Monday, March 24, 2008

Interview with The Sapiens

Dance rock band The Sapiens was formed in Chicago in 2005 and quickly created a buzz with their high energy shows at local venues. In 2006 they put out their debut EP "Sorry We Don't Make the Rules" which received airplay on Chicago stations WLUW and WONC.

In 2007 the band released their second EP "Vs. The Hornet": recorded at Manny Sanchez's IV Lab Studios, its six stellar tracks were produced by Chris Harden (who has worked on tracks by Umphrey's McGee and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy) and mastered by Doug McBride at Gravity Studios (Veruca Salt, Smashing Pumpkins, Kill Hannah). The most dapper of indie bands was recently named one of Chicago's acts "to be heard from in 2008" by Jim Derogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Left to right in photo above - dressed up and going places: Charlie Nadler (guitar), David Veller (bass), Evan Sears (vocal), David Fine (drums), Matt Witt (keyboards).

Q & A with Charlie Nadler of The Sapiens

The Nightfly: You began as a foursome, but later added a member – what was the decision behind this change?
Charlie: I actually wasn't in the original lineup. The guys wanted to try the no-guitar-thing at first, but then they remembered that guitar is good (said the guitarist), and four became five.

The Nightfly: How would you compare your current second EP with your debut EP?
Charlie: Faster, more frantic, angrier, punkier, yellower.

The Nightfly: You list Muse and The Kinks among your influences and there are echoes of Elvis Costello, The Ramones, The Clash and The Knack - how did you come up with the perfect sound "recipe"?
Charlie: We try to just let it happen; everyone in the band has very different tastes and influences, so when we write, the material gets pulled in a lot of different directions. Most of the time we're happy with the results. Once in a while, it goes in a weird direction and we have to kill it.

The Nightfly: How did you arrive at your choice of Chris Harden as producer for "Vs. The Hornet"?
Charlie: IV Labs had come recommended, and we had heard good things from another band who had recently recorded with Chris.

The Nightfly: Your sound is raw, but your look is very polished – did you purposely aim for contrast?
Charlie: Our keyboardist Matt Witt always says that one must project an image of success at all times if one wishes to be successful. Actually, he's definitely never said that. Dressing up is part of our attitude that we don't want to half-ass our shows or anything we're doing as a band. The contrast is a bonus.

The Nightfly: Is there a full-length album planned and would it include tracks from your two EPs?
Charlie: We definitely have a full-length in us, and a lot of that material is already written. There might be a track from the first EP that could make it.

The Nightfly: Are lyrics as important to you as the music?
Charlie: I can think of a lot of songs I love in which the music is amazing and the lyrics are nonsensical or obvious or nonexistent. It's not as frequent that lyrics can save a musically uninspired song for me, but again, I play guitar. That said, I wouldn't be in this band if I didn't think we had our act together on both ends.

The Nightfly: The cover art on the "Vs. The Hornet" EP is striking – who is the artist?
Charlie: Our very own David Veller of the bass.

The Nightfly: Do all five members co-write the songs?
Charlie: Usually someone brings an idea, the rhythm section will co-write and arrange it until it's a song, and then Evan will write the lyrics. Sometimes it works differently, but the songs always get direction from all five of us.

The Nightfly: You seem like the ultimate live band – do you prefer playing shows to writing and recording?
Charlie: We love playing live, and our shows are really what we're all about. But it's all connected; we're always writing, and for me that's why we're doing it – to write great songs. And as far as recording, I don't even know yet - "Vs. The Hornet" was recorded in a frenetic three days only a month after I joined the band, so I'll have to see how it goes next time when we really spend some time in the studio.

The Nightfly: Your songs are tailor made for videos – any of those in the pipes?
Charlie: The video! This is talked about almost every day. Yes - we're planning on making a video for at least one of the new songs.

The Nightfly: In the band photos, you all look very upbeat – is it too often assumed that rock bands should put out a moody vibe?
Charlie: Probably. Every band has a face or personality they put up - I think moody is kind of the default disposition for rock bands. Our music isn't gloomy, so we don't try to do the doom-and-gloom band photos.

The Nightfly: Do you view yourself as entertainers, rebels, shamans, aural therapists or a little bit of everything?
Charlie: Entertainers. If we could figure out a way to have lions on stage attacking us while we play, we'd do it.

The Nightfly: How important are industry conventions such as SXSW in Austin and have you attended any?
Charlie: We haven't been to the big ones yet. Any kind of exposure and networking opportunity in a setting like SXSW where industry people are all gathered is definitely important. Hey - we should start going to these!

The Nightfly: Which bands/artists are you currently listening to?
Charlie: Menomena, LCD Soundsystem, MGMT, Ra Ra Riot.

The Nightfly: You have a loyal following on the Chicago club scene – have you toured outside your home state?
Charlie: We've recently started getting out of Illinois here and there: Lawrence, St Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit. We'll be playing Madison and Detroit this summer.

The Nightfly: You've had songs on Chicago radio stations – can bands/artists make it without radio air play now that we have MySpace and other Internet options?
Charlie: Definitely. There are a lot of ways artists can find an audience: Myspace, the infinite music blogosphere,
,etc. Radio is just one of many outlets.

The Nightfly: The gorgeous track "Waitress, Waitress" sounds like Bruce Springsteen wired on very strong espresso – are The Sapiens fans?
Charlie: The Boss got a good amount of airplay in my family when I was growing up, so he's ingrained somewhere in there for me. I haven't heard of him making any Sapiens playlists, but who knows – maybe there are some closet Bruce fans in the band.

The Nightfly: songs are very high-energy – are audiences at your live shows bouncing off the walls?
Charlie: Yeah! We make it hard not to dance.

The Nightfly: Would you be flattered if a company offered to make The Sapiens action figures?
Charlie: I'd be flattered at first, but then one day I'd see the action figure of myself in a store window while strolling the streets of Paris with my supermodel girlfriend, and I'd be filled with shame at the extent to which we had commoditized ourselves. "What have we become?" I might say. I think this is when I'll take up an aggressive drug habit that will ultimately lead to the demise of the band.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Interview with Aidan Roberts of The Maple Trail

Aidan Roberts, co-songwriter and lead guitarist with Belles Will Ring has a new project: The Maple Trail. First came the 7-track EP "New York" with a selection of unreleased EP tracks and demos on Sydney indie label Broken Stone Records and in April they will be releasing his first full-length album "Dirty Echo Spark".

Roberts records his music in his home in the Blue Mountains - about 30 miles west of Sydney - and occasionally gathers a band of merry musical friends for live shows. The Maple Trail also tours with label mates Richard In Your Mind and Des Miller.

Q & A with Aidan Roberts of The Maple Trail

The Nightfly: The Maple Trail is an interesting name - it conjures up lovely images of a winding road leading to a wonderland of pancakes and syrup.
Aidan: Several years ago I put together an album simply as Aidan Roberts - for the album launch I wanted to name the band who played for me, so I tried to think of a name which implied a journey of some sort; it was billed as "Aidan Roberts and The Maple Trail." I think the word "maple" seemed right because of the autumn thing, and in the Blue Mountains where I live there are a lot of Chinese Maples that scatter their leaves. It's a bit of a sentimental image, but that's where it came from. I now wish I'd thought of something with more... danger in it. The project will probably adopt a new name one day.

The Nightfly: Which of the songs on your upcoming album is your favorite and why?
Aidan: I think if I had to choose one, it would be "Terminal Song" which comes near the end of the record. I think there's a great sense of desperation in it - it builds and builds - there's only a couple of chords but it shifts and changes, and takes you on a journey. The lyrics were written as a kind of meditation on being stuck in an endless limbo between destinations, like a perpetual airport terminal.

The Nightfly: There are distinct echoes of The Byrds in your songs – were you always a fan?
Aidan: Always loved the Byrds. First exposure was those weird tracks on "The Easy Rider" soundtrack that my Dad used to always play - I remember being really haunted by those harmonies when The Byrds would come on the AM radio. "Wild Mountain Thyme" is amazing.

The Nightfly: Your songs sound as if recorded in the 1960s but with better gear – how difficult is it to nail the retro sound and still sound fresh?
Aidan: I basically record to tape, then mess around with it later in the computer. Tape sounds so nice, and that's where you'll be hearing that "retro" saturation. It's actually quite easy to make things sound rich and exciting using a minimum of gear - most of my friends use a blend of tape and computer gear - and this album was mixed through a huge desk with lots of fancy old analogue processors and effects. I've learned a lot from listening to my favourite albums and trying to imagine how they made all those amazing sounds, from the dirty and nasty through to the lush and beautiful. It's great to have the benefit of computers around to edit and do extra bits of recording and to mess things up a bit if you want. I just love the way old records sound - there's human element to analogue recording that's harder to achieve with digital stuff. I think it's actually quite exciting to having limitations - it makes you work harder, be more creative. I also like to record in challenging or odd places, like my kitchen or outside - it lends an air of unpredictability to the process, an element of risk and the accidental. There's all sorts of weird sounds on this record that just sort of happened.

The Nightfly: Are you fascinated with America of the 1960s and 1970s or just with the music of that era?
Aidan: I am not personally devoted to any kind of exploration of Americana - I mean, I'm Australian after all. But yes, the majority of my musical influences are the 1960's and the 1970's musicians from the US and Canada. I think there's an element of fascination with "other" places in my music for sure. But a lot of the American-sounding references in my music are purely sonically so - the song "New York" is not so much anything to directly do with New York City, but again an exploration of an uneasy feeling which was planted in my head on a trip to NYC. I was always worried that people would misinterpret "Beggar's Canyon" as being some sort of generic fictional location, like I'm trying to evoke the spirit of California - it's in fact about wishing things could revert to happier times; I used a line from Star Wars to illustrate that sentiment: "just like Beggar's Canyon back home". But I can totally see from a lot of my song titles and sounds that people will get a distinct American influence. Hmmm.

The Nightfly: When did you pick up your first instrument?
Aidan: The first instrument I can remember trying out was the piano in Mum's bedroom - I couldn't play anything as I was 5 years old, but I remember trying to work out how to play "Tubular Bells" on the black keys.

The Nightfly: Are the lyrics as important as the music when you write?
Aidan: Usually my lyrics come first. I carry round a little book and when I get inspired, I usually sit down and nut out an entire song lyrically, at the same time imagining the music around it. I get all excited and run home to try to realize the music on the guitar or piano - sometimes it comes out, but sometimes it doesn't. I guess the music has to carry the lyric, not the other way round because I'm always trying to create a narrative. Or sometimes, the music doesn't need lyrics as it tells its own story - there's a couple of tracks on the album that explore that.

The Nightfly: Was the music of previous decades better overall?
Aidan: Big call. I think we are lucky to live now, in hindsight of all these decades and movements of music, popular and otherwise. We get to listen to this massive massive back catalogue of people paving the way for us to explore music now. I would be loathe to say that yes, older records are better overall because that would discount all the amazing stuff which is going on now around the world - some of my musical "moments" have certainly happened discovering "On The Beach" or "Revolver", but they're also happening on an almost daily basis with innovative, beautiful music I'm discovering through my own explorations. But by the same token - where would the world be without "Kind of Blue", "Harvest", "Exile On Main St.", The Beatles - they're the precedents; the things to live up to and to challenge.

The Nightfly: Which do you enjoy the most – writing, recording or playing live?
Aidan: I think I enjoy recording the most - it's where you get to create the tangible thing that lasts forever - the record. And you are free without time limits to explore your own imagination, which is the most satisfying way of playing music. But at the same time there's an immediacy and danger in live performance that you don't quite get when you're recording, and you're directly communicating with warm bodies - that's so important. You can't have one without the other I think - you need the two worlds of recording and performing to offset one another, to feel fulfilled. Writing is surely the hardest bit.

The Nightfly: Has the Internet leveled the playing field for indie artists/bands?
Aidan: I still have a wide-eyed sentimental wonder about the Internet - it really can be great. It means that now we can listen to music from all around the world, instantly post demos or unreleased recordings, communicate with people we would have never otherwise met. If you try not to take an anti-capitalist stand against MySpace, etc., you'd have to admit it's really opened up the channels for musicians to get their voices heard. But of course that also means that we have over-saturation, and a lot of awful shit all over the Internet.

The Nightfly: What was the first record you ever bought?
Aidan: The first record I ever saved up for and bought myself was the soundtrack to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" when I was ten years old. I was obsessed with movie scores. Before that I always just listened to my parents' and my brothers' records - everything from Peter Paul & Mary to Erik B & Rakim.

The Nightfly: Is there such a thing as an “Aussie Sound”?
Aidan: For sure. There's a roughness and a cultural oddness that comes through in a lot of bands, indie and commercial. I think Nick Cave has a very Australian sound - kind of volatile and crazy, with an air of the grandiose. And there's a certain sound to all the darker, echo-y 80's new wave rock bands from over here - The Church, Straight-Jacket Fits. It seems that it took a while though for Australia to find its feet in the rock circuit - whenever I think of a popular Australian band from the 1960's or 1970's, they always seem to me to be a slightly less interesting version of what was happening overseas at the time. Having said that, now we're finding some really obscure Australian stuff that never made a wave at all, and is just amazing. Also, in the 1990's there came a string of indie bands that have the most undeniably Aussie sound - Youth Group, Sidewinder, etc.

The Nightfly: When writing songs, do you hole up by yourself in a cabin or go jam with friends?
Aidan: I like to do both - I'm a pretty insular person when I want to be, so I like being secluded to write exactly what I want to write. Then again, it's really important to have the balance of being able to stuff around with other people, to let the music do its own thing while you're all there. I love cacophony too - so I like big messy jam-outs that have all these inherent accidental beautiful details as a result of all the human input. That stuff can be so great to capture on tape.

The Nightfly: Are Australian artists and bands content with being artistically and commercially successful on their home turf or is there usually a desire to “conquer” foreign markets – the United States in particular?
Aidan: Most bands do want to go over to the States or Europe to try to "crack the market". There's very little money in the Australian market - but in the States there's infinitely more people and ears and investors, so if you're doing something that's commercially viable or just plain awesome, it's a good idea to go and tour the States - widen your audience, widen your possibilities for income. If you're serious about your music I suppose you'll always want to travel and reach out to other people, get them to hear your stuff. Again, that's where MySpace, etc. is great, for providing that little link with the rest of the world.

The Nightplay: What is the role of a songwriter: entertainer, rebel, activist, shaman, aural therapist - or all of the above?
Aidan: The songwriter's role is never clear. Some think songwriters carry the torch for their generation or their class - sometimes I guess that can be true. But these days, you make your art because you have to, and you want to.

The Nightfly: Which artists/bands are you currently listening to?
Aidan: Right now I am in love with Broken Social Scene, Grizzly Bear, Ned Collette and City City City, Ani DiFranco, David Karsten Daniels and Canon Blue.

The Nightfly: Are songwriters – indie or major label - selling out when they allow their music to be used in commercials or are they just trying to survive?
Aidan: There's an element of selling out - I mean, what industry is more over-invested and greedy than advertising? But having said that, isn't it nice to have someone give you money to buy fabulous things? It's a dangerous world. A song by my other band was used in "Home & Away" - that's a bit scary.

The Nightfly: Do physical discs and record stores have a future in our brave new world of downloading?
Aidan: Yes, MP3's sound like shit and records sound amazing. Records and CD's are kind of like the physical, tangible piece of art that's worth investing $20 in. MP3's are so vulnerable - one crash and they're gone. But the reality exists that convenience wins out against aesthetics - so I reckon there will always be a market for people who like their records on the shelf. I'm very old-fashioned, I know.

The Nightfly: Is it difficult for indie artists/bands to get airplay on commercial radio stations in Australia?
Aidan: It all depends on how many sales your CD gets, or how much money the record company is willing to pay to have their material aired. There's a lot of great community radio in Sydney and around Australia - commercial radio is pretty much not the place to go to for new exciting music.

The Nightfly: Would you be flattered if a company offered to make The Maple Trail action figures?
Aidan: I would be over the moon. They'd need to make the Aidan doll with interchangeable heads - perhaps a snap-on beard.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Interview with Jim and Nicole of Unicycle Loves You

Pop-rock quintet Unicycle Loves You was founded in 2006 by guitarist/vocalist Jim Carroll.

Obscenely catchy songs such as "Highway Robbery", "Dollars and Cents" and "Woman Bait for Manfish" will no doubt gain them new legions of fans when their self-titled labor of love drops on Chicago indie label Highwheel Records on June 10. The full-length debut album features members of another Chicago act, The Bitter Tears and was produced by Red Red Meat's Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine).

Q & A with Jim Carroll and Nicole Vitale of
Unicycle Loves You

The Nightfly: Unicycle Loves You sounds like bottled sunshine – was the upbeat sound a deliberate choice from Day One or did that come about as you began playing as a band?
Jim: I've never thought of us as bottled sunshine.
Nicole: We don't mastermind our sound to be one thing or another. We feel it's better to just play what comes out and sounds good to us. We think we rock pretty hard for a bottle of sunshine.

The Nightfly: Do you ever get an urge for playing "dark" angry songs and renaming the band Vicious Cycle?
Jim: No.
Nicole: I'd rather be fishing.

The Nightfly: You formed the band in late 2006. Where did you find your "recruits"?
Jim: I'm not Frank Zappa or anything. We had all been friends before forming the band. Everyone liked my songs so we ran with it.

The Nightfly: Which do you prefer: songwriting, recording or playing live shows?
Jim: They are all fun in some way or another, but recording is definitely where I feel most creative.
Nicole: Songwriting is frustrating for me, and playing live flies by too quickly for me to really enjoy. So, I like recording best. Those moments are frozen in time forever for better or worse, and in the end, you have this piece of art that you can always look back on with fond memories. We had never spent so much time working together as we did when we were in the studio, and it was the most fun I've had so far.

The Nightfly: Which musicians/songwriters have had the greatest impact on you?
Jim: Frank Black or Stuart Murdoch or Anton Newcombe or Mark Robinson. I don't know. Everybody that's not me.
Nicole: David Bowie.

The Nightfly: Are you self-taught musicians?
Jim: I had saxophone lessons in the third grade.
Nicole: We're a self-taught band. Some of us have "training" in a traditional sense, but all of that amounts to very little until you try and make things work in a group.

The Nightfly: Could you list some fellow Chicago indie bands?
Jim: La Scala, Airiel, Walking Bicycles, The Bitter Tears, Let's Get Out Of This Terrible Sandwich Shop, Bang! Bang!, Aleks and the Drummer, The 1900s, The Sapiens, Office, Chin Up Chin Up, The Strange Young Lovers, Hidden Mitten, Notes and Scratches, Sally, Maps and Atlases, Brilliant Pebbles, Oh My God, Ultra Sonic Edukators, Star, The Safes, Mucca Pazza, The Pinks, Reptoids, Head Of Femur, Sharks and Seals, Tortoise, Mr. Russia, Flosstradamus, The Sea and Cake, The Cool Kids, The Great Perhaps, The Submarine Races, The Prairie Cartel, Inspector Owl, Miracle Condition, The Narrator, Bald Eagle, Milk At Midnight, Mannequin Men, Darling, The Ponys, Apteka, Slings and Arrows, Panther Style, Black Ladies, Bobby Conn, Plane, Ezra Furman, House and Bird, Baby Teeth, The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, Canasta, Coltrane Motion, The Modern Temper, Pool Of Frogs, LMNOP, Snd on Snd, Assassins, The Its!, The Blue Ribbon Glee Club, The Dials, Unicycle Loves You.
To name a few.

The Nightfly: How did you choose the producer for your first full-length album? Jim: We all admired Brian's work and he had worked with Highwheel Records before, so it was a very natural occurance. Brian Deck is one very gifted man.
Nicole: When we saw Brian Deck looking up at us from the window at Engine Studios with those puppy dog eyes, we couldn't say no. He was the cutest thing!

The Nightfly: Is ULY ultimately looking for a major record deal or does the band prefer doing things the indie way?
Jim: I'm not sure how to distinguish between majors and indies anymore in the sense that I consider labels like Sub Pop, Matador, Merge, Rough Trade, XL, Kill Rock Stars, Secretly Canadian, Polyvinyl, etc. to be major. That said, yes, we would ultimately and eventually like to be on something like that. There's really no need to try to get signed to some major label like Capitol anymore. Look at The Shins (Sub Pop) vs. The Decemberists (Capitol). Who's more of a household name? But at this point we're very lucky to be on a label like Highwheel. We get the kind of support and freedom that bands on majors can't even fathom.

The Nightfly: Have you seen very real results from the band having a presence on MySpace Music?
Jim: It's how we got our first gig, got a record deal, get feedback from people and establish any kind of fan base. It's definitely one of the main reasons there is no need for radio or traditional major labels anymore. But you can't just count on MySpace for everything.

The Nightfly: Which artists/bands are you currently listening to?
Jim: I only listen to Brian Jonestown Massacre all the time.
Nicole: Wanda Jackson, La Scala, Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, and House and Bird.

The Nightfly: Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule is currently collecting donations from fans via her website for her next recording project - is this something ULY would consider doing?
Jim: That's lame.
Nicole: I'd rather be fishing.

The Nightfly: Are artists - major or indie - selling out when they allow songs to be used in commercials or are they just trying to survive?
Jim: Hearing a track from the first Architecture In Helsinki album on some commercial last year didn't really phase me. But hearing the new polished Against Me! album raised some questions.

The Nightfly: How do you balance going for the sound that you love while at the same time finding your own voice?
Jim: We are the sound that we love.
Nicole: We never ask ourselves, "Well, what would ULY do if they played this song?" because we're the band. Whatever we approach ends up sounding like what we love because we work at it until we love it.

The Nightfly: Are you making a living from your music at this point?
Nicole: Ha!

The Nightfly: How do you define success?
Jim: I try not to.

The Nightfly: Are the dynamics different with one lady in the band?
Jim: We decided that having a "lady" wasn't the direction we wanted to go in, so the boys bought me a strap-on so I could be more like them. I've even learned how to pee standing up! It was so much easier than I thought it would be, and now the world is my toilet!

The Nightfly: Do your fans sing along to your songs at live shows?
Jim: They did at the last one. It was fun.
Nicole: When they're drunk enough, anything can happen.

The Nightfly: Which of your songs is your personal favorite and why?
Jim: Dollars and Cents - because it's a challenge for me to perform live. I really sweat that one out.
Nicole: Highway Robbery - this song always clicks for me. I have fun playing it, I get to sing a lot, and it always goes over well. I'm also most pleased with the way this one turned out on the album. It's a lot different from the demo, but don't take my word for it - listen to it on our MySpace page!

The Nightfly: How would you feel about having ULY action figures sold in stores across the country?
Jim: Only if they have KISS face paint.
Nicole: I would only authorize that if mine came with multiple costumes and a fully functioning strap-on.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Umbrella, ella, ella...

I am no snob - there is great music to be found within every genre, and the idea of categorizing and labeling every artist and song could easily be termed "taste fascism."

Many people will often refuse to listen to more than one or two genres, dismissing artists simply because they are in the wrong section at the record store or the iTunes store.  Being supposedly cool and hip trumps having an open mind, and to be caught browsing the so-called easy listening or oldies section is akin to being caught with your pants down. And it goes both ways: some folks wouldn't touch a hip hop record or a rock record with a ten-foot pole.

Was it Ray Charles who said that there are only two kinds of music - good and bad? Smart man.

'Umbrella', co-written by Terius "The Dream" Nash, Christopher Stewart and Jay-Z (who does the intro rap) and with vocals by Rihanna is the good kind of music. Really, really good kind. A "pop" song so perfect I almost wept upon hearing it, but I was soon too busy singing along to be crying. The video is also one of the best ever made: the choreography, styling, directing, editing, and art production are all top notch.

The perfect "pop" aka popular song consists of 3-5 minutes where all the elements - melody, lyrics, vocals, arrangement and production - all blend into a smooth mix with a delicious hook. Bob Dylan once said that Smokey Robinson was the best American songwriter. 'Umbrella' has the same quality that for example most Motown and early Beatles hits had: almost unbearably catchy (just like the original nursery rhymes or as I like to think of them: the original pop songs.) Try coming up with a memorable melody and words that compliment it, sweating as if on deadline at the Brill Building in Manhattan where Carole King, Gerry Goffin and many other great songsmiths worked in the 1950s and 1960s - it's harder than you think.

Rihanna doesn't need the range or pipes of Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin - she has exactly the right voice for this song: bouncy, ever so slightly nasal but not gratingly so, sweet, but not too sweet, her vocals surf on top of the beat and the music, playing with the title "umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh." That line may not look so hot on paper, but when Rihanna sings this chorus, it's a moment right up there with the best in pop music history. She nails it, and it takes some real talent to make a word like umbrella roll off the tongue. I bet even Bob Dylan sings along when "Umbrella" comes on the radio. Like any great songwriter, he knows the challenge of hitting the bull's eye.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Starving Artist

Indie artists are constantly brainstorming in an effort to survive financially and artisticallly. Singer/songwriter Jill Sobule is currently collecting donations via the Internet from fans for her next recording project. The donations website homepage has a photo in tune with Sobule's tongue-in-cheek approach to life: women dressed as office staff in 1960s fashion, each attending to the business of fundraising for Jill. The goal: $75.000. As of today, she's raised $68.519.

And why not? The popular notion of the starving artist a la Van Gogh, choosing at times to buy paint instead of food (or in the case of the indie musician: guitar strings) is not as romantic as it's made out to be in novels and movies. I am an idealist, but also a realist and applaud the Jills and the Jacks of the indie music world who come up with alternatives to waiting for the Toothfairy to bring them a fistful of dollars. Politicians do it - fundraising that is. Non-profits do it - even schools are forced to do it, so indie artists are now saying: let's do it, let's pass the hat!

Throughout history wealthy patrons have sponsored artists: painters, sculptors, playwrights, composers. These original angel investors were either very cultured and recognized the important role that artists play in our world or they were simply drawn to creative people because of the noble concept back in the day of the artist having been given their talent aka gift by God. Whichever the case may be, the artists benefited from these early versions of stipends and fellowships. In our day and age most artists - painters, musicians, actors, writers - usually need a so-called day job which allows them to pursue their art without being evicted by the landlord. In some countries, the government sometimes acts the part of sugar daddy, but in America, land of the self-made man and woman, we like our artists to suffer heroically for years. Besides, it makes for killer biopics with award-winning performances.

Jill Sobule has been critized for wanting to raise 75k when many indie artists are content with spending only a few hundred, but I say: to each their own. And let's not forget to compare with another indie artform, the shoe-string budget movie, many of which have budgets well above 75k - the marketing of a film alone costs a boatload.

The record business is not what it used to be and there are pros and cons to that. Sobule has been on both major labels and indie labels - now she's on her own, but no woman is an island and sometimes you need a little help from your friends and the best friends any artist has are her/his fans. Your girlfriend/boyfriend may dump you, your parents may never forgive you for not getting a "real" career, your cat or dog may even scowl at you from the corner of the room, but your fans will be there for you with a few bucks for your next recording.

Political candidates in the 21st century must raise an obscene amount of money and may not even win the race - a gamble for their donors that makes playing in Vegas look like a sure bet. So compared to the big spending we're seeing this year on the campaign trail, Sobule is asking for a mere pocketful of change that will result in something very tangible: a new collection of songs for her fans to enjoy. Sure, she could max out her credit card, but instead she's choosing to be "financially creative" in ways that allow her to sleep soundly at night.

I am pretty sure Van Gogh, virtual patron saint of all proud, struggling, starving, half-mad artists would have approved.

[Photo: Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait, 1887.]

Friday, February 29, 2008

What a Beautiful World This Will Be...

... what a glorious time to be free

(from Donald Fagen's 'I.G.Y.')

It doesn't get much more optimistic than that, but Donald Fagen makes sure to sprinkle his pretty cupcake of a song with bittersweet irony. And there's more: a whole box filled with heavenly creations from a wizard of a baker with the perfect recipe for a timeless album that "tastes" as fresh as ever. Mmm.

According to Wikipedia, Fagen's 1982 release The Nightfly is "one of the first fully digital recordings of popular music." It is still used as an example of superb sound quality and in fact sounds as good on vinyl as it does in CD format - that is if the LP version hasn't been used as a funky coaster or frisbee.

It didn't hurt that Fagen hired a virtual Who's-Who of L.A.'s finest studio session players and had it mastered by Bob Ludwig, but many artists and producers employ the very best that money can buy in terms of musicians as well as production and post-production magicians and still come up with a product that, while technically perfect, rings false. So why is it that this album is pitch perfect in every way? Because not only is it ear candy in terms of production and arrangement, but it is also a deeply personal work with melodies and lyrics of a very high caliber.

The best songwriters are usually great story tellers whose lyrics read like short stories that draw the listener into the world of intriguing characters. Sometimes one of these characters is the songwriter's alter ego. Donald Fagen writes in a clever liner note that the songs on The Nightfly are about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, which essentially makes the work an autobiographical concept album, but he wisely leaves it up to the listener to figure out just how much is fiction. Less is usually more.

The soundscapes created for The Nightfly have the distinct trademark elements heard in several classic collaborations with Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, but on Fagen's first solo album the music functions as more than gorgeous backdrops to the lyrics - here each note and every word become one fully formed narrative; an aural tapestry.

It's said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" - a quote most often attributed to Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa. Whoever made the statement is right and no amount of writing can do true justice to great music, but if someone out there not already familiar with Fagen's masterpiece now has the wild lusty urge to get their sweaty paws on their very own copy of the album, I have not lived in vain.

Photo of sky by yours truly.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Nightfly

This is The Nightfly coming to you from cyber space, spinning virtual records late at night and into the wee hours of the morning. Ear candy for your listening pleasure - and any other kind of pleasure you have in mind.

The Nightfly is a music magazine featuring music videos, news, points of views, reviews and interviews. It is also the alter ego of the blogger (not as creepy as it sounds).

No ratings are used for reviews (stars, numbers, letters, thumbs up/down, rotten/fresh fruit) since artists and bands featured are ones which I already favor, thus eliminating the need to engage in any dissing. This Policy of Positivity ensures an overall good vibe - without the aid of mood enhancers.

The only legal drug I admit to using on occasion is chocolate. However, payola in the form of bon bons will never influence the contents of the magazine, and boxes of chocoate will be returned to sender, unopened. [sigh].

Special thanks to Donald Fagen whose still-funky-after-all-these-years 1982 release inspired this blog. As a token of my boundless love for this record (minus the cigarette on the cover) the first article is dedicated to this timeless album.

All Rights Reserved. 2008-2012. Quoting The Nightfly in other media (with proper byline and link) is permitted and encouraged. Feel free to add it to your blog roll.

[Masthead black/white photo of record player by yours truly.]