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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rodriguez - Cold Fact

I first heard Rodriguez's 1970 debut Cold Fact back in 2008 at local record shop Sonic Boom--ironic, considering the store's typical "KEXP: The Record Store" selection (to be fair, I've found some great jazz classics there, as well as those epic Betty Davis reissues).  These days, Rodriguez is getting all kinds of press for Searching for Sugar Man, a new documentary detailing how the singer disappeared in the 1970's after recording two albums only to find out decades later that he'd become a star in South Africa and nobody knew where he was or what became of him.  It's a fascinating story--so many quality artists disappear without ever achieving recognition in their heyday (or ever, for that matter), so it's pretty cool, if bittersweet, to see that someone actually was appreciated, even if it took decades for his art to be recognized.  It's also nice that Rodriguez is actually still around to get his due (as well as tour and actually make some money from his music). 

As for the music, it must be said that Bob Dylan casts a long shadow--Rodriguez is clearly heavily influenced both by Dylan's songwriting as well as his vocal delivery.  "This is Not A Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" is an awkward attempt at a talking blues in the style of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," there are several kiss-offs in the style (with added venom) of  "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" ("Forget It" and "I Wonder," for example), and Rodriguez is one of legions of singers to adopt a mid-60's sneering Dylan inflection (though his underlying vocal talents are formidable).

To write off this artist for being indebted to Dylan, though, would be to pass judgment before giving his craft a chance.  Besides, there's nary a post-60's artist who's not influenced by Dylan in some way--one of the greatest things about him is that his music showed aspiring artists that it was possible to make pop music that aspired to greater artistic depths in terms of songwriting, lyrical aesthetics and subject matter, without abandoning mainstream appeal.  While Rodriguez doesn't necessarily create a completely unique style for himself, his songs exude careful construction.

There's plenty of great one-liners (like the "you're the coldest bitch I know" conceit in "Only Good for Conversation") and Rodriguez's lyrical vision is often both emotionally direct and open to multiple interpretations.  Coming in well after the flower power movement, there's a dark, disenchanted, urban and undeniably cynical edge to a lot of the words and attitude, as heard in the unsettling "Gomorrah (A Nursery Rhyme)" and the brilliant "Hate Street Dialogue." What's more, Rodriguez has a real knack for concise, melodic song structures, a characteristic that's amplified by some great production choices--from a wet reverb on most of the vocals to the orchestrations that back many of the songs to the occasional psychedelic flourish like overdriven guitar or delay, the arrangements add tasteful depth to songs that probably could have stood alone with stripped-down arrangements.  These, of course, exist in ideal harmony on the album's flagship track, "Sugar Man" a drug song that any songwriter would kill to have penned--from the hair-raising melody to the way it ambiguously seems to both endorse and caution against drugs.

Rodriguez was probably never destined to be a huge star, but his abilities are undeniable and this album is a recommended addition to the collection of any Dylan fan who's looking for other artists of a similar caliber and style.  In light of the continuing Cheap Seats content posted here, I think a story like Rodriguez's is another piece of the puzzle that answers some questions and probably raises even more--people just might be out there listening, but you may never know.  Is it worth it to make music even if no one recognizes it in your day?  I like to hope there will always be thoughtful listeners out there just waiting for the right circumstances to lead them to music like this.

Get it here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cheap Seats 6: Kickstarter Campaign

I've started a campaign on, a website that helps independent artists like myself fund creative projects.  As described in the video above, the campaign is meant to fund the CD duplication and promotion of my new album, Cheap Seats at the Cartesian Theater, the professional recording of which was funded out of my own pocket.  There are some fun rewards, starting with digital and CD preorders of the album.  Any contributions or help in spreading the word about the album and Kickstarter campaign would be greatly appreciated!  I've put a lot of work into making this music the kind of stuff that readers of these blogs will enjoy, so I hope you check it out and find the money and effort I've expended worthy of a small contribution in exchange for the finished product, and help support more music to come!

More Cheap Seats content to come, including some interviews and thoughts on the brass tacks of independent recording.

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

Monday, September 10, 2012

Love - Forever Changes

The past year has been so busy with recording and evaluating my own music that I've had much less time to listen to other people's sounds, which means I've focused a lot more on the "new" music I'm finding instead of revisiting old favorites.  When I do get around to albums I've heard many times, the experience is often quite illuminating.  Especially after doing so much critical evaluation of music on this blog, I sometimes realize that my "5 star" albums, upon relistening, aren't necessarily free from the kinds of things I might label as "flaws" in other music, and that ultimately, designating something "as good as it gets" rests on a certain feeling of affection or nostalgia toward the music, or at least an assertion that the great things in the music are so good that any "flaws" come across more as endearing idiosyncrasies.  In other words (and yet again), it's all subjective!  The fun part about analyzing music in writing is the disjuncture between personal preference and the fact that yes, we actually can (and should) identify and judge specific characteristics in the music that justify how "good" we say it is, but also that "good" will always be individual, and reading music reviews and blogs is ultimately most useful as a way of pairing others' tastes with your own to discover music you might enjoy. 

Forever Changes is one of those albums that winds up on innumerable critics' top lists, but has somehow kept a much lower mainstream profile in comparison with its contemporary "classics."  You never hear any Love songs on the radio or in movies etc., and you'll be lucky if you hear anyone talking about them outside of musicians and critics.  And yet, pick up Forever Changes and give it time to work its magic and you'll most likely understand why it quietly persists as a milestone in psychedelic folk-rock and as one of the best albums of the 1960's.

Like many great albums, Forever Changes is so great because it's often a bizarre combination of unquantifiable elements.  There's the fact that it's a much mellower affair than Love's previous two albums--the more garage-like electric sound of Love and Arthur Lee's aggressive vocal style on Da Capo mostly replaced by acoustic guitar and orchestral textures--and yet it's still insidiously edgy.  There's the album's unique twist on psychedelia, which often takes the form of hard-panned instrumental tracks (the nylon-stringed acoustic is so far to the right it's almost gone!) and brief additions of reverb as well as arrangement choices like having the background singers say a different word at the same time.  There's Arthur Lee's obvious magnetism as a front man, which twists together the role of a sort of tormented seer with a dark fragility, surprising poetic capabilities, an ability to distill the countless clashing emotions of the 60's into songs that are simultaneously emotionally gripping and ultimately ethereal, as well as being a larger-than-life historical legend, somehow more than fulfilling Da Capo's thwarted potential here but quickly unraveling into mental and artistic instability (he was reportedly sure his death was imminent during the creation of this album) in the following years--still capable of creating good music but never coming close to reaching the same level of insight (especially lyrically) repeatedly on display here.  And finally, in spite of Lee's dominant persona, there's the fact that the band was undeniably a collaboration, that Bryan MacLean's songwriting contributions and classical guitar contributions are as important to the album's success as any of the other elements, and that Lee's decision to disband the Forever Changes lineup soon after the album's release was a terrible blunder. 

The distinctive characteristic that most people note about Forever Changes is the inclusion of orchestral arrangements, especially prevalent on the MacLean numbers--the balance is sweet and delicate on "Alone Again Or," "Andmoreagain" and "Old Man," songs whose optimism counterbalance some of Lee's desperate worldview with detours into romantic euphoria.  Elsewhere, though, the strings and horns just as aptly provide a creepy, unsettling edge, as on the paranoid "The Red Telephone" and robotically closing "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This" (gotta love those Dylanesque 60's track titles), as well as brilliantly cathartic, as on the Latin-tinged "Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale" (which boasts some of the album's most sly lyrical conceits, with expected rhymes interrupted by staccato horns only to appear to begin the next line...until the instrumental breaks, that is) and the transcendent album-closing "You Set the Scene."  The cleverest part of the delicate arrangements is how well the rock moments stick out--"A House is Not a Motel" sounds like the heaviest rock you've ever heard, despite the fact that at least half of the song doesn't even have electric guitar, and the solo on "Live and Let Live" is insanely scorching because there's nothing "hard" to compete with it.  Relistening I'm really surprised at how simple the arrangements actually are in comparison with the songs' complexity, usually consisting of just a standard two-guitar rock band with maybe a bit of piano and the aforementioned strings--the band's ability to make each part indispensable is a testament to the skill and care on display.

Lyrically, the album literally never lets up.  While it's often difficult to discern what exactly Lee is singing about in each song, the impressionistic moments paint a collectively awe-inspiring picture of urgent searching, resultant disillusionment, distress, cynicism and ultimately grasping a fleeting sort of brilliant something that makes it all worth it...a something that might just be the absence of alternatives.  Lee manages to toss out piercing one-liners right next to surreal scene-painting with the spontaneous force of a man possessed by something larger than his own conscious decision to create, and somehow manages to do so without completely slipping off the edge into incoherence.  Despite the fact that the album is so very 1960's, his struggle and observations about the world's contradictions can't help but still ring true.

Perhaps this is the only truly great album Arthur Lee had in him, but its quality does seem to justify its singularity.  Though it will likely always remain lauded but obscure, Forever Changes continues to humble me every time I revisit it--albums like this are something more than just old friends, comforting and diverting but always capable of teaching us something new.

Get it here.