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"Sydney" and Ghosts in The Sway Machinery: Conversations with Brett Dennen and Jeremiah Lockwood

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A Conversation with Brett Dennen

Mike Ragogna: Brett, rumor has it you're one of the best singer-songwriters out there.

Brett Dennen: (laughs) Oh man, I don't even think about that. I don't pay attention to that, I'm not aware if anyone says that. I know I stand out amongst my community of singer-songwriter friends, but I think there are a lot of really great artists out there. I think it's a really good time to be an artist. I think there is a lot of new ground being broken musically and within the music industry. There's a lot of inspiration out there, and to me, I feel the best when I'm breaking new ground but I'm paying tribute to the tradition of the singer-songwriter or great artists of the past. It feels the best to me when I write a song and it comes from the heart and represents who I am as an artist.

MR: Who and what inspires you?

BD: Well, I don't know if it comes from music, things pop into my head. I think it comes from being a fan of poetry, I get a lot of my image ideas from Pablo Neruda and from the great poets. Most of those poets talk about life and death quite a bit, that seems to make its way into some of my songs one way or another. That's where I get most of my inspiration. But musically, I'm a fan of Van Morrison and Paul Simon, the great singer songwriters of the past.

MR: You have such an ease with your lyrics. I can see why you're compared to Paul Simon.

BD: Oh yeah, he's the master. He can strike a tone like you're having a conversation with your best friend, but meanwhile, he is just spitting out the most amazing narrative you've ever heard.

MR: Patagonia, which is known as a very environmentally friendly clothing line, is starting a music line, and you're contributing to that project.

BD: I'm contributing a b-side from my new record. It's not on there, but it's a song I did record. It's great that corporations are stepping in and promoting and putting out music, but Patagonia is doing it in a way that's helping non-profits and charities. I got to choose my own charity that I wanted to benefit through the sales of my song, so I've had the opportunity to choose a local, non-profit organization from close to where I grew up that affects the people of my community. It's called The Toulomne Trust, it's dedicated to the watershed of the Toulomne river. Obviously, water flows down a mountain and affects everything it runs through. I feel really lucky to be a part of the Patagonia music program, but I'm also really stoked that I get to be involved in choosing the charity.

MR: I'm told there are two collections totaling 24 tracks, with four new tracks being released each week after the initial release. Do you think they'll have an impact?

BD: They are a big corporation that has a lot of power, so a lot of people are going to hear it and be affected by it.

MR: Do you see this The Patagonia Music Collective being the launch of a new label of sorts?

BD: No, I don't think so. I don't think they are trying to be a label. They are trying to use the fact that they are well respected among athletes and artists and people who like good clothes. They are trying to get that together and try and be the centerpiece for good positive social change.

MR: You've been associated with other causes as well. Which ones have you supported?

BD: There is The Mosaic Project that's based in the San Francisco Bay Area that I'm one of the founders of. What we do is we bring kids of diverse backgrounds together, kids that normally wouldn't have the opportunity to hang out with each other because they are separated by a whole series of systems. We bring them together and build community across differences and about the importance of communication and appreciating diversity. Also it's about understanding who they are, who other people are, and what makes us different, and learning how to celebrate that. Musically, I support non-profits through a foundation I started called The Love Speaks Community. What we do is highlight non-profit organizations in every community that we go to on tour. We bring them to our concerts and make sure they are represented amongst their community and shine the spotlight on them and connect them with my fans.

MR: Is being involved in initiatives something you've grown into or something you've always done?

BD: It's something that I've always been involved in. It's the way I was raised. I've always, in my life, been involved in some charity work, something that is always giving back to the community.

MR: Nice. So, you have a new album coming out in about a month titled Loverboy. Can you tell us anything about it this early on?

BD: Well, it comes out in April, and I've been working on it all last year. I was writing the songs, recording, and mixing it. It's called Loverboy because it's an ode to love, not necessarily romantic love, but putting out a piece of work that's positive and uplifts people. I think I have a lot to say in terms of love and romance, but also friendship and the things we all as humans feel in our hearts, and the things we go through. In that respect, it's like my older records, but it's different in the aspect that it's more of a rough, gritty production, and it's more upbeat. It's more danceable, and at the same time, a little more grungy and rock 'n' roll. I'm excited for people to hear the new stuff.

MR: And you currently have a new single called "Sydney (I'll Come Running)."

BD: Ultimately, it's about friendship and it's about being there for your friends and standing up to bullies and injustice. When people are doing something wrong against a friend of yours, I think it's your job as a good friend to be by their side.

MR: One of your more memorable recordings from your last three albums seems to be the song "Heaven."

BD: When I originally was writing it, I thought I was writing a song about organized religion or spirituality, but I think that's just too hard of a subject to write about. So, what ended up happening was somehow life and death found its way into this song. There are a lot of words and metaphors in there, but it's really about if there is something you are striving for and there are beliefs you question in life and faith, just live it. Just strive for what you believe in while you have the power to do so.

MR: Have you seen any of your music placements in TV shows such as House, Scrubs, The Unit, and Parenthood?

BD: When I saw that, I thought it was wild. I write the song, and to me, it's about speaking to a friend of mine about not being so hesitant to changes in life. Then, you see it on a TV show that's just about crazy families and it's with actors and they use the music completely different than what I thought, but it totally works somehow within the same lines. When that happens, the song that I wrote is no longer my song, it's just the song that's out there for everybody. You have to realize as an artist that once you write a song and put it out there, it's for everyone.

MR: Where are you touring?

BD: Everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

MR: Do you know when it's going to start and some of the towns and venues you're going to be playing?

BD: Well, we start our U.S. tour in May and it goes 'til June. Then, we spend some time overseas in Australia and Europe. We will do a few small festivals in the States, then come back in the Fall and do another U.S. tour.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

BD: I would say play, play, play. Never stop playing, get as many gigs as you can, build yourself a foundation and a following. Those fans that you make early on are the fans that stay with you forever, no matter how many bad albums you put out. Be good to your fans and always continue to write and push yourself as a writer, always explore new ideas and new ground. Don't worry about the big picture, just do what you can. Do what's within your control. What's in your control is writing good songs and connecting with audiences and constantly playing.

(transcribed by Theo Shier)

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A Conversation with The Sway Machinery's Jeremiah Lockwood

Mike Ragogna: What's behind the title of your new album, House Of Friendly Ghosts?

Jeremiah Lockwood: The "ghosts" are supposed to be the spirits of ancestors I am invoking with my music. The hope is that I will be able to draw strength from them to create something new and beautiful.

MR: Your debut album, Hidden Melodies Revealed, seemed more aligned with the Cantorial tradition than your latest release, House Of Friendly Ghosts. Is this a natural evolution of the band's music or was it intentional?

JL: I feel like it is a natural evolution. The new record continues to draw on Cantorial music: there are many musical allusions and borrowings from the tradition. In my new songs, I am trying to hit more specifically personal places with the lyrics I wrote. And clearly, we followed even more intensely with the African inspiration which was already a major force in the music of The Sway Machinery.

MR: A song like "Skin To Skin" can be interpreted many ways, and with its world flavor, it seems to have global implications. Can you go into the story behind the song?

JL: Any way you can interpret it would probably be at least partially right...the song goes to a lot of different places. It tries to position an exploration of mystical themes inside a sexual love song. Musically, the song grabs from many places: the chorus is inspired by an aria from my Dad's opera The Dybbuk, which is based on an old Yiddish play that tells the tragic story of a young woman possessed by the spirit of her dead lover. There are also themes in it that are from the Jewish prayer modes for the pilgrimage festivals--these specific modes are something I drew on a lot while I was writing the music for this album.

MR: "Women Singing In Timbuktu" was obviously recorded during your stay there. "Pilgrimage" basically heralds your visit, but can you share some band and personal experiences of the period?

JL: We met many beautiful people in Timbuktu and throughout our stay in Mali. At the Festival of the Desert, we met a young man who was stricken with polio in childhood. He was a strikingly beautiful man despite the fact that his legs were twisted and paralyzed. He told us a beautiful story. He was in love with a young woman from a neighboring village, the love was mutual, and the couple decided that they would marry. He went to her father to ask for her hand and to offer the traditional bride price. The father looked unkindly at the offer because the young man was crippled and so he asked for three times the usual price. Undeterred, the young man went back to his village and told his story to everyone. The villagers emptied their purses and gave him what he needed. He returned to his beloved's village with the money the same night and they were able to marry.

MR: "All The People" seems like one of your strongest tracks. How was it composed?

JL: Glad you like it! All the People was the last new song I wrote before we left for Mali. It was inspired by a conversation I had with my uncle at my younger son's circumcision. I was talking about the way your family and the people who surround you from birth form a kind of lens through which you see life and that for the rest of your life you see their faces and their ways in the way you view the world and in all the people you meet wherever you go. He suggested I try to put that sentiment into a song. It took me a while, but eventually I did.

MR: Your songs are more message-oriented than most other bands'. Do you see the band as serving some greater purpose beyond releasing music and touring, maybe as a cultural unifier of sorts?

JL: I was trying to be true to my feelings and to tell true stories in my new songs. I hope that the music will help draw people together, mostly in the love of music, but also in the grander scheme of us having lived a story of wonderful connection between seemingly disparate parts of the world.

MR: Is the reconciliation of Afrobeat horns and blues and folk a difficult balance to maintain? And what are your own musical influences?

JL: I love many different styles of music and have studied extensively in certain fields of music that for various reasons my life has drawn me into. Ultimately, I don't care that much about genre specificity in the music I am making. My hope is that everything I love will come out in the music.

MR: What was it like being the first Jewish band to play Festival Of The Desert in Mali?

JL: People were incredibly supportive. Really we only had positive interactions. People said we were the best received Western act to play at the Festival.

MR: What was your relationship with your grandfather Cantor Jacob Konigsberg like as well as your mentor, Carolina Slim?

JL: These were two important relationships that helped me get my start as a musician. Both my grandfather and Carolina Slim were quite tough and exacting as teachers, which was good for me as a young person and helped me develop high standards for myself.

MR: Who is singing with the band on "Gawad Teriamou" and throughout many of the tracks?

JL: Khaira Arby, one of the greatest musicians in Mali and the reigning queen of the Timbuktu music scene. We were very fortunate to get to work with Khaira extensively during our recording sessions making the record.

MR: How did you record the regional snippets?

JL: Mostly with a hand held tape recorder.

MR: Do you see your amalgam as something that will emulated by others in the future, or is it a musical trend that's already taking shape?

JL: I think many artists in the West are starting to take note of the incredible music scene in Mali, and in north Mali especially. I don't know of another project with the same scope and goals as what we have done, so far...

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

JL: Measure intensity with patience.

Tracks:
Sourgou
Skin To Skin
Women Singing in Timbuktu
Pilgrimage
Pilgrimage Coda
Camels
Gawad Teriamou
Oumar
All The People
Tuareg Child Singing
Youba
Excerpt from the Dybbuk
Golden Wings
Call To Prayer
Shalom Aleichem

...and have you checked out The Box Story's new video "See You Later" yet?