CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Mike Marshall (Part 2 of 4)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

Marshall

[Photo Credit: Maria Camillo]

Here is the second installment of my four-part interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall.  You can find Part 1 here.  The third installment of our conversation will be posted in one week. –VA

Do you feel that you have mastery of your instruments?

Mike Marshall:  I have a certain degree of it.  And, of course, no matter how much of it you have, you’re able to see the next mountain.  Because all that climbing one mountain gives you is a vista to see the next.  And so it’s an endless journey, one that nobody can ever get to the end of.

That’s so interesting to me, because most of us mere mortals would look at your playing and go, well, he can do anything.

MM:  Well, it’s not anything – I mean, there are limits.  There’s just the basic physical limits of how fast your fingers can move.  And maybe that’s a good thing, because I’m not sure people could hear much faster than Chris Thile!

Or the action on the mandolin can get any lower.

MM:  Right!  But there are so many things to strive for in music.  There’s the technical, and there’s the emotional, and there’s the compositional.  And to improve in all of those areas is just a life’s work.  And the kind of access that all of us have now just opens up the realm of what is music and where should it go next, and what’s my tiny little part in that.

How are you answering those questions?

MM:  I just try to make the most of each day, you know?  I wish there were many more hours in each day, and every day I try to work on something.  There’s piles of things here that are going to happen, maybe – I’ll get them together eventually.  And that includes specific tunes that I’m working on, usually Bach or something challenging – classical music.  Or tunes that I’m trying to write but I haven’t completed, or projects that I want to record and I have to put together all the pieces that it takes to make a project.

At the same time, there’s the endless floating demon of the music business, and how that all fits into paying one’s rent and living in the world.  And it’s a challenge that everyone has, living in this kind of capitalist society with these kinds of demands.  It’s difficult to find a patron you can go live with like they did in the old days, or a church, you know, who you can just write music for and they’ll take care of all of life’s necessities!  So you dance through all those different things, and at the same time you push yourself – try to make a living and try to push yourself as an artist.

What’s the best advice that you got coming up – specifically around performance?

MM:  You know, it might not have been something somebody said, but I can point to a couple of people who, just seeing how they did it, said everything to me.  And I would say that that’s probably some combination of John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Glenn Gould, and Bobby McFerrin.

Interesting combination!

MM:  All of them, for me, embody that feeling of letting yourself go and not being in the here and now, or being totally in the here and now and not caring about what people think – not being embarrassed by looking like an idiot.  Being totally comfortable in your own idiot-ness.

Do you ever watch video of yourself?

MM:  No, I hate it – it drives me crazy.  I can’t watch that stuff.

Do you have a sense of what is going on, even if you’re not really paying attention to it?

MM:  I have what I think is going on, but when I watch a video that’s not what I see!

What do you think is going on, and how is it different from what you see?

MM:  I mean, I’m just there enjoying the time, and trying to play as well as I can, and I’ll see things.  Like, why do I do that silly thing with my leg?  What am I doing?  I’m tapping completely out of time!  What the hell is that?  And, of course, I have no memory of doing it.  And maybe that’s a good thing – maybe that’s where we should be.  So that’s why I can’t watch it.  I’m not really there, you know, when I’m playing.  Music should be taking you out into the other dimension.

What percentage of the time do you think you’re in the zone when you’re playing?

MM:  Interesting question.  Boy, it varies greatly from band to band.   And you can slip in and out from moment to moment.

What kinds of things make it easier for you to get in the zone?

MM:  Well, it depends on what you’re talking about.  I’m mixed about it being the ultimate expression of a perfect performance – you know, that this person was totally in the zone, and that’s why this music is affecting us the way it is, or that’s why this performance is so great, because this person went in the zone and stayed in the zone the whole time.  I don’t necessarily think that’s the case.  I think that music is so complex, that one man’s zone is another man’s, “Oh, god, you gotta be kidding me!”  And so the audience is part of that, you know, that they’re maybe giving you license to go there or not.

I’ve been incredibly moved, and thought that somebody was hitting a really high place in their performance – somebody who I had maybe seen play many times, and thought I was seeing one of the highest expressions of their art – and then gone backstage and them just be completely depressed because they thought they were just crashing and dying.  And the same thing has happened to me, where I’ve been onstage just thinking, “Oh, god, I just cannot get it together!  What is wrong with me?” and then go backstage and somebody comes back there and says, “That show changed my life.”  And so I’m realizing that I’m not necessarily a good gauge of what the hell’s actually going on here, and I’d better just shut up and do my job, and go out there and try to play as good as I can, and enjoy the melodies, and enjoy the experience, because somebody might be loving it.

Do you think there’s some amount of letting go of needing to control the situation that may play into that?

MM:  Well, you know, this is again that dance – that’s those two trains again.  One train is complete control, because you’ve got to be in tune, and you’ve got to be in time, and you have to remember the notes, and you have this list, this checklist of things that for every single millisecond has to be checked off, right?  And at the same time, you know that the only way you’re actually going to be able to do all that stuff is if you forget about it.  There must be layers in the brain – I mean, that’s where practice comes in, where you can get the notes so far under your fingers that you know they’re going to be there, and now you can start thinking about, well, what do I want to do with these notes?  How do I want to really play them, now that I know they’re going to come out?  So then you can start thinking about the other dimension of expression.  And I can also start to listen to the other musicians onstage – hello, there’s other people up here! – and place my notes in relationship to them, and surprise them, and have them be a part of the interaction, and have the audience see that.

And it must be so interesting for you to be constantly mixing up who you’re playing with, and the material, and the kind of material.

MM:  Yeah, that’s a challenge.  I mean, there are months where I am playing, like, six completely different sets of repertoire, with whole different demands on me.  You know, one is Psychograss – ok, all those David Grier melodies and Tony Trischka bizarre tunes.  Then here comes Hamilton de Holanda from Brazil – you know, he’s just an absolute monster, and lived in that tradition his whole life and is ready to tear my head off.  And then here comes Thile, and we have to remember all those tunes that we wrote three years ago that are impossible.

Yeah, that are impossible when you’re at the top of your game!

MM:  Yeah!  And then I’m playing classical music with Caterina Lichtenberg, and it’s all about appropriate Baroque interpretation.  And so you just try to get yourself ready, try to do your homework so that you can have fun with it.

How do you prepare for a show?

MM:  Well, it’s triage, you know?  It’s whatever thing needs the most work at the time.  You know, I’ve got a tiny bit of an open space right now because I don’t have a show for a few weeks.  I have the Turtle Island String Quartet – I’m playing shows with them now, and there’s some very challenging music there.  So I’ve got about three weeks to get that music together, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment.  At the same time, Caterina and I are working on the 15 two-part inventions of Bach, and I’m playing the left hand on the mandocello and she’s playing the right hand on the mandolin.  And it fits perfectly on the mandocello.

But I’ve never really had a cello lesson – I just grabbed that instrument and just started playing it, caveman style, and invented a few things and figured out my own music, wrote tunes on it, and played a little bit of Bach here and there.  But to play all these things?  Oh my god, you have to have complete control of the whole instrument, and shift in and out of bass clef and treble clef.  And learning how to shift on a cello, you have to shift many more times – even though it’s tuned in fifths, you have to shift a lot more than on a mandolin or fiddle.  So it’s opening up my head to that whole world.  And it’s great – it’s like a big, long-term challenge, and we won’t record it probably for a year because we’ll want to perform it a bunch.

And your sense of scale would be so different.

MM:  Yeah.  We played three or four of them in concert, and had a ball – it’s going to be great.  But I really have to have this stuff under my fingers.  Because on top of the notes, and the challenge of playing the notes, is Caterina’s concept of how this stuff should be phrased, and where the accents should be, and how to do the trills and the cadences.

Do you ever think about taking cello lessons?

MM:  Yeah, I’m definitely going to.  I was working on the Bach 1st [Cello] Suite today, and I’m definitely going to go see a cellist and talk about fingerings.  I’ve got a lot of questions.  It changes everything – the way you finger something changes how the accents fall, and it’s just really important.

And you’re not using a bow!

MM:  Well, yeah, there’s that! Hey, maybe that’s the problem.  I thought I had a bow with this – I’ll have to look in that case again!  Yeah, you have to pluck every note.  In a way, the right hand’s ok – I’ve got that kind of down because that’s where I’ve lived my whole life.  It’s the left hand that’s very interesting.  You use open strings to shift up the neck, and there’s some logical things.  And, also, this is piano music.  So there’s certain kinds of arpeggios that are just triads, but god, they don’t lay worth a shit on an instrument tuned like this, but maybe on piano they just fall right out of the sky.  That’s probably the case.  But I love a challenge.  It seems like I’m the kind of guy who just has to have something like this to work on.

To be continued…


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Mike Marshall (Part 1 of 4)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

Marshall

[Photo Credit: Maria Camillo]

I am pleased to present the first installment of my four-part interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall.  Mike began his illustrious career as a member of the original David Grisman Quintet, joining the band in 1978 at the age of 19.  Since then, he has been one of the most innovative, respected, and well-traveled string players in the world of instrumental music, appearing on hundreds of recordings while expanding the horizons of American acoustic music to include many classical and international influences.  Please see the bio on Mike’s website for more information on his remarkable achievements and collaborations.  This interview will be posted in four weekly installments. –VA

One of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you, Mike, is I love the way that you seem to just plug into the joy – it just seems to come spilling out of you.  And I’m really curious to hear how you do that, or why you think that is.  Where does it come from for you?

Mike Marshall:  You know, I get people saying that quite often, and sometimes I’m not quite sure what they’re even talking about, because I’m just up there being myself.  And, of course, I am overjoyed with all of the people I play with.  I have a general feeling of amazing good fortune.  You know, if I go down the list just this year, it’s pretty insane who I get to be onstage with.  Darol Anger, Väsen, Paul Kowert, Alex Hargreaves, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – I mean, the list is kind of a who’s who of string music today.  Real inventers, real creative people, but also people who really know the roots of the music that they came from.  I forgot Danilo Brito, and Jovino Santos Neto.  It’s kind of ridiculous, actually.

So there is that general feeling of joy to be living at the same time as some of these people.  Everybody wonders what it would have been like to jam with Django Reinhardt, or to listen to J.S. Bach improvise, and most of the people I play with, I feel like I’m getting to have that kind of live experience.  So that’s something to be pretty happy about, I think.  And then there’s the added dimension of the audience, and their involvement.

How do you experience the audience?  What does it feel like to you?

MM:  You know, that part’s really easy – it comes very naturally to me.  Maybe early on in my career I worried about whether the music I was playing was too intellectual for certain kinds of crowds, whether it be a festival where people are drinking and dancing in the dust, or a loud bar, where it might not be the optimal setting for the kind of music I’ve chosen to play.  But over the years, I’ve realized that there’s a way to approach almost any live situation and embrace that crowd and that scene, and include them in what it is that you’re trying to get across, and still be 100 percent true to your artistic vision, but include them in the party.  It’s really important to me that it happens.

Can you give me an example of how that comes about for you – where you’re being true to yourself but you’re letting the audience in?

MM:  It might just be a simple introduction to a tune, because we play instrumental music – it’s like, what does it mean?  You could name all of those tunes “Opus 1”, “Opus 2”, “Opus 3”, you know?  But for whatever reason, we give them titles.  If it’s “Borealis”, a tune I wrote with Darol, it has a story to go with it, and it hopefully helps people give them some visual reference.  A historic thing about maybe where it was written or what it meant for us can be helpful, I think, to bridge that gap.

And then there’s during a song, where a great lick or a great break or something is going to amp things up for the audience and for you, where it’s going back and forth, the energy’s running in a cycle…

MM:  Uh huh.

Are you one of those performers who’s in touch with that energy as it’s cycling through?

MM:  Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s two planes of reality going on almost simultaneously – two, or six, you know?  But certainly there’s the whole issue of you being able to play your music, and play it as well as you can, and that whole internal struggle of trying to play something that’s difficult, or trying to push yourself improvisationally to another place, or trying to really be synched up with the musicians onstage and to be totally centered on the music.

At the same time, there’s that dialogue going on with the audience and that energy that you’re talking about flowing back and forth.  But one can be a distraction to the other, I find, and for me it’s about keeping a balance between those two trains running that are both running simultaneously in the same direction.  If you get yourself too caught up in the audience and the feeling of what’s going on with them and me, and how do I look, you can miss a beat, right?  You can get too distracted from what you’re there to do.  At the same token, if you get too self-absorbed in your little world and you’re staring at your navel, then you’re not really in the room with all those people, and they came there to be with you.  So I’m conscious of both things.

How do you keep focus?  I know that’s a struggle for a lot of people, to learn how to put the focus where it needs to be.  Is that something that gets easier with a lot of experience, or is that something that you’ve always had?

MM:  It’s something I’ve had to a certain degree, but it can come in and out of focus, depending on the situation.  If I’m playing something that’s really difficult, for instance – I tend to play a lot of challenging music, so this is an area where you have to be really careful of nerves, and conscious of them, to be alert enough to play what you’re there to play, but not so freaked out that you freeze yourself.  So a lot of it has to do with who I’m playing with.  There are certain kinds of musical collaborations that are just like water – I mean, it just flows, and there’s just no “work” feeling to it.

Like you and Darol, for instance?

MM:  Yeah, well, that’s a funny one, because we’re really good at a certain kind of playing, especially improvising together – we can do that really well.  But, I have to say that when we play as a duo, and I’m 50 percent of the sound, and you just have a mandolin and a fiddle, we have to work really hard, and be super-focused on that music to pull that off.  Whereas, playing with Väsen is like being thrown into a river that’s flowing, and there’s so much other water around you that’s carrying you that if you just stand up there and hardly play anything, it’s fine, you know?  You’re not going to screw that up.

When did you feel that you were at a level to play on the national stage?  How did you come to that realization, or was that kind of a gradual thing?

MM:  It was gradual, but it ramped up rather quickly.  I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12 from a local guy down the street who played all the different string instruments – this was in Florida – and he also played a lot of different styles, just played all of them a little bit.  He wasn’t a heavy virtuoso, but he was a great teacher.  And I’ve always been grateful to him – his name was Jim Hilligoss – for kind of just pointing me at a whole bunch of musical plates.  And he had me reading out of the Alfred’s Basic Guitar Methods, and saying the names of the notes and counting out the time and studying music theory.

But at the same time, he started a bluegrass band, and had me playing bass and mandolin and banjo and fiddle, and playing by ear, and going to jam sessions with real Southern old-time musicians – country musicians who would have Saturday night jams at their house.  So I sort of got both sides of music training going, simultaneously, early on.  And we all started a little teenage bluegrass band at that time, called The Sunshine Bluegrass Boys – we had peach-colored double-knit suits and a Winnebago with our name painted on the side of it.

Hey, a Winnebago, huh?  Nice!

MM:  We would go to these festivals all over Florida and Georgia and enter the contests, or eventually we were getting hired to play.  And that was the early ‘70s, when the Osborne Brothers, and Jim and Jesse, and The Lewis Family – all these bands were playing festivals, and there was endless jamming all weekend long.  So I just sort of got thrown into this whirlwind of Southern music, even though I wasn’t from the South.  But that was a very exciting time, because you had Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe and groups like The New Grass Revival were just forming – the second generation – and The Country Gentlemen, who were pretty modern at that time, and lots of experimenting going on in the music scene.  And I just got really swept up in the whirlwind of the excitement of traditional music but also something super-creative going on.

I’ve been reading the new Tony Rice biography [Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, by Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright], and it describes how you basically showed up at his door and said, “I want to play music with you,” and he took you in.  And I was thinking, certainly the music was new and changing direction, but it seems that the performance style was as well – what you were doing on the stage – not just the music.

MM:  Yeah, everything about it was shifting.  The best example I have is the first New Grass Revival album cover.

Oh, sure, yeah.

MM:  It kind of says it all, you know?  It was the ‘60s – it just sort of blasted into traditional music with the force of a nuclear explosion.  And it sent a whole bunch of people back in time, studying the roots of the music, and you end up with a Bruce Molsky.  And it sent a whole bunch of other people kind of out into the stratosphere saying, “Wait a second, I come from this tradition, but what is jazz?  And how does that relate to this?  And what is Indian music, and what is improvisation, based on where I am and what my tradition is?  How do I stay true to my tradition and yet push at these boundaries?”

And when you think about how it’s presented on the stage, you’re going away from this sort of stilted, stand-in-one-place presentation.

MM:  Yeah, gone are the matching outfits!  So it’s a political statement as much as a social statement.  You’re connecting with a different kind of audience.  I went out to the West Coast, and San Francisco was such a hip place.  And here were these guys just kind of holed up in a house in Marin County, working on their intricate, crazy new music – all day long, eight hours a day, just playing together.  It was a real sort of West Coast “Big Pink”.  [Note:  Big Pink was the house in West Saugerties, New York that was shared by The Band members Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, where The Band prepared to record their debut album, Music from Big Pink.]  They worked for a year before they cut their first record, you know?  So, yeah, it was maybe connected somehow to the whole West Coast psychodelia and Grateful Dead scene, in that you just walked onstage in a t-shirt and whatever you were wearing that day.

And the way you were onstage, too?

MM:  Yeah, you know, it was Grisman with his antics – a crazy wild man with a beard who moved all over the stage.  Tony Rice was always the antidote to that – stood stiff like a pillar.  But I’ve come to realize now that if you’re playing the guitar, the acoustic Martin guitar, you kind of have to do that – especially the way he plays it.  But the focus was on the music – it wasn’t really about presenting a show in terms of acrobatics.

What do you think about the school of thought that if you make a big show of looking like you’re working really hard, then the audience is going to think you’re doing more amazing stuff than if you make it look easy?

MM:  Well, that’s true and not true.  I can really see both sides of that, because when I think about Tony Rice at one of these festivals, getting up and playing his “Shenandoah” or something…

…and he’s just standing there…

MM:  …he’s just standing there, and people do end up just going out of their minds.  Because there’s so much that goes into this question of performance, because people are referencing off of their memories, when they’re hearing a band, as much as their eyes.  And so sometimes you just walk on the stage and people applaud, because they’re so happy to see you.  They’re happy that that performer is finally in their town.  And as soon as he opens his mouth and you hear the sound of that music, then you’re just swept into that world.  Because of the recording thing, you’ve spent all this time with those CDs, and now you’re really hearing it live, and it’s a little bit different but you’re totally focused on it.  And I think as a recording artist, after you get a lot of years behind you, you’re really at a different kind of advantage than an upcoming performer who’s just getting started with that.

You’ve got some built-in “cred” that comes with you when you walk out there.

MM:  Yeah, you hear Pete Rowan sing, and it’s so Pete.

He’ll talk about Bill Monroe…

MM:  Here comes Bill, here comes that song that you’ve heard a million times…

…“Walls of Time”…

MM:  …and it’s totally cool!  That’s exactly why you’re there.  So does he have to jump around to get your attention?  No.  He’s just standing there being Pete.  Or Tim O’Brien – god, just hear him sing one note, and you’re, like, that’s why I’m here.  And so this question of performing for the audience – I think that our generation, in fact, of those new acoustic pickers who decided to not wear the matching polyester suits anymore, like the ‘60s generation, kind of thumbed their nose at that whole idea of jumping around, creating anything that had to do with a Las Vegas-type show.

Have you noticed, though, in the newest generation, there is quite a bit of that going on?

MM:  Yeah, things are shifting now!  And the focus has changed.  Since the post-Grateful Dead times, there’s now a need to fill that void that the Dead left.  And that’s a different thing – that’s a party.  As a band, you are in charge of creating the event that’s really a dance.  It’s, get those people up and jumping and get them dancing.  I’m thinking Yonder Mountain [String Band] and String Cheese [Incident], that generation of rootsy musicians.  And that event calls for a whole bunch of things.  First of all, it calls for volume – you have got to be loud.  And so on go all the pickups.

So we’re talking about two different needs, different kinds of entertainment events. One is the people are actually there to sit quietly and listen, and it’s a little closer to classical music or jazz, or even old-timey music and bluegrass the way it was.  And the other is a holiday – it’s a giant event, and it’s a party such that people are prepared to really jump around.  And so as a performer, the demands on you are very different in each of those situations.

To be continued…


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Tim O’Brien (Part 2 of 2)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my interview with Grammy®-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.

Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer.  The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.  (See this previous post for additional musings on Tim and Hot Rize.)

Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene.  He has appeared on countless recordings in collaboration with other performers, and he has just released his 13th solo album, Chicken & Egg, which is conveniently available for purchase, along with several other of his CDs, at Tim’s website.

Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during the Wintergrass festival in Bellevue, Washington, while I was there teaching a music performance master class.

The first installment of this conversation was posted one week ago.  –VA

When you’re in the audience, what are the qualities of a performance that enthrall you?

Tim O’Brien:  Well, I don’t know, in a show the performers have so much more going for them than they do with a recording, or even with a video, because they have this sort of visual thing and this one-time-only version of it that’s just kind of like, “Wow, well here we are.”  Like, if somebody buys a CD or a DVD of a performance, they go, “Ok, well, we can watch this now, or we can watch it later, or we can watch it again.”  They might not ever really pay attention to it.  But when it’s the one time, you just tend to be there – I think it tends to draw you in.

So when you think of your favorite performers, why are they your favorite performers?  What qualities do they have?

TO:  Well, there’s the great instrumentalists that are improvisers, and you’re kind of waiting to see what they’ll do, what they’ll come up with, or just the fascination of someone’s incredible technique – the amazement.  It’s like a feat of an acrobat or somebody – it’s exciting.  There’s the exciting part.  I mean, bluegrass is that way.  People go to bluegrass shows to get excited by the music, because a lot of it is fast tempos, and you wonder if they’re going to be able to do it.  And so you’re kind of rooting for them, and then you’re excited when they do.  It’s like a football game.  And there is a sort of competition in the bluegrass thing – sometimes they call it a cutting contest – where you’re trying to play everything you can to show the other guy how cool you are, and the other guy does the same, and then you’ve got to even come up with more.  It’s kind of a contest, so there is that sort of sporting thing.

But, you know, when you go to a show, people are on your side – they’ve come through the door with the intention of sitting down or dancing or whatever to your music and your performance.  It’s like going into church.  Everybody prays a different way.  You know, you have silent prayer – it would be ridiculous to think that everybody’s thinking the same thing.  Even if they’re on the same prayer, I’m sure they interpret it differently.  And yet, everyone has the same intention, which is to get spiritual.  And it’s not far off with a concert or a festival.  A festival is like a hundred concerts – it’s like you have a hundred concerts over three days, and you never stop – it’s like an immersion in that.  So the idea that you’re supposedly going to take time to appreciate art, and you’re going to be entertained – under the guise of entertainment, you’re coming through there – well, really what’s happening, I think, is that people get their own ideas about what’s happening.  And then, somewhere along the line, like with song lyrics and a good performance of a song lyric, you’ll strike some kind of nerve that’s common to everybody in the room.  Certain songs will do it every time, because they’re just good.

And then also it’s songs that everyone knows – I mean, there’s nothing more sure-fire than that, if you get a song that everyone knows.  Like if I play “Gentle On My Mind” [by John Hartford] at a gig, I’ve recorded that song, but mostly I’ve done it since Hartford passed, and that brings up so much context.  Everybody in the audience that has heard of John Hartford, everybody that has ever seen him, they’re thinking about him.  So you get everybody on the same page, and it’s like that power of everybody getting pointed in the same direction, and you never know when that’s going to happen.  And I see performers sometimes that I’ve never seen before and I’m just totally blown away, and you go, “That’s the best band I’ve ever heard.”  And it’s just because they took you to that place, I think.

And sometimes it’s the circumstances of the show.  For instance, I was in the front row of your Red Knuckles show at the Wildflower Pavilion at RockyGrass (in July of 2009).

TO:  Oh, yeah.

And that was, like, the place to be on the planet Earth at that moment.

TO:  It was a pretty good moment.  Yeah, that was good.

Because everybody was so charged.

TO:  Yeah, it was contagious, the mood.  But it’s like the public’s perception of it.  Like, if I come from Nashville to Wintergrass, they go, “Oh, they came all the way from Nashville.  These people came from far away.  Well, let’s go!”  If I was playing the same music and I came from Tacoma, they’d go, “Oh, yeah, well he’s coming from Tacoma.  Maybe I’ll stay home this weekend.”

“He’s a local guy…”

TO:  But you set up this kind of condition, and it’s not hard to win in that situation.

But, I don’t know, my perception of that Red Knuckles show was that it seemed like you guys really got to take your leashes off, even though you were doing what was expected of you for that show.

TO:  Yeah, what was good was that, well, we have a big backlog of experience together, and so much that we forget it all, and then it was amazing to all of us to see each other do their thing.  And those guys are all so funny.  And it’s also funny to get a sideman that’s unsuspecting.  I mean, Hoot Hester [playing fiddle] knew what we did, but he hadn’t really done this with us before.  So it’s a process.

A wild card.

TO:  You just put it through this process and see what happens.

But the energy was just flying.

TO:  Yeah.

If you could have made a visual representation of the energy that was flying around, it would have been like one of those Pink Floyd laser light shows.  It was actually one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced as an audience member in terms of having that sense of being in the vortex – that this is the place to be, right here, right now.  What do you think accounted for that energy?

TO:  Well, there was no plan.  Like I say, we have a lot of context, and we have a lot of common experience as a band.  And yet, we were kind of on the edge, wondering what was going to happen next.  And we tried some songs that we hadn’t even talked about playing, and that kind of thing.  You know, you haven’t played them for ten years or something – that’s kind of fun.  And then if it goes well at all, then you’re amazed, so that’s contagious to the band.

I think that the audience picks up on that, when you’re working harder.  I find as an instrumentalist, when you play these solos in bluegrass situations, you get more interest from the audience when you’re trying.  When you maybe don’t succeed as well other times when you’re so prepared with a solo and it looks easy – it probably sounds easy, and the audience goes, “Well, that’s good and everything, but…”  But when somebody kind of grimaces, and they screw up and they try harder, they give them applause for that.  So it’s kind of funny.

Do you ever find it difficult to connect to the emotional “nugget” of a song, even when it’s your own song?  Do you ever feel that there’s too much distance from what caused you to write the song in the first place?

TO:  Yeah, well, some of the songs don’t have a staying power, and some of them just never go out of style, so you’ve just got to go with your heart on that.  But then people want to hear songs, and you go, ok, well, I’ll try this one.  But at some point you have to sort of say, ok, this is in my bag, or it is not, and kind of be ready for it.  I get in the trap, particularly when I’m playing solo – when I don’t have anybody else, and I can’t complain if the other guys in the band don’t know it – and they’ll request these songs, and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah”, and then I play it, and a lot of times I’ll just stop in the middle and say, “Sorry, I don’t remember the rest of this!”  And it’s because I’m not into that song, really.  I’m kind of past it.  And I hear them on the records and I go, “Oh, ok…”  And there’s probably some on this record I’m doing now [Chicken and Egg], and that’s ok.

Actually, my buddies in Hot Rize – I think it was Charles [Sawtelle], or it might have been Pete [Wernick], I’m not sure – he said, “You know, it’s like baseball.  The best hitter in baseball gets a .400 average – that’s 40 percent of the time he gets on base.”  You know, so, you’re doing pretty good just starting and ending together – that’s pretty good!  I don’t feel so bad if I mess up, sing out of tune, sing the wrong lyric here or there – it’s ok.  Mostly, in the end, we win.  We have a good win/loss average.

Well, you must have to maintain a fairly encyclopedic knowledge, especially with all the different jobs you do.  I’m sure that a lot of times you’re just kind of flying into a situation, having to just jump into it and be expected to know stuff.

TO:  Yeah, it’s an interesting thing, the different situations.  I mean, it’s really good, those different situations – like I say, the variety is good.  I’m getting ready to do a tour with Mark Knopfler – six weeks, I’m filling in for a guy – and so I get this glimpse into this other world.  But it’s like an eight-piece band.  I’m usually either solo or with two, maybe three, other guys.  And it’s also not me.  I was worried about it, that I wouldn’t be good at it.  I thought I might get fired after the first week for being not used to being a sideman!  But it was good because a couple weeks ago I did a tour with twenty pieces – it was called the Transatlantic Concert.  And it was like a revue.  But I could play on anything I wanted to play on, as long as the performer heading up that piece was in agreement.  And it was a real great thing about contributing to everyone else’s parts, and finding the subtle little thing that might add to it.

So that’s the role that’s coming up, and it’ll be good instruction, instead of being the guy – you know, the other guys are following me, and there’s a little more on my plate when I’m the front man than when I’m a sideman.  I’m very comfortable in that role, but part of that job is, you’re the one that relates to the audience in a verbal way – non-singing way – and if you’re the singer, you’re the one that’s speaking to them in that way – with lyrics.  Communication.  So you’re doing the main front part of the work, and you’re the focus.  And it’s a wonderful, very powerful, position.  Even in a room with ten, twenty people in the audience, it’s still a powerful thing.  And I like that challenge.  And, like I say, I like to kind of mess it up and see what happens.  And I’ll turn to the guys, if it’s a band, sometimes – you know, we have this set list and we practice and everything – and I’ll go, “Look, we didn’t practice this, but just follow along here, because I just need to break out of the straightjacket.”  And then sometimes really good stuff happens.  Sometimes it’s terrible, but you sort of have to try.

And, you know, if it’s a train wreck, then chances are people love you anyway.

TO:  Yeah, there can be train wrecks.  That’s why I say, if there’s an obvious one, even if I might get away with it, I go, “Uh, yeah, I sang that verse already, didn’t I?”  And they go, “Oh, yeah!”  They don’t mind.  But they like it better if you acknowledge that, I think.  Because then you’re one of them.  I mean, you are one of them, and you get that understood right away.

It’s like, “We’ll get through this.”

TO:  Yeah, well, like I say, I could never be the one who didn’t allow the flash photography and the recording, because to me it would be hypocritical to say, “I don’t want that to go out because it doesn’t represent me.”  Well, how could I stand myself?  I know what I’m doing is bringing some kind of happiness to people, and it’s helping in some way, even if I do screw up.  And, in fact, maybe if I do and acknowledge it, it even makes it better.  So I’m not saying that you need to mess up, but I think you need to show yourself as a human being.

You know, Rosalie Sorrels – she talks and talks and talks, and it’s not like she has a sort of set thing she’s going to say, and it’s kind of this ramble.  It doesn’t necessarily connect to the song.  She eventually gets back to the thing, but by the time she’s introduced the first or second song, you kind of get to know her.  And that’s the thing – you’re just cutting the ice, you’re taking the barriers down, you’re all trying to get together in a performance.  It’s a thing where you meld souls together or something.  And, you know, the power, the abandon of that – things can lift up in ways that they can’t when you’re just doing this on your own.

Like I say, I get excited when I’m writing sometimes, and when I’m recording sometimes as well.  But getting a group together and sort of leading them into something is really very rewarding, and it’s fascinating.  And there’s something mysterious about it that I don’t know.  I think I’ve told you everything I can tell you about planning it.  But there’s something that happens, and can happen, that’s really wonderful, and that’s what I go back for.  That’s why I lose sleep, and cramp up in airplane seats, and eat bad food.

And be away from your family.

TO:  And be away from the family.  It’s because of that.  I think it probably helps me as a friend, as a father – this practice.  I mean, I think for anybody, doing the best you can makes you a better friend.  And I don’t know, you just want to be a solid citizen, and I try to be.  But this performing thing, that’s kind of the best thing I can do.  If I could invent cures for cancer, that would be good, that would be probably better, you know, stuff like that – or build a bridge, that would be good.  But my own particular job is this, and it seems like I can do it.  So I keep trying.

Note:  Thanks again to Tim for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation with me about performance.  I encourage my readers to visit their local independent music store or Tim’s newly-redesigned website to peruse his merchandise, and take any chance you can to see him in concert. –VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Tim O’Brien (Part 1 of 2)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

I’m pleased to present Part 1 of my interview with Grammy®-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.

Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer.  The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.  (See this previous post for additional musings on Tim and Hot Rize.)

Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene.  He has appeared on countless recordings in collaboration with other performers, and he has just released his 13th solo album, Chicken & Egg, which is conveniently available for purchase, along with several other of his CDs, at Tim’s website.

Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during the Wintergrass festival in Bellevue, Washington, while I was there teaching a music performance master class.

The second installment of this conversation will be posted in one week.  –VA

When did you first know that you wanted to be a performer?  What did that feel like?

Tim O’Brien:  Well, when I started playing music, when I started playing the guitar, it was something that I could do.  I had an aptitude for it, and I learned pretty fast, and it was a safe place for a kind of confused 12 year old, you know?  I wasn’t an athlete guy, and kind of shy, so it was good to have something that I could do that was good for your self-esteem.  But then I did some musical theater stuff, too, later in grade school and in high school, and that was good – I found out I wasn’t nervous onstage, and people enjoyed it, so you get the positive feedback.  I think you’ll find that lot of people that perform regularly, they describe themselves as shy, and they don’t know how to fit in.  But what happens onstage, see, is you have this sort of theoretically controlled environment where you put your best foot forward, and you can sort of leave out insecurities and leave out parts of yourself that maybe you don’t want.  And you get to present this thing in some kind of a controlled way.  And then, if you have songs, or if you’re in a play and you have your lines, then you have less question.  It’s just kind of a safe place.  It’s funny.  A lot of people are like, “I would never get up onstage.”  They’re not shy in a social situation, like I am, but then they won’t get up onstage because to them, that’s crazy.

So do you feel like yourself when you’re onstage, or do you feel like somebody else?

TO:  I do, I feel like myself.  And maybe I’m fooling myself – I don’t know if that is me or not.

Do people who know you well see a difference between the person you are onstage and the person you are offstage?

TO:  They don’t say anything about it.  I haven’t heard too many comments.

I had a funny thing where, I go to this festival in Denmark every year, and there’s a guy that makes mandolins that I know, a friend of a friend – I know him and his wife.  And I’d always go and visit him at his instrument booth, and got to know his wife and everything.  And he knew my music, but she didn’t.  And one year at the festival, I played with Steve Earle, and so she saw me play with Steve Earle – I was in his band for that gig – and after the show, she was a little loaded, but she went, “I had no idea!  I’m really embarrassed!”  She was really embarrassed that she knew me all this time but didn’t know that that’s what I did.  I mean, she knew I played – it’s weird…

She didn’t know you did that, though!

TO:  Yeah, she’d just go, “Whoa, I’m just embarrassed.  I’m sorry!”  I’m going, “What are you sorry about?  So, you finally came to a gig.  Fine.”  To me, I’m the same.  I think I’m the same – I don’t know if that’s true or not.

Well, you have a really laid back persona onstage.

TO:  Well, that’s another thing – that’s like a Pete Seeger extension or something.  He says he doesn’t have fans, he has friends.  And, you know, that’s a way of looking at it that’s benign – it makes it easier.  I mean, some people think the audience is their enemy, and they have to win them over.  To me, they most often paid money to come see you.  And maybe they don’t know what you do, but they have an open mind about it.  They’ve reached out to you, so that all you need to do is reach out a little to them and everything’s fine.

You know, the thing about the performance, I think, it’s not so much about getting this particular song a perfect rendition, or telling this joke the right way – although there’s those who do that, and they can do that.  But to me it’s just about getting people together and sharing a common experience.  The audience has their role, and you have your role, but you can’t really get it going without each other.

There’s that energy that passes between the two.

TO:  Yeah, it goes back and forth.  Actually, I’m so addicted to that sort of thing.  You know, you’re up there and the magnifying glass is on you, and it makes you seem bigger than you are.  But I think that there’s a real give and take there.  It’s really addictive.

So given that, which do you prefer – big or little gigs, eye contact or darkness?

TO:  Well, I think the variety is good, because there’s a comfort zone, that sometimes it gets kind of old.  So I think the variety is good for that reason.

And you do a lot of traveling, so you get to experience a lot of different cultures.

TO:  Yes.  Every place you play, every state in the Union, is a different vibe, the way people react.  And then you go to Germany, it’s a whole different world.  You go to Scotland and England and Ireland, it’s completely different from place to place.  I was in New Zealand recently – that was a whole other thing.  Luckily, I mostly play places that speak English as their main language.  But it’s also true if you go to other places.  Like I was in Italy last year, and they love music.  There’s something there, whether they understand all the words or not – there’s something about the music.  I don’t know, music, they say that it’s kind of a precursor to language.  So I think there’s something there that calls everybody together to some sort of old place, some sort of cultural kind of DNA, a kind of reference or something.

It’s primal.

TO:  Yeah.

How do you experience being in the zone?

TO:  Well, I think that there’s some sort of abandon that all performers hope to reach, and it’s elusive.  There’s a certain discipline to putting on the show, where you want to be prepared enough to where you can do it even if you’re in a bad mood, or the sound’s bad, or your strings break, or whatever, you know – you can still go.  But I think everybody wants this special feeling that comes up, like when you hear a piece of music that puts shivers up and down your spine – that is what you’re after.  It’s like when people go fishing, I think.  They might not catch anything, but they’re holding out for that really good time, you know?  And I think Bill Monroe was that way – his fans were that way – because he was kind of like Jerry Garcia in that he would not necessarily be good every night.

You never knew what you were going to get.

TO:  You didn’t know what you were going to get.  But there was some amazing transcendence that would happen from time to time that if you weren’t there for it, you’d be mad, and you’d hear about it.  And so, you know, there’s something about that.  But I don’t know, getting in the zone, you want to be prepared.

How do you experience it when it happens to you?

TO:  I’m just kind of lost – I don’t really think about anything.  And it happens every once in a while, but it’s elusive.  But it’s the reward.  Now, the zone, the real zone that I experience in a bigger way is when I’m writing something, and I’m onto some kind of idea.  And I get kind of giddy, and I get kind of excited, and I start laughing, and I go, “This is great!”  And then I just wish that would continue, and it doesn’t.  It can’t continue, but some glimpses, though – you get enough rewards of it that you keep going for it.

Can you think of a particularly transcendent performance experience that you’ve had, where all the stars were aligned and you just couldn’t believe what was going on, and it was well beyond what you had hoped for?

TO:  Well, I’ll tell you one thing came to mind, and I can’t recommend it for anyone.  I used to get these terrible ear infections, or earaches, and after a while I got to where I used these ear candles.  You know, you get antibiotics and wash out your ear and stuff, but ear candles will draw all this crap out of there, right?  So then I was in London and this thing was welling up, and I could tell it was going to really get bad, and it just kept getting worse and worse, and it was the night before we left to go home, and we had this gig.  And I never was able to find anything to help.  And in looking for ear candles, I went to this herbalist, a Chinese medicine place in that neighborhood in London, and they gave me all these herbs to make tea.  They said, “Don’t do the ear candles, it’s only a temporary fix.  But if you take this stuff, it’ll fix it forever.”  And actually, its true – it hasn’t happened since.  But to make a long story short, I was in really bad pain, still, at this gig, and I was with Darrell Scott, and I told him, “Look, let’s just kind of show up and plug in and play, no sound check.”  We got there at a quarter to nine and plugged in and played.  And after the gig was over, he said, “Man, you played your ass off.”  And I remembered, when I looked back on it, that I was able to play a lot better, and it was because I wasn’t thinking about it.  I didn’t put any expectation on the gig – I had real low expectations.  I was thinking, I’m not going to play very long, I’m going to try to keep my effort to a minimum, blah blah blah.  And instead, it just all sort of blossomed out.  And the singing was good, and the grooves were better, and the playing was a lot more effortless.

And you experienced it while it was happening?

TO:  Yeah.  Well, towards the end I did.  And I realized that’s probably why – I was distracted.  And so that’s kind of a thing with the writing, too – I usually get distracted.  You have to trick yourself, almost, into being in the zone.   And some kind of stimulant will help you, sometimes, but it’s only temporary.  People try drugs and alcohol, and caffeine – and it might help for a while, but it’s not going to help every time.  And then it gets to be a crutch, and then you’re fighting the effects of it.  So I don’t know.

I guess I try to change up the set list, too, so that it’s not the same every night.  And like I was talking before about discipline – like the discipline of being able to do it backwards and forwards, knowing exactly what you could do, and if you were totally brain-dead you could still do the show.  And maybe that’s good, because then you’re not worrying about what the next lyric is, or what the next chord is – you know it so well that you can just let it flow.  But sometimes I change up the set list just to get out of the comfort zone and try to find something new.  But it’s elusive.  It’s just as elusive if you do the same set every night as if you do a different set.  You know, there’s no substitute for being in practice as a singer – you know, warmed up as a singer and a player.

Sure, being in good musical shape.

TO:  And having rest and being sharp.  But it’s good to get away from everything.  The contest is to get away from the workaday and just let stuff happen.

Are there things about yourself as a performer that you feel have changed over the years, or that you’ve consciously tried to change, or that you still want to change?

TO:  Oh, I’d like to be more consistent.

Consistent how, as a player?

TO:  Yeah, as a player and, you know, with tempo and tuning and tone.  I have so many different roles that I play that I never really get into that.

How about as a front man?  Are there things that you feel that you do differently with your years of experience as a front man than when you first started out?

TO:  Well, maybe I’m not as worried about it as I used to be.  I used to be real worried about making sure there was no dead air, making sure that I said everything that needed to be said about a piece, or about the persons playing on the stage, or whatever.  But I know now that the main thing is to let your guard down.  I think that’s the trick for me, with an audience, to sort of let them know, right off the bat, first of all, that I’m fallible.  And if I make a mistake, which is inevitable, I will often call attention to it right away, and that kind of cuts the ice.

Sort of like the custom of the host spilling some wine on the tablecloth so that no one else has to worry about it.

TO:  Yeah, that makes sense.  Yeah, it’s that kind of thing.  And you poke fun at yourself – you don’t take yourself seriously.  You take the music seriously, or the subject matter seriously, but you don’t want to make believe that you’re perfect.  I mean, I know people who don’t want any photography during their show – they don’t want anybody to record their show.  And I’m thinking to myself, I can understand that, but don’t they like the way they look?  Don’t they like the way they sound?  Or they want this illusion that they are what they sound like on a record or something?

Or needing to be in control of everything?

TO:  Or do they think that they sometimes do sound that way?  I don’t know that anybody sounds that way, or is perfect, so I don’t see any problem with that stuff.  I mean, the taping, one of the things about that is people think that that means they’re not going to buy their recordings, and that’s one issue that’s a different issue than we’re talking about.  But there’s also the issue of, well, if it was a bad sound day, or if I was bad, then I don’t want that to represent me.  And yet, to me, that’s who I was that day.  So I don’t aspire to that other way – I don’t think it’s possible for me.  I don’t have that sleight of hand kind of thing going.  It’s more like, we’re here, I’ve got some instruments and some songs I can sing, and I might forget them, but we’ll probably have a good time in the end.  The idea that you can be in control of, really, anything – I mean, you can be sort of in control of yourself in certain ways, but you know, let it all hang out, because it’s going to anyway.

To be continued…


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Steve Fishell (Part 3 of 3)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

The following is the final installment of my 3-part interview with Grammy®-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.

Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10 year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band.  As a studio producer, with over 20 years of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Dixie Chicks.  Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S.A. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side.  His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.

Steve is also the founder of the Music Producers Institute, which he runs while maintaining his busy producing and performing schedule.  As regular readers of this blog know, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville.  While I was there, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer.  For the rest of this conversation, please see Part 1 and Part 2.  –VA

When you were Emmylou Harris’s sideman, I’m assuming you did hundreds of shows over those years.

Steve Fishell:  I was with her for 10 years.  And we worked, usually, summers – usually about three months out of the year – but we would go pretty full-tilt.  We did 10 weeks – June 15 to Labor Day was usually the schedule.  And that’s how I got into producing, by the way.  I’d go, oh, well, I’ve got nine months off, that’s how you look at that, and that’s a privilege to be able to know your schedule’s pretty safe, and you can actually go do other things.

And you had a pretty constant group of folks that were in the band over that period of time.

SF:  Yeah.

So you would get that telepathy going.

 

SF:  Well, it was a band experience, yeah.   You didn’t feel like you were a sideman, you felt like you were part of a group unit.  Because she was selfless enough to share the billing – she would call it Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band – just as Bruce Springsteen does.  That really made you feel like you were part of a team, rather than just sort of a side person.  There’s nothing wrong with being a side person – I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again, I’m sure.  But for her to be that gracious to share billing with us and to allow us, most importantly, to play on the recordings with her – that really made us feel like we were part of something extremely rare and special.

That’s a big deal.

SF:  Yeah, that’s a big difference.  And thus, our goal every night was to try to recreate the recordings, and to try to present something if not as good, then even better, so that the audience would hear it and go, oh my god, this is the band that played on this record, and this is the voice that we heard on that record, and this is all firing on all four cylinders in a cool way, live.  And you know, you’d have good nights and bad nights, but some of the highs were just remarkable, and I can tap right into the way it felt onstage at certain times.

Tell me about that.

SF:  Well, you know, you just remember certain shows and you remember how you feel in the moment.  You know, a voice is a human entity, it’s not a machine.  Emmylou and Stevie Wonder and Neil Young, these voices are not machines, they’re human, and will sometimes have a momentary flaw.  And Emmylou, whose standards are really high, personally – she’s singing at a Grammy-level performance at all times.  There’s no “I’m tired, I don’t feel like it”, or any of that.  This is a religious experience for her to be able to come out and sing in front of people, and so she’s 103 percent all the time.  But occasionally, you might draw a breath in the hot Colorado air or something, or a fly might go into your mouth or something weird will happen, and she might miss a note.  The amazing thing about the truly great masters is that when that happens, rather than being stunned and thrown off for the rest of the song or the rest of the night, the very next line is stunning, and at a record level, at an absolute Grammy-winning level that blows you away.

And I can remember that happening many times, where Emmylou would miss a note, and then the very next line would be so staggering that the musicians, we couldn’t even look at each other because we knew, we were all gasping, having just heard this incredible recovery.  We probably would have welled up in tears if we had looked at each other, because we had just heard her true gift and greatness for ourselves, even though we’d hear her every night.  So that’s a special gift, as an artist, to be able to not have your confidence be blown by a mistake.  And that’s advice to anybody out there.  If you bobble a note or if you miss a line, just move on.  Don’t look back.  What was his name, that African-American pitcher, he had an expression:  “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Satchel Paige?

SF:  Very good!  Satchel Paige – thank you! – said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”  Playing live, if you make a mistake, move ahead.  Make the next line the very best that you can be of yourself, and use it as something that motivates you rather than something that intimidates you.  And that’s one of the great things I learned from Emmylou – recover and keep going.  And that’s what she does, probably better than anybody I’ve ever heard.  It’s amazing.  Because those next lines would just be, like, oh my god, I can’t believe I just heard that!  We’d all kind of look at each other, you know, it was like, “Whoa!  Oh yeah, we’re playing with Emmylou Harris.”  Because you know her offstage as Emmy, you know, and privately she’s a much different person than she is onstage.  But then you remember the artistic side of her, and it’s all right there, and that’s a gift from the heavens.  That’s just pure musical genius coming out of the speaker.

Were there times where you felt like things weren’t flowing, things weren’t working, you were all burned out or whatever?

SF:  Oh, you always have bad nights, oh yeah – you know, I can’t say how often, but, I don’t know, once a year – where it was just horrible.  It usually has to do with a combination of energy and timing.  I’ve found that after about three weeks on the road, people just don’t get along.  You have to break off a tour for a few days after three weeks – there’s no way to keep going.  The fourth week, people are going to fight.

But it can also simply be terrible acoustics.  You can be in the mood, but if you get up there and no matter what you play, it sounds half as good as you think it should – so you’re fighting to get tone or any sort of facility or any sort of texture to your sound, you can’t find it – then you get frustrated.  And then you stop working as a band, and you become this little individual who’s fighting to survive in this sea of wash-y sound.  Then you’re not connecting as a band.  It’s really important to play as a band, as a unit, as a team.  Everyone’s listening to everybody else.  It’s not just about the solo steel guitar guy showing off.  It’s, what’s the fiddle player playing right now and how do I embellish that, along with the keyboard player, all in support of this great song and this wonderful voice.  So yeah, you’ll have bad nights, you can’t help it sometimes.  But they’re probably not half as bad as you think they are.  One time we played the Seattle Kingdome opening for Willie Nelson, and if you’ve ever been there…

Yes, it was terrible for sound.

SF:  And the stage was in the center, and so the audience may not realize this, but there is a delay.  If you hit a snare drum in the center of the Kingdome, it goes straight up and hits the ceiling and comes back down, and it takes about a second and a half for it to go “BOMMMM”, and another a second and a half to go “DOMMMM”, and you hear it back really loud.  So if you’d play something, it would go up and hit the ceiling and come back down, and so you were constantly hearing yourself a second and a half later, and it was awful.  Mainly it was the drums.  So it just became this huge wash – it was like being thrown into a washing machine and being all mixed up.  And we would lean into our monitors and peer into our monitors and focus with all of our might, trying to find the beat, because there was no groove.  And we had to go for 45 minutes and it was awful, and it was just simply acoustics.  So that would’ve been a bad night.  Now, I don’t know how it appeared to the audience, it might have been ok, and they probably saw it on the big screen and it seemed ok, but boy, we were fighting each other, we weren’t working together as a team.

I want to ask you about the concept of being in the zone.

SF:  I love the zone.  I wish I could define the zone.

I assume you’ve had experiences in that, both as a musician and as a producer.  How do you experience it as a performer, and how do you experience it as a producer, and are those different things?

SF:  It’s simply a state of complete trust in your own instincts, no matter if you’ve been playing for two years or 30 years.  You don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks, you know that whatever you play is working right now – but you don’t state it in that way.  It’s simply a time when everything’s working, and it feels good, and it’s effortless.  We have an expression: turn off your brain.  You’re not thinking about what you’re doing, you’re just doing it.  You’re going on pure artistic instinct, rather than thinking, ok, I have to move this finger to hit this string.  You’re creating, you’re painting, it’s flowing through you and you’re not thinking about the technical aspect of it.

It’s really great when you actually hear the sound in your head, and you make the physical movement to create it and it comes out the way you’re hearing it in your head.  That’s the zone.  But the zone is mainly about being completely unselfconscious about where you are, being completely unaware of any outside distraction, and being right inside a line that goes right through the song where you’re part of that song and you’re adding a contribution to it – whether it’s as a side person, as a rhythm section member, as a singer.  It’s expression without effort.  And that is amazing.  That’s the zone.  Whether it’s good or not is up to somebody else to decide, but you know that it’s pure – in your mind it’s a pure moment – and it’s really a joyous moment.  It’s really a happy feeling.  It doesn’t happen very often, but boy, if you can get there, that’s a great time to have a recorder rolling, because you’re going to get something really good.  You’re going to capture something worth hearing again and again.

How do you get yourself as an artist to a place where you can access the zone more?

SF:  That’s hard for me to answer.  I’m not trying to dodge the question, but that’s too difficult to answer.   If I knew the answer to that, then everyone would be an artist!  Believe me, I can tell you there are times when I was asking myself that on a session when I was playing steel, because I’m lost and I can’t find the zone.  There are so many different factors to it.  It has to do with the environment, confidence, intangibles like what you’re hearing at the time, your mood, rest – but sometimes when you’re really tired you can get in the zone, too, so there are no rules about it.  But it’s impossible for me to define how to get into the zone.  I think that each person has to find that comfort spot themselves and learn, as they play more and more often, to find that spot more quickly.  Usually it takes a singer about three passes to get to the zone in front of a microphone.  But when I saw Bruce Springsteen two weeks ago, he was in the zone on the first song.  I’m sure of it, because the first song sounded like the encore.  It was remarkable.  So how do you do that?  It’s divine intervention, I think.  I wish I had the answer to that one.

Maybe there is no answer to it.

SF:  No, I don’t think there is!

Note:  Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation with me.  Hanging out with him in Nashville for a few days was a real treat.  It is refreshing to encounter someone who has been in the industry so long and so successfully but who is still completely down to earth and altruistic.  Steve truly is one of the good guys, and I applaud the vision and the mission he brings to MPI.  -VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Steve Fishell (Part 2 of 3)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

The following is Part 2 of my 3-part interview with Grammy®-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.

Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10 year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band.  As a studio producer, with over 20 years of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Dixie Chicks.  Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S.A. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side.  His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.

Steve is also the founder of the Music Producers Institute, which he runs while maintaining his busy producing and performing schedule.  As regular readers of this blog know, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville.  While I was there, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer.  Please see my previous post for the first part of this conversation – the third installment will be posted in one week.  –VA

As a studio producer, you have to think big picture, and you have to think little moment – does this little moment fit into the big picture, and does the big picture fit into the little moment.  And so it is kind of about the big themes and the creative process.   What do you think most gets in the way of performers in their creative process?

 

Steve Fishell:  Fear – the fear of creativity or the lack of confidence to be creative.

Or the lack of knowledge that you can access creativity?

SF:  Right – that it’s there, that you can tap it.  Yeah, it’s true.  If you’re being creative all the time, or, you know, several times a year, then it’s a regular routine and it’s easier for you.  But imagine someone who is really, really good, but then didn’t have some breaks – had an initial success, and then their career went south for 10 years, and then they had to come back.  You hear the expression “comeback” – that’s a huge challenge to come back, especially if you had this one initial success.

Think about Darius Rucker, who was in Hootie and the Blowfish – gigantic album, then subsequent albums fared not as well.  And then Darius came to Nashville and started writing songs three or four years ago, and sought a country record deal.  “Well, sure, ok, so Darius Rucker, this rock guy, now wants to be country.  Oh, perfect.”  He was turned down by everybody.  Everybody said, “No, thank you.”  But fortunately, at Capitol Nashville, a fellow named Mike Dungan over there took a chance and signed Darius, and they made a record.  And damn, it had three number one singles, the record’s gone platinum, he was nominated for best male vocal at the CMA awards and he was nominated for best new artist at the CMA awards, and he won best new artist.  The fact that he got nominated for best male vocal is astonishing.  But most importantly, that reinvention is really hard to do.  And my hat goes off to Darius.  I mean, to reinvent yourself from Hootie and the Blowfish to Darius Rucker the country singer and have it really be good, because that’s an excellent record – a guy named Frank Rogers produced it, who produces Brad Paisley, incredible ideas, great ears – it’s just cool.  So it made me really happy to see him win the CMA award.  That’s hard to pull off, especially coming from Hootie and the Blowfish.  You know, people just laugh at you when you come through the door.  “Darius Rucker wants to be country?  Oh yeah, right.  African-American rock guy?  You want to come and play in our playground?”

When what you should be doing is considering what made the Hootie record what it was, and what was his part in that.

SF:  Yeah, songwriting?  Vocal performance?  Tapping a nerve?

Yeah, what else do you need to know?

SF:  Yeah.  The guy has a great voice – now, he changed his vocal style for the country stuff, but that’s some genius there, too.  That’s evolving your artistic expression.  It’s like moving from one Monet period to another Monet period.  That’s making a serious re-inventive adjustment.  Boy, that’s really hard to do.  It’s much easier to stay the same, and be mad at the world for not accepting you the way you are.  Instead, you’re going, ok, what do I need to do to fit in now?  And if I get this chance, can I pull this off?  There’s a lot of confidence that’s required for something like that.

Or it could be, I’ve been a lawyer all my life, but what I really want to do now is be a teacher.

SF:  That’s a great example.  So you’ve got to go back to school, you’ve got to get a teaching credential, you’ve got to put in your time.

What are your thoughts on what makes a good sideman?

SF:  Oh, I think that’s easy to define.  You have to subvert your own desire to show off.  You have to subvert any willingness to draw attention to yourself.  As a sideman, your goal, and your role, is to support the lead singer, and to help them present their material in as beautiful a way as you can.  So it’s really important to stay out of the way of the voice.  You have to learn that it’s not about hot licks or about playing anything flashy.  You’re there to support the song.  The song is supreme, and the voice is supreme in the mix, and you’re only there to help embellish the song and embellish the artist’s voice.  So you almost have to study composition, in a way, because it’s like a call and response to the lyrics – you have to stay out of the way of the lyrics.  There’s no hard-set rules, but generally, if you’re going to play while the artist is singing, it’s generally going to be a simple pad, or some sort of supportive tone.  And then when their voice is finished, then you’re going to answer in some way, in something that ties to the melody, that lifts up the melody and leads the song to the next line.  So the perfect fill is always something you’re trying to achieve.

You have to put your ego aside – it’s not anything about you or your instrument.  The artist is up there trying to bring these words across to the audience, and your role as a sideman is to help support that artist bringing those words across.  And if you suddenly decide you want to play some flashy hot lick, you’re blowing it.  Go do that on your own time.  Because if the artist is good, they’re going to be singing really good songs, and those songs deserve to be presented with an arrangement that’s heartfelt and soulful and evocative, and not cluttered with a whole bunch of stuff.  It’s a real art to play as little as you possibly can to support that song, but that’s one of the most important aspects to a sideman.  As little, but as supportive, an accompaniment as you can provide, that’s your goal.

When I work with bands, one of the things I’m working on with the sidemen is not to also be visually distracting, because there’s a real set of bad habits that people develop around that.

SF:  Yeah.  It’s funny, I’ve changed about this over the years.  I remember seeing the Eagles in 1974 in Santa Barbara, and they were all wearing t-shirts and jeans, and they looked like the roadies, but I thought that was really cool.  So there was a point in my life when I thought that dressing “street” was cool.  But now I kind of feel like artists should present themselves a little bit, well, not flashy or anything – I’m torn on this question, visuals are tough for me.  Sometimes I think it’s great when somebody just looks like your neighbor next door and they’re an ordinary Joe, but on the other hand, I think it’s interesting that for some people, it became standard for a while for artists to insist that their bands wear black, everything has to be black.  And then when I saw that Bruce Springsteen was doing that, and I really respect Bruce Springsteen and his band, but I think it looks a little bit like a uniform when they’re all wearing black up there – I don’t dig that so much.

But boy, I just saw them here about two weeks ago, and they blew me away.  That band and that guy are incredible.  He’s just absolutely superhuman onstage, and just comes out of the box like the first song is the encore, at that intensity level, and then keeps going up from there.  It’s amazing.  All due props and respect to Bruce Springsteen and his band – they’re badass.

They work so hard.

SF:  They really do.  They do not phone it in.  Now, maybe they shouldn’t all wear black, I don’t know.  They might be doing that for personal reasons.  I’ve noticed that they’ve done it since the 9/11 tragedy, so there might be reasoning there that I’m not taking into account.

I heard an interesting interview recently with Nils Lofgren.  He was asked about Springsteen and how he gets ready for a show, because his shows are just so all out.  And he said that Springsteen approaches performance like it’s a religious healing experience – not in the sense that it’s tied to religion, per se…

SF:  Oh sure, I understand.

It was like, the stage is Springsteen’s church, where he goes to heal spiritually.  Which makes a lot of sense when you think about the interplay between him and the audience and with his band – he just seems to be in an elevated place.

SF:  He is!  And great music can be cathartic, not only for the artist, but also for the audience.  It can be something that can be spiritual healing.  It can be an unexpected emotional release that helps you forget the difficulties of your day-to-day life.  It’s escapism sometimes.  I definitely felt like there was a spiritual connection, seeing Springsteen two weeks ago, and I love that.  It’s rare to have that feeling.  Most concerts that I go to, I just feel like I’m being entertained.  He has an expression – I think it goes something like, to be a good artist, you have to see yourself when you look at the audience, and when the audience looks at you, they have to see themselves in you.  So there has to be that one-on-one connection, and not some sort of aloofness.  He’s not aloof onstage – he’s giving it 102 percent.  He’s extraordinary.  He literally did that thing, what is it called, when you flop down on the audience and they cart you across?

Crowd-surfing?

SF:  Yeah, he crowd-surfed.  I think they saw it coming.  He said, “Are you ready for this?” and he leaned back and they all caught him, and they moved him back about 60 feet, then they turned him around and they put him back on the stage.  And this was on the second song!  I was lucky enough to be in the pit at the concert, at the Sommet Center here in Nashville.  A friend of mine is very close to the band and was able to get me there.  And I moved over to the center, directly in front of Bruce, on the first song because I wanted to see what it was like sonically.  So this was about 15 feet back from the stage in the pit, you know, 15 people back, right next to the wall that leads to the general audience.  And somebody leaning up against the barricade on the inner side asked me to please move, because they knew what was about to happen, that Springsteen was about to flop down.  And I thought they were being kind of rude, asking me to move out of the way, because I was dead center in front of Bruce for half of a song.  But I moved back over to the side, and sure enough, he comes crowd-surfing.  He’s 60 years old!  It looked pretty cool to me – it looked like a lot of fun.

I have this sort of mantra that I use when I work with people.  It’s basically, “…like you give a shit.”  You know, show up like you give a shit, dress like you give a shit, sing like you give a shit, play like you give a shit.  Because otherwise, you know, you might as well stay home in your living room.

SF:  Or you might as well do something else!  You know, Steve Goodman was a good friend of mine, and he said, “Look, people out there in the audience paid a lot of money to be there.  You owe them a show.  They’ve paid for a ticket, they paid for parking, they probably paid for a babysitter.  They probably have a lot of money invested in this show, and you’d better damn well get out there and do 102 percent.  And no whining.  This is not so much about you, this is about a mutual experience.  And if you can’t handle it, then go sell shoes somewhere or something.  There’s no excuse.”  If you ever saw Steve Goodman, he would go out and open for Jimmy Buffett or somebody, all by himself with an acoustic guitar, and just wow 15,000 people all by himself.  If he broke a guitar string, he wouldn’t stop and whine about it.  He would actually sing a song while he was putting a new string on his guitar, and the song would continue while he changed the string and he told a story.  You know, these are four things going on at once in your mind, in front of an audience.  You have to give it your all, and it’s a privilege to be on that stage, and if you’re going to be self-involved about it, think about another career.  Because the audience will pick up on it – they’ll move on if they think you’re being aloof or self-involved.  There are probably some artists who get away with it for a while, but not for very long.  You’ve got to give back.

To be continued…


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Steve Fishell (Part 1 of 3)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

I’m pleased to present Part 1 of my interview with Grammy®-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.

Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10 year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band.  As a studio producer, with over 20 years of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Dixie Chicks.  Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S.A. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side.  His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.

Steve is also the founder of the Music Producers Institute, which he runs while maintaining his busy producing and performing schedule.  As regular readers of this blog know, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville.  While I was there, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer.  This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  –VA

You have a very multi-faceted view of performance, having been a sideman, and a producer, and you’ve done A&R.  Given all that understanding from all those different areas and angles, are there any universal characteristics of a great performer that you’ve been able to identify?

Steve Fishell:  Yes, but it’s difficult to describe in words because it’s always almost a physical response.  When you hear someone’s voice combined with incredible lyrics and a great melody, putting all those things together and having it be so overwhelmingly good that you’re just humbled by the strength of the performance – I think it’s really difficult to have a template for what that greatness is.  I think you actually just have to experience it.

I think we all sort of have universal excitement standards.  Whoever your favorite artist is, you can apply this to them.  I happen to be a fan of Stevie Wonder’s voice, but also his harmonica playing – and whenever I hear a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder, I’m just in awe of his ability to put notes together in a new and different way that I would never have thought of.  The timbre of someone’s voice will do that to me.  Patty Griffin is one of my favorite singers, and I’ve heard some of her new music recently, and it just staggered me how she’s able to not read words off of a page but actually tell a story with her voice, singing heartfelt lyrics that she has written, and have them come right through to you rather than just someone mechanically sort of walking through a song.

So we all have different ways to describe that moment that reflects a high standard.  I don’t view myself as any sort of music critic – it’s a very gut response.  My response to good music is, it’s real obvious, and when I hear it, I know it.  I can read myself.  I can tell how it affects me.  And that doesn’t mean anybody else is going to like it, but it gives me enough confidence to feel like I should share it with somebody else.  And that’s the response I have:  I like this so much that I want someone else to hear this, too, because they’re going to maybe get something from this like I did.

I do remember one of the earliest concerts I ever saw that really affected me, and I didn’t know it at the time, that it was going to have such an impact.  I saw the Allman Brothers Band in Santa Barbara, in early October of 1971 – October 3rd, in fact – and the band was so tight and so powerful, and had such an incredible way as a unit, not as a group of individuals but as a band.  Beyond having known The Beatles before that point, I was aware of what a band could be, but not fully until the first time I saw a real band onstage, and that was that night.  And I was amazed that this guitar player, Duane Allman, would share the stage with another guitar player – that was unusual, there’s no ego here.  And the power of that rhythm section was just undeniable.  It just had a visceral effect on me.  And I was also really blown away by Duane Allman’s slide playing, and that influenced me to get into finding out what that whole string movement thing was about:  what’s this slide thing, and how could anyone have it sound so much like the human voice like Duane Allman does?  Well, it turned out that three weeks later, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, sadly, and so I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to be able to see the band with him, and it left a lasting impression.  Now I know what a live performance standard is, because that’s ingrained in my memory.  That never fades.  I know exactly how that felt.  I was 18 at the time, and it just branded in my brain what live performance is.  So that’s a standard that I refer to a lot.

You work with so many top-flight artists, and I’m curious about what you’ve noticed – in personality traits or presence, or some kind of tangible or intangible thing – what you find, if anything, that ties all these people together?  What are the common things in those people who give you that kind of visceral response in a performance?  Because you get to work with people in a different way as a studio producer – you can crawl inside people a little bit more than the people who are seeing the show.

 

SF:  Well, that’s true. I think, though, that audiences should feel that they’re probably seeing the most exciting moment for an artist, in terms of performance, and that is the live performance.  Because that’s the standard that you apply to the studio.  You try to reach that level in the studio, which is a very sterile, clinical, microscopic environment, and it’s very difficult to get a live feel in the studio, quite often.  So that’s the standard that artists apply to their recorded work.  But I think that seeing somebody in concert can be as exciting as anything you can imagine, and I understand why people tape live shows and share them.  That’s why, you know, Bruce Springsteen in 1985 at such-and-such a place is thought of as the great night, because it was, it’s never going to be the same.  That’s going to set a new bar.  The point I’m trying to make is that audiences should feel that they’re connecting with their artist through the live concert.  The studio is just another breed, another animal.  We’re only trying to recreate that audience/concert impact.  The studio makes you a bit self-conscious, because you know that one performance will be heard repeatedly, as opposed to a live performance, which is here-today-gone-today.  Except, of course, when it’s recorded live…

…and ends up on YouTube…

SF:  …and ends up on YouTube, yeah, that’s true.  So much for that idea!  But the other part of your question, which was a good one, was about what common threads have I seen between artists.  The people that I’ve worked with that I most respected, and continue to respect, seem all to be able to tap into a place in their minds where they’re not thinking about economics.  They’re not thinking about anything to do with acceptance.  They’re driven.  They have no choice but to output this information, this music, onto the recorder.  They can’t help themselves.  If they don’t have an outlet for it, then they might go crazy.  The artists that I most admire tend to go into the studio for all the right reasons.  They’re not thinking about audience acceptance, they’re not thinking about radio acceptance, they’re not thinking about record sales, and they’re not thinking about money.  They are really artists.

The term artist is a generic term that is applied to anybody that steps in front of a microphone, but that’s really an unfair definition for many, because many recording entertainers are not artists.  I know that seems elitist.  But I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to be in the studio in the days prior to electronics and computerized tuning and all of the devices that are now used to help artists sound like they can sing, and so I know the difference between a singer and a non-singer, and I prefer to work with singers who are not “software singers”, that actually can step in front of a microphone and deliver.  It doesn’t happen all the time, and I don’t begrudge anyone who uses a little Auto-Tune when the artist is 1,500 miles away and the delivery date is Friday and they’ve got a deadline to meet.

What other kinds of personality traits, or ways of being in the world, have you found in common between artists?

SF:  I haven’t found too many similarities in artists.  It’s actually surprising that the people that I’ve worked with have all pretty much had different personalities.  They’ll be really different people, and they’ll have a different way of going about things.  That’s why you can’t walk into the studio and apply a standard template to the plan that day.  You have to go with the flow and let them lead you, and help enhance what they want to do, rather than apply what you think your criteria or schedule ought to be.  However, they’re all driven by the same motivation to make something that’s good, and somehow feel like they’ve shown a little bit of their heart or their soul when they’ve made this music.

So a significant performance is about what you connect with, what’s a profound experience for you, what resonates for you…

SF:  You look for a connection, you look for a buzz, you look for a response when you hear something.  We all want to be transported someplace else, away from our humdrum lives.  Most of us work, day in and day out, and music is a bit of an escape.  It’s like Hawaiian music was in the ‘30s, an escape from the drudgeries of the Depression.  And we turn on the radio or we put on our MP3 iPods to be able to be transported somewhere else.  And there’s a lot of music out there, so there’s a lot to weed through, but when you hear a voice like Patty Griffin’s, it just rips right through you in a way that’s indescribable.  Or if you hear a set of lyrics by Richard Thompson or someone who has a mastery and a command of the language that’s way beyond your ability but that you recognize and appreciate, you are inspired by that to go out and do good things, whatever that is.  If that is a healing process for you in your life, if music serves as a comfort or just as a rhythm to your life, then that’s why we use it.

It’s pretty primal.

SF:  And it’s entertainment.  We all get something different from music.  Some people only care about being entertained, and other people want something that’s entertaining but also has more depth below the surface – lyrics with meaning, and great melodies that are fetching and that take you back to your Irish roots, or whatever they may be.  We all respond to music in a different way, and it’s very, very subjective.

One of the things I find interesting about seeing a great performer is when people say, “It’s a way for me to let go of needing things to be a certain way, or needing me to be a certain way, because I can look at a truly great performance and know that I could never do that, so just forget about it, don’t worry about it, just enjoy the specialness of that, because it’s so beyond anything I could do.”  And it’s not even always about superb skills – there are very rough skills involved, sometimes, in truly moving experiences.

SF:  Sometimes it’s just miraculous that a person found their own voice, and developed it to the point where they took a shot a making a living at singing.  I saw Ray LaMontagne live – this guy has the most incredible voice, you know?  But think if he hadn’t had the opportunity to develop that voice and ended up doing something else with his life.  It would just be a loss.  It’s a miracle, and it’s chance, and it’s luck, that often plays into whether or not a person becomes a popular artist with a broad constituency.  And there are people everywhere who have great talent and are able to artistically express themselves, but don’t get that chance.

People talk about [mandolinist] Chris Thile that way, that if he hadn’t happened upon the mandolin, you know, what would have happened to him?

SF:  He’s like the Charlie Parker of the mandolin.  He’s brilliant.  Not All Who Wander Are Lost is one of my favorite all-time records.  I’m amazed by his talent, and I look forward to the future with what he’s doing.  The Punch Brothers are fantastic, and he’s a true talent, and it would be a shame for him not to have found his voice and to have not picked up the mandolin.  He certainly has taken it to new levels, and that’s exciting when that happens.  That’s why I compare him to Charlie Parker, because Charlie Parker took the saxophone to new levels that had not been reached before.

Sometimes I think there’s a quality to the true artist that you’re talking about, the transformative artist, that it’s almost like they’re kind of not entirely “of this realm”, you know?  They’ve got their foot in another realm somewhere, or they’re able to reach through that barrier that the rest of us can’t.

SF:  You’re right.  I believe in genius.  I believe that there are people who have such a brilliance in their mental capacity that they are able to take in everything about a particular subject and master it, and then, with that mastery, elevate it.  That’s genius.  How did Steve Wozniak develop the desktop computer, you know?  I don’t have the brains for that kind of stuff, but boy, he certainly did, and it certainly changed the world.

And it often seems that these people have a difficult time being in the world, because they’re not really supposed to be entirely in this world.

SF:  I’m sure it must be difficult being a genius, at times, in a sometimes unappreciative world.

It’s like information is processed differently, what you do with that information is processed differently, their brains are firing differently, you know?  There’s access to different frequencies.

SF:  Thank god, though!  Thank god it comes together at times where John Lennon and Paul McCartney meet, and they write songs, and they record, and that’s no accident.  That’s incredible music that will live on forever, and it’s a great gift.  It blows me away when I think about the things that people have written and recorded.  Those high standards are what you try to apply to what a person does in the recording studio.  It’s not fair for you to expect everyone to be Charlie Parker, though – that’s just irresponsible.

To be their own Charlie Parker, maybe.

SF:  Sure, well, you want everyone to feel like they’re doing their best.  That’s the goal in the studio – you want to feel like we’ve taken a snapshot of a moment that is their best foot forward.  And then, hopefully, it’s something that’s contributed to the arts in a good way.

To be continued…


My Music Performance Master Class – Saturday, May 22

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Musician Resources, Workshops

West Coast Songwriters

Pacific Northwest Chapter Presents:

POLISHING YOUR ACT:

A LIVE PERFORMANCE MASTER CLASS FOR SOLO ARTISTS AND BANDS

Vicki Ambinder,

Music Performance Coach

Saturday, May 22, 2010

1:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Day Music

5516 SE Foster Rd., Portland, Oregon

How can you become more dynamic and confident onstage?

How can you make a deeper connection with your material, and with your audience?

How can you bring your act to the next level?

This master class will address the fundamentals of effective live music performance.

Solo artists and bands are invited to present a song and receive supportive, results-oriented, on-the-spot coaching from a professional music performance coach.

Performance slots are limited to 10 and will be reserved on a first-come-first-served basis.  Beginners to seasoned pros are encouraged to participate.

Reserve a performance slot for a guaranteed coaching opportunity:

$30 per performance slot (total price for solo/duo/group)

only $25 for Musicians’ Union, PSA, NSAI members

only $20 for WCS members

Or come to observe the process and pick up valuable performance tips:

$10 per person

only $5 for WCS members

All PA equipment will be provided (except personal amps and instruments), along with a professional soundman.

RSVP to daniel@smileynote.com with “performance master class” in the subject line.  In the message, please specify “performance slot” or “observer” and your membership affiliation, if any.

“I recently hired Vicki to work with me prepping some songs and my performance for an upcoming show.  Man was I shocked at what we achieved and how out of touch I was with the songs, myself and the performance.  She and the experience were incredibly rewarding and worth 10x the money and time spent.  Thanks Vicki!”

– Daniel Work, Regional Director, West Coast Songwriters Pacific NW Chapter


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Todd Snider (Part 3 of 3)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

Snider

[Photo Credit: Senor McGuire]

Here is Part 3 (the final installment) of my interview with Yep Roc recording artist Todd Snider.  As you may recall from my introduction to Part 1, my conversation with Todd took place when I had the opportunity to observe him recording tracks for three days at the Sound Emporium in Nashville through Steve Fishell’s Music Producers Institute.  Todd was self-producing a side project of songs he had written for his alter-ego band, Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs.  –VA

Have you experienced a situation where things get too out of control for you and you’re uncomfortable?

Todd Snider:  Like at a gig?  And say I should leave right now?

Yeah, or it stops being fun or it stops being a good thing?

TS:  There’s been a few times, yeah.

What is that like?

TS:  You know what’s honest?  When that happens, it’s fun.  I played one time in some show, and I was trying to play, and some kids were just making it to where I just had to do what I had to do to have fun, too.  They were going to do what they had to do to have fun, so I did, too.  And I thought it worked out for everyone.  And then one time I was playing a show with Robert Earl [Keen] that I don’t even know if I played, but I still had fun – it was the right show.  I did a good show.  I really am serious.  The only time that scared me, which I don’t think it would now, we had just had someone break into our home, and when our neighbor confronted them, the person was in pretty deep mental trouble, and somehow I figured into it.  And so this person, as far as we knew, was still in the world running amok.  And I went up onto the stage, I think we were in Dallas, and I hadn’t seen her so I didn’t know who she was.  And I walked out onstage, and as soon as I went to the microphone, this woman was standing right there.  And she was saying, “You have to come with me.  You have to come with me.”  And I thought, oh god, is this that chick?  And so I just left.  And that wasn’t fun.  Well, you know what, I played – I just left, and we figured that out, and she wanted me to go meet her son and she was drunk and it was a misunderstanding.  But for a second, I remember thinking, this ain’t good.  But then, think about that – so what?  So someone comes up and they shoot you in the fucking head, you know?  Then what are you going to do?  I mean, you hope that doesn’t happen, but…

It seems like a lot of what you’re talking about is letting go of control, and doing what you do for yourself.   And that’s interesting, because that’s what I pick up about you, that you’re doing it for yourself.

TS:  I’m trying to.

Which must be hard to keep pure when you’ve got labels, and you’ve got managers, and all that other stuff.

TS:  They’re all really respectful.  I’ve been really lucky.  There’s about 10 or 12 people, and we call our company Aimless, Inc., and everybody that’s in the team, they know.  They’re just really cool with me about it.  In fact, this thing we’re doing now [through the Music Producers Institute] is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time.  But this was a real miracle that these two things converged, because it’s almost impossible to go in and do something like this in a big studio like this.  I mean, we’re not taking this a whole lot less seriously than we take our recordings.  The only difference is, now we would just listen to this, maybe pick a song out of there, or maybe even a lyric or a riff – that could just turn into nothing.  Me and Eric [McConnell, engineer] record and record and record and record like that.  And then if it feels like it’s a real track, we’ll go, hey wait a minute, that one’s going to probably be on the album.  And then we’ll get Will [Kimbrough, guitarist] to play lead, or…

Do it for real.

TS:  Yeah, do it for real.  Not that this isn’t for real, too, because I always think different music needs different things.  Like Nirvana’s Bleach record, they made it more wantonly than that, and killed with it.  People liked it, and they liked it, and everybody had fun, you know?  And these types of songs, we talked about it, and that was the thing.  It was like, there’s no point in making music like that, if you get in there with those types of songs and try?  Or care?

“Punch this in 85 times…”

TS:  Yeah, or make sure every single kick and bass part are together?  You’ll ruin it!  It won’t sound like The Kingsmen, you know?  Those were just kids.  That’s what this band [Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs] is formed on.  My lead guitar playing is like, if I was an 18 year old, next year l’d probably be ready to be in a band, “but I’m in one this year, and we haven’t had any gigs yet…”  And everybody in this band, they want to be part of that.  I was like, “Hey, what if we do this group where it’s like The Sonics or The Kingsmen, where we try to channel that?  Remember when you were 20?  Remember that band, how fun that was, even though we weren’t good?”  And some people were like, “Why would I want to do that?  How are we going to make any money doing that?”  “We’re not going to make money, we’re going to have fun!”  It was hard to get to where you could make these, and I don’t have to play these for anyone.  Like the label, they wanted to hear them, of course, but I was like, no, I just really want to keep this fun.  Even though I feel like I keep my job fun, I even have a side job that’s funner.  Or not funner, but I don’t want to have to choose between photographs over these songs.  I’m just not going to do it.  I’m not going to do anything like that.  My manager, Burt [Stein], is one of my closest friends, but he knows, too.  We might get drunk and listen to this, but this is I guess like if a pro football player was on a soccer team, and like, “Hey dudes, I just enjoy soccer, too – just tell the newspaper guy not to come down here.”

And you’ve got to do this stuff to get refreshed.

TS:  That’s what I think it is, too.  I made up these songs to blow off steam while I was making up the other ones [for The Excitement Plan].  And maybe I’ll steal a lyric from one of these songs for the next album, you know?

I think it’s really important for other musicians to find out about what the performance experience is like for people like you.  People don’t really talk about that stuff too much, stuff that’s not just career-oriented, but the personal experience.

TS:  Of just being a travelling performer, you mean?

Yeah, and being on stage, you know, actually doing the performing.  Because so much of what you do is getting yourself so you can be in a place where you are actually doing the performing.

TS:  Yeah, and especially when you do interviews, people do often really focus on all that other stuff.

“How do you become a success?”

TS:  Yeah.  “How’d you get there?  How did you guys get there?  You went on at 9, but how’d you get there?”  “We rode in a car, man, from the hotel.”  I tend to notice that the people that don’t give a shit about that stuff hang around, and the people that do, sometimes they make it, but when they make it they get bored and go home.

When you’re onstage and you’re in the middle of performing, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like somebody else?

TS:   Hmm.  That’s a good question.  I guess myself.  I don’t know the answer to that one.  You know, that’s one of the big questions.  You’ve got to know yourself to answer that, and I’m not there yet.  Some people really know themselves.  I’ve never been one of those people.

To have a sense of “what I am”.

TS:  Yeah, I can’t even think of it like that.  I’m like, oh yeah, I play, I play all the time, just hours, you know?  I mostly play.  I wonder when I’m most myself.  My wife would probably know that, or even what that would mean.  Because I didn’t grow up like some kind of gypsy singer – I just convinced myself that I was that one day when I was, like, 18.  And eight hundred million miles later…

Do you feel like your sense of things, does that click or shift in a different way when you actually walk out on the stage?  Some people describe it as sort of a thing that they put on, and then they take it off when they go off.  Some people, it’s just a different part of their brain clicks in, like they’re shifting from first to second.

TS:  Yeah, I don’t do any of that.

So it’s a pretty seamless transition for you.  “I’m off the stage, and I’m on the stage, and then I’m off the stage.”

TS:  Yeah.  I’ll be sitting around with Elvis [road manager Dave Hixx] right up until it’s time.  Usually, if my friends are there and they’re not musicians, I’ll ask them to wait until after.  But if it’s a fellow musician, I’ll just sit there and we’ll chitchat.  Then Elvis will come make fun of the way I look, or he kind of antagonizes me and picks on me or just tells jokes – or I guess that’s what he calls them! – and it’s pretty seamless.  And I have to say, I’m always a little tipsy and a little stoned.  People that have seen me in concert, they might think they know me, but they don’t know me any better than that guy that they always see at happy hour, you know?  You see that guy at happy hour, so you don’t know what he’s like later tonight after dinner, or tomorrow morning when he wakes up, or when he’s at work.

But do you feel like you’re in your body?

TS:  Oh yeah.

I mean, it sounds like you feel like you’re a little altered, in the sense of just getting yourself into the right place.

TS:  Yeah.

But do you feel like you’re grounded, you’re in your body, you’re present, you’re aware of all the things you need to be aware of?

TS:  Oh sure.  It happens real slow.  When I was a kid, it happened real fast.  And by the time I was about 20, it happened real slow.  And I’ve heard a lot of people say that.  When you’re young and you’re playing your first hundred or two hundred shows, your heart’s beating fast and things are happening fast.  And then when you’re older, if you want to you can look out and you’re like, “Look, that guy, I wonder what he’s getting out of his pocket.  Oh, his wallet – interesting.  Oh, ok – going to get another drink, huh?”   You can do that if you want.  I don’t, but you can.

I talk to people about that when I work with them – about when you’re first learning to drive, and you’re like, “I’ve got to look through the windshield, now I’ve got to look at the rear view mirror, now I’m going to look at the side view mirror, and who’s behind me?”  But when you’ve driven a while, you’re aware of everything that’s going on simultaneously.  You’re not thinking about it.

TS:  That’s exactly right.  That’s exactly what I’m saying.  Now that you’re an older person, you’re like, “Oh, look at that waterfall!” and you’re on a cliff.  Yeah, you can sightsee a little better.  That’s a perfect analogy – the longer you drive, the more you can look around while you’re driving, or read, or some people do all kinds of shit.

Text…

TS:  Text, yeah!  I wouldn’t say that that’s what I always do.  You know, sometimes I’ll be up there wondering where my wife is, or whatever, but not much.  It all just feels like this big rolling blur, especially the older I get.  I can’t imagine how many shows it’s been by now.  It all just starts to feel like one long show.

Thanks again to Todd for taking the time to have this conversation with me.  I highly recommend his latest album, “The Excitement Plan”, and for those who would like to get a sense of Todd’s live shows, his record “Near Truths and Hotel Rooms” can’t be beat.  I encourage you to visit your local independent record store or Todd’s online store to check out his many selections.  –VA


CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Todd Snider (Part 2 of 3)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

Snider

[Photo Credit: Senor McGuire]

Here is Part 2 of my conversation in Nashville on December 5 with Yep Roc recording artist Todd Snider.  Please see my introduction to Part 1 for the context of the interview.  The final installment will be posted in one week.  -VA

Do you feel like you have a layer between you and the audience?  Or do you feel like it’s open, and everything’s kind of going back and forth?

Todd Snider:  I don’t know, I think maybe the energy is going back and forth.  It’s a phenomenon sometimes where people will try to start a conversation with me while I’m playing, and usually, it won’t go in.  Or it’ll go in with amusement.  I always find it amusing.  Like the other day I was playing someplace, and these guys, I don’t know what they were talking about, but then one of them just hit the other one right in the face!  And I thought, what an interesting thing to do at a concert, man.

That was the Aladdin show [in Portland, Oregon on September 10, 2009].

TS:  Yeah, that was it!

And then the other thing that happened at that show, which I wanted to ask you if it’s something you do a lot, is you invited that guy up to play “Alright Guy”.

TS:  You know, I had never done that, and I haven’t done that since.

What prompted that?

TS:  I saw Jimmy Buffett do that once when I was about in 8th grade, and I think it might have been at the Aladdin.  And I don’t know, I just thought of it that night as I was playing.  And I forget, I think he did “Cheeseburgers in Paradise”, and he was like, “Does anybody know it?”  And somebody went, “Yeah!” and he got up and played it.  And so I thought, I’ll give it a shot.  And a couple people yelled yes, and I said, “Come on up,” and that one kid ran really fast up.  And I liked it!  I didn’t get to meet him – he jumped off and left.

Well, he posted a YouTube about it.

TS:  Oh, he did?  Oh, cool!

I actually put a link on my blog about it.

TS:  Oh, great!

Because I really was curious about that – is this something the guy does all the time?  What’s up with that?

TS:  I wonder how often it would work!  I was really knocked out – he knew the song very well.

Yeah, and it really came off.  What he posted was still pictures – he didn’t have video, obviously – but it was very interesting to see the look on your face, and I’d be interested to know what you thought of that.

TS:  Yeah, I was surprised!

Because you look like you’re kind of relieved!

TS:  Yeah, well, that too!

I mean, it could have been a train wreck.

TS:  He was good.  You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays in clubs and stuff, because he looked like it was not his first rodeo.

Well, I tried to find out some stuff about him, and it looks like he’s a DJ at KINK [radio] or something.

TS:  Oh, really?  Oh, cool!  That’s been around since we were kids, hasn’t it?

So how did you experience that?

TS:  It was cool!  I remember it pretty vividly.  I just remember him running down there so fast.  But then, once he got up there and I could see that he was going to play it good and sing it good, I just stood over there and strummed with him.  And then he was off, and we were out the door.  I think that was the encore, too.

That was really interesting.  It seems like there’s a place you can go where you can let the spontaneous happen like that…

TS:  Yeah.

…where you can be ok with whatever happens, you know?  It’s no skin off your nose.

TS:  Yeah.  I don’t care how it goes.

So then it’s like another layer that gets to be added to the experience for you, and for the audience, and who cares?  It’s over in a couple of minutes, and whatever, but it just happened to go well, and everybody totally loved it.

TS:  Yeah.  It could have gone horribly, and that would have been interesting, too!

When you are at the edge of your seat at a show, or when you listen to something, what does it for you?

TS:  Lately I’ve been getting into the jam bands, when they all noodle to a point where the groove changes and the crowd goes crazy.  I would like to understand how that happens, or who cues that or who talks that through, and I don’t think anyone does.  And I’ll get to see people so much, anyway, that open for you or that you open for, or you’re in festivals – I’ll probably see 80 concerts a year without going to any.  And this year I saw Les Claypool, and I was freaked out by that.  It’s great music, or I think it’s great music, and visually it was just like going to a play almost.  I just couldn’t take my eyes off it.  Then, as soon as I saw that I was going to like it, I went up to the sound board, so I was just really close.  And he had a costume box that was right next to where I was.  And he came off and he would take these masks, and he’d like put on a pig mask, and then he’d run out there and do this weird dance and everyone would go bat-shit.  And he played, like, 15 different bass guitars.  He fronts a band with a bass, and there’s no guitar.  It was a xylophone player, a drummer, a cello player, and a bass player – and it was rock and roll.  It sounded like rock and roll.

So what do you think it was about him that made that experience happen for you?

TS:  For me?  Well, it kind of feels like a bigger version of what I do.  Like I could tell that he had put a lot of thought into it beforehand, and then he was up there and he was probably kind of stoned, and had found a way to just let go of all the other stuff.  There had to be a meeting about the big picture that they hung up behind him, you know what I mean?  But some people, I feel like you meet them and they can’t put that part down.  They get anal.  They care.  They want it to go well.

Too much control.

TS:  Yeah.  Some kid asked me one time for tips on how to get used to performing, and I said, “You should go to some open mic and do everything you can to offend them to the nth degree, man.  See if you can get someone to throw a bottle at you.  And then maybe the police will come, and maybe you’ll spend the night in jail.  And then the next day you’ll get out and, see?”

“You lived through it.”

TS:  Yeah.  Fuck them, you know?  Or not them.  You know, I love people, to a degree, but I don’t love them so much I want them to do stuff.  I want them to do their shit.  I don’t care what they do.  I don’t love them so much that I care what they do.  They can do whatever they want.

To be continued…