A Conversation with Toto's Steve Lukather
Mike Ragogna: Luke! How you doin'?
Steve Lukather: I'm doing great, man! Things couldn't be going better. I just got all this information that the DVD is number one all over the world, it's crazy! I don't even understand it, but I'm sure happy about it.
MR: That's easy. It's Toto.
SL: Well, we were never the trendiest band, but we've always been here. Even the critics that hated us back in the day, you get them drunk and they know the lyrics to all these songs. They're busted right there. But we have a great sense of humor about all this, particularly that song, my god it has a life of its own. It was on an episode of Family Guy to the point where David Paich uses the name Peter Griffin as his hotel name. We were South Park characters! It's part of pop culture, the song has a life of its own. Now it's a college song, which is great, we get college kids at our shows. We have multiple generations of people, because we're not one of those bands that was so trendy that we'd go out of style, we were never in style. You sort of either liked us or you didn't. Some people are discovering it via the internet or via their parents or uncles or older brothers and sisters, I don't know, we seem to be getting stronger, not weaker, and we've taken every punch there is. I think I appreciate it more now than I ever did.
MR: What do you think it is about Toto that ended up being so resilient?
SL: Resilient? Our love for eachother. Most of us went to high school together and we grew up as musicians working and studying and playing and became studio musicians and the band happened and all of the records that we did and all of the success and loss and failures that we've had; divorces, marriages, kids, death, addictions, people coming and going, surviving, paying our dues. Forty years I've been playing with the front line of the band, they're my brothers, and that holds true. Having the opportunity to stay in the band after all these years, are you kidding me? How many people have long careers anymore? Like no one.
MR: It is an amazing career, man. So I interviewed Boz Scaggs somewhat recently and...
SL: Ah, my man Boz! He gave me my first job. I was a teenager.
MR: Well, he remembered that. And when he talked about you guys, he seemed really happy.
SL: Oh, God love him. I owe him a lot. If it wasn't for Boz my life would've changed. Meeting the Porcaro brothers getting that Boz Scaggs gig were two life-changing events for me. It all fell into place after that.
MR: In some respects it's almost like Silk Degrees was Toto's first album.
SL: I was still in high school when they did album, and when I got out I was asked to do the tour and the subsequent albums after that. But Jeff Porcaro and David Paich certainly, and David Hungate our original bass player who's coming back to play with us this summer, that was the core rhythm section for Silk Degrees and David wrote all the songs with Boz, so yeah that was definitely our stepping off point. I did that tour thatwas so successsful and Columbia records offered us a deal right away without even hearing any music, which is unheard of. They were thinking, "Well, this is the same guys that brought you Silk Degrees that just sold five million," plus we were on every record in town at the time, so me and Steve Porcaro being the junior guys, next thing you know we have a hit record and I'm nineteen years old oging, "Wow, this is insane." Then I blinked and I'm fifty-six. What the f**k happened?
MR: [laughs] The hell you say!
SL: I've got two generations of kids, I've kind of seen it all. It's been a hell of a journey, man, and I really appreciate this now more than I ever did.
MR: Steve, let's talk about the new DVD, the 35th Anniversary Tour, Live In Poland. Was there anything about that experience that set it apart from other tours?
SL: Well the fact that we could even attach thirty five years to anything, now it's thirty seven, which is even scarier, forty since high school, but to have that longevity and to take all the punches we have and get back up and say, "Thank you, may I have another?" Truly it's bittersweet. The loss of Jeff was devastating and now his brother Mike has ALS and is confined to a bed, and that's not going well, but all the good things that have happened to us... life is unexpected, man. You never know what's going to happen. I think as you get older you reflect at the silliness of your youth and the stupidity of some of the decisions that were made, and the ego and whatnot, or whatever played into it. Most of us were probably too high when we were making these decisions. Young, dumb musicians following the trend of the day, which was party, party, party, which is what everybody did. Now, looking back at that as a guy who hasn't a drink or a smoke or anything nasty in my system for years and years I look back at those foolish mistakes going, "Jesus, why did I do that?" I think that's why we've had the success we've had. All of a sudden the DVD is number one all over the world and I don't know how or why but we're not going to question good things anymore in life. We didn't hype this thing, but all of a sudden it came out and just took off, it was like, "What the fuck, are you kidding me?" This is fantastic for a bunch of old shits like us.
MR: The medley that opens the DVD includes "Child's Anthem," its original version used on ABC Sports in the seventies. Add that to the hits "I'll Supply The Love" and "Hold The Line" and throw in that Cheryl Lynn debut "Georgy Porgey" and you've got a pretty big spread on that Toto debut album.
SL: A lot of people got confused about us because we had multiple singers, even within the band itself, David Paich and myself sang a lot of the hits, too and we had different tenors, too. The original guy sang "Hold The Line," and it was the only song he sang by himself. I sang a lot of the other stuff, Dave sang "Africa," Joseph Williams who is our singer now sang two of our big worldwide hits and he's back and better than ever. Vocally and stylistically, we'd have different kinds of songs come on te radio and people didn't ralize it was the same band. A lot of the time a casual fan would come see us and go, "I didn't know that you guys did that song, I didn't know that was you!" That was us!
MR: And the music also seeped into other places beyond hits, and that was sort of unheard of over the years.
SL: That and the fact that we'd played on so many hit records anyway. Between 1976 and 1990 you couldn't turn on the radio withou hearing one of us.
MR: [laughs] That's really true.
SL: We were in every band and on everybody's records. We wrote a lot of hit songs for other people, too. I wrote all The Tubes' hit songs, "She's A Beauty," I won a Grammy for George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around," Steve Porcaro wrote "Human Nature." Paich wrote stuff, we all had our hands in a lot of other stuff beyond playing in a lot of hit records. We got up every day and went to work. We weren't htat high that we never got anything done.
MR: With you guys, it was probably a no-brainer for you to get the first call for sessions.
SL: Well, I when we were young, that's kind of how we saw ourselves, as being studio players. We always wanted to be in a rock 'n' roll band but the whole studio thing was so intriguing to me in high school I really wanted to do that and then I started hanging out with all the guitar players--Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon--these people would say, "I can't do this one, let's give the kid a shot. Jeff Porcaro or Paich would throw me a session or something like that, or a young David Foster at the time would hire me. We were all young and I was in the right place at the right time and I showed up and could do the gig, I was very fortunate to have these unbelievable experiences working with Quincy and Michael and all the big, huge records I was involved in.
MR: When you look back at all the years of Toto, actually now the thirty-seventh anniversary of...
SL: I'd say, "Slow down! The f**king time is going way too fast! Time out!"
MR: [laughs] Dude, that's also because you're having way too much fun.
SL: This is true! I'm working with Ringo now and he's seventy-four years old and he looks like he's forty. He's my hero, my mentor. He's who I want to be when I grow up. You never want to really grow up, but you know.
MR: When you look back at your career, what are some of your prouder moments?
SL: Wow, you know, the famous moments are thriller, it's really hard because you're looking at a pretty vast discography, thousands of records, I think a point that people don't know about our band is if you collectively put all our stuff on the table you're looking at five thousand albums. Somebody put these stats together for us recently: Five thousand albums, two hundred and twenty five Grammy nominations and over a half a billion records with one of our names on them. Working with every f**king major superstar of the last fifty years in every style except for classical. There's not too many bands who can say that. I don't think there's anybody remotely even close, and yet we're a footnote according to most rock journalists. "Oh yeah, that sh**ty band from the eighties." They don't really want to give us any credit for that. You kind of shake your head and go, "Okay, well, whatever." They trudge out these guys from 1953 you've never heard of and put them in the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame but us, we're considered the Ebola disease to these people.
MR: [laughs] I wouldn't go that far, but I would say you guys haven't gotten the dues you deserve.
SL: Whatever, man. You think Beethoven ever got an ASCAP check? I've had enough pats on the back in my life. I've had a wonderful career, I've got nothing to bitch about. I'm not some old bitter guy going on and on about how unfair things are. I've had more than the credit I deserve for most of it, so I only make the point because history may be kinder in a hundred years and go, "Who were the guys? They played all this stuff but nobody really had any love. The people that like what we do show up and that's love for me, man, that's cool. If they put their hard-earned money on the table to buy something or come to the show, God love 'em.
MR: And you know what the hint is? The hint is you've got a multi-generational audience, so it's very possible that maybe in your day you weren't considreed, but later on people are already recognizing you.
SL: We're getting the best reviews of our lives so far. Really, as far as how amused and elated we are to have a number one DVD all over the world that just came out in the US this week, but with five-star reviews we're going, "Is this some kind of a joke? Is Allen Funt going to come out of the closet and go This Is Your life--Allen Funt was Candid Camera--or some sh*t like that and it's all just a big piss-take on us? Is this a reality show that they didn't inform me about?" But like I said, we're laughing and we're joyous about it. We're just thankful. And we get the joke, believe me dude, I love the fact that Family Guy did an episode on "Africa," when college kids come to the show--it's probably some sort of drinking game song or something. Look at Steve Miller and Jimmy Buffet and all of these guys with careers. It's a rite of passage and to get in on that is cool. I think it's really fun, people know the song even if they don't know me. I've got the best of both worlds. Believe me, I've got a lot of real famous friends. Being famous sucks. Being rich is cool, but being famous sucks. Ask anybody who really is.
MR: As you said, your DVD is a hit all over the world--Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland... I could go on but it's ridiculous.
SL: [laughs] It's a big world out there, man. We were kind of held captive on the American Sony records. They wouldn't release us from our contract or release our music for ten years in the nineties, so we were kind of fucked that way, but we were able to tour and release records around the world and retain our arena status of still being able to go out and sell out arenas, believe it or not. We just came back from a sold out tour in Japan and we have new management and new agents and we're starting a new tour in August with Michael McDonald and us co-billed. We're playing The Greek Theatre and other great theaters and legit stuff, it's not like some club tour, like, "Oh my God, these guys, is anybody left in the original band?" I didn't want to do that, not when we can do the business elsewhere, which is why we spent most our time outside the United States and now we're going to get a real shot at coming back here when there's a little buzz on us here again. We're not part of that same eight bands that tour in various configurations every summer. We're fresh meat from an era gone by.
MR: It's interesting that you're touring with Michael McDonald now, because he seems like one of those artists it would've made perfect sense for you to have collaborated with for like an album, etc.
SL: Well we have, I played on his first solo record, "I Keep Forgetting," that's all me playing the parts. Michael, believe it or not, was asked to join Toto before mister Bobby Kimball, because he and Jeff Procaro were in Steely Dan together back in the seventies. He was considered for the job and he had just joined the doobie brothers and recorded "Takin' It To The Streets" the week before we asked him.
MR: Oh my God.
SL: But he sang on our albums and we played on his albums, we're old friends and we laugh at this whole Yacht Rock thing, "What the f*k is that?" That's some pretty funny sh*t. None of us own a yacht, by the way. Believe me, if I'd have gotten paid for all the stuff I wrote--nowadays, you come up with a hooky part, you get songwriters' credit. Back in the day, we came up with a hooky part and we got a check. We would be on my yacht if I got paid credit, I tell you.
MR: [laughs] Awesome stuff here, Mr. Luke. Okay, it's that time, what advice do you have for new artists?
SL: Learn how to f**king play and sing. The big lie to a young person is they go into a studio and maybe they have some raw talent but it's very rough. Maybe they've got a pretty face. But all of a sudden, they achieve fame and then they realize it's the Milli Vanilli thing, they can't really pull it off. So once you get found out, your career's over. If you can really play and really sing and really write material, you'll have a long career, if you're really good and you can take punch after punch... But the record business is not what it was. A number one record doesn't sell millions of copies anymore, and the whole internet thing, this bulls**t that we make money off of Spotify and YouTube is a lie.
MR: And to whatever degree, there's the label.
SL: The record company gotta pay off. But they own you in perpetuity--that means forever. Trying to get them to account for anything is riddiculous. It's really difficult to be young and see the career. My son is twenty-seven years old and making records and writing songs for other people and his royalty statements are miniscule compared to what it used to be back in the day. Even back in the day, the record company was making all the money. So it's not fair that the artists have been getting so f**ked on this deal. Ask people that are in print...books and newspapers are going to go by the wayside the way records did. Now they're going to start making hundred million-dollar movies that get ripped the first day and make no money. Somebody's going to have to come up with a way to stop this. Intellectual property is still intellectual property. People don't think music is a real way of making a living. Tell that to my kids I have to put through school and pay my bills like everybody else. I can't go into the market and put food into my basket and go out without paying, but people have no problem stealing music, because they don't think it's really stealing anything. Here's what it is... There's money to be made but it's not going to the right people. The guy who can sell advertising on your clip on YouTube and you make none of that money and he doesn't give you any of that money and cashes out for a billion dollars even though he owns none of the content. How is that fair? That's my point. Share the wealth! Why not give a little taste to the guys that made you f**kin' rich?
MR: What's the future look like for Toto?
SL: Well, we're working on our new album, it's really strong. We haven't made one in ten years. Ironically through a lawsuit we go forced back into doing it, but once we got into the process we realized, "We're going to make a really good one." We're making one for the band. We're not trying to follow a trend or go all EDM or have rap guys do our stuff, we're going to do a Toto record, our classic sound. We wrote some really good songs, we're about eight tracks into a ten track album and I'll be in the studio in two hours working on it. I'm excited about it, we haven't done it in a long time. The fact that we can still do this and enjoy it more than I ever had in my whole life, it's fantastic! If you'd have told me, "Yeah, almost forty years down the line you'll still be doing this" I would've laughed at you. But I'll tell you what, man, I'm sure happy and honored to be on the phone talking with you about this. I'm already booked up through 2016, man. Life is good.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Jenny Scheinman
Mike Ragogna: Jenny, The Littlest Prisoner. How did this album begin?
Jenny Scheinman: I just started writing songs. Usually there's a song that forms the center of an album. There might have been two on this one. There was "Just a Child" which came out complete; I dreamt it, then I woke up and wrote it all down. It felt like a real breakthrough into the core of an album. Also "The Littlest Prisoner" title track is a character that I love. It started when I was 8 months pregnant and had a fever. I had a delirious fantasy of cooking my child, and the "prisoner" in my body, and that turned into fantasizing about pregnant inmates within another prison. And all of this led to a character that I really love. It's not me, and it's always liberating to get a song to the point where it's not about me, but somebody else. This album was culled from a lot of material. The earliest song on there which might be "Run Run Run" was written before I did most of my touring and release for my last vocal album, which was five years ago. So there's some older songs and more recent ones, and in between there were probably twenty other songs that I chose from. Luckily, I had a bunch of material to choose from, so I chose the ones that felt important to me, or that I wanted to hear over and over and wanted to sing. So everything on there is sort of core.
MR: Nice. It must be interesting to carry both a career as an Americana artist, which is how you came off on this album, and being a jazz violinist. How do you balance the two?
JS: Mischief & Mayhem was my last release. Before that was a double release of a record of songs that I sang, and also this big, lush instrumental with great jazz players on it. It's not entirely new, and the most confusing moment is exactly this, when the press is trying to figure out how to describe me. It seems there's very little room for facets and complexity, i.e. normal humans, in the press. I guess it's hard to write about somebody that has multiple interests, and we all do. Most artists are listening to all sorts of different music and even playing lots of types of music. Especially now, modern and younger musicians are exposed to so many different types of music. The feeling I have when I'm doing it is that it's just music. For example when I'm recording or performing a song with words, when I transition from singing to playing, I feel like I'm just continuing the lyric. Hearing words is very different from hearing a solo, but my experience of it is that I'm taking the narrative and the focus of people's ears, and I'm taking them on a trip somewhere. I think you could say that about going between my instrumental records and my singing records. Of course they're very different processes. When I'm honing words, I'm thinking about words, and when I'm writing a song with words it usually comes out as a song with words from the get-go. Occasionally, I have melodies that I'll put words to. I have a few of those right now I'm working on. There are differences in the process, but I don't suddenly feel like a different person when I'm doing one thing or another.
MR: So it's a couple different ways that you express yourself. You have merged the style at least when you do albums with vocals.
JS: I think it's the vocals that are so strikingly different. Think how different it is to experience a word than a sound. When you're hearing a singer, you're controlled by the words, because you understand the language, you know what they're talking about, and you're forced to think about what they're talking about. But when you're hearing that same thing without a word, you're free to wander. If I took all these songs I just released, took out the words and just played the melodies, they'd be very similar to my other albums. It's not particularly different music. I always play songs that are very based in folk music. Maybe this stuff is slightly simpler, but not really.
MR: Do you find, once you get to the studio with new material, that you're in constant renovation mode? Do things evolve in some ways because they're in the studio?
JS: The song itself, the writing, is barely affected at all. I've always gone into the studio with a very clear understanding of a song; of the words, or if it's an instrumental piece, of the melodies, and that never changes. I get to know stuff really well before I go into the studio. I'm always surprised at what people do, and I pick people that will surprise me and take it to a new place musically. I've been lucky; my recording experiences of my own records have been a joy. I think my least favorite was Mischief & Mayhem; it's one of my favorite albums, it didn't affect the results, but the experience in the studio was, for some reason, frustrating. I think that had to do with coming out of playing for a whole week at The Village Vanguard and being in the live jam of it all, and then going into an "Antiseptic" studio situation. So that had its own sort of jinx. But this one was a total joy, and if you talk to Bill Frisell, Brian Blade and Tucker Martine, it was just a dream. Things just flowed. We did it very quickly, like you'd do a thoughtful jazz album. We did it in three days, one day of those mostly being setup. And jazz artists are notorious for doing albums in three hours. Paul Motian would go in and do the album in forty-four minutes and then release a forty-four-minute album. But songwriters, and albums like the one I've made, are often made in a month or a year of fussing and overdubbing and laying down tracks and then adding stuff, and we didn't do any of that; we just went in and played it, and some songs we had to dig around in to find the right groove, but not long.
MR: When you look back at this record, perhaps compared to other albums that you recorded, do you feel that this is the most personal album you've ever come up with?
JS: Absolutely. I commit to things. I say things. Instrumental music can be about anything. It's about a mood, and I usually title my instrumental songs long after they're written. Sometimes I figure out the titles when I'm doing the CD package, and that's very common for a lot of people who write instrumental music. These songs really are stories, and they're definitely more personal. I hope it doesn't sound like it's all about me. I feel like that would be a bit of a failure. I don't think I'm a particularly interesting person. I'm just somebody who wakes up, writes songs and goes out on tour, and comes home and does the normal things anybody does. I hope this speaks to people's personal lives. It's a very emotional album, and it's about very vulnerable situations like childhood, divorce, obsession, frustration; all these sorts of things. "The Littlest Prisoner" is about pregnancy and confinement and the kind of desire to keep in touch within the cycle of life. "Will my child ever remember me, and do I remember my mother?" It's this long view of generations. So it's about personal stuff. It's not a political album.
MR: It's pretty interesting that, speaking of generational, your bloodline includes the likes of robotics pioneer Victor Scheinman, and you're the granddaughter of Telford Taylor, the Chief Prosecutor during Nuremberg. Perhaps there are elements of a person who likes to succeed, or is focused, or creative. Not an over-achiever, but just somebody who likes to achieve.
JS: Yeah. What's interesting about those two people in my life. I know my uncle Victor very very well, and Telford I knew pretty well; I used to visit and stay with him in New York. He lived to a ripe old age. They were very focused. They wanted to see something through to a satisfying end, they wanted to follow the thought all the way through. And I may have inherited that. I would say I'm probably pretty tenacious and hardworking. Victor didn't do well in school. Telford couldn't "kiss babies" and be politically cool, otherwise he would have been in politics. So they weren't exactly ambitious in that way, but they did a lot, and they do have an effect on my family. My mother, uncle and aunt on Telford's side all in their own way ran away from that. He was a very famous person and they were living in Manhattan. Their mother was also quite a stud--if you can call a mother a stud--she was a pretty righteous lawyer working for poor people in New York and was very well respected. As parents, what you really inherit is how your parents express their love for you, and how they parented you. And they were pretty absentee parents; when my grandfather went off to Nuremberg he dropped my mother and my aunt off at a boarding school when they were two and four years old, and basically said, "Bye, see you in a couple years." And that's the kind of stuff that we inherit, and that my mother and uncle sort of ran away from. That being said, it's magnificent what my grandfather did, and we all inherit that as a role model for empowering us to have an effect on the world.
MR: Do you think of yourself as someone who makes music that doesn't have set parameters? Is this something that happened naturally or that you aimed at doing?
JS: It was not a goal. There's a certain haphazard quality of the life of a musician, what you end up doing and what you end up knowing something about. It's a matter of saying "Yes" for many years and then ending up in someplace, having crammed a bunch of information into your head because of what opportunities came up. It's hard to carve out a specific image; for me, I didn't try to control the whole thing, and thus far a lot of it's that I'm curious about a lot of things. I like playing music with people. The type of music matters somewhat but not a lot. What more matters is whether the music lifts off, and I feel like that can happen in a klezmer wedding band, or with Bill Frisell at Carnegie Hall. They're different, but it's that experience of sharing music, making something together, and that dialog is really exciting. Also, my Achilles heel is that I tend to get spread out in a lot of different ways, and part of moving to the west coast was really trying to focus on my own writing, band leading, and my own stuff. I'm quite happy playing with other people. Going from Lou Reed to Lucinda Williams or whatever, that's a joy to be able to dig in.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
JS: If it isn't fun, it's not worth doing. There's no money in it! It's following your passion. You're an artist because you have to do it, you can't do anything else. Being an amateur musician is the best; to stay home, make money as a doctor and play string quartet music with your friends, that's a joy. But if you're being a professional artist, it means you're extremely passionate about it, so you have to keep the joy of creating as the focus. That's sort of a personal answer to the question. In terms of people's careers, say "Yes" to everything you can do, and that opens you up to different possibilities and places you can grow and things you can learn about, and all of that will filter into making you a more expressive and dynamic artist. As Tina Fey said in her book, "'Yes' is the doorway into everything."
MR: Beautiful. So what's up for the future?
JS: I'm about to go out on a tour with Wilfred Bell, we're doing the music of John Lennon, mostly on the west coast and southeast. I have a CD release concert in New York on June 30th with the band. And then I have some touring, a lot of solo act stuff for audiences bigger than I'd ever play on my own. Like I opened for Ani DiFranco on a tour recently. I've opened for Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris and Bruce Cockburn. It's thrilling to play solo. That's really exposed. I don't play guitar so I don't come out and do a singer-songwriter thing that people can really understand; I come out and I play fiddle and I pluck and I sing and I just have to be present enough to connect with people. It's super fun. So that's my touring stuff. I'm looking for a booking agent, in fact. Without a booking agent I have a handful of really nice tours. I'm playing at the Kennedy Center with a trio. Some really nice stuff. I just got a couple of grants to finish a project that I started a while ago, which is writing music for a live performance focused around the documentary footage taken in the late Depression like in the North Carolina area. I'm working with the film director and I'm writing the music for that. A lot of that is fiddle-based. In fact, a few of the songs on this album came out of thinking of that project. And I've started another album, so I'm working on that.
MR: You're very prolific.
JS: It really doesn't seem like that. I wonder if anybody feels prolific. But you're right, I've got eight albums, that's a lot.
Transcribed by Emily Fotis
A Conversation with Oh Honey's Mitchy Collins & Danielle Bouchard
Mike Ragogna: Your hit "Be Okay" was featured on the 100th episode of
Glee. That's been quite a "little engine that could" story for your single, huh?
Mitchy Collins: That was definitely something I never thought I would see happen, Glee covering a song from my band. Absolutely mental. Was such a surreal moment and they did an amazing job. We had a viewing party for it. Popped champagne and the whole bit. It was amazing!
Danielle Bouchard: I definitely had an "Oh my God!" moment when I got that email. My background is in theatre, so I've seen the show and adore Lea Michele as a performer. She and Naya did an amazing job with the song, and the response because of it has been amazing. Glee really helped us reach a lot of people, and we're very thankful to them.
MR: For those who don't know the story, what is the creative and now mythical origin of "Be Okay"?
MC: "Be Okay" is pretty much our bands mission statement. The song stemmed from a quote we love: "I don't wanna spoil the ending for you, but everything is gonna be okay." It's the way we look at life and music and well everything in general. Life happens to everyone but it can't rain forever. So don't sweat the small stuff. We try to keep a positive outlook on things. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time.
DB: There are enough sad songs in the world. We like spreading a positive message, and we were excited to write a feel-good summer song that leaves people feeling hopeful.
MR: Your new EP, With Love, features "Be Okay" plus some more songs. Can you go over the other material?
MC: The other songs on the EP definitely keep the same vibe of uplifting optimistic positive tunes. A couple favorites of mine are "I Love You Will Still Sound the Same," and we got to write that one with my best friend for his bride when he got married. It was definitely a special one. Also "Lonely Neighbor" that's probably the most personal song on the EP for me. Sometimes it's easier to put things in a song than getting the courage to say it to someone's face. It's about wanting to be with someone so bad...but knowing you may never be.
DB: We write what we know, and we try to stay as honest yet optimistic as possible. The songs cover every aspect of a relationship--being in love and wanting to spend your life with someone, to fighting to make something work, to wanting to be with someone you can't be. We hope people can relate to the truthfulness of the lyrics.
MR: How did you both meet and eventually decide to be a recording duo?
MC: I met Danielle around the NYC scene probably about a year and a half before linking up musically. I had taken a break from doing artist stuff to be a songwriter/producer for a while, but then got the itch to try the artist side again. I have been in love with the idea of a boy/girl duo for as long as I can remember. There's something so special about acts like Johnny Cash & June Carter and Sonny & Cher. I wanted to try that, so I had set out to start one. Had some song ideas I was toying with and an overall idea of what I wanted the band to be but needed that missing piece...my other half. Our mutual buddy kept telling me he had the girl for me but I was too stubborn to listen so he shut me up and sent me a voice note recording of Danielle singing "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt and I fell in love with her voice. We met up a handful of days later and it all just clicked. We fell in musical love. And the rest is Oh Honey history.
DB: I knew Mitchy was starting the band and I really wanted to be involved. I was in Chicago rehearsing a play and staying with my friend when I got a call from our mutual friend that he needed a couple of voice notes asap. I actually kicked my friend's family out of their own house and recorded a few things on my phone that day, and when I got back to the city, we met up in the studio and it all just kind of clicked.
MR: Will you be expanding your musical sights beyond what's represented
on your With Love EP for your first album?
MC: I like to think as songwriters and people in general, we're always growing. So that may come out on the full length, but Oh Honey is Oh Honey. We love the vibe we've created we feel good about it and love the music we create. I definitely think the full length will be in the same vain as the EP. Positive, fun, uplifting, honest as hell. I guess we'll see!
DB: We are just trying to write good songs in an organic way and not have to force anything. We have a good idea of who we are as a band, but like Mitchy said, we are always growing and changing, so maybe that'll create some new sounds-- you never know!
MR: Danielle, how do you juggle the music and the acting?
DB: I spent a long time pursuing both acting and music. I moved to New York to go to Pace University and graduated with a BFA in Acting, then did the audition grind for a year before I linked up with Mitchy. Let me tell you, it's a HUSTLE. I have so much respect for my friends who are out there auditioning and getting doors slammed in their faces every single day. Right now, I don't have time to pursue both music and acting, but that's totally okay. Singing is my heart and this band is my family and I love this crazy lifestyle. Maybe one day I'll be able to have a career involving both. That's the dream!
MR: Okay, traditional question. What advice do you have for new artists?
MC: First and foremost, it all comes down to great songs. Focus on that and you'll always win. Besides that, social media is king right now. Surround yourself with people you can trust and who will be honest with you. But above all of that, NEVER GIVE UP if music is what you love, don't let anyone tell you sh*t about giving up on it because they're unhappy with their lives and gave up on their dreams. Keep the faith.
DB: Surround yourself with a supportive team of people. Collaborate with people you respect and trust. Write what you know, play everywhere you can. Social media is your best friend. Persevere no matter what. The most important thing I've learned is that you will hear "no" a thousand times before you hear "yes," so if you truly want it, you have to keep fighting for it.
MR: Has Williamsburg yet shown its appreciation for two of its most creative denizens?
MC: Most of the people involved in initially starting up this band are from Williamsburg and Bushwick. All the studios and practice spaces we used, producers we worked with, photographers, videographers, etc. We also have a great group of friends in Brooklyn who are at every single show. We're very lucky to be surrounded by such supportive people. We've actually only played one show in Williamsburg, but it was awesome! Hopefully, we'll be playing there again soon. Williamsburg is our home. We love it and we love the people and our little family we've created. All love.
DB: My original hometown of Albany, NY has also been crazy supportive. I get a ton of posts on my Facebook wall every day from kids I went to high school with who heard our music somewhere and are super excited about it. The radio station I grew up listening to just added the song...it's so surreal. It's an amazing feeling knowing that people from home support and believe in you.
A Conversation with Jeff Black
Mike Ragogna: You're considered one of the greatest folk artists of the last twenty-five years. What do you think it is about your music that people are hooking into?
Jeff Black: I can only guess--a song as a looking glass is the most interesting story. What I create from a melody or a lyric has as many interpretations as it does performances. Maybe it's my attempt at it, that draws some people in, like being attracted to watching someone paint or draw. It's the work that animates the art. I hope it's the moment and the ideas drawn from listening that bring people in.
MR: Can you take us on a tour of your latest album, Folklore? For instance, how did this batch of songs come together and what was the creative process like?
JB: I wrote in the liner notes that I gravitated toward the songs that were born from a picture first. It isn't a real stretch for me to sit down with my guitar or my banjo and work on melodies that become pictures and then words. That's what I've always done. I think the difference is that I started with pictures and used that as the jumping off place. The real curious turn was that these pictures found me, or came looking for me rather, and wouldn't be denied. I went through a period where I was writing constantly, furiously...even during the making of B-Sides and Confessions Vol. 2. It was as though I was possessed. These ideas were so persistent, I had to capture them or face wrestling with my clarity in a way that I don't care to do anymore. It was a deliverance of sorts, like shooting film before the sun goes down, before you lose the light.
MR: What are a couple of the more revealing songs about you on the album and what are the backstories?
JB: I would have to say that within the title track "Folklore," I might be revealed. I don't want this world to ever let me go. I can't imagine ever being done with all the work I have to do. I am comfortable in this dimension and I'm not afraid to turn to dust or be lost somewhere in an old song, especially the songs that will be sung or simply listened to a hundred years from now.
I wrote "Tom Domino" for my friend who is fighting cancer to send out as many good and positive thoughts as possible. To bring people together in a hall and share the story with the hope that the good multiplies and flies a little further, a little higher, is what I wear on my sleeve for my friend whom I love very much. It is the only way I know to stay near and keep a good fire going. The "double six up from the boneyard" reference is the clean slate hand in dominos - the new start. Not to mention my admiration of The Stones and Lou Reed.
MR: What is "folk" these days?
JB: "Folk" without a translator rings with a false and misleading definition. There's so many categories--contemporary folk, post-modern folk on the indigenous tip, traditional folk, working songs, children's music, acoustic music, country blues, country folk and blues, the list is infinite. Every person, our planet, this period of time that we live in, sings out of a folk song. Whether you are beating on a trashcan or strumming on a balalaika, music and the message that it carries lifts us up there above the wall so we can see a little further down the road. That's what keeps us going. That's what keeps us traveling. Folk is traveling music. Every one of us sings a folk song. It's not about a revolt. It's certainly not about utopia - It's about a revolution in the sense that we regenerate our commitment to living and not just existing.
MR: Folk artists can be drawn to topics of the day or era as seen in the works of the Guthries, Joan Baez, and others. Is there anything in the news that's caught your eye recently?
JB: I've been thinking a lot about the ghosts of our progress. I think that we have been told or led to believe that we have fully evolved--that our time is the pinnacle and that we, more so than anyone before, have come a long way. I won't deny that. It would mean a lot more if we took more time to try to understand that we are here but for a blink of an eye, with a long way to go and that celebrating our differences are virtues native to us.
What I mean by that is moving beyond what we read in magazines, see on television and what we hear on the radio, to form our own opinions about how we see ourselves and each other. Every byte of information it seems is cleverly placed in front of us to divide. For people to unite and work through our real-time comprehension of our relationships so we can have a clear picture of who and how we put our peers into leadership positions in the government and our communities is an idea worth singing about. The conflicts of race, color, creed, war, politics, and the battles between the haves and have-nots were all curated by rumor and salesmen. I just don't think the future holds a place for those rumors and the business of division.
MR: What draws you to this genre more than others?
JB: I think neighborhood has its effect. I grew up listening to old-time traditional country music on the AM radio. Guitars, banjos, harmonicas and songs that told a story. I can't help but see a film in my mind when I sing the songs or see pictures like holograms all around me when I perform. Part of what I try to relay is the importance of the simple connection of music and melody with an intentional listener. This is not a lost art, but I feel it is slowly being stripped away by digital devices and our ever growing need to have immediate multi-sensory gratification. I may be haunted by it or drawn more than others but honestly, it carries me somewhere that I can't explain.
MR: Which artists inspired you the most and what drew you to making music your career and life path?
JB: I was inspired by stories from my father about my family's humble musical legacy and the poets of the day. Woody Guthrie's "Bound For Glory," Joe Klein's "A Life" and my brother's record collection that included some of the great Texas singer songwriters- Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Callery, Jerry Jeff Walker.... I started feeling like if I was going to write songs then I ought to have something to say.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JB: It's the old Irish proverb that says "Everything will perish save for love and music." If we lose electricity, gasoline, the Internet, the grid, all of these things that we hold so dear, we will always have music and we will always have stories. After all is said and done--write, write, write.
MR: Since as I mentioned earlier you are considered one of the great folk artists of the last twenty-five years, got any big plans for the next twenty-five years?
JB: I believe that anything creative fits in the plan. I have thoughts about gathering my poems for a book and exploring the idea of a screenplay. I am constantly writing and that keeps me on my true path. I would also like to continue my inconsistent hobby of ruining my perfectly good clothes with paint and mineral spirits.