Chats with Chaka Khan, The Rubens' Sam Margin and Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones, Plus Dagmar, Greg Laswell, Dressy Bessy, Maya Azucena, Michael Mazochi, Citabria, Shred Kelly, The Ragbirds and JD & The Straight Shot Premieres

03/04/2016 10:04 am ET | Updated Mar 04, 2016

A Conversation with Chaka Khan

Mike Ragogna: Chaka, you've committed your new single, "I Love Myself" to an anti-bullying campaign. Why did you take on this topic?

Chaka Khan: It actually started when I met a guy named B.Slade. He's an amazing writer, musician, singer; he's just an everything guy. He's incredibly talented. He came up with this amazing track when I met him and he played for me several of his other things. I was so moved by him and his talents. We met in the studio and tried to come up with some things together. We came up with a couple of things to put down on tape and of all of them, this song stood out. I was just sort of singing what was in my head along with the track. I was going to just use it as a guide for when I wrote words to it. It wasn't meant to go anywhere, so it was a truly honest, in the moment offering. As it turned out, it just really worked. What it said turned out to be more profound than I thought it would be. I never gave too much thought to what it was going to be about because I was going to get to that. But I started listening to it as it was and I said, "Whoa, this is wonderful." It's so correct and so good and so meaningful that I just had to clean it up a little bit, and we were done. It was an honest offering without that much thought, and I love those kinds of offerings.

MR: Did you come up with all the lyrics or was it a mutual thing?

CK: It was a mutual thing. I don't remember who wrote what. I know I wrote most of it because I was talking about myself, so the parts that come off as more personal are parts that I put my consciousness to. We wrote it together.

MR: And the best co-writes are seamless, right?

CK: I agree, absolutely. And the subject matter of the song is such that it does appeal to everybody--boys and girls, men and women, whatever.

MR: Personally, I think most of the world's problems might come from people not knowing how to love themselves.

CK: Amen! Amen! You just said a mouthful. You just said a bookful. You can not love anyone else until you begin to love yourself. When it came to me, love of self--I may not really even be there yet--but I started on my mantra, I developed a mantra many years ago because I had a problem with my self image as well. I never felt beautiful, I never felt comfortable in my skin. In grammar school, I got in a couple of fights because kids used to call me and my sister Chinky-eyed. The littlest thing. Children can dissect you in a way that no surgeon could even begin to. I'm raising a fourteen year old girl, my grand daughter, and this really made everything very clear to me. I started seeing things that she goes online with and she talks to her friends about and I see these girls are really up to this Barbie doll image-type thing and are very critical of themselves and others visually, and are not necessarily interested in what the person has to offer for any other place like from your mind. All those beautiful things, "We're so beautifully made up and we're so intricate," they're just so one-dimensional. That's really the inspiration.

MR: Isn't it wild how some of the prettiest girls, handsomest men, don't see their beauty?

CK: It is interesting, because I look at my granddaughter and she's a friggin' fox! Anyway you look at it, it's fourteen and it's frightening. It's scaring me to death. I just don't get it. I must have been there, too. When I was a little kid, I had a problem, too. It goes back to something other than really what you look like. It's just about what you desire. It has more to do with desiring something other than what you have, like the grass being greener on the other side. That's part of it.

MR: Chaka, you've also associated yourself with Alki David's FilmOn Networks for a contest focused around "I Love Myself."

CK: Yeah and it's beautiful. It's the smartest thing I ever thought of. I had my friends get on there. I knew the type of people that would gravitate to this sort of thing. The people that were probably most persecuted, and at the other end of the spectrum, there'll be the most beautiful. That's what I think. I got this one little girl who is amazing, she must be about eight, and she set up her video with all these posters on the wall that she made with crayons and she is dancing her little butt off in front of these posters and pointing and singing and it's the most gorgeous thing. It just brought me to tears. I said, "This is wonderful."

MR: It must be so confusing. I'm trying to bring my kid up right, you're trying to bring your grandchild up right, and we try to teach our kids not to bully. Yet you look at TV and you see politicians being the worst possible role models. What do parents do during a period like this?

CK: The sad thing is, yes, the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket. Nothing seems to be sacred anymore. We are living in very, very treacherous and bizarre times. All you can do is you bring them into the world, you instill as much as possible by example--what's right, what's wrong, what's good, what's bad in your eyes. All you can do is water them, like a plant. At some point, they have to take it onto themselves and become their own judge of what is good and what is not, sadly. And the saddest part about it is that there is no instruction book. There's no book on how to raise babies. 

MR: We used to be protective, and kind of shun things like making fun of people with disabilities. But I remember like it was yesterday because it was so horrific when Rush Limbaugh mocked Michael J. Fox's Parkinsons on camera. Lately, we've seen a presidential candidate mocking a New York Times reporter with a disability. Where's the backlash? When did this become okay? 

CK: It's not okay. It's not okay, but it still happens. And throughout recorded history, it's almost been just like it is now. The only difference is now, we have social media where things are being revealed that would normally not be. The Aztecs said of this time of man that there would be a spiderweb surrounding and encompassing the entire planet. Isn't that amazing insight on their part, to call it a "spiderweb"? That's what it's like! It's got our children immune to eye contact. You can't get more than a moment and a monosyllabic word out of them. "How was school?" "Good." We can't get eye-to-eye anymore. People are not into face-to-face conversations anymore. The children are holding their phones; that is their best friend and that is their means to communication. That is very, very sad. That's the most dangerous thing that there is, because life means nothing. What is living thing, then? Your phone or what? I am looking for answers, like anybody else. How do we work through this?

MR: Maybe we all just contribute in ways that we can. In your case, you have the Chaka Khan Foundation that you created back in 1999. You're behind many initiatives that help women and children at risk. Is this your way of undoing the spiderweb?

CK: Yes, that's my next initiative as well, to have a phone-off day, or computer-off day once a week where we will do challenges and offer some kind of reward. It's something to get people looking at people again, making eye contact again. I've been brainstorming that.

MR: What practical things do you think people can do to prevent bullying?

CK: I am of a school from before when people were carrying guns. When there was a fight, it was a fair fight. I didn't fight a lot growing up, I only remember two fights I ever had as a kid. I lived in Hyde Park around the University in Chicago, so there were a lot of good, higher-minded communication going around me. I was very lucky to come up in that era in that place. I remember my mother told me, "If somebody ever hits you, pick up the closest thing you can find and go at them with it." I always thought that was rough, I could never get behind that. But my mother did teach me to fight back and there's a lot to be said for that. That's not something that I want to put out there and tell kids to do, but I'm telling you, in a lot of cases when I look at these programs with people in jail and how the first person that messes with you and you let it go; that opens it up for everybody to be beating on you.

I'm all for children knowing some form of self defense, like karate or whatever. I thought about that, because you never know. There's something to be said for being able to defend yourself properly when it's called for. It doesn't take a weapon, just defend yourself. Be able to stay a person off. There is a practice in martial arts where you deflect. I'm all about that. The school of thought that goes along with that is very Zen. I like that. I think that's one thing we can do, maybe just prepare children for the possibility that even an adult may try to take them, as long as the physical aspect is equal to the mental aspect.

MR: How about trying to make an environment that doesn't create bullies?

CK: Exactly! A bully's thing is a whole state of mind, it's his problem. His problem is that he is a coward. Bullies are cowards for the most part. They take the initiative. They're on the offense all the time. If there was some way that we could just get rid of that, give them a bad enough name. Or sometimes, that's what they want. They want publicity. It's like a catch-22 sort of thing. You've got to work it out, see what works for you and be about it.

MR: You started with Rufus when you were seventeen or eighteen, right?

CK: Yeah, seventeen.

MR: When you started out, did you find that music was your method to get away from bullying?

CK: Music has often been a weapon for me, yes. [laughs] I've shut quite a few people down.

MR: And I think you've shot a lot of people full of good music!

CK: With love. You've got to kill them with love. That is a very strong weapon.

MR:  With your many hits like "I Feel For You," it seems your message has always been uplifting.

CK: Yeah. At the end of my Joni Mitchell thing, I put on some of my own songs and there's one called "How Many Lives To Go" that I did it with a great conductor called Jeremy Lubbock.

MR: I'm very familiar with his work, love it.

CK: Have you heard his CD Awakening?

MR: Oh, yeah, with the London Symphony Orchestra...and you!

CK: Yeah, I'm on two songs on that CD. One is called "Lullaby" and one is called "How Many Lives To Go." I can't wait to do that live with an orchestra. I may do it live and put that on the CD instead of using the rendition that we did, but you've got to hear that song. It's asking a question, "How many lives to go before it's over, before we get it?" Every time I hear it, I can't let myself hear it too much because it depresses me and it moves me in such a way that I can't handle it, so I would love for you to hear that.

MR: Beautiful. Chaka, what advice do you have for new artists?

CK: Do something else. [laughs] I'm only kidding. This is honest: I think that they should take a course first in business. Either take it online, just take one semester, whatever. Get some kind of understanding of the business, of business itself and the music business. And find out how you can maintain what you get so with your first million, you're not living in an apartment, buying a Bentley.

MR: What advice would you have given yourself?

CK: To go take a business course. [laughs]

MR: And what about creatively? What should people do when they say, "Yeah, I think I need to do this."

CK: When they think they need to express themselves creatively?

MR: Yeah.

CK: Paint! I'm an artist, I paint. I love artwork, I use India ink a lot. A lot of people miss their calling. They do want to be an artist, they just don't know what kind of artist they want to be. Some people just miss the mark by that much, but others don't. Others can do both things equally as well, or three things. Self-expression is not something to be judged. Self-expression is unique unto the individual, so you can't really judge if it's good or if it's bad; it is just what it is. I think that's important; a lot of people don't get that. If you feel a need to express yourself, just find a positive way to do that, a way that's not causing anyone any pain if possible, unless it's necessary pain. If you're singing about anti-war, anti-violence, that's a necessary message that's painful to some people. Just try and stay uplifting and educate in some way. I always like to send somebody to the dictionary in every song. I put one word in there that maybe is not used a lot in every day language. I can't tell you how many times Joni Mitchell sent me to the dictionary. I love that. I live for that.

MR: What's nice about you doing a Joni project is you identify with her on a few levels, as an "artist," through her lyrics, her creative expression...

CK: Absolutely. We have a lot in common, that's very true.

MR: Where are you with the Joni project?

CK: Well, here's the deal. I'm taking my time because I don't have any time limit, no time constraints on it. I've done maybe three or four songs I decided I didn't want to include. I am going to make this my masterpiece CD. It means that much to me. This is the first real labor of love that I've done in my whole career.

MR: Nice. And she knows you're working on it, right?

CK: She knows, and by the way, she's getting better each day. It's a slow process, but she's going to be fine.

MR: You've been nominated for Grammys at least twenty-two times, you've won ten. You're contributing to society as well as music. What do you think of Chaka Khan when you look at that span of creativity and contributions?

CK: Well, I feel like I've lived like four or five lives. Joni once put it pretty well. Somebody asked her about my music and she said she loves it because I try to do daring things and like a cat, I always end up on my feet. That was a very high compliment from her.

MR: Oh yeah. That's awesome. She's very picky.

CK: Yes she is, honey, she is indeed. That's Scorpio, you know? She's a good judge. These are things that stick with me that make me feel like, "Okay, I'm doing the right thing."

MR: I have to mention that one of my favorite radio moments was when I first heard "Chaka Khan...Chaka Khan..." on the radio for the first time.

CK: Oh, I know! I knew when Arif Mardin put that on the song. I just did the song because I liked the song, but then I came back into the studio that night and he said, "I have a surprise for you." I said, "Oh s**t." I hate surprises. I come in and I hear this guy saying my name over and over again and what he wants to do and I said, "Oh God, Arif, I'll never live this down." He said, "It's okay my dear, it's going to be a hit." [laughs]

MR: Arif was such a gentleman, what an amazing soul.

CK: An amazing human being and he is greatly missed. I still feel him. I feel him around. He took me places that I don't think I'd ever had the courage to go. And in my life, he was like an uncle. He enriched my life greatly.

MR: What does the future hold?

CK: I'm looking for a new house right now. I'm looking for a place that I just want to be in for the rest of my life.

MR: You've got to move to Iowa City. That's where we are.

CK: Dig that. I hear it's a great place to move kids. [laughs]

MR: It is!

CK: I'm sure I'd love it. Any place north of here I'd be happy. I really love the Pacific Northwest. I could move up there and get all of those negative ions. That would be a dream for me.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

DAGMAR'S "WHAT DO YOU WANT" US PREMIERE

photo credit: Juliet Jarmosco

Dagmar, an indie classical female vocal duo, pulls from their choral background and their love of medieval music in the song, "What Do You Want." Their new music video, directed by Alana Waksman, channels the heart of this piece of feeling trapped. Dagmar's Gemma Cohen says, "This song is about the point in a relationship when something has died. The concept for this video was to express the feelings of this experience--disorientation, confusion, suffocation, hurt, fear, and finally, determination to get out." The other half of Dagmar, Miranda Mallard comments, "Our director came up with abstract realities that express these feelings. For instance, the writing of what we cannot bring ourselves to say builds on our faces as it builds up inside, we push against the confines of a solid frame, and we get towed under and pushed around by currents of water."

The Rubens' Hoops album cover

A Conversation with The Rubens' Sam Margin

Mike Ragogna: In your mind, what happened on your new album Hoops versus what happened on the first album?

Sam Margin: It was a massively different situation. On the first one, we had no money, no record deal, and pretty much no fans. We had heard that a guy called David Kahne had heard one of our demos and was interested in working with us, which was a massive deal because he'd worked with Paul McCartney and Lana Del Ray and The Strokes and all these people we were obviously fans of and that was a massive deal, so when we heard that he might be interested we had to work out a deal of how we would make this happen, and that was to borrow money from our parents and get a flight to New York. That first one was lots of risks being taken, we didn't have a full record written, we didn't even have enough content for a record, which now I realize was really dumb. On the first one, we were trying to write enough songs to make the record while we were in the studio whereas this one, because we understood a little bit more what it takes we wrote thirty-five to forty songs and then cut them down. It was massively different--the process, this time. We spent five months in a house that we rented on the coast in Sydney and basically set up a mini studio in this house. It was an interesting experience, I don't know if I'd ever do something like that again. I think we needed to do it to get back into the level of things, but I think most of the material that ended up on the record was written after that session. Not to say I didn't think it was necessary, but I guess we had to get all the bad songs out of our system.

MR: Or you had to work up to a creative process that worked for you guys, and it helped get what you felt were the great songs, right?

SM: Exactly, that's exactly right. On the first record, the way we would write would be one of us would come up with a melody or a little bit of a song on our laptop and then the three of us brothers who were living in the same house at the time, one person would be like, "I've worked on this as much as I can be bothered to work on it at this time." Zaac might walk in and put on a guitar riff and then keys would come on later, but we would never jam it together until the song was pretty much finished. I think we thought on this record. Most bands write together, they jam on stuff, so we set up to do that in this house and we started doing it and we realized that's just not how we work. We're kind of more shy when it comes to songwriting. I guess when you're writing lyrics it can be a bit embarrassing to come up with it yourself in front of someone. We realized it actually worked better for us to do it on our own, so we ended up in that house all going to separate rooms with our laptops and working separately. I guess it took us a little bit of time to realize we don't work the same as everyone else. We can work anywhere.

MR: How did David Kahne and Michael Brauer kick your ass in the studio this time around?

SM: [laughs] Michael was more hands off. He was the mixing engineer, so much of that happened when we were back in Australia. It was mainly one-on-one with David the whole time. I guess the process was a little bit different, but when it came to the way we worked, the first time we were all learning how to record music and things like pre-production and the way you look at bringing the most out of each song, David taught us that on the first record. I think coming in the next time, we knew what we really wanted to get out of David and we knew what his best attributes were. It was just a matter of us working out the best way to work together to get the best out of each other, and I think we did a really good job of it this time. I think in the lead up to recording this, before we even got David on board with making a second record we'd been trying to use the skills that he'd taught us on the first one as well to bring out the best of the song. We tried to do as much David Kahne-ing as we could before we actually went to him. I think it worked out pretty well.

MR: You're coming off of huge international hits from your first album. Were you conscious of that in your creative process? Did you feel like you got the balance for the formula of how the Rubens make albums exactly where you wanted it?

SM: Yes, I think we're closer. I think bands are constantly working towards that, trying to not be influenced by trying to be successful. People would always say to us, "it's a difficult second record," and I think for the first few sessions, while we were living in that house we were trying to figure out how to continue our career and what people wanted to hear, and I think that's probably why we weren't very successful when it came to writing in those sessions, because we were listening to too many people. Then I think we just shut that out and realized we didn't have to write songs that were similar to the first record, we didn't want to consciously do anything, we just started writing. There might have been songs that we felt like didn't fit the rest of the record and maybe left them out because of that, but we definitely didn't want to put anything on the record just because we thought it had a chance of being successful. The song that has been the most successful for us has been "Hoops" and that came when the whole record was finished and there was no pressure and we weren't thinking about trying to be successful at all. It was just a song that came out of nowhere. I think I was constantly trying to get that balance right and I think we got it closer on this record. This is definitely my favorite record of ours, too.

MR: This is killing the sophomore jinx. Would you say this is a giant step from the last record?

SM: I think so, I think it's much more mature. It's funny, once you finish one record you're thinking about the next one, but looking back on this one as I've had to for a little while I think it's more mature, and I guess people have been saying that, which is nice, and it's definitely a step towards where we're heading. The idea of the sophomore slump can be distracting.

MR: And having hits, and having to tour, and having to write forty songs. When do you turn off the spigot? How do you not get confused?

SM: That's what we're trying to work out, man. We're already writing the next record now. When you're on your first record you'll have management telling you that you've just got to keep writing and you just want them to shut up because it's the last thing you want to hear when you've written constantly and you've been burnt out on touring, but now I realize that you should be writing from the start, you don't have to cram at the very end to try and reach your release date. I'm trying to write now while it's enjoyable and while there's no pressure. So we'll see how that one goes.

MR: Did you see how members of the band were growing through the process?

SM: Yeah, totally. Elliott started writing lyrics and getting more involved in the whole songwriting process than on the last record, he's been amazing. I guess you're not really sure if you're any good, and I guess rehearsing this record for the first time everyone looked around at each other and were proud of each other because it sounded good. Everyone had clearly gotten much better in the last two or three years since our first tour. I watch videos now of us playing and it was like, "Wow, we thought we were doing pretty back then but we weren't." It's true what they say, it takes a really long time to get good at stuff. I think we're getting better and I think the songwriting is much better.

MR: What is the brother dynamic like these days?

SM: The same as it always has been. We've probably gotten closer. We're not like the whole Gallagher Brothers situation; we just get along. We might grate on each other on tour but that's going to happen whether you're brothers or not, spending that much time on tour with other dudes. We're just lucky that when we're having to go overseas and around the world all the time, at least we've got family there. It's pretty good.

MR: Are you noticing any differences between the Australian and American audiences?

SM: At this point, the size is very different. We've got a massive audience here in Australia and I think we're trying to build it internationally. I noticed there's a lot of work to be done, you've really got to be everywhere as much as you can in the states. When it comes to the audience reaction of the stuff, Americans seem to be like super nice, whereas we Australians are known to be a little bit cynical I think. I think Americans seem to be pretty accepting and pretty excited to see you, and also really excited about the fact that we're from another country, which is awesome. From the shows we've played, everybody seems to be super nice. I don't know if that's just our experience.

MR: Like I mentioned earlier, your debut album included many international hits. But to others, The Rubens may come off like an overnight success.

SM: I guess to the American population there's a huge amount of people who have yet to discover us, so yeah, it might seem like an overnight success when it comes to America or Europe and stuff and we've been lucky that it did happen quickly for us regardless in Australia, but it has been slowly building over the last four years. The venues have gotten bigger--everything has slowly gotten bigger, but I guess if people are just discovering us in the states it might seem like we've just blown up.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

SM: My inside insight to the industry, which I guess most people won't get unless they work in the industry, is that if you're actually working really hard and playing lots of shows and you feel like you're having some kind of impact, even if you're just playing one city, there's a very, very high chance that important people at least have heard of you or know who you are. I think it's easy to feel like no one cares or knows, because you're not getting a call from a record label, but if you're working hard enough and playing shows and releasing music and really getting into it then the chances are that there's a booking agent or a manager or an A&R scout who actually knows who you are and it's just a matter of time before you get an opportunity.

MR: Given your experiences and how they grew, what do you think someone could take a kernel of knowledge from?

SM: Oh, man. I'd say that there's no right way to do it, and not really any wrong way to do it either. I think if you try and do something the way that you've heard it should be done when it comes to creativity it's probably not going to really work, it's probably not going to be as efficient or as creative as when you do it the way you feel comfortable. But also I guess when it comes to being influenced by a producer you've got to be a bit more open when it comes to people helping you with your songs that I guess you think are your babies and you don't want touched. I guess you have to be open minded as well, and open to trying new things.

MR: "Hoops" was a smart video, the way the visual went with the lyrics, it's nice to know that a band can be clever in addition to making nice music.

SM: Yeah, thanks, man. I'd have to say that directors can be clever. It's fun being able to do that kind of stuff these days, pretty cheaply as well.

MR: Speaking of fun, are you guys still having some fun? Overall, things must be escalating now.

SM: Yeah, totally. We had a huge Australian tour last year that was really fun, and then I guess we've been waiting to work out our international plans for a while now so there's a huge amount of anticipation for us when it comes to going back to the states and over to England and America and Europe and stuff. I think we're just about to start having heaps of fun again and I think it's going to be a really, really fun and busy year. I think the next seven or eight months are going to be non-stop.

MR: A lot of people don't really appreciate the fact that a lot of hard work and intensity has to go into the process before one finally gets to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

SM: Yeah, you do. The worst part about the hard work that you're putting into writing and recording music is not knowing if it's going to land and not knowing if you'll ever get to do the kind of tour that you might be used to again. There's all this unknown and you have to constantly be working towards the idea that people might like it and you might be able to go out on tour again. That's the worst part, but then I guess the harder you work, the more chance you get of continuing this fun ride.

MR: Have you guys already started thinking about how to move forward from here?

SM: I'm hoping we don't have to think about it for a while. I've been looking at a few other acts that have done well out of Australia recently like Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala, Chet Faker and Flume. Those guys are on the road the whole year. The more success they can have in the USA, it kind of puts off having to worry about the next record because you've got to be everywhere for the next year. I'm hoping I don't have to worry about it for a while because it means that we're super busy internationally. So I guess that the near future ideally for me would be playing around the world for a solid year.

MR: I get the sense that you have contemporaries and you're all growing together. How do you not adapt and adopt stuff from the other bands coming up around you? Or is that okay?

SM: I don't know. I think it's super hard to be uninfluenced. I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it's a bad thing if you wear them on your sleeve. If it's obvious it means one of two things: You've either copied someone and you don't even realize it, or you've done it and you don't care, and either way that's bad. If you're fully unaware that you're blatantly ripping someone off then that's terrible, and if you're doing it on purpose then it's probably worse. We're influenced by a lot of things, I think being influenced by a lot of different genres might help with that; you're not necessarily compared directly to anyone. That's the goal, isn't it? You don't want people to be like, "They're like this other band." I guess the goal for most bands is to not be compared to someone else.

MR: So you have a fourth brother, right? And I heard his name is "Ruben." Okay, now I'm confused.

SM: "Ruben" is actually a nick name for our brother Jet. He had the chance to join the band at the very beginning but he was only 16 and said he didn't like our music. Ha. I think he likes us now. I hope…

MR: What's on the Rubens' schedule?

SM: We've got an Australian tour, which is going to be by far the biggest venues we've ever done. That's happening in June, and that's a big hit of news for Australia which we're about to announce. We're coming over to tour in America, do some headline shows, and then we're going to the UK for Great Escape Festival and then hopefully back to America later in the year. So, basically, we've got one Australian tour and then, hopefully, we're going to be overseas for the rest of the year.

MR: Great. This has been wonderful as always. This is a really good album, I like this stuff.

SM: That's awesome. Thank you so much, dude.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

GREG LASWELL'S "WATCH YOU BURN" EXCLUSIVE

photo courtesy of Greg Laswell

According to Greg Laswell...

"'Watch You Burn' was the very first song I did for this record. I tried a few passes without the auto-tune strapped on the vocal, and it lost its visceral, third-party quality--and I just think it's pretty. The video was done by my friend Lauren Park. She sent me a few shots of these mid-century ads and I was hooked. It doesn't do much for the argument that this song isn't creepy."

For more info: http://greglaswell.com

DRESSY BESSY'S "LADY LIBERTY" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Pistoli

“All of my songs come out of some sort of personal turmoil, or they’re me getting back at someone or something,” Tammy Ealom reveals. “I feel like we’re just starting to get good at what we do. We’ve had a lot of time to hone in our sound, knowing what we want to sound like and figuring out what we need to do to get that. I’m really excited about the future.”

Teddy Thompson

A Conversation with Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones

Mike Ragogna: Teddy, you’re coming off an amazing project, Family, that reunited everyone we love in your musical bloodline. Did that project catapult you into your album with Kelly Jones, Little Windows?

Teddy Thompson: Oh man, I’m not sure I’d use the word “catapulted” but I was certainly looking for something fun to do. Family was pretty heavy.

MR: Kelly, you originally sang with Teddy on a George Jones song back in 2011. How did your musical relationship develop from then?

Kelly JonesGeorge Jones’s “The Window Up Above” was the first song Teddy and I sang together. He sprung it on me, inviting me via text the day of his show. Up to that point we were just distant admirers of one another’s work, so it felt exciting and new! I think that fun camaraderie gave us a desire to sing more, and eventually develop our own original material. 

MR: The album seems Everly Brothers-esque because of your harmonies. Were you fans of their music? Which other duetists have you admired over the years?

KJ: Yes, we spoke a lot about The Everly Brothers. We wanted to write timeless songs with memorable melodies and harmonies, so who better to admire than The Everlys? We also wanted to embrace that classic country duet style from the 1960s so evident in the songs of Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner and George Jones & Tammy Wynette. I’m a big fan of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, too.

MR: Creatively, how did these songs get written and what inspired some of the topics?

TT: It was a three person job. Kelly and I wrote the songs with our friend Bill DeMain. He lives in Nashville. We got together three times. Twice in New York and once in LA for a few days at a time and wrote hard! Since we all live in different cities, we had to really buckle down in  those few days. In total, I guess we wrote all the songs in ten days but there were months in between each session.

KJ: Working with a male and female voice, it felt appropriate to explore themes of romantic love. We wrote about the good and the bad, inevitably writing from our own personal experiences. But what felt different was, this combination of three writers in the room kept us reaching for a standard of lyric writing that would resonate on a broader, more universal level.  We think we got there… we hope so, anyway!

MR: Little Windows seems like a very comfortable fit for both of you. When did you agree to work on a project together, how long did it take to gestate and in what ways did it benefit from being recorded after Family?

TT: We agreed to try the first writing session in New York and see how it went. And it went well so we just continued. It was clear that we were going to write a whole record after that first time.

I guess Family was quite a long and somewhat laborious project for me. I was the producer and I was in charge and it was recorded all over the place and required a lot of stitching together. This record was made in the exact opposite way, we recorded it all together, live, to tape, in the same room in four days. I was longing for that kind of immediacy and fun.

KJFrom beginning to end, the development of this project took about two years. Maybe it would have moved faster had we lived in the same city, but that time to process what we were doing and develop ideas slowly worked to our benefit, I think. We all enjoyed being together and over time found ourselves with a record-worthy collection of songs. 

MR: Who is inspiring you creatively these days? Are there any new artists or maybe obscure artists that you’ve recently discovered who have introduced a new way of thinking creatively?

TT:  I like Sturgil Simpson a lot. Very old school country. And generally, I am inspired by artists going back to making records fast and live. It’s partly due to necessity since record budgets are much smaller than they used to be. But the benefit is that we are getting back to the raw, live energy of the '50s.

KJAaron Lee Tasjan is an extraordinary singer, guitarist and songwriter. His recent record “In The Blazes” is my obsession right now. Not only are the songs really good, but the performances and the sounds are perfecto.

MR: Do you consider yourselves new artists? How do you see your music, whether it be with this album or beyond, staying fresh and relevant? Or does that even matter?

TT:  It’s nice to think of us as new artists for this project, yes. It’s a new band, a new duo, whatever. It’s a good way to stay fresh and inspired,  collaborating with another artist. I feel young again! Not really, I just turned 40.

KJThis feels new, but I think Teddy and I both strive to write and record timeless music. In that respect, I hope we always have long term relevance.

MR: In your opinion, which songs on the album reveal the most about Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones either as a duo or individually? Which song or songs’ end results packed the most emotional punch for you and why?

TT:  I think the ballads are very strong." I thought that we said goodbye” and "You Took My Future.” I love all the songs but these stand out because they are spare and immediate. Just the two of us.

KJI’ve always felt Teddy and I share a common ground at the intersection of classic country and pop. You can hear that all over the record. “Better At Lying” is an especially meaningful song to me, and I’m very proud of the performance we captured on tape.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

TT: I would advise new artists to play live as much as possible. Get in your car/van or train and just go. There is no substitute for it and no way around it if you want to make a career of it. All of the bad and weird gigs will make you stronger. And visit small town laundromats when it's time to do a wash. You'll see and hear some good things.

KJStudy the masters and learn how to write a great song. Don't follow the musical trends of the moment, because the spot light is always moving. If you write good songs--with great lyrics--you will eventually get noticed and, over time, will find you have a career filled with a wide array of opportunities.

MR: Are there plans to continue recording and performing as a duo?

TT:  We will certainly be performing together for a while in support of this record. And if people like it, we will make another one. We might make another one even if they don’t like it.

KJYes, what Teddy said.

MR: What does the future bring for you collectively and individually?

TT: I can’t see into the future. Kelly?

KJThe Magic 8 Ball says, “Cannot Predict Now.” Sorry. Ask again later.

MR: Teddy, when should we expect Family II dropping?

TT: The 12th or 13th of Never.

MR: Are there any socially-conscious projects or charities that you’re affiliated with and how are they doing?

TT:  I am in the process of organizing a concert to benefit Syrian refugees in New York. We hope to do it at City Winery in the summer.

KJNo, not right now, but I'm always up for it.

 

MAYA AZUCENA'S "DANCE REVOLUTION" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Diana Ragland

According to Maya Azucena...

"I believe music is my 'super power'; it is my means for helping others. In addition to it being a career in entertainment, I value the power of music to contribute to social change. One Billion Rising is an international campaign to put an end to domestic violence. This cause has a special place in my heart perhaps because I am a survivor of a domestically violent relationship. My song 'Dance Revolution' was born out of this movement, yet speaks to anyone who feels isolated by pain, who may feel forgotten, who may feel oppressed by their circumstances. My desire was to write something that is empowering and emits a sense of freedom.

MICHAEL MAZOCHI'S "A WORLD IN PIECES" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Michael Mazochi

According to Michael Mazochi...

"The truth of the matter is that it seems to me as though living in the modern age is a constant state of impending threat and uncertainty. Whether it's the day to day thoughts of credit card debt, finding a job, losing touch with friends and family, etc, or the bigger looming threats we read about on a daily basis such as climate change, violent attacks, crashing economies, religious unrest or any multitude of mood crashing headlines. 'A World In Pieces' is about some sort of attempt to find peace and a sense of "home" in the face of all that adversity. We all have to try to find those little moments that get us through the confusion and angst of the modern era. Having a seemingly limitless access to stories about what's going on can certainly lead to endless modern anxiety if we don't find some calm in the storm."

CITABRIA'S "TAKE MY HEART" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Nate Dias

According to Citabria's Nate Dias...

“We had a deadline to shoot this music video and like most things we do for the first time, we fail miserably several times before we get it right. We knew the best bet for us would be to film a one shot music video, filmed all in one take.  We wanted to shoot it so that it appeared that our vocalist Leo was running in slow motion yet he was singing on time, which meant that he had to sing the song twice as fast. The video was to be shot on a Canon 7d at 60fps attached to a Glidecam. After hours of driving and getting kicked out of a several private properties, we found a fairly well lit street with very light traffic.  Kevin drove roughly 5 miles per hour as I--with a camera--and Edgar--with an LED light that he had MacGyver’d out of a Frisbee and spare parts--sat in the trunk of the Prius, all while Leo was running towards the camera with our song playing through the sound system twice as fast, sounding like the Chipmunk Christmas song."

JD & THE STRAIGHT SHOT'S "GLIDE" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Kristin Barlowe
JD & The Straight Shot's Jim Dolan

According to JD & The Straight Shot's camp...

"Americana band JD & The Straight Shot--vocalist/guitarist Jim Dolan (whose voice the New York Post calls 'reminiscent of Tom Waits and Randy Newman'), guitarist/vocalist Marc Copely (B.B. King, Rosanne Cash), bassist Byron House (Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton) along with touring musicians guitarist JJ Appelton (David Bowie, Keb Mo, Darius Rucker) and violinist Alicia Enstrom (Keith Urban, Nashville Symphony)--are hitting the road with Jewel in support of their new, all-acoustic album Ballyhoo! released on January 15th.

"'Glide' is one of the eleven lush tracks on the album. www.jdandthestraightshot.com. The video for 'Glide' was directed by Andrew Deerin (Ben Folds, Tony Bennett), and celebrates the freedom and exuberance of being outside playing in the snow and of performing live on stage at the famed Belly Up in Aspen."

 

SHRED KELLY'S "GOING SIDEWAYS" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Matt Kuhn

Shred Kelly are Canadian folk rock heroes who have just released their album Sing to the Night featuring the song "Going Sideways."

According to Sage McBride...

"'Going Sideways,' lyrically is about a relationship I was in that was spiraling down. I really wanted it to last despite my unhappiness, and didn't have the strength to end it. In retrospect, luckily for me, he did. Christina Ienna directed the video that was filmed partially in our hometown Fernie, BC, and her tiny crew braved some intense weather conditions to beautifully capture the essence of being trapped and lost."

THE RAGBIRDS' "GOOD TIME TO BE BORN" EXCLUSIVE

photo credit: Jon Holloway

According to The Ragbirds' Erin Zindle...

"Our new album The Threshold & The Hearth has a storyline woven throughout it.  It's the story of a young couple named Betty and Bill--covering 20 years of their life together with all of its ups and downs. 'Good Time to Be Born' is really a sweet spot on the album which takes place shortly after Betty discovers that she's pregnant with their first child. The song describes an encounter in a grocery store where Betty and a jaded stranger are both waiting in line to check out. The girl holding up the line has a newborn baby and her credit card is declined, leaving her without any way to pay for her food. The stranger witnessing the transaction is bitter at first but he has a change of heart and decides to help the young girl by paying her bill. I wrote this song after giving birth to my daughter Aviva because I was coming from a jaded place myself. I was terrified about bringing a child into the world.

"I had been watching a lot of documentaries about the world generally hanging by a thread, and watching the news, which seemed so full of violence and tragedy. Aviva gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to hope for the future and she helped me see the beauty of our world with fresh eyes.  Witnessing a random act of kindness can be powerful. Sometimes it doesn't take much to restore our faith in humanity because we truly want to believe that people are good.  We want to believe that if we are in need someone will step in to help.  I love performing this song live because many people have told me that it really touched them. I can see that I have the audience's full attention as I unravel the story, thread by thread. By the time I get to the last chorus I can sometimes see tears in people's eyes."

CONVERSATIONS

This post is hosted on the Huffington Post's Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and post freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.