Sxip Shirey's Magic Journey: Sonic New York

Sxip Shirey's Magic Journey: Sonic New York
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Sxip Shirey looks like a magician, with his wiry gray exploding hair and mischief eyes, and he has an uncanny ability to cast a musical spell over a room - be it a small club in Brooklyn or a festival hall in Adelaide, Australia. Which is what he will be doing at the City Winery in Manhattan on Saturday July 24th and if you crave the occasional evening of delight and wonder, then be there. God knows there's not enough delight and wonder in our lives these days - so make that scene, why don't you? Sxip Shirey's back in town, and he's celebrating many things, among them the release of his new album Sonic New York.

Sonic New York is a group of tone poems to a place it is so easy for us to love and hate in equal measure. Sxip is aided and abetted by contributions from human beatboxer Adam Matta, accordionist/clavioliaist Rachelle Garniez, vocalists Rhiannen Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Virginian balladeer Aimee Curl. The collection of 17 pieces range from chanted poetry to raw blues to ghostly choirs to folk songs to a postmodern dance track and more. This is not like any album you've ever bought before. You don't sit back and let it happen to you. You happen to it.

One minute you're digging the raw blues harmonica of "I Live In New York City" - the next you're in a spooky wind tunnel with the faint sound of bells, rain dripping down the walls, who's that behind you? it's so hard to see in the gloom of "Ghosts of the Gowanus Canal." Then you're hearing music which appears to be wafting from an opium den, bells in your head while cinematic swells ebb and flow in sweetness during "Caterpillar Crawls Through China Town." Or perhaps you're nodding awake and then falling back into an uneasy nap as the train chugs along during "Asleep on the Subway." Then you're dancing the night away to the delicious groove of "Dreamland" or you're watching ladies with gloves glide around in horse drawn carriages while men doff their hats in "Grammercy Park." But wait - there's more, there's the ting tang walla walla bing bang tropical sugarcane chant of "Mehenatta," the heavy upswim from sleep on a Sunday morning when you can see by the light in the room it's much later than you thought and you're hearing "Sunday Dub" and you can smell the espresso brewing.

Anyone who can make these feelings rise to the surface in us is truly a magician. It took about two years to put together this independent release which Sxip tells me is either a love letter or a 'Dear John' letter to the city he's lived in for the past ten years. Except for "Dreamland," which was engineered by Sammy Rubin, the entire work was recorded in his living room with roommate and engineer Joe 'Bass" DeJarnette, long time friend and bass player of the Wiyos. Sxip considers Joe the co-creator of the record. "He's a really great engineer who's captured my sound and I was happy with it. That's why the album got made - I lived with the engineer and the recording studio."

"I live in a neighborhood that's really filled with sound - there's a lot of Jamaican autobody shops and the guys next door play hip hop... Sometimes I sit on the subway and I can hear all these different layers of sound....{The record} kind of subtly takes you thru the arc of a day. And the last tune, "Sunday Dub," was just like the feel of New York on a Sunday. Kind of hungover and having brunch and being in a good mood."

Shirey considers himself a folk musician before anything else. "The way I approach things is from an experimental folk music standpoint." He grew up in Athens, Ohio and experienced a rather eclectic musical upbringing. "I was obsessed with the Beatles as a kid." This was followed by Devo, who changed his life, and the Dead Kennedys. "My father had a lot of Nonesuch records around, like Gamelan and Polynesian music and {the Balinese} Monkey Chant. He had moog music, a lot of classical music and musique concrete, and lots of country blues, really raw kind of stuff, pre-electric blues, and lots of Appalachian music. I find that all those influences - I'm constantly going oh that's this sound, plus the sound of cicadas and crickets. You could stand in the woods and hear three parts of the stream bubbling at a different frequency so the stream would be harmonizing with itself. I lived in a really beautiful sound environment." He concludes, "In many ways I'm an experimental and new music composer that comes from a rural tradition rather than an urban one."

Sxip played drums in school and also took piano. "But it wasn't until I started composing my own music that I realized I don't really learn music in a normal way; I'm not very good at reading music, I can do it but really slowly. So I just thought, well, I'll just compose instead. So I learned by composing which is really strange."

Shirey first came to Manhattan in 2000 to join The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which since 1995 has provided a mix of Vaudeville, Wild West Shows, Burlesque, and Sideshow in order to stretch the definition of the term "circus." He went on to compose music for Anti-Gravity's Crash Test Dummies and later for the Daredevil Opera Company's pyro-technic clowns. His band The Luminescent Orchestrii was described as gypsy-tango-klezmer-punk, merging Romanian gypsy melodies with hip hop beats and Appalachian fiddle. He's written for theater ("Marsupial Girl" by Lisa D'Amour, developed through a collaboration between The Minneapolis Children's Theater and New Dramatists), puppet theatre ("Savage Nursery" co-composed with Rima Fand for the piece by Erin Orr), and film (Neil Gaiman's short film "Statuesque" for Britain's Sky TV starring Bill Nighy and Amanda Palmer). He's curated cabaret variety shows for Joe's Pub (Sxip's Hour of Charm). Most recently, he acted as Master of Cereremonies and performed the opening solo set on the Evelyn Evelyn Tour with Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley.

The new record, Sonic New York, is being embraced by listeners, says Sxip. "There's a lot of people who are really loving it. I mean it's really really gratifying. Twitter's become kind of my positive feedback checklist. The one I got recently that I really love was a guy saying he was delivering pizza to Sonic New York and it makes it better." He used Kickstarter to help offset the costs of the record and raised about $6800 - not even half what was required, but a nice chunk of change. The artwork and layout of the record and the accompanying website is austere and noir, both gloomy and glorious, and was created by 23 year old designer Evan Rosen. "My dream fantasy is that the song "Dreamland" becomes a summertime hit," Sxip confides. Recent reports have it that the song has become a dance floor smash in certain dance clubs in Sydney, Australia.

For someone with a bag of musical tricks that includes industrial flute, miniature hand bells, triple extended pennywhistles, music boxes, the Obnoxiophone, bicycle bells, novelty toys, etc. etc., what would be his favorite instrument of all? "My National Resophonic Guitar - I love that thing. I truly love it. I don't usually love the instruments I own. But I love this guitar and I don't bring it on tour because it doesn't fit into my solo set. There's not a good way to amplify it because it's already an amplifier. But aside from that, no. It's a bunch of objects that make beautiful sounds."

Sxip pauses to clarify, "It's exactly like if you're cooking and you have a bunch of good ingredients. And that's what I do. I listen to a sound and I go, that's an intriguing sound. So I throw it in my cupboard. It's almost actually literally a cupboard of good ingredients. Then when I need to do a composition I look into my cupboard of good ingredients and I cook with this. It would be like asking a chef is there one ingredient that's your favorite and you couldn't do without - well, he couldn't do without salt maybe, but that's not his favorite ingredient. I can't do without bells, I use bells a lot. But I think just symbolically the red marble in the glass bowl is an important instrument. I play that once a set .... and people are kind of fascinated with that and I think it's because they can see that they could do it too. It's such a simple thing. And it's a weird sound because it's a Tibetan bowl and an alarm clock at the same time. It kind of puts you in a trance and wakes you up."

What can the audience expect to see on July 24th at City Winery? Sxip will start with a solo set similar to the set he did at the Evelyn Evelyn shows, then he'll be joined by Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops to do a few tunes. There will be other special guests, like human beatboxer Adam Matta and Don Godwin on tuba. "He's the other engineer I work with a lot, he's also really great for capturing sound and has really great ideas. And he's a tuba player for a lot of the brass bands around town so he's going to play tuba. There's no bass on my album but there's two different tuba players."

Shirey also intends the show to be his goodbye concert to New York City, for now. "I'm going to be back a lot because I have gigs here, but I'm going overseas for 2 months and I'm going to start looking to move to Berlin or Scandinavia or someplace where I can actually make a living doing this stuff." It gets a little bit old to not have any kind of a normal life and keep having to wonder where rent is coming from next, he says. "It's time to get out. If you're a coalminer you need to go where the coal is. So I'm going to be in New York a lot but it is my going away party, I'm looking to move overseas."

All the more reason for you to get to that show Saturday, if you're in or near New York City.

Visit Sxip Shirey's website
Buy Sonic New York here
City Winery tickets here
Watch exquisite animation for "Brooklyn Bridge Song" here

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