This week's CP includes a short Q&A with Canadian singer Jill Barber, who makes her first Pittsburgh appearance this Sunday at Hard Rock Cafe. Here's the longer version of our interview with her.
How long have you been doing music as a career?
I started playing music and writing songs as a teenager just at home, and from that time was getting little coffeehouse gigs all through high school. Then I went on to university and it got a little more serious; I was playing clubs and formed a band. Then I went through university and had to get a job; I worked a desk job for about eight months before I left that and decided I needed to pursue music full-time. So I've essentially been a professional for all of my adult life. I've been a full-time professional musician for coming up to ten years now.
That's a lucky thing — a talent-y and lucky thing!
Absolutely. There are so many incredible musicians out there that have other jobs and distractions and things; I do feel lucky, absolutely.
You've undergone something of a transformation in terms of your music; your earlier stuff is more girl-with-a-guitar, folky stuff and your newer stuff is much different.
I've always thought of myself as a songwriter first, but as you say it's evolved. I think what happened is — I was writing songs on the acoustic guitar, and they were folky sounding songs, but I was listening to a lot of different types of music. I've always loved older music; in university I got a record player, so I discovered a huge collection of older vinyl. I'd put on these records that had an incredible, full orchestration — Ella Fitzgerald, say, Nat King Cole — and it was like movie-soundtrack, over-the-top romantic, beautiful, lush music. They were songs, just as I was writing songs, but they were kind of produced in this beautiful kind of complex way. So I started working with other musicians, essentially. I started working with a producer and he helped broaden my palette of what I could do musically: how I could take a song and kind of elevate it into, I don't know — a real song, you know, with full orchestration.
And because I'm not a musician with any sort of musical theory, training background, I started working with people who are arrangers and I work with a full band now. It was always sort of my dream when I was a solo artist to have my own band, and now I have it ... and sometimes I wish I was a solo artist. [Laughs]
I started collaborating with other musicians and I put down the guitar a lot, actually, even in the writing process, because I'm not the world's greatest acoustic guitar player, I found it kind of limiting. So these days, I write a lot of my stuff a cappella, which leaves space for production and what kind of music I want to put underneath the songs.
I'd guess that would make it fun for the musicians you're working with, too.
That's right. My band are all hugely involved in the creative process. And that's great for me: It was lonely just writing by myself, and I really love collaborating with other musicians. That was a lot of the change — that and listening to a lot of music that inspired me and I started to realize that I could make that kind of music, as a girl with a guitar and a few friends.
Was the old standard music something that you were exposed to growing up — parents, family that listened to that stuff? Or did that really all come when you were in your 20s?
I came to it more on my own in my 20s, in my bohemian phase when I'd sit around and listen to records and kind of ... brood. My parents are amazing people but didn't really provide me with a fantastic musical foundation. Lionel Richie, my mom's a big James Taylor fan. A lot of classical music. But I think I had to seek it out on my own. I have to give some credit to my older brother. My older brother is also a professional musician, and he introduced me to a lot of music as a youth. I had a bit of a musical education at home, but not so much from my parents.
That's interesting that two of you became professional musicians when your parents weren't particularly invested in music.
Yeah. It boggles their minds as well, believe me.
The new album has that very old, organic sound — how did you pull that off in the studio? Did you go analog?
It's not analog. I have to hand it all to my producer, his name is Les Cooper. I did three records with him and the first record we did together we did analog, then we just went digital. The musicians know how to play to make it sound organic. As much as possible, we played the songs live; there were a lot of overdubs as well. I'd be lying if I said we just got in a room and played all the songs. It was a pretty involved process, making the sounds on the record.
Going from someone who's writing songs with a guitar and playing that, to having a full band behind her — there's a whole different persona going on there. I think when you're playing music that's folk-based, it's just you and your guitar, there's often an assumption that you're presenting yourself in this very genuine way, and writing personal songs, whereas when you get up and your in front of this big band, and you're a singer, there's a tradition in that kind of music that it's less about who you are, and is more about delivering songs and ideas. Was that a transformation you felt?
Definitely my writing style has changed. I think in the early part of my career, when I was writing folky, country songs, it was all about me, and that really personal, honest approach to songwriting. I think these days I do try to write songs that are bigger than me. It's very pompous of me to say this, but every time I write a song, I do try to write a song that carries on the tradition of the great standards. Because I just — I don't want that tradition to die. I know I'm on the record here, but I'm gonna say it anyway: I love the old standards, but I'm tired of hearing jazz singers sing the same songs from 50 years ago. Somebody has to step up and write new standards. Now I think, I do write songs — they're honest in the sense that I put a lot of myself into them, but they're not necessarily about me. They're maybe about bigger themes, and songs that somebody else could easily sing, whereas maybe in my earlier folky days, some of those songs, nobody would ever want to cover them, they were so personal and about me. But I think that's a maturation, an evolution, and it's me feeling more confident as a writer, feeling like I can write great songs that will hopefully have a lifespan beyond just me singing them on a stage or in a coffeehouse. I'm kind of reaching for the stars a little bit more with my writing.
And in terms of the presentation, I think it comes across in the presentation. I think it's more bold for me to stand up in front of a really great band and just deliver songs — it is very different. But, that said, I always feel that there is an intimacy at shows — I try to create an intimacy at my shows. And I always, for better or for worse, need to feel a connection with my audience. Sometimes to a point where I wish I didn't need it so much. I think in terms of my connection to the audience, that part hasn't changed. I'm not just up there like a diva presenting my songs and people have the privilege of listening. I need to work pretty hard every night — some nights harder than others — to have that connection, because it's more challenging now that I'm not just a solo acoustic guitar player.
Last night a packed Stage AE welcomed alternative rock legends Third Eye Blind to Pittsburgh. Lord Grunge and Backwoods Payback opened while an anxious crowd awaited charismatic poet and performer Stephan Jenkins to belt the band's adored choruses and hooks from the 1990s.
Lord Grunge, a local experimental deejay, kicked off the evening with a less than climactic performance. His varying music style, which ranged from hardcore to a Capella rapping, seemed to confuse the crowd rather than excite them. He sang along with prerecorded tracks, making his minutes on stage feel like a musical identity crisis during karaoke night. His banter in between songs did not help his case either, especially when he awkwardly declared, "I like to swear, and I like to drink." The blunt statement did not add to his stage presence at all. He did, however, make his passion for his work quite obvious, and he displayed a definite interest in playing off of the crowd's energy.
Backwoods Payback gave an energizing show with their polished technique. The heavy metal rockers from West Chester, Pa. employed distorted guitar licks and gritty vocals while also incorporating crowd interactions into their set, such as discussing the Pittsburgh Penguins. The most captivating element of their show was bassist Jessica Baker. The bleach-blonde goddess did an excellent job of holding her own alongside the males of the group. Even though the group's sound did not seem like the type one would expect from a Third Eye Blind opener, they managed to pump up the crowd nonetheless.
After what seemed like a century-long sound-check, Jenkins, clad in an over-sized hooded sweatshirt, and the rest of Third Eye Blind entered the stage. They opened with their signature intro and a blood-pumping rendition of "Thanks a Lot," quickly followed by "Graduate" and "Can You Take Me." Jenkins used the whole stage in his performance and kept his hood on for first few songs, hiding the face so many female fans longed to see. He looked like a Jedi knight with the way he strutted across the stage, his apparel hanging loosely on his body. He teased the audience by casually unzipping the garment a little bit more with each song.
A high point of the show was "Faster," as the crowd reacted wildly to a lengthy pause Jenkins inserted right before the first chorus. The radio hit "Never Let You Go" also thrilled the fans, and Jenkins' announcement of an upcoming new album at the end of the song just added to the uproar.
Jenkins demonstrated a peaceful demeanor between songs, at one point calling out, "Every single one of us is in this thing together." He urged audience members to interact with the strangers next to them, encouraging them to tell each other to "have a beautiful spring." He also did his usual glow-stick bit, tossing illuminated necklaces into the crowd.
"Slow Motion" provoked some audience members to raise lighters in the air, while Brad Hargreaves' hair-raising drum solo during "Jumper" threw the fans into a tizzy. When he chucked his drumsticks out to the crowd, the frenzied fans dove for them like starving sharks at feeding time.
The band played the crowd-pleasing "Semi-Charmed Life," and after a brief absence from the stage, they returned to end with "Blinded" and "Let Me In." Third Eye Blind's performance proved that their music's relevance and appeal have hardly faded since the first album. Even in his forties, Jenkins can still deliver an intense, poetic performance.
Just showing you the new Man Forever (aka Kid Millions from Oneida) video, because in the middle of all the trippy droney stuff, you'll notice ex-Pittsburgh rocker/Dirty Faces keyboardist/percussionist Leah McManigle blowing up and popping balloons. That's all! Happy Wednesday!
A little while back, I told you about the contest Iron City was running in which they were soliciting local bands who might want to be "brand ambassadors." Win the contest, get a lot of moola from I.C. to make your record/video/whatever, rep the brand in your videos and onstage and that sort of thing.
Well, the next round has begun: The finalists have been named. A jury working with Iron City chose eleven acts to make the cut, and now it's up to you to choose who gets the goods. The list includes past CP cover dudes Tracksploitation, longtime country-rockers The Harlan Twins, and 2012 Warped Tour act Danielle Barbe among others. Check out the list and vote here.
In Which We Watch Casey Turn into Max Headroom:
(Donora opens for Passion Pit this Saturday at CMU's Carnival!)
This week's MP3 Monday comes from Ursa Major, the Pittsburgh-via-Philly band that released its latest, Never Worried About a Thing in My Life, last month. The whole thing is available on vinyl or on a name-your-own-price basis electronically via the band's Bandcamp page. For now, check out a free sample here: the track "Free Will."
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Tonight you're going to watch hockey. It's OK; I will too. But then, you and I should go see Cheyenne Marie Mize, on tour with local heroes and heroines Donora, at Brillobox. Assuming the Penguins win handily and there's no extra hockey, it should work perfectly timingwise. To put you in the mood, a video from Mize's new album, We Don't Need. She has a bunch of heads!
This weekend, DJ Spooky performs as part of Alia Musica's Hear/Now Festival at the Kelly-Strayhorn. The musician, cultural theorist and provocateur took the time to answer a few of my questions via e-mail this week; as a supplement to my story on the festival, here's the transcript:
Your most recent book, The Book of Ice, stems from spending time in Antarctica, and explores several different aspects of the continent and its climate: Antarctica as a geographic territory that's not necessarily a political territory; Antarctica as a reification of climate change as a concept; ice as physical matter that can serve as a template for, or be converted into, music. What took you to Antarctica in the first place — did all these ideas lead you go there, or did going there lead you to thinking about it in these terms?
My Book of Ice is all about reframing the idea that the composer, the artist, the writer - all can shift the debate on how climate change is affecting everyone. There is a cultural response to climate change!
The project I'm presenting in Pittsburgh is all about Antarctica. I took a studio there and went to several of the main ice fields and wrote a group of compositions about the sound of ice. Most people have never been to Antarctica, and I think that in light of so many of the issues of climate change facing the planet, I wanted to show through music some of the situation facing us. Education is so crucial these days. In the United States, and throughout the world, there are many elections coming up. With the Republican side of things, science, culture, the arts - all of these have been swept aside in a way that only favors fear of the rest of the world, and paranoid delusions of American "exceptionalism." The problem with this kind of dialog is that it is based on ignorance. It is always easy to fool people who cannot compare contexts or explore different viewpoints. As a student, I guess I was always searching for new ways to create art and literature. I had no plan on being a musician. My art and writing were my main focus, and music was kind of a hobby that went out of control.
There have been examples before of composers using mathematical formulae or models based on the solar system as the basis for composition; was using ice and its structures as a jumping-off point for music or sound art something that had a precedent, or something you started exploring of your own volition?
Yes, I studied classical music with Elliot Schwartz, a well known composer. But in general, my knowledge base came from my compositions. It's all about collage, but I'm influenced by Nam Jun Paik, Wagner, and Grand Master Flash just as easily as I am by Adam Smith, John Cage, or Duke Ellington. There are a couple of composers who have worked around the theme of Antarctica or ice - John Luther Adams and Ralph Vaugh Williams for example, or other older composers like Handel or Mahler who wrote pieces about water, or the earth. I listen to a lot of different styles.
You took part last year in a long-running project, The Voice Project, that seeks to bring attention to the plight of folks in Uganda who have lived through the ongoing conflict there. What was your take when, last month, Invisible Children released the Kony 2012 video that went viral and became a lightning rod? Why did that particular approach garner mass attention for the cause so suddenly, and was it the right approach?
Composers are always reflections of their times. Most of my favorite composers were people that didn't accept the rules that they were living in. I like to think of my music in the same tradition. It's a kind of anti-tradition, but there is enough continuity that you realize that these are people who said "yes" to new forms of thinking. Most people say "no." Antarctica doesn't care if you say no or yes. You just have to be careful to not fall in the water - you would die in about about 2 minutes from hypothermia. The Voice Project was with Joshua Roman, who is a really talented cellist, and I think that the KONY controversy did one good thing: it raised awareness about the situation. Provocation is always a catalyst. Let's push more ...
I know you've performed in town before at places like the Warhol museum and Carnegie Mellon; do you have any other Pittsburgh connections?
Pittsburgh is a really interesting place because of so many of the paradoxes of the 20th century have a found a home there. Think of post-industrial places as the beginning of digital culture. Detroit made techno, Pittsburgh made one of the most digital artists of all - Andy Warhol, who probably would never have used a computer. Urban landscapes speak volumes - there is really nothing "original." I'm just honest about it. Everything is a permutation of a permutation. With my Antarctica project the sound responds to landscape, that's the paradox: the grid of the American city's landscape hits the open expanses of Antarctica. You gotta see that as something pretty unique.
How long has it been since I’ve seen a five-band bill in its entirety? Long enough that I can’t answer that question. But when we arrived at nine for last Monday’s Speedwolf show — which was optimistically slated to start at eight — local openers Möwer still had yet to prime their engines. A lesser lineup would have inspired impatience, but between the bookends of Möwer and Denver’s Speedwolf, we had Tok’ra, Abysme, and ILSA, to look forward to. And there are worse fates than killing a little time by drinking beer and watching Cool TV on the muted bar television.
Warming up the Belvedere’s stage, especially when the room is less than 20 percent full, is not, it seems, the most comfortable task, but once Möwer got their bearings, so did everyone else. The two piece, comprised of brothers Craig and Sean Simpson — on guitar and drums, respectively — offers winking, punkish Motörhead worship in everything from that umlaut to their trashy, thrashy, NWBHM sound. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re totally entertaining it a no-frills, cheap beer kind of way. Lemmy once said of Motörhead, “We’re a rock band. I am rock 'n' roll.” They’re may not be any Lemmys in Möwer, but they are definitely rock n roll.
Tok’ra, unintentionally I would imagine, came off as Möwer Part 2: Slightly Blackened – another two- piece playing driving, heavy rock riffs. Not bad, but I think they would have benefited from a smaller space. Some bands just need to fully overwhelm in order to retain their audience’s attention. I admittedly didn’t feel much loss in taking a quick break half-way through.
Straight from the Left Hand Path, locals Abysme played a mix of older stuff and newer jams from their ever -forthcoming LP. The only wholly death-metal band on the bill, they were placed perfectly between the former and latter halves of the show, providing a nice respite beneath their colossal riffings and fetid burp vocals.
By the time ILSA started, around 12:30, I was four beers deep and fading. For many in the still relatively spare crowd, ILSA was the draw. The D.C. band has enjoyed the honor of being Fenriz’s band of the week, and they put out a split with Finland’s awesome doom/death duo Hooded Menace, so they keep good company. They’re crusty, heavy and a little dizzying and damn near artful; and on this particular night, the weight of their sound was strangely soothing. After all the head banging and fist shaking, it felt great to tilt my head back and ride the ILSA wave.
At long last, Speedwolf took the stage and managed to inspire last gasps of enthusiasm, and a cheerfully eccentric – and occasionally lackadaisical circle pit. Speedwolf themselves seemed a little tired, in that way that makes a person aggressive and a little goofy. Despite song titles like “Ride with Death” and “I Am the Demon,” there remains a whiff of clean mountain air about them (Denver does, by the way, have a metal scene, largely ignored as it may be) but they burn like dirty Valvoline. Even so, when heckled with “Elway to Hell!” midway through their set, singer Reed Bruemmer good-naturedly threatened to cancel the rest of the show. When they ended the set with the rambunctious shout-along “Denver 666,” Bruemmer changed the last chorus to “Pittsburgh 666, Pittsburgh 666! I still hate your football team!” The only shirt they had for sale was designed in the style of a Broncos jersey. I guess we can take that personally?
It's starting to rain where I am, so, good post-rock weather. Let's get on with it.
This week's MP3 comes from Deadhorse, a band that's eh-sort-of-local, as they hail from Erie. They're not to be confused with the thrash band Dead Horse.
They're about to head out on a European tour, stretching from April 18 to May 21 (and from Utrecht to Milano to Antwerpen!) Before they leave, they're giving you a sample of a tune off their album We Can Create Our Own World. Stream and download "No Particular Night or Morning" below!
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