Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Kimmo Pohjonen and Jeffrey Ziegler Battle With Noises from the River

You know electroacoustic? Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Ziegler’s duo show last month at South Street Seaport was diesel-acoustic. Positioned at the tip of a former shipping pier, possibly for the sake of approximating a nordic fjord, the two jammed their way through alternately rustic and assaultively improvisational themes against a rumbling backdrop of ferries, tugboats and water taxis. And it was totally punk rock, a style that Pohjonen seems to spring from.

When Ziegler wasn’t playing elegant washes of counterpoint to complement Pohjonen’s spiraling phrases, he was scraping on the strings, sticking a conductor’s baton under the bridge of his cello, wailing and screeching and shrieking to the point where it looked like something was about to break. Cellists from famous string quartets typically play ancient instruments from centuries past: this cello looked like it could have been a recent model, straight from the factory floor. Pity the musician who gets it secondhand: it’s been abused.

Pohjonen brought a pedalboard and played like a noiserock guitarist much of the time, with loops and distortion and also a setting that gave his squeezebox a majestic church organ sound. His technique was spectacular: blistering, machinegunning volleys of notes decaying to a drone or vice versa. Ziegler typically got to play good cop to Pohjonen’s viking madman when he wasn’t trying to burn holes in his fingerboard with his rasping attack. They hit a couple of big anthemic peaks, took a departure into a gracefully lilting dance that could have been Celtic – it’s amazing how much cross-pollination ancient folk music hints at – then a Middle Eastern-flavored interlude with a spiky acoustic guitar cameo from Gyan Riley and wound up on an ecstatic note. Props to the River to River Festival folks for having the courage to book an act this adrenalizing and cutting-edge.

July 1, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/11/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #537:

Mama Cass Elliot – Dream a Little Dream

What a voice.What soul, and longing, and sensuality. Some of the tunes on the 60s cult heroine’s torchy 1968 debut release, like Burn Your Hatred and Rubber Band, are a little dated, but those vocals are timeless. And it’s too bad she isn’t with us anymore (the story about choking on a sandwich is cruelly untrue – it was bad dope that did her in). As you would expect from the hippie milieu she inhabited at that point, a lot of usual suspects stepped up to help out. Steven Stills’ guitar spices up the surprisingly plaintive Talking To Your Toothbrush; the Band’s Richard Manuel contributes Blues for Breakfast; John Sebastian throws in the pensive chamber-pop Room Nobody Lives In; and Leonard Cohen – who knows something about sexy allure – gives her You Know Who I Am (and she reciprocates mightily). There’s also the heavily reworked title track, a Bessie Smith hit forty years previously; California Earthquake, a psychedelic pop period piece that still resonates;  the big ballads What Was I Thinking Of and Long Time Loving You; the blue-eyed soul of Sweet Believer, and the jokey but actually very spot-on Jane the Insane Dog Lady. Here’s a random torrent via Jensen Brazil.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/20/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #559:

Jethro Tull – A

Some of you may be wondering what kind of drugs we’ve been doing, considering that there are now not only one but two Jethro Tull albums here (Aqualung is also on the list – see the “obvious picks” page). And while there is a track on this album called the Pine Marten’s Jig, it’s the only hobbity tune here. All the jigging and whistling – and the band’s atrocious metal albums from the late 80s – obscure the fact that when this band was at the top of their game, they made several albums’ worth of terrifically lyrical, absolutely unique, metal and Britfolk-flavored art-rock. This is a 1980 concept album about nuclear armageddon (back then, everybody thought that the world would end in a shower of bombs instead of a meltdown in Japan). Thematically, everything that can go wrong here does. Crossfire was inspired by a hostage situation at the Iranian Embassy in London, while the catchy, spiraling Fylingdale Flyer looks at the logical extreme created when a false alarm signals a nuclear attack. The swaying Working John, Working Joe is a call for solidarity; the real gem, Black Sunday is a tricky, eerie countdown to the end. The metalish Protect and Survive has lyrics taken from a Soviet army manual, followed eventually by the creepy, surreal Batteries Not Included, the nonconformist anthem Uniforms, and the requiem And Further On. In lieu of the album – absolutely impossible to find online because of the title, and because ours is on vinyl – we give you this contemporaneous 1980 live set, with many of these tracks, via theultimatebootlegexperience.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Whispering Tree Rocks the Rockwood

Beautiful moment from last night: gentrifier girl wanders into the small room at Rockwood Music Hall. Perky and perfectly coiffed in an expensive mallstore way, like someone who was on the Disney Channel’s My Super Special Yuppie Puppie Prom Night around 2007. Meanwhile, onstage, the Whispering Tree’s Eleanor Kleiner raises her voice in a plaintive wail: “They left me here by the side of the road!” Gentrifier girl promptly scoots out the door and doesn’t come back. Any time a band can clear that element out of a New York club, that’s a victory. Meanwhile, the crowd who’d gathered for the four-piece band’s Friday night set was rapt: when they ended one song cold, mid-phrase, there was a stunned moment of silence before the whole band started grinning and then everybody belatedly burst into applause.

The Whispering Tree manage to be extremely accessible without compromising the intelligence of their music. To say that Kleiner sounds like an edgier version of Tift Merritt, or Shelby Lynne in a pensive, cosmopolitan moment, doesn’t do justice to the originality of her songwriting or her unaffected, disarmingly direct vocals. The band were amazing: they simply don’t waste notes, the guitarist hanging back tersely until it was time to deftly fade one early song up with hazy jangle and clang, or finally cutting loose with some slashing, smartly thought out blues on the evening’s final number. Likewise, the bassist chilled out in the pocket until he took a juicy, slipsliding solo on a radical reworking of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, reimagined as swinging, minor-key gypsy jazz. That Kleiner could wring genuine emotion out of “bluebirds can fly, why can’t I” was unexpected, and impressive to say the least.

But it was the originals that stood out the most. Kleiner played most of the set, including the eerie, apprehensive, minor-key Something Might Happen, on piano, with a brooding, gospel-infused style. The Trees, told from the point of view of one of them amidst the encroachment of city sprawl, took on a towering existential angst: like everyone else, trees long to be free, too. Likewise, they launched into Go Call the Captain, the title track from their most recent album (which received a rave review here last year), with a mighty thump – and yet, when it came to Kleiner going on the attack about how “false prophets, liars and thieves rule the world,” she didn’t go over the top. Instead, she let the lyrics speak for themselves (there’s more about the song on the band’s blog – mighty good stuff). They wound up the set with an unexpectedly fiery guitar-fueled rocker, No Love, a potently metaphorical, bitter anthem that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Penelope Houston’s albums from the 90s.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Album of the Day 6/15/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #594:

Richard Thompson – Mirror Blue

In case you’re wondering, these albums are in totally random order – if we were actually trying to rank them (an impossible task), this would be somewhere in the top hundred for certain. The British songwriter/guitar god is best known for his volcanic live shows (our predecessor e-zine picked his concert album Semi-Detached Mock Tudor as the best one of 2002). This 1994 release is his hardest-rocking studio record. The anguish factor reaches fever pitch on the swaying, opening Britfolk anthem I Can’t Wake Up to Save My Life, echoed in the haunting shuffles Easy There Steady Now and Slipstream as well as the sad, closing breakup ballad Taking My Business Elsewhere. The obligatory guitar epic is The Way That It Shows, a real barn-burner; the best song here is the ferocious, bitter Mascara Tears, maybe the loudest song Thompson ever recorded. There’s also plenty of typical Thompson wit: the Jethro Tull-ish MGB-GT and the sardonic Fast Food along with the hypnotic, brooding Mingus Eyes and King of Bohemia and the big hit Beeswing, a thinly veiled, nostalgic ballad that has not aged well. Although the album has been criticized for having too many weird percussion tracks (fault of Suzanne Vega’s ex-husband, who was producer du jour that year), happily most of that is pretty much buried in the mix. Here’s a random torrent.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 6/4/11

We’ve been so busy putting together a comprehensive NYC live music calendar for this summer that we’ve put a ton of stuff on the back burner. Upcoming momentarily: intense cello music in the West Village; old favorites in Williamsburg and the East Village; a wasted afternoon in downtown Brooklyn and an ill-advised Friday night trip to Queens. You can’t say we don’t get around. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #605:

The Strawbs – Grave New World

The Strawbs started out in the UK in the late 60s as the Strawberry Hill Gang, playing bluegrass; they backed Sandy Danny on her first full-length recording, not issued til decades later. By 1972, they were taking British folk and making towering, anthemic, psychedelic art-rock out of it, sort of like Jethro Tull without the gnomes and hobbits. This one’s all over the map: there are a couple of duds, but otherwise it’s a masterpiece, a loosely thematic collection of songs that ponder aging and death. Benedictus takes a 12-string Byrds theme and makes a hypnotic, circular anthem out of it; the title track, with its murderous, crashing mellotron intro, is one of the most vengeful songs ever written: “May you rot, in your grave new world!” There’s also the apprehensive, Procol Harum-ish Tomorrow; the artfully backward-masked Queen of Dreams; the psychedelic folk of Heavy Disguise and The Flower and the Young Man and the surprisingly quiet, resigned concluding track Journey’s End. After all these years, and a turn in a harder-rocking direction, frontman Dave Cousins continues to tour a more acoustic version of the band. Here’s a random torrent.

June 4, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Oxygen Ponies’ Exit Wounds Leaves a Mark

The Oxygen Ponies’ 2009 album Harmony Handgrenade was a ferocious, lyrical art-rock masterpiece, one of the best releases of recent years: you can find it on our Best Albums of All Time list. Written during the waning days of the Bush regime, it’s a chronicle of love under an occupation. On the band’s new album Exit Wounds, frontman Paul Megna revisits similarly tortured terrain, this time more personal than political. For the most part, this is an album of snarling kiss-off songs, with psychedelic, anguished epic grandeur juxtaposed against stark Leonard Cohen-esque passages. The band this most closely resembles is Australian art-rock legends the Church, both in terms of the stunningly catchy simplicity of Megna’s melodies, the hypnotic sweep of the production and the clever, literate savagery of his lyrics.

“The velvet rope around your neck pulled you away,” he intones in his signature rasp in the opening track, Hollywood, as the band pulses with a trancey post-Velvets sway behind him. “Did you sell your face so you could buy the farm out at Maggie’s place?” he asks. But this isn’t merely an indictment of a starstruck, clueless girl: it indicts an entire generation. As Megna reaffirms later on with the amusing I Don’t Want Yr Love: after a pretty hilarious Lou Reed quote, he makes it clear that he doesn’t “want to be anywhere you are ’cause all the people there are blinded by the stars.” The outgoing mantra of “nobody loves you anymore” is just plain brutal: it makes a great outgoing message for anyone in need of some post-breakup vengeance. And the cello-driven This Disaster offers a more expansive view of the wreckage leading up to the big dramatic rift, Megna musing that “If all we have left is one technicolor kiss, I’d rather be the standin than the star.”

Hope and Pray is pure schadenfreude – it could be the great missing track from the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands, but with better production values. “Hope the further down you go, the higher is the climb,” Megna snarls. He follows that with the bitter lament Good Thing, crescendoing out of spare, plaintive folk-pop with a cynical fury:

This is a call to everyone
Wake your daughters, rouse your sons
Take your aim and shoot to kill
So your friends don’t hurt you
‘Cause others will

Hornet, a dead ringer for a Steve Kilbey song, offers a backhanded compliment to a femme fatale, “Dancing around like a flame in the fire/As hot as it gets you don’t have to perspire.” They revert to Jesus & Mary Chain mode for Wild Animals, a more subtle putdown: “You think you’re smart, that each work of art ended up a failure,” Megna taunts. The indomitable Drink Myself Alive packs a punch, its undeterred narrator only willing to change his wicked ways if the girl who’s bedeviled him will do the same. With a distantly Beatlesque swing, Land That Time Forgot wouldn’t be out of place in the Spottiswoode catalog: it works both as a tribute to an individualist and a nasty slap at trendy conformists: “You’re walking around ahead of the crowd, such happiness is never allowed,” Megna sneers. He reprises that theme on the sparse, more gentle Jellybean with its torrents of lyrics:

Everyone around me is just sharing the same brain…
I guess they find it’s easier to be part of the whole
Searching for a reason why they buy the shit they’re sold.

The album ends on a completely unexpected note with the pretty, backbeat pop hit Christmas Every Morning. The album is out now on insurgent Brooklyn label Hidden Target Records, the same folks who put out Randi Russo’s brilliant new Fragile Animal a couple months ago. This one’s in the same league: it’s hard to imagine a better album than this coming out any time this year. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

May 17, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spottiswoode’s Wild Goosechase Expedition: A Great Discovery

Spottiswoode & His Enemies’ new album Wild Goosechase Expedition is a throwback to those great art-rock concept albums of the 70s: Dark Side of the Moon, ELO’s Eldorado, the Strawbs’ Grave New World, to name a few. And it ranks right up there with them: if there is any posterity, posterity will view this as not only one of the best albums of 2011 but one of the best of the decade. Songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Spottiswoode calls this his Magical Mystery Tour. While the two albums follow a distantly parallel course in places, the music only gets Beatlesque in its trippiest moments. Ostensibly it follows the doomed course of a rock band on tour, a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor for the state of the world today. Most of this is playful, meticulously crafted, Britfolk-tinged psychedelic art-rock and chamber pop – the obvious comparison is Nick Cave, or Marty Willson-Piper. Fearlessly intense, all over the map stylistically, imbued with Spottiswoode’s signature sardonic wit, the spectre of war hangs over much of the album, yet there’s an irrepressible joie de vivre here too. His ambergris baritone inhabits the shadows somewhere between between Nick Cave and Ian Hunter, and the band is extraordinary: lead guitar genius Riley McMahon (also of Katie Elevitch’s band) alternates between rich, resonant textures and writhing anguish, alongside Candace DeBartolo on sax, John Young on bass and Konrad Meissner (of the Silos and, lately, the Oxygen Ponies) on drums.

As much lush exuberance as there is in the briskly strummed title track, Beautiful Monday, there’s a lingering apprehension: “Hoping that one day, we’ll be truly free,” muses Spottiswoode. It sets the tone for much that’s to come, including the next track, Happy Or Not, pensive and gospel-infused. Slowly cresendoing from languid and mysterious to anthemic, the Beatlesque Purple River Yellow Sun follows the metaphorically-charged trail of a wide-eyed crew of fossil hunters. The first real stunner here is All in the Past, a bitter but undeterred rake’s reminiscence shuffling along on the reverb-drenched waves of Spottiswoode’s Rhodes piano:

I was young not so long ago
But that was then and you’ll never know
Who I was, what I did
How we misbehaved
Who we killed
I’ll take that to the grave

The song goes out with a long, echoing scream as adrenalizing as anything Jello Biafra ever put on vinyl.

A bolero of sorts, Just a Word I Use is an invitation to seduction that paints a hypnotic, summery tableau with accordion and some sweet horn charts. A gospel piano tune that sits somewhere between Ray Charles and LJ Murphy, I’d Even Follow You To Philadelphia is deliciously aphoristic – although Philly fans might find it awfully blunt. The gorgeously jangly rocker Sometimes pairs off some searing McMahon slide guitar against a soaring horn chart, contrasting mightily with the plaintive Satie-esque piano intro of Chariot, a requiem that comes a little early for a soldier gone off to war. It’s as potent an antiwar song as has been written in recent years.

All Gone Wrong is a sardonic, two-and-a-half minute rocker that blasts along on a tricky, syncopated beat. The world has gone to completely to hell: “They got religion, we got religion, everything’s religion,” Spottiswoode snarls. Problem Child, with its blend of early 70s Pink Floyd and folk-rock, could be a sarcastic jab at a trust fund kid; Happy Where I Am, the most Beatlesque of all the tracks here vamps and then fades back in, I Am the Walrus style.

This is a long album. The title track (number twelve if you’re counting) might be an Iraq war parable, a creepy southwestern gothic waltz tracing the midnight ride of a crew who seem utterly befuddled but turn absolutely sinister as it progresses: it’s another real stunner, Meissner throwing in some martial drum rolls at the perfect moment. All My Brothers is a bluesy, cruelly sarcastic battlefield scenario: “Only the desert understands, all my brothers lie broken in the sand – freedom, freedom, freedom.” The satire reaches a peak with Wake Me Up When It’s Over: the narrator insists in turning his life over to his manager and his therapist. “Don’t forget to pay the rent…tell me who’s been killed, after all the blood’s been spilled,” its armchair general orders.

McMahon gets to take the intensity as far as it will go with The Rain Won’t Come, a fiery stomping guitar rocker that wouldn’t be out of place on Steve Wynn’s Here Come the Miracles. The album ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note with the one dud here and then the epic, nine-minute You Won’t Forget Your Dream, a platform for a vividly pensive trumpet solo from Kevin Cordt and then a marvelously rain-drenched one from pianist Tony Lauria. All together, these songs make the album a strong contender for best album of the year; you’ll see it on our best albums of 2011 list when we manage to pull it together, this year considerably earlier than December. It’s up now at Spottiswoode’s bandcamp site.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Interview with Uniquely Eclectic Songwriter Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero is one of the most individual new voices around. Drawing on elements as diverse as oldschool soul, indie rock and global sounds from Ethiopia to Brazil, her songs share a rare thoughtfulness, intelligence and unselfconscious soulfulness. And she’s only been writing songs for five years. In preparation for a series of appearances in Ethiopia, where she was born, Hadero has several New York performances coming up in April, kicking off with a full-band show on April 3 at 7 PM at NYU’s Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place. As gracefully articulate offstage as she is in front of a crowd, she took some time to give us the scoop about what she’s up to lately:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: There’s a youtube comment up about you that salutes you for being both “demure AND badass.” I picked that one because I like it. Are those qualities that you’re consciously trying to communicate in your music?

Meklit Hadero: I guess the idea of the music is to communicate the full range of feeling that is lurking inside us. Sometimes demure is just the right thing, other times, the badass wins.

LCC: You were born in Ethiopia. How old were you when you came over?

MH: I was about a year and a half when I left Ethiopia. After that, we spent 8 months in Germany and then came to the States.

LCC: You spent a considerable part of your life here in the BK. Let me guess which neighborhood – Fort Greene?

MH: True to my nomadic compass, we lived all around Brooklyn. We spent a year living on Eastern Parkway right across from the Botanical Gardens – this was 1986 – then we spent a year in Bay Ridge on 62nd Street, and four years in Park Slope.

LCC: Any thoughts of returning, or have you been priced out of the market like so many others?

MH: I’ll always have a special feeling about New York, and when I’m here, there’s a part of me that still feels moored to the city. But, I don’t really have a desire to settle here. San Francisco brings out different things for me. My apartment there is perched atop Potrero Hill and I can see the whole western slope of the city from my back deck. I call it my “big picture” view ’cause it puts you right in a big picture mindset. There’s no beating that.

LCC: Wow. That is cool. That’s a great view…and a guaranteed workout getting home every night! Did you leave for San Francisco after high school or did you finish there?

MH: There were many stops between New York and San Francisco. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida for a year….I went to high school in Gainesville, Florida, and college in New Haven. Along the way, there was a semester in London, and a summer in Miami. After college, I moved to Seattle and was there for almost two years before I landed in San Francisco in 2004.

LCC: How would you contrast the opportunities for an artist in San Francisco – where it seems to me you found a very nurturing and receptive environment – compared with New York or Brooklyn? Or is that a fair question since you’ve spent more of the past few years in San Francisco?

MH: Well, really, I spent my childhood in Brooklyn, so I can’t really speak to developing as an artist there. I came into my own as a San Francisco musician, which was indeed a wonderful experience. I’d say my relationship to San Francisco is embedded in that. But in the last year, I’ve spent a good deal of time in in New York, and I’ve had such an open-armed reception here as well, especially by artists like Somi, Suheir Hammad, Imani Uzuri, and Morley. I treasure those friendships!

LCC: You’ve played and recorded with unusual combinations of musicians – from a rock perspective anyway. For example, with just ney flute, guitar and voice; or bass, drums, trumpet and vocals. Were these arrangements planned from the beginning?

MH: The arrangements evolved as the songs evolved. Songs are quite mysterious. Sometimes you’ll specifically hear certain instruments as integral to creating a feel, other times it’s more about a particular musician’s hand needing to touch the song. I like the arrangement of classical guitar, upright bass, drumkit, and trumpet ’cause it’s so balanced and allows for a lot of contour. I’m really earthy and the guitar can be too, so my songs need the metal of the trumpet and the kit to cut across that earth, and the bass stabilizes that relationship. The upright bass is just one of my favorite instruments. It is so generous!

LCC: You won’t get any argument from me – those four strings are my lifeline. Now you’re proficient at both guitar and piano – were those instruments part of your earlier life, or just the past five years?

MH: I started playing guitar in mid-2006. At the start, I would play at least three hours a day, so I moved through some phases fast. I actually don’t play the piano, though I use it to write songs. On the piano, you can see everything laid out. I love sitting with the instrument, and having all that sound come at you! There is a sense of largeness to it, whereas playing the guitar feels so intimate, with the wood against your belly. One day I’d like to perform on the piano, and on the drums too. I’ve recently been taking lessons on the kit and it’s this heavenly physicality. It makes me feel strong enough to run for miles.

LCC: How – if at all – do you think your approach to music has been affected by the fact that you’ve only been writing songs for about six years? Has it perhaps allowed you to grow organically, or made you more immune to cliches than, say, someone who’s been immersed in music since day one?

MH: Growing up, I was a lyric memorizer. I could listen to a song a few times and know all the words, and I would always pay attention to meaning. At some point in my early teens, I started to pay attention to the difference between a line being animated because the singer was great, and a line being animated because a line was great. In a way, that was songwriting study. When I discovered Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, they became my touchstone. Musically, I think my philosophy was more like, go with what you hear, and get the skills later. For example, when I started songwriting, I would hear a melody in my head, figure out the chords on the piano, and then learn them on the guitar. It might take 10 months before I could play the song live, but determination and will go a long way. I don’t know if my newness protects me from cliche. I think in a way, it’s because I’m just willing to use the skills that I have and not feel limited by my limitations. I’m still learning a lot about music every day.

LCC: What were you doing artistically before you started playing music?

MH: Singing in the shower! Or singing while walking down the street… Just singing all the time. Actually I wasnt doing much creatively till I decided to finally take music seriously. Music was always the thing that called to me.

LCC: Was there a “eureka” moment where you decided you would do music, or was it a slower awakening?

LCC: There was indeed a eureka moment when I knew I could really be a musician. It was April of 2007, and I had been singing in San Francisco for about two years, with mostly friends and friends of friends coming to my shows. That month, I had a performance scheduled at the Red Poppy Art House and much to my surprise, there was a line around the block and I only knew a couple of people in the audience. I thought to myself, “Who are these people and how do they know about this show!” At that moment, I knew I could really do this.

LCC: You’ve got an amazing band assembled for your April 3 show at NYC’s Skirball Center which includes Keith Witty on upright bass, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Pete Van Nostrand on drums, Analissa Martinez on cello, Jennifer de Vore on cello, Tarrah Reynolds on violin, and Eva Gerard on viola. Are you going to have the full string quartet playing on the songs?

MH: Yes, I’ll have a full string quartet with me for the April 3rd show! The core of the band is drumkit, upright bass and trumpet, and the quartet will join us for five songs. Playing with a string quartet is so luxurious. It feels like lying on a feather bed in the sun. I’m completely excited about to play with all the artists on the bill. They’re stars.

LCC: You’re currently NYU artist-in-residence – I believe that’s your official title. How did that happen?

MH: I was invited to do the residency by Manthia Diawara, and incredible Malian filmmaker and the head of the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU. He and I met through Walter Mosley, who is a dear friend of mine. Walter will actually be introducing me for the April 3rd show. Walter brought Manthia to a New Africa Live performance that I did at le Poisson Rouge last June. Post show, Manthia said that he’d like to talk to me about coming to the University for a residency. Since then, we’ve spent months developing the programs.

LCC: Are there other duties there as artist-in-residency other than playing and writing songs?

MH: It’s actually a jam-packed month! I’m sharing the residency with Ghanian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah, also an amazing artist. We’ll be working together creatively, and I’ll be writing a piece to a short visual work of his. We’re also doing lots of panels. I’m organizing one on April 11th called the Tizita Chronicles, using the Ethiopian concept of Tizita to explore collective cultural memory. I’ll also be on the panel Reshaping the Public Imagination through the Arts at the Black Portrait Symposium put on by the uber talented MacArthur fellow and NYU Professor Deb Willis. Information about all this is online here.

LCC: You’re also doing what looks like a really cool afterschool series at the Lincoln Center Atrium on Wednesdays at 4 PM in April with free performances where you’re moderating discussion afterward. You’ve got some cool people on the bill including Chanda Rule and Somi, and some of the guys from Debo Band, who pretty much everybody loves. Can you explain how that’s going to work?

MH: The series is a collaboration between Lincoln Center’s Meet the Artist Program and the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU. It’s all about a space to present the work of artists who are using the ideas that we are exploring in the residency panel series, including Reshaping the Public Imagination Through the Arts, as well as the Tizita Chronicles and Collective Cultural Memory, and multiplicity in the African Diaspora. I think having artists in residence at a university is broadly about finding paths for the NYU students to learn in a different way than they usually have access to. For me, it’s enormously important to offer students a chance to interface with arts and performance as they are lived and experienced, and with access to the artists who create the work.

Though it’s an afternoon series – every Wednesday in April from 4 to 5 PM – and ideal for students, the events are actually completely free and open to the general public. Anyone can come! There will be a 45-minute performance, and then a 15-20 minute Q&A with the artists that I will be facilitating. So it’s a chance to see a wonderful performance and delve into the process with the artists afterwards. The range of folks who are performing as a part of it are just fantastic. The artists include Somi and Chanda Rule on April 6th, Toshi Reagon on April 13th, Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire on April 20th, and the saxophonist and drummer from Debo Band on April 27th. These are all stellar artists and there will be some phenomenal performances.

LCC: I hear Nico’s Chelsea Girl in the opening track on your album – are you a fan of that album at all?

MH: I’ve never heard it before!

LCC: Um, ok! Some times great things are invented simultaneously – or close to it, I guess. I also hear bossa nova, and jazz, and rural Ethiopian music in your songs. On one level, anybody with internet access can discover all this stuff, no problem – but you were a pre-internet baby. Is it worth asking where you picked up these influences?

MH: I feel like anything you love ends up in your work. It might take years for some fragment or another to percolate into a song, or maybe it happens fast. I was a pre-internet baby, but I did have my first email account at 15, and at 18 was immersed in college filesharing. We also used to have listening parties where everyone had to bring music that they thought most of us would never have heard before. It ended up being a lot of folk music from different parts of the world, or obscure local bands from small towns round the globe. I’m also a little bit obsessed by possessing multiple sounds. Even vocally, I really search for different tones and voices to come through. I think that’s what gives an artist the ability to access the range of the human experience.

LCC: Do you come from a musical family?

MH: My parents are doctors.

LCC: The comparison everyone is making, which I think makes sense since you’re known as a fan of hers, is Nina Simone. Did you ever meet her? See her play in concert?

MH: I never met her, and never saw her play live. I almost had the chance at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1997, but the moment passed me by. She was a huge influence…talk about honesty and directness! She taught me that you don’t always have to make something pretty for it to be powerful. Let the power speak for itself. That’s a different kind of beauty.

LCC: It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve necessarily been seeking any kind of fame; your popularity seems to be a more organic thing. To what degree would you agree with the idea that your success affirms the argument that if you give people good music, they’ll listen?

MH: I certainly hope that that’s true. But there are definitely a lot of folks who put major energy towards helping my work make its way in the world and I don’t want to deny that….. But I also do have a natural aversion to the hype machine and for me, making music is certainly not all about fame. I think good music should speak for itself. I hope there will always be space for that. About once a week I get a google alert about a new place to download my music for free, and I can’t say it bothers me. It’s just part of the deal. In a way, it’s flattering because that means that people want to share the songs. It means they’re listening.

LCC: Downloading is the new radio. I think that’s great, actually – so the rest of the world can get to know your music. Here’s a hard one: how would you respond to someone who says “Oh, she’s just trying to be the next Snorah Jones?”

MH: I think if you see me live, it’s clear why that comparison doesn’t really make sense. I once got some great advice about recording an album from a cousin of mine who said “Think about how people listen to music these days… it’s mostly on ipods with earbuds. When you record, sing as though you are as singing into someone’s ear.” That rang true and I sang my album On A Day Like This… that way. But live, there’s a kind of abandon that takes over. There’s more contour and range and way more power.

LCC: In addition to being a musician, you’ve been an advocate for all kinds of good causes. Are there some in particular that we should mention here?

MH: I’d say I’m less into causes and more into a shift in perspective. A big part of my work in the arts is towards seeing the world in greater multiplicity. I feel very passionately about expanding the public narrative that we have around Africa as synonymous with poverty, hopelessness, chaos and despair. The continent is so much more than that. It’s really so many things at once, including real people living real lives, and it’s changing so fast. We have to get way more curious about it, and far less sure that we know how the world is. It’s a great big world out there.

LCC: Anything else we should mention here?

MH: Yes, this May, my band and I are headed to Ethiopia to play at the Music Without Borders Festival, taking place in the cities of Harrar, Gondar, and Addis Ababa. In Harrar and Gondar, the shows will be totally free and open to the public. Addis Ababa’s show will have only a minimal entrance fee, so we’ll really get to connect with the people. In Gondar, we will play upon the site of the landmark Fasilides Castle, built in the mid-1600s by Emperor Fasilides. That’s some serious history!!!!

The Arba Minch Collective, the collective of Ethiopian Diaspora artists that I founded in 2009, will also be there, and we’ll be giving free workshops, and continuing to build our growing relationships with the cultural movers and shakers of the country. I’ll even be taking photos for National Geographic World Music’s website! We’re not getting paid a thing to play, so we’re making it happen grassroots style through an Indie-a-Gogo campaign that we just launched. You can learn more about it or donate here.

March 31, 2011 Posted by | interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment