Posts Tagged AMY STEELE interview
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
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is a mesmerizing novel where politics, religion and technology collide in a complex setting. A 23-year-old Arab-Indian hacker in a Middle Eastern emirate simultaneously finds his computer breached by the state’s security force and jilted by his aristocratic lover. A jinn (or genie) and his kind, intelligent neighbor Dina help Alif find out how and why this happened to him. His problems deepen while he learns eye-opening information that will change his future. Alif the Unseen is a beguiling page-turner.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Publisher: Grove Press (July 2012). Fiction. Hardcover. 440 pages. ISBN: 978-0082120205.
A graphic novelist and author of the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam, Alif the Unseen is G. Willow Wilson’s first novel. She studied history at Boston University then taught at an English language school in Cairo for several years at the request of a retiring professor. I spoke with my fellow BU alumna by phone recently.
Amy Steele: Did you convert to Islam when you were in Egypt?
G. Willow Wilson: I had thought about converting [well before going to Egypt] but then 9/11 happened and I couldn’t seriously convert when these people had done this to my country in the name of religion. It took me several more years of research and study to reassure myself that they had acted in a way that Islam would consider abominable and that Islam rejected. I thought I could keep it a secret. But I didn’t know how I was going to get through 30 days of fasting every year without anybody finding out.
Amy Steele: Religion is a private thing but then there are so many facets of it that are impossible to keep private.
G. Willow Wilson: Especially in the Middle East, religion is not private in the way we think of it in the United States. Here it would be illegal to ask someone their religion on official documents such as a driver’s license or anything like that. But in the Middle East your religion appears on everything. So I was going from a place where it’s mostly private to a place where the state gets involved.
Amy Steele: In your novel, Alif is non-practicing isn’t he?
G. Willow Wilson: At least ambivalent. The Middle East is the birth place of so many world religions that religion becomes intertwined in almost every facet of life. He probably has small bits of the Quran memorized that most people have memorized who are practicing Muslims but he’s very ambivalent about religion. He’s not really practicing.
Amy Steele: I think when Americans and Westerners think of the Middle East you think of religion and the people and the government hand in hand.
G. Willow Wilson: There’s a lot of secularism in the Middle East and I don’t think people realize it. Some people would rather that religion play no part in public life and you see these debates unfold in places like Egypt where there’s a big secularist contingent.
Amy Steele: Alif is bi-racial. Would that be unusual?
G. Willow Wilson: It would be somewhat unusual. The book is set in the Persian Gulf and the Persian Gulf plays host to literally thousands of guest workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. The guest workers actually outnumber the native-born Persian Gulfers and it’s created a very interesting social dynamic. For Alif, I imagined if a wealthier businessman had a secret or unsanctioned marriage with a woman who was a guest worker from the Indian subcontinent. I think that sort of marriage is still pretty unusual. People do see those two groups as being very separate.
In this case, I wanted him to be both an insider and an outsider. It seemed like an interesting way to have it play out.
Amy Steele: How did you get the idea to write Alif the Unseen?
G. Willow Wilson: It came to me in certain parts. The big driving force for me was the fact that there was so much interesting stuff going on in the social media world in the Middle East among activists online in how they were using the internet to get around censorship in print media. The internet was really allowing different factions of people who normally had no reason or method to talk to each other [secularists, traditionalists, feminists] to share a common platform and communicate with each other.
It was a very exciting thing for me to see it happening because instead of what you’d expect to happen which is that they were all at each other’s throats because they had different beliefs, they were struggling to find common ground because they had common enemies in these horrible, entrenched, dictatorial leaders in places like Egypt who’d been in power for 30 plus years.
It was at the time a very hard sell in the United States. People were very dismissive of social media. I could see the potential of what was happening in the Middle East and I wanted a way to highlight that. And that formed the basis for Alif the Unseen.
Amy Steele: When you say that this novel takes place in an undisclosed Gulf emirate, what type of government is in place? A dictatorial regime like Egypt?
G. Willow Wilson: It’s vague. There’s a point in the book when someone says he can’t believe the government has this sophisticated digital surveillance but no mail service. That is something I pulled straight from Egypt under Mubarak where if you were a blogger and talking about politics, eventually state security would show up at your door and that would be the last that people heard of you. But try to get a letter delivered. I didn’t want to set it in a specific country or tie it to a specific country so I set it in a fictional country.
Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the Arab hierarchy among the various countries—the Gulf states being at the top– that you describe in the novel?
G. Willow Wilson: They certainly see themselves that way. There seems to be a perception among certain people—I don’t want to paint too broad a brush—who think that they have the oil, they have the money, so that people that show up to work in the Gulf are there to serve them. It’s a very feudal mentality where you’ve got the Lords and the Ladies on the top and the serfs on the bottom. Poorer countries, like Egypt and Libya, aren’t seen as existing at the level of the wealthier nations along the Gulf. It makes for an interesting dynamic and it’s the cause for a lot of frustration for a lot of people who work in the gulf.
Amy Steele: In the novel, you also speak of old money, new money and no money. That there is no middle class. Immigrants send money home as they do in the United States too.
G. Willow Wilson: It’s true. It’s really a commentary for globalization.
Amy Steele: How much did you know about the grey hat world before writing this?
G. Willow Wilson: Very little. I’m a very picky end-user of technology. I’m one of these people who bugs my tech friends a lot for advice and I also like to know what makes [computers/technology] work. I picked their brains about Alif. I knew I’d have to break some rules in the world of fiction but I did go in with some basic understanding of computer culture.
Amy Steele: How did the fantasy aspect, the jinn and Vikram come in?
G. Willow Wilson: I wanted to write about how we think about the unseen whether it’s the unseen world of computers and technology and things we don’t understand. Or if it’s the unseen world of spirits and things we don’t talk about. The parallel between the unseen world of technology and the unseen world of spirituality provided some really interesting fodder for storytelling.
Amy Steele: Did you influence the character “the convert”?
G. Willow Wilson: She’s not me. As a white Western writer writing a character in the Middle East and thinking of all the foibles and the shortcomings and the heroism, it behooves me to turn around and be able to reflect myself as well. The convert is the kind of person I try not to be in many ways. She’s very academic, very rigid and she’s very earnest but it kind of gets in her way. She’s living in this country so very different from her own and she’s making a lot of mistakes and that’s something I can relate to. She’s my way of having a sense of humor as an outsider about these issues.
Amy Steele: What do you like about Alif, Dina and Vikram?
G. Willow Wilson: Writing an ensemble cast, I made sure each character had its own arc and went through its own issues that pertained to that character. In a way it was a lot like writing comics, which I do a lot of, it was a lot of fun for me. You’re able to do that, have such a wide range of characters and have them interact in a dynamic way. I don’t really have a particular character who’s a favorite.
Amy Steele: What is a particular characteristic about them that you like?
G. Willow Wilson: I thought Dina would be the most difficult character to write but she ended up coming really naturally. I liked her stubbornness. For Alif, I like his impulsiveness. I like that he grows up. He’s transformed by his experiences. Vikram was the most fun to write because he’s a genie. He’s not bound by our rules and moralities. It gives him an opportunity to tell the truth. I tried to make them all true to themselves.
Amy Steele: What’s your favorite aspect of the novel?
It was really fun writing the car chase. As writers of literature we’re supposed to take ourselves so seriously. Putting characters in a car and in a car chase across the desert was the most fun thing to write.
Friday, July 13, 2012 – Saturday, July 14, 2012
Comic-Con, San Diego, CA
Monday, July 16, 2012
Busboys and Poets
1025 5th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
37 Main Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Tattered Cover Book Store
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Friday, July 20, 2012
1107 Pearl Street
Boulder, Colorado 80302
Skyline Pigeons is one of my favorite new bands. Centered on intelligent, strong and talented sisters Roxanne and Caroline Teti, Skyline Pigeons erupts with an edgy emotionalism and rich tapestry of melodies and instrumentation. The band’s debut album House of Mysteries came out earlier this month. I recently interviewed Roxanne via email.
Amy Steele: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I love Skyline Pigeons. The breathy, sultry vocals mixed and darker melodies on some songs and then more emotional, harder vocalizations with churning, stronger chords on others is fantastic. It’s layered, intense and wonderful.
Roxanne Teti: Thanks for your kind words and interest. It means a lot to us.
Amy Steele: When did you first become interested in music and when did you decide to form a band and really pursue writing and recording music?
Roxanne Teti: We are classically trained musicians and so we’ve been playing music since we were five years old. As we approached teenage adolescence we started writing songs together and really exploring original creativity. I think it happened about four years ago, while I (Roxanne) was a freshman in college and Caroline was a freshman in high school when we really started to take our musical and lyrical collaboration seriously. I think the desire for this was feeling the need to want to communicate our personal emotions and concerns about society through song and then finally gathering the courage to do it.
Amy Steele: How long have you been in music? Did you study music or learn on your own?
Roxanne Teti: Caroline has played piano since she was five years old and continues to teach herself new additions to the instrument by learning organ, analog synthesizers, and different electronic keyboards. She also is teaching herself how to play guitar now and is really into slide guitar and alternate tunings. Growing up I began with piano but then switched to flute. I played flute for about 13 years. About five years ago I picked up the guitar and the harmonica, and taught myself how to play. My main inspirations to learn guitar were Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ani Difranco, PJ Harvey, and Johnny Cash.
Amy Steele: So sorry to hear about the fire and destruction of your house. Had you already started writing songs or was that even an impetus to writing these songs?
Roxanne Teti: We were always writing songs before the fire and so the fire acted as sort of catalyst in really forcing us to sit down and record a full record. Yes, many of these songs are directly inspired by the traumatic experience, but songwriting was our rock before and especially during the fire. It became the one thing in our lives (at that moment) that didn’t “change.” In effect, it became a part of our lives we place more value on.
Amy Steele: What is your writing process?
Roxanne Teti: Caroline and I write songs together as a collaborative unit. We usually guide each other in nailing a melody or following a song’s arrangement to finish. We usually write together or sometimes work on songs individually and then show them to each other and then continue writing more. Most of the time we are pretty open to each other’s ideas but when things are super personal, it’s kind of like okay, we won’t touch it.
Amy Steele: Where do song ideas come from?
Roxanne Teti: We draw from personal inspiration in our romantic lives as well as social issues that involve realities around us. I studied sociology and so I’m also thinking about other people’s realities as well as my own and often look for inspiration in dire places like the news or just by looking out my window. Most of the time, ideas take flight from a current emotion or following a moment to where it satisfies. Honesty is also a big part of inspiration—as recognizing truth and communicating that truth is difficult to do but incredibly gratifying to sing about if done appropriately and without regret.
Amy Steele: As sisters what are the challenges of working together?
Roxanne Teti: We are siblings and so we definitely know how to push each other’s buttons if we want to. But importantly we want to write good music together and have fun doing it and so confrontation like that rarely comes up. I think some of the challenges can come up in debating over a song and its stylistic direction but what is so great about being sisters is we usually have similar taste on issues but when differences of opinion do come up the differences add more dimension and complexity to the tune.
Amy Steele: How do you support one another?
Roxanne Teti: We always have each other’s back and always put our relationship in front of the music. In that sense we keep each other calm, focused, and happy. We try to provide a calm setting emotionally for whenever life gets stressful. Caroline and I are both finishing up college right now. Caroline is an undergraduate majoring in classics at UCLA and I’m a graduate student in film school at USC and so we try to accommodate each other’s schedules and create less stress for when we have to tour or record a song.
Amy Steele: Why do you think there still are not that many female-fronted bands or all-female bands?
Roxanne Teti: I think more women at a younger age need to be encouraged to follow their musical ambitions and have the confidence to be proud of their abilities. I think insecurities for female musicians are often formed in adolescence. Like the old – “girls can’t play guitar” or “it’s just a girl band.” Many women are intimidated and unfortunately end up quitting. I think the distinction between genre and gender gets in the way of women just being musicians instead of female vocalists or girls who are in a ‘chick band.’
Amy Steele: One hears many eclectic sounds and emotional range in your beautiful music. What influences you?
Roxanne Teti: We are very much influenced by memories and the recognition of capturing a moment through song. We tend to write most freely when we let the creative juices flow like a stream of consciousness without placing any boundaries on the song’s structure or lyrical content. We like recording these processes and labeling them with dates and times just as one would do with items of nostalgia. This also helps us try and remember what we’ve written while in a transcendental mindset that lacks hesitation and promotes a “sonic libido” or a notion that feels gratifying to the senses. In terms of style and vibe I feel like we are mostly influenced by the harmonies and melodies of the late 50’s and early 60’s and psychedelic rock and folk music.
We’re inspired by the cultural consciousness and atmospheric projections of Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Elton John, and Leonard Cohen. The way Leonard Cohen grasps and chills an audience with such undying resolution and delivery is so consuming and inspiring. Mazzy Star, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power are more contemporary groups/songwriters we have grown up listening to as budding songwriters and have been influenced by their husky reverb meshed voices, instrumental choices, and simplistic and atmospheric musical arrangements.
Amy Steele: This is hard to do via email but can you tell me how you came up with a few of these songs:
“ The continuous rekindling of a fun but dying past relationship and a standard chord progression in the key of A. We just kept playing around with a sound that felt sexy but also a little edgy.”
“This is our “feel good” anthem. Caroline came up with the verse melody while studying for a geology test. Then she was like “look how fun this is Rox”, I said, “great lets finish the rest of the song, I’ve got these lyrics about embracing one’s identity”. We put two and two together and so came “Get Up”.”
“Lucid was a song Caroline wrote six years ago. When we decided to make the record, we revisited this old gem and really flushed out the arrangement and the lyrics.”
“Take Me Back”
“ We wrote the lyrics to “Take Me Back” within days after our house burned down. Everyone was angry, upset, and not rational. We were sick of the fighting and the mixture of emotions. Then we wrote the music to this song about two years after the fire. We were practicing in a rental home’s pool house and it sort of came out around 3 am.”
Amy Steele: What do you like best about this album?
Roxanne Teti: We like how everyone song is different but is still somehow unified by our sound.
Amy Steele: Why did you name the band Skyline Pigeons?
Roxanne Teti: We are huge Elton John fans and the band name came to us while listening to Elton John’s first record Empty Sky (1969). There was a harpsichord version of the song on the record called Skyline Pigeon. The song is one of Elton and Bernie Taupin’s first really beautiful lyrical and musical collaborations. This collaboration reminded us of the way Caroline and I work together as songwriters and so came the band name—The Skyline Pigeons.
Amy Steele: Thanks! Hope to see you in Boston soon.
purchase at Amazon: House of Mysteries
One of my favorite bands of this year, Carrousel, plays melodic, dreamy and dark music. Inspired by the imagery, sounds and ex-pats of Paris, it’s wonderful. The music will grab you immediately. I spoke with singer/songwriter Joel Piedt from his home in Tallahassee.
There’s something beautiful about honesty.
Amy Steele: I really really like the album. It’s great. I’ve been listening to it for a while. It’s the kind of music I like—melodic and dark.
Joel Piedt: Thank you I appreciate you saying that.
Amy Steele: So how did the band get together?
Joel Piedt: We started accidentally. My friend Brad and I had worked on an album back in the summer of 2007 and it became a solo project. Brad was the engineer. We became really good friends because of that. We always joked how fun it would be if we were in the same city that we start a band one day. I was finishing college at Chattanooga and Brad was transferring to college at FSU [Florida State University]. On a whim I decided to move to Tallahassee. So we spent night and day making a record in the summer of 2009. It was supposed to be a two or three month project but somewhere along the way we got this vision for this album that you now hear. We holed ourselves up in this house for a year and worked really hard on it. It ended up being a two-and-a-half year process.
Amy Steele: Why do you think it was such a slow process?
Joel Piedt: We stumbled onto the sound. We thought we were on to something and that’s how it all went down. Brad actually left the project and I recruited five friends in Tallahassee to play live. So that’s how it’s shaped up to be.
Amy Steele: why did it take two years to put together the songs on the album?
Joel Piedt: I think why it took so long was that around that time as well my standards were really changing. Before I was okay with the idea of just popping something out. Both Brad and I became very professionalistic – we were our own worst critics. I would do a vocal take or whatever it was and Brad would want me to do it again. So it became this challenge with these really high standards. We approached every song under a magnifying glass. We knew we had an idea and we wanted to see it through the very best we could. Some of the songs had aged. Some parts we had to re-do.
Amy Steele: What’s the music scene like in Florida?
Joel Piedt: There’s a very interesting culture in Tallahassee. There’s an interesting arts scene but it’s not as strong as it could be. We have access to FSU which is great. There’s not a huge local band music scene. That discouraged me for a bit but in the end I realize it’s a really great city to do what I do because If I lived in New York on L.A. I’d feel this constant pressure to go out and compete in the music scene and climb up the ladder. I’ve been allowed to relax a little in Tallahassee.
Amy Steele: How do you get the attention that you need? How do you develop a fan base? What have been the challenges?
Joel Piedt: We’ve done everything backwards. We found our sound in the studio and now we’re playing live. We’re facing those challenges now. We’re building our following with online content. We’re just trying to accrue as much ammunition as possible. I don’t want to put anything out unless I’m 100% confident in it.
Amy Steele: With you pulling a James Mercer [The Shins] by recording the album and then bringing musicians in, what’s it like with new people coming in?
Joel Piedt: I like the idea of being a James Mercer and The Shins. There’s a collaborative feel as well for the live setting. I love the idea of the name Carrousel because people are getting on and off. It changes up for different projects. There are different sounds and different interpretations.
Amy Steele: Are you more interested in doing concept albums?
Joel Piedt: Concept albums got kinda worn out in the 70s but I think there’s room for a new kind of concept album. I felt that this album was a short-story or mini-novel. It might not tell a story lyrically, but it does so sonically.
Amy Steele: You have several inspirations for this album—one was a break-up. Do you think there’s a novel way to approach that?
Joel Piedt: The break-up record has become cliché but I did want to approach it the way that I did. It wasn’t contrived. Those were things I truly did feel and the girl it was about Michelle was staying in France for a while so the whole vibe of the album changed. I was listening to French music and French composers. It felt good for me to describe it from that perspective. I feel good about where it landed. It’s true and artistic and the greatest thing artists can do is tell the truth. There’s something beautiful about honesty.
Amy Steele: What inspired you by Ernest Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast? I love that book.
Joel Piedt: Just the vision of Paris in the 20s. It just did something to my imagination. I pictured myself there. I also started going to the symphony at FSU. It all affected me at a deep level.
purchase at Amazon: 27 rue de mi’chelle
Winterpills is a wonderful chamber-pop band from Northampton, Mass. The songs are swirling and melodic. All My Lovely Goners is the band’s fourth full-length release. I recently spoke with singer/songwriter/ guitarist Philip Price.
Amy Steele: You spent two years recording and producing this album in your own studio. Why did it take that long?
Philip Price: We weren’t recording the whole time. We started recording August 2 of last year but it took a long time for the whole thing to come together. It was a very slow gestating project which for me is a better experience. We were just figuring out our pace and a couple of the other ones [albums] we had to push to get them done in the studio. I wish the songs were better put together. I feel like we got it this time.
A year after our last release there was a brief period where the band wasn’t sure what it was going to do. We weren’t going to break up but our energies were going in other directions for a while. I thought it would end up being a solo record. I did pretty elaborate recordings/ demos of the songs. When it was all done, I thought it was another Winterpills album. If I did a solo project I would want it to be a departure, something different.
Amy Steele: When you play a live show, what can someone expect?
Philip Price: it depends on the room. We just play the songs. We sound like the record pretty much. We are touring as a duo a lot these days. Flora [Reed—vocals, keyboards] and I go out. That’s going to sound a lot more stripped down. We’re going to SXSW this year with our guitar player. We did a whole tour last year as a duo and we were pretty happy with how it ended up going.
Amy Steele: You’ve been together as a band for eight years. What makes you work well together?
Philip Price: We came together in 2004. We knew each other and started playing music together in non-ambitious ways. Everyone was doing other things or had other projects. We started playing out mostly regionally before we decided if we were going to record or not.
Amy Steele: When I think of the area you’re in I think of all the colleges around there. Did you all grow up out there [near Northampton/ South Hadley] or go to college out there?
Philip Price: Dennis [Crommett- guitar] went to school out here. I didn’t. I migrated here in the 90s from Vermont. Flora’s family is from here but she didn’t grow up here. We were all well beyond college when we first started playing together. I had a band for nine years before this one called the Maggies. A power pop band along the lines of the Posies or the Lemonheads. I came out of that band in 2002, toured as a solo artist and got very frustrated and lonely. Dennis, Brian [Akey—bassist] and Dave [Hower—drummer] have a band. A much harder rock band. Flora has a solo record. Just a few weeks ago, Dennis, Brian and Dave were Frank Black’s backing band for a show.
Amy Steele: How has the band changed over the years?
Philip Price: We can be a big lush rock band and we can also scale it down really well. Quiet. It’s been a natural progression. We had to be a rock band in addition to being ethereal.
Amy Steele: What makes you work well together?
Philip Price: We’re all friends. We’ve stayed friends. We don’t fight.
Amy Steele: Winterpills has been labeled chamber pop—I’d not heard that before.
Philip Price: I don’t know who coined it but it kinda fits. It’s a rock band but it’s also listening music. You might sit down and listen to it. It’s apropos of a certain type of rock song that might be more arranged and more formal. It’s interesting not to have to say that you’re an indie rock band or an indie folk band, both of which could apply, but I’d rather not use that terminology if possible.
Amy Steele: I’ve just recently heard of you and I feel awful about that.
Philip Price: You’re right there along with most people.
Amy Steele: I really like you guys. I really like this band. How have I not heard of you?
Philip Price: Well it’s a strange time in the music business. I think for a while people didn’t quite know what to do with us. I think every artist would say they’ve had experiences in the industry that have been disheartening. I feel like we’re a very slow-growing fruit tree or something like that. Unlike a lot of rock careers we’re more like a small publishing house.
Amy Steele: What is your songwriting process?
Philip Price: I’m lazy. I’ll wake up with a song in my head or a melody will come to me and then I’ll whip out my recorder and get it down. Eventually I’ll collect a bunch of those. I end up writing an album’s worth of songs per year. It tends to be melody first and then lyrics after. And then the meaning after that, whatever the song means.
Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?
Philip Price: It’s gotta have a great hook lyrically and melodically and they have to make each other happen.
purchase new album: All My Lovely Goners
The stories in Stay Awake are riveting, twisted, macabre, complex and darkly humorous. Previous works by Cleveland-based author Dan Chaon include the novels You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. He teaches writing at Oberlin.
Amy Steele: You started out writing short stories and have also written two novels.
Dan Chaon: It’s what you start out with in college. I was even writing stories when I was a kid. I was reading Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and those old anthologies/ thrillers that were supposed to be edited by Alfred Hitchcock. Stories to Read with the Lights On and things like that.
Amy Steele: What appeals to you about writing short stories?
Dan Chaon: I’m someone who has a lot of ideas. A lot of the ideas aren’t particularly novel-like or something I want to spend an entire 200 or 300 pages exploring. The story gives you this opportunity to play around with a particular idea and get in and get out and I like that.
Amy Steele: What are the challenges in writing a short story?
Dan Chaon: There’s the challenge in compressing some information and figuring out what belongs in the story and what doesn’t . The other issue is how to get a resonance and make a reader care about a character and make them feel something about the character’s state by the end of the story.
Amy Steele: What are the elements of a good short story?
Dan Chaon: I don’t know if you can describe it exactly. I think stories vary so widely. There are great short stories that have a traditional three-act structure and there are great short stores that are just monologues and there are great short stories that are mostly concerned with language. The fact that the form is so flexible is one of the things that makes it so wonderful.
The only thing you can say about what makes a short story great is that it gives you that friction at the end where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Amy Steele: What is the market like for short story vs. novel?
Dan Chaon: What market are we talking about? The market for individual short stories?
Amy Steele: Everyone thinks they can and will write a novel but then some will write a short story.
Dan Chaon: I don’t think there’s the market for short stories that there was during the golden age of magazines. When you had The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Saturday Evening Post. That’s pretty much gone. There’s still a huge number of small literary magazines. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s going on online. Publishers are resistant to short story collections a little bit because they don’t sell as well.
But they still continue to publish quite a few of them so I don’t think it’s impossible. If you’re betting the odds, you’re probably better off writing a novel first. There’s always that story of someone who publishes a short story collection right out of grad school and then works 15 years writing a novel that ends up being a big flop.
Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing about the darker side of people?
Dan Chaon: I’ve always been attracted to the morbid and the scary and to mystery. I’ve been a lover of ghost stories for a long time. I think one of the things this collection reflects is trauma and how people deal with loss. So I think those two things are complementary. Ghosts and horror stories and trauma and loss.
Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the idea for “The Bees”—kind of a paranormal, creepy story?
Dan Chaon: It started about a child with night terrors. And I was thinking a lot about how people change over time or don’t change. I just had this idea about a dead-beat Dad returning after a long time lapsed and having been a changed person. And how and whether that would be forgivable. I’d heard an anecdote about this from a friend. The long absent parent and whether they could be forgiven was on my mind and that’s where the story began to emerge from. I had been asked to write a story for an issue of McSweeney’s that had a supernatural element to it. It all came together in a way that I thought was pleasing.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a story—”Stay Awake”—about a baby with craniopagus parasiticus? What kind of research did you do?
Dan Chaon: I think the core of the story was seeing something on a talk show. I want to say it was Oprah but I don’t remember for sure. Some parents who had a child with this condition. Then I found myself googling some info about that really strange condition and becoming really fascinated by it.
Amy Steele: Do you write story ideas down all the time?
Dan Chaon: Yeah. And I do read a lot of the weirder news stories. The stuff at the bottom of the page that’s more pulpy. I find I get a lot of inspiration out of that.
Amy Steele: “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow”—about teenagers whose baby dies shortly after birth—and “Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well” deal with topics most people want to avoid and with truly unlikable people. What do you enjoy about those stories?
Dan Chaon: In terms of unlikable people, I find them more interesting in some ways. I like people who have the capacity to misbehave and do wrong things because that seems to have more dramatic potential for me. As a reader and as a writer. It’s one of the places that I’m interested in looking at. People who have done something that they regret in one way or another. At least that guy in that one story had a lot of things to regret and that made him a lot of fun to write about. Also he was pretty funny in a lot of ways because he was so angry and jerk-ish.
There is a stage you reach, Deagle thinks, a time somewhere in early middle age, when your past ceases to be about yourself. Your connection to your former life is like a dream or delirium, and that person you were once is merely a fond acquaintance, or a beloved character from a storybook. This is how memory becomes nostalgia.
–”Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well”
Amy Steele: How do you decide whether to tell a story in first-person or third-person?
Dan Chaon: A lot of times it just seems to emerge from the situation. With that voice, that was the driving force behind the story in some ways. That kind of constantly riffing, smart-alec-y voice. I didn’t even know where it was going at first. It was just riffing on all these observations.
It was probably one of those dutiful married person fucks that happened right before they went to sleep or right after they woke in the morning . . .
–“Long Delayed, Always Expected”
Amy Steele: How does writing influence your teaching at Oberlin and how does teaching influence your writing?
Dan Chaon: You get to spend time with people who are interested in the same subjects as you are—exploring language and the process of creating stories. In some ways you’re dealing with the same problems whether you’ve written five books or whether you’re just starting out. What kinds of language are evocative and what kinds aren’t. How do you create a feasible character. All that continues to be a challenge. To be able to talk about it with my students helps me as a writer. I think being a teacher helps me to think about these issues in dynamic ways.
Amy Steele: How does living in Cleveland/ the Midwest affect your writing? Have you always lived in the Midwest?
Dan Chaon: Yes, I’ve always lived in the Midwest. I grew up in Nebraska then I moved to Chicago for college. I went to grad school at Syracuse. So that was my one foray outside the Midwest although Syracuse still feels pretty isolated. Now I’m back in Cleveland. I guess there’s a particular feel of the landscapes in the Midwest that have a particular power that I’m drawn to.
Amy Steele: What about people supposedly being so polite and nice in the Midwest?
Dan Chaon: One of the reasons I may be interested in people’s secrets and the unexplored aspects of people’s identities is that I’ve grown up among that politeness. You don’t really say what you think a lot of the time.
purchase at Amazon: Stay Awake: Stories
for more info: Dan Chaon website
Dan will appear at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, February 8.
Stephie Coplan (vocals/piano)
John F. Herbert (bass)
Shane Considine (drums)
Debut EP out now
Sound: piano rock trio
Plucky, creative, dark yet upbeat
Voice reminds me a lot of Suzanne Vega
I interviewed Stephie recently.
Amy Steele (AS): You started playing classical piano at a young age. What did you like about it?
Stephie Coplan (SC): I did! I started playing when I was 8. I really loved playing Brahms, Ravel and Rachmaninoff – – to this day, they are my favorite composers. All three are incredible at expression emotion and telling a story without using lyrics. Chopin has a gorgeous piece called the Raindrop Prelude that mimics the sound of rain falling on a window pane as a constant backdrop throughout the piece – playing that piece as a little girl was the first time I ever thought about using music (as opposed to lyrics) as a way to tell stories. Rachmaninoff in particular tends to write very thunderous, emotional, brooding pieces. If anyone reading this has been to one of our live shows, they know how much I love banging on the keys, especially in the lower register. Rachmaninoff gave me a chance to do that at a very young age and I have him to thank for my 10-note hand span (although I have very large hands to begin with, like that girl from the “Seinfeld” episode with the “man hands”…what can I say, I’m blessed.)
AS: How did you transition from classical music to pop/rock?
SC: Broadway and show tunes were sort of the bridge. My mom was a theater major in college and when I started playing piano, I usually split my time practicing classical pieces that my teacher gave me with Broadway show tunes that my mom slipped on the piano stand (whoops…how did those get there?) I only listened to pop music from the 40s and 50s (the Rat Pack, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, etc.) until I was about 11 so I have an encyclopedic knowledge of music from that era. I discovered FM radio in fifth grade, which is when I heard my first Top 40 song (I think it was “Foolish Games” by Jewel) and three years later, started writing my own pop songs. I heard The Beatles for the first time when I was 14. Weird, right? It’s like I’m Amish or something.
AS: At Tufts what did you study?
SC: Philosophy. I only took two music classes, Contemporary Concert Music (John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, etc) and Psychology of Music. I played piano in the pit orchestra for a lot of our musicals, though.
AS: How did you develop a following in Boston?
SC: I hung out at a lot of local music venues like TOAD, the Lizard Lounge and the Burren and became part of a very large group of songwriters. The music scene in Cambridge/Somerville is very supportive of newcomers – it’s a unique group of people and I miss them a lot now that I live in Hoboken.
AS: How did the group get together?
SC: Craigslist. The casual encounters section. No, just kidding. It was Craigslist, though. Craigslist is very hit-or-miss but the three of us ended up becoming best friends. I don’t think any of us remember that we actually met on the Internet – it feels like we met in a much more organic way because we get along so well and love playing together. They are the two best musicians in New York City and I can’t wait until we’re touring full-time so I can be around them all the time. (Famous last words…?)
AS: What is your songwriting process like?
SC: It’s different every time, but usually I noodle around on the piano until I find a few chords that I like. I try to write the hook first, and build the rest of the song around that. Sometimes I’ll invent a character in my head and write about that person, or I’ll look up people on Facebook who make me feel very strong emotions (like my ex or my best friend or whatever) and stare at their picture until lyrics come out. I guess everyone is going to unfriend me now.
AS: What inspires you to write songs?
SC: I really like wordplay. It’s so much fun. I’m most excited to write songs when I can make clever rhymes – I wrote a pretty shitty song once called “Is Anyone on the Internet Tonight?” about online dating. It was a terrible song but I rhymed “breakfast” with “Netflix” and “vegetarian” with “aquarium” and gave my reflection a high-five in the mirror because I was so proud of myself.
AS: Let’s talk about a few of the songs.
What’s the story behind “Take Me Back to the Suburbs?”
SC: I moved from Boston to Hoboken to work at a non-profit deep in the heart of Newark. About two weeks in to the new job, I was walking to the bus after work and a police officer stopped me and interrogated me on the street. I thought he was kidding at first, but it quickly became apparent that he thought I was a drug kingpin. Go ahead, laugh. I am a little oblivious when I walk around sometimes, and apparently I had walked right by a drug deal – definitely a “wrong place wrong time” scenario. He thought I was involved and searched my bag and ran a background check on me while I stood on the sidewalk crying hysterically in pink sunglasses and a corduroy jumper. I finally convinced him that I was not a drug lord – just a nerdy white girl from the suburbs. I asked him for a ride to the train station since he made me miss my bus, but he told me that I’d have to ride in his car with the drug dealers so I walked instead. When I got home, I wrote that song.
AS: “JERK” is a great single. Bold and provocative. How did you write this one?
SC: Thanks! It’s a true story – I was seeing a really hot guy who played a lot of mind games with me. He told me that he cared about me, but wouldn’t take me on a single date. He wouldn’t even buy me a cup of coffee. He just invited me to his fancy apartment to watch TV and hook up. It’s a story that’s all too common, unfortunately. I stayed in that “relationship” (if you can even call it that) for way too long but at least I learned an important lesson about dignity and self-respect. “JERK!” was originally a slow, bluesy striptease-y type song but ended up turning into a hate sex anthem when we went to the studio to record it.
AS: What influenced “Make You Mine?”
SC: Oh boy. That’s the most personal song on the EP, by far. It’s about a guy I was in love with for a very long time, someone I truly thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I found out that he cheated on me with two different people – he even flew 3000 miles to cheat on me with a girl in Portland, Oregon once (hence the Portland reference in the second verse). We broke up for about a year and saw other people while I sorted out my feelings. I wrote “Make You Mine” when I decided to take him back – it’s a song about finding the strength and resilience to forgive someone who has cheated on you and let them back into your heart. Predictably, he cheated on me again with someone else right after I took him back, so we broke up again. I haven’t talked to him in over a year, and don’t plan to ever again. Every time I play that song live, I am reminded that you can’t make someone love you, no matter how hard you try.
AS: What has happened since the video for Jerk went viral and caught the attention of many critics?
SC: “Viral” is a relative term! I guess it went viral on some level – I know a ton of people posted it and re-posted it on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. We’ve been making a lot of new fans, which has been great. I love connecting with people from all over the country on Facebook. I love hearing that they can relate to the song. It makes me feel like I’ve done my job as a songwriter. The popularity of the video has caught the attention of a few internet and college stations around the country, which has been really exciting and surreal.
AS: Tell me what happened with Paul Driscoll and WFNX.
SC: The night we posted the video, a fan saw it on Facebook, tracked me down, and suggested that I send it to Paul at FNX. He said that Paul had a reputation for getting behind new music and that based on his taste, he would probably really like “JERK!” I sent Paul a message and told him that we had just put up a new single that a lot of people seemed to like, and that it would be awesome if he listened to it. I didn’t expect to hear back because getting radio play is typically much more complicated than just sending your song to a station. I was shocked when he wrote back in 15 minutes and said that he had listened to it three times in a row and wanted an MP3 immediately. I screamed like a wild animal, called Shane (since he is from Boston too and loves FNX as much as I do) and spazzed out like a pro.
AS: How are things different live than what people hear recorded?
SC: It’s not very different! We play more solos live, but other than that, I think we sound pretty close to the recordings. There was very little “studio magic” used on us – we just did a bunch of takes until we got everything right.
AS: What do you think makes a good song?
SC: GREAT question. I could talk about this for days. I think a good song makes you think, or makes you feel. I am personally always a fan of songs that tell very vivid stories or breathe life into characters – that’s why I’m such a huge fan of Fountains of Wayne, who are experts at that. If I can’t tell what a song is about, I get bored. I know some songwriters like to leave their songs open to interpretation but…I don’t know, I sort of think that’s bullshit. For me personally, anyway. I think if it’s not clear what you’re trying to say, then you haven’t said it very well. The songs that hit me the hardest are the ones that can get me to relate to them in very specific and meaningful ways – Taylor Swift, Amber Rubarth, and Alanis Morissette are particularly excellent songwriters in that regard, I think.
AS: What are the biggest challenges for musicians today?
SC: THERE ARE SO MANY. Where to begin? I think the biggest one is making a living. With the advent of digital piracy, CD sales are no longer a viable means of collecting income – CDs have really become more like a business card than anything else. It’s an honor every time someone buys one of our albums because I know it’s not just a five-dollar purchase – it’s a statement. They’re saying that they believe in us, and it means the world to me every time someone gives us their hard-earned money for something that they could just stream online for free. On the other hand, while the Internet has destroyed the music business in a lot of ways, it has also made it possible for artists like us to make hundreds of new fans and effortlessly keep in touch with them. Before e-mail lists, musicians had to send out postcards to their fans every time they had a gig coming up. The bigger their fan base got, the more expensive their postage became. At least we don’t have to worry about that anymore.
AS: As a woman do you run into unique challenges?
Actually, being a woman has given me a large advantage, I think. Alternative radio is heavily male-dominated so being a woman is an automatic easy way to stand out. That being said, I think because I’m a woman playing music in a historically male genre, people expect me to have a feminist “girl power” agenda, but I don’t. I’m not Alanis or Fiona or Tori. I’m not bruised or battered and I don’t really have anything to prove. I’m just honest, and I hope that people can, for the most part, separate my sexuality from my music when they listen to it.
AS: Your debut EP comes out soon and you’re going on tour. What goals do you have now?
SC: Yes, we’ll be hitting Hoboken on January 26, DC on February 4, and releasing our EP in Boston on February 18. Our goals for 2012 are to hopefully hear “JERK!” on more stations and be touring full-time by the end of the year. Wish us luck…