Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve written a bit about the Perth, Australia-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter and guitarist, Bex Chilcott, and as you may recall, Chilcott has led the sort of life that could have easily inspired a dozen or so country albums. At 14, the Perth-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter left a deeply dysfunctional home and eventually worked her way up the desolate, Western Australian coast, before ending up in Broome, a culturally diverse and ramshackle, tiny dot of a town on the map, where reportedly it doesn’t pay to ask people too many questions about their pasts — or why they ended up there of all places, And while in Broome, Chilcott worked for weeks at at time on a pearling trawler, where she worked with incredibly hardened men, doing backbreaking, exhaustingly hard labor, and alcohol was prohibited. Her time on the sea doing backbreaking work with the men she was surrounded by was quite profound, and in her free time, the Perth-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter spent her free hours contemplating life and teaching herself guitar and songwriting, which eventually lead to her singing her own original material.
Returning from a self-imposed exile from civilization, Chilcott learned that people actually wanted to listen to her originals — and that was when she began to perform as Ruby Boots. Chilcott’s first two Ruby Boots efforts were critically praised for being bold, unafraid and unabashedly honest works centered around stories on tough and unlucky sorts, who see their lives and affairs of the heart as deathly serious matters. With the buzz surrounding her early work, the Perth-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter and guitarist has shared stages with an impressive array of internationally acclaimed artists like Father John Misty, Shakey Graves, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Nikki Lane, Reverend Horton Heat, Tony Joe White, Kris Kristofferson and others. Building upon a growing profile, Chilcott’s 2015 Ruby Boots debut Solitude featured guest spots from The Waifs’ Vicki Thorn, along with some of Australia’s top alt-country talents, including Dewey Lane, Jordie Lane, Bill Chambers, The Sleepy Jackson‘s and Eskimo Joe‘s Lee Jones, who has been one of Chilcott’s frequent collaborators.
Chilcott’s Beau Bedford-produced Ruby Boots sophomore album Don’t Talk About It was released through Chicago, IL-based label Bloodshot Records earlier this year, and as you may recall, the album features the acclaimed Southern rock/Country and Western band The Texas Gentlemen, fronted by the album’s producer, as her backing band. Lyrically and thematically, the album follows the restlessly odyssey of a restless and somewhat aimless drifter, with tattered, beaten up and heavily stamped passport in hand, essentially capturing the life of a woman who’s been tossed about by the rough undertow, breakers and currents of life and its messiness but without losing hope, strength or her will to survive and thrive. Granted, just underneath the surface is a world weary acceptance that life will break your heart in countless ways — and when you think and feel that you can’t go on anymore, life will push and shove you forward, and towards where life needs you to be.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Don’t Talk About It’s sparse, bare-knuckle, and unabashedly honest, a cappela “I Am A Woman,” a single centered around the raw ache and regret of someone, who has lived a full and messy life of shitty decisions frequently inspired by even shittier situations, dysfunctional and furiously passionate relationships with irresponsible lovers and with decent, honest ones, too. And yet, through the song there’s the quietly defiant resiliency and pride that from my experience I’ve only ever seen in women. As Chilcott explained in press notes, “‘I Am a Woman’ was conjured up amid recent events where men have spoken about, and treated women’s bodies, the way no man, or woman, should. This kind of treatment toward another human being makes every nerve in my body scream. These kinds of incidents are so ingrained in our culture and are swept under the carpet at every turn—it needs to change. As tempting as it was to just write an angry tirade I wanted to respond with integrity, so I sat with my feelings and this song emerged as a celebration of women and womanhood, of our strength and our vulnerability, all we encompass and our inner beauty, countering ignorance and vulgarity with honesty and pride and without being exclusionary to any man or woman. My hope is that we come together on this long drawn out journey. The song is the backbone to the album for me.”
“It’s So Cruel,” the latest single off Chilcott’s critically acclaimed sophomore album is a swaggering and gritty, power chord-based, honky tonk anthem and a coquettish love song, full of swaggering confidence in which its narrator essentially says throughout “look, you fucking dummy, i’m the best thing in your life and you need to recognize it — now!” Unsurprisingly, the recently released video produced and directly by Joshua Shoemaker features Chilcott as a guitar playing force of nature.
Nicki Bluhm is a Lafayette, CA-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter, who’s perhaps best known for a six year stint as the frontwoman of The Gramblers, a band that featured her now ex-husband Tim Bluhm (with whom she also released two albums), and for recent high-profile collaborations with the likes of Phil Lesh, Infamous Stringdusters, Ryan Adams and others. Slated for a June 1, 2018 release, the Ross Sprang-produced To Rise You GottaFall Bluhm’s first solo album in several years, and the album, which was written over a difficult and life-altering period in which she got divorced and made a spur of the moment move to Nashville, TN — and as a result, the material is a deeply personal chronicle of her state of mind. “These songs are quite personal,” Bluhm says. “They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without.”
Interestingly, while Bluhm’s relocation to Nashville was spur of the moment decision, it actually came from the result of a number of writing sessions in the city. As Bluhm notes, the city was inspiring “because of all the songwriting going on here. When I would come to Nashville on writing trips, it was just percolating . . . it was intoxicating.” Around the same time, Bluhm met with renowned producer, engineer and mixer Matt Ross-Spang, who was in town mixing a record, and as the story goes Ross-Spang and Bluhm hit it off immediately. “I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did,” Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. “My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn’t want to even have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we’d record in Memphis.”
Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording, the sessions revolved around live tracking featuring a backing band of accomplished pros assembled by Ross-Spang featuring Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitars), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano) and Dave Smith (bass), with Reba Russell and Susan Marshall (background singers), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and various special guests. “We really just recorded live and we didn’t do that many takes of each song,” Bluhm says. “The final versions we ended up with were all one take. It was really refreshing to go analog. It minimized over thinking and second-guessing; forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. . . Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends time curating his sessions and who he decides to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, ‘not perfection but captured moments in time.'”
“I had lost my partner in so many ways,” Bluhm continues in press notes, “my musical partner, my life partner, my creative partner, and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to start my own engine. It was really intimidating and scary,” she says “but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn’t even know I had in me. I was on auto-pilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving forward. When the album finally comes out it’s going to be like setting a caged bird free.”
Album title track “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is an incredibly self-assured and effortless track that manages to to be clearly indebted to classic Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul while nodding at contemporaries like Goodnight Rhonda Lee-era Nicole Atkins and Natalie Prass, as it reveals a careful attention to craft but with a “you-are-there” immediacy. Along with that, the song’s narrator reveals a resiliency and determination that comes from living a full, messy life full of struggles, heartbreak, loss and so on. As the song and its narrator seem to suggest, life will find a way to kick your ass but it’ll also find a way to move you forward towards where you need to be.
Bluhm will be on tour to first build up buzz for and to support her first solo album in some time and it’ll include a two night stay at Chicago’s Vic Theatre in April and a July 25, 2018 stop at The Bowery Ballroom. Check out the tour dates below.
April 11 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue*
April 12 – Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre*
April 13 – Chicago, IL @ Vic Theatre*
April 14 – Chicago, IL @ Vic Theatre*
April 15 – Saint Louis, MO @ The Pageant*
April 17 – Cincinnati, OH @ Taft Ballroom*
April 18 – Ann Arbor, MI @ The Ark*
April 19 – Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue*
April 20 – Knoxville, TN @ Bijou*
April 21 – Brevard, NC @ Songsmith Gathering
April 22 – Charlotte, NC @ Tuck Fest
May 27 – Colorado Springs, CO @ Meadowgrass Music Festival
May 28 – Aspen, CO @ Belly Up
May 31 – Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
June 1 – Eagle, CO @ Bonfire Brewing Block Party
June 2 – Taos, NM @ Music on the Mothership
June 3 – Flagstaff, AZ @ Hullabaloo
June 5 – Solana Beach, CA @ Belly Up
June 7 – West Hollywood, CA @ The Troubadour
June 8 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
June 10 – Crystal Bay, NV @ Crystal Bay Club Casino
June 12 – Chico, CA @ Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
June 13 – Arcata, CA @ Humbrews
June 14 – Eugene, OR @ HiFi
June 15 – Portland, OR @ Dog Fir Lounge
June 16 – Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
July 13 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Botanical Gardens
July 14 – Charlotte, NC @ Knight Theater
July 19 – Scranton, PA @ Peach Music Festival
July 20 – Alexandria, VA @ Hamilton
July 22 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
July 25 – Floyd, VA @ FloydFest
July 25 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
July 26 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Foundry
July 29 – Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley
Traveller is an indie rock/Americana supergroup comprised of some of contemporary Americana’s most accomplished and acclaimed, contemporary, solo artists: Jonny Fritz, a singer/songwriter who, has been considered a logical heir to country music legend Roger Miller; Cory Chisel, a Grammy-nominated, singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell and runs a recording studio in a former Wisconsin monastery that’s also an arts space; and Robert Ellis, a a critically applauded artist known for being a rather inventive singer/songwriter. Interestingly, the act can trace its origins to when longtime friends Ellis and Fritz had been collaborating together for some time got a ridiculous idea to head to India to write a country album. The duo set off on their epic journey to India but after an ill-advised, exuberant jump into the Ganges, Ellis got ill and almost died. Fortunately though, Ellis was able to kick his illness and recover — and the idea of their collaboration didn’t die either.
Several months later, Ellis and Fritz recruited Chisel, and within a couple of weeks the new band had written an album’s worth of material, which they followed with their live debut at the Newport Folk Festival and sets at Stagecoach and Austin City Limits. Reportedly, the trio’s aesthetic and songwriting approach draws from the likes of both The Highwaymen and The Traveling Wilburys, supergroups in which each individual member plays to their well-known and beloved strengths while taking turns showing off their chops as been-there-done-that, played-every-venue-including-that-shitty-one-that-stank-of-stale-beer-and-puke old pros — but they do so with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor throughout.
Western Movies, the supergroup’s highly-anticipated, forthcoming full-length debut is slated for a May 4, 2018 release, and the album’s latest single “Hummingbird” is a jangling and twangy bit of old-timey rock/country that to my ears manages to nod to The Beatles and to George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” but with a mischievous sense of humor, complete with some winklingly ribald double entendres and pop cultural references that give the song a wild anachronistic feel.
Blake Brown is a Denver, CO-based singer/songwriter, who after participating in a number of collaborative projects, founded Blake Brown and The American Dust Choir in 2013 with the idea that it’d give him the flexibility of playing solo while collaborating with a revolving cast of friends, who could play whenever they were able to do so; in fact, the revolving cast behind The American Dust Choir has featured members of The Fray, The Films and Tennis. However, after three EPs and countless live shows, the band has settled on a permanent lineup featuring Brown, his wife Tiffany Brown, and longtime friends Jason Legler, Adam Blake, and Trent Nelson.
The Joe Richmond-produced Long Way Home, Blake Brown and The American Dust Choir’s full-length debut was released earlier this year and the album while further cementing the band’s reputation for a sound that meshes indie rock with folk/Americana paired with complex melodies and heartfelt lyrics based around experiences within Brown’s personal life — in particular, heartbreak, deception, reflection, growing up and becoming adult and so on. Adding to a growing profile, the band kicked off the release of their debut with an official SXSW showcase, in which they opened for Keith Urban.
“Up in Arms,” Long Way Home’s latest single is a twangy bit of indie rock that nods at Fleetwood Mac and 70s AM rock, complete with a rousingly anthemic hook and some impressive guitar work and while being unhurried, the track manages to be tinged with the bittersweet memories and experiences within a relationship; in fact, the recently released video is shot with superimposed double exposures, meant to evoke the duality between the inner and outer worlds of its protagonists.
Bex Chilcott is a Perth, Australia-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter and guitarist, who has led the sort of life that could easily have inspired a dozen or or more country and western albums. At 14, Chilcott left a dysfunctional and conflicted home and eventually worked her way up the desolate Western Australian coast, before she ended up in Broome, a ramshackle and culturally diverse, tiny dot on the map, where reportedly it didn’t pay to ask people too many questions about their pasts — or why they ended up there. While in Broome, Chilcott worked for weeks at a time on a pearling trawler, where she worked with incredibly hardened men, doing backbreaking, exhausting labor and alcohol was forbidden. Naturally, the time on the seas, the backbreaking work and the men she worked with was profound and in her free time, the young Chilcott spent hours contemplating life and teaching herself guitar and songwriting — and then later, to eventually sing her own material.
Returning from a self-imposed exile from civilization, Chilcott learned that people actually wanted to listen to her originals — and that was when she began to perform as Ruby Boots.
Chilcott’s first two Ruby Boots EP received attention for bold, unafraid and unabashedly honest music that told tales of tough and unlucky souls, who see both their lives and affairs of the heart as deathly serious matters. And as a result, Chilcott has shared stages with the internationally acclaimed artists like Father John Misty, Shakey Graves, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Nikki Lane, Reverend Horton Heat, Tony Joe White, Kris Kristofferson and others. Adding to a growing profile, Chilcott released her full-length debut Solitude, an effort that was released back in 2015 and featured guest spots from The Waifs’ Vicki Thorn, along with some of Australia’s top alt-country talents, including Dewey Lane, Jordie Lane, Bill Chambers, The Sleepy Jackson‘s and Eskimo Joe‘s Lee Jones, who has been one of Chilcott’s frequent collaborators.
Chilcott’s long-awaited sophomore, full-length effort Don’t Talk About It was officially released through Chicago, IL-based label Bloodshot Records today, and the Beau Bedford-produced album features the acclaimed country and Southern rock band The Texas Gentlemen as her backing band. Lyrically and thematically, the album charts this drifter’s restless odyssey, tattered and beaten up passport in hand, capturing the life of someone who’s been tossed ashore by the breakers and currents of life, but hasn’t lost hope or her will; but with the recognition that life will break your heart more ways to count, and when you think you can’t go on much further, life pushes you forward anyway.
Don’t Talk About It’s latest single is the sparse, bare-knuckle, a capella “I Am A Woman,” and the single, which will further cement Chilcott’s growing reputation for crafting personal and unabashedly raw and honest songs, full of the ache and regret of a messy life featuring shitty decisions influenced by shittier situations, dysfunctional and furious relationships with irresponsible, dangerous lovers and good, decent ones. And throughout, there’s the quietly defiant and self-contained resiliency and pride that from my experience I’ve only seen in women. Interestingly, in some way the song makes a subtle nod at Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” spiritually and thematically — but clearly from a very modern sensibility. As Chilcott explains in press notes, “‘I Am a Woman’ was conjured up amid recent events where men have spoken about, and treated women’s bodies, the way no man, or woman, should. This kind of treatment toward another human being makes every nerve in my body scream. These kinds of incidents are so ingrained in our culture and are swept under the carpet at every turn—it needs to change. As tempting as it was to just write an angry tirade I wanted to respond with integrity, so I sat with my feelings and this song emerged as a celebration of women and womanhood, of our strength and our vulnerability, all we encompass and our inner beauty, countering ignorance and vulgarity with honesty and pride and without being exclusionary to any man or woman. My hope is that we come together on this long drawn out journey. The song is the backbone to the album for me.”
The live version features Chilcott with three of her Nashville songwriter friends contributing backing vocals — Philip Creamer, Nicole Atkins and Kashena Sampson and was shot in the lounge room/living room of Chilcott’s best friend Nikki Lane.
With the release of a genre-defying EP Songs in D last year, the Swiss-born, New York-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Sam Himself received attention for pairing his Americana-inspired guitar-based torch songs with his bluesy, whiskey and cigarettes tinged vocals. His latest single “Out of Love” featuring renowned, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter denitia (of denetia and sene) is the sort of slow-burning and old-fashioned inspired duet that immediately brings to mind Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash — in particular, I’m reminded of their gorgeous rendition of “If I Were a Carpenter;” however, the major difference is that the song as the Swiss-born, New York-based singer/songwriter explains “is a desperate promise to keep a lover from leaving.” And in some way, the song possesses a bitter recognition that those desperate promises may not amount to much when the relationship is sputtering to what seems to be an inevitable and heartbreaking conclusion.
Shot by Johnathan Frey at Berlin NYC and the Ace Hotel as part of its Artist in Residence Program, the video features both Sam Himself and performance artist Ashley Robicheaux. And as the Swiss-born, NYC-based singer/songwriter and guitarist explains, “in the clip, the two lovers never interact, though they’re both making the same plea to one another. They’ve passed that breaking point where your words can no longer reach the one you love.”
Several months ago, I was invited to be a panelist on a Baby Robot Media hosted panel titled “Your First PR Campaign” at this year’s Mondo.NYC conference in Lower Manhattan, a conference created by some of the original organizers of the beloved and sadly defunct CMJ Marathon. In fact, after speaking at the panel, I along with several colleagues went to a nearby bar, where I watched my beloved Yankees lose a confounding and infuriating heartbreaking Game 2 of the American League Division series against the then-defending League Champion Cleveland Indians. At some point, I went from networking and mingling mode to yelling and cursing at the TV – and I couldn’t tell if these people, who I had worked with in some capacity for much of JOVM’s history were amused, knowing how much of a Yankee fan I am or if they were horrified. But the postseason when your team is in it is another thing altogether. I’ve frequently told a story about sitting in Clem’s with my dear friend and colleague Natalie Hamingson after watching the New York Rangers lose Game 7 of that year’s Conference Finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning at home, in which I went into a furious 45 minute, expletive laced tirade. About half way through, the bartender at the time said to Natalie, “I don’t think I’ve seen him that angry before.” In my mind, I thought “if I was at home, I would be throwing things at my TV,” but that’s another issue altogether.
Thanks in part to built-in travel days within the postseason schedule, and the weather actually holding up in early October, I was able to squeeze in some live music coverage at this year’s Mondo.NYC. Because I had spoken at Baby Robot Media’s PR campaign panel and worked with them for a good 6-7 years or so, the company’s co-founders had personally invited me to come out to the showcases they were hosting at Piano’s during the weekend. Admittedly, I just wasn’t able to do any research prior to the actual live music, so I went into everything with no expectations and a clear mind as to what I might be seeing – and interestingly enough, I wound up being pleasantly surprised by the variety of the acts I caught throughout that particular weekend. However, in a weekend with several impressive acts – including British folk singer/songwriter Hannah Scott, New York-based Americana singer/songwriter Mieka Pauley, Austin, TX-based Americana act Fairbanks and the Lonesome Light and Kellindo Parker, best known as Janelle Monae’s sideman, there was one decidedly clear champion of the weekend, the classically trained, Sebastian, FL-born, Somerville, MA-based singer/songwriter Hayley Thompson-King.
Thompson-King’s solo debut album Psychotic Melancholia was released earlier this year through Hard to Kill Records, and the album is a “Sodom and Gomorrah concept album” that in some way is an amalgamation of several different sources and wildly disparate sources. The overall concept of the album is largely influenced by her childhood obsession with the stories of the so-called wicked women in the Bible. “I was the skeptical kid with her hand up in Sunday school,” Thompson-King recalls in press notes. “Also, I spent weekends performing with my church youth group called Clowns for Christ. I guess you could say I was obsessed with getting to the bottom of what exactly would send one to hell. I consider myself agnostic at this point, but I’m still inspired by the questions I had as a kid about disobedience, and about the characters I was taught to believe were evil, like Lot’s Wife and Judas and Lucifer. Upon revisiting these stories, I was inspired by their questioning. I thought they were strong and exciting, and I could put myself in their shoes.” Along with that, the album’s material draws from the Sebastian, FL-born, Somerville, MA-based singer/songwriter and guitarist’s small. Southern town upbringing, in which her father was a team-roper and trained cutting horses, and she grew up riding and showing American Quarter horses. “I spent a lot of time in the dually listening to country music,” Hayley Thompson-King recalls. “And then I went to opera school.” And lastly, the material which references Romantic period art also draws from her classical training at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a Master’s in Operatic Performance.
And while having an operatic sweep with seemingly larger than life characters with oversized emotions, the album’s songs interestingly enough manage to possess a deeply personal and introspective nature. “I write about real things that have happened in my life,” Thompson-King says in press notes. “My relationships, like with my folks, the people I love, but using the landscape and stories of outside characters. They’re all about me, I guess, but it’s easier to write if I’m looking at a third party. So I look at myself as another character.” But perhaps more important, that voice, man; while there have been some comparisons to operatically trained vocalists like Pat Benatar and Heart‘s Ann Wilson, as well as Linda Ronstadt, which are all pretty damn reasonable, Thompson-King’s vocals throughout the album switch from feral howls and yelps, the sort of defiant, and self-contained resiliency and pride that only women possess, a world weary ache from a messy life, full of bad (if not completely fucked up) decisions, dysfunctional relationships with shitty, irresponsible lovers and good, decent ones – before ending with a gorgeous and sparse rendition of Schumann’s “Wehmut,” which translates in English to “Melancholy” and features Thompson-King singing in operatic German “Ich kann wohl manchmal singen / als ob ich fröhlich sei / Doch heimlich Tränen dringen / Da wird das Herz mir frei” (“Sometimes I may be singing as if I were full of joy, But secretly the tears are flowing and then my heart feels free”).
Simply put, it’s a powerful and incredibly self-assured debut but it’s arguably among my favorites released this year. Now, as you can imagine this year has been incredibly busy as I’ve had to manage the responsibilities of an involved day job with that of this blog, but several weeks ago I spoke to the incredibly thoughtful and charming Hayley Thompson-King via email about Psychotic Melancholy, her classical training and how it’s influenced her own creative work, how much the Sun Records sound has influenced her on this album and more in a rather revealing interview. Check it out below.
WRH: You grew up in the tiny town of Sebastian, Florida near Melbourne and Vero Beach, and as the impressively detailed press notes I was provided mentioned, you spent great deal of your youth riding and showing American Quarter horses and your father was a team roper, who trained cutting horses. It’s understandable that you would have grown up listening to a helluva lot of country music; but I understand that you’re a classically trained opera singer, who went to opera school, which defies the stereotype of the country singer/songwriter. How did you get into opera? Did you have any of your friends or others make fun of you for singing classical opera? How has your classical training influenced you and your work? When did you realize that you needed to write for yourself?
Hayley Thompson-King: I’ve always had classical leanings…When I was about 12, I basically woke up one day and my voice had changed…like I hit puberty and all of a sudden I had a ton of vibrato and could speak Italian (just kidding about the second part 🙂 But, ya, it was very natural for me to sing classical music. No one made fun of me! (…to my face…At least not for that!) I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to attend college and then graduate school. I think besides being able to control my voice and all it’s little nuances, the training has helped me to be able to analyze music. To dig into what the composer and lyricist are trying to convey and then honoring that…which is great for country music because it’s tradition to sing other people’s songs. I take every note and every lyric very seriously and when I break from that, it’s intentional… As a songwriter, it’s sort of a blessing and a curse…it takes me a long time to compose the “right” song because every note and every word have to serve the plot…It’s challenging for me to rattle off something visceral like Louie Louie (one of the greatest songs of all time, in my opinion).
Realizing I wanted to go down this path- what feels like performance art; using my brain, my feelings, experiences, and my body to express something- came about 7 years ago. I became tired of waiting for someone else to tell me when or whether or not I could make art. So, I wrote, produced and released my first record (an entirely analog production) called Save The Rats; it was the first release on my label, Hard To Kill Records.
HTK: Please don’t judge me, but I am LOCKED on Traditional Holiday Favorites: Christmas Music of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s on Sirius XM…I have no excuse.
WRH: How would you describe your sound to those unfamiliar with you and your work?
HTK: I like to say it’s Psychedelic Country or Alt-Classical. Some folks have said Garage Country or even Riot Girl.
WRH: Earlier this year, I stopped by both of Baby Robot Media’s Mondo.NYC Showcases at Piano’s without any expectations of anything and honestly without researching any of the artists or anything, and out of all of the very talented artists, you and your backing band blew me away. I’m a jaded New York-based music journalist, so I don’t say that often! One of the things that I noticed that you and your backing band seemed incredibly road tested. How did you meet your backing band and how long have you been playing together?
HTK: Oh, that is very kind of you to say! I have about 5 musicians who I work with regularly (2 guitarists, 1 drummer and 2 bass players). Everyone who plays with me has one instruction from me: serve the song. I don’t need them to be perfect or play it like the record, I just want to play together in the moment and serve the song.
That show, I had my original bass player (who played on the record) Chris Maclachlan. Chris is a classically trained singer and bassist for seminal Boston band from the 80’s called Human Sexual Response. He’s been with me the longest…we started as a duo and that was when we began incorporating classical repertoire. I had Rob Motes on drums and Nick Mercado on guitar. My other Bass player Ben Voskeritchian is in a band along with Rob and Nick called These Wild Plains from Boston. Their whole band approached me with the idea to go on the road opening me and then backing me up. They are fantastic musicians, they listen to everything I do and respond…I feel really lucky to have them in the band. And my other guitar player (who played on the record and also engineered and co-produced) is Pete Weiss.
WRH: I’ve listened the album a number of times and sonically it’s like you and your backing band manage to bridge honky tonk country with the Sun Records/early rock sound — I can’t help but think of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on because the album’s material has this raw, feral quality to me. Was that intentional? And how much has that particular period influenced you?
HTK: It’s funny you bring that up…and I’m so glad you pulled that thread. I’m also a college professor on the side 🙂 And I’m preparing for a course right now in Rock and Roll History so listening to A LOT of Elvis. I think ‘feral’ is the perfect term. That music was highly intelligent the way Nature is… and I think results from a feeling of being bound. There is a release and it doesn’t feel contrived, but rather instinctive. AND, most exciting, the audience was effected that way! In my music, I’m working completely instinct-driven, so, yes, I’d say those artists have influenced me.
WRH: The album reportedly stems from your childhood obsessions with the Bible’s wicked women, doubters and questioners, questioning what exactly made them “evil,” and in some way viewing them in a very different, empathetic prism in which you put yourself in the shoes of Lot’s wife, Judas and Luficer among others while tying that together with your own personal experiences. When I read that in the very detailed press notes about you and the album, my immediate thought was “holy shit, that’s pretty heady — for anything these days.” When you began writing the material for the album, did you begin with that overarching theme, crafting material so that it would hew to it — or was it something that came about subconsciously and organically as you were writing?
HTK: As far as the concept for the record, one day as Pete (Weiss) and I were working on pre-production, he said jokingly, “this sounds like a Sodom and Gommorah concept album”. So, that kind of stuck because it was a way to talk to people about what the hell is going on in this body of work. But, truly this was not something that I was in control of… I was guided and sensed it was divine intervention. My entire life, I’ve been haunted by these characters because, it seems to me, they were pawns in a game… Isn’t Judas the real martyr? I realize that this might come across as blaspheme, but I’m resigned to burning in whatever hell being a reasonable person gets you sent to.
WRH: You and your backing band spent the closing months of 2016 and the early months of this year writing and then obsessively revising and then recording the material that wound up comprising Psychotic Melancholia. How much revising and tweaking went into the writing sessions? And when did you know that you had finished, fully-fleshed out songs?
HTK: Pete (Weiss) and I got together in little pre-production sessions before we went into the studio and tweaked some of the songs… those sessions involved adding a chord here or there, some arrangement choices, and our plan of attack for mic-ing/live recording/vocals. Most of the songs were fully formed at that point. Then we went to the studio and a lot of what you hear is live with some minimal editing/overdubs. BUT, a couple of the more kinetic pieces (Lot’s Wife and No Room) needed to be played live in order for us to get the feel… so we booked a couple things and then went back and recorded those… they are mainly live, but what you are hearing is probably the 3rd version of both of those. I just get a feeling when something is right and the band trusts that… so that’s how we work.
“Dopesick,” and “Old Flames” are among my favorite songs on the album. What can I say, a sad song sometimes just works, you know? In any case, there’s a deep and visceral ache to them that comes from very real, lived-in experience, while drawing from some of the country songs I’d expect to hear while in some beer and whiskey soaked honky tonk. What is the story behind those two?
HTK: “Old Flames” is actually a cover song. It was written around 1978 by Hugh Moffatt and Pebe Sebert (Sebert is the mother of Ke$ha!). I only add a cover if I feel a deep connection to it and if I feel I can bring something new to the table…for that one, I had been trying to write about being in love with my partner…I found it VERY challenging to write about joy. I started playing that song and it said the things that I wanted to say about my love. (I’m still trying to write originals about this topic and getting much better at expressing this these days)
“Dopesick” is an old song. I probably wrote it about 5 years ago. It’s also about someone very close to me who was struggling…but, in hindsight, it’s also about me. It’s my favorite song.
WRH: I’ve mentioned this to a number of artists I’ve interviewed but I think that the one of the keys to an exceptional album is when the song order is so perfect that it creates a very specific mood, and if you were to rearrange the songs, it would be a different album with a wildly different mood — closing the album with a rendition of Schumann’s “Wehmut” is an eccentric yet gorgeous and fitting way to close out an album with a huge, operatic sensibility. Did you have any difficulties in arranging the material as it appears on the album or was it something that you always knew?
HTK: It took me about 3 days to do the song order…which, to me, felt long. I was taking into consideration the tempi, flow of the keys and lyrical arch…but really, this was the only way it could be. On the vinyl (which I’m planning to release this spring, but am hoping to get some label support for), each side will end with a Schumann piece….I think the whole thing works beautifully for a record where you listen to one side and then flip:
Large Hall, Slow Decay
No Room For Jesus
Mondnacht (music -Schumann / poem – Eichendorff)
Mondnacht (Moon Night):
It seemed as if the sky
Had silently kissed the earth,
That she in the shimmer of blossoms
Could only dream of him.
The breeze blew over the fields,
The grain stalks gently surged,
The forests rustled softly,
So starbright was the night.
And my soul unfolded
It’s pinions so wide,
Flew over the silent lands,
As if it were flying home
Sometimes I may be singing
As if I were full of joy,
But secretly tears are flowing,
And then my heart feels free.
The nightingales will sing,
When spring breezes play outside,
Their melody of yearning
Out of their prison’s tomb.
Then all the hearts are listening,
And everyone is glad,
But none can feel the sorrows,
The bitter grief in song.
WRH: What’s next for you?
Well, we are home working on a couple videos and doing some writing and light recording in January…and teaching my R&R History course at the college of course. We’ll be doing about 3 weeks east of the Rockies in March. I turn in my grades for \ on May 14 and on May 15 we leave for a month long tour in Scandinavia which ends at the Stockholm Americana Festival. I’m pretty excited about spring. I’m hoping to get back to NYC a few times in the next couple months…we’ve had such exciting crowds there (including yourself 🙂 It feels like the audiences really get what we’re doing and like the artistic aspect of it. So, that’s the plan.
Earlier this month, I wrote about the The Liza Colby Sound, a New York-based rock act comprised of Liza Colby (vocals), Tom McCaffrey (guitar), C.P. Roth (drums) and Alec Morton (bass) that has developed a reputation both across town and elsewhere for a swaggering and soulful take on blues rock, and for their frontwoman’s stage presence, which some some have described as Tina Turner prowling the stage like Iggy Pop. And as you may recall “Cryin” off the band’s soon-to-be released EP Draw was a sultry, whiskey soaked, power chord-based rock song that paired Colby’s soulful pop star belter meets Janis Joplin vocals with anthemic hooks and a propulsive backbeat; but as Colby explained in press notes, the song is rooted around a duality between muscular insistence and vulnerability, “‘Cryin” is the devastation of heartbreak. It’s an explosion of emotions. The manic, mixed with moments of complete composure. It’s thinking you have a winning hand and realizing it was shit.”
The band’s latest single “White Light” finds the band pairing slow-burning power chord-based blues-inspired, classic rock with a psych rock-like melody, nodding at Led Zeppelin‘s “How Many More Times,” and “Ramble On,” complete with an anthemic hook but throughout the song, the song’s narrator questions what it is to actually be human. As Colby describes the song it’s a “psychedelic journey through the human existence.”