Lou Rogai of Lewis & Clarke

Underneath This had the soulful experience of interviewing Lou Rogai of Lewis & Clarke. Before proceeding to the interview, please read more about Lewis & Clarke from the biography at http://lewisandclarkemusic.com/about.htm :

Lewis & Clarke is the musical alias of Pennsylvania-based artist Lou Rogai, the voice and vision resonating through lush and brooding long form art-pop / avant-folk compositions that have become a signature sound. For close to a decade, Lewis & Clarke (also comprised of mainstays Ian and Shane O’Hara, and Anthony Lavdanski) has steadily and quietly built a devout following by releasing several acclaimed recordings while skirting mainstream currents. Rogai’s slow-burning process is as much of a mission statement as an authentic stance in a corporate age. He makes music as an antidote, an unaffected experience. The moniker itself references the fellowship and correspondence between C. S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke rather than the 19th century explorers.

In the same way, Lewis & Clarke songs tend to shift depth of field and mood as unexpected layers of sound and lyrics unfold. Rogai has a strong history of collaborating with different artists and credited as producer / arranger / multi-instrumentalist on Leave Ruin the debut LP by Strand of Oaks, as well as having contributed to the Two Suns album by Bat For Lashes. Most recently, Rogai scored The Wreck, the short which premiered at Cannes 2014. Triumvirate is the highly anticipated new Lewis & Clarke album, a double LP consisting of 75 minutes of music. It is being released in September 2014 by La Société Expéditionnaire, the record label founded by Rogai to help expose a wild and diverse scope of music.

Photo Credit: Dan Papa

Please describe your path to becoming a musician.

I grew up hearing interesting music from my parents. Classical music like Cyril Scott and Gershwin from my Mom and everything from Sandy Bull, Mahavishnu Orchestra,and Kraftwerk from my Dad. When we moved from Brooklyn to the Upper Delaware,that’s where Northeastern PA borders Upstate NY, I was pretty isolated and kept myself occupied with instruments and nature, which was a new thing to me.

How did Lewis & Clarke form?

I was in several dysfunctional bands in the late nineties and realized I was better off without the drama and moving parts. I started writing and recording quieter songs on a Tascam 4 track. I realized that I could make all of these layers of sound come to life on my own terms and it grew from there.

Your music has been compared to that of Nick Drake and Brightblack Morning Light. Have these artists inspired you? Who and what else have been your most significant creative influences?

Nick Drake, yes…his style and craft. I was floored when I first heard a recording of him. His “thing” seemed very private, his music was very exposing of his interior, and difficult for him to present in the marketplace. There are influences along the path of any artist that act as mile-markers, he’s one of them. The “greats” I would include are Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Judee Sill, Terrence Malick, Frank Stella, Ram-Dass. On a realistic and direct level, it’s working with my smart friends that directly influence me.

How do your social identities inform your work?

I have a lot of different interests and try to avoid labels. I have my own ideas, but I try to be open-minded and I’d like for my music to speak emotionally and connect with people.

In what ways is your music feminist?

Personal beliefs are inevitably reflected in subconscious tones. I think you’ll hear and feel it in the music.

The cover art of most of your albums beautifully depicts nature as do some of your songs. How does the natural world influence the music that you make?

I am an admirer and friend of Erika Somogyi, she has provided cover art for the past three records. Her paintings really speak what I try to convey with music. I love wild and interesting landscapes, and our relationships to these places. I look to the visual metaphors around me and relate it to the work I’m making, urban or rural. I live in the heart of a National Park, with the Delaware River as the conduit.

Your style has been characterized in some many different ways, as post-folk, baroque folk, chamber pop, and avant pop to name several. What do you mean of these descriptors?

It’s become kind of a running joke to try and hyphenate different styles that might be appropriate.

One of my favorite songs by you is Doc Holliday was a Phony off your “Bright Light” EP. What is the meaning of this track?

I had a dream about him, probably because I was reading about him. In my dream he was confiding in me about his life choices. Although he was a legendary gentleman gunfighter, he was saying that he should have stuck with being a dentist. He said that sometimes he felt like a phony and he was playing his own myth like a chess match and that he understood what Holden Caulfield meant. Basically, a legendary historical figure vented to me in a dream, so I wrote about it.

Your 2007 album, Blasts of Holy Birth, was a concept album about creation. The concepts behind your latest work, “Triumvirate” have been personal. Please say more about that.

Blasts of Holy Birth has a certain naiveté and innocence to it, as I was expecting my son’s birth and all was lilting and wonderful. Light Time was about the immediate dissolution of my family in a nuclear sense, and Triumvirate has heavier arrangements and is about the long-term effects of a destructive or traumatic event. Ultimately coming to terms with our own hubris and rebuilding as a stronger person.

About 5 years have elapsed between this album and the previous. What were those years like? How have they been inspirational?

I was faced with some interesting obstacles that challenged my sanity. I can only say that my son needed me more than the world needed me to be on tour, so it was an obvious choice for me to stay home and provide him with a strong foundation and rebuild our family. That’s what I did, personally and musically. I’m content with my choices. I wrote about the entire process, found the metaphors and that became Triumvirate. Looking back, I’m thankful for the opportunity to have my ass handed to me. I recommend it, it’s a reality check.

For the new album, you have been able to both use newer (i.e., Kickstarter) and more traditional (i.e., vinyl, a companion book) technology. What has this blending been like?

It’s a good example of new doors opening as others close. Our label distributor folded and we no longer had an LP pressing budget. The recording was finished and we went with Kickstarter as a way to gauge interest and act as pre-order. It worked out well, we exceeded our goal. Some folks don’t have turntables and still want a physical and tactile artifact of some sort so we are hand-pressing a short run of lyric books that come with downloads. The cool thing is that the whole thing has attracted the attention of a new distributor who are excited about the project and the entire label. It’s great to have freedom, but scary to be out there on your own without the backing of a larger entity. Crowd-sourcing this LP proved to me that there are true fans who want to be a part of this and we truly do live in an age of artist empowerment.

Was the decision for Triumvirate to be a double album made from the start or did that evolve as the songs were being created?

It definitely evolved. There were a lot of ideas forming simultaneously and it all works together to form one piece of music. I didn’t want to separate the songs and send them off on their own. They belong together.

“Map of a Maze,” the short film about the making of Triumvirate chronicles many types of geographic places. How were they inspiring of the music?

That’s the environment where I live, work and play. It also gets pretty weird around here in the winter.

The first track of your new album dreamily begins the journey of the album. What inspired “Eve’s Wing?”

Eve’s Wing is named after the broken arm of my dear friend and musical teammate, Eve Miller (most notably of Rachel’s). I witnessed her challenges. Imagine you are a touring career cellist and you break your arm at a rest area in the middle of nowhere. She now has a most appropriate and beautiful tattoo of a Phoenix on that arm.

“Black Cloud” is haunting. What is the story behind that song?

Maybe you’ve felt like you haven’t been able to achieve something that you know you’re capable of, but forces beyond your control are holding you back. Maybe that includes self-sabotage. Other forces are getting off seeing you become frustrated, perhaps out of jealousy or spite. These things can cause cancer of the soul. Instead of ending angrily, the last line in the song just asks a simple question.

I sense both hope and longing in:


Can you say more about the emotions conveyed in that song?

There’s a sweep to the whole record and each song is a different point along the arc of a pendulum. That pendulum is the process itself. I really can’t elaborate more on those emotions, that’s why I put them into music.

The following lyrics of “Children of the Sun”, “When the thunder spoke smiles in its praise/Oh, the words were cold, flattering and fake,” are among the most poetic I have heard in a song. What inspired those?

That was something I wrote down and found later. I was thinking about how we seek validation from outside sources, and what it’s like to receive a surface compliment that has no real substance behind it.

The child reading on “Two Trees” provides the album an even more soulful feel. How did you decide to include this?

This is a cool coincidence. That’s my son Julian, who was in the first grade at the time. He came home from school with a reader called “The Oak Tree and the Fir Tree”. It was weird because this idea had been on my mind a lot. Trees must be pliable and bend in order to weather a storm. Even if a tree has the appearance of being stout, if it’s brittle on the inside it will snap. I was thinking about this a lot and it was coming up a lot in I-Ching readings, and there are several lyrical references to this on the record. So anyway, I recorded him with my phone while he was reading to me. Having just learned to read full paragraphs, his hesitations are beautiful and he has good expressive punctuation. It was a moment.

The record is due in September. On what other projects are you working?

I’m releasing an EP-length soundtrack that I scored for The Wreck, a short film by Kevin Haus who directed A Map of A Maze. It just premiered at Cannes and received “Best Art Short” at Manhattan Film Festival. It’s a compact bit of music that I’m really proud of. We also just had an incredible experience recording a song with Brian McTear for Weathervane Music’s Shaking Through series. His level of knowledge and positivity was above and beyond, along with the entire crew. “The Silver Sea” is the name of the track and will release shortly after Triumvirate drops.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Be real, don’t give up, and do it yourself. Be mindful of staying positive and true.

Sem: Thanks so much!

Thank you Sem, it’s been a pleasure and I’m honored to be asked about my music in such thoughtful detail.

Interview: Jessy Spino of Girl Fry!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Jessy Spino of the talented band Girl Fry. Please read a brief bio about Jessy written by Jeremy Porter.

Jessica Spino (born Jessica Espinoza) is an American and Brazilian musician and songwriter. She co-founded the band Maria Sweet at the dawn of her musical career and later went on to found the melodic punk band Girl Fry. Her musical stylings are influenced by the wide variety of culture she was exposed to growing up in southern California, Brazil, and Ecuador. Spino has shared stages with a wide array of artists including Killola, Tsar, Anus Kings, Evertheory, The Walking Toxins and Sangre, and has achieved recognition for completing Maria Sweets first tour solo when the rest of the band had to cancel. She is also known for often including traditional folk instruments in her compositions and performances. As of July 2014, she has three official releases including an EP and Album with Maria Sweet, and an EP for Girl Fry – with a new album slated to be released in Q3 2014.


Please describe your path to becoming musicians.

Well, Alex was born into a musical family and had access to every kind of instrument you can imagine. I (Jess) would sing in church. I played piano as a youngin’, and started guitar at age 14. I sorta realized that this was what I wanted to do once I left high school. It took YEARS to convince Alex to start a band with me. But she couldn’t until after Art School. And so Girl Fry started a little while after she graduated.

From your perspective, how are female-bodied people treated and viewed within punk and pop circles these days?

I was actually talking about this tonight with a friend. About how I didn’t expect to be asked such substantial questions in our first band interview. I joked, “I should be showing some skin, not doing an thoughtful Q&A’s!” and that sort of answers the question itself. When outside of radical spaces that try to create a safe environment, I see some transphobia and objectification, yes. However, my biggest pet peeve in the industry is that FAAB’s (female assigned at birth) are often pitted against one one another. Even amongst the band members themselves. It’s the There Can Only Be One attitude.

Jessy Spino Show Serious

So far, what has been some highlights of performing live?

The highlights of this past year for Girl Fry have been getting to perform more unplugged, acoustic sets. This really challenged our performance skills, and has made us into better musicians. We all have become so much more aware of each other’s cue’s and styles.

How do the three of you collaborate to make music?

For so long it had just been Alex and I (Jess), much of our collaboration is with rhythm and the vocal interpretation of each song. Sometimes Alex contributes to writing and guitar. Most of the time, I write a song on guitar/Charango, put it to lyrics, and take it to Ally (drummer) and Alex (bassist/rhythm guitarist) for further development.

What is one quality that makes you distinct from other artists who may be sonically similar?

I tend to write verbose songs, and try to make lyrics melodic whenever I can, even if that means sacrificing rhyme or meter. As for Alex, you might notice in our upcoming album, she has laid down some very busy bass patterns.

Who and what have been your most significant creative influences?

My best buddy, from whom I have written dozens of songs. My dog, for whom I wrote many songs in my previous project, Maria Sweet. I take a lot out of my favorite sci-fi books and television shows: Star Trek, BSG, The Sphere.

Whom do you most admire musically?

When I was younger: Metric, Tegan and Sara, Dresden Dolls, Evanescence. More recently, Against Me!, The Stranglers, The Lunachicks, Los Hermanos, even bands like Avatasia, Dream Theater, Minds Eye, Kamelot, the list goes on. Alex is more on the rockabilly, roots hardcore, and electronica side, but she isn’t here so I’ll just mention Henry Rollins, Vandals, The Heavy, The Circle Jerks, Above and Beyond and that list is longer than mine.

I love your song, “Just Wondrin’” off The Pottymouth EP. You have so well blended melody with a punk spirit! How did you do it? 🙂

I love punk, and I love a good melody. I’ve always found the two to fit together nicely. A favorite example of this is Subway by the Lunachicks.

Your song, “Memo” off the same album seems quite confessional (e.g., “Unload the weapon before calling/And my parachute works before falling) What is the story behind that song?

It’s about descending into madness. Trying to have all your ducks lines up, but everything falls apart at ignition.

“Surivalov” sounds somewhat different stylistically. What is the meaning of this song?

My goal was to use the Charango more traditionally. The first song I had ever heard Charango being used is this classic titled Ojos Azules. Some of these classic renditions from the Andean region can have a super upbeat energetic sound, many of them change tempo, this one in particular has a sadder theme. I was trying to follow those themes to the best of my ability, but it turned into something different. Maybe I was missing some flute? I love that song, even though playing it makes me sad.

Which songs have you or would you like to cover?

A friend once told me that the best songs to cover are songs outside one’s genre. I would love to cover Abba. In the past, I have covered Black Sheep by Metric, Have to Drive by Amanda Palmer, Bullet by the Misfits for live performances. Most of them were at an open mic somewhere, so there aren’t any vids of it, thank goodness.


What has been the most surprising reaction to your music so far?

At the Viper Room, I performed a cryptic, naughty song that someone totally picked up on. They laughed and pointed directly at me.

On what projects are you working on next?

We have a 10 date tour on the west coast to promote our upcoming album. You can see our tour dates here: http://www.girlfry.com/shows. The album should be coming out soon after the tour.. We are recording at ATM Studios in Burbank with our producers Victor Flores and Joe Calderon: http://www.atmstudios.com.

Lastly, In our spare time Alex and I have been working on a the studio’s Electronica side project called Dark World. You can hear our progress at https://soundcloud.com/art-thru-dark-records/bruja.

It’s been a busy year!

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

You are an asset, and your time is valuable. And to Women, Feminine-Identified Persons, Queers: Keep being awesome. The music industry needs more of you.


Interview: Orenda Fink!

Underneath This just had the soulful experience of interviewing talented the talented singer-songwriter, Orenda Fink. Please read more about Orenda (from bighassle.com) before proceeding to the interview.

Throughout her time with Azure Ray and over the course of her solo career, Orenda Fink has never shied from exploring the darker edges of spirituality and the human condition. On her debut solo album Invisible Ones, Orenda explored traditional Haitian ritual and mysticism. She then followed that up with an examination of the Southern Gothic subconscious on Ask the Night. Needless to say, death has been visible in much of her music. On her latest album, Blue Dream, she looks deeply at the subject, reflecting upon a year-long meditation on death that started with a dog named Wilson and the words of Laurie Anderson.

“Just look at yesterday, and what you were doing, and how important it was, and how nonexistent it is now! How dreamlike it is! Same thing with tomorrow. So where are we living? Tibetans have unbelievably fascinating answers to that. This is what I’m studying because my dog died.” -Laurie Anderson

Orenda was sent this quote by her friend Nina Barnes after Wilson, Orenda’s dog of 16 years, died. That year she found herself on a deeply personal search for the meaning of death. Pieces of answers, coded in riddle, came to her in dreams. Her dreams began to tell a story – about life and death and the afterlife, reality, and the fine line between the conscious and subconscious world.

She then spent the next year understanding the experience and filtering it through the musical inspirations of Smog, Violetta Parra, and Kate Bush to craft Blue Dream. The album truly came together at ARC in Omaha, NE with the help of producers Ben Brodin and Todd Fink (The Faint), along with drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, Swans, R.E.M., King Crimson).

Lead single “Ace of Cups” starts the album off by using the Tarot symbol of attunement and spirituality to explore the interconnectedness with the world and humanity that even death cannot undo. The haunting “Holy Holy” examines them directly with lines “We come into this world all alone/and we leave with not much more” and “I lay in bed/collect all my dreams/then I pay/someone to read them to me/the simple ones are just as they seem/but open your eyes/and they say so much more.” Whereas “All Hearts Will Beat Again” displays ideas Orenda came to understand upon reflection in lines “It’s a sign in the eyes/something in your smile/it’s a nod and a wave from the darkness/but our hearts will beat again/and the love we gave will come back/but i don’t know where or when.”

Writing the album allowed Orenda to contemplate the experiences that precipitated it and explore new perspectives gained over the past year. This process left her with the belief that we can only be truly healed if we find our “interior God.” How do you find your interior God? There are many ways, but she believes one of them is through dreams. Dreams being the closest way to have a direct experience with the all-knowing past, present, and future.

Credit: Bill Sitzmann

Credit: Bill Sitzmann

Please describe your path to becoming a musician.

When I was young my dream was to become an actress. My father wisely suggested that I audition for the Alabama School of Fine Arts (high school) for theater. I did and got in, but realized that I didn’t really have the chops for acting. However, it was there that I discovered the guitar and songwriting and met Maria Taylor, whom I went on to form many bands with, including Azure Ray. Neither one of us have really stopped writing and performing since we met.

You have songs entitled “Dirty South” and “Alabama.” In what ways has being from this region of the United States influenced the music that you make?

I am definitely influenced creatively by my southern roots. There are things I’ve always loved about the South- the languid pace, the sound of cicadas, the viscous humidity. It’s a habitat for ghosts.

Is your music feminist? If so, how so?

I would say that my music is derived from more of a humanist perspective than anything, but at the same time perhaps it’s inherently feminist because I am a feminist. I think I am drawn to exploring the human condition- the meaning of life and death, how we are affected by love and loss, how we overcome our deep flaws to find some sort of redemption. I see this all as a woman though, and as a woman, I fit into the puzzle of life in a uniquely feminine way so I suppose it’s humanist and feminist.

Your style has been characterized as “adult alternative” and “indie rock.” What do you make of these adjectives?

Those are pretty generic labels. It’s difficult because I’ve never really aligned myself with a “genre.” I’ve been told that Azure Ray started “whispercore” but my solo work isn’t quite like Azure Ray. Death folk seems like it would describe Blue Dream haha, but I know that I don’t fit into that genre. Maybe I should make one up. Grief Wave.

From your vantage point, how are women treated and viewed within these genres?

Women are certainly the minority in this business, and of course sexism does exist in the industry, but I don’t think it is something that should ever prevent a woman from going all in. From my perspective, male or female, you are treated with respect if you are good at what you do, you are professional, and you are courteous. There is always the old sound guy that doesn’t think you’re in the band because you are a girl (even though you walk in with a guitar), but honestly I stopped caring about that a long time ago. Being overly concerned with that antiquated behavior can distract women in music from what they should be doing, which is kicking ass.

One of my favorites by you is “No Evolution” off your 2005 solo album, “Invisible Ones.” What is the story behind that song?

That song is about stopping evolution so the people we love don’t have to die. If we could freeze time, and just be suspended instead of blindly falling into the cycle of life- it’s a protest song against nature.

I absolutely love your song, “The Moon Knows” from the subsequent record. I can also totally imagine Cat Power covering this. Do you ever write songs with other artists in mind?

Thank you! That’s a great compliment. I love her work. I don’t write songs with other artists in mind, per se, but sometimes I will hold my work up against someone I really admire and see where I feel it’s deficits are. Sometimes this can help me write a better song.

Which songs have you or would you like to cover?

I’ve done several in my career, Townes Van Zandt, Guided By Voices, Les Savy Fav, Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. I’m about to cover a John Lennon song for the Ace of Cups single. It was one I just heard for the first time this year and I fell in love with it.

Credit: Bill Sitzmann

Credit: Bill Sitzmann

Your most recent album, “Blue Dream” was at least partially inspired by a personal experience of loss. What was it like to make a record that was about such intense emotions?

It was… intense haha. There are several songs on this record that I literally wept while writing. There are actual tear stains on my lyric sheets. That sounds like the beginning of a country song. But really, the recording was also intense in a different way. By the time I recorded, I felt like I had walked through the fire and had come out a healed, if not stronger person. So I had this body of work that I wanted to honor by going back to those painful places. It all seems like a blur to me now, really.

A Laurie Anderson quote was also influential. I can hear her influence in some ways. Who and what else have been your most significant creative influences?

Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, and Bill Callahan were pretty big influences on me these last couple of years.

The tracks, “Ace of Cups” and “You Can Be Loved” beautifully open the album in an inspiring manner. What was the impetus for these songs?

Thank you. Both of these songs look at what it means to love and be loved. I think love is eternal life. But it’s not easy- you have to work and sacrifice to love and be loved. But it’s worth it. Love is magic, it’s alchemy, it’s the only thing that truly matters. That’s why people who don’t know how to give or receive love are so profoundly unhappy.

The lyric, “Your broken Jesus is in pieces” from “This is part of something greater”, is so thought and feeling provoking. How has spirituality influenced your work?

Spirituality has always been a great influence on my work. Like the song title, I do think this- this thing we’re all doing- is a part of something greater. I don’t know what that is exactly but it keeps my heart alive. Studying different spiritual practices, religions, writings of the great mystics has always been a passion of mine and does inform my work. I think our attempts to understand the universe, the meaning of life, and the afterlife through religion are much like a dream- they are stories coded in riddle and symbolism. These symbols and archetypes are quite powerful and poetic to me. It becomes a danger though when people take these writings too literally. That is the tragedy with religion. But even that misguided attempt to connect with the divine has its own damaged beauty and that was sort of what I was speaking to with that particular line.

The title track quite vividly paints a picture of sadness. Which other emotions are contained within this song?

Probably sadness mixed with a bittersweet resignation. Like just deciding to let go and let it wash over you….

What is the meaning of “Sweet Disorder?”

Sweet disorder is about embracing chaos, embracing the unconventional, the frowned upon. It’s about giving up on trying to control life and just being.


The cover art of your new album is quite striking. How does it connect to the themes of the record?

Thank you. The amazing artist Maria Reichstadt painted it. The strings of teeth are from a dream I had where I was pulled up from the bottom of the ocean by them. The narwhal was a friend’s idea. He listened to the record and that was the image that popped into his head. The narwhal spirit in mythology speaks to mystery and the subconscious as relating to universal truths. After he mentioned the narwal we started seeing images of them everywhere. It was so weird. I took it as a sign. Also, it’s the unicorn of the sea!

What has it been like collaborating creatively with your husband?

I love working with Todd. I’m a very lucky lady!

How has it been working with Maria Taylor in Azure Ray and Cedric Lemoyne in O+S?

I also love working with Maria and Cedric. I have known both of them for over half my life. They are like a brother and sister to me. Again, I am very lucky!

From your perspective, how do the Azure Ray and O+S albums compare to your solo work?

Azure Ray and O+S are highly collaborative works, so even though I am writing and singing in both, there is a huge element of Maria and Cedric in the work, respectively. I think with my solo work, I can be a little more self-indulgent which can yield positive and negative results. I think for Blue Dream it was mostly positive though because of the intensely personal nature of the journey I was on while creating it.

On what projects are you working on next?

After touring for Blue Dream I plan on finishing up a new O+S record that Cedric and I have been working on for the last couple of years. It’s getting close!

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Know that your career is going to have ups and downs. Never give up. Support your fellow artists. Build up, don’t tear down. Believe in yourself but practice humility. Work hard, but have fun and follow your heart!


Interview: Rachael Sage!

Underneath This had the pleasant experience of interviewing the talented and soulful Rachael Sage. According to the biography in her press kit, Rachael is a vocalist and innovative multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer. She has also become one of the busiest touring artists in independent music, performing over 100 dates a year (!) with her band The Sequins throughout the US, UK, Europe and Asia. She has earned a loyal following for her dynamic piano playing, delicate guitar work, soulful vocals. and improvisational audience interaction.

Sage has shared stages with Sarah McLachlan, A Great Big World, Judy Collins, Colin Hay, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, The Animals and Ani DiFranco. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received numerous songwriting awards including The John Lennon Songwriting Contest (Grand Prize) and several Independent Music Awards. Her songs have appeared on MTV, HBO, the “Fame” soundtrack, and in the current season of Lifetime’s #1 reality series,”Dance Moms.”

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Before proceeding to the interview, check out some of Rachael’s music videos.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.

I have been playing piano since I was two and a half, apparently! I can’t really remember a time where I didn’t have some kind of relationship to the piano. I would hear songs in synagogue, or at school or in ballet class or just in my house from my parent’s doo-wop and Broadway collections, and sound out the melodies by ear. By the time I was four I was writing lyrics and by five I already had dozens of little pop songs influenced mostly by what was playing on Top 40 Radio at the time. I’d use the phrase “making love” in all my songs and I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it sounded like what people sang on the radio! After that I just became know in school and at camp as “that girl who writes songs”, and constantly presented them to friends, teachers, at talent shows or wherever…basically, for anyone who’d listen. Upon an uncle’s suggestion who worked in TV News, my relatives pooled together and gave me a four-track tape recorder for my Bat Mitzvah gift, which set me on my path as both a producer and recording artist.

You started your own record label when this was less common. What was that like?

I started my own record label as a very practical decision, really. I’d been making pop music demos since I was in junior high school, programming drum machines and synthesizers, and literally recording hundreds of songs to play for publishers, managers – anyone who’d listen to a little kid with stars in her eyes. I got pretty “far” with it too; in high school I was offered a major publishing deal with Famous Music that my parents (lamentably) wouldn’t let me sign because they felt I was too young, and I also was represented by Debbie Gibson’s manager, which let’s just say, was “an adventure!”

Ultimately, during college I did a 180 musically and my motivation for wanting to be a songwriter and recording artist shifted quite a bit. I became a lot more eager to get my music out there myself, and to say what I wanted to say without anyone telling me what lyrics needed to be cut or what arrangement to play or even what to wear. I was really inspired by the Bay Area folk scene and also, by a summer I spent in Ireland where a large number of local artists were already self-releasing, so it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I pressed up my first album right after college, pretended to be my own manager by wearing my hair in a bun and putting on glasses, walked into Tower Records and somehow managed to schmooze my way into getting them to take in 10 copies. That same week, the buyer decided to put it in their listening station, which really changed things for me as it became their best-selling indie release.

Shortly thereafter, I landed a slot with Lilith Fair and then sent my album to college radio where it received a lot of airplay and charted high enough to prompt some offers from national distributors. It was a very different music biz back then, and things like college radio and moving units at a local record store had a lot more impact, career-wise. Now it’s more about YouTube, iTunes and social networking, but for me it all started from just wanting to learn how to represent myself as professionally as possible, and to self-develop as an artist.

Uncut Magazine has described your music as “one part Elton John, one part Kate Bush.” Have these artists influenced your style? Who and what else have been influential?

I was not influenced by Kate Bush, no. I probably would’ve been if I’d been exposed to her, but I was not aware of her music until lots of people had compared me to her! Eventually I became curious a picked up a copy of The Sensual World which absolutely blew me away. I definitely heard a kindred spirit in her lyrics, but I feel our voices are quite different. Maybe the fact that we both have dance backgrounds prompted the comparisons, I’m not sure. I’m always flattered by them, though!

I was much more aware of Elton John through his massive radio hits, and would definitely say that he and even more so, Billy Joel, was an influence. I would play his music by ear – anything/everything in the Top 40 really – and in general in junior high school I gravitated toward music from the 70’s like Carole King, Cat Stevens and James Taylor. In high school I discovered Elvis Costello whose music inspired me enormously, and all throughout I was listening to tons of Classical music via my ballet classes. My biggest influence, hands-down, has been The Beatles. When I first really dug into their music around age 11, my brain exploded and the possibilities of what one could do with pop music literally seemed endless. Since then my influences have been too numerous and eclectic to name here, but I’ve been equally inspired by classical, pop, blues, folk and even old-fashioned theatrical music especially from Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly films. Anything with great lyrics and a killer melody, and I’m bound to appreciate it!

How did the Sequins come together?

I met each of the fine players in The Sequins in NYC, in the last few years. My wonderful violinist, Kelly Halloran, was first introduced to me through my label-mate Seth Glier, who grew up with her in Massachusetts. Ward Williams, our cellist/electric guitarist, was in another band prior called Jump Little Children of which I was a huge fan, but I didn’t realize that when I met him or I’d have been pretty starstruck! We first chatted after a mutual friend’s gig – Alex Wong – and I was so impressed by his beautiful playing with Alex that I shamelessly said, “hey, I’d love to play with you…do you have a card?” We’ve been playing together ever since! Drummer Andy Mac is the most recent member of our band, and I met him a long time ago but only as a fellow singer-songwriter. I have Facebook to thank for introducing me to his amazing drumming skills via a handful of videos posted on his page, and after I realized what a kick-ass drummer he was, I invited him to play with us and I can easily say he’s the most dynamically sensitive player I’ve ever worked with. They’re all great people I love being around, which makes playing and touring together an absolute pleasure!

Photo Credit: Tom Moore

Photo Credit: Tom Moore

What have been some highlights of performing live?

Many of my favorite live performance experiences have been in Europe. I had the incredible opportunity a while back to tour with the great Eric Burdon & The Animals throughout Germany and Austria, which was just a wild and eye-opening adventure! He has lived through and forged so much rock ‘n roll history, and the opportunity to be around a legend like that, to watch and learn still sticks in my mind as one of my favorite experiences. I’ve also really appreciated the opportunity to play in Japan – which was such an entirely different culture, and a very humbling experience to not have anyone around us speak any English. The cities I played in were all beautiful and fascinating in different ways, and I hope some day to go back!

What was the experience like of performing at Lilith Fair? What was that era for you like musically?

I was invited to perform at Lilith Fair in 1999 after winning a local NYC talent search contest they hosted, at The Westbeth Theater in the West Village. Of course it was a ridiculously exciting experience, not only to open the show itself (I was the first act on) but also to meet Sarah McLachlan and so many other artists I admired, including Suzanne Vega and Sandra Bernhard, who’ve both inspired me a great deal. Musically, I think I was definitely striving to expose my emotions in a much more hyper-personal way then than I am apt to now; I was so full of angst and, as one is after college, eager to share all the novel ideas I believed I had, spiritually, politically and otherwise. I was very idealistic – so I guess it was the perfect time to be playing my first festival!

From your experience, how has the treatment of heterosexual cisgender women and LGBTQ people in folk and adult alternative music changed since then?

That’s a very interesting question, that honestly, I’m not sure I have an answer to. I’ve always been very openly bisexual, but on the other hand I’ve never been overly focused on sexuality or my sexual preference at all, as a creative artist; I’m a pretty private individual. So generally, it’s rarely come up unless I’ve brought it up myself – for instance volunteering to play an LGBTQ benefit or a Pride event. I have composed plenty of songs informed by my experiences with women, but as a songwriter I’ve always aimed to write songs with which anyone can identify so it hasn’t always been obvious (apparently!). Conversely, there have been songs of mine that have been written about a man who my lesbian listeners have assumed were about a woman and I’ve always just been happy if people found resonance with my work, period, as human beings who love other human beings. Many of my songs aren’t even about me or my life at all, versus based on fiction or a film or a friend’s experience but I think ultimately the “treatment” of artists tends to reflect social bias in general….so I’m sure you could find examples galore of ways in which bias has affected careers adversely; that’s a big part of why I remained indie though admittedly. I wanted to be less reactive and more in control of how I put myself out here (no pun intended). For me, it always just boils down to the music: am I making the best possible records I can make, and am I putting my heart and soul into each live show. I think if you do your job well and respect that everyone in this community of musicians – whether straight or LGBT – has the same goal of self-expression, there are no limits whatsoever anymore in terms of how far you can go as an indie artist. Music is music, and that’s why it’s such an incredible space for all voices to be heard!

In what ways is your music feminist?

I think my music is necessarily feminist because it aims to celebrate the female experience, while also acknowledging our vulnerabilities and that we can derive strength from the entire range of female expression and emotion. I grew up distinctly fearing that certain qualities I had as a woman were weak or inappropriate or just not fit to be emphasized. My work is all about individuality and creativity and striving to find what it is in each of us that is both uniquely ourselves, and worth sharing with and celebrating in each other.

For me, music had been incredibly healing especially because I was badly bullied as a child, by other young girls. The behavior was either completely ignored by teachers or encouraged by parents, and the fact that I was at an all girl school made it hard for me to trust other women until I went to college and realized the girl-culture I experienced was not exactly the norm. Feminism and the concept of supporting and nurturing other women through the arts was something I grew into in my 20’s, and as a member of several female music collectives, I have continued to learn more about how we can support rather than compete with each other are women, in music and the broader entertainment industry.

I love being a part of the organization Women In Music, for instance, and have also been a member of such groups as Indiegrrl and GoGirls Music, as well as an artist salon called UrbanMuse comprised of NY-based female singer-songwriters. All of these groups have helped me get and keep my bearings not only as a female/feminist artist, but as an artist, period. I hope that sense of empathy and compassion in general comes through in my work, even when it’s exploring darker themes.

You and several other musicians collaborated to raise funds for homeless youth. Kudos to you all! How did that endeavor come about?

Well, we’ve been releasing charity compilations on my label MPress Records for a number of years. The fourth volume of the compilation series “New Arrivals” benefits National Network For Youth, primarily because as New Yorkers it’s impossible to not be acutely aware of the homelessness problem throughout our city. I also happen to live right next to a homeless shelter, so when the topic came up re: which charity to pick, it just seemed like we should try to do something around homelessness. My tour manager and I visited the offices of NN4Y in Washington, D.C. on tour, really admired what they were doing, and they were eager to have us become involved through our efforts.

With what other activist causes are you involved?

Through my label MPress Records and individually, I have been involved in fundraising for World Hunger Year (founded by Harry Chapin), NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), Habitat For Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and a handful of local NYC organizations that continue to assist those affected by Hurricane Sandy. You can read more about our charity compilation series at http://www.newarrivalscd.com.

I was touched by your writing about the definition of a home (http://www.themortonreport.com/celebrity/causes/celebrity-causes-rachael-sage-for-artists-against-youth-homelessness/). What places feel like home to you these days?

I feel most at home in New York City, my literal home, but I also feel very at ease in Dublin, Ireland, San Francisco, CA, and Boston, MA. I also really like London, where I am currently!

What was it like collaborating with Dar Williams on “Invisible Light” on your 2012 album, “Haunted by You?”

Dar Williams is just such a delightfully down to earth and warm person, you almost forget what an extraordinary artist she is until she opens her mouth to sing! She came over to my home studio very well prepared, and sang the song “Invisible Light” in just a few passes. She was very generous with her ideas, and kept the mood playful and light. Honestly, it felt like we were just hanging out chatting and laughing, and then suddenly the track was done as it was time to go have a coffee together. It’s a day I will certainly never forget!!

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

“New Destination” is your 11th album. Congrats! The record seems to possess a different sonic feel than many of your earlier records. It also seems like there is a different energy. What do you make of the differences and similarities between these songs and your earlier ones?

Thank you! New Destination is actually my first EP of previously unrecorded material, i.e. a short-form recording of only four tracks. (My 11th full album isn’t coming out until Fall 2014). I decided to release these four tunes because once I’d written the title-track, it felt like this group of songs just belonged together and I wanted to share them right away especially as I’d been playing them all already live. New Destination was musically inspired by Carole King’s song I Feel The Earth Move, which I heard on Broadway last year in the musical “Beautiful.” So it has a very positive, uptempo energy and lyrically I wrote it for a good friend who was going through a tough breakup…but it could really be about anyone just trying to shift their perspective and make some kind of a change. It came out in the Spring, and I definitely think it was a good seasonal sentiment! In terms of the other tracks on the EP I think they all explore some aspect of transformation, and hopefully, a feeling that there’s a glimmer of light at the end of even the coldest, darkest tunnel.

What was it like making this album? What was your favorite track to record? The most challenging?

Of course I loved recording all of these tracks, but I think my favorite was Wax, because it’s just a very different kind of groove for me. Doug Yowell played the drums, and he has such a brilliant sense of dynamics. We recorded it as a duo, just me on piano and him playing drums live, and then we built the rest of the tune around that foundation. It’s also the first song I ever played electric guitar on, so that was a blast!

My favorite song on the album is “Misery’s Grace.” What is the story behind that song?

I wrote Misery’s Grace for an old friend of mine who lost his wife to cancer. I first learned of his loss on Facebook, as we’d been out of touch for several years, and the outpouring of love and support was staggering, but also clearly, not much consolation for this man who seemed to have had a Hollywood Movie-esque romance with his true soul mate, who left this earth inexplicably to soon. The song is a tribute to their relationship, and the only way I knew how to reach out to my friend, to show him he was in my thoughts and I understood his enormous loss.

“I’m not Leaving You” was written based on the reactions to the death of Cory Monteith. What was it like recording this song? Have you played it live?

I actually wrote the song from what I imagined was his girlfriend’s perspective, earlier in their relationship. I tried to put myself in her (Leah Michelle’s) place emotionally, and to imagine what it must be like to be so young, talented, in love and under so much constant pressure from the media. It’s a song about loyalty, about braving the elements – whatever they may be – together and essentially, loving someone unconditionally in spite of any and all obstacles. I dated someone in my early 20’s who struggled with addiction, and while it’s easy for me to look back now and question my choices or my willingness to stick with that person in spite of my need for sobriety, the fact is I loved him deeply and in many other ways we were beautifully alike. Losing someone to substance abuse it’s just about the most painful experience I can imagine…so the song was my attempt to capture what I imagine must have been a very strong bond between two much-beloved talents, one of whom we lost tragically too soon.

If you could cover any song, what would be?

I can cover any song! Who’s going to stop me? 🙂 I haven’t done many covers because I just tend to write so many originals, but I’ve covered songs by Neil Young, Hall & Oates, Marc Cohn, Sinead O’ Connor and a version of the song “Fame” by Irene Cara, among others. I’ve enjoyed giving those songs my own spin, and I think it would be a positive challenge for me to cover a song by Judy Collins. I only grew up aware of her cover versions of songs like Both Sides Now and Send In The Clowns because she had such big hits with her versions of them; but her own songwriting is really extraordinary, and her piano playing has such a gorgeous flow to it…I think I should definitely attempt to cover some of her music, especially since she’s been such a wonderful supporter of mine!

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

You have also acted and danced. In your experience, how do these art forms compare to making music?

I think acting and dance are both much more about what’s happening physically and emotionally…what you’re able to summon to project onto your own personal canvas to help tell a story or convey a feeling. That canvas is some combination of one’s body, one’s sense of musicality (even with acting), and one’s personal voice i.e. character. You’re using yourself as the vessel to do all of that and it takes years of training and some degree of intuition and ‘talent’ to be a great actor or dancer. I loved the training that acting and dancing required, and I know that the discipline and endurance I learned from both continue to inform my approach to music. But the main difference has been that as a composer I am also my own director. I choose my material, I choose whether or not to improvise or stick to a set list, and of course I get to do all my own ‘casting’. What I miss sometimes about dance is the sheer ability to let go, and not be in one’s head. Dancers are so intelligent – they have to be to govern their bodies so meticulously and to absorb choreography as they do; but there is a feeling of getting lost entirely in the dance itself or even the language of a play written by someone centuries ago that is very different from the adrenaline rush of playing music. I try to include aspects of my dance and theatre backgrounds in my live performances, but it’s true often wish that I could still perform on pointe or go join a Broadway production! I would appreciate being part of an ensemble in a much different way now I think, now that I’ve forced myself to learn all facets of composing, performing and producing. I think it might be somewhat of a relief to immerse myself in a character and be part of someone else’s fantasy world for a while! Never say never…

On what projects are you working next?

I am currently completing my 11th album, “Blue Roses”, and am so excited that it’s almost finished after over a year of working on it!

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

The best advice I never received was to get a regular gig, and shed, shed, shed until you know who you are, what you do best, and how to connect with an audience. I wrote songs nearly all of my life, and I wanted to be an entertainer so badly, but I really didn’t have much experience outside my own living room or school talent shows before I got my first big break, opening for Ani DiFranco. It was a bit of trial-by-fire and looking back, I really wasn’t ready. Much of the time I’d been working so hard to create recorded versions of my music and get them as perfect as possible, I kind of forget about the live performance side, which was when I decided to start touring my tuchus off so I’d get better just by doing it. But I do wish someone had told me the virtues of playing for ten people at a local coffeehouse, every week, early on. There’s so much to learn just by experimenting and making mistakes…which I was always so afraid to do. Embrace your mistakes, and relish the process! And don’t be in such a rush. Music isn’t going anywhere, if it’s truly your passion. But the people and things happening around you are more transient; take the time to be part of your community, to go hear other artists, and to hang out with good people. It will all make you who you are, which is your #1 asset: your point-of-view.


Interview: David Lerner of Trummors!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing the David Lerner of Trummors, a talented duo formed by he and songwriter Anne Cunningham. According to a bio sent to us by the band, they begun in 2010 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in New York City. The two multi-instrumentalists focus on acoustic instrumentation, incorporating harmonium, fingerstyle guitar, and close-harmony dual vocals into their warm sound. Early on in the group’s existence, David and Anne moved from Brooklyn to the considerably calmer surroundings of Woodstock in upstate New York.

Trummors’ debut album, Over and Around the Clove, was released in 2012 and reflected their recent change of scenery with its lushly earthy songs and slightly psychedelic filter on a ’70s pop sound. Moorish Highway, just released on 6/17/14, is the follow-up to their first LP, and significantly expands on the country-folk duo format of their debut.

Calling on a expanded cast of talented backing players including drummer Otto Hauser (Vetiver), guitarist Kevin Barker (Johanna Newsom), bassist James Preston (Zachary Cale), and pedal steel guitarist Marc Orleans (D. Charles Speer and the Helix), Moorish Highway was recorded at The Drawing Room in Kingston, NY by Justin Rice (Bishop Allen), and mixed by Eli Walker at Isokon in Woodstock, NY.

While Trummors’ signature harmonium drones and close vocal harmonies remain, the duo visit new sonic territory as well: “Bogus Bruce” chugs along with a metronomic groove, while “Strangers From Now On” nods to classic Merseybeat. A spare version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, long a staple of the duo’s live set, rounds out a dynamic sophomore effort inspired by the singer-songwriter era, but from a point of view that is all Trummors’ own.

David is also known to some folks for his years of work with Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Before reading David’s reflections to our questions that follow (and some music as well!), check out their video for the song, “Vigil.”


How did you decide to form “Trummors” and how was the name of the band chosen?

Anne and I both wrote songs when we met, and sometimes we’d sing them together, though usually only late-night and after drinking way too much whiskey. A few years ago, we were house sitting for some friends in Ithaca, NY and recorded some demos on a reel to reel 4 track, with me on guitar and Anne keeping time on a kick drum made from a suitcase and snare. We liked how those stripped down recordings sounded, so Trummors evolved from there as we continued to write, record, and bring in other friends to accompany us. The name is the Swedish word for drummers. I saw it a while ago on the back of an LP by a 60s Swedish band called The Tages and thought it would make a good band name at some point. It seemed to suit us, given the diminutive drum set (aka “trum-set”) that we started out using.

I enjoy the way your voices harmonize especially on the song, “Hearts for the Trump.” How do you work together to create music?

“Hearts for the Trump” was an anomaly in that Anne wrote the verse and I wrote the chorus separately, and they happened to fit together with some minor changes. Usually, one of us writes an entire song and then we’ll get together and play it a few different ways until we arrive at a key, tempo and arrangement that feels right. If we’re lucky, the vocal harmonies come intuitively, if not, we’ll go over each of our vocal parts note for note, which can easily end in fits of frustration. On the new record we wrote a lot of the songs with specific musicians in mind, but didn’t actually hear the songs that way until the recording was happening. In the future we’d like to write with a band present because imagining full arrangements while writing as a duo created a bit of a disconnect on this last record.

In what ways is your music feminist?

We’re invested in feminist theory and art as critique for sure, but a lot of the music we dig is not always the most politically progressive. Country music and feminist politics make for strange bedfellows! We are feminists, but our lyrics are not feminist in an overt way—our songs don’t reflect a conventional feminist identity politics, for example. We don’t participate in the typical guy-girl mode of songwriting that takes cliché gender divisions for granted either—and that’s a big part of what I think is feminist about our music—we’re opposed to reinforcing stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.

Who and what have been your most significant creative influences?

In an effort to not bore the reader name checking dudes like Bob Dylan and The Flying Burrito Brothers I’ll just list a few highlights from the past year: P.G. Six’s rendition of “Ashokan Farewell.” Bill Keith playing banjo every Thursday night in Woodstock, NY. Doug Paisley performing for roughly six people in Hudson, NY when there should have been many more. William Tyler’s set at St. Pancras Old Church in London, and Leonard Cohen’s show in Brighton, UK was pretty incredible too. Steve Gunn’s latest record “Time Off” was on repeat, and Zachary Cale’s ”Blue Rider” is his best yet —this winter we listened to a lot of Bridget St. John, particularly her record “Jumble Queen”, and also got alarmingly deep into Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira.”

What inspired your move from Greenpoint in Brooklyn, NY to Woodstock, NY? How are those places similar and different creatively?

Greenpoint is a fine neighborhood and still feels like home in many ways, but after living there for many years we were ready for a change. We found a great place upstate at a time when it seemed like a good idea to leave the city, so we did it spontaneously, and for the most part we’re happy that we did. Creatively there are some trade-offs: with the exception of the exceptional drummer Otto Hauser, the musicians we play with all live in New York City, so that introduces some inconvenience. But we’ve found the speed here to be way more conducive to making music, and we’ve been fortunate to get recording help from friends we’ve met since moving—we’re thankful that we have such talented & generous friends around!

On especially your debut album, “Over and Around The Clove” you write and sing about places (e.g., Knoxville and Salinas). How does a sense of geography affect your work?

Both of the songs you mention reference geography but they’re more about people situated in specific contexts than the physical qualities of a place itself like the landscape or climate, for example. Establishing the right setting lends a song mood and dimension, and hopefully makes it memorable. Our songs draw on some personal experiences of travel, but they’re not meant to be an exact account.

Your style has been termed country folk. How do you characterize the music that you make?

We’re influenced by a lot of country and folk bands and singer-songwriters, so country folk is an apt characterization of our sound. But in spirit I think we have more in common with our friends and peers in the rock, psych-folk, drone, and experimental worlds than we do with the affected country, new folk and Americana that’s become so popular in the past few years.

Which song would you most of all wish to cover?

Good question, there are so many! Right now, it would probably be “She Don’t Care About Time” by The Byrds. Anne and I are both major Gene Clark fans, and that song is an early example of his phenomenally great songwriting. Lately, we’ve also been performing a song called “Hearts” by Ian Matthews off his 1971 record “If You Saw Thro My Eyes.” Ian Matthews is best known as a skillful interpreter of other people’s material, but he also wrote a handful of beautiful songs of his own, so it’d be nice to call attention to his original work by recording a version of it.

You have a great way of telling stories and portraying people in songs. What is the narrative behind “Tilden?”

Fort Tilden is a popular New York City beach, but the song “Tilden” was inspired by a solo trip out that way for work, not pleasure. The character the narrator encounters in that song was based on a real guy I met who was selling his record collection to the store I worked for, and chose that occasion to become wistful and reflective about his life to a total stranger, that stranger being me. He told me he had always dreamed of living the real “big city” life, being a famous DJ, having a loft in SoHo (which should give some indication of how dated his reference points were), but ended up spending most of his time in basement apartment in Gravesend, Brooklyn, fixing junk. Somehow selling his records was his way of letting go of that dream and squaring with reality, which sounds depressing, but in reality was more matter of fact. Come to think of it, “Bogus Bruce” was inspired by another junk store dweller, so I guess I’m drawn to writing about solitary people living amongst old objects. There’s some kind of pathos and humor amidst the bleakness there.

On what projects are you working on currently?

We’re about to spend a few months in Taos, New Mexico, where we are psyched to write another record, among other things. So our current project is preparing for that move.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Anne recently finished a long writing project on the topic of failure, so I’m tempted to quote Samuel Beckett’s oft-repeated injunction “fail again, fail better.” Yet, I’d ultimately rather see aspiring musicians succeed on their own terms than fail on anyone else’s. Unless I hate them-ha!


Interview: Nancylee Myatt!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and informative experience of interviewing Nancylee Myatt. Please read more about Nancylee before proceeding to the interview that follows.

Nancylee Myatt became a television writer on the advice of a casting-director friend, which prompted an odyssey that would take her from her early days on the television program, Night Court, where she had the honor of writing the series finale, to an NAACP award for her work on Living Single, to co-executive producer, writer and director on the network teen drama South of Nowhere.

Indeed, Nancylee has spent more than a decade writing and producing for prime-time television. She is quite knowledgeable of an experienced in what it takes to get a television show from the page to the screen, but developing a series for the web was a novel frontier for her – one that has been a sure success. For more information about the groundbreaking series, Nikki & Nora, that Nancylee has created, please visit http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/ .

Recently, Nancylee co-wrote with Ralph Macchio a pilot for ABC Family called “Cupidity.” Her other internet credits include break-out and award-winning web-series 3Way, and the all girl western comedy, Cowgirl Up.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and about Nikki & Nora. Before I start rambling about myself I’d like to say that this labor of love, this little engine that could, this series about a couple of young women who love each other and solve crimes in New Orleans, which started as leaked network pilot and became an internet obsession and lighting rod for the lesbian community, took a village to reboot and produce this new series.

And it would not exist without the faithful fans and amazing producing team, who I’d like to give a shout-out to at the top: Executive Producer Christin Mell and her partners at tellofilms.com. These women know their way around the World Wide Web and how to promote and use social media like no other. I bow to their wizardry and producing skills.

Executive Producer Paige Bernhardt. Paige is my partner in our production company, MyHardt productions. Paige and I have a similar network television writing and producing background. And we’ve collaborated for the last couple of decades on scripts, plays, series and webseries. It always helps to have someone who knows you very well and can call you on your stuff.

Co-Executive Producers Liz Vassey and Christina Cox. Liz and Christina were Nikki & Nora in the original network pilot 10 years ago. They have both had successful acting carriers and have been branching out produce and write for network television and film, as well. Having them back, recreating the roles that meant so much to all of us has been beyond spectacular.

We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with…


What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

Bad Acting… mine. Like so many other theater geeks, I was drawn to being on stage. Plus I was a class clown. You know the drill of High School; gotta be sporty or funny if you’re not going be a cheerleader or voted onto the Homecoming Court. So I went to college as a theater major. And pre-law, as my parents were big fans for having a Plan B. After graduation, my freshly minted actor friends and I moved to Hollywood and started making some noise. My writing career path was set by one of my best friends, Cecily Adams. She was an actress, comedienne and casting director. And after a bunch of years of watching me trying to get a break and working with me as an actress (I had good timing, but zero memorization skills) she said to me, “Nancylee you suck as an actress. But the shit you write for us is great.” Career Path 101. Happily I was in a good place to hear this, and trusted her and my other friends. I focused on writing and never looked back.

Initially, you wrote for Night Court, one of my favorite series from that era. What was that experience like? I really enjoyed the season finale that you were involved in writing.

Thank you. The premise of the series finale – Dan dreams all the women he wronged put him on trial – had been a card on the board in the Night Court writer’s room for years. It was great timing and luck of the draw that allowed writer Elaine Aronson and I to share the two-part finale.

Night Court was my first job on a network comedy. I had been a writer’s assistant for several years – a great path to writing TV, by the way. And when one of my former writer/producer bosses, Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman, got hired to run Night Court they asked me if I’d like to come on board as a staff writer. Life changing. I’m forever grateful, and still in contact with most of the staff I worked with for the last two seasons of the series.

What was it like working on “Living Single”? I liked that program as well and perceive that era in television history as uniquely representative of the great diversity, especially of people of color, in the United States. How do you see the present landscape in this regard?

I came to Living Single in its final season. It was a well-oiled machine, and they had done some amazing groundbreaking television. Lucky me, I did get to share in an NAACP Award for their final season. But that path was paved long before I got there. Living Single also launched a lot of careers in front of the camera, and at the writer’s table. I’m lucky to have been a tiny bit of their history and success.

Diversity has always been at the front of most of the shows that I’ve created or been able to influence. When I started, a person could qualify as being “a diversity hire” for just being a woman. And I’m also a Native American, which I had to prove, by the way. You think any other race would put up with that? Having to show a card that says you have a “qualifying” bloodline and percentage. It’s a little Westminster Dog Show if you ask me. Anyway, the production companies got to use my name on two diversity reports. Thank goodness I didn’t have to prove I was a woman, cuz that would have been an awkward meeting.

I think the TV landscape looks better now, much better. And I’d like to give most of the credit to my mentor, Norman Lear. He was way out ahead of everyone with diversity. Race, religion, economic. He made people pay attention to faces and life experiences that weren’t their own. And he did it because his shows were some of the best on television at the time. Write and produce a great show, with the stories that people relate to and root for, and you’ll find, that even if they don’t look like you, or sound like you, or even might love someone of the same sex, you’ll get an audience. And at the end, maybe your show will influence that person’s perception of diversity and the world.

Just a side note: It’s an interesting path we television writers take. Or truthfully, get handed to us. In most scenarios, before you’re a creator or producer and creating your own opportunities, you are a yeoman writer trying to fill a spot at the table. Most creator/writers bring some of the staff with them, people they had worked with and trust and knew what skills they brought. And after that, they fill in the other spots with writers (they hope) who will bring a unique voice or something that’s missing from the mix. And some producer/writers inherit a staff or the network or studio will influence the hiring.

So your career can be this – If your first job is Friends you are set for life, open doors, everyone wants you because they believe you had something to do with the huge success. Or instead of a hit that runs 10 years, you get on a new show that does 6 episodes or one season and out. Then you’re back on the street looking for the next job. I actually worked on the series Jennifer Aniston did before Friends. It was called Muddling Through. Great show, amazing writers who went onto other notable series. But for the most part – very few people remember Jennifer in that one…

Any career in show business is not for the faint of heart. I teach writing and TV production occasionally, and I always tell my students, if there is anything else, that you like or want to do – do it. Because there is no solid path to success in the entertainment business. But if it’s the only thing you see yourself doing, go for it. And again, from my personal experience, be open, as it may not end up looking like you thought it would.

What was the impetus to create the web series, “Nikki & Nora?”

There is no one thing that motivated us to reboot Nikki & Nora for the web. I think it was this perfect storm of a great show that never was, the fans who saw themselves in this couple and refused to let it go away, the changes in programming and diversity in mainstream television, combined with the power of the internet that opened the door for us to revisit it.

The rights of the original project had returned to me and I was thinking about a book series. I was also producing another webseries called 3Way, with Paige Bernhardt and Maeve Quinlan, who I was working with on South of Nowhere. 3Way was a comedy that made a lot of noise on the Internet. It was ahead of its time in that in addition to creating smaller 10-minute webisodes and content, we were also producing half hour episodes just like network television. Within 3Way we had also created some silly spin-off series, shows within the show. One was a soap opera called “Young Doctors Who Cry.” And the other was called “Lady Cops.”

I asked Liz and Christina if they would come and spoof their characters in Lady Cops. They played Mikki & Laura, cops who were partners, who may or may not be involved with each other. That was our way of letting the faithful Nikki & Nora fan base know we were thinking about them. When they responded to the spoof, we knew that they were still there. Waiting. Ready to make it happen. Yet it took 5 more years for us to find that crazy timing of everyone being available to come together to make it happen.


This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online. From your point of view, how has technology affected television production and viewing?

First of all, I’d like to repeat what you just said – “This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online.”

Can we get a round of applause!? The Veronica Mars movie was crowd-funding at the same time we were last year. Their fans wanted more of a TV series they identified with, that they felt went off the air too soon. The VM team raised millions when their fan base rallied. Meanwhile, we were reaching out to an “underground” fanbase that refused to let the idea of Nikki & Nora die. They were emotionally involved with Nikki & Nora and hoping for the resurrection of a show that never aired on network television.

When Nikki & Nora first appeared on the Internet it was at the time when YouTube was just finding its way. People realized they could create entertainment or take existing video and edit it into something that spoke to them. That represented them. When I say Underground Fanbase, I mean that they took a bootlegged DVD of the network pilot of Nikki & Nora and shared it across the web universe. Which launched tons of love letter type music videos to Nikki & Nora, all cut from the original 37-minute pilot. Which then spawned tens of thousands of pages of fanfiction about their favorite New Orleans couple, Nikki & Nora. And let’s just give credit where it belongs — It sure didn’t hurt to have the beautiful and talented Liz Vassey and Christina Cox representing a crime fighting couple that just happens to be gay.

It’s an amazing story. And I can say that because I had nothing to do with it. While we remained very close, Liz, Christina and I had moved on, off to other projects and shows, as it the nature of our business. Nikki & Nora is alive and back again, because of the fans who longed for more of their story.

The Internet and “created for web” content, has changed the way creators get to tell their stories. We don’t have to go through the studio system and the lottery that is the development and pilot process. Or the advertiser driven decision-making that occurs with network television. The end result of doing a web series is that the vision we have is not changed to fit a network demographic. It lets the audience that show was made for find it in its purest form. Now that being said, an Internet-based show is, many times, expected to rise to the levels of network television show. Which is an unfair scale. Because most of the time, as with Nikki & Nora, we had one tenth of a network budget.

When “Nikki and Nora” was first created, it would have been the first lesbian-themed drama series on television. What were barriers to the show being aired then?

The political climate in 2004 was very conservative at the time. The Christian Right was very vocal with regard to TV, Films, Music, etc., which they felt was adding to the corruption of America’s moral fiber. The network and studio behind Nikki & Nora had taken a lot of hits that year from the FCC, so they weren’t ready to ask their advertisers to back a project that had a potential target on it’s back in a George W. Bush America.

After Nikki & Nora I went on to write and produce South of Nowhere for creator Tom Lynch, and had done an article for Afterellen.com about the show focusing on two teenage girls falling love. And then got promptly called on the carpet by the “N” now teen Nick, which was an MTV network where the show was going to air. Apparently, the Christian Right had me on their hit list or watch list or burn the witch list, who knows… But the network was concerned about negative “gay agenda” publicity on a kid’s network. So Lynch and I agreed that he should do all interviews going forward. He created the show. And Tommy is an Irish Catholic father of four boys. Which made it hard for the haters to find an agenda. It made him the perfect person to talk about this story of “love is love.”

With the explosion of cable networks and now web-based entertainment, I no longer believe that the executives are afraid of “controversial” programming. In fact, niche programming and aiming for a smaller demographic is what is building these networks. But, as long as the Broadcast Networks have to answer to advertisers to pay for programming they will always try to program to the middle and a more conservative audience.

Approximately nine years elapsed between the initial development of the series and the online airing. In the interim, what changed for the media representation of LGBTQ+ people and communities?

I’m not the most informed person to answer this question. GLAAD may be your better source for the actual facts and figures, because the majority of my television work does not focus on the GLBTQ community. But again, I always try to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in the shows I create or can influence. I do think that the wider range of entertainment outlets have helped to promote and find homes for more GLBTQ programming. Yet, with the exception of The Fosters on ABC Family, who has a lesbian couple at the head of a family, there is still no adult mainstream show with a lesbian couple as the primary leads. So you would think that Nikki & Nora should have been able to find a home on the networks that program more comfort food procedurals like Castle or Rizzoli and Isles – who contrary to popular belief and audience pandering, those girls are not a couple.

From your perspective, what needs to be different regarding the media portrayal of other minority groups?

As I mentioned before, I think telling a compelling, relatable story cast with the multi-ethnic faces of this nation and world will do the best for visibility and acceptance.

The main characters on “Nikki and Nora” seem realistic. How do you maintain that characterization over time?

Write what you know. Or at the very least, draw or jump off from your own experience. I try to remain authentic to the characters I’ve created, their voices, and how they react in various situations. And I’m a gay woman, who has been in a long relationship, and recently legally married. So I can at speak to the same-sex issues, but I can also speak to the stuff that all couples go through, like nesting and relationship issues. And in my case, this insane drive to remodel and reinvent every house I’ve owned. Instead of @ishakeitup my Twitter name should be @MrsWinchester. (Kudos for those of you who know her twisted story) But I give Liz and Christina the credit for taking my script and these characters and making them their own. With their own rhythms, and humor and pathos. And like any good actor, they are also drawing from their own true-life experiences and finding the touchstones from their life that they can draw from to make it grounded, real and relatable.

How did you decide to set the series in New Orleans?

I set the show in New Orleans because it was a city that I had spent a lot of time in with my family. It was also my favorite place to run to: to play, write and be inspired. It’s a city with a rich history and culture. A city of darkness and light. A city with it’s own voice and look. My mother called it “The Paris of America.” It’s also America’s original party town and has always been a place were the gay community gathered. New Orleans was perfect home for Nikki & Nora.

I’ve said before, that most writer/producers who are shooting cities and locations that have big personalities like to say that their city is also a “character” in the show. I think a successful example of that was what show runner Michael Patrick King did with Sex and the City. He was telling stories and hitting themes for his characters that had were unique to Manhattan. And that’s the way I’ve approached Nikki & Nora in both incarnations.

Were there any other shows or films that influenced “Nikki & Nora?”

The shows I grew up on, those light mystery shows that spent as much time with the main characters or couples at home, as they did with them solving the crime of the week. Like Hart to Hart, McMillian & Wife, The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Charlie’s Angels, and Moonlighting.

And for me personally, my parents were the original inspiration of what a great couple looked like. They were sexy, funny, hard-working and passionate. They were generous whether they were flat or flush. They were each other’s best friends and partners in crime. They loved New Orleans and never missed a chance to live life large and out loud.

Were there any unexpected moments regarding the fundraising campaign for the series?

I think for me, and probably the actors who play Nikki & Nora, Liz Vassey and Christina Cox, it was the fanfiction writers who surprised us. There were about half a dozen N&N fic writers who were rather well-known in those circles, and they ignited the conversation and campaign with pod casts, a Nikki & Nora panel at fanfic convention, posting the information on fanfic pages and boards, and talked about it in the chat rooms. They invited us to do interviews and told us how much N&N meant to them. And when we launched the Indiegogo page with a video from Liz and Christina speaking directly to the fans, things moved very quickly and the money started to come. While we didn’t ask for the kind of cash that Veronica Mars did, we did raise 30% more than our goal.

Several of the fanfiction writers who helped us with the campaign, and are running one of the Nikki & Nora tumblr pages, came to set and worked on the shoot. In addition to the efforts of the fanfic community, we also had some amazing supporters, who are also now friends, who gave substantial donations to project. We got to spend some time with them during the process, as well. All of this was just another confirmation that we were doing something meaningful. And serving an audience that still wasn’t seeing themselves enough in mainstream television.

It seems like perfect symmetry to have a series that was kept alive on the Internet, rise from the network television ashes to become a show just for the web.

Overall, what have been the most surprising commercial and critical responses to the series?

The funniest critical response we received was that the fans wanted more kissing between Nikki & Nora in the show. All I can say is that we are writing a couple that’s been together for 10 years, and we tried to create a very realistic view of a couple still in love and very comfortable with the rhythms of their life together. However, we will take it under advisement for the next season.

The most frustrating critical response was that several people complained about the $4.99. monthly subscription to tellofilms.com. I usually respond with, “For the price of buying a beer you are getting original programming created just for you. As well as, all the other great series on tellofilms. And if we don’t pay the bills we can’t make and broadcast new content.”

On what other writing and television projects are you working?

Most of us who worked on the webseries of Nikki & Nora, cast, producers, crew, etc., are also working in network and cable television, doing the same jobs we did on Nikki & Nora. So we’ve returned to others shows and/or out pitching and writing new projects.

I’ve got three new scripts going out to various networks. And I’m working with very prolific producers and directors on each. I don’t want to jinx anything by giving too many details, but I’ll tell you that each project is very different. And yet they are right in my wheelhouse, speaking to the audiences that have followed me before. For the young adult audience there is a comedy and a genre drama. And for the grown ups there’s a female driven family drama with a procedural element and a dark twist. Stay Tuned…

What insights do you have for aspiring writers?

I think I covered some of this when I was talking about my path to writing television. But one thing that is really simple and a call to action is that “Writers write.” Whether it’s a TV script or screenplay, articles for magazines or news outlets, novels or short stories, poetry, song lyrics, or fanfiction. It’s not enough to talk about writing, you have to sit down and make it happen. Visualize your future, work for anyone who will let you get the experience in the field that you want to work in. Treat it as your job and give yourself a daily schedule, a page count or a goal.

I heard somewhere that Stephen King writes at least ten pages a day. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot, whether it’s a novel or a teleplay. When I’m on a deadline I use that as a goal to keep me in the chair. And sometimes I like to change-up my writing location – change my POV and hear some different voices. When I’m home in New Orleans there are a couple of local watering holes in my neighborhood that are cool with me taking over a booth and working for a few hours. We actually shot a scene in one of them, Tracey’s Bar, with Nikki & Nora sitting in the booth, which they called their Satellite Office, where I wrote most of the script. Kind of Meta, don’t you think? (Yes!)

Keep writing. And then one day, things will shift. For me, I know I’m on the right road when the characters I’ve created are so well-formed that they start leading me in the direction they want to go and talking for themselves. And sometimes that happens even when I’m not enjoying a cocktail…

You can find the trailer of Nikki & Nora and all seven webisodes of the first season at:

And if you want to see where it all began, here’s a link to the original pilot of Nikki & Nora from 10 years ago. I do not take any responsibility for the putting the bootleg video up on the World Wide Web. But… Enjoy! It was ahead of it’s time, and sadly, still is.


Interview: Arborea!

Underneath This had the soulful experience of interviewing Arborea, a band that makes beautifully moving and meaningful music. They are also involved with activist causes. Before reading the subsequent interview, please read some more about the band in an adapted bio penned by them. Also, check out the visually and sonically compelling (and official!) video for their song, “After the Flood Only Love Remains.”

Shanti and Buck formed Arborea in 2005, released their first album in late 2006 and they are now touring on our 5th album ‘Fortress of the Sun’. Buck also produced two various artist compilations….one of which is ‘Leaves of Life’ (2009) an album that included other artists like Alela Diane, Mariee Sioux, and Devendra Banhart. ‘Leaves of Life’ was started to raise awareness and benefit UN World Food Program; quite a lot of what Shanti and Buck do involves building community. Another example is that they have worked with an instrument maker in Tennessee who created a guitar inspired by their song ‘Red Bird.’ Money from the sales of each guitar have went to aid various charities like the Red Cross in Japan which provided crucial aid to communities in the wake of the earth quakes that triggered the tsunamis in 2011.

Jeanne Madic photo

Jeanne Madic photo

How has living in Maine influenced your music? Which other geographic locations have had an effect on you? What is it like working together musically? What is the collaboration process like?

Buck and Shanti – Maine is where we first came together musically, where we started following our own musical path together, apart from any outside influences. The music evolved out of our communion during the Summer of 2005…through improvisations, musical meditations. Shanti was born in Maine, but raised in Norfolk, Virginia, which is where we first met. We moved to Maine at the beginning of 2001. Our years of traveling along the coast or in the mountains on Shanti’s family land (part of the Northern Appalachian Mountains), has been an amazing catalyst for the individual voice that we’ve created. As well, our time spent in Ireland, the British Isles, Spain, Portugal, Italy and other places we’ve toured through…these lands and the people we have come to know and love have had a great influence and everything comes through in our poetry, photography and videos, our music. Our collaborative process evolves in many different ways…out of poetry we’ve written together or individually. Or one of us might have an idea, say on the guitar or banjo, and then afterwards we’ll finish it together by collaborating on the words and vocal melodies. Sometimes we bring songs or music to one another fully formed and then we’ll work in additional parts together. The music happens in so many different ways, which keeps things exciting.

Your music has been described as an amalgam of folk, blues, and world music. How do you characterize your style?

Buck and Shanti – It’s really all of those things. Maybe World Music is a proper term for it, but it’s not the over processed glossy type of World Music that has been produced in the West over the past couple of decades. It’s much more raw and closer to older folk and blues recordings, or recordings you might hear now coming from Africa or the Far East. We are quite often paired with Psychedelic/Avant genres, and we feel comfortable with those labels, because the music is meant to elevate ourselves and listeners outside of the confines of the Material World…it’s meant to open new doors of thought and create a surreal state of mind, a sort of ritualistic dreamtime.

How has your sound developed from Wayfaring Summer to presently?

Buck and Shanti – It’s almost been a decade now that we’ve been playing together. Since the release of Wayfaring Summer in 2006, our vision has continued to evolve to a higher state as we grow together and as individuals…so our musical union has only gotten stronger, more refined, synchronistic…more telepathic. As long as we continue to grow, there just doesn’t feel like there’s a limit to what we are capable of creating.

When performing, what is your relationship to the audience?

Buck and Shanti – Performances are a pure flow and exchange of energy…a guided meditation within a river of music. Having an audience fully present is essential for these gatherings. Our intention with each performance is to have a unique energy exchange, a continuous circle between the music being created and how the audience takes everything in and feels that energy. It just doesn’t work that well in a noisy bar situation or coffeehouse with so many distractions. Theaters, art galleries, intimate house concerts, chapels…these are really the best venues for creating a sacred space for the music.

Activism and building community is inherent in your music and life. I admire that! You have worked with the Red Cross and the UN World Food Program. What has inspired and sustained your activism?

Buck and Shanti – Everyone of us is part of the global community and there are so many souls in need of help and love. We are indeed part of this community, this family…it’s in the blood of who we are as individuals, as parents, as friend, as neighbor.

Using our creativity to raise funds for charities or helping bring about awareness of important causes is essential to who we are as human beings.

Is your music feminist? If so, how?

Buck and Shanti – The state of being that our music originates from is feminine and celebrates life, life-giving, life affirming, life exchanging. Music is a river born from the ocean…the Mother of Life.

I enjoyed the beautiful track After the Flood Only Love Remains. What inspired you to write this song?

Buck – Our music, especially our lyrics, all originate from poetic vision…and all of that comes from personal experience, or from dreams. After the Flood Only Love Remains is a combination of some heavy life events too personal for me to share, though I can tell you, the song itself is a Catharsis. It’s definitely my dedication and acknowledgement of change and the enduring power of unconditional true Love and Empathy!

Your music videos are very beautifully composed and complement the lyrics of your songs well. How do you come up with the concepts for the videos?

Buck and Shanti – Being that the music is born through visions, through dreams…the music and images are inherently tied together…one an extension of the other. Our experience and love of photography has definitely helped with our video work, and for the last album we developed some great relationships with other filmmakers who we feel connected to, both spiritually and artistically.

You are currently selling original artwork on your website. How did you become interested in painting and photography? What are some of your other interests outside of music?

Buck – Long before I started playing guitar, as a young child I would draw and paint nearly every day. My father, uncle, and grandfather were very talented artists and drawing was something they always did, though they never pursued their talent outside home. I guess it was a natural gift passed down from one generation to the next. Our daughter is very artistically inclined and can sit for hours drawing…so it seems these pathways are genetically inherited. Music was a big part of my childhood memories and a lot of time was spent listening to my parents vinyl collection and hearing music on the radio, which in turn inspired me to sing, which I did all the time. Despite being shy, I was a part of my elementary school choir which was one of my earliest experiences with overcoming social fears. I love to listen to people sing, though now I tend to gravitate towards the female voice…and I feel like the best male singers are completely in touch with their feminine side. I also developed a love for movies when I was young, going to the local Drive-In theater with my parents on weekends.

Shanti grew up in a house filled with music. Her mother was a singer-songwriter/guitarist who performed in Tidewater Virginia and often rehearsed at home, so it was all around her growing up and certainly became a subconscious influence…as well as inheriting natural gifts for making music from her mom. Shanti was actually deathly shy of singing in front of people, and we were married for many years before she even felt comfortable singing in front of me. I knew she had a beautiful voice, so I felt it would eventually happen, but it was an important to patiently encourage her along the way, to remain positive and supportive. Shanti’s first passion however was photography and her parents supported this by eventually building a dark room in their house, so she could develop her own photographs and explore that side of her creativity. Our interests outside of music, film, photography, and poetry…great literature, gardening, woodworking and guitar making, traveling, meeting beautiful empathetic souls, being in the World, and of course being with our families and dear friends. Everything we spend time doing, is important and finds its way into our collective artistic life.

Which artists have you been listening to recently?

Buck and Shanti – We’re not listening to a lot of music these days, as we’re too involved with our own projects…composing and rehearsing, it takes so much time. When we do listen to music, we always seem to cycle around to music discovered years ago…Sindead O’Connor, Peter Green, Tim Buckley, Sheila Chandra, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Robbie Basho, Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny, Tori Amos, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, June Tabor, Martin Simpson, Chris Whitley. Some of the contemporary artists we love to support and some we even gig with: Josephine Foster and Victor Herrero, Will Oldham, Christopher Paul Stelling, Marissa Nadler, Two Wings, Mariee Sioux, Marian McLaughlin, Diane Cluck, Laboule, Fern Knight, Allysen Callery, Laboule, Jesse Sykes, Meg Baird, Daniel Bachman, Ryley Walker, Eric Carbonara, Jerry DeCicca….

The Doors…songs like Riders On The Storm, Crystal Ship, Break On Through, Moonlight Drive, End of the Night…definitely an important part of our youth and music we listen to while driving on tour. The idea of conveying poetry and art, light and dark… through music, is an important part of Jim Morrison’s Legacy and definitely influenced us along the way.

What projects are you working on currently?

Buck and Shanti – We are working on new music together and separately for 2015. Shanti is also involved in a new project…Emerge, a group experience that takes place every New Moon, and involves her improvising music with voice and hammered dulcimer along with her friend Julie, who is a guided meditation instructor. Each individual in the class sets her or his new intentions each month. It’s a very beautiful, healing experience.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Buck and Shanti – If an aspiring artist or group has a unique musical vision.we would encourage them to follow their instincts and their muses, and never second guess their own voice(s). The World is already filled with too many generic pop songs and there isn’t any reason for an artist to compromise their vision to fit into a particular style, or fit into someone’s ideal of how something should sound. It’s true that everybody hears Music in a subjective way, but regardless, music always feels best when it comes from a place of pure intention.

-Sem & Strike

Interview: Elliott DeLine (part 2 of 2) !

Underneath This is pleased to present the second part of the interview with talented writer, Elliott DeLine. Please read below!


Your novels, “Refuse” and “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” eloquently describes coming-of-age experiences of queer and trans young adults and youth. What inspired you to write these works?

Thank you. My own experiences inspired these works. I wanted to create something different from was out there already. I wrote the books I wanted to read when I was younger and struggling to find reflections of my own experiences.

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of becoming an influential voice within trans and queer literature?

That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t really see myself as influential. Honestly, I have found it very challenging to “break out” so to speak, in the literary world. I’m not sure I’ve influenced other artists, but I have found it very rewarding to hear individually from readers, especially other trans people. I know that I have influenced some people’s lives with my work, and that is an awesome feeling.

I really appreciate your vulnerability in the essay, “Stages of Visibility.” How does composing nonfiction essays compare to writing fiction?

For me, the line between fiction and nonfiction is very blurry. I write both in much the same way. My fiction writing is very personal and almost always based off real life events, and my nonfiction is always using some poetic license.

“I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” includes experiences of bullying. If Dean were coming of age these days, how may his experiences be different?

I’m not sure. I work with queer youth and I get the sense they are still facing a lot of the same issues. Though it does seem like people are learning they are trans earlier and earlier. The media started talking more about bullying the past few years, but I’m skeptical that much has changed in schools. Maybe some schools.

How has the self-publishing process been?

It’s the only way I could do it. I’m a control freak when it comes to my art. But it’s also frustrating, because people don’t always take me as seriously as they do traditionally published authors. And I don’t make much money.

You were recently part of a Huffington Post live panel regarding trans and cisgender gay men dating each other. What do you think have been the barriers between cisgender queer and transgender communities collaborating more for social justice? In what ways has there been progress?

I’m not sure how or if there has been much progress. I’m probably the wrong person to ask. As far as barriers, the trans community is isolated from and misunderstood by cisgender people. Gay cis men are no different. It’s issues of language, class, priorities, privilege, etc., etc., etc. But if you’re asking specifically about cisgender queer people on the whole, I guess there has been some progress. If people identity as “cisgender queer people,” then I figure they at least get that I exist. But most people don’t call themselves that. I don’t think there has been that much progress in the LGB community towards accepting T and Q people. LGB people can be just as invested in upholding gender norms. In fact, if their idea of social justice is acceptance into the larger culture, then T people are really just getting in their way.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Oh god, I don’t know. Don’t take people’s feedback too seriously. If you realize no one is an authority, then you are more open to feedback. Just do your own thing and say what you mean and don’t freak out about being Literary. I agree with something Kurt Vonnegut said: “If you can talk, you can write.” Just tell a story. Write to be understood. Or don’t. I don’t know. Don’t listen to me.


Interview: Amy Stroup of Sugar and the Hi Lows !

Underneath This had the enjoyable experience of interviewing Amy Stroup, a talented solo artist who is also part of the uplifting duo, Sugar and the Hi Los, with Trent Dabbs. Please read more about Sugar and the Hi Lows (adapted from http://sugarandthehilows.com/story) before proceeding to the interview.

Sugar & The Hi Lows are bringing back the epoch of feel good music, the days when one take was sufficient and an auto-tune referred to an automobile. Created and enlivened by experienced songwriter/performers Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup, Sugar & The Hi Lows is a bit of a nostalgic love offering.

Having been raised in Mississippi under the sway of Memphis blues, Dabbs was reared to the tunes of Motown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. “My father used to make blanket statements like, ‘It’s not good if you can’t dance to it,’” he recalls. And though he wasn’t into his father’s sonic selection at the time, he says that style of music has come to evoke a feeling he just can’t get anywhere else.

“The older that I got, I realized how that was kind of seeping into what I loved musically, and it just brings this joy, it brings this happiness,” Dabbs says. “With the climate of everything right now – with the economy – you could write the most depressing songs ever, but I really feel like the world needs light; the world needs lighthearted.”

The happy-go-lucky numbers that evolved into Sugar & The Hi Lows began to form when Dabbs obtained a vintage box amp and sat down in his basement for a regular co-write session with Stroup.

“We got talking about his dad and throwback music from the ‘50s and ‘60s and just like, ‘Why isn’t there that type of music now?’” Stroup recalls. That day, their song “This Can’t Be the Last Time” came in less than two hours. But somehow everything had changed. A new-found creative freedom had been tapped, and the subsequent seven songs for the project fell quickly into place after that.

“We weren’t really trying to treat it like a band,” explains Stroup. “We just wrote this series of songs, but they didn’t feel like an Amy Stroup song or an Amy and Trent duet. It really felt like its own thing.”

With more than 100 TV placements between the two of them, Dabbs and Stroup are certainly no strangers to pop culture, but they’ve chosen to step away from their traditional singer-songwriter sound to pursue something with more of a swing.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming musicians.

I was a self-taught guitar player as a kid, but took piano lessons from second grade on. As a kid every time I learned a new chord I would try and write a new song. I went to college in Nashville and loved the music community, so I started writing and recording. I met a lot of great people including my band mate Trent Dabbs and started trying to make great songs.

How does being in based in Nashville influence your creative process?

Nashville is a rich place for collaborating. There is a special music energy that happens here. I think its one of the best places in the world to create great songs and have them recorded by great players.

Who and what have been other creative influences?

I grew up loving the work of Stevie Nicks, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin to name a few. I remember seeing Lucinda play in Austin, Texas a few years ago and thought ‘I want to be that kick ass when I’m her age.’

How did you decide to form Sugar + the Hi-Lows?

Trent and I were actively co writing for our respective solo projects and we had released a couple of duets together. A couple ended up on Grey’s Anatomy and some other shows. We decided to challenge ourselves to write a project that evoked the same feelings we got from listening to our heroes. We listened to The Chi-Lites ‘Oh Girl’ and tried to write a bundle of songs that felt that good.

In what ways is your music feminist?

I think showing up on a stage, touring, trying to write great songs for people takes bravery and is how I am most feminist. It’s a battle of bravery to be completely yourself as a women and keep creating and moving up in an over sexualized industry. As women we need to keep showing up and writing from our truest perspective and cheering each other on to do the same.

I admire you making lighter, “feel good” music, especially in quite uncertain and scary times. How have fans reacted to your shift in sound from your solo careers?

I’ve seen on my twitter feed, people trying to decide if ‘Sugar’ is ‘Amy Stroup’. I love that. We set out to create a different & believable sound that wasn’t like our solo career, and the feedback is positive so far.

How did this sonic change come about and how do you describe your songs stylistically?

The sonic change came from a change in our writing process. We started with beats many times and an electric guitar. For Sugar songs, it’s about evoking pure joy.

I really enjoy the video for your song, “See It For Yourself” and the song itself. What was the making of that video like?

I remember going to my grandmother’s house the weekend before the shoot and looking at old Hollywood pictures. I was struck by a photo of Greta Garbo holding an umbrella. I talked to my friend Mary Hooper from Milkglass Creative and she helped gather some of the details like the black and white umbrellas and dressed me in a vintage dress she has had for years. We teamed up with our video director friend Becky Fluke. She filmed the entire video by herself. It was very much a friends and family effort which is how much of our music is made as well.

“Snow Angel” is a very beautiful song. What inspired this track and do you perform it year-round?

We both feel there is something special about that one and decided that it might be relevant year round…. We just love singing it really. I still get chills live performing it.

How does performing live compare to recording?

It’s similar in that performing live and in the studio we are trying to evoke emotion and connect with our audience. It drives us in both arenas.

Are there any shows that stand out in your career so far?

We loved this last run with our friend Ingrid Michaelson. Some standouts were playing the sold out Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the first time and also two sold out shows in DC were great. My most unexpected favorite show was Pittsburgh. They were an incredibly loving audience interrupting us in the middle of songs with applause. We had a fan come up to us in tears to tell us never to quit music. Something sweet happened that night.

What was it like recently touring with Ingrid Michaelson?

It was better than summer camp on wheels. She is an incredible, hilarious, smart, gorgeous… there is much to learn from her. Her new album ‘Lights Out’ is stunning.

Which are some favorite songs to perform live?

I loved performing ‘See It For Yourself’ and throwing glitter, its good clean fun. I love, love, love harmonizing…so songs like ‘Show and Tell’ and the new one ‘Right Time To Tell You’ allow for it.

On what projects are you working next as Sugar + the Hi-Lows and within your solo career?

As a solo artist I released a new record called “TUNNEL” in February. I look forward to continuing to play those songs live and releasing videos for the songs. As far as Sugar, we recently played live while the Nashville Ballet danced to some of our songs and some Johnny & June Duets. We recorded the Cash songs along with some new ones and hope to release very soon as well.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Jack White recently said, ‘Anyone who can get people to pay attention for more than a second with musical notes in this age..deserves credit & applause.’ I’d say it’s important to define your success because even two minutes of it takes much hard work …but it’s totally worth it. Our world needs more great songs…get to writing…

Interview: Gord Downie, The Sadies, and the Conquering Sun !

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Dallas Good from Gord Downie, The Sadies, and the Conquering Sun. Please read more about this collaborative band from the bio on their press site Sacks & Co:

Gord Downie, The Sadies, And The Conquering Sun is made up of Mike Belitsky (drums), Sean Dean (bass), Downie (vocals), Dallas Good (guitars, keyboards) and Travis Good (vocals, guitar, mandolin). The highly anticipated project [their self-titled debut album] follows Downie and The Sadies’ first collaboration on a 2006 benefit album for Lake Ontario Waterkeepers. The long-time friends worked on the album over the course of the next seven years, recording with Ken Friesen at The Bathouse in Bath, Ontario. The album was mastered by Bob Rock at Warehouse Studios in Vancouver. All songs are written and produced by Downie and The Sadies.


Please describe the impetus and process of synergizing the creative talents of The Sadies and Gord Downie.

Friendship and a desire to create something that matters.

How does this album compare to records you have made previously? What was it like to make these songs together?

It doesn’t compare to any record we have made. The Sadies make records a certain way and it wasn’t like this. When we collaborate with others, we bend and sway a bit but it’s still sadie and the style (or lack there of) of the band always comes across. These songs were written, recorded and now ultimately performed with the intention of delivering something… else.

This was created as a collection of singles that, fortunately, have a very strong unity and coherence as a whole. Basically we made two songs a year and then two years to mix and master. Or I should say ‘over the course of’… It’d be funny if we spent 7 straight years on this. Ha, what was that Guns and Roses record called? Something about democracy?

I love the opening song, “Crater”, and its video. How did you select this track to start the album?

Thank you very much. It’s a bit of a left turn for sadie and a good example of what I was babbling about earlier. We picked it as the first song because Gord starts it with, “Hello There”. Seems like an appropriate greeting.

Other natural images (e.g., the moon, snowflakes) pervade the album. What are the meanings of these symbols?

Shit, I don’t know. Sorry. You’d have to ask Gord. I’m resisting the urge to just make a bunch of stuff up. We should move on quick.

You have covered “The Stooges” and Roky Erickson. Have these artists been influential to your sound?

In a dream world, they’d be influential to everyone’s sound. I could never sing a song by either artist but they are certainly on the top of the mountain. There’s a fine line between praise and sacrilege. It’s very nice to walk it.

photo credit: Norman Wong

photo credit: Norman Wong

Who and what are your other creative influences?

I definitely like cats a lot. Musically, I’m all over the place. Rest assured, I steal from the best of them.

Your style has been described as punk, rock, psychedelic, and your song “Devil Enough” seems to have elements of alt country. How do you characterize your sound?

Errrr… scratchy? A friend once said, “haunted”. I can live with that.

The last song on your debut, “Saved” has a cinematic quality and conjures up all of these images for me. Have films or other visual media affected the music you make?

Yes. There are many soundtracks that I listen to often and a story is a story no matter how you learn it. Music should conjure images for the listener, literal or non. Sadly, our music conjures demons as well.

If you were going to cover a song by a female artist, which song would you choose and why?

Hmmm, odd. For Gord,Sadie,and CS or for sadie? I don’t sing with Gord so I shouldn’t pick a song for him. Oh, wait a second, I will pick any song that I co-wrote with Neko Case for Gord to sing. That’d be rad and I’ll get a royalty AND I won’t have to learn nothing. If I gotta sing it, I’m gonna pick Shaved Women by Crass because that song has been stuck in my head for over a month now. I sing lots of songs written by women and write lots of songs with women including my mother so ,again, this question feels odd for me to answer but thanks for asking.

How is the tour going?

Aww good. Not really on tour yet but the shows have been really fun so far and it’s gonna pick up soon.

Which projects are you working on next?

Secret. Sorry.

What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?
The only thing that comes to mind is, don’t smoke in bed. That’s probably the best advice I got. Oh and be nice when you can, always to cats.