CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 3 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present the final installment of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction, and Part 2 is here.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA

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You play in so many different settings with so many different combinations of people, and you’re about to go to some new countries and you’ve been to other countries.  I would imagine that all of that information kind of gets in there and expands your horizons, like you talked about your experience going to music school.  Are you conscious of that expansion as it’s happening – playing with this combination at that show, or going into that thing with those people?  Do you feel like you carry a core of yourself as you navigate through all that? 

Oh, yeah, for sure.  Yeah, I definitely feel like I carry a part of myself through it all.  This is great, because what you’re saying is, for me, anyway, I’ve realized that that’s kind of the ultimate goal – to constantly be in a situation where you’re collaborating with different kinds of musicians in different settings.  A lot of my favorite musicians are finding scenarios in which they can do that, in which they’re putting themselves in these situations that are forcing them to do something different.

I think of Mike Marshall, I think of Chris Thile, I think of Béla Fleck, all of those people.  Chris has Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and he’s playing with Brad Mehldau and Edgar Meyer, and he’s doing a solo Bach thing.  He’s carrying his spirit with him through all of those different things, but each of those things has its own unique life and its own unique spirit.  And that’s awesome.

For me, I’ve decided that that’s what I hope to do with my life, to constantly be surrounding myself with musicians that I respect and musicians that challenge me.  That’s been a really fun part of the last year, especially, getting to put myself in different settings like that.  For instance, with the Milk Carton Kids last fall, doing that collaborative tour and singing three-part harmony every night.  Normally, I’m onstage by myself singing alone the whole time, and that forced me to use my voice in this different way, to be blending with two other voices for an entire hour and a half.

And you’re working with two people who have been blending with each other for a long time, so you’re working your way into that.

Right.  So jumping in and suddenly being a third – they were having to change up their thing, too, to blend with a third voice.  Exactly.  And now the thing with Sara [Watkins] and Aoife [O’Donovan], and navigating those waters of the different combinations of our voices and instruments.  I truly think that that’s what makes a great musician – putting yourself in those different settings and learning how to bring your voice to it, while also supporting what is going on.

So when you talk about how you carry that core of yourself into all those different situations, how would you describe who that is, who that core is, that defines who you are as an artist?

That’s a tricky one. [laughs] Well, I think it’s easier, maybe, to describe it in terms of the voice, because every person’s voice is unique.  When you’re having a conversation talking to someone on the phone, it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s that person, because that’s their unique voice.”

I think it gets harder to describe when you’re talking about an instrumentalist.  In my mind, the truly great instrumental players of our time, you can recognize their playing by just hearing them play, even if you’re not looking at them or if you’re just hearing a recording of them.  And that becomes their voice.

You hear Béla, or you hear Jerry [Douglas], or you hear Mike Marshall – you know it’s them.  That’s the thing growing up that was cool – going to the Mandolin Symposium and hearing Mike Compton and David Grisman and Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, and they’re all playing the mandolin, they’re all playing the same instrument, and it could just sound exactly the same, but it doesn’t.  And you close your eyes, and I could tell you which one was which, because they’ve all instilled their soul into their playing.  It’s hard to describe exactly what that is, but I think that’s ultimately the goal – allowing that sound and that part of you, creating that part of you, to come through.  I don’t know if I totally answered the question! [laughs]

Well, it’s a weird question!  So, for instance, Mike Marshall – I always think of him as a joyful player, you know?

Yeah.

And he has that joyful sensibility, and when you talk to him, that comes through.  And other people seem to have a darker current to them.

Right.

Or other people, a sort of, I don’t know, interplanetary current?

Totally.

So, I don’t even know if you have a sense of this or could even describe it, but how would you describe your sensibility as an artist?

Well, going back to what you were saying, yeah, you listen to someone like Billie Holiday, and you can just hear all of the trials and sorrow, and awful things that she had to go through, in her voice – that really comes through.  And so for me, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a pretty good life and haven’t had to face a lot of that adversity.  But what I would hope is that just from listening to music like that and taking little things away from it, and those things going through my individual self and my soul, that even though I haven’t necessarily faced any of that in my own life, I could hear that sorrow within someone else’s music, or hear that joy within someone else’s music, and allow it to come out of me in a way that is truly unique to me, and it’s my own original take and my own original feeling coming through.

That’s just the nature of being human beings.  Three different people could go through life experiencing exactly the same things, and they’re all going to have their own take on it.  That’s what’s so great about music.  Three musicians could go through learning exactly the same songs, exactly the same music, and it’s ultimately going to sound a little bit different.  For me, it just is a product of learning and trying to saturate myself with the music of my heroes and really studying that, and then ultimately trying to create my own music based on what I take in.

I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as an old soul…

Yeah.  [laughs]

…because of the precocity with which you started appearing on the scene, but also the sophistication of how you construct your artistic life.  I mean, there is a sense of, how is that possible in somebody so young, you know?

Yeah.

But in a way, that could feel kind of reductive.  It sort of discounts all the hard work, and all the things you’ve exposed yourself to – the working at it.

Right.

So how does it strike you when people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul…”

Right.  Well, I appreciate you saying that, because I think it is kind of hard for people to really grasp that I’ll be 24 next month, but I really started working hard on this stuff when I was 11 and 12.  I think it’s easy for people to say, “Oh, well, she’s an old soul.”  And this goes for a lot of my peers in the music scene.  I think they face some of this stuff, too.  I just started at such a young age and really worked hard, and started even playing my own live shows around 12 and 13 years old.

I think a lot of that, in terms of the way that I might carry myself, comes from, you know, I’m an only child, and for as long as I can remember, my parents would opt out of the babysitter and just take me with them everywhere they went.  For as long as I can remember, I was always surrounded by older people, and that was just a natural thing.  And so automatically I had to learn how to carry myself and interact with people that were a lot older than me.  And it’s the same for when I started going to a weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in Wimberley [Texas] – all those people were way older than me.

But I think the gift and the magic of it is that I was lucky to be around people, like I was saying earlier, that didn’t belittle me, and they treated me like an adult from the get go.  And so I think that really shaped my character and made me just feel like one of them, and made me want to work really hard to get to play with those people that I respected.

Yeah, I wonder if you had been treated more like a novelty act, if that would have changed a lot of how you felt about things.

Yeah.  People were really straightforward with me and treated me as a real musician, not just a kid musician, and I think that inspired me to want to just work really hard at it and be on their level.  It mostly says the world about a lot of the people that I’ve mentioned in this interview, for having the wherewithal to not treat me like a little kid and to really challenge me.  I’m very thankful for that.

Your career has really exploded over the last several years.  Do you find it hard to keep your focus when you’re being pulled in so many different directions, and now you’ve got your business team behind you and your label and everything.  Is it hard for you to keep it together and do what you need to do take care of yourself so that you can continue your artistic pursuit?

That’s a great question.  Toward the end of last year I did definitely start feeling that way.  And it’s kind of because, you know, for as long as I’ve been doing this whole music thing, I was also in school. [laughs]  I was in middle school, and then high school, and then college, and it was a lot.  It was a whole lot to balance.  And there were definitely times mid-way through college when I thought, “Man, I don’t know if I can do all this!  [laughs] This is a lot for one person to balance.”  But I just decided to stick with it, and I’m really glad I did.

And then from the moment that I graduated college, it was just straight out onto the road for about a year and a half.  It was really at the end of that touring behind Build Me Up From Bones [Sugar Hill Records, 2013] that I was, like, “Ok, I need to not be on the road as much in 2015 and kind of get back to my roots a little bit, and really just focus on my music and my writing.”  Because I just hadn’t had a chance to just stop and catch my breath, really, from the time that I was 12.  [laughs]  Even when I was in school, any breaks that I had in school – spring break or Christmas or over the summer – I was always touring or recording, and working on my music.

And so this year has been really great for me so far.  I moved to New York about a year and a half ago, and for the first time I feel like I really live here [laughs], because I’m at home more than a week or two at a time, and I’ve gotten to just have fun living in the city, and really get back to focus on my songwriting as a craft.  And doing this project with Sara and Aoife, it kind of came at the perfect time, because I’m not touring as much this year, and it lined up for all of our schedules in that way, which is pretty cool.  I do feel like it can be a lot to balance sometimes, but you just have to know when to say, “Ok, I need to get back to my roots a little bit, and remember what that feels like.”

I just can’t imagine juggling all you’ve juggled for all those years.  It must feel liberating to not have to go to school!

Oh, absolutely.  I mean, it was a wonderful four years, but it was a lot, for sure, and I’m very thankful for this time now.  In a way, I feel like I’m coming to know my music now in an even deeper way – to finally, for the first time, just be able to focus on it, solely, and not have the school stuff on top of it all.  It’s very liberating.

Where do you see yourself heading as far as what your priorities are for the next short while?  For instance, what do you want to get from the I’m With Her Tour?

Well, I think for me it’s kind of the first time – even with the Milk Carton Kids, we were all at the forefront of that – this is really the first time where we all feel like we’re equal parts of this.  It’s just going to be a really great opportunity for me to learn even deeper how to play alongside two other musicians in a different way, and maybe even a more supportive way.  Because night after night when it’s just me singing my songs the whole night – I feel like it’s just going to be really refreshing not to have it be my music the whole night.  I’m hoping that it’s going to allow all of us to take on the role of side musicians, in a new way, but also still be at the forefront.  I’m just learning to blend with them.

We’re all really serious about this project, and I’m really excited.  This is our first tour, and I’m excited to get past the point of just remembering the arrangements [laughs], and to work up to a place where we’re really just, like I was saying, reacting off of each other and playing and listening.  We’ve done one show, and that was a lot of new music – it was almost all new music, new covers for us.  It was just trying to get through it and remember everything that we had arranged.  So I’m excited to get past that point and really just be able to play.

Are you conscious of the role that you play in influencing girls coming up – being a strong presence and a “quintuple threat” or whatever people want to call you, being a bandleader, being a front person?  Is that something you’re aware of when you think of the little ones coming up?

Yeah, especially within the last couple of years.  It’s so special when people – and not just girls, but any young musician – coming up to say they’ve been inspired by what I do.  It sort of feels like a full circle kind of moment.  And it’s good, it’s healthy for me to see that.  This business is crazy, and it’s a lot of hours logged traveling in the van, getting from show to show, and I think those are the moments that really make it feel like it’s worth it.  I see a lot of myself in them, and I try to give to them what my heroes gave to me when I was that age.

Thank you again to Sarah Jarosz for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation about performance.  I encourage my readers to check out her beautiful albums – each one truly is a gem – and if you have the opportunity to see Sarah in concert, don’t hesitate to do it.  –VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 2 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction.)

In this installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio.

The final installment will be posted next week. –VA

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I know that something a lot of artists have trouble with is when people are really effusive with the compliments and are really excited about what they’re seeing and want to share that with you.  What does that feel like to you?

When people give a bunch of compliments?

Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of other artists where sometimes it doesn’t feel like it lines up, or it’s out of proportion, like that show wasn’t so great or didn’t feel that great to them.

Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because I think I and any musician peer of mine that you talk to will struggle with that, where you get off the stage and you think, “Oh gosh, that was not my best night.”  [laughs]  And then you’re greeted by people saying that was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen.  I’ve kind of learned in those situations, even if I felt like it wasn’t my best playing, to just say thank you.  Because it almost is more of an ego trip to be, like, “Oh, no, that sucked, that was awful!”  [laughs]

Yeah, “You’re wrong!”

Because hopefully they’re being truthful, and they really experienced something that they thought was great, and I think it’s unfair to shoot that down.  So I think it’s good to sort of take it in and be aware that someone’s experience was great – but also to walk away in those settings and learn from your mistakes.  One thing that I’ve tried to get better at doing, which is very hard for me to do, is listening back to shows of mine.  It’s a dreaded thing [laughs], as most musicians, I think, would say.  But if I allow myself to do that, I wind up learning so much, and noticing things.

And this kind of goes back to the question about how it feels to be onstage.  I think this certain part of your brain does kind of go away, because you’re entertaining and you’re up on a stage in front of people.  So some things, I feel like, you can’t rationally notice the way that a person in the audience would notice them, for better or for worse, and by going back and listening I can be, like, “Oh, ok, I didn’t even notice this happening when I was up onstage.”  And a lot of times, for me, that’s maybe singing on the harder side, and when I go back and listen I can say, “Oh, I can actually back away a little bit.  In the moment, with the adrenaline, it feels like I need to sing that really hard, but maybe I don’t actually have to sing it that hard.”  So it’s just taking those compliments, and then also noticing what I would want to be better, and finding a good balance of that.

Do you watch a lot of video?

Of myself?

Yeah.

Every now and then.  I really kind of don’t like to do that [laughs], but when I do let myself, like I’m saying, I learn a lot, and I think actually it can be a very constructive thing to do.

Can you give an example of something that you’ve noticed you do physically that you’ve tried to adjust, or even that you appreciate and say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing there”?

Yeah, I think mostly what I notice is the vocal thing that I was saying.  Like, where in the heightened energy of being onstage, for me anyway, there’s this feeling of needing to make everything bigger.  And oftentimes, when I go back to watch a video, I’ll say, “Ok, well, that could still be big, and I wouldn’t have to push it quite as hard.”  And that just goes back to the whole trying to stay relaxed thing, and noticing moments where I could be even more relaxed and settling into a groove.

That’s kind of the ultimate goal, and I think that’s the hardest thing to do onstage – to really settle and relax into a place where you can just listen, where you can just be a reactive musician and really play based on what’s happening in the moment.  Ultimately, onstage, you settle into a lot of your habits and things that you know work night after night, but I think the best shows and the best nights are the ones where the audience is feeding off you, and you’re feeding off that, and you can be relaxed and just play music and not just kind of go through the motions.

Do you find that there are certain things that make it easier for you to get into the zone?

A lot of it has to do with sound.  I find that on nights that the sound is really great, it’s easier for me to just hear.  It’s hard when you’re battling sound issues, and there’s feedback – it’s hard to reach that point of relaxation.  Because the best times are just sitting around in a circle with folks, really playing music, and if you can try to recreate that on a stage, then that’s ultimately going to affect the music.  I try to have a really low monitor sound, because I feel like it’s just truer if I’m playing more off the room than off of a speaker that’s in front of me.  That makes my experience truer, and ultimately more enjoyable.

And, of course, having that ambient sound is going to change depending on whether you’re in a cozy room or on an outdoor festival stage.  Do you find that it’s harder to manufacture that sense of playing off of the atmosphere as opposed to the monitor?

Yeah, definitely.  And I think in that sense I go for a different vibe – it’s almost like two different shows, and two different types of energy that I would try to create, based on those two settings.  Especially in a festival setting on an outdoor stage, it does have this feeling of wanting to be bigger than life.  In a theatre, you have this limited amount of space that you’re trying to fill, and in a festival setting it’s open-air – it could just go on and on and on [laughs] into the ether, so to speak.  And that’s a daunting task to try to fill that and make it feel intimate in such a large setting.  I think it’s just trying to find that balance, in a festival.

Those are especially the times for me when I need to try to stay the most relaxed.  Because it does feel like it takes so much more adrenaline and so much more energy to put on a big show on an outdoor stage, whereas you can really kind of hone in and be really soft and quiet in a nice performing arts center.  I have grown up doing both, and they’re two things that I really enjoy doing.  I just feel like it’s a totally different show in those two settings.

How do you experience the energy coming off the audience?

I think I’m pretty sensitive to it.  I think a lot of musicians, at least a lot of my peers, would say the same thing.  It’s funny – I’m sensitive to it, but I’ve learned, if it starts really getting to me, to kind of try to shut it off.  Because there have been nights when an audience will not necessarily be super-responsive during the show, and people will talk to me afterwards and say, “Oh my god, that was just so amazing!” and you think, “Oh, well, it didn’t feel like you were being responsive to it during the show…”  [laughs]

And so it’s easy to kind of let that stuff get to you in the moment, because all of the energies are sort of uber-heightened, and you become so aware of every little thing, that sometimes it might not be truthful to how it’s actually happening.  I think it can sort of have negative effects, but it can also have really positive effects.  If you’re feeding off of a great crowd, that can really add to the energy of the show.  But then, also, in times when it might be negatively affecting me onstage, I just kind of have to say, “Ok, well, just settle in and relax into the song and focus on that tonight.”

Do it more for yourself.

More for myself, yeah.  And it’s never going to be the same – it’s different from crowd to crowd and night to night – and you just kind of have to learn to adapt.

Do you have a pre-show ritual that you do to get yourself ready to take the stage?

Not necessarily.  I feel like lately what I try to do is I actually just try to be as relaxed as possible.  I really like to actually sit down [laughs], because when you’re onstage you’re standing and you’re putting out a lot of energy, for usually an hour and a half.  I just try to really conserve my energy.  A lot of people try to get really amped up before a show, and I’ve found that the more relaxed I am, the better I am on the stage.  The more energy I try to preserve, the more energy I have to put out on a stage.  But that isn’t really anything in particular.  I think it’s definitely not having conversations before [laughs] – I really try to just relax my voice, and save that energy for the stage.

And how does your state of mind before a show compare to your state of mind when you come off the stage?

That’s a really good question.  I guess the state of mind leading up to a show is, hopefully, relaxed.  But I think inevitably, certain little anxieties – and maybe anxiety’s not the right word, but you’re about to get on a stage in front of a bunch of people.  So you try to be as relaxed as possible, but ultimately you’re thinking about the show and how it’s going to go.  And then after the show, I do feel like it is this huge energy, because you’ve just been on this adrenaline trip, basically, and you’re just at the height of that when you get off the stage.  I feel like it normally lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour – a kind of buzzing, almost, buzzing from that heightened energy – and then it slowly fades away, as you load up the van and drive away. [laughs]  So it’s trying to be really relaxed and calm leading up to a show, and then it’s really high-energy buzzing afterwards.

Do you like to rehearse a show as a show, going through a whole set to get a sense of the arc of the set?

I’ve never really done that, rehearsed all the way through – well, that’s not true.  Definitely running through the songs, but I think there’s something to be said for mostly working on the songs that really feel like they need more time and more work.  But I feel like I have a pretty good sense in my head about the energy and the feel of different songs and, when I’m writing a set list, keeping that stuff in mind and thinking, how is this going to create an arc for a show to bring people up and down on this wave of feelings.  I really appreciate that when I go to see a show, and someone takes me on this up and down journey and it’s not totally horizontal.  I really appreciate that, and so I feel like that’s what I try to do when I create the set.

But it’s cool to leave some stuff for the moment, and for mystery, and not have every little detail planned out.  That allows you to – what I was saying earlier – to listen and react in the moment.  If it’s all planned out to a T, it’s easier to just kind of not be present and rest on your laurels and that kind of thing.  And so I try to leave a little bit of space for being present in the moment.

Do you feel that music school, and in particular your Contemporary Improvisation major, changed you as a performer?

Yeah, I do.  Maybe not as a performer, so much, because that wasn’t really the focus of my time there.  It wasn’t really on performing, it was more on the nitty-gritty of the arrangements and the music.  But I think, ultimately, having my ear expanded, which was really the thing that happened most during my time at NEC [New England Conservatory], that’s actually going to affect how I carry myself onstage.  It’s mostly going to affect the music, and the music is going to affect the performance.

I think being exposed to so many different styles of music that I hadn’t really listened to before – a lot of free improvisation, a lot more jazz, listening to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and a lot of great female vocalists that I hadn’t been exposed to before my time at NEC – that definitely influenced me and how I approach the stage.  But mostly I feel like, since I was performing for all my life, basically, that part is still me and was there before I went to NEC, and I think it was more the music that was affected by my time there, more than the performance aspect of it.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  Do you picture what you’re singing about?

Yeah, actually.  I have this conversation with people that ask me, “How do you remember lyrics?”  [laughs] And I think a lot of it actually is mental pictures of what’s happening in the songs.  And it can be sort of abstract, like a whole verse could have a certain image with it.  Like with my song “Build Me Up From Bones”, for instance, that whole song started based on the image of a fingernail moon.  And so, really, whenever I sing that song I think about that in my mind.  And even with a song like [Bob Dylan’s] “Ring Them Bells”, each one of those verses carries an image for me, like St. Peter and St. Martha and all of those.  It’s almost like when you’re reading a book, at least for me – you have this image in your mind of what’s happening – and I do feel like that’s how it is when I’m singing songs.

So you mentioned “Build Me Up From Bones” – you were thinking visually as you were writing it?

Definitely.  I think the line that was the spark for that song – this is when I was living in Boston, actually I remember it very clearly.  I was walking down the street, I think it was actually Hemenway Street, which was where I lived during my time in Boston, and it was at night, and it was a fingernail moon.  And I think I just wrote on my phone in my Notes app: fingernail moon scratching on the back of the night.  And I had that line for probably a month before I was, like, that’s pretty cool.

It’s very cool, by the way.

And I eventually took that and made it into the song.  So that image was the initial image that stuck with me for a while with that one.

I imagine that helps you in the studio.  It’s so hard to make a three-dimensional performance with just the aural component, so I imagine that would help you with fleshing out the performance when you’re not in the live setting.

Oh, definitely.  I think some of my favorite writers and performers create a whole world within their music, and they kind of transport you there, whether you’re listening to their record or you are at a live performance.  Ultimately, I feel like that’s why a lot of people go to see live music – it’s because they want to be transported for an hour and a half away from their realities.  And if you can create a space, an image, or a world that allows people to do that, that’s pretty powerful.

And obviously, when we’re seeing a live show, we’ve got the visual information as well – what’s the performer’s face doing, what’s their body language. 

Right.

So you have to put that across in the studio, and all the things that you do with your face and body do show up in the sound, but it has to be within pretty  controlled physical parameters.  How do you feel that you do create that visual sense for the listener when you’re recording?

Yeah, that’s a good question.  This is something that I’m thinking about all the time and trying to get better at.  I was having a conversation with Sara Watkins, actually, and Aoife O’Donovan, because we were all recording on Aoife’s record recently.  And we were talking about how, if you allow yourself to be physical in the studio and move the way you normally would on a stage, then that actually comes across in the recording.  If someone’s smiling while they’re singing a lyric, I feel like I can see that – I can hear it and then see it, you know?

Yes.

Or if someone is being big with their body when they’re singing a lyric, I feel like that comes across.  But a lot of times what winds up happening, and I feel like I’ve definitely been guilty of this, is that you get into the recording studio and you get into the vocal booth, and you kind of stand still [laughs] and sing the lyric really straight, and not at all how you would normally sing it if you’re playing with people or being on a stage.

And so I think if you allow yourself to be true to your physical self in the studio – we were all saying this – that definitely comes across on recordings.  I think it’s just that some people change their whole vibe when they sit in front of a microphone in a studio, and I think if you can allow yourself to just be relaxed and play how you would normally play, then at that point it’s up to the engineer to know how to capture that physicality within the recordings.

And that gets harder when you’re actually recording it live in the studio and you’re stuck behind your instrument.

Right.  Yeah, it’s tricky, and that’s what sets a great recording apart from a not-so-great recording.  And I think that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, I’m not crazy about the record, but I love seeing that person live…”  I think maybe that’s just a product of that, where it is hard to capture that spirit in the studio.  And I think some people are masters of that.  Some people are truly fantastic in a live setting, and might not have figured out how to capture that in a studio, and vice versa.  Some records are products, truly, of the magic of the recording studio and all the different devices and sounds that you can put to use in a studio, and then maybe they aren’t able to recreate that in a live setting.

So it works both ways.  And that’s why I feel like it’s fun to have each be their own thing, and try to bring in elements of both to each.  For me, anyway, a lot of my recordings have a lot of stuff going on that I don’t do in my live shows, and that’s fun.  I think it’s cool to see the different forms that a song can take on in different settings, and be this one thing on a record, but be this maybe more stripped-down thing in a live setting.

How has being in the studio, and doing producing duties in the studios, affected you as a performer – having the producer hat on?

I think it definitely goes back to the whole bandleader thing.  You have to be able to get outside of yourself a little bit, to be able to listen to it as a whole, and to be able to make comments and critiques based on the thing as a whole.  And I think that is actually kind of harder to do in a live setting, because you’re battling all of those other energies, like I was talking about, and so it’s easy to kind of fall into your routine and the way that you proceed through a live show.  Sometimes it can be hard to step outside all of that and see, “Oh, ok, this is the bigger picture, this is what’s going on.”

But having worked with [producer] Gary Paczosa so much, and shared those duties, he’s taught me a lot about noticing things and really taking everything into consideration.  The challenge then becomes, when you consider all the possibilities, how do you narrow it down to the ones that are really crucial to giving the song its life.  One great thing about Gary is that, from a very early age, he encouraged me to dream big and really consider all my options.  And now we’re at this point where we’re, like, “Ok, well, how do we see all the options and then become really picky about what’s really crucial and what the song really needs, and kind of strip it down to that?”  And that mindset in the studio definitely carries over to sculpting a live show as well.

[To be continued…]

In the final installment, to be posted next week, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 1 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present an in-depth conversation about performance with one of my very favorite musicians, Sugar Hill Records artist SARAH JAROSZ.  

A multiple Grammy Award nominee over her young but already illustrious career, Sarah won two Grammys in 2017, for Best American Roots Performance (“House of Mercy”, from her fourth album, Undercurrent), and for Best Folk Album (Undercurrent).

Sarah is a musical quintuple threat: singer, multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo), songwriter, bandleader, and co-producer. She is a regular member of the house band on A Prairie Home Companion, and has also appeared on Austin City Limits, the BBC’s Transatlantic SessionseTownAcoustic Café, Mountain StageConan, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among others

You can keep track of Sarah’s touring activity here, and sample some videos here.  

This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Sarah discusses her early path to becoming a performer, what inspired her to take herself seriously as a musician, and how she experiences being a bandleader. –VA

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What’s your earliest memory of performing, when you were conscious of performing for other people?  What did that feel like for you?

Well, for me it goes back a long way, and it kind of was just something that I always did.  I think one of the earliest documented performances of me, that I don’t personally remember, was when I was two years old, and it was a school production and I was singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and I was actually wearing a little flag dress, if you can believe it [laughs].  I grew up in Texas, after all!  So it was always something I did.  It just was always sort of second nature – the singing part of it.

It started out in school performances, and then I did a bunch of national choirs.  My first music teacher – her name was Diana Riepe – she was very formative for me.  She taught using the Kodály method of music, which is based around solfège – you know, the hand signals representing the notes.  She was the one that encouraged me to try out for these national choirs which were run by the Kodály people.

So I did that about five years, and it was always in a different place.  So that was actually my first experience traveling for my music.  This all started maybe in the second or third grade time frame.  And I got to go to Chicago and San Francisco and Massachusetts, and it was just really special to get to travel and see the country because of my music.  And luckily my parents were really supportive of that.  I just was always doing something where I was performing, and so it always felt comfortable being onstage in front of people.

Do you remember how you felt being onstage, how you experienced the audience and how you experienced your body, when you were that age?

I’m trying to remember.  It just felt normal – I don’t know that it felt any different.  It did feel good.  I remember really enjoying it, that’s for sure, and almost getting giddy off of it, getting up onstage, and being really excited afterwards.  And for a lot of my peers, I remember they would be, like, “Oh, I’m so nervous!”  And I just never felt that.  It felt really physically natural to do.

And then when you started playing instruments, did you feel that the instruments were an extension of yourself?

Yes.  Yeah, definitely.  And it’s actually to the point now where I almost feel weird onstage if I don’t have an instrument in my hands.  Because when I started playing the mandolin, and later on the guitar and the banjo, I was always playing and singing simultaneously.  Only recently in my shows did I start just doing one song where I was only singing.  Yeah, and so it did become an extension of that, and actually something that I came to really rely on.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or a version of yourself, or do you feel like it’s somebody different who’s up there?

It’s a little bit of both.  I think maybe the best way to put it would be “an extended version of myself”.  There is a certain amount of taking on another persona, because people want to be entertained.  I’m afraid to use the word “acting”, because it is me, and it is not being someone that I’m not, but it is sort of larger, to a certain degree, than I might be if I’m just having a conversation with someone or sitting around in a circle playing music.  But I think what I constantly work on is, I’m trying to find that balance of being able to entertain folks and put on a show, while still being really relaxed and just playing.  I think it’s finding a balance of that that’s key, and that’s what I constantly try to work on.

I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you, but you have so much poise on the stage…

Thank you!

And you seem so relaxed, and you seem like you’re able to just plug into the groove so readily.  I remember the first time I saw you was when you did a tweener [a song between sets] at RockyGrass.  You must have been 12 or 13 – do you remember that?

Yeah, I think I was 12.

I think you did “Blue Night” or something?

“Blue Moon of Kentucky”.

Yeah.  And everybody was, like, “What was that?”  I know I was.  Because you just seemed so completely comfortable, and that’s unusual for someone that age.  And you’ve definitely matured into that, but it’s something I feel like you’ve always had, and I’m sure you’re always hearing that.  What do you think that comes from?  What do you think accounts for that?

I think it comes, largely, from what I was saying about how’s it’s just always what I’ve done – I’ve been up on a stage since I was two years old.  And I think another part of it is having parents that, from a very early age, made me believe that it could be a reality, that it could be my career and my life.  I think I might have approached the stage differently had I been the kind of person that heard, “Oh, well, this is a great hobby, but you should really think about doing something else…”

“Have a safety plan!”

Yeah, exactly.  And that was never the case.  I’m very fortunate that they were so supportive of that.  So they made me feel comfortable, in that regard.  They made me feel like I could do it.  And especially starting out this young, that played a big role.  And then, on top of that, just seeing live music for as long as I can remember, witnessing other people do it, and recognizing things that I liked about certain performances and things that I didn’t like about others, and that being normal, too.  I think a lot of my peers, at my age, their parents weren’t taking them out almost every night to see live shows in Austin [laughs].  So that was a reality to me, too, just getting to witness so many amazing performances at a very early age.

What kinds of things did you notice that made you think, well, that works for me, or that makes sense for me – not necessarily that you’re going to steal or incorporate, but that would influence your own persona onstage?  Not necessarily even performers, but aspects of performance that you took note of?

Well, I guess early on, if we’re going way back, a lot of the things I would see were the Texas singer-songwriter folks – someone like Shawn Colvin, or Guy Clark, or Bill Staines – those are some of my earliest memories of concerts.  And so that’s its own thing.  It’s more of the storyteller persona of being onstage, which I love.

But then, I think what really gave me this jolt of excitement, of wanting to do it, was seeing Nickel Creek play.  Because that was really happening at the time that I had just picked up the mandolin – I was about 10 or 11 – and seeing Chris [Thile] play, and seeing the way that he is just a rock star onstage, but still with all these acoustic instruments.  And all of them were just so great onstage.  And seeing people that were closer to my age doing this and having such a great stage presence and making it just larger than life, you know, is how it felt to watch those shows at that age.  And that’s when I thought, “Ok…I want to do this!” [laughs]

And then, of course, you eventually started hanging out with these guys, at music camps and all that.  When did you feel like you were one of their peers, performance-wise?

Well, it’s kind of a blurry line, because a lot of them just made me feel so welcome from the very beginning.  But I will say, I feel like it’s really only since I moved away from home, and went to college [New England Conservatory], and starting life on my own now, that it really feels that way.  But truly, from the get-go, one of my favorite stories is when I first met Nickel Creek.  I think I was 10, and they were playing at a festival outside of Austin called the Old Settler’s Music Festival.  And they were doing a little workshop – you know how those things go at festivals.  And I had just seen their music video on TV, and I had just gotten my first mandolin.  And I walked up to them after, and Chris kneeled down and wrote, “Let’s jam sometime!” on my program. [laughs] And that was kind of the moment when I was, like, “All right! I want to get good enough to jam with him someday…”  [laughs]

But just for him to write that – I’m just any little girl – there was always that air of kindness.  And the same goes for so many people in the scene, like you’re saying, and I just felt really welcome.  And that had a lot to do with my being inspired and being encouraged to want to get really good.  Because all of those people were, like, “Well, if you work hard enough, you can do this.”

Yeah, there is a real sense of generosity in the community, and also a sense of wanting to bring people up, you know?

Yes.  And actually Mike Marshall, I feel like, is one of the best at that.  He certainly was that for me, right from the get-go.  A real turning point truly was my first RockyGrass Academy when I was 11.  That’s where I got to meet Mike for the first time and learn from him.  I mean, how cool is it?  I’m guessing maybe at that point he was in his 40s, and someone like that doesn’t have to give an 11 year old the time of day, you know? [laughs]  I had just been playing for a year.  But he was just so generous and so encouraging.  And he treated me like an adult, and I think that was also the thing about all those people.  They never treated me like a little kid, and they approached their teaching in that way as well.  They weren’t dumbing it down – they were always really challenging me.

It’s also interesting to me that your writing is as sophisticated as anything else that you’re going to find out there.  And that must come from a sensibility of being so saturated in the sophisticated theory that happens in that music that you’re around. 

Yeah.

And you were writing before you went to music school.  When you write, are you thinking in terms of how it’s going to feel to perform those songs?

Yes and no.  I think initially no, because I was just trying to see if I could do it in the first place.  I feel like the more that I’ve done it, I might be thinking about that aspect more – how it’s going to feel to play on a stage.  But initially, I guess I first started trying to write when I was 12 or 13.  And my mom had always written songs as a hobby, and that in itself made me feel like, “Ok, this is possible, this is something that people do…”  [laughs]  And from the very early stages, a lot of it was just kind of messing around with little ideas, and I would often show her the ideas, and she would say, “Ok, well, that’s cool – what if you tried this?”  Just having that influence in the house was kind of crucial.

And then, on top of that, all the great songwriters that I was exposed to from such an early age, and trying to, initially, kind of model the songs after those people – like Gillian Welch, or Tim O’Brien, or Darrell Scott.  I think, going back to my first record [Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009], a song like “Tell Me True” was very influenced by Gillian or Tim – kind of that old-timey sound.  And a song like “Broussard’s Lament” is very influenced by someone like Darrell Scott – the “percussion-y” style of guitar.

I definitely see what you’re saying about the influences.  However, you’ve got your own “voice” on those.  I mean, that’s definitely something that develops over time, but they’ve got your sensibility on them, don’t you think?  They’re original in that sense.

Yeah, I feel – as any musician feels, I’m sure – that you’re influenced by everything that you take in, and it goes in, and you kind of process it in your own original way, and then hopefully what comes out has its own stamp with your sound.  And that’s always what I was trying to do, and that’s what I still do, and that’s what’s so great about music and art – it’s just endless.  You can always be discovering something new that you haven’t heard before, and that’s going to set off some other little trigger inside of you that you might not have known was in there before.  That’s going to release something new in your interpretation, and the way that you process that is going to be different from the next guy, and so automatically that’s going to make it have its own original stamp.

And you do such interesting things with covers.  I think you pick covers that are challenging, but also may be freeing, in that they don’t have a real lyrical standard to them – like a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan cover that, you know, you’re definitely not going to sing it like they do it.

Exactly.  [laughs]

What inspires you to bring a cover to your act and to bring your own twist to it?  What is there in a cover that is intriguing to you?

I think a lot of it is picking songs that I feel I could do something unique and original to.  Like you’re saying, I seem to pick songs by writers that I admire greatly, but sound very different from me, even vocally, like Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.  Those are all such distinct voices.  I guess there are differences in the choice that goes into picking a cover for a live show versus picking a cover for a recording.

I think for a recording, it has to bring something to the table that makes sense on a record, and not just, like, “Ok, this is just a collection of songs.”  It has to make sense with the other songs.  It has to bring something that fills out the feel and the story.  Like with [Dylan’s] “Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, on my last record [Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013], that appealed to me because it was such a sparse arrangement of that song, and I had never really recorded something that open and bare before, and that seemed like a good texture to bring in to fill out the rest of the record.  But mostly it’s just picking songs that I love to sing and feel like I can do something a little new to.

When did you feel like you could bring something to the table as a bandleader?

I guess that always kind of came naturally.  I think that sort of spawned out of writing my own songs.  I think it might have been different had I not been writing my own material.  That in itself just gives way to hearing different arrangements and saying, “How do I want this song to take life on a stage or in a studio?” and from there thinking, “Ok, well, this person would be ideal, or this person would make it really great.”

And luckily, around that same time, I started going to a lot of these music camps.  Mike [Marshall] and Dawg’s [David Grisman’s] Mandolin Symposium, for instance, was a place where I started meeting musicians my own age who were into a lot of the same music.  And I think a lot of wanting to play my own shows came out of that – you know, playing with guys like Alex [Hargreaves] and Nat [Nathaniel Smith] and seeing, “Ok, these people are doing it, too.”  But then it goes beyond that, and you meet musicians you feel really get your music and can really bring your songs to life.

You have a really calm energy around bandleading.  When I’ve seen your trio with Alex and Nat, I have been struck by how you create a bubble around the three of you that’s like a safety zone or something…

Yeah.

…and sort of, like, what’s possible within that bubble?  You’re definitely including the audience, but I feel like Alex and Nat can just sort of lay back and do what they do.  And that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you see with a bandleader that there’s a kind of jangly energy to it that seems counter-productive, you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely.

So are you conscious of creating that?

Yeah, for sure.  Actually, the thing with Alex and Nat, it’s kind of seen its day, for now at least.  We played together for almost five years, and I was definitely excited to try out some other things.  So right now, I’ve done a few shows in another trio setting with Mark Schatz on the bass and Jedd Hughes on guitar and singing.  But I feel like this question pertains to any sort of configuration like that, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that do create that bubble and that sense of a wholeness.

Also, having played so many solo shows, it’s interesting to see the songs take form with musicians backing it up.  But I think the goal is to find those musicians that make it feel just as relaxed as if it were in a solo setting, and just as smooth and seamless.  And I feel like Nat and Alex really brought a lot to the table in terms of how that happened, and I’m excited to see other configurations and how my songs can take shape with different musicians.

[To be continued…]

In the next installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio. — VA


HOLLY NEAR — A Q&A

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

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


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

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops

Driessen

[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]

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


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

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Musician Resources, Workshops

Driessen

[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]

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…]


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

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources

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.  The Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their 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


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

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

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.  The Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their 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…


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

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources

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.  The Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nomination in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their 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…


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

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources

Marshall

[Photo Credit: Maria Camillo]

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