April 28, 2010

An Interview with Nadia Kazmi

There are so many different things you can do with music, says singer/songwriter Nadia Kazmi, and if a consensus were to be gleaned from her debut, appropriately titled Arrival, that'd be a good one. Through the albums diverse incarnations of rock, pop and distinctive shades of soul, Kazmi reflects the spectrum of her influences and creative range. In so doing, she also bears out her versatility as a vocalist, affecting both subtlety and raw power with unassuming confidence.

And yet the crux of Arrival, and for that matter the crux of the artist, lay in a resonance of lyrical expression. With considered, well-crafted lines of imagery and metaphors, Kazmi evokes a rare sense of emotional purpose that makes her music all the more compelling.

You have a particular appreciation for lyrics. Where does that come from?

I think it’s because I started writing lyrics first. I’ve always written poetry. When I was five years old, I wrote a poem and, while my parents were out and I was with the babysitter, I recorded [it] on top of one of my mom’s favorite cassette tapes of another artist. She put it in one day and she was like, “What is this?” So I was quite creative when I was that young even… Another reason I concentrate on lyrics a lot is that many of my family members are poets. They write poetry in Urdu, which is my mother’s mother tongue. It’s the major language of Pakistan. My uncle and my grandfather are both published poets. I’m not saying it’s necessarily an innate ability. I don’t necessarily believe in innate abilities.

But you grew up around people who appreciated language.

When I was five I don’t think I had read or heard any poetry by any of my family members, but I chose that vehicle as my expression. It was immediate and automatic in some way.

You also have a great appreciation for Leonard Cohen and his songwriting.

He’s my favorite artist of all time…Actually, for my next album I’m doing Leonard Cohen songs. I know it’s been done before many times, but I’m trying to do something a little more interesting because I’m going to infuse it with that rock/soul element that I have for the rest of my stuff. So I’m really going to change the songs quite a lot.

Have you decided what songs you’re covering?

I have decided on a few of them. I think right now—of course, it’s a working title—I’m going to call the album Stranger’s Song. And I’m definitely going to do “I’m Your Man”—I don’t think a lot of females have done that song—“Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Waiting For The Miracle,” and also “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” but I’m going to do a real soul/gospel/rock version of it because I think it lends itself to that.

The whole album will be Cohen?

It will be all Cohen. And it’ll be, like, “Leonard Cohen Rocks,” because they’re all going to be rock tunes. They’re all going to be very high-energy. I think there’s only going to be one or two that I’m going to do as true ballads, but I’ll pick songs he didn’t really use as ballads and then do very slow, intimate takes on them.

As far as your appreciation of Cohen as a songwriter, is his kind of discipline indicative in any way of how you write? Not that you spend ten years working on a song, but…

[Laughs] Well, I don’t necessarily spend ten years working on a song, but I do go back a lot and I spend a lot of time on my lyrics. I’ll sit in my room or in the coffeeshop just working on lyrics strictly before I head to the piano. So I always want to have the lyrics fully done before I go to the piano or the guitar and start working out. Even if I have a melody in my mind, I really want to have the structure of the verses and the choruses decided before I do that. Sometimes, now lately, I will go to the keyboard or guitar once I have one verse, one chorus, but not until then usually. And I do definitely work my lyrics over and over… I get an inspiration for a lyric. I usually record it immediately into a voice recorder or my iPhone now. And then I’ll take it the next day and I’ll start working through it. But if it doesn’t strike, I leave it; I leave that song aside and work on something else. Because I don’t feel like you can continuously work something if the inspiration isn’t coming.

What was your creative ambition for Arrival? It’s an eclectic album. 

That album was inspired by all the artists that I love. I said, “Why can’t you have Leonard Cohen’s poetry mixed with the rock ‘n’ roll of the Rolling Stones and the soul ambitions of Stevie Wonder?” You can have all of those things because they’re not actually that far apart… I’m also very influenced by Queen. Freddie Mercury’s voice is very inspiring to me. If you collect all of these very different artists, such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Queen, Stevie Wonder, and mix them all together, that was my intention for the last album. 

I hear a bit of Prince in the album too. 

Yes, definitely, because Prince already does that. He already [mixes] the soul and the rock—I mean, he plays 13 instruments or whatever—so he really can create the sound he hears in his mind. Which I would love to do in the future and that’s why I’m trying to brush up on my guitar playing, my piano playing, so that maybe five years from now I can create the exact guitar line that I want and the exact keys line that I want to have in there. Right now I have to rely on somebody else’s understanding of what I’m aiming for there. 

Is it a challenge then, as a songwriter, to not always be able to flesh it out as it sounds in your mind? 

It definitely is a challenge. And you have to find people who gel with you, but [are] also at the level that you’re at… The band that I work with in New York, though, is really incredible. If I say anything, they always figure out a way to bring it out. The previous album was really the producers and I who really worked together to create all those sounds, but [on] the next album I would like to flesh it out a lot with my band so we can work through different options. The last album was a learning experience because I was very new and I would try to put my foot down about certain things, but I gave a lot of deference to the producers. On the next album I’m going to have a lot more say. 

For more information on Nadia Kazmi, including future live dates and their locations, please the artist's official website as well as her Facebook fan page.   

April 23, 2010

An Interview with Gin Wigmore

After a period of indecision toward her future, singer/songwriter Gin Wigmore is now on the cusp of a promising career.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand, she first made a name for herself at 16, winning the grand prize at the prestigious International Songwriting Competition (the youngest person to do so) for “Hallelujah,” which she'd composed in memory of her father. She later included it on Extended Play, a five-song sampler that introduced her as a recording artist, her craftsmanship and soulfully potent voice thrilling critics and listeners alike.

With the recent release of her debut LP, Holy Smoke, which she recorded with the Cardinals (known for their work with Ryan Adams), Wigmore’s audience stands to grow exponentially.

And if the reception she’s getting now on her first U.S. tour as the opener for Citizen Cope is any indication, she's already made impressive strides. “You kind of expect no one’s gonna really be there,” Wigmore says of being a support act, but in venues from Seattle to Milwaukee, “They’re there, waiting, ready to go at eight o'clock. And there’s a full crowd while I’m playing.”

Do you write on the road?

I haven’t in the past, but because we have days off I’m actually having a bit of a go of it. I’m working on two songs at the moment. I’m trying out my three-chord blues; I’m still learning so I’m giving that a go. I’m trying to be better on guitar because I just downsized my band to three of us at the moment. So I’m having to play guitar for the whole set. I’m kind of brushing up my skills on it.

How did working with the Cardinals on Holy Smoke influence how you wrote the songs and how they came to sound on the album?

Well, the songs were already all written before the Cardinals came in. I’d picked the songs; it was all ready to go. They heard the songs for the first time then. So in terms of shaping the songs, [they] had nothing to do with it. But they put their Cardinals kind of traditional, fucking-amazing [stamp] on the songs. I like the sound of this record and I think a lot of it’s got to do with their playing.

How have you evolved as a songwriter in the seven years since you won the International Songwriting Contest?

I’ve had more life experience. I’ve lived a lot since I was 16, so I’ve got more things to write about. I’ve started playing around the world and met some great people along the way who’ve taught me lots of things. In issues of playing, I know more chords on the guitar other than G, C, and D. So I have songs that sound different, knowing how to work with rhythms and writing songs off of drum beats to start out with; co-writing, all these different situations I’ve put myself in over the years has meant that my writing now, each song’s got a really strong, different idea from one another. I remember when I wrote songs when I was about 16, they all sounded the same because I didn’t know anything. And all the subject matter was all the same because I hadn’t actually done much. So, I’ve lived a lot and I think the songwriting grows with that.

Speaking of drumbeats, “One Last Look” is one kick-ass song.

Thanks, man. I love how different that is from something like “Dying Day.” They all sound quite different. My vision for Holy Smoke was that. And I always think about what I would want off a record if I were buying it. And I’d be gutted if I went and bought a record and all the songs kind of sounded similar; I’d feel kind of ripped off. So my mantra for this record was to make sure you got a real across-the-board mix and you feel it’s money well spent.

You recorded the album in the Capitol Records Building. That must’ve been a kick, being in Sinatra’s old stomping grounds.

Oh, fuck yeah. And sitting in the vocal booth on his old leopard-skin stool. It was pretty mad. There [are] beautiful old pictures all down the hallways of that place. And you can feel so much. So many great songs have been made and sung and crafted in those walls. It’s a wonderful place to make a record. Particularly because it was my first one, it was quite a big deal, you know? You’re treated like this is a pretty official thing...[with] people putting up curtains in your vocal booth, and candles and incense, just making everything right down to the final touch [to] make you feel like you want to create magic. Now my expectations are really high [Laughs]. I want to make all my records in that place.

How do you see yourself evolving as an artist and as a songwriter?

Wow, I’m not sure. I live each day as it comes, you know? This is one thing I’ve found since coming to America—I’ve been here for the last month—is that each day you wake up, you have no idea what’s gonna happen. To be honest, it’s kind of how I see my future. I’m not sure yet... I don’t know. I’m open to go wherever. And if that means I’ll be living in Nashville, making some kind of country record or blues record or down in New Orleans or something, then that’s where I’ll be.

So you have no allegiance to any one style.

Absolutely not, and that’s what keeps it interesting for me. Because I’ve got a very short attention span and this has been part of the reason I’m so kind of dumbfounded at the fact that I’ve still stayed with music. Nothing has ever stuck for me and music’s the only thing that’s managed to stick out for a long period of time. And the reason for that is every day is changeable. It’s a job where you can keep things really open and eclectic and movable.

Where you don’t have to do the same album eight times over.

Fuck no, I’d go insane.

For more information on Gin Wigmore, including tour dates, please visit the artist's official website and Facebook fan page.

April 20, 2010

An Interview with Kate Nash

Kate Nash certainly can’t be accused of playing it safe in her creative expression lest anyone take offense. On the strength of her million-selling 2008 debut, Made of Bricks, she garnered as much notoriety for her brazen, often tongue-in-cheek lyricism as she did for the infectious, melodic distinctions of her music.

On her sophomore LP, My Best Friend Is You, Nash has ratcheted up the irreverence, the most vivid instance occurring on “Mansion,” a spoken-word piece in which she fires off expletives with deliberate intent. Perhaps of greater significance overall, though, is how she has matured as a songwriter. With Bernard Butler producing, Nash bears out a dizzying retro vibe spiked with moments of an experimental edge, revealing herself as a confident artist further coming into her own.

What was your ambition for this new album? What did you do this time that you didn’t do last time?

I wanted to try some new things out, make it a little bit rawer. And I wanted to put the spoken word stuff in there; take a few more risks and just experiment a little bit more sonically, really.

The mood of “I Just Love You More,” its edginess and guitar, did you strive for that or was it something Bernard Butler contributed to? How did the song get to sound like that?

The demo that I did before I worked with Bernard was really similar to that; all the parts were the same. So it was like Bernard knew how to make it sound as best as it possibly could.

It’s got a rawness that expands upon what you did on Made of Bricks, in ways that weren’t introduced as fully.

Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something really harsh and that I really want to play live, scream and just fucking shout.

Album art unfortunately doesn’t seem to be as important to people as it was even 10, 15 years ago. But it's important to you. You designed the artwork for this album. You did all that yourself, didn’t you?

I definitely worked very hard with people. If I could have done it all by myself, I would’ve. I definitely care about it a hell of a lot. I had all these influences, like Bauhaus art collages, and some photographs and art pieces that were quite similar in feeling. There was another woman as well and I can’t remember her name, but she had a piece that was, like, images, female body parts and also mechanical things and tires. It’s completely faceless. The idea of it is there’s no face in that because she felt as a woman she was faceless in society. She wasn’t as respected. Then I found all these beautiful photographs of hands and of people not facing and being covered by things, their faces being covered.

Are the themes and temperament of these art pieces you were inspired by reflected in the music: the view of society on women without a face, them not receiving their due respect and dignity?

I have felt like that quite strongly having been in the music industry and come across that quite a lot. Obviously sexism still very much exists. [From] my favorite bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney and Bratmobile, that’s kind of instilled within me in my subconscious. I do want to make a point of it and I do want to talk about it and try to change it get people to just be more…


Yeah, and not be afraid of the word “feminist” and see it as equality.

“Mansion” comes as a jolt.

Yeah. It’s extreme, isn’t it?

What were you trying to do with that song? It’s not until you hit the last line that the narrative becomes clear.

The message is so strong that it has to be in your face, but it might sound explicit and kind of like, O my God, what the fuck? Then, as you said, it resolves itself at the end; then the point is made kind of clear. And then it moves to the second part of the poem, which is the more positive, empowering side of it. I was angry in the moment when I wrote it. I was really pissed off and felt really passionately. And so I thought, I’m not going to censor it. I’m not going to edit it. Everybody is too scared of making points these days. A lot of music has become kind of bland because of that. So I thought, I’m just not going to bother being scared of it.

My Best Friend Is You is available now everywhere music is sold. For more information on Kate Nash, including upcoming tour dates, please visit the artist's official website.

April 13, 2010

Sonya Kitchell Is Bold, Ambitious On New EP, Convict of Conviction

It’s always inspiring to see artists engage the promise of their talent, challenging themselves and exploring their creative curiosities. Over the past four years since her critically acclaimed folk/pop debut, Words Came Back To Me, Sonya Kitchell has reflected an exploratory, progressive approach toward her craft. She emphasized as much with her 2008 LP, This Storm, on which she broadened the scope of her aesthetic with an eclectic set of folk, pop and jazz.

Kitchell has experimented even more now on her latest release, an EP entitled Convict of Conviction, forgoing much of the eclecticism that shaped her previous works in favor of something more concentrated and decidedly austere. She’s further refined her jazz sensibilities, employing them here on “Mr. Suicidal” to striking effect through rhythmic, tension-and-release progressions and abrupt tempo shifts. More pronounced, though, is a classical disposition that Kitchell cultivates, her voice — a thing of beauty in itself, imbued with depth and warm, lilting inflection — exquisitely suiting the nuances yielded by these arrangements. Foremost in this vein is “Sinks Like A Stone,” a sparse and sprawling ballad guided by Kitchell’s discreet piano playing and the subtle accompaniment of an upright bass. Comparably, “Lighthouse” and “Snowing,” the latter featuring a vocal so pristine it reaches near-operatic distinction, are evocative highlights as well.

Kitchell is a bold, gifted artist with the potential of developing into a significant one over time. That Convict of Conviction is but her third release (even at its abbreviated length) is, in all honesty, mind-boggling. At a stage in her career when other artists would sooner nurture an established style or sound lest they alienate listeners, she instead has taken no small risk here. And it’s a risk that has paid off, culminating in music that is sophisticated and, at the same time, deeply moving.

April 07, 2010

An Interview with Jakob Dylan

“If all you were left believing was what you were seeing it’d be nothing but desperate,” Jakob Dylan says of the discontent he perceives throughout the current social climate. “To have hope you’re going to have to imagine that there’s something behind the curtain.” That collective despair, mitigated only by glimmers of optimism along the way, is what Dylan draws upon and evokes on his latest solo album Women and Country.

A marked contrast from the sparseness that defined Dylan’s solo debut, Seeing Things, the new album’s folkish, often-Gothic flavor comes courtesy of GRAMMY® and Oscar® winning producer, T Bone Burnett. Besides being a longtime family friend — Bob Dylan recruited him in ‘75 as a guitarist on his Rolling Thunder Revue — Burnett worked with Jakob Dylan in the Wallflowers, producing the band’s breakthrough album Bringing Down The Horse.

Women and Country marks their first collaboration since, and it was to Burnett that Dylan had shared a song, “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” which became the album’s catalyst and, ultimately, its opening track. Though he’d written it for Glen Campbell to play on his upcoming farewell LP, Dylan was encouraged by Burnett to write ten more in the same vein for a record of his own.

Were those ten songs, then, the only ones you wrote? Did you write them with a perceived theme in mind or solely in the vein of the first one?

Well, there’s always a stepping-off point. I’m not somebody who carries around a notepad and writes songs all day long. I don’t imagine everything I think of is worth being in a song. So I tend to collect notes and I set time aside to go to work and write songs. But that being said, sometimes you have to start writing whether you're interested or ready or not. You’ve got recordings to do. I absolutely know how to put gears in motion. And a lot of the time you have to start writing and you’re aware that the first couple you write probably won’t stick around very long.

But there’s a tipping point where something happens when you realize you’ve just literally smacked open a piñata and here it all comes. And that’s what happened with “Nothing But The Whole Wide World.” I’d written that with Glen Campbell in mind for a record he was making. But something occurred to me while doing it that there was a pair of shoes that I’d put on that worked for me, that once T Bone and I had talked I realized I’d already begun. And that’s what I was going to chase, which was where I was already at, really.

Was it something thematic you were chasing, though? The songs have a distinctive tone and temperament that I'm sure T Bone contributed to, but you wrote these songs alone, right?

Yeah, I wrote the songs alone. Things occur to you. It is a faucet. You just turn it on and a lot of times you’ve got to look back later and very quickly you have to figure how it all makes sense together. I don’t write opera and I don’t write stage productions. I’m happy that more songs keep coming, is all. If you overthink them too much or wonder how they fit together, you’ll blanket the whole thing. You’ll suffocate it. So you just let it happen. And that’s your mind at work. It’s a lot of work. You put the pen to paper and grind it out, but also something different is happening. It’s not metaphysical; you just don’t want to be in the way. You want to trust. Why does a line occur to you? Why did that just pop into my mind? If you overthink it, you'll discard it. I’ve learned to just let these things fall onto the page...

Or you’ll blow the mystery.

Exactly. There’s got to be a lot of mystery. All the good songs have tons of mystery. Even as you’re writing them, if you overthink them you’ll destroy it.

As a lyricist, can you see an arc to the way you write over time?

I think I’ve recognized something that I’m able to do that the next guy doesn’t do. And that doesn’t mean you’ll like it. But when people start out, [they're] not only trying to write great songs, but they’re trying to find a way to say something that someone else isn’t already saying. Because there’s only so many things to sing about, so what’s going to make a song appeal to you more than someone else’s is just a unique way of saying the same thing. It’s limited, what you can sing about. When I listen back to my music and everyone else that’s out there, I'm aware that there's something I can do that the next guy doesn’t do.

Are you aware that you’re doing something better now in your songwriting than you were, say, ten years ago?

That’s twofold, because inspiration is the part you can’t work on. It’s got to happen to you. I certainly know how to refine. I’ve got better tools now; I’ve got more tools now to write songs. But I can’t better myself with ideas. Those just fall in your lap or they don’t.

But you can refine the way you apply them.

Exactly. That’s what makes a good song: a bit of both. I mean, I could write you songs for days without inspiration that would be tedious and boring for everybody probably. But a good idea that’s unique, guys like me get up every day and just hope that something occurs to them that they can work around.

There’s recurring imagery of boxing on the album, in “Lend A Hand,” “Standing Eight Count,” “Down On Your Own Shield.”

I could give you some answer as to why that’s metaphorically really interesting, but the reality is when you’re writing in a short block of time, your head space is in a certain place. And recurring themes and images, a certain palette that you’re working with and certain colors are going to keep coming back around. But the concept of boxing, whether it’s shadowboxing or actually being in the ring, yeah, it’s continued throughout the record.

It’s like a defensive-but-not-defeated disposition. 

Yeah, I would say so. “Stand up.” Exactly.

On “Everybody's Hurting,” you sing, “Faith is believing what you see ain’t so.” There’s weariness in this album, but there’s resilience as well. It’s not a desolate impression; it’s one of some hard truths being recognized.

We’re in the midst of very hard truth. I write records that, in one way or another, [are] a reaction to the climate. And I’m living in the same climate you're living in. I don’t write songs that are describing just my life. I’m not interested in listening to those kinds of songs. I don’t think songs are better when they’re about certain people, their story, telling you how they feel about stuff. That stuff can be very tedious. I would never be as adventurous to think that telling you about myself is interesting.

So writing about your day isn’t something you’re keen on.

I write about what I see going on with everybody and our climate. I’m walking the same path you’re walking and everyone else is walking today. And without having to expound on where we are as a nation, everybody is hurting. Especially in the depths of writing the record, that’s what it feels like. I am also positive about it, but there is desperation. And it is very unsettled. I mean, who isn’t living with uncertainty right now? You tell me. It seems like everybody — whether they’re happy, successful or not — for the first time is very unsure if they will be happy or successful next year.

Especially now with your solo albums, there are people who read into your lyrics and assume things about you. As a songwriter, how do you manage to examine the human condition and the world around you without it being overtly about you?

Well, it’s complicated. From the day I started writing songs that’s not something I’ve ever been comfortable with. But that’s my background in listening to music. I never listen to music and think anybody’s being honest. I don’t think honesty makes better music. Three-and-a-half minutes of transporting you somewhere, that’s how I see it. That’s not to say there haven’t been great songs that have done that, but it’s just not my strength. I don't want to do that. And it’d be misguiding for anyone to look into my songs and think that I’m secretly putting in any kind of breadcrumbs about my personal life. I’m not being coy; that’s not what’s in there.

Have you known it wasn’t your cup of tea since you began doing this?

No, I didn't realize that people were going to think any of these songs were actually about me when I began writing with the Wallflowers. I think there was probably a time when I wanted to divert people off that path and say things that couldn’t possibly be thought of as being about me, and not even about me. People dug, they toiled and exerted a lot of energy trying to figure out if I was giving family secrets or something in my songs. That was a waste of time for anybody. What I had begun to do, by the time I noticed people were listening to me and I realized that was going to happen, I purposely threw some stuff in my path so there’s just no way anyone could make that misconception.

Does that throw a wrench in your craft when you’re trying to write a song?

When I was younger it might’ve. I think I was disregarding certain ideas because I didn’t want them to be misunderstood, but that was a waste of time on my part too.

Because obviously if you’re writing a song about the state of the world or the state of the nation, it’s not completely fiction. These are your ideas.

The nature of songwriting completely contradicts everything I just said. Yeah, in one sense none of it’s personal, but it’s all personal because it occurred to me.

Your solo music could be done with the Wallflowers, in that mold, but could you foresee yourself doing a rock album as a solo artist?

Well, yeah, sure. I could see doing many things. I could imagine myself wearing just about any pair of shoes. The Wallflowers was conceived early on as having a big rock ‘n’ roll sound. Some of these songs might not have fit into that and I retain the original concept of the Wallflowers as doing a certain thing and not necessarily adapting yearly to what I want to do.

Having been a songwriter and singer for as long as you have, plus having grown up around music, what drives you to keep writing songs? How do you avoid being jaded by the business while still maintaining your creativity? 

I’ve seen all sides of it already, not only in terms of what people term successful or not, but the state of the record business and whatever it resembles today. I’ve seen all different incarnations of all of it. For someone like me to keep making music, keep making records, and keep touring, there can only be one reason left. And that’s it’s a drive and a calling of some kind that you just have to stay with.… I’m just happy more songs come. That’s what most songwriters feel. After they write one song, they finished it; it was a lot of work. They can’t imagine they’re ever going to get another decent idea. So I’ll be very happy the next time I sit down to write a song if more of them occur to me that I can carve into something that I can sing. That’s where it all begins.