Capitol Studios Celebrates Its 60th! Conversations with Al Schmitt and Paula Salvatore, Chats with Elephant Revival, Ben Abraham, and Jack Spann, Plus Nu Shooz, The Chordaes, Henry Chadwick, Sarah Lou Richards & Gary Nichols, Linda Draper, and Vexine Exclusives

04/29/2016 10:13 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2016

NU SHOOZ'S "REAL THING" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Mike Hipple
Nu Shooz

According to Nu Shooz's Valerie Day...

"Musically, 'Real Thing' is an homage to Philly Soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Together they crafted some of the best anthems of the '70's like 'Love Train' and 'For the Love of Money' for the O'Jays. There's also a nod to the Norman Whitfield masterpiece 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone.’ Lyrically the song is about humanity's search for meaning. Some people find their passion early in life; for others it takes a lifetime. Never give up. Never give in, and you will find the real thing."

CAPITOL STUDIOS CELEBRATES ITS 60TH ANNIVERSARY

photo credit: John Piro / Capitol Music Group
Capitol Records Building / Capitol Studios 

Capitol Studios--the famous recording facility located inside the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, California--celebrates another decade of capturing creations by some of the finest musical talent in the world. The following are interviews with Capitol Frequent Flier Al Schmitt and studio honcho Paula Salvatore about its place in history and more...

photo credit: Chris Schmitt
Al Schmitt Receives A Star On The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

A Conversation with Producer/Engineer Al Schmitt

Mike Ragogna: You've been working with Capitol Studios for a number of years. Why Capitol?

Al Schmitt: Well, first of all, I love working here. It's like a second home to me. But the main reasons: The acoustics of the rooms, the equipment, they've got all the latest gear plus some very old vintage gear; I use a combination of both. It's a special place to work. When an artist comes here and walks down that hall and we can offer them Frank Sinatra's microphone or Nat King Cole's piano... The history here is just amazing and everything works. It's just a great place to work.

MR: When you first started, what got you there initially? Was it the reputation of the studio?

AS: Yeah, kind of. I had been here before, I had friends that worked here so I'd come by and hang out for a little bit, and I always wanted to work here. When I got that first opportunity, on a Michael Franks album in 1972 or somewhere around there, I was just so excited to be able to record here. The album came out great and I was hooked.

MR: What do you think it is about Capitol Studios that brings out "that" sound?

AS: It's a combination of a lot of things. In Capitol [Studio] A, you can change the acoustics of the room with the wood slats that are all around, you can make it warmer, you can have a harder surface or a softer one, you have all those combinations. They have the latest equipment, they have a brand new Neve 88R console that I love, I love Neve consoles. And it always impresses artists when they come here and realize that Judy Garland recorded her, Dean Martin recorded here, Peggy Lee recorded here, it goes on and on and on. The second album I did here was Breezin' by George Benson. We all know how that came out, it was a major hit, we all won Grammys. I won a Grammy for engineering on that album and part of it was due to the acoustics of Studio A.

MR: It must have been tricky for the studio to balance adding new equipment yet not losing the qualities of the studio that originally drew everybody there.

AS: They didn't change the room much besides putting in a couple of booths and changing where the control room was when they updated it, but they were really careful not to screw with the acoustics. It's a beautifully high ceiling, I think it's thirty feet high. It's fabulous. Plus they've kept up with all the newest in electronics. They have the newest consoles, there's always a great supply of microphones, vintage and new microphones. The echo chambers are what draw so many people here. They have eight live echo chambers, they're all under the parking lot. Very few studios have live chambers, and even the ones that have them don't compare to Capitol's. It's just amazing.

MR: You're known as an audiophile producer because you record a lot of jazz and classic artists. It seems Capitol also has that je ne sais quois that those record need, right?

AS: Exactly. Just walking down the hall with all the photographs on either side of the walls, it's an inspiration to artists. I know when Diana Krall walks down it's like she's calling on everybody there to give her inspiration. People love that, the fact that they're in the same historic studio where all these incredible records were made. I think it gives everybody peace of mind. In the beginning, it may be a little bit daunting but they soon get into it. once they hear what they sound like they're sold. Then they relax and we get great records.

MR: Are there certain projects from Capitol that you're most proud of because you couldn't have gotten that sound out of anywhere else?

AS: Yeah, there are a few. The Breezin' album was one, The Look Of Love with Diana Krall was another. I did a Paul McCartney album, Kisses On The Bottom... Those were all done here and they're all wonderful sounding records.

MR: What's the process for you?

MR: I know when I approach a record, I think of the artist first. I make sure they're comfortable, because the more comfortable they are, the better they're going to perform. All through a record we make sure an artist has everything they need. I just make the best records I can make, and if they happen to make radio lists that's great. Sound has always been important to me, so I always strive to get the best quality of sound I can get. I just finished a great record with Bob Dylan. That was another one where everybody was just so comfortable working, Bob was so comfortable in the studio so we did it the old-fashioned way--no headphones, everybody close together so they could hear one another, and everything live. No fancy stuff, just a great, live-sounding record.

MR: Do you think Bob Dylan came away with something from that studio experience?

AS: Absolutely. He was so happy. A year and a half ago, we did like three weeks with him and he was so happy that he booked in again and we just finished five weeks. You know he was happy. He was happy with the studio and he was happy with me. It was just a real comfortable experience for all of us. It's the same with Diana. She's comfortable with me; she knows I have her best interest at heart and I'm going to do the very best I can to make her sound as great as possible. They all can relax because they know I'm in there looking out for their best.

MR: You can tell she's evolved as an artist over the years because of your interaction. How do you think you have you progressed as a producer over the years?

AS: Well, the evolution has obviously gone from mono to stereo, recording everything at one time to now being able to layer things, do the rhythm tracks and then add brass or strings or whatever and you can overdub the vocals until you get something that you really like .it's even evolved past that with Pro Tools now where the editing is so easy to do that you're not taking all this time out to edit tape, which took a lot of time. We did a thing where we had three takes and the second take had a great piano solo in it but the third take was the take, but we were able to drop the piano solo into it in two minutes. That was one of the blessings of Pro Tools. Now, with the quality, I record everything up in 192 [bit], the highest resolution, and we're getting amazing sounds.

MR: So it's like virtual tape?

AS: Yeah.

MR: You came from the days of vinyl, and now it's back--although I'm a little suspicious of what's being used as master sources for reissues. What do you think about what's happening in the music delivery world these days?

AS: I love it! I love it so much; I think it's wonderful. What it tells me is that people are striving to listen to good-sounding records instead of the MP3s and the crap that they're downloading. People are going out and buying vinyls. I just heard some test pressings on some of Diana Krall's stuff that they're putting out and it just sounds marvelous. It's just wonderful, and I love the fact that people are buying. People want to hear good sound so they're going from the crap they listen to to this. It's like walking into a room with he light on.

MR: You were a pioneer when you worked on those Frank Sinatra Duets albums, since that was the first major shuttling of tracks back and forth for a major artist's project. What was that process like?

AS: It was fantastic. It was Phil Ramone's idea. He is one of the greatest producers who ever lived and an amazing human being. It was his idea to do this, so we were recording Charles Aznavour from Paris to our tape machine in New York through the internet. It was amazing, what we were able to do. We were in New York listening to Barbra [Streisand] do her recording out in California. It was an amazing process. We were able to do things that I don't think were ever possible before, and it's all on Phil.

MR: Phil taught me to be a better interviewer--or at least he tried. [laughs] That was a big loss, wasn't it.

AS: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of big losses, how about Prince?

MR: Absolutely. What an innovator. Have you ever observed how other artists were innovating and try your hand at it?

AS: Some of the things, yeah. I would take some of their things and incorporate it in things I was doing, take a general idea and bend it to fit what I was working on.

MR: I wanted to mention that one of my favorite albums you oversaw was Jackson Browne's Late For The Sky album. I remember how round that sounded, and it felt like a maturing process occurred. With all due respect to Jon Landau, I don't believe Jackson would have reached many of the major heights of his career without your first having established him as a sophisticated artist.

AS: That's very kind. [laughs] Working with Jackson was a ball. We did that whole album in thirty days straight. We never took a day off. It's one of my favorites that I've done. Jackson is such an amazing talent and just such a great songwriter. You can listen to some of those songs and they all say something that we all need to hear at times.

MR: Like the great singer-songwriters. You know, before Late For The Sky, listeners said, "Yeah, he's a good songwriter," they're knwoing him for "Take It Easy" and "These Days." But "Late For The Sky," "Fountain Of Sorrow," "For A Dancer," "Before The Deluge"... I honestly don't think people would've gotten the caliber of songwriting and artistry without your sonic framing.

AS: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. Again, what I do is to try and get the best out of the artist I possibly can and then get the best possible sounds that I can possibly get using the right microphones, the right studio, the right equipment. It's a combination of a lot of things. I don't settle for less than the best I can do.

MR: And I hate to fawn, but you get such spectacular performances out of every artist.

AS: I think that that comes with trust. The artists trust me, they know me, they're comfortable. We make them as comfortable as possible so they can just flat out do the best they possibly can. I work with great producers, too, guys like Tommy LiPuma and Phil Ramone, guys who cared about the music and the artists and what was best for them.

MR: What about your observations as far as artists? There are so many artists that you produced and engineered. When you look at that roster of artists, are there any that stick out in your mind who kind of changed during the process of working with them?

AS: I learned so many lessons from Jefferson Airplane about recording and about trying things. It wasn't that they wanted to do something and I'd say, "Hey look, that's not going to work, let's not try that," instead we'd try it, and sometimes it didn't work and I would've been right, but sometimes it worked and I was scratching my head saying, "My God, that's amazing!" I learned so much about life from them. I did the same thing with Sam Cooke. I just learned so much about music and how songs were put together and about the joy of recording. I learned something from every artist, and that's a good thing.

MR: Are there some other artists that we haven't mentioned who are some of your favorites?

AS: I co-produced a great record years ago with Jane Monheit, I thought it was by far her best record, and still is. I did a great one with Rosa Passos, and then I did the Amaroso album with Claus Ogerman and João Gilberto from Brazil, that was another learning experience, in the way that record went down. I learned from João, I learned from Claus, I learned from Tommy LiPuma, and again, every step of the way when I make a record is the most important record for me. I'm just trying to do the best I can.

MR: Do you find yourself gravitating towards new artists these days, maybe even "discovering" a couple here and there?

AS: No, I haven't, unfortunately. I don't get a chance to work with too many new artists. I'm so busy, I just finished mixing a record with Michael Bublé, I did the Dylan thing, I'm getting ready to do something at the end of the year with Diana Krall again. I'm just so damn busy recording the artists the that I've been working with over the years that I don't get a chance to work with too many new artists. Nobody comes to mind immediately that I could so, "Oh yeah, they're great."

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

AS: Oh, boy. Follow your heart. Don't give up and don't let anybody tell you, "No no, you shouldn't be doing that." If it's something that you really believe in--and this is true of anything, just do the best you can and continue to believe in yourself. At some point you might want to take a little direction from somebody who really knows what they're doing, but in general if you have this idea in your head that you want to get across, go for it. You never know what something's going to explode on the air and be a big hit. Look at Adele. She'd been around for a while and then whack! How many albums did she sell, twenty seven million?

MR: Is she somebody you'd like to work with someday?

AS: Yeah!

MR: And what advice would you have given Al Schmitt when he was first starting out?

AS: [laughs] Keep your chin up and just keep going. If you make a mistake, pick yourself up and just keep going. Don't get discouraged. Follow your heart. You know, we get paid for doing something we would do for nothing. I love what I do every day I get up. "Thank you, God, I'm heading into the studio to make music." How bad can that be? Especially when you're coming to Capitol!

MR: Are there any projects coming up that we should know about?

AS: The Dylan project we did at Capitol is coming out in May, that's something you can look forward to. It's called Fallen Angels. It's really interesting; it's a follow up to Shadows In The Night. This was done at Capitol in Studio B on an old vintage Neve board that sounds just wonderful.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

photo credit: Paul Moore/Capitol Music Group
Paula Salvatore / VP Capitol Studios

A Conversation with Capitol Studios VP Paula Salvatore

Mike Ragogna: Paula, how does it feel to be running such a prestigious recording studio on its 60th Anniversary?

Paula Salvatore: It's an honor and a privilege, to be running Capitol Studios for 25 of the 60 years it's been in business. I've been anxiously awaiting this 60th anniversary celebration for many years. Over the past couple of decades, I have had the thrill of meeting legends in the recording business and watching them work in this creative, inspiring atmosphere. 

MR: Paula, why do you think after 60 years, Capitol Studios is still considered one of the great facilities in the world?

PS: It's an incredible state-of-the-art facility, but personally, I think it's the talented and experienced staff of engineers that help differentiate it. They really know what they are doing, because they work on world-class projects on a daily basis and have been for years. 

MR: Along with the recording facilities, it also maintains a mastering unit. What other functions does the studio offer? 

PS: We now offer production suites and writer rooms for more economical recordings, one-off vocal sessions and voice-overs. We also offer vinyl mastering, where we cut the lacquer masters for vinyl production. The studio is also doing more brand partnership projects with major companies to bring showcases, live events and release parties for press. Recently, we worked with Don Henley, Elton John and Brian Wilson among many others. For a long time now, we've also been doing ISDN / fiber-optic network sessions, like we did with the Academy Awards and the live orchestra from Capitol Studios for three years. 

MR: Since the Capitol/EMI merger with Universal, how has the studio evolved to accommodate all the various associated companies?

PS: When the merger happened, we had such incredible support from Steve Barnett, Lucian Grainge, Boyd Muir and Barak Moffitt. Everybody has really paid attention to the importance of the legacy of the recording studios, while helping us bring the studios up to these state-of-the-art standards again. It's an evolving process that has been going on for several years now. The studio has never been better! It's in top-notch technical shape and looks great! The support for the staff has been amazing. 

photo credit: Capitol Studios
Capitol Studios, Studio A / Yamaha C9 Piano  

MR: Because of the studio's reputation, etc., many A-list producers, artists and bands record there. Who are some recent ones that have used the facility?  

PS: Since we renovated Studio A's control room with a new Neve 88-RS console, we’ve had  Paul McCartney's Kisses on The Bottom and Live Kisses from Capitol Studios, for which he won a Grammy Award. We've done two recent Bob Dylan albums; also Sam Smith, John Mayer, Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Beck, Mary J Blige, David Foster to name a few. 

MR: You have been intimately involved with almost every aspect of the studio and its assets for many years. Do you have any favorite stories involving staff producers or engineers? How about outside acts or producers?

PS: One of my favorite producers was, of course, the legendary Phil Ramone and my favorite engineer is Al Schmitt, who has been working with me for the past 25 years since I've been there. With 23 Grammy Awards, he is a legend in his own right. We've had so many fun experiences together with all the artists from Frank Sinatra to Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. Another of my favorite engineers is Tommy Vicari, who we work with on the Academy Awards. While it’s a lot of stress, we’ve had a lot of laughs putting these events together.    We've worked together for the last 18 years. A few other favorites are Nico Bolas, Don Was, Frank Wolfe, Ed Cherney, Quincy Jones--when he's in, there are always hours of stories--Burt Bacharach, Eddie Kramer... I could go on and on, but it may seem like I’m just dropping names. Really, I’ve just been blessed to work with so many top talents in the industry.

MR: Who are your favorite classic artists who used Capitol? Are there any fun stories about any of them in the studio that you can share?

PS: I think one of the most epic stories that I could share, is when Frank Sinatra was in doing his Duets record in '93. He was introduced to me and said he couldn't forget my face and gave me a kiss right on the lips, as he put his hand under my chin. That was priceless and left an indelible impression. And of course, who could forget walking down the halls with Paul McCartney for the last 25 years.  Whenever I see him in a room he says "Hello Paula" [Paula says in her best Liverpudlian accent.] That is the best!

MR: In your opinion, has Capitol Studios changed the way music is recorded or at least contributed in a way that insures its place in music history?

PS: When the studio first opened, there were only a few places artists could go to get the highest quality recording available at that time. Sixty years later, the unique acoustic characteristics of our tracking rooms, combined with our incomparable subterranean echo chambers, help create what is often called "The Capitol Sound." You know it when you hear it, and we're thrilled that so many artists, musicians, producers and engineers refuse to settle for anything less.

MR: What is the process for booking the studio these days?  Let's say a producer/arranger wants to use Studio A, what does he/she do from start to finish?

PS: We pride ourselves on our customer service and make the process of working with us as simple as possible. When someone calls to book the studio, they are connected with someone who has access to the schedule and can immediately check availability. If the studio is open, we will put a tentative hold on the date and time requested. Once scheduled, either me or someone on my team, will begin the simple process of opening an account and will assess what you need during the session from recording equipment to recording engineers, as well as help establish the time interval you will need. 

photo credit: Capitol Studios
Capitol Studios, Studio B / Live Room  

MR: Beyond, “Come use Capitol Studios,” what advice do you have for new artists?

PS: Well, I really think artists should use Capitol. Even if they don’t need a full studio, they can use the writer rooms and we can help them understand the professional recording atmosphere, so they know what to do and what to expect. My personal advice to them would be to keep playing, continue honing your craft and learning how to get along with musicians. Don’t get discouraged, just keep plugging away and collaborate with real musicians. 

MR: Obviously, you love it so much that you'll be there another 25 years.

PS: Ha! Not quite! I do see myself going until I can't go any more. Why not?   What a place to work and hang out. It's wonderful. The other night, I was watching The Blues Brothers movie from 1998, with Dan Aykroyd and John Goodman. They had a blues duel on stage, and I realized I’d been fortunate enough to meet every one of those artists on stage at Capitol, like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite, Sam Moore and others.  It's truly amazing. 

MR: Can you share some details about some of the events Capitol Studios has planned to celebrate the 60th Anniversary?

PS: Yes, we are planning a few events throughout the year.  On May 21 and May 22, we are having an Open House at the studio.  For the first time ever, we are opening our doors to the public for a limited number of ticketed tours.  We have General Admission and VIP ticket packages.  Aside from the studios where so many legendary artists played, guests will also get to see the piano that Nat King Cole played, the microphones Frank Sinatra used, along with the chairs they used during their recording sessions. Attendees will have the opportunity to mingle with our Studio staff and get to see what an actual recording console looks like. We have also partnered with Caroline Distribution and WAX Record Fair for a special event for vinyl enthusiasts in the Tower parking lot that same weekend. There will be live music, DJ’s, food as well as our Limited Edition 60th merchandise available for sale.  While tickets are going fast, anyone interested in attending the event can get more details by visiting: http://www.capitolstudios.com/partners/60th-anniversary/

We also will be hosting a 24-hour challenge, where an artist will write, record and release a track all in one day. We will post additional information to our website and socials when it becomes available!

 

THE CHORDAES' "SHE" EXCLUSIVE 

photo credit: Phil Knott
The Chordaes

According to The Chordaes' guitarist and lead singer, Leo Sawikin...

"'She' is about a girl I knew when i was a sophomore in college. Before meeting her i didn't really know how I was going to find happiness in my life. I had never met a girl who impressed me as much as she did. She made me realize that if I could be with someone like her it would make all the other crap worthwhile. She gave me a real incentive to really try and improve myself and I wouldn't be where I am today without her."

The debut album Touch The Ground will be released May 20th. For more information: http://thechordaes.com

 

HENRY CHADWICK'S "GUEST AT HOME" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Conner James Quinto at CQ Photographics
Henry Chadwick

According to Henry Chadwick...

"'Guest At Home' is the title track off of my upcoming EP. The theme song, if you will. It’s an upbeat song with a new-wave, garage-pop feel and a little psychedelic flare. It’s one of my favorite tracks off the EP. I had a lot of fun with the guitars on this, as well as my old, out of tune piano. Coincidentally, this is the last thing that piano was recorded on before I gave it away. Aidan Collins played bass and sang some back-ups on this one. I played and recorded the rest of the stuff. Lot's of running back and forth between the control room and instruments. It’s about one of those off-and-on relationships. It captures the feeling of being in a seemingly dysfunctional relationship that is most likely soon to end. It's told from a semi self-deprecating perspective of the guy in the relationship...me. I’d say there’s definitely a little humor to it, and a strangely optimistic feel. It’s the story of a triumphant failure in a way. It’s as if I was taking a look at the elephant in the room and then offering to buy it a drink, rather than deal with it. In the end, there is some bittersweet resolve. I hope you enjoy it"

Elephant Revival's Petals album cover
Elephant Revival / Petals

A Conversation with Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paine & Daniel Rodriguez

Mike Ragogna: Bonnie and Daniel, you have a new album, Petals, and last year, you released a live CD/DVD, Sands Of Now. Before we talk about Petals, catch us up on what the band has been up to since your studio album These Changing Skies.

Bonnie PaineWell, we have been rehearsing with some acrobats and aerialists who will join us for a few songs at our upcoming Red Rocks show. We have been working with Laura Goldhamer and some really neat visual artists on a stop motion music video for the title track of our new album, “Petals.” I’ve been enjoying listening to the birds celebrate spring and watching the snowmelt broaden the streams in Colorado for our days home between tours.

Daniel RodriguezThe band has been touring a bunch. We did a U.S. tour with Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, and we are just about to head out on the second half of our tour celebrating the release of Petals. So, a lot of traveling and working out new tunes. 

MR: Your style collects virtually every acoustic or Americana nuance, ranging from Celtic to folk to country. And we have to throw in indie rock and jazz. How do maintain the balance and blend of so many different styles?

BPI would guess that these are the influences of all the different kinds of music we each have listened to throughout our lives, weaving their way into our sound. 

DRI think it just comes naturally, in the sense that the song itself is asking for it to be played a particular way. I would say we are conscious of it but don’t think about it analytically. We never leaned too heavy on any particular traditional style or format to write within, so that gives us a little leeway. As a result, our music naturally becomes a synthesis of all those traditions we love.

MR: Let's go back for the origin story. How did the band come together?

BPFor me, the first member in the band I met was Daniel Rodriguez in New London, Connecticut, in the spring of 2002. We ended up playing on a rooftop until the sun rose, and I felt something very special there. Later that fall, I met Dango, Bridget, Sage, and Charlie at the Walnut Valley Music festival in Winfield, Kansas. We all enjoyed playing together and would meet up and jam here and there over the next few years. At one point, I received a message from Dango titled “Elephant Revival Concept?” with a short list of dates and venues around Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. I responded with a “yes.” 

DRWe all met each other through different scenarios and left a lasting impression on each other. It was really in the formative periods before we started playing shows where we would be camping in Oklahoma or Colorado, at a festival or a river, and jamming with each other. I think there was both a subconscious and conscious understanding that we all wanted to become available for something that was larger than us as individuals and make some music. We were not all going out and looking for 9-5’s because we knew there would be too much at stake. I believe Dango Rose was the first one to have the sense to book some shows, and we all showed up.

MR: How was Petals’ material created? How was it recorded?

BPI do not know how any material is created, specifically. A lot of active listening is involved. I know that for most of the songs that I wrote, I listened for a melody and words that fit into that melody, then found the chords on the cello or guitar, then gave the song some focus, but also allowed a kind of space around them to let them unfold. Then I introduced them to the improvisational embellishments of the band which brings a whole new depth to the expressibility of the songs. Everyone has their own process with writing and introducing songs, though. So it’s hard to say, but again whether being the writer or embellisher, a lot of open listening is involved.

We recorded Petals with Sam Kassirer as our producer. Working with him ended up being an amazingly exploratory and fun process. His balance of focus and imagination helped us venture into some unfamiliar, crunchy, or ethereal sounds with some of the songs. Charlie’s pedal steel was a new flavor for us and this is the first album for me to play cello on. We recorded for about two weeks in Sam’s old farm house in Maine, then another week or so at eTown Hall in Boulder, Colorado.

DRThe material all started with the original creation of each song individually, within moments of inspiration. Petals is an album of both new songs and songs that had been waiting to see the light of day in the studio. We had some rehearsals and writing sessions throughout the previous seasons, and we would bring songs up and try them out. Then we sent off more than a handful of songs to Sam Kassirer--the producer--and he helped us select the songs that now make up Petals

MR: You’ve toured the country though you are based in Colorado. Does experiencing various parts of the country affect the creative approach? Are you inspired by the various environments?

BPYes. For me, wherever we find clean water to hike around or swim in is where I find songs. There are sound patterns in rivers and oceans that can easily become melodies in a song. Also the kind of white noise that water makes, whether it’s falling from the sky or rushing down a mountain or ebbing and flowing or trickling down a hillside, fills some of the soundscape so it’s less startling and more inviting to me to hum or sing with these sounds around. Sometimes being on our tour bus feels like being on a big boat, and I wonder if this also contributes to the sort of maritime theme that seems to be present, especially in our recent writing.  

DRI am definitely inspired by different environments around the world. Being in quiet solitude and getting outside into the woods is where I find a deep connection. The trick is to stay connected to the main vein of inspiration wherever your are, even if it means you’re being inspired to leave.  

MR: How intimate or confessional does the material get lyrically? Are there ever any moments of awkwardness or total release when it comes to sharing songs and their topics with the other band members? After making music together for a decade, how tight is Elephant’s Revival?

BPBeing vulnerable is part of the sharing of any song, whether it’s to your bandmates or with your bandmates to an audience. Sometimes people are able to recognize or even embrace their own fragility or strength in a song. That is something I love about music. 

DRI do think there is an intimacy to some of the material, but I don’t feel that it is as much confessional as it is sharing. Petals, I feel, has a lot of imagery in it. It can get awkward sharing songs with other band members, or anyone for that matter. But the awkwardness usually stems from within, because it may be a new song you’ve written that you haven’t gotten know very well yet, or an old song that you’re becoming familiar with again. Though usually, they are moments of release and expression.  

MR: Does Petals have any highlights you’re particularly proud of?

BPI really like the way Charlie’s pedal steel eerily introduces the album on “Hello You Who,” and I feel something sweet when I hear the tenderness in Dan’s voice on “Season Song.” Also I really enjoy the percussion break down in “Furthest Shore.”

DRI love how the title track, “Petals,” turned out. Sonically, I feel we really captured something.

MR: Elephant Revival also could mean bringing back the species from potential extinction. Do you have any environmental issues you feel strongly about?

BPAs I mentioned, I find a lot of inspiration being near clean water, and I love the sense of vibrant thriving I get around these places. What I have learned about the effects of hydraulic fracking on our water tables is devastating. Clean air, clean water, and clean soil are basic needs for a healthy life, and these are all threatened immensely with unnecessary technologies. Our need to explore solar and wind energy has become blatantly obvious, and I commend those that are finding success with utilizing these constant and abundant resources.

DRI feel very strongly about a lot of environmental issues, and the limited options that this society offers is frustrating. I would love to see the combustion motor become a boutique technology. The combustion motor is, no doubt, genius, but relying on fossil fuels is the opposite of genius. There is a very large giver in the sky called the sun, and the only reason I see it not becoming a more centralized way of harnessing energy is greed. I think convenience, greed, and carelessness might be our biggest environmental issue.

I also feel being more connected to your source of food is always a great thing. I love seeing farm-to-table restaurants popping up everywhere, and we try to find them wherever we travel. I’d like to see people getting more involved with their local food sources.    

MR: If you could be any of the acts you’ve opened for or who have opened for you, who would you want to be and why?

BPThe Shook Twins. I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be a twin, and they seem to have a lot of fun while making amazing music.

DRA magician opened for us once, and I’d love to be him for a day to figure out all the tricks.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

BPWonder what it means to listen. Remember that you are inextricably a part of all that surrounds you. 

DRCreate for the sake of making art itself. Do your best not to analyze your art too much, and stay in the moment with what you’re creating, because you never know if you’re creating it or it's creating you.  

MR: What advice do you have for Elephant Revival?

BPWonder what it means to listen. Remember that you are inextricably a part of all that surrounds you.

MR: Good one. Daniel?

DRStay healthy, keep a good sense of humor, and get some sleep.

 

SARAH LOU RICHARDS & GARY NICHOLS' "I AIN'T EASY TO LOVE" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Angie Nutt
Sarah Lou Richards & Gary Nichols

According to Sarah Lou Richards...

“'I Ain’t Easy to Love' was the song that shifted this whole record. Not only did it open the door to work with Gary and move my project, The Woman Behind the Curtain, from Nashville to Muscle Shoals, but it forced me to dig deep as an artist, stepping into the story that Angela Hacker and James LeBlanc painted so beautifully when they wrote the song. It’s hard to say out loud the things that make us less desirable, to admit that we have shadows that can make loving us difficult. We would much rather focus on the love that is pain-free and light, filled with laughter and thoughtful gestures. At the end of the day though, what we want most is to be loved in spite of ourselves. Behind the scenes of this video were very emotional. There were tears and stops and starts and a lot of deep breaths. I felt affected, not only as someone engaged and in love myself, but also as someone on the sidelines, watching a world filled with imperfect, difficult love. Brian Granfors, the brilliant mind behind this video, captured the struggle and beauty of the song so tightly.  We shot the video inside of Nutthouse Recording Studio, where the bulk of the album was recorded."

Ben Abraham's Sirens album cover
Ben Abrahams / Sirens

A Conversation with Ben Abraham

Mike Ragogna: Ben, your music has been described as “Cinematic Folk.” Do you think that’s accurate and what does that phrase mean to you?

Ben Abraham: I guess the phrase was an attempt to articulate the universe of my music. One of the most annoying questions any artist can get is being asked to describe what our work is like. Composer Nico Muhly has a great blog post about this very frustration--and suggest that perhaps the artist's job is simply to create the work and it's the audience's job to categorize  and decipher it.

That said, people are still going to ask, so the producers and I decided "Cinematic Folk" was somehow the most fitting. It doesn't necessarily make literal sense but it does imply the sense of scope that I believe is in the album.

MR: You play multiple instruments and were drawn to folk over other genres. Also your parents were performers. What helped you decide to be a musician yourself and who are some of your influences?

BA: I grew up playing music and singing in a musical family so music was always a huge part of my life. If I wasn't pursuing music as a career I would still at least play an instrument.

My influences are pretty broad and I tend to look to different artists for different aspects of my work. I'd love to sing like Donny Hathaway or Thom Yorke, write like James Taylor or Carole King, have a career trajectory like Sufjan, a body of work like Bjork, a legacy like Peter Gabriel, and playfully subvert audience expectations like Tarantino whilst simultaneously making work that feels timeless--like P T Anderson. That's all doable right?

MR: Nice. You originally played music for children in Melbourne hospitals. Do you have any stories from that period and what did that do for you as an artist and human?

BA: Working for the Starlight Children's Foundation actually gave me the desire to pursue music as a career. When I started the job I was two years into a screenwriting course and had no interest in playing music in a professional sense. My job is part of the Captain Starlight Program at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne--we dress up as space aliens to help kids escape the hospital environment--and about a month into the job, I took a guitar onto the wards and ended up writing a song with a 13-year-old girl.

My bosses were so impressed that they flew me around to all their major fundraisers to play the song and share the story. My screenwriting career was over before it ever started.

MR: What do you feel are the major differences between Australia and the US’s folk or acoustic scenes?

BA: The biggest difference is opportunity. The population of the U.S. means there are so many more opportunities to play and make work. There are pros and cons to this I think. The economy of the arts more exciting since a larger audience means a greater chance at financial viability, but it also means there are a hundred other singer/songwriters just like you in any five mile radius.

The lack of opportunity in Australia means only the toughest and most resourceful survive, much like our native wildlife. The desert-like, creative landscape rewards outliers and people who think outside the box. Gotye, Hiatus Kaiyote and Courtney Barnett are great examples of this.

MR: Where did some of the ideas come from when writing songs for your new album Sirens? What was recording the project like?

BA: The album is a collection of songs that were written between that first song on the hospital ward through to the day we decided to start recording, some 8 years later. The track list is pretty much chronological so the narrative arc of the album follows my progression as a songwriter; From the early, and somewhat naive, romantic musings of my 21-year-old self through to a more mature (I hope) 28 year old. Recording was a challenge because I had spent so long with some of these songs that it was difficult to arrange them with fresh ears.

MR: Do you have a song or two that you feel best present you as an artist?

BA: I'm quite proud of the song "Speak" because I feel like it was a turning point for me as a writer. Whilst many of my early songs dealt with familiar themes like melancholy, loss and heartbreak, "Speak" tells the story of an artist wrestling his muse. I feel like I cut my teeth writing about my breakups and then "Speak" is this song where you can see the sort of narrative possibilities my work might take.

The other song I'm proud of is "Songbird." It's kind of the odd one out on the record and I had to fight to get it included. I'm proud of it because in its original piano arrangement it had chords and melody ideas that were very different to my earlier songs. When I finished writing that song, I remember thinking, "Sweet. I'm changing."

MR: What do you think of the current state of pop radio?

BA: I'm feel too unqualified to offer much of an opinion. I will say it's interesting how many songs have such a heavy reliance on instrumental hooks. We live in an age where the producer is almost on par with the artist in terms of star power and song performance.

The instrumental hooks in Justin Bieber's new songs arguably outshine his vocal performances. I guess I'm mostly thinking of "Sorry" which has such killer ideas. There's no editorial here because I do really love pop music but it does make you wonder where the next Carole King is going to come from. If at all..

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

BA: Work, work, work, work, work. I see a lot of young artists spend so much time and energy mapping out how they're going to get their music in front of the various blogs and taste making sites on the internet but they do it before they've even got a body of work. Best thing I ever did was learn how to put up the blinkers, ignore what everyone else was doing and just make work that I was proud of and that audiences responded to. I'm pretty sure that's what Rihanna's song is about too.

MR: What ideally would you like to happen for your career in the US?

BA: I am in this for the long haul so I would love to find an audience who really gets behind me as an artist and is willing to stick with me through whatever weird career decisions--and mistakes--I make. It's also a dream to play Radio City Music Hall. Mostly I just want a mansion in LA, a penthouse in NYC, a private jet, a pool full of M&Ms and a pet iguana.

LINDA DRAPER'S "MODERN DAY DECAY" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Shervin Lainez
Linda Draper

According to Linda Draper...

"The way in which we communicate with one another has changed drastically over the course of my lifetime. These days we are constantly bombarded with information from so many different sources. This clutters the mind and sometimes makes us feel more fragmented and isolated than ever before. This song is about the timeless need for us to reconnect and see each-other, face to face, and chip away through our self-imposed distractions. Jason Yantz, who created and directed the video, takes the viewer on an analog-style journey contrasting our digital landscape through a series of layered and textured vignettes. Hundreds of unique images come together to create a living, breathing, moving collage inspired by the lyrics and pulse of the song."

Jack Spann's Time, Time, Time, Time, Time album cover
Jack Spann / Time, Time Time Time, Time

A Conversation with Jack Spann

Mike Ragogna: Jack Spann, who is Jack Spann? Ooh, all existential, huh.

Jack SpannI’m just a simple, misunderstood human male. People assume I must be confident because I’m tall and handsome, have a sonorous voice, and write great songs! [wink] The truth is I am wracked by near clinical-level anxiety almost all day, everyday, and it’s a constant struggle to rise above. I feel like I owe it to myself and everyone else that struggles like me to enjoy, breathe, and appreciate life.

MR: You’ve been on Broadway, such as in War Horse and Lost Highway. Do you feel Time, Time, Time, Time, Time represents those talents in addition to your singer-songwriter gravitation?

JS: I lied my way into War Horse by claiming I could play accordion; to be fair, it’s almost like a sideways piano. I got into Lost Highway by claiming I could play upright bass. I’m definitely of the school "Fake It Till You Make It." But something has really changed in me and in my world at large in the last few years. I’m tired of pretentiousness and silly music, and I only attempt to tell the truth now, where art is concerned. As far as I can, honestly, anyway. 

MR: Your new album Time, Time, Time, Time, Time seems like a proto-singer-songwriter album, emulating a lot of earlier approaches by some of the greats like James Taylor and Elton John. How did the album come together and how did you meet producer Gary Tanin?

JS:  I was referred to Gary Tanin by Mr. [Tony] Visconti. Once I completed the David Bowie sessions for Tony, I called him asking for a referral for someone who could produce my first solo record. Mr. Visconti immediately mentioned Gary who was a producer that had worked for his son Morgan on projects. Tony thought that he might be compatible. Gary has worked with artists I've been a fan of including Sam Llanas [The BoDeans] and Daryl Stuermer [Genesis/Phil Collins Band], he also worked with Roger Powell [Todd Rundgren/Utopia] on his comeback albums and a gorgeous solo piano recording "Blue Note Ridge" and even Violent Femmes Drummer, Victor DeLorenzo. 

Gary was willing to listen to my demos and seemed to legitimately like my songs. Once we got our working style down Gary played the role of stripping back layers and equally important in not over producing the material. He worked with me on arranging and re-arranging songs and also played keyboards on 9 of the 10 songs on the album. His role included telling me, honestly, when my vocal takes lost their genuine-ness in delivery and became too perfect. We stayed away from "fixing" things in the mix, minimized pitch correction, and tried to keep the record as organic and "real" feeling as possible. It was his idea to title the record "Time, Time, Time, Time, Time" based on the song title. Gary had clear ideas in ordering the songs as an album, thematically--not just compiled tracks--and specifically in adding the "ear candy," effects that occasionally present themselves in the songs making them evolve and change and dissolve and re-appear. 

I love James Taylor and Elton John. The earliest recordings, in my opinion, are and will remain forever "classics" in the recorded music canon. And if there is any comparison in my music to theirs, then I am truly humbled.  

MR: What is your connection with Tony Visconti and the late David Bowie? Are there any stories you can share?

JS: I cannot share any stories. Because of my deep respect for David Bowie and for Tony, and the extremely minor role which I played in both of their lives, it would be untoward for me to speak as if I were somehow important in either the bigger scheme of things, or what eventually became the record Blackstar. I was somehow gifted a magical opportunity to work with an all time hero of mine in the role of song demos for material that eventually became the album Blackstar

I'll share this. David was really, really genuinely kind and generous. Tony Visconti was all business. I got to hang with those guys and Zach Alford [Bowie's drummer] for a few days. I got to sit in the control room and roam around the entire Magic Shop studio at will, I might add, while Bowie did his vocals, Tony did his bass parts, which were played in the control room mostly, I think, and Zach played his drums. From what I experienced, these were almost always first-take recordings. Tony and Bowie, are/were all first rate musicians, which may have been overshadowed by the fame they have been able to achieve. If I could have anyone play bass for me--I don’t use a bass in my live shows--it would be Mr. Visconti. If that were somehow possible, Tony is a very capable funk, blues, and rock bassist.  It’s a cliche to say that “so and so was really nice to me”, and I’ve read stories of how Bowie or Tony, like any number of true rock stars, could be difficult and unkind when he/she was younger. But to me, David was extremely gentle and genuine for the entire week of recording. Really, really fun to be around, and very supportive.

MR: Which songs on the album do you feel show you at your personal best and why? what was the songwriting like? wHat was the recording process like?

JS: The recording process was hell.  I hate recording, I hate committing anything to the irrevocable and the permanent, and that is precisely what recording is. I guess I’m like Kanye... Can I go back and change my last release? But my Producer Gary Tanin helped me thorough all this. It's a jungle just navigation the narcism & ego that often obscures ones best "takes." And I've learned that you have to have a production partner that you can trust. I've learned to do that with this, my first solo album, which I have learned to let go of and allow to be. I think the best songs on the album are "Time," "Beautiful Day." "Ever In Love," and "Everybody's Stained" because they run the gamut of human emotions and cover a broad musical territory. "Time": The existential dilemma and my attempt to wrestle with the obvious; "death" because we are all dealing with "time" sooner or later. "Beautiful Day": In the contrast between "Time" and the notion of singing about happiness; in spite of what might be lurking around the corner. "Ever In Love": About it's awareness of knowing what "falling in love" brings with it and the desire not to keep making the same mistakes. It has an air of innocence once burned but not yet smothered. And finally, "Everybody's Stained": The ultimate reality check...ain't it the truth? Open someone's closet take a look inside. We all have our demons lurking. 

MR: Having honed your singer-songwriter talents in places like the Sidewalk Cafe and Venice Cafe while nurturing your stage talents with Broadway appearances, are there any other creative avenues that you want to incorporate into Jack Spann the artist?

JS: I want to play, one, Prarie Home Companion; two lounge piano at a Joyce Carol Oates book signing somewhere in Montana; and three, write a HIT off the Broadway musical based on “Lord Of The Flies” by early 2017. Is that too much to ask for, Mr. Ragogna?

MR: Not at all, Mr. Spann, not at all! So what albums or artists do you play casually and do you ever play yourself when no one is looking?

JS: Great question! J. S. Bach, Art Tatum, Revolver, Monk. The usual. Bowie or Prince songs that now sound slightly dated, but which I know for a fact will never be. Trying to stretch 12 bar blues into twelve-and-a-half bar blues.  You hip guys and gals know what I mean.  Musicians, it's imperative we continue to try to defy racial and intellectual boundaries.  

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

JS: Practice at least 4 hours per day, at least 5 days a week. Practicing is more intense than ordinary work, because you have to pay attention twice as hard, and because you’re an artist, your work is only respected half as much.  Because, you’re an artist. And not interested in world domination, for your own sake. Art for art’s sake.

MR: But isn't that where this this all headed? World domination?

JS: No. Not domination. I hope to reach a group of positive, willing, meditative, forward thinking people, and try to influence the next generation to spend a bit more time with "love." And less time in anger. I truly wish this for all of us.

VEXINE'S "EMPTY HOLE" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: PJ Sykes Photography
Vexine

According to Vexine's Sarah Gleason...

"Vexine's new single 'Empty Hole' is about facing disappointment square in the eye and moving forward. The song describes a scenario where what was promised was not delivered. Instead of treasure, you find 'just an empty hole.' The song ends with a childish taunt, forcing the protagonist to break away from the idea of entitlement and to realize that what you get is not always what you want. We've all heard the promises of the American Dream when we were young. Promises of a bright future, happiness, job and a comfortable life are made. You expect to get these things. You are told if you work hard, you can expect the 'treasure' will be there. But what if you do all the work, everything they told you to do, and nothing happens? What if there is no treasure? No job waiting for you out of school…no perfect husband or wife; no perfect anything."

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