How much of this past stuff are we gonna talk about? asks Steve Forbert with a mixture of weariness and wariness after being debriefed about his early days as a singer/songwriter. It’s fun, but it was 30 years ago. Even though his career has 13 albums and three and a half decades of history behind it, Forbert is all about looking forward, especially since album number 14, Over With You, has just been unveiled. Unfortunately for the antsy songsmith, you can’t tell a story by leaving out the first chapter, and Forbert’s entry into the music business makes for a rather fast and furious tale.
Before he made his way to New York in 1976 to establish his troubadour credentials, Forbert had led a different musical life in Meridian, Miss. I played in rock & roll bands for several years and I just began to get more and more interested in songwriting, he says. I realized I was probably not going to be able to remain as part of a band. Where to go and what to do, there weren’t many options in Mississippi. I went on the train by myself to New York, so I was pretty much in that mindset, I wasn’t looking to start another band. (more…)
Mark Eitzel is almost pathologically disinclined to talk shit. Even in situations where it might be in his best interest to offer up some sort of self-serving statement, he seems practically honor-bound to push a pin into the balloon. For instance, in analyzing his upcoming release, Don’t Be a Stranger, the erstwhile American Music Club singer/songwriter admits his affection for the record but immediately follows up by observing that he usually hates his own albums. It’s hard to be subjective about the things you make, he explains. Actually, if I was a real rock person I’d say ˜No, it’s fucking great, it fucking rules, it’s the best thing the world has ever fucking seen!’ That’s what I should be saying. ˜This turd I just took is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ I respect people like that; we need them. No, we don’t, he recants, they become Presidential candidates.
So it’s no great surprise to venture into Don’t Be a Stranger and encounter songs like Oh Mercy, containing the wry lines I’ve got party talk for all your party guests/my topics include facism and rising crime/and when I outline the coming doom of the USA, well that’ll insure everyone’s good time. Despite having earned enough critical plaudits for his songwriting to fill a grain silo, Eitzel is similarly unsparing of himself in looking back at 2009’s limited-edition Klamath. I didn’t want it to be [a small pressing], he says, but I could only afford to make, like, 500 of them. The album’s genesis was me at a friend’s place in Happy Camp [Calif.], and it was so beautiful up there. The first piece I wrote was an electronic piece, to the absolute horror of my fans, but I really love electronic music, even though I’m no good at it. I wrote this electronic piece about a tree, and it started from there. At the mention of his earlier electronic-oriented album, 2001’s The Invisible Man, Eitzel says, That was another mistake. I’ve done a lot of electronic music but I stopped because the people who buy my records hate it with every fiber of their being. But I still make it for myself. I’m a songwriter, you know”I get booked at Americana festivals [laughs].”
In the late ˜60s and early ˜70s, you could scarcely swing a Gibson acoustic without hitting a great singer/songwriter whose work went unappreciated by all but a tiny cult following. Some of them got a second shot at fame in the ˜90s and ˜00s through reissues and revivals of interest”Terry Callier, Vashti Bunyan, and Gary Higgins are among those that come to mind”but no underground balladeer has been aided in their comeback by a high-profile documentary film. Until now, that is.
In 1970 and ’71, the Detroit-based songwriter who went only by his surname, Rodriguez, released the albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, respectively, on the Sussex label, which was probably most famous for the classic catalog of another streetwise ˜70s troubadour, Bill Withers. Like Withers, Rodriguez served up a sonic cocktail of folk and soul, but with a pinch of post-psychedelic rock flavoring. Rodriguez’s songs also mirrored Withers’ early work in their mixture of sociopolitical and personal themes. But the Mexican-American artist born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez didn’t achieve the renown of his labelmate, or any renown at all, at least not as far as he knew at the time. Like so many talented contemporaries, Rodriguez wasn’t able to work the game in his favor despite being a gifted artist, and his records basically gathered dust. 1971’s Coming From Reality would be his last recording.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let us introduce Brae. This Michigan indie rocker spent the better part of twenty years honing his chops on the drums in various Detroit outfits and, in a most Dave Grohl – esque fashion, left the kit behind to pursue the singer/songwriter role. He recently climbed atop the charts in January’s Ernie Ball Indie Rock Competition with his track Planks and Haystacks. Ernie Ball thought it worthy of their most awesome Grand Prize and decided to award Brae a year’s supply of free strings and accessories. Well done, friend. To see what all the fuss is about, check out Brae’s winning track and more in the playlist at the bottom of the post. To see him perform the song with his fresh new strings, check back to the OurStage blog in the coming weeks.
There was a lot of action in the Paul Simon world in 2011. In and of itself, that statement might not automatically signify much, since Simon’s album releases tend to be few and far between, and he’s generally more inclined to labor lovingly over his work than to flood the marketplace in a flurry of activity. Nevertheless, the past year has seen a steady flow of Simon-centered news regarding projects brand new, archival and curatorial. It all began with a bang back in April, when Simon unleashed his latest batch of songs, So Beautiful Or So What, his first new album in five years. These days, no one expects Simon’s albums”or anyone else’s, for that matter to”be doing Graceland-like business, so it was no huge shock when the album’s aesthetic excellence wasn’t quite matched by its (nonetheless respectable) sales figures. The important thing was that we had Paul Simon back in our collective bosom; here he was playing the snaky, sardonic “Rewrite” on late-night TV, there he was taking his band out on the road to greet audiences with Simon songs old and new. All along, it was lost on few pundits that the quintessential boomer troubadour, who mused “How terribly strange to be 70” back in 1968 would be achieving septuagenarian status this very October.
Whether the impetus was the big birthday, the new album or simply a certain shift in the psycho-sonic continuum, the folks at Sony decided that no one would leave 2011without the opportunity to immerse themselves in Simon’s solo catalog, kicking off an ambitious reissue campaign of deluxe re-releases encompassing everything from Simon’s self-titled 1972 album through 1990’s Brazilian-flavored Rhythm of the Saints. To top it all off, there’s also the Songwriter anthology, a double-CD affair whose first disc is occupied mostly by hits and signature songs, but whose second half focuses on the less-traveled pathways in the Simon catalog, concentrating on tunes that are mostly known only to hardcore Simon mavens.
In the US, Australian songsmith Paul Kelly‘s cult-hero status was cemented by a pair of late-˜80s A&M releases”Gossip and Under The Sun. Kelly’s concise, cutting lyrics and no-nonsense tunes suggested sort of an Aussie answer to Graham Parker, with the sharp, sympathetic backing of The Messengers revving things up in a rather Rumour-like way. Leaving The Messengers in the early ˜90s after two more albums, Kelly ultimately embraced his folk and country influences and pursued the rootsy, acoustic-based singer/songwriter path he treads to this day, having slowly but steadily expanded his American audience over the years.
In his homeland, however, Kelly is a national hero regarded with an almost Springsteen-level reverence, earning just about every honor and award the Australian music industry has in its power to bestow. But with the current ramping-up of Kelly activity stateside, it may finally be time for America to begin playing catch-up. Not only has he got a new eight-CD box set, he’s written a book as the box’s companion piece (also available separately), and there’s a comprehensive, two-disc anthology getting its first US release.
The box, The A-Z Recordings, had its genesis in a series of specially configured live shows. I started doing these A-Z shows about seven years ago, Kelly explains, where I do 100 songs in alphabetical order by title, over four nights, twenty-five songs a night. It’s a sort of theatrical show, with the letters up [on a big easel onstage] and storytelling, and intermission. I found that audiences really liked the idea. I started doing them once or twice a year and recorded the shows as I went. That led to the idea of putting out the recordings. We ended up making it an eight-CD set so we could match the nights evenly, four nights, two halves each night.
Adrina Thorpe, singer-songwriter from California, has been involved with music for a long time. Originally a classically trained musician, she fell in love with songwriting at the tender age of six. Since then, she has turned this love into a craft that she approaches masterfully. But it is not her songs which make her so special; it is her incredible voice that conveys emotion with such intensity and passion that makes her stand apart.
Her vocal ability is off the charts. She has such a powerful voice, but she sings in a way which is never forceful or overbearing. Her voice is flawless”not only can she carry a tune, she can work with her voice to create many different effects. At times her voice is soft and gentle, other times it pierces through you, giving you shivers. Thorpe has an amazing way of picking and choosing the right moments to let her full vocal power out. Obviously, this ability comes from familiarity with her voice and, of course, from practice. Because of her vocal control, Adrina’s second album Halflight & Shadows, which was released in 2009, is incredibly interesting to listen to. From a song like, “Everything Changes” which is more upbeat to “Midnight” which is hauntingly beautiful, you never know what pleasant surprises you’ll find when you listen to the album.
It’s not insignificant that Burlap to Cashmere‘s second album is self-titled. It’s usually a band’s debut album that bears this distinction, but in many ways, this seems like the maiden voyage of a new band. For one thing, thirteen years separate this release from Burlap to Cashmere’s debut album, Anybody Out There, and while three key members”singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, guitarist John Philippidis and drummer Theodore Pagano”are back on board, it’s still a new lineup, employing its own singular sonic methods.
Delopoulos started the band in the mid ˜90s as a school project for his theater program at New York City’s Marymount College, with his cousin Philippidis. By the time they graduated to the New York club scene they were a full-fledged band, eventually incorporating five other players, including Pagano. On their 1998 A&M debut, Burlap to Cashmere blended acoustic-oriented folk-rock, international influences and lyrics that endeared them to the Christian rock community, ultimately earning a Dove Award (the CCM world’s GRAMMY equivalent). According to Delopolous, though, his influences were strictly secular, centered on folk music from Woody Guthrie all the way to Ani DiFranco. Explaining BTC’s mix of singer/songwriter sounds and intense Mediterranean rhythms, he recalls, My cousin Johnny and I come from a Greek household. That’s all we were taught to listen to, those rhythms were all we knew¦once I heard American folk-pop music, like Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, for example, I unconsciously felt free to explore.
But even though Burlap to Cashmere worked up a mighty head of steam in their initial incarnation, a combination of factors Delopolous describes as fatigue and youth brought an end to the band. Delopolous released a solo album, Philippidis played with a number of other artists and BTC receded into the drifts of history.
Cut to the present day ”a reconstituted Burlap to Cashmere hunkers down to craft a batch of new tracks with hotshot producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos) for Sony subsidiary Jive Records, scaling down their size, their sound, and the spiritual fervor of their lyrics. Everything is different now, reckons Delopoulos. Then we were a seven-piece band, now we are a five-piece. It was a circus back then, but a good one. We were like kids playing fast and loud. Hyper, emotional¦just pure, fantastic chaos. Now we are less, and the music is softer. On the lack of a specific agenda in his songwriting, Delopoulos says, Growing up listening to Dylan, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens¦I never got the feeling that they were trying to change anyone. I feel the same way¦I believe Oscar Wilde said, ˜All art is quite useless.’ That said, true spirituality has nothing to do with guitars and lyrics, true art is a personal transcendence.
In the quest for that transcendence, the smaller, softer Burlap to Cashmere has created an album full of subtle, harmonically sophisticated songs that mostly bear a contemplative, low-key feel, reminiscent of Paul Simon’s pre-global period. I just get turned off when noise overrules content, comments Delopoulos. Nevertheless, the guys still know how to pull a churning, infectious rocker out of their collective back pocket when they want to. Just try getting the insistent Build a Wall out of your head after even a single hearing.
There are number of factors that brought about this unexpected second wind for the band. The most dramatic was a horrible 2005 incident where Philippides was almost killed in a road-rage conflict. That brought us closer together as family, says Delopoulos. Another [factor] is, plain and simple, we are not good at having other trades for an income. We’re just not good at anything else. Another big factor was our drummer, Theodore Pagano reentering the picture. Delopoulos also gives a lot of credit for helping to keep the band’s flame burning to the band’s manager, Tom Lewis. Without him, I’m not really sure what would become of us, he remarks.
But don’t let the more pragmatic side of Delopoulos’s reasons for the reunion fool you. After all, there are temp services and convenience-store counters from San Diego to Staten Island staffed by musicians with no other skills. Burlap to Cashmere aren’t merely a bunch of careerists desperate to milk their cash cow anew (Anybody Out There did, after all, sell nearly half a million copies). They’re plainly driven by deeper motivations, and their work is powered by a combination of passion and craft that can’t be simulated or manufactured. In other words, they’re the real thing.
Nick Pagliari successfully integrates a southern twang with a rocking, simplistic singer/songwriter sound that perfectly warms any sour mood (or sad movie for that matter). In 2007, the title track off Pagliari’s EP Safe and Sound was featured in the Hilary Swank tear-jerker P.S. I love you. The next year, Pagliari put out the latest of three albums, Please and Thank You. Then, in 2009, he released a new Web site that integrated his album design into an interactive experience to markets himself to the masses. Throughout his tenure on OurStage, Pagliari has placed 7 times in the Top 10 on the Pop, Indie Pop, Rock, and Singer/ Songwriter (male) Channels. So, it’s safe to say fans have warmed up to Nick Pagliari rather nicely.
But Pagliari simply sees it like this: It’s about my life, the lives of my friends and the characters I’ve developed to tell different stories about struggle and romance and desire and change.
Summer has officially arrived, bringing with it an appetite for indulgence. The month of July presents us with thriving life in all forms, but as fun as the heat can be, we all need some summer chill out music to help us cool off. Complete with both soothing songs fit for an afternoon under a shady tree and energizing music poised to inspire the strength to meet the challenges ahead, the following compilation will surely help you round off your week with a sense of resolve.