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.
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.
Tickets: $8 advance, $12 at the door.
Shannon Stephens began her musical career in 1994 as the voice of the band Marzuki, a folk-rock ensemble assembled by Sufjan Stevens. Marzuki played a lot of shows around Michigan, and a few ill-fated shows in New York City. They released two albums in the five years that they were together.
After Marzuki disbanded, Shannon began to perform and record on her own. She recorded her self-titled debut LP in 1999, the same year she moved to Seattle and shared the stage with the likes of Denison Witmer, Rose Thomas, Jason Harrod and Damien Jurado. But by the time the new album had come back from the manufacturer, she had realized that all this music stuff was a lot of work. The boxes went into her garage and collected dust for nine years while she got married, read copious amounts of books, had a daughter, and did lots of hippy stuff like growing potatoes, canning preserves, and making kombucha.
In 2008, one of her songs (“I’ll Be Glad”) was covered by Bonnie “Prince” Billy on his album Lie Down In The Light. In 2009, Shannon released her second album, The Breadwinner, which Rachel Carson at Exclaim! described as “…a spectacularly beautiful and fiercely compelling sophomore album” and Sufjan Stevens called “…a joyful, heartful collection of quiet, gorgeous songs about family, friends, work, love, and the beauty of the world at large.”
In 2010, Asthmatic Kitty Records proudly re-released Shannon’s self-titled debut (2000). Produced by Stephens and her former Marzuki bandmates Sufjan Stevens and Matthew Haseltine, the re-press features new artwork and two previously unreleased bonus tracks. Shannon continues to play shows in the Seattle area and around the Pacific Northwest, and is busy writing songs for her next album.
Appearing with Shannon Stephens is Tony Kevin Jr, “a next generation troubadour with songs that explore both the spiritual and venal sides of life with knowing sadness and sweet choruses that will stick with you for days.” – Abbey Simmons (Sound on the Sound)
“This Western Washington native is a singer/songwriter with dynamic vocals, attention-grabbing lyrics and an easy going style. When listening to Tony or attending one of his shows you won’t feel the distance that often pops up between a musician and their audience. His music is made of stuff you can reach out and grasp, mold in your hands and make your own. Through his words and gritty vocals, Tony grabs you in your seat and turns the color in your world brighter, the shadows darker, the edges sharper. He is an everyday man who makes life into art for the ears of anyone who will listen. What he has to say will move you.” – Kimberly Loomis (The Musician’s Wife)
Tickets: $8 advance, $10 at the door.
ThorNton Creek (acoustic) is the honed-down version of the full band ThorNton Creek. Thornton Bowman’s lyrics and wistful Southern voice are at the heart, and listening to them in this form accentuates the lyrics and the stories. Bowman grew up in Virginia near the Tennessee border. Many of his songs have a Southern, front porch feel. The band began performing in 1996 shortly after Bowman released his solo album In the Kitchen of the Blacksmith. His music has been used in several documentaries and around very many kegs and at least once in a Playboy video.
ThorNton Creek (acoustic) usually features:
Thornton Bowman (songwriter, vocals, guitar) and Don Miller (guitar, mandola, cigar box creations, vocals)
Sometimes it features:
MJ Bishop (mandolin, vocals, accordion, percussion), Eric Smith (dobro, mandolin, banjo, slide guitar, etc.)
About In the Kitchen of the Blacksmith, the Rocket said:
“…if you like Neil Young, Bowman will have you beaming. The man isn’t a clone by any means, but there’s enough in his voice to get you harking back to old Neil’s acoustic work. As far as his writing goes, the songs are a much more slippery beast, lyrically dense, sometimes even serpentine, uncoiling soul the way a good song should and that little kernel of truth, the way the best songwriters should.” (Chris Nickson)
About Whiskey, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says:
“…ThorNton Creek has been a reminder of the days when Seattle clubs were ablaze with good-time country rock ‘n’ roll. A good song, a danceable beat and some hot licks are the recipe for all the 14 tracks on the band’s new release, “Whiskey.” Thornton Bowman sings in a straightforward high tenor reminiscent of Country Joe McDonald. His vocals are sweetened by MJ Bishop’s harmonies. Don Miller’s versatile guitar playing ranges from the laid-back swing of “Laugh Away,” the roots rock of “Mind Like a Window,” to “New One’s” psychedelic fire.” (Bill White)
Tickets: $20 advance / door.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.
Sid Selvidge has had a musical career as expansive as the Mississippi Delta — and as true to his roots as the bluesmen of yesteryear. Leaving his home in Greenville, Mississippi, Sid moved to Memphis at an early age, studying and performing with legendary bluesmen like Furry Lewis and Mississippi Fred McDowell at the famous Bitter Lemon Club. With a knack for the southern tradition of storytelling, Selvidge swiftly adapted their picking styles and incorporated them into his distinctive fusion of country, blues, folk, and rock.
Soon his music began to catch the attention of those outside the Bluff City, who took notice of his ability to integrate classic methods into unique singing and playing approaches. “Sid Selvidge, who comes from Mississippi by way of Memphis, is neither country nor rock,” said John Rockwell of the New York Times. “He’s pretty much everything musically in the whole Southeast.” While still in school at Washington University, Sid recorded his debut LP, Portrait, which was released by Enterprise Records, a subsidiary of Stax. Thereafter, he traveled to New York and captivated audiences from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center, garnering rave reviews. “His voice is an astonishing instrument,” raved New York Times writer Robert Palmer. “Cool and liquid with a range of several octaves.”
By this time, major labels were making offers, resulting in a deal whereby Elektra released his Twice Told Tales as a part of the Nonesuch Records “American Explorer Series.” When not working on solo records, Selvidge was a member of Mudboy and the Neutrons with cofounder and close friends Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, and Jimmy Crosthwait. Selvidge and Dickinson would collaborate on numerous projects throughout their enduring friendship, but the 3 Mudboy albums were among the most original of that partnership. Bob Dylan even referred to them as “the great band that nobody can find.”
While living in Memphis during this time, Selvidge also taught anthropology at Rhodes College and helped found Beale Street Caravan, an internationally syndicated blues radio program heard on over 500 stations around the world. Even with his performance and recording career, Selvidge still remains heavily involved at BSC, serving as executive producer since its founding. In 2002 Selvidge signed to Memphis label Archer Records, which released A Little Bit of Rain the following year. Recording was a family affair, with Selvidge’s son, Steve (The Hold Steady) joining on guitar, along with Jim Dickinson on keys and his son, Luther (North Mississippi Allstars, Black Crowes) on slide guitar, and old pal Jimmy Crosthwait on washboard. Upon hearing the record, David Fricke of Rolling Stone couldn’t hold back his praise, declaring emphatically “Sid Selvidge is a precious treasure.”
“I kind of spilled blood all over this project,” Amy Speace says of her new album The Killer In Me, which marks a quantum creative leap from the artist’s 2006 breakthrough effort Songs For Bright Street. While that release won her widespread critical acclaim and a loyal international fan base, The Killer In Me finds the New York‐based singer/songwriter forging into deeper, darker lyrical and musical terrain, borne largely out of the dissolution of her 10‐ year marriage. “This is the record that I needed to make,” Speace states. “In many ways, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And in some ways, it was the easiest. Writing the songs was emotionally difficult, deep and intense‐‐it was kind of an exorcism. But in the end, the songs flowed pretty quickly. You write the things that you’re afraid to say out loud.”
The Killer In Me’s 12 soul‐baring new songs maintain the effortless melodic appeal of her prior work, while delivering complex emotional insights that give the album startling intimacy and resonance. “The Killer In Me” chronicles a strangled co‐dependent relationship, while “Haven’t Learned A Thing” offers absolution for the continuing struggle in the attempt to connect with another and never getting it completely right. “This Love” speaks to the hope and uncertainty that comes with the onset of a new relationship. The album covers more terrain than romantic relationships, closing with “Piece By Piece,” written as a prayer to her father, wishing him peace and love after the death of his brother.
Most of the album was written in the rural isolation of a rented cabin in the Catskills after her final separation from her husband. “It was just me, some books, my journals, my guitar and the songs, with no phone and no TV,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time reading and hiking and chopping wood for the stove, and wrote the songs that form the emotional center of this album.” “The situation,” she continues, “forced me to sit with a lot of silence, fear and confusion and make a kind of peace with them by writing songs to keep from going crazy. That’s when the album started making sense to me and became a whole different thing. Something shifted when I realized what was going on in the world outside mirrored what was going on inside of me, and I wanted to write songs that bridged that divide.”
Tickets: $13.00 advance, $15.00 at the door
Sorry — this show has sold out!
Austin, TX-based singer/songwriter Danny Schmidt has been building an enthusiastic (nearly cult-like) following while simultaneously inspiring the admiration of his fellow artists and critical acclaim from industry professionals. He is the real deal, an authentic timeless troubadour in the tradition of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Dave Carter, who delivers his craft with a quiet power, a level of complexity, and an underlying humanity that is truly rare in this age of sound bite marketeering.
It’s his songwriting which won him the prestigous Kerrville New Folk award, but it’s his intense live performances that leave listeners with a sense that each of his songs is necessary, plain and simple. His guitar work is effortless and sparkling, his arrangements are fresh and unpredictable, his voice ageless. Stylistically and musically, Danny’s writing spans an impressively diverse reach, from deeply-rooted Appalachian mountain gospel to haunted English balladry, from syncopated Piedmont country blues to vagabond 60’s protest folk-stumpery.
He tackles universal themes of love, loss, and longing . . . restless discontent and grateful joy. And he captures both the sorrow and the beauty inherent in our everyday lives with the wisdom of a perceptive, compassionate elder and with the innocent awe and tenderness of a child.
In the words of Sing Out Magazine: “He is perhaps the best new songwriter we’ve heard in the last 15 years.” And in the words of Texas Monthly: “With seductive simplicity, his music simply demands your attention.”
This is one show not to be missed.
Tickets: $8.00 advance, $10.00 at the door.
Courtney Robbins’ music is a little bit folk, a little bit rock, and whole lot of awesome. From percussive guitar rhythms reminiscent of train engines to the mellow, heartbreaking vocals of her ballads, this Tucson-based independent singer-songwriter spans several genres. Her energetic performance, hard- hitting riffs, and smart lyrics have established a powerful connection with her fast growing fan-base and earned her such descriptions as ““Powerful… [one] of Tucson’s best singer-songwriters” – Tucsonscene.com.
Known to “play the shit out of [the guitar],” Courtney’s blistering guitar style often leaves her fingers bleeding; her straightforward songwriting skills are a figurative match. She has landed both a finalist spot in the 2008 Tucson Folk Festival Songwriting Competition, and the praise of critics. Dramanonymous.com’s Anna Pulley cheers: “Robbins’ muscular rhythms and melodic grace are impossible not to tap along to. Infused with raw nostalgia and emotional urgency, Robbins’ music artfully blends the taut intimacy of an acoustic affair with galloping riffs and a fragile, folk sensibility.”
Courtney has not only established herself as a rising star in Arizona, but is also garnering the admiration of folk fans nationwide. Her dichotomy of personal experience and broad-spectrum emotion draws crowds, and she is finding a loyal audience as she winds a path of live shows across the country performing solo and warming up the stage for artists like Melissa Ferrick, Lucy Kaplansky, Catie Curtis, Edie Carey, Meghan Toohey, Eddie from Ohio, and Dar Williams.
“Bittersweet ballads from the nether world,” states Angela Yeager of Salem Oregon’s Statesman Journal, a description as good as any other for the sound of Jeremy Serwer. Jeremy’s songs are a meandering journey through Americana, angst, sorrow and disenchantment with US social policy.
KINK Radio in Portland says, “His songs run the gamut from emotionally charged heartbreakers to pointed political statements. His ability to generate emotion in an audience is testament to his songwriting expertise and a powerful bluesy expressive delivery.” Jeremy is no stranger to the road, having embarked on several jaunts about the US and has also performed around South Korea. Jeremy has been active in bands including Rich Man’s Burden, Acoustic Minds and Thistle. He has accompanied songwriter/performer veteran Anne Weiss and worked in recording and live performances with Eric Pollard (Low, Retribution Gospel Choir, Sun Kil Moon), Skip Von Kuske (Portland Cello Project, M. Ward, Vagabond Opera), Jimi Cooper (Dukes of Hubbard, No Wait Wait, The Fractals) and many others.
Jeremy’s latest release FM is a portrait of a nine year existence in Portland’s ebb and flow musical aura. Jeremy currently resides in Tucson, AZ and is very active with his new band Seashell Radio. Jeremy is now working on his second solo release with producer/bandmate Fen Ikner.
Kate Graves writes little songs. She tries to spread them around like wildflower seeds.
Kate Graves likes wildflowers. If she could be a flower, she would be a thistle branch. She sometimes worries that by saying she would be a thistle branch, she is saying that she symbolically pricks things, but she still picks the thistle branch.
Kate Graves just went off on a tangent while writing her bio…
Kate Graves writes little songs. Sometimes they are sparse…sometimes filled with lots of words.
Often they are written about things like tasting sweet orange on your lips and wanting to kiss someone, so that they can experience tasting sweet orange on their lips.
Kate Graves likes kissing. And singing. And trying to explain to the world that her chihuahua is just scared and not really cold hearted.
Kate Graves hopes that you will forgive her for writing her name 7 times over in this little bio. She hopes very much so that you will listen to her songs.
Tickets: $13 advance, $15 at the door.
Roots formed in old standards, a juvenile heart, and his mother’s Ray Charles albums, Austin’s Ben Mallott uses his grainy timbre to remove the punctuation between singer and songwriter.
For his first solo release, Look Good, Feel Good, Mallott’s songs range from sentimental to sad to what he calls “unpredictably genuine”. A songwriter who admits his journeys have taken him from window seats to bathroom floors, he sticks to what works and in turn churns out his distinctive brand of Americana confession.
“I’m strange about where and when I write,” Mallott explains. “I try not to move my residence too often, because it usually takes a couple of months for me to find the place in the house that sounds and feels right. Where I live now, I stand about six inches from the back door and sing into it. It didn’t take me long to have a glass door installed.”
Personal as they are, Mallott confesses that his songs don’t distinguish between the literal and metaphorical. A blend of Americana heart and soul, each are shrouded in a little mystery to both the listener and the creator.
“I don’t know what they mean to me. I think if I really ever figured that out, I’d have to stop writing. I love the art of songwriting. I love the struggle involved. The songs are just windows. Some let in more light than others.”
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Chris Marshall followed a fairly typical adolescent path. He found his mom’s acoustic guitar, taughthimself to play, then worked his way into what he calls “many short-lived punk, hardcore and emo bands.” He also honed his skills by playing in the church his dad founded when he was 14.
Then Marshall discovered the gospel of Willie and Johnny—as in Nelson and Cash—and the spirit of Elvis, as well as the poetic and literary influences that infuse the thoughtful songwriting found on his new EP, Starting Out.
The five-song collection is an exploration of life experiences: physical and metaphysical journeys, passion, pain, friendship, faith. It’s the work of a man who found his songwriting voice when he unlatched his cerebral cortex from the process and engaged his heart instead.
“I tried so hard in the beginning to write songs that would honor the tradition of the artists I admire, namely songwriters like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson,” Marshall admits. “They possessed such an unaffected, uncomplicated writing style.” His own lyrics frustrated him at first because they weren’t as simple and clearcut. But once he let go of expectations that he should write or sound a certain way, Marshall freed his muse and let in all of his influences, including writers and philosophers like Walt Whitman, C.S. Lewis and Soren Kierkegaard, as well as musical icons like Dylan and Kristofferson.
In the process, he’s developed a sound he describes as “uniquely American.”
“My generation seems interested in redefining what it means to be a member of the American musical heritage,” he explains. “That is precisely what I am doing with my work: borrowing and borrowing until we find something new.”