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Howe Gelb on Vic Chesnutt and other musical collaborations

23 Dec

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“i like the way my sentences flow before you wrangled them.”

This is the most memorable sentence Howe Gelb wrote to me during the process of interviewing him via e-mail in September 2011. And no, the lower case “i” in his proclamation is not a mistake…

Out in the Sonoran Desert, where ancient rocks are strewn like giant grains of sand, there still exists a zealous bastion of linguistic obstinacy – in the spirit of cummings, Chomsky, Wolf and Dickinson – who eschews being edited (even slightly) and highly prioritizes a very personal orthographic preference.

Howe Gelb is both poet and innovator, and as such requires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own chosen cadence, tempo, beat and pause. He explains it thusly: “i always thought the more stripped down a writing is, the more like a rough mix it appears. and i adore rough mixes, often favoring them over final mixes.”

Howe typed the answers you read here exactly the way he wanted them to appear and requested that they be provided sans capital letters. I have thus refrained from any wrangling and am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: In The Guardian, Giant Sand is described “as a loose, uncompetitive, mutually supportive musical collective, a place for friends to hang out and play” and you are quoted as saying, “i just liked the idea of having this kind of removed world, this brotherhood—the idea of a band being something more than a front person or dealing with the throes of fame.” How do you maintain that sense of brotherhood, quell the egos involved, keep that supportive workshop feeling and not let a famous personality or leader mentality take over so you can create an egalitarian atmosphere in which to make music?

Howe: the side effect of popularity or relative fame and fortune has never been very appealing… its outcome looks annoying… a more ‘blue collar’ approach to sonic existence seems more comfortable and i reckon that’s what we ultimately ever shoot for, that standard of comfort in this life to get the job done and enjoy the doing along the way, taking in the end of the day with an exhaustion that merits.

this template allows for an enormous amount of output as well as permits the actuality of raising a family instead of sacrificing one for the other. just enough ‘ego’ needs to be implemented to be able to enjoy the stage as a work space and not let it crush your skull or stomp your heart by its imposing loom.

members in the band will feel like minded. those that eventually don’t will be able to use the premise to spring board into their own mesh of how ambition and sonic deployment can be then tailored to suit their own needs once they leave the fold.

that said, there is a compiling strain from years on the road that instigates needed perks along the way in order to facilitate longevity. things like upgrades in air travel and better hotel rooms. a lack of stanky rock clubs in lieu of more sensible venues to dispense more properly in theater like confines. this can get tricky when the music has remained unknown enough and not easily categorized. it takes some creative promotion as the years spin by to continue delivering anything vital outside of mass appeal.

but that is the music i have always been drawn to. the rhetoric of a rehearsed set of music by bands determined to get to the next level actually makes me a little sea sick. probably an allergic reaction to honing the craft in a way so as to never allow the gamble of a unique night of music to come into play. i tend to avoid bands that work the crowd instead of expanding their sound nightly through immediate evolution where risk is a flavor and the outcome is worth it.

Frances: As alluded to in the song “Fields of Green,” you mentored and spawned many bands around the Tucson area. You “lift up” others in your performances regularly. I was in the Old Pueblo when I first heard you play live and got turned on to the wonderful music of the late Rainer Ptacek. How would you describe your collaboration with Rainer as well as your philosophy as a musical mentor?

Howe: that’s a loaded question.

when rainer and i met in the mid 70s, i recognized something in him instinctually. something i could never define till years later. when i have stumbled upon bands or band members that i’d chosen to be part of this sonic fabric, it has been in similar fashion, but none so important to me as rainer was, maybe because i was only 19 at the time, but mostly because of the spirit of the man. it’s a blessing and a curse, this sonic life, when the energy is in play, a music occurs and it’s the best of times. you can see it swirl on stage between conjuring implementers. when the energy is not harbored into play, it’s a an impish storm that confuses and sparks the room in chaos.

all rainer and i ever verbally agreed to was to make a music that would not embarrass us 20 years into the future. so we took our cues from strident elements of historical proportions and mixed them up with a state of exploratory endeavors that would serve the future the way we noticed it had gone on long before us. and along the way we collected a vast assortment of young ‘lifers’ stained with the same urgency.

Vic Chesnutt is on the far right of this group of friends at the Barbican 10 years ago.

Frances: You were also friends with the late Vic Chesnutt, whose passing two years ago at Christmas is still mourned by all who knew him. One of my favorite songs is “Classico,” and I love the way you have two versions on “Is All Over the Map” – to me, it sounds like a song Vic would write. How would you characterize his contribution to modern folk/alt music and how did that collaboration come about?

Howe: vic was the greatest american singer songwriter i have ever had the pleasure of knowing. he was the only true definition of the term i have ever witnessed. his songs were monsters, meaning massive wondrous plunks of existence, and his voice was impossibly enormous and soulful beyond measure.

he was the best. and his constant struggle in this life is never to be fully realized by the likes of us. he toured incessantly by his sheer singular will. and he was one of my favorite guitar players, attacking it in a way that was severely refreshing, making each note matter more than any i’ve ever heard, except for rainer. i loved him so. this world is less now without him, but him being here at all was a great gift and a continuous inspiration still.

as for ‘classico,’ i was still trying to write a song for marianne faithfull to sing, since my buddy polly was working on her record at the same time, but instead vic came to town and i know an omen when i see one.

Frances: I think your lyrics, and the way they work with the music, are what fascinate me most about Giant Sand. Some of the lyrics are so comical, and almost silly-seeming, that many song writers might be “afraid” to use them and therefore couldn’t pull them off. (Example: “I poured me cranberry juice there on the floor letting it flow on the mirror under the door” – I recall laughing out loud the first time I heard this song.) How does your sense of humor inform your confidence in songwriting and… yep, the age-old “which came first” question: Do you compose lyrics or music first… or is it a combination?

Howe: that’s the age-old question… but there is never an age-old answer.

songs happen when they care to and however they dare to. there is no way to count on them or formulate the process. i have the ability to utilize my disability. songs are the event once you clear yourself of everything else inside you. they are there waiting to happen.

singing songs that you make up on the spot is a matter of lying to yourself that they have been around forever, and then they sound like they have been.

humor and sex are important elements in song. to be able laugh at life and how it clobbers us is also a great way to make an otherwise difficult point to put across. to rework the essence of how we procreate as a species is the stuff that needs to be addressed more often than not.

anyhow… the song you mention with sliding a mirror under the door and pouring cranberry juice on it was a reflection of lament and dement in my time of languishing the loss of my former rhythm section, who have done well, but sadly still fail to include those two basic elements in their material. but once they read this, that will change too.

Frances: When I want to relax without lyrics, I go to “Spun Some Piano” and “Lull Some Piano” for a change. Although many of your Giant Sand songs are sans piano, you are often described as a piano virtuoso. How did you learn to play and who were your main influences?

Howe: wilkes-barre, pennsylvania is flooding as we speak. the susquehanna river is an eventual monster. 40 years ago it knocked on our door and raised up six feet over our roof. that’s what sent me to arizona where my dad was living. it also smashed the piano to bits i never practiced on. with the flood relocation money i bought me a univox electric piano and drove the apartment complex nuts we were evacuated to. but that’s where it started. i learned how to play “all the way to memphis” by mott the hoople all the while i began discovering piano players in the “cheap” bin at the record store. champion jack dupree, memphis slim, and otis spann got me started. tommy flanigan and ahmad jamal (both whom i had the pleasure of seeing live), mcoy tyner and oscar petersen, kept me following the thread, until i finally hit the payload with thelonious sphere monk.

after the two you mentioned came “ogle some piano” …and now this month comes “snarl some piano” which actually manages to free you up when in a traffic snarl, if played in its entirety. money back guarantee. i think.

Frances: Your vocals lend themselves to duos with a soft, naïve female voice. Examples I enjoy are “No Tellin” and “Love A Loser” from “Blurry Blue Mountain.” What characteristics work best for this type of duo?

Howe: i would have much preferred to have been a player in a band with a great singer, but I didn’t want to wait for that to ever happen, so just handled the chore myself.

lonna beth kelley is the woman you mention in those BBM songs and I find her voice such a fine smolder. we try to bring her on the road to have her open as much as possible. I adore her lip flip, but also the hang time on the road. she’s a comfort zone and a smile waiting to happen. funny as hell too.

Frances: You obviously have a loyal and astute audience who knows your disposition and irreverent approach to fusing elements from most every musical genre. What is your relationship to your audience and how much do you care/not care what they think of your creations?

Howe: it’s scary seeing how every kind of music has such similar thread. any song can be done up in any genre. it’s there in front of us. i just try and get to it as much as possible. because of my tin ear, it all just sounds like me doing up my usual muck-a-luck.

anyhow, i tend to make the same music my audience would make if they allowed themselves the time to work it up themselves. so they pay me to do it instead. like hiring a plumber.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Please also read my Sept. 11 interview with Howe Gelb here.

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Coming UpArt

26 Oct

This new communique about artists and their art is dedicated to my mother, Ruthe Ballard Figart Sphar, who taught me at a very early age to surrender to the call of creativity. Without Mom, I would not be the creative communicator that I am — and this first installment would have been finished a month ago.

For the past 30 days I have been beside my mother day and night, 24/7, intuitively taking care of her as her body tries to find a way to coexist with a deteriorated heart, and her mind struggles to let go of the physical limitations she cannot change. I have perhaps learned more from her this past month than in all my 47 years with her, because I have listened more attentively, cared more affectionately and loved more fully than ever before.

During this trying time, the few hours I’ve been able to devote here and there to this project have brought me release and inspiration. The goal is to promote artists that I admire, spreading the word about their work. Artists are the least compensated members of the work force proportionate to the amount of joy they bring to human beings. Even in the face of difficulty, the inspiration of art, music, film, theatre or literary composition can make us feel that everything’s coming up roses. Coming UpArt is a new e-mail blast and blog update of fresh art you can enjoy, buy for holiday gifts, and learn more about through online links. Get in touch with me via e-mail if you would like to provide feedback or have your projects featured in Coming UpArt.

~~~

Nate Miller, Photographer ~ Asheville, North Carolina

Nate Miller hails from Parma, Ohio, where he started focusing on macro nature photography about a decade ago while being a caregiver to his father. Now working in the artsy Asheville, North Carolina, he still uses a fairly rudimentary camera and takes a bold approach to his subjects, mostly flowers. His collections include thousands of nature portraits, about which fellow artist Cynthia Cusick has written, “He pours you into the middle of the flower’s petals or the connection between blooms. His framing immerses us in the richness and luminescence of color, cropping out any distractions.” Landscape photographer John Snell says, “Nate has a great eye for nature’s graphics and simplicity.” But Nate stakes no claim to the title of artist. “I’m rather an interpreter,” he says, “seeking to reveal that which transpires behind that which appears.” He is currently booking guest appearances at open houses in both homes and businesses from North Carolina to Ohio to show and sell his prints during November. See more of Nate’s work and purchase prints on his web site; follow his work on Facebook; purchase his art on various household items, including laptop skins, phone cases, organic t-shirts and more on his CafePress site; read Cynthia Cusick’s blog about him and check out mine as well.

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Joe Lamirand, Filmmaker/Musician/Songwriter ~ Indianapolis, Indiana

Film director, writer and producer Joe Lamirand won accolades during the past year when the short film “Turning Japanese” swept through numerous world-class film festivals winning countless awards, including best short at the prestigious American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes. “It was truly a life changing experience and an opportunity to work with some very talented people,” he says, “including our star Brian Austin Green.” The feature length version of “Turning Japanese” is currently in development with Robin Gurland, notable casting director for Star Wars Episodes I and II. Joe’s earlier films include the off-beat feature-length comedy “Talent,” and the short “Hollow.” In addition to being a producer, Joe co-wrote three original songs for “Turning Japanese,” two of which he produced with vocalist and collaborator Mia Joseph. After the film’s success, the two teamed up to form an alternative rock band, Blue Spark, which has been making waves in Indianapolis during 2011. The band is going into the studio in early November to record their first CD. Helping to grow the band’s cult following, Joe directed a whimsical music video featuring Blue Spark performing one of their most popular originals from their demo, “Punk Cowboy.” Watch “Punk Cowboy” on YouTube; listen to other Blue Spark songs on ReverbNation; follow Blue Spark and Turning Japanese on Facebook.

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Cynthia Cusick, Ceramicist ~ Irvine, Kentucky

Growing up just north of New York City and spending much of her young adult life immersing herself in what she calls “the energy and grittiness of the City,” Cindi moved to an old farm house in rural Eastern Kentucky in the late ‘90s. This shift to a more natural environment, she says, “added a dimension to my self-expression. I rediscovered my sense of awe and fulfilled childhood dreams long thought abandoned.” One of these dreams was to be an artist, so in her 40s she finally took time off from her graphic design business and got a BFA from Eastern Kentucky University with concentrations in ceramics and metalsmithing. Much of her work references organic objects as metaphors for life experiences, focusing on women’s issues, sexuality, nature and intimacy. Shown above: Porcelain Juice Cup with Slit and Red Eruptions. A continuation of other “eruption” works, this whimsical piece sits on small, unobtrusive feet placed inside the bottom edge and is brushed with pink and mauve underglazes. Read more about this item on Esty; follow Cynthia Cusick, Teahorse Studio on Facebook; see more of Cindi’s work on her web site; read Cindi’s marvelous blog about her process and check out my blog interview with her.

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Paul Ramey, Author/Musician ~ Jacksonville, Florida

Artist, writer and musician Paul Ramey lost his best friend Salvador earlier this year. Salvador was Paul’s dog. Within two months, Paul had published “Zen Salvador,” a tribute to “Sal” in the form of a bound series of minimalist ink-brush illustrations depicting man and dog, along with original observations about life’s path. All proceeds from the sale of this book are earmarked for the Jacksonville Humane Society. “Salvador and I had an amazing 16-year journey, and he taught me many things along the way,” Paul says. “After his death, I wanted to do something that honored that journey, and would send some positive energy forward. Helping other animals in Sal’s memory was a natural direction.” Paul hopes that people will consider this 24-page publication as a collectible piece of art more than simply a book. Each page is intended as a meditation, allowing the reader to stop, absorb the thought, and have a quiet moment to contemplate. The book ends with the touching story of how Paul and Salvador first met each other back in 1995. Visit the “Zen Salvador” web site; follow “Zen Salvador” on Facebook; learn more about Paul; and check out the 2-CD goth/rock opera Veil & Subdue that Paul composed and recorded.

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Patrick McNeese, Musician/Painter/Director ~ Lexington, Kentucky

Patrick McNeese is a Kentucky-based visual artist, singer-songwriter and documentary filmmaker. Perhaps best known for his highly expressionist artwork, Patrick has been creating distinctive oil and mixed media paintings for nearly three decades in his downtown Lexington studio. His paintings are included in numerous public and private collections throughout the U.S. Patrick writes and performs his original songs on piano and guitar. “My recent work has been described as ‘Appalachian Jazz’ because it embodies the energy and freedom of certain jazz ideas (i.e. syncopation and improvisation), as it also borrows from the rich traditions of music-making and song craft from the Appalachian region,” he says. Patrick has written, performed and produced three independent albums: “The Singing Bridge” 1989; “Me, Mywolf and I” 1993; and “Any Day Now” 2005, and has also composed original music for several film and video projects. Patrick wrote, produced and directed five independent documentaries, most dealing with the lives and work of both historical and contemporary artists and musicians. In 2006, he received a Director’s Citation at the Black Maria Film Festival for his film about a Vietnam veteran who is also a gifted artist. See more of Patrick’s art, check out his music on iTunes, CDBaby and ReverbNation, follow Patrick on Facebook and read my blog interview with him.

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Hans Peter Jorgensen, Sculptor ~ Decorah, Iowa

Like many artists, Hans Peter (HP) Jorgensen has worn many professional hats to support himself throughout his career, and has returned to a more concentrated focus on art in his retirement. Earning a BFA from Michigan State in 1965, HP soon discovered that making a living as a sculptor in the Midwest was problematic. So instead he earned his living through design and construction of architectural elements, historic restoration and, more recently, non-profit program design. “I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, whatever I was designing,” he says. Over the years, HP has produced thousands of objects—sculptures, furniture, clothing accessories, photographs, books, architectural restorations and programs for various non-profits. Since retirement he has focused on producing sculptures featuring the human figure with an emphasis on faces. He works in clay and casts in either plaster or bronze. Shown here: Homo Technologicus II (detail) is painted plaster, 18″ x 32″, 2011, the second in a series exploring the interface between humans and the technology that is an increasing part of our society. This piece is one in a series currently on display through the end of October at Perfect Edge Gallery in Decorah, Iowa. Click here to follow Hans Peter Jorgensen, Sculptor, on Facebook.

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Kathleen Farago May, Fine Artist ~ Ottawa, Ontario

The evolution of her art from drawing to painting, to printing (etchings and silk screens) and finally to digital painting has been part of Kathleen Farago May’s life adventure. “Each medium has allowed me to more clearly express the spiritual impulses that have driven my creative work,” she says. She perceives her creative process to be a collaboration, to which she contributes her experience, technical skill and aesthetics in order to express the ideas and feelings she is inspired to bring to life. While her early paintings often expressed a rejection of traditional religious forms, today’s images are about “embracing the sense of the numinous that we feel when we acknowledge Oneness.” Kathleen’s themes reflect the fact that she adheres to no single spiritual tradition, but rather remains open to guidance from her higher self. The imagery is symbolic – a sphere, a face, wings, water, the sun – alluding to elements of philosophical and spiritual significance. When the images are not figurative, there is simply a feeling in the abstracted color-scapes and mandalas – a sense of awe, wonder and transported gratitude. Shown here: Time Lapse Self Portrait 1978-2011. You can view Kathleen’s collections on Facebook by clicking these four links: EmergenceAffinitySpringWall.

~~~

Mike Coykendall, Producer/Musician/Songwriter ~ Portland, Oregon

Best known for touring with and producing M. Ward, Mike Coykendall (“Kirkendall”) fits his own songwriting and recording in between recording projects with artists like Blitzen Trapper, Richmond Fontaine, She & Him and Pancake Breakfast. Mike’s folk-rock sound features his trademark wise, raspy vocals set to country-infused psychedelia. In the early ‘90s, he and musical partner Jill Coykendall formed San Francisco’s Old Joe Clarks, an alternative country ensemble whose highly acclaimed CD “Town of Ten” shot to number 16 on the Americana charts. Rubbing elbows with musicians such as GIllian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, Mike has appeared on Austin City Limits, Late Night with David Letterman, Conan O’ Brien and Craig Ferguson. He performs around Portland regularly with The Golden Shag, has recorded two solo CDs – “Hello Hello Hello” (2005) and “The Unbearable Being of Likeness” (2009) – and is seeking the right label for his new double-CD release. Taking bookings across the U.S., Mike says, “I just want to perform as much as I can and tour as much as is possible.” Learn more on Mike’s web site; listen to his music on  iTunes; watch him perform “Lost as You Are” and the cover “I Can See Clearly Now,” and read my blog interview with him.

~~~

Please, before you buy your holiday gifts, consider purchasing art from one of these eight or countless other artists who have their work available online or in your local community, wherever you may be. Thank you for taking time to read these profiles! Get in touch with me via e-mail if you would like to provide feedback or have your projects featured in Coming UpArt.

Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

The artist interview: Mike Coykendall

31 Aug

THIS ARTICLE IS FEATURED ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

It’s January 24, 2011, and I’m driving alone somewhere in Indiana, listening to an Eels CD a friend burned for me. Suddenly a song comes on that demands my full attention and compels me to do something I reserve for life’s most powerful moments: talk out loud to myself. “What IS this? This isn’t the Eels, is it?”

The song’s wise, raspy vocals, world-weary guitar, folksy wistfulness and raw passion stirred deep emotions as I grabbed the CD cover to take a look at the credits. Sure enough, it wasn’t the Eels any more, but the first of six songs tacked onto the end of the CD by none other than Mike Coykendall. But who was he?

By that night I had learned that Mike’s last name is pronounced “Kirkendall,” that he is a studio engineer who has produced and toured with M. Ward, that he used to have a band called the Old Joe Clarks and has created two solo records, which I immediately downloaded (my first Itunes purchases, incidentally, lest you think I do this sort of thing all the time).

Before long, Mike and I were Facebook friends. We corresponded off and on about music for several months, he shared with me the demo of his upcoming release, and just last month, I got to meet him and his wife and musical partner, Jill Coykendall, in Portland, Ore., where they live. First I got to see them perform with their band, The Golden Shag, and then we met for coffee at the Albina Press one morning.

Frances: You’ve been making music since you were quite young, heading up Wichita-based rock band Klyde Konnor from 1984 to 1991. What are your earliest musical memories and how was your family instrumental in your creative development?

Mike: My parents were encouraging with regards to music, especially my mother. The earliest music I recall was my mother singing to me. She sang the songs that had been sung to her as a child and added to that some songs she’d learned from going to movies as a child in the 1940s. Beyond that, there was the music I heard when my mom took me to the Baptist church every Sunday; I wasn’t really paying attention, but it was there. My dad liked music too, but thought it was a bad road to go down professionally: no way to make a living. He kept the radio on in the car and listened strictly to country music. My older sister Kathy would sometimes take command of the radio when my mother was driving so I remember hearing “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey” by McCartney. That one got my attention because I had an Uncle Albert and I thought it was about him.

Frances: How old were you when you first performed in front of people?

Mike: Performing in front of people was something that I did before I can even really remember it. Probably because of my mother singing to me, I could sing complete songs at around age two – before I could really speak. Anyway, I was that freakish baby that they would stand up on the counter at the grocery store, or bank, or restaurant and ask him to sing. Then I would. Loudly. Those were my first performances. Evidently I didn’t like doing it because at age 3 or 4 my mother told me in private that if I didn’t want to sing at those places all I had to do was say no. So, I started saying no and never did that again.

Frances: When did you first begin to write songs?

Mike: I remember that I made up a song when I was about 5 or 6. It was a nice melody. Kind of schmaltzy and in waltz time. After that, I remember goofing around on this old upright piano that we had in our house. Just improvising. Often on only the black keys. No big deal, but I knew I could make stuff up and feel it. Then at 14 or 15 I consciously started trying to write guitar songs as I had my first “rock” band around that time. Those songs were pretty bad as I was only imitating my heroes. Poorly.

Frances: How did you first get into recording and what was the draw?

Mike: My interest in recording started in my late teens. I guess it was because by that time I realized that the recording studio had made possible much of the more experimental pop/rock music that seemed to be my favorite stuff. You could double a vocal, put backwards sounds on… things that are impossible to do live. So, I wanted to learn how to do that.

Frances: For decades, your wife Jill has been a major musical collaborator, supporter, player in your bands. What is the musical aspect of your relationship like?

Mike: We both work very hard in our own ways, often on our own. Working together is great, but we don’t do it as much as you might think. We’re both the same in that we need to practice on our own a lot; we give each other tons of space. We push and pull, inspire and encourage and respect each other musically.

Frances: The two of you moved from Kansas, to California, to Oregon. How do you compare those locations and how they inspired you musically? What is it about Portland that creates the right space for your home and musical work now?

Mike: I guess Kansas was great in that there were few distractions. Also, you were kind of out there on your own and there wasn’t that much music happening locally. So it was easy to get a gig and to start trying stuff out. San Francisco was great for the opposite reason. It was the anti-Kansas. It toughened me up, made me work even harder and focus a bit more. Plus it was really good for exposing me to all types of music; that’s where I really got into non-rock musics. (Great record stores down there.) I didn’t listen to rock at all for about five years in the ’90s. San Francisco made me sick of rock but offered me this wealth of options.

Portland was seen as a city that offered enough culture but also a laid back, friendlier lifestyle. We moved here in ’99 and at the time I really thought that I was going back to the sticks a little. It turned out to be a hot-spot for musician dreamers and wannabes – just like me. Also, it provided us a little more physical space, which allowed me to get into doing recordings for other artists, usually in my home.

Frances: You’ve collaborated with an international community of musicians, among them the likes of M. Ward, Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams. In terms of creative satisfaction, how do you compare playing and working with other musicians on their creations as opposed to creating your own songs and doing musical things on your own?

Mike: Well… M. Ward, I’ve collaborated with a bunch. We just get each other musically. It clicks. He’s great to work with. All four of those other artists you mention are people that I met through him once he started having success. I haven’t recorded Gillian. I just played a few musical performances with her and David Rawlings as part of the M. Ward thing.

As for comparing my own projects to being someone who helps others with their projects… well, I like both. Helping others pays better (so far). It’s great to be a part of someone else’s group so I don’t have to worry about promoting. I just get into the song and play it as well and inspired as I can as if it were my own. But it’s not – so I don’t take it as personally.

Frances: The band you currently head up is known as the Golden Shag. How does this group of musicians differ from and/or take something from your previous ensemble incarnations such as the Old Joe Clarks and even Klyde Konnor?

Mike: It’s the same and different. The Golden Shag probably falls somewhere in between Old Joe Clarks and Klyde Konnor. Old Joe Clarks was very disciplined and serious. Klyde Konnor was much more haphazard. The Shag is a little of both those things. Also, Klyde Konnor was about being in your 20s. Old Joe Clarks was the 30s. The Shag is the 40s. Each decade makes getting a group together and finding the time to rehearse much more difficult. Lives become more complicated. We’re doing pretty good, considering. It’s a great group of friends.

Frances: The first songs I heard of yours have remained two of my favorites: “Outward & Beyond” and “Wasted Star.” When we chatted about this, you assumed the versions I was hearing were from the Old Joe Clarks album November, only released in Europe. We later figured out they are from a short EP that was never sold commercially. Can you talk a little bit about the writing of these two songs and what they mean to you?

Mike: That EP you heard them on first was taken from a series of guitar/vocal recordings that I made for my dad back in 2005 or 2006. M. Ward heard them and wanted me to offer a few of them on an EP as a free giveaway with purchase from the M. Ward table. I guess kind of a way to get my stuff out there. I was never sure if it worked or not but now I know it did! Most of the songs I recorded were old Country covers as that is what my father liked (he never really “got” my originals).

“Outward and Beyond” was one of the last songs I wrote while living in San Francisco. I think I tied up a few loose ends on it shortly after moving to Portland. Anyway, I almost always carry a notebook with me so I can scribble words. I remember writing those lyrics while sitting in Golden Gate Park. I was trying to make sure that the words reflected accepting, moving, and being positive about all that comes your way as best you can. Then I put it to music later using a slowed down rhumba feel that seemed to work with the meditative quality of the whole thing.

“Wasted Star” was written shortly after moving to Portland. I remember being in the kitchen with my boom box cassette recorder. Just streaming / improvising things on guitar. Seeing what happens. When I do this, I’ll often sing words mixed with things that “sound” like words. Then later on, when I have the patience, I’ll go back and listen and then try to decipher the mixture of words and mumbles. That’s how this song came along. There it was, it grabbed me and it sounded like something that could be finished off with very little work. One of those that kind of just happened. I know I tweaked the improvised lyric a little later so some of it was conscious. I was just happy that it wasn’t another ballad! The Old Joe Clarks always needed these precious rockers (I tend to be a ballad king).

Frances: Your self-produced albums as Mike Coykendall, Hello, Hello, Hello in 2005 and The Unbearable Being of Likeness in 2009, demonstrate your ability to create combinations of folk rock and psychedelia and to engineer unique ambient sounds in the studio. Probably my favorite songs on those are “Top of the World,” “If I Only Knew” (which I just wish was longer!), “It’s Raining Inside” and “Bye-Bye-Baby-O.” How did you approach these albums/songs musically, philosophically, creatively?

Mike: Well, those two albums that you mention were for the most part recorded during the same time period, 2003-2005. Right after the last Old Joe Clarks record. I found myself without a live band and spending my time recording other artists in my home studio. I’d always wanted to make some adventurous studio records where I experimented with sounds. It seemed to be the right time to do it. So, whenever I had a day or two free, I’d just mess around in the studio. Sometimes I had a song already written, sometimes I would just lay stuff down and build on it until it became something or didn’t.

Each of the songs you mention were not written before the recording process began. “Top of the World” was just started with the acoustic part, then I layered on the other stuff. At some point I added the vocal, which was just a reaction to the sound and feeling of the music. “If I Only Knew” was started with a high-strung electric guitar part played through some pedals. It’s an “old time-ish / bluegrass” type lick if you play it on a standard tuning acoustic, but when played the way I did it sounded different and weird. The song is the length it is because that is as long as I played that first improvised basic track (I record on tape so no looping in the digital realm). Anyway, the lyrics were later taken out of one of my notebooks because I wanted to sing on it. “It’s Raining Inside” began as just the guitar riff. I wanted to do a guitar riff song that day as I tend to be a chord strummer. My attempt at a “Lucifer Sam” or “Day Tripper” kind of thing. I then spent a little time on the lyric but not too much. “Bye-Bye-Baby-O” was based off that incessant two-chord acoustic guitar that I put down at one point and then wrote/recorded the rest later. I mixed it but then forgot about it for a while. The lyric is full of dark humor. Musically it’s kind of a mess but it works with the lyric and overall feeling.

Frances: You’ve produced records for Blitzen Trapper, Tin Hat Trio, Pancake Breakfast, Richmond Fontaine and She & Him in the past five years as well. How do you strike a balance between the work you do for others to make a living and dedication to your own creative projects?

Mike: I usually put the work that pays the bills first on the list. Then I see where there are gaps in my schedule – or they just happen. I do my stuff then. I consider myself lucky to be able to work for and with other artists. I try to bring my best to every session. So, I’ve tended to place my own creative projects second. I still spend a lot of time doing my own stuff, but more as a release and for fun. I obsess but I don’t stress. It’s been a new way of working and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s been fun to get freaky again after the ’90s, when I really worked hard and focused on craft with Old Joe Clarks.

Frances: How do you feel musicians have had to adapt to the new economic realities?

Mike: Being a musician in the current economy… it’s tough. Tougher than ever. Records aren’t selling that well and you need to tour to get the word out. Touring costs are expensive and there is tons of competition in major markets. It’s an insane way to try and make a living, but some have made it work. Most musicians I know work day jobs (just as I did from ’84 to ’04). Hopefully they find jobs that allow them to tour if they get a chance. Those jobs are hard to come by. Also, they have to keep their rent as low as possible, like maybe live in someone’s converted garage, for example.


Frances: Upon listening to your new double CD release, I found similarities in various songs to influences as diverse as Robert Plant, the Hollies, Gillian Welch, Tony Rice, Howe Gelb, Rainer Ptacek, Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson and James McMurtry. It puts me in mind of the tone of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and The Band’s Music from Big Pink. But you actually based the initial blueprint for the record on an album by one of your primary influences, the Beatles, right?

Mike: Yes. For a year or so, while making this record, I played a secret game with myself by trying to use the Beatles White Album as my template and plugging my songs into their running order by some similarity or loose association. It was a fun project to work on, but I eventually had to give up on this concept as it was driving me crazy trying to get my record to flow and feel right (as its own thing) while still conforming conceptually to the White Album.

Frances: A few of my favorite songs from the new one are “Mr. Fly,” “As Lost as You Are,” and “Medic.” Can you talk about the writing process or concepts behind these songs?

Mike: “Mr. Fly”: I clearly remember writing that lyric as I was just jotting down what was going on around me at the time. There were more verses originally. Later on I just distilled it down a little to make a song. One of my faves. “As Lost As You Are” was something I had written a few years earlier. The lyric is just a reflection of how much static there is out there. The music just happened. It’s a pretty simple three-chord rocker. Fun to play live. “Medic” was just a studio experiment that got out of hand but still works if you like that noisy hypnotic kind of thing. I do.

Frances: The new two-CD set, not yet titled, reflects your continued growth as a writer and producer, and represents a mature homage to influences ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan, the Byrds to Brian Eno, Tom Petty to Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash to JJ Cale. How are you planning to market the work and how can your community of fans become involved?

Mike: I had a blast making the new record over the last four years. I’m very happy with it and do want to give it a chance to be heard. So… I’m going to try find a label that is into releasing it. I’m just starting to get my “sales pitch” together for it. I just want to perform as much as I can and tour as much as is possible. That will likely mean that I have to do it as a solo act much of the time just to make it somewhat sustainable. I’ll take the band as much as I can but that requires much more coordination and expense. I would love to just go out with a couple guitars and do a set somewhere every night. House concerts interest me; there has been a growing scene for that. So, I’d love to do a bunch of those plus I’d obviously take gigs at established venues. It would be nice to get the chance to open for a larger act on one of their tours. Perhaps I could supplement their band or do merchandise for them. I’d also love to be able to do some field recording for other artists while out on tour. Basically, my marketing plan is to just go out there and do the things I do well as much as I can.

Learn more about Mike.

The Patrick McNeese interview, unabridged

23 Aug

A seminal figure in downtown Lexington’s art scene, Patrick McNeese is an accomplished fine artist, musician and film maker who has found a way to make his art into a business. He’s perhaps best known for his stylized series of oil paintings and two-dimensional mixed-media on paper portraying colorful pensive figures in a blend of post-modernist and Cubist style with nods to Chagall and Picasso. He describes his brand of original introspective music as “Appalachian Jazz,” in which he sings and plays edgy piano and rhythm guitar, usually complemented by others playing mandolin, fiddle and various percussion instruments. He’s recorded and produced three albums, “The Singing Bridge” 1989; “Me, Mywolf and I” 1993; and “Any Day Now” 2005, has a live album in the works, and has also extended his songwriting talents to composing sound tracks. In his award-winning career as a film maker, McNeese has not only art directed commercials, but produced, directed and edited three regional documentaries: Hemplands; Of Myth and Muse: Stephen Foster and My Old Kentucky Home; and Searching for Wolf Boy: The Art of Jimmy Gordon. He was also production designer and art director for the local feature film 100 Proof and a location scout for Simpatico, starring Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone. This interview was originally published in a much shorter form in Business Lexington.

Frances: What choices have you made in order to live your life in such a way that you were able to make a living from your art?

Patrick: If you are trying to be independent and not take some prescribed corporate route, you have to do a lot of different things. From early on, I never thought about a single pathway. You keep yourself open to many choices within the area where your talent lies. As an artist, not only do you wear a lot of hats, you have to have about three different heads under those multiple hats. I have six or seven micro jobs. They are all very important; some of them bring me more income, and some of them bring me more satisfaction.

To have control, you are willing to trade a lot of other things. I live in the top of a building down here [in downtown Lexington], I’ve never owned a home; I’ve never really aspired to own a home. My wife Claudia is a painter and we never went after those kinds of things, thinking that freedom and flexibility and the ability to be creative and take those paths that present themselves was very important in the way to design a life.

Frances: What do you see as the relationship between art and the current state of our economy in this country?

Patrick: If you are going to be in the art or music business, you have to be an innovator; on some level, you have to embrace innovation. I’m going to take what I’ve been given, and I’m going to change it. That could be an act of arrogance, that could be an act of courage, however you want to frame it. I heard a great quote the other day: “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” This was FDR and he was talking about the depression, but that was his very short, and I thought very eloquent and true recipe for moving ahead and that’s true in the arts, true in trying to change the environment, trying to improve our business practices, the way we treat each other – everything.

At this moment, it seems like we are at this flash point where there is going to be an awakening – because the Styrofoam container bullshit is done, and the giant car and the burning up of limited fossil fuels. It’s the big slowdown. We have to change the way we do things, or we won’t be able to move ahead, we won’t be able to innovate.

As an artist, you are not working directly with the environment, you’re not working directly with the people that actually have their hands on the levers of power and can actually make those changes, but you are certainly like the pioneer kind of guy who at least, through his art, figures out a philosophical way to live that then translates into ways that improve modern life. Scaling back and simplicity, which sounds really painful to a lot of people, is a shared philosophy between the arts and the environmental and sustainability movement. How can we do more with less, how can we save our resources, how can we recycle everything we use? We can’t be throwing things away and keep living the materialist, consumerist life that our parents did.

Some artists go for the more practical, straightforward connection in terms of using recycled materials in their work, but my art comes from a more self-oriented narrative. Rather than literally demonstrating the connection between creativity and sustainability through my work, what I do and the way I do it, and what I have to do in order to achieve what I do means that I employ a lot of those same sustainable tenets, and I had to figure that out on my own by reading good books and having experience.

We are all like a bunch of cows standing out in a field, bored and frightened, mindlessly consuming, and anybody who can get their head up out of that modern day trap and do something different is really a breath of fresh air.

Frances: Do you consider Lexington an artist-friendly town? Put another way, is it easy or difficult to make a living as an artist in Lexington compared to other places?

Patrick: I would argue that the more involved, engaged, creative and open people are the people that like art. They want to dream a little bit. They want some sort of magic or almost religious experience that art provides. There is a mystery about art. If you make it, you’re very cognizant of that.

But struggle is implicit in that choice of being an artist. I wrote a song called “And I Will Struggle.” I will struggle through the days and nights; I will struggle all my life. It’s like a little prayer. If you sign up for this life, struggling is inherent. When art is derivative and only emulates something else, that’s people refusing to struggle.

In Lexington, there’s not a gallery system. You come in and, there are a few galleries, but it’s not New York City, it’s not San Francisco, it’s not Chicago – even Asheville has a better gallery system. The problem is a lack of audience, and in the visual arts sense it’s a lack of purchasing audience. So the visual artist is very dependent on a gallery that can market their work. For example, Marjorie Guyon is really the template of successful Lexington artist because she works here, but she’s been able to market herself elsewhere. She’s found galleries that support her work and her vision, and she’s done well.

The economy could improve… and actually the ‘90s was better than the present time; I was selling more work then. It’s like we have to lift up the level of the whole lake, and then that particular boat will rise.

Frances: How do you strike the necessary balance between immersion in your work, and marketing it?

Patrick: It’s a rare artist that can do both of those things well [at once] because a very different portion of the soul is needed [for each]. The artist that is a really good marketer I sort of don’t trust as an artist – and vice versa. I’ve tried to overlap it; I turn certain switches off per a period of time. I haven’t made a painting for a number of years; right now currently, I’m mostly a musician. But through the 90s I painted hundreds of paintings. I developed and finalized the style most people know me by and I still have a big backlog of original work that I haven’t sold; I was so prolific.

The best thing about marketing in the last few years is Facebook. You hit people like raindrops, again and again, and you have to be consistent. “The Face” is perfect for a visual person. Luckily for me, my paintings work in a little thumbnail: at first viewing you can look at those little faces and it works. People are driving by all this [marketing] at a high rate of speed; they’re scrolling through and it’s usually a visual thing that catches them. For the visual artist, Facebook is great because the visual hooks them. And then you can upload your music or films. It’s a great tool for the small producer/creator who wants to bring 40 people to a show or sell a painting. It’s the hygienic of marketing: you are doing something every day to market yourself, like flossing your teeth. I’ve sold more paintings in a year and a half on Facebook than in the five years prior, so it’s visceral. The computer is a great tool to build community, and art can ride on that.

Frances: Over the years, you’ve been playing more and more live music in Lexington; in fact, that’s how we first met when I saw you play at Shakespeare in the Park in the mid ‘90s. How do you get your gigs, and how do you feel music as an art form contributes to social development in Lexington?

Patrick: I shifted [from painting] to live music performance five or six years ago. I like it because it takes a lot of physical energy to perform and I like the community and the collaboration of it. And there are all these other non-artistic considerations that inform that decision: You realize you need a community, and ask yourself what kind of artistic work best builds community. And music has that quality.

In Lexington, I know all the players. I’ve been here so long; I have the rolodex. There are people who hire me for private parties. I played at Alfalfa’s every Friday night for ten years. One of the problems with being an innovator is, people want to buy a known product. And they’ll ask, “What do you do? Is it like this?” And my response is, “Well no, it’s not like that.” Also, the cultural scene has been dictated by college students – that’s been a limiting factor. Natasha’s is a wonderful example of trying to do it right from the artist’s point of view. It’s a good marketing gig because it’s high profile; they do a great job of marketing. The Lexington Area Musical Alliance (LAMA) is a great new thing that’s going on that goes right to what we are talking about; it was created expressly to support local music production and performance.

Music right now because of its communal sense is a real important thing. People know how music makes them feel and they know that that’s important. These guys are in front of you live, making this thing happen, and you see the mistakes, you appreciate the humanness of what is going on, with its triumph and its potential disaster. It really is how church functions. We come together and we acknowledge certain things and reaffirm them amongst ourselves and these guys on the stage are going to create something under the threat of failure. That’s a magical moment and that’s truly music making. [My] next album is going to be live. That live feeling is real important.

Last night I saw Big Maracas playing right down the street from me here. A guy from South America, Enrique, came up here and taught all these guys all these Latin rhythms and it’s like you’re in Havana, and it raises my blood! That’s my favorite band because I’m just instantly made happy. Everybody was just gyrating: young people, old people, people who had some money and people who looked like they didn’t have money – and everybody was in communion.

Frances: How has Lexington’s relationship to art matured since you started out, and what draws you to – and keeps you in – this city?

Patrick: When I started out downtown Lexington in the ‘80s, it was me and the lawyers – there were like three other artists. Now everybody is wanting to be an artist and talk about art and even a business magazine wants to talk about art because they see that, in a society that has a lot of problems, part of what we are doing is dying off so something else can grow, and art is the laboratory for that. There are those individuals that are bold and persistent and experiment. I responded to a certain reality around here that has its limits and I just bought into and accepted those limits and don’t always think about how they can change.

Central Kentucky’s my home and that is a powerful elixir to sip – and you want to make it work. I’m glad I stayed here, because there was a period where I left, and I always came back like a magnet. I’ve met a lot of good people. The woman I’ve spent the last 25 years with, Claudia Hatfield, an oil painter and chef, I met at the University of Kentucky in art school, so that’s a great benefit. I’ve had this primary relationship with somebody that is like me – that is an artist – and we sit at the breakfast table and we talk about what we’re confronting. They’re witnessing what you are going through and you’re witnessing what they’re going through. The value of that kindred spirit can’t be overstated as far as survivability goes.

To see more of Pat’s work and listen to his songs, become a friend on Facebook.

What’s cooking… in MY Kitchen?

21 Aug

While summer is still sizzling, I want to share with you some of my latest local recipes. But wait – before your mouth starts watering – it’s not what you think!

Although I totally appreciate food as an art form – and absolutely admire my friends who try their culinary skill at exotic dishes, artisanal recipes and ethnic cuisine – I might as well just come out and say it (for those of you who don’t already know): I don’t like to cook.

I basically just want to write.

MY kitchen is made up of words.

But food and words are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of my favorite recent creations was written from an interview I did with local Kentucky chef and restaurant owner, Ouita Michel. I could relate to her comment, “For me as a chef, using locally produced foods gives everything that we are doing a sense of authenticity. At each of our establishments, we are expressing what Kentucky is today through the use of Kentucky artists and Kentucky farm goods and preserving old Kentucky locations.” In the travel industry, this is what we call “sense of place,” and it is critical to the authenticity of tourism product.

I wrote the piece for Business Lexington, the Kentucky Bluegrass region’s local business journal. Back in May, Editor-in-chief Tom Martin asked me to do some coverage of travel industry trends and sustainability issues, as well as profiles of interesting local figures as appropriate to fit each weekly issue’s theme. Here are some more of my articles from the past four months:

Aug. 19, 2011 interview with fine artist, musician and film maker Patrick McNeese

July 22, 2011 interview with Lexmark’s sustainability director John Gagel

July 8, 2011 overview of sustainable restaurant scene in Lexington

July 8, 2011 Lexington residents share favorite places to eat

June 24, 2011 overview of tourism trends today and tomorrow

June 24, 2011 overview of Lexington’s hospitality industry

May 27, 2011 tourism as an economic factor affecting sustainability

May 27, 2011 three ways businesses can be more sustainable

And so, while I may not love to cook, when it comes to mixing up ideas, flavoring them with just the right words, and baking it all into a delightfully tasty creation, I’m as talented as any chef. A blank Word document is to me what a clean kitchen must be to a culinary artist, a tabula rasa ready to become the palette for the next tantalizing masterpiece.

Memo to Anthem: There is nothing wrong with my breasts

22 Jun

I am a single, self-employed healthy and active child-free 47-year-old woman who is very frustrated with our country’s healthcare system.

For the past three years, I have had a COBRA plan that expired in early May; at the highest the monthly rate was close to $600, a great deal of money for someone who takes no medicines, has no health issues and is not employed full-time by a corporation. Before this plan ran out, I attempted to obtain through the same company, Anthem, a high-deductible plan with a low monthly payment of around $120.

When I applied for this – using as a liaison a Blue Cross Blue Shield agent in Louisville, KY, who I located via an 800 number – I had to be responsible for my medical chart getting faxed to the agent, who then saw that it got to an underwriter in California. After a couple of weeks, this underwriter denied me the desired coverage and instead offered me a plan for over $500 a month because, they said erroneously, I had “lumps in both breasts and needed a mammogram.” If they had read my medical chart carefully, they would have seen that I had just had a mammogram that was perfectly normal and have had no issues related to my breasts. My breasts are perfectly fine.

Needless to say, I did not want this new $500 plan, so I rejected it and decided to appeal the company’s denial with the help of my would-be agent. My doctor had to write a letter to the underwriter stating that the reason for denial of coverage was completely inapplicable to me and should have no bearing on my ability to get the plan I wanted. She told me it was ridiculous for them to say my breasts had any issues when the first thing in my chart is the most recent mammogram report: completely normal. For the process to be expedited, the letter needed to get from my doctor to my agent and then to the underwriter; I was told that if the doctor sent it directly to the underwriter, the wait for approval could be months. All this while, I had to manage this communication happening in a timely fashion, overseeing the chain of correspondence between my doctor, the underwriter and my agent at Blue Cross. I got the letter faxed… and waited. For a couple of weeks there was no word.

Then suddenly last week, without getting another chance to accept or reject a plan, without any word from my liaison “agent,” Anthem sends me a bill for two months, this one (June) and the previous one (May) during which I had no coverage because of their delay in stating that I had health issues that were not in my medical records. The rate is higher than I had wanted, but not so high that I would reject the plan – or so they assumed. They also sent me a new plastic i.d. card and a ton of information about a healthcare savings account I am supposed to make deposits to and withdrawals from. I have not authorized or accepted any of this. Additionally, I told my agent at the beginning of the process that I did not want any paper products and needed everything sent to me electronically. Now I have a disgusting pile of inscrutable print booklets cluttering my desk – enough reading material for an entire summer.

What perturbs me most is that I am being billed for something I did not accept or reject yet, and also am being asked to pay for a month in which I was not covered at all. Obviously nothing bad happened to me during that month, so I don’t need coverage for that month, but this is all being done under the sacrosanct principle that there should be no “lapse in coverage” or else I will be rejected out-of-hand for having a “pre-existing condition.” So what this means is that millions of people every day are paying for months of “coverage” that the insurance company really didn’t have to cover them for. Is this fear-based system of “care” condonable?

Yesterday a friend related to me a story about a middle-aged man in North Carolina who robbed a bank of $1 so he would be arrested and taken to a jail where he would at least receive decent health care for his medical issues. Has America come to this?

I work for myself and cannot afford a $500-600-a-month health insurance plan. I am tempted to have no plan at all because I am so disappointed that our country pays thousands of people to skim medical charts, pick out a few choice words related to some random body part and string them together with the express intent to intimidate even healthy consumers into paying more than they should for insurance. If this doesn’t work, because the person sees through this scam and manages the communications required for an appeal, the company does not even professionally offer the person a plan, but bills them directly for it after a “reasonable” delay, requiring them to pay for months in which there has been no provision of any service whatsoever – all this when the client was trying their best to get timely coverage.

I know many middle aged people out there like me who are relatively healthy, self employed, and go without medical coverage of any kind. It feels like this is the future for me too because I do not want to play this sick healthcare game, which I feel should be declared illegal. I would love to hear from anyone who has similar experiences and thoughts to share; who can pull away the dark curtain of confusion and somehow shine a good light on this process; who will tell me with impunity that I just need to bite the bullet and be happy I have a plan; or maybe even offer an alternative solution. I am especially interested in hearing from those who have moved away from conventional medicine toward homeopathy and naturopathy.

The artwork for this entry is provided by Kathleen Farago May, who lives in Canada but spent part of her life dealing with the US healthcare system. Her choice was to spend much of that time without healthcare coverage. She educated herself in alternative and natural healing and maintained her health holistically. Instead of lining the pockets of the insurance companies to ensure that ailments could be treated as they appeared, she found that being proactive in prevention was of greater value for her dollar and for her life. Learn more about Kathleen and her work here or click here for a price guide and her email address. 

How can tourism be responsible? Let’s ask Ged.

23 Mar


I expend a great deal of energy supporting and promoting various forms of responsible travel, including types of tourism known as “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism.” And so I often encounter the legitimate question: How can tourism be sustainable at all? Doesn’t it, by its very nature, contribute to the planet’s demise? You bring hoards of people into pristine natural areas, altering indigenous cultures, running roughshod over endangered species’ habitats, and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere with all the flights and other nasty forms of transportation.

Touché. True, if we all wanted to do the most sustainable thing possible, we’d each stay put, on our own plot of land, grow our own food, create our own homes, draw on natural resources for energy and building materials, manufacture our own supplies, and NOT travel, or at least not go very far from our respective communities. However, few of us in this day and age have the skills to go into the wild and live off the grid – much less the disposition to stay in one place. Whether international or regional, travel is how we expand our horizons, how we learn about the world around us. And, as long as we can, as an enterprising species, we are going to do it.

So, then, given human nature, the more practical question becomes: How can those who offer travel experiences ensure they improve the lives of the local people and the ecosystems their trips affect? Fortunately, there are many answers to this question. One of them is to build into the price of the tour funding that will go directly to conservation partners and programs that help the animals and the local people on the ground in the places visited. That is the approach taken by Ged Caddick, who runs Terra Incognita Ecotours. What follows is an interview I did with Ged last month for my Sustainable Travel International column, The STI Inner View.

Nominated for Best Tour Operator in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award, Terra Incognita Ecotours is based in Tampa, Florida, and operates tours to Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania. Gerard “Ged” Caddick founded Terra Incognita Ecotours in 2004 after more than fifteen years of working in expedition travel. Ged worked for Lindblad Expeditions as an expedition leader from 1992 to 2004, and for International Expeditions while living in Belize in the 1980s. He has led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History as well as many College Alumni groups, the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institution. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool, and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. As one can imagine, I had a hard time getting Ged to sit still for this interview as he’s usually on at least three continents each month. We spent a little time together recently when he had just returned from at trip to India setting the foundation for yet another ecotour.

Frances: Where were you in India and what did you see?

Ged: We were in Banhavgarh and Corbett National Parks and had some incredible wildlife experiences. We saw tigers and Asian Elephants on multiple outings, but also the monkeys called Common Langurs, Plum-headed Parakeets, Jungle Cat, Wild Boar, lots of Spotted Deer, Brown Fish Owls, eagles and much more. It was very, very cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. We will be offering India in early 2012, probably in February.

Frances: In a nutshell, what is the philosophy behind Terra Incognita Ecotours?

Ged: We are committed to making a difference to our guests and to the places we visit. Our commitment is to provide travelers with opportunities to participate in ecotours that explore the world with a sense of discovery and wonder, and to preserve our environment for future generations. We draw on our legacy of adventure, experience and knowledge to do this. And as we do so, we strive to create ecotours that are as enriching and memorable as they are comfortable and fun.

Frances: How did you decide upon the name Terra Incognita?

Ged: Terra Incognita was chosen as this was the term you saw on the edge of the maps drawn by early explorers to show that the edges of the map were undiscovered, uncharted or unknown land. I love the romance and idea of exploration this invokes.

Frances: How did the experiences and dreams of your formative years foster your leadership skills and shape your interest in travel and animal conservation?

Ged: I grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Liverpool, the oldest of ten children! We had dogs chickens, geese, pigs and various other animals as pets, as well as horses for riding when I was a young teenager. Always being around animals and loving them, I dreamed of being a game park warden in East Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. I even applied for such jobs there as I finished University. I traveled a lot within the UK, to the Lake District every summer with my family and as a teenager all over England, Scotland and Wales, plus a couple of trips to France.

Frances: What was the event that first interested you in environmental conservation?

Ged: During my university days in Liverpool I spent vacations working as a volunteer for the “British Trust for Conservation Volunteers,” doing trail maintenance, cleaning old footpaths, canals and other such tasks.

Frances: Did you have a mentor who directly inspired you in terms of your ultimate career choice in working to protect animals?

Ged: My first job was a zoo-keeper at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, a zoo dedicated to captive breeding and conservation of endangered species. My mentor there was Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo.

Frances: How did you first get the inkling you wanted to work in travel or tourism?

Ged: In the mid 1980s, when living in Belize and working at the Belize Zoo, I started doing guiding for International Expeditions as they started tours to Belize. They needed local people who knew the wildlife and culture of Belize. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed sharing my love of conservation and wildlife by showing people natural spaces and species in-the-wild.

Frances: What were the challenges of living in Belize long-term and what did you love about it?

Ged: The biggest challenge to living and working in Belize was the isolation and the fact that simple tasks presented many more logistical challenges; communication, building, even getting supplies takes much more effort there. What I loved was that you could make a difference, that my work at the zoo was helping to change people’s perceptions of wildlife and nature in the country of Belize. You become a big fish in a small pond when working in a small country like Belize; when I was there, the population of the entire country was less than 200,000 people.

Frances: What were the things you most admired about Lindblad Expeditions? What elements of the job did you find challenging? Were there aspects of the travel experience you wanted to emulate when you started your own travel company?

Ged: My time at Lindblad was very enjoyable, and particularly important was the commitment to excellence. Dealing with “difficult” people was always the main challenge! I knew when I started my company it was going to be important that we made a positive impact on the places we visited, that we made a difference, that our presence was a force for good, for improved conservation efforts.

Frances: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards of being a tour operator for you?

Ged: Attracting customers through marketing has been my biggest challenge – and I am still learning. The most rewarding facet of the work is helping the conservation organizations and other partners we work with in each destination.

Frances: Empowering local people is a huge component of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Give an example of seeing local people become empowered as a direct result of your tours.

Ged: On our Rwanda trip last September, many of the group were so moved by their experience they asked what they can do to help the kids we met around the Virunga Lodge where we stayed. Most of these children attend primary or elementary school as that is required by the government. But high school is elective and costs money, so many bright children do not continue their education as they simply cannot afford to. I have been sponsoring three children through high school, covering their fees and uniform costs etc. Well, many in the group wanted to do the same; they asked about each sponsoring a specific child. So on the next trip in December, I personally took over some funds gathered by these clients to sponsor about eight kids through a year of high school. And we’ll continue to do this sort of thing on a yearly basis.

Frances: Can you describe an “aha!” or “wow!” moment where your clients really “got it” in terms of ecotourism?

Ged: Every single time we take people to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, people experience an “Aha!” moment, they realize their presence is helping to save the Gorillas. Every single trip, someone is reduced to tears by the moment. I have had similar experiences when we see Pandas in the wild in China.

Frances: And I understand you got to meet someone very special last summer while on a tour to Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Can you tell us about that as a closing anecdote?

Ged: We were so fortunate last July to be in Gombe simultaneous to Jane Goodall being in Gombe, simultaneous to the 50th Anniversary of Jane’s pioneering work in Gombe and simultaneous to the visit of Lara Logan and the 60 Minutes film crew as they interviewed Jane and filmed the Chimps. Indeed several times we found ourselves being filmed by the 60 Minutes crew on the trails as we met Jane, and again as we arrived outside Jane’s house on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we actually joined Jane for sunset cocktails! So we sat glued to the TV one Sunday night in the fall for the airing of 60 Minutes to see if we made the episode! We did not make the final cut, as not surprisingly the focus was on Jane, her research and the Chimps, not on our small tour party that overlapped so fortuitously with this filming! But we are in a behind-the-scenes clip that you can see at this link (the Jane Goodall segment begins at about the 8:15 mark).

To learn more about Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours, please visit the company’s web site and follow them on Facebook.

Networking, paying it forward and a request for help

16 Feb

Do you know anyone, anywhere, who needs an editor, writer, marketing or communications professional?

When I was cutting my teeth on corporate America, working as a proofreader at an advertising agency in Lexington, Kentucky, the person who made the connections to get me that stepping-stone position was a male executive in the company who took the time to read a short résumé that demonstrated little experience except for award-winning essays at two colleges, including a piece analyzing a song by Joni Mitchell. He remains a dear friend to this day.

Try as I might, I couldn’t ascend from proofing to writing during the one long year I spent in that company. Whenever I heard an ad rep fretting because the copywriter was out for the day, I would dart out of my office into the hall and literally throw myself at the poor salesperson’s feet pleading, “I can write it!” But to no avail. When all my attempts to write copy at the ad agency ended in disappointment, I moved on to the local newspaper, where I was finally allowed to write – in the Creative Services (Promotions) department. Here again, it was a male editor who gave me my chance to cross train in the newsroom, so that I could taste the life of a reporter, a skill I later capitalized on when I had my own company and the paper became my client.

Many more stories would reveal that it was the men in the journalism, media and marketing worlds that were nurturing enough to help me get all my first big breaks. Most women I had met along the way thus far seemed to take the attitude of, “Good work getting this far, good luck getting any further, and oh, by the way, I’ve been your supervisor for the past six months so I just thought I’d say hello. Let’s chat again in another year or so.”

This repeated experience was what later prompted me, while working for myself as a successful freelance writer, to found and direct a non-profit organization based on the concept of successful business women mentoring low-income, undereducated women who needed a chance to discover their talents and find better job opportunities. I worked at this for a good five years before one day suddenly realizing that, while helping others get a leg up, I had inadvertently stopped bringing in an income for myself. It was then that a female friend and colleague suggested I do an interim stint at a travel association that needed an editor for its full-color monthly magazine. During that time, another professional female fostered my initiation into the travel industry so that I eventually took the position full-time.

I’ve been working in travel writing, editing and marketing ever since. And whenever someone writes or calls me asking for networking help, whether they are young or old, male or female, experienced or not, I always follow the model set for me early on by Jim Gleason and Jim Durham, and later by Susan McDaniel and Catherine Prather, and I go out of my way to read the person’s résumé, conjure up good connections for them from my network, call someone who might know a great contact, or e-introduce them to the most likely connections to help them get where they want to go with their career. I do this automatically, without thought; it’s my lot in life to be this way, a characteristic, like having crazy hair and green eyes. It’s what I do; I pay it forward.

And now, I am in a position to ask others to do this for me. I need to find new paying contracts that can utilize my editing, writing and marketing skills in a telecommuting capacity, either in the travel industry, or anywhere else. Book publishing and online publishing are of interest. I am based in an office in Winchester, Kentucky, where I can keep an eye on my mom. I can travel for up to two weeks at a time. My bio, experience, references, publications and other CV elements are all right here on my blog. Do you know anyone, anywhere, who needs an editor, writer, marketing or communications professional? Is there anyone in your network you could put me in touch with via an e-introduction?

My early mentors demonstrated that networking only works when everyone plays the game, when each person in the chain tells others what they need and what they want, when we all pay it forward – and that’s there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. Thanks in advance for any connections you can provide. I hope you will let me know how I may, in turn, help you.

12th Bird of Christmas: Three-Wattled Bellbird

6 Jan

Dedication: As I wrap up this final Bird of Christmas on Epiphany, my mother turns 80 today. She has been teaching me to appreciate birds for almost 47 years; I dedicate this entire series to her.

Courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

It was my first time exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a deep green magical forest with tall old-growth trees that seem to be from another place and time. Hiking along lush trails through mist that evaporates as sunlight streams down from the canopy, I was mesmerized by an eerie yet lovely soundtrack of high pitched “eeenk” sounds followed by what can only be described as a “metallic bonk,” like the amplified plunk of an out-of-tune piano key.

Following the “eeenk; bonk” sounds from one opening in the thick tropical forest to another, I finally spotted the enthusiastic vocalist, a male Three-Wattled Bellbird! He is a beautiful creature with a ghostly white head, neck and shoulders, and a chestnut-brown torso, perched on the very tip of a craggy branch, not too high up in the trees, mouth gaping open to project his territorial call for up to two miles!

Watch him making his call and you will want to go!

A couple of nights before, I had visited La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, where I heard a presentation by Debra Hamilton about the Three-Wattled Bellbird, Procnias tricarunculata. Debra is a conservation biologist, a mom, a bird research specialist, owner and manager of a small bookstore and café, the director of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation – and those are just a few of her titles. She has devoted her life to studying the rare and endangered bird species that make the mystical Monteverde Cloud Forest their home, and is heading up many projects to help save these hauntingly beautiful birds.

Debra, who has been working in the Monteverde area since 1992, explained that there are only a few Bellbirds still in existence in the very special humid forest habitats where their favorite food, the wild avocado, grows. This is because, sadly, much of the tropical forest containing the bird’s food supply has been cut down, in Costa Rica and in other Central American countries. What was once a large area of forest is now only in small fragmented pieces. Along with several other scientists, Debra has studied diversity of understory birds and the use of agricultural windbreaks as biological corridors for birds moving between forest fragments. She is currently involved in a long-term study of the Bellbird, including investigations of migratory patterns, population locations and sizes (which means taking a Bellbird census!), and the possible impact of climate change on Bellbird populations.

Debra and her colleagues know that in order to save the Bellbird from extinction, its remaining habitat must be preserved and protected. So they have begun to focus much of their energy on reforestation projects. I want to help, and so does Terra Incognita Ecotours, so we plan to partner to offer a special bird conservation trip this spring. I’d like to hear from anyone who would be interested in a voluntourism experience in May or June 2011 staying in Monteverde at La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge and visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. You would join us in planting trees that will help expand and enrich habitat for the Bellbirds (and other avian species such as yesterday’s Resplendent Quetzal) so that their voices will always ring out over the cloud forest canopy.

Read more about the bellbird and Debra Hamilton here.

Some photos for this entry are courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica and Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours.

Photo by Bruce Smith