Interview: Tamar Haviv!

Underneath This had the wonderful opportunity to interview singer-songwriter Tamar Haviv. Her debut album, You and Me Without Pajamas, is made up of beautiful, well-crafted songs with honest lyrics and lovely melodies. She took the time to discuss her songwriting process, feminism, her thoughts on being labeled “quirky,” and the meanings behind her songs. You can find more information about Tamar Haviv at tamarhaviv.com and at the links below.

Tamar Haviv

Photograph courtesy of Ron Haviv/VII, Art by Kazoo Studios

Please describe your path to becoming a musician.

Path! Ah, things are so not linear in my head in that way…there was no path…I’ve just always been writing songs since I was really young, before I knew the language to call a song a song.

Melodies and lyrics would come to me and I would walk around singing. I didn’t realize this meant anything other than ‘this is just one of the things that I do’ – like I didn’t realize that other people didn’t do it…and it took me a while before I let myself really focus in on it and actively make decisions to move towards it – purchasing a guitar etc.

You have moved around a lot. How has that influenced your music?

I was thinking about that recently, I think mostly because my songs on this record are based on my life and relationships and moving around shifts the landscape and timing and can alter the form of things – and also the language and intonation and actual nuance of literal sound in a courtship – so if I’m documenting an interpersonal connection, that will all show itself somehow.

Is your music feminist? If so, how so?

I don’t know if my music comes across as feminist at all – in this moment I am equating an element of feminism with a certain strength. One that can also be shown when expressing vulnerability as well.

There are some empowering moments within these songs, like even in a more crushing heartbreak song like “Arrested,” there is a lyric:

you may be lighter than me
but i’ve seen things
you won’t let yourself see
you may have your phd
but the way that I love.
you can’t even conceive.

But there are also some more disempowering ones, that I wouldn’t want other girls to feel. Like in the song “Peanut butter sandwiches,” there is a lyric:

i think that you are beautiful
and i feel like i’m nothing

All in all, I hope that my songs can help to uplift and empower women. Even in the record’s sometimes sorrowful voice, if a song can resonate with anyone and make them feel less alone, that would be a gift to me.

What have been some highlights of performing live?

I loved performing at Webster Hall as part of the Tinderbox Festival. Also, opening up for Jesse Harris at The Stephen Talkhouse – that was especially sweet because one of my favorite Artists came to see the show that night, Rufus Wainwright. He came to see Jesse Harris and actually missed my set completely but, there is still something tender knowing that he came out to the show that night. Whenever I go hear an artist play I think about all the people from all over the place that are preparing to go see the same show – the collective consciousness of that and how that ties people together in a significant way. So even just the fact that Rufus Wainwright got himself to the same venue as me on the same night was pretty fabulous, I have to say!

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls and Sir Paul McCartney have praised your music. That is quite an endorsement!  Have these artists been influential? Who and what have been other creative inspirations?

Yes, they have been very influential and it is truly humbling having their support.

Other than music, I am very moved and inspired by film and photography, both being in front of the screen as a viewer well as being behind the camera.

Which songs have you or would you like to cover?

There are many to cover in the future, too many to name but you can find one that I have yet to release here on YouTube.

It’s a song you will most likely be familiar with from the musical Grease called “You’re the one that I want” – I did the cover with the brilliant artist Greg Daniel Smith.

How was the title developed?

Well, the whole album explores these intimate relationships – and the title comes from a line off of the title track of the record, “i like you.”

The title is open to interpretation in terms of how deep the listener wants to hear the record as a whole.

I see the title as a bit of a balancing act in itself…strangers coming together and trying to cohabitate and coordinate such delicate and basic daily rituals – can present so much awkwardness, absurdity, beauty, frailty, laughter, love…it’s all kind of amazing & expansive.

The opener to your album contains very little music. What inspired that decision?

I like your questions Sem!

I tend to sing normal wacky silly stuff in my day to day, likely to balance my more serious melancholic reflective nature and my two dear friends had just piled into my car and I simultaneously wrote and sang that little ditty for one of them in the back seat and it just stuck…it didn’t have instrumentation then so, it made sense to keep it that way…

I know the album can feel quite lighthearted at times but, recently actually, my favorite astrologer Eric Francis of Planet Waves was talking about my record on the radio, which was an amazing honor, and he called it “deceptively simple” which I really appreciated. Some of the songs on my record may have a lighter feel but can also touch on darker things. I wouldn’t say that it has a dumbed down quality to it necessarily but some songs definitely do have a simplified way lyrically of expressing some things and  I think ironically that might come from my poetry background. I used to write 6 minute songs describing my feelings towards someone or something, the super details: the intonation of someones voice, a birthmark on their neck etc. But then there finally came a time where I was like, “There are a million ways that I can tell you how beautiful I think you are and how much I want to be nearer to you but instead of the elongated poetics I’m just going to unabashedly tell you, I really like you. There it is.” and that’s actually much more forward and courageous than wearing all of these sweet words in front of that feeling.

I really enjoy “Adore.” What is the story behind that song?

Thank you! “Adore” is pretty word for word – It was a complicated situation because for various reasons I wasn’t able to be forthright about how I was feeling towards this person.

And I think also to myself to some degree. And there is something else quite special to me about this song – the way in which I wrote it is unusual for me – it has happened before, but not many times – where I went to sleep, and woke up in the middle of the night and had the entire song, ALL lyrics & melody I just sang it once into my phone and went back to bed. When I woke up in the morning I hardly remembered it had happened because I REALLY didn’t actively participate in it – it just crept in. I think it had just been brewing on so many levels for me and it was ready. But that’s also what I find so fascinating about songs and songwriting, that sometimes it really is about being a vessel for what’s already there – I guess it’s like those conversations artists have had about sculpting from stone and removing the excess stone that was in the way of the piece to begin with…it’s all perception.

“Orange” has an alternative country vibe at times. How would you describe your style overall? 

“Orange,” that’s one of my favorite songs on the album. You know personally I’m pulled in so many directions musically – I think these songs work well together as a collection and there were many we had to cut because they really didn’t fit the overall feel in the end. Style wise, sure, I’d say this record could be considered ‘left of center, quirky, pop,’ but that’s only to help people get a grasp on it… I’m not sure if trying to quantify genre actually makes meaning.

Your music has also been called, “quirky.” What do you make of this adjective?

Yea, as I was saying, I’m not opposed to “quirky” and it works for me I suppose but, like anything else when we start building squares and titles for who and what and how we are and see each other – it’s important that we also build windows and give each other expansiveness and room to rotate evolve, thrive. We need to be supportive of each other as artists and beings to find our true nature and rise.

“The Good Has Won” blends the personal and political. What worries and inspires you most about the world today?

This is a tough question, without overthinking it…

What worries me most would be that with all the accessible technology today, younger generations will be so isolated, numbed and disconnected from their heart and spirit that they will not know how to make basic human connections with one another in actual real time…Like just the sweet interactions that can happen between strangers…that that ability, sensibility & magic could be lost. What inspires me most…I love seeing all of the amazing talented artists that are coming up right now, their strength and self-expression is thrilling.

What is the meaning of “Girls Away from Girls?”

This song is quite literal – I can say a lot things but, I guess no matter who anyone is in a romantic relationship with, despite the gender of all involved, it’s important to find balance and maintain friendships as well…

Another voice complements yours on “6am.” How was it to harmonize?

The beautiful Frank McGinnis is singing with me on “6am.” His voice is luscious, so it was a complete pleasure singing with him.

He also joins me on the song “Orange.”

In the same song, you write, “I have to laugh at the epitome of what an artist is supposed to be.” Per the media, what are singer-songwriters supposed to be like these days?

Sem, I just need to stop and recognize your tenderness and attention to detail and just the outright loveliness in your work at this moment. I just feel touched by all your incredible listening.

Now, to answer your question!

I don’t know what Singer/Songwriters are SUPPOSED to be like today – my hope would be that they are out there speaking their truth, not being afraid – or being afraid and speaking it anyway – you know how fear goes! I say these things for myself as well. I hope we don’t give up and stop putting our songs and ourselves out there due to lack of funds or a feeling of lack of appreciation – because music and Artists have saved my life over and over again – So I hope Singer/Songwriters are feeling lifted up and nourished.

What has it been like writing about personal experiences?

It’s just always what I have done – the songs are just an extension of my experiences but, every once in a while I do write about a situation that is not mine directly.

On what projects are you working on next?

I’m so excited to start work on my next record & share even more new songs with you!!!!! There is a bit more writing to do and things take time and costs etc. but I am very looking forward to my next new project! And in the meantime there might be more music videos coming soon too! Have you seen this one?

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Explore whatever it is that is most interesting, exciting & delighting to you, despite what those things might be for others.

If you are following your intuition and making artistic choices that resonate and feed you most, ultimately I believe others will be drawn to what it is you are creating.

-Sem

Interview: The Kut!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing The Kut, a basement rock trio from London, England. The band’s energy shines through in the distinctive, melodic tracks on their EP Make Up. You can find more information about The Kut at thekut.co.uk and thekut.bandcamp.com. In our interview, the band discussed the meaning of “basement rock,” the influence of grunge and alternative bands on their sound, their thoughts on sexism in the music industry, and their experience performing at the London 2012 Paralympics and Olympics.

The Kut

Please describe your path to becoming musicians.

Hey, thanks for the interview. For me personally I’ve always been pretty interested in music and singing. I started the piano at age 4 but mainly played it to sing along too. By the time I was about 7 I used to write songs and my dad would always have me on the karaoke at the hotel where I grew up. By the time I was not too old I would sing to full bars of guests, either acapella or with a beat. It was something that was part of my everyday life and that I loved. I think my dad always wanted me to be a singer. By the time I was about 13 I’d been through quite a few instruments and none of them really seemed to suit me or interest me enough to keep up with practicing every day. When I found my sister’s guitar in the other side of the hotel I actually fell in love, though. I used to play for hours and hours a day until my fingers would bleed and then some, eventually learning to strengthen them up using surgical spirit or super glue just to keep on playing. I don’t have a music theory background, though. When I first started with the piano I did follow that, but soon I decided it was better in some ways to make my own way without theory. Even when it came to scales I didn’t want to know them then. Initially I’d use it to write music around songs I’d written the lyrics and melody for, but it soon helped me to write even more songs as I’d be able to use new riffs to inspire me to sing. At 14 I formed my first ever real band. I always knew I wanted to be a performing musician even if I didn’t know how to get there or where it would lead.

You have identified several grunge and alternative bands who have been influential including Hole, L7, The Deftones, Placebo, Nirvana and Faith No More. How does your style reflect these feminine and masculine influences?

We really love these bands and they’ve been really influential in our lives. Like Ali always says in this context, you can’t be what you can’t see. Female bands and, for me, female rock vocalists have always been a really heavy inspiration because of that. But I never really grew up with that whole sexist vibe about oh this is a man’s game, or believing that you can’t play rock because of your gender. That’s only something that’s come up recently because so many people including past band members have had issues with the gender being a key part of what we do. Deftones, Nirvana and Faith No More are all amazing bands too, though. I guess we probably take on some of the grunge sound just as a result of what we’ve listened to, although it’s never a case of that when it comes to writing. The things that inspire me to write a song are very much about the real world – someone that says something profound in passing, an experience, whether social or perceptual, or just the moment when a new melody comes into my head. The longer we’ve been together the more you can see our influences coming out, though, which I have to say I like. Just a few years ago we’d read a ton of great demo reviews that all referred to different acts and no one really knew where to put us in terms of our influences. Now we’ve tried to work on putting out material that’s a bit more cohesive genre-wise and in that way we’ve been through our own development process. Sure it would have been nice to have a major label development deal and a funded block of time in a rehearsal studio to figure that stuff out, but it didn’t come, so we fought through and are now beginning to find our identity as a band. I think it’s an important aspect of where we are now and it’s something we did off our own backs because we love the band and making music.

Underneath This agrees with Maha’s perspective that “it’s a shame that being an all-girl band is still seen as a gimmick.” Why and how do you think that sexism persists, and has there been any progress from your perspective?

There’s definitely positive progress with sexism in the music industry. I don’t personally find it offensive when someone says we are an all female band, because we are, but then when that’s the only focus and it’s not the music, then that’s a problem. It should be about the music first, although our gender does often get picked up on because of the riot grrrl genre too.  I guess there are a few stereotypes about females playing music – probably some of the same ones that you’d see on an anti discrimination campaign. Also as Courtney Love says, there only ever seems to be space for one female in rock at any one time. Its a sad state of affairs because it should be about the music and sure if we can empower other females to get together and pick up instruments then that has to be a good thing too. I guess that we’d never want to be known for just being an all female band, we want to be known for our music first and then because we are female too.

In what ways is your music feminist?

The thing is that our music isn’t feminist…Sure we are pro-equality but our music is about other things, about life and experiences.

Maha has also said, “We love female fronted acts, but for us the focus has always been the music.” Please say more about this.

In terms of the acts we love we are always getting compared to other bands because they are female fronted or all female bands, and while we do love female fronted bands, we are more in love with just writing songs, playing gigs etc. We see each other all the time, it’s not new for us that we are an all female band if you know what I mean, so it’s something we feel is really natural and normal to us. When we step into the outside world, i.e. out of the rehearsals and gigs, we get a lot of comments on it which are great. But then when we get compared to other bands based on their look and genre it doesn’t seem to make sense. We do have a lot of influences in our songs so for a music fan they are there to pick up on.

How does being in England influence the music that you make?

The UK has a great music scene as far as we’ve experienced. In some ways because we are a small country we can travel easier and now get around to a few cities repeatedly across the year. It’s a great thing for us. That said, we listen to a lot of American bands, and the grunge scene is a big influence on us and the music we play. We’d love to get out and tour abroad though. It’s something we haven’t done yet and it’s now a case of finding the right agent to help us to do that.

The Kut

You have described your style as “basement rock.” What does this designation mean?

I think it was something that stuck with us from a while back where we were reviewed as a basement rock band, probably because we used to rehearse in a basement in a party place over in New Cross in South East London. We were always the band in the basement mixing it up with a load of styles. Although we’ve definitely locked down our sound more now, at the time we used to genre hop a lot more. Some of the tracks in the set were ska influenced or with breakbeats – some of that we’ve still managed to get in the set in tracks like DMA with the ska riff in the chorus and Mario with the breakbeats in the verses. Basement rock for us was a way of combining those elements in rock without being straight up rock and without not being rock. It was just the ability to experiment with our sound within the rock genre.

What were you up to in the nearly four year span between recording music?

Haha yeah I know…I’m hearing you! It was a big gap, we’d just released the Closure video and it was on NME TV (RIP) – it was a great channel. We’d been given our own one hour show and it was going to be really exciting to put it all together. Things were really kicking off for us. We started to speak with Dennis Ryder, who managed Ugly Kid Joe and Evanescence and he’d got us in touch with the head A&R at Warner. We were told they loved the tracks, feeling they were really strong songs, and that they wanted to see us live. It was like a big weight lifted but suddenly we weren’t recording. Sure we were doing a lot of demos, but there wasn’t any real movement on taking them and getting them professionally recorded. We’d also had some bad experiences with producers in the past, and I will tell you, there are a lot of sharks out there when it comes to the industry and money! We just couldn’t afford to work with someone who wasn’t going to do our tracks justice. We focused on gigs, rehearsing and a lot of frustration came into play. It was really a tough time because what we really needed to be doing was recording and releasing more songs! It became a long stint of nothing and something I’m only just getting over now. We were back in the studio yesterday though, so that’s got to be positive. We won’t be letting it happen again!

I am really enjoying your new EP, “Make Up.” How did you develop the title?

Hey thanks a lot. We really wanted to put a collection out that showed a few of the new tracks, but also had some of the older stuff on there. Make Up is an emotional track for me personally. It’s not particularly the lead track – in my opinion that is No Trace, but No Trace wasn’t even a song when we decided to record an EP. Make Up was one of the tracks that says a lot about the frustration and hiding your emotions, to not let the world know how bad things are. It was a cover up story. When we saw the cover, someone had sent a portfolio of art to Criminal Records. When we saw that it looked like it was the perfect cover for us, and the designer, Echobeatstudios added all our info to it and made the art.

One of my favorite tracks on that album is “Mario.” What is the story behind that song?

That’s great! We love playing that song. It’s probably our most Jane’s Addiction track we have on the record. We were having a mess about in rehearsals and I was playing the Super Mario theme song on the guitar. One thing led to another and we were in the midst of a full blown jam. It had a great energy and after we got the sound down it was where it was. The lyrics were about the frustration and the feeling of fighting back against it. We can’t be the only people who were made a lot of promises and felt fed up at the system and everything in it. It was the realisation we were on the verge of a personal and culture based revolution.

What are some of your favorite songs to cover?

Hm, we haven’t really done many covers, but we have played Love Buzz and the Distillers once or twice. Oh and of course L7’s Pretend We’re Dead : )

How was performing at the London 2012 Paralympics and Olympics?

The London Olympics was a great experience for us. Initially we were selected to play at a pitch at the London Olympics by the Teenage Rampage Foundation. It was a lot of fun, and after we played we were invited back by the stage bookers to play on one of the main stages in the Paralympics. It was a great thrill for us! It was a shame we couldn’t invite our friends, though, because it was all sold out, but the stage was awesome! We had no idea it would be such a big one, and as we approached it was like a huge pod. It wasn’t until I saw the pictures after that I realised how awesome and futuristic it looked. We had a great show and it’s something we would have never had the opportunity to do if it wasn’t for the Teenage Rampage Foundation.

What have been some other highlights of performing?

I guess it goes in circles, but at the moment we are getting to travel a lot and hang out. We are best mates, so if we can just go out to different places, hang out, meet new people and go away with a few pounds in our pockets, it’s all a highlight really. I love playing live and the heckles from within the band. We all believe in each other as musicians and performers. There’s something very special about being proud of your band mates and rocking out together.

So far, what insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Right now I’d say, it’s a tough long slog if you want to make music your career – but don’t let the world hold you back and if you believe in something, just go for it, fight for it. Don’t give up! But also, listen to what people around you say…don’t be blinkered, and take on everything, even your critics – not to the point that it breaks you down, but just so you know the difference between reality and ideals. Music is a path for people who can’t live any other way. It’s not something you choose.

What is next for your creatively?

We were back in the studio with our producer James LeRock Loughrey. He produced the three new tracks on our EP and we are really excited about how these new ones are going to sounds. We will go in next week to work on these and put down bass and vocals and see how it shapes up.  We managed to record four new songs we’ve added in the set in the last four months. One of which we just did yesterday and never even played out or in a rehearsal. It’s going to be exciting and good to be going out there with some brand new ones plus Hollywood Rock n Roll which is one we’ve been playing out for a while now. After that we are working on getting out more videos and a new EP for the new year. In the meantime I guess we will just keep our heads down and get as many gigs in as we can.

-Sem and Strike

Interview: Holly Elle!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Holly Elle, a Canadian musician who launched her career in Nashville, Tennessee. Her EP Leopardess showcases her powerful voice and strong songwriting ability. She is able to connect with audiences through well-crafted songs infused with honesty. In her song “Freak,” she sends a strong message of inclusion that has resonated with LGBT audiences. She also incorporates humor in her work, as can be seen in the revenge fantasy video for the song “Seeing Red.” You can find more information about Holly Elle at her website. You can also listen to her new single, “Lifeline,” below.

In our interview, Holly Elle discussed her personal journey, the story behind Leopardess, her experience performing at Atlanta Pride, and the power of music as a tool for social justice.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.

That has the potential to be a very long story. I’ll start by saying I have always been a musician. Your calling in life, that thing that you feel like you have to do – you are already that thing – regardless of whether you are paid for it or even recognized for it. That’s my philosophical answer. When was I good enough at it to pursue it as a full-time career? In 2009, after I was finished school I decided to put all of my energy into making it work as a career.

How does being from a small town near Calgary influence the music that you make?

Every single part of who I am and where I have been influences my music. More specifically though, I grew up in the country, so until I could drive I couldn’t really go that far, physically. So I learned to make my own fun. It fed my imagination.

In what ways has being in Nashville affected your creative process?

When I first moved here I tried for a bit to “fit in.” I did some country shows in cowboy boots and then I was like “what am I doing?” I realized I could still be me here.

It has been interesting to learn how songwriting and business operate differently in country music, and how in many ways all music is the same. It’s been a learning experience.

Most importantly, I love Nashville and feel like it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, so that has done wonders for my creative process.

Who and what have been other influences?

I have been influenced by many genres of music over vast periods of time, too many to name. From Broadway to Britpop, Country to Opera, Disco to Dance, you name it. My favorite and biggest influences are The Beatles, Mariah Carey, and my family.

You have said, “The whole point of making music is for me to connect.” Indeed, your songs seem to be conversations with audiences. How are you able to create that dialogue?

I think the point of life is to connect, so the work that anyone does, no matter what it is, is important to that end. I do it by being completely honest. Whatever I’m feeling in my life comes through in my writing. Sometimes very deliberately, sometimes I have absolutely no clue how something came out of me. But you can always bet there’s someone else out there that feels the same way.

How are your personal and social identities influential to your art?

My personal journey absolutely informs my art. The fact that I am speaking from my own unique vantage point as a human being, makes my voice special. The best part is that that’s true for everyone. We all have a special unique voice we can create with.
Man you guys are really bringing out the Buddha in me. If you want to take it there, let’s get deep…

Another theme important to you is “no Labels, no rules, no limits.” What does this mean for you stylistically?

It’s just a catchy motto to sum up a much greater philosophy, which is my personal philosophy of life. As a pop artist I like to take more complicated sentiments and make them simplified and universal, and therefore accessible to everyone. To me, if I can just remember these 3 things as I go through life and make decisions, I’ll be cool. Want an even simpler one? “All you need is love” (but that one was already taken).

How do you incorporate your formal music training with creative instincts?

I let it all go, one hundred percent. I trust that it will be there for me as a tool when I need it, but I never even think about it. I have learned that the less thinking I do the better, when it comes to letting creativity flow.

Holly Elle

Your song and video “Freak” have spoken to LGBTQ+ people in particular. How do you see music having a social justice function?

Music can change the world. That’s already been proven. It’s a powerful force that can express where we’ve been, what we’re going through, and where we’re going. It brings people together, it moves us, and people who are united in a cause they feel strongly about can do anything.

What was it like performing at Atlanta Pride?

It was fun and exciting, and it was an honor. I’ve performed to audiences who get it, and audiences who don’t. When they get it, it’s a nice feeling. They got it.

In what ways is your music feminist?

Hmm I don’t know about this word “feminist”, it’s not my favorite. Along the way it’s picked up some unintended connotations. Do I believe women are powerful and equal and independent? Yes. That’s what being a Leopardess is all about. When I wrote that EP I had finally discovered my full power as a woman. Now I want to go on to find even more power as a person. I’m thinking about uniting rather than dividing. Woman vs. man? Is that even an issue anymore? It’s not on my radar.

I am enjoying your latest EP, “Leopardess.” How did you develop the title?

Thank you! I’m kind of a word nerd. I love words and I like to try and expand my vocabulary. If I’m reading a book and discover a word I don’t understand, I must look it up. So with my last two EP’s I wanted to have the titles be single, interesting words people wouldn’t necessarily know the meaning of.

To me, Leopardess represented a single solitary powerful female, which was exactly how I felt at the time. It summed up that important point in my life where I knew what I wanted and I was able to take charge. The other title was Infinitude. I challenge you to go look it up. You’ll love what you find.

How was the experience of working with producer Isaac Hasson?

It was fantastic. I had never met him before so I was unsure and a bit nervous going in, but I had faith it would work out. Boy did it ever. We connected immediately and the song, “Lifeline” flowed easily. What a relief!

The opener, “Predator” is quite energetic and feels anthemic. What is the story behind the line, “you think you’re the predator but you’re the prey?”

In that story it’s about a woman playing coy to a man. Letting him think that he’s the one in charge, when we all know who’s really in charge.

I like how you incorporate humor into your video for “Seeing Red.” What was the experience of making that video?

I incorporate humor into everything I do, may I just say. It’s so important to laugh, especially at yourself, that’s what will get you through the tough times.

Making that video was exactly as fun as it looks; it was a blast. I had a director who really understood the message of the song and the vision for the video (Greg Welsh, Toppa-Poppa-Jons Productions). He was so enthusiastic that those of us working on it couldn’t help but be carried away by that incredible energy. Plus, who doesn’t like being silly?

“Who I Am” seems to have a more reflective feel. What message(s) were you trying to convey on that song?

I’m always reluctant to explain too much what the message or the story behind a song is, because the truth is that I want each person to get the message they need out of it, and that could be many different things. But in the interest of not being a pain in the ass, one interpretation could be: hey, this is me, take it or leave it. This is what I need from you in this relationship, hand it over or hit the road.

So far, what insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

If you’re a musician, be a musician. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission, approval, or validation, it ain’t comin’.

What is next for you creatively?

I don’t know, isn’t that what makes life so exciting?! I do know that I’ll be heading out to LA to get in the studio very soon, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of that and to share it with all of you!

-Sem

Interview: Michael Harren!

Underneath This had the enjoyable experience of interviewing talented musician Michael Harren. To learn more about Michael and his music, please check out michaelharren.com before proceeding to the following interview.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.

I always loved music when I was a kid and sang in various choirs. I had a kid’s electric organ back then too, I loved to play mini-concerts for my family, mainly just short songs I had figured out by ear. One Christmas when I was around 13 years old, my mom bought the family a piano and I took to it immediately. I taught myself to read music, and then I started taking lessons. My teacher and I didn’t get along so well, so I stopped taking lessons after a couple of years, but I continued playing. I played for the choir at my High School in Tyler, TX, and in a band I had formed with some friends.

After I graduated from High School I had a really hard time deciding to study music. I had gotten the message pretty distinctly that there was little chance of making a living as a musician, so I chose to study Radio Television Production instead. Of course, I wasn’t all that interested in it and wound up flunking out of college during my first year, mostly due to my preferred career as an alcoholic and a drug addict.

I played in a few bands during that time, but it wasn’t till I sobered up in 1994 that I started to take piano seriously. I went back to college and studied piano performance and music composition. First at Houston Community College, then at University of Houston. I pretty quickly became connected with some theaters in Houston and started musical directing, and got some pretty steady gigs as a pianist.

How does being based in Brooklyn influence the music that you make?

I have become involved in some really interesting work here and gotten connected with great people just because of physical proximity. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn have a surprising “small town” feel, which has really served to push me out of the somewhat introverted way I live my life. For example, I met performer and intuitive Victoria Libertore at a coffee shop one block from my apartment, and seeds of Tentative Armor was written in her Archetypal Performance class. She’s also become a spiritual mentor, much of that practice (meditation, channeling etc…) informs my music and inspires new ideas I would not have had.

I’ve found that other musicians here have a spirit of openness and camaraderie I did not expect. People are always sending each other work, and sharing knowledge with one another, where I was expecting the music world to be a bit more competitive. I’ve learned so much from others who are just interested in sharing and being excited about creating new work in new ways.

In what ways do your social and personal identities affect your art?

I want to say that being queer, sober and vegan are the most prominent identities, though I can’t really think of how they affect my art. I have gone through a bit of a journey with how I relate with mainstream gay culture. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone from immersing myself in gay culture, then rejecting it completely, to where I am now — I feel more relaxed about needing to identify with any specific group. Truth be told, I think that process has really affected and shaped me as an artist where I feel safe to create what I am creating without TOO much concern with where this work lands. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care if this work resonates with anyone else, but I feel in a good enough place as a human to know that it isn’t necessarily my business whether other people like what I’m doing.

You skillfully synthesize aspects of classic musical with more electronic sounds. What inspired that combination?

The music I first fell in love with was what I was listening to as a teenager in the 80’s, I was really fascinated with synthesizers so I would consider that the root of my interest in composing electronic music. My first thought about my inspiration for combining electronics and acoustic instruments was Talk Talk’s 1984 album “It’s My Life.” I distinctly remember the first time I noticed that what I first thought of as a synth based album actually had some sprinklings of acoustic guitar and trumpet and various other instruments. I think it adds an interesting depth and character to the way things sound to combine the precision of electronics with the fallibility and imperfection of acoustic instruments.

One of your most recent singles, “Go” sounds like it could be in a musical. What is the story behind that song?

I was getting ready for my first reading of Tentative Armor at Judson Church. At the time, the show ended with a piece called “Five Tasks of Grief” which is the story of caring for my mom while she was dying of cancer. I wanted the show to end on a more uplifting note, so I wrote this song as an ending. It turned out to be a really heartbreaking song, inspired by a moment I had with my mom where I knew she was really suffering and I wanted to find a way to help her let go. I hope the song has an uplifting quality too in the way that it affirms that we really all are on this earth temporarily and embracing grief is an important part of embracing being alive.

I love the title, “Tentative Armor.” What does it mean?

To me, “Tentative Armor” talks about the idea of wanting to keep my distance others while still craving some kind of intimacy. Some of the stories in the show talk about just that. It could be not waking someone up on the subway who fell asleep on my shoulder, or having an anonymous sexual encounter in order to experience some level of intimacy while still protecting myself.

What was it like performing that show and making the related album?

Performing this material, especially the first time, was terrifying. I had written and composed all of the music in the safety of my apartment, and only a small handful of people had heard any of it. I had limited experience as a solo performer, having spent most of my time behind the piano playing for other people. Accomplishing that though, was really inspiring and motivation, especially considering that it was well received. Each performance of it since then has been a step toward taking bigger risks as a performer.

I am still in the process of finishing the album, and it is another set of firsts for me. The pieces on the album are like old friends by now, but I am mixing the album myself which presents its own sets of challenges. I’m happy with how it is all going, but it’s sloooooow!

How did the related book come about?

My long time friend luke kurtis had the idea for the book. He and I met on a Yoko Ono fan site in the late 90s and have been friends ever since. He came to the performances of the show and told me over coffee one afternoon about his idea to create the book and incorporate some of his photos into the book. I was really thrilled, because I felt it would be the perfect thing to pair with an album. Standing outside of the show, I was afraid the music and spoken word pieces wouldn’t work as audio recordings. The book is really going to pull things together and luke’s design is just beautiful.

What have been some highlights from performing live?

The first reading of the show was so outstanding for me. So many more people came to that performance than I expected and I really had no idea how people would react. I was really thrilled to have such a great response, especially from people who I didn’t know. There was a woman who came up and spoke to me after the show about “Five Tasks of Grief.” She told me that she was caring for her terminally ill Grandfather. She hadn’t had anyone to talk about what she was going through, so she hearing me tell the story about caring for my mom helped her feel like she wasn’t so alone. That was the first moment that I realized that there was some value to others in doing this type of work. I think speaking with that woman was the highlight of the whole process so far.

How has it been working and touring with Sandra Bernhard?

All in all it has been really fun. I was quite intimidated for the first few shows because I had been a fan of hers since probably the late 80’s when I saw Without You I’m Nothing on the big screen. One of the things that surprised me the most was how gracious she is toward me as a fellow artist. Seeing how hard she works is really eye-opening, and lit a fire under my ass. It’s really challenging showing up at different venues not knowing what to expect from the sound, the space, the piano and often not exactly sure what music she is going to want to do. That part of it especially has made me grow quickly as a musician. I feel like I am much more willing to experiment and go with the flow than I was before I started working with her. Knowing how hard she works in every part of her life, I am much less likely to allow myself to be lazy as far as what I need to do in order to get my solo career where I want it.

I love your song, “Invocation.” It seems to combine elements of spoken word. How did you put together that song?

Oh wow, this song has had a long journey. It was rhythmically inspired by a Steve Jansen song called “Captured Through A Quiet Window.” I loved the way that song has a rhythmic spaciousness. I figured out the time signature was something like 11/8 and I set to programming a drum pattern that had the same kind of feel, that’s basically how it sounds now, those big clunky drums. Once I started writing out the string parts I realized that I had made a mistake and actually written the piece in alternating measures of 10/8 and 12/8. Which gave it an even “floatier” feel to me.

A melody emerged out of that and then the different layers of synths. The first time I performed it, it didn’t have any vocals at all, they showed up for the second reading of the show, That middle part with the improvisational singing really feels like channeling to me, when I get out-of-the-way of it anyway. It’s a voice that emerges at the end of the show after all of the various challenges and realizations. the text in the beginning came to me in this moment of auto-writing, and it really is the message of the show to me. Kind of like: “you are here, perfectly ready to move on to the next thing. Let’s go!”

You have performed at Judson Memorial Church, which is known for its social justice work. Have you been involved with activist or other social justice efforts, and if so, which?

I am a pretty outspoken vegan and animal rights advocate, well aware of the fact that I need to put more action into my activism. I like to have vegan food and animal rights info at my shows, and I recently organized a fundraiser for For The Animals Sanctuary. Before I left Texas I covered some issues about the death penalty on my podcast at mikeypod.com. I covered the events leading up the heartbreaking execution of Frances Newton in 2005. I spent some time as an intern at Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, which was the birthplace of Habitat For Humanity. I have to admit that this question has me feeling uncomfortably aware of how that work is comparatively absent in my life now. I need to open more space in my life for this again.

Did or do you have any other career aspirations outside of music?

I have been teaching music for many years now, but that’s the only other thing outside of music, and I actually teach music. Haha, I guess the answer to that is “no.” 🙂

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Just keep making and performing and doing what you want to do no matter what!

What is next for you creatively?

I am not quite sure. I have a couple of new spoken word pieces that I will be performing at my album release show here in NYC. Those may shape up into another show. I am really interested in gathering my more musical (aka less theatrical) pieces of work and start doing more straight up concert gigs. I’ll be experimenting with what that feels like at the album release show on October 14th as well.

Thanks for the interview!

You’re welcome and thank you for having me!

-Sem

Interview: Tan Vampires!

Underneath This just enjoyed interviewing Tan Vampires, a very talented band based in New Hampshire.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming musicians.

Most of the band participated in public school music programs in some way as kids, and a number of us studied music in college. We’ve all been playing in numerous bands since high school or before.

How did Tan Vampires form and how did you decide upon the band’s name?

I (Jake) wrote a batch of songs shortly after a previous band I was in broke up that I felt were worth developing into a new project. I knew the rest of the guys in the band through various past shared musical experiences, and also from our connection to the local NH seacoast music scene.

The name was just kind of a silly thing I had kicking around that I thought was memorable. Of course, shortly after I started performing under the name, vampires had a pretty big pop-culture moment, and I considered changing it, but ultimately decided since I’d had it first I wasn’t going to give it up.

How does being from New Hampshire affect the music that you make?

The music scene where we live is really special. The community is fairly small, and extremely close-knit. Despite being small, we have an incredibly diverse spectrum of musical styles and a disproportionately high level of talent. There’s a ton of cross-pollination happening, with many musicians playing in multiple groups and projects. I think this environment has allowed us to explore a lot of different musical avenues and take risks because the community encourages and supports individuality.

Who and what have been your principle creative influences?

This question would probably elicit very different responses from each of us. I’ve always read pretty ravenously, and my approach to songwriting and lyrics has always been rooted in some way to my sensibilities as a writer. Musically I’m all over the place. I studied jazz and classical music for a while, and I have an enduring love for soul and Motown, as well as punk, hardcore, and hip-hop.

Your music has generally been described as indie rock. What do you make of this designation?

I’m not sure indie means anything to the general public anymore. I recently read a review of a friend’s band (who are on a major label) where they were referred to as “indie.” I think that the fact that a band on a major label can be referred to as “indie”, without irony and with seemingly no awareness of the literal meaning of the word, indicates that the word has lost whatever descriptive power it may once have possessed.

In the context of what we do, well, I do consider us indie in the sense that we are independent. We are not signed to a label, our records have all been recorded, produced, and paid for by the band. We are not indebted to anyone else, financially or otherwise, and as such we are able to keep complete creative control over everything we do.

As for the “rock” part, it’s sometimes true, but I don’t feel beholden to it. I’m too interested in exploring different ideas to be beholden to any one genre.

In what ways is your creative work feminist?

One way is the way I consciously try to write from (and expose myself to) a perspective that is bigger than just “straight, white, and male.” That would be pretty dull and unrewarding, both for myself and for the audience. That being said, I don’t have a specific social or political agenda with my music.

How have your social identities informed your music?

I can’t speak for everyone on this one, but for me, having been a painfully shy, pretty nerdy kid, I think I ended up spending a lot of time in solitude: reading, writing, and practicing. If I had been more comfortable in my own skin I might have had more of a social life and maybe ended up not being as deeply invested in music as I am. It’s hard to say.

One of my favorite songs by you is “Digital Rot” off your debut album. What inspired that track?

Desperation and alcohol, mostly. I actually wrote that song about a week before we went in the studio to record what became “For Physical Fitness.” We had a bunch of songs, but nothing that felt like a really strong opening track for an album.

So, on a Saturday night ( I think we were going in the studio on Tues, or Wed) I drank about 2/3 of a bottle of bourbon at home by myself and all this terminology and imagery that I can only guess comes from my early 90s school computer classes started to come out.

I worry sometimes about the pace of technological progress and my own ability to keep up, especially as I get older, and I guess a lot of those feelings were coming out in songs on that record.

So I recorded a rough demo of the tune, and then must have passed out and forgotten about it until the band got together on Monday when one of the guys said “I think that song might work as an album opener” and I said “what song?”

And I think the version on the record was maybe the third or fourth time we ever played through the song together as a band.

You are quite adept at telling stories via music. What are the stories behind “Fake Southern Drawl,” “Secret Carnivore,” and “The Season has Come.”

I don’t often write about specific experiences in my life, and if i do it’s usually not in a direct fashion. I consider what I write to be fiction. Writing lyrics is a way for me to explore fictional scenarios, sometimes fantastical ones, that I otherwise might not experience. I consider it my job to make those works of fiction emotionally resonant.

I love the juxtaposition of mundane and unexpected images in the video for “Into the West” off your latest album, Ephemera. What was it like to make this video?

We really have to give credit for that video to Jeremy Collins (jeremyscollins.com) who also directed our video for “Digital Rot.” He came up with the concept and made it happen. We knew from working on “Digital Rot” with him that he had cool ideas and the talent and work ethic to execute them. So, basically we just signed off on his concept and showed up to film cameos.

It’s a fun way for us to do things, to let someone else take the reins, because it allows us to experience our own music in a fresh way when we see the video for the first time and see how the ideas have taken shape.

The artwork of that album is beautiful. How did it come about?

I believe Nick (Phaneuf, our guitar player) came across Taylor’s art hanging somewhere in Portsmouth, NH. She has a great, whimsical, illustrative style (taylorrosemakesart.com) and we felt like she could really express the quality of nostalgia that is so present in the songs on that record.

We asked her to come up with concepts, and she came back with a bunch of ideas. Then we worked with her to narrow down the focus, and she took our vague (and probably conflicting) ideas and managed to turn them into the beautiful artwork on the album.

What were some highlights of playing at South by Southwest for the first time?

We got to play some great shows with some great bands like Deer Tick, and the Felice Brothers. We even got to play a Spurs v. Lakers game in San Antonio with Mobb Deep while we were there.

One of my favorite things about SXSW was having so many friends from all over in the same place at the same time, which doesn’t really happen in the everyday real world.

Several months ago, we interviewed Wilder Maker. What is it like performing with them in Portland, Maine?

I believe our friend Jeff Beam invited us to play that show. Portland is a great town with a really vibrant music scene. We love playing there, especially when we get to be on such good bills.

Would or have you ever covered a Vampire Weekend song? 🙂

We have not. We actually don’t really do covers in this band. I’ve been known to play a few when I perform solo gigs, but I usually only cover songs written by friends. I suppose if I ever meet the guys in Vampire Weekend and become friends with them, their music would be fair game.

On what projects are you working currently?

We’ve got a bunch of new songs that we’re in the process of figuring out how to record/release. We were in the studio about a few weeks back tracking some of them, and we’ll probably be back soon to continue. We’ll make an announcement when we have plans to release something,

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Do it because you love it. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed. Also, don’t expect anyone else to help you. You’ve got to be prepared and willing to do everything on your own.

-Sem

Do Music and Politics Still Mix in the U.K?

Another great post by the talented Owen!

musicandotherthingz.com

You hear quite often that music and politics don’t mix and that is the reason why musical innovation has slowed, as we all look back and borrow from times when they did mix. For the most part that is true, but it is not universal by any means. It might not even be intentional if the listener makes that connection to a political happening, then it is a political song for them and may sway them to whatever debate they are interested in. It might not be as direct as ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday by Lennon and John Lydon might not be snarling ‘God Save The Queen’ to us all, but you’d be surprised what you find and don’t assume that musicians are automatically out and out liberals still either.

Most of these are in direct or indirect relation to Scottish Independence, E.U membership or general distaste with Mr Cameron and his Bullingdon Chumps…

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Single Review – Julian Casablancas and The Voidz – Human Sadness

musicandotherthingz.com

Julian Casablancas + The Voidz | photo via spin.com
After what has seemed like an eternity, we finally have something solid from Julian Casablancas and The Voidz. We now have an album title in Tyranny and a release date of September 23rd. On top of this, there is now a track listing of twelve songs with titles such as ‘Xerox’, ‘Nintendo Blood’, ‘Crunch Punch’ and ‘Human Sadness’, which is today’s release. It is the most un-Julian track you could imagine at eleven minutes long and opens with strings that are set aside Julian’s more harmonious yet distorted vocal. It is joined by heavy jumps sample driven jolts and high voltage lead guitars that are layered over the steady rotating riff rhythms. The song then begins to take hard base punches as the vocals rise in volume conclude a controlled chaos sort of opening as it filters down into a reverberating and distant sound with Julian’s vocal before launching to immediacy…

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