Thursday, April 7, 2016

Someday We'll Look Back - Goodbye, Hag

I imagine there are a lot of people out there asking, "What's the big deal about another old country singer passing away?" and what's a guy who spends his time creating and writing about weird avant-garde music that most people find unlistenable doing getting worked up about country, that annoying, corporate, assembly-line pop music from the radio?  Well, it's because Merle Haggard was one of a kind--because great songwriting is great regardless of genre trappings--and because the man's music and story clearly have that special quality that touches people's lives.  In remembrance of a singular musical figure, I'd like to say what his music meant to me by considering three of my favorite Hag albums.

I first heard Merle Haggard's music about 10 years ago, when my mom and I saw him open for Bob Dylan in Portland--what a show, which included a surprise stage appearance (but no performance) by that other Bakersfield luminary Buck Owens, who passed away not long afterward, and also included Dylan performing a delightfully craggy rendition of Owens' "A-11."  Merle's brand of old-school, steel guitar-drenched Bakersfield country immediately struck a chord with me and I became an instant fan.  A couple years and about 15 albums later, I was a devotee for life, for countless reasons.

Branded Man was my first Hag record--it didn't disappoint my expectations after seeing the man perform.  While in retrospect, it's a relatively minor entry in his classic string of 60's and early 70's releases, the songs and performances demonstrate all of the things that make Hag so special--it's got that hard-edged Bakersfield sound that stands in stark opposition to the contemporaneous Nashville production, which sounds almost baroque in comparison, and it's got a wide-ranging set of songs that deal with heartbreak, drinking, and jail--those country music wellsprings that seem to never go dry.  What sets Hag apart from other singers on these subjects, though, is his authenticity.  Sure, as a performer he imagines himself into many characters and situations, but it's always clear that there's a passion and powerfully true emotional weight that's informed by his difficult upbringing, his troubles with the law, and his struggles as an imperfect human being.  And those track titles! "Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive;" "Don't Get Married;" "Gone Crazy;" "I Made the Prison Band"--the song titles are stories unto themselves!  And yet, there's so much more depth to these songs than crying-in-your-beer earnestness; Hag's wry wit is never too far around the corner, be it expressed as the hallowed country music trope of cheesy wordplay (e.g., the ex-girlfriend whose grasping, materialistic aspiration was riding in a "Long Black Limousine" and, after a fatal car crash, finally gets to, or turns-of-phrase like "if you're trying to break my heart, you don't have very far to go"), or in the carefree expression of lovesick madness that is "Gone Crazy."  Through it all, it's plainly evident that Hag--the man who sat in the San Quentin pen serving time for armed robbery while a certain so-called "outlaw" performed his act for the prisoners--isn't just singing these words, he's living them.  Even at this early stage, he proves through consummate songwriting that he can't be pinned down to a reductive conservative ideology, tackling the subject of cross-cultural relationships in "Go Home."  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention those buttery smooth vocals--from the swooping highs to the reedy lows, there are valuable lessons for any singer to be gleaned from Hag's impeccable phrasing and his ability to wring emotion out of the simplest melodies. 

Hag's second album, Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down may be a bit less sophisticated than Branded Man, but it stands tall next to Buck Owens' Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat and I've Got a Tiger by the Tail as one of the purest, hardest-hitting exemplars of the Bakersfield sound ever recorded.  This is the record I reached for first when I got home yesterday--it's got two out-and-out hits in the dual title tracks, with that aforementioned wit present in droves (every track seems founded on a cleverly worded conceit), it's got that slinky steel guitar running roughshod all over all the tracks, and in between, it's stuffed with filler that's as good as any top shelf singles--an art that seems to have been lost since the 60's.  The subject matter may be a little narrower in scope, but damn if that cracking snare and Hag jubilantly working his way through heartache and self-loathing isn't a recipe for a good time.  As bummed as I was when I got home yesterday, this album reminded me that Hag's music has always been about good times for me--after all these years, "I Can't Stand Me" and "Shade Tree (Fix-It Man)" never fail to get me moving and singing along--and there's no better music to drive to, might I add.

Lastly, I'd like to point to 1971's Someday We'll Look Back as an album that exemplifies the depth of Hag's s songwriting, his influence on country music to come, and his broad-ranging appeal.  By this time, his Bakersfield approach had become steeped with even more stylistic influences than on albums like Branded Man, incorporating western swing ("The Only Trouble With Me"), straight-up blues ("Huntsville"), folk ("Tulare Dust"), and Nashville-styled pop country ("Carolyn").  The incorporation of these influences not only speaks to the man's restless growth as an artist (heralded by his outstanding tribute albums, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) and Same Train, a Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers), it prefigures the assimilation of mainstream music that, for better or worse, changed the face of country music in the 80's through to its present, abominable state (as Hag himself would and did say in so many words).  Through it all, Hag pours his emotion, his sensitive worldview, and his imperfection as a human being into the songs and the performances.  This album is heavy on the hardships of his upbringing and the uplifting forces of family and nostalgia, themes that are indispensably woven in the fabric of all of his greatest works.  You can feel the grit of the dust and cotton fluffs on Steinbeck-ian tracks like "Tulare Dust," "California Cottonfields," and "One Row at a Time," as he sings about his family's tragic poverty, the failure of his father's attempts to migrate for economic opportunity, and, of course, the resulting troubles with the law that so often accompany such a background.  The regret expressed by these song's characters is a real part of a complicated performer, but so is his enduringly optimistic outlook--as the title track refrains, "someday, we'll look back and say: 'it was fun'".  Finally, this album gives us "Big Time Annie's Square," a song about what happens when a country boy tracks down his hometown sweetheart in a hippie commune.  Hag's output from this period is peppered with songs that describe similar cross-cultural clashes, not least of which is "Okie From Muskogee," one of his signature and most controversial tunes.  What always strikes me about these songs is that they're so much deeper, so much more empathetic they seem at first blush.  He always acknowledges the seemingly insurmountable differences between conservative country folk and big city progressives and the tensions that caused (and continue to cause) so much friction, but he is always ready to see the commonalitiy we share as human beings, and that even the most serious beliefs and pride should be taken with a wink and a grain of salt--it is manifestly clear that Hag believed that love and respect can overcome cultural differences, and that a heterogeneous society is something to be celebrated in compromise, not pushed apart by division--a concept that seems woefully lost on contemporary country music's reprehensible patterns of widespread promotion of consumerism and in-song corporate product placement, shallow jingoism and nationalism, and angrily divisive, exclusionary expressions of cultural identity.  It bears mentioning that these attitudes aren't limited to music, and that folks on both sides of the ever-growing cultural and political divides that dominate modern life would do well to learn from Hag's message of empathy and the pitfalls of ideological extremism.  This might be pop music, but it's thinking-person's pop music, and the fact that a man like Merle Haggard had a mouthpiece to broadly express such a layered, authentic, and human outlook is a special thing indeed.

Like any great artist, Hag's challenges as a person are evident in his art--that's why it endures and has appealed to many kinds of people across the decades--even staunch advocates of the avant-garde like yours truly!  I'm continually thankful to have this music--from which I've learned so much as a songwriter, performer, and human being--in my life, and I urge anybody who's scoffed at country music in its present form or written it off as shallow and not "for" people like them to give a classic Merle Haggard record a spin--you just might find out why the passing of this country singer really is a big deal to a lot of people: history marches on, a lot has changed in 50 years, and the world that shaped an artist like Hag ain't making them like it used to.  Thanks for everything, Hag.

For further reading, check out past reviews of Strangers, Branded Man, Sing Me Back Home, and Someday We'll Look Back.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Paraprosdokian! is Elliot Knapp's fifth independently-released studio album since 2010.  Its 11 original songs focus the wild creativity and avant-garde leanings found on 2012's Cheap Seats atthe Cartesian Theater and November 2013's Anadromous into tightly-composed pop songs that are no less surprising, intricate, or unusual than Knapp’s previous outings.  Knapp’s trademark eclecticism shines across this music’s ethereal vocal melodies, otherworldly guitar hooks, rhythmic counterpoint, and polished poetry, all of which are anchored to 11 intricate compositions of joyful struggle, yearning, and passion, wherein the limit of cynicism and the potential of dreams are blurred past the point of recognizability.  

While tracks like "Hungry" evoke a manic and undeniably twisted, funky reconstruction of New Wave sensibilities à la Talking Heads and The Cars, others like the buoyant "Memory" find Knapp's trademark intricate guitar counterpoint wound into sparkling iridescence of uncategorizable provenance, rising from moody spaces even farther to an anthemic pitch on the swelling "Left Wanting," while elsewhere Russ Kleiner's uncanny breakbeats marry with edgy synth bass and angular post-punk guitar riffing on "The Secret Room" to push Knapp's sound into untrodden corners of some future sound palette. 

Paraprosdokian! is available to purchase on Knapp's Bandcamp, CD Baby, and iTunes as well as numerous other online marketplaces and streaming venues.

Music video for "I Live In Ballard," track three from Paraprosdokian!:

Paraprosdokian! was recorded, mixed and mastered by Justin Phelps at Cloud City Sound in Portland, OR, with assistance from Rohan Sforcina.
Russ Kleiner plays drums on all tracks.
Elliot Knapp sings and plays all other instruments.
Album art designed by Michelle Koelbl.   

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


One of my most recent music projects was a charity release for my beloved Discovery Park, located on the Puget Sound side of Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood.  In short, it's an album-length sound collage of field recordings of an actual route you could walk around the park.  The entire recording is here to stream, with more information on the collage as an art form and the ways the release benefits Discovery Park below.

Over the past six years, Discovery Park has been a constant friend to me—I’ve spent hours running and walking, and exploring as many of the hidden trails as I can find.  I’ve written countless poems, lyrics, and brainstormed ideas I probably never would have come up with anywhere else.  I’ve seen birds and other animals I’ve never seen anywhere else in Seattle, and I’ve even had a chance to photograph a few.  I’ve always felt that, since it’s so large, well-maintained and diverse in environment, Discovery Park offers an experience unlike any other parks Seattle has to offer, and one that’s been an absolutely vital contrast to the bustle, crowds and noise of urban life.

With Discoveries, I wanted to recreate in sound the experience of exploring Discovery Park, so this summer I spent six days collecting field recordings of all of my favorite locations within the park and the vast range of different sounds you can hear when you’re there.  Then, in the modern classical tradition of musique concrete composers like Luc Ferrari and Chris Watson, I edited, layered and composed the recordings into an hour-long sound collage which, in the end, is made up of almost 50 discrete mono and stereo recordings.  Discoveries is organized as an actual linear journey you could walk on the park’s trails, starting and ending at the visitor center and traveling to all corners of the park.  Throughout the recording, you’ll listen to the birds waking up at dawn in the woods and by the pond, travel through long grass, tall trees, across the beach, over creeks, past the wastewater treatment plant, high above the shore at Daybreak Star overlook, across the Wolf Creek marsh and back through the woods during a characteristically-Seattle rainstorm.  I wanted the recording to really reproduce through sound the unique sense of place Discovery Park has to offer—listening to Discoveries, you can take the park with you wherever you go! 

My other goal with Discoveries is to not only recreate the substance of the park’s sounds, but also the feeling of being there.  There’s something magical about how it feels to sit quietly in a natural setting and simply listen to what’s going on around you.  Living in city, we get so used to the constant throb of mechanical noise that we have no choice but to tune out the sounds of our environment.  When you’re in a place like Discovery Park, though, the relative quiet allows your mind to decompress, and after a little while you start to realize it’s not necessarily quiet at all—there are thousands of different sounds all happening at the same time.  As a musician, I find that when you start listening to the sounds going on around you, there’s almost always something musical happening, whether it’s a randomly orchestrated chorus of birds, the ever-shifting rhythm of waves crashing on shore, or the layered texture of wind blowing through hundreds of leaves.  Stopping and tuning in to the subtle sounds happening around you can be not only be entertaining in a musical sort of way, but I think it can also be quite meditative in a way that clears your mind, helps get the creative process flowing, and inspires ideas.  It’s this feeling and experience I want Discoveries to offer as well.  It may not be quite as good as a trip to the park, but hopefully it can produce a similar effect.

As a thank-you to the park for all that it’s done for me and continues to offer the people of Seattle, CDs of Discoveries were offered for sale at a special “Pints for Parks” event at The Noble Fir tavern in Ballard on December 11th.  All of the proceeds from the event (including a dollar from every pint sold) were donated to the park, and any continuing proceeds will also be donated.  There are still a few handmade CD packages left, and you can easily download the recording for free or with a donation of your choice from the Bandcamp link above.  As with many other publicly-funded projects, Discovery Park has a small staff and relies on limited funds keep up with the park’s neverending maintenance and the educational opportunities offered by the parks department, so your support makes a very real difference in keeping the park around for many years to come!

Elliot Knapp - Field recordings collected with Tascam DR-05 digital recorders July 14, 15, 19, August 18, 29, and September 24, 2013.
Sound collage composed by Elliot Knapp October 22-25.
Mixed October 30, mastered November 1 by Justin Phelps at Cloud City Sound Studios, Portland, OR.
Album art by Courtney Morgan.

Friday, November 1, 2013


Here we are, just shy of a year since the release of Cheap Seats, to talk about the impending November 14 release of my next album, the all-acoustic collection Anadromous.  It's already available for pre-sale on Bandcamp, and you can also pre-order and support my other very soon-upcoming projects by viewing the Kickstarter campaign seen above!  Don't blink...the next album, Paraprosdokian!, will be out in December...

Anadromous has been in development since I was finishing work on Cheap Seats.  Where Cheap Seats attempted to state an abundance of ideas in structures as brief and elemental as possible with very little repetition, Anadromous focuses on storytelling over simpler, one-guitar arrangements and longer song structures with musical ideas that develop to be come subtly more complex and knotty as the stories unfold.  These songs come at a time in my life when I am on my way into adulthood but close enough to childhood that it's still fresh in my mind and dynamic in affecting my worldview.  Like an anadromous fish, I'm headed downriver to the ocean for adulthood, but always feeling the magnetic pull beckoning me to return to the stream of my origin.  I'm on my way, but I've got a few things to revisit first!

These heavily metaphorical narratives unfold with a sense of mystery and leave many questions unanswered, delving into supernatural phenomena and unexplainable occurrences.  For instance, the lead-off track "Nobody Saw" sees my fiancée and me transformed first into harbor seals, then into butterflies to disappear into a world of our own, while numerous other songs revisit the mythology of my childhood as dedications to family members.  Though it's punctuated by some lighthearted moments (like the poem in "Suspended (Omgoi)," which I wrote when I was 15!) Anadromous is a contemplative, somewhat spare album with typically intricate guitar work that reveals subtle development and evolution across the sometimes sprawling song structures.  While Cheap Seats sought to display the potential of thick layers of rock coloration and counterpoint, Anadromous seeks to find just how much you can say with one instrument and one vocal.  I hope you like it!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fred Frith and Ensemble Modern: Traffic Continues

Although our man is credited as guitarist, this album plays more like a performance of Fred Frith compositions than it does like a "Fred Frith album," as we may have variously come to understand what they might sound like.  That said, the ensemble (which audibly sounds basically like classical instrumentation with a few subtle electronic elements) is fantastic, playing with virtuosity you'd expect from concert musicians, but also a zany freedom that firmly places them in a modern context.

To my ears the compositions start off very strongly with some brilliantly knotty orchestrations and a vaguely conventional harmonic aesthetic.  Evaluated through this type of lens, the disc loses some steam in the middle (around the beginning of "Traffic Continues II: Gusto", composed for and from audio samples of Frith's recently-deceased friend and Skeleton Crew bandmate, cellist Tom Cora) as it becomes more spare and quiet, then closes strongly with the final and longest track.  It may be true that the quieter bits require a different sort of criteria for evaluation and may succeed by those standards, but for me the act of readjusting what I'm listening for has so far proven frustrating to the extent that I'm usually left with a feeling that I just heard a recording with some great parts and some that merely passed me by.  I get the feeling that more effort could either yield more appreciation or a stronger sense that some of the writing is a bit too casual and reliant on free performances to carry the weight.  Either way, this is inarguably the kind of music you need to let act on you before imposing any kind of sweeping critical judgment.  Here's to more trying!

Get 'er.

Friday, January 25, 2013

John Fahey - City of Refuge

In investigating Fahey's late period, I'm sympathetic with the fact that he felt dead-ended stylistically and was struggling to move beyond his signature American Primitive tropes into something a bit more...different and new.  The issue seems to be just what, precisely, that new direction is, and Fahey's frustration is evident in the music.

In spite of its recording date, City of Refuge most resembles 60's Fahey records like Volume 6: Days Have Gone By and Requia, with equal space and volume given to acoustic guitar and field recordings, found sounds and electronic sound sources.  As with those other recordings, this approach either stands (Days Have Gone By) or falls (Requia, often) on how well those elements mesh with one another compositionally.  The disc starts promisingly enough with "Fanfare," which sees an unusually (for Fahey) overdriven slide guitar layered on top of droning, industrial electronic sounds not unlike those produced by Keith Rowe, especially in his solo works.  As the tracks play on, for me the impression builds that the compositions aren't very well thought-out, which is a serious stumbling block for an artist whose greatest strength is arguably his ability as a longform composer, not as an improvisor, which is what he appears to attempt on "The Mill Pond" and large portions of "City of Refuge I," plucking single notes against a throbbing background drone.  While the proposition of a more spare approach to his guitar style is intriguing, the results here don't feel particularly well-realized.

Elsewhere we are suddenly jolted out of the avant-garde soundworld back into more traditional Fahey territory, with guitar-only excursions like "Chelsey Silver, Please Come Home," and the dirge-like "City of Refuge III."  The former hints at a new compositional twist on Fahey's slide style, with abrupt stops and rhythmic interruptions, but again it feels like he didn't thoroughly integrate the idea into the piece, or maybe it wasn't an idea after all and the performance is just choppy!  Both songs seem to lack distinctive melodies or a feel other than "Fahey filler"--pleasant enough, but by 1997 we know what this man is capable of!  To my ears, "Hope Slumbers Eternal" is the best-realized piece on the album, blending a droning background that relates tonally to the minor slide guitar melody it accompanies, provoking an eerie, meditative atmosphere--most importantly, the electronics and guitar seem to combine coherently, which is mostly not the case with the rest of the experiments here.  The album closes with the 19-minute "On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age," which, as far as I can tell, contains no guitar (though it does keep alive Fahey's tradition of humorously long and barbed song titles).  It's probably the most successful sound collage on the disc, but sitting at the end of a selection of noodly acoustic guitar pieces, it raises questions about what it's doing here, and why these songs all belong on the same album.  There is some cool rhythmic phasing of a tambourine-like sound that kicks in around the 12-minute mark and lasts for several minutes, and the album closes like it opened, with a classic Fahey field recording motif--a lonely locomotive whistle. 

This is the kind of album that really gets under my skin--not because I think it's bad, but because there's a palpable sense of frustration from an artist with specific ideas and a seeming incapability to fully realize them.  Probably more troubling to me personally is Fahey's frustrated attempt to break beyond his established vocabulary as a guitarist--for a man who reportedly described fingerpicking as a "disease," he must have felt more than a little trapped.  When an artist verges into atonal and pure sound territories, success seems to become as ephemeral as the compositional building blocks are abstract.  I find it daunting to explore these areas as the measure of artistic success depends even more on an unquantifiable gut reaction, and the difference between good and bad is painfully difficult to control as a composer--but perhaps that's where the adventure lies!  My next stop for late-era Fahey is another 1997 album, Womblife.  While my hopes for a successful application of his challenging ideas are tentative, even unsuccessful attempts in this territory are rewarding and always thought-provoking.

Get it here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Song of the Week: "Turn South"

Here's the next song of the week from Cheap Seats--track #4, "Turn South."

I can tell you what you’re doing is predictably sad
And point out all the wasted potential you’ve had
Believe me, I won’t point the finger any which way but out
I may as well go ahead and turn South

I’ll go on about the secrets that you’d better learn quick
And I’ll scoff if you suggest a method other than logic
Nobody’s impressed with what I’m talking about
I oughta go ahead and turn South

I’ll swear there’s something good in the alternative
I’ll bluff so hard I’ll claim that I don’t mind if I live
I don’t believe in all the shit that’s coming out of my mouth
I’d better go ahead and face South

In terms of the album's concept, "Turn South" represents an early peak in conflict--it's about overconfidence and ego.  By the time we've reached adulthood, it seems we are secure enough in the way our minds behave (and in the relationship between our minds and our brains) that it becomes just "the way things are" and there's no need to question that there may be other things going on behind the scenes that the conscious mind is unaware of.  In this state, our elective preferences and opinions dominate to the point that ego becomes a caricature.  Of course, this is a personal song with some scathing self-assessment.  The phrase "turn South" relates to my much-explored interest in Daoist writings and classical Chinese religion--it's said that when the emperor achieves order in his kingdom and harmonizes the way of the human world with the way of nature and heaven, as a natural next step, he'll "face South"--as in, "attain perfection."  Naturally, here it's used sarcastically (time to add the ever-popular self-loathing tag!).  Along with "The Knack" and "Chrysalis (In Three Verses)," this makes up the hubristic peak from which a fall is inevitable.

Musically, this is another example of what I'm short-handing "ITC (intuitive through-composition)," where one part is through-composed and the others are subsequently composed by ear to fit together as a sort of sloppy puzzle.  Differently from other songs, though, this one doesn't really have a "lead" guitar part--there's the acoustic (trivia: the very first part I tracked over a year about an ego-destroying experience), then the Telecaster (which plays a rhythm part in low-register octaves that somewhat overlap the acoustic) and finally the ES-335 (the last guitar part composed, which plays smaller intervals of thirds and fourths in the upper register).  You'd better believe that things get contrapuntal

This being one of the first songs I started working on, it's interesting to revisit because I had so many hypothetical goals and ideas about how the project would play out--for instance, I was hoping to avoid bass guitar entirely for the album, replacing it with bass clarinet and synthesizer where appropriate.  Obviously that didn't work out, but this one has low register Moog and no bass guitar, which contributes to a sort of (attempted) "warped indie rock" feel.  Also contributing to the "indie rock" feel is the eighth-note focus (so many staccato eighth-notes in indie many) and the absence of lead guitar.  The verses modulate chromatically, which was easy to write on paper but you can bet was a bitch to record vocals for.  The horn arrangement is another interesting thing to look back at--though it changes harmonically, the placement of the parts doesn't change, and I think it's one of the arrangements that fits best and most audibly in the overall mix...guess I got lucky early on, since not all of the parts work out as successfully.  In the studio, this was the second song Drew recorded drums for, and the first really weird one.  At first I was directing him to go "dancy," which turned out to be obviously not what I was hearing in my head.  After a few false starts and a quickly-internalized lesson in communication, we settled on "jazzy" and Drew basically figured out that he could do whatever he wanted, blasting out some ridiculous fills in the song's ending (a show for which I was privileged enough to have front row seats).  And so proceeded the rest of the drum tracking...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Song of the Week: "An Unsettling Preposition"

As promised, here I am introducing some material from Cheap Seats--it's my plan to talk about one song per week.  This is indeed a concept album about the human mind, and though there isn't a specific "story," there is something of a narrative progression to the track listing.  "An Unsettling Preposition" opens the album, and while I won't be proceeding chronologically with these weekly updates, this song is the perfect place to start.  Lyrics are listed below, followed by some thoughts about the song's place in the concept as well as some info about the words and music.  Please take my introspection with a grain of salt; it's there for anybody who wants explanation or is interested enough to learn more about the details imbued in this work, but also as a tool for myself in moving forward artistically for my next projects.

You’ve been on the understanding where the way is by the will
You say you use the fundamental features, not the flashy frills
It’s within reason’s pungent sound you sail without a doubt
Though you were once upon a time so short these tools you were without

But I recall

I’ve been in and out of context enough to lose the feeling
I by no means know the meaning of a life without this ceiling

It’s been a while!
But I recall

We’ve been under these assumptions since I thought they’d keep us dry
You say we both agree that I am you and we are I

You’re so sure!
But I recall

"An Unsettling Preposition" effectively sets the scene--amongst a lot of lyrics and poems that deal with duality, an anxious sense of questioning and explorations-posed-as-dialogues, this song opens the proceedings with a one-sided conversation directed at the complacent, passive, comfortable (perhaps willfully ignorant) self of routine--the "me" that most of us experience, most of the time.  The speaking voice comes from a corner of the mind with a nagging sense that certain day-to-day assumptions ("In conjunction with my brain, 'I' consciously choose to act, then my physical body acts;" "Logic is a clear map I use to determine and decide the course of my actions;" "My reasoning mind and my physical brain are one and the same, always acting in accord with my conscious free will;" and finally, "It's always been this way") are perhaps not quite representative of the entire picture.  I think we forget that there was a time (childhood) when our brains were soaking up sensory input like sponges--before we really had any congealed sense of selfhood or the ego to behave with confidence about it.  Once this system is firmly in place and running like a well-oiled machine fueled by memories of cause and effect, life is an easy enough plate to keep spinning--but have you ever wondered about how much sensory input (present and past) your brain is ignoring because it doesn't fit into the framework whereby you've been routinely living your life for the past decades?  The lyric also posits that the "me" that sits comfortably in routine and the "me" who questions and balks at such an anemic mind-life just might not be co-existing quite as peacefully as the automatic mind would prefer.

Lyrically, I had a lot of fun with this one as a sort of word game--the verses are built from prepositional figures of speech treated as if the locations in question were actually physical.  There's further punning happening with some homophones and imagery tied to the fact that I was looking out across the water from the Ballard Locks to the Olympics when writing the words.

Musically, the song serves as an apt introduction for the rest of the album, displaying a concise structure (a much-abbreviated traditional verse/chorus structure with a brief breakdown and an even briefer sort of post-second-chorus bridge).  It's a three-guitar arrangement, with one guitar (my ES-335 though a tiny 4-watt Hawaiian guitar amp that belongs to my friend Nick, complete with "mother of toilet seat" turquoise case) laying down rhythm riffs in the lower register and two other guitars functioning in tandem and a sort of "intuitive through-composition" (this ends up happening enough across the songs I'll go ahead and start calling it "ITC") in the upper register, where the Telecaster plays two-note chords, and the Firebird plays more of a liquid, distorted, single-note lead.  This approach has allowed me considerable freedom in terms of partwriting where I'll attempt to to create detail-rich parts with minimal repetition that can be followed individually by the listener but also fit together as parts of a more singular whole.  There's a sort of pleasing (to me) chaos in the fact that the parts can either fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, call and respond, blend harmonically, or be saying different things entirely at the same time, and it can all change from one bar to the next.  So far I've achieved this by sitting down and writing one guitar part, taking care to leave at least some space rhythmically, then composing the second by ear, using the first as a general map of inspiration.  Needless to say, it's an exacting, painstaking process and it's an enormous bitch to reproduce in the studio without extensive rehearsal (which I mostly didn't have time to invest in) but to the ear, the results are pretty unusual sounding with that sort of nearly-falling-apart groove that's been another big goal with the project.  The track really came alive when Russ tracked his drums, handling the odd-metered grooves and tempo shifts of the chorus section with aplomb.  Moving forward, I see challenges in developing the ITC aspect so I don't end up continually repeating myself (though by its fluid nature it may take a while for that to happen), as well as in general arranging--there are bass clarinet/alto sax parts, backing vocals and some piano in the final verse that are only marginally audible--this may be partially a mixing issue, but it's certainly in my mind to pay attention to how many elements can exist in an arrangement before they're obscured by the others. 

* Yes, the YouTube videos have ads.  Why?  It's expensive to make music independently...if my music is being played for free by YouTube users and there's a way for me to make a tiny pittance in return for my self-funded creative content, I'll take it. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cheap Seats 11: Thanks! (I Couldn't Have Done It--Not Alone!)

Oh!  It's The Noble Fir!  With Ellen and Rick
Ok!  Official Release Day for the album is behind us, as is the release party (I performed an acoustic set and released CDs to Kickstarter contributors, friends and family and regulars at The Noble Fir on Thursday).  Before I get to the business of introducing some of the specific creative content on this album, I'd like to expand a bit on the album's credits and "thank you" section, as there are many people whose efforts helped bring the project to fruition.  Though this diary entry comes out a bit long-winded, it's of paramount importance to me to give credit where it's due.

As far as the sounds recorded on the album, nobody played a bigger role than Justin Phelps--he was recording, mixing and mastering engineer, and as I've mentioned before, he played a crucial role in the quality control department.  In addition to those technical roles, Justin was pretty much the first person I met after emerging from my creative cave--he's a hard-working, friendly guy, and the fact that he instantly took my artistic goals seriously was a hugely important boost to my confidence and morale.  There's a lot of loneliness involved in making music independently, and it's connections like these that, for me at least, act as lifelines.  Though we didn't always reach complete accord regarding my artistic goals (which is to-be-expected), Justin was always ready to constructively challenge and question my decision-making, which is an important part of the learning process for me as I move forward to my next projects--knowing how a sympathetic pair of ears hears ideas you may have thought you made clear is a good signpost to understanding how completely unsympathetic listeners might respond.  Most importantly, I'm looking forward to teaming up with Justin again on my upcoming plans.

Sarah, of course, sits at the top of the thank-you list.  I can't imagine what it's like to be subjected to another person's artistic ups and downs in close quarters, but she is always emotionally supportive even if it's hard for her to understand how high the stakes can be for me personally in the midst of these projects.  Also crucial is having a stable, "real" life to return to from the peaks and troughs of the creative roller coaster.  It's good to be reminded of your responsibilities and know how important the simple things are in life.  Speaking of real life, my mom and dad have also been incredibly supportive throughout the process, hosting me in Camas for long periods while I commuted to and from the studio.  While I'm sure my aesthetic path and career choices continue to mystify them, I know they appreciate how important and critical my current goals are to my happiness and I'm proud to have shown them how seriously I'm taking my current endeavor.

Rick and Ellen at The Noble Fir deserve very special mention, too.  Ever since I burned them a CD-R of the In Not-Even-Anything Land material as I was finishing it up in summer of 2010, they've generously exceeded any expectations as patrons of the "arts," hosting not one, but two CD releases and always providing positive feedback and the warmth of friendship that allows labors of love to flourish.  It was a great pleasure to celebrate this friendship in song, performing "The Noble Fir" at the release party.  In a more serious, "brass tacks" sense, the fact that they've also employed me at the bar since June 2011 has provided me with enough income and leave time to actually afford projects like this--the costs for this album would have equaled about half a year's worth of my previous income, and I'm extremely grateful for the fact that my job enables me to fund artistic projects of this scale while still maintaining a reasonable standard of living and savings--I take this privilege very seriously!

Working my way through the list, I again find cause to thank Nick and Cathy Manwell--I've been friends with them since Nick gave me a dollar when I was playing at 4th Avenue Coffee Shop outside the Liberty Theater in Camas back around 2002.  Since then I've played countless hours of guitar with Nick and "borrowed" pieces of his gear for years at a time (it's his bass heard on the whole album).   It was a real pleasure to get Nick involved in Cheap Seats--he plays lead acoustic on "Chrysalis (In Three Verses)."

In terms of the rest of the "band" heard on the album, much thanks is owed to the kinetic energy provided by drummers Drew Shoals and Russ Kleiner.  I've known Drew since he was an already-legendary presence on the Whitman College campus, playing for every band from the school's jazz band to r&b/hip hop group Love Child to his own solo stuff (releasing such unforgettable singles as "I Can Hear You Having Sex")--apart from a brief stand-in soundcheck appearance, we never played music together.  So, Drew's appearance on eight songs here fulfills a goal I'd long had in the back of my mind.  Additionally, Drew came into the recording process at a very early point (December 22nd of last year), so his willingness to take the music seriously and add some real bones to the fleshy mass I'd concocted was a huge boost to my confidence, which was quite low at the start of the sessions.  I love how Drew's contributions acknowledge the complexity of the songs' meters but also aren't afraid to run rampant, enhancing the "nearly-falling-apart" feel with a free-flowing, intuitive groove.  Russ (to whom Drew introduced me after his school schedule prohibited his return to the later sessions), somewhat contrastingly, approached his songs with a meticulous attention to the details--I was really surprised at how thoroughly he'd internalized the knotty meters of songs I'd not even bothered to chart for him--his energy and sympathetic attention to detail really shine through on his contributions, which were made in spite of a monumental cold (he went on antibiotics after our session).  Finally, my friend Peter Bruckner provided piano for two album tracks and one bonus track, lending a lot of complex feeling with his jazz voicing knowledge, and providing some really choice melodic nuggets in the small spaces that were left by the time he came into the picture.  Here's hoping I'll get to work with these musicians again! 

Chelcie (L), Michelle (R)

Though they're further down this posting than they really deserve for their staggering team accomplishment, the post-production design team that created all of the album art and other visuals for the release deserve huge props for making this package something eye-catching and realizing of a concept I'd had in my...brain...for two-plus years.  Chelcie (who sits both in the credits and "thank you" sections of the booklet, deserves enduring credit for acting as a sounding board for ideas, a confidant for hopes and fears and a companion/fellow traveler on the artistic path) contributed the hand-made collage and watercolors that grace the album art, as well as the watercolor image of my imbecilic grin that disgraces the deluxe package.  Michelle Koelbl (who designed the whole package for In Not-Even-Anything Land) returned for some stellar typographic contributions to the outside cover.  My brother Andy took a lion's share of the "odds and ends" that always crop up with this kind of thing, impressingly finding an attractive layout for the verbosity that is the inside of the CD jacket and the liner notes, as well as promptly responding to needs for posters, image manipulation, print layout for the deluxe package, and probably more time-consuming minutiae that I'm ungratefully forgetting (*brrriiiing*"Hey, I know you're at work, but can you do me a favor?").  Similarly, Courtney Morgan picked up numerous loose ends, creating the sweet brain graphic that appears a few times in the art and became a rubber stamp for the deluxe package, designing the t-shirts, and responding to numerous small design needs throughout the project.  Finally, Johnnie Heinz hand-painted the menagerie of brains that sit quietly behind the lyrics in the insert. Again--I'll be a lucky man if these people continue to help me in the future!

This brother band is formed!  Tentative band names include: Knappetite for Destruction and Knapp Kin.

Finally, I need to round out this list with some people whose contributions are less measurable but no less important in sum--Patrick (whose djembe I've been using for something like 6 years) gets thanks for providing ongoing cheerleader support and continuing connection with an atrophied social life.  Randy Parsons and Cody Green at Parsons Guitars have continually serviced my guitars from basic setups to trouble-shooting to exacting custom work, all the while with professional attention to detail and reasonable prices.  Ike's Auto Repair in Centralia replaced my truck's alternator within two hours when it failed in the middle of one of my many trips to Portland--talk about coming through when it counts!  Professor Mitch Clearfield and his metaphysics course at Whitman must be credited with introducing me to many of the philosophical and cognitive science ideas and writings that form the conceptual basis of these songs and the album's overarching concept--these unsolvable problems still haven't let go of my imagination something like eight years later!  Joel, Andy, Donny, Rick, Sandi and all of the interns at Cloud City Sound and Super Digital provided a welcoming studio environment, friendly support and feedback and some especially professional studio and duplication services.  Paul Davison provided inspiration for "Adjacent to Not-Really-Anyhow Time" in conversation on his Roy Harper Podcast.  Finally, there are all of the Kickstarter campaign contributors, supportive music fans and friends, family, artists, teachers and thinkers who provide a huge grassroots network out of which creative projects like this spring.  I'm sure my frazzled brain has forgotten to credit specific contributions, but please know I am constantly thankful for the wellspring of energy that has brought this to fruition.  One of the later lines on the album is "I couldn't have done it not-alone;" rest assured--when it comes to this project, "I couldn't have done it--not alone!"  Thank you!

John gleefully brandishes his deluxe package CD.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 

Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 

Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 

Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 

Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview  
Cheap Seats Part 8: Tyler Fortier Interview 
Cheap Seats Part 9: Anna Coogan Interview 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Official Release Day!

It's been a long year and a whole lot of work putting together the music and visuals for this album, and today it officially drops!  The CD and digital album are currently available on Bandcamp, where the music is also streaming if you'd like to have a listen.

I'm really excited about the limited edition deluxe package, which includes the standard CD issue as well as a handmade sleeve with pearl snaps (if you know me, you know my love of snap-button western shirts), a rubber-stamped brain graphic and hand-written lyrics and signature.  I'm not hugely crafty, but I'm pumped at how they turned out.  The watercolor was done by Chelcie (more on credits and thank-yous for the album soon).

And finally, there's the release party!  Thursday night at 7 pm, I'm playing a short acoustic set at the beloved Noble Fir, and we're spinning the album afterward.  It'll be a celebration of a year of hard work and hopefully the start of some more traction with what's been a pretty "underground" music career so far.  If you found yourself on this site because of another artist I've reviewed, please do take the time to check out and possibly purchase my album--independent music takes a lot of work and a lot of money and it can't survive and grow without help.  A couple more Cheap Seats posts coming soon, then down to the business of introducing some specific tracks from the album.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cheap Seats 10: Chris Cutler Interview

Today we've got the final interview of the Cheap Seats series, and one that I've been looking forward to since it was conducted all the way back in July (time flies when you're leading a double life!) inasmuch as it nicely caps the interview collection by not only encapsulating an independent musician's perspective, but also that of an owner and operator of an independent music label with a long career in non-commercial music.  As a musician, Chris Cutler is perhaps best known as the drummer for Henry Cow and Art Bears, but like the other members of those groups his recordings and performances have spanned innumerable notable collaborations and solo projects that encompass and cross too many genres and ideas to even attempt cataloging them.  In addition to his percussion skills, Cutler is an experienced lyricist, composer and writer/speaker on various musical topics and, finally, is the creator and operator of Recommended Records (ReR), which has released and distributed an eclectic array of music (most of which broadly falls under the experimental and avant-garde umbrella, and much of it falls in my "absolutely essential" category) since its creation in 1978. 

How would you say the state of non-commercial music (as a whole) in 2012 differs from when you first entered the professional music world in the late 60's/early 70's?

In the late ‘60s there was a handful of major labels and an almost non-existent independent sector. The idea that a band could release its own LPs was not in the air (though there were a few visionary exceptions, mostly in other fields—such as Sun Ra’s Saturn and Harry Partch’s Gate V labels, though lacking any general distribution, these were effectively invisible). And there was the additional problem of distribution: you could make a record, but how would you get it into the shops? A tiny monopoly of distributors dominated the market, structurally tied into the needs of the majors; anything outside that was too much trouble. So bands didn’t think of going it alone, instead they looked for labels. And that meant major labels or their specialist subsidiaries.

On the other hand, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—through a complex set of special circumstances—both labels and public were looking for novelty and innovation, and these are things that an essentially parasitic music industry can’t manufacture, so they had to chase after them instead, meaning that it was still possible for outsiders to get into the game. In addition, there was a moderately healthy gig circuit routinely programming new bands, and these were gigs that paid. Support groups didn’t play for nothing then, or ‘pay to play’ as now; they got reasonable money. So the sign-posted way to success was to get onto the ladder and climb up into the system. And it seemed to work. So there was no thought—and no reason to think—of finding a public in any other way.

This picture has now changed beyond all recognition.  The old patriarchy has long collapsed and the few surviving major labels face ever-diminishing sales, so they invest what they have in safe mainstream product or dirt-cheap back-catalogue reissues. The old practice of ploughing a healthy percentage of turnover back into speculative releases—testing the water and discovering new talent—has long since devolved onto more energetic, less profit-oriented, independent labels, the first batch of which emerged in the late ‘70s, part of the mini-revolution that was Punk (swiftly followed by its more canny beneficiaries, the New Wave). In that environment, if a band rose to the top, a major could buy it up, thereby avoiding the cost of speculative research. And occasionally an independent might be able to hang on to a success and edge a little closer to mini-major status.

In this climate, all but very mainstream bands had to aim to be signed by independents or release their own records. The independent marketplace expanded crazily throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the same time fragmenting into a mass of disconnected and self-contained specialist niche communities. Everything changed: a relatively inclusive mainstream (Beefheart and Sinatra had coexisted on the Warner catalogue) fractured into a major, hits-only, mainstream while a multiplying catalogue of subcultures peeled away, disappearing from the general conversation altogether. So, as the nature of the listening public changed, bands’ ambitions changed along with it.

Looking back, Henry Cow was extraordinarily lucky: we, like many other bands of our era, having strayed across—or broken through—the common-practice fences, had been pitched into the wild, uncharted territories of extended electrification, new instruments, hybrid compositional techniques, cross genre borrowing, radical recording practices, unfettered improvisation and controlled noise… a relatively uncharted terrain. Most of those territories are mapped now, so the sense of possibility and discovery has inevitably dimmed. Of course, there are other terrae novae, but they are not—as they were for us—in such plain sight. I hasten to add that that is not because we were smarter; it’s just that we were just lucky enough to be active during an untypical historical hiccup.  The next musical breakthrough will come along in its own time, as they always do.  Meanwhile, consolidation, revival and minor modifications of existing forms will continue to dominate a musical climate no longer particularly supportive of experiment and innovation. In other words, it couldn’t be much more different now than it was it the late ‘60s, or much harder to survive in.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cheap Seats 9: Anna Coogan Interview

The Cheap Seats train rolls on--this time we've got an interview with Anna Coogan, a talented songwriter and artist working roughly in the Americana vein.  A seasoned independent musician since her days with north19, Anna now has three solo albums and numerous tours of the US and Europe under her belt, as well as a continuing portfolio of good press.  I'm excited to interview Anna as her career has seen her begin as a regionally-successful artist and grow from national to international touring, not to mention the great leap she's taken from musician-with-a-day-job to full-time musician.  Take it from Anna's experience--if you want to progress in the independent music world, you'll need to cultivate some perseverance.   

Photo: Marcel Houweling, taken at Roepaen Podium in Ottersum, NL.

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?

A lot of things have changed so much, and a lot of things have stayed the same over the past ten years.  I started playing at the most turbulent, exciting, and vulnerable time in the music industry--right around 2002--and so much has changed since then for everybody.  Sometimes I kick myself for not getting into it a few years earlier, but things work out the way they work.

Mostly I have learned how to treat it like a business, with a balance sheet and a realistic view.  What is going in (financially, emotionally, and time-wise) and what is coming out?  Are these things balancing out?  How many years of investment are you willing to make before you want to see some returns?  What kind of returns are you looking for?

The thing that seems to be most important is to hire a good team to help promote you – and that can take years to find.  But I think if you are good, and you are relentless, and you tour your brains out and make records and videos and send a lot of emails and show up on time and are polite and friendly to people, eventually you will build a good group of people who care about you and are willing to help you out, and that makes all the difference.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 8: Tyler Fortier Interview

Today we've got the second installment of the handful of interviews I conducted for the Cheap Seats series.  I've written about my old school friend Tyler Fortier's (Bandcamp, Facebook) music before, and back in September I posed to him a series of questions similar to those in the last interview.  Just as all of the other interviews seem to have turned out, Tyler's offers a unique perspective and an emphasis on some of the constant challenges independent artists face and strive to surmount (with many of which I can seriously identify) on a day-to-day basis.

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?


Over the years I have become more and more self-sufficient.  Each new project has a lower cost attached to it.  Releasing music is easy.  Promoting music is tough.  I'm burnt out and can't imagine releasing anything anytime soon.  It's a lot of politics.  It's all about who you know.  It's like looking for a job--sending resumes (press kits) to every city your traveling to.  There is probably a 10% success rate in that.   And out of the hundreds of people who read a review or see your picture or are even slightly interested, maybe one person will go out of their way to come to a show or go listen to music online.

Recently I've tried releasing digital singles because I wasn't having as much luck selling CDs as I wanted and going digital is a good way to keep overhead low.  I hate digital though so it's hard for me to do that and I probably won't continue releasing anything just in a digital format.  

What's been the most difficult challenge to overcome?


Performing intimate lyrical based music in loud and obnoxious settings for people who don't give a shit.

What's the best way to convert a new fan?  How do you measure your progress--record sales, live show attendance, Facebook "likes," etc.?


I'm not sure.  The best thing is seeing return people in your audience though, I know that.  I don't measure my success because that's a fine and blurry line, but having people that were at a show 6 months ago come back the next time and say they've been loving the CD they bought is as good as it gets.

In your experience, what does it take to break beyond a fanbase of friends and family to one populated by people solely interested in the music?


That's a tough one.  I'm not sure.  There has to be an emotional connection made somewhere but as to how to do that, I'm still trying to figure it out.

How would you describe the Eugene music scene?  How do you book your shows, especially when it comes to traveling outside your home base? At this point, would you say you're most successful regionally or online/globally?


There is a lot of good music in Eugene.  Mostly empty venues though from what I can tell.  It seems like everyone is having the same battle with getting people out to listen.  To book shows, I research a lot on the internet and then send emails or call depending on the venue.  I'm probably most successful regionally, though that doesn't mean too much.  I do appear to have a small fan base in the Netherlands area as well, judging from online sales.  Great bands out of Eugene: The Royal Blue, Leo London, Kingdom County, Tara Stonecipher and the Tall Grass, Scott Austin, Mike Surber, Beth Wood, many more but my mind just went blank.

What does it take to sell an album?  What sells most for you, physical media or downloads?  For you, are recording sales the goal, or are recordings more a piece of the overall puzzle in terms of promoting the music?  Have you reached a point where the recordings pay for themselves, or are they a necessity you're willing to support yourself?  Are people actually willing to pay for the music, or do they expect it to be free?

I'm not sure what it takes to sell an album.  I sell most of my albums at shows.  Out of town shows, that is.  I can't sell a CD in Eugene to save my life but I sell a good amount when I travel.  I don't know why.  Recording sales are not my goal, but I'm proud of my work and I want people to hear it and like it, and I want to be paid what I think I deserve for the work I and everyone who contributed put into it.  People do expect music to be free these days.  I feel like a sex worker most of the time, folding up my tips after playing with extra emotion because I needed to make some money tonight and maybe if I just sing this part with lots of gusto, I'll make an extra $20.

How important are production values when it comes to your recordings?  Your albums have spanned from lo-fi home recordings to more produced, professional products--do you think it's important to fans to have a polished, professional recording, or are they willing to sacrifice production values for quality content?  Do professional production values manifest themselves in the finished product in a way that justifies their cost?

Production is the most fun part of making music for me.  I'm always plotting the next big idea even when I'm still in the writing phase.  It is very important.  It is opening yourself up, connecting with a song on some unexplainable level, and understanding every word, guitar strum, and breath to the point that you know exactly what the song wants, what the song needs, and how to make that song sound how it was meant to sound even from the point of its conception in the pen-and-paper stage.  I think certain songs need certain things and whether it is lo-fi or polished, the song will reveal itself to the producer in time.  Fans or music listeners don't need anything.  They just want a song they like and they don't care how it's done or what work went into it.  People who like to dance want a fun beat to move to and people who like lyrics want to be challenged existentially.  I think it is literally that black and white for a majority of “music listeners.”

When it comes to promoting an album, what avenues seem the most successful in getting the music heard?  Do you do everything yourself, or do you get help from anywhere?

I haven't had much luck in promoting my albums.  Local radio here has been super supportive, especially 89.7 KLCC NPRNinkasi Brewing has been a big supporter as well and I have had great support from The Eugene Weekly.  As far as getting my music out to the masses though, I haven't had luck.  Facebook is an awful way to do this, but it is the easiest way so I rely on that sometimes because I don't have time to do anything else.  I think management is key for any serious musician.  Everyone needs some knowledgeable cheerleaders on their team.

When do you decide it's time to head back into the studio? When you've got all the songs written...when it feels right creatively...when you've got ideas but not necessarily songs?

I'm always in the studio (aka the spare bedroom in my house).  This is where I record all my projects as well as projects for my clients.  Sometimes I will record a song when I deem it “ready” or sometimes I'll record a song when I am stuck melodically or lyrically with it.  Most of the stuff I don't keep, but I am always recording songs and thinking as a producer--how can I construct them to reach their highest potential?  In the last week I've been working on seven songs that I have recorded in the last two-and-a-half weeks (two of which are mine).

What keeps you going in the tough row-to-hoe that is the independent music world?  Where's your inspiration coming from right now?

I don't have inspiration or hope as an independent artist, but I do have inspiration as a songwriter.  The desire to always be better and never being satisfied with anything I do has been my inspiration and fuel for the last few years.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

Don't let your ego get in the way and don't take anything too personally.

What have you been listening to this week?  How do you seek out new music?

My playlist this week has pretty much been:
-Joe Pug's first two EP's, a record by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris called Trio, John Prine - Common Sense, Van Morrison - Saint Dominic's Preview, Elvis Costello - Armed Forces, and in my car stereo is Saves The Day's first record: Can't Slow Down


What's on the horizon for you musically?

I'm putting my music on the back burner and starting to work specifically with songwriters on their songs in the role of a producer and mixing engineer.  My debut as a producer was with Mike Surber, who released is debut full length this past June.  I'm currently working on Scott Austin's first full-length, as well as some EPs for three other clients.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 
Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 
Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 7: Alicia Dara Interview

As part of the continuing Cheap Seats series I've conducted a handful of interviews with independent artist friends from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.  So far, this series has focused on my own experiences making and promoting independent music, but the reality is that each artist interacts and responds to the challenges and necessities of the independent music world in his or her own unique way.  In this first interview, conducted in early July, I'm excited to feature Alicia Dara of Seattle-based bands The Volcano Diary (with Gus Palaskas and Dave Bush) and Diamondwolf (with Glen Cooper).  Alicia has been an active independent musician for over 15 years and brings a wide-range of experiences in the music industry to her ever-evolving mission as an independent musician.

Alicia performs with The Volcano Diary

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?


The most awesome, fantastic, and nightmarish event in my career was the advent of the internet. I started way back in 1997, before FB, Twitter, Wikipedia, Reverbnation, and MySpace. There was email and there were websites, which weren't very interactive and tended to crash while listening to MP3's (remember them?) if you stayed on too long. Before that I had been making cassette tapes of my songs in my tiny bathroom on my friend's 8-track recorder. That bathroom was fully tiled and created the best echo/reverb effect ever. I'm still trying to find a plug-in effect that can beat it!

I was raised by classical musicians who never touched a computer in their lives, so I had absolutely zero tech background to draw from as I slogged my way through the maze of the internet, and the various ways that the music business was working to stay one step ahead of it. I had had some radio play locally and on a few stations on the West Coast before internet radio but I was pretty frickin' pleased to discover there was some demand for my music online, on the early stations like

Once took off it was like the gold rush; everybody wanted a piece of the action, and the industry responded accordingly. I started making records on digital recorders in people's home studios, because all that recording equipment was suddenly affordable. I like being in the studio a lot, but I work quickly, and it was tough on my patience back then while everyone was learning these new programs called "Logic" and "QBase."  I was quite grumpy during that era.

These days when you Google my name you can find over 6 million results, which on a good day makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere. But the reality is that since music became "free" I know very few musicians who are able to make a living at it. I am fortunate enough to pay the bills through a combination of teaching, singing session work (adding my vocals to commercials and other people's music projects), and soundtrack work for film, TV, and Internet stuff. Live shows are my passion but they pay so little unless you're in a national touring band. Record labels--contrary to popular belief--are still very much alive, and they are the ones that sign and promote the bands you've heard of in the last 10 years. They also act as filters for music, though in many cases their taste is at best questionable and at worst horrific.

There are 2 things that I've learned over the past decade. The first is my great strength, which is that I can walk away from anything. If you mistreat me, if you disrespect me or my bandmates, if you do not honor the contract I signed or if you change it without informing my lawyer, I will take my toys and go home--and I will never look back. This saves me some headaches.

The second is that I am able to see into the future a bit and know which projects are worth my time and which ones aren't. I value my time.  Granted, I get paid a great big hourly rate to sing on commercials, and I do that even when I don't really want to. But I also know in my soul how short this life truly is, and I (mostly) refuse to spend it on shit that doesn't make me feel sublimely on fire.

What's been the most difficult challenge to overcome?


The biggest challenge to overcome was adjusting to the lifestyle of being an independent artist. It took awhile, and it was a bumpy ride. Making music is its own reward; you have to love it more than being loved. Everyone around me was telling me to go back to school, get a degree, learn a trade or skill that would bring a mountain of cash to my door. But I look around at the world and I see an awful lot of lost souls with fat paychecks. I don't envy them one bit.