A Conversation with Todd Rundgren
Mike Ragogna: Todd, on your new release An Evening With Todd Rundgren Live At Ridgefield, you perform material from Nazz and Utopia in addition to your own with some surprising revisits, making the project feel like a career celebration. Is that how this felt when you were performing and recording this concert?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, but not necessarily in those terms. In recent years, I’ve been experimenting with different musical forms and different ways to present myself. As a result, there are things that don’t get played. I’ll put it that way. One of the paradoxes of having a career in which you continue to create as opposed to resting on your laurels all the time is that fan favorites from decades ago don’t get played as often, or if they do get played, I sometimes readapt them to a style that I might be dabbling in. It reached a certain point where I felt like I had toyed with my audience for long enough and would just give them the more familiar stuff in a way that was more familiar, as opposed to just rearranging things. On any particular night, we have a list of fifty songs and I’ll pick about half of them to perform. Even though the release is a document of a particular evening, it isn’t necessarily representative of any other particular evening, it’s just the songs we decided to play that particular night. On that tour and on the recent tours that I’ve done with this show, the set list is different every night, both because we as players will get bored with it if we keep playing the same thing every night, and also I have fans who sometimes show up to more than one show, and that gives them an opportunity to hear more material than would fit into a single show.
MR: How are you satisfying yourself creatively these days and how are you bringing your fans along with the live experience?
TR: The dichotomy goes back to more or less the beginning of my career. I put together a band and the band lasted about eighteen months and put two records together over the course of it. After that experience, I still wanted to be involved in the music business but I didn’t like the politics of being in a musical group. I wasn’t comfortable fronting an act of my own at that point. I was a guitar player in a band. The first thing I did after the band broke up was get into engineering and production, before I recorded a solo album. That became a very successful avocation for me, to the point where when I was making my own records, I made them for me. I paid no attention to how the audience would respond. My first record was very eclectic and all over the map, the next one was a little bit more coherent. By the time I got to the third one, I had gotten my songwriting chops to a point where I had like three hit records off of Something/Anything?. At that point, the expectation was that I was going to slave in that mine for the rest of my career and milk the success of that. Well, because unlike most artists, I did not depend on my records and the success thereof for my livelihood. I was making plenty of money producing other people’s records right after Something/Anything?
I decided I wanted to do something different, and I put out an album called A Wizard, A True Star and at that point, probably lost half of my entire audience. There were no hit singles off of it but that more or less defined the pattern that I would follow for the rest of my career, which is, “Whatever I did on that record you just heard, whether you liked it or not, the next one is likely not to be anything like it.” The audience that I developed over the years has grown to expect the unexpected. That’s part of the appeal. It’s something that has kind of gone out of music as the years have gone by, mostly because record labels like to have consistent and understandable product to move to the audience. Everyone sort of forgets the times when The Beatles were going through endless mutations and adopting new musical forms and discarding them. That to me was what was most exciting about the band; “What are they going to do next? What is this next record going to hold?” The people who have stuck with me probably have somewhat the same attitude. They would be perhaps a little disappointed if I suddenly settled down and stated making the same kind of record over and over again, and worst of all, appeared to be pandering to them in the process.
MR: Fellow Huffington Post contributor, Sal Nunziato, has a question for you: “It’s been twenty years since you’ve used a band on a record, is there any chance of seeing that happen again?
TR: As a matter of fact, the principal reason why I haven’t been using a band is more geographic than anything. When I moved out to Kauai, it just made it difficult to call a session with the players I’m used to playing with, being at least a five-hour flight from the West Coast. It made me go back to the way I initially made records, which was doing most all of it myself. For some reason labels keep coming to me and asking me to do more records, so I’ve been recently contracted to do another record by the end of the year. This time, I’ve decided that it’s going to be a much more collaborative effort, although that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m putting a band together and going in to the studio in that old-fashioned, typical ensemble kind of way. These are going to be contributors from all over the world, so a lot of this will be done the way that a lot of music is made nowadays. We send the elements to each other and we make our contributions and then send them back. So yes, this will be a collaborative record and there will be many other players on it but it won’t necessarily be a band.
MR: When performing live, are there any songs you can’t wait to get to?
TR: Well, I guess you could say that some songs still have a certain resonance for me. The hardest ones are the ones from the very early parts of my career. I have a terrifically hard time getting into “Hello, It’s Me,” being the very first song I ever wrote and likely one of the ones that I play as much as any other song. It’s certainly a song that people enjoy hearing because they can also sing along to it. There are those chorus parts and it’s simple and to many, it represents an era when music was different. I’ve come to realize that the purpose of this kind of presentation, going back and reviving older material, has more to do with transporting people in the audience back to another time in their lives. They often remember the first time they heard a song or some significant event that occurred to them in which the song was part of the context. In that sense, it isn’t so much them in the present enjoying how we do the song so much as them in some sort of reverie, regressing to an earlier time. While that is certainly a valid expectation―that when you go to a show you would have that sort of experience―but once again, I caution the audience not to come with those sort of expectations, because that moment may not occur. If I didn’t feel like I was creating new moments that later you might have reveries about, I would probably give it up altogether. I’m not the kind of artist who could be contented to simply repeat the past. There’s too much music happening around me for me to feel like I’m not involved in it somehow.
MR: Todd, what advice do you have for new artists?
TR: The miracle of technology has eliminated a lot of the barriers that used to exist when I first started out. You had to go to a studio that usually the record label you were auditioning for owned. They would give you a half an hour or an hour to perform essentially live as many songs as you could get down on tape. That was usually the singular vehicle. There were other ways, I suppose. There were A&R men who would go out and see an act live and say, “Sign ‘em up,” but often, you had to go around and actually make audition tapes, different ones for every label. You couldn’t take the tapes with you after you had made them, you had to replay the songs for RCA and for Columbia and for Atlantic. I don’t know how many of those sessions we did before we eventually got signed, but it had little to do with our ability to actually perform in front of an audience, but our ability to make record.
Things have changed, that whole sort of gatekeeper status that the record label had, because they owned all the equipment. That’s all disappeared. Kids nowadays have their own studios in their laptops. Crap, you can have it in your iPad or your phone at this point. There are no creative barriers any longer. You don’t have to try and get into anybody else’s expensive studio and do as much as you can in a limited amount of time. You have all the resources you need and all the time in the world to work on it. Then there are the other aspects, once you had a final product, the function of the label was to promote it, get people to play it on the radio, and take out ads in magazines so that people would know there was such a thing as your record. Now you’ve got YouTube. You don’t need anything else to promote yourself.
I know of artists who essentially have no label. In some cases, they don’t even sell music. They just promote themselves over YouTube and make all their money at the gigs―fees at the gigs and selling merchandise. This is actually very curious, because it’s pre-label. It’s almost back to the time before recording existed. There is not that necessity, nor even the desire to have some corporate entity suddenly controlling everything you do. I don’t have to give kids advice nowadays if they’ve got the inspiration to make music. There is no impediment to them getting the resources to make it, and there’s no impediment to them getting it into the public eye, and there are all these social media networks where you can actually build your own promotion team, people who will go out and hype you to other people for free. How do you make the money? You’ve got to go out and play live. I think regardless of whatever music you make, you’ve got to go out and play live, make T-shirts and stuff. That’s how you make a living. You don’t actually make a living selling music in that old-fashioned sense. I think that’s incredibly liberating. For artists who grew up in the era of the big labels, they still think of music as being a “thing,” something that’s etched into a piece of plastic and wrapped in cardboard, but music isn’t anything except when it’s being played, when it vibrates the air and enters your eardrum. We’ve returned back to the basics, I think. We just have this space-age way of getting the word out and promoting it.
MR: Sal Nunziato has another question for you: “Is the project with The Roots still happening?
TR: Yes, it is ongoing. It’s just that they get busy and I get busy. It was never a project that had some sort of aegis behind it, we just started doing it because we had a mutual admiration and we’re all from Philadelphia. They started sending me some tracks, I started writing songs for them and singing them. That process will continue but it doesn’t necessarily have any deadline. We hope to complete it by sometime next year, but right now, it’s become somewhat of a lesser priority because we have this record under contract that we have to finish.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
KRIEF’S “DEO GRATIAS” EXCLUSIVE
Montreal-based Krief, aka Patrick Krief―former lead guitarist and vocalist with The Dears―shares a lyric video to his new single “Deo Gratias” directed by Christopher Mills (Modest Mouse, Interpol). The song is taken off of his forthcoming double album Automanic, which will be released September 30 on Culvert Music.
According to the lyric video’s director, Christopher Mills...
“The snare drum rim shot buried in Patrick’s lush production of ‘Deo Gratias’ felt like an old clock to me. I the instrumentation made me think of gears and bells, and Patrick’s soft, haunting voice made me think of a ghost inside a clock, waiting and longing. I also liked the idea that the video could have twitches to it―a bit like some kind of time lapse, or film-gate type of thing, so I projected Patrick’s image, and the lyrics into the curved glass of the clock, and used the abstract blur to create the ‘twitches’ that come at unexpected moments, and to build the final composite of these very simple ideas, loosely assembled to back this lush song.”
ALEXIS & THE SAMURAI’S “DOGS” EXCLUSIVE
According to Alexis & the Samurai’s Sam Craft...
“’Dogs’ is the tale of two Great Danes that Alexis and I used to have in our old house in Mid-City, New Orleans. Well, they weren’t our pups; they were our roommates’. One dog was a sassy black princess who didn’t take any crap from anybody and the other was a big, dumb drool machine who tried to eat the floor a lot. One day, when I was home alone, the princess got out. Great Danes are huge animals and have the land speed of a gazelle, so I was terrified that I was gonna discover a pile of dog guts on the street and that their owners were gonna turn me into a pile of human guts on the street. I panicked and asked this wise, old Irish dude next door if he had seen the dog. He said no, but added, in a thick brogue, ‘Use the dumb dog to lead ye to the smart ‘un.’ Sure enough, I put him on a leash and that awkward-yet-loyal goofball led me right to his sister who was up to no good about two blocks away. I thought this tale of ‘doggus ex machina’ would make for a good song. In our duo, Alexis often leads our music into interesting new territory and I get to follow my nose and pull the arrangements along to catch up.”
A Conversation with Don McLean
Mike Ragogna: It’s been many years, you’ve had many hits, you’ve had a career that many would be envious of, and yet here we are talking once again about American Pie. Don, does it ever get old?
Don McLean: It’s a little like Groundhog Day. When I was younger, I fought it for a while. I had a couple other hits and it didn’t change anything, so I began to realize this is it, it’s always going to be this way. No matter what I do, I’ll never really top the power of that song for people, and the importance of it for people. As an old guy now―I’m going to be seventy-one in a few months―believe me, I’m really glad to have it. There are a lot of people who have a lot of hit records who can’t get arrested and here I am with this song and I can work and do whatever I want.
MR: And the album will be re-released on vinyl. Is it fun to see the delivery system change back to vinyl these days?
DM: There’s one thought that I have on that. Let’s say you go and buy a Beach Boys album that was put out in 1964, an album like The Beach Boys Today!. You get this album and you bring it home and you play it. That is the last word that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had on that recording. That is it. If you buy a CD of that record, somebody else has fooled with that. They’ve changed the EQ slightly or they’ve maybe remixed something or fooled with it. If you listen to something like “Salt Lake City” on the CD and then you listen to it on the vinyl, you will hear a big difference because people will screw around with these, putting them on CD. They think they’re improving them, but they never do. The original people made them the way they were supposed to be. So that’s one difference, but whether or not they pressed the new vinyl to the old tapes is the question. My sense is that they’ve probably enhanced the tapes somewhat before they make these new pressings.
MR: You’re absolutely right about that. But also, many times, cutting masters were used to accommodate flaws in the mixes, things they decided to play with without going back and doing more mixes. And they had to accommodate for the problems of the medium, the needle moving to the center of the eventual vinyl, where the recordings lost bass progressively. When labels moved to CD reissues, they initially used cutting masters but eventually went back to the original masters. I think that’s where all of this got confusing years later when pulling tapes and remastering for new product.
DM: And if you remaster a song, you can change that song a lot. Mastering is something where you take the master tapes and pull out frequencies and enhance or change the basic feel of the bass or the mid-range or the high end. You’re not remixing, but you’re basically pulling out frequencies and making them more prominent. If you remaster even the original tapes from the way they were mastered originally, you can change the way they sound a lot.
MR: When you look at American Pie, the LP has many highlights, and is considered a classic singer-songwriter album. What was it about your creative process that made the album so iconic?
DM: I think Ed Freeman got a very good sound. I don’t even know how to describe it, he worked very hard on it. And I was at the top of my game. I was also up against a wall because my record company had folded. I was in the middle of making the American Pie record when Mediarts went under. They put out my first album, Tapestry. I didn’t know where I was going to go or what was going to happen to me. I was just working frantically on this album, and then all of a sudden, this white knight in the form of United Artists Records rode in and said, “We have bought Mediarts and we’re going to continue this project and we’re also going to give you a big advance.” That was amazing. I lived off of that for like two years. I was able to finish it, thank God, without having to pay for it myself or whatever. One of the things you have to remember is that millions of people bought that record, or still buy it, so really, every song on there―“Babylon,” “Crossroads,” “Winterwood,” “Sister Fatima,” “Vincent,” “American Pie”―they’re all famous to people. They know those songs. The same goes for a lot of the “best-ofs” I’ve put out that have songs from other albums. There’s a way of getting around that big “American Pie” roadblock and getting a lot of other songs into people’s minds as the years go by, if you’re able to survive long enough. One thing I wanted to say is this song is really worth about four or five number one records. It’s got so many parts to it and so many bits and pieces that get quoted that it’s really this big behemoth of a song. It’s not like having just one hit, it’s like having a bunch.
MR: It’s not only quoted all the time but it must be nice to have contributed colloquial terms to the culture such as “the day the music died” through that song.
DM: Yeah. There was another song on there, “Everybody Loves Me, Baby,” which was not produced as well as it could’ve been and I always thought that could’ve also been a hit song. A lot of people used phrases from that back in the seventies. It’s just a remarkable thing and I’m really thankful that I was able to do it and be part of something that is going to be remembered. Frankly, it brought so much fame to me so fast that it was really all I could handle.
MR: Do you feel that having spent some creatively formative years with Pete Seeger added to how you approached music?
DM: I have a number of influences and I’ll tell you who they are. Josh White, Pete Seeger, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and to some degree, Buddy Holly. Those five people influenced what I did, and from there, I made a style that was an amalgam of pop, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. If you listen to my version of “Crying,” I’m singing with Elvis Presley’s original group, The Jordanaires. Bob Moore, Pete Drake on the steel guitar, Ray Edenton on the acoustic guitar... He used to do all the Everly Brothers records. There’s a thing that’s connected to me and goes all the way back. As far as Pete Seger goes, getting to know him and be around him for six or seven years, it was different from all those other people because I got to see how he operated and I got to see how he did things. And I got to learn that mistakes are okay, because he made them all the time. I was a little bit of a perfectionist. I still am. I think I was more concerned about making mistakes before I knew Seeger. That was an important thing. Programming was another thing he was very good at―juxtaposing one song to another. Also, idiomatic mastery. He didn’t have a set list that he followed every night, he made it up as he went along, and that’s what I do. I’ll sing the five or six songs that people want to hear most of the time and then I’ll have songs from the album that they know. Then I’ll have songs that I just feel like singing that night, and then esoteric songs that they may have heard once and are worth hearing again. But I will never do the same show twice. I have never done the same line-up of songs twice ever in fifty years, and that comes from him.
MR: Beautiful. Do you think it’s also because another of the skills you’ve learned from him is how to read the audience?
DM: Exactly. I know one singer songwriter who is very famous, I’m a fan of his and I won’t name him, but he admitted that he does two different shows―one is seventy five-minutes and one is ninety minutes and they’re always exactly the same. Some people operate that way, but I don’t. I like to read the audience and see where I can take them. A lot of times, I’ll add songs and work them out with the band during sound check, we might do it for three days in a row and on the fourth day I’ll use the song. I’ll read whether or not the band really gets the song, and then I’ll lay it on the audience at some point and that makes it new.
MR: So there’s constant reinvention and adding to your track list.
DM: All the time.
MR: You’ve had a wonderful lifetime of performance and recording, with hopefully much more to come. What are the biggest growths you’ve experienced in both of those areas?
DM: With this package, there’s going to be another package of the original CD with songs that were recorded during the making of the album. And there’s going to be a DVD of Don McLean at Royal Albert Hall in 1973, and a CD of the songs from that performance. That thing that I was doing back then when I became famous was really the folk Pete Seeger thing that I think evolved into doing a two-guitar thing with a great guitar player, John Platania, which we ended up doing for about fifteen years. Then I went from there to doing a trio and then having five guys on stage and being able to sing any song I want to sing and have it be any way that I want it. So that’s been the evolution I think as I’ve gone along.
MR: Are there things you’ve discovered about yourself as the writer of “American Pie” all these years later when you’re looking at it, maybe discovering the psychology of what went on during the writing of that song?
DM: No, I knew exactly what I was writing about. I knew exactly what I was doing and I knew that it would be timeless because I know America. I hate to say that, it sounds very egotistical, but I just knew what I was doing. People say, “Don’t you want to update it?” No, it’s exactly what it should be and it’ll always be the same. It’s the same little prophetic story. It’s funny but one of the things if you want to connect my answer to that question would be to say, “Well, people lip-sync on stage every night, they make records with machines and not with people, the songs have become very rudimentary.” I would say, and that’s giving it a lot more credit than it deserves...not very musical, very repetitive. So music, in a sense, the way I knew it, has died. Songwriting the way we knew it is not alive as an art form anymore. That’s the part that surprises me. I never thought that would happen.
MR: Well, in “American Pie,” you wrote, “Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry.” You also grew up in a period when people were encouraged to be literate, when there wasn’t a lot of distraction except limited forms of entertainment.
DM: One of the things that I have noticed and that I tell people sometimes in interviews is that when I grew up, it was very quiet. The TV wasn’t on; the radio may have been on once in a while. If the phone rang, there was no answering machine. It was important and if it rang late at night, it was really important. Not a lot of cars, not a lot of people. Under Kennedy, the population was a hundred and sixty million. Now it’s three hundred and fifty millions. In the cities and the suburbs, they’re jammed-in with cars, but in those days, it was very quiet. You were able to think. As a child, I remember being able to sit in my room or wherever I was and fantasize things and think. I think that I developed a level of concentration, as everybody else did, that was reflected in the quality of the schoolwork the kids did and the quality of the educations that people got because concentration was demanded. Now it’s very fragmented. It’s very difficult to concentrate; people are very bored. They’re very jumpy if they’re not being titillated all the time with bits and pieces of useless information. That’s what I love about “Satisfaction.” That song really talks about where we are now. Everyone’s looking for satisfaction and a lot of it is sexual. That’s an amazing song in terms of what the lyrics say from back in 1962 and it’s exactly appropriate from the way things are now, I think.
MR: Was “Vincent” written to that point?
DM: I don’t really know how I did that song. I looked at the painting “Starry Night.” I read several books about Van Gogh and, of course, like everyone, I always knew his paintings. But the idea hit me to do the song. I took the imagery, I wanted to get in the song itself a swirling flow like the wind, almost. I think Ed Freeman’s beautiful string arrangement that comes in at the end of the song gives you that feeling like the wind coming through the window and rustling the curtains. This is the thing about the kind of music I want to make; it is the expression of that which is inexpressible. When you smell a flower, or when you notice a person’s scent, or their demeanor, there are so many things going on, subtle messages that are being sent to you all the time.
Music is supposed to do that. It should do that, I think, especially if you’re a singer-songwriter, because you’re personally performing the song. I frankly want to say that I’ve always thought of myself as a singer first and a songwriter second. If you hear “Since I Don’t Have You” or “Castles In The Air” or “The Mountains Of Mourne” or “Crying,” I’m a singer first and I happen to be lucky to have the ability to write some songs once in a while, but I’m not this ridiculously prolific songwriter who writes all the time. Steve Allen wrote five thousand songs. I write very personal songs and make very personal, eclectic recordings that fortunately, a few have become famous and made me famous, but I didn’t start out wanting to do that. I wanted to write the most beautiful, interesting things I could do and see them through. Each song is different, there’s no repetition in the styles of the songs. If you look at the hundred and fifty songs I’ve recorded, they’re all different. I don’t repeat myself. I like to create wonderful babies in different styles. “Dreidl” is different from “Vincent.” I do this all the time. I like to change everything.
MR: I’m assuming you consider yourself still learning?
DM: Well, I’m trying. I’m always realizing that everything that happens to me is grist to the mill. There are thought and realizations and understanding that come along. I think that success and money can make you complacent. I do have a new album called Botanical Gardens coming out, which is a whole other thing. The songs on that are very different from songs I’ve written in the past. I’m still creating and doing this.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
DM: It’s a very practical bit of advice: Find yourself a very good transactional lawyer who can tell you exactly what it is you’re signing when you sign a record contract or a contract with a manager or any kind of contract. I think a lot of young artists get so excited by the women and the applause and the fun of travel and fame. Behind the scenes, there are professional music people who know how to steal everything you have and they can do it very effectively with a contract. That’s the advice I’d give. If you make it in this business, you have to have a very good lawyer who can tell you what it is that you’re signing and what’s good about it and what’s bad about it, and then you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to do that. I say this because you can’t change this. The covenants in a contract are like the covenants that are run with real estate, and they’re run for decades and you can’t change it once it’s locked in, so it is important to know what you’re signing. I think that would tend to avoid a lot of heartache if you’re going to make it. Of course, if you’re not going to make it, you’re not going to make it. There was a friend of mine named Nick Reynolds and he sang in The Kingston Trio. We were talking once and I said, “I paid some dues but not a lot of dues,” and he said, “Well, we paid some dues but not a lot of dues,” and then he thought for a moment and said, “Well, if you pay too many dues, you probably don’t have a lot of talent.”
MR: [laughs] You were friends with Jim Croce, right?
DM: I really was. We were friends in college. I went to Villanova, I was a freshman and he was a junior and he was sort of the big man on campus―and that was a big campus, like five thousand students. He found me somehow because he always found everybody who could play banjo and guitar, and the word got around that I was a good guitar player and a singer and a banjo picker. He found me and started to hang around with me and I was a nobody. We got to be pretty good friends. He even got me a little radio show on the campus radio station, just something to do. I didn’t particularly like school all that much. Then later on, I became famous pretty quickly in 1969 and he was still wondering what he was going to do with his life. He thought he was going to be a psychologist. I think he had a master’s in psychology, very smart, but he had a dream. Next thing I know, there he was, the Jim Croce who everybody knows, who was not the guy who I knew in college. It was totally like a new character he created, with the cigar and the whole bit. But he was in his element, he discovered himself. He was an interesting guy, he was very smart, he was very well-educated, he was very funny. He could’ve been a standup comedian without even being a musician, and he knew how to cut hit records, so he would’ve been big.
MR: It must have been very flattering to find out that Lori Lieberman through Gimbel and Fox wrote “Killing Me Softly With His Song” about you. What was it like hearing that song for the first time?
DM: It was very beautiful. I’ve met her and she’s very beautiful and a lovely person. She tells this story of exactly how that song came to be. You know, I’ve had so many wonderful things happen to me. If I were a guy who had five Grammys and more hits, I’d almost rather have my career than anybody else’s. I’ve had all this connection to music, songs written about me, and my songs recorded by many, many really major artists. It’s funny because when Obama was inaugurated the first time, my whole family and I were watching television and there was this concert and out comes [Pete] Seeger with [Bruce] Springsteen and they sing “This Land Is Your Land.” Then out comes Garth Brooks who sings “American Pie.” I thought to myself, “My God, look what’s happened to me.” It’s amazing. I was a kid who had dreams and like Marilyn Monroe said, “They all had dreams, but I dreamed the hardest.”
MR: You mentioned the new album. What else are you doing in the future?
DM: I’m building a new life for myself. I’m recording and traveling and planning all kinds of things. We’re re-releasing various videos, the latest one is the “Starry Starry Night” video with Nancy Griffith recorded with a big orchestra for PBS in 1999 or 2000, and then there’s this show, the Manchester concert. That’s another one that’s been found and put out. The next thing we’re going to do are these live Cork concerts in Ireland, stadium shows that I did in the early 1980s. Then there’s also the American Troubadour documentary movie and CD, which gets shown around the world quite a bit, so there’s a video thing going on. I’m going to get the new album out next year and there are a bunch of other tracks that I recorded in Nashville for another album that I’ll put somewhere. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to use that but I’ll keep rolling along. There’s even a little documentary movie about the making of Botanical Gardens, which we’ve got to work on a little bit and probably put on YouTube. It’s just a lot of things going on.
MR: Oh yeah, forgot to ask. What advice would you give to Don McLean when he was starting out?
DM: I think what I would’ve done differently would be to know and enjoy other artists more. I think in my life, I was a bit too singular, a bit too detached. I’m sorry that that’s the way it is. I don’t know why that was but I was always sort of a lonesome character and I think that was probably something I shouldn’t have done.
MR: But that’s not Don McLean in 2016, right?
DM: No. I’m a lot more open.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
RED TAIL RING’S GIBSON TOWN” EXCLUSIVE
According to Red Tail Ring’s Michael Beauchamp
“Laurel and I went to a citywide vigil following the Kalamazoo shooting this past February. The vigil crowd overflowed into Bronson Park after filling up every square inch of the downtown church. The shootings had been brutal on the community―eight people shot, six of them killed, in a single night. That night, Laurel and I were so moved by the solidarity of the community, and so pissed off by the pointlessness of the killings, we walked straight home and wrote the lyrics in a few hours after basing the melody on Muddy Waters’ ‘Catfish Blues,’ and recorded it a week later.”
A Conversation with Sean Callery
Mike Ragogna: Sean you’ve been nominated for an Emmy virtually every year that the series 24 existed. What was it like being part of such a powerhouse?
It is crazy to think I wrote the music for the first episode 15 years ago. No one had any idea at the time if 24 would be a success, and given that I was a very untested and unknown composer, I was frankly just trying to keep everyone happy and stay employed. I was very lucky that executive producer Joel Surnow believed in me and fought for me to be the composer of the series.
It wasn’t until season 2 that I had a sense that the show was becoming more popular. I think it was the first series to release its first season on DVD in between seasons 1 and 2 and as a result our fan base grew. It was first time I ever heard the term “binge watching.” When social media started arriving into our culture around 2003-2004, it introduced newer avenues of communication and interaction between fans like never before.
MR: Did the show’s music demands teach you any new skills and how did the music evolve over the years?
SC: There was a lot of music to compose per episode, and as the minute count rose each season, I think my hair got a little grayer. The first skill I had to learn―and continue to learn―is managing the emotions of panic and so on. That might sound like a joke, but it’s not. There are times when you have huge deadlines and you know things have to get done, but on some days you have no creative ‘gas in the tank’, so to speak, and you can become anxious. Any kind of creativity requires being in the present moment and remaining engaged, and panic is the opposite of that. So for me the journey is about managing those moments as best you can so you can return to the work at hand, and (dare I suggest it) enjoy the ride.
MR: You created the main theme music for Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Do you find there’s a difference in the creative process when writing for a series like that and let’s say Bones, which tends to be more lighthearted despite the crimes?
SC: For me, the creative process is more of an ongoing path, connecting your own artistic instincts to the needs of the show you’re writing for, and trusting these instincts more and more each time. I try to strengthen this connection as I get older. You utilize the skills you’ve learned along the way―while learning new ones as well―in order to make your most authentic contribution possible. This is true whether it’s for Bones, Jessica Jones, Homeland and another other project.
The tools that you utilize in composing for each show, however, will often be different. This is the craft part of the process. With Bones, for example, I did not have a lot of experience writing more lighthearted fare―“24” certainly didn’t have much and I was very interested in exploring that kind of writing. It required a different kind of musical style and skill set using different instruments. Oddly enough, the visual effects on Bones are much more graphic and disturbing than those on “24.” Every Bones episode features some kind of decomposing―and often disgusting looking―corpse, but the humorous tone of the show makes these visuals accessible and less disturbing than, let’s say, Jack Bauer pulling a severed head out of a duffel bag.
MR: What’s your musical training and how much of it do you find yourself utilizing for most of your work?
SC: I was trained as a classical pianist as a kid. I walked to my piano lessons up the street at the home of Mrs. Hornby, who was probably pushing 90 when I walked through her door at the age of six. She had a little stuffed Beethoven doll on the piano that kind of gave me the creeps, but she was a great teacher. Later on I attended college at the New England Conservatory in Boston. All students were required to study history and theory, which was great because I had more than a few holes in my training and education growing up in Rhode Island. I had not ever heard the music of Stravinsky until I was 17 years old.
At night, I played solo piano in restaurants and bars, and also for weddings with a jazz group. These jobs were a lot of fun, and that style of playing came in handy when I began composing for Jessica Jones, which incorporated the use of jazz infused sonorities and styles. I was briefly a music director for Olivia Newton-John, and did a brief stint as a musician at Disney World. I designed Cardassian spaceship warp sounds and alien phaser shots for a couple of the Star Trek television shows. Later on I worked for a computer music synthesis company which pioneered the use of the first digital recorders and samplers. Each gig, musical or not, allowed me to learn a skill set of some sort that I was able to put to use in scoring.
MR: Can you give some examples of how you creatively approach each of the series you score?
SC: The simplest way to describe it is that I pay close attention to what I’m feeling when reading a script or seeing a picture cut for the very first time; noticing the emotions and the energies that come in play, because in those first moments whatever comes up is completely genuine and pure, regardless of whether it makes any intellectual sense. I pay attention to those moments because that’s most likely the place from where I’ll start composing. It’s connecting to an untouched truth of sorts—from the heart, before the analytical/problem solving part of your mind gets involved. It’s hard to describe these things and make sense, but I hope it comes across.
Jessica Jones was unique because I was only allowed to look at still images from the pilot episode―not moving picture-at first. I was put in a dark room and shown slides of Jessica Jones [Krysten Ritter], Kilgrave [David Tennant], her apartment, the street she lived on, Luke’s Bar, her neighbor’s place, the grungy hallway, the gritty streets, Trish’s apartment, everything. I couldn’t take the images offsite with me; I could only take down notes. From there, I came back to the studio and started finding the melodies that would eventually become the musical theme of the series. Seeing the still images―verses moving images―was somehow more informative to me. Perhaps the imagination comes more into play with still images.
MR: Since you’ve worked on so many series and nominated for many Emmys, what keeps scoring satisfying for you at this point? Do you ever consider how far you’ve come as a composer/arranger and what does that do for you?
SC: My personal belief it that there is a primal satisfaction that comes from learning something new, and this almost always involves the willingness to break your comfort zones over and over again as you try out new things. This is what keeps me engaged―when I am not being lazy and procrastinating! In recent years, also, I have been teaching at a workshop at NYU with new composers, and I have enjoyed that very much because you meet new people and interact more with others and make new friends and colleagues along the way. You hear amazing work, new ideas, and you are inspired by it all. My Mom was a science high school teacher back in Rhode Island and so perhaps some of her energy is with me a bit―except I do not wear a lab coat.
MR: Do you have a favorite show to work on and why?
SC: The safest answer is to say that I love them all, which happens to be true, and I would hate to highlight one series at the expense of another. Having said that, when I’m having a challenging day I absolutely love watching Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes on Elementary. His performance just brings a smile to my face. I am amazed at all the technical things actors have to go through in order to create a natural performance, and Mr. Miller’s take on such an iconic character is extraordinary. I really hope he gets an Emmy nod one day for his work on this series. And for Lucy Liu too! They are fantastic together.
MR: Are you able to escape the reruns of scenes you’ve been working on once you leave the office? What’s your technique for doing that?
SC: I love ‘80s arcade games. There is a place in downtown Los Angeles called Eighty-Two, which features the classic games from that era, along with pinball machines. Nothing shakes loose a burdensome work issue better than a few games of Robotron 2084.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SC: Speaking from my own experiences, I find that expressing one’s truth involves connecting with and opening the heart. Doing this takes much practice, and it requires a willingness to be vulnerable, which can bring fear and discomfort. Fears arise about everything, from thoughts about how we will make a living, to relationships, to wondering if you have any talent at all. Everyone—even the most successful among us—feels this way from time to time.
A kind of fearlessness is needed to navigate forward. This is not to say that the goal is to expunge fear or to conquer it somehow. The notion is that you can become more acquainted and connected with your fear when it arises and not fall apart. We can become more comfortable with the messiness and embarrassment of it all. It’s a tender spot that you touch over and over, and each time one does this, an inner confidence and trust is created, and from that, a genuineness and authenticity emerges in one’s art. It is most certainly not an easy path; I practice every day to bring about that kind of compassion with oneself.
MR: Any advice for the younger Sean Callery?
SC: Be humble and focused, keep cultivating your talent for when you’ll need it on a moment’s notice, and learn learn, learn. Composers are always looking for smart and talented assistants and it’s not as easy finding the right people as one might think. Mentor / assistant relationships are good stepping stones for learning and refining your craft (I worked for Mark Snow years ago and it was an invaluable experience).
Reach out gently to the people you’d like to work with. Reach out via email. Not all will respond but some do; I do eventually. Follow up every 4-6 weeks, not every day. Have patience in the process of reaching out and establishing relationships. Identify what is it about you that is unique and valuable to the person you want to work with. You are a great orchestrator perhaps? You are a whiz at Protools or some other studio skill? You are an incredible guitarist or singer maybe? These things are all valuable to know.
MR: What’s in the future for you?
SC: I am currently composing for a new series on ABC called Designated Survivor starring Kiefer Sutherland. It is the story about an untested lower level cabinet secretary who ascends to the Presidency after a catastrophic event. I think it’s a wonderful show and I hope people will enjoy it.
JOHN BROWN’S BODY’S “WHO PAID THEM OFF” EXCLUSIVE
According to John Brown’s Body...
“’Who Paid Them Off’ is simply a song about the futility of our political system. Most of us are good law-abiding citizens who are constantly amazed at the incompetence and disingenuousness of our elected officials. The song is just a fantasy about calling people out on their bulls**t.”
A Conversation with Jeff Russo
Mike Ragogna: Jeff, your rock group Tonic was Grammy-nominated and sold millions of recordings. You also scored many hit television series including Fargo, Power, and The Returned, and you continue to supply the music for American Gothic, The Night Of and Legion. How can you create music for so many simultaneous programs? Do you have help?
Jeff Russo: I do have a great team. 2 assistants, an orchestrator, a score coordinator, engineer/mixer, music editor, and someone who makes sure we all eat. It takes a village! The thing about working on multiple things is that it sounds like way more than it actually is at any one given moment. There are definitely overlaps, and that’s when it can get tricky, but it can also help the creative process. When I get stuck on something, I can shift over to a completely different project with a different tone, and feel and musicality, and it can shake loose new ideas. The main thing, though, is time management. It seems I have to consistently write about 6-7 minutes a day on average to keep up in the very busy times. I can be a big procrastinator so that doesn’t help. Oh, and Facebook doesn’t help either!
MR: When did you begin scoring and how did you make those contacts, etc.?
JR: In 2006, my band was taking a break and I was trying to figure out what to do. My dear friend, Wendy Melvoin, asked me if I wanted to hang out at [Wendy & Lisa’s] studio to see what they were doing. I already had an interest in scoring for narrative and media since I had played guitar on a movie score some years before that. I ended up never leaving their studio. They had me assisting and editing and straightening up. Then I was helping set up sessions, and before I knew it, they asked if I wanted to write a cue. At that moment I was hooked. It wasn’t too long after that when I started to try to get my own gigs. About 2 years later I met Noah Hawley when he was looking for a composer for a show he had written called “The Unusuals.”
MR: How do you approach each show thematically, for instance, American Gothic versus Legion? Do producers utilize you for your style or versatility?
JR: I always like to start with reading the script/s and begin sketching ideas for various themes. The earlier you start the better. Once those themes are set, applying them to the underscore is easier. The two shows you mention couldn’t be more different, but the starting places are similar. I like to find the emotional center of a story and work from there. Once you figure out what the heart of a story is, working from that comes a bit faster.
MR: Which shows have you scored that you feel the music impacts the most? Which shows have affected you the most personally once you’ve seen how the music is sewn to the scenes?
JR: Fargo, for me, has the most impact. We tend to let the music do its thing, which allows music to have a life in the show. It feels almost like another character of the show, but less of a narrator. I think both Fargo and The Night Of have had the most impact on me when I sat back and watched the music in the show and how it became part of the fabric.
MR: Is there anything in your musical education that hinted at your one day scoring projects?
JR: Not really. I’m mostly untrained and self taught. I remember listening to classical music with my dad as a kid, but I quickly moved on to playing drums and guitar in a rock band. The only thing I can think of is that I studied acting a bit when I was in high school with the most fascinating teacher named Tony Abeson. I think that has filtered down to what I do now with writing music for narrative. He taught about being honest in storytelling and connecting that to experience. Perhaps that helps me understand how help with telling the story.
MR: Do you watch other television series and fantasize what it would be like with your music?
JR: Not really. I try to just let the show be what it is. I’m thrilled at how good TV music has become.
MR: Do you have a favorite scene from a series or particular scene from any show that you’ve worked on?
JR: There is a scene in Fargo, year 2, that I really enjoyed working. In Episode 8, Peggy is watching an old Ronald Reagan movie on a small B&W TV, and then we sort of go into the movie. I had to create the score for the movie. That was really fun. It had to sound like a an old ‘40s war picture.
MR: You’re Grammy and Emmy-nominated. What does that do to your self-perception? Does anything change after each nomination?
JR: It’s so great to be recognized by your peers. It really is an honor, and for a second you sit there and go, “Wow this is awesome.” But then the self loathing comes back and I wonder how I’m going to write that next cue, and maybe I’m not the right guy for this or that and so forth.
MR: How do you balance your rock career with Tonic and the demands of scoring a TV series?
JR: Recently there hasn’t been a lot of time to do both. We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of our first album and we did a few shows, but I have had to sit out of some this year as well. It’s a tough balance, but I try to make it happen. Weekend gigs are mostly doable, but I can’t really be away from LA for weeks at a time. Although I have written a few cues on planes and in hotel rooms.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JR: Write, write, write. Develop a voice. Be honest. Now I wouldn’t call that career advice, but it’s true. You want to sound like you. Also, patience. Don’t try to rush. I know things must happen fast when working, but getting there takes time.
MR: What about advice to yourself when you were beginning you musical career?
JR: The advice my bandmates and I always tried to follow was to never look sideways. It’s hard to stay true to that, but its always best to stay focused on what’s in front of you, not coming up from behind or right next to you.
MR: What are you working on now? Having seen the new shows you’ve had to work on, any predictions about any of them?
JR: I’m starting work on Legion, for FX. It’s always hard to predict anything about a show because you never know what people are going to think, but this show is so fantastic. I hope that people see it the same way I do.
A Conversation with Us The Duo
Mike Ragogna: Hey Us The Duo, why not “We The Duo”? Ahem.
Michael Alvarado: [laughs] Well, Us The Duo started as “Us,” straight up. We found that people were having a hard time Googling “Us” because of the United States. We were like a thousand fifty on the Google search engine, so we literally added “The Duo” as a way to search better, and it works.
MR: You guys met on the set of a video, will you share that oh-so romantic story with all of us?
MA: Definitely. I’m from North Carolina, Carissa’s from L.A. I had a college room mate who wanted to be an actor and live the dream, so he road tripped to L.A. and I went along to help him, just for the vacation. I saw on Twitter that a music video needed extras, so I showed up at this house and Carissa was there as an extra as well. It was definitely love at first sight for sure. For me, at least. It took her a little bit longer. We exchanged Twitter handles, since that’s kind of the new way of swapping numbers, and we kept in touch. When things started to get more serious, we moved to Facebook, and then when things got really serious, we moved to FaceTime. That is the social media steps of love, in case you’re wondering.
MR: [laughs] Carissa. Do you concur!
Carissa Alvarado: I do concur! I was playing hard-to-get in the beginning. I actually had a boyfriend at the time so I totally friend-zoned Michael. He really had to work to win me over, but it worked.
MR: First of all, how did you get your initial Republic Records deal? It has something to do with a Vine video, right?
MA: Exactly. After the love story happened, I moved to California and asked her to marry me, and she said yes. We got married and then Us The Duo formed. Right when we formed, we started making these little six-second covers in our living room. We had zero expectations, no intention of becoming internet famous or anything like that, but we did it, that happened, and we got like a million followers in thirty days. Then we got asked to go on Good Morning America and sing live, which we were very confused about. “Are you sure you want us, very normal people who just sit on the couch and watch Food Network all day to come on your show?” They were like, “Yes, please come!” So we did. We were nervous as heck. I think it was the most nervous thing we’ve ever done. After that, all these label inquiries came in through email. It was just a matter of picking, finding who was the best fit, and also figuring out how to transition our life from being very ordinary to being very fast-paced and on the forefront of people’s lives.
MR: Your recording “No Matter Where You Are” was featured in Book Of Life. How did that come together?
MA: We wrote the song as our wedding vows. We put the video of us singing it at our wedding online and it kind of went viral. You guys covered it―Huffington Post put it up; Business Insider and AOL put it on their home pages. All these things created this buzz and I think that’s what got it onto Fox’s radar. Somebody at the label did help make that connection a little stronger and get us a meeting inside, but really, Fox called us. Again, it was one of those situations where we’re sitting at home and we get a phone call from Fox that’s like, “Hey, we want to use your song in our movie, can you come to our office in the next hour?” “Yes, let me get dressed ASAP!” It was a very big surprise for us, that’s for sure.
MR: Carissa, how did this snowballing success affect your relationship and the music’s creativity?
CA: It all happened so fast, it was a little tougher, I have to admit. We had a rough patch in our relationship just because it got hard to balance out our career and our relationship at the same time. We’ve learned a lot and we’re at a good place now where we’re making sure that we do have time for date night. We make time for our relationship and we do remember that is the priority over everything else. Our career is very important and special to us, but we realize in those difficult times, personally and in our relationship, that we always need to remember that our relationship is the top priority no matter what.
MR: And, of course, there’s the Oprah incident.
MA: [laughs] Yeah, it was the craziest thing. We were playing that song live onstage, and Oprah’s kind of mysterious, she never really announces where she’s going to be or what’s going to happen, it’s just like, “Maybe she’ll show up! Be ready in case,” and that’s what happened. We were playing the song and she just walks onstage right between us and gives us this big bear hug and then we talk about the song a little bit to the crowd and it was one of those “pinch me” moments.
MR: You kind of share an audience with Pentatonix. To me, that makes total sense because of the positive nature of your music and the positive nature of your personalities. The Pentatonix tour kind of broke Us The Duo even bigger, wasn’t it?
CA: I would say so. They’ve got such wonderful fans that really do latch on to people they like, and like you said, since we’re so similar to them and we started in the same social media space as well. I think people see that and gravitate towards us. We’ve gotten a lot of their fans that are new fans of us coming to see our tour saying, “We saw you on the Pentatonix tour and we loved you so we wanted to support you.” It’s such a blessing that that all worked out and it’s even better that we’ve gotten even closer to the band because they’re such sweet people, they’ve got great hearts and they’re just so friggin’ talented. We are so inspired, watching them every night on their tour.
MR: Did you learn anything about stagecraft or performance from them?
CA: Oh, absolutely. Other than them being geniuses vocally, it showed us that we needed to practice and practice and practice as much as we can to get our voices up to the best of their ability. I think their performance and how they talk on stage really inspired us and we’re trying to put that into our performance more, talking to the audience and making them feel like they’re welcome, we’re just chilling in our living room and they’re all friends of ours. We’ve incorporated that into our performances as well.
MR: I’m imagining you benefited from initially having a major label though now you’re releasing the new album, Just Love, differently. It’s very hard to say goodbye to a major label, and this was your decision, not theirs. How has that affected your career since the parting?
MA: Imagine two people who have always dreamed of being musicians since they were little kids. For them, a record deal is like the cream of the crop. That’s it, you’ve made it. We always had our eyes on that, and until we got that we thought we weren’t successful, so that’s exactly what we did, and we signed the deal. At the time, they were the number one label in the US, so it seemed to make sense. We went through the motions and the formulas and we realized it wasn’t everything we thought it was. It’s not just our label in particular, I think it’s labels in general. Basically, we had the harsh reality that a label is a bank. You sign with them in order to get their investment on you, and they use their team of people to decide what’s best for your career and there comes a point where you just have to say, “Okay, whatever you say,” because they’re paying for it. Over time, as entrepreneurs like Criss and I are, who came through the social media space and have ten million followers that we garnished ourselves, it’s hard to be forced to listen to opinions above you over and over and over.
What happened was we got creatively dry. We were on a label with Drake and Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift, so it’s like, “We’re not going to get priority or the same funding or the same say,” so we kind of just had to surrender ourselves to whatever the machine told us to do, so we hit that wall. “Okay, we have ten million followers who believe in us, but we’re not able to do exactly what we want to do, so why don’t we just try going out on our own?” That is a very scary decision, especially for Carissa and I and our manager because we didn’t necessarily realize how much the label does in the background, like the logistical things, setting up your merch store and shipping around the world, distribution and royalty points and all of these things now fall on us, but it was a risk we were willing to take in order to put out the music we wanted and own those rights. That’s kind of where it came from. We left in December of last year; it was a very smooth parting, there’s no bad blood or anything.
The next week, we flew to Nashville, booked a studio and a couple players that we knew, and we all just sat in a room. We stared each other in the face and tracked these songs that Criss and I wrote and pressed record. It was the most creative sparking inspirational thing that we’d ever experienced and we needed that for our souls as musicians. We were just starving for it. This album, Just Love, was a creative burst of whatever needed to come out or else we would’ve exploded. The timing of it couldn’t have been better.
CA: Yeah, mainly just the creative freedom at that point, putting out music that we wanted to put out from the heart and was very personal to us. I really think that the fans noticed the change and the shift in our music and what we were putting out when we did sign to the label. So I think when we started putting our own stuff out again, fans will really love and know and understand that that is us and who we are.
MR: One of the coolest things you ever did was the “2015 Top Hits In 3.5 Minutes.” Which are your favorite segments from that medley?
MA: That medley is one of the most painstaking things we’ve put together. This is our second one and each one has luckily gone viral, but we spend like two weeks picking the right songs, figuring out the right key―I think that medley is in five different keys―trying to showcase Criss’ voice, making sure I can beat box and play piano. I think my favorite segment is when everything drops, the beat box comes in for the first time, the piano’s hitting hard and Criss is wailing this high note, I think it’s right when we hit the One Direction section. We’ve been doing this live on the Pentatonix run as the last song and everybody goes crazy right after the ending because we do this jazz/blues walk down. It’s added a few standing ovations. We’re like, “Are you sure? We’re just two people on stage.” It’s a powerful thing when you look up and see ten thousand people standing in front of you for a pop medley. It’s really cool.
MR: Do you still have some perks you got from Republic? For instance, do you have the same touring manager, or did that change when you left?
MA: When we left, we didn’t have to use any of their in-house people. One of the downside of a label is they have an office with a section for each thing―marketing, publicity, whatever―and you’re stuck with that. It’s free, of course you’re going to take it. But when we left, we pretty much hired individual superstars on each platform. We scouted and had meetings and said, “Why would you make a great publicist for us?” “What about you as a booking agency? What’s going to make you fit with a social media band? How are you going to understand our audience and get us the best shows?” So we did that for maybe a month after we left. At this point, we’ve built almost a completely new team minus our original manager who is my college buddy who’s been there since the beginning. We kept him, but everybody else at this point is pretty much brand new.
MR: And you acquired Jim Flammia who also handles Darlingside, so as soon as he pitched you to me, I said, “I’m in.”
MA: That was one of those things where he took a chance on us, because we know he normally doesn’t work in our genre, but we could tell by just a couple of conversations on the phone that he believed in us and understood what we were going for, so it was a good fit.
MR: Once you enter a mix like that, if you don’t get superstardom, at the very least, you get fulfillment.
MR: So Us The Duo. What advice do you have for new artists?
CA: We love answering this question. We would say a few things: Staying consistent, like what we do with our Vines. We found something that wasn’t being done, we found a niche, something special, and we stayed consistent with it. We did it every single day, no matter how much we didn’t want to film a vine, we filmed a vine. We switched out our shirts to make it look like we had a humungous closet; we kept doing that and in thirty days, we got a million followers. We were on to something, so we just knew that consistency was key and we kept that up. Another big thing is social media. That’s an obvious answer because it’s such a huge and important tool. We use it and we will never stop using it because that’s what we are, we’re “social media stars,” so we have to keep that going. That’s such an important tool that I think any artist should use and benefit from to get seen around the world. Now we have fans from different countries begging us to come play a show wherever they are. It’s just amazing, the power that social media has. Michael, do you have anything to add to that?
MA: Hmm. I’d say don’t be afraid to be bold in what your specific talent is. At a lot of our VIP meet-and-greets when we do these shows, a young girl or a young guy carries in a guitar and asks us to sign it and says, “What advice do you have for me as I try to be a musician?” We always say that one thing: You have to figure out what you do best. Maybe other people do it but be confident that you’re the best at it and just own it. Criss and I were so scared of the social media label at first. We were like, “Oh man, people are calling us ‘Those singers from Facebook’ or ‘That couple from Snapchat.’ We want to be ‘That couple from the Billboard charts,’” but then we began to own it. You know what? They’re still stopping us and recognizing us, that is such a cool thing. Now we’re like, “Yeah, we’re that couple from Facebook, thanks for saying hey!” The last thing I think would be constantly practice. For Criss and I, that’s always setting up the iPhone, pressing “record,” staring at it, playing to it and then watching it back. There’s something so powerful and meticulous in watching your videos back.
MR: There’s really good value in that, and I don’t know if everybody does that. I think some artists don’t like to look at themselves, but you guys were blessed with photogenia.
MR: But I want to ask you, Us The Michael, how much money would it take for you to cut off your man-bun? There has to be a number. Come on.
CA: [laughs] No!
MA: I think that answers the question. I would probably not even have it, but the wifey wants me to keep it around.
CA: I love it!
MA: Happy wife, happy life. I’m a man-bunner.
MR: Have you ever talked about doing a joint venture with Pentatonix, maybe a record?
CA: We haven’t really talked about it but we would absolutely be open to it.
MA: We sing a song with them on their tour, all seven of us stand in a horseshoe and sing a full song, which is so nice of them to even bring us up on their set and even do that. But I don’t see why there’s no reason we shouldn’t hop in the studio with them. That’s a great idea.
MR: Thank you. My spider senses are telling me they’ll respond positively.
MA: I think so. You might be onto something. We’ll have to give you some credit if it happens.
MR: Ha! Oh, you know how it starts? Get together with them to write a few songs.
MA: There you go. I like that.
MR: What’s the future of the duo?
MA: The last two and a half years have been hodgepodge because we’ve been going where everybody wanted us to go. So now we left the label, we hopped on tour―a hundred and fifty days of touring this year, it’s been total madness, so we haven’t even had a chance to think about it yet. Everything restarts when we get back from PTX Fall tour, right around Thanksgiving.
MR: ...don’t forget the songwriting and recording!
MA: [laughs] We’re going to go on vacation for like a week and be a couple again, and then we’re going to start back where we came from, spending a few months just honing our social media accounts again. We’re going to make videos, cover videos, new arrangements, we’re going to write again and just kind of go back to the basis of it all. Then we’ll hit Europe on a tour as Us The Duo, we’re going to go to Asia, which they don’t know yet and I’m super excited about because Criss is Filipina, so every time we show up in the Philippines it’s like the queen has come home, it’s the craziest thing. That’s kind of the broad plan, bringing back the social media, doing more of a European and Asian tour and figuring it out from there.
MR: Us The Carissa, what did he leave out?
CA: See that’s good, you knew. Eventually, obviously, a family. I think that is starting to come across our minds as we’ve been married for four years now, going on five. That’s definitely in the future, I don’t know how soon or how far away. That’s what he left out of course.
MR: Then you’d better get on that PTX collaboration really quickly.
MA: That’s child support right there.
MR: [laughs] I’m all out of questions. Miss Carissa, could you ask Us The Michael a question?
CA: Oh this is fun! If you could vacation anywhere in the world right now, where would it be, Michael?
MA: I would go to the British Virgin Islands and get a hut on the beach and do absolutely nothing but sit there with a guitar and a beer and you.
MR: And your man-bun.
CA: And your man-bun!
MA: It might be a little sandy, but it’ll still be there.
MR: And Michael, what would you ask Us The Carissa?
MA: Oh! If you had to quit Us The Duo tonight...
MA: What would do tomorrow? Anything in the world goes, but Us The Duo doesn’t exist.
CA: I would take on fashion and get into modeling and acting.
MA: So you don’t even need me.
CA: Yeah. [laughs]
MR: See, I thought the word “convent” was going to come into the mix, but I guess not.
MR: Almost forgot to ask, what is your favorite song on the new album and why?
CA: I would say my favorite song would have to be “Safe,” just because it’s something we’ve never done before, recording-wise. We did it completely live in the studio, one take, and that is exactly how it sounds on the album. We didn’t tune anything, we didn’t add anything. It was just a very raw and real moment, and also the fact that it’s such a relatable song right now in this crazy world that we live in. Whenever we perform it onstage, I get pretty emotional. That one’s my favorite. I just think it’s such a beautiful, beautiful song.
MA: For me, I’m going to go with “Stop (Just Love)” for three reasons: Number one, I get to use really jazzy chords in there, and I feel kind of rebellious as a pop artist because it’s all those things I would show to the label and they’d go, “I don’t know, it’s a little too jazzy for pop,” so I was just like, “Whatever, we don’t have any rules; jazz chords.” Number two, we changed the key completely between the chorus and the verse, which is something I’ve always wanted to do just as an arranger. Number three: It’s a good song at showcasing Carissa and I individually as well as together. She sings the first verse and kind of does the sassy, cool thing, and then I get to try something in the second verse and then we come together in the chorus and harmonize. I think it’s just a cool overall song that says, “Hey, we’re Us The Duo, we’re independent, we’re at it again, check it out.”
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Sarah Simmons
Mike Ragogna: Sarah, you’ve been pretty busy after participating in The Voice. Before we talk about your new album, please would you catch us up on what you’ve been doing?
Sarah Simmons: Within a week after The Voice, film producer Marty Bowen contacted me, and invested in my album. Marty sent me to Nashville, TN, where I recorded with Marshall Altman at House of Blues, Studio A. Then I moved to LA where I began recording music for TV and film. I have put together a band and have been touring for the last year. We are currently touring for my album, Freedom, which has currently landed us in New York for my CD release. We will be on tour until fall 2017.
MR: The title of your new album is Freedom. Are you feeling free these days? From the artist’s perspective, how does that title apply to this group of songs?
SS: Actually, yes, currently touring all around the country seeing the world, and meeting beautiful people. When I wrote this album I didn’t know how much of an effect the songs would have on me. Every time I sing the words I get a new perspective. The overall expression of what I want my music to stand for―I want people to listen and walk away free. I think it is so important to release yourself of people, places and things that are hindering you from your potential, happiness and well-being. This album is a depiction of my personal journey overcoming burdens holding me from personal freedom.
MR: How did Freedom come together and please can you take us on a tour of the album’s material?
SS: Each song reflects a time in my life. They are a consensus of my growth and personal experiences of different situations, and also just the realities of life. I have always loved every single genre of music, and I think you will hear that on my album. The music is a mixture of the music I grew up listening to mixed with my own adaptation and my own style.
MR: What was the studio experience like and which songs became dearer to you or upgraded significantly as they were being recorded?
SS: I will never forget my experience recording my first album. Marshall truly pushed me to great heights. It was emotionally challenging, but freeing at the same time. When I was behind the glass listening to the musicians recording my music, I realized my dreams were becoming a reality. “Staring At The Sun,” was the song that truly brought me to my knees. The song is a depiction of loss and how we deal with it. It was written in memory of my close friend, Sean Reeder. Going to the studio and recording it absolutely blew my mind. That was freeing. Even after two years of his passing it had felt like a day still hadn’t passed.
MR: How did being in theater at an early age affect your taste in music and which artists influenced you as you grew up?
SS: Being in theater at an early age gave me an understanding of the overall production of a genuine performance. I absolutely love musical theater and actually love the acting part just as much as the singing. It also gave me an appreciation for all styles of music. Between my Grandmother’s oldies influence, and my Dad’s love for rock ‘n’ roll, coupled with the musical theater music I grasped a diverse appreciation for all music and performance arts. The artists that truly inspired me are: Etta James, Billie Holiday, Rosemary Clooney, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, Stevie Nix, Eddie Vedder, and Lisa Gerrard just to name a few.
MR: Rumor has it you got a guitar at 15 and started writing songs. Any truth to that rumor and if so, can you remember what inspired see of those songs?
SS: Rumor is true! I always wanted another instrument to accompany myself. Dad gave me my first guitar at 15 years old. My Dad had really inspired someone in recovery. This person was so moved by father’s ability to play; so much that he passed his guitar down to my Dad upon leaving rehab. This came to be my first guitar. With so much going on in my life at a young age, there was always inspiration to draw from.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SS: If you are serious about it you can never give up. This business is for the people who never give up. It is for people who sacrifice their time and energy to do what you ultimately love. Sometimes the pay off is far in the horizon, but the risk is worth the reward. At times it may seem like you’re far away from success but your closer than you think. Remember it’s about the journey not the destination.
MR: Can you remind us about your wild audition for The Voice?
SS: It was an incredible experience. I had never expected to have all the judges turn around, that was beyond my comprehension. I couldn’t believe that four judges were facing me. What was funny is that I was actually really calm and not nervous at all. It could’ve been the chamomile tea that I drank before I went on stage or just the prayer I said before walking out. I will never forget that.
MR: Sarah, I think you were robbed! What’s your theory on why you and Judith Hill were eliminated on The Voice when everyone went nuts about you both?
SS: Thank you so much for the compliment. I truly believe it was absolutely perfect the time that I left. You don’t have to win the show to have a successful career. The show is honestly an experience, not your career. I believe that I probably wouldn’t have been able to release an album of my own personal music this soon had I gone further. I am so grateful for the experience with the show, the amazing friends that I made for a lifetime, and the stepping-stones that the show afforded me.
MR: In a perfect world, what does Sarah Simmons’ future look like? And do you have any goals beyond music that you need to get to?
SS: I can’t say for sure, but my ultimate goal is to move people with my music. It seems my future is a reflection of what I’m doing now. People have expressed to me that my music has helped them, and push them through barriers to make a change. This is my goal, to expand the quantity and number of people I can reach through song.
A Conversation with Bob Holz
Mike Ragogna: Bob, the title of your new album, A Vision Forward, suggests this project is a commitment to change or progress. Was that the mission?
Bob Holz: I looked around myself at what most people like musically and how they perceive popular music. I decided that the title would reflect a desire to create fresh and forward thinking musical ideas. The mission was to produce music that respects the tradition of jazz and at the same time attempts to break new ground.
MR: The musicians that appear on A Vision Forward include Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, and Larry Coryell. How did you decide which guests to include and what was the recording process with which you captured their performances?
BH: Since the compositions owe a lot to the fusion movement of the 1970’s, what better way to bring them to life than to have some of the key participants involved? The process was natural since I grew up around that musical period. I selected the players based on their ability to make a tune outstanding and used traditional recording techniques.
MR: What did each guest bring to the project?
BH: They brought their respective wealth of knowledge coupled with a willingness to try something new. For example, Mike Stern used his signature sound on the tune “Moving Eyes” to create a unique flow both rhythmically and harmonically.
MR: How do you keep an objectivity when you produce your own recordings?
BH: I try to identify the strong points, both compositionally and performance wise and then I allow the process to nurture both. That process includes the sound engineering aspect. I also know when to take a break and come back with a refreshed perspective.
MR: How do you currently write songs? How collaborative are you with others when it comes to composing? How much improvisation goes into that part of the creative process?
BH: I write at the piano. Once I have a draft chart, I meet with another piano player who helps me fine tune. When writing, I immediately have an idea in my mind as to how the melody should fit with the changes. As I craft and fine tune the composition begins to take shape. It’s more of crafting an initial idea verses improvisation. I leave plenty of room in the tunes for the players to improvise.
MR: What influences from the past did you take into this step forward? Are there any artists, even beyond jazz, that will always influence your creative outlook?
BH: My early exposure to jazz included listening to Sun Ra and Charles Mingus. I have also been profoundly influenced by many of the 1960’s rock and folk artists.
MR: Which recordings on A Vision Forward do you feel represent some sort of breakthrough or leap in creativity for you?
BH: To me, Steve Weingart’s synthesizer and electric piano part in “The Stand Up” exemplifies a creative leap forward in jazz improvisation.
MR: Was there anything unusual that you applied to the recording process, maybe some new effects or new approach to recording your music?
BH: For the mastering process we used a new state of the art platform which created unique cymbal textures and helped me to get a more individualized sound.
MR: What is jazz to you these days, the current state of it and where you think it might be heading?
BH: I think there is a wealth of great jazz coming out. I’m pleased to see many young players embracing jazz and fusing it with other musical styles. I have an optimistic view of the future of jazz and fusion.
MR: Speaking of the future, are there any young artists out there who you admire, maybe enough to want to help with their careers?
BH: I admire pianist Joey Alexander. The idea of producing recordings for up and coming artists is something I’ve been very interested in. I expect to follow that interest in the future.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
BH: I suggest one researches the great musical artists of the past. Listening to many different types of music can build a knowledge base. On stage, always listen. Keep your ears tuned to what’s going on at all times. If you listen and play musically with good feel, you’ll build a positive reputation in the business.
MR: You know what include another vision forward for you? Dropping drums and switching to saxophone. Tempting, right?
BH: As I mentioned, I’m very interested in producing projects for up and coming artists. As for branching out and playing other instruments, look for Bob Holz to record some vibes in the future.
MR: As an established jazz artist, from your perspective, where is your place currently in the field and where is it heading?
BH: I’m a creative artist first and I don’t want to stick to any formulas in my compositions. That being said, my place is to maintain a good work ethic regarding the composition and performance of my music. I want to create music that touches the listener on an emotional level. My hope is that my music will evolve and change for the better.
A Conversation with Matt Ross
Mike Ragogna: You have a new venture, One River School of Art + Design. What gave you the idea and how did it come together?
Matt Ross: Let’s face it. Art education is broken in America and has been so for many years. One River dissected what was wrong with art education and developed a new approach that has made learning art fun and cool. And along the way we developed a plan to “transform art education in America”.
Ragogna: What made you franchise One River School of Art + Design as opposed to outright owning and expanding?
Ross: We are actually doing both. Our goal is to find the right operators across America and also identify select markets for company-owned units. It’s a big country and we want to bring our service everywhere. What better way to grow than partnering with franchisees in their home towns? We are looking for people who have a passion for the visual arts but also have the skill set to build and lead a great business.
Ragogna: What kinds of courses does the school offer and what kind of faculty are you involving, and what are the teaching methods and classes?
Ross: Over the last five years we have refined our proprietary methods called “Art Shuffle” and “Art Focus” into “a new direction in art education.” Our courses are designed for people of all ages and delivered in a state of the art facility that feels like you are in Soho.
Ragogna: What should a student expect to have learned after “graduating” from One River School of Art + Design?
Ross: How to appreciate making and consuming art. They should have the ability to determine what is well done, what is relevant and what is potentially important. They will also likely continue making art for the rest of their lives because we provide a fun experience first that fosters the enjoyment of making art. They will take this with them.
Ragogna: Does One River offer any artistic subjects or approaches that are unique to the school or perhaps are better than our traditional school system?
Ross: Another innovative aspect is the school’s focus on Contemporary Art. One River has patterned its lesson plans on the last 50 years of art making and is tapping into a growing interest in the work of living artists as subject matter for its curricula. This provides for a fresh approach and produces vibrant artistic outcomes that are in line with today’s art world. We also have pioneered some innovative courses in digital arts and using the latest technology in our classroom that is largely reserved for university level work.
Ragogna: What is your own history with art and while we’re at it, music?
Ross: I am not a visual artist but I create everyday. When I was young, I was in the performing arts and like a lot of kids I stopped when I didn’t find a local space to nurture that interest. I learned to play music and have written and recorded. I have also developed a couple of screenplays and dabble in photography and video. At the end of the day, my creative energy gets applied to business and branding and that has provided some great rewards for me.
I also spent 20 years in radio working for and running some of the most important radio brands in the country, including Q104.3 and Hot 97 in New York.
Ragogna: Matt, you were also an early employee of School of Rock. What was the origin of the School of Rock and what was your role?
Ross: I was hired in 2005 and ran the company until mid 2010. We went through a dynamic growth period and I am proud of the work I did there and remain a partner in the business today. Paul Green was the Founder and created the concept and many people believe he was the inspiration for the Jack Black character. Just so we are clear, One River is not owned or endorsed by School of Rock.
Ragogna: Both art and music always seem to be the first cuts made when there are budget concerns. Since it’s been proven that a child’s healthy development needs to include art and music in the very least for hemispheric balance in the brain, why don’t we acknowledge this? Is this in the same category as climate change denying?
Ross: LOL…I love it. I just read an insanely powerful article in the New York Times about climate change. My guess is the denial is not that bad…climate change will destroy the Earth. Not having art and music will destroy the soul...but you can still be alive and spend your time watching sports on 75 sports channels.
Ragogna: What advice do you have for visual artists?
Ross: Make a lot of work. Have fun. Don’t try to be too serious. Get to know as many other artists as possible. Continue to educate yourself. And most of all, it is not a straight line to economic success but it may be your purpose in life so be sure to give it your all. We need artists to keep our world in balance.