Interview: Meiko Experiments, Gets Personal on New LP, 'Dear You'

Meiko discusses her new album, its minimalist, mood-driven electronica and the most personal lyrics of her career to date.

New McCartney Bio Chronicles Decade Post Beatles (Review)

Man on the Run tells of McCartney the human being as much as McCartney the superstar musician in the '70s, and readers will appreciate its insights.

Interview: John Illsley, Formerly of Dire Straits, Celebrates Survival with New Solo Album

While Mark Knopfler has enjoyed more critical and popular success since the band’s demise, Illsley has nonetheless produced a string of respectable solo works as well, including his latest LP, Testing the Water.

DVD Review: Elton John - The Million Dollar Piano

“It has to be a little over the top,” Elton says. “It’s Vegas.”

Boz Scaggs: The Instinct of a Musical Survivor

Call it intuition or a sixth sense or just faith in his own perception: Boz Scaggs knows when he’s onto something good.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Night Videos: Johnny Marr, Monica Heldal

It took him a minute to finally embark on a career under his own name, but Johnny Marr is nevertheless making up for lost time. Only a year after his critically hailed solo debut, The Messenger, the legendary former Smiths guitarist is back with Playland, due October 6. And if its revved-up lead single “Easy Money” is any indication, the album should provide ample riffs and grooves.

Norwegian singer/songwriter Monica Heldal has already made an auspicious first impression with audiences in her homeland on the strength of her debut LP, Boy From the NorthSounding like a cross between Mindy Smith and Nanci Griffith and drawing on folk, bluegrass, and Celtic influences, Heldal will showcase her talent on a brief U.S. tour (opening for The Last Bison) the month following the album’s North American release on September 16. Until then, her gothically gorgeous performance on the album’s title track will leave listeners entranced.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Interview: Meiko Experiments, Gets Personal on New LP, 'Dear You'

The mostly acoustic, folk-pop distinction and anecdotal storytelling of her self-titled 2008 debut LP, particularly illustrated by such songs as “Boys with Girlfriends” and “Under My Bed,” seemed to cast Meiko in the mold of a conventional singer/songwriter. While the candor of her lyrics endured, subsequent efforts including her 2012 LP, The Bright Side, and the 2013 single, “Bad Things,” the latter of which featured in the ABC Family series, Pretty Little Liars, signaled a shift by the artist toward more adventurous musical dimensions. 

Meiko’s experimental tendencies are in full flourish on her third and latest LP, Dear You, a song cycle steeped in minimalist, mood-driven electronica and informed by a crucial lapse in communication.

“A lot of the songs are unsent letters where I was feeling a certain way and I’d write down a letter,” Meiko tells Write on Music, “just to get it out of my system, everything I wanted to say. Then eventually those letters were turned into songs.”  

You’ve come a long way musically, sonically. Is that something you’ve particularly strove to do, or is that just evidence of where your musical curiosity has gone?

I think it is evidence of where my musical curiosity has gone. I listen to a lot of electronic music generally and I have my entire life. I’ve never really been into pop music, but I’ve made these sort-of happy, pop-leaning records. So I just wanted to dig in a little bit deeper. I did want to make a darker record, and it was fun because I love experimenting with sounds and minimal instrumentation. It was like an art project for me.

Do you still write on the guitar or are you using any computer programs now?

I always write on a guitar. I need a guitar to sit down and write with. I just find it hard to do it any other way. Even if the guitar doesn’t end up in the song—most of these songs it did, whether it was electric or acoustic—it always originates on guitar.

Do you write solely about your own experiences or do you also write about things you see around you or people that you know?

I always write about my experiences. Sometimes it’s so personal that if I’m talking about it I’ll say, “I wrote this about my friend,” but it’s always about me. It’s just easier. It’s easier to connect emotionally with what I’m saying, what I’m writing, when it’s coming from personal experiences. 

Some of the songs on the new album date back a little while for you. Was it difficult to revisit them in the sense of approaching them with conviction, having moved on from them in your life?

No, it’s not really that difficult. I mean, I have moved on from most of the shitty experiences that I wrote about, but I never was completely disconnected from it. There’s always that piece of me that will always remember those feelings. So I still feel pretty connected with those emotions but have learned to grow from them. It’s kind of like looking at a picture of yourself ten years ago, or five years ago. 

Looking at a picture of yourself from five, ten years ago can also be kind of jarring, though, if you’ve gone through a lot of changes since then.

Yeah, and maybe it just makes me realize just how much I’ve actually grown from it, but I still appreciate the fact that I needed to go through those encounters with different people. 

When you’re on stage, singing these songs that you’ve written about your life and your emotions and your thoughts, do new song ideas pop into your head? Does that environment encourage creative thought for you?

No, the creative thing for me on stage is just being able to explain where I was coming from when I wrote the songs. I really enjoy the performance part of it. Yeah, I like writing, but my head’s not really into the writing part of it when I’m performing. I really enjoy the connection with the audience and telling the stories and just putting some perspective into it for people so when they do hear a song they can go, “Okay, she meant that.” 

I’ve asked this of a lot of songwriters... Because you write from such a personal place, are you ever concerned or worried about giving too much of yourself away in what you write?

I used to be. I think this record is probably the most confessional record without me putting any barriers on it. The last song especially, “Go to Hell,” it’s definitely the most personal one to me just because I’ve had personal experiences where I was completely judged and cut off out of people’s lives because they thought… They were saying that I wasn’t on the right path and I wasn’t doing the right things for God—a very religious standpoint. That’s a very personal song, and I actually wasn’t sure if I was going to put that one on the record, but I wanted to because I think that a lot of people can relate to that feeling of being judged. 

That’s good that you can confront that. I think when songwriters are able to stand behind what they write when what they write is so personal, it comes across in the music.

Absolutely. And when it’s not personal, I think it’s really evident. Especially for me, it needs to be personal or it’s just not gonna connect.  

Dear You is due October 14 on Fantasy/Concord Records. Please visit Meiko’s official website for more information.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Man on the Run - Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle

By the time the Beatles had officially broken up in April 1970, Paul McCartney was one of the world’s most celebrated musicians, having achieved just about every benchmark in the music business as well as the notoriety that comes with being a cultural icon. With John Lennon he’d forged the most beloved (and lucrative) songwriting partnership in pop music history. With the band as a whole he’d crafted a catalog that was by and large regarded as creatively unrivaled. Such distinctions were ones which McCartney understood all too well when, while confronting the unenviable prospect of following up the Fab Four, he embarked upon the next phase of his musical life.

He was 27-years old.

As author and music journalist Tom Doyle chronicles in Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, McCartney’s next phase ended up being the most turbulent decade of his career. 

Well researched and partly informed by Doyle’s own interviews with his subject, the book adds sharper context to the familiar portrait presented by other such biographies of a preternaturally gifted, boyishly charismatic family man to reveal the McCartney of this era as being often oblivious to (or at least careless of) the ways in which the real world works outside the Beatles bubble. Matters that likely never crossed his mind as a member of the Beatles now as the leader of his next band, Wings, not only became necessary concerns—auditioning and hiring (and firing) musicians, compensating those musicians, replenishing the band’s requisite marijuana supply—but were also his responsibility. If he wasn’t quite longing to reunite with his old mates from Liverpool, McCartney nevertheless seems to have missed the sense of refuge they collectively conferred, from the implicit quality of musicianship in John, George, and Ringo, to producer’s George Martin’s almost paternal guidance, musical wisdom, and studio expertise. 

As far as the music McCartney composed in the ‘70s is concerned, pertinent circumstances of its creation are offered throughout the book. There isn’t too much in the way of session details (examining how songs evolved, critiquing specific takes, etc.), with the emphasis instead focusing on how McCartney maneuvered through the various twists and turns of his life while making that music. Given a subject as well-documented as McCartney, it’s an effective narrative approach. The depicted scene surrounding the recording of 1973’s Band on the Run, in particular, which found McCartney naïvely travelling not only with Wings (and former Moody Blues) mate Denny Laine and engineer Geoff Emerick but also with his own wife and children to Lagos, Nigeria—a scene of rampant crime, poverty, and political corruption—is especially gripping. 

Man on the Run tells of McCartney the human being as much as McCartney the superstar musician, and readers will likewise appreciate its insights and enjoy the story it has to tell.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tommy Ramone, Last Surviving Original Member of The Ramones, Dead

The Ramones (from left to right): Dee Dee, Tommy, Joey, Johnny

Tommy Ramone (real name Erdélyi Tamás and also known as Thomas Erdelyi)—erstwhile drummer, founding, and last surviving original member of the Ramones—died Friday at his home in Queens following a battle with bile duct cancer. He was 65. 

One of the pivotal bands to emerge from the New York City punk scene in the mid-seventies, the Ramones provided a subversive antidote to much of the over-produced, over-indulgent pop and rock music of the era. Boasting such anthemic, back-to-basics barnstormers as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy is a Punk,” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” the band—which was rounded out by vocalist Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman), guitarist Johnny Ramone (Jim Cummings), and bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin)—riled up a fervent, loyal following at venues like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Such concentrated hype never translated to mainstream commercial success, though, but the band continued to perform and record (amid various personnel changes) throughout the eighties and nineties, earning new generations of fans along the way while laying the groundwork for future bands like Green Day, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. 

“They obliterated the mystique of what it was to play in a band,” said Eddie Vedder of the Ramones during his induction of the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. “You didn’t have to know scales. With the knowledge of two bar chords, you could play along with their records. And that’s what people did ... and within weeks they were starting bands with other kids in town who were doing the same thing.”

Tommy Ramone stopped playing with the band in 1978. Still, his identity within and contributions to the Ramones’ first crucial years remains an intrinsic part of the ongoing legend of the band he helped create.

Tommy Ramone 

Monday, July 7, 2014

An Interview with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains

For over half a century the Chieftains have served as global ambassadors of traditional Irish music, collaborating with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Chet Atkins, and Van Morrison while, with the 2012 LP Voice of Ages, recording with such relatively younger artists as Bon Iver, Lisa Hannigan, and the Civil Wars. Whether playing songs with friends or performing them on concert stages the world over, the Chieftains are known for breaking down whatever barriers or misunderstandings may exist within such contexts in order to reach a common appreciation for the music. This week, though, the group is upping the ante, hosting the Celtic Sessions, running today through Friday at the Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs, New York.  

“It’s going to be an interesting little adventure,” says leader and founding member Paddy Moloney—the group is currently rounded off by vocalist Kevin Conneff and flautist Matt Molloy—of the workshops, lectures, and live performances that lay ahead. 

“There is one concert where we’d love to get everybody who has an instrument to come and join us,” Moloney suggests. “It’s just sort of a habit I have at concerts sometime and just get them all onstage together. It could be a magic sound once we find a tune that everybody knows, which I’m sure won’t be too difficult.” 

Among the special guests also appearing with the Chieftains is guitar icon Ry Cooder. “Ry is a newcomer to this kind of thing, too,” says Moloney. “He and I are going to get together for one of the sessions, which should be interesting. I want to try as an example a new song that we wouldn’t have done together just to show how these things can come together, and it’ll be interesting for the audience.” 

No doubt it will be interesting for the Chieftains, too. Moloney agrees, adding, “I have a lot of stories to tell about the whole history of the band that I started 52 years ago.” 

(L to R): Kevin Conneff, Paddy Moloney, and Matt Molloy
Where did the idea for The Celtic Sessions come from?

It’s been there for quite some time. I’m not sure of the whole history, but there have been famous artists that have done the same thing. And we were approached from our agency [to see] if we were interested. It’s all in the same place; it’s not too strenuous. It’s not like the grueling job of touring, on the road. We’ll be in the same place for the week. It will be a pretty nice adventure, I gather. 

And of course there will be questions and answers. I encourage that a lot, for people to ask questions because it could lead to stories just the same as I am talking to you now. 

You’re known for collaborating with some rather mercurial artists, and some of them don’t particularly have reputations for playing well with others. How do you, going into those sorts of projects, bridge that? Does the music just override all that?

The music, and I know where they’re coming from. Sometimes I have  to pick up the phone and talk to somebody without having met them—a great artist, a rock band—and I just get that feeling from conversation that “this is going to work,” and then continue from there. I will be listening to their music and our music, [and asking myself], where would I see this fusion happening? What is out there to make it work?  

The Chieftains have a longstanding relationship with Van Morrison, who produces such gorgeous music but is also known for being a curmudgeon of a man. 

Yeah, I know. [Laughs] It’s funny; him and I get on very well. I respect him ... but then he has great respect for me too. When I asked him to do “Shenandoah,” for instance [he said], “I liked that a long time ago. We should’ve done that a long time ago!” And I said, “Well, look, let’s go for it here.” And I put it together, and he helped us. He sings it different every time. He’s just a genius that way. He’s come up with some great songs, some lovely songs. To me he’s the best.  

Your recording with him of “Shenandoah” is absolutely gorgeous.

It was such a joy. I’ll never forget it. It was great, absolutely wonderful. And the Irish Heartbeat album, nobody can get it because it has never been re-released. So, if you have a copy of it, hold onto it. 

In your collaborations, like the ones on Long Black Veil and Voice of Ages, what’s striking is that when other artists do something comparable it’s usually in an attempt to attract a younger demographic or a wider demographic. Your albums seem to feature artists who are turning their audiences on to you, not the other way around. You’re not accommodating the style of the moment. You’re doing what you’ve always done. 

That’s correct, yeah. To me it’s a big party, every track.... One of the ideas I had for the last album [Voice of Ages] was, “I should get back with my old friends again, Mick and Marianne and Sting,” but I decided to come down a generation. And that’s where I landed. I had a little help from T-Bone Burnett as well; he produced a number of the groups and sat in on a few of the tracks.… Those artists that joined us, those young artists, they knew us inside out, they knew what we were about and our style and playing and everything. So it was very easy for me.