HOLLY NEAR — An Emailed Q&A

Posted: July 28th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | 7 Comments »

Singer/songwriter/actor/author/activist HOLLY NEAR has been making powerful music for over 40 years.  She is widely known as one of the original feminist musicians of the 1970s whose ranks also include such artists as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Margie Adam.  In 1972, she was quite possibly the first woman ever to start an independent, artist-owned label (Redwood Records).  Through her appearances and recordings, she has worked for peace and human rights in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.  For a detailed look at her accomplishments in music, film, television, theatre, and progressive action, see this timeline on her website.  She recently appeared in the star-studded Memorial Concert for Pete and Toshi Seeger [Lincoln Center Out of Doors], and her 30th album, Peace Becomes You [Calico Tracks Music], can be purchased through her online store along with many other titles in her impressive discography.  Ms. Near graciously agreed to consider a series of performance-related questions I submitted to her.  Here are her illuminating responses, which I received from her by email. –VA

Do you consider yourself to be a natural-born performer?

­­­­­Yes.  I have been “presenting” since I was a small child, starting in the living room of our family home.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like a different version of yourself?  In what ways?

I am “Holly Near” or “Her” when I am presenting.  She is different than the person offstage.  Of course there are similarities.  Still the one onstage is projecting a personality, a sound, a story, a song, a feeling.  It is, by nature, the theatrical-izing of a self.

When you were developing your music career, were you conscious of wanting to present yourself onstage differently than mainstream female singers had typically been presenting themselves?  If so, what did you want to do differently?  Was this a topic of discussion at the time among you and your peers?

As a child, I was not having this conversation with myself.  But when I became more conscious of the idea of female and woman as a result of my growing feminism, then I began to study my behavior, my performance, my ideas through that window.  I had always had a strong stance.  That did not change.  I had always had a big voice.  That did not change.  It was more in my mind, my perception, and the greatest impact was realized in the lyrics to my songs and the introductions to the songs.  All the feminist performers I worked with were thinking about how we were presenting ourselves as feminists different from how we had been presenting ourselves as women.  Again, we were mostly looking at the lyrics, the music and the way in which women related to each other and to community differently once we became self-proclaimed feminists and, in some cases, as lesbian feminists.

You’ve said that Ronnie Gilbert [of The Weavers] influenced the way you stand onstage and the way you sing out in a strong way.  [Note to readers: for context, see this clip from "The Weavers: Wasn't That A Time!", a 1982 documentary by Jim Brown.]  Have female artists of subsequent generations told you that you influenced their performing styles?  If so, in what ways?

Yes.  I used to watch people come up to Ronnie and say, “I grew up on your music.”  Now they say it to me.  I am now older than Ronnie was when she and I first worked together.  As for performers, I don’t know specifically how my work has influenced them.  But from my point of view, it may be a subtle thing that they don’t even realize and won’t until they are much older, when they come to an age of reflection.  Young people are usually so in the present and that, in my opinion, is where they should be.  But someday, they will know that each generation makes a path on which the next generation walks.  Feminist cultural activists made a large walkway for young women who now freely dance along without always knowing that it used to be a briar patch.  That pleases me.

What things you do differently now as a performer than when you were first coming up, such as how you relate to the audience, or how you introduce songs?  How is your philosophy about performance different?  How is the way you present yourself different?

I am not sure it is different.  I have been a very consistent performer.  However, I do what I set out to do with much greater ease and sophistication, with greater craft.  And that is wonderful.  I am very respectful of craft.

Do you have a sense of being in your body when you’re onstage?  Do you feel like you’re grounded?

I make a point of landing before I walk on stage.  It takes 15 seconds in the wings.  I am very much grounded.  However, there is something else that happens if I am doing my job well and that is I let the unknown be with me.  I do not have a set patter or staging.  I will often speak about something for the first time in front of an audience without having rehearsed it.  I work in new thoughts spontaneously.  But this comes with practice.  I am much better at it now than when I was starting out.  I used to sing more notes and use more words.  Now I am more concise.  I’m more relaxed.  I allow humor to flow easily.  I have a very intimate relationship with the audience, whether it is 100 or 1000, I make the work personal.

Do you get stage fright?  If you don’t, why do you think you don’t?  If you do, what do you do to combat it?

No.  I was a little nervous from time to time when I first started performing.  I would freeze up.  But after a while, that went away.  Now the only time I get nervous is if I am asked to do something I am not sure of or if I present in front of a group where I’m not sure if I am welcome.  The rest of the time, I have no fear or nerves.  Excitement sometimes, but that is different than fear.  When I do workshops and people ask about stage fright, I give them an exercise to do.  It works for some, not for others.  I ask the presenter to feel like the host rather than the guest.  Turn the power dynamic around so that one is not feeling looked at or judged but rather is looking at the audience and welcoming them as you would someone in to your home.  Mentally check to see if they feel welcome, if they are comfortable, if there is anything they need and eventually, one starts to feel comfortable with the possibility that what they might need is you.  Not you, the nervous and insecure one, but you the generous artist who prepared to share what you have to offer with grace and confidence.

Do you have a pre-show ritual or routine that helps you get ready to go onstage? If so, would you be willing to describe it?

It takes about 15 seconds.  I simply remind myself when standing in the wings what is my job.  Why am I here and what is it I am meant to do.  Then I go do it.

Do you connect to your older songs differently than you used to?  Do they mean different things to you now than they used to?  What, if anything, do you do to keep the connection to them fresh?

Every time I sing a song, I let it live in the current moment.  That is what keeps it fresh.  I often introduce a song with a different story and that influences what the song means to me and probably what it means to the audience.  A song is not static or at least it doesn’t need to be.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  If so, how do you experience that?

In my particular style of writing and presenting, each song is a story and sometimes like a little three minute play.  So the song is very visual because there are characters and location and tension and outcome.

When you think of your favorite performers, what are the qualities they possess which excite you as a member of the audience?

When they walk on stage I know that something exciting is going to happen.  Period.

How do you keep your focus during a performance, and stay in the moment?  Which conditions make this more difficult or less difficult for you?  Which conditions make it more or less likely that you’ll be able to go into “the zone” when you’re performing?

I don’t have trouble staying focused.  The moment, or “the zone” as you refer to it, is where I live.  It is the house I walk into when I walk in front of an audience.  The conditions don’t matter.  I have played in places where you can hear a pin drop and places where you can hear a bomb drop.  I take ” the zone” with me where ever I go.

You’ve traveled extensively during your career, and you’ve been exposed to many musical cultures and styles of performing.  When you’ve performed in other countries, have you noticed that you changed how you presented yourself onstage or how you interacted with the audience?

When I sing in other cultures, whether it is another country or a neighborhood that experiences their daily life differently than I do, I try to remember to take a passport.  By this, I mean I try to be sensitive always to where I am, whether it is festival in Nicaragua or a senior center in California.  And if I stay connected to that awareness, the presentation changes.  I think the hardest for me is when I am singing in English in a place where English is not spoken.  My songs are so wordy.  I have never figured out how to do that well.  Translation is very time consuming and ideas are complex.  If one is a singer of love songs, then the audience can simply relax and enjoy the sound of the voice, the musicality of the artist, the emotion of the interpretation.  But with my songs, it is not so easy.  I have yet to feel comfortable with this.  So, I do a lot of listening to others when I go to other countries.  And that works just fine.  People love to be heard.  Not so good for my ego but definitely good for international relations.

Thank you to Holly Near for taking the time to share her thoughts with us on the subject of performance.  I urge my readers to see her in concert and to check out her catalogue for purchase. –VA

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CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 2 of 2

Posted: May 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops | 8 Comments »

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.  What follows is the second of two installments of the transcript.

You can find additional information about Casey at the beginning of Part 1.  In that installment, he discusses such topics as messing up during a performance, what makes him feel more confident, and his insights from working in the studio.  In Part 2, Casey addresses the use of substances at gigs, taking compliments from fans, and how your instrument can work for you, among other things.  –VA

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On being under the influence of substances while performing:

Substances are around – drugs, alcohol, marijuana, caffeine – you know, any number of things.  They affect everybody differently.  I think it’s important to understand for yourself how they affect you.  Some people can play great under the influence and you would never suspect that’s part of their equation.  I hope they’re conscious of how it affects them, and I know how substances affect me.

I’m generally very comfortable onstage.  I’m at peace up there.  Well, I was sitting in with a group in which all the guys in the group were pot smokers – and it’s a cloud of smoke out there in the audience.  It wasn’t my gig, I’m just sitting in.  So I thought, hey, if there’s ever a situation that’s safe – I’m going to go ahead and smoke before the show.  Then I got up there, and I was so paranoid.  I mean, like never before.  I’m usually pretty physically fluid when I play – but I could not move my feet.  I wanted to be anywhere else but playing and standing onstage right there.  It was so different than how I normally feel.  And I thought, when I got off the stage, “I am never doing this again.”  So I learned, the hard way, how my body reacted to it in a show setting.

Alcohol is another one I’m aware of.  Sometimes it can make you just a little bit more fluid.  Maybe it takes the edge off of the nervousness.  It’s just a fine line there – I have to be careful with it.  Did I have a decent dinner?  Did I eat dinner?  Is it going to hit me faster than if I ate some spaghetti or something heavy?  I enjoyed having that little edge taken off sometimes.  Right now, I don’t have a drink before my shows, because there’s a lot of technical accuracy with my whole body that I have to be in tune with – stepping on pedals at the right moment for the arrangement to happen.  I’m just not willing to take the chance that if it doesn’t go right, it was because I had a drink before the show.  So that’s a decision I’ve made for myself.  I’m learning, when is it ok and when is it not ok – for me, personally.

On the use of beta blockers for stage fright:

I’ve never tried them.  They are not necessarily “performance enhancing drugs” – they’re anxiety and stress relieving drugs.  And they do something with your hormones and the way your body reacts with adrenaline.  I hear that a lot of classical musicians take them before big performances. They’re supposed to kind of help you not be shaky or nervous or sweaty – your fight/flight type of responses.  They’re generally prescribed, though I was just reading a study saying twenty-five percent of orchestral people use them, however seventy percent of those that use them get them from their friends.  So, I don’t have any experience with them, but I know that lots of people do.

On what helps him feel more confident:

Preparation.  Practicing.  I get uptight for a gig a week out, even though I know I’ve got a week to work on this material – thinking, “[gasp] It’s a week out!  I’ve got to practice for this stuff!” Fear and worry are motivators for me to say, “Ok, it’s time to do some work on it.”  If there’s a specific performance which you know you’ve got material that is difficult for you, spend time on it.  If it doesn’t go well, you did the best that you could.  At least you spent time on it – that I can be ok with.  But if it doesn’t go well and I was not working on it, that is a situation that’s not acceptable, because I didn’t do anything to try and help myself for it.

Understanding the musical situation.  Are you nervous at jams?  Or are you nervous in gigs?  Is it worth being nervous?  Are you one of a bunch of people in which they’re not scrutinizing what you’re playing, where you’re just part of this fabric – is it worth getting uptight about?  Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.  But understanding the musical situation – what are the expectations of the other musicians?  What are the expectations of the audience?  Is it a wedding gig?  Are they there to dance?  Are they going to be drinking and just having a good time if the beat is there?  In that sort of situation, you might have a little bit more freedom to be a little more loose.  If it’s a sit-down concert and you’ve got a big solo section, that’s much different than playing a wallpaper gig.  So what’s worth your stress time?  You can’t stress about all the gigs, you know – but hopefully not.

The more that you put yourself in difficult situations, the easier those situations are going to get.  It’s usually the first one that is the toughest.  Maybe the first five of this new music you’re working on, or this new group that you’re playing with.  But it’s going to be ok, you know?  This is not the ER – we’re just playing some music here for people.

This one jazz pianist, he was addressing this type of situation.  You know, you’ve got your solo, and you think, “Oh, I just fucked up my solo…”  Ok, wait a minute here, let’s think about this.  It feels really important, because people are at this club to see you, and maybe there’s eighty people there, maybe there’s two thousand – whatever.  So you just “screwed” up this solo.  Ok, well, let’s back up for a second.  Let’s zoom out.  You are one guy in this city in which there’s all these other musical things going on.  Back up again, ok, now you are in a city within a state full of other cities.  Back up again, you’re in this country full of states full of cities full of people.  Back up again – I mean, it’s like, really?  Is that one solo is going to make or break anybody?  Hey, so it didn’t go.  You can’t win ‘em all.  But it’s really not worth stressing about.

On taking a compliment:

I’ve played for people who got really stressed out after gigs.  This stuff really affected them – you know, whether performances went well or not.  People would compliment after the show, and the performer would say something like, “Oh, that was not a good show.”

I mention this because I think you have to be really careful in these situations, because the audience is paying you a compliment.  You did something for them.  You connected.  And by responding, “No, this was not a good show,” you’re effectively saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Or like, “Your feelings right now are invalid, and you just liked something that totally sucked.”  You just shot down a compliment from somebody.  Suck it up, if you can!  Or remove yourself from the situation.  But I think you have to be careful about letting the frustration that you might feel be poured out to the people that actually did have a good time.  So ok, even though it wasn’t ideal for me, there must be something going on here – I’ll take this compliment.

On making your instrument work for you:

There are a lot of things that you can do to your instrument that are going to make you feel better about the way you play.  You can apply this to whatever instruments you have, but keeping your instrument maintained – I know it costs money, but it’s going to make it easier for you to play.  And there’s enough hard stuff about playing any instruments – they’ve all got their difficulties – why make it any harder?

For me, one thing is string action.  How high are your strings off the fingerboard?  That makes a big difference.  How hard do you have to press here in order to get the notes out?  There’s a range – too low, too high – but there’s a nice middle ground that also affects the tone.  Not only how it feels, but, a little higher action, a little bit louder, a little bit brighter.  And so if you need something to kind of cut through a little bit more – cutting through can equate with confidence – maybe experiment with the action on your instrument.

For guitars and fretted instruments – frets.  Frets get grooves in them from playing which affects the intonation and the way that you can slide on the strings.  Get your frets dressed.  With bowed instruments, you get ruts in your fingerboard.  You’ve got to get your fingerboard planed.  When I get it planed, I think, “Oh, it’s so much easier and more in tune!”

Putting on new strings – that makes a huge difference for intonation and tone.  These things don’t stretch evenly as a whole.  Sometimes I feel like, “I just can’t seem to play in tune, but I used to be able to.  What is going on?  The instrument’s in tune…”  Well, the strings have stretched a little bit differently.  And when I put on a new set of strings, I realize, “Oh, right.  I don’t suck as much as I thought.  It was the strings.  Maintain my instrument!”

Fresh hair on the bow – it helps grip a little bit better.  It gives you a wider range that you can play with dynamically.  It makes you more articulate.

How heavy your pick is – if it’s really light, it might be easier to play, but it might not produce as much sound.  And you might feel like you’re having to work harder to get it out.  Try some different pick gauges and shapes to see what happens.

We experiment with these mechanical details on our instruments to find this nice middle ground that allows us to be expressive and not hinder our instruments physically.  It’s important to get your instrument maintained once in a while.  I go into music shops and I say, “Hey, you’re an expert at making an instrument sound better.  What can I do to make my instrument sound better?”  Because things gradually change over time, you may not have noticed a slow degradation.

I had a luthier tell me, “Oh, you know what would be better for you?  Your instrument would sound better if you used a different shoulder rest.”  And I thought, “What?  The shoulder rest makes a difference in the sound of my fiddle?”  He said, “Hold on a sec.  Let me show you something.”  So he went and got this shoulder rest which is light, stiff, made of wood, and it doesn’t really clamp far onto the instrument.  I had a heavier one, and I was clamping it way down the body.  He said, “Just put it on there just as much as you need to, to make it stay.”  And my instrument was more lively.  I heard a difference!  And as a result, I felt better when I was playing.  “Cool, my instrument’s sounding good!”  You feel good, and then you’re happier to be playing.

I would have never thought of that myself.  I had to go in and have somebody who is an expert to look at these things and say, “I think this might help the sound of your instrument.”  It will help build your own confidence because you’ll be happy to play your instrument, as opposed to, “I’m just not getting enough back from my instrument, I just don’t want to play it.”

On what he’s learned from playing with Tim O’Brien:

Tim is one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever been around.  He’s such a relaxed singer and player, too.  He seems to open his mouth, and he has this range and delivery that seems to go wherever he wants.  I’ve come to believe that whatever kind of person you are is reflected in the way that you play your music.  So, Tim has such nice loose hands.  They’re not loose as in sloppy and all over the place – it’s just this really fluid sound to everything he does.  And he’s a relaxed guy.

I believe you have to evaluate yourself, too, and understand that your instrument is an extension of your personality.  When you’re nervous, somehow that’s going to come out.  Your playing exudes that a little bit.  Whatever you can do to calm yourself down – if you want to be more calm – give it a try.  But if you want to be more aggressive with what you’re playing, maybe you need to read some bad news or something like that – really get pissed off!  Whatever you feel, whoever you are, you exude.

In conclusion:

You’re not alone in wanting to play more confidently, with more guts – I’m right there with you.  So have fun, and don’t be afraid to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations and enjoy them!

Thanks again to Casey for sharing his thoughts in his workshop, and for giving me permission to publish them on this blog.  I definitely recommend to my readers that they see Casey live if they have a chance.  His “Singularity” show, in particular, is practically a high-wire act, and his musicality and virtuosity are inspiring.  –VA

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CASEY DRIESSEN: “Playing with Guts” Workshop Transcript – Part 1 of 2

Posted: May 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops | 10 Comments »

In February, I taught a live performance master class at the International Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, MO.  While I was at the conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of my all-time favorite fiddle players, Grammy®-nominated recording artist CASEY DRIESSEN.  

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience.  I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.

A highly sought-after touring musician, session player, educator, and producer, Casey is known for his fiery, percussive playing style and his way of stretching musical boundaries.  He has performed with such artists as Béla Fleck, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Thile.  The artists he has recorded with include Darol Anger, John Mayer, Jerry Douglas, Jamey Haddad, and Blue Merle.  He also played on the soundtrack for the Johnny Cash biography film Walk the Line

Casey’s latest album, The Singularity (Red Shoe Records), showcases his inventive live-looping/pedalboard technique which he regularly utilizes in his concerts.  You can watch this video of Casey’s TEDx talk to see his demonstration of this technique.

This transcript will be posted in two weekly installments.  –VA

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[Casey began the workshop by singing “Country Blues” while accompanying himself on the fiddle.  When the song was finished, he talked about what he experienced while playing it.]

Well, I started to think about this class, and then I immediately forgot the lyrics that I was supposed to sing.  And then I started thinking about how I forgot the lyrics, and then I skipped a set of verses.  And then I started thinking about being able to focus when you’re playing – losing track of that focus, it ends up being a detriment to me.

On distractions:

I’m trying to do my best to focus on the music, and I end up closing my eyes when I play because I’m so visually distracted.  I see movement here, I recognize somebody in the audience that I haven’t seen for a long time, and then I just start thinking about other items as opposed to what I’m really supposed to be doing.  And so I’ve found that, for me, closing my eyes helps me focus my ears on the musical situation. It’s a way to cut out some of that distraction.

And then I go through this thing where I think, well, if I’m closing my eyes, am I putting up a barrier between me and the people that I’m playing music for?  Because I think, well, what if I’m watching and somebody’s playing and they’re closing their eyes?  And I’m figuring, yeah, there might be a small bit of a barrier there.  But I’ve determined that I’m ok with that, because I feel like I’m going to make better music if I’m closing my eyes.  And it’s not that I’m hiding from anything – I can actually give more of myself to the music and to the people that are listening if my eyes are closed.  So that’s sort of the trade-off.  Hopefully, the music then translates, as opposed to just the eye contact translating and myself being less satisfied with what I’m playing.

On stage fright:

I started to think about stage fright – and how things affect my playing when I’m at gigs – a few years back.  And I realized that I don’t feel like musicians talk about this subject very much among themselves.  We’re supposed to be solid and strong and confident all the time, and we don’t really discuss this.  But I was curious – if I’m feeling this, certainly other musicians must be feeling similarly.

I’ve been playing the fiddle for 30 years, and I’ve been performing since I was 13, and I still have these situations where I get anxiety about a performance or a recording session.  So with that amount of experience behind me, if I’m feeling this way, certainly other people are feeling this way, too.  And my goal in this workshop is to help you realize that you’re not alone in this and share my experiences – things that have actually happened, that I’ve learned from.

There are two different categories of confidence, I believe.  There’s an emotional or mental confidence towards playing.  But then there’s also physically being more confident in your playing.  They’re tied together, for me, each affecting the sound that comes out of your instrument, and what you hear, and how you perceive your sound.

On audience reactions to a show:

So I thought I would start here by mentioning when I began to evaluate this subject for myself.  A great show, in my mind, where I’m super-satisfied with the performance, is that I nailed everything, flawlessly.  I was in tune, I was in time, I played the parts when I was supposed to, I was completely inside the music.  I mean, this rarely happens, but when it does, there’s this music happening and I’m just kind of floating on top of it and riding it – like there’s this effortless time.  And occasionally that does happen, but it’s few and far between.  There’s not a show, really, that doesn’t go by which I wish that something had gone differently.

Then there are shows in which a number of things didn’t go the way I wanted them to.  And I noticed that those were the shows that people seemed to react the most positively to.  The show that I was the least happy with, strangely everybody was, “That was great!”  “Oh, I really loved tonight.”  “Tonight was so…”  “That was one of the best shows that I ever…”, or, you know, whatever it is that they’re saying.  And here I’m thinking, “Oh, jeez, why does it have to be this show that they’re taking away with them?”

Meanwhile, the shows that are effortless, when that does happen, nobody seems to say anything.  What is going on here?  Why is this happening?

So my thought is that people react to emotion more than they react to technical wizardry. As an instrumentalist, a guy that practices as much as I can, I want to technically master this instrument and bring that execution to the musical situation.  But if it’s all lining up, you don’t hear anything kind of popping out.  If there’s a wrong note, or a scrape, or you forget something and so, God forbid, you rest for two seconds and then you come back in – it feels like an eternity to you because you forgot something and saying “[gasp] Oh shit, what am I going to do?” – well, my theory is that you’ve given the listener something that they can grab on to.

Tim O’Brien would joke about his tuning on stage and say, “I always thought if I played out of tune, people could hear me better.”  Well, there’s kind of something to that!  But the audience doesn’t necessarily hear these things as “out of tune” or “out of time” so much.  I think they can hear it as little things popping out above the bed of whatever the music is.  And for me, all of sudden when I’m struggling on something, and I might be bearing down because I’m frustrated, they see emotion, and they hear emotion, coming through the music.  Whereas when it’s effortless, there’s emotion there, but there’s this “sailing” thing that I don’t think rises above, and percolates in and out of, the bed of music that’s happening. That’s why when the show doesn’t go great for me, they’re seeing emotion, and emotion is being translated through the music.

I feel like there’s a threshold where if you improve technically beyond this threshold, the main people that are going to hear it, really – maybe, if they hear it – are going to be other musicians.  The non-musically inclined population – once you hit this certain point and you get better, more in tune, faster, whatever – I don’t think it affects them to the same extent.

On messing up during a performance:

It adds an element of humanity.  We are all human.  I would love to be a machine, but try as I might, I am not a machine.  It’s just not possible.

I do a solo show now which includes effects pedals and live looping.  It all happens live – nothing’s pre-recorded.  I’m playing, trying to play it well, because once I record and loop it, I’ve got to hear it over and over.  I hear the good stuff, I hear the bad stuff.  In the beginning when I’m working on a new tune, and even sometimes on one that I’ve been playing for a long time, I will make a mistake in it. Then, depending on the severity of the mistake, I have to erase the loop that I was working on and start over – and when I first started this solo concept, I was bummed by the thought of having to stop and start over.  It was like, “Wow, I just screwed that up, and now I’ve got to stop.”  All of a sudden I’m showing my human face to everybody.

I realized that after those shows, I’d be beating myself up, but people would say, “That was great how you had to restart, because I actually couldn’t tell what you were doing, that it was happening right now.”  It helped people understand what was going on, just because I had to stop and start over.  Unexpectedly, it ended up being a good thing – it helped the show out.  So I thought, well, jeez, now should I plan a screw-up in there?  But I thought, that’s playing with fire – then I’m going to screw up the screw-up!

We’re so focused on ourselves. It’s important to remember nobody hears you more than you hear yourself.  Really.  Nobody knows what you intended to play.

This is one idea I like to remind myself of.  If I made a mistake, tell me I made a mistake.  How does anyone know what I was intending to play?  They’re not inside my head.  Maybe I wanted it to sound like that!  Nobody really knows.  And that’s why I think lots of times these things, these mistakes, feel like they last forever for musicians, because we know what we wanted to come out.  We know what we were going for.  We didn’t hit it, we’re bummed out, but it was probably just fine.  I’ll listen back to shows, remembering things that I just didn’t feel sounded great, and find myself thinking, “What was I…I don’t really hear…yeah, maybe that was it?  But that’s fine…”

On keeping a things fresh and exciting:

I think you have to keep doing things that are challenging – as humans, but certainly as musicians.  You want to improve, you want to get better, and you have to do new material in order to do that.  Whenever I have to do a new looping song – oh boy, it messes with me because if I don’t press the pedals in this right order, then it throws the whole arrangement off.  But you get better with repetition.  And it keeps you on your toes, literally!  I like that.  I need that.  It might not be easy the first time around, but it gets better.

Just like you’ve been doing your tunes forever – they get better over time.  However, you might need to say, “I’m tired of this arrangement on this song.  I’m sort of bored.”  Well, maybe you need to switch an arrangement around on it, you know?  Find something new to do with the same tune.  And then in early performances, you might end up with half the band going to the old arrangement while half do the new arrangement, and then you’re going to have to figure out what’s going on!  But what might feel like a train wreck to us, generally I don’t think feels like a train wreck to the audience, for the most part.  And even if it does – the element of humanity, you know?  You’re the ones onstage.  You’re the ones performing.  People are not coming to, really, judge you – they’re coming to support and to hang out with you.

On what makes him nervous:

I get the most nervous whenever I have family and friends in the audience.  In reality, who should have my back the most?  Who should be on my side the most but my family and my friends?  And they are, and I know that.  But still, those are the shows that I find myself getting worked up about.  “Oh, my mom’s here.  Oh, my ex-girlfriend is here.  I’ve got to be really good for this one!”

Another situation I get nervous for are small shows.  I’ve done shows where it’s me and you guys.  That’s interesting, because I think the audience also has a little bit of nervousness about their own presence in the room.  Like, “If I clap too loud, or if I holler ‘Wooo!’ because I liked something, everyone knows that just came from me!”  But when you’re in this massive crowd like at a festival, you can sort of be invisible, right?  If this was the club that I played in Grand Junction where it was me playing for the opening band, the staff, and one drunk heckler – they’re probably uncomfortable for me, I’m uncomfortable for them because I know they’re uncomfortable – I don’t know what to do about it other than just think, “You’re going to have to go through some of these situations and just play.”  Maybe then it’s good to close my eyes so I’m just thinking about playing my music.

On getting into the right space for a recording session:

Recording sessions are interesting, because it really is a different situation than playing live.  With live, a lot of things are excused by listeners because of the added visual stimulus.  If they’re watching a performer, they’re seeing somebody move to the music, they’re watching the drummer, they’re dancing, whatever – they’re not just focused solely on the music that’s happening.  So you can get away with a lot, really.  With the recording session, that’s all that’s there.  The audio is the sole focus.

For recording sessions you have to make sure you can hear yourself well, perhaps more than in live playing, while still hearing the other musicians well enough that you feel like you’re part of the musical situation.

I tend to be, maybe, a little bit more careful.  Some people are a lot more careful with how they play – taking less risks.  You know when you’re taking a risk, stretching for something.  You have to evaluate, do we have time to sit here and work on something if I am screwing up, if I’m playing a difficult part?  Am I just overdubbing, or am I tracking live with the band?  Is there isolation to allow me to replay my part?  It’s really a case-by-case type of situation, but I would tend to be a little less risky with my choices if there’s a time constraint in the studio.  And lots of times there is, because it’s costing money the longer that you’re at the studio.

On input from the producer in a recording session:

Sometimes you have to let people work through ideas and challenging spots for a bit.  And even if you think you have an answer that will help them right away, it might not be the best thing to just tell them what to do, because then you run the risk of shutting somebody’s creative juices down.  I’ve been shut down before, but usually you get a chance to try something out.  If improvising is not your strong suit, work out some notes that really sound good.  And don’t be afraid to rest, either – that’s one thing we often forget, we don’t have to play all the time.  It makes your content more meaningful when you actually do play something if you’ve taken time to rest.  It can be more tasteful.

I make notes in producing situations, notes about something that I want to come back to, that I don’t want to forget, but when now’s not quite the right time to mention it.  I want to give the musicians a couple more chances to get the part, because who knows, they may surprise me with something I was not expecting, and that’s great.  As long as there’s some sort of constructive contribution – not, “Don’t do that.”  But, instead, “Hey, I don’t think that note is working, try this one instead.”  You know?  As long as you have some sort of solution, as opposed to, “That’s not working.  I don’t know what to tell you.  You’ve got to figure it out.”

Having somebody produce is really helpful, because it’s so hard to evaluate yourself within a musical situation.  Sometimes when producing I need to say, “Ok, let’s take a break, everybody come in and let’s listen to the last three takes.  Let’s talk about them and let’s see what actually is happening.”  That way everybody can re-evaluate what they were playing, and listen without instruments in hand.

You might realize, “Oh, you know what?  I thought that was working…”  Maybe you were just really proud of the cool thing you were doing, but it didn’t actually work with the rest of the group.  “Something’s not right there, it’s not working.  Ok, so I need to not do that.  Okay, I’ll pat myself on the back for doing something cool, but it’s really about this whole musical situation, so I’ll need to make a change.”  You have to step back from it in order to really evaluate.  That’s what a producer can help you do.  And producers, lots of times, are listening for emotion, too.

I think we just get focused on ourselves.  We’re so concerned.  But, when you listen to the other people that are around you, maybe you don’t need to play as much.  Conveniently, you’re removing one element of difficulty for yourself.  And when you’re listening to the other musicians, you’re also getting inspiration from them, too – you’re getting ideas.  So it’s really important to hear other people, and remember that it’s about everybody playing together.  There might be a solo in it, but it’s ultimately about the music that you’re making as a group.

[To be continued...]

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 3 of 3

Posted: September 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews | 6 Comments »

I am very pleased to present Part 3 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview is being  posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discussed her development as a performer.  In Part 2, she talked about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  In Part 3, Julia reveals what she’ll be up to after she completes her current tour. –VA

Are you going to keep doing voice work?

Julia Sweeney:  I love doing voice work.  Actually, that would be a very good happy ending for me.  Like Laraine Newman, who was also on SNL – she works all the time in voiceover.  I can’t believe how much she works in voiceover.  And what a great life that is.

It’s the best.

JS:  I’m telling you, it’s the best.  Do you do voiceover?

I’ve done a little.

JS:  I love it.

And I think because you have so much live experience, you have a live feel in your voice work.  And that is really hard to do.

JS:  Wow, thank you.  I never thought about that.  That’s just made my day!

Oh, I’m so glad.  Do you have a sense of that when you’re doing it?  Do you have a sense of going for the live experience, or is it just how it happens for you?

JS:  No, I don’t, it’s just how it comes out.

Well, you’re very dynamic, anyway, just in the way you are in the world.

JS:  Wow, you’re making me feel so good!  I don’t know, I guess I can kind of see that.  It’s really just the same way – now we’re getting back to, “I’m sure that you put on something…” or things that I do not really do.  No, that’s really me.  [laughs]  That’s it.  There I am.  I’m naked.  Not different later, just the same.

Well, not everybody can say that.  Even monologists and people doing their own material.  A lot of times people feel that they have to invent a character in order to do it safely.

JS:  Well, you know what, that reminds me.  When I first started, I actually took a stand-up class.  This is so funny, this is before I did The Groundlings – I guess I was kind of thinking about it enough to take the class.  But anyway, in the class, he taught us – now, this is thirty years ago – that you had to make for yourself a character, and then when you went onstage you were in that character.  So I did make a character for myself of a really shy person who didn’t want to be onstage.  [laughs]  That was my character.  And it really was a character.  And it was very useful.  I mean, I could see teaching that.

Well, I use that technique with people when they’re doing self-confessional material, as musicians, and a lot of times they feel like they just can’t do it safely.  And we’ll talk about, ok, let’s remove it one step.  You know what you need to know because you wrote this, you experienced it.  But let’s remove it one step, and let’s come up with a character who has a similar experience and come up with their own story.  And then they can use enough of what they know from their own experience to inform that character, but they can do it as that character and they’re not completely vulnerable.

JS:  Yeah.  I did it a little bit as myself.  It’s not so much a character if I think, “I want to be the version of me that is just as authentically me as any other version of me, that loves to be onstage and can’t wait to see all those people and can’t wait to tell my stories to them.”  And I kind of imagine myself like my best self in that manifestation.  And then I just can do that.

Yeah, that makes sense.  And then you can keep revisiting that if you’re getting unfocused?

JS:  Yeah, I do think that.  Especially when we were on the road, and if I stopped to think about how much I didn’t want to do the shows, I couldn’t even go there.  [laughs]  I just had to say, “I’m going to do it, and I’m going to have fun, and we’re going to be in a van for eight hours, and then have trouble parking in Manhattan, and it’s going to be fun!  We’re going to find out what’s fun about it.  And we’re going to go into the club, and the guy’s going to tell us how we haven’t sold enough tickets, and that’s going to be ok!”  I mean, it sounds like an insane person.  I think if you did it too long, you really would be insane.  But I think for short bursts, you can do that.  [laughs]

I know, I talk to a lot of nationally, and internationally, touring musicians, and they say, “Basically, I travel for a living.  And then when I actually get onstage and do the show, that’s the extra part, that’s just the recreational part.  The rest of it’s just traveling for a living.”

JS:  I know it, that’s the thing I’ve kind of hit the wall with.  It’s really many things.  One is, weirdly, I feel like I’m having an inverse parenthood, where as my daughter gets older and is about to go to high school I want to be home more, so while most mothers take off the first five years, I want to take off the last five years.

So to me, being on the road is a huge cost, because it means I’m not here and I really want to be here.  And it’s terrible for my health, because I don’t work out and I don’t eat right.  And I know there are people that do.  I’ve been with musicians like Jonathan Richman, who gets up every morning and does a hundred pushups and drives all over town so he can get the perfect nut mixture.  And I just don’t do that.  If I’m on the road I’m just eating cupcakes and having lattes all day.

And who knows what they’re going to have in the green room, if there even is a green room.

JS:  And then I get so high from the show – Jill and I both say this, we both want to eat a thousand calories after the show, we’re so hungry.  And it doesn’t matter how much we ate before the show.  There’s just something about that experience that just makes you ravenous.  I think it’s because you’ve given and you’ve given, and now you want to get back, or something, I don’t know whatever it is.  But it’s just not good if you’re trying to not be a million pounds. [laughs]

And I thought I was going to get better at it, and in fact I got worse.  Because I think as I got older and it didn’t really matter that much how thin I was, it was really “just for health”.  It wasn’t like I was trying to be the hot babe onstage – that ship had sailed many years before.  [laughs]  So it was really just about me, and it’s just a high cost.  I do a lot of shows in a month, and it takes me a month at home to just get back into the routines.  And I just don’t want to do that anymore.

And now my whole thing is how I don’t want to do performance – this is terrible! [laughs]

Yeah, do you mind if we put that out there into the universe?

JS:  No, it’s so funny, because I was just thinking of our producer, Heather [Schmucker], who’s producing our shows, Jill and I.  She just had sent me an email saying, “Don’t you think that we should make an announcement that this is it?”  And I had said this to Jill, and I said this to the booker, that I didn’t want to book more shows than we had.  But then I didn’t want to – well, because first of all I’ve said this before, and then I changed my mind, so I have zero credibility about it.  And then I didn’t know.  But, actually, now I do know.  Now it’s been several months, and I really do know.  And I’m so excited!  I’ve already planning my whole next year and how no travel there’s going to be in it.

Good for you!

JS:  So anyway, I was just thinking this is a useful conversation for me to have, because now I have to write this blog entry where I say that.  But I’m trying to say it in a way that doesn’t make it like, [self-importantly] “I’m making an announcement!”  “Aaaand, who cares about your announcement?”  [laughs]  But I also feel like I want to articulate it.  Anyway, so this has been helpful – thank you!

Glad I could help.  Anything I can do to help you put a brake on your career.

JS:  Yes, help me!

So, are you thinking you might write for TV shows anymore?

JS:  Well, I can’t really, because I’m living in Chicago – well, I’m not even living in Chicago, I’m living in Wilmette.  You know, I don’t even want to write on TV shows.  I’ve done that so much.  I have a novel that I’m going to try to write – that I am writing – and then I want to write a screenplay based on it, and then I’m going to see if I can direct a version of it.  That’s what I want to do.

That sounds fabulous!

JS:  It’s a three-year thing.  And then in the meantime I’m hoping I can just drum up enough voiceover work, because I do that here and there, to keep me making enough money to make it ok.  But it’s a hard thing for me – that’s the other hard thing, to keep me on my deadlines when I don’t have any external deadlines.  So I put some things in place that are going to keep me honest about how far I’m making it each week.

Boy, that’s rough.

JS:  I know, it’s really hard.  But I really want to do it.  I really want to.  And I’m going to.

And you know, I think if you really lobby yourself, you’ll probably get the movie rights from yourself.

JS:  I know!  [laughs]  Actually my book agent was, like, “Well, that’s not the way you make money.  You write the book and then you sell the movie rights.”  I go, “I know…but I don’t want to do that! “

“I want the movie rights.”

JS: “I’m selling them to myself right now!”

“And I’ve heard I can get ‘em real cheap.”

JS:  I know, exactly!  Oh my god, I made such a good deal with myself, I can’t believe it.

–Thanks to Julia Sweeney for taking the time to have an in-depth conversation about performance with me.  This truly was one of the most delightful interviews I’ve ever experienced.  I encourage my readers to go to Julia’s website to find out about her films and books. — VA

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 2 of 3

Posted: September 11th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews | 5 Comments »

I am very pleased to present Part 2 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview is being  posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discussed her development as a performer.  In Part 2, Julia talks about “the zone”, how she experiences the audience, and how Letting Go of God has affected her career.  –VA

I’m sure you can get into situations where things just become transcendent.

Julia Sweeney:  Oh, yeah!

People talk about the zone, and I’m sure you get into that.  How do you experience the zone?  What kinds of conditions contribute to that for you?

JS:  First of all, really, I realized that improvisation is so much a young person’s game.  I swear, I’m not just making excuses for me not being so good at it!  But knowing what I’m going to do, knowing how the story goes and which parts to tell, and being on top of it, is really important.  Although I think there are definitely times when I get onstage and I’ll start talking about something that literally just happened to me in the dressing room and it will work great.  It feels very high and fantastic and the audience is laughing and responding, and they’ll often say, “Oh, that moment was so great.”  But it’s hard for me to even know if that’s the zone or not, or if that’s just this one great accident that happened.  I don’t even know about that.  I can’t articulate that in my mind.

But I know when I think of my favorite moments performing, I basically think of two of the monologues I did, “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God”, when the run had been going for long enough that people were trying to get in – I was selling out, so that always feels good – and I really knew the show, but I hadn’t been doing it so long that I was now so sick of the show.  And I’d have moments where I felt like I was completely engaged with everything I said and I just had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control the silences.  To me, that’s a sign of the zone, not so much controlling the laughs but controlling the silences.  That’s another way to control the audience.  And it felt like, oh my god, it’s the greatest feeling you could ever have.  Even though I am now saying, “And I’ve had it! I’ve had that feeling.  Now let’s have some other feelings.”  [laughs]

Do you feel like you have mastery over your craft in terms of what you’ve been doing so far?

JS: [laughs]  No!  I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I kind of haphazardly put it together, and sometimes it’s great, and mostly it’s good.  And sometimes it’s horrible, and that it feels very herky-jerky in my mind.  Like I feel like I’m not [actress] Anna Deavere Smith.  Like I’m like, [awkwardly] “And now, I take a step to the right…”  Her control is incredible.  I don’t feel that way.  I feel like, [shakily] “I’ve got a paintbrush, and I’ve got some paint, and I kinda know what the colors are, I kinda know what I’m painting…”  [laughs]

I would assume that you’ve changed as a performer over the years in terms of your confidence in your skill set and knowing what works?

JS:  Well, I think just being calm.  I think, actually, from the audience’s point of view, the audience really can sense when somebody’s nervous onstage.  And so I think just doing it a lot makes me really comfortable getting onstage, and so that really makes a big difference.  I mean, I definitely think you can get to that – you can get confident by just doing it a lot.  And also feeling like you know what you’re going to do.  You’re going to give them a show.  They’ve paid, and now you’re giving them a show.  And that calmness, I definitely learned.  At the beginning, I wasn’t calm, not for many years, and then I learned how to be calm onstage.

Yeah, I definitely see that.  There’s a centeredness, a groundedness.

JS:  Yeah, and you can feel an audience knows if people are too nervous.  And then they get nervous, and that’s just a killer for laughs.  So then you’re only getting nervous laughs, or sympathy laughs.  You want people to feel like they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Yeah, I talk to the people I work with about that all the time.  It’s like, you’ve got to take the audience by the hand and say, “This is where we’re going, and I’m going to take care of you , and it’s going to be ok.”

JS:  Right.

How do you experience the audience? And has that changed over the years, how you experience the energy coming from the audience?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if this is related, but this has just occurred to me that I have been waiting to tell someone this, so I’ll tell you.  [laughs]

Good!

JS:  It’s about experiencing the audience, really in an individual way.  Ok, so the lights are on and you see the audience, you can see a few faces in the front two or three rows, and you can’t see anyone after that because of the lights.  And I like that.  In fact, to me, I wish I couldn’t see anyone, because then I’d just imagine everyone loving me.  [laughs]  If you can see people and they’ve got a scowl on their face, it’s sometimes hard – and sometimes it’s not even a scowl, it’s only just their resting face is not a pleasant look.  And it can be just, you know, disquieting.

Anyway, this is really neither here nor there, but it’s just talking about experiencing the audience.  Sometimes I’ll see someone in the audience that reminds me of someone that I loved.  And so I saw this guy in the audience, an older guy, that looked like my dad, and my dad’s been dead ten years.  And he didn’t even look exactly like my dad, but he just had a way about him that was like my dad.  Like he was sort of balding, and he had these kind of cool glasses, you could tell that he was smart, but he was kind of slight, and he had this smile.   And it wasn’t like it was as creepy as I pretended that was my dad, but I guess my thought was, “Oh yeah, if my dad didn’t know me, and he had come to this show, he would have liked me in this show.”  I guess that’s what I was kind of thinking.  And that was really a dance in my head at that particular performance, you know – like he was there.

And this happens, I think – it’s not just a dad thing, but there’s other, like, aunts, or friends.  I can see people’s faces and I imagine their personalities, and then I want to please them, I’m glad to please them with my stories.  Like, they really get me, or they really get this, what I’m saying, and I don’t even have to explain it very much to this person, because they get it already.

Anyway, so this guy – I was just, like, “Oh, I’m just a revelation to him!”  You know, whatever compliment I’m giving myself to keep myself in this positive state while I’m doing the show.  [laughs]  And then at the end, the guy came up with a friend, because they were buying something, and the guy not only didn’t even speak any English, but there was something wrong with him.  He obviously didn’t get anything about my show.  There was nothing that I had fantasized about with his look that was true in any way.  It was so, like, “Oh my god, oh my god!  We just had a relationship, and you were not in it!”  [laughs]

Well, whatever works for you!

JS:  It’s true!  But anyway, whatever!

When you’re in an audience, what excites you or inspires you when you see a good performance?  What are the characteristics of it?

JS:  Well, I like things to be smart.  I like things to be witty and insightful.  And I really like a combination of irony and compassion.  There’s a way certain people – and I hope I’m like this, because I really do feel this way, but I can really see it especially amongst comedians, people who have it or don’t – where you can describe other people, because a lot of times in comedy you’re really making fun of other people, but you’re laughing, I wouldn’t say it as simply as “with them rather than at them”, but they’re funny but you have compassion for them.  They’re not being ridiculed, there’s like a more ironic compassion.  And I like that – I like that quality.  And immediately, if people have that, I like whatever they’re doing more.  And I think it’s one of the things that I liked about Jill.  I responded to her lyrics so strongly because I felt that was in there.  They were funny, but they weren’t superior.

I mean, I definitely can rant about things I hate in politics and stuff like that.  It’s not like I’m so approving of everyone – believe me, I’m not!  But, in general, I would say I try to have compassion.  There’s just so much funny stuff that you can laugh at but also have compassion for.  I think that some people are too derisive, even though I think there’s room for that, too, and there’s some people that do that who I like.  It’s not taking the edge off, either, and plus I think it can even be more poignant, and pointed, when you have compassion for them.  But it isn’t just making fun of other people, which is a simple way to say it, I guess.

Well, it sort of helps bring everyone into the universal truths of the human condition.

JS:  Yeah, I think so!  And even, sometimes, we do political stuff of people that I really think are doing harm to our country.  So that’s hard.  But I still try to keep an edge to it.  I’m like, [compassionately] “Oh, they don’t know.  They don’t know that global warming is not a hoax.  [laughs]  And I’m going to try really hard not to think of how they’re in charge of laws that can affect other people…”  Or something like that.  And to me there’s something funny about trying to have compassion for people like that.  There’s comedy there, too.

I think that’s what’s so moving about your show Letting Go of God, because you are earnestly on this journey of discovery, you’re not just writing everything off on a whim.  You go to enormous effort…

JS:  Right.

…you travel the world, and read all these thinkers, not just the Bible, and you’re really, truly, sincerely wrestling with this issue.  And you’re not saying that people who believe this stuff are fools, either.

JS:  Right.

And I think what resonates is that it really is based in this loving place.

JS:  Well, I do like to feel that mostly that’s eighty percent true – there’s twenty percent of me that hates everyone.  [laughs]  And I like that in other people, too.  So that’s my particular thing – I like that.

Did you ever worry about the repercussions of “coming out” as an atheist?

JS:  You know, it’s so funny, because everyone asks me that, and I always think, oh, well, first of all, if anything, people in L.A. were more horrified that I was religious at one time.  That was the part that was like, “Really?  You really…?  No way!”  [laughs]  So if I was endangering anything in L.A. when I first opened that show, it was that I let people know that at one time I was religious.  And that probably cost me some work.  [laughs]

But now that it’s been years, it’s interesting – I like to say that when I was doing that show, that was before the “atheist craze”.  [laughs]  And now I feel like in some ways I’ve been dismissed as “one of those people” – not by conservatives, who would always dismiss those people, and I don’t even care about them – but by what they consider to be an “open-minded, post-modern, modern thinker”, of being too rigidly dismissing religion.  And I really totally am not dismissing religion.  And I still have a lot of compassion for it, and I really understand why people like it.  And I feel I do get grouped with that and kind of put in a category with that.  And I feel that’s unfair, but the only way people would know that is if they watched my whole show, and most people don’t.  Most people are just going to know one or two things about you that is the headlines – they’re not going to read the things.  So I definitely get put into that category, and, I don’t know, I can’t do anything about it.

And I’ve been, on and off, writing a more expanded version of that as a book, and on some days I really think I’m going to finish it, and other days I’m just so tired of the topic.  But I don’t know if that will be rectified.  I mean, sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I should be out there more as the face of atheism because I’m not like those other people” – even though I’m still an atheist.  But, some part of me thinks, “I think all people will see is “Julia Sweeney, Atheist” [laughs] – and then they have their own preconceived notions of what that means.

Or “Julia Sweeney, Pat-slash-Atheist”.

JS:  You know, I had a friend who used to tease me and say, “First you were Pat, then you were Cancer Girl, then you were Atheist Lady!”  And I’d go, “That completely sums up my entire professional life.”  [laughs] I don’t know, I’m still coming to terms with what I think, but I think especially in this culture and the way the media is right now – and maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s just newly this way because of media outlets being so numerous and new – but it seems like people can’t know anything about you but one headline thing.  And I am just done with that.  Hence, the way that I will manifest that is by writing fiction.  [laughs]

I do have certain things that I talk about, like cancer, or religion, but I can’t seem to be big enough with it.  And frankly, I don’t even know if I want to, because I know what that would take, that people would understand the nuances of it in the popular culture.  I’m not talking about people who’ve actually taken the time to watch those shows.  I’m just talking about the zeitgeist of the popular culture – insofar as anyone even knows who I am anymore, by the way.  Which is fine, it’s just that they only know this one thing – “Oh, you’re an atheist.”  And they’re not going to take the time to know more, and I’m not even saying they should.  It’s just, you’re going to enter the popular culture, and you’re only going to get two words to say that are ever going to be attached to your name.  [laughs]  What are those two words?  And make sure you want those two words to be the right two words.  And if you don’t like it, don’t even go there!

It is too bad, because you’ve done so many different things.

JS:  Well, I’m not trying to seem complaining.  You know, actually, I just worked on this new website, and doing it was really therapeutic for me because I was, like, oh, this is what I’ve done.  Ok, so this is what I’ve done!  Wow, it’s so clear!  And, I’m satisfied with it.  I’m happy with what I did, and I’m happy that it still exists, that we live times when the media and the technology can make it still there.  But I also feel, like, in a transition phase, either transitioning to doing nothing [laughs] – I’m not sure yet – or transitioning to writing something different.

Clearly this is good timing for this interview about performance…

JS:  Yes, I know, I know!  But I do have a lot of experience performing.  Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?  [laughs]

[To be continued...]

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Julia Sweeney – Part 1 of 3

Posted: September 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews | 12 Comments »

I am very pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.  

Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live (most famously playing the gender-indeterminate character “Pat”), as well as her one-woman shows, the best known of which are God Said, “Ha!” and Letting Go of God.  Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and the recently released Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Frasier and Sex and the City, and she has also written for several TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.  Her latest book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, was published by Simon & Schuster and is widely available.  Julia’s current project is a tour of “The Jill and Julia Show”, which teams her with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in an evening of songs and monologues.  
This interview will be posted in three weekly installments.  In Part 1, Julia discusses her development as a performer.  –VA

When did you feel you first wanted to be a performer?  What precipitated that for you?

Julia Sweeney:  It’s funny, because I have been thinking lately – I don’t know if I’m articulating this right – about the difference between an actor and a performer.

I didn’t think of a profession as a performer – that wasn’t in the list of professions that seemed possible when I was growing up.  You kind of were a lawyer or a teacher.  I guess a teacher would be the closest to being a performer.  But my dad was a trial attorney, so there was kind of a performance aspect to his work.  And so I wanted to be a lawyer.

I was always funny.  Like I was voted funniest girl, second grade through eighth grade at my school.  [laughs]  I didn’t think of that as performance, I just thought of that as being funny.  But I obviously loved getting the laughs, and I learned how to get better laughs.  So I think I just unconsciously gravitated to that because of the high that you get when people laugh at what you say.  It never occurred to me to be a stand-up, even though we did like certain stand-ups in our family – it just didn’t occur to me.  And then when I was in college I thought maybe I’d want to be an actress, and then I auditioned for the Goodman Theatre in my sophomore year and didn’t get in, and just gave that up.

Then I decided to be an accountant.  I guess it was lurking there, in the back, but I decided to be an accountant, in show business.  That’s what I wanted to be, a specific type of accountant – an accountant in show business.  So I moved to L.A. and got a job as an accountant at Columbia Pictures, where I worked for five years, and during that time I realized that I wanted to be onstage.  But not as myself – I wanted to be an actress.  So I started taking improv classes, and I guess that is a performer.  I guess let’s just say an actress is a performer.  [laughs]

But, you know, in some ways it really is different.  Like, I know people who are actors who never get onstage.  They only act before a camera where it’s really alone, and it seems qualitatively different than getting on a stage in front of people – being a person who impersonates somebody in front of a camera where not necessarily an audience is nearby.  So that is a very different thing.  And I guess I didn’t know that much about show business then, so I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do.  But I did like the idea of playing characters.  I didn’t really think of being myself onstage until even after Saturday Night Live.  So it was a gradual thing for me to be myself as a performer onstage.

So what did you learn about yourself when you started with The Groundlings and then when you got onto Saturday Night Live?  What did you find out about yourself when you got in front of an audience?

JS:  I did learn a lot at The Groundlings.  Literally, you learn techniques – improv techniques.  But I learned that I had a humorous point of view that I could convey – that was the biggest thing.  And I could convey it sometimes as a character, and sometimes as myself.  But that was this thing that I had – I was funny, I guess.

How did you discover that?

JS:  I don’t even know when that started.  I’m just learning about it myself, actually. [laughs]  I don’t really know when it started.  I know that I made people laugh, always.  But I learned to kind of control that galloping horse by going to classes at The Groundlings Theatre.  So you might have these comedic instincts – like you might have a natural ability to shoot baskets, but if you don’t learn how to make the baskets and drill yourself in it, you’re never going to be good.

So I really feel like it was The Groundlings, and then I guess Saturday Night Live, that kind of showed me how to funnel that natural comedy into something that could be useable as a character or something.  And then it wasn’t really until after I was on Saturday Night Live that my friend Kathy Griffin kept encouraging me to get onstage and tell stories, that I started to tell stories onstage.  But I still never thought of myself as a stand-up – I just thought of myself as a person who told stories.

Then I started doing these monologues, so then I wasn’t really considered a stand-up, but I felt like my monologues were funny.  And sometimes I would feel almost self-righteous about it, like, “My monologues are as funny as anybody’s stand-up, but I’m talking about a serious subject, and I’ve gone to the trouble of making up a story that has acts in it, and it goes somewhere.”  But I think a lot of stand-ups wouldn’t think that was true, like I was more of a dramatic monologist than I was a comedienne.  And I don’t really know what’s right or true.

Anyway, then I met Jill [Sobule], and I literally would sit onstage and think of something, while she sang a song, that related to my life, and I would tell that.

So you weren’t preparing that material?  You didn’t know what you were going to be talking about?

JS:  Not at first – it was really, just, “Oh, that song reminded me of this…”  But then, as we started doing shows more and more together, of course, we started to notice which songs went better with what stories, and we kind of tried to have a little bit of an arc, we tried to have little themes.  Like we had kind of this boyfriend theme that paid off when I told the story of how I met my husband.  And it kind of gravitated, very loosely, towards a structure.

Do you think musically?

JS:  No, but I’ve always loved musicians.  And I did this before with Jonathan Richman, another musician.  We met when I was on Saturday Night Live and I interviewed him for SPIN Magazine, and then we became friends.  And I started doing that with him, where I would go out to his concerts – we never made it “The Jonathan and Julia Show”, it was Jonathan’s show that I would get up for a period of time during his show and tell stories that somewhat related to his songs.  So I guess I always kind of liked that.

See, I just am always so jealous of musicians, because, first of all, it’s not all relying on the story – they get the music.  So they have the lyrics, and they have the music.  And then their lyrics don’t even have to make sense! [laughs]  I mean, they have to make sense and be resonant, if they’re good, but they don’t have to conform to normal storytelling rules.  And I just feel constantly frustrated by having to, one, tell the truth – which I’m just sick to death of – and, secondly, having to make it build to a payoff.  I really am tired of doing that, and I’m trying to stop, frankly.  I’m so sick of it!  [laughs]

That’s so interesting, because that’s been your trajectory for quite some time, and you’ve found so much success with it!

JS:  I know it, except that I’m telling you – I feel like this is another topic – like I have these shows with Jill but then we’re stopping, and even though I love Jill and I’ve loved doing it – we’ve done it for seven years – but I just have had it with the storytelling about my life.  I’m just done.  I can’t do it anymore.  I mean, obviously I can do it 16 more times, which is the number of shows we have left [laughs] but this is going to be the end of it.

I really love it, but I have hit the edge of what I can do anymore.  I don’t have a turbulent love life; my daughter [Mulan] is becoming a person who you can’t just constantly tell stories about onstage without truly violating her privacy; [laughs] and it’s too hard, the travel and stuff.  And actually being on the stage is an emotional roller coaster for me that I just have to take a break from.  Or maybe a break for the rest of my life.  [laughs]  “I’m taking a break from performing…for the rest of my life.”

Well, I actually wanted to ask you about that.  Because you present this intimate material, and I wonder how you protect yourself, yet leave yourself accessible to the experience and also let the audience in.  Do you feel like you’re doing a version of yourself, or a character that’s based on yourself, or is it truly directly wired to yourself?

JS:  No, it is myself!  That’s just it.  People come up and say this to me all the time: “I feel like I really know you from your monologues and books, but I know that you’re really more than that.”  And I say, “No, I’m not.  That is me, and in fact you do know me.” [laughs]

So when you’re doing this, do you ever get anxious, or stage fright, in terms of, “Here I am about to unzip my protective coating again…”

JS:  No, that’s the interesting thing.  I don’t have that fear, and I even have that desire, but it has costs, but not until later.

How?

JS:  Because in the moment, I want to be a performer, and the people have paid, and the machine is going, and the car’s in gear, and you gotta goooo!  [laughs]  And then, you know, most of the time I do get laughs, and that’s totally the payment for it – I get really high from that.  Then it isn’t until two months later where I’m going, “Oh my god, why did I say that?  That’s a terrible thing to say!”  And then I’m up in the middle of the night thinking, it’s really a horrendous roller coaster that I’ve been on, really since I was about 33 – and I’m 53, by the way.  Twenty years! [laughs]

So now I feel like, can we just do fiction again?  Like, when I was on SNL, I wasn’t myself, I played characters!  So now, after this year ends, after we do all of our shows through November, I’m going to stop.  Because I’m writing fiction now, and I’m really enjoying it, and I just feel like I want to write fiction.  That’s all I can say – that’s what I want to do.  I feel just over-naked with the telling personal stories.  And I love it in other people.  And I think I’ve done well.  I think I’ve been honest, and I’m proud of what I’ve done.  But I’m also completely embarrassed by it.  [laughs]

And maybe Mulan is a little bit, too…

JS:  Yes, it’s true!  And I just, I don’t know, I talk of entering the convent.  [laughs]  I’m in The Trouble With Angels, and I’m saying, “Ok, and now I’m done, I’m entering the convent.”

Do you have a pre-show ritual, or a way of getting yourself psyched up so you can go out there and do what you need to do?  Do you and Jill do something?

JS:  Well, we make our show order, which changes all the time.  It’s just the weirdest thing with stories, you know?  Like say I’ll have ten stories that I know work.  Then I’ll do a new story.  “Oh my god, here’s another one to go in the pantheon!  This will work every time!”  Then I do it two more times, and then all of a sudden that story’s dead.  I can’t find my way back into how that story was funny, and no one’s laughing!  So our show order’s always changing, mostly because of me thinking, “Ok, that story didn’t work.”  And then we change that up.

And, you know, Jill – see, this is the thing about singers, they do their vocal exercises, so Jill is always walking around going, [singing] “Doo doo doo doo DOOOO doo doo doo doo…”  and all this stuff.  And I don’t have anything like that.  [laughs]  I’m just sitting there going, “Wow.  You sure do a lot of vocal exercises.”

Also, for whatever way I’m wired, for whatever reason, my blood pressure goes down when I get onstage.  I just don’t get nervous.  As soon as I walk onstage, I feel calm and focused.  I don’t know why that is.  I mean, part of it is definitely just doing it a lot.  Because always people say, “How do you become a performer?”  I go, “You get onstage every time you can for about ten years.  [laughs] And make it, like, three times a week at the least.  And then you’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I know what this feels like.’  You’ll have had enough terrible things happen that you’ll have a general idea of what to do when things go wrong.”  [laughs]

Do you ever feel like you’re on autopilot and you’re kind of sightseeing when you’re up there?  Or do you pretty much always feel fully engaged?

JS:  Well, I don’t know if I’d say autopilot.  Definitely not with Jill, because one of the great things about doing things with Jill is it’s interactive.  When I have done monologues, it definitely could slip into that.  Because even though I felt like I was giving a really good performance – and people said I was giving a good performance, so I think I was – different times when I would start a show and then half an hour would go by and it was like you drove to work and you don’t remember anything about getting there.  I wouldn’t really have any sense of having done thirty minutes of a show.  Like I’d go, “Oh my god, where am I?  Did the show just start?  Am I finishing the show?” [laughs] 

And there was actually some really scary moments, some of the scariest moments of my whole life.  You know, like being on Broadway, and coughing, and looking up and not knowing if the show was starting or ending.  You know, terrifying!  Like you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and your toes are hanging off the edge – that sort of sensation?  [laughs]

But with Jill I don’t feel like that, because we’re so with each other.  I definitely feel more engaged in some shows than others, but it’s more like the sensation of really being super-engaged is what I remember than not being engaged.  Or maybe that’s just denial about when I’m not engaged!  [laughs]

For example, Jill and I just did eight shows in the Northeast in July.  And it was so funny, because there was this one show where we didn’t know why our booker booked us in to it.  I think he just booked us there because it was in between two other dates.  And we were only getting a percentage of the door, and they had, like, twenty people.

Oh no!

JS:  So considering that we were driving and staying in a hotel and we had our producer along with us, basically we were paying to do the show.  But the people were so nice at this theater!  Everyone there was a volunteer, and they really let us know that, [laughs] and they were so sweet.  And also, they didn’t have air conditioning and it was, like, a hundred degrees and it was in the attic of something – it was terrible!  It was terrible in so many ways that it started to be great.  Because it was just so terrible – this is, like, as bad as it gets.  It’s a hundred degrees in the theater, there’s only twenty people, and there’s two hundred chairs. [laughs]  It was so terrible!  And, actually, that was my best show of all the shows.  Because I was up there, like, “Oh my god, this is such a special situation!  I am gonna give the best show I can!”  [laughs]

See, now, that’s a real professional!

JS:  Well, I don’t know, because maybe sometimes when there’s lot’s of people I kind of start disengaging, but whatever!  Anyway, that was just a funny thing.  And so, one of the things I remember about this trip was that moment – feeling like, man, I’m just going for it.  [laughs]

[To be continued...]

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 3 of 3

Posted: March 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources | 5 Comments »

The following is Part 3 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.  I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010.  More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.

This interview has been posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Travis discusses how he experiences other people’s performances . — VA

Do you get stage fright?

Travis Book:  Not anymore.

Why do you think that is?

TB:  Well, I’ve never really had stage fright – I used to have pre-gig anxiety.  But I don’t know why I don’t get it anymore.  I think it’s just that I know what I do is good.  And it’s not for everybody, and I’m sure that people can be very critical of what I do.  But I really like my music, and I trust the people that I play with, and I feel good about it.  So, you know, again, if people aren’t into it, that’s totally cool.  I’m less identified with the music that I play now – I think that may be a big part of it for me, personally, too.  I feel less identified with it – it’s not who I am.  It’s just a part of what I experience in the world.  And if it doesn’t go well, that’s ok.  If people don’t like it, then that’s fine, too.  Because I think it’s all going to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Do you guys have a pre-show ritual that you do?

TB:  We developed one lately.  We’ll put our fists together and do a little, “Yeahh!”  We all just try to get together and get on the same page.  That’s about it – we don’t really do anything specifically.  We have been trying to get everybody to get in a circle together and look at each other, and just tie our energy together real briefly before we go on.  But that’s sort of recent – the last six or eight months, we started doing that.  A recent development.

How did that start?

TB:  I don’t know.  Someone just did it at one show, and it was really fun.  It just felt good to bump our fists – you know, like a bunch of guys, “We’re going onstage, we’re going to do this together. “ You know, you can’t go up there and do it alone, it takes every single person.  So it’s like, “Put in the fists, look at all the hands.” You know?  “See all your brothers around you.  We’re all going to do this, let’s go do this.”  And then we walk up onstage and we do it.

What gets you excited when you see what you consider to be a great performance?

TB:   It’s just people who are totally original and genuine, just being themselves, playing music that’s true to their experience.  And people that feel comfortable, because any time anybody’s at all uncomfortable onstage, it makes me uncomfortable.  And it’s like a direct correlation:  as uncomfortable as they are, is about as uncomfortable as I am watching them.  And I also can’t watch people that don’t like each other, and I can tell – you can’t hide that.  You can fake it all you want, but I see right through that.  So I just want people to just be themselves, and do something original, and enjoy themselves, and be comfortable.

You must get to see a lot of music.

TB:  I do, I see quite a bit of music, but I don’t see as much as I should.  You know, I don’t really pass a lot of judgment anymore on music, because being a professional musician ruined my experience for a long time.  I couldn’t just watch things and enjoy them for what they were.  I was always trying to figure out what was going on, or learn something from it, and a lot of times, also, in bluegrass scene, I was being judgmental.  And that’s because I was insecure, you know?  I was watching other bass players and being like, “Hey, I can’t do that.”  Or, “This is cool.”  Or, “This is not good.”  Or whatever.  I was trying to identify it.

I think the shows that I like the best are the shows that I see that are my friends playing, people I have personal relationships with, because I have a real attachment to it.  Just in general, it’s fun to watch people have a good time, but I’m getting better at just allowing music to wash over me, and not thinking as much about whether it’s “good” or “bad”.  I tend to just watch people experience their own music.  And that’s been really liberating.

But I don’t know, I don’t get as excited about music as I used to, because I kind of am into all of it.  Like, I’m so psyched that people are out here picking, and I don’t really want to sit around and listen to a bunch of people play beginner banjo, but I also love it for a few seconds because it’s so cool to hear people figuring it out, because I understand the beginner mind.  And I also understand what it’s like to be a professional musician – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there’s no magic there.  We’re all human, and there’s only a few of us that are just absolute geniuses.  So I like to watch people and, like, “Ok, cool, I like that music”, and then I go for a hike or do all the other things that interest me a lot.

Do you watch much video of yourself?

TB:  No.

On purpose?

TB:  Yeah, I’m just not interested.  I guess I should probably watch – it would probably help my performance, for sure, to watch myself.  And I tell my students to listen to themselves and watch themselves.  I’ll listen to myself sometimes, but I don’t really watch myself.  Because I’m conscious of becoming sort of like an “actor” – I try not to act.  I’ve done some of that onstage.  Like, I had a philosophy at one point of, even if I’m not having a good time, I’m going to act like it.  And that was part of my path to learning how to just have a good time all the time, but it was really uncomfortable for me to be faking it – it felt sort of unreal.  So I don’t really watch myself anymore – I don’t think about it.  I don’t consciously try to perform like anything, I just try to pay really close attention.  And it always makes me so happy, it makes me smile to watch people enjoy it.  And listening to my bros absolutely rip – because they’re so good, you know? – that makes me happy enough, and that’s the performance, just me being present.

You do look very happy to be there, and you have a really comfortable manner.  You’re very grounded, but you’re not stuck or static or closed, you know?  You’re grounded but you’re flowing.  Do you experience that?  Do you feel like energy’s flowing through you?

TB:  Absolutely.

Do you consciously notice that, or is that just how it is for you?

TB:  Yeah, I think I notice that sometimes.  But it’s also just how it is, I think.

Has it always been that way for you?

TB:  No.

What do you think accounts for that coming to be?

TB:  Life experience.  Self-evaluation.  Learning to move through the world.  Increased understanding, or an interest in understanding how this all works, how best for me to move through the world, what I’m called to do – all those things, all that sort of self-evaluation that everybody’s got to do at some point, you know?

Some people never do.

TB:  Yeah, some people never do, and that’s probably too bad.  But I think that playing music, and the experience of being onstage, and life, have really sort of joined – it’s all sort of the same thing.  You know, teaching people how to play bass has taught me a lot about the interconnectivity of everything.  The mind is such a tricky thing – you’re mind’s got a mind of it’s own, and it does whatever it wants.  I’m treating it like it’s a tool, sort of like my bass is a tool and it’s something that allows me to play music.  I’m not necessarily “Bass Player”, that doesn’t define me, it’s just something that I do to express music.  And ideally, my brain is just something that I use to function and to create things and to do things, but I don’t need it all the time.  Getting it to turn off and be able to just kind of accept that when you label things as good and bad, it just raises problems and you set up a dichotomy, and then you have to decide which side of the fence you’re on or whatever.  It’s sort of like, there’s no reason to have a good or bad show, you just go have a show and let it be what it is.  And learning that about life has taught me that about music.

And also, I went through some really hard times where I had really bad shows, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t having a good time, and it was mostly just sort of a lack of perspective and presence – I wasn’t really paying attention.  I sort of had my mind somewhere else.  I was thinking about things – thinking about how nice it would be to be at home, or thinking about the guy who’s asleep in the front row of the bluegrass festival, or whatever it was – little things that would take me away from what was the easiest thing to be tuned into, which was just what was going on.  And not being concerned about what’s coming – just sort of go up there and do your thing.

How do you get that to happen for you in the studio?

TB:  I don’t play well in the studio.  I don’t know, the problem with that is it’s all so permanent – there’s people listening, there’s so much pressure.  Even though live shows are recorded, I still feel like I’m going to play it and it’ll be over, and it’ll just be sort of gone.  I don’t get a lot of session work, partly because I’m just like a dude, I’m not like a crazy-good bass player.  The studio isn’t my favorite place in the world.

Is there anything you want to improve in yourself as a performer?

TB:  Yeah, I want to improve as a bass player.  I’d like to be able to sing a little bit more consistently, too.  But as far as the way I feel onstage, the things I say, stage presence – all the stuff that’s performing that’s not musical – I want to continue to grow as musician, but I haven’t had a bad show in, like, six months, because I have an awesome time.  And it seems like the audience is pretty much right there with me.  So I think what I’ve got going now, I’m satisfied with it.  It’ll change.  It’s an ongoing experience to practice – being onstage and being comfortable and playing music is an ongoing practice.  So I’m sure it’ll evolve, but I’m not trying to do anything different at this point.  And that’s because I feel so comfortable doing what I do, that I don’t want to change it necessarily.

It shows.

TB:  Cool.  Mission accomplished!

Thanks again to Travis for taking the time for this in-depth conversation about performance.  I highly recommend to my readers that they experience a Stringdusters show.  Please also visit the Stringdusters’ web store or your local independent music store to check out the Stringdusters’ band and solo recording projects.  – VA

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 2 of 3

Posted: February 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »

The following is Part 2 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.  I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010.  More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.

This interview is being posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Travis discusses getting into the zone, both as an individual performer and as a band . — VA

How do you experience the audience as a performer?  What does that energy feel like to you?

Travis Book:  It’s like a two-sided coin, where the audience is all of the experience on the one hand, like the most important thing, and then on the other hand, they kind of don’t matter at all.  And what I mean by that is that I don’t really take responsibility for their experience, and that’s the part of the coin where they don’t really matter – they don’t really matter to my experience.  They do affect what I do, because I do want to entertain them, and I want them to enjoy themselves.  And on the other hand, on the other side of the coin, they are every bit of the experience.  The more the audience is open and is with us and is present in the moment, the less they’re thinking about another show they saw that was better, or the band before that was better, or what they wish we would be playing – the more they’re just there and letting it wash over them.  And that might be talking to their friend, or it may be dancing.  It may be singing along, or it may be getting a beer.  But the more that they can just sort of be there and be enjoying themselves and just being in a positive head space, the better it is for us, and it’s everything for us.

We sort of stopped playing sit-down shows, because people would get in these comfy theater chairs, and they’d be totally digging it, but we couldn’t tell at all and there was nothing coming back.  You’d get done with a show and they’d stand up and they’d clap and they’d want an encore and they’d buy lots of records, but the whole experience wasn’t the same as when people are doing what they really want to do.  And a festival’s a prime example – at a festival, people can just sort of do their thing.

I taught this thing called “Getting Comfortable Onstage”, and I tell people, you know, you really owe it to yourself to figure out what you want your music to be like, or what kind of statement you want to make, and rehearse that, because that’ll help ease your nerves – being prepared is one part of it.  But then when you go up onstage, you have to understand that as long as you’re doing what you set out to do, or, rather, as long as you’re being present, playing music or acting or anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing has intrinsic value.  And if people don’t get it, if people bring their preconceptions in, or if it just hits them wrong, there’s nothing you can do about that.

I tell my students, if the audience doesn’t like it, well, fuck ‘em.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  The only thing you can maybe do is you can sell your soul to the devil of kitsch and cliché, and you can try to fire people up in some way that you’ve heard before, but if that’s not genuine to your experience, there’s nothing that you can do about the audience.

So that’s a really roundabout and confusing answer.  On one hand, I need the audience, absolutely, to be a hundred percent on the same page with me for us all to have a great experience, for it to reach its true potential.  But if the audience isn’t with me, if they don’t get it, it doesn’t really affect me anymore.  And that has been a revelation.  I mean, that’s just sort of a life philosophy, you know?  If people don’t like you, well, it has nothing to do with you.  And it’s absolutely the same thing when you go to perform.  As long as you’re true to who you are, if they don’t get it, that’s totally fine.  To each his own.

You’re in a situation where I would imagine that generally you’re showing up where people are psyched to see you, where the table is set for you in a nice way?

TB:  That’s true.

And it’s nice to get to that point in your band’s career.

TB:  Yeah, it’s easier to feel this way when you know that the people that hire you know what they’re getting, and most of the people that come to your show know what they’re getting.

You’re not struggling to win them over in any way.

TB:  We still play a ton of free shows in parks, or we play to tons of people that have never heard us before.  We’re just starting to get where people even know who we are.  But there’s still a lot of people out there that have not heard our band.  So there are still times where I have to combat that need to make people like it, or feel the pressure of having to succeed, having to play a great show.  Sometimes the shows aren’t that great.  But I always have a really good time.  That’s the only thing that I can control – I can prepare, and then I can have a really awesome time.

How easy is it for you to access the zone as a member of the band, and how easy is it for the band to access the zone?  Is that something that you can bring on, or does it just happen and you just have to enjoy it when it happens?  The more you tour together and play together, do you feel like more of that is within your control of bringing it on?

TB:  I see it as a practice, just like music is a practice or yoga is a practice, and it’s ongoing.  And it gets easier to identify the things that keep me from that space.

What are they?

TB:  Self-doubt.  Or expectation.  Or over-indulgence, you know?  I used to party really hard when I played, and I don’t as much anymore because it has the potential to sort of turn on me and make me real self-conscious.  It’s really just self-evaluation – it’s not being able to sort of be the listener.  Whenever I get outside myself, it’s really easy.  It’s sort of a tough question, but I think those are the things that get in my way.

So how do you experience the zone?  What does it feel like to you when it happens?

TB:  It’s just effortless – that’s the best way to describe it.

Do you appreciate it when it’s happening?

TB:  Oh yeah.

And do you notice a difference in how you’re working with your band mates when it happens?

TB:  Yeah.

Do you feel like it’s kind of a contact high?  Do people catch it from each other?

TB:  Absolutely.

What is it like when that happens?

TB:  These are good questions – these are hard to describe!  I don’t know how to explain it.

I can tell you that everybody I interview struggles with questions about this topic.

TB:  Yeah, this question is really hard!  I don’t know, because when I’m in it and I start to think about it is when I leave it.  So I’ve always just sort of tried not to worry about it too much or think about it too much.  Can you re-phrase the question and give me another crack at it?

We were talking about the contact high version of the zone, where somebody in the band gets it, and then someone else catches it from them, and then the whole band is in it.  And you as an individual can get in the zone, and then you might be able to do things that you didn’t even know you could do.  But it also seems like the band as a whole can get into that space.  How does that happen, and what does it feel like when it happens?

TB:  There’s sort of almost like a hierarchy of needs when you’re onstage, like being able to hear what you need to hear, or if you can’t hear what you need to hear, total acceptance of not being able to hear it, putting that behind you.  Any other things that could stand in your way, any other issues like someone else being in a bad mood, or someone not listening – I mean, for me, I’m in the zone when I’m listening, when my attention is completely outside myself and I’m the observer.  The best seat in the house, that’s how I like to see it.  And I think that the band can only achieve that when everybody is listening, and it’s hard because some people think that that’s more important than others, and some people, it’s more natural than others to participate in that way – to sort of drop their preconceptions about how things should go, or worrying about their instrument or their hands, or any of that stuff.

That’s part of the hierarchy – you have to be able to not worry about yourself physically, or your mental space.  The thoughts sort of stop, and it just becomes presence and observation.  And when I’m really feeling it, I’m able to feel like I’m playing my ass off, and singing exactly what I would want to sing, and I’m not even doing it – I’m watching myself do it.  You know, there’s been a few times when I’ve been on the stage, and I’ve literally felt like I was in the audience.

I know exactly what you mean.

TB:  And when I sang, I was blowing my own mind.

Yeah.  “Look at that guy!”

TB:  “How am I doing this?  This is so sick!”  And I was looking out into the audience, and they were, like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous!”  And I was, like, “Yeah, this is awesome!”  I felt like I was standing next to them, and we were looking at each other like, “This is sick!  Yeah!”  You know, we were hanging out.  Because I’ve been that guy in the audience, right?  So I think that’s when I feel like I’m in the zone, and I don’t know how I get there – I always just try to appreciate wherever I’m at, at the time.

It’s sort of like varying degrees.  For me, I get a little closer as my needs are met.  And sometimes I walk onstage and we just start, and we’re all sort of there, and it’s like a miracle, you know?  But other times, you have to try to bring some of the guys in.  Someone’s head’s a little behind, they’re a little too much in their own brain, they’re thinking about their instrument, so you’ve got to go over there and kind of engage them, bump into them, smile at them or something and be, like, “Dude, you’re not with us.  Come on, man, come over here and hang out.”  And that’s partly what the moving onstage does – you’re moving, you’re thinking about your spatial positioning, it distracts you from playing, so then you can just play, and you’re listening, you get by someone and listen.

To be continued…

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 1 of 3

Posted: February 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources | 10 Comments »

The following is Part 1 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.  I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010.  More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nomination in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.

This interview will be posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Travis discusses the elements that contribute to the Stringdusters’ dynamic and highly entertaining live performance experience. — VA

When did you start getting the sense that you wanted to perform?  How did that realization come to you?

Travis Book:  I don’t remember a specific moment, but I do remember just sort of an underlying need for attention.  And also – and it’s something that I’ve worked on, because it was difficult in my life – sort of a need for drama in my life.  I think I started by acting out in class, and acting out at home.  I wasn’t a really difficult kid, but I was an only child, so when I went to school and I got to be around kids, I found that when I was funny, and made an ass of myself, really, I got a lot of attention – both positive and negative.  I think when I was in middle school I had detention, like, thirty-seven times I had to stay after class – and I think I may have had a crush on the teacher and not realized that’s what it was.   But I’d say that was the first time that I can think of myself really craving attention, and feeling comfortable when people were paying attention.

I’ve found that some performers are incredibly shy, and the stage is the only place where they feel like they aren’t shy.  It sounds like that’s not the case for you – that you don’t have any problem being the center of attention, just in general.

TB:  No, and I still get into it in varying degrees.  But it was something, I think, that grew out of a lot of insecurities I had.

How so?

TB:  That’s a good question – just wanting to be accepted and have friends.  And when you’re the center of attention, you’re The Man, you know?  And I think that was mostly it – it just felt good to have people laughing and enjoying themselves.  And being able to share that – that was something else, I think.  I maybe didn’t realize it, but it’s always been really appealing.  The thing that I liked so much about music, when I got into the music scene, was that, you know, I could hang out in the campground, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a performance, but it was like this shared experience with the people who were hanging out and watching.  And people would coast in, and all of a sudden if a jam was really happening, and we were really doing something compelling musically, or if we were sort of performing a little bit, you’d get done with the song and you’d look around and there was people five deep and they were cheering because there was something sort of magical that happened there.  And that’s not necessarily performance, but it was this sort of shared experience, which is a big part of my performance – trying to share something and make everybody a part of what’s going on.

I’ve often thought that it’s kind of a primal thing, like the cave dwellers sitting around the fire passing along the oral tradition, the enhanced experience – or the sharing of the common experience, the lore, the wisdom.

TB:  Absolutely.  And when I first started playing, I would learn tunes from older guys.  And I was hanging out with guys that were fifty years old and retired and super-wealthy, and there were thirty-year-old dirt-bag ski bums, and we were all part of the same scene, and we all had this really common thread – which is a beautiful thing about bluegrass and acoustic music, and just the music scene in general.

Are you intentionally the front man of the Stringdusters, or did that just sort of happen?

TB:  It just sort of happened.  And some shows I’m more the front man than others.  We have a really organic approach to the entire experience.  We just try to be sort of present, and if you feel like getting up there and saying something, you do, and if you don’t, then that’s fine also.  We used to do what most bluegrass bands do, which is talk between every song.  We stopped doing that.  We make chunks on our set list and we try to run the songs together, because the music is what’s really most important, and then when we actually say something, it can be something that’s compelling, and we can use it as a tool to sort of accelerate the energy in the show.  Whereas, a lot of bluegrass, you get this tune rocking and the fans are loving it, and then you stop, and you’re, like, “Heyyyy, so-and-so’s from Denver…yaaaay!” And then you’ve got to start all over again.  So, we’re using the talking as either a way to make it a low point, or as an opportunity to push it even higher, to get people really excited and engage them and communicate in a very real manner.  And I think some of the guys in the band are more comfortable with that than others, so it’s just sort of been a natural progression for us.

One thing I love about what you guys do is how things are so fluid up on the stage, how you’re like a constantly shifting amoeba up there.  How did that come about?

TB:  We started out as a bluegrass band, playing in front of six microphones, you know?  We started to think the sound would be better, and it would be cooler, if we could be plugged in, because mics have feedback issues and that sort of thing.  So we started plugging in, and we were still using mics and we still had monitors on the floor, but you have to stay close to your monitor to be able to hear.  So we figured out that in-ear monitors would be better, because we could hear better and there wouldn’t be feedback issues.  So we got those, and then the dobro player, once he found he had good pickup tone, he ditched his mic – and all of a sudden he could move around.  And I was already moving around, because I had my pickup on my instrument, and I had my microphone in the instrument.  And so even though the bass is hard to move, you can actually move.  I wasn’t grounded to a microphone and I wasn’t dependant on that monitor, right?  So we realized that once you started ditching the mics, it cleaned up the stage and it allowed us to move around, and because we weren’t trapped to the monitors – we had the in-ears.

So ditching the mics became our mission, and about two years ago we got our sound guy who travels with us, and all of those things came together and we started playing without microphones.  And therefore all of the normal rules of where you would normally stand, all of a sudden you could basically stand anywhere, unless you went to sing.  And it allows this really amazing thing where, you know, if you’ve got six guys standing at the front of the stage and one guy goes to take a solo, you may not have any idea who it is, unless you can immediately identify the banjo or the instrument that’s playing.  So now the singer, the center of attention, is encouraged to stand up at the front and everybody gathers around them.  And it allows us to hear each other and play with each other, and it makes things much more interesting.  And it makes it easier for the audience to know where to send their attention.

So the long answer to your question is that it happened really organically and sort of by accident.  And we realized not long ago that it was super-cool.  We started doing it just because it was fun to engage your energy with a different person onstage.  And I noticed that people tended to pay attention to what I was paying attention to, you know?  And if I zone out, people zone out, and if I look at them, they look at me, and if I look at the soloist, they look at the soloist.  It’s not that everyone’s paying attention to me, but, you know, you’re sort of sweeping around the stage and someone directs your attention somewhere, and then you get tuned into what you’re supposed to.  So it just sort of happened naturally, and I think it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for ourselves right now, that the stage show is so dynamic and different and interesting every time.

Do you feel that the individuals in the band are all on the same page in terms of performance styles, and if so, what do you think it does for you as performers and as a band to be on the same page?

TB:  I think it’s everything, and we haven’t always been on the same page.  We’re more on the same page now than we ever have been.  That is to say, when we started out, everyone had all this different experience.  We had all kinds of experience playing onstage, but not together.  And we didn’t really know what it was going to take to make us successful, or even what we were going to be like when we finally put ourselves together – what we were going to turn into.  And so everyone’s personalities changed.  I think being in a band has challenged us more personally than it has even musically.  And obviously it’s challenged us musically – we’ve all done more growing musically in the last five years than in the prior fifteen – but personally, we’ve all really come around to finding a really peaceful way of being together and communicating,

There’s times where I almost feel it’s almost like we’re a monastery.  You know, we had a couple days off, and we were hanging out in this beautiful place, and there’s guys sitting up on the porch hanging out, there’s guys doing yoga down in the yard, there’s a couple of guys meditating, a few guys playing music, and everyone’s really relaxed and open.  And when we can go onstage and everyone’s got that same attitude that, you know, the most important thing is that we have a good time together and we respect each other and listen to each other, then it becomes really good and we become more of the same person.  So our personalities have become really similar, and we all want the same things out of the show.

When we started out, there was a real big thing in bluegrass – you have to play well, and there was this expectation that you’re going to sound a certain way and that you’d be competent in your instrument in a certain way.  And we were fortunate that we could sort of hang with any bluegrass band.  But it was almost like we were as tight as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, but we were as loose as Yonder Mountain String Band.  Or the Grateful Dead or Phish, maybe, is an even better analogy – a band that was open to new experiences but also could play together, and knew that when it was time to play we could play.

So it’s been an ongoing evolution of how we play together and how we listen to each other.  But learning to respect each other, ultimately, is the most important thing.  It makes it really easy.  When your focus is on listening to and loving the people you’re onstage with, then you don’t really have to worry about performing, because that’s the best kind of performance you can give as a musician – just to be present and enjoy yourself.

I’m always talking to my clients about being present, and working with them on relaxation techniques and ways of re-gathering your focus and “being here now”.  And it really shows when that’s not the case.

TB:  Right.  I tell my bass students, playing music with other people is a lot like meditation, where your attention will waver from where it’s supposed to be.  You know, thoughts arise in meditation, but you don’t harp on yourself for having thoughts.  When you recognize you’re thinking, you just bring yourself back to the present.  It’s the same thing with music.  When you recognize that your attention is too much on yourself, when your attention is somewhere other than what’s happening in the moment – who’s singing, who’s soloing, what’s going on in the audience, any of those things – your attention can be a lot of places other than be in the present, but you just bring yourself right back there, and then the music all of a sudden will just sort of congeal.

To be continued…

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CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Mike Marshall (Part 4 of 4)

Posted: November 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »

Here is the fourth and final installment of my interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall.  You can find additional information about Mike at the beginning of the first installment.  –VA

Are there things that you are afraid of as a performer – things you tend to shy away from doing?  Or are you turned on by fear – do you go towards fear?

Mike Marshall:  You know, I don’t know.  I think we all have our comfort zone.  I mean, there are things I don’t like – I don’t like really loud music, so I don’t know if that’s a fear, or I’m just trying to save myself!  But I think you have to be in your comfort zone.  And yet, I’ve spent my life pushing myself.  But you have to push yourself in degrees – you have to step into that unstable part of marshland when you’re actually ready for it.  And so I suppose there are some things that I’m not ready to do yet.  I’m not sure if it’s fear, though – I think it’s practicality!  I know what my boundaries are.

When you were starting out with David Grisman, that must have been kind of scary at times.

MM:  Yeah, for sure that was.  And I think of those days, and I think about how much of a thick skin that gave me early on.  I mean, I moved here [to the San Francisco Bay Area] at age 19, and immediately, the same week that I arrived, all those guys went down to L.A. to record the soundtrack to the King of the Gypsies movie, with a full orchestra and Stéphane Grappelli and Tony Rice and Ray Brown on bass – I mean, it was ridiculous.  And I just got thrust into that, and then three months later we were touring and playing Carnegie Hall.  So I guess having those kinds of experiences gives you, then, a reference so that nothing can flap you.

Did you get stage fright during that time?

MM:  Not really.  I mean, there would be moments here or there where I’d be thinking, “Dear god, this is unbelievable.”  The first time I saw the [David Grisman] Quintet live, I was in the band. So, you know, that pretty much did it.  It was, like, ok, where do we go from here?  And the same with Stéphane Grappelli.  I remember when we toured all over England with Stéphane’s band – with Martin Taylor on guitar, and Diz Disley and all these guys, and then we were playing, and then we’d all jam at the end on a couple tunes.

Well, we went over to the Continent, and arrived in Brussels without his band, and we were now going to back up Stéphane on all these standards that he was playing, and no rehearsal.  He was going to arrive at 7:00 for the 8:00 show, and we had to get there, and then had maybe two hours to work on all this music.  You should have seen us scrambling – it was unbelievable.  And then I look down in the audience, and there’s Toots Thielemans in the front row – one of the greatest harmonica players, but also one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, and I was playing guitar.  And then the next night, we’d be in the south of France, and there would be a whole group of Gypsies down in the front, and Stéphane would get so mad.  He’d go, “Zose are Django [Reinhardt]’s relatives!  Zey always come to ze shows.  I hate zis!”  And I’m thinking, “Ok, so we’ve got Django’s cousins down in the front row checking out the guitar player tonight.  Relaaaaax, chill, have a good tiiiiime!”

“What could possibly go wrong?”

MM:  And then you got [Mark] O’Connor – you know, O’Connor’s on guitar, and Darol [Anger]’s on fiddle, so, you know, what’s that do to Darol’s inner strength?  And then Mark gets up and plays “Tiger Rag” with Stéphane.  It was just a very hot environment – very charged.  And so I think that being around those kinds of energy fields kind of toughens you, and makes you understand that you actually don’t ever die from these experiences.  You think you’re going to, but in the end, you walk off the stage and you haven’t fallen to pieces!  So the next time you’re in a situation like that, you’re kind of built for it or something.  I reference off that, playing with Hamilton [de Holanda], playing with Chris [Thile] – how are you going to flap me, if you’re a mandolin player?  How are you going to throw me off my game, when I’ve had those guys, you know, sword fighting?

You know, I’ve seen you play with Thile a number of times, and a number of times I’ve been in the front row…

MM:  Oh god…

…and I don’t even know how to describe it as an audience member.  I find myself sweating, just because I’m working hard, too, you know?  And maybe people who aren’t necessarily needing to parse what you’re doing musically aren’t sweating as much.

MM:  But you’re actually trying to take it in.

Yeah, I’m trying to keep up with what’s happening with theory, and what’s going on with the emotional expression, and how you’re talking to each other musically.  And that happens in the recordings as well, but of course it’s a whole different thing when you’re seeing the communication between you two, the little micro-filaments that are waving in the sea as you’re catching what’s going by.  And it seems to me that it must be a combination of energizing and draining at the same time.

MM:  I think it’s mostly energizing.  Yeah, I remember coming off the stage on all those tours feeling completely jacked up and ready to rock.  It gives, it doesn’t really take away.  Really inspiring, and kind of mind-boggling – again, getting back to that feeling of feeling super-lucky to get to have these experiences, and get to play with these musicians and be in the same place.  Because if you think of, like, [Brazilian mandolinist] Jacob do Bandolim recording at the same time as Django Reinhardt, but they never got to meet, you know?  What would have happened?

And I feel like we’re living in a time, now, when all of that is possible.  The whole world is right there, available to us, and it’s so easy to reach people and just tap them on the shoulder and go, “Hey, I love what you’re doing – you wanna play?”  And that’s an amazing thing we’re experiencing right now.  I think it’ll probably be looked back on as kind of messy, because there’s lots of combinations going on that don’t work, too, and people who aren’t really studying traditions and yet they have just enough access to kind of tap into it a tiny bit and show us a shallow version of it.  But, there are some great contacts being made, and music is being seen as one thing, which it actually is, instead of being divided up, either socially or whatever those things are that divide.  The dividers are never musical – from my perspective, anyway, music is just sitting there being music, and usually the things that separate it are social.

And it seems that part of our DNA is always to need a live performance experience.

MM:  No question.  I mean, one of the greatest things about the demise of the recording industry is that it’s given value, now, to the live experience, because that is something that you cannot get, you know, you can’t make a copy of that and send it to your friend’s iPhone, you actually have to be there.  So I think a lot of great artists are turning to that and saying, “Well, you know, there was a music business before there was a recording music business, and there will be one after, if this thing is going to lose all its value.”  It won’t, I mean people will still record, but it just won’t be where they’ll make any money – it’ll become a promotional tool or what have you.  And that’s ok, because as musicians, we can float to the next thing.  Like I said, if the Church needs us to write a play in 1700, “All right, I can do that”, Bach says.  I mean, I have to admit I prefer the stuff he wrote when he was in Cöthen [Germany] working for [Prince] Leopold, who wanted all the instrumental music.  But I did come to those cantatas, finally, and I’m loving them.

There’s so much there.

MM:  Oh god, just hundreds – it’s ridiculous.  But if you get the people who are recording them more recently, in smaller ensembles, it can be really wonderful without all that vibrato, without the operatic singing.  There are arguments now that his ensembles in those churches were singing one to a part, so there are some recordings of it that way, which is really wonderful, that stuff that folks in Amsterdam are doing great things with.

Do you find that it refreshes your horizons, your sensibilities, to get out and go to different countries?

MM:  Oh god, it’s the whole thing.  That’s the other gift that music has given me – it’s taken me all over the world.  That’s something I would never have been able to do without it, so it’s an amazing experience.  And then to delve deeply into – or, you know, deeper than you can living in Oakland listening to a CD – to actually see some of these musical styles in their native environment, that’s when you really pick up what it is.

How do you experience the cultural differences in the audiences?  Do they have different vibes in different places?

MM:  Oh, for sure – no question about it.  Caterina [Lichtenberg] was saying that she thinks the American audiences are the best.  I mean, we are a very relaxed society.  I think because we’re so new as a culture, and because we had to kind of deal with lots of different kinds of people who were bumping up against each other from the beginning, we’re so tolerant of differences, compared to most other places.

Some of us are, anyway.

MM:  Yeah, I know – it’s not across the board.  But, you know, we just did a bunch of concerts on the East Coast, and they were house concerts, so they were super-intimate – I mean, literally just talking to the audience, and they were talking back to us during the show, that kind of vibe – which is so different for Caterina, who grew up in this classical German world, playing in the church, and you might talk once.  But she’s a gabber – she always talked a lot in her shows, and it offended some people – they were, like, “Why are you always talking?”  But we played this show in Germany and we just did what we did, and you could just feel that our relaxed-ness was almost making the audience uncomfortable, because it was so different than what they were used to.  But then you’d crack the ice and you’d warm them up, eventually, and they came around by the end of the show.  But there was that initial, “Wow, ok, we’re in a different place here – let’s work this and see if we can make this happen…”

“Let’s see if we can tap into the universal human experience here…”

MM:  That’s what everybody wants – that’s why they come.  But oh, man, there are these obstacles, sometimes, to get through it.  And then, I was just thinking about Japan.  We went over there with the Montreux band, and they were just sitting there and they’d clap after the song – no whooping, no hollering – it’s like, Japan.  But then I realized, they clapped for a really long time after each song – like, slightly uncomfortable – to where it’s like, “Ok, it’s time for you to stop clapping now so we can play the next song…”  And then, the encore after encore after encore – they just wouldn’t stop clapping.  And all through the show, we thought we were dying, because it just didn’t feel like the typical – oh, I know what it was, nobody was clapping after a solo.  So you’d do some great improvised solo, and in America everybody’s clapping for every solo, and in instrumental music that’s, like, seventeen times a song.  And here we are in Japan, and nobody’s clapping for solos. “Oooh, we’re dying.

Like it’s disrespectful to interrupt you, or something.

MM:  It probably was that – you know, you want to hear, you don’t want to mess up the experience of the guy next to you.

And all the clapping afterwards is like the all the bowing that keeps going on and on, and no one knows when to stop bowing.

MM:  Exactly!  And it was like, “You changed my life.”  “Really?  I thought you were sleeping…”  So, yeah, there’s definitely some cultural things there.  But I think it’s all getting mooshed together – people are getting much more like each other.

The world’s getting smaller.

MM:  Unfortunately.  I think we’ll probably lose some juice there.  And hopefully it doesn’t mean we’re all going to be shopping at Kmart – even though that’s what they want.

Where do you want to go next, as a performer?

MM:  I want to go back to Brazil, and then to Argentina, and then, when it’s all over, find a little place in northern Italy.  Oh, southern Italy would be ok – a little cabin.  I would like it to become simpler.  I live on the property of a church, a little Episcopal church – I live on a hill up above them.  It’s lovely acoustics in this place, and I sometimes fantasize about the audience coming to me.

Well, Levon Helm did it.

MM:  Yeah, I would just do regular shows in this place – you know, a hundred people every month – at a very high ticket price!

You know, I would love to be able to perform Bach more often, and have it be really a deep, meaningful experience for me and the audience, and not a treacherous one for me.  But I don’t really have those kinds of aspirations, to push the performance envelope in that way.  I think that I’m pretty happy with how things go – I just want to do it more.  I want to do exactly what I’m doing, with some of the musicians I get to play with, as often as I can.

Thanks again to Mike for being so generous with this fascinating and lengthy conversation.  He’s a treat to spend time with, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much during an interview.  I encourage my readers to take any opportunity to see him perform live – if there’s a more joyful performer out there, I really don’t know who it is.  Mike’s discography is so voluminous and varied, it’s difficult to point a first-time purchaser in any particular direction, but there’s a nice selection at the Recordings page on his website that can help you decide.  Enjoy!  –VA

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