8/22/14

Night Club vs. Country Club

Ommmmm...
Right now I am prepping for tonight's Story Jam gig. I haven't had a public performance in over two months, because of wedding season (which, for me, will have occurred this year mostly from May until October). 

It feels like I'm two different people: one person is putting together event music, organizing the band, planning the heck out of each event in a most thorough, detail-driven, almost-maddening (acc. to my hubby) fashion; the other is a rocker chick who can let things roll!

It's the nature of my two jobs. Playing pop rock in a night club is not playing pop rock in a country club. In the night club, my hair is purple, my jeans are skinny and I am chill. In the country club, I am buttoned up, sober, prepared and alert (until I start dancing wildly with the crowd).

Traversing these two worlds makes things pretty darn fun. I wouldn't love either one as much without the other, and I love them both equally. But tonight, after a few months of weddings and private parties, I am donning my relaxed self and playing originals at The Rock House in Wilmette with Tom McCarthy, Paul Merar and Kalyan Pathak. I guess I better get crackin' - can't let "chill" me turn into "lazy" me!

4/24/13

The Wedding Temptress

Hello Wedding Season

I think I'm ready. I love this planning phase. I can almost see each wedding before it happens, as I make set lists and laminate printed sheets of bridal party names (with phonetic spellings of course). I picture the guests in chic, bright colors; a stunning bride in an adorable up do - with whom I have been meeting and planning all these months - and cherubic, carefree children bouncing about the bandstand. I imagine them all becoming increasingly sweaty and silly as the evening progresses, because of music we select. I am visualizing each room, each family I've come to know, the personalities, the goals we made materializing into this beautiful, perfect day...
I think there is a fine line between craving excellence and taking things too far. Sometimes during this time of year, I wake up worrying over some detail for an event that is due to occur weeks or months from now. I need to find the balance of caring a LOT, and perhaps caring too much...and losing sleep! I enjoy all of this wayyyy more than I ever planned, much more than probably necessary. 




And I told friends I'd do this until my "real job" happened. But I can't quit her, that sultry wedding band temptress. Her siren song is a medley of 80s pop and current dance hits, and I am foundered by her call.


3/15/13

Party Bus

I haven't kept you up to date, but it's a sign that things are busy around here. I like busy. I am effective when busy, sunken when inert. Inert when immobile. It's a vicious cycle. 

Today I am the opposite of sunken, though. I'm downright animated!


But only because these past two days have been a BLAST. Yesterday I got to be on the radio with an Irishman, then later found myself holding court with said Irishman and two other pals around 1ayem at a bar in Bucktown. How many soccer moms can say that about an average Thursday night, eh? Luck o' the Welsh! 

(For the record, I am only something like 1/22 Welsh, but it still holds up, and sounds more fitting than "luck o' the Austrians!")

Two nights ago, this Welshwoman played at The Orrington bar in Evanston, which sounds very hotel-like (and it is) but it was super fun; and being neither a wedding nor fundraiser, the hotel gig had a certain (very) laid-back charm. I tried to minimize the between-song babble - I mean "banter" - and got through three fun sets of mostly original material with some great players like Jennifer Lowe, Jim Hines, Scott Tipping, Geoff Lowe and Matt Nelson, all the while watching dear friends enjoy their hotel bar french fries, droopy-lettuced burgers and gun-sprayed sodas.

Then, to top off all of this goodness, I was an ol' pro on the radio yesterday, because I had been invited onto another station this past Sunday, and had exorcised all of the warbling and bumbling then (sorry Kathy Kelly and WNUR!). Look at me, all relatively radio ready!

When I get off this party bus and actually start to get back to work, I'll write in. Until then, let's enjoy the ride and see some sights!


6/30/12

Transitioning From Sweetness To Bossiness


I have been a business owner for almost three years, which is why I am now an expert on How To Go From Being A Relatively Affable Person Into Being A Big Mean Boss.
I find so much about my new life as a full-time bandleader (and still singer-songwriter) enthralling - the networking, the musicians, the constant challenge of learning new material, the meetings, the organizing and planning....but I will admit that I stiffen, solidify and panic when things go awry!


Okay maybe they don't go AWRY, and maybe I don't STIFFEN, but there are occasional surprises in terms of being a bossy-pants. Having taken, um, NONE classes in Personnel Management at theatre school (oh, why did I choose "The Movement and Physique of Opposable-Thumbed Primates" instead of "How To Own a Corporation?"), I am wont to refer to self-help advice gleaned from the internets. 


Lucky you, you get the benefit of my gleanings!


1. Developing Employee Bonding

Lots of businesses plan company trips and rewards events for top-tier employees, but musicians are inspired and aligned by such things as: CASH TIPS, LIVE BOOTLEG RECORDINGS of John Coltrane and NEARBY TAVERNS. Reward your people with what makes them most happy!
2. Firing People

"Fire Fast, hire slowly" so they say. When you let someone go in the corporate sector, you might say something like: "Your deliverables on our latest project did not meet company standards" or..."We're looking for new ways to meet our objectives." In music/jobbing lingo, this becomes: "I'm sorry dude, but you sucked on that Adele tune!"  

3. Motivating Your Employees

In the corporate realm, garnishing your office with "Wooden Praise," such as plaques and awards might work well, but in the world of event music, a mere thumbs up at the end of a solo has just the same effect. Musicians, who are utterly accustomed to seeing their amazing playing go mostly unnoticed, will be thrilled that you caught their modest, multi-modal moment of brilliance.

I admit, it is not always easy going from being a happily hired gun to being big-mama-boss-lady, but the rewards far outweigh the pangs of management and I get to have client meetings like the one I had yesterday, in which the awesomely cool couple told me they hired me because they loved my band and I was the only "genuine" bandleader they had met. It is so fabulous to have such nice clients, and the fellas (and gal) and I are excited beyond words (and supremely privileged) to make sure their weddings are UTTERLY AMAZEBALLS musically. When it comes to music, HEART OVER SMART! We may not have MBAs, but we are genuine baby!!!!

11/8/11

Perspective

This week has been mighty challenging.

A 14 year-old "inner city" kid is now living with my family in one of the whitest suburbs of Chicago. Our races really make no difference, although if I were a teenager in these circumstances - surrounded by no one who looks or acts like me - I'd probably feel isolated.

We've enlisted the advice of friends, professionals (and my ever-supportive mom) and most people think my hubby and I are nuts to do this. We've known this kid since he was five and we knew him before all the forces of his neighborhood and upbringing had a real effect, influencing in him in ways too painful to watch. So we stepped in at a time when he needed someone. Desperately.

Or maybe we stepped in too late.

I've spent the last week during this transition feeling sort of stupid and anxious and stressed and wondering why on earth my oft naive, humanitarian heart takes on things I probably can't handle. My friend wrote me this today:

"When I'm ready to quit from the stress (of organizing a huge philanthropic event) each year, I tell myself I can afford to sacrifice a little of my privileged convenience and comfort and that's about the only thing that gets me through. Reminding myself it wouldn't kill me to actually sacrifice for the benefit of others :)"

Thanks to her today for helping me feel lighter and seeing that maybe this act of kindness and hospitality will change one life for the better. And thanks to my many friends who've pointed out that seeing the hope and potential of a troubled, neglected, bright yet academically-and-law-abidingly-challenged kid will put my life into perspective and maybe someday bring me and my family great joy.

I'm actually looking very forward to working with my very detail-oriented clients on their fundraiser at a country club this weekend. What would usually be a challenging situation for me will actually be a welcome respite.


8/20/11

My Friend Alpha

This is my friend Alpha and his daughter Stephanie
I have a very good friend named Alpha Bangura whom I have never met in person. We connected on the internet 11 years ago when I was looking at information about various causes and people making a difference. Alpha lives in Sierra Leone, Africa. He helps children who have been orphaned by the terrible wars in his country through his school and his orphanage. I've worked on fundraisers and fund-raising for Alpha ever since then and find my relationship with him deeply rewarding. He is a truly lovely man. About two years ago, he and his wife had a baby boy who very sadly died because of poor health care. It broke Alpha's heart and I almost thought Alpha wouldn't survive. A year later they had a baby girl and Alpha emailed me to ask if he could name her after me.



6/11/11

My new cd


I wanted to find an organic, folky, pure sound for my third cd, Daisy Petal in the Dirt.  No fancy tricks! I had always admired a band in Chicago called Sons of The Neverwrong. I love their vibe, their music, their live show. And as I was once a rocker chick, the thought of recording it folk & roots like the Sons seemed pretty enthralling. You can’t get away with anything when you’re in the raw, a girl and a piano.

In July of 2009, I went to Sons’ producer/writer/guitarist/singer Bruce Roper’s studio pad on the north side and began laying down scratch piano and vocal tracks for 15 tunes. It took several months just to get those done because I was stealing hours during the day from my mom and jobbing band duties and I happened to be intensely loaded up, schedule-wise. But, it was worth the time because in all my mistakes and re-dos, we nailed down tempos and keys pretty well and had a decent enough basis for the rest of the musicians. I especially loved Bruce’s microphone, an Audio Technica AT-4050, and vocal set-up. The scratch vocals sounded so purdy.

Then we started bringing in some players and sent tracks to Stevie Blacke, a fantastic LA-based strings musician (who has played with some pretty famous people like Pink and Beck), two different drummers and a bass player.

While the Stevie stuff came back so gracefully, our Chicago sessions were sort of uninspired. Not because of the musicians but by the lack of vision and skill on the part of the “producer,” moi. I was hoping things would just come together, not realizing players generally appreciate more direction than “that sounds nice.” I expected the whole thing to unravel naturally, effortlessly. Although I loved the players we brought it, I knew something wasn’t adding up when it all came together. The recordings sounded soulless. My options were: 1. To finish what we had; 2. To trash the whole thing and start again;  3. To find a proper producer who could work with what we had and enhance what we needed or 4. To quit music entirely.

I spent about four or five months contemplating what to do while Bruce comped vocals and met me here and there. I was thinking: should I re-do what we have or should we mix it and hope for the best? I sent a few songs to various mixers and friends to see if they could rectify the situation or offer advice. Yet still, I wasn’t excited about the recordings. If I could find someone who wouldn’t charge a ton, I could send the material out of town and work the tracks from a distance (maybe I needed some distance at that point!).

I found an old college friend, Craig Havighurst, who referred me to Neilson Hubbard, a Nashville producer. Neilson spent about a month organizing the pieces after bringing in his guys to re-track rhythm. Believe it or not, he kept two things: my scratch piano parts and Stevie’s strings. Oh, and he also loved a lot of the quirky background vocals Sue Demel (of Sons of The Neverwrong) had done – she’s so cool.  I found out later, when I went down to Nashville to sing my leads, that Neilson didn’t receive any click tracks on the hard drive I sent him. So, for each song, he and his boys had to follow my scrappy piano parts and play to them! Awkward. So much for all that time Bruce and I spent on programming the click to all my weird tempo changes!

I went down to Nash (with bronchitis) on March 8th, 2011 and spent two days singing with Neilson after he had spent some time re-tracking and recycling what I had sent in the instrumental tracks. He’s sweet and low-key, a Mississippi boy. He knew what he was doing, but you might not think so by his humility. No ego at all. We did six, seven or eight vocal takes of each song – 7 songs the first day and 4 the next day – in a smooth, easy-going, yet purposeful manner. He had chosen 11 of the 15 to work on. He did reject one of my old standbys, Something’s Missing, but it wasn’t too hard to let that one go after I’ve been playing it since 2003 or 2004. All the other songs he chose were written more recently. He rejected another one I loved, Sweet Color, but maybe that one will reappear later (it has multiple annoying tempo changes and it arrived with no click track like all the others).

Neilson brought the boys back in and they tracked three more songs: Hand of a Rebel, Marie and Walk To the Water (which I later 86’d). I sent Marie and Walk in there last minute just to give them something extra, but “Walk” wasn’t a fully developed song yet, so it made it to the trash pile. Again…maybe next record.

Neilson came to Chicago in April 2011 to play a show with one of his artists, Kim Richey. So, I booked a couple days at Transient Sound, a St. Ben’s-area studio owned by my friend Vijay Tellis-Nayak and his partner Steve Gillis. We recorded lead vocals for Hand of a Rebel, Marie and one other song that needed another look, Come Orion.  I also invited two brilliant Chicago pals - Liam Davis and Cheryl Wilson - to come in for some background harmonies. Since Dan Mitchell, the keyboard player he works with, was here with Neilson, he sang some and played some piano and organ as well. It was a very productive day and-a-half!

Neilson went back to Nashville and I got busy laying down background vocals for a couple songs, recording at home on my M-Box. Not exactly high-fi, but good enough for backgrounds, Neilson assured me. Then, we realized I needed to get down to Nashville for final mixes and some last-minute vocal changes, so I spent a day in late May in his studio and we finalized our mixes.

So, after starting a total of 18 songs in Chicago two years ago, we had now collectively whittled things down to 13 tracks, then ditched a piano-cello piece, Easter Day, in the 11th hour. My old friend from Northwestern, Thom Russo, offered to give me some re-mixes at this point, so Neilson sent him the files in June 2011. Thommy did so well with those, he ended up re-mixing the entire record. I can’t wait for you to hear it. It is so beautiful (in my opinion). I haven’t made a cd in almost nine years, and this one is my most proud. For sneak peaks, please go to soundcloud to hear some of the songs. 


CD release party for Daisy Petal In The Dirt will be at Mayne Stage in Chicago on September 15th, 8pm. Tickets are $15 for general seating. 


3/12/11

Nash

I'm probably no hot studio singer. The process of recording tends to stress me out. Directing the emotion of a big song into a small metal tube is a challenge to this live-lovin' performer. But, I'm making a record (yes, they're called records), so I gotta record. In a studio. This time, I opted to do it in Nashville.

So, seated next to an inebriated ex-Marine with gold teeth and billowy muscles, I amble down in a rickety ol' can of tin (thanks, American Eagle) and hightail it to Neilson. Neilson is a Mississippi fella, a touring musician, a no-kidding producer with a vibey studio in east Nashville.

Neilson Hubbard

We meet. We talk. Music, marriage, religion, politics. Then, I sing. And sing. And sing. I sang from ten in the morning until seven at night that first day. And I
couldn't wait to do it again the next day.

Maybe now I kinda get the studio and maybe it kinda gets me. Maybe one awkward flight, a Marine, the Nashville hills, a bottle of throat spray and a smart southern dude just turned me into a singer.


2/27/11

Taking Care

Being sick, which I seem to be sometimes, is often a pain in the ass and yet it's also a blessing. It's a chance to reform, renew and reinvigorate a life. I've noticed in these past few homebound days that I've strung myself along the emotional pull - from annoyance and regret to joy and hope - just to find that I am, once again, emerging a little bit stronger and hope-filled. I had been chained to a box of tissues while reading Newsweek and the lyrics of Leonard Cohen when Karen Maezen Miller's "Hand Wash Cold" arrived at a most serendipitous moment. It's a Zen-infused instruction manual (and autobiography) about enjoying the wash, the chores, the moment.

Thank you Momma Zen because today, as I am recovering, I am grateful for the chance to be home these past few days. To have gently made simple, nourishing meals for my sick family, to have had the luxury of sleep and hugs and herbal baths, and to have relished this beautiful book... 

2/1/11

Indie Wed



I was really thrilled to be an attendee at Indie Wed last weekend. Indie wed is a wedding show event that caters to unique, hip, conscious couples. I met lots of amazing people who are raising the eco-friendly bar in their floral, stationary, catering, photography, video and jewelry businesses. I also saw some great re-purposing of gorgeous wedding accoutrements and some incredibly creative green and vintage companies. I loved the inspiration and vibe. There were a couple DJs and a smattering of individual musicians (a string quartet, a guitarist, a harpist), but no band representation. This event made me really think about how I can incorporate best green practices into my work in the band. While we do use electricity and cars to lug gear, we rarely print our promo materials (we use email and pdfs a lot!). I also try to buy previously owned gear and I donate a portion of our proceeds to great organizations like Donors Choose, Kiva and the Lemonaid Fund in Sierra Leone. I'd love to find more ways to bring consciousness to my business, so please send me any suggestions if you have them!


Some of the groovy vendors at indie wed 2011:
http://layercakeshop.com/
http://www.larkspurchicago.com/
http://idofilms.net/
http://greenweddingalliance.org/
http://jfod.com/
http://lovelulumae.com/
http://vavoompinups.com/

7/15/10

Home Office


"I believe that writers are terribly sensitive to our environments. We need very much to have a desirable workspace in order to let our creativity unfold." Pamela Phillips Oland






I've been reading "The Art of Writing Great Lyrics" by Pamela Phillips Oland, from which the above quote comes. This idea-rich book, which is responsible for forcing me to whip my lyrics into shape these past two weeks, is loaded with great writing advice from an established industry lyricist. I've learned lots of tricks and tips, including how to make the song into a story and how to better choose words that get to the point rather than sound like lovely poetry (one of her major points is that lyrics are not poetry). Though some of the information is slightly dated and some of her examples of simile are a touch cheesy ("You are as tempting as an apple tree in Eden"), the book is helpful for anyone with or without formal songwriting training. In addition to all the surprising advice (it's okay to use a rhyming dictionary!), there is a chapter on the importance of one's working environment that has stuck with me these past few days.


I have always had a very personal relationship with my workplace. I cannot work until the house is clean and I require space and color, light and calm, before I can even so much as compose an email. I am in the midst of recording and finishing writing for a new cd and every song, word, idea and melody came out of my home "office." After writing songs for nearly two decades, I think I have finally gotten a workplace which both feeds my soul and functions well.

For what it's worth, my ideas tend to start at the piano. We purchased this piano at a small college sale; therefore this "writer's instrument," which I love so dearly, was formerly used by music majors. It is not a "pianist's piano" and as I am no concert classicist, it suits me well. I love its work-horse, academic-musician energy. It's something I pound on without worry of offending; a very easy, forgiving instrument. The swirly rug underneath is vintage and cost us about forty bucks. Small price to pay for so much happy.

I do most of my lyric writing and all of my editing in the adjacent room. This is my "lyric room," which is our office, bill paying dock, telephone conference room, comfy reading area, etc... It has three walls filled with windows and is very cozy.

I don't really know what most songwriters do, but I start with a song idea - usually at the grand above the swirls - and often with a recording device of some kind (lately it's been a recording app on the iphone). When I have culled the ideas on my recorder, I bring them into the lyric room for some work on the mac. Then I spend the next hours, days or maybe weeks, on and off, bouncing back and forth from computer to piano. When its ready, I load the song into my small protools setup on the mac with a keyboard and a microphone. I keep working on it until I finally bring it to the band to rehearse and possibly try out at a small gig. Quite often, the song just sits there, either as a just word file, or maybe as a protools file. 

I wonder if other people in other fields feel a kind of intimacy with their environment? Do accountants need great lighting in order to numbers-crunch? Does a chef relish in a clean floor? Would a lawyer prefer to be surrounded by books? 

I am scouring the internet for pictures of artist homes. Here are a few homes of interest...
rickie lee jones at her home in washington
tori amos in her home studio
sting at home in wiltshire
joni mitchell's home in laurel canyon, 1970's
(grand piano not visible)