Can you delve deeper into your experiences playing on the streets in Amsterdam and living on a houseboat? How did that period influence your music and perspective?
Thank you – I loved that time in Holland, I loved Amsterdam, and I sure enjoyed playing in Dam Square! I got there with two girls I met in Zurich; we hitch-hiked up from Zurich, thru Germany and a few other places and finally landed in Amsterdam.
I got there early in the morning and had nothing with me except a pack and a guitar case, didn’t know anyone and was wandering around looking at everything and trying to figure out what to do. I was hanging around the Train Station, and I saw people coming from the river behind the station, walking over the top of a river loch. That looked interesting, so I wandered over there and met a few people coming out of a houseboat. They saw I was traveling and brought me in to meet the owner who was renting space to sleep, and it was cheap, so I got a spot, stowed my gear, grabbed the guitar, and went back over the loch, thru the train station and out into Dam Square which by now was busy and bustling like a mad house.
I found a place in an arcade that looked promising and opened my guitar, started playing and played there for a few days and made a lot of money. I did that for about three weeks, then the houseboat owner let me stay in the big room on the boat and it was wonderful. I got to meet so many wonderful travelers, with so many stories and connections from around the world that it fueled my writing and made me very creative musically, especially watching what other people were playing and singing about. It was a bit of an eye-opener to how different people perceive things differently.
So everything was rolling along nicely – I was playing on the houseboat, and found a few steady spots in the cafes that were all over the Square, and then I got busted. The Police came, took all my money I made that day, took away my guitar and wouldn’t give it back. I had to hire a lawyer, and the lawyer said it would take three weeks before I could get the guitar back and the money I made was gone. Not going to see that again. So, I had no guitar, not much money left, and three weeks to kill.
Being an enterprising soul, I had the name and address of a college professor I had met the previous summer when I was playing in Harvard Square for change in front of the Harvard Coop. I had his card with me and it said he was teaching in Denmark – Aarhus, Denmark, at the Aarhus School of Architecture. I checked the map and the roads and started out to Aarhus to see this guy I had met only once on a Saturday afternoon a year before!
I made it to Aarhus, hooked up with the Professor, just as he was leaving to go back to India or Pakistan. Before he left he introduced me to a graduate student at the School who found me a room, found me two shows a week in Aarhus at The Garrett and The Hole, two restaurants in the college section, and lent me a guitar until I could get back to Amsterdam to get my original guitar back. This was an amazing set of circumstances since I could rehearse during the day down in the Saunas where the acoustics were simply amazing and play during the night at two restaurants. I also got a job in a laundry putting restaurant tablecloths that had been washed into the big dryers to dry.
I worked hard, saved my money, and made it back to Amsterdam to collect my guitar. Then back to Aarhus, where I settled into a very productive and completely musical life, however transient.
During this time, I wrote songs and poetry during the morning, went to work at the laundry during the day, and played twice a week at these two clubs in the evening. By the time I went home, about a year later, I had gotten 30-40 songs written and rehearsed, had a pretty solid 2 hour set and felt I was coming into my own as a songwriter and performer.
You mentioned your time in Darjeeling and the impact it had on your musical alignment. Could you share specific instances or influences from that period that shaped your approach to music?
When I found out I was going to attend St. Joseph’s College in Darjeeling, India, I became very attracted to the music that was happening at the time, and the sitar – the most noticeable of India’s many instruments – was on my mind! I loved the table and the various hand drums the Jndian musicians are so accomplished at.
The music of Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan was captivating, and although the school didn’t have any serious music courses, the most popular Indian music was always available on school outings into town; it was playing in the bazzar, at the shops along th main roads in town, up on the Great Mall; anywhere where people gathered. There was a significant Tibetan influence, as well as Nepali, and they merged with the India Pop music coming up from Calcutta so I heard it all!
One unique musical style so prevalent among all these sounds was the “drone” notes that were laid down as an underpinning groove for melody and improvisation. I found that captivating and I have been experimenting with those soundscapes ever since. In fact, it’s quite interesting to me that “Shoegaze” takes a number of ques from those sounds which were around much, much earlier than the 1980’s when Shoegaze first began to appear in Ireland and British musical acts. Although the term refers to motionless musicians staring down at their array of effects pedals, the trademark “sonic drone” effects they used were inspiring.
Motivation and Inspiration:
You spoke about asking yourself, “What do I have to say today?” How do you ensure that your music consistently conveys meaningful messages, and what topics or themes do you find most compelling to explore?
Another thoughtful question! And the answer is simple: I can’t. What may seem valid and meaningful to me at any given moment, may seem inconsequential to any number of people. I don’t consider such “value” questions when I am writing or creating – that constant internal dialog is meaningless because is devalues the authenticity of my own thought process and robs it of any emotional relevance.
I must write with conviction, and that conviction is rooted in my own experience, and those experiences, all tied together in an internal cyclone, are what drive my personal “Truth”. And as such can only be expressed outwardly through the music and the varied emotional interactions it creates. Music – especially when performed in a “live” setting – is much like an artist on the high wire, working without a net.
How do you balance the need for self-expression and authenticity in your music with the desire to connect with a broader audience?
Authenticity is the lingua franca of successful music – both personal and in a commercial context – as long as it remains somewhat accessible. And that’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Because generally the challenge for a songwriter: to make authentic, original compositions that are relevant, have a certain ability to resonate with the audience, and have something meaningful to communicate.
If you are honest in your emotions, write about things you’ve experienced with clarity and perspective, that is incredibly valuable. All truth has relevance, and authentic truth will attract its own audience.
Balancing Different Aspects:
You mentioned wearing many hats as an independent musician, from composing to marketing. How do you strike a balance between these different aspects of your career, and do you have any advice for emerging musicians trying to navigate these challenges?
I don’t do well in the middle. Balance is not a great solution for me, because chaos and confusion are the cauldron from which great creativity emerges, at least that’s best environment for me. Rollo May has a wonderful book titled “The Courage to Create” in which he carefully explains his views on the creative process. And the result? To create, destruction must occur. You need to destroy a current position you may hold so that the new position can take its place. Or it could be a new idea, a new approach that replaces an old approach – whatever it may be, the act of creation is essentially a destructive process.
Striking a balance doesn’t keep you on or even near the edge, and being on the edge is where I function the best, and creativity explodes.
Your creative process involves drawing inspiration from various sources like visual art and headlines. Could you walk us through a specific instance where an external influence led to the creation of a memorable song?
A while back I wanted to try writing to a visual setting. I always found inspiration in visual settings, especially where there the surroundings are rich visually, sometimes loaded with the remains of lives lived and sometimes still living are still present: that would be abandoned towns in rural areas, abandoned factories and maybe just an empty storefront where a wall calendar or a window shade, now brittle and yellowed with age, stand as testimonials, with so many stories to be discovered, songs to be written, and epic adventures to be told.
So many of these moments rush by us and we never to recognize their significant, or stop to peel back the layers to look behind the facade, or lift up the floor boards to look underneath. So much rich material is right in front of us, if only we’d stop, turn around, take a few steps back and pay attention. These moments always inspire a certain poetic treatment at first, and then when it has given up a few secrets, the story can be expanded into a song, a musical treatment, maybe an opera. It is a process, and I have made good use out of a collection I found of Edward Hopper prints, re-imagined as postcards.
I have found – and continue to find – endless angles for stories, songs, narrative, and straight-ahead poetic treatments in every single work by this American artist. His subject matter is aligned with my desire to document the emptiness of urban life and the separation it creates between individuals and their surroundings.
How do you handle creative blocks or challenges during the songwriting process, and are there specific techniques you use to overcome them?
I don’t look at them as “blocks”; It’s all part of the process. Leonard Bernstein would take a break when he was working on “West Side Story” and ran into creative wall, lie down on the couch in his studio and calm his mind, clear his head, and fall into a short nap. When he opened his eyes, things were clear, and he jumped back into the project. Quincy Jones does a very similar thing – he’ll close his eyes, calm his mind and body and, as he says. he’ll wake up a little later with so many new ideas he can’t wait to start writing.
There are many ways to look at this. Remember, it is a process, and once you get out of the way, your mind will find the answer. Trust your instincts, trust the creative process and get out of the way so the Universe can guide you. It already knows what you want.
There’s another aspect to the process and that’s all about creative – you know, not all writing, composing and lyrical exuberance has to do with creating new material. Arthur Miller says it best: when can’t create, you can work.
Do a re-write on a previous lyric that didn’t work. Take an old song, dust it off, do a re-write. Keep experimenting and make edits, make more edits, and re-write…and just work!
Edits and editing are the name of the game, and if you can’t create now, right at this moment, and no creative thoughts are coming down the pike – you can work! Picasso always said that inspiration is everywhere… but it must find you working!
READ THAT AGAIN!
When you are working on your craft, either playing, in rehearsal, or whatever, creative ideas start dropping in, and the more you are playing, the more the ideas tend to flood in. That should tell you something.
Many independent musicians face financial challenges. What practical tips or strategies do you employ to manage your finances effectively while pursuing your musical career?
The biggest ones are the most obvious: don’t drink alcohol, and don’t smoke… anything!
And never, EVER, play for free. You must value your efforts, there is a price and a cost to everything. And even if it’s just for the door, you must have a guarantee, however small, for the evening.
Get a second line of work. Or a third, or a fourth! The days of doing music, and pursuing a musical career without a plan B, and long gone. You have got to maintain multiple sources of income to make your life work, and they can all be related:
Write record or CD reviews!
Work for a music publisher
Be a gear reviewer for the folks who make your pedals, PA, strings, microphones
Get a bartending job: you’ll meet a ton of people, you can talk about music over the bar and you will be in a scene that might have live music
And if that’s the case, be a sound tech, be a stagehand, be a theatre usher
Find the largest music promoter in your area and be their assistant
Do location scouting for the Hollywood Studios
Be an editor for your local paper and write or review music and theatre
Be an editor for an online booking service, and write about your road experiences
Start a tour blog that gives information about touring, use you own experiences
The name of the game is multiple income streams! And remember, there is no shame in doing a small job. Remember George Cohan’s line: There are no small parts, only small actors! And if you are a songwriter, mine these jobs for songs, stories, and impressions!
Remember: multiple sources of income are the key to surviving in a musical life!
You mentioned the importance of David Landau’s performance in shaping your musical journey. Can you share a specific moment or insight from that experience that had a lasting impact on your approach to playing and composing?
That would have to be the night that I first saw David playing at The Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square – on the corner of Church Street and Palmer Street. When I walked in, the place was packed, and I went right up to the stage, found a post to lean against where I could see the band, and David Landau was on fire.
But it was what he was playing and how he played it that was so captivating – they did a cover of Charlie Parker’s “Bloomdido” that was so musical and so uplifting and watching him do this, work this magic live, was something that drove me to up my own game. I had never really heard that sort of bop, and sometimes hard bop, played on a guitar and in that fashion and it changed my life.
I started playing the Bill Lawrence Guitar Books I & II 6-7 hours a day and tied to learn all the scales and all the modes I could, and worked on that in the front room of my house in Brookline, up near Boston College. I worked on an old round table, and smoked Winston Cigarettes incessantly, up to two, sometimes three packs a day. It took me a long time to build up the fluid approach that Charlie Parker had and especially the approach I saw live from David Landau.
That changed my playing, and changed my life since I could see in front of me what was possible playing at that high level of execution. It has been a goal that I am just now reaching, and I am so grateful every day for having seen David back then. I eventually took lessons from Mick Goodrick, who David studied with, and who was the guitar player for The Gary Burton Quartet.
In navigating the digital landscape, how do you prioritize between various online platforms, and what strategies have you found most effective for promoting your music in the age of streaming services and social media?
I have a few thoughts on this. First, just choose two or three platforms to be posting too. Anymore than that and you might find yourself posting and being involved in social media so much that you can’t keep up, and you end up spending so much time deep in the world of posting and commenting, that your music will suffer. It is a time eater, a time waster, and there isn’t really anything you’ll get out of it.
With the advent of the internet, music promotion changed significantly from putting up posters around town to putting up a constant stream of self-promotional posts that become mind-numbing and so repetitive as to lose all their impact and essentially become visual clutter. This “cult of self-promotion” has become so pervasive that as an artist, you’ll probably stand out by posting once or twice a week to your followers, rather than a constant stream of posting.
Collaboration is a significant aspect of the music industry. Can you share a specific collaboration that stands out in your memory and how it influenced your musical style or approach?
I have done some collaborative song crafting in Nashville through Song Town, BMI and SESAC, and some have produced good results. You need to find the right people to work with or be so flexible that you can work with anyone and still come out with something.
In Nashville, the Writer’s Rooms are all over town, and there is a very specific etiquette to be followed when you’re in one. I usually show up with a list of titles; I keep around 30-40 titles all the time and I add to it when something hits me. I have found, without exception, that is an excellent way to get the process started. Sometimes the session works, sometimes it gets bogged down, but I have always walked away with a finished song. Sure, it might need revision, a rewrite, or some adjustment, but I always start out with something, and I always end with something.
Sometimes what I am trying to say comes from my own personal experiences and I do not want that diluted with someone else’s vibe – there are time when that can work, but also times when I want the writer to be true to the original idea and then I just write the song myself.
I have had success both ways, so each approach is entirely valid.
Live performances seem central to your music career. How do you approach planning and executing your live shows, and what elements do you believe contribute most to creating a memorable and engaging live experience?
Every show has an arc to it. And that’s based on song selection or “sequencing” the show. What do you start out with, what do you group the songs by, how do you keep the audience engaged and with you on this 2–3-hour journey and what’s the flow… these are important questions to ask.
I usually start out by getting my song stack together: index cards, each having the name of a song and the play time, and I lay them all out and then shuffle them til that are in the order that makes the most sense for the show I want to do.
This is a pretty old school way to go, but it is exactly the method Frank Sinatra used to lay out his sets for his Las Vegas shows, and Quincy Jones used it to organize his show sequencing for Michael Jackson. It works, and while you can do all this on a laptop, I like the tactile touch of 3 x 5-inch index cards. When I shuffle them, it is a much more connecting process, and it brings me more in touch with the show itself.
I usually put three strong, upbeat numbers together and then a slower one so there is a bit of relief, then another three songs and a softer one to book-end it. Using this approach I can put together a 12 song set that’s about 60-75 minutes and do it thoughtfully and easily. I can use the same method and turn out a 16 and 24 song set.
This method works very well for me, and it makes for an excellent way to build your set. You still want to be open and flexible to what is going on with your audience, and I always try to reach out to them after the third song and before the softer, down tempo selections. But remember don’t talk for more than 10-20 seconds, avoid political topics and be kind and grateful to the people who are here to hear you!
You mentioned learning cello and working on new projects. Can you provide a sneak peek into any upcoming releases or projects that your fans can look forward to?
We have a lot going on for 2024. There will be a lot more sonic experimentations, we will be using more dynamic arrangements, and we will be incorporating more unique instruments – Cello, for one. I want to try more horn arrangements and using piano on some new songs – not overpowered orchestral approaches, but clear and minimal string parts.
We will have another record out for the Trio “Eric Sommer and The Fabulous Piedmonts” as well as a new solo record of acoustic material with vocals and 3-4 part harmonies.