In 2012, OurStage partnered with ESPN to find an emerging artist with just the right track for their Friday Night Fights. Over the course of several rounds (judging, not fighting), Brooklyn’s Ciph Boogie emerged as the consensus favorite, and was featured as the “Main Event” champ on the network. He released a great EP called Sometime In New York City Vol. 1, as well as some singles, but the release of Vol. 2 was delayed. We talked to Ciph about that release and what he’s been up to creatively, as well as the current state of the music business, and where he sees his place in it.
Hey Ciph, thanks for letting us catch up with you. It’s been a few years since you were picked as the OurStage/ESPN Main Event champ, and had your music featured on the sports network’s Friday Night Fights. How was that experience for you, in retrospect?
In retrospect, it was a great experience. A lot of the times, when I look back at it, I still can’t believe that it happened. But it felt really, really good; my uncle called me up and told me he saw me on TV and everything. It felt like my work was finally being appreciated. Prior to having my music featured on ESPN, I had been releasing music for a few years already, so when this opportunity was presented and I actually won, for me it was the universe aligning, a great validation. But also, as great as this moment was, I didn’t want it to be my only defining moment as an artist − like I didn’t want this to be my Al Bundy “four touchdowns in one game” moment [laughs]. So I was very happy when other opportunities for my music to be presented on a national level came along. Like the Red Bull commercial, also in 2012, and my song “Let’s Work” being used by the Boston Celtics back in 2015.
Since then, you’ve dropped some one-off freestyles, along with an acclaimed EP, Sometime In New York City, Vol. 1. Then in 2016, we got a single from what was intended to be that EP’s sequel, but which so far has gone unreleased. All independent artists can relate to unexpected delays in completing and releasing new projects, of course. Can you tell us what’s been going on with you and with that release in particular, over the last couple of years?
A few factors were involved. One of them, and I’m being totally honest here, I was experiencing perfectionist paralysis. I wanted to put together the best project possible, and I was literally driving myself borderline insane. It came from a good place, because I believe in always putting your best foot forward. But for me it was like, “If one ad-lib is off then the whole song is trash.” I was really getting in my own way. Even with the 2016 single “Hatlow,” I went through a couple of re-do’s on that one because I would constantly pick it apart, and find something else I didn’t like, sound wise, so that’s why I began to do the one-off freestyles, as an apology of sorts to my supporters who were waiting for Vol. 2 to drop. Another factor was that the sound of music changed dramatically since the release of Sometime in New York City Vol 1. So I wanted to make sure that, (A) the music was enjoyable for the current musical landscape and, (B)
that I was true to myself as an artist. It was all about finding that proper balance.
For better or worse, it seems that your next release may come out in the midst of more obviously troubling times, socially, racially, and politically. Does the music you’re working on now reflect or speak to this particular moment? Have you changed your goals for what you want Vol. 2 to communicate or accomplish? Is the music different than it would have been had you released it in 2016, or are you still aiming to just get a backlog of material out before moving on creatively?
Some of the material I’ve been working on as of late is reflective of the times. Songs like “Clarity,” that’s my medicine in the candy song. I like the way that I arranged the song, how it flows − you have to listen to it to understand what I mean by that. “Say Yeah” touches on race a bit, and “Jet Plane” speaks to having peace. The goals haven’t really changed much for Vol 2.; I just had to do some retooling, specifically to make sure that I spoke to the times. One of the things I felt that I didn’t do much with Vol 1. was speak to the times. But overall Vol 2. still has the same intent, which is a deeper look into Ciph Boogie the person. I’m not really trying to get a backlog of material off, well at least not under the Sometime in New York City title. That title, Sometime in New York City Vol 2., is very important to my supporters, and very important to me. For the songs that I recorded a few years ago and don’t fit for Vol 2., I am heavily considering putting together like a Nas Lost Tapes kind of project, that showcases a lot of my earlier material, a lot of the songs throughout my career that are my personal favorites, and some of the stuff I was recording during the SINYC Vol 2. sessions. My intent is for it to serve as a crash course for those who are just coming across my music and need an introduction.
With the traditional music business in the state it’s in, basically a big question mark, what kind of a path forward do you see for yourself, or for any independent rap or hip-hop artist?
I believe the path forward for an independent hip-hop artist can be smooth, if the artist plans properly from a business aspect. The truth is, nobody is going to help you until you create something of value. Having talent alone isn’t going to help you as an indie artist in these times. As an independent artist, you have to start looking at yourself as a small business, because practically that’s what you are. Make sure your credit is straight, so you can take out business loans, and get favorable loan rates. Invest ad dollars into promoting your releases − it can be Facebook Ads, taking out an ad in a magazine, whatever. Throw your own shows, tell YOUR story.
As for my path forward, I’m straight, even though I’ve been “quiet” on the public side, and as far as full releases go. I’ve been very active behind the scenes, business-wise. I’ve always approached the music business, as you should: with a business mindset. The business part begins for me after the creative work is completed. But I’ve been solidifying a lot of business relationships, so that when Sometime in New York City Vol 2. finally drops, it has the greatest chance to be successful.
Hot on the heels of her single “Thunderstorm” comes phase one of Nikki Lynette’s ambitious new project, Happy Songs About Unhappy Things. The three-part release will be a multi-media exploration of the artist’s own struggle with identity and depression. Part one, released this week, is called Manic Pixie Dream Girl, after the familiar archetype defined first by film critic Nathan Rabin, who described a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life…” More broadly, she’s a character allowed no agency or nuance and, in fiction, represents a troublingly idealized male vision of femininity in the real world. Lynette talked to us about this trope, her own journey as an artist and woman, and of course her amazing music.
OurStage: This is part one of a three-part project, so it is understandably a bit shorter than a standard album release. Will you consider the entire three parts, together, a full-length album? Or will it be something else entirely? I know you’ve said this will ultimately include visual art and film, so what will parts two and three consist of?
Nikki Lynette: The reason I broke down Happy Songs About Unhappy Things into three separate musical releases is that I want to tell the story of my mental health breakdown and recovery in a way that lets me walk the listener through it. Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the “Before.” The next one, Chronicles of a “Craxy B!+¢#, is the “During,” the actual process of being driven crazy. That will be a bit longer of a project because there is a lot to that story. The last one, The Suicide Bridge, is the “After,” the point when depression has taken hold and you are walking that line between wanting to get better and wanting to die. I plan to roll out visual art with all of them because, again, it helps to tell the story. And the film will come after all three have been released. The project is extremely layered, but at this point in my music career I’m kinda known for being complicated (laughs).
OS: How did you conceive this project? I can’t think of an artist who has released a project in this way. Just in terms of format, does it have any forebears?
NL: I chose to release it this way when I realized that I have music that I recorded during all these different phases in my life. On Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the song “Outshine the Sun” is the most recent. Even though the song is an uplifting tune, you can hear my pain in it. In “The Plot Twist,” you hear my pain. Doing it this way gives context to my depression, and if people can empathize with me then they can empathize with their own friends and loved ones who battle mental health issues. On the next release, Chronicles, there are songs on it that I produced when I was living in the hospital with my mom while she was dying, songs I wrote in response to being diagnosed with PTSD, songs I did at the studio after I broke down crying during the session then wrote a song in 15 minutes and recorded it. I don’t think I have seen a project released this way before; there are a lot of moving pieces involved because right now I am literally producing and recording two albums at once. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few years ago, OurStage ran a competition in partnership with the microchip giant Intel, searching for talent in various genres. One of the overall finalists was a song called “Coming Off Pretty” by what appeared to be a band called The House of Jed. On further inspection, it became clear that The House of Jed was actually the solo project of Jarrod Gollihare, who is a member of Admiral Twin, a band that had made a big impact on the site a couple of years prior. Although the folks at Intel ultimately selected another artist as their overall winner, we here at OS HQ were taken with “Coming Off Pretty,” a catchy burst of vaguely electro pop. We followed as Gollihare turned out several more excellent organic/electronic hybrid jams, including a couple of impressive videos. Out of curiosity and fandom, we approached him with some questions about his career and creative process, and he graciously took the time to answer. We found it interesting enough to make into the following interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
OS: I’m curious about your process. The music sounds really pro, but I imagine The House of Jed as a one-man operation from start to finish – is that accurate? Does anyone else perform, engineer, mix, or otherwise aid in the work?
JG: It is indeed a one-man operation. With the exception of a few backup vocals on “Everybody Lies” (courtesy of my wife Jaime) all the House of Jed sounds are made, engineered and mixed by me…in my one-room studio [at home]. For better or worse. I’ve got no formal production training. Everything I’ve learned, I picked up by peering over the shoulders of producers and engineers who actually know what they’re doing. Or by watching Internet videos. Or by trial and error. So, in other words, I’m pretty sure I do a lot of production stuff completely wrong, and I probably take way longer to accomplish recording and mixing tasks that could actually be done much more efficiently and effectively by a real professional. But I have fun.
OS: Do you program your drums? How do you get those sounds, which seem like a mix of real and programmed?
JG: Most of my recorded drums are played on my kit. Drums are actually my primary instrument. When it comes to recording a song, I’ll often put down a programmed drum loop over which I’ll record a scratch guitar and vocals…giving me a “roadmap” of sorts to use for recording my kit. And that programmed loop sometimes makes it into the final mix in little sections of the song, or layered with my real drums for effect. I don’t use anything too involved to make my loops, though. In fact, I either use this old freeware program called HammerHead (a super simple rhythm station that emulates a few sounds from Roland 606, 808 and 909 drum machines), or I use pre-made rhythms from an inexpensive (very unprofessional) Casio keyboard I’ve had for years. In fact, some of the keyboard bass I occasionally use comes from the “organ” setting on the same Casio. Another thing I do occasionally is cannibalize old drum recordings from my other band, Admiral Twin. I have a wealth of material I can re-purpose by slowing the isolated tracks down or speeding them up, and then chopping them into entirely new rhythms. The drums on “I Won’t Survive You” and “Last Entry” are re-purposed Admiral Twin drums.
OS: Do you use other virtual instruments, from apps or other software? Is that an Omnichord on “O Caligula?”
JG: I use virtually no virtual instruments. The bass on “Last Entry” is a virtual Moog that I programmed into a 12/4 pattern over which I played drums in 4/4 time to create a slightly off kilter pulse. That’s really about it, though. I tend to use real instruments. And yes, that’s an Omnichord you hear on “O Caligula.” It’s one of my prized eBay purchases. In my studio, I also have a small collection of guitars; a ukulele, a Danelectro bass; a MicroKorg synth; several cheap, consumer-level Casio keyboards from the 1980s (eBay baby!); a xylophone; a small Ludwig breakbeat drum kit, and quite a lot of percussion bits and bobs.
OS: I haven’t seen any tour dates – do you perform live with House of Jed? Any long-term goals beyond what you’re already doing?
JG: The House of Jed is a studio project for now. But I’d sure like to get these songs on stage at some point. I do play drums and sing with other acts though. One of those is Admiral Twin.
My goal for any song I write and record is (first and foremost) to make people feel something. Art of any kind is the closest thing to actual magic I can think of. And that’s a big deal to me. However – I’d sure like to earn some money with what I create, as well. It’s what I do best, after all. My big personal career goal is just to be able to get up everyday and work on art for a living…to pay the bills with my songs or writings or paintings (or a combination thereof). I’m grateful for my dayjob (my wife and I both work for a social media management company) but being a full-time artist is the real goal. I got a brief taste of the full-time musician lifestyle with Admiral Twin back when we were signed to a subsidiary of Universal Records. We got to put out one national release, and then – a few months after our CD hit the shelves – the label we were on (Mojo) folded, like so many other labels did at that time. We’ve been indie ever since. It was a good ride while it lasted.
OS: Do people call you Jed?
JG: Some of my friends call me Jed. Picked up that nickname in 6th grade…somehow it stuck. So feel free!
It’s like looking at old pictures of your college roommates and then looking at the people that are sitting around your living room now, says Jason Isbell of the songs he wrote during his days with the Drive-By Truckers that remain part of his live set with his current band, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. The latter’s new release, Live From Alabama, includes a handful of Isbell-penned Truckers tunes, like Outfit, Decoration Day, and Danko/Manuel, along with songs from the three studio albums he’s cut since splitting from the Truckers in 2007.
I haven’t listened to those old arrangements of those [Truckers] songs for so long, says Isbell, compared to how many times I’ve heard this band play them, that I really don’t remember exactly what they sounded like [originally]. The songs still conjure up the same images for me, and I still think about the same things that inspired me to write the songs in the first place, but I guess it’s just different because I’m up there with different people.
While Isbell harbors no ill will towards his old bandmates, he’s definitively living a separate life from them these days. I don’t really have a relationship with ˜em, he says. We get along when we see each other, I talk to Patterson [Hood, DBT frontman] every once in a while. I saw him a couple of months ago in Nashville at the Americana Awards. We get along fine, but I don’t think there’s any need to have a working relationship at this point. They’re all busy, and Lord knows I am.
Listening to Live From Alabama makes it clear just how busy native Alabaman Isbell and his current accomplices have been. Over the last five years they’ve built up a worthy repertoire, a loyal audience, and a sound that has some relation to that of Isbell’s former band but bears its own identity. Both bands blend influences from alt rock and Americana to classic soul, but The 400 Unit shaves off some of the Neil Young & Crazy Horse fuzztone frenzy of the Truckers in favor of a more singer/songwriter-oriented approach to framing the tunes.
That doesn’t make them any less of a cohesive unit, though. Their all-for-one aesthetic is even apparent in Isbell’s account of the band name’s provenance. It was a mental treatment facility in Florence Alabama, he explains, it was the crazy house. I’ve had lots of family members in there over the years. I think we were downtown and saw the van get out one day with the folks that were day patients, they would give them 10 or 15 bucks and put a name tag on ˜em and let ˜em got to Subway or something. It occurred to me that it looked just like a band on the road for six or eight weeks trying to get out and find some food in a small town. Isbell reiterates that he often feels that way when he’s on the road with The 400 Unit, observing, I can tell we’re causing discomfort in the locals sometimes when we stop and get out.”
Explaining the thinking behind releasing a live recording now, Isbell says, I wanted to document the band like it is at this point in time. I think we’re connecting really well musically, we’re playing really well, we’re all having a good time. I wanted to capture that before it changed into something else, as it always does. And from a practical viewpoint, a lot of those songs that I did with the Truckers, people come up now who’ve never heard the Truckers records and say, ˜Where do I find this, how do I get this song?’ Personally, I’d rather sell ˜em something myself than steer ˜em to a record that [DBT’s label] New West put out.
Some think of Isbell as sort of the Bruce Springsteen of the South, in terms of his knack for chronicling the tragedies and triumphs of the region’s working-class denizens, but there’s little of the E Street Band-style onstage pageantry in The 400 Unit’s onstage m.o. Whether they’re tackling a Truckers tune like Outfit, in which Isbell receives some sardonic advice from his father, or a newer song like Tour of Duty, chronicling a soldier’s return home, the band squanders nary a note.
There are different kinds of energy that an audience can give you, says Isbell of his stage experience. You can usually tell if it’s gonna be a rowdy crowd, or if it’s gonna be a listening crowd, or if it’s just gonna be a crowd that’s not paying any attention to you whatsoever. I handle rowdy crowds and attentive crowds very differently but I feel like they’re pretty equal in value from a performer’s perspective. I love playing for people who are having a good time and I equally love playing for people who are studying everything you say and really paying attention. As long as they’re with me, as long as they’re in the room for a reason, doing something different than they would be doing at a bar next door, it’s always positive for me. The shows go better when people are with you, when they’re participating.
Turning philosophical about the prospect of live performance, Isbell calls up an unexpected analogy. I remember going to see Radiohead a long time ago, he says, when I was probably 21, 22 years old, and thinking, ˜Man I’m surrounded by a huge group of people who are very similar to me right now — all about my same age, and they all seem to be the nerdy kids from high school.’ And that felt really good to me. I think if you make yourself part of the experience, there’s still reasons go to see live music.
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In a Set It Off song, you’re as likely to find strings and woodwinds as crunching guitars and sugary pop harmonies. The band’s members have been perfecting their unique blend of orchestral pop-punk since 2008 and are about to embark on their biggest adventure yet: a European tour with Yellowcard this spring. We chatted with vocalist Cody Carson about his classical background, love of ’90s R&B, and what advice he would give to up-and-coming acts looking to make their mark.
OS: You guys recently donated over $5000 to the VH1 Save The Music Foundation and you mention the influence of music programs on the band when you were young. What music programs were you involved in when you were in school?
Cody Carson: I went to Tarpon Springs High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida. In second grade, I picked up a clarinet, and I kept playing and I got very heavily involved in classical music. The only reason I went to Tarpon Springs High School was because of their music program; it was incredible. It taught you a great deal of work ethic, and there was also a leadership program that was called Tarpon Springs High School Music and Leadership Conservatory. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons there. I played clarinet and was involved in marching band and wind ensemble and jazz band. Because of the leadership program there, at the end of every year there was always a political campaign and I would run for clarinet section leader and woodwind captain, and those were two positions I held. I met Dan Clermont, our guitarist, there. He was the trumpet player there and he was also trumpet section leader and field commander and stuff like that. The program was incredible to us. (more…)
Clinton Sparks is blowing up. From producing Lady Gaga, Pitbull, and so many more, to being lowered via helicopter into his own Awesome Party at The Palms in Las Vegas (and pretty much everything in between), the man has arrived. He’s a 360 degree personality, making it happen for other artists and for himself, starting in earnest with his September 2012 single Watch You.
Now he’s got a new video and a third edition of his My Awesome Mixtape, and dozens of new projects on the horizon. He came into our studio last week to talk about how he got to where he is, how music became his life, what’s next for him, and what advice he has for aspiring artists. Here is part one of our two-part interview “ look for part two on Monday. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for a chance to win a copy of My Awesome Mixtape 3.
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