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Redemption Road: Chatting with Tom Paxton, Howard Jones, Martin Sexton, Chadwick Stokes and Erik Deutsch

02/03/2015 12:00 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

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A Conversation with Tom Paxton

Mike Ragogna: Tom, you've got a new album Redemption Road. What's your creative process like these days?

TP: I think I do what I've always done. I'm kind of plugged in, kind of receptive, kind of on the lookout for something that needs to be a song, something that can become a song. It can be anything from a trivial whim or a serious theme that I think that I owe to myself to try to write. Or it could be just a sure pleasure of making something up. For example, one of my very favorite songs on the album is "Suzy Most Of All." You can't get much more lightweight than that, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed writing a song as much as I enjoyed writing that one. I just let myself be free to write what I call "Jump rope rhymes," which don't have to make any sense at all. Another model for that song was "Green Green Rocky Road" that Len Chandler and Bob Kaufman wrote so many years ago, that Dave Van Ronk sang so beautifully, you know the one I mean. It's in Inside Llewyn Davis. That song has some of the most sublimely ridiculous verses. "I go by Baltimore, need no carpet on my floor," I mean, come on! But it's perfect. So I availed myself of that freedom to write something like "English muffin/Texas toast," basically 'cause why not?

MR: That "why not" part is so important. People so often look at singer-songwriter lyrics and say, "Hope these words are better than your last!" It seems like a big responsibility for a singer-songwriter always to be "profound."

TP: I retired from the avatar business a long time ago. People are responsible for their own damn lives. I don't have any great advice for them on how to live their lives. All I'm doing is writing songs. I'm not even writing songs for the market, not that there's anything wrong with doing that. I have good friends who write for the market and that's perfectly okay, but I don't have that knack. Every song of mine that has ever been a hit is a song that I basically wrote for myself to sing and somebody else heard it and recorded it very successfully. That's as close as I've come to being a market writer. I'm really more like an amateur who gets lucky now and then.

MR: But don't forget those people that are camping on your doorstep until you make that next album.

TP: Well, when I have enough good stuff, that's when there will be another good album. I'm writing a little better right now, so I think maybe it won't be as long between albums. I don't know what's going to happen, because I'm going to stop touring in November. I don't know what will happen then about the urge to write. At least one of the major impulses or reasons to write is the fear of being seen to have become totally out of touch. I have a need to have some quality new material when I'm out there in concert. When I'm not touring anymore, I don't know how I'll feel then. I think I will continue to write, but it's going to be a new area for me.

MR: It's pretty inconceivable that someone as conscious as you couldn't find something you just have to write about.

TP: It's like the saying, "Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt." I have been very fortunate to have a performing life during very interesting years. I could've stood a little less interest, actually, as many of us could. I don't know how I'm going to feel when I'm not out there all the time as I have been for fifty five years. I'll continue to perform, I'm just not going to tour anymore.

MR: It's almost like a supreme court justice. You're in for life. [laughs]

TP: Well I frequently think of myself in those terms. [laughs] I'm wearing a robe right now, as a matter of fact.

MR: Send the selfie. [laughs] Hey, you've got some great company on this album, John Prine, Janis Ian, Dave Palmeroy, Al Perkins...

TP: These are the best. With Prine you pick up the phone and say, "Look, I need some help here, I'm sinking fast, so come and sing a song with me." Not only does he come and sing a song with me, he buys me dinner. He's a great guy. About ten years ago my wife and I went to go see him and Iris Dement at The Wolf Trap here in Washington. We were sitting out there and I turned to her and I said, "You know what? I've known John for twenty five years and this is the first time I've ever had a chance to sit out front and see him do a whole show. What a major treat that was. He's another one of these "nobody like 'em" artists. There's nobody like Prine. The song he's on is such a goofy song, it's just perfect for him to come and sing on it.

MR: How did the Janis Ian piece come together?

TP: I've known Janis since she was thirteen. We've been doing shows together for the last couple of years. In March and April we'll be basically on tour here in the states doing a bunch of shows together. That's a lot of fun for me because it's not your typical split bill, we actually take the stage together and stay together on stage and sing on one another's songs, et cetera. It makes for a very different and very entertaining evening, for us as well as -- one hopes -- The audience.

MR: What do you guys admire about each other?

TP: Well, it starts from the human perspective, I just love Janis. She's a sassy, strong, strong-willed person who has not had an easy path, unless one thinks that having a hit at fifteen and being washed up at sixteen is an easy path. She's had a hard way to go and she's a strong person and a great guitar player. Matter of fact, we have a little fun with that fact in the show, that she is such a great guitar player and I'm merely adequate. There's room for fun there. We've known each other for so long and we talked about doing some shows, so finally she said, "Well, put up or shut up, let's do it." So we did and we're doing it.

MR: Who are the new troubadours? You may not be the avatar anymore, but the message still has to get out there, no?

TP: When it comes to asking where it's going to come from and from whom, the one thing we can be sure of is that it will come from some place unexpected and from no one we've ever heard of before. It just doesn't move along in nice, orderly ways. Like everybody else, I feel a lack of social commitment in young artists, but I'm not about to criticize them. They're finding their own way. They're doing their own thing and in their own time they will direct their attention to the areas that we did. It isn't the same, but we don't have a draft anymore. Does anyone realize what a massive change that is? We don't have a draft, young people don't graduate from high school with being dragged off to war as part of their immediate future. Believe me, that fact will color your attitude a lot.

MR: And now, of course, I think of your anthem, "Wonder Where I'm Bound."

TP: I've sung that at a few graduations.

MR: It's a great anthem for old people and young people. And speaking of young people, what advice do you have for new artists, oh non-avatar?

TP: It sounds as if I'm being flippant, but what I tell young people when they ask me what to do is so simple and so difficult -- get good. Work at your craft. Take guitar lessons, for God's sake. Too many young artists play really crappy guitar, and it kills you. You have to at least support your music with your instrument. At least don't hurt it. Maybe don't take voice lessons, but maybe some voice coaching. I had some voice coaching which made a huge difference in my singing. I don't have a trained voice. Voice lessons are almost counter productive. Voice lessons for someone with my kind of barely average equipment has you trying to do things you can't do and hurting yourself in the process. Some vocal coaching on the other hand is dealing with what you have and helping you make the most of that, and that's really worth doing. In other words, work at your craft. I don't write every day now, but I did then. I can't recommend that highly enough. Write something every damn day so that you're working at it and studying other artists and other artists whose work you love. Ask yourself, "What is it about their work that I love so much? Why is he or she so important to me?" These are things that they should be asking if they want to get ahead, if they want to improve.

MR: That's a great answer.

TP: And here's my other big piece of advice, for writers: They want to know, "How do you get ideas?" I tell them what I do myself: Look around you. If you need stimulation, pick up a paper, look at the paper for anything that moves you in any way. It can be to hilarity, it can be to rage or sorrow, but you're bound to find a story in that paper that moves you in some way and then write a song from the point of view of either an eyewitness or a participant. This will take you out into the world, writing about the world, holding a mirror up to nature as Shakespeare put it, and above all it'll get you away from writing all those God damned relationship songs that no one cares about. I tell you what, in my shows these days and for many years now there have been maybe one or two relationship songs, but only a couple. The rest of the songs are about a world that we share. Songs that people identify with because we've all seen this stuff happen. I wrote a song as a participant in the twin towers. I wrote a song from the point of view of a survivor. I wasn't there, that's not me. I'm using the first person singular but I'm imagining it. That's what I'm suggesting people do. It can also be silly stuff. First person, not you. It's not that hard to grasp once you grasp it. You're writing about not you, you're writing about us.

MR: Why, you could give a seminar on this, my friend!

TP: I do! I enjoy talking to people about songwriting.

MR: Do you feel that as a songwriter you've evolved in tangible ways? You can point out, "I went from here to here?"

TP: Yeah, I can tell. I don't think I've changed as a writer, but I hope I've deepened as a writer.

MR: Can you pick that up in other people's works, like Janis or John?

TP: I'm sure I could. I can't do it as I sit here right now, I'd have to think about that, but I'm utterly sure that I would find that if I looked for it. In Janis' work there is still the same kind of concern as there was in Society's Child. That, by the way, is a very sophisticated melody that she wrote at the age of fifteen. She writes similarly but more profoundly now. I think I would find that in all of the writers I admire. The writers I admire are legion in number.

MR: You've seen the whole parade, from Pete Seeger to now.

TP: So much so that I would claim that if not for Pete Seeger, none of this would've happened. If that man had not criss-crossed the country singing at every union hall, every college campus, every summer camp throughout the fifties and sixties, none of it would've happened. He was the reason that it really came alive. He was the one who turned on my generation so that hundreds and even thousands of us said, "I've got to do that. That's what I want to do. That's what I have to do." When I heard The Weavers At Carnegie Hall in '57, I went from someone who loved folk music to someone who literally had to do it. I was not alone. Peter Yarrow was at that Carnegie Hall concert. He had the same epiphany that I did. "I have got to do this. This is me."

MR: Beyond Redemption Road, I'm wondering where you're bound.

TP: [laughs] Probably out for dinner. I'm bound for exactly where I've been. More of the same, but less of the same. There's nothing different I want to do. I'm loving being with my grandsons. I have three grandsons and they're all here, close to me. That's an endless, endless joy for me. I lost my wife last year and I'm not doing well at all about that, but I don't know who does. You do what you can do and you face what you have to face. I'm quieter than I was. I stay at home a lot. I have my daughters who have just been incredible. They call every day and come over. My younger daughter Kate lives in the same complex I live in. She likes to cook for me on weekends and I graciously accept. "More food? Oh no!" [laughs]

MR: Boy, wasn't it a great time you all had together? How magical was that?

TP: It was magical. I miss so many people so badly, but that's life.

MR: Do you recognize that you're an icon?

TP: No. I deny it.

MR: Is that because you're comparing yourself to other iconic figures?

TP: I don't really compare myself, because I'm not going to look good if I do. [laughs] You know the poet Billy Collins? He's fabulous. One of my Christmas presents was a book of his stuff. He has a figure in one of his pieces about going "Down the treacherous halls of high school," and it just grabbed me. I just read it yesterday and I went back and looked it up again today. "The treacherous halls of high school." What better adjective could you possibly find for high school than "treacherous?" I mean, the shit that happened in those halls. The damage to our psyches in those god damned halls of high school. [laughs] I don't know what got me off on that but I just love that choice of adjective. Where were we? Oh, do I realize I'm an icon? No. I know that there are people, God bless them, who have really taken my music and made it their own, and I'm eternally grateful to that. That's what I set out to do.

I wanted to make a difference in some positive way, and the way I found I could do that possibly was by creating songs. So the kind of songs that I created tend to be the kind of songs that people sing at camps and sing-a-longs, they're not a string of hits or anything like that, but they are songs that have mattered to people and I'm very grateful for that. And I'm proud of it! I'm proud that I hung in there and kept writing my kinds of songs and had a wonderful time performing them. I've been a ham since the second grade in Chicago when I played Uncle Sam and they applauded and I thought, "God, I like that. I'll have some more of that, please." So I'm still Uncle Sam all these years later.

MR: Well, I am awed that you gave me an interview. You've made such wonderful contributions. If you don't want to look at yourself as an icon at least look at yourself as someone who's inspired many people. I think the culture owes you one.

TP: Aw, thank you. I'll accept. Do they need my address? [laughs]

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Howard Jones

Mike Ragogna: Howard, what's the story on your Engage multimedia project?

Howard Jones: I'm coming up to my sixtieth birthday and I wanted to challenge myself to something that I'd never done before and really push myself to do something special. I was thinking, "What do people love to do these days? They love to go to shows." There's not so much interest in recorded music, but people love to go to a show. So I was thinking, "How can I make an incredibly immersive, visceral experience with all the things that I love all mashed up together?" I love classical music, electronic music, pop music, cinema, contemporary dance, ballet and philosophy. I wanted to bring that all together into a live experience that the audience are very much involved in, so it's built into it that they've got a role to play in the performance. I know that's a lot of stuff to throw at you, but that's where it all comes from.

MR: And I just know that phone apps, customized clothing and florescent makeup have something to do with this. Howard, what do phone apps, customized clothing and florescent makeup have to do with this?

HJ: Obviously, I start with the music, but I didn't want it to have the same kind of form as a normal pop song, so I was kind of liberated from that. I was able to have different, more expansive musical structures. I worked with my friend Steven Taylor on the visuals that go with the show. As I was writing the music, we were trading ideas about how the visual should be. I wanted to have a ballet sequence in there, I wanted some of my passion for Steve Wright music in there and contemporary dance, so we filmed all of those things and came up with a concept in tandem with writing the music. Then the third big element is how to involve the audience as well, so I thought in this day and age everyone's got a smart phone, we can use apps to broadcast things from the stage. That's what we'll be doing in these two shows. The most exciting development for me is that I've got my own app now, my own Engage app.

MR: What have you been doing over the last few years in addition to the new Engage concept?

HJ: Every three to five years, I do a new project. The last thing I did was an entirely acoustic album with a string quartet and a big choir. I wanted to write some intimate songs. The album before that was a very electronic album. I've tried to mix things up and follow what I'm really feeling at the time.

MR: You're exploring the analog world with elements like ballet and philosophy to supplement your performances. How do you view the relationship between technology and, well, everything else?

HJ: One of the things of Engage is, "Okay, it's great that we've got all of this amazing technology, but if we don't watch it we'll all just end up in a room on our own doing everything virtually." One of the things of Engage is to remember that the best thing that we can do as a human being is to have face-to-face communication and dialog and interaction. Technology is great. For instance, this morning, I composed a piano solo for a Norwegian guy who was in Thailand. We did it over Skype. I interviewed him and had a dialog with him and then we composed the piece of music. That's what we can do with technology, but we have to remember that the best thing is when we're face-to-face. Let's use technology to bring people together and not separate them.

MR: To be engaged in life.

HJ: Exactly.

MR: Engage has the implication of activating a machine, but really what you're saying is it's important to use technology to assist human engagement, not replace it.

HJ: I completely agree. I passionately believe in that, and that's really the theme of Engage. But at the same time, we've got this wonderful technology, let's use it. Let's use it in a way that brings people together and excites their imaginations and points out all the great possibilities. That's my thinking.

MR: As opposed to, "Oh my God, one day technology is going to rule us all!"

HJ: Exactly! I don't subscribe to that kind of future. Nobody wants that, obviously.

MR: So you'll have new material that's associated with Engage but will you also feature older material?

HJ: Engage is a standalone piece that lasts for about thirty five minutes of continuous music. In fact, the release of it which is coming in February is one continuous piece, thirty five minutes long with transitions between the pieces. You'll be able to download the individual tracks as well, but the actual work is the visuals and the music all together and it takes you on a journey for thirty five minutes. That's the idea.

MR: Are you interested in revisiting your catalog in a way similar to Engage?

HJ: I'm only doing very few shows with Engage, and then the second half will be a retrospective of my previous work. I'm always trying to reinvigorate that. If you take "New Song," the very first one, there's a lot of it that's out of time. I've corrected that now and it's in the pocket. Also with the technology we have now we can make things sound so good live, there's no excuse for it not being a good mix live.

MR: Do you occasionally have that thought, "What was I thinking? How come I didn't hear this then?"

HJ: When I go back to those first two albums, it was just the limitations of the technology, really. The bass lines were played, most all of it was played, the drums were programmed and a few sequences were programmed, but the majority of it was played, so there's going to be a bit of looseness there. Trying to sync everything up in those days was a nightmare, and it was a bit hit and miss. It still happens. Because we're always trying to push the boundaries of the things we do live, things do crash. You just have to take it on the chin and find a way around.

MR: Some artists program their productions so intensely that you can't picture it ever becoming a living, breathing song. Do you feel that some of your songs have benefited over the years from being removed from their original, programmed arrangements?

HJ: I'm very much into that. I sometimes do solo acoustic shows where I just play the songs at the piano, which is their most basic form. That really sheds a new light on them. Then also I work with my guitarist as a duo, or I've done things with brass sections and big acoustic bands that give a new life to the songs. I think it's very important to do that, otherwise one loses interest in it oneself. Even with the electronic setup I very much try to mash things up together and create new sections and allow the music to have a life of its own. I'm not going to slavishly stick to the original recording.

MR: There are a lot of artists who feel that the original recording is the painting, but there are also those who feel like the composition continues to evolve as a growing child.

HJ: I don't think I'm at the sort of extreme end of that thinking, because I'm aware that you can't take it too far. There's got to be certain key elements. "New Song" has got to have that synth riff that sounds roughly like that. It's sort of cornerstoned the people to trigger the memory of that time. There are other things you can play with, the drum sound, the bass sound, the structure of the song. I've got technology that allows me to do harmonies live on stage triggered by midi. "Things Can Only Get Better" had a fantastic remix by Cedric Gervais. We start off with a song quite like the record and then go into the big room, house version of the song which is a lot of fun. I'm certainly open to that.

MR: Where are you as a songwriter now?

HJ: It's almost about ignoring what you've done before. How do you feel? What subject matter comes up from the way that you are looking at the world? I'm aware that the biggest part of my audience is probably in their mid-to-late forties, what sort of things are they going through in their lives? All of those sorts of things are going through my mind. I think an artist should be reflecting the issues that are cropping up for my audience. The audience was garnered from those days in the eighties when they really supported me and they bought my records and I was on the radio all the time and all that stuff. I don't think you can completely divorce yourself from that, but I think it's very important to push yourself as a person and a writer, otherwise you're neglecting your responsibility to your fans, who have invested a lot in you. I bear that in mind. I'm not one of those people who writes and doesn't care about who's going to hear it. I do care about who's going to listen to it.

MR: Howard, what advice do you have for new artists?

HJ: I think that's a very important question. I think about this a lot. I do try to help young artists and help them to get going and encourage them. One of the things that I'd say is whatever level that you can do your work at, you should do it. If that means that you play your music for a group of friends on a Friday night at a random mate's house, then do that, because that's being an artist. In the process of doing that, you will then discover if you really like doing it, if you'll take it any further, which things work and which things don't, and then you can develop it from there. But don't think that you have to start by being on stage at Madison Square Garden. At whatever level you can do your work, do it at that level and it will evolve from there. And the second thing is, don't compare yourself to anyone else. There's always going to be somebody who's way better at writing or way better at playing the keyboard or whatever than you, and there's going to be a lot of people who are not going to be as good as you. Don't take into account either of those, just do what you uniquely do. Just really believe in that. I know that's hard, but that's what you have to do and to stick to that, you have to constantly work on it. Otherwise, you just won't do anything.

MR: [laughs] The fear of failure is paralyzing. Even the fear of success.

HJ: Yeah. I think mainly the fear of failure is the big thing, but you know, that's what the battle always is for artists. We have to overcome it.

MR: Are you in a constant state of self-improvement?

HJ: Absolutely. It's just central to me to try to improve as a person and as a human being, to improve the way that you interact with other and that you respect others. It's a life's work, but I really feel that that is such a great motivating force to get up every day and try and improve. Every aspect of one's life, your great work, your dealings with other people, your health, try and really move it all forward.

MR: How will you Engage us in the future?

HJ: I've got a ten-year plan to do three more pieces related to engage. I want one to be about transformation, the next one to be about dialog and communication, and the third one to be about being aware of being a global citizen. I've just got some loose themes at the moment, and engage is the start of that process. So I'm giving myself a challenge to create those, and then in ten years' time I'll perform them all together. [laughs]

MR: As a global citizen, how do you feel the globe's doing?

HJ: We've got huge problems, and everyone is very much focusing on the problems. I think it's important to also remember all of the great things that are going on as well. An example for me is I attended a TEDx day in London on the weekend, it was like nineteen people talking about their lives and how they are making a difference in society. It was absolutely inspirational. It just reminded me, and I'm sure everyone else who was there, that there are all these great people doing amazing things and that we need to remember that, too. There's problems, yeah, and we'll solve them, but there's also amazing, great people doing incredible things, too.

MR: If someone wakes up and immediately wants to change and evolve, what are a couple of things that person can start doing?

HJ: Wow, that's a question. I practice Buddhism, so I chant every day to raise my life's state and my outlook on life to a point where I'm trying to view everything as a potential possibility to create value. That's what I do. I know there's many ways of doing that, but I personally think it's quite good to have a method and a strategy for developing a positive outlook on your life. That's my way of doing it, I chant and I study Buddhism.

MR: And I imagine all of that has worked its way into Engage?

HJ: Yes, that's right, it's all in there. I tried to include the themes of respecting each other and cherishing the person in front of you, having dialogs with as many people as possible, creating friendships; I see those as the ways to change the bigger picture. If we make the change within ourselves and our environment then that spreads. That's the most solid way of creating solid change. That's my belief.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Martin Sexton

Mike Ragogna: Martin, what was the grand plan behind your latest release, Mixtape Of The Open Road?

Martin Sexton: I set out wanting to make a concept record. It was going to be a bluegrass thing or a traditional rock thing or a vintage country thing, but as the songs came they pointed in twelve different directions, so I went with that flow where the concept is a mixtape. It has Nashville twang, bombastic rock, swingy jazz, folk, soul, and so on. 

MR: What are a couple of your favorite stories behind some of these songs and their creation?

MS: One of the first songs written for this record was "Remember That Ride." My friend Ned Claflin had to twist my arm to write it with him. He came to me with the chorus about inventing and building this fantasy, futuristic, magical carnival ride. I just wasn't feeling it, but because I have so much respect and faith in his ideas I took a little leap and went with it. As it sat in my notebook and on our work tape, it was just okay. Since I wasn't that attached to the tune, I took a real departure production-wise from my usual singer-songwriter thing and just played it live with fuzz bass and distorted drums. That's all it took to make this track practically sing it self. Take one was the magical take, and now I love the song. 

MR: Studio versus live, which kind of recordings do you prefer making?

MS: The short answer is I love them equally. The not-so-short answer is I enjoy the opportunity to create in studio. The temptation there is always to add more because you can, with all the tracks and technology available. To avoid that I try to keep everything live as possible when I'm in session.  For me this helps escape over-production or sterilization, allowing for mistakes that often times become favorite moments on a record. The live show is it's own universe. The immediacy and spontaneity on stage with a thousand people singing in harmony is like church. And I've never attempted to duplicate the sound of a record live. I use the songs like monkey bars that I play on differently every night.

MR: Jackson Browne's Running On Empty album was really a document of his time on the road as opposed to just being a "live" album. Just curious, what do you think about that album's significance? Do you feel that you've created a prototype with this album that might inspire others?

MS:  I love that record. What has influenced me most on that is David Lindley's lap steel playing. I find myself singing his lines when I scat. A lot of my vocal decoration--the notes I sing between phrases--I can attribute to his sense of melody. When I first met David and told him this, he just laughed and humbly credited Lowell George for influencing him. I've always been inspired by mixtapes given to me. Hopefully, this album will inspire others.

MR: You have been called fiercely indie. How has today's music business realities changed or evolved how you approach rolling out your releases?

MS:  I've been indie since '02. Wow, what a great time to be here. The digital era has really democratized the world in ways never seen before.  So many avenues have opened up in the past decade that allow listeners to decide for themselves what they want to hear, buy, or share. While my label (KTR) still rolls out records in a traditional fashion including physical units to retail with more and more vinyl, the combination of this with digital, streaming, radio spins, and touring keeps the music flowing better than ever. 

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

MS: Frank Zappa said shut up and play your guitar. To that, I'll add shut up and sing, remaining true to your heart all the way.

MR: Looking at your catalog to this point, how would you describe what you've created? Beyond Mixtape Of The Road, might you have a favorite album or song/recording that you've created?

MS: Chris Smither had it right when he said to me, songs are kind of like kids, some of them grow up and get an education and send checks home to daddy and some are still just flipping burgers, but I love them all equally. 

MR: Rumor has it you recorded a One Direction song. You recorded a One Direction song?

MS: Yeah, my daughter heard from a friend of hers that Harry Styles follows me on Twitter. She then dared me to cover a song. She played me "Story of My Life" and I really dug it so I did a homespun video of it to share on facebook and whatever, then recorded it during my Sirius XM session in New York the next day.

MR: What does the future look like for you? Any projects in the works or anything on the personal side you want to focus on?

MS:  The next year is pretty much charted out for me on the road working the Mixtape album. In addition to that I will be working on renewal and rebuilding and what's most important, my family. We lost our home recently to a fire. Sometimes it takes catastrophic events to remind us what is most important. As we stood there and watched a lifelong collection of things go up in a massive fury of flames, all that mattered was that we were safe and alive. We are truly blessed, not only with friends and family, but fans who continue to inspire me with their love, support, and example of unity. They come from all walks of life, but set differences aside and show up with their beautiful voices singing as one.

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A Conversation with Chadwick Stokes

Mike Ragogna: Chad, what is The Horse Comanche's origin story?

Chadwick Stokes:  I didn't know when I when I wrote the song that there really was a horse named Comanche. I grew up with horses and love to ride so for me it's a metaphor for being alive. The song looks into the departure of a cosmonaut from his lover.  

MR: What was it like recording with Sam Beam and how does his involvement affect your style or sound?

CS: He was great, very thorough and genuinely into the whole process. We delved into the meanings of certain songs and he encouraged me to do more finger-picking, less strumming.  

MR: Iron And Wine and Lucius guest on the album. Were there specific things you wanted them to bring to The Horse Comanche?

CS: I wanted Sam's sonic sensibility--his albums with Brian Deck always sound great.

MR: One of the album's featured tracks, "Mother Maple," features interesting production elements like a choir and old sample machine. What was the creative process like for the whole project? 

CS: We wanted to make the best album that we could by exploring the potential that the musicians and studio had to offer and worrying about recreating it for the live show later. 

MR: "Our Lives Our Time" talks to intolerance. Is that part of your creative process, to inform as well as entertain? 

CS: Not really. I'm just singing about things that bother me, in that case, or inspire me in other cases. I guess if anything, I want to relate.

MR: From the artist's own perspective, how does this album compare to your previous works?

CS: It's just another chapter I suppose. Sam and Brian's imprint probably sets it apart more than anything else.  Sam's back up vocals are really special and Brian's sound pallet is really varied.

MR: How do you ideally see your musical career commencing? Like, what's the fantasy of your life about three to five years from now?

CS: I'd like to work on a rock opera/film that features different musician friends of mine. I'd like to play rallies and protests and contribute to the movement for peace and justice. I'd like to see gay marriage accepted everywhere, the national abolishment of the death penalty, stricter rules in gun acquisition and a higher minimum wage.  

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

CS:  Give your music away and play as much as you can. And stay awake behind the wheel.

MR: What's the best advice you were ever given and did you take it?

CS: Don't sweat the small stuff, from actor Chad Everett by way of news personality Ron Simonsen, otherwise known as Dr. Ron the Actor. I've tried.

MR: Anything have your attention other than the new album?

CS: I have a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old at home who are keeping me busy. My wife and I also are involved in our organization Calling All Crows, which, this year, is focusing on women and children who have been displaced in Syria.

MR: Anything you want to say to Sam Beam right about now?

CS: I found your pen.

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A Conversation with Erik Deutsch

Mike Ragogna: Erik, for Outlaw Jazz, what gave you the idea to merge genres and what's the story behind this album? 

Erik Deutsch: Hey Mike, nice to make your acquaintance. It's fair to say that this album represents a lifelong journey, and that the merging of the country and jazz styles is a summary of my musical path, to this point. Although I was raised mostly in Washington D.C., my mother is from Nashville. In 1982 dad was offered a job there, so we picked up and left for 5 years--kindergarten to 4th grade for me. During my time in Nashville, I started piano lessons, heard country music everywhere, and attended performances by artists like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, and Waylon Jennings. I attended the Ensworth school, as did my younger brother, who became good friends with a classmate, Shooter Jennings. I occasionally found myself over at Shooter's house, or him at ours, and sometimes crossing paths with his folks--Waylon and Jessi Colter. In third grade, we had a songwriting contest. I penned a ditty about a "hoopsnake"--a mythical reptile who bites his tail and rolls along like a wheel. I won the contest...and the prize? A songwriting session with a professional guitarist/songwriter, John Knowles, and a performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I count that as my first gig.

Fast forward 25 years to New York City. I hear through my old Nashville friends that Shooter has moved to New York, and that he's looking for a studio to make some music. I put in a call to a friend and voila, a few months later, we're sitting in my living room talking about making music and putting a new band together. Shooter and I hadn't seen each other since grade school, but it can be easy catching up with old friends, and this was certainly the case. That led to two studio records with Shooter--Family Man and The Other Life, both of which I'm very proud, and a couple years on the road, including two visits to The Tonight Show and a performance on Letterman

We listened to endless music on the bus, with Shooter, Jon Graboff, and Tony Leone really schooling me with their knowledge of country musicians. I began to realize that there is a wealth of excellent guitar players who recorded instrumental country music (Roy Buchannan, Chet Atkins, Danny Gatton, Jim Campilongo, etc) but that the list of pianist who did the same is entirely too short. Thus the the idea for Outlaw Jazz was born... to make a record of genre-defying jazz music influenced by country rhythms, harmonies, and beats, with great players and singers, and little bit of outlaw attitude.  

I found a new label, Cumberland Brothers Music, in Nashville. It's run by three gentlemen that went to the Ensworth School with Shooter and I, and we were off and running. 

MR: How did you pull together your guest roster that includes Shooter Jennings and Victoria Reed?

ED: Shooter, being such an integral part of the creation of Outlaw Jazz, had to contribute to the music. I chose to record the song "Whistlers and Jugglers" with him. It was written by Shel Silverstein, recorded by Waylon, and one that we had played on the road with Shooter on a nightly basis. It's a beautiful, evocative song, that deserves a wider audience in my opinion.  

Victoria is an up and coming artist who everybody will probably know about in the next couple of years. She's got a fantastic first album full of thoughtful, well-written songs that will be released sometime this year, and just spent the entire fall opening up for Citizen Cope on his US tour. I love female vocalists, and her performance on Bo Diddley's "Dearest Darling" adds so much fun and life to the record.

MR: How was Outlaw Jazz recorded? How did the material come together?

ED: Outlaw Jazz was recorded at Mission Sound in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I launched a Kickstarter campaign (my first) and found overwhelming support for the project from friends, family, and fans. The material came together like most of my records: a few songs that had been waiting to be recorded for a while, a couple choice covers to feature our guests artists and bring a recognizable element to the music, and a couple more originals that rounded out the overall concept and balance of the record.  

MR: Are there any moments on the album that you're especially proud of?

ED: Fortunately, there's quite a few! I love the rhythm section's swing on "Outlaw Boogie"; the jam at the end of "Whistlers"; Jon Stewart's sax on "Dearest Darlin"; the sense of space on "Wild Horses";  and the overall execution of the trickiest song on the album, "Pickle."  

MR: What do you think of the state of jazz these days? Who are some of your favorite contemporaries?

ED: I think jazz is in a great place musically, but a bit of a weird place culturally. There's a great wealth of creative, intelligent, forward-thinking music coming out of the jazz community; jazz mainstays like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Hunter, Fred Hersch, Bill Frisell, Wayne Shorter, Art Lande, Steven Bernstein, and Jon Scofield and continue to make relevant, progressive jazz music. Newer established artists are doing the same: Jason Moran, Brad Mehldau, Ben Allison, Ben Perowsky, Kneebody, Jenny Scheinman, Rudresh Manthappa, Allison Miller, Ron Miles, Myra Melford, Ben Goldberg, and Scott Amendola are some of my favorites.

Unfortunately, people aren't sure how to classify the music, and aren't especially good at listening to, buying, and supporting it either. Hopefully the extremely high quality of the art will catch up in popularity and 'hipness' in the eyes of the music world sometime soon.  

MR: Will Outlaw Jazz serve as a prototype as to where you're headed with your material in the future?

ED: It's hard to say to say right now what the next album will sound like, but I think this record is definitely more than just a "concept album"--it's music that i'm feeling in my heart and really enjoying performing for and sharing with the listeners. 

MR: Erik, what advice do you have for new artists?

ED: Practice hard, pay tribute to the history of the music, always focus on the developing your personal sound, support your local scene and your peers, don't worry about genres, and stay positive!  

MR: What's the best advice ever given to you and did you take it?

ED: At a rehearsal with Ron Miles, I asked, "What should I play on this song"? He answered "I hired you, Erik... why would i tell you what to play? I'm interested in what you are hearing." Great advice from a great bandleader... I always have it in mind. 

MR: What's the plan after Outlaw Jazz?

ED: We'll be playing shows all year to support the record, right now performances in NYC, Nashville, Toronto, Colorado, Mexico, California, Seattle, and DC are on the radar). Then on to the next challenge and hopefully some more good music!

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