Cory Branan, The Middle East, and Feeling Better Than It Should

Cory Branan @ The Middle East

Cory Branan @ The Middle East

Cory Branan makes Mutt Music! That may sound like a lame insult I’ve just invented, but it’s actually the term he’s been using to describe his music for some time, and it’s what he alluded to in titling his most recent album Mutt. He proudly owns the hybrid, eclectic styles of music it contains, and well he should.  He shifts and combines styles seamlessly.  It’s brilliant. His musical style was one of the topics of conversation when I interviewed him before his set at the Middle East Downstairs on July 21st.
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Tim Barry on Why He Doesn’t Want to Be a Rock Star, His Secret City, His First Song and More

At the Middle East, July 21st

Among the crowd at the Middle East, July 21st

When I asked Tim Barry how he would classify the style of music he plays, he told me, “I just say it’s Rock & Roll with an acoustic guitar.” I’ll buy that.  I know that his solo set during the show at the Middle East Downstairs on Sunday, July 21st   reminded me of what rock and roll is really about as much or more than did any of the sets by artists with full bands and electric instruments.  He had the nervous energy and desire to please that an aspiring artist might bring to an important audition, yet he was confident and a consummate performer.  He established a rapport with the audience that made it seem like he leading a sing along with a bunch of friends at a pub. This was especially true when he took the microphone stand from the stage and put in on the floor in front so he could sing in the midst of the crowd. This was a guy who was working his ass off to put on a great show, but having a great time at it. He told stories and philosophized, but mostly he played his heart out, and the crowd ate it up.

As he recounted in the post Musicians Egos and…, he had been largely responsible for bringing the show together, and several acts expressed their appreciation to “nice guy” Tim, either from the stage of when I talked to them later.  It was a Sunday night show that certainly didn’t feel like it was happening on a Sunday night! I’ll have more to say about the other acts in later posts, but for now let me tell you about Tim Barry, and incredibly exciting artist I had the good fortune to interview on June 17 by phone from his home in Richmond, four days before the show in Cambridge.

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Saint Paul de what? Even If You Can’t Pronounce the Name of this Seattle Band, You Want Them On Your Playlist

St. Paul de Vence are, from left to right: Mike Sievers, Kale Lotton, Jonny Gundersen, Lydia Ramsey, Benjamin Doerr & Alex Malloy.

St. Paul de Vence are, from left to right: Mike Sievers, Kale Lotton, Jonny Gundersen, Lydia Ramsey, Benjamin Doerr & Alex Malloy.

If you’re a musician and someone asks you to write their story, there’s probably a good chance that it’s going to come out in song. That’s precisely what happened when Seattle-based musician Benjamin Doerr set out to write the stories he collected from his grandfather who had come of age in France under the German occupation of World War II, then joined the Free French to fight for the liberation of his country. Though the stories may still find themselves into print in some form someday, Doerr found they initially came out as songs. Eventually those songs evolved into a band and a self-titled 11-song album, St. Paul de Vence, named after a town in Southwest France where Ben’s grandfather was stationed for a time.

Now if you’re yawning and thinking who cares about something that happened decades ago and ocean away, well…  I’ll skip the cliche about those who don’t study history, even though it’s true, because the album isn’t a history lesson at all.  It’s a collection of 11 catchy tunes with compelling lyrics that will appeal even if you can barely place France on a map, or didn’t know it was ever at war with Germany.  It’s just even more fascinating with context.  On July 16, I talked to Ben about the project from his home in Seattle about the project, the band, the album, what he’s working on now, and what’s next for St. Paul de Vence.

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Musicians’ Egos and the Six Acts Playing Sunday in Cambridge, Friday in Detroit

June21We all know how musicians are and how tough the music business can be.  Musicians have huge egos and the business is intensely competitive.  Because of these big egos, artists don’t work together well, and when the record companies make them do so, it’s the stuff of big drama. It’s what made last season’s tv drama Nashville a hit, and it’s the reason why we can only have one American Idol or winner of The Voice each season. Yet I hardly ever hear those kinds of stories when I talk to musicians. The kinds of stories I hear much more often are ones like the one Time Barry told me about how the six act show on Sunday, July 21st, Downstairs at the Middle East came about.
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Getting Gracefully from Formal: Eric Himan Tells the Story of his New Album

Eric Himan

Eric Himan

In 2012 Eric Himan decided he wanted to record an album with a different sound than anything he’d done before. Though the 34-year-old, Tulsa-based, singer-songwriter had already released 10 albums on his own label, he knew that this project would cost a lot of money, so he took to Pledgemusic to raise money for an album to be called Formal. T-shirts were printed with bow ties on them and everything. He recorded six songs,

but wasn’t happy with the results. So what did this guy who’s previously only been accountable to himself on his own label do? He pulled back, retrenched, and started over. The result was no longer called Formal, but Gracefully, named in honor of his grandmother who had raised him, and had died while he was working on the project.

Gracefully is a 12-track collection of original songs, the 8th such album he’s released since his self-titled debut in 2000, and it is different, both sonically and in the way it came into existence, but Eric doesn’t see it as radically so. He rightfully points out that there’s a natural progression between it and the albums leading up to it. He’s been increasingly experimenting with the styles of music on this album, as well as playing with other musicians and, of course, with the piano. On July 7 I had the chance to talk with him in some detail about the album, the frustrations and joys of making it, and the people he worked with. Along the way we also talked about the challenges of supporting oneself as a musician in the industry today, songwriting, and a few other topics.

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Cory Chisel and Will Dailey Play Intimate Show at the Sinclair

Ade Denae, Cory Chisel, Matt Pynn and Will Dailey close the show.

Ade Denae, Cory Chisel, Matt Pynn and Will Dailey close the show Monday night.

The audience that turned out for the show on Monday at The Sinclair in Cambridge was  small.  Both the headliner, Cory Chisel from Appleton, Wisconsin and Boston’s own Will Dailey are capable of drawing much larger audiences, so I’m not sure what happened.  Maybe the storm warnings around the area made people nervous about traveling in; maybe it was because it was because it was a Monday show during the Fourth of July week, and people were out of town; maybe it was because the show was not well enough publicized…  Who knows?  Whatever the reason, the turnout was small. That can really affect the energy of a show, but it didn’t seem to be the case on Monday night.  Both acts played great, exciting sets. In fact one might argue the show benefitted from having fewer people in the crowd, creating a more intimate atmosphere and some exciting audience interaction.

As far as I was concerned, Chisel had some high expectations to meet.  I’ve been wanting to see him play live since I bought a Windows desktop in 2009 and the music video for his song “Born Again” came with Windows Media Player. Continue reading

Another Like You? Profiling Hayes Carll While Avoiding Lazy Comparisons He Hates

Hayes Carll fronts the Warren Hood Band at Johnny D's on June 11

Hayes Carll fronts the Warren Hood Band at Johnny D’s in Cambridge, MA on June 11

Known for his clever lyrics and turn of a phrase, I didn’t know what to expect when I interviewed Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll. The man writes incredibly clever lyrics that can be awfully sharp-witted at times. And I had given him reason to be annoyed with me.  I live in Boston, MA; he in Austin, TX and we set up a time on my lunch break from my real job for a phone interview. I called as scheduled, only in spite of working for nearly a decade for a national non-profit that had one of it’s primary offices just north of Austin, it slipped my mind the city is in the Central Time Zone, so I called an hour early. I sent a contrite text and nervously awaited a reply. Over the next couple hours and a business like exchange, we set up another interview the next day. I expected some sort of reprimand, a demand to keep the interview short, or at least a snide remark. I got none of that, only a gracious acceptance of my apology. It struck me that Hayes might be a nice guy. What a relief! I really needed this interview! Continue reading