Oct 292012

Photo: Peggy Dyer

I’m With Her, the indie-folk collaboration between established artists Angie Stevens and Haley E. Rydell, has been building momentum in the Denver scene the release of their self-titled EP nearly a year and a half ago. This week, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, they are set to release their next project, Songs We Said Goodbye To, with a much-anticipated release show this Friday, Nov. 2, at The Soiled Dove Underground in Denver.

Previewing the new record, I hear a fresh passion in these songs very similar to how the duo sounds when performing live. You can stream the first single from the record, “The Good, The Bad, My Mistakes,” at the end of the interview below.

Meanwhile, I was excited to sit down and talk with Angie and Haley about their new project, and they ended up sharing some pretty meaningful insights as to how their act has come about, and where their music is headed.


Jeff McQ:   So first of all, obviously, tell us about the new record. What was the inspiration for the songs and the album title?


Haley E. Rydell: Well, it all kind of goes hand in hand, Songs We Said Goodbye To. So we had both gotten out of very serious relationships at the very same time, and writing music together was kind of the outlet for us, kind of the way to get through all the stuff we were going through. It worked out really pretty well. So that was kind of the main inspiration, just kind of starting a new chapter – ending one chapter, starting a new chapter. So all the songs kind of have their place in our own timelines of healing, I guess.


Jeff: Okay, so you’re not saying goodbye to the songs. You’re saying goodbye with these songs.


Haley: Yes.


Jeff:  Or using them to help you say goodbye to certain parts of your life?


Haley:  To certain parts of our life, yep, exactly.


Angie Stevens:  Yeah. In some ways we did say goodbye to the songs, in that we said goodbye to that period of time for us. We had initially wanted to name [the record] “Hang Among the Stars” and then after going through the processing, it just didn’t represent the album. It didn’t represent what we put into it. It wasn’t about the “happy place” that we found with each other in our music. It was about the treacherous journey of…


Haley:  That we took to get there.


Jeff:  You both are songwriters. So did you find that you were collaborating more on this project? Or did each of you bring your own songs to the track list?


Angie:  We definitely collaborated more on this than we did on the first one.


Haley:  Yeah.


Angie:  I would have ideas for songs and give her – make her, I should say, in some ways – input meaning, like, not what would necessarily go towards my song, but what would make it her song. She did that…


Haley:  What would make it our song.


Angie: Yeah, our song, but more or less I wanted her input on it. Not just what would finish the song, but what it would be from her. So it was pretty profound.


Haley: But yeah, so we did a lot more collaborating. I think it’s more fun that way. We both get to put what we do into it. Both of our stories are in it.


Jeff: So, feel free to correct me if I’ve got a misperception about this, but you both had separate acts coming into this. It seems like this began sort of as a side project, but it’s now become the main project for both of you. Is that right?


Haley: That is correct.


Jeff:  So what has prompted that shift? What made you decide to make this your primary thing?


Haley:  Well I moved, so that kind of changed it pretty quickly. Unfortunately I had to leave all my bands back home behind, but it was just what I felt like I needed to do. This is where my heart was at. This is where I was still able to, I think, express myself to the full extent. So that’s what prompted that.


Angie: I mean, you’ll see at the CD release party, we have Susan and Carlos and Ryan. So there are incorporated members of Angie Stevens the Beautiful Wreck. But this is me turning from the bar bands and having to play in loud bars and doing it for a career, and really turning to the songs that people kept telling me not to play in those situations, because they were too quiet or they were too sad.


Haley: They couldn’t dance to them.


Angie: They couldn’t dance to them. I needed a place to be sad and to be honest. You know, the best song I’ve ever written was “Don’t Wait for Me”, which is all my song. But at the same time I don’t know if I could have shared that experience with the crowd that I had for Angie Stevens. That’s what we would change. I said to the band, “I don’t want to play the drinking songs. I want to play ‘Skyline Drive’. How did we become the drinking songs?” That was really hard for me. That’s not me. That’s a great money gig, and I count my blessings that I get paid as well as I do with Angie Stevens. But I’m With Her was like a no-pressure band. It was, “Let’s take one project that no one has a say in, and if they don’t like it, who cares?” If the critics don’t like it, if management doesn’t like it, if lawyers don’t like it, if my friends don’t like it, I don’t care anymore. Honestly, that’s where you house the best music is when you stop caring and just freaking play what you feel.


Jeff:  You both seem to genuinely enjoy performing on stage even when the songs themselves are a bit more serious. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on inside when you’re playing these songs? What are you feeling?


Haley:  I think because these songs are so honest, every single time we play them I’m thinking about where they came from, what they mean. That feeling never goes away. That song is never going to mean any less because the feelings are always going to be there. I don’t know. I think just playing with each other, I think we bring out something in each other musically that just never gets old. Every time we play together, it’s just exciting.


Angie:  It’s challenging. I mean, Haley has her strengths and I have mine and together it’s – every time we play it’s a new challenge. She challenges me musically and I challenge her performance-wise, every time. Again, she’s so much more casual now and so much more into it, and I’m also more into taking risks that I never took before because I didn’t believe in myself. So we have to go to that spot, and I tell her that. We’ve got to go there every single time. We have to visit that, because we have to be honest.


Jeff:  So what can we look forward to with the CD release show? Any surprises, anything you want to tell us?


Haley:  Oh, there are going to be surprises all over the place.


Jeff:  Can you give us a couple of hints?


Haley:  Yeah. We’re going to do some stuff by ourselves because that’s what I’m With Her is, it’s me and Angie. We’re [also] having, like Angie said, members of Angie Stevens and the Beautiful Wreck that will be playing with us. My brother is flying up from Fargo to play fiddle with us. It’s going to be awesome. We’ve got members of the Metro State Choir coming. We’ve got…


Angie:  Something Underground…


Haley: …Something Underground boys…


Angie:  All of them. We also have my sister’s benefit.  My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, so we’re doing a fundraiser at the event, auctioning off a bunch of different things, and that’s been a whole work in progress just in itself. But I’m going to guess, there’s probably going to be over 30 musicians.


Jeff:  How are you planning to promote the CD itself? Are you going to try to do some stuff out of town? Or what are you going to do with it?


Angie:  With Angie Stevens, I essentially choked the whole idea of becoming national and tried every method that was told I should try, and it didn’t work. I am not going to go after that. The most important thing in this album was to make music. Now the most important thing is to play good shows. We’re going to do a little bit of sending out the CD to people who already supported me before… But we are not going to knock down doors. It’s just not what we’re doing. It’s not what we’re about. It’s not where I’m at.


Haley:  If people get it and like it, great, but that’s not what it’s about.


Angie:  That being said, knowing it’s the best product that we’ve ever put out, and people are very excited about it, I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to it, but…you have to learn your lessons from your past, and I did. Haley was very new to that, because her personal band had never tried it, and her other band kind of already was in that scene. So it’s just not on my agenda. I think you have to focus on the music. I’ve been told that by critics all the time, and I didn’t listen. Now I’m like, “I’m just going to focus on the music, and if it works, great.”


I’m With Her unveils Songs We Said Goodbye To this Friday night at The Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 E. 1st St. in Denver. Opening act is Jalen Crossland. Tickets are $10 each, and are still available at the time of this writing (although word is they are going quickly). Doors are at 7:00 PM. Meanwhile, enjoy the preview track below!

Mar 312010


Artwork by Amy Moyer.

It’s no secret that I am a fan of Churchill.  I’ve been watching their progress here in Denver with great interest ever since I first saw them play.  In less than a year’s time as a band, they have put out a great first EP, earned a Top 3 slot in Channel 93.3’s Hometown for the Holidays, and a couple of weeks ago, joined some of Denver’s best local bands at SXSW.

Last week, I finally got a chance to have an extended conversation with the band–well, two-thirds of them, anyhow: Tim Bruns, Mike Morter, Amy Moyer and Tyler Rima. (Bandmates Bethany Kelley and Joe Richmond, were  performing with Meese on the road as they did some shows with Switchfoot.) We gathered in Tim and Mike’s living room to talk about Churchill’s unique sound, their influences, their friendship with Meese (with whom Tim and Mike share a duplex), and their direction as a band.  A good portion of the conversation is transcribed below. Fans who have been looking for the next EP from Churchill may find a surprise toward the end of the interview…

OOMPH: One thing that’s particularly striking about you as a band is the sound that you have.  I’m curious to know how you came about it. How did you arrive at your particular sound, and what made you choose the instruments that go into it?

TIM: Mike and I have been playing together for years, and it was always me on guitar, and him on mandolin…the first EP was sort of like Mike’s and my direction, and not a lot of people doing what they do…especially like with Tyler on bass…

TYLER: I recorded my bass parts after knowing you guys for a week…

TIM: …so we basically had to tell him what to play, and that was how it started. But the more we’ve been playing together, we’ve kind of fallen into the sound we have now.

AMY: Yeah, I don’t think it was ever–we never came up with a formula of what bands we wanted to take from and sound like…we wanted everything to be as natural as possible, so that’s kind of how it happened.  And now that’s why people are like, “You don’t sound like any other band.”

OOMPH: What does the songwriting process look like for you? What sorts of things inspire you to write?

TIM: Well, with the stuff we’ve been writing, a lot of it’s like, I’ll write a song or an idea, or a chorus, and bring it down in the basement, and we just kind of build around it, and everyone kind of writes their part.

TYLER: I mean, a lot of times you’ve brought a full song to us, and the song that we end up with is not what it started off as.  Like “Miles”, that drivey rock song [we do] started off as a full bluegrass song.

TIM: Everything I write is like country…

TYLER: And then Joe and I come from a rock background.  And the two girls have their sort of direction, and [Tim and Mike] have their sort of direction, and it’s one of these things where it might be a [finished] song, but once everyone gets their hands on it, it usually ends up different…

AMY:  I never realized that before, because [Tim and Mike] had that sound like bluegrass, and [Joe and Tyler] were rock, and Bethany and I are more like–I grew up with classical and orchestra [background] since the third grade, and Bethany being in chorale…

TYLER: It’s been really awesome…we’re kind of like a big family for being so randomly assembled.

OOMPH: It sounds like almost like a confluence of three types of backgrounds.  Is there any kind of a collective influence?  Are there any bands that particularly inspire you more than others?

TIM:  As a whole, it’s like what we’re kind of listening to at the time, like one of us will pass it around…

TYLER:  As a band, we have few records that we all listen to together, I mean, anything by Radiohead…Phoenix was kind of our band’s record last year…right now I think it’s probably Margo and the Nuclear So and Sos, that’s the band we’ve all been listening to…

MIKE: Tim and I have been on kick with Switchfoot…

TIM: Which the other two members of the band [Bethany and Joe] are playing shows with right now…

TYLER: That’s why this place is so quiet–the Meese guys live right there [in the other side of the duplex]…

TIM: Yeah, it’s like a ghost town… [laughter]

TYLER: We’ve sort of adapted to each other’s musical tastes a little bit.  Being on the road has helped with that. We’ve all gotten to hear what each other would listen to, because we have a lot of time to kill. 

OOMPH: I’m curious as to how the friendship/partnership with Meese has come about.  How did that all happen?

TIM: It goes back a little…I came out [to Denver in 2006] to do a record with Joe, and I met Pat and Nate (Meese) and Mike Ayers…and when we moved out here…we were all going to the Wing Stop, and for the first few months we barely knew each other, and then they came to our show…and I don’t know, somehow…

MIKE: They became like “biggest fans” of us, which was really cool, before we were really even friends.

TYLER: Before I moved out here, I didn’t know any of these guys, and I had the Meese record, and I loved it.

AMY:  Yeah, same with me…

TYLER:  We’ve all been fans of theirs forever, so to have any sort of compliment coming from their direction was huge to me.  And then moving down here…

TIM: Well, that happened because Mike and I were living in Thornton, and we were all gonna move down here [to Denver], and I was talking to Tiffany, Pat’s wife, and she says, “Well, I found this place, it’s good rent, and we would like totally be in a duplex together.  And I was like, “I don’t even care what it looks like.” [laughter]…and now that they’ve not been on tour as much, we’re hanging out all the time, writing songs…we’ve had a lot of late-night chats with those guys, and Pat and Nate have given Mike and me a lot of advice on how to do certain things…

MIKE: Businesswise–I’ve never really thought of a band as a business…so Joe and I are kind of the acting managers right now…and Pat helps out a lot and gives us a lot of good stuff to think about.

TIM: So much of where we are right now [as a band] is because of those guys.

OOMPH: How did you guys like SXSW?


TIM: I think we all decided it was one of the craziest weekends in our whole lives.

OOMPH: Crazy in a good way?

TYLER: Yeah…I mean, Joe and I went down there last year, but what I was doing, I was hired [for]…so for me, getting to come down, and first of all, since no one else had ever been, it was kind of like this eye opener, but then to just realize that this was with my band and this was my thing, it just felt really good…and there was just so many people and so many shows…

MIKE: It’s like Mardi Gras for bands…

TYLER: …And every place is a venue whether it’s an alley or a restaurant or a bar.

OOMPH: You guys have been a band almost a year, yet you were in the top 3 bands this year for Hometown for the Holidays, along with 2 other veteran local bands who had been in the Top 3 before.  How has the established music community around you responded to the attention you’ve been getting?  Do you find that they are supportive, or do you find that there’s some resistance?  What do you feel?

TYLER: I think everyone has been really, really supportive…and I think that’s basically the Denver music scene in general, I think there’s no sense of competition, it’s more a sense of everyone is for everyone, which is great.

OOMPH:  I think it’s an amazing dynamic, to tell you the truth, and you’re not the first band to tell me that. I’m just curious, because if anyone’s gonna get a rough time of it, it’s gonna be the newcomers that are taking off…so I think if it existed it would be targeted [to you].  But it seems like it really is a strong community.

MIKE: Yeah, it’s pretty supportive.  I’d say the Denver music scene is kind of like skateboarding, like the X-Games, like whenever they do a really sweet trick, and everyone’s all, “YEAH!” [laughter]

TYLER: Everybody pushes each other, and bands always tell their friends about other bands.

TIM: Even the bigger bands, like The Fray…[Isaac Slade] saw me in the drive-thru at Starbucks the other day, and he was like, “Hey, how’s your band doing?” and “We should get together and talk…”

TYLER: The fact that he could still want to support local bands…they genuinely still care.  Once you’ve made it “out”, I feel like it’s not always your responsibility to stay so invested because you’re so busy.  But they still do.

OOMPH: Pretend I’m someone hearing you play for the first time.  What do you hope I come away with after your show?

(For fun, Tim suggested each bandmate answer in one or two words…)

TYLER: Have fun.

TIM: Feeling good.

MIKE: Be a part.

AMY: Positivity, hope.

OOMPH: Any hints about the upcoming EP?

TYLER:  It’s gonna be a full length…

ME:  Oh, it’s not an EP…

TYLER: That’s a recent [development]…we’ve written too much, and we’ve developed a lot, and as much as maybe an EP is the sensible thing to do, we really want to push ourselves….

AMY: I’m really stoked about it…

TYLER: Yeah, the demos are cool…we’re gonna do it in The Fray’s studio, Candyland…

TIM: Ideally….

AMY: Cross your fingers…

ME: Any idea when it’s coming?

TIM:  July, that’s the goal.

TYLER:  We were gonna do an EP and we were gonna do it this month…and something clicked when we were out on the road, and we realized that we’ve got too much stuff that we really believe in.

Churchill is playing at the Hi-Dive with The Northern Way this Friday night, April 2.  Show starts at 8:00 PM.  Go check them out for yourself.
Churchill is:
Tim Bruns, guitar/lead vocals
Bethany Kelly, keyboard/vocals
Mike Morter, mandolin
Amy Moyer, cello
Joe Richmond, drums
Tyler Rima, bass

Mar 082010
John Common

Photo: Lucia De Giovanni (www.luciadegiovanni.com)

There’s been a lot of buzz about Beautiful Empty, the new record by John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light, since its release in January.  I attended the release party at Casselman’s in Denver, and wrote about it here and here.  Since then, JC& BFL have continued to play and promote the record, and will be playing at the Walnut Room in Denver Saturday night, March 13–a show that’s expected to sell out.  (More info on that show below.)

I recently caught up with John Common and had a conversation about how the record is doing.  What follows is a transcript of that interview.  I love this conversation, because I think as John shares some of the creative processes that birthed this record, we really get a glimpse of the uncommon artist inside, and the creative passions that drive him.  As a musical artist myself, I was inspired, and I think you will be, too.  It’s partly edited for unncessary content, but I tried to keep it as true to the heart of the conversation as possible.

OOMPH:  How is the new record doing since it was released?  What kind of a response are you getting from it?

JOHN:  Oh, man, people are really loving it.  We purposely released it in January only in Denver–we’ll start promoting it nationally this summer, and that stuff is all being planned right now–but so many of our Colorado fans and friends wanted the record that it just felt increasingly unfair not to release it locally.  And what we’re hearing from people is that they put the record in, and the more they listen to it, the more they want to listen to it—which is exactly what I was hoping for. I think they’re hearing it as an entire record, rather than a bunch of single, unrelated songs.  I think it’s the kind of record that unfolds the more you listen to it. 

OOMPH:  It seems to me like after the kind of stuff you’ve released in the past that doing a more acoustic, downtempo-style record to some might seem like a little bit of a risk. What was the inspiration behind going with a more downtempo style as opposed to your previous stuff?

JOHN:  You know, when I started thinking about this record, and I started thinking about the songs, it came at a point in time in my life when I was less and less interested with being in a “rock band.”  I’ve spent my whole life onstage, standing in front of a tube amp playing electric guitar–my whole musical career I’ve been that guy.  And honestly, it just started being less interesting to me.  And the songs I was writing were lining up with a different kind of a sound as well. 

Every time I make a record, I kind of see it as a chance to take new chances, and explore a different side of my art, you know?  And so I started playing around with this idea–and it sounds really simple on the surface, but it kind of had a lot of consequences–what if I made a rule for this record that the record would have no electric guitar, not one single second of electric guitar?  Which seems like, “big deal.” But when you’re doing the kind of music that I’ve done, it opens the entire game up.  Because it was like, “Okay, if you’re not going to have electric guitar”–all of a sudden there’s all of this sonic space that had opened up.  And when I combined it with some of the songs that I was writing, like “Turnaround”, “Walter Whitman”, and “Wide Open World”, all of a sudden, when I removed electric guitar from the palatte, I immediately started thinking about orchestral sounds–layered, lush string sounds and organ sounds.  And that actually connected to how I put my current band together, because…I didn’t want to just do the same things I used to on the electric guitar on the acoustic guitar, you know what I mean? I just saw it as an opportunity to grow as a writer and a singer, and almost kind of as a producer and arranger.  So I started hearing string sound and key sounds and organ sounds, and all these other sounds that ended up on the record.  And then it was like, “Well…I don’t know how to play cello.” [laughter]

And another big piece of it was …for my whole life I’ve been wanting to find a female singer who I could work with. Technically I guess you could say “backing vocalist”, but I saw it as certainly more than…background vocals.  All of this stuff came togther…I’m bored with electric guitar, I’m interested in orchestral sounds, I met Jess and we started singing together, and then these songs that I started writing–it just kind of all happened at the right time. And, to [use] a painting analogy, once you have really amazing colors on your palatte, you don’t have to work as hard.  And to not speak metaphorically, once you have a great band, and if you’re really happy with the songs you’ve written and you’re proud of them, you just have to get everybody in the same room and then let the natural courses sort of happen. And that’s what we did.

OOMPH:  And you know, it kind of sounds like that–it sounds like an evolution, both on the record, and when I saw you play. It seems like that you can just tell what you described is a genuine article, that it just kind of happened.  it doesn’t seem contrived–it seems like it emerged.  That’s what it sounds like to me. Does that sound like a reasonable description?

JOHN:  Yeah, absolutely.  It was very organic, but it was also very thoughtful…everything you hear on the record was chosen. It wasn’t like a bunch of happy accidents, but the organic part was getting really good people together in a room who are every one of them artists, and then trusting their talent.

OOMPH: Right.  That might be a better way of putting it–a collaboration.

JOHN:  Yeah, a collaboration within a framework, if that makes any sense.  I sort of defined the framework, like “this is not a rock band.”  I think we get incredibly intense–I think we rock every bit as hard as any rock band, personally–but I don’t think we do it  with the same vernacular. And every song–we try to be very true to the songs, And every song serves as kind of a blueprint.  And when you’re working up a song and getting a sense of, what are its strengths, and what points in the song are we supposed to let it breathe versus press down, and when you do that, especially when you’re doing it with good people and it’s not your first record, you know when to let the song be the bandleader. 

[It’s] really a fascinating process for me, because I view my role as like I’m kind of two people.  First I’m a songwriter, and I think my job as a songwriter is to make a song–the phrase I use in my own head is “situation-proof”. Meaning like, I think if a song is good enough, you can play it on an out-of-tune guitar and you can destroy people’s hearts and minds with it.  A good-enough song doesn’t require an orchestra–it can be played solo and be really effective–but also I think a good song can blossom under the right production.  And so I think my job as a songwriter is to try my hardest to just make the best songs that I can make…just well-written songs.  And once that’s done, there’s a different person, which is I’m a member of the band.  My job is to sing, and play guitar, keyboard, piano, and sort of follow the lead of that song, let the song tell me what it needs.

OOMPH:  What you’re describing to me, I think I’ve experienced at different times, where you’ve got musicians that you can turn them loose with the parameters and then you trust the results, and the results end  up being beautiful, and something more than you could have created on your own…more than the sum of its parts.

JOHN:  Yeah, and it happens all the time, and I think the way you’ve said it is exactly right; it’s that my job is to create a framework, first and foremost by with the song, but also by choosing the band members that I’ve chosen, by providing a super-high level of…”This is the vibe we’re going for here”, as a band, but also at the song level…and once you’ve drawn out sort of a blueprint and you give them the song, the next job is to shut up  and let the organic process take over, you know, let the talent of those people shine through.  And you’re right, it happens all the time…things come out, and I’m like, “I could never have conceived of that, you know?  I never could have guessed how cool that would have been.”

OOMPH:  Hey, what about the name of the band?  Who came up with Blinding Flashes of Light, and what does it mean?

JOHN:  Yeah, that was my idea. It’s referring to a couple of things. One is the type of people who I play with…well, they’re just great.  They’re artists and great musicians and great singers, they’re just very, very good at what they do.  And good doesn’t just mean technically good, they’re also just deep, deeply musical.  And I wanted a band name that–I didn’t want it to be, you know, “John Common and the Sidemen.” [laughter]…I don’t have a bunch of “also-rans” who I play music with. They’re very important. But also, the idea behind the band name is like–this is going to sound really weird–but when music really works, when you put it in a CD [player] when you’re driving, and the song really affects you–or maybe you go to a show, and it’s just that ineffable thing that’s happening–“Blinding Flashes of Light” is just sort of another way of saying, We’re not just trying to make bar rock here.  We’re not trying to be background music; we’re trying to make fundamentally gorgeous moments.

OOMPH: On a personal level, John–what are you currently listening to?  Who is speaking to you most these days?

JOHN: Oh, man, that’s a great question.  I…I love songwriters, and I love really good songs.  And the way I listen to things is I have a core group of albums and artists who I listen to over and over again over the years, like a heavy rotation list.  And I ‘ve got another list where they might not make my lifetime desert-island list, but I’m listening to their music because they’re inspiring me in the moment.  Some people on the first list could be Tom Waits, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Hoagy Carmichael, even some of the old classic songwriters from the 30’s and 40’s like Rogers and Hart, Leonard Cohen, Steve Earle…and there’s a handful of 50’s/60’s jazz artists [like] Thelonious Monk…every one of those artists are like textbooks that I keep going back to for inspiration and knowledge.  And then some artists on the second list lately…oh, you know it’s interesting, but I’m gonna name these, and they’re not going to be super hip and current, ’cause I consciously purposely, I don’t like to listen to “flavor of the month”.  I really actively avoid–like I don’t even want to know what’s popular.  And that might be a bad idea, [laughter]…but the reason is I don’t want to be chasing what’s timely.  I’d rather take a bigger a risk and try to do something that’s timeless…

So list 2…Willie Nelson’s Stardust [laughter]. I’ve been listening to this guy out of Europe, a piano player called Tord Gustavsen, amazing; Bonobo…great beats; Kings of Convenience’s last record [Declaration of Dependence]; and just the other day I realized I haven’t listened to The Grateful Dead in for-EVER [laughter], so I went and actually re-bought–because I lost ’em a long time ago–I re-bought a couple of Grateful Dead records.  I grabbed a copy of American Beauty, and the record that has “Uncle John’s Band” on it [Workingman’s Dead]. 

And finally, these next few helped crystallize some of my thinking about Beautiful Empty: the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record [Raising Sand]…it’s that male female vocal thing…but also the production value.  It’s all those really organic, luscious, surreal sounds.  I loved how on that record it sounded like amazingly good musicians playing…and it sounded like they were choosing not to overplay.  And I wanted that on our record; I wanted it to sound like really good, tasteful musicians saying, “Mmm, I’d rather not play here, but I will play here.” And the last record I’d put on list 2 that helped me…with Beautiful Empty was a record by Sufjan Stevens that he put out years ago called Illinoise.  It’s got lots of orchestral sounds, and arrangements, and that’s something I’ve been working on for years…as a producer, arranger and writer I’ve been working on understanding how to make–even if I did the rock band format–how to arrange or sculpt sounds so that it feels like you’re sitting in an orchestral hall and there are movements of sound, rather than, you know–drunk guy on bass, drunk guy on guitar…[laughter]…I’m not describing it very well, but that was one of the central themes for me in Beautiful Empty…I wanted to explore how to create emotional moments with that kind of orchestral approach.

OOMPH: Okay, last question: What are your plans for the coming year?  You did mention something about a little bit more national promotion of your record, but do you have any definite plans for 2010 that you want to mention?

JOHN:  Well, I can’t really talk about ’em too much right now, but I will say that we’re looking to…we think there’s something special in this record, and we want more people to hear it.  So I kinda got a team coming together to help figure out the best way to do that.  But it’ll involve all the normal stuff of getting out of town and playing shows, and hopefully connecting with some people in radio and some music writers in other towns and stuff like that.

John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light will be playing Saturday, March 13 at the Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street in Denver. Tickets are $9.00 advance, $12.00 day of show (if any are left), plus a $2.00 service charge.  Tickets can be purchased online from the Walnut Room website. Doors at 7:30 PM; show at 8:00. This concert is expected to sell out, so get your tix early if you want to go.  And even if you don’t live in Denver, you can purchase Beautiful Empty as a download from Amazon.com using the link below, or go to John Common’s website to buy a hard copy on CD.

“Turnaround” by John Common & BFL

Download Beautiful Empty on Amazon.com

Download “Beautiful Empty” from John Common and Blinding Flashes of Light - Beautiful Empty

Mar 032010

Turtle Island Quartet. Photo: Shelby McQuilkin

(This post supplements my article on Examiner.com.)

Before I was the kind of guy who listens to (and likes) my kid’s music,  I was classically trained in piano and was a composition major in college. (My profound apologies to my instructors–you did the best you could. And for you young whippersnappers who are thinking about skipping this blog post because it’s gonna be [kind of] about classical music instead of modern rock or indie bands…read on.  You might actually learn something.)

The classical string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) has been around for over 200 years, but many people don’t realize that this musical form was revolutionary in its day.  Popularized by great composers like Haydn in the 1700s, string quartet players often relied on improvisation as well as an ability to read and interpret music scores.  It was essentially the “jazz” of their day.

In our time, one group in particular has successfully reinvented the string quartet as a modern, progressive art form.  That group is the Turtle Island Quartet, who played a tribute to John Coltrane Saturday night at the Lakewood Cultural Center.  What makes this quartet unique is that they play a successful fusion between classical chamber music and contemporary music.  When I say “successful”, I mean it is no joke, no novelty, no gimmick.  I mean these guys make it sound like jazz and rock were meant to be played by two violins, viola and cello.  And in their time they’ve also incorporated styles like bluegrass, world music, R&B and even hip-hop into their chamber-music format.

This was my first time hearing this quartet, and I have to tell you it was nothing short of amazing to hear four classical string instruments playing improvisational jazz– and really good jazz at that.  As if that weren’t enough, midway through the first half of the program, they announced that they were going to play a selection from their upcoming record, a four-part suite of classic rock–by Jimi Hendrix.  If the thought of that makes you laugh, try to imagine hearing a violin or viola imitating the electric guitar riffs of the legend himself, every nuance and arpeggio and rock lick in place–and you’ll stop laughing and just start smiling.  What is most amazing about this quartet is that it really works.  They make it work, and they make you take them seriously by their outstanding musicianship–which, by the way, has earned them two Grammys so far.

Not only did I have the privilege of hearing these guys play, but I also had the privilege of sitting down with the two original members, David Balakrishnan (violin, baritone violin) and Mark Summer (cello). In talking with them, I discovered that Turtle Island Quartet is the brainchild of composer/arranger Balakrishnan, whose love for both classical and jazz prompted him to try and blend the two in his compositions.  It is essentially the teamwork of Balakrishnan (who oversees composition) and Summer (who oversees the implementation of the arrangements) that makes this combination work so well.  Their passion for these various styles of music drives them to blend the traditional and modern into something that must be taken seriously–and thus far, no one has really duplicated their efforts.

Balakrishnan and Summer never said as much in our conversation, but really, the music of Turtle Island Quartet is sending a message.  Whether intentional or not, the message is this: Hendrix is just as legitimate as Haydn.  The music of Coltrane is just as legitimate as that of Mozart.  By putting serious rock and jazz into a 200-year-old musical framework, they are legitimizing the music our grandparents and great-grandparents once dismissed as “noise”.  In so doing, Turtle Island Quartet has actually done more than just reinvent the string quartet–they’ve made it revolutionary all over again.

And that’s why I’m digressing today from talking about modern bands and artists to talk about Turtle Island Quartet–because many of the musicians we follow today because they are “revolutionary” will be looked upon as the legends and masters of tomorrow.  Great musicianship and great writing are timeless, regardless of the genre or style. 

So even if you aren’t the type who is into classical music, you ought to pay these guys a little respect–because in a way, they are legitimizing the music you love today.  If you ever get the chance, go see Turtle Island Quartet perform.  No matter what kind of music you’re into, you will be enriched by the experience.

Buy Turtle Island Quartet from Amazon.com.