk about their distance-defying musical collaboration.
It’s great to have you here at Empty Sea Studios. Can you tell me about the tour that you’re on?
Chris: We’re touring from Portland back to Toronto, in just under two weeks. This is our second night of the tour, and we’re heading back across the Northern states. We’ll go through Montana, and “Minnesotio,” which is what they call Minnesota in folk songs.
Wow, I didn’t know that. Minnesotio?
Chris: Yeah, so if you’re ever in a folk song, and you’re trying to find Minnesota, they’ll just look at you like you’re from Mars. You’ve gotta ask for “Minnesotio.”
From there we’re gonna go to Wisconsin, and then Illinois, and then Toronto, where we’re going to play a date. Then Ivan and me and some friends are going to record an album there.
So you’re going hometown to hometown?
Chris: Yes. We could actually call it “The Hometown to Hometown Tour.”
Ivan: That’s now what it’s called. It’s not too late.
Chris: From now on, that’s what we’re calling it.
What was the tour called before?
Ivan: It’s been called the Farewell Trion CD Tour.
How long ago did that CD come out?
Ivan: It came out last year –
Chris: — but we really didn’t tell anyone about it.
Ivan: It’s hard for us to put these tours together since we do live a few thousand miles away.
How is it that you ended up being collaborators, living so far apart?
Ivan: We met at the British Columbia Bluegrass workshop… I was teaching there during Week One, and he was there for Week Two. I was the only clawhammer banjo player there the first week, and he was the only clawhammer banjo player there the second week. We traded CDs, and I don’t think either of us listened to the other for a year or two –
As happens —
Ivan: Right. Then we finally did, and we had a lot in common, it turns out. I don’t really remember how we decided to start playing as a duet.
There’s a lot of money in clawhammer duets?
Chris: Sweet, sweet money.
Ivan: Oh yeah, it’s a big deal… so, somehow it morphed into something that we took on the road a little bit.
What are you traveling by?
Chris: Subaru station wagon.
Ivan: It’s going to hit 220,000 miles on this this trip. We’ll see how it’s doing by the end of the tour.
What’s your favorite road snack?
Chris: Well, my favorite readily available road snack, for snack food, is the bean burrito from Taco Bell. I think it’s the healthiest widely available sh*tty food you can get. I also like to stop at those gigantic all-you-can-eat places, and just hit the salad bar — that’s a tricky way not to kill yourself. And the third is pork’s feet.
Ivan: He’s kidding. [Although] that would be a really old-timey snack.
Personally, I’ve been reminiscing about one snack food I’ll never have again, which I discovered on our last trip through British Columbia. I’m still recovering from that trip. In Canada, you can get a thing — thing is the right word — called Hawkins Cheezies, and they’re the equivalent of Cheetos, but they’re good — really good — they’re made with what they call real Canadian cheddar cheese. Forget about partially hydrogenated oils, this stuff is fully hydrogenated.
I know you’re saying this is disgusting, but I’m drooling a little bit.
Ivan: Exactly. So I couldn’t stop eating them, once I discovered these things. But there’s so many calories — they’re so dense — it’s like eating a piece of Jupiter. Full of stuff that’s killing you slowly. Your whole skin starts to take on this orangeish hue.
Chris: A lot of people don’t know that next to next to lumber and gasoline, Hawkins Cheezies are our third largest export.
Ivan: I’m still trying to lose weight from that tour.
What lands you here at Empty Sea Studios?
Ivan: I got a hold of Devon from Hearth Music, who is one of those people who…puts in the time because he believes in what he’s doing… it just so happened that he was starting a new concert series — the Next Gen Folk series — and he suggested this venue. I’ve always preferred doing smaller shows to people who are actually listening, rather than big shows, rather than it’s just espresso machines, or beer-drinking and –
Ivan: A little yelling is okay… but I looked at the website for this venue, and it looked nice. The curtains looked nice. I thought, “I’d like to perform in front of those curtains…”
Keep track of Chris and Ivan here: http://www.ivanrosenberg.com/
Read about Hearth Music Next Gen Folk Series here: http://www.hearthmusic.com/
Learn more about Ivan’s dreaded road snack here: http://www.cheezies.com/static.html
A Story of South Jersey hope, Philly soul sound, and Seattle fresh starts
Interview by Elaina Ellis – Empty Sea Communications Coordinator
During a short break in recording, Joe McKinstry, Matt Berger, and Michael Connolly joined me over pizza, to talk about place and sound.
McKinstry was hard at work on his first solo recording, a rock album called Route 70. Berger — who has played with Portland Cello Project, Laura Gibson, and Musee Mecanique — came to Empty Sea Studios to lay percussion tracks for the album. Connolly, of course, runs Empty Sea. I asked this talented crew to tell me more about the project at hand.
So, what are you doing here at Empty Sea Studios?
Joe: I’m recording my solo record, with Michael producing, and engineering, and — well (laughs) — doing everything.
Tell me about Route 70. What are you working on?
Joe: Well, it’s semi auto-biographical. It’s got a sense of place. I come from the Pine Barrens in South Jersey…. the landscape is not something people think about when they think of New Jersey — they think about an industrial corridor – but the land is very well-conserved there. Of course there aren’t a lot of jobs, so there’s not a lot of money. There’s less hope there, I think…which made its way into our lives, and the lives of our parents, and their parents. As a result, it was hard to grow up there, and grow up there gay, which I am. It made it difficult, in a lot of ways. This [album] is kind of my story, but it’s also the story of people who were growing up there in our time, and in our parents’ time. It ends up on a hopeful note, because it’s not all bad.
So that story, about South Jersey and that particular struggle, shows up lyrically. Does it show up in the sound as well?
Joe: I think so. As a singer, you’re a product of all your influences, and I’d be lying to you if I said that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t a big influence. But we were also [near to] Philadelphia, so that Philly soul sound was very important growing up. That’s probably the most marked effect on my voice – I’m very East coast in that way.
And how’d you end up in Seattle?
Joe: I was in the military and I came up here to visit people who were stationed in Fort Lewis. I came up to Seattle, and it was a revelation. I knew I need to make big changes in my life, come out of my closet, all of that. I felt like a physical difference would make a big impact, and it did, but now it’s time to go back and explore those things that made me run in the first place. That’s what this record is about.
Matt, what are you doing on this album?
Joe: Matt is helping to lay a backbone, filling out the rhythm sections on the record.
Matt: I came up to Seattle last spring to play on another album. I’m from Portland. It went well… I got invited back!
Michael: Matt is what you really want from a session drummer, because you can throw a whole album of stylistically different songs one after another that he hasn’t heard before, and just have him deliver really consistently — all I can do myself is say, “this should reference a certain style, or something should change here,” but I don’t really speak drum.
Which is – maybe – the only language you don’t speak, musically.
Matt: Right, I’m just a translator.
Michael: When you find someone who does that well, you want to keep that phone number.
Why choose Empty Sea as a recording studio?
Joe: In today’s music world, there’s a lot of electronic stuff going on, and it can kind of lose its soul. This stuff was all written on acoustic guitar. To have someone listen to the real soulfulness of acoustic music is very, very important.
Earlier this year, stringband The Blackberry Bushes recorded a full album project, Little Bit of Grace here at Empty Sea. I engineered the album and co-produced the album with Matt Sirceley. Since then, the album is in its second pressing and climbing the roots and bluegrass charts due to extensive radio play.
I had brunch with Jes Raymond and Jakob Breitbach from the Bushes to see what they’re up to, and over some delicious green chile eggs at the Four Spoons Cafe, they told me what they were up to.
So, in March of this year, you guys recorded an album with me called Little Bit of Grace . That album is now released to the world and doing pretty well – tell me what’s going on with it.
JES: Well, we’ve been touring that album and doing pretty well with it at shows, and we also did a radio promotional campaign with Hearth Music which has caused us to move up the charts in the last three weeks. We started out at #54 on the FolkDJ-List chart, and then we appeared on the Roots Music Report chart the next week at #36 on the bluegrass chart – pretty exciting because that’s an international chart. And then this past week we moved up to #19 on that chart – we beat out Rhonda Vincent, that’s our claim to fame. We’re also #1 on that chart in the state of Washington.
That’s really awesome. Where have you been traveling on tour?
JES: This spring we went down to Telluride, Colorado, then we did a loop back and around up the coast. We’ve been out to the Midwest, the Mississippi River Valley, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Now we’re about to leave for the East Coast – we’re going to tour our through the Midwest again, then take ourselves from New England down to the Southeast and back.
So from your most recent tour, what were your most favorite and least favorite gigs?
JAKOB: Oof! That’s easy. (laughs)
JES: On our last tour, we did a really wonderful small festival called the Boats and Bluegrass Festival that was right on the Mississppi River in Winona, Minnesota. There were some really great bands – I was really impressed with them. The people that put on the festival did a really good job for a startup festival of making it have the right energy!
JAKOB: You know a festival organizer spends time at the festival when he makes sure that the porta-potties are lit at night – and there was an exciting undercurrent to the whole festival because the river was rising one inch per hour – so two days after the festival finished the entire campgrounds were under about two feet of water.
JES: So there was kind of a feeling of commitment for the people who were there.
JAKOB: Impending doom.
JES: Many of the artists camped, and we stayed up all night and created some memories we’ll keep, which was really great.
JAKOB: And the low point of the last tour was a no-turnout show in Des Moines, Iowa at 11 on a Sunday night.
JES: Well, it would have been zero which we were thinking would be kind of cool, because we had a video camera. There was a nice stage, a good sound system, and we thought, “we’ll get a good video of this.” But then these four kids who’d seen the poster came in – they thought we looked cool, and they wanted to see the show. They stood right up front and we played to them! But then when we looked back at the video it made it very obvious that there were four people watching us.
Four people clapping in an empty room. (laughs)
JES: It was a low point without being a bummer.
JAKOB: We set ourselves up to have low expectations.
JES: There was a pool in the hotel.
So do you have future album plans? Are you going to ride this one for a while?
JES: Really, we’ve already got enough tunes for another album, and our plan right now is to start working the songs that we’d like on our next album into our live set, and start playing with those in performance and see what happens by next spring.
There’s always that debate between recording fresh songs versus songs that you’ve polished up on tour.
JAKOB: We definitely did the unproven route on this last record. It was good in a lot of ways.
JES: I like that in some ways. I like the process of discovering in the studio. But [the next record] is a different one and we’ll try it a different way this time.
JAKOB: I think everyone’s a little more ready to go in and lay it down this time – to be more polished and prepared from the get-go.
JES: Really, [Little Bit of Grace] is what’s brought us into this fulltime touring mode I feel like we grew so much in the studio creating this album, and then since then as we’ve taken it out, we’re really on a learning curve as a group of musicians still. I feel like we’re almost a new band in the way we approach things. The process of recording this last album really influenced the way we approach our stage show and rehearsal.
Thanks guys. Have fun out there on the road!
JES: Thanks Michael.
It’s been quite a great year for recording at Empty Sea. If you’ve only attended shows, you may not be aware that the studio doesn’t stand idle all week between concerts! We record acoustic-oriented albums here – 8 projects so far this year in a number of different genres.
It’s a real pleasure to get to show off some of the work that’s been coming out of the studio! Two of our artists recently released full-length albums which I’m happy to share with you. Each has also agreed to offer a free downloadable MP3 from their album exclusively for Empty Sea fans. Both of these discs are getting airplay on KBCS 91.3FM – thanks guys!
Jeremy Serwer – Roads
Roads (June 2010)
Free download from the album: Nervous Energy (click to download)
Fueled by an inordinate number of pastrami sandwiches from the Phinney Market, I produced and engineered Jeremy’s album Roads earlier this year at Empty Sea.
I was thrilled to recently find out that Roads received a CDBaby Editor’s Pick award.
Editor Alex Woodward wrote, “There’s something immediately gripping about Jeremy Serwer’s voice; it’s got just the right amount of gravel to complement his soulful timbre, or the female vocals who accompany him on several tracks…Album highlights include the haunting soul of “Dirty Entity” and the lovely “Bare Witness” which recalls Elliott Smith’s gorgeous melancholy. It’s really compelling, heartfelt music.”
The Blackberry Bushes - Little Bit of Grace
Little Bit of Grace (July 2010)
Free Download: Mermaid (click to download)
We had a full house over here while recording this inaugural studio album for the rocking stringband The Blackberry Bushes: a four-piece band and mandolin wizard Matt Sircely (Hot Club Sandwich), who I co-produced this record with. We’re all thrilled with the result, and the Bushes hit the road to tour just after the discs were delivered – word is that they’ve already had to reorder.
What else are we up to?
Too many projects to list – or apparently, update this blog with any regularity. There are several more album projects nearing completion – and several more coming down the pike! Plus a number of exciting longer-term projects which I can’t spill the beans on just yet, but which are going to be pretty darn cool.
Interested in recording here? Check out our recording section for more information and then contact me to set something up.
Local violin teacher Shula Kleinerman and Jacob Breedlove stopped by last weekend to a few medieval tunes featuring vielle, hurdy gurdy, and a chorus of young early music enthusiasts! It was a real treat to see the kids’ interest in singing this repertoire, even working hard to make sure they pronounced each Middle English syllable correctly. The recordings turned out really well. :)
So much has been happening at the studio in the past few months that I’ve been guilty of not keeping my blog up to date! I can only take solace knowing that I’m hardly the first would-be blogger who has found themselves falling behind.
There are a lot of stories to tell about the more than 20 shows we’ve hosted in the past few months, but I’ll start with the story of recording one of my favorite rootsy singers, Martha Scanlan. You may know Martha from her role as frontwoman for the Reeltime Travelers, where she first recorded her original tune, “Little Bird of Heaven.”
So as it turns out, prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates liked Martha’s song so much that she decided to name a book after it. That seemed like an apt time to re-record the song, and so, together with her good friend Dirk Powell, Martha visited Empty Sea to lay down a new version.
Now as it happens, “Little Bird” is my favorite song from the Reeltime Travelers’ album Living Reeltime, Thinking Old-Time. So I will admit to being a bit star struck by seeing one of my favorite singers walk through the studio door to record one my favorite songs of hers! The recording took place the night before Dirk’s show with John Doyle (the first in our Folklife Masters concert series), so I was meeting Dirk for the first time as well.
To make a long story short, it took longer to set up mics and check levels than it did for these consummate musicians to record a killer version of the tune — in one take! The result was a new version of “Little Bird of Heaven” that is a bit older and wiser than the zeal and youth of the Reeltime Travelers recording. First-take serendipity was the name of the game here.
It was a real pleasure to work with Dirk and Martha to put this together. You can download “Little Bird of Heaven” here to enjoy it yourself!
Seems like word is getting out that Empty Sea is a great place to play! In the past few weeks we’ve been finalizing a number of seriously exciting performances…stay tuned for more details.
Our first two shows (Coyote Grace and the Cantrells) were amazing! Check out some pictures (thank you, Carolyn Waters for the top-notch photography.)
I’m in the process of booking shows for the rest of the summer, so stay tuned – we have quite a lineup on the way.
As it turns out, building a stage is difficult.
But it’s awfully nice to play music on one. Pam and Karl took this challenge head-on, spending a good chunk of last weekend framing out a generously proportioned stage for the studio. The frame is a large, basically trapezoidal shape made from screwed-together 2×6′s, all of which rest directly on the floor. The joists are on 16 inch centers, an echo of typical floor construction techniques despite the fact that the structure will simply rest on the existing floor.
See the holes in the joists? The stage will sit directly atop the room’s main heating vent, and the holes help allow air to flow under the stage and out the 5 rectangular openings on the stage’s front edge. Clever, huh?
I returned from a weekend out of town to find the frame in a basically complete state. I have some amazing friends :)
The great flooring debate
While the framing design was fairly straightforward, I had a few more headaches about what to put on top of the frame! Initially, I had intended to just use plain plywood sheeting on top, probably painted black. But as time went on, this sounded less appealing as I considered the possibility of using hardwood flooring instead. I love the look and feel underfoot of hardwood floors, and I love playing music in a room with one – so why not treat the stage as if it were a room under construction and floor it with real hardwood?
I thought this might mean being able to skip having a plywood layer altogether, but my coworkers quickly disavowed me of that idea – the plywood subfloor makes it much easier to nail down hardwood, as well as providing a stiffer, more robust floor surface.
So the current plan is:
- Install plywood subfloor
- Install ‘stairnose’ trim around the edge of the stage to give a reasonable looking transition
- Install tongue-and-groove hardwood!
Now, I’ve done some instrument building projects and know my way around hand tools, but actual carpentry and construction is something I’ve never really done. How thick should the plywood subfloor be? Should I use nails or screws to attach it to the frame? What’s the best way to choose flooring and trim? Guess what? I still don’t know the best answers to these questions – but one by one, I’m taking a reasonable guess :)
The Subfloor Show with Karl and Michael
Rest on his laurels? Not Karl. Not content with having spent his entire weekend framing with Pam, Karl clocked in for Round 2 to help me install the subfloor on top of the frame.
This actually went surprisingly quickly – in stark contrast to the large amounts of geometry and paper calculations that went into framing the stage, sheeting it with plywood was mostly a matter of directly marking cut lines and circular-sawing a few sheets of plywood into submission.
There’s a bit of puzzle-piece action in figuring out how to most efficiently use the 4′x8′ sheets of plywood to cover this odd shape. But basically this was a matter of drill, screw in a screw, saw off the overhang (after carefully marking a saw line and setting up a 2′x4′ as a guide) and repeat until exhausted.
It took about 4 hours to buy all the material and complete the project. Not exactly blazingly fast, but not too bad either. Now the stage is ready ti be covered in hardwood!
Stay tuned for more exciting updates. A lot has got to happen in the next 9 days :)
What’s new since my last post?
Well, one big thing happened: It was finally time to hang up the Empty Sea Studios sign outside the studio on Phinney Avenue. The sun was getting low in the sky and was simply amazing to watch this dreamed-about place suddenly seem “real.”
Actually putting the sign in place was an extremely quick process – just four screws on each side, and you’re done. I would call the process anticlimactic except that the result looks so good that it actually was quite climactic!
Overall, the neighborhood reaction seems very positive. The sign generates a lot of traffic to the website, and definitely its fair share of double-takes for pedestrians on Phinney! I’ve been giving out a lot of business cards and having a lot of fun conversations with neighbors and community folks who are all excited to have a new music venue to get to know.
and the show approaches…
Now being just days away from the first concert, things are really starting to come together. There’s still so very much to do, but I think we’re actually going to make it to the finish line in relative style.
What’s new in the studio this week?
Trina, Pam (plus sister), and Karl came over today and helped finalize the layout for the stage. It looks like the stage layout will seat about four musicians comfortably – it’s an interesting exercise in figuring out how to fit the lighting, sound, stage curtains, and stage itself all in a small (whoops, I meant to say ‘intimate’) space without feeling crowded.
One exciting thing: Karl pointed out that we could use reclaimed flooring (from Ballard’s Re-store) to build the decking for the stage. I like this idea much better than using plywood! It’s going to look better, not require painting, and somehow have a better vibe than playing on plywood.
In other news: I’ve been talking this week with the Seattle Folklore Society – they are interested in producing shows at Empty Sea! This is exciting news, and I will actually have a show to announce shortly. Stay tuned…
The pipes are calling.
3/4″ inch schedule 40 pipes, that is.
In order to showcase performers at the studios in dazzling incandescence and deep, passionate washes of color, we’re hanging some black iron pipe on the walls.
One pipe is up already, and it’s enough to clearly see that this is going to look very, very cool. There’s a few more left to do – basically, by covering a couple of walls, you can project light from a bunch of different angles, which yields the appropriate color sculpting and luminosity dancing that all real lighting designers understand. Stanley McCandless, here I come…
What else is new: Trina and I figured out a plan for finishing the light rigging, where to hang acoustic treatment, and how to hang a curtain behind the stage. It’s going to be beau-ti-ful.
So after much slaving back and forth with the focus group (also known as family and friends), I finalized a sign design for the front yard and had it fabricated by our local Fastsigns store. Here’s the design from Illustrator.
In the process of working on this, I learned a lot that I wish I’d already known about the CMYK color space and how it differs from graphic design for the web. Specifically – apparently basing my entire brand around a dark, intense blue is just about the worst thing I could have done from a color-matching perspective. It’s been pretty instructive to look at the color matching between an onscreen image, the business cards I recently had printed, and the sign itself.
So, without further ado, here’s what I got back from the printer last night:
I was very, VERY excited when I saw this peeping through the window at me from inside the sign shop. I knew that the spec’d size of 5×3 feet was going to be large, but I don’t think I was really prepared for just how large that is. I felt almost like I was going to fall into the f-hole!
I have a bit of pride about that part of the design, actually; the f-hole is traced from the fiddle I built last year. There are some irregularities to it and I went back and checked: yes, they’re really part of the instrument itself.
For some scale, that’s a 34-string harp next to the sign, which is itself close to 5 feet tall! The sign comes up to my chin or so. It looks huge inside, but it’s actually the perfect size to go over the existing lawn sign (which doesn’t look all that large in context.) Thanks, visual perception!
I hope to get the signs (one for each side of the stand in the front yard) mounted soon.
Today’s IT project was installing and configuring PHPList, a cool mailing list program which integrates nicely with WordPress. If you’re interested in heaving about our progress as we get things set up here, just subscribe to the list using the new link in the sidebar!
Opening this space has meant facing some steep learning curves: lighting and sound design, Seattle business licensing, and not the least of all, WordPress configuration. I think it’s really that last one that’s been the hardest. But the website is now up and running.
Since I moved into the space on February 1st, a lot has already taken place: Trina, Pam, Leslie and Khaled all helped me get the main floor painted and decluttered (thanks guys!), and the same crew plus Jeff and Shula helped move over piles of clothes, music gear, and woodworking tools last weekend.
First likely headache? I may have to take a look at how clean the AC power is in the main room – I’m getting a fair amount of 60 hertz hum that I need to track down. Oh, and if anyone has any drywall tape & mud skills, now would be a good time to pipe up…
There are boxes to unpack, lights and acoustic treatment to hang, and so much more!
February was all about getting moved from my old place in Shoreline, and March will be the Month of Studio Bringup. Stay tuned – it’s going to rock.