Interview: Bassist Nathan East Talks Solo Debut, Musical Philosophy EP Review: Beth Thornley - Septagon An Interview with Scott H. Biram British Vocalist Barb Jungr Talks Interpreting Dylan, Cohen on New LP Review: Priscilla Ahn - This is Where We Are

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Interview with Scott H. Biram

Scott H. Biram didn’t set out to achieve any radical breakthroughs (musically speaking, at least) with his latest studio LP, Nothin’ But Blood, but creative stability seems to suit him just fine. “Part of that has to do with how much I’m on the road these days,” says Biram. “I don’t really get a chance to sit down and just play guitar for hours and hours and hours on my porch anymore.”

Fair enough. Actually, such a hectic touring schedule likely serves the self-proclaimed “Dirty Old One Man Band” better than being cooped up in a recording studio for months on end would, what with the various people and places that inform his songwriting. Still, as Biram suggests, the characters and circumstances he writes about in his music ultimately reveal more about himself than anyone else. “I guess they’re kind of a way for me to work through inner pains and anxieties and stuff,” he says, “and they’re not necessarily metaphors. They’re vessels for emotional release.”

What’s songwriting like for you? Is it something you’re in tune with all the time?

I think some of my best songs that I’ve ever written are the ones that come to me at five o’clock in the morning and I write them down in five minutes. Those are some of the best ones I’ve ever written. The ones I sit down and really work on for a long time, sometimes those are just really frustrating and they don’t do for me what I want them to. Occasionally I get those ones where I work on them for a long time and they do end up being pretty good; stuff like “Slow and Easy” on this new record, I struggled with that song a lot and I really didn’t like to play it on stage or anything. I had to figure out a new way to play it on stage because I can’t really pull it off the same way as the record.

You draw from different influences in your music—gospel and punk and country and blues—and you have songs of every stripe on the same album. Like, on this latest one you have “Amazing Grace” but you also have a song called “Alcohol Blues.”

Yeah that’s part of what I call the human condition. I think that’s what brings a really good human element to my music is that I cover the good, the bad, and the ugly … It’s just that struggle in my heart every day of my life with rejoicing and being depressed, or trying to be a good person and at the same time getting sloshed.

It’s the difference between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

That’s exactly right, and I think this record is a lot like Saturday night and Sunday morning and anywhere in between.

So basically you see all of those different elements and influences as tapping into the same vein.

Yeah, tapping into my heart and my liver. [Laughs]

Are there subjects or ideas that are too personal or too compromising to share in a song?

I don’t feel like I have too many walls as far as subject matter goes. I feel like I could pretty much write about whatever I need to and get as personal as I want. I don’t have too much to hide. One of the things I have a little trouble writing—that I don’t really go into too much—is the straight-up love songs. When I play them I feel kind of cheesier; it’s just a little too white. [Laughs] It’s leaning too much into that Kingston Trio kind of things. I feel like there’s more for both me and the listeners in the struggles and the trying-to-get-through-things subject matter … With the love songs and all that, there are so many great love songs written already I tend—if I’m gonna do those—to play the ones that somebody else already wrote. 

The “one-man band” thing, is there some fundamental reason you do that? Obviously it allows you the freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it, but is there something that appeals to you about that beyond not having to pay a band?

Yeah, beyond not having to pay a band it’s definitely… I’ve got a kind of control-freak nature when it comes to music. I’m kind of a visionary as far as that goes. I’ve got a way I want it to sound. I don’t really want to stray from the way that I picture it in my head, but also as much as I’m on the road these days for the last ten or fifteen years I don’t have the time that it takes to really put together a great band and do all the practicing that it’s gonna take and rehearsing to get up to show-quality performances. 

I would like to put a band together and I’ve got some ideas about that, but I also feel like it’s one of those things that’s gonna have to fall into place naturally and not something that needs to be forced—kind of like those songs I was telling you about, how the ones that come to me really fast are the best ones; the ones that you have to force seem a little contrived. I’m really not a fan of contrived things.

When you’
re writing a song do you feel any obligation for it to reflect what your audience may expect of you?

No. Some people want to keep their finger on the pulse of trends and culture, but I keep my pinkie on it. I try to keep a little bit of a mind of what people want out of me and what they want to hear, because you have to in order to keep your fans a little bit, but at the same time I’m really true to myself with all of this. That’s always gonna be the main drive behind it is what I feel. Honestly I don’t put that much thought into all of this. I don’t think that it’s shallow or thoughtless, but I feel like my subconscious is what guides my efforts more than really trying to analyze it so much. The most analyzing I do to any of this is when I’m doing these interviews.

Nothin’ But Blood is available now on Bloodshot Records. For more information on Scott H. Biram, please visit his official website.

EP Review: Beth Thornley - Septagon

Beth Thornley has a knack for composing deceptively simple, soulful pop songs that cut to the quick with heartrending command. Maybe it’s a skill she’s honed over the years, having written for both television and film where the music often needs to encapsulate a specific scene; maybe she’s just innately gifted. Either way, Thornley illustrates this proficiency throughout the four-track EP Septagon (Stiff Hips Music). 

As a follow-up of sorts to her eclectic 2010 LP Wash U Clean, which was at turns wistful and rambunctious, this latest effort is more subdued by comparison, with subtler melodies and rich, immersive synth-pop textures betraying an unshakable sense of gravity in some moments and, in others, regret. From start to finish, though, it packs quite an emotional punch. 

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Priscilla Ahn - This is Where We Are

Priscilla Ahn sings with such gorgeous, unaffected grace that any extravagant or otherwise cluttered production would only undermine one of the loveliest voices to emerge in the past decade. That said, with her third and latest album, This is Where We Are (SQE Music), the winsome singer/songwriter builds upon the acoustic-rich distinctions of her prior LPs, A Good Day (2008) and When You Grow Up (2011), to incorporate judicious amounts of electronica. In moments like “Diana” and “In a Closet in the Middle of the Night,” for instance, Ahn conjures intoxicating, spectral soundscapes that actually reinforce her voice as well as her often contemplative lyrics. She doesn’t abandon her acoustic tendencies completely, as ballads “Remember When I Broke Your Heart” and “I Can't Fall Asleep” illustrate in enchanting, tender ways. Even on the most sonically progressive songs, the experimental embellishments are neither distracting nor obtrusive. On the whole, Ahn has stepped forward as an artist with this work, forging rich new musical perspectives with her talent and imagination.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

An Interview with Nathan East

Lately it seems like everything is going Nathan East’s way. Already this year the renowned and ever-in-demand bassist has picked up five GRAMMY® awards for holding down the groove on Daft Punk’s smash hit single, “Get Lucky,” resumed his long-held station in Eric Clapton’s touring band, and just this week released his long-awaited self-titled solo debut. 

Then again, such touchstones also seem like par for the course for a musician whose credentials include studio sessions with myriad legends and A-listers—George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, B.B. King, Anita Baker, and Lionel Richie, just to name a handful—as well as performances at some of popular music’s most storied events and stages, from mammoth all-star benefits like Live Aid and Knebworth to such fabled venues as the Budokan and the Royal Albert Hall. 

For the new album, East assembled an eclectic roster including Clapton, singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, and fellow co-founder of jazz supergroup Fourplay, keyboardist Bob James. “It was pretty seamless,” says East, adding that the musicians sought to reflect the spirit of a live performance. The camaraderie among them no doubt facilitated that pursuit and, in doing so, all the more enlivened moments like the retro, coyly titled first single, “Daft Funk,” and a solemn rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” the latter featuring his 13-year-old son, Noah East, on piano.  

Considering you work from such a broad palette—playing jazz, rock, R&B, soul—did you have any sort of guiding objective about how you wanted this album to sound? Did you want it to reflect you in any certain way especially since it’s your first statement as a solo artist?

Yeah, I was careful about making sure that although it wouldn’t be too much of a diverse statement that it would reflect a celebration of my musical tastes and friends. 

Are there many improvisational moments on the album?

Absolutely. A lot of what happens in the studio is pretty much intuitive and instinctive of what happens on the day whether it’s before or after the record button’s pressed, but the bottom line is by having a band and doing everything live you definitely have more room for improvisation and just whatever spontaneous magic that’s going to take place. 

You’ve got two Stevie Wonder songs on the album [“Sir Duke” and “Overjoyed”]. Beyond just being a fan, what is it about his music or his songwriting that attracts you to his work? 

Honestly I’ve probably been a fan of Stevie’s music for 40 years where it’s always had a special place in my heart. His compositions and his music in general is just a fertile garden of just everything … The soil is good. The fruit is good. Everything’s good about it! 

The amazing thing about Stevie is every song that he writes is different. Like, it sounds like Stevie, but it’s not like the same chord changes or sound. Some writers have a particular key or a particular set of chord changes that they use, but Stevie’s just a fountain. 

That’s him playing harmonica on your version of “Overjoyed,” right? 

Yes it is. We were doing that at a soundcheck at Carnegie Hall one day and I was kind of working that arrangement out and he jumped in there and started playing harmonica. When we finished he said, “If you ever record that let me know. I’d love to play on it.” 

A lot of the people you’ve worked with—Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones, Phil Collins—are known for having strong creative instincts. It must take a certain kind of discipline on your part to be able to work with those different types of people.

I’ve definitely learned a lot from working with these kinds of artists. People like Quincy and Phil Collins, these are some work ethics like you’ve never seen before, literally where you can put 14, 16, 18 hours a day into being in a studio and just working hard. I’ve learned that there are no shortcuts and people that are successful in general are hard workers.

Your disposition and personality must factor in as well, knowing when you can contribute something and knowing also when it’s not a good time to do so. Does that just take experience to learn?

Well, those are things that you hopefully learn early on. Music is one of those situations where nobody’s forcing you to be there, so if you can get along with folks and if you come with an attitude of contribution and an uplifting spirit people generally like being around that rather than the opposite. The more I work and the longer I’m in this business the more I realize that that’s a big part of everything as well.

Have you found it useful to have learned to read music when you were a college student?A lot of musicians don’t know how to read music, and I just wonder if it’s been beneficial in your career.

Absolutely. I couldn’t be more grateful for having pursued an education in music and learning how to read music. In those situations where you’re relying strictly on your sight-reading chops for an orchestral date when you’re doing a movie session and 60 pieces are in there and the notes are flying by it feels good to know that you can kind of hang tough with the rest of the gang. 

Does the bass still challenge you?

Very much so. On a daily basis I’m challenged to come up with something that’s interesting and not boring but not overbearing. For me it’s like every song is a chance to say, “Okay, I have another chance to really get it right,” and, “What is the best thing to play for this song?” It’s a constant challenge. 

Do you have any sort of philosophy for playing the bass? Like, Clapton has said he approaches playing the guitar much like a samurai. He steps into the spotlight only when necessary, he uses discretion about when to take a solo, and he tries generally not to overdo anything. Do you have any comparable approach to how you play?

That similar philosophy is one that I approach music with as well. I look at it as a big picture, and not just me. So lots of time I’ll take myself out of the equation and see what the big picture is trying to say and then try to determine what it is that I’m going to bring that’s going to complete that picture. 

You’re serving the song.

Absolutely. That’s the number-one priority is serve the song, and serve the dialog and the communication and the camaraderie.

After all these years how do you maintain your enthusiasm for playing music? You’ve always radiated such warmth and such love for what you do, and I just wonder how you manage to keep that going for all these years and through so many different incarnations of your career.

That’s a great question. The first very obvious answer is that I’ve just been blessed with a very enjoyable cross-section of music that I have the privilege and opportunity to play. There’s not a day that I don’t wake up that I’m not thankful for the privilege of playing music. At the same time, none of the gigs that I’ve had have been gigs where I’m thinking, “I’m just doing this for the money.” Most of them I just absolutely loved the music, the people. I mean, what’s not to love? What’s not to be enthusiastic about?

Nathan East is available now from Yamaha Entertainment Group. For more information, visit NathanEast.com

Monday, March 24, 2014

Interview: Barb Jungr on Interpreting Songs of Dylan and Cohen

Barb Jungr is no stranger to the music of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, having performed their works to both critical and popular acclaim throughout her near-forty-year career. Yet with her latest album, Hard Rain (The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen), on which the British vocalist collaborated with pianist and album producer Simon Wallace in arranging eleven songs that share some thread of timeless political or social import, her familiarity with the material didn’t make the task of interpreting it any easier or less daunting.

Of the title track in particular, Jungr recounts, “We recorded that over a period of about four months because we had at least five versions that we didn’t use. I went back and back and back to it and then I’d listen to it a week later and I’d go, ‘I’m not getting this right. This isn’t right. This isn’t right.’ It was a feel, an intuitive thing. You go, ‘This isn’t right. This song’s not right. I’m not singing this song right.’”  

Such dogged determination ultimately served the album well overall as Jungr’s performances, which through moments of jazz sophistication and cabaret panache are strikingly prescient. In their own way, as well, they yield illuminating perspectives on the canons of two of popular music’s most iconic and mythologized singer/songwriters. 

How difficult was it to marry the works of Dylan and Cohen as you’ve done with this album?

It was really easy. It was remarkably easy. The choices of the songs were effortless. They fell in at their own accord. I’m familiar with both sets of repertoire, but picking the songs really wasn’t difficult in any way. What was extraordinary for me was how very married the themes were but from a very different point of view. That was interesting.

Dylan’s known for having written many of his early songs very quickly—“Blowin’ in the Wind” took him twenty minutes, he’s acknowledged—while Cohen has a reputation for having taken years writing much of his work, yet it’s striking how well they complement each other.

Absolutely, and I think you can hear the difference. For example, “Chimes of Freedom” to me is just a mammoth, extraordinary song and, for me, it shows Dylan at his most humane. There’s a humanity about that song that’s startling for me. It’s a wonderful song to sing for that reason, but it’s a sort-of torrent of imagery. You can almost feel it emerging as you sing it; the song emerges itself. Then you take a song like “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” and what I love about Cohen is the way he’ll use words again, he’ll use phrases again, but their repeated use is utterly deliberate. I don’t mean because they’re choruses; that’s not what I mean. He’s playing with threads all the time. It’s a very fine, fine work he does; it’s finely honed and it’s very different to the way Dylan works. I love that about both of them. 


Dylan has said, especially about early songs like “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Chimes of Freedom,” that he was not the prime force behind those songs, that they were instead channeled through him.

I love that he says that. I love that in his autobiography—in that first volume, the only volume of the three that we’ve ever seen—he talks about when Daniel Lanois comes to him and says, “Can we have another song like “Hard Rain?” and Dylan says, “The spirits that gave me those songs aren’t with me anymore.” I thought that was incredibly self-aware. There’s something very, very astonishing about understanding that and carrying on. 

Dylan seemed to have a grasp on the world around him right from the beginning, whereas Cohen’s grasp seems to have evolved more as he’s aged—and maybe that’s simply because he started later as a recording artist—particularly with albums like The Future

But again, who cares how you get to the top of the mountain? You went up the challenging path with crampons; you walked up the easy slope. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you got there. That’s very interesting, I think, in the comparison of those two: how they go about getting there. They both get there. They both get to something profound and spiritual and deeply-connected, profound human observation and questioning. They’re questing.

What, in part, gives this album such a compelling character is how you’ve taken liberties with the arrangements in ways that make the performances your own. You’re not copying these songs; you’re interpreting them. For instance, in a song like “It’s Alright Ma” you have an upbeat arrangement that seems to play against the ominous subtext of the lyrics. Did you intend for those sorts of paradoxical moments?

When that happens that happens by chance rather than design. When we’re arranging, I never go into arranging thinking, “What I want this song to do is…” I go into an arrangement thinking, “What could happen with this song if we listen to it differently?” We ask questions. We try things and we ask questions of the song. We sit the song down at the piano and we go [to the song], “How do you feel if we do this? How do you feel if we moved that section about?” And the song is very clear. The song will go, “Yeah, I like that,” or, “What are you thinking? Don’t be an idiot.” We know that straight away from the song. 

The songs are like live things—living, breathing things. We’re talking about real songs here, songs that Dylan channeled, songs that Cohen crafted, those kinds of songs; songs that come from something really deep that’s to do with the art of songwriting, those songs. They’re alive in the world and when they come to me—and they do come to me—and they knock on my door and ask me to sit with them at the piano with Simon Wallace in this instance, then we have to be awake and alert to what they’ll accept. 


Considering the sociopolitical context that binds these songs on the album, did you ever consider recording Cohen’s “Democracy?”

Yes, I did. I couldn’t make it work. The song didn’t want to come. We brought the song to the piano and the song sat on the piano and said, “Get lost.” [Laughs] Interestingly, into the live collection we put “The Future.” That song sat down at the piano and jumped about like a pea in a pod. It was fantastic. We found a great way of working with the song and the song comes out live and rips people out of their seats. I do it after “Masters of War,” and it’s a very interesting juxtaposition of those two songs together. 

In singing songs in which the lyrics are not transparent—particularly ones that have been open to interpretation for many years now—do you have to form some meaning for yourself in order to deliver it with conviction?

Two things about that… I tend to be drawn to and songs are drawn to me—that is, it’s not a one-way street—that I feel can resonate for me. I don’t like analysis because I have to be an instrument for the song—I have to be a singing instrument for the song—and I play by the text. So my technique is the amount of vocal quality I can bring to the text that the text will ask in any given moment. The second part of it is that if I stay completely out of the way, if I do not impose my will upon the song—if I don’t use the song to tell you what I think, but I let the song tell me what it thinks—then the audience will get what the song thinks. And that’s far more interesting. 

So that means in every singing of the song I get something different because the song’s always got something new to tell me, because with songwriters like Cohen and Dylan the work is Shakespearean. It’s multifaceted and it’s mysterious. It isn’t a clear thing. It’s not, “This is a song about traffic control.” It isn’t simple. These are songs about the human condition. 

Hard Rain (The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen) is available now on Kristalyn Records. For more information on Ms. Jungr, please visit her official website.

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