Remember when you first heard "Roxanne"? I do. I was a child in a record store without a clue about the song's theme. Not sure I could've identified reggae, let alone purloined reggae. But I well recall my impression: "People can do this? I want more!" And indeed, The Police -- that "other holy trinity" (the first being Rush) -- delivered. Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity -- their fourth and final albums, respectively -- still astound me in myriad ways. Thank you Andy, Stewart, Sting.
Sting does his thing
As it turns out, there was some other rock band, called The Beatles, who were popular mostly before I existed, and in early 2014 the media are ablaze with their hosannas, as their two remaining members (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr) and their many, many lovely associates celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, 9 February, 1964. The excitement (including the The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, which will be broadcast on CBS this 9 February) brilliantly highlights the "Yesterday and Today" quality of today's pop music -- wherein (as the recent Grammy Awards also thrillingly revealed: Paul Williams with Daft Punk!) great pop music is no longer rooted to an era, but rather rises and intertwines via creativity, quality and, yes, its intergenerational ability to astound.
Well, check it out: tonight on the Late Show With David Letterman (CBS) -- which, tellingly, is produced in New York's Ed Sullivan Theatre -- you can catch that aural acrobat Sting (kids: the "Roxanne" guy) sharing the spotlight with a new generation of pop pioneer in the fine form of Ivy Levan -- thrillingly performing the first track of Capitol's Beatles album Yesterday and Today: "Drive My Car." In addition to late genius author Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) proclaiming "Drive My Car" the greatest song ever, the performance is bound to be stunning, as we well know that Sting brings it -- and this Ivy Levan, this "Dame" and queen of "Swamp Hop," she makes you wonder how that slender frame contains the vocal virtuosity within. Surely a duet not to be missed! Amazing guests fill out Dave's Beatles week -- and as Macca was spotted at the Super Bowl, could he and Ringo be on deck in New York to perform?
The power of music compels me, and I'm fortunate: Ms. Levan and Mr. Sting have met before -- and I was there. The occasion: Cherrytree Records threw a brilliant "Cherrytree House Live!" multi-act concert, late last year at Steven Spill's cozy Magicopolis theatre in Santa Monica. One of the happiest evenings in years! I sat beside producer, Amnesty veteran, pop genius and friend Martin Lewis, as Sting opened with four astounding songs from his recent album (and play), The Last Ship -- casually reminding the room what top-shelf songwriting is about. Moving.
Sting then reappeared with Cherrytree labelmate Matthew Koma for a rousing duet of Koma's/Zedd's "Clarity" -- and then reappeared yet again to introduce Ms. Levan -- who promptly proceeded to blow us all away with gems such as "Hang Forever." Her lasting impression was then deftly followed by family folksters The Hunts, whose diverse acoustic instrumentation and homespun harmonies instantly made me a fan. Then the evening wrapped with terrific British songsmith Michael Kiwanuka -- whose gorgeous take on Neil Young's "Love Is a Rose" (via Linda Ronstadt) once again proved that great music defies time -- and wins.
In the afterglow I find myself interviewing Cherrytree Records founder and mogul Martin Kierszenbaum, who hosted the show (calling Sting both "big brother" and "mentor"), and who is essentially eponymous with his label. (He's also a musician, but apparently has not signed himself.) Aware that Cherrytree is the U.S. label for the remarkable Ellie Goulding and Feist, I already knew I loved them -- but the evening rocked my socks off, and it's a bonus pleasure to speak with Mr. Kierszenbaum. The guy has amazing taste. I ask him about his own reeeally big shew, at Magicopolis.
"Well, this is the fourth event we've had at Cherrytree," explains Martin, "and what we try to do is surround them with collaborations between our artists. This one came literally from an extension of a stage we have in our offices -- called the Cherrytree House -- and it's the first time we've exported it to this theatre. The artists were so generous, and you saw some amazing things happen."
Martin Kierszenbaum warms up the room
That's an understatement. I ask if there's a curriculum for cultivating talent at Cherrytree.
"Yes," continues the young, fresh executive. "It's kind of a broad one; we call it 'pop alternative.' We have a radio station -- Cherrytree Radio -- we play pop alternative music, which isn't exclusive to our signings; we play anything in that sort of umbrella. We have a penchant for progressive pop music -- music that pushes the envelope. It's a big umbrella, but there's a thread, which is a musicality, a quality of songs."
Ivy Levan tears it up
A veteran of Warner Bros., A&M and Interscope, Martin started Cherrytree in 2005. "I wanted to become a place where artists could gather and collaborate, and we could also communicate with an audience directly, for the first time ever -- thanks to technology, we don't have to go through gatekeepers -- traditionally, programmers or bookers, or retail buyers. Those people are great, but were translating for us, for years and years and years. Now we can talk directly to our consumers. So it was important to set up a platform, online and at these events, to be able to do that with our audience."
Matt Koma jams with Mike Einziger
"When you set up an environment like this," reveals Mr. Kierszenbaum of his hot roster, "often magic happens."
Pop faith reaffirmed, thanks to Cherrytree I suddenly find myself at West Hollywood's famous Troubadour -- at a sold-out show I have difficulty defining: First a pretty girl takes the stage without a band; and then a band takes the stage, sort of without a lead singer. And there is much rejoicing.
MNDR: She will rock you
The opener is MNDR, new to me and hella fun -- summed up by Amanda "MNDR" Warner, a beat-savvy D.J. and princess of pop whose album Feed Me Diamonds has wowed critics and heated up dance floors. Disoriented by what I'm observing, I stride to the speaker stacks and begin to pulsate with the crowd. When MNDR gyrates atop said stacks, I become a believer. Apparently Kylie Minogue is also a believer, as MNDR co-wrote the brand new "Les Sex" for Minogue's forthcoming 2014 release, Kiss Me Once.
The link here is "Let Go," a collaboration MNDR shares with Kele and Cherrytree recording artist RAC -- who can be called "RAC" or "Remix Artist Collective," but also bears the more normal name of André Allen Anjos. RAC is world-renowned for their noteworthy and highly creative remixes of many artists' songs -- Bloc Party, Phoenix, U2 -- and André is set to release his/their debut album, Strangers, in two parts, on Cherrytree, this March and April.
If you're running to keep up, join the club. All of this is "remixed" to me. However, although I'm at home with more conventional concert modes, I know happy clubbers when I see them. By the time MNDR returns to join RAC onstage (hey! a lead singer!), the Troubadour is hopping in the sort of sweaty manner Talking Heads magnificently induced three decades ago. I kinda love it. Prior to the beat-heavy workout, I speak with RAC -- er, André -- backstage. He's from Portugal via Portland, grew up with House on the radio, and longed for straight-up rock bands. I boldly ask him how creating something new is different from remixing.
"I really find it to be the same," offers the congenial André. "And I know that outwardly, it's very different. When people see my name attached to the end of a song, they know that it's going to slightly different, but they don't understand that the process is actually very similar. With remixing, you take an element from the original, most of the vocal, and maybe a couple other things -- and then you literally rebuild the entire thing. I like to rebuild everything around it, and that's my creative process."
RAC: Strangers in the dark
What sort of feedback has he received from artists he's remixed?
"The most direct kind of feedback is if you're playing a festival together, or if you're hanging out in a setting like this. I've gotten a lot of really good feedback. I mean, nobody's going to come up to you in a dressing room and go, 'You know what, I really hated that remix. It was just terrible.' The negative feedback I'll get for a remix from time to time is mostly from labels: 'We want a super-danceable EDM hit!' And I'm like, 'Well, you kind of hired the wrong person. That's not really what I do.'"
Note: That Troubadour floor soon BOUNCES through the entire RAC set. Just sayin'.
Asked what makes a remix most challenging, André responds, "There were a couple of hard ones, and they tend to be the most rewarding ones. A great example is a remix I did for Edward Sharpe, the song "Home" -- I struggled with it for a long time. I got on a call with the singer, Alex (Ebert), and he eased my mind, saying, 'Do your thing. Do whatever makes sense. If you want to make it calm and brooding, that's fine. We're not trying to make dance hits out of "Home."' That put me in a better place."
Then Mr. RAC blows my mind a little: "A very difficult remix I did recently was for Bob Marley. It was an incredible opportunity." André laughs in relief over his work on the classic "Could You Be Loved." "Yeah, that was hard. It took me three or four weeks, just battling through different ideas, and trying to get something that was appropriate. I wanted to give it my best, so I worked pretty hard on that one."
RAC with MNDR: The roof just barely stayed on the muthasucka
Since he grew up in Europe and lives in America, does André perceive any transatlantic pop distinctions?
"Recently, especially with the Internet, I think everything's just kind of meshed together and mixed up. And I think everybody's better for it."
So there you go. My ears are definitely reopening. Thus, to the boy who heard "Roxanne" and thought, "I want more!" -- here's lookin' at you, kid.
And here's lookin' at -- and most assuredly listening to -- Ivy Levan and Sting, on Letterman this very night. With hearty congratulations to those lovely Liverpool lads and all who enjoy them.
Related: Do not miss the big Amnesty International Concert for Human Rights this Wednesday, 5 February, 2014, in Brooklyn. A story unto itself, let us simply say that with Blondie, Yoko Ono and Bob Geldof aboard, plus a fine roster of talent, and members of Pussy Riot introduced by Madonna, it marks a return to the spirit that fueled the magnificent Conspiracy of Hope and Human Rights Now! Amnesty concerts of the '80s -- featuring amazing performers including Sting -- and brilliantly commemorated in the recently-released ¡RELEASED! box set: a mammoth testimony to the positive power of music.