Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Personifying the Next Renaissance: A Conversation with Phoebe Legere

Quite simply, Phoebe Legere is a force of nature. She is an author, playwright, singer, songwriter, a visual artist, non-profit manager, Pulitzer Prize nominated composer, engineer and inventor, and always an activist.  She is also a passionately philosophical thinker of big thoughts. 

And, Legere knows history.  Recently appearing at the Bread and Roses Festival in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she performed on the Carmen Teoli stage. 

“Carmela Teoli was one of the icons of labor history.  She was a 13-year old girl working in the mills in Lawrence, when her hair was caught in a machine and her scalp was ripped open.  During the famous Bread and Roses workers strike in Lawrence, in 1912, she testified in Congress about the working conditions for children in the Mills, and within days, the Bread and Roses strike was over, and important concessions were made to the workers. I love that I’m performing on a stage named for her, and debuting a song I wrote about her.”

Legere is couldn't be more deeply rooted in the American experience. Part of her family came over and helped found Massachusetts and Acadia in the seventeenth century.  The other part were here to greet them. 

“My music and art celebrates my ancestors, who were all from New England.  On one side, I am an Abenaki Indian, and the other side were part of the original 17 families that founded ‘New France’ on the northeastern coast of Canada. The founder of the family was a former court musician for Louis the 14th.  I am also descended from the Reverend Peter Powers, who was the first man to preach revolution in America from the pulpit. He knew John Hancock, and John Adams. He was lost at sea, and all of his property and money ‘disappeared.'  That had a significant impact on the family.  

Eventually, my family- both of my sets of grandparents- worked in the mills in New England, so ‘Bread and Roses Festival’ is sort of a homecoming’. I’ve done a lot of research about it, and about the role of the French in New England history. Some of the folk songs of ‘New France’, which I sing, were in some cases really the work songs of those in the factories.”

The uber-versatile Legere is working on several new projects, in addition to touring this summer.

“I just received a grant from the New York Council for the Arts, a commission, really.  I am writing a play about the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution.  It’s called ‘Shmattah’, which is a Yiddish word for ‘rag’. It’s the story of a piece of fabric, as it moves through the manufacturing process and into the community.  I’m very excited about it.”

Legere has written for the stage, before. Her recent musical Shakespeare and Elizabeth ran for 3 sold out weeks Off-Broadway. She has had half a dozen musicals produced in the New York area, which is her home base when not touring.  

But it’s her extraordinary musical chops and multi-octave voice that have unsealed many doors for her. She opened for David Bowie, during his 1991 tour.  It was a learning experience.

“What did I learn from David Bowie? I had always known the importance of ‘gesture’ for a musician.  When I was much younger, I had seen film of Edith Piaf, and I understood how she used gesture to help tell the story of the song, to underline the content that she was singing. Bowie used the same thing- he was familiar with and skilled in ‘kabuki’- he was always tapping into stillness and using gesture as an ancillary handmaiden to content. With Bowie, it was the perfect interpenetration of content and form.  I also learned from him that a modern musician makes significant money from ‘swag’ they sell.”

"Bowie was sort of locked into his 'persona' early on, so his use of gesture helped him to evolve through his different personas over time."

The well-educated and intensely thoughtful Legere has also had an opportunity to work with other musical legends.  After graduating from Vassar, she studied at both the Julliard School of music, where she honed her composition skills, and the New England conservatory, where she studied piano. Legere also studied with John Lewis, the keyboardist and founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis was a master of improvisation, and considered a gifted teacher. 

 “John had a tremendous influence on me.  He was always very honest with me. He said ‘you have so much skill up and down keyboard, but the most elegant is the closest place.’ I've never forgotten that.”

Legere is a multi-instrumentalist, primarily playing keyboards and accordion. She has released 15 CD’s of original music.  One of her latest, “Acadian Moon”, has been
extremely popular on ‘the college radio circuit.’ 

Phoebe Legere believes strongly in the need for artists to remain active and engaged in the community.

“You know, I read a number of sermons written by Reverend Powers, my ancestor.  He was powerful and eloquent speaking out against tyranny. The candidates running for office today seem like people who are more interested in own egos, than in serving the people they are supposed to be representing. Our number one responsibility is to take care of people in community.  I come from a long line of people who understood that we have a responsibility to work for the good of the people.”

Legere has also found what she believes is her most important work, serving the community.

“Recently, I received notice that my application to form a non-profit 501-c-3 in New York had been approved. Years ago, I founded the New York Underground Museum, which was about celebrating and encouraging artist whose work wasn’t being featured in museums.  And the most amazing thing began to happen- the Museum is located in a very diverse neighborhood, and lots of local kids would come in to see the art.  I began to realize that these kids were getting very little in school about art, and few opportunities to create.  My hope is the non-profit will change that.”

"I've received wonderful press, been the subject of features on NPR five times. I've had a chance to work all over.  And I still think this is some of the most important work I do."

Legere is also a self-taught engineer. She has created a environmentally friendly mode of transportation called the Shamancyle, which uses three forms of renewable energy to move people around.  

"It helps if you are a 'wires and buttons' guy. My grandfather fixed clocks, so I guess I inherited my interest in how things work from him."

She sees major changes happening in the music industry, from when she started back in the early nineties. 

"You know, the Indie artists have won. Major record companies are now copying people like me. Technology today means that you don't have to spend $20,000 per track to record something. Most of what I've done has been created by me using basic computer technology in my own bedroom."

What's happening in the music business fits, in Legere's opinion, with a larger dynamic. 

"We're having a 'correction'. It's as if we've grown too big, maybe too fast. Nature abhors a tyranny of species.  The music business had to eventually crash and burn, and it hurt a lot of people except those on the extreme fringe of the underground.  That helps me, in a way."

"Things often change because we hear fusions of new things, or even familiar things. What often sells in music are very much the stupidest of sounds.  Things that sound like something you've heard before. I've read studies where it turns out that even the worst song becomes appealing once you've heard it three times- it loses it's ability to offend. And yet, American music is one of the great treasures of this world. Blues, folks, jazz- all the stories and melodies and harmonies. I believe that artists have a moral duty to address the agenda of scientific and social justice- that is really your gig as an artist.  You have to nail yourself to the 'cross of truth.'  The gig for musicians and artists- for all of us- is to leave the world a better place than you found it."

Few artists do that as intentionally and brilliantly as Phoebe Legere.  She takes a great deal of her inspiration from the world around her. 

"I do a lot of camping when I am on tour, and it gives me an entirely different perspective.  I go to some of the most remote places, people invite me... I meet people who tell me their stories, people who have overcome terrible calamities, losses, grief- people tell you things that you can learn from.  That's been a wonderful part of my journey."

She has been called a ‘musical Renaissance woman,' 'a genius,' and a ‘treasure.’ Phoebe Legere is a brilliant, thoughtful artist, with an amazingly clear vision for her art, and for the world we live in. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Crafting a Career- A Conversation with David Bromberg

Calling David Bromberg a guitarist is like saying that Van Gogh ‘painted a little.’ 

Bromberg’s career in music spans six decades and more than 50 years.  A part of the mid-to late sixties folk scene at Greenwich Village, he has had a thriving career as a performer and session musician, recording with the likes of Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, Emmy Lou Harris, Carly Simon, Jerry Garcia, John Prine and George Harrison.  He may be the only session musician who has worked with both Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys.

Photo by Jim McGuire

While his career has been expansive, it hasn't always been linear.  Between 1980 and 2002, Bromberg took a musical ‘detour’- he attended the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making in Chicago, where he lived for 22 years.   He put his touring and recording career on hold, he recounted.

“Yeah, I entirely stopped touring.  There was a period of time where I was on the road for two straight years without having more than two consecutive weeks at home. You burn yourself out when you do that. And I burned out, I was just too dumb to know it was burnout.”

“On tour, I wasn't able to practice, jam, perform with others. I was tired, and I just didn't want to drag myself onstage and become a bitter imitation of a guy doing something he used to love. So I went to Violin School.”

“Violin is something you can study, but never learn.   I learned to make them so I could identify them.  When someone talks about playing a Martin, a Gibson, or a Fender guitar, there's a really good chance that they were made in a Martin, Gibson, or Fender factory.  But if a violin says Stradivarius violin, the odds are pretty long that the Stradivarius ever saw the instrument. That intrigued me. I’m still studying, I’m still interested in violins, and run a shop that sells and repairs them in Delaware.”

Bromberg grew up in the Hudson River Valley in the sixties.  Although he was aware of them, and would run into them, Bromberg was not directly involved with Pete Seeger’s ‘Clearwater ‘ Foundation.  Bromberg deeply respects the pioneering effort spearheaded by Seeger.

“Pete deserves all the credit in the world for what he did with the Clearwater, educating people about the Hudson River and pollution. I knew a lot of the artists working with him on that project, but Pete deserves to be remembered for his efforts. There’s no other project like it anywhere.”

Bromberg drifted down to the New York City/Greenwich Village folk scene, which was vibrant and offered a lot of opportunities for talents like him.   Before long, his prowess on stringed instruments made him a much-in-demand accompanist and sideman. He worked with Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels.  As his fame grew, he was invited into the studio to record with other musicians. He appeared in hundreds of sessions on hundreds of albums, including work by Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, The Eagles, Link Wray, and Bob Dylan.  He may be the only musician who worked with both Dylan and The Beastie Boys.

While doing session work, Bromberg was encouraged to step out on his own by a fellow guitar player, the late and legendary Steve Burgh.

“I actually continued sessions for quite for a while- my friend Steve Burgh and I would sit around my apartment in New York, and play.  Sometimes I'd sing.  At the time, I was an accompanist for a lot of people- and Steve, who was a wonderful guitar player, said he would give up guitar and play bass for me if I'd tour.  And when someone as talented as him is willing to give up the limelight, that's something you sit up and take notice of.  He was my band for a few years, until we expanded into a band.   And he still played bass with me. It meant a lot to me that he would be willing to accompany me.”

Bromberg’s career stretches from the folk revival of the sixties through til today.  He is one of the few remaining performers who studied directly with Reverend Gary Davis, the legendary gospel and blues singer, whose students included Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, Rory Block, and the producer of Bromberg’s most recent CD, “Only Slightly Mad,” Larry Campbell. Bromberg’s love of gospel and blues was cemented by his experience with Davis.

“Reverend Davis was a wonderful teacher, incredibly patient.  As part of my experience studying with him, I took him to his church on Sundays. I just started to love the church, all of them, with this wonderful music. I loved that music.  I’ve probably been in more churches than any Jewish boy you know.”

His latest CD opens with a song he heard in those churches in the Bronx and Manhattan- Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” written by the enigmatic blues and gospel singer. It’s one of several blues tunes featured on the CD.

“It’s a song I heard at those churches,” remembers Bromberg.

Famed for his live shows, Bromberg is looking forward to this tour.

What can people expect?

“Well, hopefully, they can expect to hear good music.  I’m doing a new CD, called “The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues,” so people can expect to hear some blues.”

 But don’t shout out song suggestions to the artist while he’s performing.

“Yeah, one or two people will call things out, but I’ve pretty much broken the audience of doing that.  The way I work, shouting out for a song has the opposite effect.  I never have a set list.  When I finish playing a tune, I have a feeling about what energy I want to happen next, and people shouting out stuff gets confusing. I lose track of that energy.”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Mood is Right- a Conversation with Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues

Justin Hayward, one of the most distinctive voices and guitar stylists of our generation, is touring the United States with his "Stage Door" show.    The lead singer of the Moody Blues for the past 50 years, Hayward has helped sell over 70 million albums and CD’s. He performs acoustically with Mike Dawes on guitar and Julie Ragins on keyboards and other instruments.

Hayward, who considers himself a songwriter first and foremost, joined the Moody Blues in late 1966, and over short period of time helped to change their sound, as he explained.

“In truth, we were the same band trying to play the same sets initially, after Clint Warwick and Denny Laine left in 1966. We were trying to continue to play rhythm and blues. I came aboard as a songwriter with a determination to get my songs done.  Mike Pindar, (keyboard player) was writing. When we realized that the lineup we had become didn’t work as a rhythm and blues band, we decided to play mostly our own materiel. Things were tough for a while- I went back to live with my parents during this time."

“We tried doing our own materiel. Around that time, 1967, Decca hired us to record an album that was really a way for them to demonstrate how stereo worked. That record became ‘Days of Future Passed’.  You can tell- there’s a lot of echo in it, and the sound today feels very thin to me.”

Hayward would often build his songs at home before bringing them to the band.

“I would do a lot of work at home.  I’ve always felt that trying to do a lot of the work of putting a song together in the studio is really hit or miss, though there is nothing wrong with doing it that way. I’ve found it more satisfying to do it my own way.  I would work out the bass line, and the rhythm guitar, so that by the time we got to the studio I already knew what I wanted. The one variable was the keyboard lines, and Mike Pindar was always adding these fantastic bits.”

Ironically, the song most associated with the Moody Blues, the iconic ‘Nights in White Satin,’ remains somewhat enigmatic to Hayward, it’s writer.

“I'm not sure why it’s been such a success.  At the time, a lot of people including some in the band thought the song didn't have any of the qualities of a successful single. It wasn’t even released in the United States at first- ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ was released first in the United States. I guess the song has some kind of resonance with people, though I’m at a loss.  I know you can go anywhere we play and people will react to it.“

The distinctive sound of the Moody Blues- lush, orchestral with soaring harmonies, often counterpointed with falsetto, derived from a combination of factors.

“The key for us was the Mellotron – it was an instrument that had started out as a  sound effects unit. It also contained orchestral sounds on it... this was before the development of the synthesizer. Mike Pindar was familiar with it, and had worked with the company that built it for a few months. He knew the potential of the instrument. So those sounds became the sound of the Moody Blues. “

“We also had four really good voices in the band, and we had to find a place for within the range of those voices for each of us, which is why we used falsetto.  I was in the middle, and the falsetto thing allowed us to arrange voices in a way that came naturally.”

Hayward considers himself a songwriter, and finds that the solo performance setting brings out a unique relationship with the songs he has written.

“The solo performance. Takes me back to where I was when I wrote the song, the essence.  When I’m working solo, I can hear every nuance in the room.  It’s exactly the original way I heard them when I wrote them. I love playing with the ‘Moodies’-we’ve had great group success. Performing onstage requires a different balance, in a technical way, than recording does. I’ve always started my songs with acoustic runs and guitar. Doing this solo I have this valuable opportunity to perform with two great musicians.  It’s much closer to the spirit of the songwriting process.”

The Moody Blues have fans all over the world, and apparently off this world, too.

“It seems that our music was a favorite of NASA, back during the shuttle days. They made up a tape of Moodies stuff that they took with them on the missions; I suppose we were a little disappointed that they bootlegged the tape.  Hoot Gibson, one of the Shuttle pilots, is a lovely, charming man. It was a big thrill to meet him. All these people at NaSA were a big inspiration for me.

Hayward is primarily playing acoustic guitar on this tour.

“My hero was Buddy Holly, who always used acoustic and electric guitars on his recordings, which was a revelation to me.  It’s probably the reason why they Moodies didn't have a rhythm guitar player. "

It all boils down to the performance. Artists as diverse as Glenn Campbell and Slade, Deodato and The Dickies have covered his songs.  One cover stands out to Hayward, that of songstress Bettye LaVette, whose smoldering version of ‘Nights’ impressed Hayward.

“I think she gave every word a new meaning; the whole song has new meaning to me after I heard her version. I wrote to her, she wrote back and it was delightful.  It’s by far the best cover version. I absolutely loved it; it means a lot to me.”

Hayward continues to tour with and without the Moody Blues.