I’m not sure how your Friday is going, but over here it’s the freakin’ weekend baby and I’m about to have me some fun! Well, if you count studying for finals as fun, that is. As I continue to collect the scattered pieces of my blown mind from last night’s Springsteen show, please enjoy this week’s NoiseTrade Friday Four.
(As always, be sure to click on each album title for a link to the artist’s download page.)
LEAGUES is not only offering their stunning debut full-length album You Belong Here in its entirety, but they’ve attached six b-sides and remixes as well. While their brand of dance-infused alterna-pop is in full force throughout the album, it’s felt even stronger on the bonus tracks. The Canon Blue remix version of “Walking Backwards” is not to be missed.
I’ve found that this quirky acoustic instrumental album proves to be fantastic background music for a variety of activities. Which makes perfect sense once you learn of the origin of the songs. Written and recorded as accompaniment for Chef Byron Talbott’s YouTube channel on cooking and baking, these songs tongue-in-cheekily “GUARANTEE to make you a better chef.”
Singer-songwriter Kel has a whimsical air threaded through her graceful vocals and her lyrics allow a unique perspective into the 18-year-old’s outlook on life and relationships. Kel’s debut album Skin and Bones, of which these five songs are pulled from, is available now on her website.
The fine folks at Destiny Nashville have wrangled in some of the city’s best indie artists for this amazing covers project. The Cover Up, due out April 22, features Trent Dabbs, Brooke Waggoner, Amy Stroup, and a host of others doing laid back, stripped down covers of songs by such diverse acts as Nirvana, Drake, Daft Punk, The Killers, Roy Orbison and more. This exclusive sampler features Amy Stroup covering Roxette, Trent Dabbs covering Drake, Ella Mae Bowen covering The Killers, and Elenowen covering Empire of the Sun.
When writer Will Hodge isn’t wanting some water to put out the blowtorch, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
Last year, Erin McKeown released MANIFESTRA, a compelling album that mixed together guitars and governments in a decidedly head-on manner. While these can be notoriously tricky waters to tread, McKeown’s gift for inclusive storytelling and her knack for melodic and percussive magnetism invite the listener into conversation instead of a debate.
Looking to take the concept of civil engagement further, McKeown then recorded CIVICS, a companion album of the 11 songs from MANIFESTRA reinterpreted in a nuanced, solo acoustic fashion. According to McKeown, “CIVICS whispers where MANIFESTRA shouts.” Choosing to record these performances inside of a marble-tiled library proved to be quite the aesthetic (and poetic) final touch.
NoiseTrade: What sparked the idea to break down these songs and record CIVICS as a companion album to MANIFESTRA?
Erin McKeown: My songs usually exist in at least two versions: the idealized band/album version that comes first and the more economical/practical solo version that comes later with touring. Since the MANIFESTRA batch were orchestrated to amplify the message in each song, I was curious how the messages would react to the solo treatment. If the song were played more intimately, would you hear the song rather than feel it? Would the songs feel more like songs than messages or vice versa?
NT: How did you land on recording CIVICS at the Field Memorial Library in Western Massachusetts?
McKeown: I’ve driven by the Field for over a decade now. It’s such a curiosity; a large, ornate building stuck in the middle of a tiny, very rural town. It’s all marble where everything else is clapboard. It isn’t often open, but one time I happened to drive by when it was, so I stopped just for curiosity’s sake to have a look. The instant I stepped inside and heard my footsteps echo, I knew I had to do some recording in the space. At the time, I didn’t know for what project, but I filed the sound of the building away in my mind for the future.
NT: Do you feel that the stripped-down performances of these songs shape the lyrical content or your vocal delivery differently?
McKeown: I think the most fundamental differences in the CIVICS versions are the guitar parts. They’ve got to cover what the bass, keyboard, and drums are doing in addition to being a guitar. The parts I am playing on CIVICS are so different from MANIFESTRA that I inevitably sang the songs differently, emphasized different lyrics, and found different emotional shades to the songs.
NT: The mixture of music and politics can often end up being a shouting match with only one participant. What has shaped your ability to bypass that route and instead create an open dialogue through inspired storytelling?
McKeown: That is very well put! I can certainly fall into the trap of shouting: “if I just say this LOUDER, you’ll understand”. But I live in fear of creating a bad song with a good message. That does no one any good! So I rely on my primary instincts as songwriter and performer. I need to tell stories first, to craft a dramatic arc, to find an image that will stick with the listener long after the song is over. Through years of touring and writing, I’ve built up a toolbox of effective, adaptive ways to make people listen. In the case of MANIFESTRA, the work was to stick to the song first and let the politics follow. With CIVICS, I found that there was even more power in being quiet.
NT: One of the songs on the album, “Baghdad to the Bayou,” has a pretty unique origin story, as it was written – correct me if I’m wrong – over text message with Rachel Maddow as your co-writer?
McKeown: That’s right! I was in Alaska with Thao Nguyen and we ran into Ira Glass in a diner in Anchorage. Ira and I became fast friends, and shortly afterward, he invited me to perform at a benefit to raise money for the 2010 deepwater horizon spill cleanup. Rachel was also on the bill for the benefit. Since she and I have known each other for years from Western Massachusetts, Ira asked us to collaborate. She was so busy that the only way we could communicate around her travels was by text. It’s a unique song, one that probably leans more to being a better message than song. However, the message is so important, and Rachel is so amazing, that I am going to give myself a pass on it not being the greatest song ever.
When writer Will Hodge isn’t putting the fun back in funeral, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
After spending the largest chunk of his musical career behind a drum set and guitar for a variety of bands, Ethan Luck has stepped up to the microphone and has spent the last year working on his own material. He released his debut solo EP, Wounds & Fears, last November and has just recently released his equally gripping follow-up, Hard Seas. Mixing his punk rock roots with a West Coast country twang and a sprinkling of sparse folk simplicity, Luck’s wide-ranging musical tastes produce a cohesively diverse outing that never loses its bearings. Even in the short space of just five songs, Luck’s ambitous twists and turns make for a fun and worthwhile listen. Which, if you’re like me, means that the singular ”listen” quickly morphs into multiple “listens” before you know it.
With Hard Seas, Luck has also taken the opportunity to write about his recent struggles with anxiety. Using music as an outlet to address and work through everything that has accompanied it, Luck stated, “In the last year, for reasons I don’t need to get into, my anxiety went to places I thought I would never see or deal with. While trying to figure out ways to deal with it, I would write songs about it. That was a very therapeutic and painful process, but I needed it.”
NoiseTrade: You released your debut EP, Wounds & Fears, last November and you’re already back with your second one, Hard Seas. Were these songs hold-overs from Wounds & Fears or are they the prolific product of brand new moments?
Ethan Luck: The only things that were left over from Wounds & Fears were half done songs. Those are still sitting around. The songs on Hard Seas are all brand new, after I finished the Wounds & Fears EP. I write music in any downtime I have. So, I started on songs for this new EP before Wounds & Fears even came out. I had a completely different goal in mind. I wanted to write an EP of songs with one constant theme. I wrote most of them while on the road, in hotel rooms.
NT: As someone who does all of the writing, playing, and recording on your own, what does the process look like for you from initial idea to song completion?
Luck: Mostly, I start with playing a couple chords and singing a melody of gibberish. Once I find a good melody that works well with the chords I’m playing, I record a quick memo on my phone, so I won’t forget it. I do that most days. I’ll revisit those ideas and decide which are the strongest and figure out what to write about and go on from there.
It’s been fun to write while on tour, as a guitar tech. I’ll finish a few songs in hotel rooms and when I get home, I go straight into my garage studio and start tracking. I already know what I want to hear with other instruments so I make quick progress the day I start tracking. My normal tracking times are in the morning or late at night. I feel that I can focus better, especially at night. When I take a short break, I’ll go in my backyard and it’s silent. That helps a lot when finishing lyrics.
I don’t spend a lot of time over-producing anything. If I’m happy with it, then that’s what you’re gonna hear. I’m not trying to be anything I’m not. I’m not trying to please or impress anyone. Plus, I like the idea of capturing good moments as opposed to making it perfect. I have the same approach to photography. I’m never going to be perfect, so why pretend to be?
NT: On your website, you spoke candidly about your struggles with anxiety. What role does music, specifically the creation of your own music, play in that?
Luck: Music plays one of the biggest roles in dealing with something like anxiety. I’ve been surrounded by music since birth. When anxiety became something real in my life, music became one of the few things that made it diminish or drove me right through the hardest parts of it. Even if a song isn’t about what I’m going through, maybe the mood of the song is. When I listen to a song about pain or heartache, it hits me pretty hard. It pulls things out of me, whether I like it or not.
When I’ve had an anxiety attack, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put on “The Cure For Pain” by my long time friend, Jon Foreman. It’s a sad song with so much hope, to me. I’ll send him a text from time to time, thanking him for that song.
In regard to my own music, it’s one of the best therapies out there. I’ve even listened back to this EP and it’s helped me. I have many ways of dealing with anxiety and I’m still working on ways to do so. For me, to put what I’m going through into a song is like having someone to talk to. It’s a perfect way to get across what you’re going through and I can only hope that it might help someone else, dealing with similar things. When you meet someone with similar struggles, it becomes that push you need to get through the day. Music often does the same to me.
NT: In the song “Can’t Sleep Sound,” you sing the line “I hid myself so well, well enough to not be found.” How do you reconcile attempts to do that with your job as a professional musician whose job is in the public eye?
Luck: That line is talking about hiding from what’s real and hoping that it will just pass. It won’t. In the last year or so, when anxiety got worse than ever, I felt embarrassed. I feel like I’m a pretty social person and transparent. I love being around people. I want to love people. I didn’t want anxiety to take over and change who I am. I felt like it was about to at so many times. I had to get to a point where I could deal with this and still be myself. So, what better way than to write about it. It’s out there now and I feel great about that.
“Can’t Sleep Sound” is specifically about how I was feeling last summer, when I started a new job that was pretty unexpected. I got thrown into a situation where I barely knew anyone. Although I feel I can walk up to anyone and make conversation, this felt different. On top of that, I was dealing with the feelings of having to set aside my life of 16 years, playing music for a living.
NT: In regards to the sound of Hard Seas, your country influences and guitar tones seem to be pretty West Coast in nature, like a mix somewhere between Buck Owens and Mike Ness of Social Distortion. Do you feel that as well or does living in Nashville play a part too?
Luck: Where I grew up and where I live now definitely have an effect on me when it comes to my “sound.” Growing up in California, I discovered bands like Social Distortion, Face To Face, Rancid, Green Day, Black Flag…etc. While living there, I also was exposed to the “Bakersfield Sound” by my Dad. That led me to artists like Johnny Cash, The Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams, just to name a few.
When I got to the point where I wanted to write my own music, writing with all of those influences made sense to me. The sound came naturally. Believe it or not, there actually is influence from my love of ska/reggae on this EP too. The chorus to “Set Me Free” is where you’ll find it. Mostly, with the “Oh-Oh’s” on the chorus. Put an upstroke guitar and a kick drum on 2 and 4, you have a mid tempo ska song.
NT: You created a gorgeous 48-page photo book of your photography to accompany Hard Seas. What’s the association between the photos and the EP?
Luck: The digital photo book was a bit of a last minute decision. I had all these photos I had taken over the time of writing this EP. I wanted to do something with them. So, I went back and found my favorite photos from all the places I was while writing and touring. I picked my favorites and made a digital photo book. Each photo was from the surroundings of where I was writing, arranging or recording. You’ll see photos from Australia all the way to my backyard.
NT: This may be a bit of a music nerd question, but what do you think is special about EPs, as opposed to singles and full-length albums?
Luck: I don’t know every artist’s reason for making an EP. Maybe you’re taking to long to make a new LP? Maybe you have a batch of songs that are different than what people know you for? Who knows? To me, they do seem more special and leave me wanting more.
For me, I want to put out music in shorter time frames. I don’t want to work on a 12-song album and have it come out a year later. I like recording songs about life at that point and having it still be fresh when people hear it. My good friend, Nathan Thomas, mixed and mastered Hard Seas a week before I released it. I love that. If I end up writing 12 songs in a few months time, then who knows, maybe I’ll have a full length out. For now, I like the idea of just EPs.
NT: As a fellow fan of the format, what are some of your recommended EPs you’ve dug over the years from other artists you’ve enjoyed?
Luck: Good question! Here’s a few that come to mind…
The Clash – Black Market Clash EP
Fishbone – Fishbone EP
Jon Foreman – Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer EPs
OFF! – First Four 7″ EPs
Metallica – Garage Days Re-Revisited EP
Noah Gundersen – Family EP
MxPx – Small Town Minds EP
When writer Will Hodge isn’t partying at Ground Zero, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
Man, I hope you guys are ready because this week’s NoiseTrade Friday Four is a straight-up doozy. We all know nothing helps you head into the weekend like some great tunes, so I worked super hard to make sure you’re covered. All four of these releases are fantastic and if you’re not familiar with any of these artists, well… what are you waiting for?
(As always, be sure to click on each album title for a link to the artist’s download page.)
I promise you it would not be overstated hyperbole to say that Joe Pug has one of my all-time favorite voices. The fact that he is an unquestionably brilliant lyricist just sweetens the pot. Most ears will impulsively try to attach the Bob Dylan tag, but a closer listen will show that influence as a starting point and not a destination.
I’ve come to be untroubled in my seeking and I’ve come to see that nothing is for naught.
I’ve come to reach out blind, to reach forward and behind.
For the more I seek, the more I’m sought. – “Hymn #101”
I mean, c’mon. Download the intro sampler, go buy everything he’s ever put out, and then tumble sweetly down the rabbit hole.
I think it’s safe to assume that Humble Beast’s Braille is the only artist on NoiseTrade who has the distinct honor of opening for both James Brown and De La Soul. I really love Braille’s brand of hip-hop, showcasing uncluttered boom-bap beats, down-to-earth lyrics, and a powerful aggression-minus-malice delivery. Braille is also a part of Beautiful Eulogy, the hip-hop collective that also includes Odd Thomas and Courtland Urbano.
How can you not try out a band who describes themselves as “a cynical, co-ed Everly Brothers”? While this guitar-drums duo share some sonic similarities to bands like The White Stripes or Dex Romweber, the uniqueness of the mixture of their vocals and their twangy minimalistic approach to songwriting certainly keeps them from sounding like clones of any of their influences.
The only thing that makes Drew Holcomb’s velvet growl sound any sweeter is when his wife Elie joins in to float over the top of it. You’ll find his sound somewhere between vintage country, full-band folk, and roots rock, although it never lands squarely on any one of them for very long. If you’ve never picked up any of his albums, this sampler is EP is a fantastic introduction to his solid catalog.
When writer Will Hodge isn’t disguised as someone else, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
20 years after releasing their self-titled debut album, hip-hop blues trio G. Love & Special Sauce are celebrating with a retrospective look back and a refreshing look ahead. Although it’s been eight years since they last played together, the original line up of G. Love, “Jimi Jazz” Prescott, and Jeff Clemons have reunited to record a brand new album, Sugar, and they’re currently on tour playing 1994′s G. Love & Special Sauce in its entirety.
To add to the festivities, they’re offering a cool EP titled 20 Years On… And A Taste of Sugar that includes three tracks off the new album and three live tracks form their ongoing tour. From Sugar, “One Night Romance” sizzles on the duet vocals of the legendary Merry Clayton, “Nothing Else Quite Like Home” gets a little help from Ben Harper and Marc Broussard, and the funky chug of “Cheating Heart” will have you moving in no time. The three debut album live tracks showcase the talented trio grooving through the laid-back chill of “Blues Music,” the jazzy interplay of “Walk to Slide,” and the sleazy slink of “Garbage Man.”
NoiseTrade: It’s been eight years since the original G. Love & Special Sauce played together. What got you guys back in the same room and playing together again?
G. Love: I was down at my sound guy/tour manager/producer’s wedding two Septembers ago and Jim (Prescott, bass) was there. We hadn’t seen each other in about five years. I asked him if he ever wanted to come back out on the road. He wasn’t exactly interested in doing that, but he said he’d be down for doing some recording.
Fast-forward a year and a half, and after doing a session for the Sugar record, we felt like we wanted to cut some more tunes. I said, let’s see if Jim’s available to do this next session. Sure enough, he said he was into it. It was the first time we had played together in about five or six years and we were able to pick back up right where we were at the best times we had ever had playing together. The instant chemistry and joy of playing together were still there.
After that session, I was helping him load up his car and I asked him again if he wanted to come back out on the road. This time, he was into it. It worked out pretty serendipitously with it being the 20-year anniversary of the first record. So it’s been great to put together the original line-up that made that record.
NT: What’s the experience been like to play your self-titled debut album in full each night?
G. Love: It’s been cool to play again as the original trio and play something that we’re all so endeared to and care so much about. It’s been just like getting back on the bike. We knew it would be since we had already done a successful recording session. We’re playing the whole first record and most of the new record with some other songs mixed in for fun. At soundcheck we try to work on other songs from our catalog to throw in.
NT: Are there any songs that have a taken on a different meaning for you now, 20 years later?
G. Love: Yeah, it’s funny… It’s almost like having a kid and watching them grow up. You love them as much now as you did when they were little, but you almost respect them more. Instead of just jamming on the songs like we do sometimes, we’re performing them pretty close to how they were first recorded and letting them stand on their own. We’re trying to respect and celebrate the original performances.
NT: Early in the tour you had back-to-back shows in Philly. How was the hometown crowd?
G. Love: It was really awesome. It was emotional to play the Boston show and the Philly shows because a lot of the old heads came out. A lot of people showed up that worked in the music business in Philly around the time that we recorded the first record. So it was nice to see everyone. We’ve never been part of a trend or a scene, but it’s still nice to feel that community.
NT: What drove the decision to record Sugar live with you guys playing in the same room at the same time?
G. Love: Of all the stuff I’ve put out over the years, it seems that the best stuff has been recorded like that. Where we’re just going for it and not trying to be too polished. I try to stay away from the three compound words that can destroy any recording session for me: sonically-correct, radio-friendly, and commercially-viable. Over the years I’ve sometimes tried to cater to one or more of those curse words, but it’s always been to limited success and it was always a let down.
When you’re recording, oftentimes the producer will want to have complete control over the sonics of the tracks, so they’ll want isolation. They’ll start with the drums and build everything around that individually. However, since it takes a certain emotional vocal and guitar performance to get the right drum take you want, why wouldn’t you use that same vocal and guitar track that got the drummer there in the first place? That’s where the connection is. It may be a little more raw or unpolished, but it’s emotionally connected and that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make every time. Things go a lot faster that way as well (laughs).
NT: “One Night Romance,” your call-and-response duet with the legendary Merry Clayton, is downright incendiary. How’d that come about?
G. Love: That was a song that was written by a friend of mine named Kristy Lee, who sings background on that track. Emmitt Malloy at the label (Brushfire Records) saw that documentary 20 Feet from Stardom that had Merry in it. He thought it would be great to do a track with her and brought up “One Night Romance.” I asked Kristy about it, because we had initially sung it together, and she was really supportive and honored about it.
So, Merry came in and she was so awesome. She told all these great stories about working with Mick Jagger and Ray Charles. We drank some wine, went in to sing for about an hour a half, and then we had it. She’s one of the greatest singers of all time and she really helped me a lot. It was a really special moment for me.
NT: Along with Merry, you pulled in some other amazing guests like David Hidalgo and Marc Broussard. What did they add to the overall experience?
G. Love: David Hidalgo was a really crucial part of the recording. Jeff (Clemens, drums) had the idea to take a couple days recording as a trio and then take a couple days to bring in some special guests. As it turned out, David was only available that first night, the first time that we would be playing together again after so long. Initially, I thought we should get into a groove, just the three of us, before bringing anybody in. But then I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? If we don’t get anything good tonight, we’ll just try again the next day. It ended up working out perfectly because it gave us a game plan. We picked the three tunes we wanted to have David on and prepared them for later when he arrived. When he showed up, we were ready and it was amazing. Jeff was so thrilled, he’s a huge fan of David’s, and he was like a kid in a candy shop.
We also had Ben Harper and Marc Broussard on “Nothing Quite Like Home.” That song started out as an instrumental. Then, I met Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons and it turns out he was a big fan when he was a kid. The first song he ever performed was “Baby’s Got Sauce” when he was 13 at a New Year’s Eve party. We talked about collaborating and I sent him that instrumental track to check out. Six hours later, he sent back a demo where he had written lyrics and recorded vocals over the groove. As it turns out, Dan couldn’t be on the final track, but I still wanted to do a collaboration because that’s how it started out. I called up Marc and he took a stab at it. Then I dragged Ben to the studio and he did his thing. I was really happy to get those guys on that track.
NT: There’s a song on Sugar called “Run for Me” that was originally written for your debut album and never got recorded until now. What’s the story behind that song?
G. Love: That was one of my original street-side blues tunes that I had written while I was a street performer back in 1992. There’s a version of it on my first solo record called Oh Yeah that I recorded when was 19. We had recorded it as a trio for our debut record, but it didn’t make the cut. It fit right in with this record, so we gave it another shot. We had played it live at various times over the years and if you’re still feeling a song 24 years after you wrote it, you know it’s got some merit. So I’m glad it’s got its place on a real release.
When writer Will Hodge isn’t grabbing a Sprite from the drive-thru at BK, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
NoiseTrade Friday Four: Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Presidents of the United States of America, Candlebox, and Sloan
“It’s Friday Night and the mood is right. We’re gonna have some fun, show you how it’s done, T-G-I-F!”
That’s right, folks! This week’s NoiseTrade Friday Four is 90s-themed and what better way to get you in the spirit than a little flashback to the Friday night rock block of shows that gave us such incredible bands as Jesse and the Rippers and the Lubbock Babes, as well as taught us how to do the Urkel and the Myposian Dance of Joy. Fun fact, neither one of those dances will win you any new friends at your 5th grade after-school dance and might actually get you pantsed by Shane Turner during The Electric Slide, hypothetically-speaking.
All of the bands in this week’s Friday Four had great successes in the 1990s and three of them have gotten back together in recent years to make new music, while one never actually stopped. It’s really cool to see their music here on NoiseTrade and all of these releases do a good job of mixing what we loved about them with what they’re doing now. It’s nice to see that the retrospective look-back is not the destination, but just the starting point, for these bands.
(Be sure to click on each album title for a link to the artist’s download page.)
With not one, but two, Platinum albums in the early 90s (fear and Dulcinea), Toad the Wet Sprocket was one of the most well-beloved alternative bands on the sludge-less side of the genre. After a far too-long hiatus that began back in 1998, they just released New Constellation last year to the satisfaction of their rabid fans. Their Something Old, Something New EP features 2 songs from New Constellation and three classic reinterpretations of “All I Want,” “Fall Down,” and “Crazy Life.”
When The Presidents of the United States of America decided to hit the road last year and play their triple-Platinum self-titled 1995 album in full, they dropped an impressive 9-song sampler called Get Back in the Van here on NoiseTrade. The tracklist features an awesome mix of live songs (5 acoustic, 4 electric) from their back catalog and really captures their playful spirit in favorites like “Lump,” “Peaches,” “Kitty,” “Dune Buggy,” and more.
Candlebox’s 1993 self-titled debut album went quadruple Platinum thanks to the success of singles like “Far Behind,” “You,” and “Cover Me.” To celebrate their 20th Anniversary Tour last year, they released a little sampler featuring “Far Behind” and an acoustic recording of “Sweet Summertime,” a new track from their 2013 album Love Stories & Other Musings.
Okay, here’s where I get to push up my music nerd glasses a little bit and talk about a band that more people should love. Sloan is a Canadian alternative band that has been around for over 20 years, has never altered their line-up, and has never stopped making music. Their debut single “Underwhelmed” is a buzzy classic of early 90s goodness and can be found on their Peppermint EP and their debut album Smeared in slightly different forms. Oh yeah, it’s also available on their killer NoiseTrade offering Select Singles 1992-2011, along with 13 other incredible singles form their 20 year career.
There you go, another Friday Four in the books. Hope you enjoy these tunes! Also, just in case you forgot exactly how to “do the Urkel,” here’s a video reminder to help you prepare for your weekend shindig:
When writer Will Hodge isn’t smelling like teen spirit, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
While sitting in on a peculiar college class of student-artists recently, I was struck by just how much the back-and-forth discussion revealed about their outlooks and attitudes. There was disappointed cynicism, “With that album cover, I thought we’d get more tips,” fresh-faced optimism, “Dude, twenty-six bucks is pretty good,” practical skepticism, “Yeah, but I feel like somebody’s mom probably gave twenty,” and even some considerate altruism, “We should send a fruit basket to whoever’s mom did that.” As the professor refocused the discussion with a guiding “I like the enthusiasm, but let’s bring it in a little bit,” he playfully noted “I think a fruit basket’s just a little bit out of our budget right now.”
The name of this Belmont University class is Songwriting and Entrepreneurship and the man at the front of the room this semester is Derek Webb; an award-winning singer-songwriter with 20+ years of real-world experience and career sales of close to a million albums sold. He also founded and functions as president of NoiseTrade, a revolutionary digital content distribution company that connects artists and fans in a tangible and quantifiable way.
With a résumé full of successes and each foot firmly planted in both arenas, Webb’s credentials may seem to position him as a foregone conclusion for just such an academic position. However, it didn’t start off as an easy sell to the guy who, by his own account, “barely got out of high school.” It was the initial impetus and encouragement of Drew Ramsey, one of Belmont’s professors of songwriting and music business, that won out against Webb’s reluctance. Sealing the deal for him was Ramsey’s free-rein approach and his vote-of-confidence advice to “make a dent, take chances, and go in there and get yourself fired.”
The Songwriting and Entrepreneurship course is project-based, which means there is no curriculum, no syllabus, no books, and no previous precedent. Webb has never been one to rely on another’s roadmap anyway, so it seemed to be a perfect fit. During the first class, Webb and his students discussed what they wanted to do and decided on their semester-long project: make a compilation of the music being created by the students, distribute it for free via NoiseTrade, gather the information to self-promote and cross-promote each other, and use the data collected to plan and publicize a concert featuring all of the students and their songs. As a result, The Starving Artist Collective was born and their compilation is currently available at NoiseTrade for the low cost of just an email address and a zip code.
As I sat in on the class just a short time after the compilation had been made available, the students’ excitement for the project and their curiosity surrounding its initial impact was genuinely palpable. Their questions about how many times it had been downloaded, what cities were showing up on those downloads, and how many tips it had generated were answered and then meet with additional follow-up questions from Webb regarding how many times they had told someone about it or had mentioned it on their social media accounts. Webb speaks to the class about the importance of not just getting their music on the digital shelf, but using social media as a viable tool to move their music off of the digital shelf and into the hands of the listening (and purchasing) public.
Webb also talks heavily to his class of the unique state of the current music industry and the unprecedented opportunities available for blue-collar musicians and the musical middle class. Where there used to only be room for either superstars or hobbyists, there is now an accessible middle ground for independent artist to make a comfortable living if they are willing to cut out the middlemen, bypass the gatekeepers, and do the work necessary to “find their tribe.” With the extensive network of industry relations that comes with having two decades of artistry under his belt, Webb has also brought guest speakers like Kristen Dabbs (Ten out of Tenn) into the class to tell their own self-starter success stories and brainstorm with the students. With a few other entrepreneurial artists planned to speak in future classes, these students are getting tested and proven advice from a wide variety of voices and sources.
When Webb speaks to his class about identifying gaps in the market and then creating the solutions to fill them, he is not merely reciting buzzwords or trotting out tropes from a business handbook. He is speaking from tried-and-true entrepreneurial experience. In 2006, Webb experimented with broadening his audience by giving away his album Mockingbird for free. In exchange for a digital download of the album, users would supply their email address and zip code, along with five other email addresses that would function as referral opportunities for Webb. With each download, Webb received a name and email address for his mailing list, a zip code to locate concentrated areas of fans to plan future touring opportunities, and five other potential connections that came on the recommendation of someone they already knew. In just the few months it was available for free, over 80,000 copies of Mockingbird were downloaded. NoiseTrade was birthed the very next year.
With The Starving Artists Collective compilation already having been downloaded over a thousand times in less than a month and their concert booked for the end of March, the students in Webb’s class are getting an education and an experience in a real-world, real-time environment. As Webb puts it “the class is not in a laboratory, we’re not experimenting, and we’re taking real risks.” Webb doesn’t teach in the hypothetical and he understands that the industry changes at a pace that doesn’t exactly keep up with what is printed in textbooks. For Webb, the hour a week that they are “in class” is spent on discussion, ideas, and engagement, while the true work happens outside of class in the hands of his students. Not only for their individual careers, but for each other’s as well. Webb is quick to remind his students not to be stingy with their individual audiences and he encourages them to promote each other’s work, appropriately adding, “Everyone doesn’t have to lose for you to win.” In a town known for its ruthless competitiveness, it’s refreshing to see young artists get a hands-on education in working together from a professor who has modeled his career on both the connection of art and the art of connection.
The Starving Artist Collective will be performing in the round this Sunday, March 30, at Belcourt Taps in Nashville, TN. Doors open at 7pm, the music starts at 8pm, and the show is free. Belcourt Taps is located at 2117 Belcourt Avenue and can be reached at (615) 915-3622.
Folks, it’s almost the weekend, so you know what that means. It’s Friday Four time! Let’s get down to it.
Continuing on in the “theme-based” vein for another week, all of the releases in this week’s Friday Four share a commonality. This week’s theme is hymns. I’m a huge lover of hymns in all musical genres and NoiseTrade seems to be a bit of a magnet for talented artists who are finding inspiration in songs written centuries ago. Matching those ancient texts up with lyrics of their own and with modern instrumentation that spans the entire musical map has proven to be an incredible combination. You can find amazing hymns-based releases covering folk, R&B, indie rock, rap, and even 8-bit chip tune goodness on our site. Here are just a few of my favorites.
(Be sure to click on each album title for a link to the artist’s download page.)
Sandra McCracken is certainly no stranger to the modern hymn movement. Over the years, she has contributed to a wide variety of hymns-based compilations and she has even sprinkled in two full-length hymns albums into her catalogue of stellar releases. This 5-song sampler from In Feast or Fallow features both originals and classic texts and one of her biggest gifts lies in the fact that you can’t tell which is which.
Self described as “indie-psych-gospel-folk,” Pacific Gold brings fresh musical moods to “old, sometimes forgotten hymns.” With their melodic instrumentation and relaxed atmospherics, you’ll barely even notice there’s a Christmas hymn (“The Holly & the Ivy”) nestled within the other tracks.
This moving collection of hymns was recorded as a reflection on Lent and is built around the traditional Stations of the Cross. Songs for Lent hits a beautifully melancholic tone and the liner notes attest that “most of it is very dark, hopefully moving towards the very hopeful.” New York Hymns is based out of Brooklyn, NY and showcases a wide variety of talented musicians and singers, including Kanene Pipkin from The Lone Bellow.
With mostly just a voice and a guitar, Wilder Adkins has fashioned an intimate release that is immediately accessible and deceptively simplistic. Oak & Apple has a deep-rooted Americana feel to it and Wilder’s voice and guitar playing fit together like a warm handshake.
When writer Will Hodge isn’t enjoying a White Winter Hymnal, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
If you aren’t familiar with Korby Lenker, it’s important to note that he is wildly talented, ever stylish, and proudly quirky. Those three traits run through everything he touches — from his trademark bow ties to his engaging performances. With five previous albums under his belt, the Idaho native is set to release an eponymous sixth set on March 25. But NoiseTrade has a special career-spanning, seven-song compilation which includes three cuts from the new record.
NT: With your new album, you’ve gone off in some new musical directions. What sparked that shift?
KL: I’m not sure I really have gone off in new directions. I feel more like this is where I was heading when I started making music 15 years ago. I’ve made six albums and, from first to last, there’s a pretty consistent arc — from roots/acoustic music at the beginning toward a folk-pop sound on the last two albums. This newest release has a more nuanced approach production-wise, in the sense that there are more layers, maybe a little more polish, but my approach to songwriting hasn’t changed. When I started, I liked well-crafted songs, songs that felt tight and moved forward. That’s what I still like. Also, I came out of bluegrass music — flat picking, specifically — and that still heavily influences the way I play guitar today. I keep my downstrokes on the strong beats and my upstrokes on the weakbeats, just like Doc Watson said I should.
NT: And, because you’ve never been one to confine yourself to just one art form, you’re also publishing a book of your stories. What’s that about?
KL: Well, I guess you could say I’m a book nerd. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid. I’ve always got a book I’m working through … in college, I was in a writing-intensive major and, when I graduated, I just kept writing. Over the last 10 years, I’ve written about 60 short stories, mostly based in real-life events on the road or in my family or my relationships. Mostly, I would post them on my website or on Facebook, and some of them got a strong response. That happened enough times that I thought it might be worth picking the 20 best stories and making a book. At first, I was just going to print it myself and sell it on my website and at shows, but now there are more people involved. I’m not sure where it’s all headed, but it going to be interesting. Of writing, I’d say that there’s a freedom to prose that you don’t get in a three-minute pop song — it’s not like one is better, it’s just they’re different and I like them both.
NT: You’ve been embedded in the Nashville creative community for about seven years now. What sorts of collaborations have you wandered into?
KL: Well, let’s just come out and say that Nashville is the city with the best musicians and songwriters on planet earth. There’s so much talent here that I feel like you can have one of two responses: You can either be super-intimidated and feel like you’re not good enough, or you can be inspired by all the great artists around you. I’ve chosen the latter, mostly because a bus ticket back to Idaho was too expensive.
Over the years, my relationship to the community has changed. When I first moved here, I heard you were supposed to co-write, so I said yes to pretty much everything. That’s probably the right attitude, but, over time, you figure out who you click with and who you don’t. All different kinds of songs are being written here, and not everyone likes what you like. So, in a sense, I guess I’d say, I’ve found more of a community within the community that I like to work with — of course, this is always changing, and you have to be open to new ideas, people, approaches.
One thing that hasn’t changed in seven years is my sense of resistance to being mushed into something I’m not comfortable with. I don’t know if it’s an Idaho thing, but I’m careful about staying true to who I feel I am and what I want to do. I’m not in it to land a number one for Jason Aldean. While I’ve been here, I’ve watched a few artists kind of lose their way after a few years in the Nashville hopper — it can easily happen when you’re co-writing with someone different everyday or trying to write a country song one day and a film/TV song the next. I’ve never wanted to be all the things to all people. I’ve just wanted to make the kind of music I wanted to make… period. I’m not famous and I don’t own my own house, but I’ve found enough people who will come along for the ride I’ve set out on, and that’s pretty much the whole thing to me. That other stuff will come along when it’s time. Being an artist isn’t about getting somewhere; it’s about making a creative life.
I should probably mention that one of the more interesting projects I’ve been a part of is this video series I co-created called Wigby. Wigby was the result of my love of talented people and this strong need I have to promote the kind of artists I like — namely people who can actually write a great song, and then play and sing it. The way it worked was, I would reach out to an artist and we’d pick a venue — usually someone’s house or just some spot that looked cool — and we’d shoot them playing and singing live. A talented engineer named David Axelrod would record the performance, and I would do the editing. The result was a pretty unique twist on the live performance genre ala NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. Some of my favorite creative moments happened on Wigby sets. Like Katie Herzig putting gaffer’s tape on the strings of an upright piano to get this unique muted thump she wanted. Wigby was a total labor of love, and I had to back it off when my own career got busy, but while it was going we recorded Natalie Prass, Matthew Perryman Jones, Angel Snow, Gabe Dixon, and many other really talented people. It was the best!
NT: How does it feel to be back out on the road in support of the new release? Will you continue touring throughout 2014?
KL: As much as I love making records, for me, the whole point is to get people to the live show. I’ve been playing shows since I was 15 years old, and I feel like it’s only now that I’m able to play the kind of show I would want to see. I like a lot of variety, and I like to tell stories between songs and just have fun with an audience. It’s got to be fun or there’s no point, right?
Last year, I played about 170 dates, and this year I’d like to bump that up to 200. Getting out there, seeing the world, making new friends… it’s awesome. What I really like is that once I’ve played a city a few times, I start to look forward to seeing the people I played for in the shows before. I stay at people’s houses a lot when I’m on the road and, really quickly, these people become your friends. So then you come around, and you get to catch up, see how their kids got a little bigger, you know, life stuff.
NT: The stuffed piranha… Why? Where? What?
KL: Haha! Because, um, it’s awesome? Long story short, it took about two years to make this record. When it was done, I really believed in this music and these songs, and wanted to find a cover image that was something different. I looked for about two months, and one day my friend came over, fresh from the Nashville flea market with this hideous stuffed piranha. In an instant, I knew I had found my album cover. I took that picture on the cover — I put the piranha on my roommate’s cigar box, and set that on a footstool that happened to be covered in cheetah print, and click. Quirky perfection.
Writer Kelly McCartney cites Shaun Cassidy, Kenny Rogers, and Rick James among her early musical loves. These days, she’s rather more fond of Parker Millsap, Holly Williams, and The National.
Somewhere between the “I’d like you to meet my friend” icebreaker and Reading Rainbow’s tried and true “but don’t take my word for it” philosophy comes NoiseTrade’s newest feature, Artist on Artist.
The premise is simple: introduce you to one artist through a cover of one of their songs done by another artist. For our inaugural edition, folk troubadour Josh Rouse introduces us to the “catchy, lo-fi fantasy” of Fan Modine (aka Gordon Zacharias) with his late-night cover of “Cardamon Chai” from Fan Modine’s debut album Slow Road to Tiny Empire.
Like any good prologue, Josh’s cover merely serves as the connection point and then excuses himself for the remainder of Tuned In To The FM Dial, our exclusive 10-track sampler of Fan Modine’s imaginative reverie. Fan Modine’s new album Cause Célèbre will be released April 1 on Lost Colony Music.
I spoke with both Josh and Gordon to get their thoughts on each other, “Cardamon Chai,” and cover songs in general.
NoiseTrade: In the age-old vein of “the chicken or the egg”… Which did you come across first, Fan Modine or the song “Cardamon Chai”?
Josh Rouse: I saw the CD in my record label’s office and said, “this looks cool!” It looked like a handmade drawing of a Japanese hand fan with a little bowl of noodles drawn in the corner. Just with that and the album title Slow Road to Tiny Empire I had to hear it. So to answer your question, I heard the record first and was compelled by the music. Artwork is still important!
NT: Gordon, have you heard Josh’s cover of “Cardamon Chai”? What are your thoughts on it?
Gordon Zacharias: I had heard that Josh played it live, but I had no idea he made a studio recording. It sounds great! What kind of tea do they drink in Spain? I bet Josh and Stevie Wonder would be nice lunch partners.
NT: What was it about “Cardamon Chai” that made you want to cover it?
Josh: The directness of not being very direct. It was a good melody but it sounded like someone intentionally trying to make it difficult. I just liked the tune to be honest.
It had a similar chord change to one of my songs. So one evening I had a hangover in a radio station in New York and they asked me to play 8 songs or something like that. I just started improvising on that tune and played it in a concert after that.
NT: What’s the response been like from fans when you’ve played it live?
Josh: I think I played it once or twice 15 years ago and the response was good, but of course no one recognized the song!
NT: What do you aim for when covering a song? How do you find your own contribution?
Josh: I’m not one of those people that try to put my own stamp on a cover. To be honest, I don’t do covers that often. In this case, the version I did was just what came out in the studio that particular day. It’s a bit more late night and moody than the original.
NT: As a songwriter, what do you feel when you hear a song of yours being covered?
Gordon: I see sheet music I recognize placed in rooms I’ve never walked into.
NT: Your songs encapsulate ambitious elements of indie rock, synth pop, orchestral folk and other non-traditional ingredients. Do you hear all the eclectic parts in your head as you’re writing the songs or do they come to life in the studio?
Gordon: I find the best stuff screams out to you in the studio as you are building the track. The elements that come as a surprise during the process generally blow away the original intention and make things way more fun and multidimensional. But, you also have to let go of preconceptions and plans, and not rehearse or think the life out of shit for this to be a possibility. Not every sideman, engineer, producer, label, etc. likes to play that way.
NT: You’ve had an impressive list of guest musicians appearing on your albums. How did those opportunities come about and does that make the recording process easier or more tedious for you?
Gordon: They come about pretty organically, through friendships and other collaborations I’ve been involved in. Musicians tend to enjoy playing with each other and the internet has certainly helped bring us closer together in this way.
NT: What can your fans expect from your new album Cause Célèbre?
Gordon: An album their totem John Hughes character would love.
You can hear more of Josh Rouse via his much-lauded, most recent release, The Happiness Waltz.
When writer Will Hodge isn’t feeling 1972, groovin’ to a Carole King tune, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack