Posts Tagged AMY STEELE interview
Several years ago I saw Sallie Ford and The Sound Machine (her then-band) at the Newport Folk Festival. Energetic, fun and eclectic. She’s got a cool way to combine retro with present mingling in jazz, folk, rockabilly and rock. On this new album, Slap Black, Ford’s steering away from the retro and charging forward with the altrock vibe. She also split with The Sound Machine and has a new all-girl backing band. Sallie Ford grew up in Asheville, NC always playing music. In 2006, she relocated to Portland, Ore. where she met her band The Sound Outside. Together they released three albums and an EP then parted ways in 2013.
I recently interviewed Sallie Ford via email, the worst possible way to conduct an interview because there’s an inability to connect, to ask follow-up questions or clarify one’s questions. But that’s the only choice I had. The result: some rather prickly answers.
Amy Steele: Absolutely fantastic that you have an all-girl band.
Rare these days. I did see the Retro Futura Tour
recently and Tom Bailey [Thompson Twins] had an all-girl band. I was
impressed. What effect has an all-girl band had on your music, on
Sallie Ford: I love my new band. The new effect they have on my music and touring
has nothing to do with how they are women, it’s ’cause they are awesome people and hard working!
[AS: I find this answer interesting and evasive. It’s clear women are still having issues as women in the music business. It’s rare to have an all-girl band. And I’d read that Ford intentionally formed an all-girl band. in fact here’s a quote from her publicist: “The beginning of this year Sallie fulfilled her dream of starting an all-girl rock n’ roll band and in February of 2014, the band went into the studio with producer Chris Funk to begin recording Slap Back.” ]
It worked out well that they are into being healthy on tour which I think is extremely important. We eat very well (lots of veggies and no junk food), and today we are gonna stop in
Theodore Roosevelt National park and do some hiking. Staying healthy on tour is so important, ’cause touring is an extremely difficult job. It’s very annoying to hear how most people romanticize touring. I know I’m lucky to do it and I love playing music, but I just don’t think
people have any idea how hard it is. As far as the music, it’s great to play with new musicians and learn from them.
Amy Steele: You say that this album is an “ode to all the babe
rockers.” Who do you admire and who has influenced your music over the
Sallie Ford: I have been influenced by sooo many different things over the years.
When I first started writing music, I loved Tom Waits, Regina Spektor,
Fiona Apple and more. Then, I remember I played with this band called Basemint from Tacoma,
like four years ago. They were a high energy garage rock band and I was
smitten. My guitar player at the time said “Well if you like that, you
should listen to The Sonics”. I did and discovered a bunch of other
music from the ’60s that I hadn’t heard before. So the second record I
made was more influenced by surf and garage rock. Same as the “Summer” EP I made with The Sound Outside.
The new record has lots of influences, like Skeeter Davis, The Monks,
Link Wray, T Rex, PJ Harvey, X, Heart, The breeders, The Pixies, Joan
Jett and I’m sure I’m forgetting some others.
It’s just _______ rock. Fill in the blank. It all has cross-over.
Amy Steele: Do you feel like a solo artist now with a new backing band
or as someone in a new band? What is your writing process and how does
the new band participate in songwriting?
Sallie Ford: Definitely feels like I’m in a band. [AS: yet going by your name like a solo artist would and not calling the band a band.] That’s why I’ve always gravitated
towards playing music as an art form, because it’s collaborative. This album was different ’cause we brought in Chris Funk to produce. I wrote all the lyrics, guitar chords and melodies, and the band
figured out their parts and Chris helped with the arrangements and
style of the record.
Amy Steele: Your sound was definitely retro and you can hear it on
some songs on your new album but you’ve brought in many other
elements. What made you decide to mix it up?
Sallie Ford: I will forever want to mix things up. That’s the point of creating
music. Challenging yourself to do something different and learn. I didn’t really like being stuck in the retro box either. Most bands are retro anyway, ’cause I bet a lot of their influences are from the past. I make my music, and that can be whatever I want it to be.
Amy Steele: How is your live show different from your album?
Sallie Ford: We play some of my old songs and the energy is different I guess. We
blend the old sound and the new I guess you could say.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Sallie Ford: Honest lyrics and a catchy melody
Amy Steele: Let’s talk about some songs on the new album, Slap Back. Tell me how you came up with
Sallie Ford: I’m guessing you mean lyrically? [AS: not necessarily. it’s whatever you want to tell me about the songs but it was email and I couldn’t explain that.]
Sallie Ford: Is about games people play in new relationships.
“Workin’ the Job”
Sallie Ford: Is about being funemployed.
Sallie Ford: Is about the crush I have on the state I live in.
Sallie Ford: Is a song for my best friend.
Sallie Ford: Is about lettin’ loose and partying.
purchase at Amazon: Slap Back
Sallie Ford kicks off a North American tour tomorrow, November 5, in St. Louis and will be in Boston on November 12 at Great Scott.
11.05.14 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club*
11.06.14 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle*
11.07.14 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme*
11.08.14 – Toronto, ON – The Great Hall*
11.09.14 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rossa**
11.11.14 – Northampton, MA – The Parlor Room*
11.12.14 – Allston, MA – Great Scott**
11.14.14 – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade**
11.15.14 – Philadelphia, PA – Milkboy**
11.16.14 – Washington, DC – Rock and Roll Hotel**
11.18.14 – Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle**
11.19.14 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In**
11.20.14 – St. Louis, MO – Off Broadway**
11.21.14 – Kansas City, MO – Record Bar**
11.23.14 – Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge*
11.24.14 – Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
11.25.14 – Boise, ID – Neurolux
12.02.14 – Arcata, CA – Humboldt Brews
12.03.14 – Felton, CA – Don Quixote’s International Music Hall
12.04.14 – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
12.05.14 – Los Angeles, CA – Satellite Club
12.06.14 – Santa Barbara, CA – Velvet Jones
12.09.14 – Eugene, OR – Cosmic Pizza
12.10.14 – Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
12.11.14 – Bellingham, WA – The Wild Buffalo
12.12.14 – Vancouver, BC – Media Club
12.13.14 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
* with Crooked Fingers
** with Crooked Fingers & And The Kids
Jennie Fields is the author of The Age of Desire, a novel that imagines the details of the affair between Pulitzer-prize winning author Edith Wharton and journalist Morton Fullerton when Edith was 45 years old. The affair took place mostly in Paris. It ultimately affected Edith’s relationship with her husband Teddy Wharton and her best friend and literary secretary Anna Bahlmann. The Age of Desire is told through Edith’s and Anna’s eyes.
Fields received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of three other novels, Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and The Middle Ages. An Illinois native, she spent many years as an advertising creative director in New York and currently lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. Jennie spoke with me by phone last week. Read more information on her website.
Amy Steele: When did you first become interested in Edith Wharton?
Jennie Fields: I was probably in my early 20s when I first discovered her and the minute I did, I felt this tremendous kinship with her. Her books thrilled me and I never tire of reading them and rereading them. I discover something new. There’s always something new. Now you can get e-books that haven’t been in print for years through the Guttenberg Project. I never ever run out of new things to learn from her work.
Amy Steele: Your agent gave you this idea for this novel when you were in Paris.
Jennie Fields: It’s all true. It’s one of those aha moments.
Amy Steele:She suggested you write about your favorite author Edith Wharton but how did you decide what to write about?
Jennie Fields: I knew only vaguely about her life at that point. I knew she’d had an affair. I immediately got every book I could find about her—there were a number of biographies. I just started reading everything. I narrowed down a part of her life. I clearly wanted to write about her relationship with Fullerton because not only were the letters available but her love diary was available. There was one part of her life where she wrote a diary on a daily basis where you could really get a sense of what she was going through.
Then I had a sense that you needed to see her from the outside as well. I decided I wanted a secondary character. I identified Anna Bahlmann and no one had really written anything about her. She clearly was important to Edith. She was with her for years on and off. It was serendipity that her letter came up for auction. I went to my computer and put in Anna Bahlmann and that week at Christie’s, letters that had been in an attic for over 100 years, that nobody had read from Edith to Anna, were going to auction. What a thrill. I ran over to Christie’s. They let me look at the letters. Everything I’d surmised about the relationship was true. It gave me insight into how Anna fit into Edith’s life. I loved that there was a counter-relationship not just with Morton (Fullerton) but with someone who loved Edith more than Morton ever did.
Edith couldn’t have been an easy person to live with. By many accounts Edith was very imperious and difficult. She was up against a world where women didn’t succeed and she was determined to succeed. Anna was a good way to look at that.
Amy Steele: I was confused with the finances in the novel. Edith married Teddy for money at the beginning but then he stole from her trust fund later on.
Jennie Fields: The majority of the money that built the Mount and that Teddy stole from was money from her books. She was tremendously successful with her books. People don’t really recognize how successful she was. Really stunningly successful. She had way more money than him. [Teddy] was never a wealthy man; he was just an appropriate man.
Amy Steele: That’s too bad because she should have married Walter Berry.
Jennie Fields: She really should have married Walter. And when you read the House of Mirth you know that Selden is based on Walter. He’s just a penniless lawyer. He clearly loved her but didn’t declare himself and he wasn’t wealthy enough. And when he was, she was married to Teddy Wharton.
Amy Steele: She did divorce Teddy.
Jennie Fields: She finally divorced Teddy, in 1911 or 1912, at Walter’s behest because he was so dangerous.
Amy Steele: Sounded like a manic-depressive with no treatment.
Jennie Fields: They said he had gout in the head. And hot springs was all they could recommend.
Amy Steele:Amy: So I’ve read A Backward Glance but no biographies on Edith Wharton.
Jennie Fields: What’s interesting about A Backward Glance is it’s how Edith wants others to view her. She cut out Anna. She said she taught herself everything and no one encouraged her to read. Now we know from these letters that Anna saved that Anna encouraged her to read all the time. Even her parents were much more encouraging of her as a writer than she ever let on. She wanted people to believe she was born from her own power and that nobody encouraged her. It really wasn’t true.
Amy Steele: What do you really like about Edith Wharton?
Jennie Fields: The thing that draws me to her is that she always writes about people who are caught in the net of society’s expectations. They fight against that and often they don’t win.
A good example of that is Lily Barth [The House of Mirth]. One of the reasons why that book is so beautiful is that the tragedy of it is it’s her better nature that kills her. If she was a better person she would have gone ahead and married someone wealthier. She was too bright and too good to marry these wretched people.
And Newland Archer in Age of Innocence. He is told he is supposed to marry May and stay with May and he falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska. It’s not what he’s slated to do. But he can’t fight society. He’s exhausted and can’t fight society.
But Edith herself was told she couldn’t do what she wanted to do and she did it anyway. The only thing she never succeeded at was love until she was 45 years old. Of course how well did she succeed but at least she found passion.
Amy Steele: Do you think Edith was that insecure in her relationship with Morton Fullerton? It was so uncomfortable reading some of it.
Jennie Fields: Those were her real letters and if you read the diary and the letters just on their own you will find how she was tremendously insecure and she really abased herself in front of this man who was not worthy of her. It’s painful to read but it’s the truth. There were moments when it was hard to write that book because I had to make Edith less heroic. She also didn’t sleep with him for a very long time. Probably longer than I’d like to go with fictionally but I had to go with the truth.
A: She wrote such strong female characters. Vulnerable but strong.
Jennie Fields: It’s true. Her mother never made her feel she was attractive in any way which I think made her prey to his interest in her. She was extremely girlish in her figure. Had gorgeous hair and had tremendous bearing. She held her back straight, her neck long. And she was tall for that era.
Amy Steele: what do you think attracted her to Morton?
Jennie Fields: He was extremely charming, very intelligent and very attractive. He had lovers of both sexes who could hardly say goodbye to him and he kept the letters to prove it. He must have been incredibly charming. She’d never had anybody pursue her like that before. She was pretty intimidating as a woman. A lot of men were not attracted to a very intelligent woman. He was attracted to her, he wanted her. He paid attention to her. And that was pretty heady stuff to her.
Amy Steele: What do you think Morton saw in her?
Jennie Fields: She was older, successful. He was drawn to success, fortune, fame. He saw her as a mark.
Amy Steele: Why hasn’t much been written about Anna (Bahlmann) up until now?
Jennie Fields: Anna said in a letter to her friends and to her family that all she wanted in her life was to make Edith’s life easier. I started to wonder why Edith would say in one summer ‘I can’t function without Anna. Where is Anna?’ and then the following summer she sent her away and then she sent her away again. I had to make my own conjectures.
Amy Steele: How fun is it to do that?
Jennie Fields: Well it makes a whole cloth for those who want to read it. So I really enjoy that but I want to tread lightly and carefully because I don’t want to misinterpret things. I wish the whole story were there and I could tell it exactly as it was but I can’t. I have to create scenes that make you understand why something may have happened.
Amy Steele: What was your greatest challenge in writing this novel?
Jennie Fields: Trying to tell a story that was as close to history as possible but trying to make you feel it. Sometimes I had to create my own answers and had to make sure it was credible. It’s so telling that she could be so powerful in the world but in the face of love she was really cut down.
Amy Steele: From the novel it sounds like she left The Mount and became an ex-pat and wanted to live in Paris.
Jennie Fields: That’s what happened. They built The Mount and they ended up moving to the suburbs of Paris and she won the French Legion of Honor for what she did during WWI and was buried in Versailles. She spent the rest of her life in Paris. I think she believed that American life was stifling and so prescribed that there was no room for her especially after she divorced Teddy. She was afraid to go back to America. By the 20s things have changes tremendously and she went to Yale University to get an award and it was her last trip to America. She just thought it was provincial.
Amy Steele: How was she able to write about New York society so well?
Jennie Fields: In The Age of Innocence she writes about society in the 1870s so it’s the past. She asked her friends what was going on. But a lot of her later stuff she’s conjecturing and that might be why it’s not as popular because it’s probably not as accurate.
Jaden Terrell wrote A Cup Full of Midnight, a mystery/thriller set in Nashville, Tenn and the second mystery focused on PI Jared McKean. When McKean starts working a case involving vampires and the occult it strikes close to home. His teenage nephew had been involved with the older victim. My review here.
In addition, Terrell contributes to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Jaden answered some questions via email.
Amy Steele: What appeals to you most about writing mysteries?
Jaden Terrell: I think we often write about things that frighten us or things we don’t understand. In real life, justice isn’t always served. Criminals are released on technicalities. Crimes can go unsolved, and even when they are solved, we’re left wondering why they happened. Mysteries explore both the motivations behind criminal acts and the effects of crimes on the victims and their loved ones. In the conflict between good and evil, good ultimately wins, though often at great cost. It’s reassuring to think there are strong, brave people standing between evil and the rest of us. Writing about Jared, the hero of my private detective series, reminds me that those people exist.
Amy Steele: How difficult is it to come up with a new storyline?
Jaden Terrell: It’s very easy to come up with new ideas. They’re everywhere. But developing those ideas into full-blown story-lines is harder. Plotting doesn’t come naturally to me, so going from the seed of the idea to the fully realized story takes a lot of work.
Amy Steele: Do you base your stories on anything you’ve seen or heard in the news?
Jaden Terrell: It would be more accurate to say they’re “inspired by” rather than “based on” actual events. My books incorporate elements of news stories, but the real-life incident is more of a jumping-off point or something that provides texture. In A Cup Full of Midnight, the second book in the series, I drew from several incidents in which young adults using vampire personae committed murder, but beyond the initial idea, there’s little correlation between the events in the book and the details of the original cases. The third book, which is in progress, explores human trafficking, and the fourth involves the practice of soring in the Tennessee Walking Horse Industry (soring is the use of pain to give a horse an exaggerated gait). Both issues have been in the news, but the plot is independent of any one case.
Amy Steele: Have you developed a working relationship with the Nashville police or with any private investigators so that you can bounce ideas off them?
Jaden Terrell: I attended Citizen Academies for the FBI, TBI, and Metro Nashville Police, which gave me some great contacts in all those agencies. I’m also friends with a former private detective, and I took a firearms course from a firearms instructor for Metro’s police department. Both have been extremely generous with their time and knowledge. When I was researching A Cup Full of Midnight, I took a medical examiner to lunch and interviewed him about what an autopsy would reveal about a murder described early in the book, and later, I met with a homicide detective to see what the on-site investigation would have been like.
Amy Steele: How do you describe the death scenes so vividly? Have you been to some crime scenes?
Jaden Terrell: Thank you for saying they’re vivid. I haven’t been to a crime scene, but I’ve seen a number of mock crime scenes staged by the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation), and I’ve read a lot about crime scenes and crime scene investigation. When possible, I’ve looked up photographs or interviewed professionals. I think one thing that makes a scene like this seem authentic is the reactions of other characters. For those, I relied on interviews with investigators and observations of how we behave when people we care about are sick, injured, or have passed away.
Amy Steele: How important is a title to a mystery?
Jaden Terrell: I think the title is very important. If a reader already knows and loves your work, they may pick it up regardless, but for a lesser-known writer, it’s often the title that first catches a reader’s attention. Since most print books are shelved with the spine out, the title is often the only thing a reader sees. If it’s catchy or thought-provoking, there’s a better chance a browser will pause to take a look. With e-books, it’s a little different, in that you see the whole cover and not just the spine, but since they’re usually just thumbnails, the effect is similar. Of course, you can’t always control your title. Publishers often change writers’ titles, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
Amy Steele: Have you always been a fan of mysteries?
Jaden Terrell: I’ve always been an eclectic reader. Mystery, fantasy, thriller, western, horror, literary…I’ve never been much for romance, but everything else has always been fair game.
Amy Steele: Who are some mystery authors past and/or current who you admire?
Jaden Terrell: Timothy Hallinan, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, John Sandford, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Kellerman.
Amy Steele: You belong to several mystery and writing organizations, how do these help you in your writing?
Jaden Terrell: I’ve met so many exceptional writers through these organizations (and through my work with the Killer Nashville conference). We give each other support and encouragement, and I learn more about the writing craft by reading their books. I try to open doors for those whose work I admire, and those who have read and like my work do the same for me, so we end up reaching more readers than any one of us alone could do. So I would say both my writing and my writing career benefit from being a part of writing and mystery organizations like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
Amy Steele: Where did the idea for A Cup Full of Midnight come from?
Jaden Terrell: In the first book, Jared’s nephew, Josh, runs away from home and becomes involved with a dangerous fringe of the Goth subculture. Much of what happens to him occurs offstage, but there’s an indication that he’s become involved with an older man, Razor, who calls himself the Vampire Prince of Nashville. He was a Machiavellian character, and I wanted to explore both his ability to manipulate others and the consequences of his behavior. I also wanted to look at the difference between role players (since I’ve been one for years) and people who are not playing but rather living their personas. One day, I read a quote by Wayne Dyer describing God as a vast ocean of love and goodness; no matter how much you scooped out, the ocean itself was never diminished. I had the thought that evil was no different, and got an image of Razor standing beside a sea of darkness and dipping in a chalice to scoop out a cup full of that blackness. I knew then that Razor’s dance with the devil would end in his death and that Jared’s attempts to solve Razor’s murder would unveil layer after layer of machinations and lead him and Josh into danger.
Amy: What type of research went into this book?
Jaden Terrell: I did quite a bit of reading, both online and in books, about the “real” vampire culture, including blogs by people who believe themselves to be vampires. I knew a lot already about roleplaying and role players, so I didn’t have to do much in that area. In terms of Jared’s investigation, much of what I learned from my general research came into play (though I made a rookie mistake with one of the firearms—I changed Jared’s handgun from a Glock to a Taurus and back again, and when I changed back to the Glock, I forgot to remove the safety). One of the challenges in writing a PI novel is keeping the police on the sidelines without making them seem incompetent. I spoke to several police officers about ways to achieve that.
Amy: Why did you want to write about vampires and the occult?
Jaden Terrell: I didn’t think of it that way. I started with the idea that Josh was into the Goth subculture but involved with someone much darker. The vampire subculture is the darker end of that spectrum, so it seemed like a natural fit. Because I had played the vampire role-playing game, I was both interested and appalled by the real-life murder cases in which vampire wannabes committed murder. How do you cross that line from pretending to be a supernatural monster to becoming a real one? In the book, the Storyteller in the game, Chuck, describes players whose characters are “sharks in people suits.” My friends and I always played “superheroes with fangs,” the whole point of which was creating characters who resisted the monster inside. Why would someone deliberately embrace it? And what would make a group of seemingly normal teenagers allow themselves to be drawn into such a dark and elaborate web?
Amy Steele: Let’s talk about your main character, the P.I. Jared McKean. Why did you decide to write a man and from a man’s perspective instead of a woman? How did you come up with this character? He’s strong but very sensitive as he has a special needs child and his best friend has AIDS. What made you add those additional characteristics?
Jaden Terrell: I was trying to write about a woman, and it wasn’t working. She was a stereotypical feisty female PI, and no matter what I did, I kept coming up with bad Kinsey Milhone knock-offs. I always ended up making her so different from me that I couldn’t identify with her or so similar to me that she refused to take any risks (“No, seriously, I’ll stay here and lock the doors and call 911. YOU sneak into the basement and take on the bad guys.”). I kept getting the image of this tall, handsome man in jeans and a leather bomber jacket leaning on a whitewashed wooden fence in front of a horse pasture. “I’m your guy,” he’d say, and I’d say, “No you’re not. I’m writing about this feisty female detective.” Eventually, I sat back and said, “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.” I wanted him to be very strong, but also to have a depth of compassion. Because I had taught special education for twelve years, I gave him a son, Paul, with Down syndrome, and because I had lost a close friend to AIDS, I thought it would be interesting to explore a lifelong friendship between a straight, tough-guy, former cop and a gay man with AIDS. Both these relationships soften Jared and—I hope—give him depth and dimension.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about Jared?
Jaden Terrell: That’s a hard question! I love his loyalty, the way he never gives up on anyone he loves. His horse is almost as old as he is. His dog is ancient and arthritic. He’s still in love with his ex-wife. His best friend is gay and may be dying. He finds a way to make relationships work, even when it’s hard, even when making them work means redefining them. He’s flawed, but he tries to do the right thing.
Amy Steele: What is your favorite aspect of A Cup Full of Midnight?
Jaden Terrell: Some of the characters have very complex motivations. They have conflicting emotions, conflicting desires. Depicting that complexity was both challenging and rewarding.
Amy Steele: Why do you write?
Jaden Terrell: The usual answer to that question is, “Because I can’t NOT write,” but that’s not the whole story. If I stopped writing, I would still enjoy watching the movies in my mind. I would still be writing in my head. Sometimes it’s hard to make yourself move past that stage and actually write the story. But the movie in your mind is never really complete and therefore, enjoyable as it is, is never totally satisfying. It’s not until it’s written down that you see its real potential. Then, as you edit and revise, the layers and subtexts reveal themselves and the story becomes so much more than it was when you were only imagining it. There’s nothing like reading a scene and realizing that, while it seems familiar, there’s also something alien about it. It’s almost like it was written by someone else, and by Jove, it works.
Amy Steele: I’m fascinated that you’re a writer and a certified horse massage therapist. When and why did you become one?
Jaden Terrell: I’ve always loved horses and, at the same time, been a little afraid of them. I’m uncomfortable with riding, partly because of the danger and partly because I’m overweight and it seems unfair to the horse. But I love to brush and pet them. I love their company. I love the way they smell. When I first read about equine sports massage and realized I could take a course in it, it seemed like the perfect way to enjoy the company of horses without having to get off the ground. I’ve never done it professionally, but my palomino quarter horse, like Jared’s, is in his 30s, and massage is a gift I can give him in return for all the years he gave me and his previous owners.
Amy Steele: What’s the best advice someone’s giving you about writing?
Jaden Terrell: This came from my friend and fellow writer, Philip Cioffari, who wrote Catholic Boys and Jesusville. He said, “Be ruthless with your writing time. Protect it with your life.” I have trouble saying no to other obligations, so I have this posted in my calendar, on the notepad on my phone, and everywhere I write.
One of my favorite albums this year is definitely Cardiology by Sara Jackson-Holman. It’s theatrical, innovative and intricately creative. Jackson-Holman’s distinctive voice propels the emotionality in each song. She’s a classically trained pianist from Portland, Ore. I recently interviewed her via email.
Amy Steele: Your songs are so dramatic and have so many layers to them. How do you develop a song?
Sara Jackson-Holman: It depends. Sometimes, it starts with a beat, sometimes with a melody, sometimes with a piano pattern. I keep adding things until I feel that it is conveying the right emotion–which is when I feel like the song is complete.
Amy Steele: This entire album is all about the heart—it’s basically a theme-based album? How did you
come up with this idea?
Sara Jackson-Holman: The process was very organic. I was writing songs in these separate little moments of my life throughout the course of a year, and when I compiled them to one list, they created a sort of journey through my emotional experiences.
Amy Steele: You started playing classical piano at a young age. What do you like about classical music?
Sara Jackson-Holman: Its diversity, its complexity. Its sense of melody, use of countermelodies. I love the drama, and the universality of it. It’s foundational.
Amy Steele: How did studying piano and writing in college affect your songwriting?
Sara Jackson-Holman: I think songwriting became a sort of escape, really. At that point in my life, I was really done with structure and so songwriting allowed me to do something that was completely my own, and to be creative on my own terms. To experience music this way was freeing. The performance aspect was also drastically different. Performing classically, the room is silent, the applause polite, and there aren’t many allowances for mistakes– there is this sense of your performance and interpretation of a piece constantly being compared to others. It’s a very rigid environment, whereas performing pop music is more relaxed. People smile at you when you perform, they are enthusiastic. I love that.
Amy Steele: Is it a difficult transition [from classical music to alternative or pop music]?
Sara Jackson-Holman: Not really– if anything, the structure of classical music has been really helpful to me in my songwriting. It’s been this process of meshing what I know with what I love listening to (dark pop/hip hop). Incorporating classical music in a modern and relevant way is fun for me.
Amy Steele: You have unusual vocals. How did you learn how to sing and/or gain the confidence to sing?
Sara Jackson-Holman: I didn’t actually sing for a long time. After being too shy to sing in my younger years, I was extremely involved in my high school’s choir, but not really as a soloist. I think when I first started writing songs, I felt that I could express myself in a unique way. The support I received from family and friends as I ventured into songwriting gave me the confidence I needed to really pursue music. I’m grateful for that support, I’m very fortunate.
Amy Steele: What inspires you to make music?
Sara Jackson-Holman: Aside from writing music to work through my feelings, I write music to communicate with people. I’m shy, I don’t care for superficialities, but if I can connect with someone in a significant way, or write a song that resonates with someone, that they can claim as their own, I feel I’ve been successful.
There is the sweetest couple who come to many of my shows, and they say “their song” is “When You Dream” off my first album. Which is definitely inspiring.
Amy Steele: Tell me about writing the songs:
“Can’t Take My Love”
Sara Jackson-Holman: I wrote this song in January, about a week after my grandfather passed away. It was written as a way to process my grief– this was the first of a few songs that I wrote (followed by Come By Fire, Freight Train, then For Albert), and is definitely the darkest of them. I honestly couldn’t really identify what I was feeling at the time, except through music.
“My Biggest Mistake”
Sara Jackson-Holman: This was actually the first song I wrote on Cardiology. It’s about the stages you go through (or at least, that I go through) after a break up– sadness, wondering if you’ve just wasted a part of your life, wanting to move on.
Sara Jackson-Holman: This song takes me to July– 90 degrees, blue skies, the languid feeling of summer. I felt very relaxed and content while writing this song.
“To Be Bright”
Sara Jackson-Holman: This song took me the longest of any of my songs. I think the garageband version of the song had something like 45 tracks. I wanted to write a heavy pop song with orchestral elements, and To Be Bright was the result.
Amy Steele: What has been your favorite part of your music journey so far?
Sara Jackson-Holman: I’ve loved everything. I love the song-writing process, I love the recording process, I love performing. During each of these separate processes, I always say, “this is my favorite part, this is why I’m a musician”. So it’s hard for me to choose a favorite– perhaps performing because of the people, I love singing to people.
Amy Steele: Thank you Sara! See you on twitter. . .
Sara Jackson-Holman: Thanks Amy!
Sara Jackson-Holman website
purchase at Amazon: Cardiology
37-year-old Alex Wong started to play piano as a preschooler. He studied classical music at college. After being in several bands, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter/producer decided to form this solo-fronted project called A City on a Lake. Eclectic arrangements and instrumentation, particularly percussion, drive the subdued techno beats of A City on a Lake. The self-titled debut released today. I spoke with Alex by phone last week.
Amy Steele: It sounds like you’ve always been involved in music or wanted to be part of music in some way?
Alex Wong: I think I always wanted to be part of music but I thought it would be in a more orchestral way. I never thought I’d be singing and writing songs. I didn’t really start writing music until I was about 25.
Amy Steele: How does the classical music influence your writing today?
Alex Wong: Instrumentation-wise, the multi-tasking of the live show I’m playing lots of things and switching between instruments. It’s very textural.
Amy Steele: How is the live show different from the album?
Alex Wong: The live show is played as a trio. The record has a lot of instrumentation and we’re not trying to recreate one or the other. I want the songs to work great live and I want them to work great on the record.
Amy Steele: How did you move away from classical music to playing more alternative music?
Alex Wong: There’s nothing like playing in a symphony with all those people where there’s all that power. And creating all that great music. I couldn’t control the song and the arrangement. It just made a lot more sense to me to be in a band. I had a lot more freedom creatively.
Amy Steele: Where are you from and how did you end up in Brooklyn?
Alex Wong: I grew up in Northern California. Then I lived in L.A. for a little while. Then I moved to Brooklyn specifically for the music. I was working with somebody. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be pushed more. I wanted to be intimidated more. I really felt that I was being pushed the way I needed to be pushed at the time. It made me grown a lot personally and musically.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to do this solo project—A City on A Lake?
Alex Wong: It was the natural next step for me. I had done two or three other projects that were co- or duo-projects. I love collaborating. I love feeding off another person. But I was also frustrated that there was nothing that I wanted to move in the direction that I wanted. At that time I wasn’t ready to do a solo project on my own.
Amy Steele: How is it different from your other projects?
Alex Wong: Musically I don’t think it’s drastically different. I think it’s just an evolution. It was a way of expressing myself that became more involved.
Amy Steele: As a singer, you have a very soothing voice with hopeful vocals.
Alex Wong: I was trying to do something more grown up with this record. I never considered myself a singer. I was always an instrumentalist and it too me a long time to get to the point where I felt comfortable singing leads.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about the album?
Alex Wong: I feel like I got what I wanted and I feel it’s something I can stand by.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Alex Wong: For me, all the elements of the song are working together– the instrumentation as well as the melody and the mood are all part of songwriting. It’s all part of the emotional aspect of the song. It’s just something that makes you feel a strong emotion that makes a good song.
July 18 NEW YORK, NY Rockwood Music Hall
July 19 BOSTON, MA Club Passim
purchase at Amazon: A City On A Lake