A Tribute to Paul Motian with Bill Frisell

Paul Motian
Paul Motian

March 25th will mark what would have been the 82nd birthday of legendary jazz drummer and composer Paul Motian. The same weekend, on the 22nd, a tribute concert curated by longtime collaborators and members of the Paul Motian Trio—Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano—and featuring more than 20 artists who worked with Paul over the years, will take place at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space in New York. I caught up with Frisell last week to chat briefly about his years playing with Paul and the experience of curating a tribute to a jazz icon. Some excerpts from the interview are included below.

There is, I think, a heightened self-awareness that is integral to jazz. Its future is almost dependent on familiarity and continual interaction with its past—legends, techniques, and sacred texts passed down from one generation to another in the grooves of dusty old records, over whiskey in smokey clubs, on a shared piano bench in downtown apartments. The same stories told night after night, but never the same way twice—it’s that sense of here and now and never again that is, arguably, the lifeblood of the great American art form.

Paul Motian was already an influential figure in the world of jazz by the time of his first meeting with the young Bill Frisell in January of 1981. As one third of the classic Bill Evans trio and after more than a dozen albums with Keith Jarrett, Motian’s influence on contemporary drumming was already undeniable. Still early on in his career, I ask him what those early sessions were like. It’s a meeting Frisell still recalls with fondness and even a touch of disbelief:

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell

“Well, the very first time I went to play with him was in 1981…and you know, I’d never met him….So, I go over there and it’s me and Paul and Marc Johnson was there…(Marc was the last bass player to play with Bill Evans)…[and] Bill had just passed away recently, so they were talking about that….And they said, well, let’s play ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, which is this George Gershwin tune that I really associated with Bill Evans.”

“It was another one of these kind of heavy moments…playing that tune with those guys. And playing electric guitar? How am I fitting in with this, you know?…He thought it was ok, I guess. We kept on playing and he kept calling me back and I’d go over there every week or every few days even.”

From those early sessions, with the addition of saxman Joe Lovano, emerged the Paul Motian Trio who would spend more than a quarter century pushing the limits of the jazz trio and, true to form, of time itself as Motian turned his attention to his own compositions. Even as each pursued their own projects, playing with other bands and each new generation, the Trio continued to perform together, including annual residencies at the Village Vanguard, for the better part of three decades, more often than not with little to no rehearsal.

“I never knew what was gonna happen. I think that’s what kept it going for so long. Every time we played, it felt like it was new. So there was sort of like this double thing: the comfort of being with these guys that you knew so well, but then Paul, he just never stood still…Every note he played was searching for something just beyond the horizon,” Bill recalls of their performances. “[It was] always just right on the edge of not knowing whether we were going to make it or not. But I think…if we had just gone through the same thing every time we played, it would never have lasted that long.”

Their annual runs at the Vanguard continued until Paul’s death in November of 2011.

“When he first passed away,…I was kind of lost as far as able to play the music. It was just like this giant chasm—this empty hole as far as thinking about how am I ever going to be able to play this music again….[A] couple of months after he passed away, there was a little gathering at the Village Vanguard….[That] was the first time…Joe and I played just duo. We played his tunes there and it was just such a relief in a way…It really felt like Paul was there with us. It was almost like he was handing it over, saying it was OK to just go on and play the music. It felt so good, like the music was still alive and soon after that, I started playing it with some of my bands.”

And now, as we approach what would have been Paul’s 82nd birthday, the handover continues. In the end, Paul’s tunes, too, will enter the canon, to be passed to the next generation along with those of Monk and Evans and all the great legends of whose works he once sang from behind the drums.

Interview with Sarah Kirkland Snider transcript

Some of you may remember that interview I did with Sarah Kirkland Snider on Twitter several months ago when Penelope first came out. I made it into a video, which I’m sure you’ve seen floating around, but I’ve had some requests recently for written transcript. Well, I managed to steal a few minutes while I was in Minneapolis for String Theory last week, so here’s that transcript y’all asked for. You can, of course, skip straight to the video at the bottom if you like.

In an earlier version of this post, I had written that Penelope would be performed at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. That performance has since been canceled. Sorry about that. The Southern is in the midst of some serious financial difficulties. Please consider a donation. Also, some of the information in this interview is now obsolete. For instance, you can no longer stream the first track from Penelope on NPR. However, you can stream the whole thing on Bandcamp and on the New Amsterdam website.

[begin interview]

The Indie Handbook: We’re going on 6:00, so I suppose it’s time to get this interview going, if you’re ready and assuming your battery holds out.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Ready. Battery juicing.

TIH: Brilliant. I’ll be listening to Penelope as we do this, just for continuity’s sake. So, people can stream this now on NPR.

SKS: Yes, well, they can stream the first track.

TIH: Well, that’s a start at least. The official release date is a few weeks away.

SKS: Right. October 26.

TIH: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did Penelope get started? It wasn’t always a standalone song cycle, as I recall.

SKS: Right. It started as a musical theater piece with playwright Ellen McLaughlin. Then I reconceived it as a song cycle for Shara.

TIH: Yeah. She’s the one who first told me about it last June or so. How did she come to be involved?

SKS: I couldn’t imagine anyone singing it but her. So I got my people to call her people and she very awesomely said yes.

TIH: She certainly sounded enthusiastic when she mentioned it in our interview. But how do you go about composing for someone like Shara Worden? She has such a unique instrument—such a wide range of colors.

SKS: Exactly. It was thrilling knowing I could do so many things and she would know exactly what to do with them.

TIH: Well, I think that’s exactly what you’ve done here—not so much that you’ve touched on a varying number of musical styles, but images. I fell like it’s a very visual piece of music—almost tactile, even. A sort of multi-sensory experience. I really hope that was intentional and that I’m not just crazy.

SKS: That’s a great compliment to me. I definitely think in terms of mood, image, feeling—never style.

TIH: I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Circe and the Hanged Man’, for instance, and that sort of laid back groove it has through the first half. I am particularly fond of the way you’ve set the word ‘luxuriating’. It’s like it takes on a whole new dimension.

SKS: Cool. I think Shara deserves a lot of credit for that. She has such amazing timing and innuendo—very sensual singing.

TIH: She certainly does. So, obviously there is a story element here. Did you give any consideration to the Odyssey itself when writing music for a story that parallels it so closely?

SKS: I did, absolutely, though Ellen’s story loomed perhaps a bit larger. Her inventive and idiosyncratic takes on the Odyssey characters really inspired me. They were so specific and complex and relatable.

TIH: I really do love Ellen’s text. I think it highlights elements of the Odyssey that are not necessarily readily apparent, elevating it from a simple hero story to something far more human, not to mention giving Penelope some long-overdue recognition.

SKS: Why, yes. Absolutely.

TIH: Let’s talk about style for a bit. Most of our readers are already familiar with My Brightest Diamond and this is similar, in a way, particularly in the sense that it straddles the border between pop and classical. There’s a lot of talk about “alt-classical” and pop vs. classical these days. What do you think of that whole issue?

SKS: Oh boy! The $1 million question. I think it’s awesome that so many people are bringing their influences together in organic and convincing ways. We often say at New Amsterdam that every person is their own genre: Dreamland. I think the important thing is just to strive for an honest and successful musical statement and not worry about style. I’m conscious of it—obsessively so—but more as an after-the-fact reflection on whatever idea I just had. The main thing is to let those ideas happen.

TIH: I think that ideal shows in the number of great releases New Amsterdam has put out this year. So, you’ve had time to reflect. What influences do you see in Penelope?

SKS: Oh, to give away my sources! Kidding. [There are] so many. I think the biggest here were Shara, David Lang, St. Vincent, Arvo Pärt, Bartók, Neutral Milk Hotel, Chopin, Wilco, Schubert, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Debussy—I could go on and on, actually.

TIH: A great list. I could have sworn I heard some Phillip Glass in there as well.

SKS: Of course! Philip Glass is so deep in my DNA that I forget about him. For me, he was one of the first living composers who seemed to offer something relatable and relevant to my life experience.

TIH: It’s Satyagraha that I feel I hear specifically, especially in “The Lotus Eaters” for instance. Though that could just be because that’s the bit of Glass that’s so deeply embedded itself in my subconscious.

SKS: Interesting. Egad! I actually don’t know that piece, but I do think of some of the emotional terrain in Glass generally as influential for me. But so often, what underlies an influence it’s an ineffable emotional quality rather than a specific technique or gesture.

TIH: Did you have a specific, overarching structure in mind for the song cycle as a whole?

SKS: Yes, the song cycle follows the narrative of the play, though I added a new song to serve as the kind of emotional and narrative apotheosis of the story (“Baby Teeth”). In the play, the apotheosis is arrived at via spoken text.

TIH: That’s interesting, because it really does feel like the whole set kind of hangs on that song and the idea of being known.

SKS: I am impressed by your close listen. That’s what I was going for. And yes, being known—such a complicated concept here, because there is the sense that he wants to know himself and others again but he cannot get past his “guilt” and his deeds—the things he is known for by God.

TIH: I feel like the narrative itself reflects, in a sense, that philosophy you mentioned before, the very idea of probing the past and the psyche to find that sort of ineffable self that exists buried underneath all the extraneous psychological noise.

SKS: Do you mean compositional philosophy? Interesting. Yes, I think a parallel exists. It’s definitely about letting go of self-judgments and extraneous noise and trying to find something hidden below the surface.

TIH: That’s essentially what I’m getting at. Maybe not that it was a conscious decision, but that it’s a sort of natural parallel.

SKS: Absolutely. I imagine Odysseus’ task was a bit more anguish than mine, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

TIH: At this point, I’d love to explore the finer Existentialist points of this in light of The Sickness Unto Death, but I’ll spare you and let you go. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you. Congratulations on such a great piece. The album is just beautiful and I think people will love it. I wish you further success with New Amsterdam, as well. You’ve put out so much great music this year, and I think I speak for many others when I say you should release Penelope on vinyl.

SKS: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, too. That really means a lot. NewAm is such a labor of love. And I love the vinyl suggestion. We are thinking about it. By the way, The Sickness Unto Death was my favorite book all through college. Anytime you want to plumb its depths over Twitter, I’m you man.

TIH: That’s brilliant! The next time we do one of these, we’ll make it Kierkegaard-centric. Cheers!

Interview: Kites

I admit it. We’ve been relying rather heavily on the Swedes around here lately (but can you blame me?). But, in the name of global citizenship, we’re expanding ever-so-slightly southwest to bring you Kites—proof positive once again that the 80s are alive and well in London (even if the majority of the decade’s greatest proponents—myself included—have little to no memory of the original incarnation).

If you follow The Indie Handbook on Tumblr, you’ve already had a very brief introduction to the band and the handful of tracks they’ve posted on SoundCloud. I’ve been streaming their tracks with increasing frequency over the last fortnight. So why don’t you go ahead and check out a few for yourself as you peruse this interview and we get to know the band a little bit better and maybe dispel some myths along the way. (I have to say, I am a huge fan of Taio’s desert island list. Chet Baker is an inspired choice.)

The band have also recorded a brief session for the online arm of i-D Magazine (a personal favourite of mine). I’ll link to that here as soon as it goes up.

Kites are: Matthew Phillips (Vocals, Guitar), Taio Renee-Lawson (Guitar, Bass), Richard Baldwin (Electronics) and Jack Newton (Percussion)

How did the band get started?

Taio – A series of unlikely meetings and conversations. It all seemed to fit into place like a puzzle.

Matthew – There has been a myth circulating that we met on the towering escalator at Angel Tube station in London. You know, the one where you feel like you are plunging into the bowels of hell. We admit partial responsibility for propagating this fallacy. If the truth be told, Kites began as an idea; an idea based loosely and perhaps a little pretentiously, on creative simplicity. I suppose everyone in Kites brings a different flavor to the make-up of the band. We’re also very lucky that we all get on famously.

What do people say your music sounds like?

Richard – It appears that many people lean toward comparisons with New Order and the like. Although flattering, I’m a big fan of New Order, I think that’s quite a lazy pairing.

Matthew – Yes, we do garner many comparisons with Depeche Mode and New Order. There have even been comparisons drawn with The Killers and The Maccabees but this probably has more to do with our aesthetic, rather than our sound. Artists who claim that their sound is entirely unique are pathological liars. I never get offended by comparisons – it is a very natural thing for people to do and helps outsiders to gain a rudimentary, albeit imperfect, insight into our music.

Taio – The press do make comparisons to New Order and Talking Heads. It is a total honor that people relate us to those brilliant bands. It goes with out saying that we have been influenced by them, but also by a wider range of artists and genres. I think we can stand alone from those comparisons and be judged on our own merits.

What do you think it sounds like?

Matthew – I would like to think it sounded like a mirror screaming back at its onlooker with compassion and, very occasionally, with mockery.

Richard – Personally I don’t think we sound like any single artist in particular, as each of us bring distinctly different influences to the table and that is reflected in the music. However, I recently read someone referring to our latesttrack “The Disappearance of Becky Sharp” as sounding like a “melancholy Erasure”. I was most amused by that. Vince Clarke is a genius.

How did the band’s sound develop?

Taio – I think our sound is still evolving and maturing. We know what we are about, and what music we want to make, but I think we are changing day to day, and so the music evolves as we do.

Richard – On our earlier tracks one might notice that the music sounds quite DIY, which indeed for the most part, it is, we have produced almost all our tracks in my home studio, but over the last year we’ve really learned and honed our sound. Don’t get me wrong, there is always room for improvement, but I think our learning curve is audible in the words, the music and the live performance. It’s great fun developing as a group.

Matthew – Every song that we work on together feels like a constant evolution in our sound. We have become more dexterous and versatile, and our repertoire has become more dynamic. I am already very excited about our future recordings. It has been a heady journey!

Unlimited artistic freedom or global superstardom?

Richard – I don’t think anyone would claim that what we are doing is so avant-garde that it can’t be genuinely popular. As for ‘global superstardom’ I am not sure that’s entirely up to us.

Matthew – It is my considered belief that a songwriter should, under no circumstances, compromise their artistic freedom. However, I don’t subscribe to the view that artistic freedom and success are necessarily mutually exclusive. As for ‘superstardom’, I am not sure if we are of the right oeuvre.

Taio – I think that the former can sometimes cause the latter.

What can we expect from a typical Kites gig?

Matthew – Unabashed passion and energy. We haven’t yet had the inclination to pick up ukuleles and, in that sense, the sound is very electronic and imposing. We try to actively engage our audiences in our aural ceremonies.

Taio – I do enjoy the live shows and performing. After all the nerves fade, I do enjoy it.

Your dream gig?

Taio – A Kites set on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury or Coachella main stage.

Jack – A Kites show also, but perhaps at Madison Square Gardens in New York.

Matthew – I know I might sound like a broken record when I mention this, as I do so frequently in interviews, but I would give my left nostril to see the Stop Making Sense tour.

You can only listen to one band/artist for a year. Who is it?

Matthew – Patrick Wolf

Taio – I would have to find a way for there to be more than one. Kate Bush springs to mind and Chet Baker does too… as does Joni Mitchell… and Björk. As you can see that’s an impossible question to answer.

Jack – I would go for The National.

Richard – From my own record collection it would have to be Norwegian Ambient Electronica from Biosphere, on account of him having enough material that I could listen to a couple of albums a month without repeating.

Every ashcloud has a silver lining, just ask Bitter Ruin

Photo by Joe Shepherd

That ashcloud over Iceland has been wreaking havoc on a lot of people’s lives lately–and a lot of bands’ tour plans. However, some bands, like Bitter Ruin, have actually managed to benefit from it. They’ve managed to land support slots in the first few shows of Amanda Palmer’s current tour–all thanks to Twitter.  I thought it only fitting, then, to catch up with them and conduct my first ever all-Twitter interview–a Twinterview (ok, so we’re still working on the name). Also, they’re in the UK right now, set to open for Amanda again in London on Thursday night–Twitter is cheaper and easier than long-distance phone calls.

The nice thing about Twitter is that people can follow the interview as it happens. Also, the transcription process is way easier. Let me know what you think of this format. I may do this again. Enjoy.

*Note: AFP = “Amanda Fucking Palmer

TheIndieHandbk: Sorry about the late hour. How are you guys tonight?

BitterRuin: We’re good, busy, tired, but still buzzing from the gigs

TheIndieHandbk: I should say so. You’ve had something of an exciting last few days. How has the @amandapalmer tour experience been?

BitterRuin: Incredible, we still can’t believe it happened

TheIndieHandbk: I believe that. How exactly *did* it happen, anyway?

BitterRuin: Well, we’ve contacted Amanda in several ways before, but we have the ashcloud to thank, she needed support and we tweeted

TheIndieHandbk: Every ashcloud has a silver lining, I suppose. So have you convinced AFP to keep you on tour beyond tomorrow night yet?

BitterRuin: We’ll deffo be making an appearance, but she does have another act lined up too, so we’ll be cut short 😦

TheIndieHandbk: Well, for the record, @amandapalmer, I think you should take @bitterruin with you everywhere, and bring them back to the States with you.

BitterRuin: OH GOD, we do too, we just wanna stay on tour now! But, she has plans and I think we’ve gone as far as we can go 😦

TheIndieHandbk: Maybe for this slice of serendipity, but judging by the activity on your Facebook page, I’d say you have a ways to go yet.

BitterRuin: We’d love to tour immediately, but getting the money/transport/venues and the number of fans will be hard

TheIndieHandbk: So do you have any future tours in the works? I thought I heard rumblings about one earlier today.

BitterRuin: Yes, well, we’ll be gong back to dublin for sure – we’re always in London and Brighton, and Bristol’s not far

TheIndieHandbk: You’ve got a new EP due out next month, don’t you? That should help generate some interest, especially after this week.

BitterRuin: It’s actually our first full length album, recorded in the states with one of AFP’s producers…out 26.05.10

TheIndieHandbk: I didn’t realise it was a full LP. That’s brilliant! How do you think it compares to your other releases?

BitterRuin: Well, it’s been called ‘darker’…It’s so much more dramatic and actually less polished, you know, adds character

TheIndieHandbk: I was going to say. I’ve been reading through the lyric book I bought from you, and they are almost brutal.

BitterRuin: ha ha, the books or the lyrics?

TheIndieHandbk: The lyrics. Though I should add, the books are beautiful. I bought the We’re Not Dancing book as well.

TheIndieHandbk: So, let’s talk about the making of the record. You kept a video diary during the writing process, didn’t you?

BitterRuin: Yes, we tried to, but next time we need someone else to film and edit as we haven’t had enough time to finish them

TheIndieHandbk: I was rather impressed that you even attempted that, actually. What is your songwriting process like?

BitterRuin: Well, we both write seperately and then put the songs through the Bitter Ruin blender, they pop out the other side and TA DA

TheIndieHandbk: Well that Bitter Ruin blender works well. Your songs all have a certain identifiable quality and a definite theatrical streak.

TheIndieHandbk: I suppose that bit of dark cabaret is why you pair so well with AFP. But is that theatrical element intentional?

BitterRuin: It just seems natural for the music. I think our songs would look/sound stupid if we didn’t pull out the theatrics on stage

TheIndieHandbk: Well, your onstage chemistry is brilliant, and it fits the sound perfectly. But how would *you* describe the Bitter Ruin sound?

BitterRuin: Noir beauty! 🙂

TheIndieHandbk: Oh, that’s good. I’ve been thinking “gothic flamenco-soul” all day, but I think the noir reference is essential.

TheIndieHandbk: It certainly captures the look and the photography, which is just intoxicating, by the way.

BitterRuin: Joe Shepherd does all of our shoots. They’re always in bizarre places, latest one, a mental hospital!

BitterRuin: I think gothic tends to put people off, and soul would attract the wrong audience…it’s hard to get it right, suggestions?

TheIndieHandbk: I know, gothic is tough, but it’s gothic in the sense of Lemony Snicket or Northanger Abbey. You know, gothic, but in a fun way.

BitterRuin: Yeah, we mean *actual* gothic not high school gothic

TheIndieHandbk: I’ll let you know if I come up with anything. How does your music compare to the rest of the “Brighton scene” if there is one?

BitterRuin: mmm, brighton is tough, there’s a big music school here, and not much talent in it…ssshh, I’d recommend @birdeatsbaby

TheIndieHandbk: You know, you’re not the first to recommend @birdeatsbaby to me. I suppose I have no choice but to check them out now.

TheIndieHandbk: And, I have to say, I absolutely *love* the mental hospital photo shoot idea. I think it fits your sound perfectly, no offense…

BitterRuin: hahaha, no, it’s ok, we know we’re insane, the madness is what drives the music…it’s the voices, they write all the songs

TheIndieHandbk: Well, I know it’s getting late for you two and you’ve got a show tomorrow, so I’ll let you go in a moment. Where’s the next gig?

BitterRuin: Next gig with Amanda is tomorrow at Koko, we’ll be busking before the show, after that it’s Brighton 26th May/London 22nd May Album Launch

TheIndieHandbk: Well, thanks for chatting. It’s been great fun. I’m looking forward to hearing the new album and seeing you here in the States.

TheIndieHandbk: Though, I have been known to travel a long way for a gig (just ask @theschoolband), so you never know.

BitterRuin: Thanks for having us, see you soon. Night night!

TheIndieHandbk: It’s my pleasure. I’ll get a transcript up tonight for those who missed the live version. Cheers, guys! Good night.

A long short interview with Brían Ó hAirt

If I had to guess, I’d say there are about as many Irishmen living in Dublin, OH as there are native Scotsmen living in Granville, 36 miles to the East, which is, approximately, six. But none of this matters on the first weekend in August, when the city’s Irish population increases at least tenfold, augmented by tens of thousands more people who think they’re Irish. (I admit that, once upon a time, even I, now vehemently proud of my Scottish heritage, found myself wishing I could be cool like my Irish friends during the weekend of the Dublin Irish Festival. I really ought to write our Chief and beg his forgiveness.) They come for the music. They stay for the scones. (Ok, so maybe the scones thing only applies to me. Most of them probably stay for the music as well. And the beer.) And there is a lot of music, and pricewise, it is probably, when you think about it, one of the best values out there for such a comprehensive festival covering a (sometimes startling) range of styles.

“…And that’s all Irish music,” Brían Ó hAirt (singer and concertina player for the band Bua) assures me, but “we really are a traditional band. We do some progressive stuff, but most of the things that we do are traditional, [even though] we compose our own tunes sometimes or play newly composed tunes from other people”. Only fifteen minutes ago, the band were on stage, wrapping up their final set of the festival. Fifteen minutes from now, they will be on their way to Ontario for their next festival appearance. Our interview will be short, but Bua are the only band I have bothered to see twice this weekend and I have to talk to this man. I need to find out what makes this band who they are.

But what drew me to Bua (MySpace) in the first place? We don’t necessarily tend toward the traditional here at The Indie Handbook (well, at least not publicly*). Aside from the superb musicianship of, and obvious chemistry between, all of the band members (Brían, Brian Miller, Jackie Moran, Chris Bain, and Seán Gavin) there is the fact that this Brían also speaks fluent Irish (not a skill one necessarily expects from most people living in the St. Louis metro area). As one who has a weakness for, and is prone to, eccentricity in any form, I am intrigued by anyone who would bother to learn such an impractical (at least by contemporary American standards) language as Irish. Brían’s reason:

“I’d heard Irish for the first time when I was in junior high, and I was kind of a bookish kid at the time, so I looked stuff up and started learning things on my own. And when I started junior college, there were courses offered, and by that time I had a pretty good understanding of it. And when I moved to Ireland I progressed even further, because I was in Irish speaking areas and I was using it all the time.”

And what about the road to traditional music? Let’s face it, Brían would not look out of place fronting a Belle & Sebastian cover band (for the sake of argument, we’ll call them Judy and the Dream of Horses).

“I had been doing music my entire life, and when I reached the end of high school, there were three roads really: you could go and get your degree in classical music, or enter a jazz program; but I didn’t really feel like my voice suited that or that it felt like it was really a way to express myself. But, when I heard Irish singing for the first time when I was fourteen or fifteen, it hit home, really, and kind of pulled me in.”

I think I speak for Kristin as well when I say that we appreciate, admire, and endorse such an earnest pursuit of any art form. Add to that the fact that Brían’s delivery and vocal quality is perfectly suited to the music that he is performing (his voice is pure, uninhibited by that affected nasality that so many artists seem to view as a prerequisite for success and the delivery unadorned, allowing the songs to speak for themselves) and the result is bound to impress. But what thrusts Bua beyond the range of “good bands” to the level of the “truly excellent” are the four other stellar musicians standing (and sitting) on that stage.

“There was a band before called Gan Bua (Jackie and Chris were kind of the instigators for that), but a few of the band members moved on with their jobs and careers, so Chris approached each of us about joining the band… And we play well together. That’s kind of the secret. It just clicked. We all seem to work well together.” He continues, “and [there are] connections within the band, too. We’re not all connected together in the same way. Brian Miller and I may be connected in a way that maybe Brian and Chris are not, but maybe Chris and Seán are connected in a way that Brian and I aren’t. There are all these smaller pairings with their ideas of music and the kind of tunes they play. So, overall, there’s more cohesiveness in the group because of those smaller groupings.”

So, this is Bua, folks. Get to know them. You’ll be a better person for it. Their album An Spealadóir is out now on Mad River Records. There is, I believe another one currently available as a download only. And you owe it to yourself to catch a live performance. After all, that’s where many of these songs grew up, long before anyone you or I know ever heard them.

*Personal confession time: For some time now, longer than most of you have known me, I have toyed around with the idea of a serious pursuit of Scottish folk music. Five days after I met Brían Ó hAirt, I bought a beginner’s guide to Scots Gaelic and a Gaelic dictionary. It is happening, kids. And if any of you have an in at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen and would like to put in a good word for me, I would be eternally grateful.

With apologies to Eve

I interviewed Eve Searls about her debut album under the name Bird and Flower about a month ago. I had intended to publish the article before the release party later that week. Oops.

A cool, rainy July day: seated in my favorite coffee shop in the oldest part of Columbus, I can think of no better conditions than these under which to sit and talk music with a songwriter I respect. The day is shaping up nicely and things look promising (and I rarely feel this way). But, while the cappuccino at Cup O’ Joe in German Village is as good as any you will find in the city, the tables are also unsteady. One misjudged foot placement, and my lap is soaked through with coffee, the table draped with napkins to ward off future spills, and I am considerably less cool than I was ten minutes ago (ah, normalcy…). And yet, Eve Searls of Bird and Flower is still willing to meet with me. Wow.

But this should come as no surprise. Here We Cease Our Motion, Bird and Flower’s debut LP, is not about the manufactured image. It’s about normal things – things like “being dumped, trying to be more independent, and trying to be happy even when you’re feeling bleak and hopeless”. And the frankness of the record is even more poignant when you consider that Eve, who has been writing songs for ten years, has only recently found the confidence to play them in front of people.

“I got a guitar for Christmas when I was seventeen and I just started writing songs for myself. I couldn’t play them for anyone, not even my family. I was terrified of playing in front of anyone else. So I got a four track a year later and I started recording. Just basic folksy, singer-songwriter stuff,” she assures me, taking a sip of unsweetened iced tea.

So what happened? Among other things, Garage Band.

“[Garage Band] had samples on it. And that’s how I started writing dance songs. “That’s the Ticket” is the first song I did on Garage Band. And I just used three samples, a bird tweeting, a beat, and a banjo and the song just came from there.”

Which is not to say that her folksy side has been left in the past. Far from it: “I feel like I’ve split into two people where I really like fun dance music and I like sad, earth-shattering folk music”. And that swirling atmosphere is clear throughout the record, not only in the disparate styles represented, but even in the seemingly conflicting lyrical and musical sentiments depicted within the context of even a single song.

“Even the fun sounding songs are kind of dark and sad underneath. They’re about really simple things like rejection. Hot Boots has some abandonment issues. And I don’t know if people notice, and they don’t really have to. As long as it’s fun, that’s fine with me. But there really is some darkness in the lyrics that kind of underlines the fun sample stuff.” This is, by no means, unheard of. The Cardigans pulled it off brilliantly with “Lovefool”, which remains one of the greatest works of songwriting dexterity I have ever heard. Here We Cease Our Motion may not quite reach such epic status in my book yet, but Bird and Flower are off to a good start.

Among the highlights for me are, of course, “Hot Boots”, and lead track “Dark Thoughts” (“Take it from me, there’s a possibility / that those you love don’t give a shit about you”….Like she said, it’s a bit dark). Then there’s “Jump Out of the Way”, which some will recognize from Super Desserts’ Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest, even though this version is something entirely new, insomuch as it is the oldest incarnation of the song. But “The Healing Service”, the closing track has been the standout for me from the moment I first heard it. Essentially entirely a cappella, it could very easily have been lifted from the O’ Brother soundtrack and is instantly intoxicating. As the voices fade into the sound of rolling thunder and eventually silence, the listener is left to contemplate the lyrics: “I started my own religion, didn’t need to get a degree. / I made up my own religion through pain and sympathy / It involves a group of people who never drift apart / and though the pain they feel is their own, they feel it through one heart.”

The album is out now, but only on vinyl and download. I, for one, would encourage you to buy a hard copy, and I think Eve would agree. ”

I get really excited about the product, the object itself as a craft object. So when I make my CDs I hand print the covers of the CD and I like for people, if they actually buy something from me, that it be like a cool thing they can have. And I feel it’s the same way with vinyl. It’s huge; the art is a lot easier to look at; it sounds really good…” However, if you’re the kind of person who actually likes to know what they are buying before paying for it, you can still stream the entire thing here.

Interview: Shara Worden, part 4

This is my favorite part of the interview, not only because I finally get to ask Shara about her performance of one of my absolute favorite pieces of classical music, but this was definitely the most philosophically interesting part of the evening. Hopefully, you will be as struck with her ideas as I was.

TIH: Do you keep up with contemporary classical music at all: Golijov maybe, or others?

SW: I haven’t seen his opera, but I have seen Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind the string octet, and then I’ve seen Dawn Upshaw perform of few of his songs.

TIH: A lot of these composers now are drawing on pop music with increasing frequency, do you see that line between art music and popular music beginning to blur?

SW: I used to be really concerned with that and that was where I was wrestling for those years of Shark’s Teeth. I think I just got tired of thinking about that, because I was so concerned with it that at the end of the day it wasn’t so much a philosophical question for me as it was “what have I chosen to do with my life?”. And as I’ve gotten to be really ok with what I have chosen to do and really surrendered to the songwriting, this year I have sort of bizarrely gotten more classical jobs.

TIH: Really? Like what?

SW: I’m going to do a song cycle called Penelope Songs and that’s like classical, written music that’s sort of like Samuel Barber, but with drum kit. So I am recording that this year. And then I am working on something with Bryce Dessner for BAM in October and that’s more of a classical kind of thing and then the Clogs record.

TIH: To me, that seems like another sign of that sort of convergence, like pop is our folk music being adapted to classical forms.

SW: If you’re listening to Ligeti or Boulez – there is that idea of music as a science. Or the Second Viennese School, they really did create a new musical language. And we are employing some of that language now, it’s just normal for some new chord to show or for some atonal moment to happen, or Sonic Youth, you could say was developing a new language in a way that was echoing that. So there is that interesting thing where Aphex Twin or Chris Clark and all those warp records guys are doing things that are very progressive rhythmically and that sort of echoing things that were happening in IRCAM and there’s that dialog now. But I still think that Itzhak Perlman needs to be Itzhak Perlman and I still firmly believe in the science of music. Whether or not I am a part of it, I still really think that that music needs to exist; that it’s a worthy pursuit of your life.

TIH: You put together a performance of Pierrot Lunaire. Why? There are not a lot of people who really want to do that.

SW: Yeah. That was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The Sprechstimme part itself isn’t hard. Rhythmically, that piece is incredibly challenging and you have so many technical things to think of like, really how close am I going to try to get to those pitches. And it’s something that I, since I don’t have perfect pitch, would have to do a lot in order to get closer. So, because the technical world is so challenging, if you can get through it, it’s this really beautiful piece of music that’s really beautiful and really moving and just incredible. But just to learn it and get it integrated into your body where you’re not having to think about what you’re doing is really hard.

TIH: I’d love to do something like that, but that would be pushing my abilities a little bit.

SW: Well have you heard those recording of these guys doing Mahler with string quartet and accordion? Or doing Wagner, excerpts from his operas in that way, not with a singer, but it’s so awesome! And that was part of what I was thinking with “Black and Costaud”. These songs are public property. You can cover this song just like you can cover a Bob Dylan song. Do it your own way. There’s no reason why, just because it was written on paper that it has to be exactly this way. If you want to do it, do it.

TIH: Did you record your performance?

SW: I was so sick that week. That the recording was such a disappointment, because I was having to do it just the way that my voice would do it that day rather than how I had prepared it.  I wanted to do “Der kränke Mond” again, which is the one with just flute. I wanted to record that, and I still might do that, but it will take a little time.

TIH: You can put that on the new album.

SW: Yeah, as a B-side

Interview: Shara Worden, part 3

Sorry, no #faibw post this week. Instead I have even more Shara Worden for you. (I wonder if you can guess what’s coming tomorrow.)

The Indie Handbook: When you conceive of an album, does it emerge as a sort of cohesive unit, or each song separately? What sort of emphasis do you put on song order?

Shara Worden: My criticism of A Thousand Shark’s Teeth is that it was very separate and because it was recorded over such a long period of time, there was kind of ideas behind it: I was really trying to work on strings and orchestration, that was really a priority, but the kinds of songs are really all over the place. So I did spend a lot of time thinking about the song order. And the songs that I sort of injected into the album were “Inside a Boy” “From the Top of the World” and “Ice and the Storm”. So those are all the more poppy, rocky ones and then I also really manipulated “Pluto’s Moon” from its original form. Originally, it had just been a string quartet then I made it into a guitar song. So I had to sort of reconcile myself to doing something over a long period of time and not really conceiving it as a unit. It was really more of a “here are these ideas that I am going to play around with and see what happens”. This is the fruit of many years of meanderings. The whole time, when you’re in the process of committing to an older idea, and presenting it in the present moment, you’re like, “should I really be doing this, or should I just move on?

TIH: You seem to use a lot of those sorts of unconventional rhythms and meters, a lot of 3+3+2 and those things. Do you find yourself drawn to those types of things? Clearly, you’ll get a lot more radio airplay with a straight 4/4 and three chords.

SW: Yes, I am going to live, apparently, in the experimental avant garde world.

TIH: That wouldn’t be so bad. As far as I’m concerned, you can go full-on microtonal, if you want.

SW: But then I’d go insane! That’s what’s so great about the Portishead record or M.I.A. With her singing and multi-layering, she’s kind of doing this microtonal, I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but the effect of it is really, really cool.

TIH: Well, the opening of “Freak Out” also has that sort of shimmery, gamelan quality.

SW: Hey, that one has repeated notes, too “I think we should jump on the piano”. Hey, you were right.

TIH: Yeah, and the sort of percussive singing style propels it forward.

SW: Well, that’s the sort of direction I am going. The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

TIH: These days, it seems like more and more artists are taking a sort of chamber music approach to song writing. Are you noticing similar trends?

SW: Yeah, definitely. It seems like something that has been culminating for a long time: Andrew Bird, Joanna Newsom, and obviously the Decemberists. I don’t know. It’s fascinating. There’s a certain resistance, maybe to the immediacy or the quickness with which we are consuming music and I wonder a little bit if it is a bit of a rebellious reaction to that three minute, you can download this and you’re gonna want to download five other records today and your gonna want to download five more records tomorrow. And eff that, you know. Who was the jazz guy that just released a 74 minute song so you would have to listen to the whole thing? So I think there’s some desire for a longer narrative. You know, Antony’s record, I feel like is sort of like, completely the opposite of what you might expect for right now, that need for distraction away from what is happening in our society and he just says “cool, let me break your heart even more”. Of course, who knows, really, why things are happening, but I think it’s a little bit punk. I think it’s a sort of bizarre expression of the punk spirit, like “Yes! I’m going to write a narrative based on fairy tales!” And I’m thinking Awesome! Can I play the bad lady?

Interview: Shara Worden, part 2

Critics like to talk about a band’s literary influences as if they (the critics) have actually read more than 12 words together that anyone other than they themselves has written. Read these 485 words and you will at least be able to talk about Shara Worden’s literary influences without making stuff up.

The Indie Handbook: I know the last time I saw you, about two years ago, you had made mention of At the Back of the North Wind, during your concert. I forget what song you were introducing.

Shara Worden: Well, it was definitely the impetus for writing “From the Top of the World”. I guess it was more the pictures and this ideal. Sort of like, um…which Chronicle of Narnia is it where they’re on the boat and Reepicheep dives into the water?

TIH: Was it Voyage of the Dawn Treader?

SW: Is that it? And they get to the end of the world. And so it was kind of this melding of that. And I had also been looking at a lot of Anselm Kiefer paintings and a lot of things that have ladders in them. Anselm, his whole life in many ways has been dedicated to sort of examining our desire to ascend to the heavens, but the irony being that Heaven, [un]like the way we understand space to be, is not “out there”, but it is actually here, and there is no up or down, there is no East or West, which also plays into Alice in Wonderland. So, I feel like fairy tales and these kinds of children’s stories have actually known things for a hundred years and writing things for a hundred years that science is only proving now.

TIH: I’m curious about Alice in Wonderland.

SW: I did some singing and instrumental-izing for a puppet production of Alice in Wonderland in New York, I think right before Workhorse came out, so that would have been 2006. So I did that production of Alice in Wonderland and the people that did the video for “From the Top of the World”, those were the folks that I worked with.

TIH: So Lake Simons…

SW: Yeah, Lake Simons. I had already written the song “Magic Rabbit”, but that show came up and it was really special for me. So Alice just keeps coming up. I mean, it’s sort of ubiquitous.

TIH: Would you like to do more involving different media?

SW: Yeah. We did a puppet show for one song in the fall when we were touring and it was so fun and so special. I really loved it. So we’ll see, hopefully.

TIH: You worked with Tim Fite on that video as well. Do you have any plans to do more work together in the future?

SW: It’s just kind of when it happens. He’s definitely one of my favorite artists and a dear friend. The last sort of thing we did together was a Paul Robeson tribute album. I sang a song for him, but I don’t know what’s going to happen or any details about that.

Interview: Shara Worden, part 1

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, one of my favorite songwriters of all time, in hopes of getting some answers to a few questions I have always wanted to ask her, and maybe (hopefully) convince a few single ladies that I am considerably cooler than I actually am (as World’s Sexiest Vegetarian finalist Gareth Campesinos! would say: “I am nothing if not a pragmatist”). So, here is part one. I will post the rest of it for you as the week progresses.

Oh, also, I’ve never actually interviewed anyone before, so I’m sorry if I suck at it. (Like I said, I am not for real cool.) Anyway, there it is.

The Indie Handbook: You studied voice at the University of North Texas. What was that experience like?

Shara Worden: In school the only role, the only kind of complete role that I had was in L’enfant et les sortilèges, so playing the child was a turning point for me. Where I was able to find pleasure in singing again…so because I got to play a kid …I was able to be playful and explore so I think that piece in particular has had a really special place for me because it’s a fairy tale in its own way.

TIH: So, is that why you did “Black and Costaud”, your own personal connection to the song?

SW:  I think that I, for many years was trying to reconcile myself with the idea that I had chosen songwriting because, in classical music, you dedicate an enormous amount of time to doing one very, very specific thing, which [is] to sing this really difficult music, well, and beautifully, and with feelings, and connection. [And] to compare that with writing songs, which is very internally motivated – If you hear someone like Itzhak Perlman play or Yo Yo Ma or really amazing classical players – Renée Fleming or Barbara Bonney – and you just think Wow, you’ve devoted your life to doing this one thing really beautifully…. That’s really profound to me and I feel like there is something really honorable – there is so much energy in life put toward destruction and put toward negativity and I really admire people who dedicate themselves so fully to something that is so beautiful – I’d rather explore lots of different kinds of things, and I found myself more excited about songwriting and more enthusiastic about spending hours and hours. It’s the same amount of time spent on making music, but the sort of form results in a different thing.

TIH: How would you say your classical training has influenced your songwriting?

SW: Honestly, the singing, I don’t think about it at all. But at the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs, more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the texts was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”

TIH: The thing I love about your music is, at least on Workhorse, that your melodies are really unconventional, at least they seem to me to differ from a lot of pop music – you use a lot of repeated notes…

SW: I’m curious which ones you mean, where you are thinking that, because I was conscious of it only for Workhorse.

TIH: Now that you’ve put me on the spot, I can’t remember titles of them, “Workhorse”, for instance.

SW: Well, on that one for sure I was thinking about it, because it was right after “Today” had come out and there was “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon, Yesterday…” and I thought Hey, you can use rhythm rather than using melody, so that was my experiment in that. It’s actually very atypical for me.

TIH: I thought I noticed it on five or six tracks.

SW: Yeah, for Workhorse, for sure. Though what is more natural for me is to do the octaves, big intervallic jumps, like on “Disappear”, for instance.

TIH: Your work with Padma Newsome: what sort of things did you work with him on?

SW: Well, to keep it specific to the record, I would bring him an idea for a string quartet, an accompaniment or arrangement for a song and he would give me suggestions on it. Say, “I think if you invert this, it will sound like this and this is why,” or “bring the bass note up here or you need to spread out” just how you should voice things, helping me learn about the ranges of the instruments. We would listen to different classical pieces, and look at the scores and figure out how things were working. Or I’d bring in something I liked, Rebecca Moore or a Björk track, and he would listen to it and give his feedback on what he thought was cool, what he didn’t think was cool. So it was a lot of [that]. He played me Ligeti for the first time.

TIH: I do love Ligeti.

SW: Yeah, so he was trying to bring in a bunch of different things that he thought I would like, and things that I, as a vocalist, was maybe not familiar with.

TIH: There is so much we miss out on. Did you look at any of his music in particular?

SW: Yeah, we did. We looked at Clogs music a lot and trying to figure out different ways of writing things. Like if you want something to be freer, what information do you give a player? Like in jazz, is there a head, is there a melodic theme, and when does that return? Clogs is actually pretty improvisational, but highly organized improv, so we would study how the organization but also looseness and lack of organization works….It was funny that we started out and he was sort of my mentor, but now we are like collaborators. I sang on their new record. It’s not out yet, but sometime this year.