Elizabeth Joy Roe – A pianist of worldly class

I think many musicians are attracted to their own instrument.  Listening to violinists always feels familiar, and I can get inside their fingers and their head as I hear them play.  But listening to Elizabeth Joy Roe broke down all my instrumental barriers and made me just hear – and it was magnificent.  Her performance at the Esperanza Foundation benefit where we met was mesmerizing, and I am thrilled to have her as a seed for the project.

How did you get started playing music?

I was lucky to grow up in a family of music-lovers. There was always music playing in the house – on the radio, cassettes, and TV. Some of my earliest musical memories involve me and my younger sister Jackie singing lively duets of songs from animated cartoon shows, like “Garfield” and “Jem.” We eventually moved on to the complete Beatles oeuvre! In the car, we listened to the oldies station a lot (let’s just say that in grade school I preferred the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel to what was popular at the moment, like the New Kids on the Block!). I suppose some musical blood or propensity runs in my family: my mother played the violin during her childhood, and in high school she conducted her high school choir. I also have two aunts who teach music. Both of my sisters are very musical as well, becoming quite accomplished at the violin and cello, respectively. When I was five years old, I followed in my older sister’s footsteps and started taking violin lessons. Less than a year later, at age six, I switched to the piano and instantly fell in love; for some reason I took an instant preference to the keyboard over the fingerboard! Around the same time, my sisters and I became obsessed with a TV documentary about the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Competitions. Though piano lessons started off as an innocent hobby, it soon became a fixation, and by the time I was ten, I knew I wanted to become a concert pianist.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I didn’t purchase this on my own (I think my older sister bought it), but the first album that I recall affecting me indelibly was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first classical album that I acquired was a disc of Mozart piano concerti played by pianist Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Having been trained in the classical genre, I primarily play music from the standard solo piano and piano concerto canon, which is extraordinarily vast and stylistically diverse. Additionally, I enjoy playing music of our time and I’ve premiered several contemporary compositions. I also collaborate with other musicians, playing chamber music of both the standard and avant-garde varieties. With my piano duo partner, I have co-created and performed a great deal of original arrangements for four hands at one or two pianos. Contrary to the stereotypical image of classical music as always serious and archaic, I would describe the music I play as panoptic of the human experience, and regardless of when the music was composed, I would emphatically assert that it remains utterly relevant, resonant and timeless.

Is there a particular repertoire you are most attracted to?

I consider myself quite broad-minded in my musical affinities, i.e. I’m not a specialist who concentrates on a single period or composer. My tastes run the gamut: I’ve been drawn to everything from the pre-baroque era to the present day. Also, my tastes have changed over time, and even from day to day! That said, I consistently love the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Messiaen, Ligeti, and the composers from the Romantic era (Chopin, Brahms, Scriabin, etc., etc.). If I had to choose just one composer out of all eras, I would say J.S. Bach – he is the ultimate composer.

As a pianist you play primarily solo – did recording a piano duet album influence the way you play by yourself?

Although solo performances comprise a major part of my career, I actually collaborate on a regular basis with other musicians, especially with Greg Anderson, my piano duo partner. To be sure, playing with him and others has definitely compelled me to listen more acutely, and the art of listening is arguably the most crucial element to playing well.  Teaching is another activity that has transformed the way I play and practice; in articulating my interpretative and technical approaches to my students, and sharing with them my passion for exploration and personal expression, I’ve learned so much about my own artistic process and about the challenges we collectively face every time we look at a score, sit down to practice, or walk onstage. Teaching has helped bring greater awareness, clarity, creativity, and integrity to my own playing.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I think about this all the time, as I love looking at music within a larger context. I suppose the connections I draw between my music and non-musical entities depend on the nature of each piece, and also on my particular impressions in the moment.  I’ve found connections between music and artwork, nature, language, literature, poetry, mythology, architecture, archaeological monuments, historical events, the five senses, physics, chemistry, biology, food and cooking, the weather, the cosmos, human ideas and emotions…the list is virtually limitless! I think the reason for this is that music is one of those marvelously all-encompassing things that captures life in all its mundaneness and profundity; it can conjure up very specific images as well as the abstract and ineffable. For this phenomenon alone I find music endlessly fascinating!

Is there another instrument or genre you wish you performed as well as classical music?

I have a lot of admiration for highly skilled jazz musicians, and I wish I could improvise as brilliantly as they do. Even more so, I’ve always wanted to be in a band – it’s been a lifelong, if somewhat covert, fantasy of mine! I’d love to be able to play the guitar, and I imagine it would be an exhilarating rush to rock out on a vast arena stage with lights and amps and a big crowd singing and cheering along…. As it is, I occasionally write songs in my spare time, and of course, there’s always karaoke!

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

There are so many people who have inspired me throughout my life: my family, teachers, friends, colleagues, and mentors. Musically, I would say that the pianist Glenn Gould has had a powerful impact on me. I discovered his legendary 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when I was 12 (an impressionable age indeed), and his incisive, vital, individualistic playing electrified me. As soon as I heard this album, I went about gathering as much information as I could about him: biographies, his own writings, video footage, and, of course, his immortal recordings.  During my first trip to London in 1996 I remember finding an amazing collection of photographs of him, and I bought the book immediately (it is now prominently displayed on a bookshelf in my teaching studio). Those iconic images of him – sitting low at the keyboard, hand in the air conducting whilst playing, mouth open in song, head thrown back in ecstasy – mesmerized me and shaped my own approach to the instrument. I was also intrigued by his idiosyncratic interpretations, impassioned opinions, eccentric persona, and almost monastic devotion to his art. I’ve admired so many artists over the years, but the singular genius of Glenn Gould stands out as particularly influential. In the non-classical genre, I have been most inspired by the Beatles: I could go on and on about the impact they’ve had on me since my childhood, but simply put, I’m still in awe of the infinite creativity, range, and vision of their timeless songs.

If you could perform with any musicians (dead or alive), who would it be?

In no particular order: Jacqueline du Pré, Gustavo Dudamel, Christian Ferras, Renée Fleming, Leonard Bernstein, Ian Bostridge, Michael Tilson Thomas, the Kronos Quartet, Carlos Kleiber, the Berlin Philharmonic, Alfred Cortot, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Thom Yorke….These are just several artists and ensembles on my long list of “dream collaborators”!

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I’m drawn to songs that give me the “shivers” – that indescribable frisson, you know? I’m attracted to songs that hit me viscerally: the ones that make want to sing and dance, laugh and cry, reminisce and wonder. Basically, I want to be moved. Sometimes I’ll love a song for its lyrics (whether they’re poignant, whimsical, poetic, or straightforward) but usually I’m more attuned to a song’s chordal and textural elements, its sonic landscape.  Often it’s the contour of a melody, a specific vocal timbre, or a harmonic modulation, not the words themselves, that can evoke a certain emotion or atmosphere.  As for artists, I greatly admire people who create and perform with honesty, passion, freedom, and generosity of spirit. I also respect artists who take risks, not merely to be provocative, but because they have the courage to tread uncharted territory and seek truth. Yes, craft and skill count, but to me these qualities do not matter as much as heart and soul. Authenticity is key.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The pianist Martha Argerich is phenomenal. Like Glenn Gould, she is one of my most significant musical role models. Her playing is, in a word, alive: it is dynamic and fiery, instinctive and nuanced. I’ve been lucky enough to see her live in concert a few times in New York and the atmosphere in the hall is always charged with excitement; her uncanny technical prowess, rhapsodic musicianship, and striking charisma completely enrapture her audiences. She is also a consummate collaborative musician as well. If you don’t have the chance to see her perform live, watch some clips of her performing Scarlatti or Rachmaninoff on YouTube for a glimpse of her astonishing mastery.

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Take a listen to Elizabeth Joy Roe at her debut recital at Lincoln Center!

Elizabeth Joy Roe – “Consolations” by Ryan Anthony Francis

Elizabeth Joy Roe – “Isoldens Liebestod” by Franz Liszt (transcribed from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde).

Her debut album will be coming out in August – check back at her website for details.

Bro. Stephen – Just some songs, with a nice glass of Chablis (from the Seedy Seeds seed)

Bro. Stephen

From the newest seed (the Seedy Seeds) sprouts Bro. Stephen, a guitar-playing, singer-songwriting, tall drink of wine of a musician.  His location in Bloomington IN appeals to the Hoosier in me (go IU!), but his attention to detail, both musical and in his answers to the Ear to Ear questionnaire have me even more entranced.

Tell us a little about yourself…

Let’s see here…My name is Scott. I just moved to Bloomington, IN this fall after living in Louisville, KY for over 6 years and I grew up in central Michigan. I like to think I am a worldly fella, but realistically I’m actually just an unhealthy vegetarian who indulges his whims too often. Also, I have Narcolepsy. And I like comic books.

How did you get started playing music?

I grew up in a pretty musical family. My dad was a Baptist preacher who played a mean trumpet, my mom played the pipe organ in our old church, and my four siblings and I would sing as a family with them quite often. I sang in a lot of choirs and stuff growing up and never really played an instrument until I picked up a Japanese mini-guitar when I was 17. I put out this terrible little EP in high school (which I’m hoping has long since been lost/desroyed) and played a couple of shows. As soon as I graduated high school I packed up my car and moved to Louisville, KY and eventually started writing songs and playing at open mics. I played a lot of open mics.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Remember when I said my dad was a preacher? Well, my first music purchase was pretty rebellious in that I purchased Jars of Clay’s self-titled record. My second was MxPx!

How would you describe the music you play now?

I should really have a good answer for this by now since people ask me all the time. I would describe it as just some songs I play on my guitar. They aren’t songs to change the world and probably won’t be on any Billboard lists anytime soon, but they are just the product of this problem I have where I can’t pick up a guitar without wanting to write another song. The songs are usually pretty small in scope because I’m really kind of obsessed with those kind of things we take along with us.

Bro. Stephen is a mostly solo project, but you have also played with your band, Chemic.  Do you prefer a band setup, or playing solo?  How does one influence the other?

It really depends on the songs I think. There is definitely opportunity cost involved in both because there is an intimacy that seems to present itself when you play solo, but there is also a sense of fun and camaraderie that is hard to achieve without a full band. Of course, playing by yourself is much less complicated!  I usually try to write for one or the other.

For instance, a large portion of the songs that will be on my full length Baptist Girls were written with the intention of performing them solo or with one other person, but I am getting ready to record an upcoming EP where all of the songs were written with the intention of them being a full band. Sometimes songs have a life and are malleable and therefore can excel in both realms and those are usually the good ones. I don’t know if I have any of those.

Is there something non-musical you use as a inspiration, or that your music reminds you of?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I would really love it if I could someday write a song that could capture the feeling of this three-part graphic novel called Essex County by this dude named Jeff Lemire. The three stories capture the feel of living in a small Northern town. They have this weight to them that doesn’t seem forced at all, and that weight is borne out of the profound experiences we all experience in our lives. I know that sounds pretty schmaltzy, and I guess it is, but I really think that book nails it.

I think the second thing I would say is that it would be great if it could carry the same characteristics as a Chardonnay from the South part of Chablis. A lot of that area has this soil that is just reeking of limestone and you can really taste it in their un-oaked Chardonnays. The reason I bring this up is that I can only hope that my foundations, rootings, past, and upbringing skip past my filters and make their way into everything I produce. I always think that wine is a beautiful thing because the more you know about where it came from, what kind of soil it was grown in, what the weather was like that year, what kind of plants or trees were also grown near it, or how the grape changes in storage and bottling, the more you can appreciate it for being exactly what it is: just an extension of where it came from. A Chablis Premier Cru doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, it wears its neighborhood, extended family, and thick accent on its sleeve. I like that.

My friend Dave just said that my music reminds him of puzzles of pictures of covered bridges, so that too.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?
Oh gosh.  I’m not sure whether you mean “What inspires you to play music and write songs?” or “What are some bands that inspire you musically?” so I will answer both.

The things that make me want to write songs are usually very small things. Sometimes it’s just a good night I had out with my friends. Sometimes its a memory that I can’t shake. Usually it has to do with me doing something stupid or stupidly not doing something. Typically the broader the subject, the less I feel connected to it and the less I want to write anything about it.

As far as the other way to take it, I actually have a large number of friends who are legitimately inspirational to my music which is a beautiful place to be in. There are bands who are dear friends of mine like husband&wife, Rodeo Ruby Love, The Seedy Seeds, Vandaveer, These United States, Prayer Breakfast (Bloomington), Metavari, and others that just really challenge me to not make music that is disposable. Then there are just a lot of other artists that I just really look up to in a major way (and for a lot of different reasons) like Elephant Micah, Will Oldham, Phil Elverum, Julie Doiron, Justin Vollmar, Apples In Stereo, Laura Veirs, Black Star, MF Doom (or Madvillain), Loney Dear, The Long Winters and a host of others.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?
I really feel like Conan O’Brien in that I overdo the self-deprecation most of the time so I’ll try to avoid that here even though it would be weird to headline a show like this. I would like to have a show that is really intimate at times and then at other times it’s just a balls out dance party.

So, here is my recounting of that show:

First up is Phil Elverum and Julie Doiron trading off songs and singing together while Phil does his slide projecting on the wall. All the lights are out and everyone is sitting pretzel style on the floor softly singing along. All of my friends are there. All of them. So are a bunch of other people who wandered in off the street when we told them there would be a dance party later. They don’t really “get” why Phil Elverum is wearing a weird Christmas sweater or why he’s shushing them, but that’s ok because I don’t either but the music is so good!

Next up is Black Star! Mos Def and Talib Kweli get up there and just get the room moving. We’re jumping up and down and I’m up front screaming along to every word to “RE:DEFinition” secretly hoping that they notice what a good rapper I must be since I’m doing such a good job sticking with them and then they invite me on stage, but I freeze! The crowd wants me to free-style, but instead I just do the wrap I made up and memorized in high school and the crowd boos me off the stage, but its ok because that means more Black Star!

The Black Star boys step off the stage to make way for two other people. Wait a minute, is that Harry Nilsson? And is that Emmylou Harris singing with him? YES. It is! Oh golly goodness, they sing some songs, but I go crazy during “The Point” and think its funny how Emmylou Harris is doing the recitation part. Oh dang, is that Roger McGuinn and Rick Danko tearing it up in the backup band? Nope, just some session dudes who look like them.

Next up on the bill for the night is…(checking my master clipboard)…Oh no it’s not. YES IT IS. It’s The Promise Ring on their Nothing Feels Good tour. Except it does feel good. It feels really good. Especially when they play Pink Chimneys. You got so excited that you threw up a little, but that’s ok because I brought napkins!

After Davey plays a couple songs off of their future Wood/Water record, he exits as Jeff Buckley comes on stage to do some songs with Will Oldham. Jeff Buckley is kind of getting annoyed because he thought he was going to be solo and a bunch of cookie crumbs from Will’s mustache keep getting on his shirt. We all think Will is funny and fun and then they sing Buckley’s “Forget Her” together and we all realize that its very serious in a very good way. Then Will sticks out his belly and sings a silly version of a sad song. Somehow that makes it sadder, but we all know what’s coming up next!

It’s my dad playing the trumpet with Os Mutantes! It’s a Tropicalia Family Party and everyone’s invited. We don’t even care that we can’t sing along because who ever knew the words to “I Want to Be Sedated” anyway? It’s a fu- time dance party and then Daniel Johnston jumps on stage and sings 3 songs in 2 minutes, but OM never even stopped playing.

Finally, I make my way to the stage and everyone is super tired from the massive party that has just taken place. I play couple songs and everybody thinks, that’s actually not terrible. I liked it when he did that cover song. But since everyone is getting sleepy from all the pizza that we ordered, we all pull out our sleeping bags and lay down on the floor while I put on a Stars of the Lid record and just like Purple Drank, it slows our rolls and we all take naps.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I have done a lot of thinking about this question and I think it all boils down to perspective. This might be a cop out answer, but I am really drawn to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons and it usually has to do with the way that they see things. I love that Julie Doiron can sing beautiful songs about watching her kids play in the snow; I love that David Berman (Silver Jews) can make a really blunt statement seem so profound; I am enamored by John Roderick (The Long Winters) in the way that he is playful yet insightful; I love the how rigidly loose Will Oldham’s approach to recording is; I love that Bon Iver’s lyrics are based in phonetics and not meaning; I love that Elephant Micah’s songs sometimes seem like a Camus novel; I love that Vollmar’s songs are so intimate that they feel like memories you already made; I am constantly floored when Kate Long (of Bloomington’s The Hollows) sings “Don’t call me home or leave the night light on” during “Unsafest Place” and it almost hurts to listen to. So, I guess if I had to boil it down, it would be interesting perspectives.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I really have a million answers for this, but I think the one person you should totally just prepare yourself to fall for is Frank Schweikhardt. Frank and I toured together for 3 weeks in the fall and he recently put out a record called Life But No More and it is really powerful. The whole record is a singular work, and I mean that in the best way. The record has the feel that is hard to describe, but impossible to not get lost in. His unique guitar-playing style is a perfect foundation for the songs which are at times timid, and at other assured and powerful. His songs just lock into the groove and don’t let go for 4 minutes. It’s not an upbeat record by any stretch, listening to it gives me real joy, something that doesn’t come along too often.

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take a listen to Bro. Stephen:

Bro. Stephen – The Front Room

Bro. Stephen – Patrons Of The Arts

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The Seedy SeedsBro. Stephen

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Rob Bravery – strange, piano-led pop (From the Charlie Williams seed)

Rob Bravery

The first track I heard on Rob Bravery’s MySpace was “Hedonistic Graveyard”, and it was a particularly exciting moment in the project because I could hear how we got here from the original seed (the path:  Charlie Williams –> Four Quartets –> Rob Bravery)…he has the instrumental delight of Mira Mira, with a touch of Sharples’ low-key delivery.  I actually followed my ears to the connection.  Awesome.

How did you get started playing music?

I picked up a few power chords on the guitar with the sole purpose of joining my older brother’s metal band Mongolian Clusterfuck (I was 14). Eventually I started teaching myself piano, which is now my main instrument.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Siamese Dream (Smashing Pumpkins) – Still in my top ten

How would you describe the music you play now?

I suppose strange, piano-led pop. Tough question, I like interesting chord progressions, lyrics etc.

You are a multi-instrumentalist – is there any particular instrument you love best? Or one that you wish you could play?

My favourite to play would be the drums, at least for the first 10 minutes. After that I’m physically incapable. I wish I could play the spoons like my dad.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Elliott Smith, Tom Waits, Joanna Newsom, Stephen Malkmus (there are loads more).

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Aside from the above, I’d have Rufus Wainwright, Neil Young, possibly my old man on watering can. RATM. All the greats.

what attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Initially tasteful lyrics ie. not ‘my life is brilliant..’ In most cases thoughtful chordal and melodic developments.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I’m a big fan of Four Quartets (Rob Sharples’s new project). He’s a great songwriter. I’m also eagerly awaiting the respective forthcoming releases of Joanna Newsom and Dr Dog.

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Take a listen:

Rob Bravery – “Hedonistic Graveyard”

Rob Bravery – “Cobweb Song”

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Charlie Williams Four QuartetsRob Bravery

Caithlin De Marrais – A soft slap of sweet singing…(From the Ben Arthur Seed)

Caithlin De Marrais

We’re starting to get into the third round of the Ear to Ear Project, so let’s review…

Ben Arthur pointed to Balthrop, Alabama, who offered Caithlin De Marrais, a songwriter with a delightful twang and deep sense of place.  I’ve fallen for her well-crafted lo-fi-ness (not something I normally say), where everything sounds real and present and unaltered, and oh-so-true.

So let’s meet Caithlin…

How did you get started playing music?

My band, Rainer Maria, recorded and toured from ’95-’06. I was on bass/vocals, Kyle Fischer–guitars/vocals, Bill Kuehn–drums. In the film “The Wrestler” Randy the Ram says that the ’90s sucked, but I thought it was an ok time to be in a band. The music industry hadn’t imploded yet and there was an “us against them” camaraderie between us indie bands. I always wore my heart on my sleeve when I played.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

My awesome little brother and I would go to the Trumbull mall and buy 45s. We collected dozens and dozens–everything from big hits to obscure gems–Prince, Peter Gabriel, Bow Wow Wow, A-Ha, Eddie Grant, Nena, Musical Youth, Van Halen…much dancing and head banging in the living room ensued.

How would you describe the music you play now?

“Like a soft slap to the face.” (thanks Pitchfork!)

What instruments do you all play in your band?  How did you pick that combination?

Josh Kaufman is my wingman on electric guitar. I have two excellent drummers, Jason Lawrence and Konrad Meissner. Many other wonderful musicians make appearances on My Magic City, including one of my most cherished guitar heroes, Dean Wareham, and his gorgeous bandmate, Britta Phillips.
Somehow along the way I discovered how fun it was to record and play music with my mad, brilliant friends.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My Magic City has a golden honeycomb center surrounded by delicious milk chocolate, just like a Cadbury Crunchie bar.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

For My Magic City I was ruminating on my love of Spacemen 3, Spiritualized and Galaxie 500.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

The kid in me wants to go back to the ’70s when Stevie Wonder performed “Superstition” live on Sesame Street. That was cool. But since I don’t have a time machine, I’d like to reform The Smiths and open for them. All I need is 3 million dollars or so.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Dance-ability! Or alternately, heartbreak-ability.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Best two new releases I’m listening to right now: El May. Her amazing self-titled debut album is out Jan 19th. And Owen. His latest album New Leaves is a gem.
Best two Pandora stations I’m listening to right now: Roxy Music Radio. And Julie London Radio.

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Listen to Caithlin:

Caithlin De Marrais – “Outer Space Is Still Sexy” (features Dean Wareham on electric guitar)

Caithlin De Marrais – “Play Fair” (Cover of Bob Buckridge tune)

And pick up a disc!

Caithlin De Marais - My Magic City

A note from Caithlin:

My latest record, Seb & Cait Live at Joe’s will be released on End Up Records in Feb.  It’s a live recording of a show at Joe’s Pub in NYC, I played with the artist, Seb Leon. Also check out Seb’s record, Cranes of Glitter. It’s like a French souffle with Bowie and Roxy Music inclinations.
http://www.sebleon.info/

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Ben Arthur (seed) → Balthrop, AlabamaCaithlin De Marrais

The Seedy Seeds – Piles of Instrument Fun Seed

Photo by Scott Beseler of www.taketheday.com

The Seedy Seeds don’t know you, but they already like you.

And you will like them too – I certainly did, after hearing their 2006 demo, and particularly “Earned Average Dance America,” (check out the track below, and see my essay for Song of the Day).  It is a captivating combination  of instrumental creativity and quirky lyrics.  Margaret was kind enough to shed some light on her inner workings, creative process, and crayons.

Tell us a little about yourself…

My name is Margaret. I’m a transplant to Cincinnati—I grew up in Virginia. I like to think a lot. I also really like to cook.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents put me in piano lessons when I was maybe 6 or so… it didn’t last particularly long. Then, about five or six years later, when my older brother got a guitar, I’d sneak into his room when he was away and try and figure things out anxiously before anyone could catch me doing it. I’d make what I thought were really “progressive” and “experimental” tape recordings using my dad’s voice recorder. I bought my own guitar when I was 13 and started writing a lot of terrible music privately in my room.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?


Not sure I can remember… with my own money? Probably “The Sign” by Ace of Base. It’s the album that had all the jams… I wouldn’t share it with my little sister so she bought her own copy. Our home was rich with Ace of Base.

What do you think “indie” really means in terms of music? Is it an aesthetic, a culture, a state of being without cash?
When I first started going to shows, I had the impression that “indie” was a movement like any other, something that had come necessarily out of and in reaction to another movement. To me, “Indie” was an alternative to “alternative” rock radio. It definitely encompassed a particular sound, perhaps a sound mood, too. I remember when bands previously unknown to most of the people I knew suddenly became more accessible, and these sounds and sound moods excited a broader audience with their seeming newness, “indie” kind of expanded to encompass a lot more. Because it really stands to identify music produced by unsigned bands or bands who are not signed to major labels, “indie” now describes more sounds and styles of music than I’d previously given credit to. And to limit the term only to aesthetics would, I think, be unfair. It is most certainly a culture also.

By not elaborating on this last point I hope it doesn’t seem hastily or lazily tacked on… just seemed like this answer was already starting to resemble the introduction to a boring book by me that will be read by only me.

Of all the instruments you play, which is your favorite?  Do any of them have names?

Autoharp. Definitely autoharp. I so far haven’t named any of my instruments, but I have named my utility knife. I call it Peggy Sue.

When you’re writing a song, which comes first – the music of the lyrics?

I’ve written both ways. Sometimes lyrics and music come simultaneously. I write when I’m feeling inspired and so I can’t rely upon a formula—I’m not talented enough… when I’m itching to create something I just kind of explore… it’s organic I suppose. So sometimes I’ve got an idea I want to write into words and sometimes I just want to pick something up and hum to it and see if anything of interest comes out.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Musical inspiration? It’s kind of complicated. Music inspires me to do things other than write, record and perform music, while things that are not musical inspire me to write, record and perform music. So, now I need to figure out whether you want most to know what music inspires me to do things non-musical or what non-musical thing inspires me to be musical… To keep it limited, I’d say my biggest musical inspiration on non-musical activities is Four Tet. And I’m most inspired by my friends and family to create music.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Never really considered that before… perhaps one of those crayons that are like 4 colors in one and make a rainbowesque streak when you draw with the broad side, and a mess of mixed colors when you scribble.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where The Seedy Seeds was the headliner, who would it be?

Oh my, oh my. There are so many ridiculously amazing bands that I would consider doing desperate things to share the stage with… but I have to say, if you didn’t know already, Cincinnati is brimming with some serious musical talent right now… and there’s nothing at all quite like playing a show with amazing bands that are also amazing friends. Right now I’d say the perfect bill for a show we’d be headlining would be: The Seedy Seeds / You, You’re Awesome / The Sheds.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

It usually depends on the genre… I’m for sure captivated by melody and harmonies. I’m also very serious about lyrics—words I don’t like can ruin a song for me, and there are definitely entire catalogs by bands that I won’t touch on account of my lyrics pickiness. When I’m listening to electronic music or more minimalist music, I really like dynamism and balance. And more and more lately I’ve been really obsessed with production quality. To add to the list, I’m also kind of obsessed with mood in music. I love song elements that give me an overwhelming sense of a place, idea, feeling, or other noun, adjective or verb.

Which one person/band should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

You should be listening to Bro. Stephen. It’s the project of my friend Scott Kirkpatrick and it’s amazing. His delivery is beautiful. His lyrics are provocative and clever, and the way he chooses to word things makes me feel richer for knowing someone who interprets things so differently from me, but shares these thoughts in an easy to understand manner. Scott has a great sense of dynamic in his presentation and his songs are performed with this intense conviction that always manages to elicit real loyal devotion from my ears. To top it all off, Bro. Stephen practically sets the example for music that evokes mood. His songs really sound like sitting in a cozy, dark room at night lit only with colored lights in the middle of December when it’s still and quiet. Amazing!

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Listen to some of The Seedy Seeds!

The Seedy Seeds – Change States – “Earned Average Dance America”

The Seedy Seeds – Count the Days – “Dandelion”

and buy a disc, while you’re at it!


Balthrop, Alabama – Barnyard Epic Indie Rock (from the Ben Arthur Seed)

It stays in the family for this bit of our musical tree , in part because Ben Arthur’s brother, Michael Arthur, is a member of the band.  But really, it’s all a family thing anyway, having been started up by Lauren and Pascal Balthrop, and grown into the bustling musical metropolis it is today. With 11 members, a bevy of different instruments, and a carefully crafted backstory, Balthrop, Alabama creates wonderful songs that bring you back to the warm green grasses of home.

Lauren Balthrop (aka Georgiana Starlington) took the time to respond, talk a bit about their music, and represent the fair town of their creation.

How did you get started playing music?

We come from a pretty musical family. As kids, there were always sing-alongs and we were singing along with when the family got together. It was just always a part of who we were. My mom and her sisters are like the Andrew Sisters. When they’re together, they are in three part harmony. I wrote my first song when I was 6 after having gotten back from a trip to the circus. It was called Tightrope and it ended up on the first Balthrop, Alabama album ‘Your Big Plans and Our Little Town’.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I’m embarrassed to say that the first CD I ever bought was Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On. I was 8 and heavily exposed to country music everywhere I went. She did a great cover of Lucinda William’s “Passionate Kisses”, and I was just obsessed with “I Feel Lucky”. Oh, to be 8 again.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Someone called it “Barnyard Epic Indie Rock” and I guess that sums it up pretty well. We always say that our songs tell stories about dead people and dead people in love, although sometimes they aren’t quite dead. The songs tend to be pretty narrative and when we play in concert, our town drawer, Toxey Goodwater (Michael Arthur) does these live drawings that are projected behind us, which makes the show kind of like a live cartoon.

Some reviewer in Alabama said we were like a touring version of Barack Obama’s Rent and that will also do as a description, even though I don’t really know what it means. I think he didn’t like us, but we like Barack Obama and Rent’s a pretty good show, although Hedwig [And The Angry Inch] is better. We’re like a touring version of Barack Obama’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Balthrop, AL has a population of about 11…how did this particular musical town come to incorporate?

It started with my brother Pascal and I, but the expansion was pretty organic. We all knew each other through this local coffee shop called the Fall Cafe in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn which is across the street from where Pascal lived. Most of us either worked there or spent some time each day there. But the Fall Cafe is sort of where the community of it all began. That’s where the city limits were laid out.

Is there good real estate value in Balthrop?

Well, Balthrop, Alabama is located primarily in Brooklyn and real estate’s mighty pricey in New York City. But, the town travels around a good bit, so we can find deals here and there. I gotta say we have some nice parts of town and some pretty shady areas, and sometimes it can change just like that. But, it’s strong property and we consider it a good investment. There was some fear that we might qualify for a super-fund clean up, but then Douglas Snead showered and everything worked itself out.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Oh, I think we’re pretty much that good pair of overalls that everyone has but only wears on laundry days. It never gets washed, but it’s comfy and every stain tells a story.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

That changes all the time. I’m pretty restless and I get bored easy, so I listen to and borrow from a lot of stuff. Pascal got the notion of the band after seeing an Arcade Fire show. I think we’re all inspired by the Beatles story–the hard work and constant creative stuff that went on there, but we’re also pretty partial to Hank Williams too. On tour, we’re always swapping out iPods and listening to everyone else’s music–it’s a pretty eclectic group of tastes, so we listen to Hillbilly stuff and punk stuff and big bands and show tunes and a lot of Patton Oswalt. Man, Pascal and Jason really like that Patton Oswalt album.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Well, I think we’d be playing a bar show with the Hamburg-era Beatles. We’d probably have Rocketship Park and the Ne’er Do Evers play, because their members are in our band too and we have fun playing in all sorts of configurations. I wonder if we can get the Hamburg-era Beatles to tour again–it would be a sweet opening slot for them and we wouldn’t make them change out of their leather stuff jackets. Also, Coldplay should be in there, just so they can see how a real band does it. It would be good for their career and their musical growth.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

A good marketing strategy and product tie-ins. A little payola gets me every time.

Ok. For real. Uhm . . . I like a good melody and a nice bit of melancholy stirred up in some optimisim. I guess we don’t really like fake stuff and don’t much go for attitude unless it’s got something backing it up.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Our label mates (and frequent collaborators)  Caithlin DeMarrais and Kyle Fischer each put out amazing solo albums last year. I guess I think you should listen to either one of them. They were both in the Indy band Rainer Maria and their solo albums feature a lot of members of Balthrop, Alabama as players. I know it seems like nepotism or something to choose albums that you’re on, but I swear Caithlin’s My Magic City and Kyle’s Black Milk are two albums that everyone should be listening to. We listen to them repeatedly when we’re out on the road. They’re SO GOOD.

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Listen to some Balthrop, Alabama

Balthrop, Alabama – Your Big Plans & Our Little Town – “Explode”

Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs – “Subway Horns”


And pick up an album or two while you’re at it…

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Ben Arthur (seed) → Balthrop, Alabama

Brian Rosenworcel of Guster – The Thunder God Seed

Guster was a milestone for me, musically.  I grew up in a kind of sheltered musical environment, sticking to my classical discs and showtunes.  So I get to college, and suddenly everyone around me is listening to music.  All the time.  Really really loudly.  And most of it, I couldn’t care less.  But a friend of mine, he handed me a CD during a study session for music theory in my dorm room, and told me to put it on.

It was Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, and it became an obsession.

We listened to it over and over again, singing along, and then adding our own layers of harmony until we’d practically crafted cantatas around the thing.  I still can’t listen without adding extra lines.

But one of the things nearest and dearest to our hearts was something we couldn’t reproduce vocally.  The drumming.  These deep heavy sounds, but so rounded and whole, coming from a hand drum kit wielded by one Brian “Thundergod” Rosenworcel.

About two years ago I got to meet Brian – he is a friend of a friend of mine, who also happens to be the lead singer in my band.   And though I was concerned about my control of my girlish glee, I found him to be a wholly wonderful, self deprecating, and hilarious guy.  So though I was still there screaming and shouting with the best of them as Guster took the stage to play all of Lost and Gone Forever on their recent tour, I am even more pleased to have this small, personal introduction to the man himself, Brian.

Tell us a little about yourself…

My name is Brian Rosenworcel.  In my 20s I called myself a “legendary conguero” in the liner notes for one of Guster’s albums.  I would never do that now.  I’m 36.

How did you get started playing music?

At some point in high school my friends got into acoustic guitar and mandolin and we began “jamming” after school.  With nothing to do but lots of desire to fit in, I tapped on a pair of bongos quietly in the background.  Thus began our band, Toejamb, and a fascination with hand drumming that I explored mostly on the steering wheel of my Chevy Nova.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I bought Toad the Wet Sprocket’s 2nd album, Fear, when I was in high school.  I had never heard of them, but my friend Jamie saw their video and convinced me to check it out.  I didn’t like every song, but I loved certain ones.  I flipped that cassette over hundreds of times, because I’d spent the money on it.  Shame that the I’m-gonna-listen-to-this-a-lot-because-I-invested-currency-in-it thing is behind us now — it really created more dedicated listeners.

Your drums are absolutely amazing.  What inspired you to put them together the way you did – was it a sound you were looking for, or a concept?

The hand percussion kit that I play live is a very organic creation, built up one drum at a time, with each drum being worked into the system individually, and simply because I wanted more and more sounds.  I never envisioned it becoming so elaborate, and I never envisioned myself hitting snares and cymbals with my bare hands.  It just made sense to move in that direction to expand our sound.  Eventually, after ten years of hand drumming, I got really excited about the idea of playing a traditional kit with sticks.

Of all the instruments you play, which is your favorite?

Djembe is a great instrument because it gets a variety of sounds — big low bass sounds and crisp ringing high notes all from the same drum.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

I’m inspired mostly by songwriters.  I can’t think of too many hand drummers that I’ve gotten into — I pretty much just tried to support Guster’s music with hand drums as best as I could because it was what I knew how to do.  The drummers I like tend to be simple players like Levon Helm and Ringo Starr.  If I spend too much time worshiping at the altar of the virtuosos like Stewart Copeland I’ll just end up feeling bad about my lack of chops.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I keep wracking my brain for a way to do this that doesn’t sound pretentious as hell.  I keep failing.

Guster is spending part of the fall doing a “Party like it’s 1999” tour.  How did you party in 1999?

Well, we’re playing an album we made in 1999 in its entirety (it’s the album that was all hand drums, “Lost & Gone Forever”).  As far as the “Party Like It’s 1999” thing, that’s the subject of the band email announcement I sent out about the tour.  Unfortunately the days where I was artful and creative in my subjects are about ten years old too.  Now if I can find something serviceable it goes in and gets sent without thinking twice.

In any event there are only two shows left on said tour, both in New York.  It was fun to revisit that album though — it was a very simple and creatively arranged record.  The melodies stand up.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where Guster was the headliner, who would it be?

Well, Os Mutantes would be on first, but they’d only play for like 20 minutes.  Then The Stone Roses would play their self-titled record front to back (everyone’s doing that these days), followed by a George Harrison solo acoustic set, before Guster takes the stage, as the audience hits the exits.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

It’s melody that grabs me.  Sometimes it’s feel and rarely it’s lyrics, but a great melody always appeals to me.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Cass McCombs.  His first album and EP were raw, beautiful, and totally unique.  His voice just has the perfect affect.  I’m shocked he’s not more well known.  Check out the album “A” it’s a masterpiece.

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You can hear a few songs at Guster’s MySpace, and hear bootleg tapes from 2000 on their website (awesome)

If you don’t already own at least one of these discs, shame on you.

Four Quartets – Instrumentally Intricate “Subverted Pop” (from the Charlie Williams seed)

I found Rob Sharples, Four Quartets, through Charlie Williams.   He described him as “benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs” and “saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits.”  I am loving his creative imagery and beautiful instrumental structure – I kept discovering new things with every listen.  He is a softspoken force in his music, and took a moment to answer a couple questions.

Tell us a little about yourself…

I’m a London-based songwriter.  A couple of years ago I had brief dealings with an indie label who put out a couple of EP’s for me but since an acrimonious parting of the ways I’ve been engrossed in a new project  – ‘Four Quartets’ – which is my new band. I’ve just finished recording an album which will hopefully be released early next year.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents were given this decrepit old piano when I was six and I bashed out my first songs on that with a voice so shrill it’d make dogs wince.  I think I even preserved a couple of recordings from back then (invariably unlistenable) which I recorded on a ten-quid tape player.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

The Beatles’ Red Album on double vinyl from a second-hand record shop on Gloucester Road in Bristol (where I grew up). Sadly, the shop has now closed down – like so many others – in the advent of the digital revolution.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Hmm.. I always feel apprehensive about answering this question because I think that music is a medium that demands the experience itself to attain comprehension.  I can only really answer in generalizations which even then are buried in subjectivity but here goes..

‘Subverted pop with classically influenced progressions, rich arrangements (…sometimes… but sometimes quite stripped back) and plenty of harmonies..’

..but the sentence is meaningless really – just have a listen.

Do you prefer performing solo, or as part of a band?  Why?

I enjoy both, but since I’ve spent the last few years predominantly performing solo in the saturated myre of the ‘singer/songwriter’ circuit in London and been left pretty cold and disaffected by the experience, I’m now excited about gigging with the band.   Partly for the satisfaction of filthing everything up and making a lot of noise, but also for the singular pleasure and rapport of simply cutting loose with a bunch of fellow musicians. It’s great fun.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Ooh i don’t know.  At a push maybe T.S. Eliot or other ‘modernist’ writers like Kafka and Conrad because of their tendency towards an existential outlook and an impressionistic style. It’d be egotistical though to say I really compare myself to literary figures of that stature – it’s more a question of influence, or simply of the type of literature I like.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

I’d have to say that the Beatles (as cliched as it is!), Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson have all had a profound impact on my musical life in terms of what can be achieved within modern songwriting.  The idea of connecting a complex musical backdrop to an accessible melody when writing is one that appeals to me immensely because it leaves the imagination unchecked and free to run riot then tethers it all back to earth by the task of condensing the network of ideas to one through-line for the consumption of other ears. I guess its like the way a novel can lead a reader through innumerable complications by the sturdy guide of a plotline.  It also means that you end up with something that rewards on more than one level should the listener be interested.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Hmm.. Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith (pre-heroin addiction), Led Zeppelin, Dr. Dog, Radiohead, Bowie (seventies era), Rachmaninoff, Rage Against The Machine, Dylan (pre 80’s), Nirvana, Nick Drake, Bright Eyes, The Beatles, The Beach Boys…  I wouldn’t be headlining though – I wouldn’t even be on the bill.  I’d be backstage – weeping.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Well it varies because artists vary.  While I adore Elliott Smith for his imaginative progressions and melodies, I can equally appreciate Dylan for his astounding lyricism.  In general, I’d like to think I keep an open mind with a few exceptions that i can’t abide. Namely:

1) Style Over Substance  – It’s always evident and nauseating when someone is propagating a music style and image just in the interest of being conceived as ‘cool’ as opposed to really caring about the art.

2) Dishonesty of Delivery – We all hate a fraud don’t we? Gimmicky, fake emotion, assumed accents and the like. Horrifying.

3) Cliches – When you can correctly guess the chord progression and lyrics it never bodes well.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Rob Bravery (Interesting progressions, deadpan lyricism, highly melodic and he has a ginger beard)

St. Sat B (Raw unpretentious energy, tasteful lyrics, great sound and songs)

Ashley Eriksson (Eccentric, low-fi, wonderful)

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Four Quartets will have an album out soon – but take a listen to a few tracks here

Four Quartets – “The Spirit Level”

Four Quartets – “Joke’s Over”

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Charlie Williams Four Quartets

Ben Arthur – The Quirky, Soulful, Singer/Songwriter Seed

I first heard Ben Arthur play in a lineup called The Modern Troubadours. I tagged along with some friends, having never heard of what I assumed was a band. Instead I was presented with four singer-songwriters, sharing their work in an intimate, acoustic setting. I fell in in love with Ben Arthur’s music that night – his quirky sense of humour balanced the sometimes morose cloud of soul-bearing lyrics. With songs like “Keep Me Around” and “Mary Ann” I found new use for the “repeat” button on my playlists.

Years later, and I’m still listening with as much rapt attention as that first show. Arthur’s second album “Mouthfeel” was considerably darker than the first, showing a different side of his sharp wordplay and vivid imagery. His arid vocals put all the emotion front and center, but never without a musical cushion to soften the emotional blow.

We met about a year ago, after I wrote about “On A Sunday” for NPR’s Song of the Day. He emailed me, and I immediately jumped off the couch and danced around the room in fan-girl glee. Then I calmed down, actually met the guy, and realized he is a real person who just happens to make music I love.

So let’s meet….Ben Arthur.

How did you get started playing music?

My brother Michael lent me his guitar when I was 13 or 14 and taught me the chords to Lola. No idea why that particular song, but Lord did I play that one riff about a million times. (Badly.)

When did you decide that playing would be your career?

Shockingly soon thereafter. Something about it just seemed right to me, and I’ve never found anything I like doing as much. Well, actually, I like writing as much, but then I’m doing that these days, too.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Well, let’s see…I stole a copy of the Doors “13” when I was, well, 13 or so. But that doesn’t count, I don’t think. I’m going to say Appetite for Destruction.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical? A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Hm. My work is like…a corner bodega, There’s a lot of different stuff in there, it’s kind of a mess, but the folks inside are friendly.

When you’re stumped for ideas, what do you do? Go someplace, read something, drink copiously?

Rarely stumped for ideas. I always have 10 or so projects up in the air (by design), so that when I run into a problem with one thing I can just switch to the other. Generally when I come back the problem has solved itself.

I do occasionally run into a directional tangle, and then I usually chat with my wife or friend Asli, both of whom are whipsmart and have excellent instincts.

You also write books – is that a totally separate project for you, or does it feed into your musical work?

Funny you should ask…

The new project is a concept novel/album called If You Look for My Heart. The album has narrative songs that reflect elements of the story arc, as well as ‘artifact’ pieces, that is, songs that the characters themselves hear during the course of the story.

It’s been a fascinating, fun project so far and I’m looking forward to getting it out to the public.

You’re usually billed as a solo artist – do you prefer this over playing with a band? Or did it just work out that way?

I’m usually billed as a solo artist because I can’t afford to tour with a band. If I was playing Wembley, I would surely be billed with a band.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Dave Grohl–drums, vox
Emmylou Harris–guitar, vox
Rachel Yamagata–keys, vox
John Paul Jones–bass
Tom Morello–guitar, vox

I picked all live people because i am not at all partial to the undead/zombies.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I like hearing something unusual, particularly lyric-wise. A new use of an old phrase, an interesting match of words, a reversal of some sort.

I’m also partial to writers to put themselves on the line. It’s fairly easy to hide behind obscure semi-nonsense lyrics, and I like hearing songs where the artist is brave enough to say what they mean, to put their cards on the table. (Which isn’t to say I don’t like the lyrics on, say, OK Computer. I do. But it’s a different thing, and I’d love to hear Thom Yorke write a true love song.)

In art generally I like to see contradiction. In motivation, in action. I like voices and characters that/who are difficult or disagreeable but still sympathetic. I like complication.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I love my friend Parker Paul’s songs. His voice is so true and pained/painful, and his lyrics are so beautiful without being overly ornate.

Pete Miser is a friend of a friend, and has a song called “I’m a Robot” that just knocks me out. The video is insane, and even more so that he managed to do it as a true indie. He has an iPhone video that is hysterical, too. He’s awesome and his albums are rock solid from start to finish.

Aesop Rock never fails to impress. His album None Shall Pass is a masterpiece.

My brother’s band, Balthrop, Alabama is a blast, particularly live. I played a show with them in the city over Christmas and they have such enthusiasm and such a sense of the theater of live music that it’s just a pleasure to see them do their thing.

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Listen to some Ben Arthur:

Ben Arthur – Mouthfeel – “Tattoo”

Ben Arthur – Roadkill – “Keep Me Around”

And of course, pick up a few albums while you’re at it…

Elana James – the Fiddler, Songster, Country Swing Seed

I am a recent convert to country. I scoffed, I scorned, I teased. Then I listened. And I learned. And now I’m hooked….not to all the “my dog ran off with my wife and left me with a broken truck” stuff (although it can be fun) but to some of the most mind-blowing technical and musical artists I’ve ever laid ear on. And one of the incredible musicians who showed me the way was was Elana James.

Her song, “Twenty-Four Hours A Day” was in heavy rotation on WDVX. I listened for a week each time missing the artist announcement before I finally gave up and emailed the DJ in desperation. That song became one of my first Song of the Day columns for NPR, and I’ve been following her career since.

On stage, her fingers fly, words pour, and I am entranced.  From the classics to her own writing, she brings a electric spark to each thing she sings, and simply shines out.  Even when it’s heartbreaking, the music is fun, making your feet tap and fingers want to skip along.  So it is my pleasure to introduce….Elana James.

How did you get started playing?

My mom is a violinist and my older sister played the flute. When I turned four it was time for me to start playing something. I liked the violin, since I always heard my mom playing it and I wanted to do something different from my sister. I had a very emotional reaction to playing in a way–when I cashed in my 3/4 sized violin for the full sized one I have now, it was covered in the accumulated dried salt from all my tears and snot from tantrums when my mom used to make me practice.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

The Violent Femmes. And right after that, Thriller.

You play with your band, Hot Club of Cowtown, and also as a solo artist.  Is it different performing as the named artist, instead of part of a group?

Yes. As a violinist, who you’re playing with is really important.  It’s not a self-sustaining instrument–I can’t accompany myself when I play.  The band encompasses the sound and creates something bigger that frames and supports the violin. I am comfortable in both formats (solo and band member), but there’s a kind of certainty and security in a band–all three of you are there or there’s no show. You have this force that is unmistakable.

Sometimes as a solo artist, I can feel self-conscious, that the show rests on me personally, that pressure to DELIVER, whatever that means. I think the model I am comfortable with is as a band leader who regularly features all members of the band–If I do more solo stuff, it will be along those lines. In a way, that’s what the Hot Club feels like to me–everybody’s featured and everybody shines.

Did you always want to play violin, or were there other instruments you tried out first (or since?)

The summer after my freshman year at Barnard I was all set to throw myself into the violin and give it a go–see if I could catch up with other players my age. I had a great teacher, Lucie Robert, who was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music back then. I had auditioned for a special program they had with Barnard and was assigned to study with her. She was incredibly inspiring, but a few weeks after we started a summer session at this place in upstate New York, called Meadowmount, she told me at my lesson that I would never really have a future as a violinist and that maybe I should consider the viola? So I wept for a weekend up there, and then rented a viola and got busy. I stopped playing violin for about four years and just concentrated on viola, and I grew to really like it, and grew a lot musically during that time, though I never could play fiddle tunes on it as well 🙂

What attracted you to swing?

Actually, that same summer, Lucie and her husband Jeff had a little gathering at their cabin. They are both hardcore Classical musicians, but this one night, kind of as a joyful guilty pleasure, they got out these Gershwin songbooks and played them together. I was so moved and enthralled to see them playing this very different king of music–it was thrilling. That night I went back to my cabin and wrote on my calendar that that was the day I decided to go into music. I guess I was 18. But it took several years for that to come about–I had to keep meeting this music in unexpected places. We were like strangers who just kept bumping into each other. I didn’t think the music remembered me until we got formally introduced.

The stereotype of “country” music people is pretty strong – do you think you fit that mold?

I certainly have the street cred to be a “fiddler” in the country sense of the word, since I can ride and rope, have worked out west as a wrangler and packer, and have allowed my life to be shaped by these unconventional loves of music and western life. In that sense I feel totally authentic and I think that is something I have always felt, and I feel that must come through in my playing.

In a kind of country tradition, I’ve been been welcomed and encouraged by those who have gone further down the path [to music] than I have (yet), and gotten to play alongside them (Johnny Gimble, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Cliff Bruner, Buck Owens, Frankie McWhorter).  It makes me feel like I am on the right track–like that these people have taken the time to believe in me, in one way or another, offer advice and wisdom, and that means so much.

One way I am not a traditional country fiddler though is that I have a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and had a bat mitzvah!! But honestly, I also am spared the worry that I have seen some more traditional players have (so unnecessarily!) from time to time–I don’t worry about what it would be like to read music, or, you know, how would my life have been different if I had gone to college or been more formally trained? I tried all that, I did it, I checked those boxes and I have chosen this because I love it and it’s me. So I don’t have doubts like, “what if?”

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Of course!! Usually I picture it like the circus, or like being a gypsy, or urban camping, or a traveling salesman of pots and pans.  It’s also like how Tibetan monks make sand mandala paintings: getting out there every night you are painting the same picture again and again but it’s always different and you never know how it’s going to turn out. And then it’s gone forever and you start over the next night. But it’s also like an iceberg–people just see the snowy tip, not the dark, blue ice mass beneath it that supports it and allows it to appear to be floating effortlessly. But that’s where the snowy tip comes from. And they shouldn’t see that. That’s the nature of show business–it’s not accounting!

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

When I am around other people playing, especially in other cultures–India, gypsy music, old-timers of one kind or another who are authentically steeped in their tradition, where the music is playing through them, that is deep and inspiring to me.

Great moments – seeing Hun Huur Tu live, seeing Taraf de Haidouks, watching Johnny Gimble play, watching anyone play–the violin especially–in a passionate way. I have been guided and inspired by the playing of Stephane Grappelli, and the fiddlers from the Bob Wills band of the 1940s most of all, as far as musical ideas go.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

I’m going to keep it to people who are alive–otherwise, it would be too vast to contemplate!

I guess I would do a tour with Bob Dylan where he and I played and sang in kind of a small trio format.  Dorado and Tchavolo Schmitt, Taraf de Haidouks, Hun Huur Tu, and the band Csokolom would also be on the bill.  Oh, and Romain Duris would be the emcee.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

It varies. It’s some kind of authenticity. It’s like that person has been somewhere I want to go, or haven’t yet had to go, and they are reporting back for the rest of us.

Or that feeling that someone has distilled something so deep and private, and sometimes painful, that it becomes magical.  The Bob Dylan song “I Believe in You” is like that. Also Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home.”  My favorite songs often tend to be like prayers.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I really like Emily Gimble, who is a young singer and piano player out of Austin, TX who sings with an amazing, free, effortless style. She sounds a little bit like Norah Jones and Billie Holliday, but it’s not as mannered or stuffy as other female singers I’ve heard in that style. What I like about Emily is that she is totally unaffected and the music just pours out of her, like it floats up out of her body, like an essential part of her.  She is also the granddaughter of Johnny Gimble, my fiddling idol. When they play together–which is often–it is magical and moving.

I also love Csokolom. They play traditional Romanian and Hungarian folk tunes on fiddles. I don’t know if they even still exist, but one CD they made, “May I Kiss Your Hand” is definitely one of my favorite CDs ever. This woman sings in this husky, natural voice and the fiddling is pure and rustic–again, no Mark O’Connor affectations and nothing antiseptic–just clean and beautiful playing on these beautiful songs about gypsies, bears, and traditional songs.

Finally, there’s something about this other young woman from Austin, Betty Soo that I can’t put my finger on. She is a singer songwriter who just put out her first CD.  She is Korean, too, which you (or at least I!) don’t see very often in the world of Americana music, though I don’t know why. Anyway, I have not heard her CD but I have heard her sing live and she has a great voice–kind of like Sheryl Crow, but again something rich and deep about her singing–totally unpretentious.  She strikes me as a totally unassuming person, but a really soulful singer, very tasteful, nothing over-wrought.

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Like Elana?  Listen to a few tracks:

Elana James –Elana James – “Twenty-Four Hours A Day”

Elana James – Elana James – “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”

And pick up her amazing records: